Managing Downward Spirals - Getting from Here to There

@20 May 2007 

Hey, will you be here tomorrow? Seg back twenty years and all the news was of a planet overrun by recklessly breeding humans. Today in the media of rich nations, the slightly hysterical whisper is that liberated women are on a baby strike and we’ll all be doomed to robot care in our old age. This downward spiral of fertility is an almost sedate affair in the grand scheme of things. Compare it to the supposed disappearance of dinosaurs after the nuclear winter from earth's traffic accident with a giant meteor. People though, count for more than dinosaurs, don't they.

Well, pundits need time for a leisurely dinner before typing tomorrow's blog. Meteors are too hasty. The breeding demise of the species leaves space for pontification, and even legislation. Maybe sooner or later someone will pause long enough after dinner to wonder if fewer people is such a bad idea after all. In the current fashion cycle, there is a myth abroad amongst economists and social commentators that collapsing populations are a catastrophe. There is however overwhelming historical evidence that groups and nations with small populations can and do enjoy great levels of prosperity and a high quality of life. [Elizabethan Britain (population 9 million), city states, modern Finland etc.]

Now one candidate for a really spectacular de-frothing is the heady brew of consumer capitalism, and this of course is related to economically active populations. Consumer capitalism is a vast pyramid scheme, built upon ever expanding inputs from ever expanding spending and production bases. Pyramid schemes are never stable. They always collapse. The total pyramid scheme of consumer capitalism has lasted longer than the average fly-by-night get rich plan to sell cosmetics or dishwashing liquid, but that is only because the contributing base is much larger. It is not infinite, and its limits are becoming clearly visible on many fronts. Population decline is only one constraint. A monetary system built on gambling (otherwise known as hedge funds), fantasy and greed is another. The displacement of labour by automation is yet another (not every ex-garment worker or welder, or for that matter every fresh graduate can become a Jedi master in an automated landscape).

The population "problem" is not in having small populations per se. The problem is not in having a diminished consumer and labour base per se. It is not in having a different socioeconomic paradigm that consumer capitalism (or so-called communism, or an Islamic Umma, or whatever). The problem, as with most systemic problems, is one of getting from here to there. At the moment the process is unmanaged and threatens suffering on many fronts. The solutions fronted by political power holders to date are sectional fixes, mostly with no regard to optimizing the inevitable outcomes of reduced populations

The population + consumer capitalism equation is found in microcosm on the Korean peninsula. South Korea neatly encapsulates the global problem of getting from here to there. South Korea has the lowest birthrate in the world, with all the looming consequences for the consumer capitalism pyramid scheme of living. In fact, South Korea is a poster headline advertisement for the flourishing hothouse success of a consumer capitalism pyramid scheme within a generation, yet the South Korean people are racked by a gnawing sense of insecurity. Deep in their souls the more thoughtful of them have an uneasy sense that it can't last.

Just north of the South Korean border is another country living a different dream. For most North Koreans the dream is very sparse indeed, and often segs to nightmare. For a controlling elite it is posh in a nomenklatura Stalinist kind of way, but with a permanent sense of ravening hordes at the gate, spies under the table and fabled enemy states massing at the borders. This elite also knows their paradigm cannot last, and has indeed changed in irreversible ways (Lankoff, Asia Times, 12 December 2006), yet to admit change is to open the way to their own destruction. They can't follow the Chinese path to managed change and prosperity since the ravening hordes of dispossessed, once they move towards social independence and global knowledge, will tear the rulers from limb to limb. The Southern model is too near and too stark. Things will collapse very quickly, and probably bloodily.

South Korean and Chinese elites fear the collapse of the North for the chaos and insecurity it will bring, not only to the North itself but to the adjoining states. South Korea almost certainly faces a period of protracted economic shock and social chaos itself when the North goes haywire. Therefore the Southern elites prop up the Stalinist Northern elites to the tune of around a billion dollars a year because nobody knows how to manage the downward spiral of change which will happen sooner or later. The illusion is that it will be later, much later and nicely cushioned somehow. The reality is that it will probably be sooner, initiated from explosive social forces within, not external to North Korea, and be very messy indeed.

