Thursday, June 30, 2016

UK leaves EU: revenge of the white trash?

The United Kingdom leaves the European Union after 40 years. What happened?

            The lead up to the vote was revealing. The chattering classes were unanimous: the Remains would carry the vote, no sweat..

            However, several events led me to think otherwise. The first was the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox (on the Remain side) by a hate crazed New Right fanatic: 

          In chillingly Donald Trumpian words, the killer vowed to make his country "great again". Of course, madmen are everywhere and act unpredictably. In itself, the killing merely hinted that political divisions in the UK were highly polarized and running deep, no more.

           After the killing a truce of sorts was arranged between the Remain and Exit camps. Politicians of the Left and the Right decried the mad act. The "truce", however, lasted but a few days before the invective began to flow again, convincing me that we weren't witnessing a "normal" political debate. The senseless murder of an idealistic militant should have brought saner voices to the forefront. But it didn't, not for long, anyway.

           By the eve of the vote, I viscerally gave the nod to the Exits. More interesting, why did the chattering classes, more politically informed than me, not see this coming? Where did their tunnel vision come from? Even the stock markets confidentially rose in value before the vote.

           So, again, what happened? The pundits and the powerful appear to have been disconnected from the political reality of the people, that much is evident. There is certainly a lesson to be learned here, I think..

            One of the points raised during the post mortem was the fact that Remain voters tended to be younger and better educated while the Exiteers were relatively older and less educated. This has been interpreted in a light favorable to globalization by some commentators. For them, the Exiteers represent an "Ancien Régime" (?or perhaps even the Great Unwashed in person?) The Exit campaign belongs to a superannuated past, an old guard waiting to be taken out feet first (and then forgotten..) In this view, the Remain side represents Youth, Beauty, Progress, all that is Good and Noble in Modernity.

           While flattering to liberals, progressives and moderate conservatives, this view is fundamentally flawed, representing a truncated and highly "edited" version of modern socio-economic reality.

            In most modern societies, the young vote less than their elders. Who then were the young who voted? The young Remain voters were those who benefited from the present EU "System". They are educated. They earn high salaries in multinational corporations. Their work is interesting and challenging with rich opportunities for advancement and the respect that brings. Their careers will likely be spent in several  countries (where their abilities to speak several languages will serve them well). They will travel widely, have many adventures, lead the Good Life as members of the Servitor Class of the Corporate Elite: the professionals, administrators, middle managers, technicians. Since the creation of the EU, the standard of living of these classes has indeed risen. It is not surprising that the educated young technocrats, entrepreneurs and financiers voted to remain in the EU.

           The youth of the working classes, the chronically disadvantaged and the poor were not stimulated to vote to remain in the European Union. Their job and income security has rather declined since the EU's creation. And to rub salt into open wounds, immigrants with university degrees ostentatiously flaunt the Good Life before their eyes while their lives, the lives of native British common folk, decline and grow less secure, decade by decade.  Under these circumstances, youthful political apathy might well be re-inforced. On the other hand, their elders, who do vote, have had many years to stew in the juices of resentment, frustration and insecurity. And they voted to leave the EU. This analysis (not verified on my part) does at least fit the observed voting patterns with respect to age, education and income.

           Since - aside from a few rebels - the chattering classes belong to the educated elites, they could not see - even less comprehend - the frustration, rage and fear simmering in the consciousness of the laboring "masses". Thus the result of the referendum could only come as a great shock, indicating the disconnect from reality of the elite classes.

            A case in point: It is argued that Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to gain political legitimacy with his ill-advised referendum, believing the people would never be so stupid as to vote to leave. His goal was - apparently - to consolidate his position against the reactionary rump of the Conservative Party. He grossly miscalculated and within hours of the stunning results he resigned. Even Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, appeared stunned, almost speechless by the victory. It soon became evident he had no Plan in case of an Exit victory vote! His real political goals, I suspect, center around the kick the demogog gets from raising the rabble, making them sweat and jump through the hoops he tosses, the heady adrenaline rush of raw, primate political power (and, hey! they pay you for it too..) A final case of an unprepared victor: Boris Johnson. All the pundits I listened to believed that Johnson had his sights set on the PM's office. But Johnson, too, was speechless and stunned in the early light of the Exit camp victory. Perhaps he too, like PM Cameron, "only" intended to feather his nest with votes cheaply won through demogogy. Johnson, like Cameron, may feel that he bit off more than he could chew. In a stunning announcement this morning Johnson threw in the towel and announced to general stupor that he will not contest the leadership of the Conservative Party.

