Posts Tagged ‘Geopolitics’

For readers coming to this blog post lacking context, I’m currently reading and book-blogging Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. It explores Western intellectual history that gives rise to feelings of radical discontent over injustices that have not been addressed or remedied successfully for the entirety of the modern era despite centuries of supposed progress.

Continuing from part 1, the case of Voltaire is a curious one. A true child of the Enlightenment, my inference is that he came along too late to participate in the formulation of foundational Enlightenment ideals but later became one of their chief proponents as they diffused throughout Europe and into Russia and elsewhere. He joined many, many others in a belief (against a preponderance of evidence) in human progress, if not perfectibility. (Technical progress is an entirely different matter.) One of the significant aspects of his ideology and writings was his sustained attack on Christianity, or more particularly, Catholicism. More than three centuries later, the secularization of Europe and diminished influence of medieval church dogma stand out as part of the same intellectual tradition.

Enlightenment canon includes aspirational faith in the ability of reason, mechanisms, systems, and administrative prowess to order the affairs of men properly. (How one defines properly, as distinct from equitably or justly, is a gaping hole primed for debate.) In the course of the last few centuries, history has demonstrated that instrumental logic spawned by this ideology has given rise to numerous totalitarian regimes that have subjugated entire populations, often quite cruelly, in modernizing and Westernizing projects. Voltaire found himself in the thick of such projects by willingly aligning himself with despots and rulers who victimized their own peoples in pursuit of industrialization and imitation of urbane French and British models. Russians Peter the Great (reigned May 7, 1682 to February 8, 1725) and Catherine the Great (reigned July 9, 1762 to November 17, 1796) were among those for whom Voltaire acted as apologist and intellectual co-conspirator. Here’s what Mishra has to say:

Voltaire was an unequivocal top-down modernizer, like most of the Enlightenment philosophes, and an enraptured chronicler in particular of Peter the Great. Russian peasants had paid a steep price for Russia’s Westernization, exposed as they were to more oppression and exploitation as Peter tried in the seventeenth century to build a strong military and bureaucratic state. Serfdom, near extinct in most of Western Europe by the thirteen century, was actually strengthened by Peter in Russia. Coercing his nobles into lifetime service to the state, [effectively] postponing the emergence of a civil society, Peter the Great waged war endlessly. But among educated Europeans, who until 1789 saw civilization as something passed down from the enlightened few to the ignorant many, Russia was an admirably progressive model. [pp. 98–99]

and slightly later

… it was Voltaire who brought a truly religious ardour to the cult of Catherine. As the Empress entered into war with Poland and Turkey in 1768, Voltaire became her cheerleader. Catherine claimed to be protecting the rights of religious minorities residing in the territories of her opponents. The tactic, repeatedly deployed by later European imperialists in Asia and Africa, had the expected effect on Voltaire, who promptly declared Catherine’s imperialistic venture to be a crusade for the Enlightenment. [p. 102]

No doubt plenty of rulers throughout history understood in the proverbial sense that to make an omelette, a few eggs must be broken, and that by extension, their unpopular decisions must be reshaped and propagandized to the masses to forestall open revolt. Whose eggs are ultimately broken is entirely at issue. That basic script is easily recognizable as being at work even today. Justifications for administrative violence ought to fail to convince those on the bottom rungs of society who make most of the real sacrifices — except that propaganda works. Thus, the United States’ multiple, preemptive wars of aggression and regime change (never fully declared or even admitted as such) have continued to be supported or at least passively accepted by a majority of Americans until quite recently. Mishra makes this very same point using an example different from mine:

… cossetted writers and artists would in the twentieth century transfer their fantasies of an idea society to Soviet leaders, who seemed to be bringing a superhuman energy and progressive rhetoric to Peter the Great’s rational schemes of social engineering. Stalin’s Russia, as it ruthlessly eradicated its religious and evidently backward enemies in the 1930s, came to ‘constitute … a quintessential Enlightenment utopia’. But the Enlightenment philosophes had already shown, in their blind adherence to Catherine, how reason could degenerate into dogma and new, more extensive forms of domination, authoritarian state structures, violent top-down manipulation of human affairs (often couched in terms of humanitarian concern) and indifference to suffering. [pp. 104–105]

