my own diagram of what Jim Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency” — a gradual multi-stage collapse over an extended period
Aurélien, Patrick Lawrence and Yanis Varoufakis are IMO three of the most astute observers of our modern, global, industrial civilization culture. It is now pretty apparent that collapse of that culture is well underway, and no longer just the looming danger I’ve been writing about for twenty years.
These three writers have all recently written “state of the world” articles from very different perspectives. They’re all well worth reading and thinking about. I thought it might be useful to summarize, contrast and comment on them. The common thread of all of them might be “everything slowly falling apart”. That’s perhaps an excellent descriptor of this, the first of the three phases of each stage of collapse. The disintegration phase.
Aurélien’s contribution is called, aptly enough, “Going to Pieces Slowly“. The British historian, diplomat, and cultural analyst (now based in France) writes:
Given the many developing crises that are jostling for priority now, social breakdown, either self-generated, or more likely a consequence of multiple economic or environmental and health crises, may well not be far away. In fact social breakdown is perhaps already here, even if, as William Gibson might say, it’s not evenly distributed… People accept the legitimacy and authority of the state as much out of habit and collective self-protection as anything else. So the kind of decay in state legitimacy that we are now starting to see is less likely to lead to violent conflict, than to a kind of sour apathy and disengagement, and a search for some [group that can fill the power vacuum or some] way of making up for what the state can’t do. There are parts of the world where you can see this in action…
No western country has remotely the internal security forces required to defeat a serious massed challenge to the legitimacy of the state, because so much depends on unspoken social contracts between the governors and the governed. But supposing that starts to break down?… We forget the extent to which it is safe to go out into the streets precisely because the vast majority of people never think about smashing their way into a supermarket and looting the goods, or attacking police or firemen. But this is only a convention and, beyond a certain point, if too many people decide to disobey it, there is nothing much that the authorities can do…
For the first time in modern western history, there are no groups with organisations and ideologies waiting in the wings [when civil order breaks down], either to launch a struggle for power, or to profit from a power vacuum.
Aurélien goes on to explain that the crumbling of political and social system legitimacy would immediately have knock-on economic effects that would amplify political and social unrest: the collapse of investment, currency and housing markets, massive disruption of food and energy supply chains, degraded road and public transport and communication infrastructure, and a surge in organized crime. This is where the slide into chaos begins, and we’d be wise, he says, to study some African, Latin American and Asian countries where this has already happened, to see what may come next.
Patrick Lawrence’s new piece, entitled “Psychology & Disorder“, is a history of American Exceptionalism, describing the history of that unique ideology that runs right across the political spectrum, and has now, like one of those pathetic western-supplied tanks rotting in the fields of Eastern Ukraine, run out of ammunition and fuel. In the text of a speech he gave to a Swiss conference on multipolarity, the American author, foreign correspondent and globe-trotting university lecturer writes:
Little that America has done, from the earliest settlements and the Quaker hangings in the late seventeenth century to its nineteenth century wars, expansions, and annexations, to its anti–Communist crusades in the last century, to Vietnam, and all the coups and interventions in the post–1945 decades: To grasp all of this fully we must see the underlying, driving psychology… All of these events, disparate as they are as historical phenomena, arise from the same consciousness: They are all part of the same root phenomenon. And all of this goes, it hardly bears mentioning, for all that we witness now: The cruelly inhumane proxy war in Ukraine, the dangerously provocative encirclement of China, America’s unruly conduct in the Middle East, in Latin America—America’s claim to exceptionalism lies behind all of this…
After the débacle of the Vietnam War, Ronald Reagan’s [subsequent] feat was to persuade an entire nation, or most of it, that it was all right to pretend: All was affect and imagery. He licensed Americans to avoid facing the truth of defeat and failure and of professed principle betrayed. He demonstrated in his words and demeanor that greatness could be acted out even after it was lost as spectacularly as it had been in Indochina.
This is the exceptionalism whose many destructive consequences we now witness. It is an ideology whose most peculiar feature is that it is subliminally understood to be exhausted and that it rests in large measure on denial. No American political figure would dare now to speak sensibly against the exceptionalist orthodoxy. This is ever more the case as the orthodoxy becomes more obviously hollow, more detached from perfectly discernible realities…
[In her essay “Ideology and Terror Hannah Arendt notes that ideologies] replace thought with belief, so obviating the need for ideological believers to indulge in the act of thinking—to respond with rational judgment to events and circumstances. Another [of ideologies’ consequences] is the effect of isolation. Ideologies are in one dimension boundaries, and one stands on either side of these. Those inside these boundaries share a bond made of allegiances of which no one else can partake. Those outside these boundaries are simply excluded: They are Others. The implied separation is sometimes much more than psychological, but it is psychological before it is anything else.
