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So Where Do We Go From Here?
That's a good question.
Note: Spanish versions of my essays are now available here.
When you write weekly essays like this, readers and commenters often have ideas not only about what you actually wrote, but also what you should have written. That’s fine, and welcome, but the reality is that, whilst almost everybody who comments on the essays, publicly or privately, wants me to write more, hardly anybody wants me to write less. “Why didn’t you cover?” “ I think you missed out this important point …” “Your essay was incomplete because you didn’t …” “You should have said something about …” and so forth.
Now I try where I can (not always successfully) to keep my essays to five thousand words, which, if I publish weekly, amounts to perhaps three full-length books a year. That’s not a small commitment for me, but it’s not a small commitment for readers either, and, though I often feel there is more that I could have said, by the same token I don’t want to confront readers with slabs of prose they won’t have the time or inclination to finish reading.
This has been particularly the case with things I’ve written recently about the childishness, incapacity and amateurism of our declining western political class, as well as the media and the larger Professional and Managerial Caste in general. What are the consequences? people have wondered. Where are we going? If there’s a crash what follows? Is there anything we can do? And the same questions are often posed on other sites, for example the essays of John Michael Greer, which often worry away at the same sort of problems, and which I highly recommend if you aren’t familiar with them.
So this is something of a provisional summing-up, a point de situation, an attempt to draw together various threads and present a reasonably coherent argument about where we are, what might happen and why, and what may follow. And all in five thousand words, at that, so let’s get started. I want to examine three factors which are essential for any understanding of any crisis and how it plays out. Simply put, these are (1) the nature of the problem or crisis (2) the individuals who are trying to deal with it and (3) what the system within which they are working allows them to do. Decisions, as I have often suggested, don’t just “happen,” they are not just “taken,” but rather they are taken by individuals and groups, with their frailties and prejudices, with varying degrees of knowledge, and against specific limitations.
A very simple historical example concerns the outbreak of the First World War. Whilst the political systems were superficially similar—crowned heads were related to each other, for example— the actual mechanisms of decision-making, the balance of power between Crown, Parliament and Army, was different in each country. For example, few individuals had more influence on the events of August 1914 than Conrad von Hoetzendorf, the Austrian Chief of the General Staff. He had been obsessed for years with preventative wars, against Serbia and even against Italy. It didn’t help that he was suffering from depression after the death of his wife, and unrequited love for an Italian noblewoman, to whom he obsessively wrote lengthy declarations of love. Conrad probably played a greater role than anyone else in exacerbating the crisis, but of course he did not provoke it, and could not foresee its eventual outcome. Indeed, he was poorly informed about some of the basic strategic facts of his time. Moreover, the influence he had also depended fundamentally on the structure of power in Vienna, which was different from that in Berlin or Moscow, never mind in London or Paris.
Thus, the three factors that I mentioned above have a dynamic relationship with each other. If you like, that relationship can be represented dialectically: the thesis is the problem itself, the antithesis is the attempts made to deal with it (or not) by individuals and institutions with their own characteristics and weaknesses, and the synthesis, of course, is what results, and which in turn produces new problems.
I’m going to take four examples of upcoming problems (that should be enough for anybody ), and look at how they might play out. I’m not going to go into detail with each, partly because in most cases I’m not competent to do so, but mostly because it’s very unclear how these problems and potential crises will play out, and there’s no point in trying to discuss and choose between endless possibilities. So, a brief paragraph on each. I’m going to take (1) exhaustion of natural resources (2) climate change, with the possibility of sudden, violent discontinuities (3) the changing balance of economic and political/military power in the world and (4) the wider effects of neoliberalism in destroying social bonds, producing massive imbalances in wealth, de-skilling societies and governments and creating complex and fragile supply chains on which daily life often depends.
