Are the days of Western supremacy coming to an end? Has the financial crisis undermined the West’s power and influence? Are the Western societies equipped to overcome the challenges to democratic institutions? How sustainable and strong is the West’s position? Eventually, will it be toppled? CrossTalking with Pepe Escobar and Alexander Lambsdorff (7 Dec 2012).
Pepe has been saying it like it is for quite some time now . . . particularly ever since his magisterial Globalistan hit the bookshops and the interwebz.
And for those who have not read it, here is an excerpt: ‘Globalization is like Poe’s maelstrom. A black void, rather. No one can escape it. And we don’t know how it ends. What we do know is that it has nothing to do with an “invisible hand.” It has to do with maximization of profit; a huge concentration of capital; and the unrestricted power of monopolies. German cross-cultural scholar Horst Kurnitzky tells us globalization has configured “a new world, in which wealth and poverty, with no control by markets or the flux of cash, coexist with no form of social equality.” So it’s not globalization per se, but greed (that classic Christian sin …) and high concentration of capital that are responsible, in Kurnitzky’s formulation, for “the uniformization and cultural and real impoverishment of the world.” Globalization has been with us for quite some time – in business, finance, culture, drugs, music, pornography. What is relatively “new” is the concept. Now let’s summon our good ol’ friend Baudelaire, and he’ll pop up the question: Hypocrite reader, my equal, my brother (sister), are you sure that technological, capitalistic globalization is a heavenly invention devised for the greater good of Mankind by Adam Smith and Thomas L. Friedman? Are you sure it’s inevitable, and that the best that we (and Clyde Prestowitz’s Three Billion New Capitalists) can do is manage the necessary adjustments to it? Let’s take a closer – global – look from a broader, and more questioning, perspective. The invaluable Immanuel Wallerstein defines our reality (our Plato’s cave?), also known as the capitalist world economy, as “a historic system which has combined an axial division of labor integrated by means of a world market less than perfect in its autonomy, combined with an interstate system composed of presumed sovereign States, a geoculture that has legimitized a scientific ethos as the basis of economic transformations and the extraction of profit, and liberal reformism as the way to contain popular discontent with the continuous socioeconomic polarization caused by capitalist development.” This system, as we all know, was born in Western Europe and then took over the whole world. Now fast forward to the mid-2000s. Wallerstein’s judgment is like Zeus throwing his lightning bolt: “The capitalist world economy is in crisis as a historic social system.” The world we live in, the way this system we take as a natural fact is articulated and produces “reality,” is in “a transition phase towards a new historic system whose contours we don’t know.” What we can do at best is to contribute to conform the new structure: “The world we ‘know’ (in the sense of cognoscere) is the capitalist world economy and it is beset by structural faults it cannot control anymore.” Gramsci would have framed it as the Old Order has fallen but the New Order has still not been born. Inevitably, the stage is set for conflict if not mayhem. Wallerstein identifies for the next decades three geopolitical faults we will have to confront.
1) “The struggle among the Triad – U.S., E.U. and Japan – over which will be the main stage of accumulation of capital in the next decades.” The third pole of the Triad – Japan, for Wallerstein – should rather be considered as “East Asia,” with an emphasis on China.
2) The struggle between North and South, “or between the central zones and the other zones of the world economy, given the continual polarization – economic, social and demographic – of the world system.”
3) Wallerstein defines it as “the struggle between the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre over the type of world system we want to build collectively.” That is, the system preaching TINA (“there is no alternative”) against anybody believing “another world is possible.”
Wallerstein reminds us that the concept of Triad became popular in the 1970s – with its first institutional expression via the Trilateral Commission, which was “a political effort to reduce the emerging tensions between the three members of the Triad” (Chinese gangs happened to become globally popular at the same time). has happened after what Wallerstein describes as “a phase A of the Kondratiev cycle from 1940-1945 to 1967-1973″: euphoria over the fabulous expansion of the world economy, Baby Boom heaven, Elvis, the Beatles, a beautiful house, a beautiful kitchen full of appliances and a red convertible. The next 30 years were “a phase B in the Kondratiev cycle,” where speculation became the name of the game, unemployment exploded and there was “an acute acceleration of economic polarization at the global level as well as inside States.” In the early 1920s Nikolai Dmitrievich Kondratiev was the very talented director of the Moscow Institute of Economic Investigations. In 1922 he coined his legendary theory of the “long waves” which not only explains but also previews the sweeping flow of History. Kondratiev ended his days in misery in a Stalinist gulag in Siberia. But his reputation as an economic guru survived him. Nowadays everyone from right to left to all points center invoke Kondratiev to justify the capitalism system forever surfing History in a succession of “long waves.” Trotsky was one who didn’t fall for it – as Alan Woods impeccably summarized in a post on http://www.trotsky.net. Trotsky always mocked robotic Marxists who rhapsodized about “the final crisis of capitalism.” But he also could not agree with the Kondratiev assumption that the “unseen hand of the market” would always intervene to restore the equilibrium of capitalism between one wave and the next. Trotsky accepted there were economic oscillations. But he