This is a time when the chances for profound change are the greatest in a very long time, and the potentials for catastrophe unprecedented, for the same reason, the increasing instability of the global system.
This is both the hope and caution with which Fabian Scheidler concludes his spanning survey of civilization from its inception to the present, The End of the Megamachine: A Brief History of a Failing Civilization. Challenging the hierarchical nature of the system he calls the Megamachine, infusing virtually every institution that shapes our world, political, economic and social, one could be overwhelmed with despair. Instead, Scheidler leaves us with a sense of possibilities, as he titles the closing chapter.
In his compact work, Scheidler traces the rise of hierarchical civilization to the Bronze Age around four to five millennia ago, when the hard metal provided disproportionate advantage in weaponry and armor to power-seeking elites. Evidence of hierarchy previously not found soon pervaded human settlements, including palaces and variations in diet and burial rituals. The early Megamachine had its first peak under Rome, an empire of iron with legions armed by steel. The collapse of Rome lifted the burden of taxes and slavery, and was actually a relief to the masses.
But the Megamachine revived in the late middle ages when wealth accumulated in Italy funded standing militaries and wars throughout Europe. This consolidated its modern form, capitalism, which seeks unlimited accumulation of money in a world marketplace. It reached its peak in the past two centuries, only to produce critical instabilities. A system that concentrates wealth in the hands of a relative few is producing repeated economic meltdowns, while its operations are undermining the ecological fundaments of life and causing radical climate change. In the Megamachine’s increasing and overlapping crises are both opportunity and danger.
“The growing instability and the possible disintegration of this system present an opportunity for change that has not existed for centuries,” Scheidler writes. “Under the right circumstances, the farther a complex system strays from equilibrium, the greater the impact that small movements can have, just like the famous butterfly that triggers a tropical storm . . . in the chaos looming on the horizon all our actions will count . . . that which occurs will be the result of an infinite number of individual decisions, made by almost an infinite number of people during an infinity of moments.”
Whether the outcome will be authoritarianism, a warlord world, or democratic self-organization “will depend on how we are prepared for the systemic ruptures that lie ahead. That means we must already begin our exit while the Great Machine is still operating . . . The good news is that this exit has been in progress for quite some time, both in resisting the old and building the new.”
“Revolution Without a Master Plan”