August 29, 2011

The shape of things to come

I tend to be generally optimistic about progress in almost all areas of life. For example, I think we are making progress on important areas of social values. We have seen huge improvements in attitudes on race and gender and it is only a matter of a short time before equal rights for gays will also be taken for granted. The rights of animals are also increasingly being respected. Compared to even just a century ago, we have made tremendous advances in expanding the circle of those we think worthy of treating justly.

On the religious front too, the prognosis is good. I think the decline of religion is irreversible. We may never be able to eliminate religion completely but relegating it to irrelevancy is likely although that will take time and pockets of religious fervor will continue to exist. I think that religion will end up like astrology, something that never goes away but becomes largely harmless, with those who take it seriously being looked upon with amused indulgence.

When it comes to the environment, I have mixed feelings. While there is some serious concern about the degradation we have caused, I think that there is still hope that it can be turned around and that we have not passed the point of no return.

The one exception to this generally sunny outlook is when I turn my gaze to the economic and political situation in the US. Here I think the future looks very bleak indeed and I see nothing but disaster in store. The rapacious looting by the oligarchy, the domestic war being waged to further impoverish the poor and middle class, the interminable and multiplying foreign wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, the semi-war in Pakistan, and possible soon-to-be wars in Iran and Syria), coupled with a political system that seems increasingly disconnected from reality, have created the conditions for collapse.

The US ruling class elite are in a state that is typically found during the last gasp of an empire: greedy, wasteful, bloated, hypocritical, contemptuous of the needs and feelings of the mass of people, arrogant in its view that its military supremacy will enable it to meet all challenges, and unmindful of the rot that is eating away at the foundations of the republic

I occasionally get the question as to what we should do to reverse this trend. To be quite honest, I don't know that we can. I feel like we are on a massive ocean liner headed straight towards a reef. Although the speed does not seem to be that great, the sheer momentum of the massive vessel is such that there is nothing that can be done to stop or reverse its direction in time before the crash occurs, even assuming that the people on the bridge commanding the vessel (i.e., the oligarchs) want to do so. The only thing to be done is to alert people so that they can brace themselves for the impact and prepare them to start anew picking up the pieces and repairing the damage.

What form the crash will take and what the fallout from the crash will be is something that I cannot foresee, just as I cannot predict what will emerge from the rubble. Post-collapse situations, like post-revolutionary ones, are highly unpredictable and their direction can be swayed by relatively minor events. What we can say for sure is that many people are going to be hurt.

When the crash will occur is also hard to predict. What keeps civilized societies functioning is the social compact that persuades people to voluntarily obey certain norms of behavior with the expectation that others will too. When that compact is seen as being ignored with impunity by some people, you breed general contempt for the norms and open the door to chaos. When people see how the ruling class loots in open contempt of the general expectation of having responsibility for the greater good, they begin to wonder why they should subject themselves to those norms. The symptoms of impending trouble are a rising level of social unrest consisting of grumblings, protests, demonstrations, strikes, vandalism, and even rioting as people begin to realize how bad things are, how bleak their own futures are, and start to take the law into their own hands.

The warning signs are so obvious that I cannot believe that the oligarchy and its political and media lackeys do not see them. I think they do, which is why the looting has reached such reckless levels. In the excellent documentaries Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2006) and Inside Job (2010) you see the top people on the inside realizing that the situation is unstable and too far gone to remedy, that the crash is coming, and trying to make as much money as possible and escape while they can, destroying the lives of millions of people in the process. It would be a big mistake to think that the corruption was confined to just the institutions depicted in the films. They are merely indicators of a rot writ large.

In watching the Enron documentary, what struck me was that the key perpetrators of that fraud were actually prosecuted, convicted, and sent to jail. Chairman Ken Lay (a close friend of the Bush family) was found guilty in 2006 and faced 20 to 30 years in prison but died before sentencing. Chief Executive Office Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in jail and fined $45 million. Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow was sentenced to six years in prison and fined.

