Who’s In Charge Here?

Midjourney’s take on a woman meditating; not my prompt; caption is an old meme

My view of human nature, I confess, is rather cynical and jaundiced. While I believe we’re all doing our best, I also believe that we are possessed of absolutely no free will, that we are totally a product of our biological and cultural conditioning, and that we are ruled by our emotions.

It took me 60 years to realize that everything I believed about myself — my character, my strengths and weaknesses etc — was just a story, a fiction, self-invented to make me presentable, acceptable, or desirable to mates, friends, parents, colleagues, employers, and myself. And that this ‘me’ was nothing more or less than a hallucination imagined by a lost, scared, bewildered ape trying to make sense of a world that makes less and less sense, in the mistaken belief that the other apes actually knew what was going on and what ‘should’ be done about it.

I still express lots of outrage at hurtful and destructive human behaviour, even though I ‘know’ we’re at the mercy of our conditioning and emotions, and cannot do otherwise. A lifetime’s conditioning is hard to break.

So when I look at political commentary, I recognize that, like ‘expertise’ in all the other half-baked ‘social’ ‘sciences’, it is mostly merely egotistical spouting of  largely-unsupported or transparently biased beliefs, and not much worth paying attention to. But I also see a world sliding into economic collapse, ecological collapse (much broader than just climate collapse), and now political collapse, with clearly sociopathic ‘leaders’ pushing us closer and closer to nuclear armageddon. I mean ‘sociopathic’ in the medical sense of seriously mentally ill; the Hugh MacLeod sense.

None of this ‘makes sense’ of course. We are all doing our best, the only thing our conditioning, honed over millions of years, can lead us to do. Nobody actually wants the planet to be annihilated by nukes or made unliveable by ecological collapse or made unbearable by universal grinding poverty, deprivation and suffering.

And it’s not just the sheer complexity of these polycrises that makes us helpless to change course and prevent or even mitigate them. We are not, after all, a bee-like or Borg-like species with a hive mind capable of massive-scale coordinated action, even if we could agree on a course of action, which we cannot.

What makes us helpless is that it is simply not in our ape nature to be able to understand what is happening. Our nature is to live in small tribes in the trees and cooperate and collaborate on immediate, short-term projects where what is needed is obvious even without language, and to pay attention to each other to meet those needs. And (thanks to our conditioning) that attention is especially focused on the eldest (who generally have the most experience) and the most generous (whose accomplishments have most enabled them to share and give to those less accomplished).

But now, we have succumbed to what I have called Civilization Disease, an endemic mental illness born of millennia of disconnection from the natural world, extreme stress, scarcity, and trauma. So now we have a society of multiple, hierarchical castes which compete viciously, war constantly, and share nothing unless allegiance, money, or some other political or economic tithe is granted in return. We are a gravely sick species, for all our good intentions.

I am often tempted to shrug and say that, since it cannot last much longer, and cannot be ‘fixed’, there’s not much point in trying to make sense of it all. One cannot possibly make sense of a crazed mass of terrified rats stuffed into an alien, resource-poor cage with not enough to go around. The hoarding, the murder, the suicide, the fear-driven paralysis, and the eating of the young — this grossly unnatural behaviour does not and cannot make sense.

But since I’m here for a while, there seems no harm in trying to figure out What Were We Thinking?

This is particularly hard to do these days because the most knowledgeable people we once looked to help us with their insights and experience, to make sense of what is happening, seem particularly afflicted by Civilization Disease, and now exhibit a kind of intellectual laziness that comes, I suppose, from a mix of lack of critical thinking practice, and sheer exhaustion at the overwhelming task of trying to make sense of anything. So the media these days are filled with rumours, dubious anecdotes, mis- and disinformation, propaganda, and unsupported opinions, designed to appeal to those already convinced, and to stir up those who disagree (both of which, of course, are good for the media’s ‘business’).

It’s just too easy to conjure up straw men, evil/insane “bad guys”, or simplistic or vague abstract phenomena like “apathy”, “lack of good morals” or “modernity” as the cause of most or all of our troubles. Fascists have always done this, and many progressives are now following suit. I prefer to actually try to figure out what is behind our current political malaise (without laying blame), and how it differs in different places. Lots of people think that’s nihilistic, since it looks to understand without any hope of “fixing” the problems, which are in any case actually predicaments, and which are insoluble. Perhaps it is nihilistic, but I am drawn to try to do it anyway.

