The lessons the left should (and shouldn’t) take from the victory of Macron

Anna Berezovskaya, Abduction of Europa (2015)

In 2016 populism burst upon liberal democracies like a whirlwind. Yet, since Trump’s election in November of last year the storm appears to have passed. There was the defeat of the far right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria (of all places) in December of last year followed by the loss of the boldly pompadoured (which seems to be a thing now on the right) Geert Wilders in parliamentary elections in the Netherlands a few months back, followed by the seeming victory of the Kutcher faction over the Bannon faction in the Trump administration, and now, the loss of Le Pen in France. Whew- glad that’s over.

Of course, it’s not over, for it leaves us with the same unaddressed problems that gave rise to popular discontent in the first place. The one and only danger of the populist fever peaking too soon is that it will feed the very complacency among elites that gave us this wave of destructive popular anger in the first place. The fever will just come back, and perhaps next time in a form much worse should manage to sweep 2016’s craziness under the rug.

As of yet this wave of anger, despite its ugliness or the views of its more vicious fans, hasn’t been so much fascists as populists. This distinction, as distinctions often are, is important. John B. Judis, one of the first to see the populist wave coming in his book The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics.

I’ll get to fascism in a moment, for now, let me note that the distrust of elites driving the populist explosion makes perfect sense given the almost two decades of failure of the power elite from  9-11, to the Iraq war, to the 2008 financial crisis, to the Euro crisis, to the implosion of Syria and the refugee crisis. These acute crises are combined with more structural ones, such as the fact that elites have either twiddled their thumbs, turned the other way, or themselves enabled the erosion of the middle class and the flat-lining of that class’ income growth despite economic gains, in developed countries since the 1970’s. At the same time the political system has grown increasingly sycophantic and corrupt.

As Mark Leibovich pointed out in his book This Town elites in Washington enact the play of hyper-partisanship even as both Republicans and Democrats engage in an incestious government-coporate revolving door. The way the financial sector played the US government that the former head of the IMF compared what happened to a Third World coup. 

Trump twisted his way into the White House on the claim that “he alone” was able to overturn this system. Instead, what his election seems to mean is that the US is now fully and completely free to join other countries such as China where the distinction between the interest of the rich and the common weal do not exist. Wealthy classes in China and elsewhere understand the new American way of politics very well.

Macron who Trump-like staged his own coup against the declining French political parties was himself an investment banker and his candidacy was as much a desperate by the French an EU establishment as any move towards real and democratic reforms.

The fact that Trump’s populism has proven as artificial as the man’s skin tone along with the fact that other populists, most especially the dangerous figure of Marine Le Pen, have lost in recent elections present the left with an unprecedented opportunity. But it’s an opportunity that can be seized only if the left can come to understand that not all, or even most, of the supporters of Trump or Le Pen are fascists- a prospect that would require massive and likely violent political resistance in order to ensure the survival of our political and social freedoms.

It’s here where Judis’ book becomes so helpful. In The Populist Explosion Judis identifies the defining feature of populism as anti-elitism. He explains that the early 21st century populism which grew out of the financial crisis hasn’t just come from the right, but also from the left. The left-wing Podemos in Spain is a populist party, as is Syriza in Greece. Both left-wing and right-wing share a disdain for elites they believe have failed us.

For Judis what distinguished right leaning from left leaning populism is that the former adds the category of an enemy minority – Muslims, Mexicans etc that elites supposedly coddle to the detriment of the larger population. (The first step right-wing populism takes towards becoming fascist.)

To step away from Judis for a moment, one of the ideas now becoming dangerously popular among liberals is that populists’ distrust of experts is equal to ignorance and a disdain for science and even rudimentary facts. What liberals don’t acknowledge is their own role in the growth of such mistrust. Elites have promoted the idea that economics is akin to science when it’s closer to astrology. The scientists perhaps best known to the public are those who have made careers out of attacking widely held beliefs by making claims beyond science’s purview.

The mainstream media, the bane of populists everywhere, has indeed been guilty of colossal failures- such as the run up to the war in Iraq, and continues to have a disturbing fetish for American bombs and power.  The last few years have revealed an intelligence apparatus not only frequently incompetent- having missed 9-11, and the Arab Spring to name just two recent failures, but a bureaucratic machine seemingly uninterested in preserving our constitutionally guaranteed rights. In conditions as they stand, mistrust of elites is no vice.

As Judis explains it populism was invented in the US in the 1890’s in the revolt of mid-western farmers against their economic strangulation by financial powers in the East. The drama even gave America what is perhaps its most outstanding fairy-tale- The Wizard of OZ.  

Since then, the US has had a whole series of populist- most from the right. In the 1930’s there was Huey Long and Father Coughlin, in the 1960’s there was George Wallace, in the 1990’s Ross Perot (perhaps) and Pat Buchanan. Now we have Trump- the first populist to actually break his way into the White House- a fact that is surely a symptom of just how decayed our political system has become. Judis points out how, since the 1970’s this formerly uniquely American form of politics became a global affair. So here we are.

Judis, in my view rightly, is at pains to distinguish right-wing populism from its ugly cousin fascism. What made fascism of the 1930’s variety, which remains our template, distinct from populism and so incredibly dangerous was that it used the full powers of the state to hunt down and destroy its internal enemies- fascism was born in states that were in conditions of revolution and civil war. Fascism, also unlike populism, was characterized by openly expansionist that aimed to overturn the geopolitical order rather than merely withdraw from it. Populism isn’t fascism so much as it points ” to tears in the fabric of accepted political wisdom” as Judis so sharply puts it.

This is not to say that right-wing populism cannot morph into fascism or that left-wing populism can’t evolve into communism (more on that another time) it is that a perhaps greater danger that the system can not be shocked into fundamental change at all- that we seem incapable of freeing ourselves from the ultimate logic of the economic and political artifice in which we are embedded- despite the fact that we are acutely aware of the depth of its unsustainable contradictions.