As I reread the chapter in preparation for this blog post, I was surprised to find somewhat less characterization of Voltaire than of Rousseau. Indeed, it is more through Rousseau’s criticism of the dominant European paradigm that the schism between competing intellectual traditions is explored. Mishra circles back to Rousseau repeatedly but does not hesitate to show where his ideas, too, are insufficient. For instance, whereas pro-Enlightenment thinkers are often characterized as being lost in abstraction and idealization (i.e., ideologically possessed), thus estranged from practical reality or history, Rousseau’s empathy and identification with commoners does not provide enough structure for Rousseau to construct a viable alternative to the historical thrust of the day. Mishra quotes a contemporary critic (Joseph de Maistre) who charged Rousseau with irresponsible radicalism:

… he often discovers remarkable truths and expresses them better than anyone else, but these truths are sterile to his hands … No one shapes their materials better than he, and no one builds more poorly. Everything is good except his systems. [p. 110]

The notion that leaders (monarchs, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, social critics, and more recently, billionaires) ought to be in the business of engineering society rather than merely managing it is tacitly assumed. Indeed, there is a parallel hubris present in Rousseau as a thought leader having questionable moral superiority through his vehement criticism of the Enlightenment:

His confidence and self-righteousness derived from his belief that he had at least escaped the vices of modern life: deceit and flattery. In his solitude, he was convinced, like many converts to ideological causes and religious beliefs, that he was immune to corruption. A conviction of his incorruptibility was what gave his liberation from social pieties a heroic aura and moved him from a feeling of powerlessness to omnipotence. In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy, Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time. [pp. 111–112]

This is a recapitulation of the main thesis of the book, which Mishra amplifies only a couple paragraphs later:

Rousseau actually went beyond the conventional political categories and intellectual vocabularies of left and right to outline the basic psychological outlook of those who perceive themselves as abandoned or pushed behind. He provided the basic vocabulary for their characteristic new expressions of discontent, and then articulated their longing for a world cleansed of the social sources of dissatisfaction. Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power. [p. 112]

Does “the incendiary appeal of victimhood” sound like a potent component of today’s Zeitgeist? Or for that matter “militant lowbrow” (names withheld)? At the end of the 18th century, Voltaire and Rousseau were among the primary men of letters, the intelligentsia, the cognoscenti, articulating competing social views and values with major sociopolitical revolutions following shortly thereafter. The oft-observed rhyming (not repetition) of history suggests another such period may well be at hand.

I put aside Harari’s book from the previous blog post in favor of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). Mishra’s sharp cultural criticism is far more convincing than Harari’s Panglossian perspective. Perhaps some of that is due to an inescapable pessimism in my own character. Either way, I’ve found the first 35 pages dense with observations of interest to me as a blogger and armchair cultural critic. Some while back, I published a post attempting to delineate (not very well, probably) what’s missing in the modern world despite its obvious material abundance. Reinforcing my own contentions, Mishra’s thesis (as I understand it so far) is this: we today share with others post-Enlightenment an array of resentments and hatreds (Fr.: ressentiment) aimed incorrectly at scapegoats for political and social failure to deliver the promises of progressive modernity equitably. For instance, Mishra describes

… flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities. [pp. 10–11]

Contrast and/or compare his assessment of the recent past:

Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration … swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies … The culture of [frantic] individualism went universal … The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty … individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity … is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications … [S]hocks of modernity were once absorbed by inherited social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions [something mentioned here, too]. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all. [pp. 12–14]

These long quotes (the second one cut together from longer paragraphs) are here because Mishra is remarkably eloquent in his diagnosis of globalized culture. Although I’ve only read the prologue, I expect to find support for my long-held contention that disorienting disruptions of modernity (using Anthony Giddens’ sociological definition rather than the modish use of the term Postmodern to describe only the last few decades) create unique and formidable challenges to the formation of healthy self-image and personhood. Foremost among these challenges is an unexpectedly oppressive information environment: the world forced into full view and inciting comparison, jealousy, envy, and hatred stemming from routine and ubiquitous frustrations and humiliations as we each struggle in life getting our personal share of attention, renown, and reward.