I think this analysis by the French political analyst Aurélien does a pretty good job of identifying our current crises throughout the ‘west’, and that, interestingly, includes what is happening in Russia.

The thesis, I think, is that:

  1. Recently, governance and policy-making that once reflected, at least to a certain extent, the popular will, has been replaced by a small self-obsessed oligarchy of the rich and powerful (think of the alpha rats in the cage). This has seemingly happened in the US, in most European states, and in Russia.
  2. Many of us have been pressed into supporting this oligarchy out of fear that fascist authoritarianism is the only alternative to it. Since the media are totally controlled by the oligarchy, this has been a very effective sell.
  3. Any viable alternative to both oligarchy and fascism must offers three things: (i) a sense of shared purpose, (ii) a vision of what their alternative political system would look like, and (iii) the organizing resources to implement this replacement system. Absent such an alternative, political collapse is likely to result in anarchy. Anarchy has not historically been a stable or peaceful state, despite what the naive, idealistic libertarians would have us believe. In the absence of a functioning government, people will accept governance from whatever ‘authority’ offers them relative security, even if that’s a drug gang, a mafia, or a fanatical religious group.

My sense is that the ruling Tweedledum-Tweedledee oligarchy in the US is currently obsessed with crushing China mainly because China offers a fourth political alternative to (i) the existing oligarchy, (ii) fascist authoritarianism à la Trump/DeSantis, and (iii) anarchy. That is, naturally, terrifying to the western oligarchs.  Why? Because given the bald choice between the four, there’s not much doubt in my mind what most people would choose. Once they realize there is a choice.

Power, of course, is never ceded easily or willingly, and the writing is on the wall for the oligarchs, who are relics of the age of kings, and will never be able to whitewash their image enough, or distract from their self-preoccupation enough, to ever appeal to the majority of citizens, who are increasingly disgruntled with them. Divide and conquer can work for a while, but eventually the outrage will be focused on the oligarchs instead of on each other.

We are a long way, of course, from overthrowing our western oligarchies. But when things get bad enough, a working political model that twins relatively democratic local governance with an unelected central authority that is at least ideologically egalitarian and not beholden to obscenely wealthy kings or oligarchs, may start to look pretty good to a lot of people. Just speculation, of course.

That’s the model, hard as it may be to those of us constantly barraged with racist war-mongering propaganda to believe, that China offers. It’s flawed, but far more functional than our run-amok unregulated extreme capitalism. Talk to people who actually live in China, and you’ll discover that most are pretty damned happy with their government, at least compared to how we feel about our governments. And the Chinese people are smart, educated, internationally networked, and more politically and economically informed than your average westerner.

So, back to the current reality: Who’s actually driving political activities in the west? That’s not to say there is some ‘elite’ in total control. (There isn’t, anywhere.) What I mean is: Who is making key decisions, such as the decision whether to go to war, or how trillions of tax dollars are spent, or what laws and regulations are in force, and enforced.

Who are the Tweedles, exactly, the oligarchs making these decisions in the US, other anglophone countries, and Europe, including Russia and Ukraine? Have they effectively seized power and assumed most people are too dumb to realize it, or too bewildered and distracted to care?

Aurélien uses the term the “political-managerial (top) caste”. Occupy called them “the 1%”. Eisenhower called them the military-industrial complex, and warned us about their potential undemocratic power. Some economists like Michael Hudson distinguish the top industrial caste (“Main St”) from the top financier/rentier caste (“Wall St”), depending on whether their wealth is in productive assets or financial/paper assets. Dominating (through their disproportionate wealth and power) all the mainstream parties in all western ‘democracies’, the Main St and Wall St Tweedles exist in an uneasy alliance against a western populace that is angry at how this top caste has hoarded all net new wealth created in the past four decades, exhausted essential natural resources, deliberately suppressed dissent through propaganda, and disproportionally destroyed the planet’s life-supporting environment in the process.

