Dave (the editor)
There’s a palpable sense that the world is changing at a rapid pace and that things are spinning out of control. There’s a feeling that things cannot go on as they are but as yet, there doesn’t seem to be a clear way out of the mess the world appears to be in.
In a period of rapid, unpredictable change, it can be very hard to take a step back and try to work out what’s going on and whether anything can be done to influence events to ensure there’s some hope of a progressive outcome. What makes things harder when trying to understand events is the blizzard of information we’re subjected to, not just from a mainstream media which is slowly losing it’s grip but also from a myriad of social media outlets and blogs.
In a bid to try and get some kind of handle on what’s going on, these are the questions I want to look at:
- Are we in a state of collapse?
- Will this state of collapse ultimately lead to a revolution?
- Will that revolution lead to the emergence of a more equitable, just, sane and sustainable world or will it usher in the era of a strongman/woman who can muster/create the forces of the state to enable them to exert their will?
I’ll try to sketch out some tentative, provisional answers to these questions in this piece. I’m not offering any definitive answers – this is merely a sketch outlining areas that I’ll hopefully be able to re-visit in more depth at some point in the future. Essentially, it’s an exercise in thinking out loud.
Are we in a state of collapse?
Societies and civilisations have collapsed throughout the course of human history. Collapse happens for a variety of reasons but is always a strong indicator that the society/civilisation in question has run it’s course, reached it’s limits and is becoming increasingly vulnerable to threats that could bring it down: End of days: Is Western civilisation on the brink of collapse? – Laura Spinney.
The world’s business, financial and political elites meeting at Davos 2019 are belatedly coming to some kind of recognition that the level of inequality they have willingly and gratuitously inflicted upon the world cannot go on without serious, disruptive social breakdown: Panic is on the agenda at Davos – but it’s too little too late – Aditya Chakrabortty – The Guardian – 23.1.19. They can sense that the neo-liberal pardigram they’ve inflicted on us is starting to fracture and they’re panicking about how their show can be kept going. It has to be mentioned that some of the leaders present at Davos 2019, Trump being one obvious example, have been remarkably adept at playing on, exploiting and twisting people’s fears about being left behind in a rapidly changing world to suit their own nefarious ends.
Sometimes, collapse can be a sudden process – possibly brought on by a natural disaster. It can also be a slow process that takes place over decades so at each stage of the process, people think it’s the new normal and adapt accordingly. Sometimes, it can be a slow process punctuated by a number of shocks that are not devastating in and of themselves but each of which pushes the system closer to its limits. In a process of slow collapse accompanied by the occasional shock, absorbing the experiences of decline as the new normal doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a willing acceptance of the situation – often it’s an acknowledgement that there’s little that can be done to change things within the existing political, economic and social structures.
The symptoms of collapse are many and varied. Some manifest themselves in obvious forms of physical decay and neglect across entire regions while other, smaller and more privileged regions appear to be in the midst of a boom. A society in the process of collapse will be getting increasingly brutalised and the more vulnerable members will be the ones who will fall victim first. However, as that process of collapse starts to gather pace as it appears to be doing at the moment, people do start to react against it, albeit not in ways that will be obvious or expected – these will be touched upon later on in this piece.
In the case of the UK, the process of collapse cannot be discussed without acknowledging how the establishment has tried to deal with adjusting to the end of empire. The Suez crisis in 1956 can be seen as one of those events that acted as a sharp shock to the British establishment about the realities of their place in the world in the early stage of the post empire era: The Suez Crisis – Laurie Milner – BBC History.
The fantasies espoused by some of the extreme Brexiteers as to what leaving the EU could do to revive Britain’s fortunes in the world is an example of how hard it is for certain sections of the British ruling class, and certain sections of society as well, to let go of imperial delusions. It’s seems incredible that in 2019, we still have to acknowledge Britain’s inglorious imperial past and how it has struggled to adapt to an increasingly diminished role in the world but, that’s where we find ourselves at this point – still trying to shake off the baggage of the past. Brexit can be seen as one last, desperate and ultimately doomed bid to restore Britain’s role in the world.
