3. Late-Modernity (2)
From Animism to religions and philosophies there was a common understanding that material possessions do not bring about real happiness, but only a shade of it that soon is bound to dissipate (1), so those worldviews made it a central tenet of their narrative to fight back greed by promoting simplicity, humility and societal responsibility.
Contrary to those past worldviews modernity affirmed itself by claiming centrality for individualism and the “private right to ownership” for its initiators the early long distance merchants and bankers. The church as guarantor of the worldview at that time did not directly oppose that right but forbade the financial instruments of its execution as Islam still does today. This was nevertheless easily circumvented by encouraging Jews to practice banking. Not adhering to Christianity they escaped the authority of the church and in the process they secured for themselves an invaluable niche at wealth generation that they largely control to this very day at least in the Western hemisphere. The stage was thus set for individualism to flourish and the success of its initiators and practitioners ultimately drove more and more citizens to envy them. This, in the last instance, is what motivated people to try to emulate the private owners who had gained their richness by applying the reason of capital in their commercial endeavors.
Along the path of its incremental application over some five centuries the reason of capital gradually imposed itself as the reason and explanation of almost everything. Philosophers absorbed it and rationalized it into what came to be known as rationalism. We saw how the new rationalists were also dabbling in technical applications that would equip early industrialization. It was like a grand move of pragmatic people in search of ways to generate profits in order to acquire always more material possessions. (1)
With the advent of competition between offers (individualism in the offer of products) was born the need to give all consumers the right to choose what products they preferred to buy. This same mechanism was then extended to free choice on the market for ideas and political initiatives. Mass consumerism ensued and so was established the centrality of the individual atom over any societal concern. To get their votes politicians started to promise the moon to their constituents and while in power they renegaded on most of those promises. Along the 20th century they nevertheless put in place social systems to please their constituents in reelecting them; systems that today appear difficult to continue to finance and also difficult to terminate due to popular pressure to maintain them in place.
Thus was set in motion the 'illusionist' perspective of absolute personal free-will. While this was arguably having a rather benign effect in the field of consumerism it was altogether another ballgame in the field of ideas and political choice. The moment that ideas were left to the personal choice of the individuals an inescapable process was set in motion:
While the societal disconnect with the production of ideas is sufficient in itself for wrecking much societal damage it is furthermore being multiplied by the societal disconnect that has been fostered on the management of society itself by the devolution to the individuals of the choice of its managers (politicians). The devolution to the individuals of the choice of the managers should, in normal circumstances, be seen as something positive because it fosters the idea of higher levels of trust in the institutions. But when applied to societies at large, I mean large societies, this principle is being trampled upon by the social structures of power.
While in small groups all individuals know the others and can thus make a reasoned judgment the story is different in large groups where individuals have no means to know everyone. When people don't know the ones proposing themselves for election reasoned choice is excluded. Other parameters impose themselves as the motivators of individual choice and among those the money necessary to finance campaigns figures on the highest echelon. Where does the money come from? Is total transparency in donations really possible?
If some individuals who have access to the knowledge about the working of the political decision making process can eventually make reasoned choices the same can't be said of the great majority of citizens who have only an impressionistic understanding at best of that decision making process.
For the great majority their parameters of choice are no more than the parameters of manipulation by those who control the finances. The game is thus rigged before it even starts. When manipulation through financing of campaigns is at the heart of popular choice the only possible outcome is for political decisions to reflect the interest of those who finance the election campaigns. There is no avoiding that reality. So the question thus becomes how could such a decision making process be compatible with the societal good or the common good. In other words how could we possibly equate the private interest of some with societal interest at large? History repeatedly witnessed that the interest of those who monopolize the power over the social stratification ladder is incompatible with the interests of society at large.
In our age of financialization and globalization it is no secret that financial institutions and big multinational corporations in the fields of finance, energy, technology, materials, equipments and so on, control the levers of political power. Their interests relate to the maximization of the generation of surpluses from their worldwide activities. This explains also the control of the “think-thanks” to forge the views of opinion leaders; and the control of media in so few hands in order to manipulate public opinion. This can in no way be reconciled with the interests of national societies nor with the fundamental interests of humanity.