It will immediately be obvious that these problems are linked to each other. Population flows, for example, can be the result of conflict and insecurity, destruction of livelihoods or environments, or social breakdown. But equally, these problems will not affect every country in the same way: for example, we may well see the newly powerful nations using that power to co-opt resources from nations which are in decline. In turn, possession of these same resources, and the ability to exploit them, may upset traditional patterns of strategic and military power. And the effects of these problems on different societies will vary according to the complexity, the fragility and the composition of the society itself.
That the world’s resources are essentially finite, should not really be controversial. This does not mean that all possible resources will eventually run out, still less at the same time: for all practical purposes, we will always have sunlight, wind and water, and some form of power generation can continue for a very long time, perhaps including nuclear energy. Through recycling and intelligent design and production, we can eke out other resources for a long time also. That’s not the point: the point is that there is a finite limit to the amount of resources the world has, and they are not enough to satisfy the world’s demands forever. So something will have to give, and the effects will vary from society to society, from regions to region, and between rich and poor.
Likewise, human-induced climate change has now gone too far to stop, let alone reverse. Theoretical solutions are available, but they stand no chance of being agreed, let alone implemented. Such is the complexity of the world ecosystem that even experts are reluctant to make detailed predictions, but it is safe to anticipate massive environmental change and consequent movements of animals, fish and people, the end of certain types of agriculture and fishing, the submersion of low-lying cities, changes in ocean currents with unpredictable effects on the climate and the propagation of diseases into areas where they are not now endemic.
The progress of the war in Ukraine is less a cause than a symbol of a major shift in economic and military power, and therefore influence, away from the West. This will produce a world where power is distributed (a better word than “multi-polar”) and will put huge stresses on the political systems of western states and the international organisations they largely dominate. It’s not clear whether the EU and NATO will survive in their present form, but on the other hand non-western institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation may become much more powerful. The shock for nations that see themselves as directing the business of the world will be profound: I wouldn’t buy shares in the long-term stability of the United States, for example.
And finally, because nations and societies are more than just random groups of people trading with each other, and because functioning economies depend on functioning societies in the first place, and because neoliberalism has spent forty years destroying the structures of society and the capability of government to manage it, we are rapidly approaching the point where western societies will fall below a critical level of functionality. Moreover, in many ways those societies have regressed to infancy, and their governments no longer know how to do even basic things: much of the business of government in some countries is now dependent on computer systems which are operated by a sub-contractor of a sub-contractor of a massive foreign conglomerate which might go out of business, lose interest, or prove on closer inspection to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chinese Ministry of Security.
Two things stand out from this very superficial survey, I think. One is that action to contain, let alone resolve, even one of the problems, would require high-level national and international coordination, massive technical and managerial expertise, and the allocation of immense financial and human resources over years or decades, according to a robust long-term plan. Yes, that was my reaction too: there’s no point wishing for things you can’t have. If you actually want to see how the collective West handled a really grave crisis it’s enough to look at the Covid shambles, which I fear is the pattern for many future ones. In summary, the stages of western government reaction were:
Imposed magical solution.
In effect, Covid has been cancelled. Vaccines were the magic bullet and have solved the problem and anyone who disagrees is an Untruthspeaker, and should be censored.
The second is that there will almost certainly be unforeseeable interactions between all of these factors, producing consequences that even the most far-sighted governments cannot foresee. For example, if you have been to IKEA over the last couple of years you may well have been told that some item—a door for a cupboard, or the wheels for an office chair—are out of stock because the factory in an obscure part of China that makes them went bankrupt as a result of Covid. This is the tiniest of foretastes of what to expect now, since almost anything can disrupt today’s ultra-sensitive supply chains, with cumulative effects in different areas that are impossible to foresee. At a quite different level, in a few years’ time, countries like China, Russia and India might decide to extract political concessions from this kind of western weakness: do this, stop doing that, or we stop supplying the other. The economic effects of this could be grave, but the effects on the western strategic mind, used to effortless dominance everywhere, could be terminal.