                  Another irony of the vote. Going into the referendum Labour was a house divided. Generally, the traditionally anti-nationalist Left has supported the EU. However, a segment of the Left (correctly) rejects the EU as a "businessmen's club". As I write, the Labour Party appears to be tearing itself asunder. It's leader, Jeremy Corbyn is a long time Euro-sceptic of the Left. During the referendum campaign, he somehow got himself convinced to support the Remain campaign but, because his heart was not really in it, his performance in defending that position has been described as (at best), "lackluster". Many pro-EU Labourites now want Corbyn to step down while anti-EU members believe he has sold out. If Corbyn quits, the referendum will have succeeded in taking down the PM, the Labour Leader and the strongest contender for the Conservative leadership. Not bad, not bad.. kind of a universal booby trap..

               On the whole, it is hard to muster too much sympathy for the EU (or the UK) at this point in time. The neo-conservative / libertarian elites in large part constructed the booby trap they fell into. One of the nobler original objectives of the EU was to create a United States of Europe, based on the economic and political intergration of the founding nations. This would have included a good measure of Social Democratic regulation and policy. In an attempt to avoid such political integration - and the policies it implied - the neo-con / libertarian elites in the UK pushed for rapid expansion of a deregulated "Free Market" zone into the countries of Central and Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. (The cover argument used here was that, given the total incompatibility of the social and economic systems of the Eastern countries with those of Western Europe, the only common ground could be the mythical deregulated "Free Market". In reality, it was a very clever ploy to torpedo the political integration of Europe while maximizing the profits of multinationals and the salaries of their "officers" and of the Servitor Classes who service the multinationals with their expertise.) Except of course, the trick backfired! The "Free Market", as elsewhere, rather than leveling inequities magnified the gulf between rich and poor and actually penalized the lower socio-economic classes. It reduced job and income security and stiffled upward social mobility for the lower classes. Hence the unexpected "vengeance of the white trash" now playing out in the UK and Europe before the stupified eyes of the chattering classes.           

            Of course, such an analysis does not do justice to the dream of a United Europe. It is true that, during the last few centuries, we have generally built our social and economic systems on blocks that are too unweildy to be practical. Good governance, good ecology and good post-fossil fuel economics all dictate that we scale down the size of social, economic, and political units. Yet, the fact remains that some challenges and opportunities are necessarily non-local in nature. Consider science: its full development is totally dependent upon the free exchange of information of researchers throughout the world. The exploitation of extra-terrestrial resources (asteroid belt mining, solar energy capture above the earth's atmosphere, space exploration and colonization..) is another area that would require global collaboration. Thus the idea of a European Union is not, in itself, a bad idea. It's current implementation - "a businessmen's club" benefiting the multinational corporate elite at the expenses of the "masses" - remains a deplorable miscarriage of a once noble idea, a fact exposed all too clearly by the stunning victory of the Exit campaign.

For a good overview of the chaos produced by the referendum and the immediate aftermath:

For the (pseudo-)"revenge of the white trash" in North America. Some interesting parallels there! 


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Book Review: Dodging Extinction (Part 2)

 abbreviations used:

CC- climate change
CO2 - carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, responsible for global warming
GW - global warming

Now to get down to brass tacks..

           Prof Barnosky is a well intentioned academic. We agree on most things I think. One major area of disagreement - aside from the utility / safety of nuclear reactors - is the question of how chaotic the future really will be (or has the potential for being). In the argument that follows I will invoke the precautionary principle which, in my reading, says something like this: don't do something with a high risk unless there is a good reason. Legitimately, you might administer a potentially dangerous drug to a child with a dangerous cancer if no other therapy offered itself. Conversely, you should not play Russian roulette for $100: under normal circumstances one's life should be worth more than $100..

           In my reading, there is a significantly high risk of large scale social breakdown occuring within the next 100 years (and probably less than half that). This suggests the need to build "Cultural Refugia" to preserve the best that world civilization has built, discovered or acquired over the last 5000 years. (note 1) 


                              Brass tacks... 

             Of course, such a position makes me a Doomer (in Christian fundamentalist terms: a believer in the End Days). I wasn't always one. In fact such a position is actually contrary to my native "glandular optimism". As a kid and young teenager growing up in the the USA during the 1960s, I believed that some "Nordic Protestant" societies - the English speaking world and the Scandinavian countries in particular - would provide "working models" of development for the decolonizing third world. 