Manipulation is indeed the main form taken by Western politics during Late-Modernity. Democracy is still useful as a slogan and a manipulation strategy to contain popular opinion. But the fact is that in Late-Modernity the vehicles of the reason of capital are the big corporations that surf over national borders in complete disregard of national societal interests as well as in complete disregard of the interests of humanity or even the principle of life itself. Presently held secret negotiations, about the formation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) an agreement that covers Pacific Rim economies and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) a new trade pact with the European Union, amply confirm the total disregard for societal matters by those who are swayed by the mechanics at work in the reason of capital (2).
I already mentioned earlier that, under the sway of the reason of capital, humanity abdicated all responsibility for matters of vital interest to itself. We have indeed reached the point when our survival as a specie appears less important to us than our returns on invested capital. For sure most people have no capital invested to start with but they also have no say in the decisions whose societal outcomes a minority fosters on all of us. We should think that now that we all are anxiously lost in societal atomization we have nothing to lose any longer and might finally question why we should further accept that returns on invested capital are possibly left trumping the survival of humanity. But seen the advanced level of institutionalized manipulation of the individuals' thought processes and the spying for any individual deviances it appears that the questioning I just mentioned will be shoveled under the rug where it will be kept at bay from the reach of inquisitive eyes and minds. This leads me to conclude that human will is going to play no more than a marginal role in the great societal rebalancing act that is taking place in Late-Modernity.
3.4. A collapsing Modernity
Animism collapsed after the emergence of agriculture. Having moved in particularly fertile areas women were unconsciously engaging in incremental steps, as the hands of mother nature, dispersing seeds which led to ever expanding concentrations of a few wild cereals while in the neighboring less fertile areas life continued to flow on its ancestral path. Advantageous geographic conditions favored thus the emergence of slow change toward agriculture and when the inhabitants of such areas were starting to benefit from higher yields their population started to grow which in turn caused changes in the organization of those societies that shifted their matriarchal tradition to a patriarchal path of organization. The process was very slow and took many thousand years to take root. It was furthermore unevenly spread geographically. Some remote areas are still living in hunter plucker economic mode to this very day but the totalitarian push of Modernity reduces those to rare exceptions.
The emergence of agriculture unleashed the grouping of tribes in early kingdoms. Those early kingdoms that succeeded to reproduce themselves eventually expanded into early empires and those that were successful at reproducing themselves eventually expanded into the fully fledged empires history remembers us about. The successful reproduction of those organizational structures was rendered possible by the gluing of the mind of their citizens through the sharing of a common understanding of reality. Such worldviews were spreading to the territories controlled by empires and persisted inside newer societal organizational forms after the fall of those empires. This process was slow but compared to the emergence of agriculture it was a lot faster already.
The advent of modernity will rapidly put a dent in the societal edifice of worldviews. Because modernity itself is not really a worldview it did not succeed wiping out past worldviews altogether. The advent of modernity was also an uneven geographic affair. It started in 13th century Europe as a consequence of long distance trade in Middle Eastern luxuries that had been discovered by the European aristocracy during the crusades. It eventually matured during the 18th-19th centuries into fully fledged industrialization and expanded to the European satellite states around the world. The expansion of modernity to the whole world was imposed by the Northern countries particular situation in Late-Modernity. The slowing, and eventually the stalling, of their economic growth motivated their big capital holders to expand their reach to the rest of the world.
In economic terms Late-Modernity corresponds indeed to the stalling of economic growth in industrialized countries. Economic models had been built on the assumption that industrialized economies would continue growing under the impact of ever increasing productivity. But it appears that from 1980 till today the US grew only as far as it financed such growth with debt. Having reached this threshold where finance starts to question the viability of continued increases in indebtedness a consensus is starting to forge that total national debt levels have to come down to the level of the historical mean which in the US is around 160% of GDP.
We should let sink in the meaning of this consensus in the forging. When the action implied by such a consensus will start to be implemented the US will discover that it has to deleverage by an amount of something as 200% of GDP!
However you turn the problem around the conclusion is that:
So it seems that there was a flaw in economic thinking. Productivity has grown constantly from 1980 till 2010 even with no real economic growth. This should put to rest the hypothesis that there is a direct correlation between increased productivity and economic growth. Increased economic growth between 1980 and 2010 was the result of unsustainable indebtedness while increased productivity was the result of artificially pumping up the figures of growth through debt finance.
Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a last try to circumvent the necessity of deleveraging (3). In one word this theory, that was known since times immemorial to political decision makers, claims that by recovering its power at money creation the state can:
Late-Modernity is indeed this very particular period in the history of modernity when industrialized and industrializing countries witness a great convergence of:
This great convergence is unleashing an uncontrollable process of disintegration of what modernity had so painstakingly built-up in the Northern countries. This process of disintegration is furthermore accelerated by globalization and the climbing into industrialization of the rest of the world that exponentially increases the footprint of humanity:
All the conditions are visibly converging for a worldwide societal shaking of modernity into collapse.
3.5. A painful transition to what comes after modernity
If modernity is on the path of its collapse this begs answering what that means in terms of its impact on our daily lives in the future. There certainly is no available photography of the landscape of what comes after modernity so we are left with one option and one option only; that is to try to spot characteristics in the present situation that are going to shape the big trends that will eventually form the skeleton supporting humanity's societal future. This is the subject of part 4 of my discussion about modernity.
My goal in this part 3 about Late-Modernity is to try to shed some light onto the transition we are slowly engaging in that is going to set us on the path to what comes after-modernity. Transitions are the most difficult periods in history because they forcefully detach us from what we perceived as certainties in the period just before and place us on unknown ground going forward. Societal transitions are akin to bifurcation points in chaos theory when order dissolves into disorder and from the chaos are slowly emerging a multitude of possibilities that could each pave the way toward the future. What are those possibilities? How are they going to measure up? Which one among those possibilities is going to be selected as the paradigm of After-Modernity? I'll try here to give a general view of the factors that are going to determine the range of those possible futures.
3.5.1. Facing a new economic reality
The architects of globalization and financialization had perhaps no final outcome in mind (of the 'end of history' type) when they thought in the sixties and seventies about the expansion of the territory where they would be allowed to accumulate surpluses. But, apart from the collapse of modernity there is an outcome to that story, an outcome that was assuredly not on the minds of the strategists, economists, lawyers and other specialists who labored on the set-up of the system. That outcome is the overtaking by the rest of the world of the industrialized countries at their own game. A game they always thought they would be able to continue to manipulate in their own profit for ever.
That grand strategy of globalization is now in tatters but its promoters are still not ashamed of their initial hubris. They have found a new subterfuge. It's the fault of the rest of the world if the game did not play out as planned by them for the West. In their words: “The rest of the world plays the game of modernity without respecting the rules”. The rules of the game had been initially defined by Western powers and now that the 90% participate at that game they eventually are rewriting the rules to make them fit their own reality... Is there something to criticize about that rewriting of the rules? I understand that Western strategists should be pissed off but hey this is the world of real economics - not the world of a fantasized Eurocentric truth.
It is high time that we in the West understood that if we had been playing “our” game by respecting its rules and not by acting as the master who bends the rules at will when their outcome is not convenient we should today be in a vastly stronger moral position. But while imposing its rules on the rest of the world for so long the West was bending those rules to conform to its direct convenience and this continues to be the case to this very day. How could the rest of the world not shout injustice when the north is imposing the strong medicine of bankruptcies as a means to liquidate excessive indebtment, which the IMF and other Western Centric world bodies defines as the cure for countries in financial difficulties while not applying that medicine to itself, more particularly in the US, when in the same kind of difficulties?
How about military interventions in the name of democracy or human rights when regimes are not sympathetic to Western views but a policy of closed eyes when regimes are sympathetic to its views? The examples just are so abundant that even a Western impartial observer can only conclude that these are not exceptions to the rules but a systematic bending of the rules for reason of convenience. The arrogance of Western power seems indeed to have no bounds. Understanding the axioms of the Western civilization helps explain the how and why of this arrogance. At the same time this arrogance is ultimately questioning the use of the axioms it is build on. I bet that their chance to make it into After-Modernity is null.
The West and other countries that make up “the North” have reached an economic impasse in the form of a debt trap that can only be cured through a radical deleveraging. That means that total debts have to come down substantially:
There is no other alternative here. Hope in future miracles will only amplify the problem by accumulating ever more debt on top of the existing ones. What is certain is whatever the solution envisaged the economic pain will be severe and the outcome of the deleveraging process will leave a vastly changed economic landscape. In other words material life conditions in the North are going to deteriorate further for many years to come while the life conditions of the citizens of some parts of the rest of the world are going to improve further.
