Friday, 18 November 2011

Occupy the World

As the protests grow worldwide, with financial districts of major cities being occupied everywhere, with the member countries of the Euro group trying to stabilise the currency and find some way of dealing with the debts of Greece and (potentially) other countries, under constant attacks from that strange entity known as “the markets,” there seems to be some hope growing that the pain in the developed world is finally reaching the level where the demand for fundamental change is finally emerging from the small niches in which it has huddled (largely unheard) since the collapse of the iron curtain to encompass more and more of the mainstream and make it increasingly undeniable.

It is a truism that things generally have to get worse before they get better and that a combination of ordinary inertia, fear, conservatism and resignation with our own personal situation means that it usually takes quite a bit to happen before a sufficient number of people finally decide that enough is enough and start, first, to seriously listen to those preaching radical alternatives and, secondly, to take to the streets to demand that something is done. Yet when it comes, it can come quickly – a tipping point is reached, the prevailing balance is lost and we enter uncharted territories as old paradigms dissolve and the search for new ones begins.

For forty five years after the Second World War, a stable paradigm prevailed; a world order dominated by the competition between two mutually exclusive ideologies. At the end of the ninth decade of the last century, one of those ideologies imploded and (with a few small exceptions like North Korea and Cuba) rapidly disappeared. What called itself “market capitalism” reigned supreme and many of its proponents seemed to be on the verge of proclaiming a Hegelian end of history, a brave new world in which unregulated global markets would lead to an explosion of prosperity, a rising tide lifting billions of boats, a “creation” of wealth which would continue in secula seculorum, world without end, amen.

In the event, it took less than two decades for the new paradigm to start to show serious cracks and fissures, the consequences of which are still working their way through the immensely complex, interdependent systems and structures of which our human polity is made up. The collapse of the US property bubble and the convulsions in the world of international financial markets showed that much of the “wealth” which had been “created” had, in fact, never really existed at all. As is now becoming increasing clear to more and more people, what had happened was that a very small, immensely powerful group of corporations and individuals had taken the real wealth of ordinary people and societies; used this to leverage (what an amazing word!) a massive amount of fantasy wealth; exchanged much of this fantasy wealth for the real wealth of ordinary people and societies; worked themselves into a position where the entire world was dependent on the complex mixture of real and unreal they had created and were controlling; and, when the whole thing came down around our ears, demanded ever more of the real wealth we possessed as ordinary people and societies (or which our children and grandchildren would earn in the future) in order to keep the crazy system on which the world was now dependent running.

Moreover, they’re still doing it, and the amazing thing is that those (in the western world) who are elected by the people to run things continue to jump to their dictates. The ongoing Euro-crisis is a very good example of this. Leaving aside Greece – which is a country with underlying serious problems as a result of decade-long overspending on current accounts, fuelled by a culture of tax-evasion by everyone, but particularly the rich – none of the other European countries currently seen as dangerously weak have such massive problems that they need be regarded as necessarily being on the verge of collapse. Ireland was the victim of a classical financial bubble (driven by property speculation) bursting and is in its current state of difficulty because of an unconditional guarantee given to the financial institutions (on the insistence of the European Central Bank) who had played a major part in creating and sustaining the bubble. Portugal, Spain and Italy (with Belgium on the verge of joining them) certainly have difficulties, but their debt situations are all much healthier than that of the USA. What has caused, and continues to cause the present difficulties is the behaviour of many major players on the international financial markets, who – in time-honoured fashion – have been behaving like classical predators with a large group of prey; stampeding the herd into panic and then cutting out the weaker members one by one, harrying them into exhaustion before closing in for the kill.

Of course, this is not the official language used to describe the process; here the bon mot is market confidence. That this increasingly has little to do with basic economic realities and far more to do with artificially induced expectations, bets on future developments of every kind (and bets on the bets and betting on losses), all with the goal of maximising profits for the major players in the complex global financial game no matter what happens, is becoming clearer to everyone. It’s a roulette game where every number on the wheel has the colour green and the number 0. The bank always wins – rarely does anyone else.

