COLUMN: Observations of Chaos from my Watchtower
“All along the watchtower…There’s too much confusion, the hour is getting late… Bob Dylan
“Here we are in the years… Children cry in fear, ‘let us out of here.’” Neil Young
By Charles Jeanes
So much food for thought, and limited space on the plate
Being an inveterate news-watcher and book-reader, meeter of friends for extended coffee conversations, and chatterer on social media, I have reams of material to choose from for observing the human condition.
Here is what I have selected for this column. Lots of links and footnotes if one chooses to explore.
Chaos, Qanon, and disruptors
I do not expect to meet people I like who are pro-Trump, but then it happened. I have good reason to like a man I have only come to know slightly in the past few months, and if he sees positive things in the US President, then I will give his perspective the benefit of a respectful hearing.
The “Qanon conspiracy theory” my new friend adheres to is bizarre, and I will not outline it here, since my readers can quickly know as much as I do by a swift online search**. I will limit myself to remarks about Trump and what he symbolizes to me.
Much as I respect Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges, their strictly intellectual rationalist approach to the phenomena surrounding the President is not sufficiently-nuanced for my tastes. Basically, these giants of political analysis see fascism all around and the seizure of ever-greater wealth and power by puppeteers [ e.g. the Koch brothers) controlling the Republican Party. It is sound, persuasive in its own terms, but elements of the analysis are missing.
The world seems particularly chaotic just now, with climate change and volatile weather topping the physical symptoms, and immense suffering in war zones and the flight of refugees from the third world to the First as the social and political face of chaos. Leaders in this time are effects, not causes.
Trump is a chaos agent, as many have observed. Doug Ford is another. Putin, Erdogan, Kim Jong Un, and Duterte in the Philippines, are others. I might add Netanyahu to the list, Orban in Hungary, Modi in India. Their authoritarian, bombastic, dogmatic, rage-fuelled politics are not peculiar to them alone, but have broad substantial support among key demographics of their people. Their chaos-inducing aggression and irrationality are well-attuned to this moment.
I would hypothesize that there is a global public consciousness, a world-mind [the “noos-sphere,” in the terminology of Teilhard de Chardin and W. I. Thompson –- see footenote +]immersed in states of fear, xenophobia, distrust, insecurity, and belligerence. This suggests the moment when Yeats penned his lines about “what rough beast is this? …Shuffling toward Bethlehem to be born,” in 1919. (see his poem The Second Coming)*.
But instead of being in the aftermath of a global war, we’re now in the midst of a reshuffling of all the old certainties of the Cold War and American hegemony (see Chomsky’s Who rules the World?).
A Cold Civil War and the have/have-not Divide
Today I perceive a manifest failure of the progressivist ideals of liberalism and humanism. Our elites, and I count myself among them by my privileged education and First World bourgeois affluence, have believed the world is making progress against a host of –isms such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism. The discourse of our elite cultural institutions, our media, our universities, the immense industry of market culture in all its forms, have underpinned the progressivist narrative. Humanity seemed to be moving in a direction of betterment by several measures, when I was an undergraduate.
People not inside the charmed circle of the elites — especially in lands where the Great Recession of 2008-9 marked the start of downward mobility, desperation, and/or insecurity for the 90%, and obscene wealth for the top 1% — are no longer enchanted by the progressivist doctrine. They do not want more people from the “developing countries” getting inside the First World when that world is failing for masses already inside.#
My take on America now is this: it is in a state of civil war, disguised as peace because there are no clear combat zones and battle lines, but there is violence a-plenty that seems to lack the clarity of the US Civil War of 1861-65. This is a new socio-economic-political landscape, a Cold Civil War. It is our zeitgeist.
The immense amounts of violence exercised daily by police in the USA using military-quality hardware and software, the surveillance-state technologies marshalled by governments and private corporations, the outbursts of random violence by crazed individuals armed to irrational levels by freely available hi-tech weaponry, and the vast, swollen prison/punishment industry, are the defining features of the American Cold Civil War.
There have been cogent studies by erudite historians concluding that the Civil War between North and South in America never was assimilated into the national consciousness as a war with a definite victor. The South never did forget nor forgive, the North never accepted the “equality of Man” for which the anti-slavery cause had fought. That cause did not triumph beyond ending legal slavery; African Americans never became accepted as the equal of whites during the century after the War ended. The Sixties opened the wounds.
America is unique in the rich world for this pathology of its history and culture; it alone among the nations of the developed West suffers a cold civil war. Poor nations know such fractured polity as their quotidian existence. Civil wars in Syria, Sudan, and Yemen have become hot. Other places are frozen in states of undeclared civil-society breakdown; Myanmar and Venezuela are examples.