OK, let’s try to look at a plausible example of what might happen as they affect ordinary people. Take power outages, which could happen for a variety of different reasons, or even a combination of them: bad maintenance, lack of money and capability, inability to get parts from overseas, lack of fuel for power generation, sabotage (as happened recently in France) or unusually high demand. Take a single high-rise apartment building without power for a day, and expect some or all of the following. No lifts (“elevators” in Murkin). Walk up and down five to ten floors in darkened stairways, unless you can’t. Impossible to get your car out of the garage. No light, no heat no Internet, no communications, no cooking, no hot water, no water at all on higher floors, no sanitation. (How many bottles of drinkable water do you keep in your kitchen usually?) Oh, and external electronic doors in apartment buildings that open automatically, allowing anyone to come in. Now extend that to a complete district or arrondissement for several days. No shops open, no cash machines working, food rotting in supermarkets (let’s assume that it’s summer and 40 degrees and the system was already feeling the strain.) No street lights, no traffic lights, no public buildings open, streets choked with traffic, enterprising individuals smashing their way into shops and stealing things. Meanwhile, in the rest of the city the knock-on effects bring transport systems to a halt. Emergency services can’t get around. Nobody can communicate with those in danger, or see what’s going on. People who have been injured or require urgent medical care try to come out of the affected area on foot. Two such outages in the same city would effectively bring it to a halt.
Back in the days when governments did emergency planning, a typical estimate was that a major city that lost power completely would be uninhabitable after about three days. Society has become more complex since, just as the capability to deal with major disasters has massively declined. Flooding is another problem that was taken very seriously in the past. Back in the 1970s, the Thames Barrier was constructed to protect London against flooding which it was calculated could devastate 45 square miles of the capital. It has been operated six or seven times a year in recent years as the threat from high tides increases. It needs to be upgraded soon, but the construction companies, the expertise and the project management skills no longer exist to do it.
Fine, but that’s only half the problem. Assume that even a small city (a million people say) becomes uninhabitable because of power failures, flooding, or any other climate or supply-chain issue, or perhaps several. What do you do with the million people? Let’s assume this happens at the height of a blazing summer, or the depths of one of the frigid winters we might be heading for, or during a period of torrential rain and hurricane force winds. Maybe some of the evacuees are carrying the latest infectious disease. The fact is that no western society now has the resources to deal with a contingency remotely of this size. Armed forces are now tiny, civil defence forces have been stood down, and the few volunteer services that remain would be swamped. No government has the technical capability to do more than issue tweets and demand that vulnerable populations should not be stigmatised. And the reverse is also possible: Europe may soon have to deal with millions of refugees from the East, and the infrastructure, the resources and the technical capability to do that no longer exist.
I’m going to stop there, because, whatever the precise detail, I think it’s pretty clear that western states today are not only incapable of preventing these disasters in the first place, they are incapable of dealing with the symptoms and the consequences. Theoretically, even now, the worst effects of climate change could be avoided with massive coordinated action, the energy crisis could be managed with careful rationing, changes in patterns of life and massive investment in alternative technologies … which everyone knows is not going to happen. That’s not pessimism, any more than it’s pessimism to say that an old tractor can no longer pull a heavy load up a hill, and there are no spare parts. Much of this (almost all it, could be argued) comes back to government capacity and the nation’s educational, scientific and industrial base, and such things are infinitely easier to destroy than they are to reconstruct. Indeed, because unofficial social structures always underlie formal ones, then if these social structures are missing or have been destroyed, constructing or reconstructing formal structures is difficult and may be impossible. It can even be argued that the construction of capable western states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was actually a historical anomaly, brought about by the needs of the rising middle classes, the industrial revolution and the increasing complexity of society. And some kind of collective ethos was also essential. In Britain, it was Queen and Country, but also the high moral seriousness of the Victorian era and its classical and religious roots. In France, it was La Patrie and The Republic. In Japan (to take a very different example) it was a strong nationalist tradition, and the samurai elite realising that if they didn’t get their act together they would become the next European colony. What comparable motivations are there today?
