[This piece kicked forward from six May Days ago; and then fussed with.]


“Civilization begins,” according to the poet Ezra Pound, “when people start preferring a little done right to a great deal done wrong.”

Like the capacities for speech, art, music, and sanctity, this is written somewhere in our DNA, deep down where it can be forgotten. As Pound decried, that “great deal” comes out in the popular star system, and every other way of pandering to the masses; in the replacement of what is local and specific with what is general and plugged in. Whereas, a concert of music by Dufay, for instance, or the filling of a niche with an item of carved stone, would be a little deal.

To my mind, as a religious nutjob, tyranny begins with the abuse of talents, with turning God’s gifts (or Nature’s, if you wish) to purely personal account, as the means to wealth and power. The modest, who may also have talents but perhaps not for making big fortunes or winning national elections, must nevertheless try to get by. They become enslaved on various levels. They must agree to accept certain terms of employment, or starve. They agree to serve: not God, except privately, nor their neighbour, except abstractly. Tangibly, the modest are compelled to serve the “men of vision,” the “nation builders,” and other wilful cranks — whose talents are for plausible rhetoric; for moral and material posturing; for ruthless appropriation and the seizure of the main chance. These great become our paymasters. Money speaks, we obey.

Which is not to say tyranny is a modern invention. But I do think the technology for it has been vastly improved.


The late George Grant once explained to me that the Volvo in his driveway was “a modern irony.” It was in fact a mode of conveyance, which he could afford on the salary of a “philosophy professor”; mostly the wife drove it. But we spent a pleasant morning in Halifax once, thirty-something years ago, discussing the amount of human art and science, focused skill and moral discipline, subtracted from Civilization and added to The Economy by the invention of such things.

It was, we agreed, a superior car, a fine piece of engineering. (A Volvo, well kept, might last almost half as long as a passenger airliner.) But one was like another, and ten-thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, lived out their lives for the sake of Volvos — starting from the poor wretches digging the iron out of the ground, or drilling for the oil; and ending with the slick advertising agents and the showroom salesmen. And then there are the other car manufacturers.

Indeed, the late Ivan Illich — half mad to be sure, but I could never tell which half — demonstrated that if we take the total of man-hours devoted to making, fuelling, fixing, insuring, and otherwise accommodating cars (highways, garages, traffic cops, &c), then divide by the grand total of passenger miles driven, for any fixed period, the average actual speed of a car may be calculated. It works out to just over three miles per hour. Which is to say, the same as walking, but considerably slower than a horse. To put this another way, the entire monstrous effort produces a null result.

Really, it is much less than a zero, as we see when we look at the matter more in the round. Let us tackle, for instance, the crowding issue.

The world, since I was born, has more than doubled in population. The human race, according to the environmentalcases, takes up too much space. We have a “problem” today, of “overpopulation.” Yet even they, no friends of big industry, seem to have overlooked a simple fact. We, humans, have increased by a modest two or three times (since anno 1953). But those, cars, have increased by twenty times or more, in the same period. And each one of them leaves a bigger carbon footprint; especially when you remember that the newly arriving humans are just little ones.

Why this emphasis on getting rid of us?

Why don’t we get rid of them, instead? (The cars, not the babies. Or the greenies.)

For consider, the average car is nearly defenceless.

Now, cars give the appearance of moving very fast, to those who do not think analytically, and for the sake of having nice shiny cars in loud solid colours, the masses are happy to exchange not only the direct cost in human labour, but such “intangible” costs as may be associated with making our cities ugly, filling the air with pollutants, constraining souls within metal boxes, and turning the streets where children once played into killing zones.

Include this, too, in what we mean by “a modern irony” — that cars make every city spread, until one needs a car to get around it. Owning one has ceased to be a luxury, and become a necessity instead. One can hardly keep a job without one. And one needs that job in order to pay for such things, as cars.

Cars are not everything, of course. There is so much more on the same basic scheme: the sound and fury of modern industry, signifying the nothing it all works out to. Yet let me not suggest that the lives lived, minding the machines, are wasted. The work is wasted, goes down the black hole. But there is something irreducible in the experience, even of industrial desolation.

In one of my many perished posts, I considered instead the real estate industry. In another ramble, a couple of years ago, I reviewed a study by some Californian, linking cars and real estate together. The thesis, easily proved, is that the allocation of automobile parking spaces had, by the 1920s, determined the shape of every North American town and city, and the disposition of all human habitation within. The little Stalins, called “city planners,” have since that time been using this allocation of parking spaces as their basic “planning tool,” to micromanage the Kulaks.

Movement along the actual roads and highways is only their reserve tool.

That, in turn, leads to a larger observation about the way of our world: people constantly moving, houses constantly changing hands. We have become nomads again, high-tech nomads, while eviscerating local and regional culture, and eliminating almost every prospect of what Illich called “conviviality.”

But that is just where I stand confuted. One can hardly conceive of an evil that does not add a few fiat dollars to the GDP. Say what I like about the collapse of Western Civ, the truth is it was good for the economy. And this can be easily proved, by the numbers, for they get bigger every day.


It will soon be nine hundred years since the White Ship went down in the English Channel (November 25th, 1120), drowning, among several hundred mostly drunken passengers, the only legitimate heir to King Henry, thus setting the stage for “The Anarchy” and everything that has fallen out since. It is barely a century since the Titanic went down (April 15th, 1912), also with huge casualties including many quite respectable, well-dressed people.

Bernard Berenson somewhere contrasted the different public responses to these two events. The first occasioned not the slightest indignation, but a great cry of woe and contrition. The second triggered a series of public inquiries, as the politicians sought to identify those responsible for the disaster, on the assumption that something contractual had failed. (The iceberg, curiously enough, was never called to testify.)

So it goes, or so it has gone, for Western society. The awe that is commanded by a great disaster, is frittered away. The large fact is quickly absorbed by many small. Moreover, so far as the awe persists, it tends to be expressed with maudlin sentimentality — with grief poured over the individual victims — unctuously, as it were. This is another way in which the large is absorbed by the many small. We find ourselves weeping for individuals whom, in the course of our natural lives, we would never have met, nor heard of. One might almost call these “virtual” tears.

Today is of course “May Day,” itself somewhat transformed from mediaeval antecedents. By modern European tradition, it is the day on which we celebrate international organized labour, or in a word, Communism — in both its socialist and capitalist forms. Indeed, everywhere I look about me, in the Greater Parkdale Area, I see new condominiums being raised, to extraordinary heights, to provide comfortable dovecotes for the New Soviet Man (capitalist version). For this New Soviet Man demands to live in a “condom”; demands not only to pay his mortgage, but some rent on top of that; in addition to his demand for ever higher taxes, “daycare,” and so forth.

Alas, apart from being human, I find little in common with this New Soviet Man. He shares none of my enthusiasms, I wonder at his. Yet we celebrate so many of the same events, knowingly or unknowingly: childbirth, passages, meals together; ageing, illnesses, deaths. He, with his demands for fresh public inquiries. I, with awe and contrition — for I am so impressed with the scale of our disaster.