In parallel with – but perhaps not entirely unrelated to – the many technical aspects of the long decline of industrial civilization, my attention is increasingly captured by the massive global geopolitical shift precipitated by the war in Eastern Europe. I incline to believe that this battle is not a “mere” power struggle between supernational powers, but something which has its roots in ancient history, reaching back to the end of the Roman monarchy and the birth of the Roman Republic. It is no exaggeration to say the we live in ‘interesting’ times.
After a brief period of what looked like democracy — at least by squinting — we are seemingly left with only two forms of governance. We can either have “free market” capitalism ruled by rich oligarchs and unelected interest groups, or authoritarian regimes ruled by an oppressive strongman. There seems to be less and less ground in between the two… It’s like it’s 1984 again, with its two equally oppressive states: Oceania and Eurasia, with only the borders drawn somewhat differently.
In a certain sense, what we are witnessing these days is a war of these two worlds: an existential struggle between almighty capitalist oligarchies vs almighty centralized states. The mass formation psychosis euphemistically called “elections”, held in both types of entities, is nothing more than a weazen fig leaf hanging in front of a war machine of oppression and surveillance. Why, when was the last time you were offered a chance to vote which country to go to war against, or to go to war at all…?
But wait, haven’t we seen this time after time in history…? Well, surprise surprise, with the current geopolitical wrestle we’re seeing right now there is nothing new under the sun. It just took several thousands of years, and the development of nuclear weapons to transform it into a truly existential struggle for all of humankind. Micheal Hudson, a scholar of economic history and the author of many fine books, including his latest: The Collapse of Antiquity describes this seemingly ideological battle as an opposition between two powerful interest groups:
[T]he dynamics of interest-bearing debt led to the rise of rentier oligarchies in classical Greece and Rome. This caused economic polarization, widespread austerity, revolts, wars and ultimately the collapse of Rome into serfdom and feudalism. That collapse bequeathed to the subsequent Western civilization a pro-creditor legal philosophy that has led to today’s creditor oligarchies.
In telling this story, The Collapse of Antiquity reveals the eerie parallels between the collapsing Roman world and today’s debt-burdened Western economies.
In the blue corner we see a group of wealthy people, who just want to keep lending out loans at exorbitant rates and grab wast amounts of capital. They then try to use their money to buy themselves political power and legal protection for their unearned wealth, as well as preventing a sovereign leader taking charge.
In the red corner we see kings and powerful statesmen who use their political power to build large states, encompassing as many people (taxpayers and potential soldiers) as possible. They then try to prevent the blue team from gaining power by taxing rich oligarchs and by frequent debt jubilees — redistributing unearned wealth among the people.
Viewed through these lens, World War III unfolding in front of our eyes is but the last ditch attempt for financial oligarchies trying to save themselves from an inevitable collapse caused by their forever wars — leading to the death of millions and wasting trillions. War is but an agent of collapse though, with the real root cause of their troubles being an ever growing debt, now requiring an infinite (and ever accelerating growth) on a finite planet to repay. In a state of ecological overshoot, this could only end in one way though.
The ruling caste’s obsession with GDP growth, as the holy grail of Western economic thought, is a good illustration of the matter. It has become the topmost economic metric, but not because it improves people’s living standards (which in fact is in a free fall since years now after decades of stagnation), but because it ‘proves’ that this unsustainable model works. GDP growth is a mere reassurance for the ruling caste, that all is well and that they need not to worry that people would revolt. Material inputs to the economy doesn’t matter — all is believed to be fungible in their fairy tale world — printing a few more zeros at the end of the bank account should do the trick.
For an alien landing on our planet, however, this would seem to be nothing more than a bizarre clown show. Germany, the biggest economy of Europe falling into a recession is a case in point. ‘Oh, it’s but a technical recession!’ — goes the media reaction. The fact that the blow up of Nordstream (by whom…?) might has a thing or two to do with this unfortunate turn of events seems to have flown past by them. Similarly, no hints were given about the effects of a persistent food inflation, caused by the lack of fertilizers (again, due to the lack of cheap natural gas last year, and sanctions making fertilizer imports from the east impossible). Something, which is now threatening to turn into a real food crisis…
As further proof that things are not quite going according to plan in Europe, look no further than this headline: Natural Gas Prices Could Fall Below Zero In Parts Of Europe. Is this a sign that “renewables” or LNG magically took over the missing pipeline gas supply during the course of the last few months? Or rather more realistically is this a sign of a total collapse in demand in the wake of an even deeper crisis…? The headline news three years ago — US oil prices turn negative as demand dries up — rhymes eerily here. Back then, the price collapse of a major energy commodity didn’t came after a sudden bout of new energy supplies, but something entirely different…
The realization that energy is the economy, is still something waiting to happen.
To be fair, Eastern economies deserve their fair share of flak as well. Besides being even less democratic (although it is getting harder and harder to tell which is worse still), they have successfully adopted a model on how to grow their economies well beyond the regenerative capacity of the land they occupy, while releasing much more pollution than Nature can cope with. Time after time. No wonder that every earlier iteration of their expansive economic model ended up in overshoot, materializing in diminishing returns, resource depletion and eventually: collapse. With or without debt jubilees and welfare programs. These actions were just patches on a fundamentally unsustainable system. They too haven’t realized that it really doesn’t matter if you end up in overshoot via capitalism or state controlled communism: the end result, collapse and release, is guaranteed to be the same.
Overshoot is a civilizational disease and it really doesn’t give a damn which form of governance your prefer.
In this sense it is a bit tragicomic to write the words ‘existential struggle’ before this grand civilizational battle now raging in Eastern Europe (but soon to be coming to theaters in East Asia as well). Yes, it is existential for these socio-economic models to survive, but in the grand scheme of things it is like watching two old men — one diagnosed with cancer, the other just having passed his fifth heart surgery — fighting a desperate gunfight. One of them has a couple of months at best, the other might have a year or two, but both of them are sure to die soon. Who shots whom in the chest first seems to be a mute point.
If current world events don’t change track soon, though, we might see the old men switching to Molotov-cocktails, risking burning each other’s house to the ground — with their children and grand-children trapped inside. How this would improve our condition, though, is beyond me to answer.
Until next time,
I’m no historian by training (I’m an engineer after all), but I was always interested in ‘the grand scheme of things’ — our overarching story as a species, as opposed to the tactical minutia of kings, battles and nations. I leave those details to true historians to deal with. We are storytelling apes after all, and your humble blogger is no different in this regard. Call me an idealist, but I strongly believe in the story of small communities (or tribes) ruled by consensus: where ‘leaders’ are really just there to organize how things are done, and not allowed to rule as a sovereign entity over the people who elected them. In this sense my views stand closest to the brilliant — but unfortunately late — David Graeber who with his fellow scholar David Wengrow wrote The Dawn of Everything, an inspiring book about the history of our species. Their concept of “the three primordial freedoms”: the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey and the freedom to create or transform social relationships explains a lot why we have started to behave so strangely in the past couple of millennia, after we have been robbed of these freedoms. The cyclical nature of our history with the rise and fall of civilizations and ideas from Toynbee, Diamond, Tainter, Greer gives the framing to this picture. Something, which is still forming in me, especially under the immense historical events we witness these days. Collapse is even more multifaceted than I initially thought.