denied they were cyclical. Trotsky did see History as a series of phases; but all of these phases had different booms and busts, related to different, specific causes. In a famous speech at the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1922, Trotsky stressed how “capitalism establishes [an] equilibrium, disturbs it, then re-establishes it only to break it again, at the same time as it extends the limits of its dominion … Capitalism possesses a dynamic equilibrium which is always in a process of breakdown and recovery.” It’s as if Kondratiev had seen capitalism as a pendulum. It’s not: capitalism is in fact anarchy, chaos, no “equilibrium” but a succession of crises, revolutions and even wars which no one can reasonably predict (who predicted The Triumph of Capitalism/The Fall of the Berlin Wall double bill?) Woods prefers to quote George Soros – a man “who knows quite a lot about how markets move”: for Soros “the market is not like a pendulum striving for a definite point of equilibrium, but more like a smashing ball.” Capitalism as we know it is an unpredictable wrecker’s ball. The way Wallerstein himself examines what’s been happening inside the Triad seems to privilege Trotsky’s intuition over Kondratiev’s. Wallerstein’s point is that for the members of the Triad, roughly Europe got the better out of the 1970s, Japan out of the 1980s and the U.S. out of the 1990s. “Under the supposition that this long phase B of the Kondratiev cycle will reach its end,” Wallerstein wonders which pole of the Triad will jump ahead. That is, which will better survive the current wrecker’s ball. The winning player will be the one who sets his priorities in terms of investment in research and development, and thus on innovation; and who best organizes “the ability of the superior strata to control the access to consumable wealth.” Les jeux sont faits. If this was Vegas, one might suspect that the house was betting on East Asia. Yet in this chaotic wrecker’s ball who’s actually fighting whom, with what weapons, and what for? Trompe l’oeil is the name of the game. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has explained how Michel Foucault defined Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as the “arch-metaphor of modern power.” Bentham was an English jurist who published his Panopticon at the end of the 18th Century: an exercise on ubiquitous power surveilling society. Foucault examined in detail Bentham’s description of a “visibility totally organized around a dominating and vigilant eye” and defined it as the “project of a universal visibility, acting to the benefit of a rigorous and meticulous power.” Technically, humankind had finally acceded to the idea of an “omni-contemplative power.” Bauman for his part describes how “the domination of time was the secret of the power of managers – and immobilizing the subordinates in space, preventing their right to movement and routinizing the rhythm to which they should obey was the main strategy in their exercise of power. The pyramid of power was made of speed, access to transportation and the resulting freedom of movement.” There was one problem though: the Panopticon was too expensive. Capitalism needed something more cost-effective. So when power started to move, says Bauman, “with the speed of an electronic signal” it became, in practical terms, “truly extraterritorial, no more limited, or even desaccelerated, by resistance in space.” This gave the rulers of the world “an unprecedented opportunity” to get rid of the old-fashioned Panopticon. Bauman tells us that the history of modernity, right now, is in its post-Panopticon stage. In essence: those who operate power now are virtually inaccessible. Welcome to German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s society of “the second modernity,” or Bauman’s “liquid modernity.” The consequences, Bauman tells us, spell no more relation “between capital and labor, leaders and followers, armies at war. The main techniques of power now are flight, cunning, deviation and dodging, the effective rejection of any territorial confinement, with the complicated corollaries of construction and maintenance of order and with the responsibility for the consequences as well as the necessity to pay for the costs.” Capital is free – thus the daily, trillion-dollar global Russian roulette of speculation. “Capital,” says Bauman, “travels hopeful, counting on fleeting and profitable adventures,” just with “hand luggage – toothpaste, laptop computer and cell phone.” It’s like the delightfully quirky Richard Quest announcing to his multinational corporate audience on CNN: “Whatever you’re up to today, I hope it’s profit- able.” Soft capitalism may be very sexy, but only if you’re a player. Bauman adds: “Capital may travel fast and light, and its lightness and mobility become the most important sources of uncertainty for everything else. Today this is the main base of domination and the main factor of social divisions.” We all know how the process is also leading to a control freak horror story. Bauman contraposes the visionary dystopia of Huxley’s Brave New World to Orwell’s 1984, the “misery, destitution, scarcity and necessity” of Orwell’s world to the “land of opulence and debauchery, abundance and fulfillment” of Huxley: “What they shared was the feeling of a world strictly controlled..” Orwell and Huxley essentially saw us going to the same place, but taking different paths, “if we continued to be sufficiently ignorant, obtuse, placid or indolent” to allow it to happen. Just like “Plato and Aristotle could not imagine a good or bad society without slaves,” Bauman tells us, “Huxley and Orwell could not conceive of a society, be it happy or unhappy, without managers, planners and supervisors which in group would write the script that others should follow … they could not imagine a world without towers and control rooms.” We’re already there – perhaps one step beyond. The post-Panopticon society is actually Sinopticon, where many observe just a few, everyone is disciplined and regimented by spectacle and discipline works by temptation and seduction, not by coercion’.