           Then, alas, came the Viet Nam war, the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations and the world went to the dogs (or rather to the reactionaries). Meanwhile, I was becoming initiated into American Right wing politics. The town I grew up in, "Bircherville", was run by the extremist John Birch Society and other extremist organizations. Two of the three top students who gave speeches at my high school graduation ceremony were members of the even more fanatical Minutemen: 

               Then, in university, I read the "Club of Rome" report, The Limits to Growth (1972), not long after its publication. I found the mathematical modeling well done (conservative assumptions, consistently applied). It convinced me - if more convincing were needed! - that the world was collectively in trouble: 

- overpopulation (at least in some regions)
- non-renewable resource depletion, 
- pollution, 
- habitat destruction / species extinction, 
- the threat of nuclear war (driven by political fanaticism, fueled by poverty and inequitable access to the world's resources).

              In those days, the 1970s, few spoke of "pollution's" real dangers: climate change (CC) and the attendant negative impacts on global food production on an already overpopulated planet. Nor of the attendant geopolitical stability implications on a world possessing nuclear weapons and nuclear electric plants (which can produce, as waste, elements capable of producing various types of radioactive bombs).

An interesting time sequence: changes in Florida's coastline from the the last ice age (when massive amounts of water were locked up in continental glaciers)  to a globally warmed future with sea levels 5 meters higher than today. See note 2


                 In the long run, the "kicker", as they say, was the failure of my generation, the Baby Boomers (1946 - 1963), to address these problems which, worse, tend to mutually re-inforce each other. (The positive side is that, because they are so intertwined, dealing with one of them tends to make it easier to deal with the others. Addressing CC - through reducing CO2 emissions - helps reduce future coastal city flooding and the risk of food shortages with their potential for spawning terrorism and regional political instability.)

                 Boomers did not take the dire warning of Limits to Growth seriously. We did not switch to renewable energy. The wealthy nations did not peg development aid to progress in birth reduction (and to the support of social programs which would make it realistic for people in the third world to consider having less children: pensions for old people, female education, access to contraception..) For many years I denied that my generation could be so stupid, so deluded, so narcissistic as to continue down a social - economic -ecological trajectory which was patently suicidal..

               I can no longer deny reality! We have waited too long to make a smooth conversion to a post peak fossil energy economy. There will be hell to pay.

               I am not a hardcore Doomer. I am not one of those humanity haters who believe that humanity's death will be a good thing: "the human race is a cancer on the earth!". I find it improbable that all life on earth will go extinct as earth turns into a greenhouse hellhole like the planet Venus. As a "glandular optimist", I believe that recovery / rebound after collapse is possible. As I used to be fond of saying: history is littered with the wreckage of dead civilizations. 

               Similarly, the Cretaceous - Paleogene mass extinction, 65 million years ago, brought the rule of the dinosaurs and flying reptiles to an end, but ushered in the rule of the formerly downtrodden mammals and birds: the meek shall inherit the earth. As I see things, when the poo hits the fan, there are winners and losers.. This makes me a "squishy soft Doomer", I guess.. 

              Over the weekend, when I was contemplating this article, I began musing on the parallels between globalized technocratic industrial society and the late Roman empire which I have noticed or encountered in reading and speech over the years. The list is actually quite impressive, longer than I imagined (and probably not exhaustive..): 

- the proliferation of pornography,

- "decadant opulence": one's personal sense of worth is primarily derived from looking down on someone else, not on one's personal merit or accomplishments,

- vernacular (popular, vulagar or obscence) language takes over in literature (and its modern equivalents: film, tv..)

- declining literacy: our oft-bemoaned "reduced attention spans" and the bizarre epidemic of "learning and attention disorders" of various types,

- cultural degeneration: "dumbing down", trivilization, the cult of spectator sport and spectacle, the reduction of art / culture to mind-dimming (but overstimulating) "entertainment" (think of the Roman gladitorial games..) 

- growing gap between rich and poor (and it's negative impacts on social cohesion)

- counter-productive (Pyrrhic) foreign wars (from Kennedy's Vietnam war through Reagan's final war on Communism - we put Putin in power! - to Bushwackos war in Iraq..), the West's support of tyrants everywhere..

- liberalization of morals: freer sexual codes, high rate of divorce, expanded civil rights, expansion of voting rights.. (Not all changes are bad! I'm simply making a comparative list for two historical eras.)

