Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Importance of This Election

As far as I can remember, there has never been a presidential contest in my lifetime when it was obvious going in that the winner would only serve one term. Until this one. It simply isn’t in the cards for either of these guys to succeed, given the scope and trauma of the transition through which we’re now going.

Grossly oversimplified, whatever factual basis there ever was for American hegemony and exceptionalism, it has now died. This is taking numerous forms. I’ll touch on two.

First, the political sphere – with its doppelganger, the arena of military strategy and action (“politics by other means,” and all that). The so-called Bush Doctrine (a phrase that should be the first entry in the next O.E.D. under “oxymoron”) turns out to have been neither a bold nor horrific plan to secure the Pax Americana, but rather the pathetic last gasp of all hegemonic fantasies – for this or any other nation state. It’s the swan song for the dream of military dominance in a complexly, globally distributed and integrating world.

We (the humans, that is… all of us) will be, over the next couple of centuries, struggling our way towards new, post-national forms and institutions of legitimacy, ownership, decision-making, security, self-actualization, power, environmental stewardship and so on. These forms and institutions will not be grounded in the withering nation-state – nor will they inhere in some Panglossean or dystopian parody of the nation-state (a la 1984 or Brave New World). Their ground, rather, will be the emerging, global, Internet-based and ecologically sustainable commons.

After all, nation states haven’t always existed, and aren’t preordained to exist forever. There are plenty of other imaginable and pragmatic ways for human society to be organized and operated, and those ways will emerge over time, as have the previous stages in our evolution as a species. That’s just science, and history. (Unless, of course, we’re just too unhappy to live, and decide not to… which is also a reasonable option. Nature abhors vacuums, but it doesn’t abhor extinctions.)

In other words, even if our government and the DOD were not bankrupt, even if the Iraq war had gone well, even if we’d hung Osama bin Laden high, even if Kim Jong Il had croaked (along with Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinhejad and Vladimir Putin) – and even if (add every single currently known military challenge the world faces to the list)… there is no way any more for this or any other country to dominate the planet by force of arms or political might. The system has become too complex. It has undergone a phase shift. It’s now a global network, and it therefore operates by the laws of networks.

In any network, information flows throughout the system, and the system treats any attempt to block those flows as an error, and routes around them. (A consciousness of the flows within holistic networks is precisely an ecological consciousness – and it helps explain why nation-states have been so ineffective at dealing with climate change and other truly planetary challenges, such as drinking water or pandemics.)

So, for instance, if something prevents my phone call from Brooklyn to Chicago from traveling the shortest path – say, an outage in Ohio – the grid simply sends it up to Canada or down to Brazil or over the Atlantic, through Europe and Russia and across the Pacific – or by some other route. Physical distance is irrelevant. The costs are effectively the same, and they are de minimus.

If there were a nuclear holocaust or a global pandemic, and all human society were wiped out… the network would still exist. It is now a part of the planet. (If we want to get a bit more big-picture about this, we could see it as an emergent form of the electro-chemical information-processing capacity of nature itself. Or not, if that’s not your bag.)

That is the basic reality in and on which we live (or don’t live) – now, and going forward. Yes, there can be traffic jams. Yes, particular places can be horror holes for periods of time. Yes, competition continues on the commons, along with sadism, misogyny, greed, the struggles of natural selection and all sorts of mishagas. But there’s no way to put the genie of a networked planet back into the bottle. And therefore there’s no way for any military power to impose its will on the world. Of course, if there were a monopoly on nuclear bombs, that might do the trick… but that horse got out of the barn decades ago. No, planetary destruction is possible, but not planetary control.

Second, the sphere of economics. As Tom Friedman points out in today’s Times, the present financial crisis is going to spark “globalization and financial integration on steroids.” We’re going to depend on the kindness and the wallets of strangers more and more, not less and less. Indeed, if the past three weeks have taught us anything, it’s that the global economy, too, has become a complex, emergent, planet-scale system (one that, yes, can be temporarily gamed).

True, the radicals of the Right have fucked up our adaptation to the reality of globalization to a faretheewell. The articles in the Times that Anglachel cites, on some of the proximate causes of the meltdown, are helpful in making that clear. And I expect we’ll now get a spate of books – analogous to the post-Iraq publishing bonanza – anatomizing this systemic failure, and assigning blame. (I mean, we need some entertainment as we huddle together for warmth, right?) But what passes for “the Left” hasn’t been any better at understanding what’s going on or prescribing what to do about it.

The truth is that the whole right-left frame is now archaic. The emotional meanings of those terms, their attendant memes – for us Democrats, roughly speaking, it’s “right” = “greedy and backward-looking” and “left” = compassionate and progressive” – probably have legs, and need now to migrate to some better ideological hosts. But the Marxist vs. capitalist frame has faded, as Industrial Capitalism has been succeeded by Post-Industrial Capitalism, and hierarchies are in the process of being succeeded by networks (or, at least, heterarchies).

But that’s another discussion. My point here is that in economics, as in the spheres of politics and the military, America’s post-WWII hegemony is over. And the citizens of an empire don’t dig it when that happens. They keep demanding that their leaders pull rabbits out of the hat of history, and they fire those leaders in rapid succession when it turns out that “magic” is just another word for “bullshit.” (Bullshit ain’t worth nothing… but it sure ain’t free.)

This is going to hit the next president – Barack Obama – from day one... and at 3 a.m. And he is not remotely adequate to it. Maybe nobody is… but he’s not near the high end of the “He might just pull us through” scale. Neither, of course, is John McCain or Joe Biden – and don’t hurt yourself laughing about Sarah Palin. And no confederacy of smarties that any of these people could assemble is going to provide actual leadership or a great gut instinct. Even with Hillary, it would have been a long shot.

Which is why this is the least important election in our lifetime.


YAB said...

In one sense, I think Hillary should feel relieved. As you say, the next President is destined to fail and Hillary would have been pilloried for that failure.

I'm less certain that Obama will be a 1-term President. The media have invested an enormous amount of capital in his election. We can expect no oversight of any kind. Every mistake will be explained away. Every small success will be praised to the heavens.

But even if his poll ratings are down at Shrub levels when 2012 rolls along, the Democratic Party will nominate him again because it would be racist to deny him the nomination. So, like the Shrub, w/ media support he will squeak through or the Republicans will be in power once more. So, we're looking not at another lost 4 years, but another lost 8 years.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say that the Republican Party engineered this crisis. Knowing they would likely lose the White House, they wanted to make absolutely, positively certain that no Democrat would be able to implement any Democratic initiative because the economy would be toast and the deficit beyond belief. We can expect to hear from Republicans, once again, that deficits DO matter.

Palomino said...

All those 527s everyone has been waiting for? They're on the way, starting in January, and continuing for four long years, eight if necessary. Barack Obama will end up having more in common with, and more empathy with, Bill and Hillary Clinton than he ever dreamed possible. And even though I am not an Obama fan, I will once again, on principle, have to defend a Democratic president against the Republican slime industry.

Falstaff said...

You and me both, Palomino. The feelings and principles that have been drowned, been rendered irrelevant, by this tsunami are too numerous and painful to mention.