Friday, December 9, 2011

The New Enlightenment

On Sunday, Democracy Now! attended the corporate-sponsored World Climate Summit in Durban that advocates a market approach to solving the climate crisis. One attendee, South African entrepreneur Jason Drew, called for the United Nations to step aside and let businesses and markets fix the problems caused by global warming. When asked why business would be interested in saving the people of the Maldives from catastrophic climate change, Drew responded, "Customers live there. It’s a business world. It’s capitalism. We need people to buy our goods... They all buy iPads, Coca-Cola, all the products we know. If they don’t exist anymore, the market’s gone."

There is a terrific post by cultural critic Morris Berman at Dark Ages America. The post defies easy summation, but I'm going to try and do it anyway. The thoughts behind the article are extremely important.

Berman begins by discussing the Annales school of French historians. According to this school, it is the task of journalism and popular history to document immediate historical events, while the historian's job is to take the long view (la longue durée) describing long, epic historical cycles and determining the underlying worldviews and attitudes that shaped them. These vast changes occur when the previous system can no longer function, such as the waning of the Roman Empire. According to this view, the era of 1500-2100 is the era of capitalism, beginning with commercial capital, then proceeding to industrial capital, and finally financial capital - money created from money itself. This era emerged in a series of disruptions as the social order of the High Middle Ages disintegrated:

The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during which time the medieval world began to come apart and be replaced by the modern one. In the classic study of the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga depicted the time as one of depression and cultural exhaustion—like our own age, not much fun to live through.

He then implies that we are living through such a change in our own era - the unraveling of global corporate consumer capitalism. Here he turns to an article by Naomi Klein in The Nation Magazine that argues that the resistance of vested reactionary political and corporate interests to the environmental movement and the acknowledgment of human-caused global climate change comes from a feeling that an acknowledgment of such concerns is threatening to the fundamental tenets of capitalism itself. Klein argues that this feeling is in fact correct, and we should stop pretending it's not. The idea that the unrestrained global laissez-faire capitalism that we've had over the past forty years can slow or reverse catastrophic climate change is simply delusional, and environmentalists need to acknowledge this fact.

In what appears to be something of a radical shift for her, she chastises the Left for not understanding what the Right does correctly perceive: that the whole climate change debate is a serious threat to capitalism. The Left, she says, wants to soft-pedal the implications; it wants to say that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth, that it is not a threat to capital or labor. It wants to get everyone to buy a hybrid car, for example (which I have personally compared to diet cheesecake), or use more efficient light bulbs, or recycle, as if these things were adequate to the crisis at hand. But the Right is not fooled: it sees Green as a Trojan horse for Red, the attempt “to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism.” It believes—correctly—that the politics of global warming is inevitably an attack on the American Dream, on the whole capitalist structure.

And Klein argues that it is such an attack, because the structure is fundamentally flawed, and perhaps fatal to long-term human survival. You cannot have a "green" capitalism which requires increasing consumption without bounds. And without unceasing growth of consumption, you cannot have capitalism as we know it today. And concentration of wealth into ever tighter hands is not a bug of capitalism - it's a feature. Without redistribution, capitalism works about as well as the last round of Monopoly, that is, not at all. For the rich to be rich, they need an army of poor. For ever-richer creditors, you must have more and more debtors. Ever-growing markets require turning natural resources into products and waste faster and faster. Growing markets require growing populations on a planet stretched to its limits. Capitalism also ignores social needs in a relentless pursuit of profit, and the extreme concentration of wealth that capitalism has brought about is fundamentally anathema to popular democracy. You cannot change these fundamental facts, and, Klein argues we ought to stop pretending that we can, despite the unpopularity of that message. Global capitalism is a failed system and cannot be reformed, much to the chagrin of the proponents of "green" capitalism. What it is to be replaced with, however, is a work in progress.

