Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What happened after 2016 (the end of the world as we knew it)

I’ve been wanting to flesh out how the collapse of our civilization may play out for some time now, and the closing of America’s RNC has given me the perfect hook on which to hang most of my concerns about the exhaustion of our societal model and how the dominant reason that succeeds the current one may gain a foothold. To make it easier to understand to my readers, I’ll use the ages-old device of presenting it as it may be seen from the far future, let’s say the year 2116, when it has been fully played out. Let’s pretend, then, that what follows is extracted from a history textbook written for the 6th graders of any village of that year:

The beginning of the end (of the second wave of globalization) and the “time of troubles”

As we described in the last chapter, the first years of the XXIst century CE may be seen as the apex of the movement towards globalization and the imposition of a universal culture that started right after the destructive global wars of the previous century. Until the Great Recession of 2007 every year saw an increase in the amount of goods traded between countries, a lowering of tariffs and a gradual diminution of the barriers to the movement of people. The European Union reached its peak size after the accession of the ex-communist countries recently freed from the Soviet yoke. The Asian countries, led by China, vastly increased their wealth by exporting substantial amounts of mostly cheap goods (thanks to the advantages of ultra-cheap labor, lax intellectual property standards and little regulation, both environmental and regarding health & safety). A multinational organization devoted to easing trade (WTO) achieved consistent advances and every decade saw the appearance of a new trading bloc or free trading area.

However, the 2007 Recession, caused initially by an explosion in easy credit centered in the North American housing market (which caused the bankruptcy of a major financial institution, Lehman Brothers, and forced the State to bailout most of the major banks, along with substantial parts of the automotive industry) soon extended to the rest of the world and exposed deeper problems, more structural in nature, that the credit bubble had masked for decades. Already in the end of the XXth century the advanced economies (and those of Asia, most of the Middle East and Latin America) had reached a demographic tipping point that plunged their fertility rates below replacement levels. For some time, the effects of such lack of replacement was hidden by the fact that an improvement in sanitary conditions in the less developed economies (especially the collective abandonment of self-poisoning through tobacco “smoking”, a practice whose prevalence is now difficult to imagine), plus substantial immigration in the most advanced ones kept the total population numbers growing, a growth that in turn increased the aggregated demand and thus created economic opportunity for most of those willing to work, independent of their age.

The predictable effect of population decrease was compounded by the beginning of what is nowadays known as the Great Collapse. Due to a number of reasons whose relative influence is still hotly debated by scholars and historians specializing in that obscure period, almost all societies (with the exception of China) stopped investing in physical infrastructure and allowed their artificial environments to slowly but steadily degrade, producing energy in either more expensive ways (and with comparatively lesser yields) or through environmentally unsustainable practices (burning fossil fuels); travelling in slower, less convenient means, haphazardly maintained (as the growing number of accidents attested); building housing units and civil works using the same processes and materials developed around the middle of the previous century and making any activity more and more cumbersome by the accretion of endless rules and norms. In general, after the great advances in quality of life that took place roughly until 1970 (that went in parallel with similarly unprecedented advances in Total Factor Productivity), life in 2007 started looking suspiciously similar to what it looked like in 1990 (mobile telephony and the internet being the only appreciable changes), and even more so like what it would look like in 2057 (except, of course, in the political arena, as we will shortly see). As with technology, it is startling how little culture evolved in those times, as people in 2007 not only dressed very much like their immediate forebears, but kept hearing almost the same popular music (mostly minor developments of the styles and rhythms developed in the fifth and sixth decades of the previous century), reading the same books and watching new versions of the same movie franchises.

The lack of demographic growth plus the start of the long decline in Total Factor Productivity that came to the fore of public opinion after the 2007 crisis is identified by many as the underlying factor in the growing disenchantment with the traditional consensus of what a good society should look like, based broadly on the specifically Western trifecta of representative democracy in politics, minimally regulated free markets based on private property in economics and materialism and deference to the methods of natural science in culture. Absent economic development to provide the masses with the reasonable prospect of ever increasing wealth (based on the immediate precedent of the last two centuries, that had seen in the West roughly a doubling of the average income every generation) they came to see such consensus as an illegitimate construct to favor the elites and make them ever richer at the expense of the majority, who in the advanced economies hadn’t seen a significant increase in its average wealth since the 1980’s. It is unsurprising, seen in retrospect, that the whole system would start to unravel as soon as it was exposed as such, and the only question open to historians is why it took so long. The sequence of events is by now well known:

In the summer of 2016, more than 8 years into the Great Recession and after having barely recovered the level of economic output previous to it, the British public decided, by the slimmest majority, to leave the European Union, effectively giving the coup de grace to an institution that (as is now widely agreed) was ill-conceived from the start and had outlived its original purpose (prevent the bellicose Europeans from killing one another, as they had been doing enthusiastically and with ever growing proficiency for the last four hundred years… without realizing their bellicosity was the precondition of their inventiveness and their distinctive social evolution). In the summer of 2017 Italy had to be expelled when a banking crisis that had been festering for years (being widely acknowledged but without anybody in its surroundings doing anything to prevent it, in what came to be known as the EU standard operating procedure) finally hit and sent the interest payments on its debt soaring, making it impossible for her to comply with the deficit targets imposed by her partners. The Italian exit precipitated that of Greece (that had been on life support for almost five years under ever more demented austerity plans that were imposed for no reason at all, as none of them had the slightest chance of ever allowing her to get back on her feet), Portugal, Spain, Ireland and finally France (which clinged to her prized European membership until 2022, when Marine Le Pen won the presidential election on a platform that openly advocated breaking a relationship that a wide majority of the French saw as hopelessly subordinated to Germany). Unsurprisingly, in 2023 Germany decided to rename what was left of the European Union as RFGV (Reich der Freunde den Germanische Völker -they somehow thought that by making it an empire of friends and assuming those friends were of the Germanic and not of the German peoples the Scandinavians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, Czechs and the like would feel more comfortable… as long as they could keep on using their old euros, promptly rechristened as Neue Reichmarken, they all declared to be satisfied enough), make German the official language (with the other languages spoken as co-official in their respective regions, under the supervision of a Gauleiter), disband the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (parliament and senate) and leave the Central Bank effectively run a mildly benevolent autocratic commonwealth where elections were conveniently forgotten, given the dangers of populism they could plainly see all around them. To this day they are busily growing richer and exporting to the rest of the world high quality products (built with a technology that hasn’t changed much in a century) but having to devote growing resources to the Reichswehr, the army, whose sole and only function is to guard the frontiers and avoid any kind of illegal immigration into the Reich.

The abandonment by the most successful European polity of any visage of democratic principle came as a relief for the Asian economies, that were by then a bit tired of being hectored and harangued by the meddling Western powers about the apparent shortcomings of their democratic practices, and could turn to more autocratic forms of government (which they understood as more congenial to their traditions), growingly demanded by their graying citizenry that were quickly becoming old before they had time to become wealthy. Now most of them languish placidly, managing their shrinking populations without much fuss under the aegis of the regional hegemon. China, obviously, rules them all, and extracts rents from most of them having put them under formal vassalage in the great raids held between 2028 and 2045, and today understood as the last attempt to provide an outlet for the millions of young men with no marriage prospects (by then the surplus of males over females was well above fifteen million) and with no potential occupation, after the dramatic shrinkage of its export market in the international turmoil of the 20’s and the failure to substitute a services-centered model for the export-centered that had been dominant until then. Soon afterwards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) changed its name to Chinese Perpetually Ruling Party (CPRP) and reinstated the imperial examination system based in the Confucian classics that had served the empire so well for most of its history, declared its intention to lead an (not very originally named) “Asian Sphere of Shared Prosperity” and demanded payment from the surrounding states in exchange for the security it would provide them (security in the first place from being invaded by China itself). Those that didn’t comply were raided until the changed their minds, creating a new equilibrium that has shown to be surprisingly stable, and allowed that part of the world to escape most of the problems that have besieged the rest.

Probably Africa is the continent that has seen a most dramatic change since the beginning of the last century (with one exception we will deal with shortly), as most states that were artificially created after the decolonization wave of the second half of the XXth century have withered away. Such withering came about, in what has been a welcome departure from the norm in that continent’s tortured history, in a mostly voluntary manner. It all started with the creation of the first charter cities, as originally postulated by the economist (who in 2016 become the World’s Bank chief economist) Paul Romer, that had been proposing them for years but couldn’t find an institution with enough authority (and enough money) to underwrite them until the sad events of 2017. That year saw the concession of the first special charter, for New Lagos, in what was back then called Nigeria, whose mildly corrupt (for the admittedly low standard of the continent) rulers saw the temporal renunciation to the sovereignty over a small and empty plot of land as an acceptable price to pay in order to better extract resources from their hapless subjects (or in this case, from the crazy foreigners willing to administer a portion of those subjects and provide them with the required amenities). In less than 10 years New Lagos was one of the most vibrant cities of the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of immigrants (that were thus diverted from attempting to reach the more foreboding shores of Europe) and providing a valuable market for the produce of the surrounding hinterland, all the while paying good royalties to the Nigerian leaders that soon realized the convenience of scaling the model with new concessions. Not only Nigeria, but Congo, South Africa, Guinea, Rwanda, Sudan, Ethiopia… after 2060 even the North African countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria) were creating charter cities, and there was a growing movement towards them, where infrastructure was shiny and new, public order and safety were comparable to those in the first world (there were many reports of abuse from the draconian -and well paid- police forces trained in South Africa and Israel, but most people were willing to turn a blind eye on such details), to the extent that the old cities (literally now known with such prefix, as in “old Lagos”, “old Abuja”, “old Cairo”) were being abandoned, and only the villas of the ultra-wealthy original rulers remained, surrounded by empty shantytowns with nobody to directly rule (which suited them fine, as long as the royalties kept on coming). All in all, the move to charter cities proved to be the key masterstroke that broke the cycle of dependency of the continent and allowed most of its inhabitants to reach levels of development like those enjoyed by their Asian counterparts. As a side consequence, the explosive demographic growth that characterized the region for much of the XXth century was abruptly halted, as in their new urban life all girls had access to education and all women to contraceptives, substantially reducing the number of children they bore (the significant inflation on real state that accompanied the most successful cities acted as an additional brake to runaway fertility).

