Search This Blog

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Plumbing the Depths Part III: It's the end of history (as we know it)

So it’s time for part three in this series of posts which a) explores and unpacks my nihilistic views of politics and people and b) highlights that these ideas are not just my own but formed and shared by others as well.

In part one I looked at the obvious failure of western civilization in general which boiled down to the fact that our elites were not doing their jobs but rather sitting round and getting obscenely rich.

Part two explored the breakdown in the consensual reality (that of Western Civilizations superiority under the guise of modernism and scientific/military dominance) which those elites had built up over the last 500 years, but especially in the wake of World War Two, and charted the rise of post truth movements and ideas.

And to really get the feel of this post it’s advised to read the two previous posts as I will be building on the foundations laid in those posts for this post without any further reference here.

In part three we pass under the golden arches that heralded the coming of the brave new world we are now entering as Western Civilization grapples with the horrid reality of Late Stage Capitalism, the trumping* of rationality by emotion in politics, public discourse and the media and endless Mobius strip of pop culture references that modern culture, art and entertainment has become by exploring the various discourses which identified and heralded our new and toxic age.

However before we strap on the googles and dive in headfirst into the toxic future some disclosure is required.

First, it’s important to note that unlike the previous posts where we were dealing with past events, ideas or theories which were comfortably backed up and proven by time, history or just general common sense, the realm we will be entering today discussed mostly the future from the vantage point of 1990s America and terms and topics like post-modernism, late stage capitalism and the end of history are just as nebulous to pin down today, or remain up for debate, as they were then so click on the links but keep your own critical facilities in gear.

Second, the state of things today, with the screaming obviousness of environmental decline, political decay and economic collapse, began to emerge from the ideological hangover of the 80's in the 1990's but was then shouted down by the monolithic stranglehold of a pre-internet mainstream media (run by those elites mentioned previously) which then wielded near absolute control of what we saw, read and heard so the themes discussed below are not always new, despite seeming so, but instead are part of a narrative stretching back at least 30 years (and longer for environmentalism) which has only come into their own as the factors described in the previous posts began to be felt.

So, take a deep breath and let’s plunge in shall we.

I was in my last years of high school when the Berlin wall came down and like many other young guys my age I had grown up under the shadow of the nuclear assault (the concept of the world being destroyed by nuclear bombs not the thrash metal band from New York), the apocalyptic imagery of the Mad Max movies and dual narratives of the Cold War (Capitalistic good vrs Communist bad) which had all merged into a rather doom struck narrative for a young man in his late teens.

The 80s had been a time of Reagan excess, bloated military build-ups, pastel colors, big shoulders, the films of John Hughes and Michael J Fox and corporate ascendancy under the then mantra of “trickle-down economics” (now identified as the criminal Ponzi scheme known as Neo-Liberalism) which had officially ended with Black Monday in 1987 but in reality is still with us today (as we shall see below).

And with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 and the subsequent end of Communism, and the breakup of the USSR, the US had finally become the dominant nation, economic system and ideology in the world.

Cue the 1990s which saw me alternating between vagrancy (read hitchhiking, rock climbing and unemployment), the military and university study while wearing ripped denim, listening to Grunge, House music or Drum N Bass and reaching for the lasers many Friday and Saturday nights. It was an exciting time (as it is for anyone starting to explore their life) and in the beginning I spent little time doing anything but getting the most fun out of it.

But outside of my own life big changes were afoot as the world reacted to the end of the bi-polar system under the US and USSR by hoping for peace but settling for coming to grips with a uni-polar world under a smugly triumphant US, which was not as easy as it sounded when the United States, under Bush Senior, celebrated by launching the First Gulf War and then sat back while places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Somalia (along with others) slid into chaos, anarchy and mass bloodshed as ethnicity and tribalism trumped nationalism and political debate.

Academically one of the big ideas of this period was that of Post-Modernism which seemed less an academic discipline and more a strange merging of US pop culture, globalist ideas and art theory all wrapped together as some sort of critique of rising corporate dominance with lashing of Jazz music and episodes of the Simpsons thrown in for contextual analysis.