The course of events in the past few years has led to a growing realisation of the parasitic nature of the corporate financial world structures and the failure – or seeming inability – of political leaders to exercise any kind of effective control over them. And, as a result, the level of public indignation and protest is growing. In many quarters, the realisation seems to be dawning that things can’t go on this way, that something has to give. Describing his perceptions of the US scene following the clearing of some of the Occupy protestors, Chris Hedges writes:

“[The corporate bosses] … think it is back to the business of harvesting what is left of America to swell their personal and corporate fortunes. But they no longer have any concept of what is happening around them. They are as mystified and clueless about these uprisings as the courtiers at Versailles or in the Forbidden City who never understood until the very end that their world was collapsing.”

According the Hedges, “this is what revolution looks like.” He may well be right. He goes on to list the various preconditions set out by the historian Crane Brinton for a successful revolution and sees them all as being present in the current situation. And this is the point at which my worries begin. Brinton’s classical analysis, The Anatomy of Revolutions, concerns itself with the English (1640s), American, French, and Russian Revolutions. And three of these four were accompanied by vast suffering and bloodshed and, particularly in the case of the last two, finished up devouring myriads of their children before culminating in the dictatorships of Bonaparte and Stalin.

Brinton’s book was first published in 1938 and the world has moved on quite a bit since. In contrast to his generally cautionary view concerning the progress of revolutions, the counter-example of the events around the collapse of communism in 1989/90 can be given, or even the example of the “Arab Spring” of this year. But before we all start flocking to the barricades, a few considerations are in order.

The events of 1989/90 were momentous; particularly their speed, restraint and generally peaceful courses. But there were a number of factors at work which suggest that they were – and will remain – unique. In the first place, there was a clear vision of an alternative model of society, that which was seen as functioning in the west. Secondly, there was general support and encouragement for the dramatic changes taking place from the rest of the world, particularly those in power there. Thirdly, there was the clearly perceived unwillingness of the imperial power under its new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, which had upheld and guaranteed the status quo ante, to use force to impede the move for change. Regarding the “Arab Spring,” this is a process which is still unfolding; it is as yet too early to make any conclusive judgements concerning its results.

“Revolutions, like Saturn, devour their own children.”
The saying dates back to the French Revolution and was, most famously, uttered by Danton during his trial. It is this observation which gives me cause for concern in the present situation. My initial inclination is not to shed any tears should the current corrupt exploitative system, in which the world is ultimately controlled by a small oligarchy of the immensely rich, whose are prepared to go on raping the whole planet and everything on it to protect and expand their own privileges and power, be brought down. More, it is not hard to imagine scenarios in which I myself would find myself on the streets, howling with the mob to put the mothafuckas up against the wall. But then I start to ask myself what we want to replace them with?

There is no shortage of visions of alternative world orders, suggestions of how to do things differently, but there is little consensus on what they should be. Our globalised world has developed into a very complex interconnected networked system where nearly everything is dependent on nearly everything else and there is a great danger that if key blocks in that system are destroyed, the whole thing will come collapsing around our ears – particularly if it is not clear with what they should be replaced. I see little sense in a process which will lead to a situation analogous to that in France in 1794 or Russia in 1919. Historically, such processes have lead to untold suffering, the deaths of millions, and the ultimate rise to control of iterations of the original system of oppression and corruption which called forth the revolution in the first place.

The consensus seems to be growing that the present world order is intolerable. I sense that what we now need most is a wide public dialogue on a global level leading to concrete suggestions concerning alternatives and agreement about their implementation. I have little faith that the official forums (like, for example, the UN) are at all inclined to further such processes. I have some hope that the groundswell of alternative methods of dialogue and interaction offered by the digital revolution may lead to the evolution of new structures which will bear concrete fruits in the real world. But the dangers that the unbearable contradictions in the current systems, where the pressure for their destruction is increasing, may lead to general turmoil and systemic collapse should not be underestimated. If we are not clear about concrete alternatives, we might find ourselves (that remnant still alive) cowering shivering, hungry, fearful and traumatised in the ruins of a world we have managed to wreck.

Pictures retrieved from


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...