Judis was among the first to see 2016’s wave of populism coming, yet I think his much needed attempt at drawing a line of historical continuity between populism in the last two centuries and our own perhaps obscures what makes populism in its current manifestation unique. For that we can turn to another recent book on the subject, David Goodhart’s Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. In that book Goodhart makes the case that what is perhaps today’s primary political cleavage is between those who have thrived in, benefited from, and identify with, globalization and those who define themselves in terms of place. He calls the former group “Anywheres” because they seem to have fully embraced global mobility in the search for success as individuals, which does not mean they have abandoned all collective identities such as culture or religion and especially family only that they see their range of action encompassing the whole earth.

Somewheres by contrast are communitarian rather than individualistic in their identities. They remain deeply connected emotionally to their homeland, their culture, and sometimes, their ethnicity and derive their self worth primarily through this collective identity rather than their own personal accomplishments.

Obviously these are ideal types and all of us in the modern world have some of each about us. Yet Goodhart’s two types does seem to capture something essential about politics not just in the US or the UK but globally. We have these great global cities interconnected with one another and more diverse in their populations than ever before while at the same time possessing neglected hinterlands where the growth engendered by globalization largely does not flow.

It’s quite clear that the Anywheres have the moral high ground over the Somewheres when it comes to their embrace of diversity. What is much less clear is if Anywheres can actually be the basis of a functioning social democracy for they seem to lack the kinds of communitarian virtues a thriving democracy requires as they remain focused on their own material and social advancement. It might be the case that the type of political order that best fits a world of globally mobile self-seeking individuals happens to be something other than a democratic one.

The economists Dani Rodrik actually has a name for this- he calls it the globalization trilemma, which goes like this:

…countries cannot have national sovereignty, hyper-globalisation and democracy; they can only ever choose two out of the three.

Given the huge global economic disparities between regions and cultural differences and disputes we could have hyper-globalization with open markets and the free movement of peoples under either a system of empire and enlightened/liberal despotism or under a democracy that was truly global in scope. From where I sit the former seems much more likely than the latter.

For whereas the latter would require peoples embedded in democracies to willingly surrender their control over their own affairs to other people’s who did not share in their history of priority- a transformation of politics that would probably require something like a global civil war- the former can emerge from mere inertia as the power of democratic and other states is slowly eroded away making global actors and individuals the de-facto if not dejure seat of sovereignty.

If the European Union is our best current, if geographically limited, experiment in what hyper-globalization might ultimately look like, then Macron’s defeat of Le Pen offers us a second chance to test whether such integration can also be made truly democratic in the way we currently have with nation-states. Should the EU not embrace democratic reforms in light of his victory and learn to create a new home for the Somewheres this chance might just be its last.



XIR164723 Pantagruel's meal, from 'Pantagruel' by Francois Rabelais (1494-1553) engraved by Paul Jonnard-Pacel (d.1902) (engraving) (b/w photo)  by Dore, Gustave (1832-83) (after); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France; Giraudon; French, out of copyright

So, literally overnight, we entered the stage of the great normalization. We’ve gone from the almost universal belief among the elites, media and a large number of the American public that electing Trump would be a disaster for the country, the economy, our liberty to an apparent shrug of the shoulders and sycophantic search for advantage in the new order.

We’ve gone from a candidate whose last act of his active campaign was to release a two minute ad that pledged resistance against a global financial elite that supposedly holds the white working class in its squid like death grip to a dizzying stock market rally upon his actual election.

What that tells me is that those so-called financial elites whose fortress Trump portrayed himself as storming at the head of an army of the forgotten aren’t all that scared and believe they will do just fine in the new order.

Perhaps that signals that Trump was merely play acting all along. His pulsating crowds shaking their fist at journalists or threatening minorities, and to imprison or even execute a former first lady, senator and secretary of state no more than a sideshow as unreal as Trump as in the ring of a WWE match.

Given his unreality, whatever emerges from the age of Trump is unpredictable and perhaps the man himself doesn’t know with the exception that he hopes to play the type of Moses leading Americans back to the promised land which would make Charlton Heston proud.

Apparently, the US stock market is rallying like Pavlov’ dog at the sound of coming tax cuts which will only exacerbate soaring inequality. On a more positive note they are also anxiously awaiting the kinds of infrastructure spending liberals like Paul Krugman have been arguing in favour of for years.

As the Steve Bannon the head of the alt-right media organization Breitbart, and the true genius behind Trump’s successful campaign strategy has laid out:

It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.

This might mark an end to austerity and over reliance on central banks to keep the economy afloat, and though sorely needed it is not the same as support of social infrastructure which is maintained by many of the government  programs Trump and the GOP will aim to gut. Given how tight labor markets have become, it also might cause hyper-inflation or soaring interest rates as bond holder exit from the market and into an atavism like gold.

For now though the markets are far removed from the kind of crash that many thought a Trump victory would bring with the only group to have sunk with the election results being tech stocks. More on that in a bit.

What exactly Trump himself thinks about economics is something of a mystery. Other than seeing it as the ultimate game that creates the world’s winners and losers, where the most disreputable aren’t those obsessed by money or fame but those too stupid or lazy to play along with those who manipulate the rules so they can win.

Aside from that, Trump is like something out of another era- a kind of nationalist who thinks of the economy as almost synonymous with heavy industry. Inspired by his anti-globalism and the suffering of the rust belt men who launched him into office, Trump may be able to improve trade agreements at the margins and may even accelerate already apparent moves towards the “reshoring” of manufacturing. What he will not be able to do is restore manufacturing employment, which like agriculture before it, is seeing humans replaced with machines- and not just in the US.

I suppose even greater investment in manufacturing resulting in even further automation may improve US productivity, but not in the area where the majority of people work- that is services- where productivity gains are needed most- but where they’re needed least because those of us in rich countries are already drowning in stuff.

Perhaps Trump will try to a second great trust buster. That is, he will make an attempt to break up large banks and other multinational companies and especially the big 5 that dominate technology- Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, (Google) Facebook and Microsoft. At a minimum, Amazon appears to be in his sights.

Such a solution might go some way towards solving the fundamental economic problem of the age- namely the ever increasing accumulation of capital by only a handful of global companies and individuals. Yet it’s almost inconceivable that even a congress terrified of further populist revolt would go along with this. And even if they would, unless trust busting was truly global, such breakups would amount to the unilateral surrender of most of the world’s markets to the large multinationals based in other countries. Baidu and Taobao would fill the void left by a shattered Google or Amazon.

