It’s Already Begun

The Planetary Age is an unacknowledged daily reality

One of the articles in The New Story (IC#12)
Originally published in Winter 1985/86 on page 26
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

William Irwin Thompson is a cultural historian, futurist, founder of the Lindisfarne Association, and one of the more brilliant minds of our times. His latest book, Pacific Shift, proposes that a major historical change now underway is a global shift from the traditional Atlantic mentality associated with New York, Paris, and London to a consciousness drawing on the cultures that surround the Pacific. It will be available from Sierra Club Books in May 1986.

The following piece is adapted from a talk he gave at the Tarrytown conference on "The New America" in June 1985. In it, he helps us see the present as future historians may.

WE LIVE IN A CULTURE THAT WE DO NOT SEE. We don’t live in industrial civilization; we live in planetization. What we see as the present is really the past; what we envision as the future is actually the present. We don’t see it because the artifacts – things, institutions, ideas – we have created to reflect our activity are basically appearances, as McLuhan would say, in the rear view mirror.

Our response to seeing time is to recapitulate passionately a miniaturized expression of the past, and then say farewell to all that past by reperforming it for ourselves – ritualizing it. You all know this when you go to Disneyland. When you walk in, you don’t see what is really going on. You don’t see Disneyland as an expression of a civilization of play, of Homo ludens, in which all the cultures of the world are miniaturized and turned into artifacts (no longer a literate society in which abstraction triumphs and that defines the nature of the citizen through written documents where rights are writs). Instead, your first entry into Disneyland is to see the clip-clop horses, the lovely old street car, the marvelous soda fountain, the gartered sleeve, the straw hat – the whole sentimentalization of the past so that you think you’re in a small town of traditional American rural values – God, apple pie, ice cream, the flag and all the rest of it.


The reality we are living in remains largely unconscious, but we acknowledge it by grabbing back onto sentimental things of the past. Look at the birth of modernism in 1500. At this time, the knight and the church father are losing their power, and the artist and the banker are beginning to create the structure of the modern world with the new technology of communication called the postal system. Yet while people are doing this, they are replaying the Middle Ages – like constant reruns.

All the heavy armor we associate with the Middle Ages isn’t from the Middle Ages; it’s from the 15th Century. King Arthur didn’t dress like that. He dressed like a savage with a leather hide for armor. So everything we see as our image of medievalism is the Swan Song, the sunset effect, the farewell phenomenon of Medievalism, which has its most intense energizing in the period of 1500 right when capitalism, capitalist agriculture, the role of the artist, the role of print, the role of postal services, all those new informational technologies are disintegrating feudalism and the church, and replacing them with the bank, the nation-state, and all the institutions of industrialism.

All of those things are the world we have been living with from about 1500 to now, where in its consummate expression as Atlantic industrial civilization, values can be quantitatively measured, everything has mass, volume, force and a certain physical celebrative power of its own presence. Now that it’s all gone, our response to it is to artifactualize, to sentimentalize, to perform conservatism, as the way of saying goodbye to it. This Swan Song effect is a phenomenon that occurs constantly in nature. It’s like when a star dies, it goes into its most brilliant supernova. Everything that we are performing and seeing and believing in – the old tried and true Archie Bunker way of life – all of that is prima-facie evidence that it’s on its way out. These are all movie sets – they are not the reality. They are the old fashioned town in the middle of a planetary Disneyland.

In the emerging planetary world, what counts can’t be counted and so you don’t have a world of objects that are separated in space – wealth and mansions here and dioxin dumps over there. You have a world of interpenetrating presences; you have a world in which consciousness is immanent in matter in that matter isn’t separate from consciousness. You have a world of play, of performance, of a willingness to lower your lifestyle if that will increase the joy, and the spontaneity, and the innovation and the risk-taking, and the imaginative fun of being.

One of the prophets who was first really sensitive to this was Charles Dickens, who wrote a book which most people now know only through television: Hard Times. It was a study of those immigrants who came from Ireland and the north to Manchester and Birmingham, and had to work in the Social Darwinism of "get on the bus or get out of the way." He studied with a great deal of intensity the people who had no sense that anything was of value that couldn’t be weighed or measured, and studied the rise of economics taking over from all the other forms of knowledge and value. Economics became the governing science of the modern world, and Dickens was very sensitive to the shift from religion to economics.

But as well as discussing the rise of industrial classes, he also studied a weird group of people who formed a special kind of "community." The way in which you belonged to this community was "not fitting" – if you were a misfit, you fit. It was a community in which there was closeness to animals and a shocking exposure of the body – they would show a lot of thigh. It was the community of play. It was, in other words, the circus.