Another reason Mishra provides for our collective anger is a deep human yearning not for anarchism or radical freedom but rather for belonging and absorption within a meaningful social context. This reminds me of Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom (1941), which I read long ago but can’t remember so well anymore. I do remember quite vividly how counter-intuitive was the suggestion that absolute freedom is actually burdensome as distinguished from the usual programming we get about breaking free of all restraints. (Freedom! Liberty!) Indeed, Mishra provides a snapshot of multiple cultural and intellectual movements from the past two centuries where abandoning oneself to a cause, any cause, was preferable to the boredom and nothingness of everyday life absent purpose other than mere existence. The modern substitute for larger purpose — commodity culture — is a mere shadow of better ways of spending one’s life. Maybe commodity culture is better than sacrificing one’s life fighting wars (a common fate) or destroying others, but that’s a much longer, more difficult argument.

More to follow as my reading progresses.

Throughout human history, the question “who should rule?” has been answered myriad ways. The most enduring answer is simple: he who can muster and deploy the most force of arms and then maintain control over those forces. Genghis Khan is probably the most outrageously successful example and is regarded by the West as a barbarian. Only slightly removed from barbarians is the so-called Big Man, who perhaps adds a layer of diplomacy by running a protection racket while selectively providing and distributing spoils. As societies move further away from subsistence and immediacy, various absolute rulers are established, often through hereditary title. Call them Caesar, chief, dear leader, emir, emperor (or empress), kaiser, king (or queen), pharaoh, premier, el presidente, sultan, suzerain, or tsar, they typically acquire power through the accident of birth and are dynastic. Some are female but most are male, and they typically extract tribute and sometimes demand loyalty oaths.

Post-Enlightenment, rulers are frequently democratically elected administrators (e.g., legislators, technocrats, autocrats, plutocrats, kleptocrats, and former military) ideally meant to be representative of common folks. In the U.S., members of Congress (and of course the President) are almost wholly drawn from the ranks of the wealthy (insufficient wealth being a de facto bar to office) and are accordingly estranged from American life the many different ways most of us experience it. Below the top level of visible, elected leaders is a large, hidden apparatus of high-level bureaucratic functionaries (often appointees), the so-called Deep State, that is relatively stable and made up primarily of well-educated, white-collar careerists whose ambitions for themselves and the country are often at odds with the citizenry.

I began to think about this in response to a rather irrational reply to an observation I made here. Actually, it wasn’t even originally my observation but that of Thomas Frank, namely, that the Deep State is largely made up of the liberal professional class. The reply reinforced the notion who better to rule than the “pros”? History makes the alternatives unthinkable. Thus, the Deep State’s response to the veritable one-man barbarian invasion of the Oval Office has been to seek removal of the interloper by hook or by crook. (High office in this case was won unexpectedly and with unnamed precedent by rhetorical force — base populism — rather than by military coup, making the current occupant a quasi-cult leader; similarly, extracted tribute is merely gawking attention rather than riches.)

History also reveals that all forms of political organization suffer endemic incompetence and corruption, lending truth to Winston Churchill’s witticism “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Indeed, recent rule by technocrats has been supremely awful, leading to periodic market crashes, extreme wealth inequality, social stigmatization, and forever wars. Life under such rule is arguably better than under various other political styles; after all, we gots our vaunted freedoms and enviable material comforts. But the exercise of those freedoms does not reliably deliver either ontological security or psychological certainty we humans crave. In truth, our current form of self-governance has let nothing get in the way of plundering the planet for short-term profit. That ongoing priority is making Earth uninhabitable not just for other species but for humans, too. In light of this fact, liberal technocratic democracy could be a far worse failure than most: it will have killed billions (an inevitability now under delayed effect).