Berman points out that the fundamental underlying mindset that makes this possible is one of earth's resources as infinite, to be extracted and used for profit in ever-greater quantities in perpetuity. He further points out that America's history as a frontier culture enshrines this belief in the American psyche as a matter of quasi-religious faith.

“The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizationalReenchantment of the World; nice to see it all coming around again.) “Real climate solutions,” she continues, “are ones that steer [government] interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.” Hence, she concludes, the powers that be have reason to be afraid, and to deny the data on global warming, for what is really required at this point is the end of the free-market ideology. And, I would add, the end of the arc of capitalism referred to above.

Berman than makes a point that others have made - this is not just a temporary problem, it is a fundamental crisis of the very core of that worldview. What is happening is not just a series of unrelated problems, it is a "crisis of civilization," in the worlds of one author. We are unfortunate enough to find ourselves at the end of one particular mode of history, with another one being messily birthed. The reaction of the right is the resistance of vested interests to the transformative changes that society needs to undergo:

In terms of recommendations, then, the essay is rather weak. But it offers something very important by way of analysis, and also by implication: Everything is related to everything else. Psychology, the economy, the environmental crisis, our daily mode of living, the dumbing down of America, the pathetic fetish over cell phones and electronic gadgets, the crushing debt of student loans, the inanities (and popularity) of Ann Coulter and Ayn Rand, the farce of electoral politics, the box office sales of violent movies, the epidemics of depression and obesity—these are ultimately not separate spheres of human or natural activity. They are interconnected, and this means that things will not get fixed piecemeal. “New civilizational paradigm” means it’s all or nothing; there really is no in-between, no diet cheesecake to be had. As Naomi says, it’s not about single “issues” anymore.

I would fault Berman for being too Amero-centric here; the fundamental global problems are different than what he's listed. I would include trade imbalances, mass unemployment, offshoring of profits, climate change, pollution, price inflation, bank bailouts, crushing debt burdens on countries and individuals, a yawning chasm between rich and poor, corporate control of resources, and privatization of public infrastructure. Look at what we've seen just in 2011 - The Arab spring, the Indignados movement in Spain, the Greek sovereign debt crisis, riots in London, the downfall of Berlusconi in Italy, ongoing brutal crackdowns in Syria and Yemen, student protests in Chile, mass protests in Israel, anti-corruption movements in India, an out-of-control Mexican drug war, nuclear meltdown in Japan, chaos in Afghanistan, the European debt crisis and the possible breakup of the Euro, the Occupy movement in the United States, and now widespread protests against fraudulent elections in Russia. Add to that economic "austerity measures" across the entire developed world, the lack of meaningful economic growth, Internet monitoring, media censorship, rising food prices, and now heavy-handed and draconian laws designed to suppress dissent in the so-called free democratic societies. Hardly anywhere in the world has not been touched. And that's just in one year! It seems like 1848 all over again. These are not isolated events at all; taken together they are symptomatic of the total collapse of the existing paradigm. As the system unravels, things will get increasingly ugly. Naomi Klein's description of the effects of climate change under our current model of "free market" capitalism seems to be right on the money:

“The corporate quest for scarce resources will become more rapacious, more violent. Arable land in Africa will continue to be grabbed to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations. Drought and famine will continue to be used as a pretext to push genetically modified seeds, driving farmers further into debt. We will attempt to transcend peak oil and gas by using increasingly risky technologies to extract the last drops, turning ever larger swaths of our globe into sacrifice zones. We will fortress our borders and intervene in foreign conflicts over resources, or start those conflicts ourselves. ‘Free-market climate solutions,’ as they are called, will be a magnet for speculation, fraud and crony capitalism, as we are already seeing with carbon trading and the use of forests as carbon offsets. And as climate change begins to affect not just the poor but the wealthy as well, we will increasingly look for techno-fixes to turn down the temperature, with massive and unknowable risks. As the world warms, the reigning ideology that tells us it’s everyone for themselves, that victims deserve their fate, that we can master nature, will take us to a very cold place indeed.”