The circus was like pre-industrial culture gathered up as it was about to disappear, miniaturized, compressed and imaginatively celebrated. In pre-industrial culture, people lived with, had a kind of intimacy with animals, so the horses and all the rest were brought back. This was a culture of nature in which the body was part of the reproductive cycle and was accepted, and so for Victorians, the shocking exposure of thigh was tolerated. This was a culture of village idiots, funny uncles and misfits that were all accepted because they were misfits. It was a society, in other words, that was being eliminated by urbanization and bourgeois industrialization.

But the funny thing that Dickens was sensitive to was that in the turn of the spirals of history, sometimes the pre-industrial and the truly after- industrial, meta-industrial have a certain structural similarity. For example, take the visionary paintings of Bosch at the birth of the modern world in 1500 showing things flying in the air and dropping fire on to the burning cities. Those don’t make a lot of sense in 1660, and they don’t make a lot of sense in the peak of the enlightenment, but they make a lot of sense in 1938 and 1942. So there is a way in which post-enlightenment society, modernism and German expressionism is very close in sensibility to Bosch.

The artist can sometimes be very, very sensitive to these cultural correspondences. I agree with Bob Schwartz that the artist really is the journalist of civilization. He is talking about the news in 500 year cycles rather than just simply day-to-day events.

So what Dickens saw in terms of intimacy and freakiness and the culture of play as the alternative to industrial culture is now here – and it is called California. This culture of play, this culture of consciousness, this culture of science and mysticism brought together as in Fritjof Capra’s book, The Turning Point, has a very different relationship between ideas of matter, ideas of science, ideas of values, and always, of course, it has to end up in a different form of politics. The French poet Peguy said everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics, so that politics is always in a sense the mopping-up operation after a social transformation has been introduced by visionaries and artists. Finally, when everybody can see it, then it gets its political representation.

We can see this process of transition and Swan Song in Reagan, who celebrates all the old values but is the divorced man who has shifted power from New York to the West Coast, who has shifted from smoke stack to cybernetic industries. He, more than freaky Zen governor Brown, is the president of the Pacific Shift – the move from Atlantic industrial civilization to the after-industrial civilization that is developing most clearly around the Pacific Rim. All the time Reagan does it, he’s playing the middle-west back to America and they think they’re getting a conservative, but if you actually look at the way in which he behaves, he treats the presidency in a totally post-industrial manner.

Jimmy Carter was the Protestant ethic, the spirit of capitalism, duty, purpose, meaning. And he had a hell of a time because he tried to do everything with duty and labor, and never delegated anything. Reagan is one of these individuals that says "No, the presidency is a performance, it’s not a task," and therefore he humanizes it. That’s brilliant. That’s quite the way to deal with the institution because of its constitutional contradictions. It’s not like a Prime Ministership in Canada or Britain, or like a Chancellorship in Germany. There are such checks and balances and internal contradictions in the American presidency that anybody who takes the job seriously will be killed. They’ll either be assassinated or they will kill themselves. It’s an inhumane task.

The only way to deal with it is to say it’s not a task, it’s a performance of the collective consciousness back to itself. It’s more like being chairman of the board of trustees of a museum than being the CEO of a corporation. Reagan understands this because he’s an actor and he has a brilliant intuition. He’s like an idiot savant that can calculate 6 digit numbers in his head with an 85 IQ. And in that sense I think he’s changed the institution of the presidency more than anybody since FDR – much more than Kennedy or even Nixon. All the time he’s pretending to be a conservative but building up a trillion dollar deficit.

So what you have, with that Southern California world Californicating the entire world, is a radical shift in consciousness in which you comfort people by performing the past and affirming it so that you can ease the transition into a radical new consciousness. Because if people really had it too fast, there would be an even worse kind of fundamentalist reaction of whatever variety around the world you want to point to.


The recognition of this civilizational unconscious, this hidden cultural reality, is the end of a process that began intellectually in the early 20th century. Freud began with the instinctive unconscious. Jung followed him and reflected the instinctive life into consciousness as it was created in the collective unconscious and reflected in patterns of imagery that would occur in science or poetry or dreams or the rest of it. It wasn’t instinct. It was instinct reflected in imagery creating consciousness. The third wave came in Paris with people like Levi Strauss and Faucault who studied the intellectual unconscious. Faucault looked at the epoch from the 17th century to now, and said there is a hidden framework that unites economics, linguistic theory, art and philosophy, yet no one in the 17th century was really aware of these hidden correspondences. So Faucault, in a sense, discovered the intellectual unconscious. Levi Strauss went off to the Amazon, and showed how if you look at all of the mythologies of South America, there are these hidden patterns and hidden structures that the people telling the stories don’t see. It’s only the ethnographer writing the mythologie who can show you the intellectual unconscious.