- confusion of genders: the later Romans had some of the sexual "polymorphism" and ambiguity we show today. (Again, I'm not evaluating changes, just noting.)

- economic stagnation: the dominant Economic System (see Appendix: Plundernomics) has exhausted its options and enters into a terminal Death Spiral. Yet we, Novi Romani, like the Old Romans, seem incapable of really thinking outside the box when it comes to needed economic and technological innovation.

- ecological bankruptcy: we destroy the earth which feeds us. We are just more technological "advanced" than the Romans (and our world population about 30 times larger!) Therefore we do vastly more ecological damage than they ever could..

- ruling elites becoming increasingly disconnected from reality: "(functionally) insane", "depraved" (the Sixth Extinction of life on earth, human caused, is occurring on our watch..), "deluded", "anti-life" (Nietzsche, Erich Fromm)

- bankruptcy of democratic processes and law: multinationals have their hands up the backsides of all national governments who function as their puppet-servitors.

- climate of cynicism, despair, doom and the attendant, often unacknowledged, desire for transcendance, liberation, transformation, revolution. "End Days", end of the world cults of various forms proliferate along with other abortive attempts to escape or rebel: drugs, promiscuity, entertainment, extreme sports, fanatical political movements..

         I was surprised how long the list is (but then, I've had a lifetime to work on it).

         What the parallels between ancient Rome and Nova Roma mean, I think, is that we, like them, are at the end of our reign. We are living an era of transition. These are "Times of Troubles", of "anxiety" (the existentialists) when the "old road maps of reality" no longer function. Yet we have no new maps to deal with the unknown (and unknowable) new world that is emerging. (And unless humanity actually does manage to make itself go extinct, there will be a new world arising from the present impasse, collapse and transformation..) Since humans crave, above all else, a world that is ordered (as opposed to chaotic or "absurd"), to live in such an era is, as the French say, "anxiogène" - anxiety generating.   
           To be continued in Dodging Extinction: Part 3 - what can be done?

Appendix: Plundernomics  

The Imperial State, Patriarchy and Plundernomics. To a large degree I follow the schema of social evolution proposed by French sociologist and philosopher of Self-Organization, Edgar Morin.

           Early proto-human and human communities - which cover the quasi-totality of human history! - were small agglomerations (or "packs") of several dozen to (maybe) a thousand indviduals. These were traditional hunter-gatherer (possibly scavenger) societies. They had relatively little social hierarchy (it still existed though!) Democratic decision making was, if not the absolute rule, at least a common norm for these early societies. Men and women, according to travellers, ancient and modern, were more equal in respect, dignity and influence among hunter-gatherers than in "civlilized" societies.

            Around 8,000 years ago (my estimate), a new form of society appeared. Agriculture (grain culture in the Middle East) brought with it sedentarization and the possibility of accumulating surpluses and "infrastructure": controlled territory, fortifications, livestock, and accumulated "surplus labor" in the form of hard currency like trade tobacco, wampum belts, conch shells and soft metals like lead, silver, gold. Military expansion by dominant, militarized clans and tribes permitted even greater accumulation. One grew by stealing from and / or enslaving the neighbors.

             Intensified warfare, of course, bred technological development. Copper weapons conquered weapons of wood and bone. Bronze weilding warriors conquered copper age armies. Then iron conquered bronze.. Centralized power meant steeper and more elaborate social hierarchies; slavery was invented. Trade networks flourished, large towns and cities appeared as well as increasingly specialized forms of labor (professions and artisan crafts). The invention of writing further accelerated the rise of technological mastery by facilitating the acquisition, elaboration and transmission of technical knowledge. 

             In modern times, the acceleration of warfare eventually led to the emergence of science. The great wars of the 20th century carried this process to its ultimate conclusion, producing mutually reinforcing symbiotic linkages between science and technology. Science suggested new weapons (atom bomb), the development of which led to new technologies (the computer, needed to solve the equations necessary to purify bomb grade uranium). Technology, in turn, exapands the reach of science: computers permit astronomers to detect exo-planets orbiting distant stars. This tight, mutually re-inforcing symbiosis between Science and Technology has produced an incredible explosion of knowledge in the last century: nuclear arms and energy, rockets, computers, jet aircraft, space flight, satellite communications, cybernetics, the computer.. 

           Edgar Morin, the philosopher of Self-Organization, refers to the dominant societies in this stage of civilization, now ending, as "Imperial States" or "historical societies" (possessing a written history). I use these terms interchangeably with "Patriarchy" (or "patriarchal cultures"). I have dubbed the dominant economic model of these societies "Plundernomics": economics based on plunder, military expansion and colonization, exploitation in all its forms (woman by man, slave by master, conquered by conquerer, nature by humanity..)

