State Secrecy: Collapse or Transformation

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.

Societal Collapse
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.

Putin, Obama, and Carbon: Denial and Decline

As I watched the Ukraine/Crimea crisis unfold, the corporate media rendition of the scenario emerged as if pulled from an old cold-war script. Of course, Putin, the Soviet KGB-style dictator, is an obvious “bad guy.” And Obama is following the neo-conservative script of his “advisers,” or is it handlers? But the struggle over Ukraine is really about which “great power” will control Eurasian energy corridors as fossil fuels become scarcer, as well as about the rivalry of empires. Fear arises from the fact that war is money. Russia supplies over half of Ukraine’s and about 30% of Europe’s natural gas. Much of Europe’s demand for natural gas depends on Ukraine and Russia. Unfortunately, reducing carbon emissions has no place in these continuing strategic maneuvers.

Even in the ‘alternative press,’ few have mentioned U.S. interference in Ukraine politics (including influencing the Ukraine’s previous ‘regime change’) to get it to ally itself with NATO, ignoring the entire history of the region and Ukraine’s delicate relationship with Russia. East and West leaning factions within Ukraine had been struggling over how to align that nation. Make a deal to enter the European Union or a deal for closer relations with Moscow? Heaven forbid Ukraine should have independently taken the best from both worlds – both have their consequences. The energy-stakes are too high for both East and West – powers, not people. If people were valued by either side, negotiations leading toward carbon neutrality would begin.

The American media remain in broad denial of the intense efforts by U.S. funded proxies like the “National Endowment for Democracy” to pressure Kiev to turn toward a European alliance and military association with NATO. Imagining that was not a direct threat to Russian borders, the U.S. corporate media, even its ‘liberal’ branches such as MSNBC, parrot the narrative of Russian (Soviet) aggression in a strategic vacuum, after the elected Ukraine government indicated its preference for closer relations with its historical roots in Russia.

It is important to understand that the drama we watch is between two imperial powers vying for control of both energy resources and a ‘border state’ of one. Neither is the least bit interested in anyone’s “self-determination” or democracy. Both claims are, as nearly always, imperial cover stories. Let’s see now, did we put up with Khrushchev’s  attempted military move into Cuba, our ‘border state’ right off the Florida Keys? Is Putin really “protecting” Russian speakers in Crimea with his occupying troops and forced referendum? Ukraine’s gas fields are mostly in its eastern half, closest to the Russian border. Hypocrisy reigns in all quarters. It’s an old fashion power struggle, exactly the kind the world cannot afford.

A large proportion of industrial production goes to military might worldwide, but the U.S. spends nearly as much as the next 10 nations combined. I don’t even know where Russia falls in that ranking – the data are available. But far more important is the abject failure of so-called ‘world leaders’ to break out of their archaic petro-paradigms of power and address the real threat to the security of all nations today: massively climate-destabilizing carbon emissions. And one of the biggest emitters, collectively, is the world military industrial complex, with the U.S. the leading arms producer and dealer on the planet.

One of the things that struck me about this latest international confrontation is its distinctive Kabuki Theater character – the overly stylized drama of its overly ‘made up’ actors dressed up in their cold war personas, seems out of another era. The datedness of the whole affair is partly a reflection of the fact that we have far bigger problems to address than these old rivalries – both within Ukraine and between East and West – namely, the imminent failure of nations to face the fact that their whole industrial structure, including their militaries, will have to be dismantled or otherwise made carbon neutral, in order to stave off climate catastrophes around the world in the next decade and beyond. They arrange chairs in a theater of the absurd.

The most important question today is not whether to immediately embark on a venture in national and world industrial transformation to slow down the heating of the biosphere before it reaches the point of no return. No, the real question is whether we have already reached that tipping point, and if so whether we can find a way to survive. Meanwhile, American-international oil/gas companies are eying Ukraine as another target for their extractive destruction, oblivious to the crisis of civilization.

For purposes of real-world decision making however, such a question is easy to answer: If the risk is human extinction, and you can’t be sure whether steps to avoid it are already too late, you take those steps anyway on the chance that it may not be too late. If in fact it is too late, then nothing matters except whether we can go out in style. If, on the other hand, it will not be too late if all necessary steps are taken, well, obviously, all necessary steps must be taken. We will only know for sure if we take those steps, and take them now.

Putin and Obama, and far too many others, seem entirely oblivious to any such considerations, as they play out their Kabuki recital and archaic mid-twentieth-century rituals of imperial rivalry over petroleum now past its peak. If the consequences were not so dire, the irony might even be funny. Of course, the consequences for the people of Ukraine/Crimea continue to look more dismal every day. But that will pale in comparison to the consequences for the planet if these “leaders” do not get real, and very soon.

