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The Political Ecology of Collapse, Part Three: The Bomb at the Heart of the System

The outcome of the Copenhagen climate change talks last week could not have been better suited to illustrate the points I have been trying to make in the last two posts. After all the high hopes and overheated rhetoric, as I (and of course a great many other people) predicted some time ago, what remains in place as the dust settles is business as usual.

The United States and China, who head the main power blocs in the negotiations and also generate more CO2 than anyone else, minted a toothless accord that furthers nobody’s interests but theirs, and proceeded to tell the rest of the world to like it or lump it. A few climate activists are still gamely trying to find grounds for hope in the accord; others are shrilly accusing Barack Obama of betraying the messianic expectations they projected onto him; and a certain amount of stunned silence, in response to the failure of climate activism to have the slightest effect on the proceedings, is also being heard.

It’s probably worth pointing out that the results would not have differed noticeably if John McCain had won last November’s election. The consensus that has been fixed in place since Ronald Reagan’s first term, in other words, still dominates American politics. Despite increasingly desperate efforts on the part of both mainstream parties to appeal to an increasingly disaffected electorate via increasingly overheated rhetoric, it takes a micrometer to measure concrete differences in policy between the parties. Each party has its captive constituencies, to which it makes appropriate noises come election time; Republicans claim they want to ban abortion, Democrats claim they want to protect the environment, but neither party ever gets around to turning any of this talk into action.

The most popular explanation for all this relies on the sheer hypocrisy of politicians, and such a case is not too hard to make, not least because it’s rare for politicians to be any more ethical than the people they represent. Some versions of the case insist that politicians are cynical beasts who are in it purely for the money, and find shilling for various corrupt interests more lucrative than serving the public. Other versions, in the ascendant these days, insist that politicians are puppets of some sinister elite pursuing a totalitarian agenda, and then try to find reasons why every turn of events furthers that agenda.

Now of course it’s tolerably easy to find examples that can be used to support these claims. Some politicians are blatantly corrupt and self-serving; others just as blatantly put the interests of their allies in the business world ahead of the people they are supposed to serve. It furthers many political narratives to portray the situation as an episode of Dudley Do-Right, with some wicked elite or other in the role of Snidely Whiplash, tying the American people to the train tracks, as Dudley Do-Right scoops up an armload of protest signs and position papers and gallops off to the rescue. Still, I’m by no means certain this is really all there is to the matter.

The counterexample that comes to mind is Afghanistan, and specifically Obama’s decision to send another 30,000 troops (and an undisclosed number of “civilian contractors,” the modern military version of disposable temp labor) into that quagmire. To call this decision self-defeating is to understate matters considerably. Afghanistan is where empires go to die; the debacle of the Russian occupation a few years back was only the latest in a long and unbroken history of failed attempts to conquer Afghanistan. Not even Alexander the Great managed the trick, and whatever the personal qualities of the airbrushed machine politician in the Oval Office and the camo-clad bureaucrat who manages his war might be, I confess to a reasonable doubt that anybody in the future will call them Obama or McChrystal the Greater.

Leave aside moral issues for a moment, and it’s tolerably clear that only two strategies could prevent total US failure in Afghanistan. The first is to reinstate the draft, conscript half a million new soldiers, shift the US economy over to a wartime footing, and go into Afghanistan with the same overwhelming force the Chinese deployed successfully on similar terrain in Tibet. The other is to declare a victory and get out. Any other choice means the United States will keep on spending money it doesn’t have and prestige it can’t spare on a war it isn’t going to win.

I doubt that any of this is invisible to the experienced military planners in the Pentagon, or the politicians who give them their marching orders. Why, then, the futile gesture?

The hard fact of the matter is that neither of the two potentially successful strategies is politically possible to an American government today. Exemption from forced military service was part of the price the American middle class exacted in exchange for their abandonment of the radicalism of the 1960s, and no politician is willing to risk the backlash that would follow an attempt to tamper with that bargain. Furthermore, it’s by no means certain that America has the economic strength left to fight a real war at this point, and it’s not hard to name hostile powers who would be happy to use any such opportunity to push us over the edge into national bankruptcy.

Declaring a victory and getting out is a good deal more viable, and it’s the option that Obama’s successor in 2013 will likely be forced to embrace. Accepting it now, though, would offend many constituencies, not all of which have financial motives for supporting the war, and it would require America to give up on intervening in the Great Game of geopolitics now being played in central Asia – a goal many factions in the American political class are unready to abandon.

Behind the decision to send an inadequate force to prop up a losing struggle, in other words, lies the complex nature of political power in contemporary America. A great many people nowadays seem to think that because they don’t have the power to impose their agendas on the country, someone else must have that power, and the increasingly self-defeating decisions coming out of Washington must result from deliberate policy on the part of that someone else. Comforting as that belief may be, the facts don’t support it. A century of political reforms have diffused power so broadly in American society that no one group has a monopoly on power, and any group of would-be leaders has to build alliances and garner support among a great many independent centers of power with agendas of their own.

Now of course it’s quite true, as the left is fond of pointing out, that a great many of these power centers are interested primarily in pursuing their own interests, and are perfectly willing to do it at the expense of the common good. It’s also true that this indictment can be applied to the left as much as to the right. Still, behind the inevitable chicanery found across the political spectrum lies the insoluble dilemma in which the American political system has been caught since the 1970s – the inevitable failure of government by pork barrel in an age of decline.

