The paragraph below come from the final pages of Max Weber’s 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.
Weber’s reference to capitalism as an “iron cage” has become famous among sociologists. There is no escape from the iron cage. Weber calls it capitalism, but it applies much more broadly. The iron cage is civilization. Quoting Tim Bennett, I refer to our fate as, “born into captivity.”
There is no escape from industrial civilization. Believe me, I’ve tried. I left behind the privileged life of scholarship at a major university several years ago. I developed a homestead and tried to throw off the shackles of culture. Pursuing agrarian anarchy while adhering to the principles of permaculture, I threw abundant money and hard work at a failed project.
The failure results not from lack of effort, nor from lack of money, nor from lack of help along the way, nor from the harsh environment. With respect to the latter issue, abrupt climate change has been generous with precipitation even though the region is bracketed by drought. The static water level remains 20 feet (6 meters) below ground, as it has for more than a century. We’ll not die here from lack of water, despite the unsupported beliefs and bizarre wishes of my detractors.
The failure results from the inability to escape abrupt climate change, a product of industrial civilization, as well as the inability to accept reality (an inability that likely also results from industrial civilization). Climate change is but one symptom among many resulting from this set of living arrangements, as I’ve explained (and see this essay from more than four years ago). The continuation of civilization is murderous, to humans and other organisms, and ultimately would kill us all. The termination of civilization will remove habitat for humans and most other complex organisms even faster.
The system teeters on the brink, even according to the International Monetary Fund and The Guardian (and see David Stockman’s overview from 22 December 2015 and this summary from 23 December 2015). With respect to the lifeblood of civilization, crude oil, and its home base: “Saudi Arabia is starting to come apart, and when its unscheduled rapid disassembly is a little farther along, the Industrial Age will come to an end.”
In other words, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Individual- and societal-level actions are far too little, far too late to save our species from its imminent demise. We can, of course, extend the run of the myriad non-human species we drive to extinction every day. We can, of course, improve the lives of those around us on a daily basis. And, particularly for those of us privileged to occupy the global north, we can pursue freedom in our own way. For now.
The pursuit of freedom doesn’t require much, either. It can be conducted even in the United States, among the most unfree, horrific examples of a totalitarian, surveillance, police state in history. The pursuit requires little money, far less than I’ve spent to develop the 2.7 acres I call the mud hut. Pursuing freedom may entail freedom from addictions such as electricity, automobiles, and myriad other luxuries we take for granted, all of which are costly in many ways. Living off grid, surrounded by the bounty of nature, is rewarding in ways beyond paychecks and “influence.” But off grid need not include an expensive house powered by expensive “renewable” energy.
Addictions abound. Freedom awaits. Even if there is no escape from the horrors of empire, even if there is no breaking free from the iron cage of civilization, even if there is no way out of the Alcatraz into which we are born, we can each walk away from the distractions that plague us and that — for many people — have come to define us.
If only for a short time. If only now. If only in our minds. Especially in our minds.