A friend of mine works in a field that’s on the cutting edge of the cutting edge. He’s a problem-solving genius and his reputation has taken him all over the world.
This cutting edge business (like any industry) utilizes many types of experts. Some are experts in exciting new tech. My friend’s expertise, OTOH, happens to be in a specialty that, while absolutely vital, is old tech. It’s not “sexy.” Even the big schools associated with it no longer teach it. Lots of brilliant young people are never learning it even on a theoretical level, and have no idea it even exists, much less how it actually works (or doesn’t) in reality.
My friend tells me, only half joking, that the entire secret of his success lies in a 60-year-old handbook he acquired in college and still has in his library.
His claim about the source of his expertise is a slight exaggeration with a big spoonful of self-deprecation thrown in. But it is telling.
Sure, things get forgotten over time. The world changes and renews, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes better or worse depends on your point of view. Classical Greek gets forgotten, then rediscovered, and is on the way to being forgotten again. Nobody learns cursive handwriting any more. How many of you guys could build a forge or forge a knife? Buggy whip factories are in short supply these days. How many housewives can make clothes from scratch (and I mean from growing and picking the fibers)? How many voyagers can navigate by the stars? How many students can do math in their heads? Heck, most of us can’t even remember our best friends’ phone numbers, now that our phones do it for us.
Some losses are greater than others. And some are good riddance — as long as complex civilization provides.
Here’s the thing: my friend’s expertise is not only vital to this one cutting-edge industry. It’s vital to all industry. And to civilization. And it is being forgotten.
What happens when the people who come after him can’t design or fix or even identify the machinery that runs the world?
I thought about this the other day while reading a pair of columns.
In the first, Charles Hugh Smith asks, “Can a Nation Prosper as its Institutions Fail?”
The short answer I’d give is, “Sure. For a while.” Centuries before Charles Hugh Smith was born, Adam Smith noted that “there is a lot of ruin in a nation.” CH Smith’s answer is more detailed and focuses on the inevitable failure of bureaucracies, and specifically of the Federal Reserve.
Burja’s take can’t be definitive (it’s a few thousand words, and it took Edward Gibbon six volumes and more than 13 years to detail the fall of just one civilization), and freedomistas might find many points of disagreement. There’s a lot there, though, in both the essay and its links.
One of many aspects Burja covers is forgotten knowledge like my friend trades in. Burja gives, as an example, how the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, in just a few short years, lost the know-how to make a key component for building and updating nuclear weapons and had to spend more than a decade and tens of millions of dollars reinventing the technology.
Burja talks a great deal about institutional collapse and how it leads to or meshes with overall civilizational collapse:
Institutional failure comes as a surprise because organizations try to hide their shortcomings. They lean on other, more functional organizations in order to keep up appearances. During civilizational collapse, no organization can properly hide its own inadequacy, since the whole interdependent ecosystem of institutions is caving in on itself. States, religions, material technologies, and ways of life that once seemed self-sustaining turn out to have been dependent on the invisible subsidy of just a few key institutions.
Hm. Sounds a bit close to home, doesn’t it?
I strongly urge you to go read both Smith and Burja and follow Burja’s links down what might turn out to be a very deep rabbit hole.
I bring this up as a means of edging back toward my own abortive theme from late last year. I wrote regarding the need for a strong contingent of freedomistas to withdraw as much as possible from the corrupt “now” and either create new institutions or preserve knowledge of the intellectual, moral, or physical tools that built Western civilization.
Somehow, this old blog has recently required a lot of new readers, and many of them (coming in from more warlike sites) accused me of “leading people astray,” “trying to compromise with evil,” cowardice, or urging my readers to adopt the kind of passivity, normalcy bias, and blind hopefulness that overcame European Jews as Hitler decided on his Final Solution.
These n00bs don’t know me very well, do they? (One even guessed, on his own blog, that I write from the viewpoint of someone “older, affluent, and religious,” to which I can only say, “One out of three ain’t bad.”)
“You can run but you can’t hide,” is the general message of many of these n00bs. “If you aren’t preparing to take up arms right now,” they insist, “you’re betraying liberty.”
It’s one of those weird quirks of human nature — and certainly of today’s political nature — to assume that if Person A advocates action X or chooses lifestyle Y, then Person A therefore believes that every other human on the planet should do the same and that nobody, ever, anywhere should choose options Z or B or Omega. (Alternatively, you may choose other paths as long as they’re on some unspoken list of approved options.)
Certainly those types are common, as anyone who’s ever had a long talk with a militant vegan, a wokester, or for that matter the more assh*le type of libertarian, knows. Some of the most scornful recent blog comments have been from those “my way or the highway” types. They don’t get that my way (and your way, if you are truly pro-freedom and not just anti-TPTB) is “different strokes for different folks.”
It won’t do any good in reaching those critics, most of whom have probably departed this blog in disgust anyhow. But I do want to clarify a few things about what I actually advocate and why. I want to concentrate particularly on this area of retreating, preserving, and rebuilding, which so many would-be fighters object to.
