While Belshazzar drank; the aromas of fine wine and elegant foods prepared by the cooks of the greatest empire in the world filled the opulent Assyrian halls of power. The party was reaching crescendo, that moment of inebriation and abandon when anything is possible. “Bring out the gold and silver goblets my father seized from the temple in Jerusalem,” the tyrant ordered, his words slurred, “for I will have my concubines drink from them.” In a final affront to the Jewish God, the priests’ precious relics became fodder for mockery at the service of the prostitute king. Unobserved, a hand appeared and began to scrawl out the words “Mene, mene, tekel, parsin,” all the while the Assyrians drank. At long last somebody looked up – maybe a servant or a courtesan – squinting through the haze, and blanched, pointing with a trembling finger towards the wall. “Bring my seers and prophets,” the king said, suddenly sober; shaken – for the supernatural is rarely welcome at a fete, “I will know what the hand has written.” Enter Daniel, ever faithful and by now old and forgotten by the wicked king. “It reads,” Daniel said courageously. “God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Your kingdom will be divided between the Medes and the Persians.”
Carrying on the metaphor, although not too far I hope, there is a handwriting also adorning our walls; though we have not yet asked for it to be interpreted. Ours is not a religious judgement like the archetypal Biblical stories from which we learn, although it might have been. In his wickedness and disdain Belshazzar offended God. Our judgement is one of scorn for the laws of nature and nature’s God; of economics – contempt for the natural order and our place in it. For seventy years our American world order has sought to manage the world’s problems; and we have been weighed and found wanting. Not for lack of caring – for we are a generous people, as our giving shows. But for the lack of humility of our own elites and their understanding of humanity. The end of our world order will not be drawn in the shape of an apocalyptic mushroom cloud, which we all expected. The Medes and Persians are not razing our walls. There will be no theatrical return to the caves, to the farms. No, our end of history will be less dramatic and somehow more pathetic. Wars, rumors of wars. 60,000,000 refugees on the move, and growing every day fleeing barrel bombs in Syria and rape in the Congo. To say nothing of the migrants, looking for a better future. Incompetent government; schools which no longer instruct; universities no longer seeking right; justice unconcerned with the just; elections that no longer address that age-old problem of consent; rights which are no longer the bedrock of our societies, replaced in a bait-and-switch with “social justice”, a convention which seeks excuses and victims instead of equality and truth. The 6th great extinction, the only animal thriving these days is man – and perhaps the cockroach. The steady advance of the desert as tree by precious tree are sacrificed to make charcoal for the poor to cook their meager meals; beans received from a charity and the last fish taken from a desiccated lake. It is not Malthusian exactly, but it certainly feels that way in the dark corners of the world on the edges of empire which are not considered by the policymakers who speak of the “End of History”. Angus Deaton and Steven Pinker, who talk in technocratic terms of our great escape from poverty, our tremendous newfound prosperity – to the blank stares of the undernourished and the debt despaired.
The people of Mali: of Nigeria and Niger and Venezuela and Haiti and most of the population of Pakistan and Bangladesh. “But they doubled their income, they have left extreme poverty,” the World Bank announces in a self-congratulatory cocktail party on “G” street. But what are they celebrating? Extreme poverty is two dollars a day, and now they have four? What about the 60,000 new homeless in Los Angeles, squatting beside the mega-mansions as people do in Mumbai? The billion new Africans about to come into the world to squat on a dry piece of land beside a balded mountain; “…loose molecules in a very unstable social fluid, a fluid that was clearly on the verge of igniting,” as Robert Kaplan has said? So too the unemployed youth in Tunisia, in Egypt and Greece reaching 50% – that sector upon whom our future depends? Of all this we brag? If there are aliens who visit us occasionally in their UFOs, their own versions of tourism “Just don’t get out of the vehicle!”, they must consider our world as we do Ciudad Juarez or Compton or South Chicago or Mogadishu. They read Pinker and have themselves a chuckle, they might even think it’s cute; like when our toddler squeals with pride at a green crayon smudge on a paper. “Isn’t it great daddy! It’s a dinosaur”. “The Great Escape” – awe, how sweet.
“What a planet,” goes the famous line from The Neighbors, “Half of the world walks miles for clean water, and the other half has so much they defecate in it.”
Technology will save us, that is the panacea. The religious answer of those who hope for a better future, but without any sacrifices in the here and now. After all it has in the past, hasn’t it? The internal combustion engine accelerating our consumption of carbons as we careen recklessly toward a rock wall. “We have enough carbons to last two-hundred years!” As if that were a long time; burn away, I guess, burn away. Our green revolution; mono-cropping and genetically modified plants and the fresh burn of over-fertilized lands bringing us one blight away from famine as we drain the prehistoric aquifers. Oh, for sure we can now hurl insults at somebody half a world away, and we can go online at any moment to look up who the French King was during the revolution or how to make Passion Fruit Sorbet, but we are all fat because the only affordable food is processed, sugared and sold in cans or little plastic packages. Debt. $200,000,000,000,000 in fact, $28,000 for every man, woman and child on the earth – even the newly escaped from poverty, making their $4 a day. Truth be told it’s a Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme of global, catastrophic, biblical proportions as soon as somebody calls somebody else’s bluff. A fraud in which all the governments of the world are complicit but from which only the banks and a few “too big to fail” corporations benefit, until the money becomes worthless; changing our legal tender from a store of value to become instead a $28,000 albatross around my little boy’s neck; before he has even begun to make his own mistakes, he must pay for mine, those of my parents. That too is biblical, is it not? A mortgage, the collateral for which is future production and consumption, and God forbid one of those should hiccup. As happened in 1929; and again in 2008, the only thing which saved humanity this time was more debt, along with a collective suspension of disbelief. Would that my own fiction was as compelling.