We hinted that only a continent has seen a more dramatic political change than Africa, and that is of course North America. Difficult as it may seem today to believe, at the beginning of last century the North American continent was occupied by only three countries: Mexico (encompassing modern day North Honduras, Deefelandia, Monterrey, Guerrero and Tamaulipas), Canada (in what today is Quebec and American Britain) and the USA. The latter was the first to divide, after the tumultuous election of 2016 (when it was still a single country), whose too-close-to-call outcome was hotly contested by both candidates (real estate mogul Donald Trump and career politician Hillary Clinton) and could never be adjudicated by a stalemated supreme court (which the Republican party had astutely refused to leave at less than full capacity). As the demonstrations on the streets in favor of one or the other candidate grew more rancorous and the accusations towards the “other side” became more outrageous the states back then known as “red” (mostly republican) seceded for the second time (they had already done so in  1861), this time there was no sitting president to order the army to subdue them (and the majority in that army was in favor of the republican candidate anyway, so it is highly dubious in what direction may their loyalty have laid) so the separation, presented to the rest of the world as a fait accompli and enthusiastically endorsed since the very beginning by Russia (whose president then, Vladimir Putin, had strong personal bonds with Trump’s team), was completed in a relatively bloodless way (with minor massacres of gays, blacks and latinos in the red states and openly religious old white males in the blue ones), creating the current FUSA (Free United States of America, encompassing the old South) and GUSA (Greater United States of America, in what was the old Union, plus California). An old joke of the age stated that the F in the former stood really for Fundamentalist, while the G of the latter was really for Godless.

Be it as it may, the evolution of the former hegemon (again, surprising as it may seem from our current vantage point, the old USA was by far the dominant power of the XXth century) has been in its Southern part (FUSA) a chaotic succession of urban violence (between a population armed with insane amounts of firearms which made the supposed monopoly of violence by a chronically weak and underfunded state a cruel mockery), prevalence of drugs and millenarian sects without a millennium, coups, revolutions and overall social devolution to a fragmented landscape of tribes and clans that few people from outside has the interest or the taste to comprehend. Things have not gone much better in GUSA, although it kept the more economically dynamic parts of the old country (the West Coast, the Northern half of the East Coast and the manufacturing hub around lake Michigan), as the aging of its population pushed the most talented individuals to emigrate to the moderately successful (by then) Mexican economy in search for a better climate in a stable country (the role Florida and the Sun Belt had played previously), which got overheated by the influx of ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that soon grew impatient with the level of corruption and inefficiency of the Mexican state so essentially blew it up, buying it piecemeal and giving birth to the variety of countries we know today. Back in the North, the escape of the wealthiest individuals, the accelerated demographic implosion and the overall lack of economic dynamism created a “death spiral” of ever growing taxes to fund the extravagant liabilities the state had contracted with the multiple interest groups (with little solidarity between them) that stayed within its frontiers. Such taxes, however, proved unable to prevent the public debt from reaching 500% of the country’s GDP in 2045 (5 years later the scenario would play itself again in the European lands of the German empire, and 10 years before, in 2034, it had happened in the ramshackle nations of the South) and causing finally its bankruptcy, the formal renunciation to honor its debts and keep on paying the bonds and pensions it owed to 95% of the population. To prevent the riots and revolts that ensued the 5% that by then controlled 100% of the country’s productive resources resorted, like in South Europe before (and in Northern Europe afterwards), to a suspension of democracy and rule of law, enforced by mercenary armies that had slowly replaced the national military, and were loyal to their paymasters instead of the politicians supposedly appointed to oversee them.

Thus ended the age of democracy and representative government, with the horrors of mob rule, the periodic rise of demagogues and the manipulation of the masses by canny politicians, carrying them to pitch fever to more savagely accomplish their selfish purposes as shown in the countless wars, genocides and revolutions that took place in such period, and thus arose once again the order and predictability of stable government by those most able to provide it, as had been the case for most of human history. Now we look upon those turbulent years with horror and disgust, and we barely understand the kind of motives they gave themselves for acting so selfishly and so rudely. As the work of one of the less noted historians of that dark age reminds us, it is easy to take for granted the dominant reason of our own times and think that every alternative is inferior and indefensible, but we must overcome such temptation and empathetically put ourselves in their place, understanding how their own dominant reason came to be, if only to ensure we learn from their monstrous mistakes and ensure we never again repeat them”.

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