Shocks that act as an accelerant to collapse in certain regions have been intentionally inflicted by the ruling class in a bid to maintain their hegemony. The deliberate and intentional de-industrialisation ushered in by Thatcher in the 1980s as part of her strategy to smash the unions and the working class communities that sustained them is a clear example of this. Thatcher knew this would collapse entire communities but worked on the assumption that if the lid could be kept on the resulting social tensions and upheaval, it was a price worth paying in aiding the project of ushering in a neo-liberal agenda.
The ultras pushing for a no deal Brexit who see it as an opportunity to use the ensuing chaos to impose their vision of shock doctrine capitalism (low tax, low regulation, slashing workers rights, minimal welfare) are another example of intentionally inflicted, partial collapse to serve the interests of the super rich.
The symptoms of collapse
We’ve seen collapse, physical and human, on some of the peripheral estates in Basildon where policies of deliberate managed decline and social dumping have created marginalised, stressed communities. You can see it down many high streets such as Southend with a neglected, crumbling central railway station, empty shops and an ever growing number of rough sleepers. It can be seen and felt in many ways from pot holed roads that never seem to get mended, litter that never seems to be cleared up through to a sense that the infrastructure that supposedly supports our society is dysfunctional and does not work in a way that helps its users.
Collapse can also be witnessed in the political classes and the media. Watching the Brexit fiasco unfold has convinced a growing number of people, regardless of whether they voted Leave or Remain, that those who presume to rule over us either haven’t got a clue what they’re doing or have allowed themselves to be in thrall to those politicians who know exactly what they’re doing. Politicians who are intent on engineering a partial collapse to pave the way for a reset that will favour the rich while screwing the rest of us. Politicians who know that the present system has reached the limits of it’s expansion but who are intent on serving the needs of the ultra rich while screwing the rest of us.
Then there’s the media, dumbed down beyond belief. A media that cannot, will not or has been persuaded to ignore the bigger picture and focuses on distractions and trivia. A media that reflects an education system that seems to want to discard critical, holistic thinking for ever increasing specialisation. A 24/7 news cycle, the internet and social media have all combined to flood us with noise while obliterating any meaningful traces of intelligible signal. This creates a news, information/disinformation cycle where it’s becoming ever harder to see the bigger picture and think strategically.
What passes for education has for too long been down to what can be measured, quantified and put in a table or spreadsheet. Teaching to achieve quotas in terms of exam results and a high place in the school league tables means students are being taught to do little more than pass exams. With the stress on meeting measurable targets, there’s less time to devote to helping students to develop as fully rounded and grounded people. There’s also less emphasis on critical, holistic thinking that enables students to take an overview of a situation. When it comes to university education, while society will need experts, too much emphasis on increasingly narrow specialisation means that expertise is not as useful as it could be because the person holding it cannot always see or understand the broader context they’re operating in: Two problems with academic specialisation – Carl Gombrich.
When we have a situation where the former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, belatedly realised the strategic importance of the Calais to Dover crossing, that surely was enough evidence that as a society, we have a problem with people increasingly unable to take a considered overview of a complex situation!
The ultimate symptom of collapse – global warming and species loss
Lastly but by no means least, as a society, we’re hitting the constraints set by a finite planet. Climate change is already upon us: We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN – Jonathan Watts – The Guardian 8.10.18. If that isn’t enough, the alarming increase in the rate of species extinction really needs to be acting as a wake up call: Current Extinction Rate 10 Times Worse Than Previously Thought – IFL Science! The stark facts of the situation have registered in some quarters as can be seen by the wave of Extinction Rebellion events we’ve witnessed over the last few months.
Then again, in an atomised society that’s characterised by a short term outlook, for most people, it’s business as usual. It will remain as business as usual until the impacts of climate change in the form of increasingly extreme weather events wrecking peoples lives here in the UK plus refugee movements in the millions mean they cannot be ignored – by that time, it will be too late to do anything about it. Could it be argued that many comfortably off people are aware of it but feel powerless to do anything about it so respond by having a final splurge/binge before the consequences hit home?
We are where we are
On a range of fronts and for a range of reasons, it can be argued that society is in a state of collapse. That collapse has been going on slowly for a number of decades but factors are combining to accelerate that collapse. The point is that apart from some of the exceptions listed earlier, it’s not an intentional collapse because very few people want to see the loss of the comforts that civilisation brings, albeit those comforts are being enjoyed by fewer and fewer people. It’s beginning the feel as though there is a bit of an ‘end of days’ sentiment in the air… Essentially, society is blundering into collapse because it lacks the will and intellectual capacity to consciously re-set itself onto a more just, sane and sustainable path. It’s in collapse because the globalised neo-liberalism that governs and informs our lives has hit the buffers and the elite that benefited from that are either struggling or resorting to increasingly desperate measures to keep the show on the road.
