The last couple of years have not been easy for a lot of people. Most are not out of the woods yet economically. Even if you've been doing relatively all right, you will meet or know someone affected by the Great Recession of 2008 to 2012 (?). Recessions and depressions strip away all illusions of security and replace them with hardship and the worry that our overall standard of living - indeed, an entire middling social class in the developed countries - is in decline. People regroup with friends and families, reevaluate their priorities, question themselves, their worth, their attitudes, and the values of those who led us down this merry path. With the gnawing worries over bills, debts and unemployment comes disillusionment.
The first consumer goods to fall away early in the Great Recession were high-end, conspicuous consumption items, although experts say those markets are now rebounding (here). That luxury bubble, along with others, had to burst. But it's cold comfort for those who didn't really indulge in the first place in the late 90s and early 2000s, and are now paying the price. Come to think of it, it's cold comfort for those who did indulge, and are now paying the price! Nor does it help to contemplate that this may be one of several socio-economic shocks to take place as a new global economic order finds its feet over the next thirty years. Perhaps this recession is not just about the fall of the post-WWII middle classes, but about the rise of the super-rich and the super-poor, with little remaining in between. If you want to know what purpose the middle class serves, look at countries where the middling sorts are compromised or negligible. Governments and societies are completely different, and they tend toward the absolute or the totalitarian.
But as viewing Citizen Kane would tell us, money, or the lack of it, does not solve the deeper problems in our hearts that got us into the mess in the first place. The character Bernstein says, "It's not trick to make an awful lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money." Kane's wife, Susan Alexander, essentially says when interviewed about the Great Depression, that losing everything she had was nothing compared to having (what we would call) a narcissist for a husband:
In case you've never heard of how
I lost all my money - and it was
plenty, believe me -
The last ten years have been tough
on a lot of people.
They haven't been tough on me. I
just lost my money. But when I
compare these last ten years with
the twenty I spent with him -
The Citizen Kane script is here. Contrary to the impression given by Susan's line, anyone who has spoken to people who lived through the Great Depression knows that what people endured in the 1930s was far worse than what we face now. It was something from which those who lived through it often never recovered. The issue now is not quite a Grapes of Wrath-level of desperate migration searching for food and work. Rather, it involves getting by, or surviving, while grappling with the deeper problems in our hearts that Kane explored so elegantly. Nor is this moral and existential crisis confined to the developed countries. Even in countries where the economic outlook is much more optimistic, we are - everywhere - subject to the impact of globalization and the Tech Revolution marching side by side. Not one of us, no matter who we are or where we are, will escape that accelerating reality.
Thus, we see the rise of strange disaster management consultancies like Buttered Side Down, based in London. Their mission statement could come right out of a hard core survivalist manual:
Buttered Side Down is a boutique risk management consultancy focusing on historic risks, which are the special class of systemic risks which "change everything." To have any response at all to a historic risk, an enterprise must develop substantial resilience to ordinary and systemic risks. Our unique perspective enables us to identify the opportunities which accompany historic risks.
From 1925 to 1945 the world sawButter Side Down and similar enterpreneurial oracles will not get to the heart of the problem, though, if they fail to resolve our spiritual and emotional crisis related to massive change. One of the best poems I've read about despair, disillusionment and the road through hard times is Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.
- the first truly global economic crash,
- the first truly global war; and
- the first credible threat to the whole world.
A single generation saw everything from American shanty towns named Hooverville to Hiroshima, the first sign of the fear to come. The nuclear age is becoming the nano/bio age. What is coming next?
The dominant illusion of ordinary life is the feeling that tomorrow will look like today. But it is an illusion, and the job of business and government must be to deal in reality. A company that manufactures insulin may market with images and lifestyle allusions, but the product must be clean, right and on time always.
Buttered Side Down helps businesses and government maintain their vital commitments through all conditions. We can help you find a business ethos of social service through reliability. We can show the substantial strategic advantages of deep enterprise resilience and cross-enterprise network resilience.
The poem is a masterpiece on how a hero and his company can lose their way, be stripped of honour, and even forget why they started their grand quest in the first place. One paladin is left at the end, after all his leaders, superiors and more experienced comrades have fallen in disgrace. This last knight is Childe Roland ('childe' referred not to a 'child' in Old English, but to an untested knight). He could well be the character from the famous French medieval epic, The Song of Roland, although Browning took the title from Shakespeare's King Lear, who in turn took it from an English fairy tale of Scandinavian origin.