In an interacting world, downward spirals are pretty often viral spirals. The Great Depression of 1929 was an early example of this, and so for that matter were the two world wars of the twentieth century. The 1997 financial collapse was a cyclone that threatened mass destruction, sucked in some weaker economies, and got coaxed out to sea in just the nick of time. It is no secret in the hot money universe that the 1997 vortex was just a little brother to the engulfing catastrophe waiting if confidence (or illusion) ebbs away about the trillions of dollars in quaintly named securities - essentially promissory notes that can never be redeemed - which slosh daily through cyberspace between the world's financial institutions. A bit like the Cold War, what keeps Armageddon at bay here is a kind of balance of terror, and as with the Cold War the balance is most at risk from players who don't understand the terms of the game. That essentially means most political players. History, for example recent American history, shows us that the naive and the malign are often no more than a hair's breath away from catastrophe’s trigger.

There is a general perception in many parts of the world now, even amongst common people, that the American empire has entered a phase of decline. We are too close to these events to grasp the whole clearly, but the mood is ominous. The sources of this perception are manifold. As large parts of the so-called Third World industrialize, or even post-industrialize, and local elites gain confidence that they can manage the mechanisms of the industrial miracle, America's stature as the Wizard's Castle steadily diminishes. America itself continues to elaborate on its origins as a slave-based society, importing illegal and therefore unprotected labour to do its domestic dirty work, and exporting its factories to slave labour centers in developing countries. The web of productive energy has morphed into a rebranding economy dependent on tangible imports in return for reprinted trillions of a special and increasingly fragile promissory note called the American dollar.

Curiously, only a small tribe of Americans escape the gravitational pull of their national border. It is keeping this 4.6 percent of the world's population in imported Nike sneakers, pandering to their feeding habits and fueling their SUVs that gives the rest of us so much grief. CNN and the uglier face of American culture might intrude electronically into homes worldwide, but except for the rape and plunder where armies are inserted, the physical presence of Americans is usually thin on the ground. The reason is not simply American insularity.

Like most empires of the past, pax Americana is actually a time-slave based system for the largest number of its residents. The slavery is enforced in this case through the mind-manipulation of middle and working class people, filling their heads in every brief free moment with the white noise of trivia, as mentally nourishing as the fast food crap they put in their mouths. The constant subtext is that there is no better alternative to the treadmill they are locked into. American media tells them that the rest of the world's peoples a) lead miserable lives, and b) exist in a constant state of envy of the American way.

It is all weirdly reminiscent of Kim Jong Il's propaganda paradise in North Korea, or the Soviet and Chinese party in full ideological flight, and the scary thing is that most of the victims are quite unable to get an independent mental perspective on their own condition. The poor critters have even been trained to parrot that they are "free" and "happy". George Orwell was dead right about tendencies of totalitarian communist dictatorships, but "Animal Farm" and "1984" in many ways were more prophetic about the tendencies of oligarchic American capitalism...

Critically, average Americans don't have so many free moments, and most of all they have no decent annual holidays. A truly revolutionary American Presidential platform would be to guarantee every American 6 weeks annual holiday, to get a life and learn something real about the world beyond the baseball Super Bowl. Of course, that is precisely what the ruling cabal does not want the people to have. They might also develop some funny ideas about their "ideal" system. Now that might start a real downward spiral for the American nomenklatura. The rest of us? Somehow we have to civilize this American monstrosity in the interests of saving ourselves.

The socialist dictatorships of the twentieth century were also built on promissory notes which were never intended by their makers to be redeemed. The dictatorship of the proletariat on the assurance of a brilliant future for later generations was a lie that the proletariat eventually gagged on, and that even the communist nomenklatura of middle managers no longer found satisfying. The promissory notes of American capitalism are more and more seen to be equally tendentious. Freedom is freedom for the privileged in their gated communities, whose very gates mock that freedom. Free trade and laissez faire are, it seems, the exclusive privilege of corporate elites, who pay millions in bribes to legislators (it is called "lobbying") in return for subsidies, huge contracts and protection against foreign competition. The American capitalist system is extremely fragile because at bottom it makes promises that cannot or will not be met. The salient question is, what series of events are likely to tip it into an unmanageable downward spiral ?

While financial and economic sustainability are the engines of a stable state, and social acceptance is the lubrication that keeps it working, it is violent disruption which generally triggers collapse. Once the system is stressed beyond a certain point, weak links fracture in an uncontrollable cascade. Historically, in empires it has been military adventurism which precipitates violent disruption. In the American case there are clear warning signs of this kind of terminal disruption. America has just endured perhaps the worst period of misgovernment at a national level in its history. That misgovernment has been evident in both domestic and international affairs. However, it has been the manifest failure of international military adventurism that has exposed the fatal weaknesses of American power to international scrutiny and led to a critical loss of respect for American intentions at the global level. The big question is whether this particular downward spiral is containable, and if so, on what terms.