Will this lead to revolution?
What do we mean by revolution?
Revolution isn’t always what you think it is as this extract from We are in Revolution; The wheels they are a turning like Arkwrights Mill in 1819 – Lisa Mckenzie shows: “The term revolution is too often misinterpreted especially by those connected to political ideologies, Revolution simply means a turning, a whirling, an about change from one position to the opposite position.” Revolution is merely a process of radical change and not always a consciously initiated one. The rapid, disorientating and increasingly frightening rate of change we’re seeing is not the result of a conscious process – it’s the consequence of an exhausted society stumbling towards catastrophe.
Revolution can become a conscious process but what the outcome is depends on the balance of forces. From the rising strength of Putin’s Russia, the rise of reactionary populism in Eastern Europe, the hi-jacking of Leave by reactionary elements through to the election of Trump in the US and the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, it’s pretty clear that so far, it’s the right that have the upper hand. A lot of the above is a reaction to the consequences of neo-liberal globalisation but instead of the left having a role in shaping the narrative of that opposition, for a variety of reasons, they’ve conceded that ground to the right.
A lot of what we see is a reaction to rapid change that many people feel they can’t control. Change that leaves a growing number of people impoverished and their neighbourhoods changing beyond recognition. At the moment, it’s the ethno-nationalists who are successful in tapping into this wellspring of despair, twisting it to suit their own reactionary ends. This is because much of the left doesn’t understand that people want a degree of stability and a sense of belonging to a community. In fact, the desire to belong and have a sense of who you are in a community has become something to be derided by too many people on the left.
Don’t look to the past
There are the Gilets Jaunes in France who are a new phenomena. New because it’s an apolitical howl of rage from rural and suburban France against the neo-liberal elites in the cities who are screwing them over. Sure, there are some reactionary elements around the Gilets Jaunes but there are also interesting, progressive anti-capitalist sentiments being expressed, albeit not in a form of language that the left would recognise. That there’s a grassroots, insurrectionary movement using a different form of language to express its rage and aspirations has to be seen as a positive development: The Movement as Battleground Fighting for the Soul of the Yellow Vest Movement – Freedom News.
Insurrection comes in forms that do not fit the narrative the left has set to define what a revolution is. An insurrection has to be taken for what it is and understood on its own terms – only then can it be engaged with and built into something that will have a progressive outcome. A lot of people are despairing and angry at the moment and their numbers are growing. In the political vacuum created by the left pretty much abandoning the working class, it’s hard to predict how that anger will manifest itself. As the world changes rapidly through subjection to globalised neo-liberalism, the traditional stances of the left and the right have less meaning. Some people have grasped that, particularly those who are doing what they can to understand the social dynamics behind the Gilets Jaunes insurrection in France. Sadly, those who cling to traditional political definitions will eventually realise that they have been left behind.
There are certainly some general lessons to be learned from the revolutions of the past. However, each of these revolutions took place in their own unique circumstances. So, it could be argued that the most important lesson is to look at the context an ongoing insurrection is taking place in and work out an analysis, and more importantly, strategy and tactics from that point rather than trying to re-hash the past.
Will a progressive revolution happen? As society heads to either collapse or barbarism if the ultra rich can manipulate the forces of the state to defend their privilege and position, progressive revolution becomes more of a necessity if we are to survive, let alone thrive. As has been argued earlier on in this piece, we’re already in a state of revolution if that is understood in terms of radical change. The problem is that as things stand, the radical change we’re enduring benefits the ultra rich and their servants, the populist, reactionary right.
As stated earlier, this piece is a sketch and circumstances permitting, there are themes in it that I’d like to return to and examine in greater depth at some point in the future. As ever, constructive criticism and comradely debate are welcome. With events moving so rapidly, there’s a rising sense of urgency to all of this. Our experiences on the estates and out on the streets all feed into the analysis in this and future pieces. There can be no separation between theory and practice. To summarise briefly, there’s everything to play for and there’s everything to lose.