We are seeing the return of city states, as Westphalia collapses. It was never meant to be the solution anyways, but only to stop a regional war four hundred years ago. But it was convenient; and humanity does love formulas: judges and laws and constitutions and border guards; elections and parliaments and presidents. Never mind they are like that old oak at the beginning of Atlas Shrugged, a hardened shell containing only the powdery residue of internal corruption. Yes, our nation states are collapsing, not in advancing imperial armies marching through ungoverned land to hurl themselves against walls high and thick, but as governments bloated and corrupt collapse in upon themselves after they can no longer afford their own debt and their incompetence suffers no more spin. As the periphery ossifies, people are retreating to the centers where they cannot be ignored; Purl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” in which governments cannot let their capitals starve – it’s too destabilizing. The most successful of these new cities – Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Singapore and Reykjavik – are succeeding in part due to small populations and ingenious investment and planning but mostly because they deny political participation to many while eschewing the narrative “You are your brother’s keeper”. Channeling the days of ancient Greece and Rome, they serve only their citizens, who are well served indeed, and are not brought by guilt and gravity to even consider the day-laborers arriving from the fringes. “I hate Dubai,” a friend of mine (who leans left) once told me. “Why?” I asked, to be answered, “Because they are immoral. They treat the Pakistanis and Indians and Phillipinos poorly. The protections they provide to their citizens are denied the migrants.” To which I answered, somewhat befuddled, “Why? Those immigrants knew what they were signing up for when they went to Dubai looking for opportunity. This, on the contrary, is what makes Dubai great; people know they can go there, if they wish to advance and grow and produce and save, and as such it attracts those willing to work – not those wanting protection.” He glared at me, “That is what makes it immoral. Government’s should be moral.”
This belief in moral government has brought us to the edge of our arriving ordeal; because that – too – is utopian.
In countries larger and more unlucky the retreat to the cities is followed by the creation of safe-havens among the urban poor; neighborhoods carved out of a hilltop and surrounded by concertina wire and flood lights and guarded by private security firms. Or in the downtowns, their protection instead invisible, a fence just as real held in place by skyrocketing property values. Victoria Island in Lagos, the North-West of Washington, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, ACI 2000 in Bamako. They have special clubs and malls and schools for their children, speeding in chauffeur-driven cars through the lands of the unprotected, but only when they must. And there is where the new nobility is being organized, quietly, subversively; the 9.9% who control the world – having carefully created the strata, they calcify them into immovable classes, a new managerial nobility in the hopes of engineering a solution to the unwashed masses which accost them on the way to their tennis clubs and spas, or offend them with their backward ideas regarding guns and religion. “The aristocrats of old managed,” so the thinking goes. “Sure they had to sacrifice millions of peasants to famine and plague. But the system survived – the kingdom marched on, the royalty and their lesser nobles succeeded in sustaining their civilizations, if only for themselves.” Fifty years ago James Burnham wrote of a “Managerial Revolution”, a takeover by a class of people bred and credentialed to sustain our own civilization. As popular capitalism morphs into state capitalism, the co-mingling of the mega-corporations and their enabling governments – a managerial class was needed to make the invisible hand less arbitrary. The more cunning of the managers talk about “a coherent and complex account of society with a program for creating social order. Not surprisingly, it places the manager at the center of that order and assigns her the key role in producing it.” The careful planning of diversity, that most important quality – having replaced equality in the mouths of the cultural Marxists. Of course there are then those who are honest and say what they really feel; from their protected enclaves in the Urban Archipelago. “From here on out, we’re glad red-state rubes live in areas where guns are more powerful and more plentiful, cars are larger and faster, and people are fatter and slower and dumber. This is not a recipe for repopulating the Great Plains. And when you look for ways to revive your failing towns and dying rural counties, don’t even think about tourism. Who wants to go to small-town America now? You people scare us.”