Now in the later 60s, following the work of the French thinkers, Gregory Bateson using cybernetics showed that there is actually a civilizational unconscious, that mind is not separate from nature, that mind is in nature, and that in many ways the ecology is the unconscious of the societal system. So what we have in pollution, for example, is a real expression of the being of humanity in this moment of time. What we have in our conscious structures – our institutions – are the Disneyland movie sets.

For example, we all think we live in a world that’s structured according to industrial nation-states that engage in activities of trade and warfare that are weighed and measured by certain quantitative forms. That’s the conscious structure of the world that we call reality. The unconscious structure of the world is that there are all kinds of forms of dark exchange called pollution – atmospheric things like acid rain and the greenhouse effect and changes in the oceans – and that these are the integrations that are bringing us all together. We are in an implosive situation of planetary integration, but where is the planetary culture expressed? It’s expressed in negative activity. It’s expressed in the shadowed activity. It’s expressed in evil activity. It’s expressed in shadow economies like drugs, shadow economies like defense systems.

And it’s expressed with those people who are sensitive to the unconscious, who live at the membrane between the culture’s conscious system, called civilization and writing and literacy, and those who face the intuitive dimensions of the unconscious. These are the artists. These are the prophets. These are the crazies. And they are beginning to express planetary culture in art. Philip Glass’s score to the movie Koyaanisqatsi is an example of planetary culture. The novels of Doris Lessing are examples of planetary culture, as is the music of Stockhausen. But there is also planetary culture in the forms of electronic communication, of the whole grid of satellites that enables us to exist in forms that have nothing to do with the reality of the industrial nation-state.

Everybody looks at the King’s Road in London and they see these punks, these people that are irresponsible, vulgar, living on the dole, parasites on the industrial system. Everybody looks at Concords and nuclear power and says this is a positive investment in developing the national or the European economy. Look at all the money that’s put into products like Concords and nuclear power. If you really believe in nuclear power, hock your spouse and your mortgage and your house and take everything you’ve got and buy shares in Wilco. You’ll have it coming to you in what you’ll get from that kind of capitalism. But now look at what these funny teenagers have done: They have created a music industry, a magazine industry, a fashion industry, and a music video industry. Add up all the informational transactions from that planetary culture of information and divide it by the dole and you’ll see an incredible return on investment. But we don’t look at these kids as the J.P. Morgans and captains of industry of the modern world. We look at them as parasites, aliens, predators, and the rest of it. That’s because we can’t see punk as the working class transformed into an art form. These kids are smarter than Maggie Thatcher. They know no one needs them. They’re not needed as slaves in the old system. They’re not needed as serfs in the medieval system and they’re not needed as proletariat in the industrial system. Nobody needs them. What have they done? They’ve created a role for themselves in the planetary culture by doing for industrialism what the circus did for pre-industrialism.

But how do we respond to these signals from the civilizational unconscious? We respond by selectively not seeing them. This is a very, very ancient structure. When civilization first began, it created agriculture, which created soil loss. But people never actually dealt with soil loss in ancient Mesopotamia. They just simply imported soil and other products and resources from elsewhere. So the unconscious builds up cumulatively until it reaches a point where, if you don’t listen to the noise or the pollution, it rises and rises until finally the feedback causes a collapse of the structure itself. So there’s always this tension between the conscious and the unconscious.

Where I live in Colorado, the sun comes up behind the Sangre de Cristo range, and the shadow of the mountains covers the whole valley. As the sun comes up, and you have a better understanding of light, the shadow is withdrawn until it goes under the mountain at high noon. Then you can begin to see the proper relationship between light and dark.

Oftentimes in history the first appearance of something is in its negative foreshadowing. Thus first the Roman soldiers built roads and conquered the empire, but then with the recession and withdrawal of the empire Christian missionaries went out on the same system, converting it from a militarist system to a consciousness system: Christendom instead of the Roman empire.

We are now at the stage where there is an unconscious form of shadowed integration, where we are living in a planetary culture, but we are trying to describe it and weigh it and measure it in all the systems of consciousness of industrial values, industrial structures and industrial nation-states. This creates an incredible cognitive dissonance.

Any of you who have ever traveled will be aware of the experience of waking up in the dark in a place where you don’t even remember where you are. You get up and you bang into the furniture and you can’t remember if this is Kyoto or Gainesville or home or where am I. And the more you bang into the furniture, the more you realize you’ve got the wrong map of reality in your head. You keep trying to change the map. Then when the right map comes up, you can walk through the dark and not bump into the furniture to get into the bathroom or wherever you’re going.