Guided by malevolent beings, distracted by decadent visions, Roland makes his way through a terrifying landscape. The poem's image of a starved horse, and the line, "He must be wicked to deserve such pain," was an allusion to the belief that those who were starving and poverty-stricken somehow morally deserved it. This is pretty tricky thinking, which led to the establishment of Victorian workhouses. The truth of economic hardship lies on a spectrum. Sometimes it is due to personal shortcomings, sometimes to systemic circumstances and policy decisions well beyond the control of the individual. Either way, rich or poor, we face a moral quandary. This, anyway, was what Browning implied. In the end, Childe Roland crosses what seems to be a rotting battlefield. He comes to the Dark Tower, and his senses, dulled and blurred, suddenly pick up shattering noise all around him. He sees himself surrounded by his lost friends, who look down on him, their names part of the Tower's toll. He must punch through illusions and deceptive impulses that could lead him down yet darker paths to his demise. Does he escape his infernal prison? Browning left that open to interpretation.
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (1844)
By Robert Browning (1812-1889)
My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.
What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch 'gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,
If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.
For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
What with my search drawn out thro' years, my hope
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring,
I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
My heart made, finding failure in its scope.
As when a sick man very near to death
Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end
The tears and takes the farewell of each friend,
And hears one bid the other go, draw breath
Freelier outside, ("since all is o'er," he saith,
"And the blow falIen no grieving can amend;")
While some discuss if near the other graves
Be room enough for this, and when a day
Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
With care about the banners, scarves and staves:
And still the man hears all, and only craves
He may not shame such tender love and stay.
Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among "The Band''---to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower's search addressed
Their steps---that just to fail as they, seemed best,
And all the doubt was now---should I be fit?
So, quiet as despair, I turned from him,
That hateful cripple, out of his highway
Into the path he pointed. All the day
Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.
For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
O'er the safe road, 'twas gone; grey plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon's bound.
I might go on; nought else remained to do.
So, on I went. I think I never saw
Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers---as well expect a cedar grove!
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You'd think; a burr had been a treasure-trove.
No! penury, inertness and grimace,
In some strange sort, were the land's portion. "See
"Or shut your eyes," said nature peevishly,
"It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:
"'Tis the Last Judgment's fire must cure this place,
"Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free."
If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents
Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the dock's harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to baulk
All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk
Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents.
As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud
Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupefied, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil's stud!
Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,
And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.
I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.
As a man calls for wine before he fights,
I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights,
Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
Think first, fight afterwards---the soldier's art:
One taste of the old time sets all to rights.
Not it! I fancied Cuthbert's reddening face
Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
An arm in mine to fix me to the place,
That way he used. Alas, one night's disgrace!
Out went my heart's new fire and left it cold.
Giles then, the soul of honour---there he stands
Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.
Good---but the scene shifts---faugh! what hangman hands
Pin to his breast a parchment? His own bands
Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!
Better this present than a past like that;
Back therefore to my darkening path again!
No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain.
Will the night send a howlet or a bat?
I asked: when something on the dismal flat
Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.
A sudden little river crossed my path
As unexpected as a serpent comes.
No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
This, as it frothed by, might have been a bath
For the fiend's glowing hoof---to see the wrath
Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.
So petty yet so spiteful! All along,
Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it;
Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit
Of route despair, a suicidal throng:
The river which had done them all the wrong,
Whate'er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.
Which, while I forded,---good saints, how I feared
To set my foot upon a dead man's cheek,
Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
---It may have been a water-rat I speared,
But, ugh! it sounded like a baby's shriek.
Glad was I when I reached the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage,
Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poisoned tank,
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage---
The fight must so have seemed in that fell cirque.
What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?
No foot-print leading to that horrid mews,
None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.
And more than that---a furlong on---why, there!
What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
Or brake, not wheel---that harrow fit to reel
Men's bodies out like silk? with all the air
Of Tophet's tool, on earth left unaware,
Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.
Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood,
Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
Changes and off he goes!) within a rood---
Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.
Now blotches rankling, coloured gay and grim,
Now patches where some leanness of the soil's
Broke into moss or substances like boils;
Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim
Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.
And just as far as ever from the end!
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
great black bird, Apollyon's bosom-friend,
Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
That brushed my cap---perchance the guide I sought.
For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,
'Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
All round to mountains---with such name to grace
Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
How thus they had surprised me,---solve it, you!
How to get from them was no clearer case.
Yet half I seemed to recognize some trick
Of mischief happened to me, God knows when---
In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,
Progress this way. When, in the very nick
Of giving up, one time more, came a click
As when a trap shuts---you're inside the den!
Burningly it came on me all at once,
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
While to the left, a tall scalped mountain... Dunce,
Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight!
What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counter-part
In the whole world. The tempest's mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.
Not see? because of night perhaps?---why, day
Came back again for that! before it left,
The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay,
Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay,---
"Now stab and end the creature---to the heft!''
Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
Of all the lost adventurers my peers,---
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet, each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.
There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.''