Tag Archives: crisis

The U.S. in the role of Byzantium in a neo-medieval geopolitical balance…interesting.

You have to go back a thousand years to find a time when the world was genuinely western and eastern at the same time. Then, China’s Song dynasty presided over the world’s largest cities, mastered gunpowder and printed paper money. At around the same time India’s Chola empire ruled the seas to Indonesia, and the Abbasid caliphate dominated from Africa to Persia. Byzantium swayed and lulled in weakness both due to and despite its vastness. Only in Europe is this medieval landscape viewed negatively. This was a truly multi-polar world.

Parag Khanna, “Future Shock? Welcome to the New Middle Ages,” Financial Times, December 28, 2010 (link to non-paywall version)

I have a more visceral reaction to the TSA’a assumption of powers over our bodies rather than over air security. Too many stories of removed prostheses, excremental bodies, and other humiliations that evince a move toward a more violent biopolitics, a reduction of travelers to “bare life” (v. Agamben) rather than regarding them as citizens, as subjects of rights.

Nevertheless, Tyler Cowen makes two great points today:

The biggest flying/airport outrages are a lack of markets in allocating scarce resources, and the resulting unacceptable airport and flight delay problems in places such as JFK and LaGuardia.  Next come airlines which ruthlessly screw you over, repeatedly, and lie to you and mistreat you.  I do understand the trade-off and prefer the lower prices and fewer quality assurances; still, you can object to their behavior at the margin — it’s often unethical.  Let’s get worked up over these problems first.   

The issue reminds me of the taxation and spending debates; many Americans want low taxes and high government spending, forever.  For airline security, at times we want to treat it as a matter of mere law enforcement, to be handled by others, and one which should not inconvenience our daily lives or infringe on our rights.  At the same time, so many Americans view airline security as a vital matter of foreign policy and indeed as part of a war.  We own and promote this view and yet we are outraged when asked to behave as one might be expected to in a theater of war.

November 22, 2010, Tyler Cowen, Further thoughts on the TSA debates, Marginal Revolution

Hypothesis: the Roman Empire just became too complex to afford sustaining itself anymore.

According to Tainter, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can include differentiated social and economic roles, reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy (meaning resources, or other forms of wealth). When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a shortage of or difficulty in gaining access to energy, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge. Eventually, this cost grows so great that any new challenges such as invasions and crop failures cannot be solved by the acquisition of more territory. At that point, the empire fragments into smaller units.

Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies


We may one day look back in regret at this comfortable, civilized time in our lives. We may one day see the American miracle: investments in nothing transformed into just what we deserved.

Some (obvious) claims

  • The current cultural climate in the US stems from three decades of a deliberate, systematic disruption of education. It’s an engineered disease.
  • Corporate fundamentalism (megachurches, scapegoating by means of so-called culturally conservative values, etc.) takes hold as an opportunistic infection in a diseased body. 
  • The media are addicted to celebritizing as such, because celebrity allows them to productize what they sell to viewers in order to attract ad dollars. 
  • Despite the fake outrage about the mainstream media, none of the current crop of radicals in populist clothing would exist otherwise. 
  • The dominant narrative of an election constantly shifts state between cause and effect.
  • In the same way that talent has been fundamentally decoupled from entertainment, wisdom and ability to govern have been disconnected from politics.
  • Large swaths of voters are bewitched by the idea of change and by the circus of campaigns, without considering that their choices will be in office for years, and the consequences felt for much longer.
  • Votes are typically reactions, rather than intentions.

It’s all been said before, and said better, but my fingers more or less insisted on typing these words this morning. And even though it seems to slant to what most think of as “the left,”  I’d apply the last six points with little alteration to election of Obama, too.

If you’re interested, agree or disagree, please do comment.

What’s clear is that nothing escapes our influence. Nothing is untrammeled. The human signature has been scribbled across the planet with absolute comprehensiveness. So let’s not argue that we shouldn’t tamper with the Earth. We’ve already tampered with it. We’re tampering with it right now. Every time we dress, every time we drive, every time we eat, every time we plug something in, or touch a thermostat, or buy a toy, or send an email, we are geoengineering.

Anthony Doerr, “Planet Zoo,” The Morning News, September 15, 2010

The market is intrinsically incapable of pricing extinction and other social/shared costs of global production and consumption. As I often note, the last wild tuna will fetch a handsome price when it’s auctioned off in the Tokyo Fish Market. Was the value of a wild species calculated by the market? No. the “market” has no mechanism for pricing in the “value” of a species, or of the social costs of poisoned air and water—the Commons we all depend on.

It also is intrinsically incapable of pricing control of resources or assets; the free market presumes that an unfilled demand will be met by someone, somewhere. That ignores the potential for political control of assets and resources which are immune to market pricing.

Risk, future value, control—all of these critical elements are reduced to a “futures bid” which has no inputs for the value of a wild species, the “value” of clean air, the costs of polluted air borne by the tax-paying citizenry, the difficult-to-assess cost of a floating “island” of plastic garbage in the Pacific 2,000 kilometers in diameter, etc.

These crises of Neoliberal Global State (predatory) Capitalism overlap and reinforce each other; none are tractable or easily resolved without structural changes at the most profound levels.

Charles Hugh Smith, “The Overlapping Crises of Neoliberal Global Capitalism,” September 7, 2010

1936 and 2010

Now that capitalism was passing into a decadent phase, and many of the grooves along which they had rolled so happily were worn down to nothing, they were broken and beaten, and their ability to choose the broad outlines of their daily lives, to make political decisions, was now less than it had been originally. It was inevitable that the children of such muddlers, who would themselves be muddlers, would support any system which offered them new opportunities for profitable obedience, which would pattern society with new grooves in place of the old, and would never be warned by any instinct of competence and self-preservation if that system was leading to universal disaster.

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Penguin Classics) (Paperback) [Kindle Edition]

Yes, Haiti is still there.

Something to keep in mind as most reporting remains bewitched by sanitized versions of the latest crisis. An excerpt:

After six months of living first under bedsheets and towels, and now inside torn, sweltering and soaked tents suitable at best for weekend camping, the stress in Haiti’s crowded and unsanitary camps is beginning to grow. Normally patient Haitians, already traumatized by the massive loss of life in January’s unprecedented earthquake, are starting to lose it.

Montreal Gazette: http://www.montrealgazette.com/business/money/Haiti+camps+despair/3230461/story.html#ixzz0szmLBRIf

If we think it’s hot and miserable here in the New York area, just imagine.