            The latest, most intense phase of plundernomics occurred during the past millennium of world domination by "Christian" Europe. I have found the following chronological schema a useful guide to thinking.

The Emergence, "Fulmination" and Fall of Europe Bourgeois (or "Late Christian") civilization  

Emergence: circa 1150 - 1500 CE. Early rise of modern European bourgeoisie (middle class). Growth of cities, towns and trade. Rising status, influence and power of the mercantile classes. 

Fulmination ("a violent explosion or a flash like lightning"): 1500 - 1850 CE. Discovery / plunder / colonization of the New World, Africa, Asia, etc by European "Imperial States". Absolute domination of the middle class: the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century were, above all, bourgeois revolutions. The profit of multinational corporations has become our de facto god and the ironclad "laws of the free market" his will / his law. This phase ended with the "commercial circumnavigation" of the globe, circa 1850. Recall: "the sun never sets on the British Empire" (because it was globe-girdling). Post-1850, there were no new lands left to conquer / plunder / colonize, no new resources to squander for the short term profit of the bourgeois elite and their Frankenstinean creation, the multinational. Bourgeois civilization had reached its "Limits to Growth" - the end was now in sight!

Decadance and Fall1850 - 2200 (??) CE. With an obselete economic model - plundernomics, Bourgeois civilization must either 1- die or 2- mutate into something different than it is now. Either way, the poo is in the fan: a Time of Troubles when the old roadmaps of reality no longer work.

          The most recent avatar of plundernomics has given us the (hyper-)"consumer society". In this pathological, overstimulated economy, the reckless consumption of goods and services substitutes for

- addressing the real, urgent problems facing society and
- developing meaningful relations with self, others, society and the natural world.

           The ruse is actually quite clever when you start deconstructing it! Consumer "society" substitutes externally programmed "secondary drives" (pathological consumption of unnecessary stuff) for real significance embodying activities and relations (primary human drives or needs). This swindle creates a (theoretically) endless demand for industrial junk no one really needs (!!) What a scam! Can't beat that one (only religion at its worse can come close). Because, you see, since primary needs (self-expression through work, shared endeavor, love, a sense of meaning or purpose in life, capacity for wonder..) are not being met by consumerism, frustration remains in the core of the person. This frustration is then manipulated by commercial promotion to stimulate still more (over-)consumption of junk one does not need. It's the typical addictive cycle of the junkie or hypoglycemic sugar addict. The "fix" wears off fast and one needs another "boost" soon enough (which, of course, keeps the wheels of industry rolling and over-inflated bottom lines and CEO perks roiling..) 

              "Ostentatious rank-assigning consumption" feeds off the human need (like other mammals) to define a social status for oneself. Ostentation consumption substitutes for personal worth and merit in determining one's social rank. "I consume more than you therefore I am better than you!". Social rank assignment becomes a totally negative exercise. One is not honored for ones accomplishments but by the negative (demeaning, degrading) compasison with another, less fortunate or entitled, than oneself. The modern West has deviated very far indeed from the ideals expressed in the French and American Revolutions: freedom, equality, fraternity!


1- refugia (plural. Singular form: refugium, from Latin)
"an area where special environmental circumstances have enabled a species or a community of species to survive after extinction in surrounding areas" (from These would be ecological refugia. I am borrowing the term to apply to creating refugia for human cultural acquisitions.

2 - sea level changes: These are due to various factors. In the present context of GW, two factors dominate. One is the thermal expansion of water which occupies more volume when warmed. The actual increase in volume of seawater is tiny, of course, but the increased volume expands over the very shallow sloped continental shelves. This means that a tiny (relative) increase in the volume of the (huge) ocean will flood a lot of continental shelf as the following graphic shows.

            Another major factor in current sea level rise is the melting of continental glaciers and ice sheets: the Greenland ice sheet, mountain glacier systems.. Lack of knowledge of the stability of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets makes it difficult to predict how much oceans actually will rise. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts, roughly, a 1.5 to 5 foot (50 cm to 1.5 meter) rise by 2100. These estimates are generally seen as conservative and do not seem to take fully into account the accelerating ice dynamics of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. How much sea level will rise is a big unknown but we can say with certainty that IPCC estimates to date are underestimating the full future impacts.