From a geostrategic perspective this also means that the relative advantage of early modernization that the West and North have benefited from along the last centuries in terms of power projection is coming to an end. This means that the North is going to have to adapt to a level of influence more in tune with the level of its population and its relative size among the world population. In the end economic might in Late-Modernity, and by extension geostrategic influence, comes down to the mass of consumers you represent. So much is a certainty.
Now we should never forget that since the collapse of the Soviet Union the US has been pouring financial resources in its military-industrial complex at such a wild rate that its total defense related spending is higher than the combined spending by the rest of the world. This has assuredly given it a serious edge over its competitors in terms of means of destruction. The radical question here is: did the country spend so much of its capital to simply let it depreciate while its economy turns sour? I don't think so. All the evidence points to the fact that the US is going to try projecting its destructive power further down the road in the hope to extract economic advantages against those who threaten to overtake it.
Only one country seriously threatens to overtake the US today. It is China and it appears that its GDP on a PPP base has already overtaken the US. How is the relationship between the two going to evolve? There are a few scenarios being expressed out there by strategists. I personally feel that, while laying low and playing weak, China has reached the point where it possibly can utter the dreaded word 'check and mat' as in the game of checkers. China has not the kind of military capability the West has but it has patiently accumulated a reserve of US currency of such a magnitude that it has the potential of annihilating the financial position of the United States at any moment of its choosing. How is that? Well it's simple indeed. Suffice for China to propose this amount of USD for sale on the world currencies market for the USD to collapse to a fraction of its value. China would lose big for sure but hey it is only one trillion dollars while the adversary is being wrung to the mat. No one killed but the war would be over nevertheless. How would the US maintain its economy on its feet and better yet how would it pay to fill the tanks of its navy carriers, bombers, fighters jets and so on after having used up its initial reserves of fuel? The response to that argument by geo-strategists is that the costs for China would be too high to bear. But a trillion dollars, it looks to me, is trifle compared to the many many trillions a real conflict between the two would cost? So?
I feel that while the US has a preponderant advantage in military terms China has already reached the point where it can, if it so decided, 'mat' the US economy, the value of its currency, and its world reserve currency status. In all logic this asymmetric balance of terror is de-facto annihilating the military capabilities of the West and imposing a status quo. China has thus a few more years at it disposal to complete its industrialization and foster its science and technology capabilities. When this is done China will be in a position to defend itself against any kind of aggression. Now the West is frightened as hell of a well armed China and in their nightmares its leaders see China taking over, colonizing, the world. But this is no more than Western axioms of civilizations projecting a possible Chinese behavior. The reality is that China is not going to act according to Western axioms of civilization but according to their own axioms and the most probable outcome of Chinese economic dominance is a retreat of China on itself devoting its energies on the research of sustainable ways forward for its nation. Those who don't visualize what is coming our way should reflect on the deep meaning of the following graphs.
The Chinese are already well aware that the future shall not be a carbon copy of Western Modernity. Their leaders know about peak energy and other resources. Their leaders know about climate change. Their leaders know about Modernity's multiple side-effects. Their leaders are also well aware of the reason of capital's power to take over the working of the human mind. The proof they know is in their policies addressing those situations. Yes while dragging their country into Modernity at full speed the Chinese are actively thinking and elaborating policies in response to all those problems while the West is talking or even denying that there is a problem at all. What the Chinese want is to preserve the capability of their nation to move forward along the lines of their own axioms of civilization and worldview.
126.96.36.199. The population time bomb
“There seems to be a growing consensus among ecological footprint analysts that the Earth is incapable of supporting more than two billion people if everyone were to live a lifestyle equivalent to a northern European (using about half of the energy that the average American uses). A few researchers have factored in the already accrued damage to the Earth ecosystems from human overpopulation and over consumption and concluded that we have long passed the point at which the planet has even this level of carrying capacity. We have so damaged the Earth's systems already, and there is high momentum in causing further damage due to the long-term lags in the kinds of impacts we have had, that some estimates for the future carrying capacity of the planet may be in the tens of millions. That is three orders of magnitude below where we are today.” (4)
Ecological footprint analysts are those scientists who specialize in the study of the impact of population on their environment. If those guys are reaching a consensus among themselves “that the Earth is incapable of supporting more than two billion people if everyone were to live a lifestyle equivalent to ... using about half of the energy that the average American uses” this should make us think about the absurdity of our predicament as a living species.
