Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Lehman Brother nuke

In 2006 RAND staged a wargame to think through the implications of a nuclear terror incident. They created a specific scenario - a tactical nuclear device being detonated by a terrorist organization in the Long Beach harbor - and then staged a role-play to determine how key stakeholders would react and work together. The experience must have been incredible, because even the write-up is riveting. When I revisited this text today, however, what struck me with particular force was RAND's assessment (this is in 2006, remember) of what the longer-term economic implications of such an event would be:
The attack is likely to have dramatic economic consequences well beyond the Los Angeles area: 
  • Many loans and mortgages in Southern California might default. 
  • Some of the nation’s largest insurance companies might go bankrupt. 
  • Investors in some of the largest financial markets might be unable to meet contract obligations for futures and derivatives. 
While exact outcomes are difficult to predict, these hypothetical consequences suggest alarming vulnerabilities. Restoring normalcy to economic relations would be daunting, as would meeting the sweeping demands to compensate all of the losses.
As some of you will no doubt observe, all of these consequences in fact did come to pass just two years after this report was issued - as a result of the Lehman Brothers default, the consequent collapse of AIG, and the cascade effects which are still creating malign reverberations throughout the global economy, above all in the Eurozone.

Usually when people say that something would be "like a nuclear bomb going off" they are exaggerating; but in the case of the Lehman default, it is accurate.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Historicizing postmodernity and "postmodern theory"

A couple nights ago I had a little Twitterflurry with @Interdome and @ekstasis, that went a little something like this:


The point of departure for this debate was my tweeting the following, which linked to @CoreyRobin's review of Daniel Rodgers's Age of Fracture (an important recent book that I confess deeply disliking -- but that's for a separate blogpost):

Now @Interdome (AKA Adam Rothstein, whom I don't know) has responded with a thoughtful blogpost, in which he defends post-structuralist theory. The nub of his argument is that one should not conflate postmodernity, as an era, with the body of theory that became popular contemporaneously to that era (properly called post-structuralist theory, but which in popular writing is commonly referred to as postmodern theory). Rothstein argues, further, that any nostalgia for modernist certitudes is misguided, since the primary products of those certitudes were oppression, war, and overconsumption. Finally, he takes umbrage at the suggestion that today's GOP is somehow practicing a kind of "vulgar post-structuralism" in its attacks on science.

Let's take those arguments one at a time. (And let me also acknowledge that this debate is in some ways a rerun, with contemporary signifiers, of the Habermas-Lyotard debate from thirty years ago.)

Obviously it's illegitimate to conflate a critical theorist with the object of his or her theory. It would be ridiculous to blame Marx for nineteenth century capitalism's rapaciousness, say, or William F. Buckley for the inefficiencies of Great Society welfare programs. Likewise it's absurd to suggest that, say, Judith Butler is responsible for climate change denialism, or to suggest that someone who talks about racism is actually perpetuating that racism (one of the American right's dumbest recent tropes).

What I was suggesting, however, was not that post-structuralists were identical to or responsible for the revanchist politics of the late 20th century. Rather, I was referring to the political effect that post-structural theory has had, as well as the ugly ways it has been vulgarized.

To make this case, we need to begin by historicizing poststructuralist theory, that is, to recognize that post-structuralism was as much an artifact of the era of conservative ascendance as supply-side economics or Madonna music videos. Rothstein depicts post-structuralist theory as occupying some Archimedean point outside the historical epoch in which it arose. He suggests that it offers a timeless set of epistemic truths, rather than itself being embedded in (and dare I say a symptom of) that era's own pathologies. By contrast, I would suggest that, now that Minerva's Owl has alighted, it is evident that post-structuralist theory suffered in significant ways from what is known in the intelligence community as "mirror-imaging," that is, the tendency of analysts to take on the characteristics of the objects they are assessing.

In what sense does post-structuralist theory (covertly?) reflect the pathologies of postmodernity? To fully answer that question would take many volumes -- it's part of Daniel Rodgers's project in Age of Fracture -- but let me here put my finger on the two things that I think are most salient. Both of these matters speak directly to the question of whether post-structuralism, despite overtly being critical of how power has operated in the postmodern era, in fact has contributed to the dominant, reactionary politics of that era.

The first point derives from post-structuralist theory's profound epistemological skepticism -- the "hermeneutic of suspicion" that Rothstein refers to. This epistemological skepticism in its sophisticated form represents a compelling critique of the verities of positivistic modernism, but in the hands of inept practitioners (or cynics) can easily shade into vulgarian anti-scientific discourse. This is why the infamous "Sokal hoax" was so embarrassing: it revealed that the language of post-structuralism was all too easily appropriated to render a specious anti-scientific argument in a manner that the leading practitioners of that body of theory did not find objectionable.

Second, the "incredulity toward metanarratives," which Lyotard described as the hallmark of the postmodern outlook, all too easily degenerates into a rejection of any sort of narrative, just as anti-authoritarianism can blur into a rejection of all authority. It's important to note that poststructuralists didn't just assert that the particular master narratives of high modernism were bunk, but rather that all master narratives were bunk, and usually pernicious bunk, at that. In this vein, I think it's altogether too easy to say that Lyotard was just describing something he saw out there in the culture: he was himself deeply engaged in the debunking of metanarratives -- very specifically, the metanarrative of the working class's subjective emancipation through collectivization. In other words, postmodernism's epistemic agenda was specifically aimed at undermining the grandest of the modernist collective action programs, namely socialism. In the French context, post-structuralism was thus "counter-revolutionary" in a very specific and explicit way.

But as post-structuralist theory migrated to the United States in the 1980s (there to be reimagined as a holistic thing called "French Theory") it was taken up by folks with a different political agenda from post-1968 French anti-communists. In the United States, post-structuralism emerged as a toolkit for unmasking dominant narratives of race, class, and gender that privileged white, male, middle-class life in America. Over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century, at the very moment when neoliberalism was running wild and "left" high modernism was collapsing, post-structuralist theory was sweeping through the American academy as a tool for "deconstructing" various dominant paradigms. Post-structuralist theory (at least in its pre-9/11 maximalist moment) came to be about the radical critique of all socially-received categories. There was no such thing as race, gender, class, nation, tribe, etc.; these were all just myths that the Man had put over on us in order to push his own domination. (I'm caricaturing, but not by much.) In the context of American culture war politics during the 1980s and 1990s, this political agenda seemed on its face to broadly speaking "left," if by left we simply mean a generalized sympathy for the excluded and the poor and opposition to unbridled capitalism and the lingering white supremacist dimensions of American life.