Two new grassroots movements (to my knowledge) have appeared that openly question who should rule: the Sunrise Movement (SM) and the Extinction Rebellion (ER). SM is a youth political movement in the U.S. that acknowledges climate change and supports the Green New Deal as a way of prioritizing the desperate existential threat modern politics and society have become. For now at least, SM appears to be content with working within the system, replacing incumbents with candidates it supports. More intensely, ER is a global movement centered in the U.K. that also acknowledges that familiar modern forms of social and political organization (there are several) no longer function but in fact threaten all of us with, well, extinction. One of its unique demands is that legislatures be drawn via sortition from the general population to be more representative of the people. Further, sortition avoids the established pattern of those elected to lead representational governments from being corrupted by the very process of seeking and attaining office.

I surmise attrition and/or replacement (the SM path) are too slow and leave candidates vulnerable to corruption. In addition, since no one relinquishes power willingly, current leaders will have to be forced out via open rebellion (the ER path). I’m willing to entertain either path but must sadly conclude that both are too little, too late to address climate change and near-term extinction effectively. Though difficult to establish convincingly, I suspect the time to act was in the 1970s (or even before) when the Ecology Movement arose in recognition that we cannot continue to despoil our own habitat without consequence. That message (social, political, economic, and scientific all at once) was as inert then as it is now. However, fatalism acknowledged, some other path forward is better than our current systems of rule.

In an uncharacteristic gesture of journalistic integrity (i.e., covering news of real importance rather than celebrity nonsense, lottery jackpots, or racehorse politics), the mainstream media has been blaring each new development as a caravan of Honduran refugees makes its way though Mexico toward the U.S. border. Ten days ago, CNN published a map of the caravan’s location and projected that at its current rate, arrival at the border would occur in Feb. 2019. Already the caravan has shrunk from 10,000 to 4,000 people. Hard to fathom it won’t shrink further. I’ve read reports that decent Mexican locals are handing out sandwiches and water.

The refugee crisis has been stewing and growing since at least 2016 when 45 introduced rhetoric about building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. Instead, it appears U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill. Frankly, I don’t know that there are any particularly good answers to the problem of illegal immigration. However, I daresay First World countries owe a humanitarian duty to refugees in what will prove to be an increasingly desperate diaspora from political, economic, and ecological disaster. It appears that the Mexican government gets that and has rendered aid, but intransigent members of the caravan are only interested in getting to the U.S., where they will most likely be met by razor wire and troops. Predictably, armed U.S. citizens are jumping at the opportunity to protect border integrity and prevent illegals from entering. That should end well. The U.S. looks pretty heartless in comparison with Mexico.

As industrial collapse gets worse and conditions deteriorate, the already unmanageable flow of populations away from locations where life is intolerable or impossible will only increase. Although the impulse to refuse admission is understandable, other countries have stepped up and taken in sizeable populations flowing out of the Middle East and North Africa in particular — regions that have been actively destabilized and undermined but were well into overshoot anyway. The U.S. government has often pretended to exercise its humanitarian duty, especially where armed intervention aligns with strategic interests. In the case of the caravan, risibly mischaracterized as an invasion, the powers that be reveal themselves as unusually cruel. I anticipate this unfolding drama is only the start of something big, but probably not what most people want or envision.

Update (Nov. 9)

I only just saw this short video, which predates my blog post slightly:

Guy Mcpherson is saying almost the same thing I’m saying: it’s only gonna get worse.

Update (Nov. 21)

According to the Military Times,

The White House late Tuesday signed a memo allowing troops stationed at the border to engage in some law enforcement roles and use lethal force, if necessary — a move that legal experts have cautioned may run afoul of the Posse Comitatus Act. [links redacted]

This is no surprise, of course. I can’t read into the minds of our chief executive and his staff, but suspicions are the border is like a scene from World War Z and asylum seekers are the equivalent of zombies, so just open fire — they’re already the undead.

