The Radical Turn

On the Necessity of the Inconceivable to Engage the New Great Transformation

Most of us who have lived through the decades since World War II understand the advancements of the industrial age to be the essence of human progress. First, we lived in an energy-driven mechanical world involving a series of innovations and new “labor-saving” processes and products. We experienced all sorts of new jobs and professions as the industrial project continued. It called for new forms of work needed to produce new kinds of goods and services. Progress seemed the inevitable product of scientific discovery, technical innovation, invention, and production.

Progress and Conflict

At the same time, we felt an evolving series of threats, from the broadly defined “Cold War,” first expressed in the very hot war in Korea – referred to at the time as a United Nations sanctioned “police action” because war was never officially declared. Then there telegraph.co.uk_March-1965-helicop_1626547iwas the war in Vietnam, also never quite declared but an all-consuming national crisis of purpose and conscience. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came a brief euphoria associated with the belief that with just one “superpower” – a benevolent United States of America – would come peace. That turned out to be an illusion, based on the assumption that with the U.S. policing a world devoid of any other super power, a “peace dividend” would allow a shift to domestic priorities such as full employment, general economic growth, and pursuing the “good life.”

Well, that didn’t quite work out as imagined. Military spending continued to grow as concerns about managing “limited conflicts” and retaining global military dominance persisted. A variety of apparent “one-off” incursions, invasions, and interventions, in various parts of Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, kept the U.S. military quite busy. So called “defense spending” did not slacken. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, we had over seven hundred fifty known bases in other nations, according to Chalmers Johnson, a renowned historian and former U.S. intelligence consultant. Johnson raised his concerns about the over-extension in his book, Blow Back.

The growing U.S. global interventionism certainly had its blow back in terms of rising resentments over both military and corporate incursions into many nations, focused mainly on gaining control over the resources needed to continue the economic growth that was the keystone in the U.S. economy. Particularly resented were the U.S. efforts to dominate and control the flow of oil in the world economy, and the continued propping up of kleptocratic regimes. The U.S., as the leading economic actor, required ever-growing quantities of oil. The vast oil fields in the U.S. had begun to decline and talk of “peak oil” grew.

Industrial Capital Transformed the World

There is, of course, much more to the story. That has to do with the continuing cultural illusions of global authority sustained by military-industrial elites, which resulted in both clandestine and overt efforts to control other nations. “Manifest Destiny” lived on by other names, even as the U.S. suffered the attacks of 9-11 and expanded its response to a global “war on terror,” with no boundaries and little success. Yet, one force drove the global struggles for power, the necessity for economic growth to perpetuate the accumulation of wealth.

Underlying it all, a great contradiction and looming crisis developed, at first hardly noticed, then widely denied, and continually misunderstood as the endless-growth economy and wars of choice persisted in the face of growing evidence of their absurdities and failure.

Polanyis Great Transformation_chart

Image credit: SlideShare

In 1944, Karl Polanyi published The Great Transformation. The book received little notice despite its profound implications for the trajectory of the industrial era. Polanyi’s deep research on the industrial revolution and its aftermath led him to conclude that a fundamental unresolved conflict had resulted from the requirements of industrial capital as it overpowered all other elements of society. He noted that various political administrations attempted to protect society from the damaging transformation of human life caused by the expansions of industrial capital. Such efforts included the English “poor laws,” and later the New Deal that responded to the crash and Great Depression of the 1930s in the U.S.

Polanyi did not find an ultimate solution to the “creative destruction” of industrial capital. Neither did the economists and politicians who ignored his warnings. Instead, the consequences have gradually emerged as the global crises of economics, ecology, and climate we all must now face.

The New Great Transformation

The clash between the now global system of economic growth and the damage it does to populations around the world as it enriches the few, is coming to a head. But the damage now reaches far beyond the direct suffering of excluded humans. Both the endless extractive plunder of the resources and living Earth systems we call ecologies, and the ever-growing systems of manufacture, transportation, consumption, and waste, have seriously destabilized ecological systems and climate systems around the world.

Neither the ecosystems upon which humans depend, nor the climate that allows global food production, can retain stability under the assault of the global industrial system. We have already reached an extreme turning point. Humanity and the living Earth systems upon which we depended for so long, have entered a New Great Transformation. We caused it and we have done little to control it. But we must.

The Radical Turn

Only by taking a Radical Turn in the ways humans live on the planet can we begin to control the extreme threats to our very existence we have caused. Yet we continue to see things like resource depletion and climate disruption within the framework of the failing utopian dreams of endless progress through technological innovation and economic growth. Instead, we need to apply what we know from the best science with the necessity of transforming human economies into ecological communities. That means massive reductions in energy consumption and waste.

We must both stop the earth plunder and achieve negative carbon emissions rapidly and restore the many ecological systems that we have damaged so severely. Those systems continue collapsing as nations debate who should take how much responsibility for achieving inadequate global warming targets. Yet, public discussions almost never involve how nations and communities can achieve the necessary radical reductions in ecological and climate destruction. Hardly ever are methods of ecosystem restoration discussed. The denial of the necessity of a Radical Turn in the organization of humanity on Earth continues.