Unfortunately, however, the story doesn't end there. Here it's important to make a basic point: any effective politics cannot end simply with the countering of oppressive cultural categories; ultimately, it must be about collective action. By definition, collective action requires that people act in unison, which in turn requires that people put aside their differences. You don't need to be sociobiologist to observe that people tend to be selfish, so the question is, what is it that gets people to be willing to put aside those individual differences? In practice, it is almost always some narrative that gets an agglomeration of people see themselves as forming some sort of unity of shared interest or identity that trumps their differences. Collective action cannot survive without such narratives.

This brings me to my point about how post-structuralism ended up being reactionary as a matter of praxis: in draining the amniotic fluid of socially-constructed collective categories, it was all but inevitable that the collective action baby would end up getting aborted. Specifically, post-structuralism's radical attack on all collective categories as "socially-constructed," while good for undermining narratives of oppression that relied on such categories, has had a reactionary political effect where it undermined narratives and categories that are necessarily for progressive political action, notably the category of social class. Incredulity toward meta-narratives doesn't just undermine white supremacism, it doesn't just undermine socialism, it undermines the very possibility of collective action, because in practice collective action almost always depends on some meta-narrative which is capable of getting people to put aside their inevitable differences and pursue the collective goal. And without collective action, we're left without emancipatory hope. In sum, by undercutting the narrative bases for collective action, post-structuralism has been reactionary in effect if not in intent.

It's important to note here that I've slipped in a crucial assumption into this argument, and I'd like to bring that out. I'm assuming that collective action is something we should actually wish for. Here, inevitably, we get into the biggest of all historical judgments, which is whether the collective actions undertaken in the name of modernism were, ultimately, a good thing or not. Rothstein is clearly a skeptic. He sees the symbolic high points of modernist collective action as (I quote) "imperialism, world wars, American-made cars, and boom-towns." Take just a small step further and you're with Adorno, declaring that Auschwitz is modernity's apotheosis.

I guess your mileage may vary on this, but I don't accept the wholesale rejection of the project of modernity. I can't sit and look back on the history of the collective actions undertaken over the last three hundred years and say humanity as a whole would be or have been better off if none of that had been undertaken, and we instead had remained under the various anciens regimes. Sure, there have been terrible depredations during our long current historical epoch, but ultimately I am with Habermas at an ethical level: what we need to cure modernity's ills is more of it -- it's an incomplete project.

A big part of my antipathy to post-structuralism's anti-collective action effects has to do with my growing horror about global elites' failure to act against climate change. The simple, fundamental truth is that if we don't manage to create a broadly accepted metanarrative about the need to stop the runaway train of GHG emissions, then we will destroy civilization in ways that even the most hardened skeptic of modernity should blanch at.

And this is where we get back to my argument that the contemporary right is engaged in a kind of "vulgar post-structuralism." Indeed, the right's critique of climate science uses tropes (admittedly in crude form) that should be all too familiar to post-structuralist critics of categories like race or gender. The climate change deniers claim that the narrative about anthropogenic climate change as a threat to civilization is not "true" but rather is "socially constructed and politically biased balderdash" designed by elites who dress up their socialist, one-worldist agenda in the meretricious language of science.

Now, Rothstein may not like this, but this mode of argumentation derives directly from the post-structuralist efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to deconstruct categories like race and gender: these weren't "real" things, just categories that certainly elites had invented in order to divide and oppress. Oh, but we were sincere, and they're just cynics! I can hear the defense. I'm not convinced. There might be some PR flaks for oil companies who are mere cynics, but there are many climate skeptics who sincerely believe that the whole of climate science is an elite ruse designed to allow for the imposition of socialism and one world government. The post-structuralist theory-derived cognitive and political tools serve their arguments all too well. We may not like what modernity brought us, but what humanity desperately needs, despite everything, is not no "schemes to improve the human condition," but rather better schemes to improve the human condition. If we are to avoid boiling the planet, we cannot resign ourselves simply to straying through the infinite nothing.

The bitter truth is that the only hope of confronting the runaway climate change problem is by galvanizing humanity-scale political action. It is only if humanity can find a way to see itself as sharing a single fate that the necessary collective political actions will be remotely possible. But prospects for such action have been profoundly undermined by a philosophical agenda whose most notable practitioner famously declared that the very category of Man was no more solid "than a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea." So much for galvanizing political action.

So, to sum up, it seems to me that the big and important way to understand post-structuralist theory is to situate it as an artifact of the late 20th century era of post-Fordist neoliberalism (e.g. "postmodernity" in David Harvey and Frederic Jameson's terms). To put a bumper-sticker on it, I see post-structuralism as rooted in the same skepticism about state action, and indeed collective social action of all sort, as the right-wingers on the other side of the political aisle. You read a "post-structuralist" like James Ferguson, and he's as skeptical of the state as anyone in the IMF ever was. This is the fundamental sense in which post-structuralism was a part of its era, rather than simply a critical voice describing that era.

But I can't leave it there. Because, much as I hate to admit this, in a profound way I accept the post-structuralist critique: I too am incredulous of metanarratives. I accept the post-structuralist credo that, in the desert of the real, ethical action of any sort may be impossible, and that negation and refusal may be all that's left. I accept that, now that the high modernist baby's been aborted, it's not going back into the womb.

But I can't say that any of this makes me feel very happy. Hence my position of "melancholic wistfulness": I feel acutely the loss of that moment when the modernist baby seemed so full of promise. Just because I recognize that the baby was never going to grow up to be the healthy child of high modernist dreams is no reason for me to celebrate the abortion with the post-structuralists. It's a tragedy.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The future political economy of post-crisis Europe