So in terms of the dialectic set out at the beginning of this essay, we can say that the problems are of an unprecedented gravity, the individuals who have to deal with them probably represent the weakest political class in modern history, and the surrounding circumstances greatly limit their ability to act, even if they knew what to do. So the interaction of the situation and the response to it is unlikely to produce much that is positive.
So far, so grim. But if we are to think our way through the problems of the future (and yes, I am getting to that) then we have to have a clear idea of what they are, and of what can effectively be done to confront them. To begin with, it is wise to assume that the solutions cannot come from enfeebled governments and adolescent political classes. This is not to write off all possibility of governments doing necessary and useful things, but it is a question of scale and capability: things have effectively gone too far already. Nor can we have any confidence that the private sector will step in: in many cases they will simply make things worse.
The corollary of governments no longer being able to deal with these problems, therefore, is that it is pointless to stage performative acts to demonstrate (or demand) that something is, or should be, “done.” The Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) will probably continue, since these things acquire an inertia of their own, but ultimately, the Conference brings together actors who, with the best will in the world, no longer have the political or technical capability to influence the progress of climate change very much. And by extension, gimmicks aimed at “raising consciousness” or “putting pressure on governments” are equally pointless and counter-productive. There is no point in wasting time and energy lobbying governments to do things that they cannot do, or to engage with problems they cannot solve. If people want to glue themselves to paintings, fine; they can spend the rest of their lives looking at the floor or the ceiling if they want to. But, as with every political initiative, the question that has to be asked is, what is not being done instead? since every political initiative actually taken necessarily excludes others. We still live in a world where the appearance of action is assumed to be the same as the reality. For reasons I will get to in a moment, this may be about to change.
This is not to say, of course, that “nothing can be done.” Lots can be done. There is an urgent need to identify practical measures and implement them. It’s likely, at one extreme, for example, that border controls will return piecemeal and on a national basis, rather than through some tyre-screeching policy reversal in Brussels which would frankly not be worth the necessary effort. At the other extreme, initiatives as mundane as planting trees in city centres help to mitigate the effects of climate change, can be done easily. But it is important not to waste efforts either in performative acts that lead nowhere or in mere performative demands, for all that our culture encourages both.
But if governments and major western corporations are increasingly sidelining themselves, other actors will necessarily become stronger, since politics cannot tolerate a vacuum. Now of course we are talking here in a western context, and as the world moves towards a more distributed system of political and economic power, decisions will increasingly be taken by countries, and in institutions, which we do not control, and which may produce results that are displeasing or even damaging. We need to get used to that, as we need to get used to living with new military superpowers in a disarmed West, and the possibility, for Europe anyway, of wars and international political crises on our back doorstep. We need to understand that a deindustrialised West may not be able to procure certain consumer and high-tech goods easily, or even at all, just as scientific and technological developments may increasingly be made elsewhere. And the West will increasingly not control the key technologies of life.
The final point I want to make about the future context, is how the inevitable decline will come. Here, the problem is that “decline” is not one thing but a whole series of things, going at different rates. As a general rule, elements of our society will disappear like Hemingway’s character who went bankrupt, gradually and then suddenly. Which is to say that the capabilities that support our society will not necessarily decline gradually and in a civilised fashion. The de-industrialist dream, I think, is of slow and steady decline: each year a little less energy, a progressive adaptation to climate changes, and so forth. But we know quite a lot about the decay of complex systems, and it resembles what happens when a bridge finally buckles and falls under gradually increasing stress. And there never has been a society remotely as formally and technically complex as ours, so we have very little idea where the inflexion point comes, and the system suddenly can no longer support itself.
Some systems are inherently redundant and flexible, usually because they are distributed. An extreme case is that in Germany as late as 1945, the fire brigades and air raid precaution systems still worked, more or less. This was because they were all locally organised. By contrast, with tightly coupled systems organised on a national or even international basis, quite small disruptions can bring them down. For example, if, over a substantial period, twenty per cent of Europe’s railways could not run each day, because of fuel shortages, maintenance problems, excessive heat, strikes and half a dozen other possible reasons, the system would effectively collapse. So rather than gentle managed decline, what we can expect is a series of sudden, unpredictable lurches downwards, to a new temporary equilibrium, but without any consistent logic. Likewise, the terrifying diseases of my childhood, like Smallpox, have been banished by immunisation. But if we can’t get the vaccines for some reason, and the percentage of the vaccinated starts to fall much below 90-95%, we would be in trouble very quickly.