Americans [in addition to now being politically isolated from much of the world], are also isolated from others psychologically, and I would say this is also in direct consequence of their claim to be exceptional. Like all ideologues, and here I will make a generality I am prepared to defend, Americans, by and large, would much rather believe than think. This in itself tends to leave Americans isolated, because he who believes but cannot think is incapable of relating to the world… We trap ourselves within a fantasy of eternal superiority and triumph. So we cannot hope to speak the same language as the rest of the world, and we don’t. We do not see events the same way. We do not react to events in the same way. We do not calculate the same paths forward.
Patrick sees little evidence that the US, and its perpetually-governing Professional Managerial Caste in particular, are either willing or able to abandon the bankrupt idea of American exceptionalism, which has propelled us to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and is now largely driving the slowly accelerating economic, political, social and ecological collapse we are now trying to contend with. And as long as this insane ideological belief, rather than rational, evidence-based thought, is what is directing the decisions of those in power, what hope do we have of even softening the blows of collapse before we plunge into the chaotic phase?
Yanus Varoufakis has just written “Technofeudalism Has Just Arrived“, a look at how massive inequality, the demise of democracy, the de facto privatization of the internet, and horrific financial and economic mismanagement, have combined to produce a dramatic shift in the dynamics of power, and has hence shifted the global economy from a capitalist one to a ‘neo-feudal’ one. In the introduction to his new book, the Greek-Australian economist, professor and former parliamentarian writes:
What has happened over the last two decades is that profit and markets have been evicted from the epicentre of our economic and social system, pushed out to its margins, and replaced. With what? Markets, the medium of capitalism, have been replaced by digital trading platforms which look like, but are not, markets, and are better understood as [private] fiefdoms. And profit, the engine of capitalism, has been replaced with its feudal predecessor: rent. Specifically, it is a form of rent that must be paid for access to those platforms and to the cloud more broadly. I call it cloud-rent.
As a result, real power today resides not with the owners of traditional capital, such as machinery, buildings, railway and phone networks, or industrial robots. They continue to extract profits from workers, from waged labour, but they are not in charge as they once were. They have become vassals in relation to a new class of feudal overlord, the owners of cloud capital. As for the rest of us, we have returned to our former status as serfs, contributing to the wealth and power of the new ruling class with our unpaid labour – in addition to the waged labour we perform, when we get the chance.
Yanis asserts that it is essential that we understand this new economic power dynamic in order to grapple effectively with the personal, political, economic, social and ecological challenges we are facing. Although the book has not yet been published, judging from its detailed table of contents, its key ideas will be familiar to readers and viewers of his writings and speeches.
He argues that the US acted as a “Global Minotaur” that used its economic and political power from 1945 through 2008 to essentially repatriate all the proceeds of global production back to the US, despite the fact the US is a massive debtor nation that produces essentially nothing of value (except munitions). But the financial collapse of 2008 brought about the end of the “Minotaur” and opened up the opportunity for the power shift to the private technofeudalists who now control global commerce through ownership of their online ‘platforms’ (their fiefs), and who are indifferent to ‘profits’ because they get their ‘rents’ from both producers and consumers (users) of their platforms.
He attributes the new US hostility to China to the fact that China’s technological advancements (and possibly their superiority) threaten the technofeudalists’ oligopoly over platforms and rents, and hence their wealth and power. And he argues that the Ukraine war, with its crippling economic sanctions and massive theft of non-westerners’ bank deposits, is largely an economic war rather than a political one. The losers in both wars, he says, are Europeans, the Global South, and our ravaged planet.
As an idealist, his answer to these problems is perhaps not surprising: He wants the internet to be de-privatized and reconstituted as a public commons. He wants corporations and currencies to be democratized, repurposed to serve the public good. He wants land to be returned to what it was before the foreclosures — a public commons. I would love to believe that was all possible, but you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I do not. Good diagnosis, though.
So we have the gradual acceleration of global political, social and economic collapse, with no group likely to be able to fill the power vacuum as the world slides more quickly into chaos. And we have only poorer nations, ahead of us on the curve, to study for clues as to how that chaos is going to unfold.
We have an Empire that remains deluded about its ideology to the point that it is in denial about everything happening in the world except what it sees as immediate threats to its supremacy and exceptionalist beliefs, and which is pushing for multiple wars against nuclear armed countries in ‘defence’ of those beliefs.
And we have an economic system that has quietly replaced unregulated capitalism with an even more insidious and destructive private neo-feudal order that views the world’s consumers as its ‘product’ and the world’s producers as its renters, and is completely agnostic to social, labour, economic and ecological abuse.
Sounds like everything slowly falling apart, all right.