Two weeks ago George Soros wrote an article where he explained the essential political dynamic of the Eurocrisis, by invoking a specific historical comparison:
There is a close parallel between the euro crisis and the international banking crisis of 1982. Then the IMF and the international banking authorities saved the international banking system by lending just enough money to the heavily indebted countries to enable them to avoid default but at the cost of pushing them into a lasting depression. Latin America suffered a lost decade. 
Today Germany is playing the same role as the IMF did then. The details differ, but the effect is the same. The creditors are in effect shifting the whole burden of adjustment onto the debtor countries and avoiding their own responsibility for the imbalances. Interestingly, the terms “center,” or “core,” and “periphery” have crept into usage almost unnoticed, although it is obviously inappropriate to describe Italy and Spain as periphery countries. In effect, however, the introduction of the euro relegated some member states to the status of less developed countries without either the European authorities or the member countries realizing it. In retrospect, that is the root cause of the euro crisis. 
Just as in the 1980s, all the blame and burden is falling on the “periphery” and the responsibility of the “center” has never been properly acknowledged. In this context the German word Schuld is revealing: it means both debt and guilt. German public opinion blames the heavily indebted countries for their misfortune.
This is precisely the argument I made two years ago. Back then I made the exact same comparison, and explained why this German approach to the resolution of the Eurocrisis put into question the very existential and moral premise of European Union:
The question is whether the Germans can get away with imposing what amounts to a structural adjustment program (SAP) on their fellow euro-zone members. In other words, are the Germans going to be allowed to do to PIIGs what the US did to Latin America in the aftermath of the 1982 debt crisis
That story is worth remembering in some detail. What happened in that case was that US banks, flush with petrodollars from the Middle East, had gone on a huge lending spree in the 1970s to Latin American governments, which used the money on a mixture of corrupt payoffs for rich elites and promises of social welfare for the middle classes. By the early 1980s, as interest rates skyrocketed, these countries were no longer able to service their debts. Mexico declared in 1982 that it was not going to pay, several other Latin American countries followed suit, and for a few months that winter it looked possible that the entire global capitalist banking system might implode. 
To make a very complicated story short, what happened next was that the U.S. and the IMF agreed to restructure the Latin Americans' debts, in exchange for the imposition of "structural adjustment." The SAPs contained a number of critical elements, which in principle were designed to ensure the fiscal health of the debtor governments, but which also entailed a form of national and transnational class warfare: the rolling back of state ownership of key industries; the lowering of tariff barriers; the restriction of the autonomy of unions; the curtailing of price controls on food, water and other life essentials; and the scaling back of social welfare promises. 
This process of economic restructuring is most often remembered as having been responsible for producing a so-called "Lost Decade," in which economic growth rates plummeted across Latin America. But arguably what went lost was something much bigger than a mere decade of productivity. In fact, the SAPs ultimately involved the wholesale abandonment of an entire social-political vision, namely the promise of "development" as a process of building "social modernist" welfare states akin to those enjoyed in the Global North. In other words, it spelled the end of a certain kind of social dream, a certain kind of political ideal -- the dream that they would one day converge with the wealth and lifestyle of the North. 
Now, the U.S. bankers and politicians could get away with destroying this dream in part because they themselves didn't really believe in that dream any longer (if indeed they ever had); in part because the U.S. people felt no political or social solidarity with the Latin Americans; and in part because Latin American elites were disunified in their response to the demands of Washington and New York. 
By contrast, the whole point of the European Union is supposed to be about pan-continental political solidarity in the name of building social welfare states. Furthermore, the social democratic nature of all the European governments means that throwing the middle classes under the banking bus is anathema - especially if it's "our" (Greek, Spanish, etc.) middle classes and "their" (German, French) banks. 
So that's the key question: Is the European Union a fundamentally socially democratic institution? a collection of social and political equals who will stand together in a time of hardship? If that's the case, then the Germans will have to pay. Or alternately, will the Germans succeed in getting the taxpayers and social service consumers in the PIIGs to pay? In which case the beautiful dream of pan-European solidarity will be revealed as a lie, and it's hard to see how the European Union survives as a political project.
Soros's analysis from two weeks ago makes precisely the same point about what the outcome of imposing such a structural adjustment program will be for the comity of European nations:
The European Union that will emerge from this process will be diametrically opposed to the idea of a European Union that is the embodiment of an open society. It will be a hierarchical system built on debt obligations instead of a voluntary association of equals. There will be two classes of states, creditors and debtors, and the creditors will be in charge. As the strongest creditor country, Germany will emerge as the hegemon. The class differentiation will become permanent because the debtor countries will have to pay significant risk premiums for access to capital and it will become impossible for them to catch up with the creditor countries. 
The divergence in economic performance, instead of narrowing, will become wider. Both human and financial resources will be attracted to the center and the periphery will become permanently depressed. Germany will even enjoy some relief from its demographic problems by the immigration of well-educated people from the Iberian Peninsula and Italy instead of less qualified Gastarbeiter from Turkey or Ukraine. But the periphery will be seething with resentment.
Is that really the Europe the Germans want? Or maybe it's just the only Europe they're willing to pay for.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The future of economic growth and democracy

My friend Jay Ulfelder has just offered up a provocative blogpost over at Dart Throwing Chimp, his must-read blog on democratization and political forecasting. His argument, in essence, is that while development theorists have struggled mightily to specify the causal relationship between development (more specifically, economic growth) and democracy, the historical co-evolution of national democratic institutions and sustained economic growth is, at a high level, inarguable. It's just very, very hard to pin down. Ulfelder suggests that Eric Beinhocker’s recent book, The Origin of Wealth, which uses complexity theory to explain the history of development, may offer a way forward for establishing the relationship between these two megavariables.

In ruminating on this topic, Ulfelder suggests that one way to conceptualize different modes of political organization is as different forms of "social technology," each of which is optimized for different sorts of social (that is, political) functions. What democracy-as-social-technology is uniquely optimized for, from this perspective, is allowing large, distributed groups of people to solve problems collectively and consensually in the context of barriers to communication over the geography and population in question. It's also very good at securing legitimacy from populations no longer overawed by the leadership cadre's supposedly divine appointment. He quotes Henry Farrell and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi to explain why:
Democracy can do this better than either markets and hierarchies, because it brings these diverse perceptions into direct contact with each other, allowing forms of learning that are unlikely either through the price mechanism of markets or the hierarchical arrangements of bureaucracy. Furthermore, democracy can, by experimenting, take advantage of novel forms of collective cognition that are facilitated by new media.
Beinhocker's book is on my to-read list, so I won't weigh in on the value of complexity theory to development theory — though it's certainly more promising than the handwave that modernization theorists used to make about how democracy and industrialization "went together because in some sense they had to go together" — but I would sound two notes of caution about any conclusions we may be able to reach about the relationship between economic growth and democracy.

The first note of caution is that, even if we can establish what the historical relationship has been between economic growth and the "technology" of democracy, this doesn't necessarily mean that the relationship will hold going forward. We shouldn't fall into the Whig/teleological trap of assuming that because these two variables have been correlated for this particular historical phase ("modernity," which in this sense can be said to start in the 19th century), that they are necessarily going to be correlated in later and more advanced phases. It might be true that the benefits to collective problem solving that democracy offers is what works best in a smokestack economy, but that in a few decades, when computing power can directly "read" minds (obviously I'm speaking both speculatively and metaphorically) it will be possible to aggregate preferences without the mediating step of the ballot. Post-democratic political legitimacy will be secured more by performance than by process. (There are people who argue that the Chinese are encouraging the use of microblogging site Weibo precisely because they believe that social media can allow them to monitor public opinion directly and in real time — and also because it can help them to identify and suppress malcontents.)