So right now everything in our content of consciousness is industrial nation-state, traditional forms, the modern world that we have had since 1500. And we keep bumping into things. We bump into the atmosphere. We bump into people. We bump into Indians. We bump into Russians. We bump into Shiites or Palestinians. And we keep wondering, what the hell’s going on? The maps don’t work. Where are we?


Take, for example, defense. Now, defense is creating a shift from national economics to planetary integration. In a sense, civilization is a misnomer. If we really look back to ancient Mesopotamia or the Middle Ages or any society from civilization on we should call it militarization. It really means standing armies, walls and defense systems, and it means an economy generated by defense.

So what do we have? Star Wars, which the universities love because it means lifetime contracts and permanent solidity and continuity of research. Scientists can’t handle trends, you know, they can’t handle hulahoop science where it’s hot today and dead tomorrow. They have to have some continuity, a lifetime guarantee of research. Who cares that it won’t work? We’ll create this whole new scientific leap into the future, and we’ll create a union of all the universities that will be truly the wave of the future.

The whole Star Wars program is, in a sense, the honest replacement of a civilian economy with a militaristic economy. But that’s quite normal. General Electric isn’t surviving by making toasters and refrigerators. That isn’t part of what their economy is. The Japanese do the little bit of the civilian things we didn’t think we needed like Sony Walkmans, but the real economy is a form of defense integration.

Now what is the most important thing in defense integration to keep that economy running? Your Enemy. How are you going to work that system without an enemy? The Soviet Union is a more important part of America than Maine or North Dakota. We could loose those states and really be fine, but, if we lost our enemy, we’d collapse. So the basic system is to terrorize your enemies. Scare them and then use their aggressive behavior as prima-facie evidence that you need to beef up your defense industry. So you take a tiny little country like Nicaragua and you say we are threatened by it. They are going to be launching missiles. Terrify them so they have to declare marshall law and say the Americans are invading. Then they erode their civil liberties and you say, "Aha! See, they are eroding their civil liberties. They’re a military state." That now entitles us to build up our troops and get ready to invade Nicaragua. It’s a marvelous, perfectly closed, loop what in cybernetics is called a recursive system: Terrorize your enemy. Use their aggressive response to stimulate your own system and as you stimulate your own system that reinforces step one. It’s a perpetual mobius strip of economic development where the more you do to him, the more it encourages the economy and the more it goes into its trillion dollar runaway.

It’s the same thing with terrorism. We live in an informational society on a planetary scale. Who really understands that? Terrorists and rock stars. They know that the culture is information. They know that you have to manipulate information and that everything is appearance. Now what helps stimulate terrorists? The media, of course. Focusing all that attention stimulates them enormously. Between them there’s an unconscious collusion, a funny cops and robbers game, where reporters are journalists and members of civilization and good guys, and terrorists are a threat to civility and everything that’s decent. Yet, like continent and ocean, they are symbiotically feeding one another. Terrorists understand that, but we don’t quite understand it yet because we’ve been trained to think in terms of matter separated as objects in vacant containing space. We think, here are the good guys and there are the bad guys. We don’t understand this collusion with our enemy, and we don’t understand how negation is a form of emphasis.

If we went back to the Old Testament, we could read in Genesis where it says, "Hey Adam, you see that red, juicy, luscious apple there? Don’t eat it." Now that is a negation that’s a form of emphasis. The Almighty, being omniscient and very smart, clearly knows that He has put the idea of eating the apple into Adam’s head and, of course, what is Adam going to do but eat it and blame it on somebody else – project it onto his intuitive side. So, businessmen will make money and then project their sentimentality onto their wives, or America will have all this imperialistic behavior and project it on the Russians. To get beyond this, the unconscious has to be drawn into our own consciousness.

Look at the loving relationship we have with the Soviet Union. The French are only imitating America in the 50s. The Germans are in love with California of the 70s. But the Russians really love the founding moment of glory for America when we became the charismatic archetype of industrial modernization. They love America of about the year 1900. Look at the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the way we moved across from one end of the continent to the other, the way we took Puerto Rico, the way we got the Hawaiian Islands, what we did in the Philippines. I totally agree with Professor Commager’s Op Ed page essay recently in the New York Times: When you look at the American empire and how it behaved, that’s the evil empire that Reagan is talking about. Russia is just xeroxing American Manifest Destiny. They’re not doing anything in Afghanistan that we haven’t done in Hawaii, the Philippines, or Vietnam. They are absolutely imitating us. We therefore see them as our shadow and so, rather than dealing with our own imperialistic behavior (such as eliminating the Indians from the whole continent!), we then sentimentalized ourselves as America the great, the good, the true, the beautiful, all of which is true. There are no good nations and bad nations. What’s really the structure of the world is our bad guys are in business with their bad guys and they’ve developed a system that is keeping them both in business.