Trumponmics as of now is merely a set of assumptions and aspirations that are unlikely to survive their impact with reality because they reject or ignore the last several decades of economic change, namely, the move towards services and the rise of truly global companies. We’ll thus have to look elsewhere if we want to see how Trump will try to shape the current economic order while actually recognizing the economic order as it exists today.

I think one of the best places to look for this shape of Trumponomics would be in the thoughts of one of his smartest and richest advisers Peter Thiel (under any other administration I would say notorious) who lucky for us just wrote a book on the subject right on the eve of the election.

In an interview Theil rightly pointed out how the financial bubbles of the last generation have been catastrophic- that the system doesn’t work- and that what separated Trump from Clinton was his open acknowledgement of that fact. Theil also thought Trump’s move away from regulation would shift the balance back towards small business because large firms were not only able to better absorb the costs of regulation but often actively encouraged regulation to thwart upstart competitors.  In his book Zero to One Theil lays out a somewhat different and much deeper view of the current economy, what he sees as its problems, and his proposed solutions to them.

The big problem, as Theil sees it and explains in  Zero to One is that the present has failed to live up to its potential. We are living in the future that was imagined in the 1950’s and 60’s that was full of flying cars, space cities, and house robots, and though the technologies we possess are indeed wonders, we’ve certainly fallen short of those original dreams.

Part of the origin of this failure to reach our technological potential Theil lays at the feet of globalization. It’s not only that he thinks technology is a far more important driver for progress than globalization, he seems to think that globalization has slowed the pace of progress down- as cheap humans fill the role that should have been that of advanced machines or augmented, hyper-productive individuals.

That globalization is an unalloyed good is just one of a whole set of false assumptions Thiel believes is holding us back from our potential. Others include our belief that capitalism and competition are the same thing. In fact they are opposites, the whole goal of capitalism is to establish monopolies (zero to one) that then become the engines of progress.

Another would be that the shape of the future should not (or cannot) be defined in advance. The belief that the future will be better than the present but we have no idea what it will look like Theil calls the “curse of indefinite optimism”. The ultimate consequence of this is the move towards the financialization of the economy:

Finance epitomizes indefinite thinking because it is the only way to make money when you have no idea how to create wealth. (70)

In an indefinite world:

money is more valuable than anything you do with it. (71)

Thiel thinks this absence of an definite future we are trying to build means that the government spends its revenue on transfer programs rather than solving complex problem like “atomic weaponry and lunar exploration.” Such lack of a definite future also infects political philosophy both in its dominant egalitarian (Rawls) and libertarian (Nozick) forms where the goal is the adherence to a principle rather than the achievement of any particular form of society.

Darwinian probabilistic theory has also replaced intelligent design in the biological sciences (I’ve heard this before) the consequence of which is that we’ve lost sight of goals such as indefinite life extension. Yet wouldn’t the shift away from globalization and financialization to domestic production and the real economy not only promote accelerated automation (which Theil wants) but also demand even larger government transfer programs (such as a guaranteed income) which he derides as the application of advanced machines results in Marx’s “army of the unemployed”?

Thiel doesn’t think so but rather sees machines as a way to augment rather than replace human labor and thus better for domestic workers than globalization which truly does replace one worker with another (lower paid) one.

And he doesn’t just think the choices we make are mere political ones about what type of society we want to live in over the next century, but existential questions that will decide our very survival. Theil uses Nick Bostrom’s idea of 4 general futures for humanity- cycles of rise and fall, plateau, extinction, and take off, and argues that only road to human survival is to accelerate our pace towards take off because cycles of rise and fall have become unlikely now that knowledge is global, and plateau in a world of resource competition would likely result in extinction level conflicts.

Who knows how much, if any, of Theil’s views will inform the eventual economic policies of the Trump administration. And while there is certainly some truth to Theil’s diagnoses of our current malaise, what his vision of the future deeply lacks is any vision of justice, global responsibility, sustainability, or concept of the good life. His future is all about building an ever more powerful machine. I can see it in neon floating in space now: The Singularity: brought to you by the “God Emperor” Donald J. Trump.      

Why aren’t we living in H.G. Wells’ scientific dictatorship?

HG Wells Things to Come

One of the more depressing things to come out of the 2008 financial crisis was just how little it managed to effect our expectations about the economy and political forms of the future. Sure, there was Occupy Wall Street, and there’s been at least some interesting intellectual ferment here and there with movements such as Accelerationist Marxism and the like, but none have really gone anywhere. Instead what we’ve got is the same old system only now with even more guarantees and supports for the super rich. Donald Trump may be a blowhard and a buffoon, but even buffoons and blowhards can tell the truth as he did during last Thursday’s debate when he essentially stated that politicians were in the pocket to those with the cash, such as himself, who were underneath it all really running the show.

The last really major crisis of capitalism wasn’t anything like this. In the 1930’s not only had the whole system gone down, but nearly everyone seemed convinced that capitalism, (and some even thought the representative democracy that had emerged in tandem with it) was on the way out.

Then again, the political and economic innovation of the early 20th century isn’t the kind of thing any of us would wish for. Communists, which to many born after 1989 may seem as much like antiquated creatures from another world as American revolutionaries in powdered wigs, was by the 1930’s considered one of the two major ways the society of the future would likely be organized, and its’ competitor over the shape of the future wasn’t some humane and reasoned alternative, but the National Socialism of Hitler’s dark Reich.

If one wants to get a sense of the degree to which the smart money was betting against the survival of capitalism and democracy in the 1930’s one couldn’t do much better than that most eerily prescient of science-fiction prophets – H.G. Wells. In many ways, because he was speaking through the veneer of fiction Wells could allow himself to voice opinions which would have led even political radicals to blush. Also, because he was a “mere” fiction author his writings became one of the few ways intellectuals and politicians in liberal societies could daydream about a way out of capitalism’s constant crises, democracy’s fissiparousness and corruption, and most importantly for the survival of humanity in light of the nation-state’s increasingly destructive wars.