After Obama: Apocalypse or What?

It ought to be clear to just about everyone who had hoped for “change we can believe in,” that very little of significance will likely emerge from the Obama Presidency in its final years.  Whatever the outcomes of the mid-term elections, the political commitments of the president, as well as the Democrats in Congress, are likely to continue to put the interests of the ruling elites – the energy industry, Wall Street Banksters, military contractors, the prison-industrial complex, and international industrial corporations – above the public interest.  The entrenched power of the “Deep State” –  that informal assembly of the most powerful political, economic, and military elites that shape national policies in all domains – is in full control of the nation’s direction.  No matter what we may imagine Obama would like to have accomplished, it is clear that the interests of the most powerful institutions and the wealthiest individuals who are represented by the army of lobbyists in Washington who control congressional [in]action, will continue to limit the range of actions that this president will take.  What we have here is an elite plutocracy behind a thin veil of a hollowed out imaginary representative democracy.

Sadly, however we interpret the humanitarian causes referenced by eloquent impassioned rhetoric, the substance of those great speeches simply has not been reflected in national or international policy, except in the smallest of ways.  “Yes we can!” – well, how did that work out for us?  The widely popular principle of universal health care – routine in “advanced” nations except for our own – was taken off the table at the very beginning of the effort for “health care reform” in favor of protecting the economic interests of the unnecessary health insurance companies, the middle-men of the consequently expensive and distorted health care system.  The wind-down-the-wars president became Commander in Chief of Drone Assassination and Civilian Massacre.  The self-righteous indignation over Russia’s occupation of Crimea in response to the West’s pressuring Ukraine to join NATO and supporting the overthrow of its elected government – both seen as military threats by Russia– is nothing if not massively hypocritical.   Obama’s climate change policy of “all of the above” panders to the entrenched corporate interests of coal, nuclear energy, and fracked gas and oil, all of which are the main drivers accelerating the crisis of a destabilizing biosphere.  Meanwhile, Obama makes oratorical gestures toward human and planetary survival, while carefully avoiding any threat to corporate sovereignty.

Nothing, really, seems to be going all that well.  “Trickle down economics”?  How has that worked out for you?  Extreme wealth and income disparity to the point of economic destabilization, extreme climate disruption accelerating and politically ignored, extreme corporate control of mass communications constraining public understanding of the crises, never-ending propaganda supporting the fantasy of never-ending economic growth and consequent resource depletion, etc. – it all adds up to socio-economic as well as ecological disaster.  After all, the crises we face are only intensified by of the politics of business as usual – and that has been the problem all along.  So, the serious question now is what can be done outside the Obama presidency and after it ends, particularly when no Democrat or Republican made president by corporate controlled elections is any more likely to face the idea that the nation and the planet are in deep trouble.

Exactly what can anyone do, who has observed the politically moribund corporate state that prohibits the national concerted action necessary to re-establish some semblance of democratic process, no less a massive redirection of public policy toward international action to save the planet from certain biospheric catastrophe?  It is now quite clear that electoral politics – even if voter suppression could be reversed, gerrymandering unwound, and elections democratized – is too slow and cumbersome, given the proximity of disaster.

Of course, those things must be accomplished anyway.  But major actions must be taken now to stop continued expansion of the fossil-fuel economy and replace it.  Setting goals for utilities to produce ten or twenty percent of energy from renewable sources by 2030, and the like, are nothing more than pathetic gestures in the present emergency.  Even rationing energy production may be necessary in the short term.  But is it possible?

A new kind of thinking seems necessary and a new kind of action is required now – direct citizen action.  What is it and how can it be initiated and executed?  The beginnings of direct citizen action to stave off some of the worst projects of the oil and gas industry – protests of the Keystone XL pipeline and of oil and gas fracking around the country – offer examples of immediate lines of citizen action, along with divestment.  Such actions must be intensified, expanded and multiplied.

We are entering an apocalyptic era – not in the evangelical sense, but in the sense of the original meaning of the word, “to uncover, reveal, or disclose” – and we need to respond accordingly.  The catastrophic character of anthropogenic climate disruption will be revealed to us, even though we may have already ignored it too long.  A majority of citizens in a recent poll were still deceived into believing that Keystone XL is a ‘job creator’ and necessary for “energy independence.”  Wrong, but also irrelevant.  It is clear that much propaganda must be overcome to uncover the truth about dirty coal, nuclear, and fracked oil and gas, so that the nature of the crisis we all face can be fully revealed and collectively acted upon.