The Great Leap Backward by Scoop Nisker

The Great Leap Backward, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Decline and Fall
By Wes Nisker

Scoop, the swami from Miami, addressed KFOG listeners in the Bay Area as fog-heads. The United States would be much better off without the self-appointed burden of keeping the world “safe” and “free” with the threat of our nuclear weapons. Also, as our economic growth slows down, we would use less energy and have less need for nuclear and coal power plants that pollute the environment.

“Happy is it, to practice the yoga of renouncing one’s own country.” —MILAREPA

“That government is best which governs least, because the people discipline themselves.” —THOMAS JEFFERSON .

“No power on earth is stronger than the United States of America today, and none will be stronger than the United States in the future.” —RICHARD M. NIXON

All things must pass. If only we could learn to be in harmony with the changes, and when it comes time to die or take on a new form, to be able to let go and move on gracefully.

As it is with individuals, so it is with nation states. In this brief incarnation we call human history, empires rise and fall like the abdomen of God. Witness the fate of Babylon, Greece, Rome, and most recently, the British Empire. It seems that only yesterday, Britannia ruled the world. Now the sun never even rises on the British Empire.

There is little doubt that someday the United States will go the way of all hegemonies. We see signs of it even now: in the fall of our provinces around the world; in our declining GNP; in our massive trade deficit, the biggest in history. The Japanese make better cars than we do, the French make better bottled water. This current craze of Rambo-style chauvinism in America is a sure sign that our days of empire are numbered. Anyway, in the end we know that the long fickle finger of history will someday choose another people for the dubious distinction of being “a superpower.”

Meanwhile, out of the spiritual awakening in this country, there is a new political philosophy emerging. For want of a better name, we will call it Zen Socialism. It is simply the next step in the ongoing dialectic of history; thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Only this time we will stand Marx on his head, and hopefully in this yoga posture he will be able to get into his body and relax a little.

While the systems of capitalism and communism are both based on materialist philosophies, Zen Socialism includes the spiritual dimension, encouraging individuals to work on “selflessness” for the good of the society of all sentient beings. Adam Smith’s idea that so-called “enlightened self-interest” is the best motivation for a system of economic exchange does not seem to be working too well in the world. While it has created great wealth and technological wonders for the few, it has also fostered greed and led to enormous inequality in the distribution of the world’s resources, resulting in poverty, environmental destruction and war. Now it is time to try some enlightened non-self-interest. Furthermore, only to the extent that individuals can eradicate greed, hatred and delusion within themselves, can society achieve the dissolution of the state, a condition which communism promised but never delivered. Zen Socialism is giving it all up, together.

Zen Socialism does not take sides. Zen socialism does not even have sides. It includes everybody who wants to join. All you have to do is practice a little voluntary simplicity and have more fun in life. After all, “fun” is just a concept, a cultural label we usually give to a state of excitation. As the Buddha said, “Peace is the greatest happiness.” As Guru Letharji says, “The next revolution is the big slowdown.”

As a Zen Socialist, I will now offer a modest proposal: that the United States of America simply resign as a “superpower” and announce to the world our intention to become a third-world nation. This probably sounds like a ridiculous idea to you. Maybe you think I have been meditating too long and my mind is “empty of thought.” Let me explain.

First of all, there is no shame in being a so-called third-world nation. The only embarrassment we might feel is that the American empire lasted such a relatively short time. Furthermore, I am certainly not suggesting that we take on the economic and political problems that currently plague the countries of the third world. I am referring instead to a lifestyle, a pace, a sense of community . . . a siesta.

Secondly, if we accept the inevitability of our decline and fall, and consciously plan for it and go for it, we just might create a brand new form, a new kind of third-world society. Not a country struggling for more affluence and power, but a country content just to be—simple, peaceful and “underdeveloped.”

Consider the many advantages to being a third-world nation. A superpower has a superego, with large borders to protect and a lot to lose. We all know how painful a superego can be—too many “defenses.” As a third-world nation we would be able to bow out of the nuclear arms race. The United States would be much better off without the self-appointed burden of keeping the world “safe” and “free” with the threat of our nuclear weapons. Also, as our economic growth slows down, we would use less energy and have less need for nuclear and coal power plants that pollute the environment. We would have time to take a look at all the destruction that our “civilization” has caused to the natural world, and figure out how to salvage what is left. We need to take a deep breath and consider what to do with the sophisticated circuitry we have invented. We need time to allow both our consciousness and our conscience to catch up with our amazing ability to make tools.

