It's crucial for us to understand the scope of industrial civilization and its discontents. A global mass movement building an ecological civilization, is far from the only alternative to business as usual.
There are other trajectories ranging from MAGA partisans seeking a Trumpist restoration to paleo-anarchists for whom solar and fossil fuels are part of the same industrial nightmare. As the Washington Consensus and business and pollution and pillage as usual reigned supreme, two aggressive alternatives to the corporate capitalist dream, populism and religious fundamentalism, rose to global prominence as opponents to the way things are.
Both represent a reactionary rejection of not just the inequities of business as usual but opposition to the disruption of traditional economic, social, and cultural patterns that the Washington Consensus wrought both within the rich countries of the OECD, and upon the nations of the global south.
Paths for the future
Four paths compete to define our future:
Business as usual
Business as usual reflects the rise of a global netocracy in a world shaped by ever greater concentration of wealth, ecological deregulation, varying levels of climate denial, and worsening ecological conditions. This is a world of diminished democracies, resource wars, crop failure and famine, collapsing states, mass migration of the desperate, and emergency attempts at geo-engineering to slow climate disaster. It is the evolutionary development of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus.
Authoritarian populism is currently ascendant. We are witnessing the continued rise of authoritarians and would be authoritarian leaders driven by anti-immigrant nativist passions. This is the kind of unifying sentiment by majority groups against designated others that socialists, addressing anti-semitism, called “the socialism of fools", now stoked by economic disruption and worsening climate. Authoritarian populism is a quick road to fascism and collapse. Authoritarian populism will turn to ever more stringent and exclusionary authoritarian measures facing climate catastrophe.
Populism defines immigration as an assault by designated others on an imagined golden age. The improbable rise of Donald Trump to President of the United States speaks volumes about the depth of populist angst exploited by Trump expressing a nativist passion.
Populism is more than Trumpism and more than anti-immigrant racism. It can be the venue for the rise to power of anti-democratic leaders who reduce democracy to mere rituals. Populism can also be a force for reform against self-serving elites.
Populism expresses the legitimate concerns expressed by the Yellow Vests in France, of downwardly mobile American rust belt workers left far behind by the increasingly wealthy elites. It is telling that the rise of Trump was potentiated by the response of the Obama administration and Republican elites to the financial collapse of 2007-8. Trillions were spent by the Federal Reserve and the world's central bankers to save the bankers and speculators and allowed millions to be driven from their homes and jobs.
Religious fundamentalism as a social movement has much in common with authoritarian populism. Religious fundamentalism is popularly identified with a variety of Sunni and Sunni state and non-state actors with a diverse range of tactics and goals. But there are also Hindu nationalist movements like the BJP that have risen to power in Modi's India, the world's largest democracy. Similarly, there are major Christian fundamentalist movements with a strong theocratic orientation in the U.S. making their deal with the devil to support an amoral President Trump in exchange for political favors. The tendency of many of these groups is anti-modernist with little interest or capacity to respond to climate issues.
Resistance to modernity and the neo-liberal Washington Consensus informed and shaped, the Jihadist movement that arose from long-term ultra-conservative strains of Shia and Sunni Muslim belief. For Sunnis this was expressed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1920s and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia founded by Mohammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab in the early 18th century, as well as by Shias, powerless minorities in many Arab nations, but not in Iran where a powerful theocratic state challenges both Sunni and U.S. power.
Building an ecological civilization
Global ecological economic growth pursues sustainability, ecological and social justice, and makes economic growth result in ecological and social improvement. The goal is to build an ecological civilization by stopping and reversing climate change and building sustainable social orders that strengthen and protects the local and global commons. This is a path toward global prosperity, peace, democracy and survival. It is, in my view, our only valid path forward. An ecological social order, in part, is based on resolving the tension between individual and the group, between freedom and community for the mutual benefit of individual and group.
The resolution of the tension between individual and group is resolved in ways that, for some, privileges the individual as opposed to the group, or privileges the group as opposed to the individual. This dynamic shapes and guides the social creation of reality and the psychological strengths and tensions manifest in the group's members. A society organized around cooperation, substantial common property and gifting, for example, will have vastly different dynamics and different psychology than a society based on competition, private property, and maximum personal accumulation.
For Freud, in his classic Civilization and Its Discontents, there’s an inherent tension between personal limitless desires and the necessary limits required by a civilized order. For Freud, unfortunately, this world view was a generalization of late 19th century Vienna under the Austro-Hungarian empire that gave short shrift to the social creation of reality and prospects for a very different social order of an ecological civilization.
It's crucial for us to approach our futures by understanding the underlying economic dynamics that drive industrial civilization and its discontents leading to the four likely potential futures of business, as usual, authoritarian populism, religious fundamentalism, and ecological civilization. The dominant future will, over time, emerge as the major organizing trajectory for our civilization.