In fact, Ulfelder's conceptualization of democracy as a form of "technology" suggests that democracy is likely to be eventually superseded by a better technology, since almost all technologies eventually become obsolete. Pace Fukuyama, democracy is no more "the end of history" than steam trains were "the end of transportation." Just as coal-fired steam engines offered the best mode of locomotion until the internal combustion engine was developed, so may democracy have been the best mechanism for political preference aggregation in an pre-cybernetic era. In sum, the democratic-capitalist moment may only be an episode, not the final stage: past returns as no guarantee of future results, as the saying goes.

The second note of caution is a more general one, and it has to do with the ecological sustainability of endless growth. If indeed democracy has in part been a helpful mechanism for enabling sustained growth, it's also true that sustained growth has been a critical factor for sustaining democracy. In fact, modern democracies find the idea of sustained non-growth or even shrinkage literally inconceivable. Arguably, it is only a growing pie that allows democratic politics not to turn uncivil and even murderous. A growing pie allows for politics to be about dividing spoils -- which is something democracy is good for. But democracy may in fact be a very bad way to deal with a stagnant or shrinking resource pool, since tyrannical majorities are likely to arrogate shrinking shares to themselves. One reason why James Madison's dark fears about the tyranny of the majority were never realized may be that the US has managed to sustain economic growth almost continuously since its inception, thus curbing majoritarian redistributionist impulses. Correspondingly, if you believe (as I do) that finding a process that can stop the human species from completely strip-mining of the planet is the single most urgent task facing humanity, then this analysis of the relationship between democracy and the "growth imperative" is dispiriting, for it suggests that only an authoritarian solution can possible prevent the headlong, democratically elected decision to destroy the planet for short-run fun times.

A truly dark possibility emerges from the conjunction of these two cautionary notes. It may well be that democracy is a legacy technology that is growing increasingly ossified over time and is destined to be replaced by other social technologies that are more suitable for sustaining economic growth. In which case we may end up with a situation in which the strip-mining of the planet actually accelerates, even as the democratic values and institutions which we hold dear are slowly (or perhaps quickly) eclipsed.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Plutocratic Insurgency

I recently engaged in a private exchange with leading 4GW thinker Robert Bunker on the question of how to periodize what he calls "plutocratic insurgency." Here are a few notes I took in the course of that exchange. The point of departure for this sort of an inquiry is to ask what the JohnGaltification of society would actually look like in practice—what would it seriously mean for the wealthy to opt out of participation in the collective institutions that make up society?

This is not an abstract exercise. One of the most important global trends of the last few decades has been the tendency of wealthy elites to hole themselves up in walled off enclaves. These islands of elitism are designed to be largely self-sufficient in their ability to deliver health care, food, security, education, entertainment, etc. to their residents, even as they sit amid seas of social misery. (Mike Davis has spent a good portion of his career chronicling this sort of thing, starting in Los Angeles with City of Quartzand examining it as a global phenomenon in collections like Dead Cities and Evil Paradises.)  From the point of view of the denizens of such communities, the primary function of the wider society is to serve as a source of cheap, servile labor, and as a well of resources to be looted. Gated communities, in turn, are merely an example of a broader pattern, in which economic, social, or political enclaves are carved out of a national state and enabled to play by a fundamentally different set of rules from the surrounding territory.

In themselves the creation of such enclaves do not amount to a plutocratic insurgency. Rather, plutocratic insurgency arises wherever you see financial and economic elites using such enclaves as staging areas for making war on public goods. This is what I take to be the defining political-economic feature of plutocratic insurgency: the attempt on the part of the rich to defund the provisioning of public goods, in order to defang a state which they see as a threat to their prerogatives. (Conceptually, plutocratic insurgencies thus need to be separated from kleptocracies—the latter involve the using the institutions of state to loot the population, whereas the former wish to neutralize those institutions in order to facilitate private sector looting. In practice these may overlap or co-mingle.)

Before discussing the periodization of this phenomenon, it's worth noting that the idea of plutocratic insurgency on its face is paradoxical, perhaps even oxymoronic: shouldn't plutocrats be the folks most invested in the perpetuation of a system which has them at the top? Why would the system's biggest beneficiaries want to make war on the system? The answer lies in part in the rise of an ideology—or perhaps more accurately, a narrative—that has allowed society's winners to imagine their success not as being the result of either the luck or the skill to work the system for their maximum personal benefit, but on the contrary as having been arrived at by pure dint of their own rebellion against the system. So when did this weird phenomenon begin to take hold?

While the ideological origins of the plutocratic insurgency can be traced to the foundation of the Mont Pelerin Society, it really starts to gain cultural visibility with the corporate raiders of the 1980s, guys who thought of themselves not as the leading lights of the empire, but rather as "barbarians at the gates" (a term Henry Kravis had no problem embracing at the time). These guys didn't see themselves as the system's ultimate winners, but rather as iconoclasts who were being rightfully rewarded for destroying entrenched, unproductive rent-seekers. What began to surface in the 1980s has only gained momentum with the growing financialization of the US economy.

On the one hand, then, an ideology of rebellion and success through the undermining of "the takers." The flip side is a material point: the very wealthy today are so rich that they can effectively afford to buy for themselves the sorts of goods which previously required a state to provide. The result is a phenomenon whereby many plutocrats today see no reason to contribute anything to their host societies, and indeed actively make war on the idea that citizenship imbues them with any economic or social responsibilities. (People as different as Stephen Schwartzman and Sheldon Adelson fit this bill, as do the Koch brothers.) In sum, plutocratic insurgency is another way of characterizing the most ideologically ambitious bleeding edge of what sometimes gets terms "Neoliberalism" or "Thatcherism," or "Reaganism." "There's no such thing as society," Thatcher famously declared, thus issuing the cri de coeur of insurgent plutocrats everywhere.  

Beyond the United States, the critical event for the rise of the global plutocratic insurgency was the ideological collapse of state socialism, which everywhere on earth shifted the Overton Window dramatically to the right. Not only was the threat of left-wing grabs largely neutralized by socialism's implosion, but counterrevolutionaries on the right were emboldened by this collapse to attempt to roll back even the moderate, liberal forms of the welfare state. Arguably the most successful plutocratic insurgency in history was staged by the so-called oligarchs who arose from the ruins of the Soviet collapse. These were (mainly Jewish*) men who had started their business careers in the dark-gray corners of the Soviet "second economy," learning how to profit by sharp and ruthless dealing that took state strictures as opportunities rather than limits. Aided by useful idiots like Jeffrey Sachs, they grabbed the vast majority of the state-owned assets that Yeltin was selling off in a drunken fire sale designed to ensure that Communism could never again return to Russia. Eventually, in the Aughts, the former KGBers led by Vladimir Putin would stage a counter-insurgency and defenestrate most of the first generation oligarchs. What the rise of Putin signalled was the end of the Russia's plutocratic insurgency, and the reassertion of the state's interests as prior to those of the wealthy.