On the global level, I observe hyper-violence in war zones where civilians suffer more intentionally-inflicted misery than during the 20th century’s great wars; the “wars” on terror, on drugs, on crime, are harbingers of a world not united by the idealism of the UN in 1948 but as fractured as the world of 1935.
Intelligent, academic writers wrestle with the immensity of global challenges at this time; let’s consider the pontifications of one such writer, Y. N. Harari.
Yuval Harari and 21 Lessons
A good friend of longer standing than the man I referenced above has also provoked me to deeper thoughts this week. He is a great admirer of Yuval Harari, the Israeli historian-futurist-philosopher. I am not in Harari’s cheerleading camp.
( His newest book is 21 Lessons for the 21st century. “His sweeping statements, breathtaking though they are, can also feel untethered from the intellectual traditions from which they come. References to previous thinkers and writers on the subjects he covers are largely tucked away in endnotes.”
Harari wrote a book of fascinating historical interpretation from a perspective high and wide over millennia of human existence: Sapiens: a brief history of humankind. I liked the book and used it as the text in a course I taught LIR seniors in Nelson; the author had in fact written the book as a textbook for his own students the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He treated humans as a species, beginning with times deep in our past when other homo species such as Neanderthal still co-existed with us.
In this history, Harari posed as a scientist – and therein lies the weakness of his writing, for history and sociology, and politics and economics, are not sciences in the same category as physics, chemistry and biology; Harari appears to believe he can be scientific in the manner of natural sciences.
Harari and my friend would benefit from a reading of Rupert Sheldrake’s critiques of our Western science. Sheldrake is a scientist — in fact has won prestigious awards for his botanical research — where Harari is not. When Sheldrake writes praise for science and its method, and sharp criticism for its pretence at being a philosophy, one should listen. He calls the mistaken idea that science alone reveals truth, and its methods of materialist investigation are the only valid path to knowledge of reality, “scientism.”
Harari upholds scientism. Worse, Harari leaves his historical profession to venture into prognostication about a new world religion he calls “dataism” which will displace liberal humanism and individualism as the ruling ideology of postmodern people. The old ideologies have been disproven by science, Harari asserts. Science has found no soul in humans, no reality to the age-old notion of a unique Self inside each of us. Coincidentally, Harari is a Western Buddhist and is attached to that tradition’s teaching that humans have no soul [ that is to say, no “atman”. Millions of Asians worshipping the Lord Buddha are less convinced than Harari that they have no souls.]
Algorithms and digital data are “real” where free will is not; humans can confidently let science lead us with its knowledge of true reality, if only we make “smart” choices in our public policies, Harari says. But — he does not endorse any views within any political discourse of our times. Why not? Because politics cannot be as scientific as physics. Harari is not passionate about any political solution to the issues he observes, since physicists reveal no emotion about the facts in their special corpus of knowledge, and Harari wants desperately to earn the label of “scientist” himself.
If he would only declare his politics, he might be more credible. If he would descend to the level of mere mortals, he might help us.
[“The larger issue with 21 Lessons, however, is its depressingly apolitical message. In both Sapiens and Homo Deus, Harari reminds us that it has been the ability to co-operate that has led to our species’ domination of the world. In 21 Lessons, there are occasional doses of political and economic consideration, such as a discussion of universal basic income. But by and large his lessons for living in the 21st century are distinctly Western, individualistic and self-regarding.” (My emphasis )— from a review of Harari’s new book, in New Statesman, August 22/18]
Canada: Justin T., progressivism, Max Bernier, immigrant crises
Here in Canada, we have a Prime Minister with a global reputation among liberal progressivists as a shining beacon of their ideology. And I am no admirer of his practices, as opposed to the imagery of progress he projects. [footnote @]He has insisted he is a feminist, that he is dedicated to reconciliation with Natives in a “nation to nation” process, and that he too cares about the environment and climate change. On none of these has he truly delivered any substantial changes, in four years of exercising power.
Liberalism has seemed to be the ruling political ideology since the Western Enlightenment; electoral democracy, human-rights codes, freedoms and liberties entrenched in statutes and Constitutions, international institutions of law and order [the World Court, League of Nations, the U.N.] have been originated in the north-Atlantic nations and spread to all continents. The greatest victory of liberalism was to defeat fascism in 1945, and the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 was another event hailed as a liberal milestone.
Until now. Liberalism is still the professed ideology of the classes of people who hold wealth, power, and cultural leadership over the West. But the peoples they are claiming to lead are now questioning the value of the ruling ideology.
