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The Crisis and the Evolutionary Cul-De-Sac [Trenchant Edges]
The definitive article, you might say.
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the format-shifting newsletter where we talk about fringe ideas to find out what’s worth understanding.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 38 seconds. Contains 2129 words
Today we’re going to talk a bit about our, uh, global situation. The overall TLDR is that historical processes within politics, economics, ecology, technology, and so on are coming to a head at what looks to be about the same time.
One of these long-term processes is carbon emission and thus climate change, but that’s only really one of a slew of potential and actualizing ecological disasters happening right now.
It should be noted that this crisis is not new. The political solutions to push it off for another decade or three every few years continues to push more energy into The Crisis.
Terence McKenna might argue that the whole descent into profane history from sacral cyclical time has been one crisis after another, and I’m sympathetic to his point of view. Although I don’t believe in his Transcendental Object at the End of History, there is kind of a feeling of falling into some world where the old rules don’t apply.
This is a big reason why I want to take the timewave apart in as much detail as we’ve been doing. Terence believed the only exit was a kind of “forward retreat” into the crisis, to try and skip past the worst of it into the waiting arms of infinite novelty. The end of the world for mushroom hipsters, one might say.
I don’t think Terence was necessarily right on the details of that, but his broad strokes still interest me. I think Terence got the scale of what’s going on right.
But let’s explore The Crisis in a few dimensions.
The Ecological Crisis
I am, by no means, an expert on ecology, climate, or any of the dozens of interrelated disciplines that attempt to measure the risks and likely path of the development of the biosphere and its many support systems on this planet.
Unfortunately, the kind of evidence I see coming out of these fields suggests some really nasty possibilities over the next century and some MUCH closer.
The “smoking gun” I find most credible is the research on the potential collapse of ocean life, which could hit an irreversible cascade within the next ten years. We’ve stressed ocean ecology far too much and at some point, it’s going to break.
Then you have your more obvious climate change issues: Rising sea levels, more powerful natural disasters, shifts in water and air currents, a collapse of access to drinking water, and so on. It’s some grim shit.
And those are only the first-order effects. We’re already seeing climate change contributing to population movements in Africa and South America. Scarce drinking water is the kind of thing that leads to horrific resource wars.
I won’t belabor the point, there are a ton better people to follow than me on this. But we’re seeing the extreme impact that the last few hundred years of industrial-scale resource extraction.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention all the times we’re just poisoning ourselves and each other with heavy metals. God bless
If you’d like to cap off, “How bad could this theoretically get?” here’s one answer. Note: this is far outside the predictions of climate change, but I like having a solid worst-case scenario in hand.
The Political Crisis
TLDR: Westphalian nation-states & their capitalist corporations are impoverishing most of the human inhabitants of the planet, violently imposing settler colonialism anywhere that might not want to join the club (just about), and leveraging all available technology to continue to prop up their regimes.
This is a problem, not only because all of the crimes against humanity, but because they tend to push for more extreme measures over time to maintain control. Watching the corporate media spend so much time last year blaming protestors for “instability” while the literal police continue to piss on the very concepts of law and justice.
The first goal for anyone with power is to undermine anyone who wants to take power from you and we could spend a library worth of text here to describe it.
We’re locked in a kind of fractal crisis, with many of the same political tensions playing out over many different levels and scales.
Take note that I don’t think this political crisis is even centralized in the United States, though it’s certainly here. We’re locked into two crisis points right now and none of the political leadership (“left” or right) is willing to address the underlying issues.
It’s bigger than the USA. It’s the whole brickabrack of the international order.
Let’s explore some of the tensions:
Empire vs Republic
The USA has been a settler colonialist empire since shortly after its creation. And this tension between stated values and imperial practice has been in place from the Declaration of Independants.
The empire and republic cannot coexist, and indeed even from those early constitutional years the empire would wear the republic’s skin in justification: The Whiskey rebellion, which was not a rebellion at all but a tax protest with only a couple hundred participants, was the justification to muster a 10,000 man militia lead by President George Washington himself.
Here’s the best part though: The law they were protesting was written by Alexander Hamilton to screw poor farmers and benefit larger corporate distilleries. The man who wrote a Federalist paper about how the very diversity of the States would prevent federal misuse of militia power engineered a situation to produce a faux rebellion he’d help lead to crush.
I don’t just bring this up because I live only a few miles from where this happened in Pittsburgh, but because many narratives of the American Empire start with our first overseas colonies a hundred years later in the Spanish American War in the Philipines and Cuba.
But the precedent for those conquests started with the very founding fathers own territorial expansion. The Empire has always served finance (as empires necessarily do) and always slit the throat of anyone who might stand up to it (as empires do).
USAians have typically been unconscious of this dynamic or have projected it onto some hated institution or racial scapegoat. But the fact is simple: You can’t actually have the rule of law and popular soverignty and an empire even when you try and frame the laws as imperial, all you do is rob the people of their soverignty.
I focus here on the US’ deep history because our constitution was a counter-revolution even for its own time and the constitutional form has become the basis for most of the other nations in the world now. And they inherit our structural issues along with it.
