Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The Howling Wilderness of the Mind

[En français]

I grew up in a tiny town of less than 1500 people in western Montana. It is a land of breathtaking natural beauty, and for 18 years I lived in the same house in a form of bucolic perfection. We prided ourselves on living 100 miles from the nearest stoplight. I smile to imagine that many young villagers from all over the planet share a form of kinship enforced by the laws of small communities and big mountains.

It was my home and they were my people, but after traveling, education and 13 years of living elsewhere, I can see what a strange accident of history small town America actually is, a residue left by a frontier that has moved on and twisted inward. This is a report from a correspondent embedded for 18 years and a hundred miles behind the front lines of the American frontier.

I was enabled to see it clearly by the fact that almost half of the buildings on the one main street are the originals from when the town was slapped together in the 1890s. One century later the layout and social structure were unchanged. I remember vividly the moment it struck: my parents and I were crossing the main street to dine at a Chinese restaurant. (Of course!) A glance to the right revealed where the street lamps petered out, a look over the left shoulder saw the other end of town. The mountains brooded over us, dark except for the scattered isolated houses here and there like embers from a dying fire. I stopped in the middle of the empty road and gasped: “This is still a frontier town!” That epiphany shattered the insular perfection of my home, and I have been struggling with it ever since.

It is painful to see the frontier scrawled across the personalities and culture of individuals and a town I love dearly, but now that I am an outsider it is obvious. Their little fenced estates in the woods are their half of the quid pro quo their ancestors fulfilled: tame the wilderness and your private claims will be protected. Their desires are clear and simple: they want taxes to be low, infrastructure to be mediocre (certainly not good enough to help the poorest) and fuel to be cheap. They love their trucks and jet skis and four­-wheelers and cars and dirt­ bikes and speed­boats and snowmobiles and motorcycles and SUVs and brush cutters and chainsaws and log splitters and lawn mowers and backhoes and shotguns and semi­trailers and rifles and pistols and guns. They hate the government and complain that it doesn’t do enough for them.

They are profoundly ignorant of the vast human diversity and history around them and serenely contemptuous of the few snippets of knowledge they have collected. Put 500 of them in a room together and there probably won’t be a single classic poem or plotline of a work of world literature memorized between them, and if there is it will be in the head of a lone weirdo. There are only about three dates anybody appears to be aware of: 1492, 1776, 1945, and, by the time I was a senior in high school, 9/11, 2001. Most of them at some point complete the pilgrimage to the great holy city in the south, the place in the desert that god itself has touched, made sacred, made itself physically manifest in the world. They return from Las Vegas renewed, uplifted, their faith in financial manipulation restored, and full of hope that if they are pure enough, the god Mammon just might bless their own lives, someday.

So even though they are poor, in debt, and only able to move in a tiny world, mentally they are all little aristocrats. Therein lays the genius and opportunity of a frontier. If in the early 1800s you were a plantation owner in Virginia or a financial tycoon in New York, how do you simultaneously gain access to all those resources west of Appalachia, reduce pressure for social reform and of course not do any of the work yourself? The social architecture of the frontier answers all three questions elegantly, but it concomitantly makes a hollow society, a government without a nation underneath.

I took my epiphany and outsider status with me when I attended university on the outskirts of Tacoma, Washington. There was no physical relic of the frontier to observe, but after wandering around the local suburbs at night and especially after visiting the homelands of ancient nations in Peru and Guatemala on study­-abroad trips it gradually dawned on me that the frontier was everywhere in the United States. Its peculiar dynamics have been so deeply ingrained that they define Americans better than any other interpretive framework, long after the physical circumstances of the frontier have ceased to exist.

What took me years to see in the suburbs of Tacoma is that the frontier has been turned on its s​ide. Not inverted; an inverted frontier would resemble Brazilian farmers retreating hundreds of kilometers back from the edge of the Amazon rainforest and coming together to build beautiful sustainable cities. No, what I see is an internalization of that terrible frontier interface.

Fast food makes the most vivid case: how does one create money from otherwise worthless agricultural products, reduce social pressure for reform by fattening and stupefying the commoners, and of course not do any of the work oneself? Economically fast food joints are not restaurants at all—they are commodity dumps. They are a means to inflate massive profits out of otherwise inaccessible resources. If the dreck they served in place of food were sustainably farmed, if the workers were paid living wages and if the American people would defend their health, fast food chains would vanish. The exact same dynamic applies to the suburbs: overpriced cardboard boxes filled with cheesy appliances that would not be worth constructing if the Earth were taken into account. Whatever field of endeavor you care to examine, be it medicine or education, science or art, the frontier interface prevents it from serving human needs and demands that it serve one purpose only: that of converting resources into profits.