First, we must face the growing and worsening consequences of climate change in motion. This is the drought that helped spark the Syrian civil war against the Assad regime. It’s crop failure in Guatemala and Honduras that is one of the primary drivers of desperate families seeking refuge in the United States. It’s the floods and rising sea levels in Bangladesh driving millions inland and for neighboring India to build a border fence to stop the desperate. It’s now the regular flooding in Miami and in the Seaport District of Boston from rising Sea levels and in Houston from Gulf Storms. The global threat is of unfolding crop failure in one or more of the planet's primary rice or grain growing areas leading to famine on a massive scale and social and political collapse.
Second, is the ongoing global concentration of wealth as the rich get richer and a billionaire class emerges globally. The context at the start of 2020 was the still ongoing global expansion. The inevitable global downturn had severe global consequences that stretch beyond the pandemic recession. Even in the richest nation, the United States, both before and after the depth of the pandemic, millions of people are one missed paycheck from financial panic, unable to pay rent or mortgage mired, in debt with no or minimal savings. There is clearly an increasing convergence between the consequences of climate change and local and global economy that will shape the structure of the economic future.
Third, is the effects of AI, robotization, globalization of both production and service jobs on all skill levels. Fewer and fewer workers are required for many tasks. Capital investment in ever more competent and skilled machines replaces workers. This is not just robotic welding machines producing cars. At the supermarket, scanning machines are replacing cashiers. A robot washes the floors tirelessly circulating around the store. And now scanning machines are being replaced by sensors that charge your bank account directly without the scanning and allow you to pick up and purchase. The promise is of employee free retail, from delivery of supplies from self-driving vehicles to robot stocking of shelves, a technology rapidly being developed to replace human workers in enormous Amazon warehouses.
The global market means online ordering and shipment from producer to consumer at the lowest cost. The $20 pillow I saw in a commercial was available online from eBay at $10, shipped direct from Shenzhen, China in three weeks. There is relentless pressure on price and wages, a race to the bottom. In 1969, I went to work for Banker's Trust Company on Wall Street, my first full time job. The bank was starting to computerize some operations. A senior executive told me proudly that the Bank was committed to retrain staff and not to fire anyone, and, in fact, only one or two people lost their jobs who refused to be retrained. This was still a paper world with handwritten notes, with tickler files for follow-ups, with typists and secretaries and dictaphone machines, of giant offices filed with hundreds of workers at their desks with in-boxes and out-boxes.
The inescapable trajectory of the 21stcentury and beyond is that there must be ways to share the social product, to reduce hours, to share jobs as part of a new social contract. This must be addressed by all four potential dominant futures. It can be imposed grudgingly from above by business as usual and by authoritarian populism and religious fundamentalism. Or it can be shaped expressed by a new democratic global ecological convergence on sustainable and just norms for all, embracing in some fashion a basic income grant, a negative income tax, a living wage, a life time opportunity for education and retraining, a right to a fair share in exchange for the responsibility to contribute.
Looking back: reasons why
It is stunning that the 20th century ended with belief, famously advanced by Francis Fukuyama, that, in effect, history had ended, that our common futures would be a matter of themes and variation on corporate classically liberal market democracy. “...Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an 'end of ideology or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.”
The Soviet Union and its empire had collapsed. The United States stood alone as irresistible and indispensable global leader. Democracy and capitalism seemed irresistible. A democratic movement of Color Revolutions arose in 2003-2005 in former Soviet Republics. Street protests removed repressive regimes in the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. An Arab Spring of democracy uprisings starting in 2010 toppled repressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen and challenged several others.
But in all but Tunisia, the democratic moment of the Arab Spring proved to be ephemeral. The widely shared inference from the brittleness of new democracies was that it was not easy to create durable democratic orders in nations lacking the experience and social structures of political parties organized around ideas as opposed to religious or cultural identity. Democracy in Egypt, for example, after the electoral success of the Muslim brotherhood, led to support or acquiescence to a military junta seizing power. A rising China continued on a market path even after repressing the Democracy Movement.
The Washington Consensus
Democracy and capitalism American style was expressed by the so-called Washington Consensus. This was a road map for a neo-liberal global order based on the free movement of capital, but not labor, of enforced structural adjustments imposed by the rich upon the poor, and to protect the foreign investment by the rich in poor nations. This structural adjustment imposed by the World Bank and international bankers required cutting health care, education, privatization of social services, and mandate export driven commodity production as opposed to high value added import substitution. Export of fossil fuel power plants, as part of infrastructure development for the poor, was standard fare and consistent with the general failure to take serious and focused action on climate by the rich, who are responsible for the problem and who benefited by the generations of unrestrained pollution.
The Washington Consensus often made the rich become richer, and the poor poorer. The poor were mired in debt, or if not, constrained by the middle income trap in economies serving as low wage and low margin assemblers of products, that would be sold at the high margin by the rich. Free trade was the mantra supported by a welter of bi-lateral, multilateral, and international trade agreements and rules.
