Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Death of Tyranny

One year ago today I started this blog.  The choice of a date was purely a coincidence. Originally I intended it to use it as an entry in John Michael Greer's contest for short stories depicting a future of declining energy usage.  However, I am not much of a fiction writer, but I do love writing essays, and for decades I've been crafting a vision in my head of a possible positive future with greatly reduced resource usage.  I've slowly been revealing bits and pieces to you during this past year.  Since today is a special day I wanted to share a special piece

Aaron Copland wrote a wonderful piece of music called "A Lincoln Portrait".  No matter what you think of his actions, Lincoln did have a powerful way with words.  My favorite quote is from the middle of the piece, from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of October 15, 1858:
When standing erect he was six feet four inches tall, and this is what he said.
He said: "It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says 'you toil and work and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
Brandon Smith wrote an excellent article a couple weeks back on Alt-Market entitled "How to Defeat Tyranny".  Very importantly, he did not entitle it "How to Defeat a Tyrant".  That is fairly easy.  We have witnessed it at least twice in the past decade, in Iraq and Libya.  But if you just get rid of one man another will frequently take his place. (My apologies to any other female dictators out there, but tyrants do tend to generally be men.)  What Brandon talks about is defeating the spirit of tyranny.  As such it is very much a spiritual striving, a crusade or jihad in the best senses of the words.  As Lincoln said, if you want to force anyone to do your bidding so that you may benefit at his or her expense, you have a tyrannical spirit inside yourself. 

Neither Lincoln nor Brandon Smith went far enough, though.  They can be excused for only facing the most immediate struggles.  However, that is not what this blog is about.  One of the most important themes Daniel Quinn has in his classic book Ishmael is the story of the Takers and the Leavers.  I don't want to go too far into that now, but the Takers are about, as Paul Wheaton so colorfully puts it, "making Mother Nature your personal bitch."   The Leavers try to change things as little as possible.  What Quinn misses is that there are two antonyms to "take".  Not only do you have "take it or leave it", you have "give and take".  So in addition to Leavers and Takers, you can have Givers.  If you can manage to give back more than you take, there are no limits.

This brings us back to the tyrannical spirit.  People are beginning to understand now that ethics does not just apply to how you treat other people.  If you just take from Nature without ever giving back, you still have the same tyrannical spirit.  IT DOES NOT WORK.  IT HAS NEVER WORKED.  IT WILL NEVER WORK.  The difficulty is that the problems accumulate over generations.  Unless you have the correct perspective, you may think it is working, like someone falling out of a building saying "See? I'm not dead!" as he passes every floor.  Nature only has so much to give.

I just want to say here that I am saying this not as someone who has won the war over that tyrannical spirit within myself, over even as one who wins more battles than he loses.  I just know that it is a fight that needs to be fought, and while I may frequently need to pick my battles, I always keep fighting.

Victor Hugo said, "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come."  I say there is nothing so dangerous as an idea whose time is about to pass.  It is time for the very idea of tyranny to die.  The thought that you can get something without giving something back must be extinguished.  And it will be, whether it takes the deaths of 7 people or 7 billion.  Like drawing money out of a bank account, if you take it out faster than you earn interest, it doesn't matter how large it was to begin with, eventually you must go broke.  Nor does it matter how many #10 cans you store or how many cases of ammo you cache.

So what is the opposite of tyranny? Husbandry.  From the bacteria in our guts and the fungi on our skin to the food webs in the rain forests and the oceans, we must care for all forms of life, helping them so that they may in turn help us.  This is the only way we can survive.  This is the way we will thrive.  This is the Long Ascent.


  1. Thanks, John!

    Now you've given me material for my next few cycles of meditation / contemplation. This fits closely with the direction I've been building for the last few years, but having it so clearly articulated makes it "gel" in a way I hadn't been able to achieve on my own.

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  3. I think the death of tyranny begins from the inside out. It boils down to refusing to be emotionally or physically intimidated, even if you are afraid, angry or taking one on the chin, literally or metaphorically speaking.

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  5. well said, both John and Lincoln!

    It will be harder to wield tyrannical power in a world that is powering down, but that won't stop a lot of people from trying. Thanks for taking on the topic.


    1. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there won't be tyrants. Rome had Nero and Caligula on its decline. What I am saying is that tyranny is a dead end that will only ultimately succeed in raising the final body count.