Covering postmodern ideas and concepts here is not possible but the basic ideas was that the society we (“we” being the West) were living in had exited the modernist phase of history, which started with the Age of Reason in the 17th Century (think the rise of science, rationality, nation states etc) somewhere around the 1970s when corporate powers and globalization began to rise.

Driving this along were the ideas and theories of thinkers like Michael Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Neil Postman, the novels of Don Delio (whose novel White Noise would probably not get published today), William. S. Burroughs and (shudder!) Douglas Coupland and supported by a veritable army of postmodern scholars and academics; all hungrily mining this supposedly fresh new vein of critical thought like the crazed prospectors they were.

Defining this new approach were the collapse of the difference between high and low art and culture, the commercialization and commodification of all art and ideas and the ability of modernist elements like technology, economics and certain aspects of civilization (as we shall see below) to cross cultural boundaries without any major difference. Add in a large dollop of the afore mentioned corporate criticism (often focusing on niche areas like the hostility to the community that corporate architecture usually radiated) and you had an irresistible mix for young minds eager to learn (or be indoctrinated).

As an undergrad Pol Sci student in this heady time I was like the veritable stereotype of the willing revolutionary, ready to pull down the walls of white male authority figures with glee; spout all manner of PC dogma and attend whatever protests were going on no matter the cause but as I was living a double life as student radical on one hand and defender of the powers that be (as a soldier) on the other I often found myself torn between to competing and non-reconcilable poles.

To be honest the economic reforms of the 1980s under Labour (and continued into the 90s by National) and the First Gulf War had seriously damaged my faith in rational hegemony of the US and the NZ nation states to a large degree but it was not until I started reading what many of its postmodern detractors were saying that I really started to openly question the system that would willingly make slaves of us all just so a rare few could have more money than they would ever need or use.

But academia is never without countervailing views (and people willing to make a buck of them) and while many of us were getting high on the idea of revolution for revolutions sake books like The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukayama and the Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington were setting out some different takes on what was happening.

In The End of History and the Last Man, Fukayama argued that with the end of communism human civilization had reached its apex, politically, culturally and economically (under liberal democracy and capitalism) and that, in short, the best system had won so we could all just stop trying to make a better society as the best possible one had arrived.

Fukuyama’s argument that history** had ended was absolute and total and in the 90s it was hard to refute seeing that the US had won the cold war and US economic dominance still existed as US corporations and military bases sprawled across the globe.

I am of course, paraphrasing the books argument, for sake of space but that was it in essence. The fact that it had happened under US hegemony was, per se, coincidental but still “yaaay, yaaay, USA!!!”

At the time the book was a slap in the face to a fervid young rebel like myself; here was this ivory tower academic (I was, of course, ignoring the fact that I was also in the ivory tower) daring to announce the ultimate victory of the very things we were trying to pull down and to make matters worse saying that these systems and structures were the very best that human civilisation could produce so we had better just shut up and take it.

So like any zealot struggling with something that was threatening to break open my carefully constructed reality and expose its foundation of dogma I blocked the book and its message out for many years until events forced me to reconsider my well-manicured views.

But I am getting ahead of myself because if Fukuyama was leading the cheering squad for the US victory in the Cold War then Samuel Huntington, in Clash of Civilizations, was sounding a more cautious note.

Huntington was in agreement with Fukuyama that the conflict of ideologies (Capitalism vs Communism) was indeed over and that US affairs, as they stood in the mid-90s, was at an apex (of sorts) but that just because the war of ideology was over did not mean that war itself was over or that the US would remain dominant forever. And if ideology had been behind many of the conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries then culture was going to be behind the coming conflicts in the 21st.

The criticism of the book at the time was immense and while some of it was valid others had the tone of someone upset at the spoiling their PC party (be that of the Fukuyama kind OR that of the “smash the system” kind) and again, like the little zealot that I then was, I stuck my fingers in my intellectual ears and chanted “Hey ho hey ho, western cultures gotta go!” until I felt better.