Well’s 1933 The Shape of Things to Come, published not long after the Nazis had come to power in Germany, is perhaps his best example of a work that blurs the boundaries between a work of fiction and a piece of political analysis, polemic, and prediction. In the guise of a dream book of a character who has seen the future of the world from the 1930’s to the middle of the beginning of the 22nd century, Wells is able to expound upon the events of the day and their possible implications- over a century into the future.

Writing six years before the event takes place Well’s spookily imagines World War II beginning with the German invasion of Poland. Also identifying the other major aggressor in a world war still to come, Wells realizes Japan had stepped into a quagmire by invading China from which much ill would come.

These predictions of coming violence (Wells forecast the outbreak of the Second World War to be 1940- one year off) are even more chilling when one watches the movie based upon the book, and know that the bombings of cities it depicts is not some cinematographer’s fantasy, but will no doubt have killed some of those who watched the film in theaters in 1936- less than five years later.

Nevertheless, Wells gets a host of very important things, not only about the future but about his present, very wrong. He gets it ass backwards in generally admiring the Soviet Union and seeing its’ problem not being the inhuman treatment by the Communist regime of its citizens, but the fact that they have wed themselves to what Well’s believes is an antiquated, dogmatic theory in Marxism.

Indeed, Wells will build his own version of dictatorship in The Shape of Things to Come (though versions of it can be seen in his earlier work) using the ideas of two of Soviet communism’s founders- Trotsky’s idea of a global revolutionary movement which will establish a worldwide government and Lenin’s idea of an intellectual nucleus that will control all the aspects of society.

Nor, did Wells really grasp the nature of Nazism or the strange contradiction of a global alliance of fascist regimes that ostensibly worship the state. Wells saw Hitler as a throwback to a dying order based on the nation-state. His only modernity being

“…control by a self-appointed, self-disciplined élite was a distinct step towards our Modern State organization.” (192)

Wells therefore misses the savagery born of the competition between world shaping ideologies and their mobilization of entire societies that will constitute the Second World War and its aftermath.

Ironically, Wells mistakenly thinks WWII will be short and its fatalities low because he gets his technological predictions right. He clearly foresees the role of the importance of the tank, the airplane, and the submarine to the future war and because of them even anticipates the Nazi idea of blitzkrieg. At one point he seems to have a glimmer of the death spirit that will seize over humankind during the war when he compares the submarine to a sacrificial altar:

The Germans supplied most of the flesh for this particular altar; willing and disciplined, their youngsters saluted and carried their kit down the ladder into this gently swaying clumsy murder mechanism which was destined to become their coffin. (70)

Nevertheless, he fails to see that the Second World War will unleash the kinds of violence and fanaticism formerly only seen in religious wars.

Two decades after Wells’ novel many would think that because of the introduction of nuclear weapons wars would be reduced to minutes. Instead conflict became stretched out across multiple decades. What this is should teach us is that we have no idea how any particular technology will ultimately affect the character of war – especially in terms of its intensity or duration- thus those hoping that robotic or cyber weapons will return us to short decisive conflicts are likely seeing a recurrent mirage.

Wells perhaps better understood than other would be revolutionaries and prophets of the time just how robust existing societies were despite their obvious flaws. The kind of space for true political innovation had seemingly occurred only during times of acute stress, such as war, that by their nature were short lived. A whole new way of organizing society had seemingly revealed itself during World War I in which the whole industrial apparatus of the nation was mobilized and directed towards a particular end. Yet the old society would reassert itself except in those societies that had experienced either defeat and collapse or Pyrrhic victory (Italy, Japan) in the conflict.

Wells thus has to imagine further crises after economic depression and world war to permanently shatter Western societies that had become fossilized into their current form. The new kind of war had itself erased the boundary between the state and the society during war, and here Wells is perhaps prescient in seeing the link between mass mobilization, the kinds of wars against civilians seen in the Second World War and insurgency/terrorism. Yet he pictures the final hammer blow not in the form of such a distributed conflict but coming in the form of a global pandemic that kills half of the world’s people. After that comes the final death of the state and the reversion to feudalism.

It is from a world ruled by warlords that Wells’ imagined “Air Dictatorship” will emerge. It is essentially the establishment of global rule by a scientific technocracy that begins with the imposition of a monopoly over global trade networks and especially control over the air.

To contemporary ears the sections on the Air Dictatorship can be humorously reminiscent of an advertisement for FedEx or the US Navy. And then the humor passes when one recalls that a world dominated by one global straddling military and multinational corporations isn’t too far from the one Wells pictured even if he was more inspired by the role of the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages, the Hanseatic League or the what the damned Bolsheviks were up to in Russia.

Oddly enough, Wells foresaw no resistance to the establishment of a world-state (he called it The Modern State) from global capitalists, or communists or the remnant of the security services of the states that had collapsed. Instead, falling into a modernist bias that remains quite current, Wells sees the only rival to the “Modern State” in the form of the universal religions which the Air Dictatorship will therefore have to destroy. Wells’ utopians declare war on Catholics (Protestants oddly give no resistance) forcefully close Mecca and declare war on Kosher foods. And all this deconstruction to be followed by “re-education” Wells thinks could be done without the kinds of totalitarian nightmares and abuses which are less than two decades away from when he is writing The Shape of Things.

I am not particular fan of the universal confusion called post-modernism, but it does normally prevent most of us from making zingers like Wells’ such as this:

They are going to realize that there can be only one right way of looking at the world for a normal human being and only one conception of a proper scheme of social reactions, and that all others must be wrong and misleading and involve destructive distortions of conduct. (323)

Like any self-respecting version of apocalypse, Wells imagines that after a period of pain and violence the process will become self sustaining and neither will be required, though most honorably for the time Wells thinks this world will be one of racial equality that will never again suffer the plague of extreme want.

Analogous to the universal religions, after the establishment of the Modern State all of humankind will become party to ultimate mission of the scientific endeavor which the protagonist in the movie version sums up manically in this crazy speech at the end of the film:

For man, no rest, he must go on. First this little planet and its’ winds and ways, and then all of the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets above and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he conquers all the depths of space and all of time still he will not be finished.

