Catastrophism

By Mark Wegierski
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 8, Number 2 (Winter 1997-1998)
Issue theme: "Australia's identity crisis"
http://www.thesocialcontract.com/artman2/publish/tsc0802/article_715.shtml



With a tone and message somewhat similar to those of the anchor-man-turned-prophet in Chayefsky's film Network, Greider takes the reader on an exhila-rating, insightful, and sometimes disturbing trip across several levels of the new global economic realities, with ever-present intimations of apocalypse. There is a certain irony in Greider's position as national editor of Rolling Stone, a publication that so obviously benefits from trends like globalization; as it pushes forward a global consumerist pop-culture, at the expense of all rooted and traditional cultures of the planet - the result is what some have termed "Planet Teen." Greider's ideas, delivered against the broad canvas of his globe-trotting explorations (and peppered with interesting terms like kudoka - Japanese for hollowing out) could be seen as a profound challenge to overly-boosterist understandings of international capitalism.

Greider focuses largely on the economic impact of globalization. He argues that the processes of economic globalization create a downward spiral of wages from which it is almost impossible to escape, as there are always poorer countries to which the trans-national corporations can relocate. According to Greider there is chronic overproduction, without an increase in the consumer base to buy the products - much like the situation before the Great Depression. Greider warns that massive economic and envi-ronmental disaster will ensue unless new "worker-owner" and ecological understandings alter those trajectories.

The book clearly demonstrates (as if such a demonstration were even necessary) that the current capitalist system is internationalist to its core. It does not give a damn about the working-classes in Europe and North America, and is ever eager to either relocate its main production to Third World countries, or (although Greider does not discuss this) bring Third World populations into the West, as a cheap labor force. The continuing identification of capitalism as coterminous with traditionalism, which is especially marked in the United States, has a baneful effect on whatever residues of tradition remain in America.

‘The processes of economic globalization create a downward spiral of wage-reductions from which it is almost impossible to escape, as there are always poorer countries to which the transnational corporations can relocate." The flow of capital, goods, and (eventually) labor, tends toward totally unimpeded circulation, in which nation-states are simply "irrational" resistors, which will simply have to be overcome. The eventual result for the West will likely be the creation of a very thin layer of super-rich, and the adjustment of the living standards of the majority of the population downward - way downward.

Greider's ideas are far more descriptive of the realities of our troubled planet than those of almost any U.S. neoconservative.

Based on his groundbreaking article, "The Coming Anarchy" (The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994), The Ends of the Earth recreates Kaplan's extensive travels in the typical Third World or "South", in Africa and Asia (although not Latin America). Kaplan seems to have a real talent for visiting the biggest "hellholes" or "basketcase" places. He is the very opposite of a typical Western tourist, as he willingly puts himself into the most uncomfortable settings. He is courageous in telling the truth - while there are some glimmers of hope, life in such places is often horrid and sordid.

Most of the places he visits are in the throes of a massive population explosion, wracked with violence and surreal corruption, and blighted by endemic diseases and ecological disasters of unbelievable magnitude. Kaplan's rather straightforward narrative style leads to a continuous reinforcement of the idea that the current-day world is dangerously disas-sociated. Many smug Western technophiles prefer to ignore that "large swaths of the earth at the end of the twentieth century [are] not linked by the Internet..." (p. 319)

Kaplan suggests that official state boundaries and economic policies, especially in Africa and Central Asia, are increasingly giving way to ethnic, tribal, and religious divisions, informal parallel economies, and various irregular forces. However, this is not a trend necessarily limited to those areas, or even the Third World. Even the most developed Western nation-states are beginning to show signs of similar fragmentation. In a world full of uncertainty, and unbelievably rapid social transformation, many persons try to cling to their ethnic identity, to their "roots". (However, it could be pointed out that what might be an almost redemptive alternative in the wild flux of hyper-modernity has become considered highly illegitimate today for virtually all European and European-descended peoples.)

Indeed, for a reflective person of European descent, the primary emotion connected with the book might well be fear. There are enormous, unchecked forces in the "underground" of the planet that may simply overwhelm the carefully built-up edifice of European civilization, with all of its various comforts that are today so casually taken for granted. Kaplan's book should allow one to see, for example, the essential pettiness of complaints about poverty in North America today (in their typical use for the indictment of an undifferentiated "Right") - and how they utterly miss the point of what may become the critical struggle for civilization in the 21st century and beyond.

Benjamin J. Barber, a highly respected political theorist, first juxtaposed the terms "Jihad vs. McWorld" in a cover-article of The Atlantic Monthly (March 1992). It has often been noted that many great insights are simply only the systematization of easily observable trends, though perhaps voiced with greater flourish and with some key new terms. Such is the case with Benjamin Barber's work, whose phrasing of "Jihad vs. McWorld" has probably entered the general vocabulary of most educated persons interested in current events. What is interesting about Barber's efforts is the stress on the dialectical interrelationship and interpenetration of the two global "megatrends" (or "megatraumas" - to borrow a phrase from another futurist- pundit).

What can be seen is that many traditional cultures outside the West have reacted with a particular ethnic and religious fundamentalist ferocity against "junk-westernization," precisely because they feel the threat to their traditions to be so acute. The picture on the book's cover, showing an Iranian girl in ultra-traditional dress, drinking from a can of Pepsi, illustrates this dilemma perfectly. While on the one hand, the traditional cultures are ferociously fighting for their preservation, on the other, the penetration of "McWorld" (for which another term could be "North-Americanization") is so relentless, and yet sometimes so subtle, that the traditional cultures are left with practically no defenses against it.