Is it true that — as our elites continue to push as the moral choice in “respectable” sources of opinion — we citizens of affluent Western nations must be welcoming to millions of people from the less-developed and less-democratic nations, who are trying, by every means imagined by desperate people, to get inside our societies? Canadians are becoming doubtful. So are the Swedes, Germans, French, English. The balancing of rich and poor nations, the effort to bring the latter up to the level of the former, is a project with diminishing support in the rich nations. The Economist journal still gives it lip service.
When the capitalist West had a postwar economy (1945 to1973, even to 2008) that lifted the great majority of Western citizens into higher levels of material prosperity, of improving quality of life, we showed generosity to the immigrants who wanted in; there were fewer of them (due to less war, less climate crisis, less misery, in their lands.) There is nothing racist nor hateful in questioning just how generous rich nations should be with their affluent societies (created, it must be said, during historic times of exploiting the West’s colonized lands) allowing people from poor nations to get inside with few restrictions. I reject any criticism that even to raise the question is somehow illegitimate.
Maxime Bernier is not a bigot against immigrants. But our liberal media are trying to portray him so, in my observation of how Canadian journalists presented the story of his new party. The liberal media want to paint Bernier’s questions in the worst-possible light, it seems to me. I think he errs in putting focus on something as ephemeral as “Canadian values” – he ought to stick to the material, economic insecurities which drive Canadian doubt about the numbers of immigrants this nation can absorb.
If the people inside the West now are suffering quite noticeable declines in economic security, if the abyss between the richest and the other 90% in rich nations is manifestly wider and deeper now than in 1980, why is it still the “right” thing to have relaxed immigration policies? Who are these “opinion-leaders” acting morally outraged when some people, not in their privileged stratum, are not eager to open our borders to immigrants in unregulated numbers?
Note my last few words: “unregulated numbers” — because in fact, Canada has had a pretty well-regulated immigration quota system until now, that tried with some success to balance the humanitarian needs of immigrants with the projected capacity of our economy to absorb the new Canadians.
If we Canadians already here were feeling secure still in the capacity of capitalist Canada to absorb immigration at a high level and maintain us in affluence, there would be no change in Canadians’ historic disinterest in the policy. We are not secure. Allowing numbers approaching 350,000 per year into a population of around 37 million, is not sustainable for an indefinite period. Canada now is in a new era.
I see no intelligence, no thoughtful wisdom, in accelerating capitalist Canada to have higher, denser, urbanized populations.The idiocy of the thesis advanced in Maximum Canada by journalist Doug Saunders is manifest to me. Others think he is correct.
Remembrance Day advertising
As usual, as Remembrance Day approaches, my mind turns to how our national institutions of memory – our schools, our media, our guardians-of-war-veterans such as the Legion and government, among the leading such institutions – present Canada’s past wars as being worthy of honour, even reverence, for the dead and wounded soldiers Canada sent into combat.
Advertising for Remembrance Day is an art form, apparently, and the producers of visual and audio ads such as Heritage Minutes conduct some serious research to ensure the message is massaged into a form most palatable to consumers. The government spends considerable funds on marketing corporations who design and produce the material for public consumption.
[Readers can view the same materials as I have at this CBC site: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/remembrance-day-campaign-1.4823547] and https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/veterans-affairs-ads-that-cost-4-3m-fell-flat-with-viewers-report-1.2998647]
In 2015, the CBC reported that $4.3 million was spent by the federal government for ads, and the result did not justify the cost. One must ask if such large sums would not be better spent directly on veterans.
My pet peeve among the kind of messages government tries to push on us about our wars and soldiers, is that we “owe our freedoms” to them. Such crap! Canada is a relatively-free nation, better than most on the planet, and highly-rated among all other affluent democracies. We did not become this way by fighting wars against Germany, nor in Korea and Afghanistan.
We won our freedoms from the ruling class of Canada — who would have continued to deny votes to many groups, including women, and who would have continued to deny freedoms of press, speech, and labour unions, if they could. That they could not is due to domestic political struggle in Canada, and also to the fights for rights of the British people back in the “mother country”; when the peoples of the British Isles won rights from their ruling class, those rights were extended to the “white Dominions” of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
So, please, consumers of government propaganda about our wars, protest when you see false claims about war being the source of our good society.
Local Elections and faith in politics
I have some words to say about local elections and the politics of small communities.
Local politics are the most meaningful in our lives, and thus we have the old saying, “all politics is local politics.” We can meet our governors of local level jurisdiction and physically confront them, and community social pressure and moral suasion actually means something in a small town or regional unit.
