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Storm Warning: Are Left and Right Obsolete?

Stephanie Mills has written for Whole Earth since 1972, including stints as assistant editor and editor of CoEvolution Quarterly, and editor of the Communities domain of the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. Her most recent book is Turning Away from Technology (Sierra Club Books, 1997), which she edited.

Ever since the emergence of the early state, various handfuls of people have been laying hold of inordinate amounts of wealth and power. The pretexts have been many: sometimes appeals to glory, sometimes appeals to rationality. The take-home message has been conveyed by big battalions. Not everyone has the appetite to be a monarch, but the system transmogrifies itself, and persists.

Also since the dawn of history, other, more numerous, handfuls of people have mounted risky and only occasionally successful attempts to wrest the power back from the few to the many. Revolutionaries, these. The perennial wish of the majority, I think, is to avoid contention and rule altogether. Thus to me it appears that the primal socio-political polarity is between the rulers and those who are, but might rather not be, ruled. Variations on this are: Civilized vs. Tribal, Imperial vs. Hinterland, and, in our moment, Global Corporations vs. Local Community, and Technocracy vs. Ecology (of which more later).

The core ideology used to justify the rule of complex societies by their elites "Father Knows Best"?has been expressed in a variety of mythopoetic and philosophic idioms, up to plastic phrases like "reinventing government" in our time. These supposedly self-evident truths and divine rights are as vulnerable to sudden irrelevance as the societies embracing them are to collapse. So in the long, long view, political discourse as arrayed from left to right begins to look like an epiphenomenon.

There is a persistent polarity of rulers and subjects, with the modern nation-state (and now supranational entities, like the Bretton Woods creations?GATT, World Bank, IMF) serving as the pseudo-democratic, juridical milieu to administer these fixed inequalities. Given this, it's hard to see where ideological contention serves any purpose?in these Unitied States, anyway except as the stuff that gets up the lather in the brain-washing.

At the same time, to believe that the disintegration of the USSR discredits socialism is akin to saying that the defeat of the Apaches demonstrates the error of animistic nomadic subsistence cultures; or that organized labor in the US was set back by the idea of unionism and not by the Pinkertons or the Taft-Hartley Act. Those failures were not so much attributable to the politics of the failees as to the force majeure of their opponents.

There is also the ambient role that technology plays in the maintenance of contemporary sociopolitical complexity. There have been empires and totalitarian states without the benefit of industrial and electronic-era means. But without these means, a global complex society could not exist.

Mass technology has become, in Langdon Winner's formulation, autonomous. It constitutes an implicit politics, but one so pervasive that we never think to debate it, any more than the fish debate water. Where was the mass movement demanding the blasphemous release of genetically modified organisms into the planetary ecosystem? When was the plebiscite that decided to shift the mode of discourse from the linguistic to the visual, at a dramatic cost in complexity of expression. Where are the mobs clamoring for the right to watch Star Television after a hard day in the sweatshop while their vernacular forms of subsistence are undermined and perish. My Luddite cohorts and I would argue that these radical changes of life and livelihood demonstrate the political bias of the technologies that induced them. Yet where does technology figure in politics as arrayed from left to right? Those ol' dexter-sinister categories are ever more unhelpful in working out the problems and necessities of place.

Bioregionalism offers a more useful and sensible axis for political engagement, with one's watershed being the epicenter and the ecosphere being the furthest extension of concern. In reframing the fundamental questions that politics is supposed to address, and keeping the focus on place and biogeographical reality, watershed governance and bioregional confederation could offer myriad possible (and less than ideal, natch) alternatives to One Big Collapse.

We are entering a time when we'll be learning what absolute power?as in Nature Bats Last feels like. It will behoove us, in our bioregions, to get our backs into the work of what Freeman House calls "evolutionary diplomacy": negotiating with our watersheds the terms of our respective communities' futures. And any politics that disregards our species's history and the primacy of Nature will be mostly entertainment sheet music for the Titanic's doughty dance band.