I remarked in an earlier blog that artists, being hypersensitive to emergent patterns and cultural vibes, often get to ideas sooner than the masses and express their sensibilities through creative endeavor. Those expressions in turn give watchers, viewers, listeners, readers, etc. a way of understanding the world through the artist’s interpretive lens. Interpretations may be completely fictitious, based on real-life events, or merely figurative as the medium allows. They are nonetheless an inevitable reflection of ourselves. Philistines who fail to appreciate that the arts function by absorbing and processing human experience at a deep, intuitive level may insist that the arts are optional or unworthy of attention or financial support. That’s an opinion not at all borne out in the culture, however, and though support may be vulnerable to shifts in valuation (e.g., withdrawal of federal funding for the NEA and PBS), the creative class will always seek avenues of expression, even at personal cost. The democratization of production has made modes of production and distribution for some media quite cheap compared to a couple decades ago. Others remain undeniably labor intensive.

What sparked my thinking are several TV series that have caught my attention despite my generally low level of attention to such media. I haven’t watched broadcast television in over a decade, but the ability to stream TV programming has made shows I have ignored for years far more easy to tune in on my own terms and schedule. “Tune in” is of course the wrong metaphor, but suffice it to say I’ve awarded some of my attention to shows that have up until now fell out of scope for me, cinema being more to my liking. The three shows I’ve been watching (only partway through each) are The Americans, Homeland, and Shameless. The first two are political thrillers (spy stuff) whereas the last is a slice-of-life family drama, which often veers toward comedy but keeps delivering instead tragedy. Not quite the same thing as dark comedy. Conflict is necessary for dramatic purposes, but the ongoing conflict in each of these shows flirts with the worst sorts of disaster, e.g., the spies being discovered and unmasked and the family being thrown out of its home and broken up. Episodic scenarios the writers concoct to threaten catastrophe at every step or at any moment gets tiresome after a while. Multiple seasons ensure that dramatic tension is largely dispelled, since the main characters are present year over year. (The trend toward killing off major characters in others popular TV dramas is not yet widespread.) But still, it’s no way to live, constantly in disaster mode. No doubt I’ve cherry picked three shows from a huge array of entertainments on offer.

Where art reflects reality is that we all now live in the early 21st century under multiple, constantly disquieting threats, large and small, including sudden climate change and ecological disaster, nuclear annihilation, meteor impacts, eruption of the shield volcano under Yellowstone, the Ring of Fire becoming active again (leading to more volcanic and earthquake activity), geopolitical dysfunction on a grand scale, and of course, global financial collapse. This, too, is no way to live. Admittedly, no one was ever promised a care-free life. Yet our inability to manage our own social institutions or shepherd the earth (as though that were our mandate) promise catastrophes in the fullness of time that have no parallels in human history. We’re not flirting with disaster so much as courting it.

Sociologists and historians prepare scholarly works that attempt to provide a grand narrative of the times. Cinema seems to be preoccupied with planetary threats requiring superhero interventions. Television, on the other hand, with its serial form, plumbs the daily angst of its characters to drive suspense, keeping viewers on pins and needles while avoiding final resolution. That final resolution is inevitably disaster, but it won’t appear for a few seasons at least — after the dramatic potential is wrung out of the scenario. I can’t quite understand why these shows are consumed for entertainment (by me no less than anyone else) except perhaps to distract from the clear and present dangers we all face every day.

Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.