It might seem like the story laid out here is a liberal, perhaps even a Marxist one. While it's true that liberals have long fretted about the "secession" of the rich, increasingly conservatives are also getting alarmed. Ultimately, however, I don't think this is really a liberal or conservative matter. It's a question of national and social coherence as such: do people living together in a contiguous territory feel themselves somehow to be "in the same boat," willing to share responsibilities and risks collectively? Those engaged in the plutocratic insurgency answer that question with a defiant "No!" The plutocratic insurgency from above thus mirrors the deviant globalization insurgency from below, and taken together they embody the contemporary crisis of the nation-state.

* UPDATE:  I should clarify the significance of the dramatic overrepresentation of Jews among the first-generation Russian oligarchs, including Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Alexander Smolensky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Mikhail Friedman, Vitaly Malkin, and others. First, Jewishness was not incidental to these men becoming oligarchs in the first place. While many late Soviet Communist Party members were enriching themselves with bribes, official anti-semitism made it almost impossible for Jews to get ahead within the formal Communist hierarchy. The most effective (and perhaps only) way for Soviet Jews to get ahead commercially, therefore, was by participating in the organization of the "second" (black market) economy. Unsurprisingly, therefore, ambitious Jews were overrepresented among those involved in the second economy, particularly in and around Moscow. This made them well-positioned to take advantage as the state economy collapsed. The biographies of most of the aforementioned oligarchs conform broadly to this pattern. Second, the Jewishness of the oligarchs also helps explain the course of their eventual removal from the apex of the post-Soviet economy. The fact that these oligarchs were Jewish helps account not only for why their appropriation of former state assets was widely perceived by the (anti-semitic) Russian public and elite establishment as illegitimate, but also for why there was little domestic Russian outcry when Putin threw them out of the country or into jail.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Humanity Call for Papers: The New International Economic Order and the Global Interregnum of the 1970s

The 1970s are remembered in the Global North as a time of stagflation, malaise, and political drift. But from point of view of much of the Global South, this same epoch was a time of unprecedented economic prosperity and political ambition. Particularly for primary producers in the wake of the OPEC oil price hikes, the 1970s were a time of unparalleled hopes for a rebalancing of global power relations and institutional authority. One manifestation of the new global mood was a profound shift in the understanding of global responsibilities for achieving development in the South.

Drawing on anticolonial thought and dependency theory, the UN General Assembly in 1974 proposed the creation of a “New International Economic Order” that offered a new interpretation of both the moral imperatives and global mechanisms of development. While Robert McNamara's World Bank spent the 1970s moving away from funding big infrastructure projects toward programs designed to meet the "Basic Needs" of the global poor, the NIEO constituted a more aggressive set of proposals for the global redistribution of wealth and technology transfers from North to South, with the objective of building a kind of welfare state at the scale of humanity itself. Although many in the North, and particularly in the United States, dismissed this agenda, there were others who gave it a sympathetic hearing, notably former West German Chancellor Willie Brandt, who chaired an international commission that in 1980 would endorse much of the global redistributionist agenda.

The Brandt Report arrived, however, at the very moment when the ideological and political mood in the North had begun to shift decisively against such ideas, replaced instead by a Neoliberal agenda spearheaded politically by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The Third World debt crisis that erupted over the next two years would provide the impetus to move the developmental agenda away from global redistribution and the provisioning of Basic Needs, and toward the "structural adjustment" of national economies. Imposed as conditions in exchange for financial bailouts, these programs involved the downsizing of the state-provided social protections and the diminishment of state control over national economies. Across the South, financial austerity and global economic integration would emerge as the developmental leitmotifs of the rest of the twentieth century. While the themes of the NIEO would get refigured in terms of a "right to development," the idea that states in the North somehow bore a moral and perhaps even legal responsibility to enable and fund the development of the South largely withdrew into the realms of non-binding UN resolutions and the utopian discourses of politically marginalized nongovernmental organizations.

The journal Humanity is issuing a call for papers to explore this episode in the history of development. We welcome papers that explore the philosophical, legal, economic, political, and institutional contexts in which calls for global redistribution were articulated, as well as ones that assess how those calls were eventually marginalized. Successful proposals will lead to papers presented at a fully-funded conference in fall 2013 and published in a subsequent dossier of the journal. Send a proposal of no more than 400 words to, by October 20, 2012.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of the Western welfare state

Responding to friendly critics on "Crooked Timber," Francis Spufford, author of Red Plenty, a new novel about the ideological climax moment for the Soviet Union in the early 1960s (which I confess I haven't read yet), perfectly captures my own sense of what the Soviet Union's collapse meant politically in the West:
I was 27 when the Soviet Union fell, ceased to be, shuffled off this mortal coil. I was too young to have experienced... it way back in the 1970s as a place which, barbarous and dictatorial though it was, nevertheless was essentially on the reasonable side of the economic argument; somewhere that, by opting for planning, had chosen the better economic model. On the other hand, I was too old to [experience] it as a will-o’-the-wisp, vanishing as I studied it, and leaving nothing behind but tedium and stale air. For me, as a teenager in the early 80s, having the traditional nuclear annihilation dream at regular intervals – my friends would usually drive past me in a bus while the asphalt melted just behind my fleeing heels – the USSR was not a possible object of admiration, but it was an object of solidity. Its defining feature was its permanence. It was an inevitable part of the planet’s architecture: obsolete but immovable. And then it did move, and when it went its going suddenly disclosed a set of hidden linkages that pulled various aspects of my familiar, home experience away after it. It seemed that my Western socialism – the unbarbarous kind – had had an unsuspected dependence on the existence of the Soviet model. And not just because the USSR was definitionally useful to social democrats, letting us point and say “Not that!” It had also served, it turned out when it was gone, as a sort of massive concrete tentpeg, keeping the Overton Window (not that it was called that, yet) tethered at its lefthand edge in a way that maintained the legitimacy, in western discussion, of all kinds of non-market thinking. When the USSR vanished, so with amazing speed in the 1990s did the entire discourse in which there were any alternatives to capitalism that had to be taken seriously. This was the biggest intellectual change of my lifetime – the replacement of one order of things, which I had just had time to learn and to regard as permanent, with a wholly different one, in radical discontinuity with it.
Even though the collapse of the Soviet Union had no ideological impact on Western social democrats, who had no sympathy for the Soviet system's brutality and economic underperformance, it nonetheless provoked a broad-scale political crisis for social democracy. This is because the collapse of a far left alternative moved the entire political conversation to the right. What had been "centrist" politics in the 1970s and 1980s suddenly became as far left as you could go. (Consider how Bill Clinton – an instinctual centrist if ever there was one – is now represented and remembered, both by his supporters and detractors, as a "liberal.") At the same time, the right was able to move much further to the right, turning former solid conservatives into relative liberals within their political community, and permitting the political mainstreaming of rightist beliefs which only a few years ago would be have been derided as fringe or worse. This is what Spufford means when he says that the collapse of Soviet Communism shifted the West's Overton Window dramatically to the right.