Yep, that sounds about right. In Klein's view, the best alternative to this bleak vision of the future this is the construction of an alternate system, in essence, a "new civilizational paradigm" which will emerge from the ashes of the old as had happened at similar pivotal moments in history:

“The only wild card is whether some countervailing popular movement will step up to provide a viable alternative to this grim future. That means not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—this time, embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance and cooperation rather than hierarchy.” She believes that the OWS movement embodies this; that they have taken “aim at the underlying values of rampant greed and individualism that created the economic crisis, while embodying...radically different ways to treat one another and relate to the natural world.”

Just two decades after "free market" capitalism and popular democracy supposedly ended history, both appear to have vanished, replaced by corporate monopoly and oligarchy, respectively. The elites know that the system is in crisis, but "extend and pretend" is the order of the day. Laws that give governments unlimited powers over citizens and preparing for martial law are quietly being passed. Democratic governments are replaced by what are euphemistically called "technocrats" - unelected economic mandarins tasked with making banker's liabilities whole. Military machines are quietly switching to "green" sources of fuel even as they prepare to go to war over the last remaining resources.There is a feeling, deep down, that we are entering a new era. People know something is wrong, that this system cannot continue, but they cannot articulate what is wrong. They are afraid to think the unthinkable, and even more afraid to say what they know is true in their hearts: this cannot continue. That's why Occupy seems rudderless - it knows that this cannot continue, but it does not know what to replace it with, or how to do it. Deep down people feel that the system is too far gone, and that reform is impossible. There are too many feedback loops keeping it in place. The scary thing is, if reform is impossible, collapse is inevitable.

To take la longue durée, it seems we are on the verge of a new dark age. Things fall apart. All the signs are there - crumbling infrastructure, bankrupt governments, massive poverty, crime, fear, corruption, incivility, cruelty, callousness, violence, war, conflict, a social unraveling, police everywhere, gated communities amidst vast slums, technological stagnation, artistic and cultural exhaustion. Will anything from the postwar period stand the test of time - our movies filled with sex and violence, our oversized sports stadiums and strip malls and gridded glass skyscrapers, our "disposable" products, our mass entertainment, our pulp literature, our pop music, our celebrity culture? Americans already look at the pre-war period as a lost golden age. Perhaps we've already entered the dark ages. Eventually, a Renaissance could occur, or perhaps a better description would be a "New Enlightenment" to finish the incomplete work of the old. But before the dawn comes the darkness:

To put it bluntly, the scale of change required cannot happen without a massive implosion of the system. This was true at the end of the Roman Empire, at the end of the Middle Ages, and it is true today. In the case of the Roman Empire, as I discuss in The Twilight of American Culture, there was the emergence of monastic orders that began to preserve the treasures of Graeco-Roman civilization. My question in that book was: Can something similar happen today?

I think such movements are already afoot, although I don't think Occupy is one of them. Just as the foundations for capitalism were laid down amid the crumbling feudal order, the seeds of the New Enlightenment are being sewn now. But, like then, they may take centuries to flourish. And, unfortunately for us, seeds tend to grow best in manure.

I've excerpted this post at length for a reason. While the topics here at The Hipcrime Vocab may seem like a mishmosh, there is a unifying thread. While we may not know what the future holds, we are trying to document in real time both the crumbling of the old system and the birth of something new. Topics we cover- the failure of globalized corporate monopoly capitalism, peak oil, economic stagnation and collapse, dysfunctional politics, corruption, environmental crises, authoritarian capitalism - are there to document the slow unravelling of the old system. Other topics on alternatives - technology, agriculture, government, economics, architecture, urbanism - try to document possible new patterns and emerging options growing out of the muck. We're trying to figure it all out, one post at a time. Stay tuned to this space...


Naomi Klein interview about the article.

Similar views have been expressed by Jay Hanson.

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