The American people are not building society. They are still doing the work of conversion for those same financial interests that opened the frontier in the first place. The same impulse that carried their ancestors across the Atlantic and maintained them through the crushing labor of deforestation and sod busting is now directed into mowing lawns, cleaning gutters, washing the car and, of course, shopping. Stand on any busy street and watch the frontier at work. Single out the delivery truck drivers, the look on their faces. They will hunt down and liquidate (financialize) every last pocket of natural resources left on the planet if they can.

I believe the lens of the frontier clarifies the otherwise bizarre suicide of the American empire. We must remember that settling the American west was swift and easy. Technological superiority, diseases and overwhelming numbers allowed civilians to do most of the ethnic cleansing while there was an actual boundary between the natives and European colonists.

The United States never had to demand sacrifices of its citizens or seriously negotiate with the natives. After all the territory in North America was settled, a series of historical accidents bumped the U.S. into a brief period of hegemony. Industrialization exploded just as the frontier ended. The same settlers who walked from St. Louis to Oregon Territory took trains back east a few decades later. Then the old imperial powers of Eurasia destroyed themselves in two world wars and voilà, the U.S. found itself the one intact industrial power! This is not the stuff of long-lasting empires. The upper classes have never stared defeat in the eye or had to restrain themselves and ask the common people for massive collective effort.

This explains why the government cannot repair national infrastructure or implement sound industrial policy. The internalized frontier is why the military cannot administer conquered territory and the ethnic minorities in the homeland cannot receive equal treatment under the law. The regime in Washington D.C. is not there to create a vast polyglot imperial structure (like the Achaemenid empire) nor to represent the collective will of a single nation (like Switzerland, or many others.) It exists to divvy up resources and then defend those aristocratic interests at all costs. It was set up in that form from the very beginning.

This explains why September 11 was used as another date that granted legitimacy to aristocratic claims, right in line with 1776 and 1945. Instead of leading a worldwide effort to bring criminals to justice and rooting out actual causes, the regime set about trying to create new frontier zones in places like Iraq and many others, hunting grounds for certain corporations and government agencies. Those efforts roused the ire of two of the oldest, most puissant imperial systems in the world, and were subsequently checked.

Nobody in D.C. seems to have read the memo that they are no longer allowed to set up frontiers for their cronies (or masters, depending on what side of the revolving door between corporations and government they are on.) They do not realize that China and Russia will never ever grant favorable terms to Western interests, and that the absurd commitment to “free markets” is actually a back door into the heart of what is left of the American economy.

Of course, such knowledge cannot exist inside such a regime, and anyway, it would make no difference. The U.S. government cannot ask the common people to make the kind of colossal sacrifice necessary to take on China and Russia at the same time. It cannot even shut down or control the mechanism of the frontier. It must keep talking about “free markets” because that is the main linguistic shield for aristocratic freedom of action from democratic controls. It certainly cannot tax the rich at progressive levels or shut down offshore havens.

So if its mercenary armies keep getting defeated overseas and efforts to control resources and markets in places like the Middle East keep getting thwarted, those same incompetent people still have to make ridiculous sums of money from nothing without doing the work, and the frontier takes another turn in upon itself. The government begins shedding excess population and militarizing civilian governance and privatizing the national patrimony and binding the poor with debt and austerity and meaninglessly spying on everything and on and on. After all, if they can’t run roughshod all over Central Asia and the Middle East, there’s no place like home!

There will be no coherent national uprising against this final suicide. There cannot be, because there is no American nation. Real nations have wrenching, defining events like the Dreyfus Affair, the Tupac Amaru rebellion, Tahrir Square, the taking of the Winter Palace, the storming of the Bastille, the trial of the Gang of Four, the Polish Deluge. The agony and ecstasy of being a nation, of being a people, evolving through time regardless of the specifics of where the capital city is or what dynasty sits on the throne has not yet happened to the mess of immigrants and descendants of immigrants in North America.

