Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2014... and welcome to it

David Seaton's News Links
Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future.
Niels Bohr

The future ain't what it used to be.
Yogi Berra
As luminaries such as Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra have pointed out, trying to predict the future is a mug's game... And at year's end political commentators are urged to enter a field best left to astrologers. We are almost always proved wrong, and yet every year we give it a try.

My clearest reading of 2014's tea leaves is "instability": worldwide instability and in my opinion this instability has its origins at the heart of the most developed economies of the western world.

The causes?

We are undergoing a technological revolution and process of globalized outsourcing, combined with a reduction of the welfare state that is severely degrading the middle class in developed countries and converting them slowly, but surely into working-poor.

Anyone who has read a bit of history could tell you how dangerous that is.
To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Pope Francis - Washington Post

 Nouriel Roubini describes how this could play out:
Over time, advanced economies will need to invest in human capital, skills and social safety nets to increase productivity and enable workers to compete, be flexible and thrive in a globalized economy. The alternative is – like in the 1930s - unending stagnation, depression, currency and trade wars, capital controls, financial crisis, sovereign insolvencies, and massive social and political instability. Nouriel Roubini - Project Syndicate
Notice that Roubini puts emphasis on investing in "social safety nets", which is exactly the opposite of what is happening. Roubini says not doing this will lead to "massive social and political instability".

People are fearful; helpless in the face of forces that they cannot control and it does not appear that the representatives that the people elect are able to control those forces... and meanwhile the suspicion grows among the people that said representatives are perhaps unwilling to try to control those forces and come to the aid of their voters, because the politicians are, in fact, merely the paid servants of an extractive, oligarchical, elite and not representing the people who voted for them at all.

It might be pointed out that enough people coming to this conclusion would be dangerous for the smooth running of the system.

This "democratic deficit" comes about at a moment when the traditional left: unions, socialists, social democrats and intellectuals of the left and such like seem to have abandoned any intention of producing a radical critique of the system,  a system which is devastating precisely those whom they came into being to protect...  Which came first in this case, the chicken or the egg, is something left for historians to work out, but if the organized left abstains from rising to the challenge, that leaves the field to fringe movements and to the ultra-right.

What exactly is the left or what is it supposed to be? Aesop defined it thousands of years ago in the following fable:
The Four Oxen and the Lion
A Lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four. Moral: United we stand, divided we fall.
The weak unite to protect themselves from the strong.  When, lured into complacency by their collective success, they come to value their individuality over their solidarity, the strong soon devour them (see graph above).

Cutting to the chase, this dereliction of the organized left is leading inevitably to the rise of (shudder) "populism".

What is populism?
Populism [pŏpˈyə-lĭzˌəm]
a. A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.
b. The movement organized around this philosophy.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
That is a pretty tame definition. Usually "populism" is a pejorative term indicating  a sham left: unscrupulous demagogues exciting ignorant mobs of fanatics, often ultra-nationalist, racist and xenophobic, and these demagogues who exploit fear and anger and their mobs are often manipulated and financed by the same "elites" they are purporting to attack. Hitler's being financed by German industrialists is one example, the Koch brothers financing the Tea Party is another.

Trying to monitor and control a situation of inequality and massive downward mobility where the bonds of trust and solidarity between the people and those they have voted to guard, serve and protect them have been loosened or broken fosters the sort of mentality that leads to the abuses that Edward Snowden has recently uncovered: Jefferson versus Orwell, with Orwell way ahead on points.

This degrading of many basic principals of the shared American identity and the resulting disunity and political paralysis produced by it, is a form of dry rot that has a way of spreading outwards into every corner of the globe where the USA was once a stabilizing factor, if not exactly a "force for good".

In the more vulnerable areas the rot shows a violent and bloody face. Witness the chaos of the Middle East and much of Africa at this moment.

But it is not just in the poor, disorganized countries of those unfortunate regions where the rot is visible.

It should be noted that the prime ministers of two of the United States' closest allies Japan and Israel would both be classed as ultra-rightest demagogues or even fascists by the American media if instead of being close allies their countries were confronting the USA.
Mission for the Western media:  Manage the cognitive dissonance between comforting myth and disturbing reality for the sake of its faithful readers. Peter Lee - Counterpunch
Israel and Japan are not alone, Greece, Holland, Britain and France are also witnessing a rise of the racist, xenophobic, ultra-right.

So I think it is safe to say that in 2014 we will see more effects of this growing instability, what exactly those effects will be is nearly impossible to predict, because there are too many players with too many variables that are too interconnected to forecast accurately how far the slide into chaos could take us.

Situations like this have led to disasters in the past.

Pessimists like to remind us that 2014 is the hundredth anniversary of World War One.

Perhaps we can take comfort that, unlike the run up to the hecatomb of 1914, today we are certainly not living in any Belle Époque. DS


walt said...

Right-wing populism is the ultimate mind-fuck. The Republican Party has used it over the past 40-some years to worsen social democracy and give license to economic oligarchs, thereby creating a positive feedback loop for middle-class stress. The worse it gets, the better the Republicans do.

It's probably something to do with the reptilian brain, but the stressed don't seem to blame the rich who increasingly take the lion's share of wealth for themselves. They blame those on the ladder's rungs below them, particularly racial and ethnic minorities. I talk to these people but you can't reason with them - once the toxin is ingested, it takes over. The explanations for their misery are so juicy and satisfying. Liberals want to give everything away to these "others"! You have to fight back!

Still, given all the hysteria about the mild-mannered centrist Obama, you might think political violence would already be evident. Maybe it's all a feint. But the Republican Party keeps getting crazier and that, perhaps, is the real clue. There's no downside risk here to a party that exploits social friction. At some point, the cold civil war releases magma from below. There's simply too much anger floating out there. My prediction: violence finally cracks the silent ground and the future engages with startling force.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Great comment, thanks.