(more…)

Violent events of the past week (Charleston, VA; Barcelona, Spain) and political responses to them have dominated the news cycle, pushing other newsworthy items (e.g., U.S.-South Korean war games and a looming debt ceiling crisis) off the front page and into the darker recesses of everyone’s minds (those paying attention, anyway). We’re absorbed instead with culture wars run amok. I’m loath to apply the term terrorism to regular periodic eruptions of violence, both domestic and foreign. That term carries with it intent, namely, the objective to create day-to-day terror in the minds of a population so as to interfere with proper functions of society. It’s unclear to me whether recent perpetrators of violence are coherent enough to formulate sophisticated motivations or plans. The dumb, obvious way of doing things — driving into crowds of people — takes little or no planning and may just as well be the result of inchoate rage boiling over in a moment of high stress and opportunity. Of course, it needn’t be all or nothing, and considering our reflexively disproportionate responses, the term terrorism and attendant destabilization is arguably accurate even without specified intent. That’s why in the wake of 9/11 some 16 years ago, the U.S. has become a security state.

It’s beyond evident that hostilities have been simmering below the not-so-calm surface. Many of those hostilities, typically borne out of economic woes but also part of a larger clash of civilizations, take the form of identifying an “other” presumably responsible for one’s difficulties and then victimizing the “other” in order to elevate oneself. Of course, the “other” isn’t truly responsible for one’s struggles, so the violent dance doesn’t actually elevate anyone, as in “supremacy”; it just wrecks both sides (though unevenly). Such warped thinking seems to be a permanent feature of human psychology and enjoys popular acceptance when the right “other” is selected and universal condemnation when the wrong one is chosen. Those doing the choosing and those being chosen haven’t changed much over the centuries. Historical Anglo-Saxons and Teutons choose and people of color (all types) get chosen. Jews are also chosen with dispiriting regularity, which is an ironic inversion of being the Chosen People (if you believe in such things — I don’t). However, any group can succumb to this distorted power move, which is why so much ongoing, regional, internecine conflict exists.

As I’ve been saying for years, a combination of condemnation and RightThink has simultaneously freed some people from this cycle of violence but merely driven the holdouts underground. Supremacy in its various forms (nationalism, racism, antisemitism, etc.) has never truly been expunged. RightThink itself has morphed (predictably) into intolerance, which is now veering toward radicalism. Perhaps a positive outcome of this latest resurgence of supremacist ideology is that those infected with the character distortion have been emboldened to identify themselves publicly and thus can be dealt with somehow. Civil authorities and thought leaders are not very good at dealing with hate, often shutting people out of the necessary public conversation and/or seeking to legislate hate out of existence with restrictions on free speech. But it is precisely through free expression and diplomacy that we address conflict. Violence is a failure to remain civil (duh!), and war (especially the genocidal sort) is the extreme instance. It remains to be seen if the lid can be kept on this boiling pot, but considering cascade failures lined up to occur within the foreseeable future, I’m pessimistic that we can see our way past the destructive habit of shifting blame onto others who often suffer even worse than those holding the reins of power.

Previous blogs on this topic are here and here.

Updates to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists resetting the metaphorical doomsday clock hands used to appear at intervals of 3–7 years. Updates have been issued in each of the last three years, though the clock hands remained in the same position from 2015 to 2016. Does that suggest raised geopolitical instability or merely resumed paranoia resulting from the instantaneous news cycle and radicalization of society and politics? The 2017 update resets the minute hand slightly forward to 2½ minutes to midnight:

doomsdayclock_black_2-5mins_regmark2028129For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way …

The principal concern of the Bulletin since its creation has been atomic/nuclear war. Recent updates include climate change in the mix. Perhaps it is not necessary to remind regular readers here, but the timescales for these two threats are quite different: global thermonuclear war (a term from the 1980s when superpowers last got weird and paranoid about things) could erupt almost immediately given the right lunacy provocation, such as the sabre-rattling now underway between the U.S. and North Korea, whereas climate change is an event typically unfolding across geological time. The millions of years it usually takes to manifest climate change fully and reach a new steady state (hot house earth vs. ice age earth), however, appears to have been accelerated by human inputs (anthropogenic climate change, or as Guy McPherson calls it, abrupt climate change) to only a few centuries.