What exactly are they thinking, other than to protect and preserve their own wealth in the face of multiple collapses that they are informed enough to know are ongoing and inevitable, and to save their own skins when the top caste is finally overthrown?

How can we possibly explain, for example, how senior advisors to presidents, making critical political decisions on their behalf, can behave the way Henry Kissinger behaved in 1970, orchestrating the bloody overthrow of the elected government of Chile? And the way Victoria Nuland behaved in 2014, orchestrating the bloody overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine. And, in both cases, steadfastly supporting the horrific, corrupt administrations they put in place to replace them?

Ideological hatred may, of course, be part of it. Wars and other atrocities leave lasting scars that are easy to rip open again. But the two individuals above have never shown any remorse for what they’ve done, and have been employed and promoted by administrations of both parties. Every other US president and UK PM dating back to Reagan and Thatcher has knowingly committed war crimes and other inhuman acts. And all of these people seem not only unrepentant but immensely proud of their (IMO anyway) horrific behaviour and decisions.

If it’s not just racism, ethnic hatred, and/or perverse extreme ideology, what drives this behaviour? I suspect, having witnessed and studied lesser crimes and misbehaviour by business leaders, that much of it is conditioned by peers in the narrow circles in which these people have spent their lives. Just as slave-owners fed off each other’s racism, conspiracy theorists feed off other credulous members of their groups, cult members feed off ever-more-extreme beliefs and behaviours of other members, military and police fanatics feed off colleagues’ us-against-them fanaticism, and supporters of fascism feed off the zealotry of other supporters, so too do members of the top caste Tweedles feed off each other’s beliefs in the righteousness of their beliefs and actions.

We want to belong, we want respect and reassurance, we want to be part of an esteemed ‘in’ group. For many, fame is a salve against childhood trauma, parental or peer abuse, or isolation and broken self-esteem — even when the resultant behaviours are abhorrent, criminal, and destructive.

Spend time in any subculture insulated from diverse ways of thinking, and conditioned for groupthink, and you’ll quickly see the kind of perverse and unapologetic behaviour you see in Kissinger, Nuland, and many of the current members of the cloistered top caste in government, in big business, and in public and private institutions, including the military and security apparatus. It’s sociopathy, promoted, rewarded, and exemplified. This is what happens when a society suffering from serious collective mental derangement gives almost unlimited power to a privileged few in the top caste, often its most sociopathic members. They think they’re doing the right thing, and that they were chosen on merit to do it. Given the rewards they keep receiving for their sociopathy, how could they think otherwise?

This sociopathy may well lead to nuclear armageddon in the next few years. If it doesn’t then it is already leading to inevitable economic, political and ecological collapse. This is the consequence of eight billion apes doing their angry, bewildered, mildly deranged best for themselves and those they care for.

Those best intentions will change nothing, other than perhaps the grief and desperation that will be felt as the failure of those intentions to prevent collapse becomes more and more obvious.

My guess is that we will soon see what many outside our western propaganda bubble have already seen — that if we want to make the world a better place, we first have to depose the top caste capitalist ideological oligarchs — the Tweedles — of their power and wealth, and redistribute it to where it can at least alleviate the worst effects of collapse. And in floundering around in search of a better political system, we will eventually try, by a strange consensus of common sense, an ersatz blend of Scandinavian socialism and China’s ‘local democracy under guiding autocracy’. Both systems have worked in the countries where they were born, but it will take a mix of them to adapt to the political realities and exigencies of the rest of the world.

If we’re lucky, then, we can face full-on collapse with some measure of collaboration and without our hands tied behind our backs.

That may help, but it won’t change the end game. Even if we can avert political devolution into global oligarchy, corpocratic fascism, or anarchy, we will still find ourselves in a strange new world that we are utterly unable to cope with — one with a collapsed economy, unable to sustain any advanced technology as essential energy and resources become depleted and unaffordable, and then with ecological collapse.

There is a taste of the latter in the latest paper from James Hansen’s consortium. (Thanks to justcollapse.org for the link.) It now predicts that, even if we keep greenhouse gas emissions at current levels, we have now already baked in 8ºC of global warming, at a pace of 1ºC of rise at least every 30 years for the next two centuries. The same scenario predicts one impact of that eventuality to be the melting of 3/4 of total polar glaciation, and a 60m rise in average sea levels. The report barely raised a peep in the media, because it’s just unfathomable (if you’ll pardon the grim pun), to them and to the population at large. Take a look at your city or country on Flood Map to see what such an increase will (not ‘would’, will) mean to the place you call home by two centuries from now. Sooner if emissions continue to rise, which they show every sign of doing.

