Where is each of us embedded? Who lives in your household? What are the relationships of dependency there? The lines of authority? The division of labor? The state of health of each? The psychological state of each? The special needs of each? What responsibilities and worries does each member have? Are some household members risk-takers and others risk-averse? Are some neat, others messy? Some hot-natured, some cold? If there is conflict, how is conflict resolved? Where do the members of that household go to get the inputs for the household and its members — money, food, services, tools, maintenance supplies, fuels, etc.? Where do the household outputs go — trash, spent fuel, sewage, labor, money? What are the lines across which no one will venture, the commitments, duties, obligations that tie each member to the other? To other family and friends outside the household? What coping mechanisms does each member have, or the household as a whole; and are any of those coping mechanisms based on consumer products? These are the kinds of things that embed us, as imperfect and vulnerable “thinking” animals. This aspect of human existence is not generally understood as political — because we still mentally segregate our lives the way we mentally segregate the subjects we study in school. But every political structure is based directly on what goes on in households, which are — in a sense — a basic social-political-economic-ecologic unit, like a cell is to tissue . . . then the tissue is to organ, organ to organism? Nested.
This household — and there are many different kinds now — and its activities in what we have learned to call the “private sphere,” combined with work and the acquisition of consumer goods — multiplied many times and constrained by our social-political-economic-ecologic environment — is the basis of social self-organization. Those locally observable activities are connected to those duties, obligations, and habits in the household at the same time they are connected by law, custom, and a built environment. We need to think of these things together instead of separately.
Self-organization means spontaneous order. That does not mean that this ordering of societies is not without authority and intentional direction but that no one has the capacity to micro-manage all of society, so the members of a society, the households of that society, learn to “get by” using what is available to do the best they know how with what they have. Over time, all these singular and small-scale activities become synchronized through little adaptations. Once that synchronization becomes relatively stable across the whole society, we can say it has become self-organized. In the current social-political-economic-ecologic environment, this self-organization has taken place around the demands of a business class in power — so, around regimes of constantly expanding, money-based wealth accumulation. The rules and roads and communications lines, combined with our adaptation to them, make self-organization the automatic control mechanism that does most of the work on behalf of this regime. Ideology — or indoctrination, if you prefer — sets up a little policeman in our minds that reinforces the control built into the environment; because ideology simultaneously conceals and reproduces power. Between environment and ideology, most of the control function is taken care of, leaving only the remaining frictions along the edges of that stability as the purview of armed forces — police or military. So long as the society at large remains stable and those who dominate that society get what they need to maintain their domination — in our case, based on expanding accumulation — politics is a pretty boring affair, sometimes devolving into minor squabbles and self-serving positioning.
But the dominant class of people in a society are not the only ones with a vested interest in stability. Once a society is self-organized, people lose the aptitudes and means to “get by” any other way. So instability creates anxiety not just for the dominant class, but to nearly everyone else below them on the politico-economic ladder. When the last financial bubble burst, combined with the money lost by bankers and bond traders were pension funds, college savings, and retirement accounts. If the electrical grid goes down, corporations lose money, but Grandpa’s oxygen machine stops, too. We are nested.
For most people, nested as we are and focused primarily on the duties and obligations we have to those closest to us, politics has a dual aspect: on the one hand, we have our immediate interests, and on the other — which seems almost a universe apart — we have our ideas about politics, which we pick up mostly from state schools and audiovisual media. Personal interests come into play, but these emerging concerns are cast onto a screen of a pre-existing indoctrination. Someone reaching retirement age becomes vitally interested in collecting on the Social Security into which she’s paid her whole life. And a young person can easily become convinced by demagogues that he or she is paying for that Social Security (they are not, the recipient paid into it for years), and be convinced to vote for someone they perceive to be representing their interests by trying to privatize or gut Social Security. Immediate interests distorted by indoctrination.
A person might be supportive of a party based on an ideology they learned at home growing up or from work or from one’s social circle or out of perceived interest — Republicans fight “socialism” by going after welfare cheats, or Democrats fight “protectionism” by supporting “free trade” agreements. These latter ideas are produced more by in-groups and corporate media, and, when questioned, the overwhelming majority of people cannot articulate the actual policies being debated in any detail whatsoever, resorting to impressionistic sound bites and bumper-sticker gotcha-logic they hear on a television “debate.”
In the early twenty-first-century American form of social nesting, the household has been largely disembedded from the surrounding community. Members often do not know neighbors, that is, those who live very nearby, but instead move between the household, work, consumer spaces, and affinity groups based on memberships, hobbies, or similar ideas. Even churches have been pulled into this nesting logic. This results in most people being isolated in a kind of smart-home, an electronically equipped living space filled with convenience appliances and entertainment media. Consequently, our “windows” on the outside world become a series of audio-visual broadcasts, including mesmerizingly attractive, psychologically researched “electronic hallucinations,” that are designed by those very people who sit at the top of the social-political-economic heap. These hallucinations are paid for by advertising revenue from likewise rich and powerful concerns that have no vested interest in people’s perceptions becoming deeper, more integral, more complex, or even less selfish (advertising appeals to selfishness and even touts it as a virtue). This is a recipe — along with the loss of skills and practices apart from highly specialized, money-dependent, self-organized culture — for seemingly inescapable dependency and near absolute conformity.
In the larger context of things where partisans on both sides of any well-known public debate are still committed to capitalism in some form or another, the organs of mass communication and mass conformity — conservative through liberal — are owned and operated by the very people who have the greatest stake in capitalism. Pay attention to who pays their bills through advertisements. Their ability to choose how a debate is framed, to select which arguments are heard on what is allegedly “both sides” of an issue (there are only two sides, after all, and reasonable people always sit halfway between them), is an exercise of power on behalf of the very social class that is propelling us toward a combined catastrophic crisis. Language carries meaning; and when you are the one who chooses the language, this is a crucial exercise of power. You are implanting one set of meanings that can actually foreclose many others. This gives mass media the capacity to convince most of us simultaneously that climate change is real — we are in the “Anthropocene” era, an ecological issue — and that higher numbers on the New York Stock Exchange are indicative of “economic health,” an economic delusion.
In the deep background, however, things are constantly changing — things based on laws of nature that cannot be broken by propaganda — and those changes eventually result in disruptions and instability. The disruption, loss, or threat of loss of this strange form of stability, then, is what we characterize as a crisis. Things don’t work the way they ought to, self-organization doesn’t seem so smooth. Anxiety creeps in, followed by anger — focused or unfocused — and conflict is never far behind.
[Excerpt from Mammon’s Ecology, pp. 138–41]