Neoliberalism vs Fascism or Socialism
The ruling ideology of the international order right now is Neoliberalism, which in economic terms is the belief in free markets fettered by the largest corporate entities instead of democratically accountable nation states. In political terms, it’s a counter revolution of the ruling class against the more equitable postwar compromise between Labor and Capital, which created a large middle class.
Neoliberalism started with Nixon taking the US off the gold standard and issuing dollars as a fiat currency. With even basic purchases now pegged to the strength of the stock market, the failings of Kensyianism and the gold standard were magnified giving us the chaotic economics of the 1970s.
Here’s a handy rule of thumb: As an ideology is implemented, over time its excesses will tend to create their own crisises. Kensyianism, support for labor, and stable money were slowing economic growth. So Nixon implemented some Chicago school reforms, and built a pump for recycling the world’s surplus value in our markets and set the stage for both stagflation and eventually the Reagan revolution once we ironed out our alliance with Saudi Arabia and stabilized the currency.
A bonus was the instability (and beginning of deregulation) screwed a lot of people who didn’t have union jobs which made it easier to turn people against union workers.
So, this marketization process has been going on since the 70s and it’s had 50 years for the logic of accumulation to trickle all the wealth we’ve generated to the very top.
All of this has been supported by political institutions of Liberal Democracies regardless of party. It’s why Joe Biden can’t really address any fundamental issues: Because those would affect corporate profitability and thus threaten the dollar.
But you can’t play musical chairs forever. Eventually it’s game over and we’re pretty deep in overtime now.
I haven’t even mentioned austerity, Chile, finance capitalism, the NYC bankruptcy, hedge funds, soverign wealth funds, or the IMF/Worldbank. But there’s soooooo much here.
So, eventually the clock will run out and the Neoliberal order will collapse. Many Americans, on the right and left, are already demanding it. Internationally, world leadership will, from their point of view, revert back to China where it belongs.
Will China be able to leverage the world into its own hybrid economic system? I do not know. They’ve got a pretty good shot at it if they want to. More likely we’ll see more complicated reworking of trade and international institutions.
Domestically, this failure will probably push the US into the hands of Dominist/fascists and things will become very rough.
The alternative to this is to choose to close the empire down before we’re forced to and convert the economy into worker owned and operated system. IE: Socialism.
But this goes against so much inertia I can’t really imagine a way it could play out right now. Still hoping for it, ‘cause the alternatives really appear to suck badly, but we’ve only got a few years to build the kind of horizontal networks of solidarity needed to organize socialism.
History suggests it takes longer even on the odd chance it does happen.
All that said, doom and gloom predictions are a constant in civilizations and they rarely come to pass. Maybe the sheer inertia of the US military and its nuclear arsenal will check both the far right and China. Certainly, all of our recent presidents have felt the importance of updating our nuclear arsenal.
Nationalism vs Globalization
I won’t say too much about this because it was basically the theme of the Trump administration but we’ve seen the rise of nationalist movements over the last 20 years with many taking real power in countries around the world.
The frustrations they’re running on are real enough as global capitalism has no interest in taking care of people it no longer has any use for.
Hell, it doesn’t care about taking care of people it desperately needs so the leftovers aren’t even considers. #EssentialWorkers
Nobody likes to be a remainder when the global economy is searching for profit-optimal solutions.
Global North vs Global South
The hip way to refer to the “Industrialized”/”developed” world vs the “developing” world. Let’s just be honest and say, “Global colonizers vs their victims.”
From the English commonwealth to France claiming its former colonies pay them debts to be colonized to American “territories” (NOT COLONIES!) to the forced austerity imposed by the IMF and worldbank to make countries more attractive to foreign investment over their own people this is another library worth of shit to talk about.
There are hints of improvement here like Germany acknowledging one of its other genocides.
Shit, I just checked my wordcount here and I’m almost at 2000 words already, lol. And I feel like we’ve only really started talking about some of the forces moving into crisis.
Haven’t even mentioned technology yet and you better believe there’s some shit going on there. Though, discussing survelience capitalism does account for a decent chunk of it.
So we’re going to stop here for the day. This isn’t even a fraction of the big picture, I’m afraid. But we do what we can.
Perhaps it’ll be enough.
Long Story Short
So, it’s all kinda going down yeah? Big fucking mess.
We’re kinda behind an 8ball here and need to find some kind of path forward that addresses a lot of this shit at once. Which is really hard. I don’t really have any answers beyond, “Give a shit about the people around you and work together.”
I’ll end this with Antonio Gramsci’s line about how to approach problems which seem as insurmountable as these: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.
Despair is natural and I don’t recommend hiding from it, but wallowing there won’t get us any closer to a solution.
I get off easy here because, as a mystic, I have a literally unshakable sense all of this will work out for the best.
I’m just not sure if that cosmic perspective “for the best” will be all that pleasant to live through.
Well, that’ll happen.
All this (and more) is the threat we have to beat if we want to live in a decent world. No sense pretending otherwise.
See you tomorrow.