But valid criticisms of the book included that it was too rigid and simplistic and that it ignored the dynamism of other civilisations to adapt and change and while it minimised the levelling influence of globalisation (then less pronounced in the pre internet age) the essential core of the argument that there were fundamental aspects of all civilisations that, in a globalised world, could/would bring those civilisations into conflict remains highly valid as things like Islamic radicalism, the coming clash between China and the US, Brexit and yes even Trump have shown.

So the thrust of the big arguments in the early 90s often boiled down to choosing to celebrate the victory of capitalism (with democracy begrudgingly attached) over all other systems of thought (religion included) or prepare for the coming race war between the democratic west and the rest of the planet who want all our groovy stuff and will fight tooth and nail to get it.

Adding to this intellectual squeeze was a spicy side dish of postmodern self-loathing, because neither Fukayama nor Huntington was actually refuting capitalism (nor its toxic side effects), as the average postmodern critique of the capitalistic system was more rooted in that of art criticism (ie that of an observer and not a participant) than proposing actual solutions to the problems it attacked.

This left the average person interested in such matters trapped between two sides of the same system (Capitalism) and with a slow stream of commodified culture dripping on to their heads and sloshing around their feet for sad effect.

Of course if one wanted “real” radical discourse one could become a Marxist (and some did) although for all the value they provided to the debate they might as well have been the Marx Brothers or sign up for the ideologically pure, but politically impotent, environmental movement (and you only need to look at the Greens today to see where that ended).

However the friction between the positions of Fukuyama and Huntington was partially bridged in 1999 with Thomas Freidman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree which posited the now infamous Golden Arches theory of Conflict Prevention which stated that countries with MacDonald’s did not go to war*3.

The core of the argument Freidman was making was to highlight the tension between the desire of people all over the world to have the access to the fruits of modernisation (cell phones, the internet etc) but also retain their own culture and identities. The book really does not resolve the tension brought about by Fukuyama and Huntington but in highlighting that globalisation was its own dynamic and not just an adjunct of the ideology or economics allowed people to escape the binary opposition argument they had been trapped in and open the space up for discussion in a way which post modernism had not been able to do.

Of course I am paraphrasing again but the book was an attempt to find a middle position between the last man and the civilisation clash by highlighting how the dynamic of globalisation is a new system that was not just relying on past paradigms alone.

Also emerging in 1999s was Naomi Klein’s seminal work No Logo which came from a different angle than Freidman but was in effect doing the same thing by wrestling the argument away from a triumphant Capitalism and towards the toxic waste which such a system was producing.

Thus the 1990s was not only a time when Neo-Liberal agenda was ascendant but also where the seeds of its demise were sown as while the position of Fukuyama seems almost quaint (if not also nauseating) today it seemed inevitable then and its only with time that the hypothesis of Huntington seems to have come closer to being true while Fukuyama’s seems to be a product of its time.

However Fukuyama may have had the last laugh as despite all the criticism today Liberal democracy with a well-regulated form of market capitalism attendant (and not the other way around as the economists would have you believe) still remains the greatest vehicle people have to live the best life possible and hold at bay the predatory creature known as Neo-Feudalism or deranged ideological throwbacks like China.

By the end of the 90s I had graduated university and was trying to figure out what to do with my life but my views of the world and my will to be a radical had evolved somewhat, no matter how appealing the Fight Club lifestyle seemed, and I was now aware that outside of my safe little group of islands was a great big world which I was about to get on a plane and go see for myself.

So with all that in mind let’s explore the blasted hellscape that awaits us in a world riven by environmental degradation, ruled by despots under Neo-Feudalism and where your passport won’t note a country or nation you belong to but what brands you support in part four (coming sooner not later).


*-pun fully intended? You bet it is! In fact I have used it a few times before so why stop a good thing.
**-this did not mean things would stop happening but these were “events” inside the gander narrative that had built to the conclusion of democracy and capitalism being proved the best the best systems in the world.
*3-Infamous because it was almost immediately proved wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment