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Breaking the Trance

credit: Lonnie Bradley

credit: Lonnie Bradley


For most of us, it’s really hard to imagine what the Great Turning could look like. (I’m using Joanna Macy’s description of the shift towards a life-affirming society – in contrast to the “Great Unraveling” in which we keep going down the path we’re on.)

This is the monolithic power of late capitalism: It has all but destroyed the possibility of even imagining alternatives. That’s what totalizing narratives do, and the one we have going right now is sine pari. It’s horrifyingly unprecedented in its ability to consume not only all of our possibilities, but the world itself.

The weird thing is that it’s obviously bullshit. And yet the trance we are in is fucking astounding.

If one can see through just one of the things we’re asked to take for granted, the whole thing quickly becomes absurd. I’m talking of course about the basic organizing principle of our society, which has become identical to the organizing logic of capitalism: the goal of civilization is to maximize profit for business owners. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? And yet we spend our lives in servitude to this maxim.

As Marjorie Kelly puts it in this piece: We have adopted profit maximization as our fundamental frame, and as long as we remain inside that frame we will be in conflict with the larger story that the rest of the planet telling, which is to generate life. To put it simply, humans are no longer part of the story of life.

Kelly asks the question the Earth is constantly exploring: “How do we generate the conditions for life’s flourishing?” While she ponders this from the perspective of economics – and I’m so grateful that she’s doing that – it’s clearly a question that should be guiding all of us in every domain.

She writes,

If civilization and planetary ecosystems are still functioning well [sic] 50 years from now (not a small if), what about the next 50 years? And the next 100 or 1,000 years beyond that? What kind of economy will be suited for ongoing life inside the living Earth? Will it be an economy dominated by massive corporations intent on earnings growth? That doesn’t seem likely. In the long view, the question turns itself about: Can we sustain a low-growth or no-growth economy indefinitely without changing dominant ownership designs?

Her work goes on to explore how business ownership needs to change, giving examples of existing models like cooperatives, employee-owned companies, nonprofit entities, commons, etc. A key point she makes is the need for governments to not simply be (half-assed) regulators of the economy but designers and architects of economic structures, creating policies that shape the core design of enterprise, guided by the understanding that their role is to cultivate a generative economy.

There are things we can do. In our own lives we can help to create and support these alternative forms of enterprise. And we can withdraw our support and participation as much as possible from business-as-usual. The toughest challenge remains to break the trance. To see the absurdity of the prevailing story, and begin to align ourselves with the story the Earth is telling.

At times it seems daunting. And yet I like to think that if an ordinary person like me can see through the trance and begin to make this shift, then surely others will as well.

1 Comment

  1. As always, your posts are thoughtful and thought-provoking, and this one is no exception. In particular, I am struck by the idea that we have written ourselves out of our own story. How incredible but also, how like us. So, can we return to the valuing myth so that we will value our role in our story? I really don’t know.

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