Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Century of Revolution

A few months back I came across an interesting treatise that predicted the 21st will be a century of revolution, true global upheaval. It's an arresting prospect and it's very much on the mind of some political and a great many military elites of the developed world.

Put simply, there's just too much inequality whether it's on a hemispheric, regional, or national level to support the type of stability we aspire to achieve. The great north-south divide that troubled Trudeau in his latter years in office has never healed. We've tried to maintain the economic vestiges of 19th century colonialism but the days when that was meekly accepted have ushered in an era of questing for independence from us that's often tinged with bitter resentment.

While we've been distracted by the shiny things - Iraq and Afghanistan - much of South America has been quietly shifting out from under Washington's once powerful, sometimes suffocating, influence. The land of Bolivar has seen a distancing evident in the ascendancy of left wing governments looking east and west - and south - rather than constantly gazing north as in the past.

Africa remains a wild card in so many ways. The influence of the West is in decline as the emerging economic superpower, China, spreads through the region. Resources (and governments) we once treated as ours for the plucking now have better options.

South and East Asia are also on the march. This is where superpower rivalries, economic and military, are played out. This is China and India's gateway to the Middle East oilfields, the Caspian Basin gas fields and the mineral riches of the 'Stans (including Afghanistan). It's curious that Canadians so rarely consider the intractable geo-political struggles that shackle this region even while our soldiers serve and die babysitting an unresolved civil war.

Around the globe the post-war stability we never truly appreciated while it existed ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For those four plus decades while the world went to sleep every night with the ever real possibility of nuclear holocaust, the world was neatly parcelled into the Western bloc, the Soviet bloc and the generally powerless and complacent non-aligned bloc. Washington and Moscow were global class monitors keeping the kids in line and slapping them about when necessary or using them to wage proxy wars when that was seen desirable.

Perhaps because we saw the Cold War world as one-dimensional we lost sight of the not always intended benefits it bestowed. We took the good stuff for granted which is probably why, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, we did so little to preserve and reinforce a truly stable, new world order. Washington came to believe that the demise of its superpower hegemon rival was a de facto licence to extend its unipower hegemony. It was a brief moment of utter madness and inevitable hubris that spawned bizarre covens like The Project for the New American Century that openly advocated the United States use its unrivalled military superiority to cement its global economic and military supremacy, to impose its order on the world on a plain "or else" basis.

America lost sight of the fact that its real enemy, the one that most threatened to undermine American stability and strength, was itself. An Age of Ruin set in beginning with Ronald Reagan that saw the industrial powerhouse transition from a culture of production to a culture of consumption. When Reagan took office, America was the world's largest creditor nation. When he left it had become the world's largest debtor nation. Whereas all of his postwar predecessors, Democrat and Republican alike, had steadily (even during the enormously expensive Vietnam War) whittled down America's debt to GDP ratio, that was all washed away by Reagan, Bush I, Bush II and now by Obama who has inherited the debris of their mental illness.

Corporate America forged the era of globalization which so richly served the oligarchs, the rentier classes, while transferring wealth out of the middle and working classes where, despite productivity leaps, wages stagnated even as the country's manufacturing base, the beating heart of a stable middle class, was shipped offshore. The scourge of inequality, fought back from the days of Roosevelt to Carter, returned with a vengeance. (That inequality dooms America to a future lashed to bubble economics is the subject of a Robert Reich piece posted here yesterday).

Globalization, as many warned unsuccessfully at the outset, has installed a political and economic force that now rivals, even endangers, democracy in our countries - corporatism. The advent of globalization - the free flow of capital (i.e. offshore manufacturing) and the enforced abandonment of trade and tariff regulation - effected a direct transfer of sovereign power from the nation state to the multinational corporate state. It was an enormously one-way deal. As Kevin Phillips writes in American Theocracy, his United States blundered into the trap that brought down so many earlier economic superpowers - the Dutch, the Spanish, the Brits. In search of quick and big returns, America used its wealth to grow its own successors' economies.

During the Cold War much more attention was paid to military developments. Since then we've found other distractions in the inescapable world of infotainment and immediate gratification. Yet there are indeed a number of major arms races underway that mirror the greater economic and political upheaval inevitable in an era of ascending and declining powers. India and China are rearming at great speed which is particularly concerting given that both are rivals for Middle East oil and both share a border region that holds the glacial watershed of their major and already stressed rivers. China, long a Soviet/Russian customer, is now engineering its own advanced weaponry from submarines and "blue water" surface ships to missiles to combat aircraft. India is following suit expanding its own blue water navy and deploying its first indigenous, nuclear submarines. The relationship between these growing economic and military rivals bears the hallmarks of containment and overlapping spheres of interest.

Before the second decade of the Century of Revolution is out we'll know whether we've lost the fight to beat back nuclear weapon proliferation. At the moment it's not looking good. During the Cold War we had the US, USSR, Britain, France and China in the "nuclear club" and it earned each a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Then Israel, India and Pakistan followed more recently by North Korea and soon, apparently, Iran too. Syria and Libya have already tinkered with developing their own nukes and many Middle Eastern countries are eyeing Iran and Israel and nervously wondering if they too need a nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile Brazil is rumoured to be a candidate for introducing nuclear weaponry to South America.

We have had centuries to witness nations ascend and decline but the process in the Century of Revolution is markedly different. We've run out of stuff. We've already hit the wall. They can't become us, because there's not enough stuff to make that possible. Sometime in the late 1980's mankind's consumption reached our planet's annual production of renewables - water, trees, fish and so on. We got away with it for decades thanks to sleight of hand, eating into our reserves, and outright conjuring tricks such as the Green Revolution, but the hens always come home to roost. By living beyond our biospheric means we've collapsed our fisheries, turned arable land into deserts and savaged our forests. We have relentlessly pursued and allowed ourselves to become utterly dependent upon unsustainable supplies of freshwater, water that nature cannot replace quickly enough for our needs.

Global warming is already whipsawing global precipitation patterns. As the atmosphere warms it accelerates evaporation while increasing the amount of stored water vapor, itself a powerful greenhouse gas. Some already pressed areas see a future of protracted drought while others are battered by successive cycles of drought and flood. Some wealthy countries can try technical fixes such as desalination but that too is a conjuring trick with devastating side effects.

So, we're out of good stuff. Now what to do? Well power traditionally translates into access. Those who have power expect to be first in the queue. But they can't get a power-size share of an already allocated pie without somebody else taking a much smaller than usual slice. The question becomes who gives up how much and why? That's something we'll be struggling with for quite a while and it may cause us to revisit some of our fanciful notions of free-market capitalism - again the Century of Revolution.

Can we avoid a reversion to 19th century colonialism? Will ascending economic superpowers be willing to accept anything less than tightly controlled economic and political domination of increasingly scarce resource producers? It's not as though India with its tradition of castes or China with its one-party rule can be expected to be generous to the democratic and economic
aspirations of the states they will colonize. But can they achieve the security of supply they will need without the sort of coercion we imposed in our turn?

A Century of Revolution, probably entailing a lot of violent revolution, seems inescapable in a century in which all nations will struggle with existential threats, naturally occurring and in many respects man made. Our options for seeing mankind through this century are rather stark - and obvious. 18th century free-market capitalism superheated by the forces of corporatism is over, finished. That model is growth-driven and that is so 1980's. Growth is over. We've hit the wall. We've run out of stuff. It's no longer growth but allocation and distribution that will determine the fates of nations and peoples.

We will come back into balance with the finite limits of our biosphere because we have no other choice. We will have to order ourselves in ways we will find difficult to accept because it is we who must adapt to fit our planet. It can't be done the other way around, not any longer. That comfortable option is foreclosed.

When planning is based not on growth but on allocation it shifts the focus from opportunity to inequality. People look for a lot more equality in sacrifice than in prosperity. We can become very egalitarian when we perceive that to be vital to our self-interest. If we aren't to be stampeded off the cliff we will have to pull back and that promises to be a struggle of truly revolutionary dimensions. The forces of the status quo will not go peacefully into the night. We need only look at the extraordinary efforts of the Fossil Fuelers in maintaining their dominance at mankind's considerable expense to understand that corporatism is tenacious and, as needed, ruthless.

An allocation based society is inherently far more communal than most of us have ever experienced. It is an order that confounds free market capitalism, tames it, and dismembers corporatism - not because of some grandiose ideology but of sheer necessity. Religious nutjobs aside, man no longer exercises absolute dominion over our planet and that is one struggle we cannot win.

Be very clear about one thing. The scrapping (let's call it wholesale reformation) of 18th century economic, social and political models isn't optional. Indeed it's the only avenue for a peaceful transformation of the world order. There are alternatives. We can let the planet go into runaway meltdown and purge itself of all but a few dozen millions of us. We can take our struggle for dominance into the one remaining arena, the military zone, and thereby also purge the planet of much of its population. I think I'd prefer the reformation route if you don't mind.


By the way before leaving the topic of inequality, I'd really like you to read my post A Must-Read for the Liberal Right in which I review The Spirit Level. Check it out and you may find it worthwhile to get your hands on a copy of that book.

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