What we are proposing here is nothing less than the New Age that so many people have been talking about for the past twenty years. In our third-world nation everybody will grow sprouts. There will be wood­burning stoves in the living rooms and at least two chickens in every garage. Home remedies, midwives and windmills will flourish. Gardens will spring up out of suburban lawns, and clotheslines will hang from the windows of condominiums. In reality, you see, the New Age is just planned underdevelopment.

On a personal level, as individual citizens of a third-world nation, we would all be able to slow down and get into a more sane and joyful way of living. We all know how much more difficult it is to be conscious when we are moving too fast. How many of you would gladly give up a few of your possessions or a little of your bank account in return for some time: time to meditate, time to contemplate, time to just “be” or hang out? In this land of abundance it is possible for all of us to have less, and so much more.


We will need a well-thought-out program to guide our transition from superpower to third-world nation. I propose a five-year plan. We will call it, The Great Leap Backward. It’s just a little temporary social planning to help us wind down the hyperactive, techno-electro machine that is America in the twentieth century.

As we begin to slow down, one of the biggest difficulties will occur as people try to adjust to a slower pace and so-called “underemployment.” What will the American people do when they no Ionger have to work fifty hours a week to support their affluent lifestyles and sustain a Gross National Product growth rate of 6 percent a year? Our five-year plan has some projects designed to meet this challenge, based on the Public Works Programs of the depression era of the 1930s.

For example, there will be a program designed especially for the white collar workers, the paper pushers, the information society—most of you reading this right now. It Is a Public Works Project that will pay people, by the hour, just to work on themselves. It is the New Age New Deal! To run this program we will need to establish a Department of Meditation and Therapy. The DMT will set up schools to teach a variety of self-realization techniques, handing out mantras, gestalt exercises, relaxation and meditation practices, each suited to the individual needs of the citizen who applies for the program. These workers will then be kept somewhat busy, while simultaneously learning how to relax and become less productive members of a less productive society. Of course, the Department of Meditation and Therapy will have to ensure against fraud, so a team of Very High Beings will be employed as investigators to test whether or not you have really been doing your work on yourself. The investigators will be called the Karma Squad, and they can have their offices at the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, the perfect headquarters for the Department of Meditation and Therapy.

There will be another public works program designed more to meet the employment needs of laborers and construction workers, the people who do the real work in our society this program will be called The Disassembling of America, and will begin the task of taking the whole megastructure apart. People will be able to work on disassembly lines, taking apart the cars, melting and separating the steel into ores and shoveling it all back into the ground. There will be projects to break up many of the soon-to-be unnecessary freeways and parking lots, and to take down the most energy consuming and unaesthetic skyscrapers, floor by floor. The Army Corps of Engineers could be put to work carefully digging up the dams they have built and letting the rivers run free again. What a glorious national task it will be! We will work together under the slogans “Making the Continent Safe for Nature!” “Now is the time for all Good People to Come to the Aid of Their Countryside!” “Long Live the Biosphere!”

As we make the Great Leap Backward from postindustrial to preindustrial, we will need to learn new skills and ways of being. One possibility is that we could ask other third-world nations to start up a sort of Peace Corps in reverse to help us out. Countries like India and Egypt could send over volunteers to teach us such things as how to wash clothes on rocks, ten different ways to employ the water buffalo, how to cook up endless tasty meals of rice and beans, and—most important—when and how to take the siesta. They could even help us start up a literacy campaign that would go into the countryside and teach postliterate Americans how to read and write again.

I will mention briefly one final plan to ease our transition from superpower to third-world nation. In order to earn some foreign revenues and keep our currency afloat, we should invite the rest of the world to come and witness this historic moment, the world’s first intentional decline and fall. We could open up the country as one vast Marriott-style entertainment complex, a theme park called “Formerly Great Amenca.” People would surely pay admission to come and see the final fading glory of an imperial power. The downhill rides would be spectacular. The possiblities are endless.

The Great Leap Backward is just now taking shape and we welcome your ideas and feedback. Just remember to have perseverance and patience. Rome didn’t decline in a day. It will take some time and difficult adjustment, but in the end it will be worth it. If we are prepared to give up some of our gadgets and products, if we are willing to job-share and money-share; if we are ready to relax and put just a little of our energy into realizing this goal, then I know we can do it. We can make this the best third-world nation on the planet. A model for all empires yet to rise, and fall. Now I have to go and take my siesta. See you around the DMT.

From the Summer 1986 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 3, No. 1)
Text © 1986–2022 by Wes Nisker

Wes “Scoop” Nisker is an author, radio commentator, Buddhist meditation teacher and performer. His books include the national bestseller Essential Crazy Wisdom (Ten Speed Press, 2001). His CDs, DVDs, books and teaching schedule are available at, where he also continues to publish blog posts. Nisker cofounded Inquiring Mind in 1984.

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