Thursday, June 09, 2011

A Spiral of Decline Fueling the Century of Revolution

If our young people are indeed our future, countries like America have trouble looming on the horizon.   Over the past generation, public education in the US has suffered - a lot.  (Note to readers - Now that Canada has a Ruler whose spending preferences go to incarceration rather than education, we have no reason to be smug.)

Education was always the motor that drove the Middle Class escalator, the engine of social mobility.   Now that the former "Land of Opportunity" has transformed into the Land of Inequality, education has become steadily devalued even as changes in government funding support have rendered it prohibitively expensive to the less affluent.

Writing in AlterNet, Sarah Jones explains that many graduates in her country today face miserable job prospects even as their numbers generate a student loan crisis.

Those bright, shiny new degrees simply aren't worth the paper they're printed on all too often. The cost of a college degree is up some 3,400 percent since 1972, but as we all know too well, household incomes haven't increased by anything close to that number -- not for the bottom 99 percent of us, anyway.

Pell Grants for students have shrunk drastically in relation to the ballooning cost of a four-year college, and Paul Ryan wants to cut them even more, pushing some 1.4 million students into loans, more of which come each year from private lenders with little to no accountability.

...Small wonder that many are calling the student loan crisis a bubble possibly worse than the credit card or housing bubbles. Small wonder that when polled by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans said higher education doesn't provide a good value, and 75 percent said it is too expensive for most to afford. Yet the lucky graduates who do have jobs still make, on average, $20,000 a year more than those without degrees. It seems that higher education, as with so much else in this society, is turning into a way to keep those who already have money making more of it.

The BBC's Paul Mason reports that what's happening in America today is a global phenomenon, education followed by unemployment:

In so far as there are common threads to be found in these different situation, here's 20 things I have spotted:

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future

2. ...with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany.

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc... in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the  "archetypal  " protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before - and the quintessential experience of the 20th century - was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

7. Memes:  "A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressure . " (Wikipedia) - so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly  "market tested  " and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy - but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you "follow  "  somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess - so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because - even where you get rapid economic growth - it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

11.To amplify: I can't find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations - but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

12.The weakness of organised labour means there's a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris - heavy predomination of the "progressive  " intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a  "stage army " to be marched on and off the scene of history.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can't retreat from. They can "have a day off  " from protesting, occupying: whereas with the old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn't retreat once things started. You couldn't   "have a day off  " from the miners' strike if you lived in a pit village.

14.In addition to a day off, you can  "mix and match  ": I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they're writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it's not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It's as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak - as in all the colour revolutons - the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a  "meme  " that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong - only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

17. It is - with international pressure and some powerful NGOs - possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth - both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China - live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here - it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various  "revolutions "  in their own lives as part of an "exodus "  from oppression, not - as previous generations did - as a  "diversion into the personal  ". While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze:  "We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power  ",- that's probably changed.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest  "meme " that is sweeping the world - if that premise is indeed true - is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don't seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for "autonomy " and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

20. Technology has - in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera - expanded the space and power of the individualTo understand this better, look at the considerable lengths despotic regimes have gone to shut down social media and online connectivity in the face of social unrest.   The Chinese reacted this way to the upheaval in Egypt fearing that knowledge of events in the Middle East might spark similar unrest in China.

Upheaval seems to be unstoppable at this stage in our civilization.  There are too many changes occurring to which we can merely react rather than control or shape or direct.   Surely it's this very loss of control that undermines structures entirely dependent on the maintenance of a reasonable degree of status quo.  Our institutions have been too highly honed; they're all power and no torque.   They're immensely strong but hopelessly brittle and easily shattered.   They are matched to a very narrow band of circumstance that is proving ever harder and more costly to maintain.

I wonder how social anthropologists in 2110 will regard mankind's efforts and progress in the first half of this 21st century?   What will their world look like a mere century from now?   Will our population have returned to a sustainable two billion souls?   How much of our planet will remain in a habitable state?  How much will be uninhabitable, wasteland?   What aspects of today's civilization will continue, what will be discarded or lost?   How will societies be organized?  Who will govern and how?  What will remain in abundance, what will be scarce or gone for good?  Will thousands of years of human achievement be preserved or will much of it also be lost?

The fact is we have no reliable basis for answering any of those questions.   And because these fundamental issues will remain in play and because their currently unknowable outcome will define our civilization just a century hence, upheaval is inevitable.  It may even become the norm as those who survive us struggle to establish a new, steady state.

The paradigm has shifted.  We are now on the defensive even if we still cannot grasp that reality.   There are too many chasing ever less.   This is a game we cannot win with responses such as the "Green Revolution" that are mere conjuring acts.   When I became a teenager, mankind was using but 63% of our planet's biocapacity.   By 2007 we were using 151% of Earth's biocapacity.

How can we possibly be using more than our total biocapacity?  That's easy and much of that is visible from space.   It is visible in deforestation, the destruction of vaste swathes of forestland.  It is visible in desertification, the exhaustion of once fertile farmland and its transformation into sterile, useless desert.  It is now detectable in surface subsidence marking the steady emptying of our groundwater resources, our aquifers.  It is discernible in the collapse of global fisheries and the way we "fish down the food chain" going on to the next less desirable species as the more desirable species are depleted, one by one.   It is visible, tangible in so many ways.

We're rapidly approaching a "perfect storm" on biocapacity.  We're already in a severe deficit on renewables even as several new stressors come into play.  Already at 7-billion, we're now predicting that may climb beyond 10-billion.  And, for each of those mouths, individual footprints grow ever larger.  The masses of the "emerging economic superpowers" want more, expect more, demand more.  They want more food.   They want more meat.   They want modern homes and cars and every other trapping of affluence.  Yet, at the same time, the ravages of climate change - particularly cyclical floods and droughts - descend to cripple food production.   That, in the face of all this, we still divert a good deal of our agricultural capacity to production of biofuels is proof positive of a world order that has turned deranged.

What does this have to do with global revolution?   Everything and at every level of civilization.   We remain locked in a political, economic and social paradigm based on growth.   Today we temper that with the adjective "sustainable" as in sustainable growth.  It's an oxymoron and an extraordinary lethal one at that.  We, mankind, would have to first   revert to a condition of sustainability before we could even entertain notions of sustainable growth.  Yet we're already so perilously far beyond the envelope of sustainability and beset by increases in demand and decreases in supply that growth is lunacy.

We cannot grow.   Some of us can enlarge ourselves but only at the expense of others who must either decline further or simply cease to exist altogether.   That is what growth of any description means today.   An environment secretary in the former British Labour government noted that Britons exhaust their nation's biocapacity by Easter every year.   They meet the rest of their needs and wants by purchasing some other nation's biocapacity whether in the form of imported lamb from New Zealand or fruit from Africa.

Today, some shrewd nations are cutting out the middle man altogether.   This is done through outright purchasing of agricultural lands abroad.   China and some Middle East nations are busy doing just this in southeast Asia, parts of Africa and, most recently, South America.  This is an entirely defensive measure.   They are seeking to offset their looming biocapacity deficits through what can only be seen as economic conquest of foreign lands.   What happens in those lands when their own shelves are empty yet homegrown foodstuffs sitting on their docks awaiting shipment abroad are just too expensive for the locals to purchase?

When growth is no longer viable, there is but one economic model left - allocation.   An economic model based on allocation is inevitably also based on non-allocation or rationing.   An allocation-based economy is one in which needs must be more favourably weighted over simple wants.   Inequality is far more tolerable in growth-based economics where there is abundance.   Inequality is far less tolerable in allocation-based economics where there is shortage particularly in the context of democratic societies.   In democracies, sacrifice is a burden to be shared.   As we've seen in Egypt and Tunisia, even dictatorships can be toppled by unrest driven by inequality.

Unfortunately for mankind, the notion of sharing isn't particularly scaleable.  Couples share readily.   Families also are generally adept at sharing.  Even the peoples of nations, when truly necessary, are reluctantly accepting of sharing.  The larger the scale, the weaker the community of interest and the less the acceptance of sharing and sacrifice.  The "good neighbour" principle does not travel well - or far.

In the world of the 21st century there will be far fewer "haves" and vastly far more "have nots."   If you follow this link you will arrive at a page where you can examine the ecological surplus or deficit of various countries.   This is determined by comparing a nation's biocapacity with its ecological footprint.   The red line shows how many hectares per capita the country needs to meet it's people's resource demands.   The green line shows the reality of how many hectares per capita actually exist based on fluctuating biocapacity.  If the red line is higher than the green line it means an ecological footprint deficit.  The greater the gap between the lines, the more severe the deficiency. That is, sadly, the case in all but a handful of nations.

Canada is one of those few countries that retain an ecological surplus.  Despite significant declines in our biocapacity since 1960, capacity remains about double our resource demands, plainly the result of our minimal overall population density.  The United States, however, fell into deficit in the late 60s and, today, demand exceeds biocapacity by a factor of two.   Britain is worse off yet, its biocapacity meeting barely a third of its demand.   In the Middle East the deficiency levels are extreme.   Israel's biocapacity is about a tenth of its ecological footprint.   With the ravages of climate change only beginning to settle in it becomes apparent that some of these nations face an enormous challenge just to remain habitable through the 21st century.

Almost every nation suffers the same critical deficiency - political leadership unwilling or unable to grasp or even acknowledge the predicament we're in, ticket punchers who seem to think these challenges can be avoided, at least on their watch.   What we're left with is a leadership void, a political vacuum.    As Aristotle put it, Horror Vacui, nature hates a vacuum. So too does mankind.  It is this very political vacuum that destabilizes our societies, that provokes the revolutionary response, that will lead to a new power paradigm that may not be to our liking.

I wonder whether a growing segment of my own society senses that our political leadership has fallen out of touch with these emerging realities, has no answers and seeks none.   What happens when the people we choose to lead us choose not to lead us?


thwap said...

Things are heading for continued, larger explosions.

Sadly, some of them will be directed by the right-wing, doubling down, tripling down on the insanity as things start to burn.

The Mound of Sound said...

This political leadership vacuum leaves us vulnerable to circumstance. Opportunities not taken can become opportunities lost, flexibility squandered.

What so infuriates me is that our Canada is among the most advantaged nations in the world in the context of the challenges of this century. We have options we are simply not pursuing lest they impede other more immediate interests. These options are at risk of being foreclosed by our inaction.