Immigration, Refugees, Arms Sales, and the Food Crisis

The current stream of refugees to Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones is just the tip of a growing iceberg. Most major news outlets focus on the struggle to resolve how the Europeans can absorb the current rush of migrants to Europe fleeing death and destruction. Distinctions are made between economic refugees and political or war refugees. Those deemed to be migrating to flee poverty and seek economic opportunity are more likely to be turned back. Those acknowledged to be fleeing political persecution are more likely to be welcomed. That is understandable, but much more is involved. News stories focus on the events of the moment and in this case are “Eurocentric.” Historians will later reflect on the role of such events in the larger flow over time. Meanwhile, there is more to come.

Some major newspapers, such as Great Britain’s The Guardian and The Independent, have begun to look also at the larger picture of which the current crisis is a mere symptom. There are several important connections between crises of war, poverty, climate disruption, and agricultural failures than commonly acknowledged, especially in the U.S. corporate media. Here and in Europe refugees are often seen as being of questionable character and possibly criminal intruders.

Blaming the Victims

We need not listen to Donald Trump to recognize the prejudice against Mexicans and all Central Americans, which permeates discussions of immigration in the news. Yet most refugees from Central America are fleeing violence in countries whose militaries were trained by the infamous U.S. military run “School of the Americas.” The results were clandestine but official death squads that tortured and murdered rebels and civilians alike. Their brutal actions are still taken in support of dictatorships in Central America that the U.S. has propped up for decades. And, of course, Mexican farmers, driven out of business by NAFTA enabled cheap corn dumping on the Mexican food market by U.S. corporations, have sought employment north of the border.

The refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as smaller numbers from war torn regions in Africa are conceived by many Europeans as invaders. Other kind souls have held up welcome signs and handed out food to the immigrants, recognizing both their plight and their humanity. But the conflicts they flee have resulted largely from neocolonial attempts to exert geopolitical control over regions rich in oil, minerals, and materials needed for the failing endless economic growth of the Global North. The U.S. “war on terror” is inextricably entangled with its undead pretensions to Empire, cloaked in the phony ideological veneer of “bringing democracy” to the developing nations of the world. In a fundamental way, these immigrants are refugees from the consequences of empire.

Merchants of Death

Not much is said about the connections between the international arms trade and the current wave of immigration from the Middle East to Europe. It is common among humans to attribute the problems of other humans to assumed defects in those who suffer with the problems. This is no less true of the current situation and the geopolitical events leading up to the current surge of migration. In the U.S. it is commonly assumed that the problems of Sunni-Shiite violence stem from age-old animosities attributed to these groups. We ignore the fact that before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites lived peacefully in the same neighborhoods and intermarried peacefully in Baghdad and elsewhere. In fact the U.S. demolish-divide-and-conquer approach to its occupation of Iraq forced Iraqis into conflict relations by destroying the civil society that sustained peaceful relations. That civil society existed under the prior dictatorship and certainly could have been sustained under a democratic regime the U.S. government claimed to be bringing to Iraq. But the U.S. destroyed civil society and most of the basic infrastructure upon which it depended.

The geopolitics of war is immensely influenced (and stimulated) by the international arms trade. In most conflict zones, little violence would be occurring were it not for the saturation of arms among conflicting groups supplied and sponsored by outside entities. The so-called “great powers” set up conflict situations by their attempts to control extant or potential “client nations.” The proliferation of arms results from loans or grants for sales by the dominant suppliers such as the U.S., China, Russia, and Germany, with significant sales from Eastern Europe as well. These nations facilitate sales by private arms dealers as well as making direct “loans” for purchases by client states and non-state actors. The U.S., for example, has contracted with various arms dealers to supply Afghan troops to fight the Taliban. Most of the arms used by ISIS are U.S. made, some confiscated from fleeing Iraqi troops and some purchased on the private arms market. The U.S. government does nothing to restrict sales by U.S. arms manufacturers and their dealers around the world – after all, that might upset the NRA.

Climate of Collapse

With the impact of global warming causing climate disruptions including regional drought and flooding in developing nations, food production is already being severely damaged. Some refugee camps in Lebanon, crowded with Syrians who fled their destroyed homes, have run out of food. The common idea that migrants are merely poor people seeking better economic opportunities is for these reasons both inaccurate and simplistic. Most poor rural Africans or Afghans –or middle class Syrians for that matter – would have had little or no motivation for leaving their homes for Europe or anywhere else if it were not for the threat of death by war and starvation.

It is the convergence of the externally stimulated armed conflicts – and imperious resource seizures – with growing disruption of regional agriculture and the destabilization of local political and economic structures that makes life in such places unbearable. Most of the destabilization in the world today is the result of “great powers” vying for power over nations rendered weaker by prior colonialism. The nations of the industrialized Global North compete to control the world’s resources. They destabilize weaker nations, as they charge headlong and indifferent, causing climate chaos and planetary destruction.