How are we going to deal with all that? The first thing to say is that, if we are facing a series of unprecedented changes and crises at a time when capability to deal with them has never been lower, then much will depend upon individuals and groups who can actually do something. Crises tend to have a Darwinian effect on groups and structures: those best fitted to handle the crisis find themselves thrust into in positions of responsibility. This happens with armies and governments at the start of wars, for example, when competences required in peacetime are no longer relevant.
It’s perhaps hard to realise just how far government has become performative and virtual in recent decades. It’s not simply that governments have lost capability, it’s also that they don’t care. For modern political parties, the imperative is that of the Party in 1984: to be in power. Actually doing things is dangerous: you might fail, and even if you succeed you could annoy potentially powerful groups. Talking about doing things, on the other hand, is fine. Blaming others (especially outside forces), condemning your opponent’s or your rival’s plans on ideological or financial grounds, successfully burying a problem or even denying that it exists, are the standard tools of government today. The Covid crisis illustrates this very well. A decision had to be taken in various countries about whether to close schools. It was argued that doing so would harm children’s intellectual and social development, which was true. It was argued that not doing so would only make the epidemic worse, which was also true. Like Buridan’s ass stranded between two bales of hay, governments were torn in both directions, faced with the terrible requirement to actually make a real decision. The result was confusion, order and counter-order, until finally the magic bullet of vaccines came along, and governments could avoid having to take any more such decisions. We’ve seen the same with Ukraine: western policy, for all its bombast and aggression, is largely about pretending to deal with the crisis, not least by adopting panic measures of sanctions and arms deliveries, and then continuing with them when it was obvious they were ineffective and counter-productive. But it looks good and gives the appearance of action, which is what counts.
So I think we are at a point where action and influence (if not necessarily formal power) will increasingly devolve upon those who can Do Things, as it always does in difficult times, especially at a local level. Otherwise, we will perish. On the other hand, there is no point in capable people just sitting around waiting to be asked: we shall all have to do what it is within our power and expertise to do, as it becomes necessary. But unlike the past, we also have the problem of performative speech to contend with. By that, I mean that something over 90% of the public commentary on today’s crises is not analysis or advice, but insults, allegations, expressions of anger, personal attacks, attacks on the integrity of others, attempts to get noticed, attempts to stop others being noticed … and so on. Now there has always been controversy, but in the past the barriers to entry were much higher, and the time to print and distribute even ephemeral pamphlets was relatively long. This meant that the signal to noise ratio was reasonably high, whereas these days it’s hard to find any real signals at all among the noise, except the signalling of virtue. Money and clicks come from anger and engagement: thus, the proliferation of sites and tweets and comments that amount to: “I saw this stuff on the Internet and it made me angry so this is what I think, even if I don’t know anything about the subject.”
Genuinely important arguments are simply lost among the noise, the chaos and the anger, and that’s fine with our political leaders, because useful ideas, valid criticisms and pertinent comments all disappear and are overlooked in the fog. The world has no need of my views on, say, the US political system, the potential for the end of the Dollar as a reserve currency, or the internal politics of Venezuela, since I have no special insight into any of these, and no desire to needlessly make myself angry, or to infect others with my anger. There’s too much of that already.
