Globalist Analysis

American Power and the Fall of Modernity (Part III)

What will the future of governance look like?

Read Part II here.

Takeaways


  • Globalization is now all about a minority living defensively within a seething non-state majority.
  • The state is supplanted in much of Africa by an intricate weave of non-state actors. And many of them are intimately connected to non-state actors in the developed world.
  • The EU and Russia feel their own national identities besieged. Their national energies are increasingly tasked to immigration management and strategies of minority assimilation.
  • This is not a world of tariff-based deglobalization like the 1930s. It is a world of true global decompression.

Moving away from modernity's religious nationalism need not necessarily presage a world of disorder.

Rather, it suggests a world where both local and universalistic identities interact equally with the remnants of the nation-state.

We see this in the world of Islam and elsewhere with the surge of Pentecostal evangelism in Africa.

The state is supplanted in much of Africa by an intricate weave of non-state actors. Many of them are intimately connected to non-state actors in the developed world — such as missionary groups tied to the Arab region, Iran and Texas — and to Western NGOs for assistance in aid and administration.

But even in societies with working state administrations, the non-state continues to flourish. Look at Brazil and Mexico. While the state remains effective, its base is shrinking to those more elite constituencies for whom it provides real security and services.

Meanwhile in the developed world, modernity's first nation-states have neither the money nor the commitment to reclaim their lost stature and authority in the human ecology of today's non-state.

Many, like the EU and Russia, feel their own national identities besieged. They fear being overwhelmed by the "other" in their own countries. Their national energies are increasingly tasked to immigration management and strategies of minority assimilation — or maybe just mitigation.

This is not a world of tariff-based deglobalization like the 1930s. It is a world of true global decompression.

Global networks will continue, but only for those who manage to "make it" by the first decades of this early-21st century. Unable to aid the 60% left behind, humanity's prosperous minority — whether they admit it or not — is increasingly looking to its own defense and preserving the integrity of a smaller system that is still viable. Globalization is now all about a minority living defensively within a seething non-state majority.

Lastly, America must learn to deal with the downsides of our new order. The world we know has not come apart — not yet — but we have ceased to proceed magisterially toward the vision of a truly globalized and networked humanity.

The developed world is becoming reconciled to a new reality of two humanities and the growing and unbridgeable divide between them.

Reality is already here. Yet, we refuse to see it as the future, just as we refuse to see it as the present.

Some may soothe themselves with the thought that a well-ordered modernity came quite close to converting all of humanity. Others will lament the religious wars of Western nationalism. Still others will ask, "Why didn't we see this sooner? We had our chance after the Soviet Union’s fall, but instead we triumphalists partied."

But why is it already too late? The fact remains that developing the rest of humanity requires untold sources of energy and a benign environment. It is probably our "bridge too far."

Fossil fuels supplies are declining, and the global environment is fast deteriorating. Techno-miracles could help, but the world recession is starving investment in alternative and green energy, no matter how bold the rhetoric.

When we finally come out of the current economic slump, we will be hit by a liquid energy crunch. And we will be desperately short of alternative energy to fill in the gaps.

Developed nations will again be wrapped up in keeping their own economies going in a post-peak oil era (as in the $140/barrel spike but much worse). When we emerge from that crisis, we will then have to confront the first big impacts of climate change: tormenting weather, crop crashes, a world water shortage and dying oceans. Then there is the inevitable pandemic threat.

These will be existential shocks. A robust world network might tolerate these reasonably well, but a world network made weaker by the riotous spread of non-state actors may struggle.

The downside we face is not that globalization will come crashing down. Rather, it is that our world may begin to look increasingly like the world of Late Antiquity. That world did not collapse — but it surely did decompress over several centuries.

In the Early Middle Ages, there was still Constantinople, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad — civilization's fortresses. In our future there will still be New York, Paris, Shanghai, Mumbai, and other precious cities.

Everywhere else, however, it will simply be worse. The balance of humanity faces the equivalent of the Middle Rhine Valley in 700 A.D. When author Matthew Innes describes the 7th century, he is describing our present day:

"The state could not define the terms of local power… local elites… had to build up their power through the manipulation of personal relationships and social loyalties; the public domain therefore came to be defined by patterns of elite sociability, rather than the legitimacy of the state."

Think of what he is really saying. Then read this passage from U.S. author Adam Hochschild describing Congo today:

"This is the largest nation on earth — more than 65 million people in an area roughly as big as the United States east of the Mississippi — that has hardly any functioning national government … [a] corrupt and disorganized regime provides few services, especially in the more distant parts of the country, such as Goma, which is more than one thousand miles east of the capital."

Hochschild talks about how competing armies (including the Democratic Republic of Congo's "national" army) rape women almost as an act of state, and how they routinely conscript locals as forced labor.

This was in fact the face of war in 7th century Europe, and also the nature of governing authorities. Yet this is the world that is flourishing all about us and spreading riotously — the coming world of "elite sociability" and its militias.

The remnant elements of Western modernity — like the division-level (17,000) United Nations peacekeepers in Congo — flail about like just another local militia, only earnest and polite. Like all the other armies of the old West flailing about in the world of the left behind, it is no more than our symbolic representation.

We must face up to a societal transformation that will last for centuries. Perhaps we can take comfort knowing that there will be as much continuity as discontinuity. But we are still afraid — and with good reason.

Our heads and hearts are slowly coming to realize just what this long transformation really means. Living in Late Modernity means contemplating, at our leisure, inescapable human ends as much as new human beginnings.

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About Michael Vlahos

Michael Vlahos is a senior researcher at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

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