The process is beginning. Alaskan or Southern Californian or Cascadian or Texan are embryonic nationalities. If Washington D.C. actually tried to win the fight against Russia (let alone China) and keep its tottering financial empire intact, the effort itself would exacerbate the nascent breakup along those already visible lines. Why would an Alaskan fisherman obey a bureaucrat in D.C. when his livelihood depends on selling seafood to China? What possible situation or political figure could align the interests of a Texan and a Cascadian? The inevitable breakup of North American economic and political unity is clear to anyone with a sense of how and why nations evolve on this planet. It will be messy, lubricated by rivers of blood, and in most areas accompanied by a long dark age, but the rest of the world will breathe a sigh of relief.

For individuals like myself, born inside the frontier and soaked in its propaganda, the U.S. seems like A Very Important Thing. For minds still trapped, the breakup of the U.S. feels like The End Of The World, which is a way of simplifying events to the point of not thinking about them at all. I would like to end this report by exploring a perspective about the next few decades not often seen, which does not involve Nuclear War or Utter Collapse or The End of the US Dollar.

North America was almost inevitably going to be treated as a single huge frontier the moment any old world explorer, with all his weapons, diseases, domesticated animals and crops stepped ashore. Present-day old world nations and empires understand this and no longer envy or fear what amounts to a historical blip. They also observe that the deep social foundations necessary for a government to play with the big boys in the arena of culture are missing. But a vast, distant frontier is just as useful at converting worthless commodities into money for them as it has proven for our own aristocrats.

Keeping this in mind, I suspect that far from decisive military engagements or outright economic warfare, we might eventually observe China and Russia (among others) carefully managing the U.S. decline, expending small efforts to keep the regime in D.C. afloat as long as they keep getting a positive return on investment. After all, powerhouses like them will from time to time need to dump commodities like pork snouts or almost worthless forestry byproducts. As long as the frontier exists in the hearts and minds of Americans, they won’t lack for people willing to do the work of conversion for them.



Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Just linked to this post on the MediaLens Message Board, under the headline: "Outstandingly perceptive - and clarifying - guest post at Club Orlov today."

jiri said...

The controlled decline has already started.

Syria, Ukraine, stopping too rapid inflation of the US Dollar.

Andrew Butt said...

Great article - growing up in a nearby locale, I understand this essay deeply. "Frontier" is still actively pursued here as a mental environment when, in fact, it ceased to exist as a physical environment over a century ago.

horizonstar said...

Interesting article, especially as a counterpoint to Dmitry's articles about the Russian national character.

ps;-- When an article is by a guest author they should be clearly credited with it.

NowhereMan said...

Great post. Driving across Nebraska now one gets the impression that the giant Walmarts which now provide the lifeline for the increasingly isolated farming communities along the way have taken the place of the cavalry forts of yesteryear. Somewhere the Great Spirit that once ruled over the vast prairie mourns the fact that it had to come to this, but the silly white man simply would not be denied. Dust in the wind indeed!

Dammerung said...

I strongly disagree with your characterization that the resources of the earth are being turned into profits as fast as possible. Since "profit" by its very definition implies that the end result is more valuable than the resources taken into account separately; and since that demonstrably fails to be the case with most consumer products; what our heavily financialized system seems to produce is something like an anti-profit. Sure, the numbers get bigger, but that's just from money printing and not from legitimate creation of value.

Robo said...

A lone weirdo indeed! After growing up within a time capsule of the historical frontier, the author clearly sees how modern Americans are still defending their illusory private domains of personal freedom. The American dream is a selfish one, and as such can never sustain a cohesive society without the glue of material wealth to hold the disparate regions together.

Jim Leonard said...

As the U.S. deteriorates, those at the top are choosing to leave and go elsewhere to expand and rationalize their wealth. The Trans Pacific Partnership (and other 'trade' agreements) are about building a new entity other than the U.S. within which to exploit. Hence, the U.S. fails but "its" aristocrats are saved.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Appreciated the insights of this article, the function of the frontier as the engine of resource extraction. Been to Alaska a few times, the last frontier, says so right on their license plates. The place lines up very well with your observations. People view themselves as rugged individuals but most of the population seems to be on the dole or working state or federal jobs. It's the most petroleum-centric place I've been. Everybody has a boat, a truck, a snow machine for winter and four wheeler for summer. All necessary for the rugged individual lifestyle. What your article especially brought into focus for me about Alaska is that the people with jobs primarily work in resource extraction, which resources primarily go outside the state where the real profits are made by the corporate aristocracy.

Spleen said...

@Jim Leonard:

Could not agree more. TPP and TTIP need to be stopped at all costs.

"So even though they are poor, in debt, and only able to move in a tiny world, mentally they are all little aristocrats."