Like most of the nations that call themselves representative democracies these days, America operates by means of a system not too different from the one that graced, if that’s the right word, the twilight years of the Roman Republic. The ultimate mandate for power comes from popular vote, and so every possible means is used to make sure elections come out as desired. Vote fraud is one such means; propaganda is another; but the most effective is to buy the loyalty of voting blocs with cold hard cash. From defense spending to entitlements to economic stimulus programs, that’s the name of the game, and it pays off handsomely come election time.

There are, however, at least two massive problems with this sort of pork-fed politics. First, the number of groups to be placated tends to rise as the size of the pork barrel increases. In today’s America, any group that can organize and raise money effectively enough to influence elections can usually elbow its way to a place at the feeding trough. (That today’s radicals of left and right alike are, by and large, inept at organizing and fundraising goes a long way to explain their insistence that power is being kept out of their hands by a malevolent elite.) It’s not hard to respond to a changing world when the interests that have to sign on to policy changes are few and clearly defined, as they were fifty years ago, but it becomes much harder when power is diffused through scores of competing factions, and it takes an alliance of a dozen disparate interest groups to get anything done at all.

This happens in the life of nearly all republics, and it plays an important role in the political breakdowns that afflict them at regular intervals. Still, another factor will be familiar to regular readers of this blog: the mismatch between growth and the limits of the environment that provides the basis for growth. In societies that use resources at a steady rate, those limits are always close at hand, and struggles between interest groups over the distribution of pork are recognized as zero-sum games, in which somebody has to lose for somebody else to gain; thus the multiplication of factions tends to be limited by the fixed size of the feeding trough.

In a society that relies on rapidly expanding production of resources, on the other hand, this can be evaded for a time. The first two-thirds of the 20th century thus saw an explosion of factions that spanned the entire upper half of the American class structure, from the ultrarich to unionized labor. The result was a vast number of people who all expected to get financial benefits from the government. Yet the end of America’s real economic expansion in the 1970s meant that these demands had to be paid out of a dwindling supply of real wealth.

One result has been a drastic narrowing of the options available to politicians. A great many simple and necessary reforms that could be enacted without harm to anyone – for example, putting a means test on social security pensions – are completely off the table, because nobody can put together a governing coalition without the support of groups that oppose such measures. Equally, a great many ghastly policies – for example, deliberately inflating financial bubbles – have become political necessities, because they allow governments to get away with the pretense of paying off their supporters. Meanwhile any sector of society not organized enough to defend its interests can basically count on being thrown to the wolves.

The rising spiral of crises that threaten the survival of industrial society might be expected to trump such matters. The problem here, of course, is that prophecies of imminent doomsday have been standard political theater in American public life for more than a century, and most people in politics have long since stopped listening to them. There are plenty of people in politics who still remember, for example, the widespread insistence that the energy crisis of the 1970s was supposed to be permanent; the fact that there were plenty of less shrill predictions that have proven to be much more accurate in retrospect is nothing like as memorable.

Behind all of this lies the central political fact of the limits to growth: the reduction of First World nations to a Third World lifestyle that will be the inevitable result of any transition to a postpetroleum world, whether that transition is deliberate or unplanned. Metaphors about elephants in living rooms don’t begin to touch the political explosiveness of this fact, or the degree to which people at every point on the political spectrum have tried to pretend that it just isn’t so. Still, set aside delusions about miraculous new energy sources that show up basically because we want them to, and it’s impossible to evade.

Let’s walk through the logic. The most reasonable estimates suggest that, given a crash program and the best foreseeable technologies, renewable sources can probably provide the United States with around 15% of the energy it currently gets from fossil fuels. Since every good and service in the economy is the product of energy, it’s a very rough but functional approximation to say that in a green economy, every American will have to get by on the equivalent of 15% of his or her current income. Take a moment to work through the consequences in your own life; if you made $50,000 in 2009, for example, imagine having to live on $7,500 in 2010. That’s quite a respectable income by Third World standards, but it won’t support the kind of lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans, across the political spectrum, believe is theirs by right.

That’s the bomb ticking away at the heart of America’s political system. When it goes off, the entire system of government by pork barrel will explode messily, and it’s only in the fantasies of reformers that what replaces it will likely be any improvement. (My guess? Anything from a military coup followed, after various convulsions, by a new and less centralized constitution, to civil war and the partition of the United States into half a dozen impoverished and quarreling nations.) In the meantime, we can expect to see every possible short term expedient put to use in an attempt to stave off the explosion even for a little while, and any measure that might risk rocking the boat enough to set off the bomb will be quietly roundfiled by all parties.

A meaningful political response to the growing instability of global climate is one such measure, and a meaningful political response to peak oil is another. No such project can be enacted without redirecting a great deal of money and resources away from current expenditures toward the construction of new infrastructure. The proponents of such measures are quick to insist that this means new jobs will be created, and of course this is true, but they neglect to mention that a great many more existing jobs will go away, and the interests that presently lay claim to the money and resources involved are not exactly eager to relinquish those. A political system of centralized power could overcome their resistance readily enough, but a system in which power is diffused and fragmented cannot do so. That the collapse of the entire system is a likely long-term consequence of this inability is simply one of the common ironies of history.

Editorial Notes: Third in a three-part series.

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