American intervention in Iraq was plainly illegal, if laws of international governance mean anything. Laws of international governance are pretty recent, and have not meant much except where cooperation is mutually preferred. Although we hope for something better, "might is right" (i.e. fascism) has historically been the ultimate arbiter of relations between states. Thus however hollow the American rhetoric about promoting freedom, and however specious the arguments for pre-emptive invasion, the American governing elite might well have gotten away with the Iraqi invasion, even been praised for it, if they had managed the aftermath well. What happened in Iraq is that the American governing elite showed definitively that they were not capable of managing anything.

Population wise, Iraq is a relatively small country of 20 million people. It's economy had been reduced to survival mode by years of sanctions. As a theatre for conventional warfare, it is almost indefensible, least of all against the world's most advanced military machine. The armed resistance amounts to a few thousand mutually warring tribal guerillas. In other words, the civil control and rehabilitation of Iraq should be little more than a police action (Dmitry Shlapentokh, America's Opium War, Asia Times January 18, '07). Yet the reality we see from day to day is that the American invaders are not only unable to marginalize armed resistance, they are unable to institute governance, their own or by proxy, in any meaningful way at all. The truth of course is that by deed, vandalism and attitude, the American invaders have declared war not on the government of Iraq, but on 20 million people, and the best part of 20 million people are resisting them. The Americans have destroyed the Iraqi state, yet they are unable to put anything in its place. Further, their own military engagement is facing defeat by political attrition. A few thousand resistance fighters have put the whole edifice of American power at risk.

This is an extremely dangerous moment in international relations. Half a generation ago, America was able to extricate itself from an ill-considered war in Vietnam. The American retreat from Vietnam was a tatty affair, which partly radicalized a generation of young Americans, yet it did not fundamentally threaten American military power in spite of military strategic failures. The enemy in Vietnam was credible, well-armed, backed by northern conventional forces and underwritten at various stages by both the Chinese and the Soviet Union. None of this applies in Iraq. Iraq is a naked American failure that goes to the heart of credible American military deterrence. American civilian and military elites will therefore be looking to their own future, and calculating possible responses.

Much has been written about the persistence of military dictatorships which are ruthless in crushing dissent and ultimately willing to die by the sword themselves to defend their control. North Korea is a favourite current example. Saddam Hussein's regime has just been blown away in the name of cleansing a similar offense to human decency. The strength and the weakness of democracies has been the power of genuine popular support, and the fickleness of that support. A popular but specious claim for democratic governments is that they don't initiate wars. However, the enduring reality is that the kind's of personalities that seek and obtain political power are pretty similar under any conceivable system of government. The first premise for holding power is to do what it takes to get it and keep it. This is certainly true in Washington.

Damage control from the Iraqi debacle will take numerous forms, and the most important of those forms might well be invisible to public scrutiny. The cleanest exit would be for George Bush and his cabal to do a Lyndon Johnson, commit hara kiri, and leave the next American political generation to pick up the pieces. Their is little evidence that Bush has the stature or the insight to take such a course.

Another kind of response which is almost certain in some form is an attempt to retrieve American military credibility in a different theatre. It will surely cost lots of non American lives. This might more more disastrous, or less disastrous, depending upon the option chosen. Bush's first choice was Iran, but Iranis are no naïfs in this business. They have had four or five millennia’s worth of practice in managing empires, and fending them off. The Irani option is looking rather sticky. Hillary Clinton favours Afghanistan as a fallback post for glory. Afghanistan buried the Soviets, and the British before them. American policy will have to show a good deal more intelligence there than it has mustered in the last thirty years to achieve anything credible.

Perhaps the scariest option is that other axis of evil, North Korea. Nobody knows what to do about North Korea. Everybody knows that large scale change when it comes to the place will be very nasty indeed, and there are three million deaths from the last Korean war as a grisly reminder. However, only a small percentage of them were American deaths (you would never guess this from the movies). Clinton's last secretary of defense is recently headlined in the Korean press (20 January 2006) as saying "the United States should consider military action against North Korea if China and South Korea refuse to prod Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program". Does he mean it? Probably not for the moment anyway.

Of all the paths to a downward spiral in American military power, North Korea carries the greatest risk of cascading events that could change the geopolitical landscape in a major way. Chinese intervention in the 1950-53 Korean War cost a million Chinese lives and effectively lost the country control of Taiwan. The Chinese will think long and hard before playing a military card in that theatre again. American military intervention in North Korea would move the drift of South Korean sentiment out of the American alliance into instant divorce mode and a shotgun marriage with China. China and South Korea are already flirting in a big way. They have, after all, both cohabited and quarreled since the beginnings of recorded history, and they share many cultural affinities.