What is perhaps the most important point is the virtual all-pervasiveness of North American pop-culture, particularly in the forms of rock-music and rock-videos, across the planet. For example, almost everyone knows today who the pop-star Madonna is.

"...even the most moderate assertions of

so-called Eurocentrism

are seen as an

aberrant evil." A point which Benjamin Barber might have stressed more is the almost direct sexual appeal of North American pop-culture, both as deployed against traditional Western cultures, and traditional cultures outside the West. Many Hollywood movies (let alone pornographic videos) ooze with the promise of sexual nirvana. Indeed, the extent to which a traditional or semi-traditional culture crumbled in the 1960s in America may have had a lot do with the almost unlimited sexual pleasure that was apparently offered to everyone, in exchange for discarding most aspects of social conservatism (and of any real American and American-regional, notably Southern, identities). Although the Sexual Revolution has definitely soured for some, it must be said that at almost no point could conservative thinking formulate any kind of meaningful sexual counter-ethic that might have possessed a greater attractiveness for the young. One thing that may be initially noted, as a possible opportunity for a renascent conservatism, is that many straight white males are now in the throes of a semi-permanent identity/devalorization crisis.

The Sixties eruption and its aftermath was also coterminous with an outburst of new technologies - television, the ubiquitous VCR, and now computers and the Internet. The near-infinite multiplication of images which these media offered meant that the pop-culture could be spread to the furthest corners of the Earth.

Two major points may be addressed to Benjamin Barber's megathesis. First, that the "Jihad" tendencies among the Western societies which are the spawning ground for McWorld are particularly weak for their majority populations. For example, while all groups considered "persons of color" in America are enjoying a real efflorescence of ethno-racial identity, which is sometimes taken to fanatical extremes, even the most moderate assertions of so-called Eurocentrism are seen as an aberrant evil. If these tendencies are not challenged soon, both in terms of moderating minority ethnocentrism and strengthening European identity, the result will be that persons of European descent will become virtual pariahs in their own countries, while at the same time being continually and vociferously accused of being cruel and harsh oppressors. European and European-descended societies, in their embrace of the hyper-modern McWorld, appear from the traditionalist standpoint to be "progressively accelerated to oblivion."

It is instructive to note that the Western equivalent of "Jihad" - a "Crusade" - is notably absent from European cultures today, apart from the secularized and liberalized sense of "crusades" - for example, against smoking. It can be seen that Christianity and the Cross has been all but expunged from most European societies, apart from its necrotic, secularized aspects of a morbid self-hatred and ultra-universalism.

The second point is that the alternative to the excesses of Jihad and McWorld is not necessarily coterminous with strengthening "democratic principles" (if one means by this dogmatic Left-liberalism). Rather, the great hope of the future should lie in "rooted, reflective particularity", which is in any event what many European peoples have tried to practice as an ideal, although most fell far short of it. In this world of instantaneous communi-cations, it seems that no one could for a long time maintain a fever pitch of particularist fanaticism such as that represented, say, by judgements of Islamic courts in Iran as to how large stones used in stoning women should be, and that the women be stoned to death in no longer than a day.

PEPPER ... AND SALT © 1997 The Wall Street Journal.

Reprinted by permission. One of the most odious examples of particularist fanaticism known to the reviewer is the slaughter of close to half a million Poles by Ukrainian nationalist extremists during World War II (as Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk has officially acknowledged) which were also carried out in the most hideous of ways, e.g. using crude farm implements. (One must fervently hope that such despicable mass-slaughter is part of the past, at least in the world's more civilized areas.) On the other hand, universalist notions of juridical legalism, "human rights" and internationalism are no substitute for a genuine national identity, which must to a large extent remain ethnic in character. A degree of genuine reflection is always needed lest the particularist attachment degenerate into genocidal insanity. But it is also clear that the notion of nation being proposed here is far more robust than that found in most European countries today.

One would be searching for a path between genocidal fanaticism, and the deracinated, anomic, identity-less milieu which seems to characterize most European and European-descended peoples today. Such a healing rootedness would not be dogmatically Left-liberal and equalitarian, and, indeed, might have many aspects which would in today's overheated context be considered "exclusivist" and "authoritarian." Yet it seems unlikely that what some political theorists call "the erotic" sense of community can exist without some forms of subordination, exclusion, and closure of options. This kind of healing rootedness would also potentially be a salve for all the non-European traditional societies, although most of them would probably be approaching it from the direction of lessening their own particularist extremisms.

As far as the European and European-descended societies are concerned, perhaps the principle task would be to try to re-imbue European identity with a sense of heroism, high worth and meaning, and, indeed, adventure - to endeavor to formulate neotraditionalism in a way that would somehow challenge the still-lingering, near-automatic equation of the embrace of political Left-liberalism with the efflorescence of sexual nirvana. Such endeavors, in the current context, would probably focus around the keyword "Romanticism."

Copyright 2007 The Social Contract Press, 445 E Mitchell Street, Petoskey, MI 49770; ISSN 1055-145X
(Article copyrights extend to the first date the article was published in The Social Contract)