So naturally the project is to unlock this lethal association that captures both countries in a strange kind of dark ecology of the unconscious. Part of it is to realize that when we look at our enemies we have to see that the Russians aren’t so much our enemies as they are our psychic opposites. We are people who clearly see things in terms of value, of matter, of practicality; it’s what can be useful, and not what can be beautiful as DeTocqueville said. And we are basically extroverted. We move from the covered wagons to the space shuttle, and we are a people who are unthreatened and expanding and at peace with the world as long as it is, in a sense, affirming and loving us. We lie on the beaches and accept the sun, and we have beaches for boundaries from Florida to California.

Now, what’s the Soviet Union? How would you feel if you had this overpowering West breathing down on you? This West that once sat around in the White House deciding whether or not they should have a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union cause they just got the hydrogen bomb; that sat around in ’45 with Patton saying maybe we better invade them now cause we’ve got all the soldiers in Europe; that sought to invade and bring down the Russian Revolution in the 20s. How would you feel about this overpowering technological juggernaut of innovation? You know that their technology works and yours doesn’t. You know if you sent up your rockets half of them would fall back on yourselves because of the alcoholism, the incompetence and just the system. You know that their system is actually very spunky and very spiffy, and you’re afraid of it. And you know you have always been overpowered by the West back to the days of Napoleon. What’s on the other border? This overwhelming unconscious, gigantic East. Here you are as Russians on this unprotected land between this overwhelming East and this overpowering West. And you wonder why they are paranoid? You wonder why they talk about sacred boundaries? Outside is menace. It’s the winter, the secret police, the enemies of the past – all the way back to the Tartars.

Now, when we (who are brilliant at this) play into that psychology of paranoia and fear in the Russian psyche, wham! We get precisely the behavior that we need to re-energize our whole system. What they’re seeing as the way to release themselves from their dilemma is to become us – to become this overpowering, gigantic, extroverted, militaristic, American empire spanning ocean to ocean. So they’re trying to be us. They’re intimately wed with us.

Now suppose we developed a new relationship that didn’t depend on being each other’s enemy. Let’s take Reagan at his word when he says we should share Star Wars technology with the Soviet Union. We already have a Star Wars system of electronic surveillance. Why not share it with them now?

Why won’t we do that? Because it might not be good for the economy. If Congress will only appropriate things out of fear then the true government is a state of terror. And, obviously, what terrorists are, are amateur governments. Look at the way England created a landscape of terror in Ireland in the 18th century. Look at Germany, the Soviet Union and, as Professor Commager said, what we did in the Philippines or with the Indians. And now we are all being terrorized by this thermo-nuclear umbrella. So terrorists are amateurs, but the real governments are professionals at it. So why should we have this state of terror? Because we say we won’t appropriate a mutual space program with Europe or the Soviet Union. We won’t keep our defense industries alive unless we are in the state of terror. We don’t believe in any other informational system except a state of terror, and we wonder then why we have a civilization based on terror. This isn’t evil governments creating anything. This is a projection of our own consciousness.


Part of the first change in politics has to be a change in civilizational structures. You can’t fix civilization. Civilization is militarization. So the first thing you have to have is a transformation of consciousness. You have to move from civilization to planetization and realize the world we are really living in, where we are all mutually involved in one another.

The paradigm shift from national defense to mutual security requires a kind of politics of enlightenment. It requires a different way of looking and seeing. Once you begin to see this way, the world will never look the same.

Once you begin to see what’s really going on in the world, you won’t see the future. Forget about prophecies. We’re just talking about what’s happening now. When you look at the stars, you know you’re seeing the past. But maybe in the soul, when an event happened "out there," you would know it in your heart even though the light would take time to come to you. So there are times when you look out at history and read the newspapers, but you don’t really see what’s going on. Then you imagine these fantasies of prophecies about the future far, far away, but all of those prophecies of the future are the actual daily news. Your heart is telling you what’s going on.

There isn’t going to be a new America; it’s already here. It is simply America, but it is not industrial America. It is not based on defending the nation-state, and it is not based on any of the old institutions. When we all have this change of perception, which I think is going to happen in the next 7 years or so, we will stop "bumping into the furniture." I think the politics of the 90s will be the emergence of a Gaia politique. That’s not America; that’s the planet. That’s all of us.