I’ve been writing about the arriving ordeal for a while now; an ordeal which arrived and which announced itself via a pandemic that was first created and then mismanaged by the center – though the peripheries (as usual) will pay the highest price. “The Coming Anarchy” Robert Kaplan called it, 25 years ago when it was at once a vague threat and a clear and present danger. We had a season of “End of History” utopia – the 90s – my generation, when we were gently Camus existentialists in that pleasant “live and let die” sort of way. Before the nihilism came, nihilism which always follows the loss of meaning and which always leads to mayhem. “The Cause of Hitler’s Germany” was also the cause of the West’s malaise. In our case, not through war and genocide were the underlying incongruities in philosophy laid bare but instead through a ‘capitalist’ housing meltdown (fun fact there was nothing capitalist about that) and a global pandemic (which still rages). The third-world-ization of the formerly developed world. That which is accelerating as the West’s culture ossifies and calcifies, becoming more plutocratic in control and aristocratic in administration, a new old power structure of the winners against those now-permanently excluded and broken into camps to wage war against each other on the streets of Portland or the hallowed halls of the capital in the hopes they don’t notice something is seriously wrong and make a real effort to identify the culprit.
I once had a friend to whom I sent a synopsis of my ‘ordeal’, so taken was I with the impressions I had as a spectator of the unraveling of the peripheries (3 years in Nigeria, not to put too fine a point on it. The epicenter of the anarchy that came and like a gangrene is spreading). “You need to come back and spend some time in the suburbs” he said, lightheartedly (but pointedly) brushing me off. “It can’t happen here” as the subtext. “Didn’t you hear? History ended.”
But did it? I stumbled across an extraordinary essay yesterday in American Affairs Journal – a site I frequent, as the newest magazine that writes about our post-post-historical period (the rest mostly fighting with each other about the ordering of the deck chairs on our Titanic which has begun to take on serious water and list dangerously to the left – and sometimes right) – and which offers tremendous insight into the post-post-modern world. The essay, called “The Brazilianization of the World” is a long and involved but extremely insightful analysis of what is happening. Namely, the developing world, the second world, is not in fact developing. The West is un-developing. We are meeting each other somewhere in the messy middle – the encroachment of the peripheries has advanced just the entropy of our own misrule has extended.
I have dedicated what has been (so far) my career to the ‘end of history’, and only recently have come I come to realize my mistakes. It’s not easy for me to admit, not only because admitting errors in thought is humbling, but also because most of my erstwhile colleagues are still firmly ensconced in their ‘end of history’ ideas having totally missed ‘the end of the end of history’ – and would strenuously object to my assertion that the train has gone off the rails (mostly because admitting this is also to a degree admitting blame, which is harder still). To be sure, it’s not all their fault; it takes some courage and clarity to look up from the daily grind to see that things have changed – and not for the better. The water still comes out of the pipes, the electricity still works (well most of the time) and the internet still allows us to stream the endless pipeline of increasingly tawdry ‘content’. Isn’t that what Fukuyama promised we the victors of the end of days?
Yes, my career rested upon the philosophical certitude that the ‘recipe’ had been identified and honed over the generations: free market economics was going to meet representative democracy in an upward spiral to utopia. It was a nice idea. In my work, we were only one judicial training program, one electoral observation, one decentralization seminar away from exporting our model to Mali and Burma and Burkina Faso. That is still the assumption – if there is an assumption; nowadays the philosophy of “buying time” is the most en-vogue. Kicking the can is the best hope of successive “administrations”. Let the next guy (or gal) deal with it, let the political fallout accrue to them (or their party). And the blackouts? The debt defaults? The wars? The “…doomed future, not just of social exclusion and savage capitalism, but also the end of the state’s monopoly on violence, the emergence of powerful non-state actors, criminal gangs”? We’ll muddle through. And that is what we have gotten – our partisan debate meeting the dramatic expansion of the puissance of the state, an entity become so large and so intrusive that fighting over its control has become an existential exercise in the West. Especially for those who eschew classical morality for the positivist, Platonic idea that right emerges from the pen of he in power. Also the cause of Hitler’s Germany, incidentally.
And in this fight, we have all become Maoists. Because there was at least something grand about Stalin’s oxygenless totalitarian state – it was (though corrupt and inefficient and brutal) tremendously productive; they challenged the free world for five generations. Maoism does not build, seeking instead through ‘rectification’ and peripheral insurgency to destroy and level not through growth and fertilizer but through the bulldozing of everything. Cue Portland and our culture wars. New socialism is less Gramsci, and more Pol Pot. It is a temper tantrum; mindless rebellion – and its the only ‘communism’ that we are left with – the communism of the killing fields.
The peripheral problems are meeting us now where we sit, in our protected zip codes with decent wifi under our nuclear umbrella. Because the West cannot forever endure its own misrule; and the misrule of great states, when it arrives, is extraordinary indeed. The solution? The West’s aristocracy has already found it – though they won’t tell you. Admitting it would demand that they surrender their right to rule (and the benefits derived from money stolen mostly in taxes and control of the productive sector of economies and the purse-strings of the world), “The ‘revolt of the elites‘ – their escape from society, physically into heavily guarded private spaces, economically into the realm of global finance, politically into anti-democratic arrangements that outsource responsibility and inhibit accountability (…) polities closed to popular pressures but open to those with the resources and networks to directly influence politics.”
And for the rest of us? Would that we could return to the city states – as was intended, in the Toquevillian sense where “nothing is more opposed to the well-being and the freedom of men than vast empires”. Isn’t that after all what American division of powers was about? Three branches within the central government; and the states against the center? That is after all what the 10th Amendment was written for. Power destruction. Alas, nobody who seeks power ever believes less of it is the answer. That, at least, is probably uncontroversial. So what to do? We should all move to Dubai. Or Yerevan. Or Reykjavik. We can become Prester John or Abgar the V of Edessa. Maybe Peter Thiel’s ‘Seasteading’ is the answer. But for those of us locked as subjects of empire – or worse (so much worse) governed by the peripheries, the future doesn’t look all that bright. So buckle up – because if you thought that an economic meltdown and a pandemic were all that the 21st century has in store for us, you’re in for a surprise.