Living in the End Times?

The Daily Telegraph used to be a reassuring newspaper in its way. I once had a mind numbingly mechanical job on the night shift in a chocolate factory; and one of the ways to keep awake was to read the Telegraph every night to keep my blood pressure up from indignation.

Though the Peter Simple column – with its fabulously nostalgic stock cast of grim booted, iron chained Northern Aldermen, and disclaimers of annexationist demands on the letters page – is long gone; the letters page itself is still full of carefully crafted missives from retired Commodores living in Surrey with double barreled names and strong views  – not blustery as they were in the immediate fallout from Empire, but quietly, thoughtfully defensive of an order that is setting us up for a fall out that will prove far greater – if we don’t stop it.

Alongside these are increasingly shrill columnists painting that fall out as an inevitability, not a matter of choice. One – Sherelle Jacobs -writing about Brexit (of course) – argued recently that “as the world turns Medieval” we are facing “a new global dark age” in which the only way forward is a renewed nationalism. British of course, not Scottish, Irish or Welsh.

There are limits old chap.

She recognises that the crisis of the world economic order is a crisis of the dominance of the United States but – in the age of “America First” manages to recast an abject subordination of the UK to the falling American star – by leaving the EU and integrating ever more closely with the US economic model

  • as careless of the environment as it is of its workers
  • with its horrendous health care,
  • convoluted and gerrymandered politics and brutal racist prison system,
  • alongside even closer subordination of military and intelligence
  • and abandoning any pretence to an independent foreign policy

as a buccaneering piece of national self assertion. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are trying to pull the same stunt. We will see in the next couple of months how far – and how long – people can be fooled by this. And what the fall out is if they get away with it on October 31st and the roller coaster ride begins in earnest.

She also manages to ignore the genuine threat of a new dark age as a result of social breakdown resulting form the degradation of the climate conditions that make it possible for us to – among other things – grow food. The Syrian drought between 2006 and 2011 that drove 2 – 3 million people off land they could no longer live on into cities that could not cope with them leading straight into civil war and everything else that has followed is – among many other recent events – a stark warning.

One of the most disturbing pieces in This is not a Drill – the Extinction Rebellion Handbook* is Douglas Rushkoff’s account of being paid a huge sum (half his annual professor’s salary) to brief five super wealthy hedge fund bosses about “the future of technology”.

It turned out that what they were most concerned about was how to escape the impact of climate breakdown as individuals. They were not in denial about it. They know it is happening. They are not concerned about how to use their wealth to try to avert or mitigate it. They are like passengers in first class on the Titanic less concerned about avoiding the iceberg than looking for lifeboats just for them.

They wanted to know whether Alaska or New Zealand would be less affected by climate change, and which would provide a better bolt hole. One admitted that he had already nearly completed building an underground bunker complex to move into when society breaks down, and wanted to know “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?” Money, of course, would have no value.

  • How could they stop the armed guards just bumping them off and taking over?
  • How could they make sure they could control a supply of food – with locks to which only they knew the combination?
  • Could they make the guards wear control collars?
  • Could they use robot guards instead?
  • Could the technology could be developed in time?

The future as zombie apocalypse movie, with most of the rest of us as the zombies.

These people are not isolated individuals. Steve Bannon, who acts as a guru for the whole international alt right, commented while he was an adviser to Donald Trump – “Half the world is going to burn and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

Actually there’s plenty we could do. We are already (globally) doing about a quarter of what we need to. We just need to step up the pace and work together to do it. But to do so we need to change the economic and political systems that give people like those hedge fund managers the power and wealth that they have. This is becoming a matter of life or death.

Bannon’s answer to this is to try to build walls around the world’s wealthier countries so the burning takes place elsewhere – as it has already began to do. A necessary part of this is the dehumanisation of anyone who lives in the “shithole countries” (D. Trump) that are going to burn; so the citizens of the US can watch them do so with equanimity. If that means describing desperate refugees fleeing social breakdown as criminals and terrorists, interning them indefinitely, separating children from parents, depriving them of the most basic care and amenities (bedding, toothpaste, soap) – or, in the European case – letting thousands of them drown in the Mediterranean, then so be it.

This was put in a more anodyne form by Wells Griffith, Trump’s energy and climate adviser, who said this at the Katowice summit in November 2018. “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.” This extraordinary sentence recognises that the current engines of “economic prosperity” and “energy security” in the United States are not environmentally sustainable – and are undermining the conditions for human survival – but strongly believes that that this can be ignored until everything collapses.

This is in the context of the current challenge to the Pax Americana posed by the rise of China. Sherrelle Jacobs argues that China is a “stillborn superpower” due an economic collapse. People in the West have been saying that for twenty years, not grasping that a country dominated by state led investment does not operate on the same lines as those for which the imperatives of private sector dominance trump other considerations.

Whatever critique people may wish to make of China, the current trade war

  • in which the US is doubling down on fossil fuels while China is investing massively in renewable energy generation,
  • Donald Trump prohibits mention of Climate Change in US government publications and sabotages scientific research into it, while Xi Xinping is talking about building an “ecological society”,
  • the US is planning to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and stands against international co-operation, while the Chinese favour “win win” solutions and are set to achieve their 2030 targets between 5 and 9 years early

is a dramatic illustration that there is more than one engine of prosperity and energy security. The dominant western global elite are sticking with the wrong one because they can do no other – they would cease to be an elite if they were to embrace state led investment as a way forward. Even as they are staring at total panic and terrible consequences for the majority of humanity in the medium term.

The popularity of evangelical rapture Christianity among these people – in which we are living in the “end times” waiting for the second coming and sudden miraculous escape from all our problems to those who believe hard enough –  and the increasingly delirious and irrational mode of political debate has its roots in the same fears.

This is a cry of despair from a class that can no longer claim to represent humanity as a whole – in the way they have tried to do since 1789. Every day that passes produces more evidence like this that the people who rule us are unfit to do so.

Variations on this theme are fantasies of living “off world” in space stations or – even – Mars – though Antarctica is a more benign environment -with Elon Musk’s electric car in space as a symbolic gesture in this direction. If it weren’t for the resources required to get them there it would be tempting just to let them go – in an inverted version of Ursula Le Guin’s novel “The Dispossessed” – in which a political conflict was resolved by exiling all the anarchists to the nearest moon.

 

 

 

*Just published by Penguin. Essential reading, but don’t order it on Amazon; ask your local library to stock it instead.

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