All the universe or nothing! Which shall it be?

(As a side note Ken Stanley Robinson seems to think this modernist’s dream that the destiny of humanity is to settle the stars is still alive and kicking. In his newest novel he is out to kill it. Review pending. )

To return to our lack of imagination and direction after 2008: we, unlike Wells, know how his and similar modernist projects failed, and just how horribly they did so. Nevertheless, his diagnosis remains largely sound. It might take a crisis the scale none of us would wish for to engender real reform let alone the taking of radically new directions. Given historical experience such crises are much more likely to give rise to monsters than anything benign.

Anarchists seem to grasp the shape of the time but not its implications. In a globalized world power has slipped out of the grasp of democratic sovereignty and into the hands of networked organizations- from multinational corporations, to security services, to terrorists and criminal groups able to transcend these borders. Yet it is tightly organized “machine like” organizations rather than decentralized/anarchic ones that seem to thrive in this feudal environment, and whereas that very feudalism and its competition makes achieving a unified voice in addressing urgent global problems even more difficult, and where despite our current perceptions, war between the armed groups that represent states the gravest existential threat to humanity, we, unlike Wells, know that no one group of us has all the answers, and that it is not only inhumane but impossible to win human unity out of the barrel of a ray gun

Living in the Divided World of the Internet’s Future


Sony hacks, barbarians with FaceBook pages, troll armies, ministries of “truth”– it wasn’t supposed to be like this. When the early pioneers of what we now call the Internet freed the network from the US military they were hoping for a network of mutual trust and sharing- a network like the scientific communities in which they worked where minds were brought into communion from every corner of the world. It didn’t take long for some of the witnesses to the global Internet’s birth to see in it the beginnings of a global civilization, the unification, at last, of all of humanity under one roof brought together in dialogue by the miracle of a network that seemed to eliminate the parochialism of space and time.   

The Internet for everyone that these pioneers built is now several decades old, we are living in its future as seen from the vantage point of the people who birthed it as this public “thing” this thick overlay of human interconnections which now mediates almost all of our relationships with the world. Yet, rather than bringing the world together, humanity appears to be drifting apart.

Anyone who doubts the Internet has become as much a theater of war in which political conflicts are fought as much as it is a harbinger of a nascent “global mind” isn’t reading the news. Much of the Internet has been weaponized whether by nation-states or non-state actors. Bots, whether used for in contests between individuals, or over them, now outnumber human beings on the web.

Why is this happening? Why did the Internet that connected us also fail to bring us closer?

There are probably dozens of reasons, only one of which I want to comment on here because I think it’s the one that’s least discussed. What I think the early pioneers failed to realize about the Internet was that it would be as much a tool of reanimating the past as it would be a means of building a future. It’s not only that history didn’t end, it’s that it came alive to a degree we had failed to anticipate.

Think what one will of Henry Kissinger, but his recent (and given that he’s 91 probably last major) book, World Order, tries to get a handle on this. What makes the world so unstable today, in Kissinger’s view, is that it is perhaps the first time in world history where we truly have “one world”, and, at the same time have multiple competing definitions over how that world should be organized. We only really began to live what can be considered a single world with the onset of the age of European expansion that mapped, conquered, and established contact, with every region on the earth. Especially from the 1800’s to the end of World War II world order was defined by the European system of balance of power, and, I might add, the shared dominant, Western culture these nations protelytized. After 1945 you have the Cold War with the world order defined by the bipolar split between the US and the Soviet Union. After the fall of the USSR, for a good few decades, world order was an American affair.

It was during this last period of time, when the US and neo-liberal globalization were at their apex, that the Internet became a global thing, a planetary network connecting all of humanity together into something like Marshal Mcluhan’s “global village.” Yet this new realm couldn’t really exist as something disconnected from underlying geopolitical and economic currents forever. An empire secure in its hegemony doesn’t seek to turn its communication system into a global spying tool or weaponize it, both of which the US have done. If the US could treat the global network or the related global financial system as tools for parochial nationalist ends then other countries would seek to do the same- and they have. Rather than becoming Chardin’s noosphere the Internet has become another theater of war for states, terrorist and criminal networks and companies.

What exactly these entities were that competed with one another across what we once called “cyberspace”, and what goals they had, were not really technological questions at all, but born from the ancient realities of history, geography and the contest for resources and wealth. Rather than one modernity we have several competing versions even if all of them are based on the same technological foundations.

Non-western countries had once felt compelled to copy the West’s cultural features as the price for modernity, and we should not forget the main reason that modernization was pursued despite it upheavals was to develop to a level where they could defend themselves against the West and its technological superiority. As Samuel Huntington pointed out in the 1990’s, now that the West had fallen from the apex of its power other countries were free to pursue modernity on their own terms. His model of a “clash of civilizations” was simplistic, but it was not, as some critics claimed, “racists”. Indeed if we had listened to Huntington we would never have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet civilization is not quite the right term. Better, perhaps, political cultures with different ideas regarding political order along with a panorama of non-state actors old and new. What we have is a contest between different political cultures,concepts of order, and contests for raw power, all unfolding in the context of a technologically unified world.

The US continues to pursue its ideological foreign policy with deep roots in its history, but China has revived its own much deeper history of being the center of East Asia as well. Meanwhile, the Middle East, where most states were historical fictions created by European imperialists power in the wake of World War I with the Sykes-Picot agreement, has imploded and what’s replaced the defunct nation-state is a millenium old conflict between the two major branches of Islam. Russia at the same moment pursues old czarists dreams long thought as dead and encrypted as Lenin’s corpse.

That’s the world order, perhaps better world disorder, that Kissinger sees, and when you add to it the fact that the our global networks are vectors not just for these conflicts between states and cultures, but between criminals and corporations it can look quite scary. On the Internet we’ve become the “next door neighbor” not just of interesting people from all the world’s cultures, but to scam artists, and electronic burglars, spies and creeps.