But the cities are never a bellwether for the survival of a nation. They are too isolated, too dependent upon work they cannot see, work which must be carried out by the managed classes, the “scary” classes, who soon resent the tension between their indispensability and the derision heaped upon them by their betters. And the cities are too disconnected from the processes of daily life. “People deciding the fates of others, but who do not know where garbage goes when it is collected, where electricity comes from and how it is generated, from whence comes the water which flows freely from their taps and where it ends up after silently slipping into the drain – unless the drain is clogged, then – the apocalypse (that is if the managed plumber class is unavailable)!,” as an old boss of mine once said. They are people who believe that meat comes down from on high, descending like mana in neatly wrapped cellophane – unless they are vegan, an easy choice by those whose jobs are not physically demanding, who do not require the energy to construct a living with their muscles and who can afford the exorbitant price of vegetables brought in from the great scary beyond. People this ignorant lean also toward a naive utopianism, believing from their extreme isolation in tight echo chambers that they have or can attain all the information necessary to plan their paradise, even unto the decisions of strangers in strange places they rarely deign to visit (this is called moral hazard – it usually leads to famine).
The press of so many bodies one up against the next also causes social aberrations leading to divorce, single parent families, substance abuse, and poverty (not that the peripheries are free of these, as people the elites forgot to manage die of a broken heart); which is ironic because the great divergence has come mostly as a result of the poor actually engaging in the behavior peddled by the managers as “entertainment”, while those who sell the depravity – the highly educated with low divorce rates – return in their armored cars to their gated communities and their families, pulling up the ladder behind them with each floor they climb. Enter the pharmaceuticals (legal and illegal), also managed by the managers and prescribed by other managers, to help people cope with their miserableness. Screens for the children, so they will forget for a time that they cannot actually climb through into the world beyond; except they never do. Instead, isolated from each other and controlled by the content developers, they sit in their dark rooms curtains pulled as they click away – 2600 times a day on average – in their desperate search for “likes” and that more elusive target, “shares”. Is it any wonder that the elites push for an unsustainable social safety net? It is their part of their new social contract – a “universal basic income” which barely provides in exchange for the unprotected keeping the apple cart righted. Nobody wants any emulations; Mohamed Bouazizi is not welcome in Times Square, even if he could get a cart-salesman’s license. And as the club with which to beat our foes becomes so large, laden down as it is with so many ‘goodies’ by which the elites purchase their privileged – some call it ‘social democracy’ or ‘democratic socialism’, forgetting that socialism is the better-looking stepbrother to communism – identity politics begin to take shape, people learning to game the system and assembling tribal coalitions of the also-interested and the “they look like me”, built upon envy and with redistribution or retribution as the only mandate of the lucky winners. And we wonder why the club is fought over with such vehemence. Considering all of this, it is really no great mystery why the first two cities in the world – Sodom and Gomorrah – were destroyed by God. They became wicked. Peddling ideas which are not conducive to a life more abundant, to say nothing of a strong and lasting civilization.
And all of this provides an ample playing field for those who seek power. Utopias will always be so, and with the managers so removed from reality it has become easy for them to sell to themselves and each other the old story “We can make it work”; if only… If only more power… If only more money… If only no opposition… And so begins the “long march through the institutions,” as Antonio Gramsci called it, the drumbeats of the cultural Marxists who must smooth over a society towards a diversity which has allowed for the creation of new tribes, tribes of their own making; for while they are the solution they are also the disease. And the institutions fall, one by one, to the march: infiltrate, corrupt, and eventually destroy, the lesson from the Frankfurt School. Populism, used by both sides as the only nouveau institution upon which they both agree. Bread and circus; but who manages the show? That is the most bitter fight of all.
Of course, the last several years has brought some interesting – and possibly encouraging – developments. Signs perhaps that we are not advancing as quickly or as blindly into our own demise as everyone thought. Because the managed rebelled; are rebelling in fact. Turns out the managed do not like being so; just as the slave did not like watching his master consume the products of his sweat and toil; so too those who build the wealth of nations, siphoned off by managers and belittled to boot. It started small. A tea party, #Brexit, the failed Colombia referendum. 2016 when the frightened passengers seized the cockpit, in a desperate attempt to avoid the mountain that was looming large but somehow missed by the managers so narrowly contorted around their tiny fragile agendas – funded by seized money, seeing competition as too vulgar a principle when dealing with their paramount imperatives which know no debate. And though our rebellions have been of a positive sort (mostly, for free people do thrive in anarchy, to a certain degree), not true in the fringe countries where the cockpits are sealed tight against the managed. Opioid epidemics which reach from Niala to Abidjan; jihadist movements that no longer recruit to the caliphate but instead for criminal gangs stealing cows and trafficking in people or cigarettes; floods of people on the move, going somewhere – anywhere – because they only have thirty years and they are no longer content to spend them kneeling beside their barren plot of fertilizer-burnt land praying to God or Allah or Krishna for a raindrop and a green sprout from an earth which no longer rewards hard work.
All the while Belshazzar’s party rages on. “Nothing to see here,” to the hand furiously scrawling. “This too shall pass,” more a hope than an assertion. Soon we will find the right formula, the exact fix and the problems will slide away into our inglorious past, never to be poked at again. So too the dreamers. Oh well. Thanks for sticking with me on this long rant. Your patience to my cluttered mind; this has been fun. It is not the end; for the writing on the walls requires interpreters. Daniel I am not, but nevertheless – I will do my part to understand the etchings. Lest the Medes come knocking on my door as well.