Who was it that said that poor Americans are like "temporarily embarassed millionaires"? Was it John Dos Passos?

AK said...

>>Who was it that said that poor Americans are like "temporarily embarassed millionaires"?

I thought it was de Tocqueville, but search says Ronald Wright

john john said...

Stephen Gaskin put it like this: The british have an expression, "every man's home is his castle". The Americans made it a reality: horizontal monarchy.

pyrrhus said...

Remarkably unfriendly post, certainly not depicting the Montana that Norman McLean wrote about in A River Runs Through It or other authors' works. Nor is it the Montana I have experienced in my many trips there, where I found honest, hard working people who were a pleasure to be around, unlike many I knew in my stints on the East coast. Sounds like the author thinks the place should just be abandoned, since the climate and geography inevitably require use of a lot of energy. But the author also seems to think that Brazilians could build "sustainable" cities, which anyone familiar with the subject of renewables and electrical engineering knows is sheer poppycock.

onething said...

It's true the American dream is largely selfish, and that is no different than Europe. I blame the western churches, Catholicism and Protestantism, with their emphasis on personal salvation amid vast hordes of the doomed. If you can be happy in that scenario, why learn generosity?

DeVaul said...

A deeply thoughtful article, well written, and, unfortunately, true. Having grown up in a rural area, I can vouch for her description of the people of these areas. In addition, I have been working on my family's history for over 15 years, and the newspapers from the frontier towns that my family lived in tell a much different story than the "official" school-told story of the "taming of the frontier".

Someone mentioned forts above, which recalled to my mind the fact that some of my distant relatives signed a petition to the Federal government requesting that it build more forts on the frontier (now the western border of Arkansas) to protect them from "hostiles" (native Americans herded onto reservations). Since the Federal government did not tax anyone in 1845, this essentially meant that they wanted the "other" states to pay for these forts and man them with US cavalry.

Thus, the beginning of "entitlement".

The men who signed this petition were all leading citizens of Van Buren and Fort Smith -- both gateways to the California gold mines. As the author pointed out, they did not have the power or will to form a collective effort from the local citizens to build these forts and man them themselves. No, they needed "others" to do it for them and "others" to pay for it, while they would be the primary beneficiaries of the forts and the new commerce they would bring to the area.

At least my direct ancestor did not sign this petition, but this frontier town was where my family began to disintegrate and go their separate ways, leaving only my direct ancestors behind as town marshals until they were killed. So, I guess what I would like to add is that the American frontier destroyed the old world extended family structure until it now barely exists anywhere in America, and it did it using horses, oxen, and canal boats.

I plan to add the author's article to my family history (with full credit, of course) to help explain what happened to our family over time, and to show that the disintegration started much earlier than the advent of the automobile and highways, or even trains, for that matter.

Unknown said...

The people I've met in Montana were right-wing bastards who believed in invisible sky fairies.

Island Poet said...

I grew up on a cattle ranch in North Idaho, where some of the attitudes Adam writes about are quite evident, so I do understand his epiphany about the Frontier mentality. I suggest reading Wes Jackson's - Becoming Native to This Place for an educated, mature examination of the topic. Also the fiction and autobiographical works of Wallace Stegner, especially, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs for a lifetime of thought and angst about growing up on "the last edge of the Frontier." One final note; the author seems to forget about the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War 2 when he claims there were no defining moments in the history of the United States.

rapier said...

It's Wiki but a good place to start on this frontier thing.


Turner was declaring that the frontier had been closed by then, the 1890's. Every place was settled. As this essay demonstrates and the responses demonstrate, the abstraction of the frontier never died. It almost has for the 80% of Americans who live in the 20% of the land area that is urban/metropolitan. In rural areas especially of the Great Plains and Mountain West it remains a closely held myth people embrace to define themselves. It's a myth that will likely serve them better than the 80% whose myth is centered on other things which I will call consumption and status. Maybe others can define that better.

Rural people are more inward looking and let's say tribal or provincial compared to more cosmopolitan people. They are then in some ways less free in outlook and ability to make or remake themselves because they are less free of the constraints of small communities. Welcome to the necessary price that will have to be paid if DO's prognosis of what will be necessary going forward comes to pass. The 'freedom' to be who you want to be in the modern industrial urban metropolitan world is largely illusory. The layers and layers of dependency built into the complex modern world make much of the freedom little more than a conceit.

John T said...

"Who was it that said that poor Americans are like "temporarily embarrassed millionaires"?

John Steinbeck.

Alex said...

I did the rural survivalist compound thing and its a dead end. Tons of freeloaders brought in because they were cool or something, myself stuck with tons of chores, and being homeless in the city was looking pretty good. I got an opportunity to leave and got the fuck out. I'd not go back if I were paid. If things get as bad as the survivalists fervently wish, they'll be shooting each other over a stale can of spam, meanwhile like as not a kindly old Sikh will be keeping me in dhal and rice.

Read all of Ferfal,then read all of Ferfal, then read all of Ferfal again. There will be a test, said test being real life. Ferfal and family buggered off to Ireland, a place much oppressed and thus having g some measure of solidarity against The Man.

DeVaul said...

I would like to add something to what Rapier said, which I believe is also largely true.

The western myth of the rugged individual is simply not possible without huge Federal grants and aid. Many ranchers graze their livestock on Federal land (land owned and maintained by you and me) for free. They pay nothing for it, but feel that they have some divine right to it. When a blizzard kills all their livestock because they refused to build barns, the Federal government compensates them for their loss. So, they are subsidized. There are so many cases of this kind of subsidization that many ranchers and farmers would never survive out on the plains without Federal help. What happens to them when that help disappears?

I will tell you. They will die or carve "GTT" (gone to Texas) on their doors and leave the harsh plains for better pastures before they starve to death as "rugged individuals" living miles from their nearest neighbor (and only source of help). Even the Sioux Indians did not originally live on the plains, but were forced out there by other Indian tribes who were pushed back by European settlers into the Ohio Country.

The mountains where I grew up were largely self-sufficient until roads and highways were built leading into the mountains. Then everything started to change. People wanted TV's, new trucks, washing machines, refrigerators, and so on. You can still see the first wave of consumer goods lying in dried up creek beds.

Mountain people live close enough to each other in the hollows that they can revert back to the old ways if suddenly cut off, but those out on the plains have no such hope of continuing in the absence of Federal money and cavalry -- which no individual state or region can supply. Their way of life will vanish in the absence of a centralized government bureaucracy committed to helping them.

I hope they figure that out before it is too late.

horizonstar said...

Drove down the Bitteroot valley from Missoula Montana to Salmon Idaho two weeks ago. So much for the "Last, Best Place." The entire valley (15 x 50 miles) is filled with toy ranchettes, too small to farm and too big to mow with the riding mower. Stick built "temporary housing" of the low budget trophy house variety. All of the creeks coming down from the mountains completely dried up and the entire valley primed for the mother of all forest fires.

That is the real face of rural Montanta-- not the few surviving cattle ranches and Ted Turner's buffalo empires.

Janet D said...

This has been (IMHO) one of the best posts on this blog, probably because it hits so closely to home for me. I live in the rural(ish) West, and travel much in the parts around here.

We have found pretty much everywhere, to a T, the attitudes/mindset that Adam describes... in addition, there is this strong undercurrent among some rural people that they are set for the breakdown/apocalypse/whatever, and that the "city liberals" will be out of luck. Yet they drive....and drive....and drive. Much of the rural West was settled (in the broadest sense) after the automobile and it is practically impossible to live here today without driving at least 30 - 60 miles a day. EVERYTHING is spread out by miles.

In a recent conversation with a man gloating over rural-vs-city, I asked him "But how do you think gas & food & goods reach this place?....They get here because of the people who have jobs in cities - the storage, the transportation, the shipping, the tracking, etc. all require people all working in office jobs with ready access to fossil fuels. When the cities go, the gas & goods will stop. How will you cope without driving multiple miles every single day?" He just looked at me, somewhat stunned, as if trying to grasp life without an ATV, Toyota Tacoma, or snowmobile.

I enjoy the many good characteristics of the people who live out here, but they are a people possessed of their own version of "Reality" and their version is just as dependent upon fossil fuels, government funding and external inputs as the version of people living in the largest cities....rural people just don't recognize it. Adam has done a knock-up job of capturing the myths underlying rural beliefs.

I love the West, and will probably remain here the rest of my life, but the future ain't gonna be pretty, and the Descent here is not going to be any easier than in any city back East.

@horizonstar....yup, done that drive, not hat long ago. Second your observations, every one.

Conscience Sociale said...

We can draw a similar pattern with the european spirit, in a similar crisis but with much more rooted resilience :
(in french only)

The others articles in this serie about the crisis of the spirit may be valuable too.