This shift has had profound if slowly-evolving implications for social welfare programs. Over the course of the past two decades, the formerly near-universal consensus in favor of unemployment insurance, government-guaranteed retirement benefits, health care, and other social services has became open to questioning within mainstream political space in a way that would have been virtually inconceivable as recently as the 1980s – back when no less than Ronald Reagan conceded that social security represented the "third rail" of American politics. With the disappearance of a hard left alternative, however, the right has been able to push its social darwinist libertarian agenda with much greater confidence, that is, with much less fear of provoking a far-left backlash. Likewise, social democrats had a much harder time positioning themselves as the reasonable middle ground between the social darwinist libertarian right and the communistic left, or of making the case that unless the state made a decent patch of things for ordinary citizens, the specter of Communism lay around the corner. Thus the terminal crisis of the centrally-planned Soviet economy, which on its face had nothing to do with the legitimacy or viability the social democratic welfare state (whose focus was not on planning production but on creating a minimum and egalitarian standard of social consumption), ended up reshaping perceptions of political possibilities in a way that has nolens volens undermined the political inevitability of and thus commitment to the social democratic welfare state.

Arguably the impact of the collapse of Soviet Communism was even greater in the Global South. Margaret Thatcher's provocation in the 1970s that "There Is No Alternative" to economic liberalism, became by the 1990s the absolute political reality almost everywhere on earth outside Cuba and North Korea. In terms of thinking about development, the collapse of a perceived socialist alternative terminated all elite resistance to the so-called structural adjustment programs which emerged as the dominant developmental practice of the 1990s – and which today is being applied to peripheral Europe. The collapse of the socialist alternative made it safe for development leaders to back away from commitments to reducing poverty, supplying basic needs or reducing inequality. 

Friday, June 08, 2012

Periodizing the Anthropocene

There's a very important new paper out in Nature entitled "Approaching a state shift in the Earth's biosphere." Executive summary:
Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence. The plausibility of a planetary-scale ‘tipping point’ highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.
Let's summarize this further: humans are producing a "sledgehammer effect" on the global ecosystem, overdrawing on a variety of "ecosystem services," and unless humanity changes the way it interacts with the environment in a radical way, we're looking at an ecological catastrophe of a scale that may well compare with the dinosaur-extinction event.

There's already an excited conversation taking place about this. For samples, check out Forbes, Wired, and Slate.

My own view on the "anthropocene" debate is that, seen in geological-ecological timescales, the phenomenon we've become acutely conscious of over the past couple of decades and which usually gets labelled "climate change" didn't actually begin with industrial revolution 250 years ago. Rather, it began 40,000 years ago, when humans arrived in Australia, initiating the ongoing process of mass mega-fauna extinctions. This phenomenon continued with the arrival of humans in the Americas, about 15,000 years ago, which also resulted in the loss of many of the continents' large beasts.  Agriculture begins around 10,000 years ago, and what's happened since then forms a single continuous process of progressive human "commandeering" (to use this paper's term) of the planet's resources.

Scientists usually treat the die-offs at the start of the Holocene as conceptually and processually separate from the current round of post-industrial die-offs, but I think it's better to regard them as one macro-process.  I suspect that the reason we treat these as separate historical episodes is partly because we still fetishize the historical significance of industrialization, and partly because we narcissistically think that human consciousness (and hence intent) is a biologically unique category.

Yes, industrialization enormously accelerated the continuous process of resource commandeering, but human population has been increasing more or less non-stop for 74,000 years (since the Toba Eruption [update: of which more below]), and ecosystemic resource appropriation by humans has been continuously increasing in parallel. Industrialization allowed for an increase in the pace of this commandeering, but did not a change the motive or direction, all of which has been trending for millennia toward global-scale ecosystem disruption. Even without global warming, the human impact on the global ecosystem would/will eventually be total. (The idea that humans would completely harness all of Earth's resources was explicitly blueprinted back in the 1960s by Konstantinos Doxiadis, published as Ecumenopolis: The Inevitable City of the Future — the most totalizing vision of modernization ever produced.) 

What has further accelerated the threat of planetary-scale ecosystemic "state shift" is an inadvertent byproduct of industrialization, namely the carbonization of the atmosphere and the oceans, which is now a second planetary-scale anthropogenic forcing mechanism. In geological terms, however, this distinction between direct and intentional commandeering of resources and indirect changes caused by atmospheric carbonization is overdrawn: it's all part of a single integrated process of anthropogenic ecosystemic transformation — two phases of a single historical episode.

(We don't have the evidence, but there's no reason not to believe that other episodes of global-scale "state shift," such as the K/T extinction event or the Cambrian explosion, didn't also proceed through various "phases" in which the central dynamic driver changed — for example, the initial shift may have been some alteration in atmospheric chemistry, but then as it unfolded, it killed or generated species, which then became direct drivers of change in their own right. None of that makes it hard for us to see these historical process as singular.)

Because we narcissistic humans like to believe human intelligence is some unique and privileged biological feature, we insist on distinguishing between the direct and intentional commandeering of resources (killing or domesticating megafauna, plowing the Great Plains, etc.) and the unintentional byproducts of our actions, like atmospheric carbonization. That distinction isn't particularly meaningful at an ecological level, however.

In sum, I believe that some Archimedean intellect millions of years from now is likely to regard the shift to the Anthropocene as a single process that unfolded over eighty millennia, beginning with the Toba Eruption, and culminating in the complete melting of the polar ice caps around the year 4000. How many humans will be around by then to see that world is anyone's guess….