This will be happening at the same time two billion humans (and many other species) will be migrating long distances to find new places still habitable. And we’ll be doing all this without the benefit of cheap energy and cheap technology (each $70 barrel of oil currently substitutes for about 10,000 hours of human labour), and without the internet.

We are a curious species. We think we know what’s going on. We think we know what needs to be done. We think (some of us) that we’re the right ones for the job. You know, crushing the Russian and Chinese states without provoking nuclear war. Solving climate collapse through geoengineering, nuclear fusion, and solar panels. Believing that the market is the perfect arbiter and distributor of value, and that growth can continue forever, as long as we’re smart about it.

If only we knew.


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4 Responses to Who’s In Charge Here?

  1. Benn says:

    I don’t think government has ever been ran according to the popular will, at least not here in Britain. Paul Mobbs has a recent essay on this. Sensible cultures knew that wealth coupled with political power is a bad idea, so kept them managed. Some also had social controls over sociopathy. Pity we killed them all, really.
    It was also not inevitable that we got to this point. There are too many narrow escapes through history that could have meant very different outcomes. Like, what if native americans had given europeans a 90% death rate disease? Or Rome was defeated by Carthage? Or (god forbid) some ecoterrorist assassinated people working on neurolink with home made letter bombs?
    Saying that, I agree: we are infected with Wetiko, and the cure will be a tad harsh.

  2. Joe Clarkson says:

    I think you are overly optimistic that national governments, of whatever ideology, will remain intact during the collapse process. Collapse, almost by definition, means a wholesale destructuring of society, including national governments.

    Local government may start out democratic, but it is more likely to be overpowered by warlordism or feudalism. Those are two of the default structures of low-energy societies. I don’t look forward to their return, but people lived with them for millennia.

    Lastly, nuclear war is very likely for the simple reason that nuclear weapons systems can keep operating with far less energy and resource demand than conventional non-nuclear forces. When fuel shortages make tank and infantry warfare impossible, it will still be easy to launch nukes from nuclear subs. Nuclear weapons will be the last weapons systems standing. If they are all a country has, they will likely be used. It will all come down to what a submarine commander wants to do.

    Lastly, the Hansen paper projects an equilibrium temperature increase of 10 C, based on the existing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, not existing emission levels. This new number is based on the 6 C warming after the last glacial maximum and the CO2 levels that accompanied that warming, which recalibrates the solar forcing numbers from CO2. It looks like hothouse earth is inevitable, but this is the result of our ignoring emissions dangers for the last 50 years. Only a rapid reduction in CO2 concentrations (negative emissions) could prevent hothouse earth.

  3. Benn says:

    Suprised you haven’t had comments about China yet.
    Greta Thunberg says we should all wear vegan facemasks made in China, with biometric microchips embedded in them. Allegedly.

  4. Jack Alpert says:

    This is one of your very best views of the predicament. However, from my vantage point 600 word summary https://www.evernote.com/l/AAmZY0Hicy9KbLmuRpZRVAjtdR3UQC_bhEE you are still in a silo. In your silo the intransigence of human place on earth lies inside the constraints of social norms and and limbic brains.

    I say siloed because there are also physical constraints measured in mass, energy, and time which you have omitted. What you have left out of your analysis of the predicament and behaviors to address it tell me that the earth’s sustainable population is in the neighborhood of 50 million global. See this video to describe it. A non-injury producing civilization. https://youtu.be/dYR5Ix-1wMs

    The timetable of my imagined civilization implementation is the net 80 years To get to a population 50 million means half a million global births annually from now going forward. Removing the 8 billion in 80 years will happen from old age. Of course it might happen faster if we start killing each other.

    Jack Alpert PhD Director
    Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory http://www.skil.org
    (C) 913 708 2554 jackalpert@me.com
    13617 W. 48th Street Shawnee, KS 66216

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