Exiting the Global Megamachine

Fish processing plant, Hammond, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

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”

In one of the critical insights of his book, Scheidler writes that while alternatives are emerging in all fields, there is no “master plan for a single global system that will replace the old one. Not only is there no such plan, but most people do not believe that it is even a good idea to have one . . . it is rather a mosaic; a patchwork of varying approaches that are adapted to local and cultural conditions.” This is a departure from the universalism of Western Civilization, the “one valid truth” that spans western philosophies from Christianity to Communism. “Therefore, the lack of a master plan is not a shortcoming, but an example of learning from the disasters of past centuries.”

Resistance struggles are decentralized. Scheidler calls out the “thousands of battles” being waged against ecological and social destruction, ranging from struggles against fossil fuel infrastructure to fights against water privatization. These resistance actions build solidarity among people “who organize and dare to oppose power,” from those who gathered at Standing Rock in opposition to an oil pipeline, to the self-governing structures created by the Zapatistas in Mexico.

“As long as the system functions fairly smoothly, many of the resistance activities may seem like tilting at windmills. However, as soon as the system enters chaotic phases, which is precisely what seems to be happening at the moment, the learning experiences  . . . become decisive  . . . politically alert and well-organized citizens have a real chance to use systemic crises as a starting point for social reconstruction that leads us out of the destructive logic of accumulation.”

In other words, we need to prepare in order to not let a good apocalypse go to waste.

The work of reconstruction, as decentralized as resistance, is being modeled in numerous social experiments around the world. These are characterized by the replacement of institutions in which capital accumulation is the key driver with cooperative institutions based on human solidarity. Scheidler does not see a true green economy rising without this shift for “the obvious fact that the principle of endless capital accumulation – making money just to make more money – is the primary reason that our economic system is on a crash course with the planet.”

Scheidler cites many cooperative examples. Catalonia’s Cooperativa Integral is building an economic and social ecosystem to meet the range of human needs including health care, education, transportation and housing. Brazil’s Solidarity Economy, involving 1.6 million people, joins worker cooperatives with an annual turnover of $4 billion, including 100 community banks. Both initiatives have created their own currencies. Transition Towns are building local production in areas such as food to increase resilience in the face of supply chain disruptions. Peer-to-peer networks are making patent-free plans available to cooperative enterprises making everything from solar panels to tractors.

The author draws attention to struggles over housing, which merge both resistance and the creation of new social institutions. Noting increasing ownership by massive real estate funds, he writes, “In many large cities, people now have to spend half their income on rent, which is akin to working as serfs to ensure a return on the real estate agencies’ investments . . . it is therefore of crucial importance to separate housing from the money machine and put it in the hands of the residents themselves.”  He cites housing cooperatives created through solidarity-based financing, as well as a Berlin initiative to transfer 200,000 apartments owned by real estate companies to public ownership.

The struggle for democracy

Creating “true democracy” is one of Scheidler’s keystones in the exit from the Megamachine. Representative democracy has been eroded by legalized corruption and lobbying, he notes. The point is not to abandon it, but defend it against authoritarian and corporate forces, while building new forms based in grassroots democracy, already used in many community-based institutions. “ . . . decentralized structures must be built from the bottom up, and centralized state structures must be transformed to permit more democracy.”

How direct democracy can be applied to larger institutions “is for the most part still an open question.” Workers councils organized from the Paris Commune to the early Russian Revolution to the Spanish Republic and beyond suggest it can. “None of these council democracies failed because they were unworkable. On the contrary, it was precisely because they did work that they were all but wiped out by military force.”

Even today, those council models inspire the self-organization of communities among Kurds in the Rojova province of Syria, where the economy has been organized into production cooperatives. As with earlier efforts, these too are threatened by military action, in this case by Turkey.

In the struggle for democracy, a key front is against the Megamachine’s component parts, large corporations. The 500 largest dominate the world economy, with 40% of global GDP, as well as politics. “Despite their obvious power, however, these giants have a weakness that is often overlooked – most could not exist without state support . . . their power and wealth are largely based on collusion with the state.”

Fossil fuels, agribusiness, finance, etc. depend on direct government subsidies, as well as the indirect subsidies of limited liability protection and the right to sue against environmental and social protections under free trade agreements. Challenging those subsidies is a vital part of the struggle, Scheidler says. In the next, inevitable financial meltdown, he adds, banks should not be bailed out, but dismantled and converted to institutions serving the common good.

Perils and the need for peace

When complex, hierarchical orders break down, a time of disintegration generally follows before reorganization. When Rome collapsed, Scheidler writes, an agrarian society could absorb the blows. Today, he notes, there is greater peril in a world linked by supply chains, while ecological deterioration erodes livelihoods. It is also a world with around 15,000 nuclear weapons and 600 million small arms. The examples of efforts to build networks to supply basic needs cited in Scheidler’s book are an answer to the economic challenges. To the threat of weapons and war, the author makes a clarion call.

“In the long run, peace, or at least the absence of war, is probably the most important prerequisite for the success of approaches to transformation that are described in this chapter. The peace movement therefore has a key role to play.” People living in the U.S. have an especially crucial part. “ . . . a decisive question will be whether or not the U.S. will peacefully give up its role as global hegemon, a position that can no longer be sustained in the twenty-first century . . . Above all, there is an urgent need to dismantle the nuclear arsenals that pose an acute threat to our survival.”

All evidence is that U.S.power elites are unwilling to give up their efforts to run the world, at the same time they are actually building up the nuclear weapons complex. So a mass movement on the scale of protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ‘70s, or nuclear weapons in the 1980s, is required. But whether a movement of the needed scale is on the horizon is a giant question. It is clear a revived peace movement is central to everything else, including climate. World militaries are among the greatest greenhouse gas sources. The U.S. Department of Defense is the planet’s greatest single institutional carbon polluter.

Exiting the machine in our heads

The phrase, “Another world is possible,” has rung out for decades. The struggles and models cited in Scheidler’s book evidence another world emerging even as the Megamachine moves into deeper crisis. In the classic phrase, they are the new growing in the shell of the old. As Scheidler notes, it is crucial to have the new up and running, with people well acquainted with the arts of self-organization, to prepare for the system’s inevitable breakdowns.

The place where it all begins is in the imagination, the author says. “Since childhood, we have been conditioned to assert ourselves against others in a competitive system . . . Our idea of life has been narrowed down to earning more points than others in the game of prestige and income . . . Celebrities attract the attention of millions, while we don’t give a second thought to the neighbors next door . . . We sit in partitioned cells and turn our eyes upwards. An exit from the machine in our heads begins with unlocking our gaze . . . so we can actually see those standing right next to us and stop staring up at ‘the top.’ Once we have accomplished that, we can begin to imagine a society based on cooperation instead of competition.”

If it is difficult to imagine a world that diverges from the structures that have prevailed in the four to five millennia since the emergence of hierarchical civilization, and the world of recent centuries ruled by unlimited capital accumulation, Scheidler has focused the key issue. Replacing competition with cooperation in all fields, from relations among nations to our sources of sustenance. The challenges facing us in the final malfunctioning of the Megamachine, from wars and economic crises to ecological collapse, require no less of us than we imagine and create that world, in an innumerable number of actions, large and small. As Schiedler says, all our actions will count.

This first appeared on The Raven.