So how do we preserve a decent society in difficult times, since I increasingly think that’s what the argument comes down to? Well, we might first remember that there have been difficult times before. The western world has been at peace within itself since 1945, and we have forgotten what a crisis is like, and what humans are capable of, for good and ill. If you don’t do so already, it’s worth looking at records of the experiences of ordinary people in the nineteen thirties and up to the end of the War: not front-line combat or the death camps, but their ordinary fear, insecurity and mundane sufferings. At one extreme, check out, for example, the autobiography of Aaron Appelfeld, born in Rumania of German-speaking parents, interned in a ghetto at the age of seven, sent to a camp, escaped and lived in the woods for years before being picked up by the Red Army, finding his way to a transit camp in Italy and entering Israel clandestinely … Or at another extreme, one of my favourite authors, Jorge Semprun, who wrote mostly in French: the son of a diplomat loyal to the Republic, fled to France joined the Resistance and the Communist Party, arrested and sent to Buchenwald, where his life was saved because the clandestine Communist Party apparatus in the camp falsified the records to make him look like a skilled labourer … What comes out of these experiences, as with tens of millions who never recorded theirs, is less sudden drama than mundane everyday heroics in the face of hunger, despair, deportation, racketing and exploitation, violence and the complete destruction of all social bonds. Of course, a large part of the world lives like this now anyway: who is to say that we will escape all these things, and how would we deal with them if they happened to us?
It’s not for me to give advice. But it seems clear that if we abandon performative gestures and impossible demands, if we recognise that our enfeebled states are likely to be overwhelmed by the challenges of the near future, then we are of necessity thrown back on the collective resources of ordinary people. In times of stress, these have often turned out to be considerable, and our energies might be better devoted to doing things ourselves and with others, than striking poses to demand action from institutions that increasingly lack the capability to act. You can certainly demand your “rights” but, as Spinoza was probably not the first to notice, rights do not enforce themselves in the absence of power.
Of course, this implies a massive change in mentality: figures who are now conspicuous may simply disappear because they have nothing useful to contribute, and others may come to the fore. But heroics are not essential: what keeps society turning, after all, is the activities of ordinary people, not governments, doing their jobs and living their lives honestly. Here, I’m going to lean on my Protestant heritage and invoke the idea of “Calling,” ironically probably more familiar in its Latin form “Vocation.” We are used to the idea of vocation in certain careers: religious people, of course, but also doctors, teachers and others who work for the public good. But Calvinists, in particular believed that God had “called” each of us to do something, and that any task, trade or profession, no matter how humble, was of value and pleasing to God if it was done conscientiously. Now in our Liberal and secular age this is laughed at: a mathematician who goes into teaching when they could become a bond trader is an object of pity. But when you think about it, our society needs maths teachers more than it needs bond traders, and the honest shopkeeper, the competent and reliable tradesman, the dedicated home helper, the conscientious cleaner, for that matter, the caring parent, are all part of the glue that keeps society together. So perhaps it would be useful if we were to consider how we spend our lives, and try to do what we are doing to the best of our ability.
And we may be called to do other, more challenging, things, if the situation deteriorates. Like many people, Jorge Semprun joined the Resistance because it was the right thing to do: he doesn’t seem to have thought twice about it. One of my personal heroes Jean Moulin, the only Prefect to refuse to serve Vichy, made a dangerous escape to London, only to be sent back to France to organise the Resistance there into a single movement. He accepted what he realised was a probable death sentence because, with his political and administrative skills, he was the only man available who could do it. He was duly captured by the Gestapo and died under torture without giving even his own name, but he had united the Resistance and helped to avoid a civil war in France in 1944-45. And finally, I’ve had the privilege of knowing some white South Africans who fought, militarily and otherwise, against the apartheid regime, giving up a comfortable lifestyle for obscurity, exile, danger, poverty and often imprisonment and torture. But then as one friend said to me about his decision to go into exile at a low point in the fortunes of the anti-apartheid struggle, “I couldn’t do anything else.”
Perhaps we will be called on to make a personal contribution when the time comes, or perhaps we just cultivate our personal gardens as best we can, which is not a small thing in itself. But given the series of crises that are drumming their fingers in anticipation of an interesting future, we will not be helped by performative actions or performative words, but only real actions, no matter how humble, of ordinary people.
Let’s leave it at that for this week.
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