Various attempts have been made to come up with a theory that would describe our current geopolitical situation. There have been the Fukuyama’s victory of liberal democracy in his “end of history” thesis, and Huntington’s clash of civilizations. There have been arguments that the nation-state is dead and that we are resurrecting a pre-Westphalian “neo-medieval” order where the main story isn’t the struggle between states but international groups, especially corporations. There are those who argue that city-states and empires are the political units not only of the distant past, but of the future. All of these and their many fellow theories, including still vibrant marxists and revived anarchists takes on events have a grain of truth to them, but always seem to come up short in capturing the full complexity of the moment.

Perhaps the problem we encounter when trying to understand our era is that it truly is sui generis. We have quite simply never existed in a world where the connective tissue, the networks that facilitate the exchange of goods, money, ideas, culture was global but where the underlying civilization and political and social history and condition was radically different.

Looking for a historical analog might be a mistake. Like the early European imperialists who dressed themselves up in togas and re-discovered the doric column, every culture in this big global knot of interconnections we’ve managed to tie all of humankind within are blinded by their history into giving a false order to the labyrinth.

Then again, maybe its the case that what digital technologies are really good at is destroying the distinction between the past and the future, just as the Internet is the most powerful means we have yet discovered for bringing together like- minded regardless of their separation in space.  Political order, after all, is nothing but a reflection of the type of world groups of human beings wish to reify. Some groups get these imagined worlds from the past and some from imagined futures, but the stability of none can never be assured now as all are exposed to reality of other worlds outside their borders. A transhumanist and member of ISIS encountering one another would be something akin to the meeting of time travelers from past and future.

This goes beyond the political. Take any cultural group you like, from steampunk aficionados to constitutional literalists, and what you have are people trying to make an overly complex present understandable by refashioning it in the form of an imagined past. Sometimes people even try to get a grip on the present by recasting it in the form of an imagined future. There is the “march of progress” which assumes we are headed for a destination in time, or science-fiction, which give us worlds more graspable than the present because the worlds presented there have a shape that our real world lacks.

It might be the case that there has never been a shape to humanity or our communities at any time in the past. Perhaps future historians will make the same mistake we have and project their simplifications on our world which was their formless past. We know better.


Taxing Multinational Corporations Against Global Catastrophic Risks

Human beings have a very limited attention span, a fact amplified a thousand fold by modern media. It seems the “news” can consist of a only handful of widely followed stories at a time, and only one truly complex narrative. This is a shame because the recent breaking of one substantial news story was followed by the breaking of another one which knocked it out of the field of our electronic tunnel vision. Without some narrative connecting the two only one can really hold our attention at a time. Neither of these stories have to do with Kate Middleton and the birth of Prince George.

Back in late May revelations of Apple dodging tens of billions in taxes from the US broke unto the news. Revelations which were quickly followed up by congressional hearings. But then, right on its heels, came the revelations of Edward Snowden about very questionable surveillance techniques of the NSA. The Snowden leaks did not so much spark as spread a desperately needed debate over the growing capacity of the American security state to tap the open design and marketing of the Internet as the medium for a new “transparent society” as a means to its own ends. Snowden turbocharged a debate we need to be having, and we need to keep alive however short our attention spans.

It is unfortunate, though, that the Snowden revelations managed to push the story of Apple’s and other corporations tax dodging- and especially that of other tech giants such as Google and Amazon off of the front page. For, in many ways that story is just as important a story as the Snowden leaks, and despite appearances, is in some ways connected to them.

As a reminder of what happened at Apple, here is a description from one of those “anti-capitalist” over at Forbes Magazine . Lee Shepard reports that after Apple had set up what were in effect a series of shell companies in Ireland where:

“….60% of Apple’s profits, are routed through these Irish subsidiaries and taxed nowhere. “

“….the holding company pays no tax to any government, and has not paid tax for five years. It claims tax residence nowhere.”

When the story first broke I thought Apple’s efforts at tax evasion were out of the ordinary. I was wrong. What Apple was doing is not just widespread- it was representative of the way global capitalism in the 21st century worked. Since at least the 1990’s corporations had in fact become organizations no longer anchored to territorial states. What this meant was that multi-nationals of all sorts were able to escape effective taxation anywhere. The Tax Justice Network ,  calculates that tax evasion through the establishment of havens and fancy financial accounting costs the world’s states roughly 3 trillion dollars per year or around 5% of global GDP in lost revenue.

Some of the most egregious tax avoiders are tech companies we all know and love. Google’s motto might be “Don’t be evil”, but one wonders how much food or medicine its 2 billion of avoided taxes a year might have bought.  What is particularly rankling here is that we have come to associate a certain social consciousness to Silicon Valley companies we no doubt do not link to other types of multinationals such as Oil Companies. The very same people who lecture us at TED about new projects to save the world, along with the people who applaud them in the audience, are often the very individuals people starving government services for cash as part or at the head of globe straddling multinationals.

Yet the nation-states bereft of the funding they need to function seem to be turning against this massive tax avoidance with a vengeance.  The G20 charged the OECD with writing and issuing a report that calls for coordinated efforts by states to recapture a good deal of this missing revenue. President Obama’s recent proposal of a “grand bargain” with the GOP on taxes called for the lowering of corporate rates to be offset by the closure of loopholes that allow corporations to avoid taxes nearly all together.

Whatever their seriousness in dealing with tax evasion the development of coordinated rules between the leading economies is likely to take years and be beset by wrangling, distortion through corporate lobbying and attempts at arbitrage. Trying to tie the revenues of what truly are global corporations to some particular state or divide such taxable revenues proportionally between different sets of states is bound to be messy, complicated, and to take a long time.

Such re-nationalization of taxation would constitute a step backwards for globalization. Yet the digerati of TED and the global elite of Davos are right about this- many of our problems are global in scope and require global solutions. As I have suggested elsewhere what we need is a truly global tax a means of investing not in the nation-state, as important as it remains, but in the well being of the world as a whole.

Some Christian denominations promote the idea of a tithe where 10% of one’s income should be given to charity. A similar 10% tithe on the missing revenues of global corporations would give us 300 billion in revenue we could invest in the state of our shared world. What follows then are some suggestions on where we could spend this windfall.

Prevention and Response to Pandemic Disease:

Much about early 21st century life might suggest that humanity has finally “conquered nature” and that the largest threats to civilization stem from we ourselves. We should not, however, count the threat from nature out. The largest potential killer in the near future is probably pandemic disease. How big of a threat? The World Bank states it this way:

Because a novel flu virus could infect 30-40% of all people, in a worst-case scenario, business and consumer confidence would plummet, worker absenteeism would rise sharply, and public services would falter, says Olga Jonas, economic adviser for the World Bank health team. “Disruptions would propagate across economies and could include breakdowns of food distribution and public order in megacities,” she says.

A severe flu pandemic could cost 4.8% of global GDP, or more than $3 trillion—and it would hit the poor the hardest. The risk is rising because livestock and human densities increase alongside weak veterinary and public health systems in developing countries.

Globalization and an explosion of urbanization make ideal vectors for killer flus or other forms of devastating communicable diseases. Most of these diseases are zoonotic, that is they emerge out of animals especially those human beings have close contact with due to their being raised for food. Preventing the emergence and spread of these diseases will therefore require the introduction of higher standards of sanitation. It will also require the improvement of public health systems in the developing world. The cost? Again, according to the World Bank:

To this end, veterinary and human health systems in developing countries will require $3.4 billion annually, compared with less than $450 million currently.  A Bank report  argues that this sustained level of investment is justified in view of at least $37 billion in annual expected benefits from prevented pandemics and other major outbreaks.

Let’s just round it to 3 billion 1% of our 300 billion dollar global tithe.

 Avoiding Impacts from the Sky:

We all know about the “big-one” that slammed into earth 65 million years ago killing the dinosaurs along with 70% of the life on earth. In terms of probability, however, we should be just as worried about impacts such as the Tunguska Event an asteroid impact which flattened around 2,000 square kilometers of forest in Siberia in 1908. According to a 2008 report by the Association of Space Explorers, Tunguska scale impacts occur roughly 3 times every thousand years.

A future asteroid collision could have disastrous effects on our interconnected human society. The blast, fires, and atmospheric dust produced could cause the collapse of regional agriculture,leading to widespread famine. Ocean impacts like the Eltanin event (2.5 million years ago) produce tsunamis which devastate continental coastlines.

The impact of a Tunguska size asteroid on a major world urban area or in the oceans near it would be akin to the explosion of 500 Hiroshima sized atomic bombs and/or could set off devastating tsunamis of which we have become in recent years all too familiar.

The main problem when dealing with asteroid impacts isn’t so much dispatching with them once found (really deflecting) as it is finding them in the first place. To this end, former NASA astronaut Ed Lu established the B612 Foundation, a private company that hopes to launch a satellite called Sentinel in 2018 which will look for near earth asteroids.

Lu is to be highly commended for this initiative, yet the question needs to be asked why isn’t NASA or the ESA or some other combination of national space agencies doing this on a scale commensurate with the threat?  B612’s answer is that:

NASA lacks the funding for a mission to find and track the million asteroids that threaten our planet. Because of the ongoing federal budget situation, there is no realistic prospect for those funds to materialize.

B612 estimates the cost over the 12 year planned life of Sentinel to run on the order of 450 million dollars. NASA itself does have an asteroid detection program that costs 20 million per year and the Obama administration awakened to the threat posed by near earth asteroids by the spectacular explosion of one such asteroid over Russia earlier this year proposes to double amount for FY 2014. In other words, the budget of B612, an organization funded through charitable donations is equivalent to the allocation for the same vitally important endeavor as that of the richest country on earth with the most sophisticated and well funded space organization of all time.

NASA’s well known budget woes are merely symptomatic of an American government crushed between rising entitlement costs, a massively bloated security architecture, and the sheer inability to raise revenues to meet these expenses. What suffers as a consequence are all the other vital things a government is supposed to do which in the US context is labeled with the misnomer “discretionary spending”. Related to the prior issue of climate change the essential tools and abilities of earth sciences, not just at NASA but at related agencies such as NOAA, are being steadily eroded by budgetary constraints.

This is no stain whatsoever on Lu, who is filling a vital gap left by our problems funding government, but the lost annual tax revenue of the company where he worked after leaving NASA from 2007-2010, Google, the aforementioned 2 billion dollars, could fund launching and supporting 4 of B612’S Sentinels.

Let’s imagine that we use the equivalent of Google’s avoided taxes out of our global tithe to quadruple the size of the Sentinel project giving us 2 billion to avoid asteroid induced armageddon or the destruction of a major city with all of the death and destruction that would cost. It’s a bargain.

Preparing for Climate Change including Geo-engineering research

There is growing realization that we have passed the point at which we can stop our production of atmospheric carbon dioxide raising the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees fahrenheit) before the end of the century. How destructive this rise in temperature will ultimately be we can’t be sure, but it would be smart of us to put aside funds to hedge against worse case scenarios, and start doing major research into geoengineering should we confront Venus style runaway warming.

One thing we need to fund is more research on geoengineering. Many environmentalist do not want us to go there, all of us should not want us to go there, but in the case the effects of rising temperature threaten the lives of billions of people or even civilization itself, we need to have a better grasp of the possibilities. China has declared geoengineering to be a major research focus. During the 2009-2010 FY the Obama administration received requests for 2 billion dollars towards geoengineering research of which it awarded 100 million. The most dangerous scenario would be for a country suffering desperately under the impact of climate change to unilaterally decide to geoengineer the climate to a lower temperature without any international scientific consensus on if and how this should be done.

With our global tithe the world could easily quadruple the amount requested for geoengineering research in the US. Part of that 8 billion could be used to fund international entities charged with coming up with clear red lines where geoengineering should be used and what kind.

Something else we need to be prepared for is widespread displacement whether from sea level rise swallowing low lying areas or desertification. Estimates of just how many refugees will emerge from the impact of climate change are wide indeed- anywhere from 250 million to 1 billion people. Both numbers are incredibly scary.

Systems need to be put in place to help nation- states deal with population flows on a scale never seen before, especially scenarios where sea level rise consumes low lying heavily populated countries such as Bangladesh. The UN agency charged to deal with both refugee flows and disaster response is the UNHCR. It is the first line of defence  poor countries responding to increasingly frequent and more devastating natural disasters. As of 2013 its budget was $87 million.  In 2013 there are roughly 44 million refugees. Even if we stick to the low estimate of 250 million eventual refugees from climate change that would mean 5 times more internally and externally displaced persons than there are today. We should therefore bulk up the UNHCR to five times its current size to prepare meaning that its portion of our global tithe should be around $450 million dollars.