Update: The Toba Eruption is hypothesized to have reduced the human population to as few as 10,000, isolated in a couple of tropical refugia. This population bottleneck may well have created the conditions for an extremely harsh "survival of the fittest" moment. Although anatomically modern humans predate the Toba Eruption by 100,000 years, this winnowing effect of the Toba bottleneck may well have selected for physically indistinct byt psychologically or socially crucial traits for surviving amid climatic chaos. Interestingly, geological events — asteroids and mass volcanic eruptions — are hypothesized to be the root cause of all the other big die-offs. If the Toba Hypothesis is correct (it's highly controversial) it would suggest that the Anthropocene is just another example of the same sorts of shift, which would seriously downgrade the somewhat exalted role that we humans cast ourselves in when we deem ourselves to be the fundamental driver of the historic shift. In fact, our own "peak humanity" moment is perhaps best seen as a mere epiphenomenon of deep geological processes.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Deviant globalization in film

Here's a list (inevitably limited) of films, most from the last decade, that depict various "deviant globalization" phenomena. Note that these movies don't just feature illicit activities, but rather address the transnational aspects of crime and, more specifically, how cross-border regulatory and moral gradients create opportunities for illicit actors.

To learn more about deviant globalization, buy the book!

Dying to Leave (2003)
Transplant Tourism (2003)
Born into Brothels (2004)
Darwin's Nightmare (2004)
Cocaine Cowboys (2006)
Lives for Sale (2007)
Svetlana's Journey (2007)
Frontline: Ghana, Digital Dumping Ground (2010)
National Geographic: Drugs, Inc. (2012)
How to Make Money Selling Drugs (2012)

Feature films:
Port of New York (1949)
Puppet on a Chain (1971)
The French Connection (1971)
Midnight Express (1978)
Scarface (1981)
The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
My Family (1995)
Traffic (2000)
Blow (2001)
The Tailor of Panama (2001)
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
The Salton Sea (2002)
Maria Full of Grace (2004)
The Constant Gardner (2005)
Lord of War (2005)
Blood Diamond (2006)
Miami Vice (2006) 
We Own the Night (2007)
American Gangster (2007)
Elite Squad (2007)
Eastern Promises (2007)
Trade (2007)
Import/Export (2007)
The Jammed (2007)
Gomorrah (2008)
A Prophet (2009) 
Sin Nombre (2009)
Contagion (2010)
Miss Bala (2011)
Elephant White (2011)
Contraband (2012)
Savages (2012)
Paradise: Love (2012)

Bangkok Hilton (1989)
Traffik (1989)
The Wire (2002-2008)
Weeds (2005-2011)
Breaking Bad (2008- )
Boardwalk Empire (2010- )

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Future of War: We're Not Ready

For the first minute of this clip, which suddenly came on during a break in the Laker game last night, I thought I had lost my mind:
The military-industrial-entertainment complex in action.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Competing climate change futures

Via Jason Tester, the blog Burrito Justice offers up an amusing and nicely written scenario on what San Francisco may look like if we experience 25m+sea level rise on account of unabated climate change. A glimpse of our watery future by the Bay:

Part of what's compelling about BJ's scenario is that it's written in a compelling voice, that of the wire-story-as-stenography-for-civic-boosters, a genre we're all woefully familiar with. For example:
Development of high rises along the Sunset Coast and Cape Dolores has not been without controversy. The SHSFPA (Submerged Historic San Francisco Preservation Association) has once again protested and filed an environment historic review. “Old San Francisco is still alive in our hearts and minds, even if only the tops of the buildings can be seen! Look at the Flickr archive! Viva La Décimonovena! Viva El Vigésimocuarto!” While the SHSFPA frustrate many, all agree that their work floating Victorians and Italinate era homes and converting them houseboats has been a grand success, and has fueled a tourist boom along the Noe, Bernal and Dolores docks. The historical reenactments of life in the Mission District of the early 21st century have proven particularly popular.
In other words, even in a San-Francisco-become-Atlantis future, we'll still be beset by civic boosters promoting the same vision for our fair City by the Bay. Sure, the shoreline will have moved, but everything else will be largely the same. The narrative voice here has the same function as the Howard Johnson's on the moon in "2001: A Space Odyssey": it offers the reader the tacit reassurance that the social atmospherics of the future will be much the same as in the present.

But here's the thing. As usual with science/technology-driven scenarios, there's a hidden (and false) assumption that social-political-economic conditions will largely hold steady, and that the ONLY thing that will change is the science and technology (or in this case, the environment). Indeed, holding the social-political-economic context constant allows the writer (and reader) to bring the environmental parameters into sharper relief in the minds of readers. But in doing so, it also paints a profoundly false image of what the actual future is likely to look like.

In fact, along the way to this dramatic environmental future there will be huge social, economic, political, technological (not to mention military) changes, and the pace of change in these latter areas is bound to be far faster than the pace of change of the environment. (If you're interested in pace-layering, more on that here.) The environment may be the driving variable BJ wants to focus on, but the change will be much more radical and rapid in these other layers. The real challenge in imagining what climate change will do to us, in other words, is not to paint a revised sea level map of San Francisco, but to think through the social, economic and political changes that will (must) happen along the way and as a result of the environmental ones.

Let's start with the simplest point: a sea level rise of the sort this scenario imagines would imply a global and national economic catastrophe of a magnitude that would almost certainly propel the collapse of existing political institutions, locally, nationally, and internationally. If these conditions pertain in San Francisco, just consider what's happening in the rest of the world: goodbye London; abschied Amsterdam and Hamburg; zàijiàn Shanghai and Hong Kong; sayonara Tokyo and Osaka; adios Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Washington; etc. etc. (Here's a map you can play with to get a sense of the scale of the geographic losses.)

This sort of loss of land, especially at the pace this scenario imagines, implies not a gradual process but rather a series of catastrophic storms that rearrange coastlines by hundreds of meters at a time in a cascading series of unsalvageable fell swoops. We're talking about a Hurricane Katrina / New Orleans scenario, in every major coastal city in the world, more or less simultaneously, with no one ever coming over the horizon to help the survivors. Just at a human level, imagine the refugee crises, and the grasping for resources that this will create. It will spell the utter ruin of these nation-states, and with it, the associated economies. This, in turn will necessarily precipitate a catastrophic social implosion (probably including a demographic one).

The idea that under such circumstances we in the Bay Area are going to be continuously rebuilding high-tech infrastructure, as opposed to engaging in mere sauve qui peut salvage operations, is rather foolish. Instead, the various islands and archipelagos of the San Francisco Bay region are more likely to be ruled by warlords and neo-tribal clans of various sorts. It will be an armed society, but probably not a polite one. Which in turn implies that the central literary conceit of BJ's scenario, namely that local civic associations in San Francisco will survive and remain focused on things like historic underwater preservation, is a joke of questionable taste.