Nuclear arsenals around the world are the subject of a curious article at Visual Capitalist (including several reader-friendly infographics) by Nick Routley. The estimated number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal has risen since the last time I blogged about this in 2010. I still find it impossible to fathom why more than a dozen nukes are necessary, or in my more charitable moments toward the world’s inhabitants, why any of them are necessary. Most sober analysts believe we are far safer today than, say, the 1950s and early 1960s when brinkmanship was anybody’s game. I find this difficult to judge considering the two main actors today on the geopolitical stage are both witless, unpredictable, narcissistic maniacs. Moreover, the possibility of some ideologue (religious or otherwise) getting hold of WMDs (not necessarily nukes) and creating mayhem is increasing as the democratization of production filters immense power down to lower and lower elements of society. I for one don’t feel especially safe.

Allow me to propose a hypothetical, to conduct a thought experiment if you will.

Let’s say that the powers that be, our governmental and corporate overlords, have been fully aware and convinced of impending disaster for some time, decades even. What to do with that burdensome information? How to prepare the public or themselves? Make the truth openly public and possibly spark a global panic or bury the information, denying and obfuscating when news eventually got out? Let’s say that, early on, the decision was made to bury the information and keep plodding through a few more blissfully ignorant decades as though nothing were amiss. After all, prophecies of disaster, extrapolating simple trend lines (such as population growth), were not uncommon as early as the 18th and 19th centuries. Science had made sufficient progress by the 1970s to recognize without much controversy that problems with industrial civilization were brewing and would soon overflow, overtaking our ability to maintain control over the processes we set in motion or indeed ourselves. Thus, at the intuitive level of deep culture, we initiated the ecology movement, the predecessor of environmentalism, and experienced the (first) international oil crisis. The decision to bury the prognosis for civilization (doom!) resulted in keeping a lid on things until the information swung fully into public view in the middle 2000s (the decade, not the century), thanks to a variety of scientists not among the power elite who sounded the alarms anew. At that point, obfuscation and disinformation became the dominant strategies.

Meanwhile, to keep the lights on and the store shelves stocked, the powers that be launched a campaign of massive debt spending, stealing from a future we would never reach anyway, and even dabbled at modest terraforming to forestall the worst by spraying chemicals in the atmosphere, creating global dimming. This program, like many others, were denied and made into conspiracy theories (chemtrails vs. contrails), enabling the public to ignore the obvious evidence of climate change and resulting slo-mo environmental collapse. Public uprising and outrage were easily quelled with essentially the same bread and circuses in which the Classical Romans indulged as their empire was in the midst of a protracted collapse. Modern global industrial empire will not experience the same centuries-long disintegration.

Now, I’ll admit, I don’t actually believe much of this. As with most conspiracies, this hypothetical doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Nor do the powers that be demonstrate competence sufficient to pull off even routine programs, much less extravagant ones. However, elements are undoubtedly true, such as the knowledge that energy policy and resources simply won’t meet anticipated demand with global population still swelling out of control. Neither will food production. Rather than make a difficult and questionable philosophical decision to serve the public interest by hiding the truth and keeping modern civilization going until the breaking point of a hard crash, at which point few would survive (or want to), the easy decision was probably made to ignore and obfuscate the truth, do nothing to keep the worst ravages of global industry from hastening our demise, and gather to themselves all financial resources, leaving everyone else in the lurch. The two basic options are to concern ourselves with everyone’s wellbeing over time vs. one’s own position in the short term.

In case the denial and obfuscation has worked on you, the reader of this doom blog, please consider (if you dare) this lengthy article at New York Magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells. Headings are these:

  1. “Doomsday”
  2. Heat Death
  3. The End of Food
  4. Climate Plagues
  5. Unbreathable Air
  6. Perpetual War
  7. Permanent Economic Collapse
  8. Poisoned Oceans
  9. The Great Filter

No one writes this stuff just to scare the public and get attention. Rather, it’s about telling the truth and whistle-blowing. While captains if industry and kings of the realm slumber, fattened and self-satisfied upon their beds, at least some of the rest of us recognize that the future is barrelling at us with the same indifference for human wellbeing (or the natural world) that our leaders have shown.

