Sunday, August 23, 2009


Brave New World of Chaos

The other day I ran across a highly interesting essay over at World Politics Review titled “Risk and Resilience in a Globalized Age: Containing Chaos.” What caught my eye was “chaos” in the title, which is because I see chaos playing an ever bigger role in the world as the competition over a dwindling pie intensifies, and traditional structures start coming apart at the seams. The article makes some very good observations, and raises some questions in my mind that may not be the questions the author intended to raise. Following are a few comments. If you find this interesting, definitely read the article and draw your own conclusions.

First, globalization is seen to be a threat, which is an admission you will certainly not get from mainstream politicians, who relentlessly bombard us with propaganda about how globalization will make everyone affluent and happy. But the author correctly observes that the unintended consequence of globalization is a “supernetwork” that engulfs everything and threatens us because it’s quite literally out of our control. As such, the world system lurches from one crisis to another, dragging whole populations and countries around like a runaway bulldozer dragging a man who is helplessly digging in his heels in a futile effort to stop the machine.

Another interesting feature of this piece is the author’s identification of what he calls “parasites” of the global supernetwork. Let me quote the author’s description.
The third and final threat posed by globalization will be the emergence of super-empowered groups of individuals that compete with the nation-state for money and power. These groups, typically small, leverage easily accessed functions of the supernetwork for their personal benefit at great expense to the collective good. These small networks span the gamut from “trusted insiders” in financial industry to guerrilla/terrorist groups.
The author goes on to illustrate how these small groups pull the levers of this hyper-interconnected system to generate fantastically huge results and secure wealth and power incommensurate with the number of people actually involved.

As a prescription to deal with instability and lack of systemic control, the author recommends “the development of self-sufficient, decentralized systems at the local level — from economics to politics to food to energy to communications — that can operate successfully even when the larger system breaks down.” This is sage advice, of course. Note that the author does not see the global supernetwork breaking down, but rather growing more complex and stronger. Of course among those in the know, you will find little disagreement with the idea of decentralization and local self-sufficiency.

The next section discusses how to deal with “parasites,” and seems generally on the mark in the sense that it recommends against the use of large-scale, heavy-duty solutions such as launching military strikes. A recommended course of action is sowing discord among actors and co-opting them. One statement gives me pause for thought: “In some few cases, it will be impossible to leave the actors involved intact. In those cases, tightly targeted efforts (i.e., special operations) to eliminate these malicious groups will be required.” And what kind of actors would those be? Probably so-called “terrorists.” Of course, terrorism is abhorrent for the destruction and death it causes. But what about the other kinds of parasites, such as those who prey mercilessly on the rest of us to make themselves rich? Such parasites cause nationwide, or even global-scale financial and social disruption, and bring untold suffering and misery to millions of people throughout the world, which in my view is just as bad, or maybe even worse, than a terrorist who kills a few people in a bombing. Would it be all right to “eliminate” such evil and greedy people? Perhaps in the author’s worldview it’s all right to “eliminate” an olive-skinned Arab/Muslim “terrorist” (who likely believes he is getting back at gross injustice), while it’s not all right to “eliminate” a white Western financier who stole the wealth of uncountable people, while having no illusions about righting wrongs. Maybe that’s the reason that white Western Ponzi-scheme scam artists might go to prison, but they won’t be shot down on the street like dogs or murdered in their beds by “special operations” personnel, or bombed by drones. Food for thought, isn’t it? “Neutralization” isn’t always so neutral. And what should we do with the rogue US government/military elements who were behind 9/11?

For that matter, how would the author propose we deal with groups such as Bilderberg, those unelected elites who discuss our futures behind closed doors?

Finally, the piece ends with a section titled “Delivering Benefits and Improving Fairness.” If you subscribe to the “business as usual” worldview, the prescription set forth here sounds good. Enfranchisement, more-or-less equal pieces of pie, blah blah blah. Right on! But this is flawed by the underlying assumption that we’ll have plenty of resources and energy to work with. There is no acknowledgment — indeed there seems to be no awareness — of peak oil, and how expensive energy will be the primary driving force in global dynamics from now on. Surely the author, who obviously has some good analytical skills, has not overlooked the worldwide jockeying for position to lock down supplies of energy (especially oil) and other resources. Then there is the potential effect on the global supernetwork. Since globalization is the child of cheap energy, it is bound to undergo some kind of radical restructuring and simplification as energy gets more expensive. What will happen to global shipping? To the internet? In that sense, expensive energy will work to undermine the global supernetwork. Indeed, the author says of the supernetwork: “It’s unlikely that we will see any reversal in the spread of the global supernetwork. To the contrary, it will continue to expand, complexify, and intensify.” On the contrary, I think that industrial civilization is at or near its maximum complexity already, at which point it begins to break down and simplify. This has happened to all previous civilizations, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen to ours. We are already struggling with layers of complexity — each of which requires more energy. To cope with problems of increasing complexity and scale, we create a new agency or appoint a new “czar,” which only makes the problem worse. The system is already out of control, as we can see from the failure of all these governments, agencies, and czars to effect any meaningful change.

But whatever happens, I guarantee you that there will be plenty of chaos to go around.

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