I should hasten to add that I don't think this at all an unrealistic scenario that I am offering as an alternative. It's more or less what happened, for example, in Rome in the five hundred years following the conversion to Christianity: political and economic crisis, repeated sackings by barbarian hordes, and eventually a 99% fall in population, from over a 1,000,000 in 210 AD to perhaps just 10,000 at the turn of the first millennium. By 1100, each of Rome's seven hills was governed de facto by a different warrior clan, who would graze their cattle and occasionally do battle with each other amid the ruins of antiquity down in the plains. Other than a few monks, almost no one remembered the origins of those ruins. Instead, the were treated as a useful quarry for scavenging building materials to construct fortifications for self-defense against rival gangs.

Something like that, except with high-power rifles, is a more likely outcome for the kind of climate change scenario that is the premise for BJ's scenario. But don't worry, it'll still be sweet reading about all of it on our 77th-gen iDevice...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Deviant Globalization and the Origins of AIDS

Part epidemiological whodunnit, part late colonial history, Jacques Pepin's new book The Origins of AIDS is the definitive text on the origins and globalization of HIV. While the book contains many wonderful things, of particular note is its emphasis on how both the humanitarian horrors of colonial development and the chaotic breakup of colonial authority led to fundamental changes in a variety of deviant industries, which in turn facilitated the spread of AIDS.

At least six different deviant industries were crucial in enabling or propagating the AIDS epidemic. First, Belgian and French colonial development efforts (railroad building and mining, in particular) in central Africa increased demand for meat. This in turn spurred the hunting of simians, a dangerous and sanguinary activity which often led to injuries for those hunting and slaughtering the animals. It was this wrangling with apes that led to the seminal crossing of the HIV-1 virus from chimps to humans, some time around 1920.

Second, the breakup of colonialism in Africa, and particularly the extreme chaos of the Belgian departure from Congo in 1960, led to wholesale changes in the local markets for commercial sex. During the late colonial period, Central African prostitution generally took the form of a fairly stable institution where a "free woman" might perhaps have a handful of regular clients. In the wake of the Belgian departure, chaotic mass urbanization and pauperization transformed the local prostitution industry into one where the prostitutes had little choice but to turn dozens of tricks weekly with many more clients. This change in sexual habitus amplified the transmission of all sorts of STDs within urban centers of Congo and former French Central Africa, including HIV.

Third, the global transmission of the virus out of Africa itself was a product of a certain kind of moral arbitrage, as the United Nations dispatched troops to Congo as part of the mission to "restore order" in that broken country. Inevitably, these soldiers became consumers of the local prostitution industry, which would soon transform them into vectors for the propagation of what until then had been a disease confined to Africa. Specifically, it may be surmised that at least one of the 3500 Haitian soldiers brought the HIV virus back to Haiti some time in the mid-1960, where he introduced it into the general population, perhaps with further visits to prostitutes.

Fourth, like many other miserably poor countries with virtually nothing else to produce or export, Haiti in the 1970s was the site of two additional deviant industries, each of which would prove crucial for the globalization of HIV. On the one hand, in the early 1970s, Haiti became the site of a commercial market in blood products (organized by a Miami businessman) such as plasma. Poor sanitation in this industry may well have helped to diffuse the HIV virus within Haiti, though the evidence here is spottier. On the other hand, Haiti was also an important site for sexual tourism, an industry which was flourishing in the post sexual-liberation era. More specifically relevant, Haiti was a go-to destination for gay sex tours organized out of San Francisco and New York during the 1970s. It was in this way, Pepin argues, that HIV was introduced into the United States some time in the early-to-mid-1970s.

Finally, once the plague arrived on these shores, injection drug usage facilitated the spread of the disease within the archipelago of 1980s urban demimondes. More specifically, the prohibition on drugs encouraged needle-sharing among drug addicts, and this in turn proved crucial for exploding the number of infections within this population, as well as with their sexual partners.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Metaphors We Die By

My colleague Mick Costigan and I have just published a short rejoinder to Michael Lind's thought-provoking essay, "Against Cosmopolitanism." Ulrich Beck also has a comment. The whole discussion is here.

In contrast to Lind, who argues that the nation-state has never been a stronger and more effective force, and is destined to become even more powerful, we argue that:
Nation-states are being undermined simultaneously (1) from below, by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), and (2) from above, by transnational financiers who have innovated means to capture or to evade national regulatory apparatuses. Unlike the cosmopolitans, these actors do not have as a goal the usurping of the nation-state either individually or as some form of conspiratorial group. Rather, degrading the capacity and legitimacy of their "host" nation-states is simply an emergent, unintended, and indeed unwanted byproduct of their activities.
The effects of these non-state actors on different kinds of countries varies quite dramatically, in ways that might best be understood by way of a metaphor. In our view, the old nation-states are the geopolitical equivalents of blocks of ice, upon which the rise of tech- and globalization-empowered non-state actors act like a rising heat. The size of the ice-block (e.g. the size and institutional capacity of the state at T=1970) determines both the rate effects of the heat on the ice and the downstream effects of the melt.

A state like, for example, Zaire was the equivalent of a wee ice-cube: the heat of globalization very quickly melted it away altogether, with catastrophic local consequences but limited external effects. By contrast, a country like the US is more like the Greenland ice sheet: it will take a very long time to melt completely, but as it does, the deluge will be devastating far beyond its own perimeter.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The essential contradiction of neoconservatism

The essential contradiction at the heart of contemporary American neo-conservatism, phrased as a takedown of Bill Kristol:
Abroad, Kristol's U.S. government can do no wrong. At home, it can do no right, or more precisely, it should do no right. In his 1994 and 2009 memos counseling his fellow Republicans on Clinton-care and Obama-care, respectively, Kristol cautioned GOP legislators not to let the Democrats create universal health care, lest it win them the support of a grateful nation. [NB: here's a link to the 1994 memo.] That government is best, Kristol believes, that governs least at home and transforms nations abroad. 
Kristol's neo-con incoherence remains a major tendency in American conservatism, no matter the total discrediting of its case for the Iraq War. Championing radical anti-statism at home, and such anti-statist demagogues as Sarah Palin, while radically overestimating our government's capacity for nation-building abroad, Kristol has produced a body of thought that is an intellectual nullity -- an intellectual nullity, moreover, that is the centerpiece of what passes for Republican and right-wing thinking.
Hammering on this contradiction is a core wedge issue: if you don't think the government can be effective in a wealthy, stable country that we know intimately -- like, say, the United States -- how on earth can you believe that the US government has any hope of being effective in a benighted, godforsaken place like Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, or Somalia?