Saturday, October 4, 2008

The beginning is near . . .

Driving through Maine, "All Along the Watchtower" kept playing on the radio, seeming to capture the electricity in the air . . .
"Let us not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late . . . "
The Joker and the Thief.

It took Gary Shandling, of all people, to give a cogent analysis of the state of the nation during his October 3 appearance on "Real Time With Bill Maher." In a brief moment of lucidity, Shandling said that the economic crisis represented a victory for Al Qaeda, which with the September 11 attacks, provoked the U.S. into two disastrous wars that will ultimately cost us over a trillion dollars. Shandling said that the attack on the World Trade Center had been an economic attack that set into motion the events that led to the destruction of our economy. He then resumed slurring his words and leaning in uncomfortably close to Christiane Amanpour. The true Shakespearean fool.

As Daniel Pinchbeck observed, the attack on the Twin Towers was like a tarot card come to life -- the burning tower of the tarot representing the collapse of a world built on false premises.

Global capitalism would of course have come to this point on its own eventually. Any system based on the assumption of the infinite availability of resources -- and the need for massive military force to subjugate people around the world in order to exploit their labor, mine their land, cut their forests, drill their oil and water, and take their harvests -- will eventually come up against the limits of its own power.

Already, the concentration of more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands was creating tremendous instability. What remained of the middle class in the U.S. owed its continued existence to the easy availability of large lines of credit. Meanwhile, as a very small elite acquired unprecedented wealth -- to the point where they could afford to lose tens of billions of dollars, and so risk became a negligible factor, leading them to put huge amounts of money into the riskiest investments on the off chance of tremendously high returns. These investments expanded the credit bubble to the point of its inevitable bursting.

That was of course hastened by the siphoning of money into a substantially privatized war, rising gas prices as oil runs out, and the diminished ability of a military tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan to maintain "order" around the world.

George Kennan famously wrote:
"We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.”
We have now reached the next stage -- the stage where straight power has reached its limit. The U.S. is no longer able to force other countries to submit to its will. New power blocks are emerging -- like the alliance between the new governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru -- carving out space for social, political and economic experiments.

Empires don't die easily of course. As the economy collapses, there is fear of massive unrest at home -- and an ominous sign that we may be on the verge of seeing a level of violent repression not seen in this country since the early part of the twentieth century.

The Army Times reported on September 30 that:
"The 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team has spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq patrolling in full battle rattle, helping restore essential services and escorting supply convoys.

"Now they’re training for the same mission — with a twist — at home.

"Beginning Oct. 1 for 12 months, the 1st BCT will be under the day-to-day control of U.S. Army North, the Army service component of Northern Command, as an on-call federal response force for natural or manmade emergencies and disasters"
This marks the first time in recent history that a full combat brigade has been assigned a long-term mission on U.S. soil. (Troops were sent to Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973 in response to the American Indian Movement's occupation of the site of the Wounded Knee massacre to protest the brutality and corruption of the tribal government on the reservation.)

The Brigade is subject to activation under an executive order that essentially authorizes the institution of martial law in the event of an emergency -- including an economic emergency. As Matthew Rothschild writes:

"'In Bush's National Security Presidential Directive 51, he lays out his authority in the event of a catastrophic emergency. In such an emergency, 'the President shall lead the activities of the Federal Government for ensuring constitutional government' and will coordinate with state, local, and tribal governments, along with private sector owners of infrastructure.

"NSPD 51 defines a catastrophic emergency as 'any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government function.'

"Notice the use of the word 'or' above. In our current circumstances, it might be more relevant to read the definition this way: 'any incident . . . that results in extraordinary levels of . . . disruption severely affecting the U.S. . . . economy.'

"President Bush could declare a catastrophic emergency today. And he'd have the 3rd Infantry, First Brigade Combat Team, well trained from its years patrolling Iraq, at his disposal here at home."

All of this marks the final phase of what Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos has described as the Fourth World War -- the war in which global capitalism, no longer restrained by opposition from the Soviet bloc, attempts to gain complete domination. Of course, in a universe governed by entropy, any attempt to obtain total domination courts disaster. As Marcos wrote in 1997:

"Unlike the third world war, in which the conflict between capitalism and socialism took place over a variety of terrains and with varying degrees of intensity, the fourth world war is being conducted between major financial centres in theatres of war that are global in scale and with a level of intensity that is fierce and constant.

"The ineptly-named cold war actually reached very high temperatures: from underground workings of international espionage to the interstellar space of Ronald Reagan’s famous 'Star Wars'; from the sands of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam; from the frenzy of the nuclear arms race to the vicious coups d’├ętat in Latin America; from the menacing manoeuvres of NATO armies to the machinations of the CIA agents in Bolivia, where Che Guevara was murdered. The combination of all this led to the socialist camp being undermined as a world system, and to its dissolution as a social alternative.