It’s simple enough to put into bullet points, and much of it you surely already know.
- Our civilization is collapsing.
- Few civilizations ever return from the brink of collapse. They may not immediately blow away with the wind, but they are never as good again.
- Collapse can take a much longer time than most people imagine, or a civilization can go boom and implode quickly.
- There are likely to be a lot of ups and downs in the process — decadent decades interspersed with fondly recalled “golden ages.” But the overall trend will be down.
- War usually either accompanies, triggers, or hastens the collapse.
- There may and probably will be — in our own future — wars, depressions, tyrannies, coups, scandals, assassinations, revolts, overthrows, etc. etc. along the way. We know the pattern; we can’t know the timing or the outcome.
- One of the oddities of long-term collapse (as Burja emphasizes) is that as losses accelerate, most people don’t even realize what’s gone. They may bitch about how bad current conditions are, but as generations pass, they don’t have any living experience of when conditions were better. AND they don’t have the education or knowledge to tell them what created those better conditions.
Back to our contemporary case:
- Taking up arms against tyranny, by itself, has no chance of restoring freedom or a reality-based culture.
- For a restoration or renaissance, we need a strong minority that’s principled, adept at teaching and motivating, prepared for hard times, respectful of individual choice, and knows a lot about history.
- That requires a contingent of intelligent, determined, active, far-seeing people to step aside from the corruption. They need to think, live differently, and create differently.
- Some of that contingent will aim to preserve old knowledge.
- Some of that contingent will (through inclination or sheer chance) work on creating the new. Both contingents have other functions if war does come.
- Militants appear to forget how much support fighters need, from food supplies and medical care to safe houses and spiritual counsel. Not to mention the huge need for covert aid from non-combatant smugglers, spies, and saboteurs. Those who have rejected and ejected the old order from their lives are among those well-positioned to offer assistance.
- Many of those who step outside the corrupt order will be older or female or disabled or they’ll be parents with young children or skilled homesteaders or former members of dying institutions (medical, educational, etc.)
- A lot of these people will be or become what I call Freedom Outlaw Ghosts. But Freedom Outlaw Moles and Agitators also play key non-combatant roles. (And I hope to share a delightful story about that with you if a particular Mole and a particular Agitator will allow me.)
- Such people will fight if they must, but avoid combat as their first option.
- Some who walk away from corrupt society will do it for reasons that seem entirely selfish and cowardly to single-minded militants. Some reasons may be entirely selfish. But running counter to the mainstream is not for cowards — particularly as the mainstream becomes more totalitarian. Outsiders have not taken on an easy job — and they can help those who have even tougher jobs.
- If collapse accelerates and/or if totalitarians wage war on us uppity peasants in their mad desire to impose their unworkable will, many of those who step outside the corrupt order may eventually be destroyed, along with fighters and millions of uninvolved innocents.
- But some who walk away will survive and thrive. Even if those numbers are few, their works and what they manage to preserve of the best works of others — including intellectual works, hands-on skills, and healthy attitudes toward their fellow humans — have a chance to be built upon, sooner or later.
I’ve talked before about Rod Dreher, the conservative writer who believes staunch Christians will eventually need to take “The Benedict Option” — that is, form communities of protection, preservation, and faith based on the fifth-century monastic model of St. Benedict.
I admire Dreher’s work, though I’m not in his target audience. I also look back earlier. We need a contingent of freedomistas (of any religion or none) who are more like the pre-monastic Desert Fathers. The DFs have analogs in other cultures. Similar Outsiders arise whenever people begin to sense that their culture and its institutions are terminally corrupt. I’ll stick with the DFs because I’m most familiar with them.
The DFs were the ones who, beginning in the third century, looked around at the utterly corrupt and collapsing Roman Empire and said, “Hell no. I’m outa here. For the sake of my sanity, my spirit, and all that I believe, I’d rather go out, live in a cave, and eat bugs rather than pretend to be happy with this rotten-to-the-core sham of prosperity and power politics.”
At first they were lone hermits and ascetics. Then some of them became tourist attractions (really). Then they began to coalesce into hermit communities. Dreher’s cherished monasticism grew out of those informal communities.
No matter what you think of their religion or their lifestyle, those monastics, by keeping literacy alive, by copying and in dangerous times squirreling away classical knowledge, ended up enabling the Renaissance.
I hope very little bug-eating is in our future. Personally, I’m against it. And the caves in my part of the world are far too cold and damp.
What I aim to say here is that We the (segment of the) People who step away, refuse to go along to get along, work peaceably with fellow freedomistas of many stripes, and either preserve the worthwhile past or begin rebuilding for a principle-based future are pioneers.
Pioneers, even some of the biggest screwups, the most tragic failures, are useful. So however much our actions are reviled or eventually repressed — however much others view us as cowardly do-nothings — however badly some of us fail — however much our names are forgotten by history — we are purposeful people doing a purposeful thing for freedom and civilization.
Let others doubt it as they wish.
Let time prove it true.