According to Hal Smith of The Compulsive Explainer (see my blogroll), the tragedy of our time is, simply put, failed social engineering. Most of his blog post is quoted below:

Americans, for example, have decided to let other forces manage their nation — and not let Americans themselves manage it. At least this is what I see happening, with the election of Trump. They have handed the management of their country over to a man with a collection of wacky ideas — and they feel comfortable with this. Mismanagement is going on everywhere — and why not include the government in this?

This is typical behavior for a successful society in decline. They cannot see what made them successful, has been taken too far — and is now working against them. The sensible thing for them to do is back off for awhile, analyze their situation — and ask “What is going wrong here?” But they never do this — and a collapse ensues.

In our present case, the collapse involves a global society based on Capitalism — that cannot adapt itself to a Computer-based economy. The Software ecosystem operates differently — it is based on cooperation, not competition.

Capitalism was based on just that — Capital — money making money. And it was very successful — for those it favored. Money is still important in the Computer economy — people still have to be paid. But what they are being paid for has changed — information is now being managed, something different entirely.

Hardware is still important — but that is not where the Big Money is being made. It is now being made in Computers, and their Software.

I’m sympathetic to this view but believe that a look back through history reveals something other than missed opportunities and too-slow adaptation as we fumbled our way forward, namely, repeated catastrophic failures. Such epic fails include regional and global wars, genocides, and societal collapses that rise well above the rather bland term mismanagement. A really dour view of history, taking into account more than a few truly vicious, barbaric episodes, might regard the world as a nearly continuous stage of horrors from which we periodically take refuge, and the last of these phases is drawing quickly to a close.

The breakneck speed of technological innovation and information exchange has resulted not in Fukuyama’s mistakenly exuberant “end of history” (kinda-sorta winning the Cold War but nevertheless losing the peace?) but instead an epoch where humans are frankly left behind by follow-on effects of their own unrestrained restlessness. Further, if history is a stage of horrors, then geopolitics is theater of the absurd. News reports throughout the new U.S. presidential administration, still less than 6 months in (more precisely, 161 days or 23 weeks), tell of massive economic and geopolitical instabilities threatening to collapse the house of cards with only a slight breeze. Contortions press agents and politicized news organs go through to provide cover for tweets, lies, and inanities emanating from the disturbed mind of 45 are carnival freak show acts. Admittedly, not much has changed over the previous two administrations — alterations of degree only, not kind — except perhaps to demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt that our elected, appointed, and purchased leaders (acknowledging many paths to power) are fundamentally incompetent to deal effectively with human affairs, much less enact social engineering projects beyond the false happiness of Facebook algorithms that hide bad news. Look no further than the egregious awfulness of both presidential candidates in the last election coughed up like hairballs from the mouths of their respective parties. The aftermath of those institutional failures finds both major parties in shambles, further degraded than their already deplorable states prior to the election.

So how much worse can things get? Well, scary as it sounds, lots. The electrical grid is still working, water is still flowing to the taps, and supply lines continue to keep store shelves stocked with booze and brats for extravagant holiday celebrations. More importantly, we in the U.S. have (for now, unlike Europe) avoided repetition of any major terrorist attacks. But everyone with an honest ear to the ground recognizes our current condition as the proverbial calm before the storm. For instance, we’re threatened by the first ice-free Arctic in the history of mankind later this year and a giant cleaving off of the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica within days. In addition, drought in the Dakotas will result in a failed wheat harvest. Guy McPherson (in particular, may well be others) has been predicting for years that abrupt, nonlinear climate change when the poles warm will end the ability to grow grain at scale, leading to worldwide famine, collapse, and near-term extinction. Seems like we’re passing the knee of the curve. Makes concerns about maladaptation and failed social engineering pale by comparison.