Chechen refugee children at play, from Time Magazine
In previous articles I have predicted a global social, economic and ecological collapse by the end of this century, the root causes of which will be overpopulation and overconsumption. I listed ten elements that I believe will be present in one form or another as the collapse occurs, and suggested that it will start slowly and not with a bang. I also predicted that the critical elements would probably be something more prosaic than global famines or natural disasters resulting from global warming, most likely nuclear war or epidemic disease, brought about by nothing-left-to-lose hostile states or stateless groups, or by nature’s ingenuity at evolving new diseases to re-balance grossly overpopulated species. The last of the ten elements in my list was The Decline of Democracy, Constitutional Liberalism and the Rule of Law. In describing it I said:
Israel and Palestine are models of what happens when advocates of escalating war, reprisal and terrorism gain the upper hand. Many of Latin America’s ever-fragile democracies are already imperilled, as are some of Eastern Europe’s. Totalitarian states tend to spend more on military adventures, and provoke more terrorist acts. And economic and physical hardship tends to destabilize nations politically. Look for the percentage of the world’s nations that can fairly be called ‘democracies’ and ‘free’ to start declining soon, as well as increasingly common suspension of civil liberties and the ‘rule of law’ in favour of ‘security needs outweigh the need for freedoms’ and ‘might makes right’ politics.
In recent months there has been growing evidence that this decline has started, and is picking up steam.
Richard Rorty, writing in the Australian magazine The Age, describes the new political reality that is beginning to replace democracy as “Relatively benevolent despotism”. It has quickly supplanted fledgeling democracy in Russia, and has evolved quickly in China and most Southeast Asian nations, he says, and is making inroads in many developed and third-world countries. In the US, the obvious signs are the Patriot Act and the suspension and erosion of civil liberties in Bush’s “permanent war” on ill-defined terrorism, though gerrymandering and creeping corporatism (Mussolini’s “ideal state”) are also direct threats to democracy. That corporatism, where large, undemocratic corporations owned by elites share power and influence with neoconservative or neoliberal governments, is getting traction around the world, through the corporatists’ aggressive and enormously successful globalization and ‘free’ trade agendas. This ‘relatively benevolent despotism’ was most startlingly articulated by Ashcroft in his famous quotation (probably written for him by David Frum or one of the other neocon hacks):
To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is that your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and weaken our resolve.
To “aid terrorists”, of course, is a capital crime under Bush’s draconian and anti-democratic Patriot Act, allowing the state or any of its appointees, at their unlimited personal discretion, to indefinitely imprison, torture, ‘disappear’ and/or deport “those who scare peace-loving people”, without benefit of legal counsel, public notification or contact with their families, or any other recourse. So Ashcroft is saying quite baldly that anyone who suggests that the Bush regime threatens “lost liberty” is liable to receive these Patriot Act punishments. This is not a man that has warm, fuzzy feelings about democracy, constitutional liberalism or the rule of law. And this man is the Attorney General, the person ultimately responsible for the enforcement of these laws and liberties.
China’s leaders’ brutal and enormously successful suppression of democracy, personal freedoms, and the right of dissent are, of course, legendary, and the gushing enthusiasm with which most Western leaders have embraced relations with these despots, due solely to China’s willingness to trade with them, illustrates these Western leaders’ priorities. Who cares if they’re democratic, free, or respectful of the law, when they’re eager to buy our crap and sell us other crap cheap? You can almost see the fingers of the corporatist elite pulling the strings.
Far more troubling, however, has been the demise of Russia’s brief experiment in democracy. Michael Specter, writing this week in the New Yorker, describes how the country is in free-fall, with the world’s fastest-growing AIDS epidemic deliberately ignored by the government, with alcoholism and heroin abuse rampant, with runaway crime and corruption, with heart disease and tuberculosis skyrocketing due to poor diets, and a government quickly reasserting the same omnipotency and tactics of the Communist regimes it was elected to supplant. Average life expectancy for males in Russia today is 58, down six years in a generation, and lower than that of Bangladesh. Half of the population dies before they retire. By 2050 as much as 20% of the population could be infected with HIV, but as yet there is no government program to educate people about HIV, and no containment plan. And the health problems run much deeper, with a resurgence of many third world diseases, a legacy of growing poverty and malnutrition, despair, addiction, and a country staggeringly polluted and poisoned by a series of indifferent Communist regimes for nearly a century. The situation is desperate but has not yet been officially recognized as such, so the problems are spiralling out of control. The consequences will inevitably be massive destabilization, and much tighter government control to deal with it. And of course when that happens, Russia will be added back to the list of countries open to pre-emptive attack by Western neocons, if it’s not on that list already.
Putin has also been quick to use Chechnya, Russia’s Iraq, as an excuse to consolidate power, shut down the opposition, and muffle the media. Here’s how David Remnick, another New Yorker writer, sums up the situation in that Russian state:
Chechnya today is as close to a Hobbesian state as exists on earth. Grozny is a moonscape of gas fires, open sewers, and bombed-out buildings. There is almost no legitimate economy: at least seventy-five per cent of the Chechen workforce is unemployed. Criminal gangs dominate the social order. Politicians are assassinated; journalists and aid workers are abducted, even executed. The Russian Army troops who remain are corrupt, lawless, given to raping, kidnapping, and executing civilians. Whatever funds Moscow sends for rebuilding invariably end up stolen.
Putin is an increasingly autocratic leader. He has neutered state-controlled television, compromised the rise of an independent judiciary, and impeded independent political movements and parties. LíÈtat, cíest Putin. And so the Russian people, who live in dread of further violence, find themselves at the mercy of well-trained terrorists in the south and a paranoid President in the Kremlin who refuses the burdens of democratic accountability and the need to reshape a policy that is good for little but more bloodshed.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The problem is, this kind of anti-democratic thought and action is permeating almost every country in the world. Conservative elites have always harboured suspicions that democracy and constitutional freedoms and the rule of law tie their hands when it comes to dealing with ‘bad guys’, and in the conservative’s world there is an endless supply of bad guys. Terrorist actions, cynical politicians and sensationalizing media conspire to increase the ‘learned helplessness’ that makes most citizens unduly fearful of extraordinary and unlikely dangers, and hence more conservative and more vulnerable to the fear-mongering from all sides. Fueled by this, paranoia starts to take general hold of the population, and public discourse, instead of focusing on the important issues like health, education, and the weakening of the civil state, gets distracted into focusing on inflated and invented issues.
This is the way the world ends: When people get cynically coerced by power-hungry, psychopathic political and corporate elites into ceding their authority to men all too willing to push the panic button; When individuals, crazed with sudden personal power, exercise authority with no regard to, and immune from the consequences of, the law; When the rich and powerful use that power exclusively to cloister themselves away from the rest of humanity and all its problems; When the elite decides that they know better than the people, and that democracy and civil liberties and judges sworn to uphold the constitution are unacceptable impediments to their ability to exercise that ‘superior’ knowledge.
From the dawn of civilization 30,000 years ago, up until the brave experiment with democracy began a scant two centuries ago, our world was ravaged by wars between elites for power and wealth. The people were pawns, disposable armies brainwashed to sacrifice their lives for their ‘lords’. But in 1945 it became possible to win such endless wars without large armies. Now, the people are no longer valued as soldiers, and their political power under diminished democracies has been reduced to occasional opportunities to vote for one of a slate of candidates with enough connection to the rich and powerful to have a chance of buying victory. The only value of the people now to the rich and powerful is as consumers. You don’t need real democracy or civil freedoms or the rule of law to be a good, obedient consumer. And if you can be distracted by fears of terrorism, you might not even notice they’re gone.