Pick Your Dystopia
How cozy it would be to summon the retro-spirit of Burt Bacharach to define our geopolitical future and start singing, “What the world needs now / is love, sweet love”.
Sorry to scratch the vinyl. We interrupt this lovey-dovey to bring you breaking news. You have been catapulted to the age of the new Hobbesian “hero” – digital and virtual as well as physical.
Casino capitalism – aka turbocharged neoliberalism – is ruthlessly destroying the last vestiges of the welfare state and the egalitarian consensus in the industrialized West, possibly with the odd Scandinavian exception. It has established a “New Normal” consensus, intruding into private lives, dominating the political debate and institutionalizing for good the marketization of life itself – the final act of fierce corporate exploitation of natural resources, land and cheap labor.
Integration, socialization and multiculturalism are being corroded by disintegration, segregation, and widespread de-socialization – a direct consequence of the David Harvey-coined notion of “dis-accumulation” (society devouring its own).
This state of things is what Flemish philosopher and art historian Lieven De Cauter, in his book Entropic Empire, calls “the Mad Max phase of globalization”.
It is a Hobbesian world, a latent global civil war, a war of all against all; the economic haves against the have-nots; intolerant Wahhabis against “apostate” Shi’ites; the children of the Enlightenment against all manner of fundamentalists; the Pentagon militarization of Africa against Chinese mercantilism.
The disintegration and balkanization of Iraq, detonated by the Pentagon’s Shock and Awe 10 years ago, was a sort of prelude for this Brave New Disorder. The neo-con worldview, from 2001 to 2008, advanced the project with its ideology of Let’s Finish Off The State, everywhere; once again Iraq was the best example. But from bombing a sovereign nation back to the Stone Age, the project moved to civil war engineering – as in Libya and, hopefully for the engineers, Syria.
When we have armchair analysts, influential or otherwise, paid by flush foundations – usually in the US but also in Western Europe – pontificating about “chaos and anarchy”, they are just reinforcing a self-fulfilling prophecy. If “chaos and anarchy” turns them on, it’s because they are just reflecting the predominant libidinal economy, from reality TV to all sorts of what De Cauter describes as “psychotic games” – inside a room, inside an octagon, inside an island or virtually inside a digital box.
So welcome to the geopolitics of the young 21st century: an age of non-stop war (virtualized or not), sharp polarization and a pile-up of catastrophies.
After Hegel, Marx and that mediocre functionary of Empire, Fukuyama; but also after brilliant deconstructions by Gianni Vattimo, Baudrillard or Giorgio Agamben, this is what we get.
For Marx the end of history was a classless society. How romantic. Instead, in the second half of the 20th century, capitalism married Western liberal democracy till death do them part. Well, death is now upon them both. The Red Dragon, as in China, has joined the party and came up with a new toy; single-party neoliberalism.
An individualistic, self-indulgent, passive, easily controllable consumer drowned in a warped form of democracy that basically favors insiders – and very wealthy players; how could that be a humanist ideal? Yet the PR was so good that this is what legions in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America aspire to. But it’s still not enough for the geo-economic Masters of the Universe.
Thus post-history as the ultimate reality show. And war neoliberalism as its favorite weapon.
Choose your camp
We are now familiar with Giorgio Agamben’s paradigm of the state of emergency – or state of exception. The ultimate example, until the mid 20th century, was the concentration camp. But post-history is more creative.
We have the Muslim-only concentration camp – as in Guantanamo. We have the simulacrum of a concentration camp – as in Palestine, which is virtually walled and under 24/7 surveillance, and where “the law” is dictated by an occupying power. And we have what happened – as a dry run – last week in Boston; the euphemistic “lockdown”, which is a suspension of the law to the benefit of martial law; no freedom of movement, no cell phone network, and you if you go the corner shop to buy a soft drink you may be shot. A whole city in the industrialized North turned into a high-tech concentration camp.
Agamben talked about the state of exception as a top-down excess of sovereignty, and the state of nature – as in Hobbes – as a bottom-up absence of sovereignty. After the Global War on Terror (GWOT), which, despite whatever the Pentagon says, is indeed eternal (or The Long War, as
defined in 2002, and part of the Pentagon doctrine of Full Spectrum Dominance), we can talk about a merger.
The war on terror, seductively normalized by the Obama administration, was and remains a global state of exception, even though trappings come and go; the Patriot Act; shadowy executive orders; torture – a recent US bipartisan panel accused all top officials of the George W Bush administration of torture; extraordinary rendition, with which secular then allies of the West such as Libya and Syria collaborated, not to mention Eastern European nations and the usual Arab puppets, Egypt under Mubarak included; and the sprawling apparatus of homeland security.
As for a real concentration camp, once again we don’t need to look further than Guantanamo – which, contrary to Obama’s campaign promise, will remain open indefinitely, as well as some among the vast number of Bush-era CIA “secret” prisons.
In all these cases whatever happens to social life – suspension, dissolution, balkanization, implosion, a state of emergency – what happens to normal citizens is that citizenship (bios) evaporates. But ruling elites – political, economic, financial – don’t care about citizenship. They’re only interested in passive consumers.
Pick your dystopia
The dystopias of the New Global Disorder are all being normalized. We’re familiar with state terrorism – as in the CIA’s “secret” drone war over tribal areas in Pakistan, in Yemen, Somalia and soon in other African latitudes. And we’re also familiar with non-state terrorism, as applied by that nebula that we in the West describe as “al-Qaeda”, with its myriad franchises and copycats.
We have a bunch of hyper-states – such as the US, China and Russia and the EU as whole – and myriad infra-states or failed states, some by design (Libya, and Syria is on the way), as well as satellite states, some essential to the Western-controlled system such as the Gulf Counter-Revolution Club (GCC – Gulf Cooperation Council).
It’s always enlightening to look back at how the Pentagon interprets this world. Here we find an “integrating core” opposed to a “non-integrated gap”. The “core” is what matters, in this case North America and most, but not all, of the EU. Sheepish, passive populations, with a consumer elite – the fast, mobile elites of liquid modernity, described by Bauman – and a vast mass of surviving toilers, a great deal of them expendable (as the millions of European victims of troika austerity policies who will never find a decent job again).
For the non-integrated gap, it’s Hobbes all the way. In the case of Africa – until virtually yesterday derided as a black hole – there’s an added geopolitical power play; how to counter-attack the extraordinary penetration of Chinese mercantilism over the last decade. The Pentagon’s response is to deploy Africom everywhere; to subdue nations that are too independent, such as Libya; and in the case of the French elite, also on the bandwagon, to try to regain some imperial muscle in Mali, profiting exactly from the implosion and balkanization of Libya.
The look of post-history, its aesthetic ideal, is the city as theme park. Los Angeles may have been the archetype but the best examples are Las Vegas, Dubai and Macao. In the absence of Umberto Eco and Baudrillard, who reveled in the mirror images of simulacra, we may follow master architect Rem Koolhaas – a keen observer of the urban dementia in southern China – to learn what junk space is all about.
Then there’s the security obsession – from cities like London turning into a sprawling version of Bentham’s Panopticum to the pathetic strip tease ritual at every airport, not to mention the gated condo or “community”, more like gated atoms, as the emblem of capsular civilization. Guerrilla counter-attacks, though, may be as lethal as Sunni Iraqis fighting the Americans in the “triangle of death” in the mid-2000s. In Sao Paulo, Brazil – the ultimate violent megalopolis – gangs “clone” cars and license plates, fool security at the door of gated condos, drive to the garage, and proceed to systematically rob each apartment in every floor.
Conceptually, post-history cuts all corners. The flow of history is degraded as fake. Simulacrum trumps reality. We see history repeating not as tragedy and farce but as a double farce; an overlapping example is jihadis in Syria weaponized just like the former “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan in the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad conflating with the Western gang in the UN Security Council trying to apply to Syria what they got away with in Libya; regime change.
We also have history repeating itself as cloning; neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics beating the West in its industrialization game – in terms of speed – while at the same time repeating the same mistakes, from the mindless excesses of an acquisition mentality to no respect for the environment.
It goes without saying that post-history buries the Enlightenment – as favoring the emergence of all sorts of fundamentalisms. So it had also to bury international law; from bypassing the UN to launch a war on Iraq in 2003 to using a UN resolution to launch a war on Libya in 2011. And now Britain and France are taking no prisoners trying to bypass the UN or even NATO itself and weaponize the “rebels” in Syria.
So we have a New Medievalism that cannot but fit wealthy neo-theocracy – as in Saudi Arabia and Qatar; because they are Western allies, or puppets, internally they may remain medieval. Superimposed, we have the politics of fear – which essentially rules Fortress America and Fortress Europe; fear of The Other, which can be occasionally Asian but most of the time Islamic.
What we don’t have is a political/philosophical vision of the future. Or a historical political program; political parties are only worried about winning the next election.
How would a post-state system look like? Independent minds don’t trust mammoth, asymmetrical, wobbly blocs like the EU, or the G-20, or even aspiring multipolars such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – which still do not represent a real alternative to the Western-controlled system). No one is thinking in terms of a structural mutation of the system. Marx was beyond right on this: what determines history are objective, concrete, palpable processes – some of them very complex – affecting the economic and technological infrastructure.
What is possible to infer is that the real historical subject from now on is technology – as Jean-Francois Lyotard and Paul Virilio were already conceptualizing in the 1980s and 1990s. Technology will keep advancing way beyond the capitalist system. Techno-science is on the driving seat of history. But that also means war.
War and technology are Siamese twins; virtually all technology gets going as military technology. The best example is how the Internet completely changed our lives, with immense geo-economic and political ramifications; Beijing, in a 2010 white paper, may have hailed the Internet as a “crystallization of human wisdom”, but no state filters more information on the Internet than China. Pushing the scenario to a dystopian limit, Google’s Eric Schmidt argues, correctly, that with a flip of a switch, soon an entire country could even disappear from the Internet.
So, essentially, we may forget about a utopian regression to the state of the tribal nomad – as much as we may be fascinated by them, be they in Africa or in the Wakhan corridor in Tajikistan. If we survey the geopolitical landscape from Ground Zero to Boston, the only “models” are declinations of entropy.
Meet the neoliberal Adam
Now for post-history’s favorite weapon: war neoliberalism. The best analysis these past few years by far is to be found in French geostrategist Alain Joxe’s book Les Guerres de L’Empire Global.
Joxe mixes it all up, because it is all interconnected – the eurocrisis, the European debt crisis, occupations and wars, restriction of civil liberties, totally corrupted elites – to unmask the project of Neoliberalism’s Global Empire, which goes way beyond the American Empire.
Financialization’s ultimate goal is unlimited accumulation of profit – a system where the wealthy get much wealthier and the poor get literally nothing (or, at best austerity). The real-life Masters of the Universe are a denationalized rentier class – cannot even call them noblesse, because mostly their absence of taste and critical sense is appalling, as in purveyors of unabashed bling bling. What they do is to the benefit of corporations, instead of the protecting functions of states. In this state of things military adventures become police doctrine. And a new information technology – from drones to “special” munitions – can be used against popular movements, not only in the South but also the North.
Joxe is able to show how a technological revolution led at the same time to the IT management of that goddess, The Market, as well as the robotization of war. So here we have a mix of economic, military and technological mutations, in parallel, leading to an acceleration of decisions that totally pulverize the long span of politics, generating a system incapable of regulating either finance or violence. Between the dictatorship of the “markets” and social democracy, guess who’s winning hands down.
In fact, Slavoj Zizek had already posed the key question, at least in terms of the Decline of the West. The (closet) winner is in fact “capitalism with Asian values’ – which, of course, has nothing to do with Asian people and everything to do with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism to limit or even suspend democracy”. (See here.)
French philosopher Jean Claude Michea takes the political analysis further. He argues that post-modern politics has become in fact a negative art – defining the least bad society possible. That’s how liberalism – which shaped modern Western civilization – became, as neoliberalism, the “politics of lesser evil”. Well, “lesser evil” for who’s in control, of course, and damn the rest.
In another crucial book, Michea comes up with the delightful metaphor of the neoliberal Adam as the new Orpheus, condemned to escalate the path of Progress with no authorization to look back.
Not many contemporary thinkers are equipped to thrash Left and Right in equally devastating measure. Michea tells us that both Left and Right have submitted to the original myth of capitalist thinking; this “noir anthropology” that makes Man an egoist by nature. And he asks how could the institutionalized Left have abandoned the ambition of a just, decent society – or how the neoliberal wolf has wreaked havoc among the socialist sheep.
Beyond neoliberalism and/or a desire for social democracy, what the reality show tells us is that an internecine global civil war is at hand – the hypothesis I explored in my 2007 book Globalistan. When we mix Washington’s pivoting to Asia; the obsession with regime change in Iran; the fear of Western elites with the ascension of China; the real Arab Spring, which has not even started, via young generations who want political participation but without being constrained by religious fundamentalism; Muslim resentment against what is perceived as a New Crusade against them; the growth of neo-fascism in Europe; and the advanced pauperization of the Western middle class, it’s hard to think about love.
And still – Burt Bacharach to the rescue – that’s exactly what the world needs now.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge (Nimble Books, 2007), and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an abridged version of a lecture this week at the 13th Seminary of Political Solidarity Don Juan Chavez in memoriam at the University of Zaragoza, Spain. It originally ran on Asia Times.