Those were the good old days. It seems so quaint that at one time people actually went to jail for major financial crimes. The oligarchy soon put a stop to that nonsense. Now they control the government and the regulatory agencies so thoroughly that no one risks going to jail for using their big institutions to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Despite the massive scale of malfeasances during the financial debacle of 2008, as far as I am aware not a single person went to prison. The only people who are prosecuted are relative small-timers like Bernie Madoff who make the mistake of swindling other rich people.

We now have a class of people who seem to believe that they have immunity from any legal consequences for their financial actions. That should tell us all we need to know about how bad the situation is.


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If it were just the US I could be optimistic for the future of humanity in an altruistic sort of way. But the banksters have just as strong a grip on Europe, and the up-and-coming economic powers, China and India, are also ruled by corrupt, irresponsible elites though of different provenance. What we are experiencing is a world-wide civilizational crisis (which will be further heightened by the dire effects of climate change). I'm already in my mid 50s and have had a good life, so speaking personally, I can be philosophical about whatever comes next. But I truly fear for the future of my 18 year old daughter. (I try not to let her see how fearful I really am.)

Posted by Steve LaBonne on August 29, 2011 09:44 AM

While I disagree with some of your preliminary points, it is clear that plutocracy in the "Western world" and its two-plutocratic-party system has entered on its death-spiral, but still needs pushed, and is going to hurt even more of us even more before it finally dies:

One real thing we can try is to get justice for that deliberate wrecking of the global economy in 2006-8 (for which there is no statute of limitations--"Never forget, never forgive")--even the resistance and obstruction to which attempt will be revealing, instructive and radicalizing:

It's long past time to take government out of the hands of the wealthy, their politicians and their lawyers, and put it back into the hands of the people, where it belongs.

John Kennard

Posted by John Kennard on August 29, 2011 10:20 AM

Mano: I do not share your qualified optimism for the environment. On the contrary, the environment will be the biggest loser as mankind's social structures unravel.

With the human population heading rapidly towards nine billion, resource scarcity will become crushing. The immediate desire to survive, when added to the oligarchy's current desire to profit, will transcend all considerations for the long-term viability of the ecosystem.

Steve has already mentioned climate change, but that is only part of the picture. At the current rate of over-fishing, the world's oceans will be empty by the middle of this century. Our insistence on consuming the flesh of other animals - which will claim the lives of 16 billion creatures in the U.S. alone this year - requires utterly unsustainable farming practices that deplete and contaminate our water and soil. Developing countries, in their mad rush to join the party, continue to destroy precious biological resources in the forests that constitute the lungs of the planet.

My local newspaper almost brought me to tears this Sunday by reporting - without any editorial disapproval - the campaign tactics of a woman that some think of as beautiful. Michele Bachmann, apparently desperate to remind corporate America that she can please them in ways even Rick Perry can't [vulgar implications very much intended], informed her adoring followers that the U.S. is sitting on vast reserves of oil shale and coal. Promising to drive the cost of gasoline below $2, she would abolish the "job-killing" EPA and exploit this "national treasure" under our feet. Readers of this blog need no reminding that, for this child of God, global warming is an evil plot hatched by socialists wishing to impose big government upon us. Science and environmental ethics are no match for this ungodly marriage between medieval superstition and the profit motive.

Many of my fondest memories - besides time with loved ones (human and animal) - are the wonders of nature I have been able to experience. The majesty of the California Redwoods (at least, the few that were left by the loggers); the almost impossibly blue waters of Crater Lake in Oregon; the awesome power of Yosemite Falls during spring snow melt; the pure air of the Swiss Alps. Steve - your daughter can still experience these things, and I hope she does. But we may be among the last generations to do so.

Posted by Richard Frost on August 29, 2011 11:21 AM

Mano, I see things differently. I think two of your statements contradict each other:

1. While there is some serious concern about the [environmental] degradation we have caused, I think that there is still hope that it can be turned around and that we have not passed the point of no return.

2. [Regarding the economic and political situation in the US,] Here I think the future looks very bleak indeed and I see nothing but disaster in store. The rapacious looting by the oligarchy ...

In my view, the oligarchy has been, and will continue to, rapaciously loot the environment. The oligarchy seems to care little for people, and even less than the environment.

I am very, very worried that we have passed the point of no return ...

Posted by Tim on August 30, 2011 02:24 PM