Tuesday, July 05, 2016

My General Malaise Explained

...while reading John Gray's analysis of the Brexit and related issues (1).

It's this bit in his arguments which gave me that ah-all-is-made-clear moment concerning that niggling dissatisfaction I've felt for a long time when thinking about global political developments:

Larger and longer changes are at work. The course of events over the past decades has not followed any progressive narrative. There is no detectable movement in the direction of internationalism or liberal freedoms. The Soviet Union collapsed only to be followed by an imperial hybrid: a mix of old-fashioned tyranny and illiberal democracy that can command more popular legitimacy than many Western governments. Post-Mao China embraced turbo-charged capitalism, but the long-awaited move to political reform did not arrive and Xi Jinping is reasserting party control. The EU responded to the close of the Cold War with a project of simultaneous expansion and greater integration, a hubristic ambition that has left European institutions weaker than they have ever been. Like the financial elites shown to be so pitifully short-sighted in the early hours of Friday morning, politicians and pundits who bang on about adapting to change have been confounded by changes that they believed could not happen.

Remember Martin Luther King's famous statement about the arc of the moral universe?  This one:  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

Well, he was wrong.

Or rather, he was right, but only to the extent people keep pushing towards justice.  The minute that pressure is removed entropy wins.

I paint with a broad brush there, because not everything in global politics is getting worse.  But the powers which appear to be the strongest are economic ones, having to do with globalization, the rights of capital to cross borders to maximize profits and the rights of workers to do the same so that the capital can enjoy the cheapest possible labor force (2).  

Just consider how capitalism won in China but democracy so far has not and how the rulers of the European Union most resemble a gang of accountants, financiers and economists who view the people of Europe as economic pawns in some giant global chess game, mere economic factors of production (widgets) without cultures or histories.

Indeed, unbridled capitalism appears to be winning.  Even the austerity politics so popular among world's rulers today are a way of re-dividing the economic cake:  

The slices that go to the workers get thinner and thinner, because "we" can no longer afford all those fat social benefits, while the  slabs on the plates of the corporations get bigger and bigger, to tempt them to settle in this  country rather than in some other country, possibly a country where workers never got any social benefits to begin with.

No, I do not like the business-centered flavor of this cake.

The resurgence of religious fundamentalism is another development I dislike.  It may be no accident that we see it rising hand-in-hand with capitalism, what with that "opiate of the masses" aspect of religions (3).  Vladimir Putin in Russia uses the Orthodox Church to prop up his earthly power,  Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey opens a new mosque almost every day, the violence and wars in Iraq and Syria (with many underlying causes) are now explicitly about religious divisions.  Even the US conservatives court religious fundamentalism to prop up their  voting base.

Unbridled capitalism and religious fundamentalism have one thing in common:  They are both hierarchical structures, and both justify those hierarchies as necessary and unavoidable, appealing to either divine or economic "laws".  At the same time, they can live in symbiosis with each other, enabling each other, even enabling the global paralysis when it comes to fighting climate change.

But it's not just the apparent dominance of those developments that have caused my malaise:  It's also the apparent weakness of any opposition movements against them, the lack of any solutions which would tug that arc of moral universe towards justice, even the lack of agreement on how such an opposition movement would look and what it would promote.

I may be overly pessimistic about that.  Still, it's time to start building that opposition movement and on a global level.


(1)  I'm not addressing Gray's other points in this post though they are interesting (and debatable), too.

(2)  This doesn't mean that people wouldn't voluntarily migrate for the economic benefits.  That's probably the most important long-term reason for all migrations.  Neither does this mean that globalization wouldn't have benefited some of the poorer countries on this earth.

Instead, what I argue here is that the powers-that-be view this migration from the corporate point of view, given the common focus on people as factors of production with no other discernible characteristics.  That, my friends, is the corporate angle.

 (3)  That was Karl Marx. He also wrote:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.
I think that Marx oversimplified the appeal of religion, unlikely to die off even in some communist paradise.

But it's certainly true that many of the dictators in, say, the Middle East and the Gulf have allowed the frustrations of their people to be steered into a religious framework, because it was viewed as less threatening for the dictators themselves and because religion provided an alternative web of social cohesion, one which allowed the economic exploitation to continue.

And so we come to the present time where  ISIL or Daesh can argue that the nations of the West are the "crusader nations," when most of the West these days is secular rather than Christian.  Daesh also re-frames the past evil deeds of  colonial Western nations in that region as something that was  motivated by religious hatred rather than by what actually motivated those deeds:  economic greed and the desire for global political power.