Business as usual meant deepening inequality globally within rich and poor nations with the emergence of a billionaire class. Thomas Piketty's work on deepening global inequality as a common feature of global market capitalism is definitive. Business as usual also meant global climate crisis threatening the future of civilization and the well being of the ecosphere and all it inhabitants as the financial masters of the universe attempt to manage and profit from global business and financial flows.
The uber-rich were gifted by the 2018 tax “reform” with multi-trillions of dollars by deep cuts in corporate, income, and estate taxes. The benefits conferred upon capital have been extraordinary and have been often used for stock buy backs to push up stock prices and corporate bonuses.
Business as usual also, not incidentally, meant resources wars for the control of oil and natural gas branded as an endless and limitless global “War Against Terror. Business as usual, even after the fall of the Soviet Union and its huge military establishment, has meant the continued global conduct of a baroque global war system. An American empire is classically waging endless war abroad for tribute and control to maintain peace and prosperity at home at least for the increasingly rich one percent of the population, and especially for the tiny emergent billionaire class.
American counter-terrorism forces were active in an astounding 85 countries in 2018-2020 without a declaration of war or even serious Congressional debate or oversight. Globally the U.S. military has 800 bases. U.S. counter terrorism action has served to effectively increase the strength of opposition groups, most famously in Iraq where ISIS was born in the torture cells of Abu Ghraib prison. Targeted assassinations, drone, air, and missile strikes, combat operations occur globally with air and drone strikes active in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia. Libya. The assassination by drone fired missile of General Qassem Soleimani of Iran's Quds Force at the start of 2020 is likely to be cause of more violence and many deaths in an endless Global War Against Terror.
Building an ecological civilization versus authoritarianism and populism
What’s most relevant to our concerns is that movements for building an ecological civilization through the pursuit of sustainability and social and ecological justice rests upon and arises from global dynamics potentiated and unleashed by business and pollution as usual. Namely:
- worsening global inequality with deepening economic, social, and political consequences including resource wars for fossil fuels now, with wars for strategic minerals, water and food and viable agricultural land, and aquaculture resources soon to come;
- trade regimes that benefit corporate wealth, not community wealth and community jobs;
- global debt peonage of poor nations to benefit the rich through structural adjustment based on commodity export, privatization, slashing social services, low wage production;
- climate change and emergent global ecological crisis falling hardest on the poorest through drought, flood, super storms, crop failure that pushes the suffering over the brink.
At the bottom, an ecological civilization will turn a global war system into a peace system and global ecocide into sustainable regeneration of our planet. The desperation that gave rise to populism and fundamentalism will be mitigated by the pursuit of sustainability, social and ecological justice, and strengthened communities in a global movement for climate sanity and climate justice.
In my view, building an ecological civilization is the only path likely to allow us to escape climate catastrophe and build a sustainable and just future, that transforms a war system into a peace system.
Failure to aggressively respond to the threat of climate change will almost certainly usher in a world of resources wars for water, food, productive agricultural land, and high ground as seas rise driving irresistible mass migration of the desperate.
A peace system is not a fanciful wish. It’s driven by the necessity for common survival in the face of looming planetary ecological catastrophe, a necessary concomitant for building an ecological future.
Socialism of Fools. Der Antisemitismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle. Attributed to social democrat August Bebel. Historian Richard Evans in The Coming of The Third Reich finds probably coined by Austrian democrat Ferdinand Kronawetter and was in common use by German social democrats by the 1890s.
Vigilantes in India. Betwa Sharma & Omar Kahn, 2021. Hindu Vigilantes Work with Police to Enforce Love Jihad Law in North India. The Intercept. July 3, 2021. “In November, Uttar Pradesh began to enforce the Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, a law that ostensibly prohibits religious conversions by force, fraud, or marriage. While the law does not explicitly ban marriage between Hindu women and Muslim men, Hindu vigilantes in the state have wielded it to lead unencumbered “love jihad” investigations in collaboration with the police, often using violence and manipulation, with the ultimate goal of cementing India as a Hindu supremacist nation. The vigilantes pursue alleged cases of “love jihad” despite the national government’s insistence that such a crime does not legally exist.”
End of history. Francis Fukuyama. 1992. The end of history and the last man. New York: Free Press. Quote Fukuyama. Francis Fukuyama,1989. The End of History?.The National Interest. Summer 1989.
Color revolutions. Lincoln A Mitchell, 2012. The Color Revolution. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Global U.S. Military presence. George Petras, Karina Zaiets and Veronica Bravo, 2021. Exclusive: US counterterrorism operations touched 85 countries in the last 3 years alone. USA Today. Catherine Besteman and Stephanie Savell, 2018. "Where in the World Is the U.S. Military? Everywhere”. US. News. Jan. 12, 2018. Thomas F. Lynch III, 2008. Sunni and Shia Terrorism: Differences that Matter. Brookings. December 28, 2008.