Is it reasonable, is it rational, for us as a species to reject the best knowledge available which says that our uncontrolled individual reproduction puts us collectively on the verge of a collapse of humanity and eventually its extinction? I know some who accept the argument but answer this question by saying “so be it but I'll not change a thing in my own life style”. From the standpoint of the principle of life or from a societal standpoint this assuredly is the most irresponsible of any possible answers. I have been hearing the same kind of non-sense since decades. I became indeed concerned by humanity's predicament since the seventies... some forty years ago. And while the situation that I describe has rapidly deteriorated and proved my argument to be right the conundrum for humanity has only worsened. Fortunately since forty years ago a small but growing portion of the populations of Northern countries have come to understand that conundrum. But, induced through financialization and globalization, the rest of the world (90% of the world population) is taking the same road that the West took which brought us where we are. So the conundrum for humanity has worsened and by very much indeed!
As Georges Mobius states “There will be no avoidance of the central issue. There are too many of us, we haven't really stopped growing, and the resources for support are on the verge of collapse. Just to see how desperate the situation is, in all of my systems dynamics modeling of population there emerged only one potential way to mitigate the worst effects — not eliminate them, but minimize them. Consider this as a Gedanken experiment; a “what would happen if” question? And that “way” involves the immediate sterilization of over 98% of the population and instigating a near zero growth rate based on a breeding population of fewer than 140 million people. The total population would immediately start to decline, especially noticeable in populations with a large “boomer” bubble. Within thirty years it could be down to half (3.5 billion) or fewer. And in one hundred years it would be down to a potentially sustainable level, depending on how the ecosystems respond to climate. Even a rapidly declining population would still put huge pressures on the Earth's resources, but they would be less than letting things work themselves out naturally. This is a dramatic result and shows just how much trouble we are in as a species. I am not suggesting that this should be done. In fact, such a dramatically reducing population would create a new set of problems with respect to the comfort and well being of those still living. I offer this to show just how much we are in a double bind. Even if it were technically possible, we would need to ask which of the two evils is the worst (see: The Hardest Moral Dilemma of All). I can't claim to know an answer.” (2)
Alleluia. I don't have an answer either. The fact that we don't seem to find reasonable solutions to our problems implies that the transition to what comes after modernity is going to be fraught with natural selection type solutions. Part of such solutions will come as a result of the competition between nations. Some nations will not be able to answer their population problems – or in economic terms, or in health terms, or in terms of failing societal cohesion, or as the military result of confrontation – giving other nations an eventual chance to maximize their chances at survival. Part of the solutions will be imposed by the invisible hand of natural selection that could take the form of various natural cataclysms due to climate change or shrinking fertility rates or the disappearance of drinking water or the raining away of their arable land or so many other possible causes that could wipe whole nations from the map.
We can't possibly divine the nature of those future events but what we know for a sure fact is that in the area coming after modernity the world population is going to be stabilized at a much lower level than what it is today and this is unmistakably going to be traumatic for the generations that will be living through the transition from Modernity to After-Modernity.
1. See Artsense. 2.3. The opening of the gates. Pages 97-110
2. TPP and TTIP: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement that covers Pacific Rim economies and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a new trade pact with the European Union. A good analysis of what is going on here is given in "The Next Corporate-Friendly Trade Pact" by Cole Stangler in 'In These Times'.
3. MMT: Modern Monetary Theory.
4. "Seven Billion and Counting" by Georges Mobius. in "Question Everything" October 31, 2011
5. Living Planet Report 2002. Published in June 2002 by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature. “The Living Planet Index is the average of three sub-indices measuring changes in forest, freshwater, and marine ecosystems. It fell by 37 per cent between 1970 and 2000. The dotted line indicates the most recent period, for which fewer data are available. ”
6. Living Planet Report 2002. Published in June 2002 by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature. “The ecological footprint is a measure of humanity’s use of renewable natural resources. It grew by 80 per cent between 1961 and 1999, to a level 20 per cent above the Earth’s biological capacity. It is expressed as number of planets, where one planet equals the total biologically productive capacity of the Earth in any one year. Natural resource consumption can exceed the planet’s productive capacity by depleting the Earth’s natural capital, but this cannot be sustained indefinitely. ”
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