War, Wealth, and Waste

I never quite understood the logic of the “laws of war.” The idea of a “just war” is a little more complicated, but also weak. Stanford historian Ian Morris’s recent book* claims war has reduced human violence over the past ten thousand years. Sometimes a really counter-intuitive but brash idea can garner a lot of attention, whether it is valid or not. For now, I’ll retain the belief that war causes waste for the many and creates wealth for the few.

Wasting Humanity
War is destruction. It is hard not to be outraged by military or ‘paramilitary’ aggression in any form. Increasingly, in modern warfare civilians are targeted and die in greater proportions than combatants. Certainly, I can understand the outrage and indignation felt on hearing of or seeing barbaric practices such as, in recent cases, the ISIS/ISIL beheading of journalists attempting to report on the events in a war. I was as offended as the next person on becoming aware of the CIA engaging in “extraordinary rendition” of persons to be tortured at “black sites.” I cannot accept the “collective punishment” of Palestinians in the outdoor prison that is Gaza. But drone attacks on wedding parties in Afghanistan are no less arbitrary and tortuous for the victims. Many more examples from all sides of all wars could be listed as barbaric too. It seems the “laws of war” are never enforced, except by the victor against the vanquished after the fight.

Immoral laws? It’s not about law. Unlike pre-industrial “man to man” battles, acts of war today are usually criminal in a more fundamental sense. Recent so called wars, it seems to me, consist not so much in armies facing each other on a battlefield. Rather, they are pure acts of destruction of mostly civilian population and their livelihood.

What we are left with is the Waste of War, the largely indiscriminate torture and killing of innocent civilians all around the world. The waste of war has a parallel in the relationship of the late stages of the industrial era to the populations whose lives are wasted by capital “investment.” On the one hand, the proportion of civilian deaths and injury to those of combatants in modern wars has steadily risen. Not only has technology made this possible, but the practices of war have increasingly incorporated indiscriminate attacks on civilians. On the other hand, industrial investments have increasingly degraded the lives of workers and produced more and more unemployed poor. The financialized economy is rapidly wasting humanity with its destruction.

Qui bene?”: Profit from Waste
An old sociological rule says that if you want to understand an organized course of action, you must apply the principle of “Qui bene?” – Who benefits? In the case of war, as with other organized actions, we must throw out all the rhetoric of the leadership. The self-righteous indignation directed at “the enemy” may have some footing. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, supported by the U.S. not long before being declared the enemy. Then he became the excuse for massive destruction of the nation he ruled. While there are complex personal and political reasons for that “war of choice” based on official lies, the outcome tells the main story. Instead of looking for explanations in Iraq, simply ask the question: Who benefited? Iraqis now live in destitution.

In Obama’s re-branding of the “war on terror,” the beneficiaries of war continue to be the bankers and “defense” industrialists. This is not because winning a war makes it safe for them to operate and make a profit. No, war is itself is their most profitable enterprise. In the present cases, the more drone attacks in Yemen, the more missiles must be replaced. The more F-14 bombings and missile strikes on houses, hospitals, and UN shelters in Gaza, the more replacements will be purchased from the U.S. “defense industry.” Air strikes destroy ISIS-captured U.S.-built artillery in Iraq. New weapons and equipment must be bought by the military to replace those abandoned by Iraqi troops we pretended to have “trained.” Waste is profit.

It’s all a waste. Vast quantities of “surplus” military hardware and weapons are now given to civilian police departments in the U.S. in the deliberate militarization of police forces and law-enforcement culture. A parallel militarization of mass-media entertainment supports the idea of ‘lower classes’ – the poor – as another enemy. Nearly every “law enforcement” problem on television is solved by the equivalent of war. The implicit model of policing in both media and police culture involves massive force against the civilian population-as-enemy.

Wasting the New Enemy
War is waste. In our Incarceration Nation, law enforcement wastes human lives by both detention/incarceration/stigmatization and by police violence. That’s a strong statement, but not so far from the everyday on-the-ground truth. The increasing proportion of the ‘wasting’ of civilians in war is matched by the growing willingness to shoot and kill citizens at home. Increasingly militarized attempts are made to quell civil disturbances resulting from lives wasted in cities across America due to their worsening isolation from the economy. A new element is emerging in the escalating “class war” waged by extreme wealth against the population.

Civilian police forces are becoming the destructive agents of wealth against the growing numbers of poor that extreme wealth creates. Whenever the injustices of the economy that serves only the interests of wealth are raised, some apologist pundit objects that “class war” is being incited. Quite the contrary. The war of the wealthy class against the rest of us has been going on since the reforms following the Great Depression. Abandonment of those reforms allowed them near total control of all significant income and wealth. They have nearly won their class war. But in doing so they are destroying the very economy that sustains their extreme power. It can’t last.
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* Ian Morris, War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.