"The third world war showed the benefits of 'total war' for its victor, which was capitalism. In the post-cold war period we see the emergence of a new planetary scenario in which the principal conflictual elements are the growing importance of no-man’s-lands (arising out of the collapse of the Eastern bloc countries), the expansion of a number of major powers (the United States, the European Union and Japan), a world economic crisis and a new technical revolution based on information technology.

"Thanks to computers and the technological revolution, the financial markets, operating from their offices and answerable to nobody but themselves, have been imposing their laws and world-view on the planet as a whole. Globalisation is merely the totalitarian extension of the logic of the finance markets to all aspects of life. Where they were once in command of their economies, the nation states (and their governments) are commanded - or rather telecommanded - by the same basic logic of financial power, commercial free trade. And in addition, this logic has profited from a new permeability created by the development of telecommunications to appropriate all aspects of social activity. At last, a world war which is totally total!

"One of its first victims has been the national market. Rather like a bullet fired inside a concrete room, the war unleashed by neoliberalism ricochets and ends by wounding the person who fired it. One of the fundamental bases of the power of the modern capitalist state, the national market, is wiped out by the heavy artillery of the global finance economy. The new international capitalism renders national capitalism obsolete and effectively starves their public powers into extinction. The blow has been so brutal that sovereign states have lost the strength to defend their citizens’ interests.

"The fine showcase inherited from the ending of the cold war - the new world order - has shattered into fragments as a result of the neoliberal explosion. It takes no more than a few minutes for companies and states to be sunk - but they are sunk not by winds of proletarian revolution, but by the violence of the hurricanes of world finance.

"The son (neoliberalism) is devouring the father (national capital) and, in the process, is destroying the lies of capitalist ideology: in the new world order there is neither democracy nor freedom, neither equality nor fraternity. The planetary stage is transformed into a new battlefield, in which chaos reigns."
Chaos is a dynamic force, allowing the emergence of the space where the "intercourse between creation and destruction" allow the emergence of new worlds.

The New Yorker ran a cartoon last year in which a fish with legs emerged onto the beach holding a sign that said "The Beginning is Near."

For most of us, no matter how radical our politics, imagining life outside capitalism is no smaller a conceptual leap than it would be for a fish to imagine life outside water. For five centuries, capitalism, and its underlying ideology which defines the world as a machine has defined our culture's shared reality. Even socialism accepted the basic assumptions of capitalism -- the assumption that the ideal path for humanity to take was the maximization of production, disputing only the questions of who should control the means of production and how the fruits of production should be distributed. We are now entering an era where it is abundantly clear that living a life based on those assumptions is a recipe for disaster in a universe where matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, and where the only economies that are truly sustainable are those which honor and embrace our places in cycles of life and death, give and take, where the survival of the individual is deeply dependent on the survival of the community and the planet.

Elements of the new world are already taking shape: growing resurgences of herbalism, homebirth midwifery, homesteading, permaculture, gleaning, and localized barter networks in the U.S., the creation of liberated autonomous zones by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, and even aspects of the national projects in Bolivia and Ecuador where socialism, indigenous traditions, and participatory democracy are interwoven in the fabric of a different kind of society. Ecuador's new Constitution outlines concepts essential to the formation of sustainable and just institutions in a post-fourth world war world. Helga Serrano and Eduaro Tamayo outline some of the key provisions of this Constitution:

"The constitution combines a series of progressive traits that overcome some of Ecuador's current inequalities, discrimination, and injustices, such as the following: the balanced living concept (sumak kawsay), which implies living in harmony with oneself, society, and nature; nature's right to assure 'the maintenance and regeneration of its vital cycles, structure, functions, and evolutionary processes'; national diversity and collective rights; the right to water and the prohibition of its privatization; food sovereignty and the permanent right to secure food sources; the right to communication, and access to public, private, and community media.

"The new constitution also has a chapter on the prioritization of national production in its economy. In regards to development, it recognizes the 'group of economic, political, social, cultural, and environmental systems that guarantees the realization of the balanced life, sumak kawsay.' This means that economic growth is not the only priority as a means to reach development; instead, it is considered an integrated vision. It proposes, among other things, 'to build a fair, democratic, productive, solidarity-based, and sustainable economic system founded on the equitable distribution of development benefits, means of production, and the generation of dignified and stable work.' (Article 276)."
All of this, of course, describes only a process of transition, a framework that creates the space for something new to emerge -- animated by something very old, the pre-capitalist understanding of the world as alive that was shared by Earth-based cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. An idea that was suppressed but never completely destroyed by the Enclosure movement and the witch burnings in Europe, the genocidal campaign against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the kidnapping and enslavement of countless millions of Africans.

As the culture that perpetrated that violence falls and its myth of domination and control begins to disintegrate, older worlds that never completely died are beginning to regenerate and re-emerge. Cultures driven to the edge of oblivion won't re-emerge in their original forms -- they will evolve in new forms that arise from the conditions of their re-emergence. In many places those forms will be hybrids that reflect the history of people ripped away from different places and different traditions interacting in new places. Exactly what will emerge is beyond our imaginations.

But it is abundantly clear that the beginning is near.

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