Therefore, I would like us in the Kootenays to follow advice from Charles Eisenstein about making community meaningful by exercising our power in local ways. Re-localized economics is an obvious start, as Helena Norberg-Hodge tells Eisenstein in an interview.
Money Scarcity, Moral Markets and Fair Rents
Could we use our collective moral force (Gandhi called it ahimisa and satya)and influence to bring landlords and wage-paying business people together and induce them to make rents commensurate with local wages?
It is wrong to take 60 to 75% of wage-earners’ income from them in rent. This a moral judgement a community could enforce as we know from past societies. But in the modern age, communities cannot interfere in the economic laws of capitalist markets, where moral and immoral are ruled out of bounds.
Capitalism denies any morality operates in the market. That is why the world is in crisis. Social inequality is obscene at present; and “scarcity of money” is the official explanation for failing social programs, infrastructure, health, education, and climate-change mitigation all over the world.
But 1% of the world’s people own 82% of its wealth, according to an Oxfam report. This is not a scarcity problem, this is a moral problem.
There is no scarcity of money, just an outrageously immoral distribution of ownership.
The Market does not care, it only tells us what we want, is the economists’ reply. Eisenstein is so articulate about this and how we have come to this moment through centuries of historic process, as he describes in his book Sacred Economics.
A personal plea
We have a choice to carry on practising market rationality or put an end to that dogma. The dogma of constant growth must also be rejected.
I think we are in an era when to disengage from local politics is a virtual guarantee of declining public quality of life. [An excellent recent example at very high level might be what happened to Obama, after a win in 2008 that had millions of people believing in his proclaimed revolution of “change, hope, yes-we-can.” But the electoral mobilization of masses of Americans that made his win possible, was only a start, and too many treated it as the end-goal.]
It should be self-evident that a column of this sort, with this variety of content and range of topic, is inconclusive. I intended it more in the nature of provocation than persuasion.
But I will declare just one political opinion as a parting shot. Send in your ballot by mail for the BC Electoral Reform Referendum, without fail; choose proportional representation.
BC is lucky indeed to have one more chance to change our ancient system for the benefit of democratic government in this province. If we say no to change this time around, it will be long before another opportunity presents itself.
* Yeats’ poem: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html
** here is what Wikipedia says, in part:
QAnon (/kjuːəˈnɒn/) is a conspiracy theorywhich began with an October 2017 post on the anonymous imageboard4chanby someone using the handleQ, a presumably American individual that may havelater grown to include multiple individuals claiming to have access to classified information involving theTrump administrationand its opponents in the United States. The theory details a supposedsecret conspiracy by an alleged “deep state” against U.S. President Donald Trumpand his supporters.
+ The noosphere (/ˈnoʊ.əsfɪər/; sometimes noösphere) is the sphere of human thought. The word derives from the Greekνοῦς (nous“mind“) and σφαῖρα (sphaira “sphere“), in lexical analogy to “atmosphere” and “biosphere.” It was introduced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardinin 1922. in his Cosmogenesis. Another possibility is the first use of the term by Édouard Le Roy(1870–1954), who together with Teilhard was listening to lectures ofVladimir Ivanovich Vernadskyat the Sorbonne. In 1936, Vernadsky accepted the idea of the noosphere in a letter to Boris Leonidovich Lichkov though he states that the concept derives from Le Roy… Teilhard believed that he actually invented the word: “I believe, so far as one can ever tell, that the word ‘noosphere’ was my invention: but it was he [Le Roy] who launched it.” from Wikipedia.
# On capitalism and its eventual destruction:
## on Harari’s work:
@ a letter I had published recently in a local hard copy newspaper.
A federal election looms in 2019. One year can make a huge difference, I know, yet I’m close to one-hundred-percent sure I cannot cast a ballot for one of the three major parties.
Liberals failed to come close to our expectations when Justin got elected. He has shown himself a miserable lightweight, a poseur who knows how to project attractive imagery. He delivered thin substanceafter trumpeting progressivist promise. Trudeau told a (Texas) audience Canada must “develop” petro-resources, that any nation so blessed would tap Alberta’s abundance — tens of billionsof barrels of fossil fuels: his deepest mind revealed.
Conservatives are still Harperites, just sneakier about it. Harper was aAlberta-made nightmare; to defeat his worldview, for no other reason, I joined the federal Liberals, electing Justin to party leadership (April, 2013). I achieved my minimal goal; Harper is gone, defeated by the man I knew would do it.
Capitalist consciousness imprisons Trudeau’s mind. He lied about balancing economy with environment to gain office. Power was the goal; he has it. His reforms are few, superficial, feeble, underwhelming.
These election prospects are dismal. I’ll find a fourth option.