A number of books and articles have appeared over the past few years raising the specter of societal collapse. The crises of climate disruption and hyper-inequality in an increasingly unstable U.S. and global economy are converging toward destabilization. These converging destabilizing forces will likely produce some form of radical change –like it or not. But what will it look like? That will depend on us.
One of the most comprehensive works on historical cases of societal collapse is Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Focused entirely on how and why things happened in the societies he studied, Diamond cautiously avoids any direct contemporary predictions. He steadfastly avoids inferences from the catastrophic collapses of Mayan civilization, the Easter Islander society, or several others he studied. But a number of implications seem obvious. For example, in each case, when confronted with ecological crises, elites squandered declining resources on self-aggrandizing displays of wealth or power, accelerating the approach of collapse. These were all societies dependant on irreplaceable local or regional ecological resources. Today, we arguably face the same kind of problems, but at a planetary scale. Only a massive “Great Transformation” has any likelihood of staving off a global collapse of both economy and ecology. We are used to moving on to the next land to plunder. No more.
Like the examples Jared Diamond describes, our power elites engage in denial and projection as they busily accumulate more and more phantom wealth and power. They entrench themselves in an increasingly totalitarian security state they think will insulate them from the world. Their state benefactors, obsessed with a perceived need for secrecy and military control of everything, give them a false sense of security. The corporate-state response to almost any problem is violent repression. From 9-11 to Gaza, from Viet Nam to Ukraine, each power elite, whether here or there, acts in the same way. It posits an all-powerful enemy – the evil Other – who can only be defended against by overwhelming superiority of weaponry and violence.
The Secrecy of the Surveillance State
Robert David Steele’s book, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto, is striking because it proposes a radically different framework for “intelligence,” and for avoiding societal collapse. It identifies massive systemic fraud and corruption in the secretive ‘top-down’ violence-driven intelligence establishment and he calls for its abandonment. But what is most stunning is that Steele is a respected and accomplished member of the military and intelligence communities. Steele would abolish and replace those institutions. Based on his extensive professional experience, Steele argues that “intelligence” produced by secret agencies is mostly dysfunctional and often just wrong. Steele’s take on the modern form of totalitarianism with a democratic façade is grounded in the insider perspective of a professional spy. In contrast, Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy, Inc. describes a creeping “inverted totalitarianism,” from a political scientist’s outsider viewpoint. But the implications for democracy and its survival are remarkably similar.
Steele’s case for universal “open source intelligence” rests on a model of shared information in which the ever-growing secrecy establishment would be counter-productive. After all, the more secrecy in a system, the more opportunity corrupt elites have to “manage democracy” in their own interests. To the extent that society’s major institutions are shrouded in secrecy, democracy is destined to become a façade for totalitarianism. The evidence is overwhelming that both state and corporate secrecy and unrestricted spying are seriously dysfunctional and lead to oppression. Open source intelligence demands an entirely new way of thinking about nation states and various social formations. Effective human systems operate as whole systems and whole systems require whole-systems thinking and participation – by everyone, not just elites.
The combination of predatory capital and power technology operated by a secretive military-industrial corporate state destroys true democratic processes. The secrecy based intelligence establishment inevitably further concentrates power and wealth in the institutions that are controlled by the less-than-1%. These trends have reached their breaking point.
The Unknown Transformation
No, the center will not hold – it’s not even the center anymore. Internal contradictions quite different than Marx predicted are driving the social hierarchy to a chaotic collapse. With all the inter-dependencies of Big-System Society and its global reach, collapse may well spread broadly. The big question is what will replace the corporate state and how. A great transformation is inevitable, but how it occurs and with what result is not. Hierarchical information control has so far assured elite dominance, but dysfunction is accelerating; it cannot be sustained. We seem to be headed for widespread political and economic chaos. One plausible result may be massive breakdowns of systems of supply of industrial and consumer products, even the very necessities of life.
Then, there is the Achilles heel of the so called “global economy.” Complex systems have internal vulnerabilities. Moreover, both climate chaos and the limits of the growth economy predict the end of the corporate state – it just can’t cope. Allies such as the World Trade Association and the International Monetary Fund, have no value other than to the failing system they attempt to support. Nor does the array of military alliances that support global empire.
Very little serious work has been done on the question of how a viable transformation can be accomplished without high levels of chaos and damage to both people and environments. The works of Diamond and Steele provide two hard sources (and there are others) for beginning to shape a new social intelligence that can help transform the old institutions to meet the needs of the post-industrial era.