A Second Green Revolution:

The overall rate of population growth may have slowed but projections that we will hit 9 billion before the end of the century still hold. The problem we are facing is that we have no idea how we will feed so many people. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that food production between the early 2000’s and 2050 will have to grow by 70% and developing country production to double by 2050 to keep pace with population growth.

The last time we had Malthusian warnings of mass hunger, back in the late 1960’s we were saved by a revolution in agricultural production that goes by the name The Green Revolution. This revolution in agricultural production is credited with saving a billion human beings from starvation and worked by applying mass production methods to food production, using synthetic fertilizers, the development of higher yielding varieties of staple crops and the application of intensive irrigation.

The problem is the Green Revolution appears to have petered out. Growth in yields near 3% in the 1970’s have declined to almost half of that now. It seems we’ve rung all we can from this industrialized model of agriculture. As the World Resource institute puts it:

…most high-quality agricultural land is already in production, and the environmental costs of converting remaining forest, grassland, and wetland habitats to cropland are well recognized. Even if such lands were converted to agricultural uses, much of the remaining soil is less productive and more fragile; thus, its contribution to future world food production would likely be limited. The marginal benefit of converting new land increases the importance of continuing to improve crop yields so the existing agricultural lands can produce additional food.

Some things we could do about this looming crisis of food scarcity according to Alex Evans from the Center for International Cooperation at New York University they would include among others:

Devote more money to agriculture:

“The last twenty years have seen a disastrous decline in the proportion of foreign aid that goes to agriculture, from 17 per cent in 1980 to 3 per cent in 2006.  Total aid spending on agriculture fell 58 percent in real terms over the same period.  Today, developed country donors urgently need to reverse this trend, and to start plugging the gap left by years of under-investment.”

 Devote more public research money to agriculture:

… the budget of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research has fallen by 50 per cent over the last 15 years, for example.

Such monies could be used to rapidly deploy potentially game changing technologies such genetically engineering major food to take nitrogen from the air which might end our destructive reliance on synthetic fertilizers.

Create an IEA for food:

A global system of food reserves need not entail the creation of a new agency, but to be credible the system would need to be overseen by a disinterested party, such as the World Food Programme.  It would also be essential to be clear that the role of any system of reserves would be limited to emergency assistance: not to act as a price support for producers, or a permanent system for managing food aid.

How much would those things cost? I have no idea. Let’s take as our ball park figure the combined amount the US and the EU now spend on highly distorting agricultural subsidies. For the US that’s about 20 billion for the EU it’s around 50 billion. Taking away a 70 billion dollar slice of our initial 300 billion tithe.

Nuclear Disarmament

The idea of ridding the world of nuclear weapons may seem utopian, but many of those who think the goal both attainable and necessary are some of the hardest of  realists around. The contemporary movement to ban nuclear weapons got its start with an article in the Wall Street Journal back in 2007. “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” was written by former Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, George Schultz, and signed by none other than Henry Kissinger. Since then we’ve had Global Zero an international movement whose aim is to rid these apocalyptic weapons from the earth. Global Zero has a four phased plan that gets us to zero nuclear weapons by the 2030s. This would be an incredible way to mark the centenary of the Second World War which gave us these weapons in the first place.

How much would it cost? Probably around 2 billion per year. As always, let’s just double that cost and say that the program runs from now until the centenary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki- 2045.

At 4 billion per year for 32 years that’s about 128 billion from our tithe.

Universal Primary and Secondary Education

If we are ever to achieve the world set forth in the Universal Declarations of Rights we will need to ensure that education is available for all. This is Article 26 of the Declaration, but is also the keystone upon which all other parts of the Declaration rest- the means for the full development of every human personality. While the spread of primary and secondary education has been great over the last few decades, many, especially girls, remain locked out of its benefits.

How much would it cost to ensure that primary and secondary education were available to all? Right now the developing world spends about 82 billion on education at this level.

A high end estimate for how much making free primary and secondary education universal is 35 billion additional dollars. Let’s just double the 82 billion now spent and throw in a few extra billion for could measure- 88.5 billion the remainder of our global tithe.

To review the numbers:

3.0 billion Pandemic diseases

2.0 billion Asteroid Impacts

8 billion Geoengineering Research

500 million UNHCR

70 billion Next Green Revolution

128 billion Nuclear Disarmament

88.5 billion primary and secondary education for all

300 billion

With a mere 10% of the lost taxes from global corporations we have protected ourselves against pandemic diseases and asteroid impacts, created an insurance policy against climate change, done something to address the risk of global famine, eliminated nuclear weapons and provided free primary and secondary education to everyone in the developing world. In the process we have achieved or come far closer to achieving  at least 3 of the 8 Millenium Development Goals. Not bad at all.

Of course, this is not meant to be an absolutely serious proposal but an exercise to show that we do indeed have the resources to address many of the most pressing of our global problems- we just need to get our priorities straight. And this brings me back to where I began- the Snowden leaks whose gorey details just keep on coming.

What the Snowden leaks revealed is that however much the members of global corporations talk the talk of world citizenship they remain subjects of the nation-states from which they stem. The recognition of this fact threatens the most positive elements the globalization of the economy has brought us, namely an increased awareness of our global interconnection and interdependence and hence our global responsibility. The combined facts that techno-elites are simultaneously acting as a tool of the US security state, avoided paying taxes anywhere in the world, and touting “techno- philanthropy” as the main route to solving the world’s problems leaves one in a state of ethical vertigo from which it is difficult to get one’s bearings.

What seems clear to me, however, is that if the positive elements of globalization are to survive, then the elites whose capital is increasingly likely to be sucked up by the nation-states better find a way to make sure a good slice of this capital is used to address the kinds of global problems which the elites tried to make us aware. Even if, or perhaps especially because, they had robbed us of the wherewithal to actually solve them in the first place.