For all the fractious annoyances of culture clash, the sixty year engagement of South Koreans with America has given them the best leverage against competing regional powers that they have ever known, as well as unprecedented prosperity. Korean public affection however, like that everywhere else, is fickle and has a short memory. Reserves of goodwill for the American presence have eroded steadily, with more than a casual eye on rising Chinese prosperity and American decline; (there is however a vigorous South Korean distrust of Chinese worthiness, whether it be shoddy electronics, contaminated food or political pledges).

Both the Chinese and the South Koreans acutely fear being overrun by hordes of poverty stricken North Koreans following regime collapse in the north. Furthermore, half of South Korea's population lives within artillery range of North Korean guns. Given these realities, they take a dim view of any chest thumping schemes by either Washington or Tokyo to take out North Korean atomic reactors. In short, the Americans are checkmated in North Korea. Regardless of the outcomes of military intervention -- regime collapse, active North Korean military revenge or simply the grim persistence of the North Korean elite -- the net result would be a large scale loss of American influence on the Korean peninsular. With that loss would come a significant enhancement of Chinese power.

Chinese power, in the end, is the ring of power that gives Washington's elite sleepless nights. Iraq was a little hornet's nest that has stung gung-ho adventurers badly. China is different. It is a ramshackle nation with a Potemkin facade at one level, but its leaders are smart and tough. Behind the facade they are labouring furiously to build a state of real substance, a genuine successor to the Chinese empires which have been amongst the world's most successful.

Above all, everything in China is mega. This is no desert outpost of 20 million people. China officially has that many people in jail as common criminals. Chinese leaders are not going to give Washington any credible reason for direct military engagement. If by some irrational cascade of American events, the American military machine was let loose on Chinese infrastructure it could wreak terrible damage, but in many ways including physical retribution, that damage would surely be reciprocated in mainland United States and precipitate the radical collapse that violence so often brings. It would certainly precipitate the end of the current international order, not necessarily to anyone's advantage.

Chaos Theory probably has more to say about the trajectory of human cultures than any movement, ideology, religion or charismatic leader of the moment. The steel ball rolling down the valley of a corrugated roof wanders unpredictably within the boundaries of the corrugation. That is like the news from Washington or Teheran or Nairobi on any given day. However, within the corrugation, the trajectory of the ball is broadly predictable. If something intervenes to displace the ball, or alter its velocity, then at a certain point it will roll out of the corrugation, poise fractionally in an indeterminate region of chaos on the crest, then roll into a new configuration. That temporary throw to chaos can happen at any moment in our lives, for a million reasons.

Take human ignorance. Ignorance is a huge counterweight to change, but also a deadly loose cannonball under extreme conditions. We see this with every war, but not only with war. An annual estimate of basic scientific literacy rates the American public as 93% ignorant, and the Chinese public as 98% ignorant. However fuzzy the statistic, the underlying message is clear. For the overwhelming majority of people everywhere, the world runs on magic. Under pressure, they will always turn to magical solutions, and magic by definition is unpredictable. Put that together with any number of tidal forces, and you have a future where anything could happen pretty quickly.

Climate change is getting a lot of press. Less discussed are many, many other variables. The human food chain has become both grotesquely distorted and very fragile. Nobody really knows what the consequences will arise out one of the largest mass movements of human beings since they evolved from the critters in Africa’s Olduvai Gorge. Africa itself in 2007 is a bubbling cauldron of population movements and cultural change. Mass education everywhere, for all its crudity, has sewn the seeds of new mental landscapes, and from these seeds the instant-everywhere Internet is bringing flowers, soon forests, to bloom in strange places and in strange ways. Renaissance Europeans imagined the New World before they created it. There are minds in Tallinn and Tbilsi, Capetown, the Cook Islands and the slums of Manila which at this moment are imagining virtual worlds constrained by many kinds of ignorance, which in unpredictable mutations will rule our children's children.

"Progress" has been the iconic banner of European and then world cultures since the eighteenth century, regardless of devastating wars and the industrialization of criminal activity into corporate nodes largely beyond the control of traditional political leaders. We don't have to be entirely cynical about this. As an Australian, I have benefited very nicely from "progress". It is however not the only possible paradigm to govern the human presence. There are other moods and seasons waiting in the wings, and the scene changes might not be of our choosing. The best we can do is prepare, push the fug of ignorance back a little, and get advanced black belt training in managing downward spirals.


All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument. Personal names are changed where they might embarrass the owners.

" Managing Downward Spirals - Getting from Here to There" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2005

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