Forecasting the future course of events is famously and notoriously hard. Some clever people (Keynes) failed at it. Some slightly less clever failed at it spectacularly (Marx, regardless of the fawning article about his prescience recently penned by Louis Menand in the New Yorker: Salvaging Marx; regarding which I can not avoid pointing out that a) no, Marx was empathetically NOT a philosopher, as much as he would have liked to… too many descriptions of contingent reality and too few considerations of necessary truths in his works; b) no, Marx was empathetically NOT a subtle & deep chronicler of early capitalism, as he could only describe, in a most disfigured way, only a portion of what happened around him whilst missing a lot of the underlying currents of why society was choosing and coalescing precisely the set of values it did by mid XIX century; and c) no, Marx was empathetically NOT an exemplar thinker and human being, as he didn’t love Jenny enough to stay true to her, he didn’t love his children enough to abandon his daydreaming and idle theorizing and investigating in his office and get a real job, however deadening and boring, to adequately provide for them and he didn’t love workers all the world over enough to leave aside his petty squabbles with other socialist “leaders” and forge a truly universal , viable, not cult-of-personality oriented movement to actually improve their lives). I’m pretty sure I’m failing at it right now and making a lot of predictions which will never come to pass. Such is the lot of the self-anointed prophet, and the only way of never being wrong is never saying anything empirically testable at all.
All this was my as usual convoluted way of stating that I don’t make predictions about Western civilization imminent downfall because I see it as my duty (the first and foremost explanation of any behavior for a Kantian like me) or because I think it will somehow hasten the occurrence of events already foreordained and thus it will facilitate the advance of the world-spirit, or of reason knowing itself, or of human conscience realizing more of its potential and thus liberating itself faster. Probably I just do it for fun, and because it helps me make sense of the apparently chaotic reality we live in, and because guessing what may be in store for us creates an illusion of meaning and purpose about the everyday events that, without such illusion, would make of history just the unintelligible succession of “one damn thing after the other” in which from any set of facts anything could follow. I once talked about Collingwood’s understanding of history as the systematic effort to put ourselves in the head of the main characters of past deeds, and to think and feel as they thought and felt back then. Similarly, a good prognosticator is he (or she) who can foresee how the future actors may think and feel, and how the decisions they will make will look like from their very particular and idiosyncratic point of view, a point of view made by a dominant reason (a set of accepted desires, an understanding of what a life well lived consists in and a criteria for bestowing social recognition) and by a shared cornucopia of ideas, common places, narratives and cultural artifacts (songs, movies, fiction books and even iconic clothes). All of which points to the fact that you shouldn’t take my predictions of doom too seriously, as a new golden age may be just around the corner as well.
However, in my last couple of posts I wasn’t exactly betting on a sustained improvement of the world’s economic conditions (except for some developing or already half-developed countries like China and India, which could still expect to see significant rates of productivity and total output growth just by implementing social technologies that the advanced West developed a good four or five decades ago). My hunch still points strongly towards a long period of stagnation in that same West, as the source of its original creativity (a dominant reason extraordinarily suited to elicit the maximum production of material goods and services from every single individual, not so much for making them happy or helping them live fulfilling lives) had already exhausted its historical cycle and had become inimical to that very same goal, so now all it could produce was rent-seeking (that will be sold as protection of innovation, albeit an innovation less and less capable of improving the average guy’s living standard), political polarization, repression along racial and class lines, a tighter grip on the total social product by a self-perpetuating elite and increasingly suboptimal arrangements to deal with the increasing pressure of a changing landscape. I have already explored the most benign scenario of how such exhaustion may play off (think Japan, in which a population ages into oblivion without much fuss, and the decreasing total output translates into less per capita wealth so slowly that nobody really much cares), and in this post I want to explore the much more unpleasant alternative of how things may be sped up by a major disruption of the relations that underlie the functioning of our society.
There are so many alternatives from which to choose one such disruption that I’ll just list a few to give my readers a taste of what I’m talking about:
· A nuclear device is detonated on a major Western city, after which martial law is indefinitely imposed for the first time in an advanced democracy since WWII, and there goes your democracy, rule of law and the like (if you think Government power over its citizens grew inordinately after Sep/11th after a bit over 3,000 deaths think about the same dynamic on steroids after 3 million). Once a “reference state” (most likely the USA, because honestly, what would you bet was the most likely target of most of today’s terrorist attempting such a coup, be they extremist Islamists, North Koreans, narcotic smugglers, crazy environmentalists or white supremacists?) suspends statutory guarantees (habeas corpus, the right to challenge one’s imprisonment in court, the right to be publicly judged and the like), free press and likely elections (who thinks about voting in a state of total war and with such level of carnage so recent) my prediction is that the rest will quietly and discreetly go down the same route without the need of such a heinous act in their own motherlands. We’ll expand on the effect of the lack of democracy later on, as it will turn out to be a common thread of most catastrophic changes.
· All-out war breaks between two major powers. As only the USA and China qualify as such for the near future, basically that means a new Sino-American war, most likely around the annexation of Taiwan (that China will attempt as soon as it economic growth seriously stalls and it stops being able to buy its excess population with additional make-believe jobs, thus resorting to aggressive nationalism to bolster the legitimacy of the CCP). Of course for the USA to take the bait and retaliate seriously after such China movement it needs to have previously excited the anti-China feelings of its own excess population to a frenzied pitch, which doesn’t require really a great leap of the imagination seeing how easily they did it against Japan in WWII. There are a number of horrific wars that may happen apart from that one (between Russia and the EU, between China and Japan, China and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, India and Pakistan, etc.) but none of them have the potential to destabilize the global system and send markets crashing down everywhere, catapulting all of us in a new Dark Age (maybe the first one would be the closer to achieving it, which makes it even less likely than it already is).
· Social revolution and breakdown of any semblance of law and order in a major Western power, devolving into civil war and major economic disruption. There are only two major powers in risk of breakdown (or rather, there are two powers were such breakdown seems more imminent, as if it happens and global economic conditions deteriorate in all the rest, sooner or later they will also become ripe for major upheaval): USA (see my post on potential outcomes after Trump loses the current election: the coming NAWNSP) and China once it stops growing above 5-6%, which is dangerously close to its current rate (that is the widely assumed rate needed to keep adding enough jobs to the labor force to absorb the masses pouring into the coastal cities escaping rural misery and underdevelopment). You may object to such analysis that the USA, albeit apparently riven by party and racial animus is a stable, well stablished democracy with more than two and a half centuries of pacific coexistence, that has weathered previous storms (like the protests against the Vietnam war and the racial riots in the seventies) and came out unscathed. I’m sceptic, as not all those centuries have been so peaceful (remember the bloodiest conflict they’ve experienced was their very own civil war in the second half of the nineteenth century) and there are two important differences between the present and any previous period of their history: the insane amount of firearms in the hands of a significant portion of the population (over 300 million guns, almost one per citizen, regardless of legal status) and the continued period of self-segregation and isolation in ever more self-contained “information bubbles” enabled by the rise of social media and the Internet. We will see the destabilizing effects of such tendencies after the loss of the election by Trump is confirmed and some of his followers accept as valid his delirious narrative of the cause being the illegitimate manipulation by a “rigged system” that has stolen what is rightfully theirs.
In any of those scenarios we would see an abrupt stop of life as we have come to know it, and a collapse of the rule of law, free trade and democratic rule. It has to be noted that in all three I see democracy being thrown under the bus to maintain the appearance of normalcy and basically to keep the shelves of supermarkets stoked and the economic engine purring. That is, what they show us is that the greater risks to our current social compact do not derive from the difficulty of aggregating the preferences of the many (something that has been difficult since the system was invented in Athens a bunch of centuries ago), but from the attempts of the few to keep its economic rules, even if that can only be achieved by sacrificing the political participation of the masses.
Not that surprising, as Dave Graeber has been maintaining for years that every time that capitalism has been presented with the choice between evolving towards a greater inclusiveness (relaxing the rules of competition or increasing redistribution for the sake of greater efficiency, say) or become more exclusionary and unequal in order to maintain the status quo it has chosen the second alternative. Indeed, the common thread that runs through much of the neoreactionary thought is that democracy has failed and should be rolled back, and what such rolling back intends to achieve is the continued functioning of the markets as we know them (nicely illustrating the validity of Graeber’s dictum).
I don’t know you, but if I had to choose between capitalism and democracy (as I see we will collectively have to do sooner rather than later: Sophie's Choice) I would probably give it a lot of thought, rather than blindly decide for the continuation of the first even if that meant renouncing to the second.
However, it may well be a false choice, as capitalism in its current (cybernetic, post-industrial, information-technology dependent) form requires a façade of democracy to draw legitimacy from, and to ensure the consent of the many that are not deriving any material benefit from it (that’s what a dominant reason is for: ensuring the acquiescence of the masses to a global system that is not specially favorable to them). I have few doubts that in the coming years we will witness a global weakening of democratic institutions, and an overall degradation of the until now widely accepted standards of what constitutes “common rule”. Such evolution will be greatly accelerated in case any of the disruptive events I described in the beginning of this post comes to pass, which would push the affected society even faster into openly totalitarian terrain. But such change is unlikely to revive the fading fortunes of our economic system, as an oppressed populace is no more likely (and may very well be even less) to participate in the currently imposed way of life as a free one. You may impose on them martial law, suspend elections, erect barriers to trade and to people’s movement, even convert current countries into homogeneous ethno-states, under permanent surveillance and strict censorship, but it won’t make them want to a) work more and b) reproduce again above maintenance level.
The reason they won’t work more is because our current system has already maximized the output that could be extracted from a given set of the population, a set whose optimal size may have very well been reached in the 70’s, and is already going down a blind alley of virtualization and immediate gratification for a minority that absorbs their attention and efforts during the most productive part of their lives and then discards them like empty shells when there is not much they can do about it. The reason they won’t reproduce is because under the current value system their life, although potentially rich in material possessions (although even that can not be taken for granted, being replaced by “virtual” possessions that is still unclear that can effectively play the same role) is ultimately poor in what makes human lives worthy of being lived, and a neo-fascistic, neo-nationalistic dystopia (doesn’t matter how racially homogeneous) is not going to get their juices flowing again and change the direction of their gonadal vote. Dominant reasons come only once, and that type of value package (it’s called romantic reason for all of you boys and girls not stepped enough in my terminology) was tried once, and found wanting.
A more interesting question than “can authoritarianism pull it off”? (whose answer is “obviously not”) would be “what changes in the set of values (in the dominant reason) would need to happen for the society adopting them becoming viable enough?” or “what should we change in the whole package to revitalize and re-energize the social system?”. I’ve attempted at various kinds of answers, from a (more or less) comprehensive manifesto (Anarcho Traditionalist Manifesto I and II and III and IV and finally V) to an idyllic vision of what an utopian future would look like, regardless of how we got there (Our sunny future I and second installment and third and last), so it’s not like I haven’t devoted much time to thinking about it. However, I also humbly recognize none of my ideas have the tiniest sliver of a chance to ever become even remotely real. What revolutions bring is misery for all and a global degradation of the material conditions of living of most. And revolutions is what we have coming our way, so better be prepared…