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Transcending World Order Regressions? 

30 Oct

 

 

[Prefatory Note: Initially published by Transcend Media Service, Oct. 29, 2018; the piece is dedicated to the memory of my cherished friend Marc Nerfin, whose creativity, social grace, progressive vision, and organizing talents are greatly missed, and most needed]

 

Transcending World Order Regressions? 

Not long ago I reread a wonderful essay written by my friend Marc Nerfin thirty-five years ago, and published with this enigmatic title, “Neither Prince nor Merchant–Citizen: An Introduction to the Third System, 1981.” The essential position taken by Nerfin is that neither the sovereign state nor the economic order is oriented toward a humane and sustainable future, although both nodes of power remain necessary for the organization of life on the planet.

For Nerfin what can alone produce an emancipatory politics is the further mobilization of what he labels as ‘the third system.’ Nerfin offered this definition: “Contrasting with governmental power and economic power —the power of the Prince and the Merchant—there is an immediate and autonomous power, sometimes evident, sometimes latent: people’s power. Some people develop an awareness of this, associate and act with others and thus become citizens. Citizens and their associations, when they do not seek either governmental or economic power, constitute the third system.

It is suggestive that Nerfin defines a citizen by what someone does by way of action, either singly or collectively, rather than as a formal status conferred by the decree of the state. He also observes that to be part of the Third System is to forego any ambition to exercise state power or to participate in the global economic order. In other words, citizenship implies autonomy of action and aspiration, but it is not reduced to the ideology of liberal individualism that tilts international human rights in Western civilizational directions, which would weaken its universalist claims.

This orientation has definite ideational links to the commoner movement that has been conceptualized in the writings and activism of David Bollier [See e.g. Bollier, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the life of the Commons (2014)] who envisions a positive human future on the basis of joint action by individuals, groups, and communities that seek lives and livelihoods independent of state or market, pointing to an upsurge of cooperative undertakings along these lines around the world. Similarly, my assessment of neoliberal globalization that is negative about what I identify as globalization-from-above,and rests hope upon the potential transnational mobilization of movements in the spirit of ’’’another globalizationor globalization-from-below.It is a perspective that also insists that it is the creativity of people acting within the confines of civil society, not the projects of state and market, that possess emancipatory potential given our historical circumstances. [See Predatory Globalization: A Critique(1999)] 

 

Nerfin also apologetically notes that citizenship is at its roots a distinctively Western experience of societal participation in the shaping of collective life, and other civilizations are fully expected to have their own ways of vindicating participation as the basis of an experience of positive belonging to a larger human collective. Aside from these nuances, the central claim is that only the peoples of the world, acting spontaneously, collectively, and purposively, can achieve the sorts of transformations that human survival and ecological sustainability depend upon. It is this clarification by Nerfin that establishes illuminating affinities with the work and ethical engagements of Bollier, Johan Galtung, Robert Cox, Stephen Gill and many other thinkers who have freed themselves from the blinkering perceptions of global issues and world order as set forth by the realistmainstream, that is, those out of touch with reality, accurately and humanely conceived.

In rather profound ways, what Nerfin wrote more than three and half decades ago is more relevant to our current situation than when it was written. At the time, although the world was certainly imperiled by the Cold War, featuring a menacing nuclear standoff, predatory forms of capitalist expansion that were unperturbed by the persistence of mass misery or by the bloody interventionism that accompanied the sunset wars of the colonial era. At that time, compared to the dismal present, there were sources of normative promise and widespread hope, not least of which were the collapse of European colonialism and the liberation of hundreds of millions formerly captive in the global South.

The United States provided a partially benevolent leadership in world affairs, which while uncomfortably militarist, was still alert to the shared need for multilateral diplomacy and global lawmaking, as well as supportive of the United Nations so long as its limits were understood as limited, that is, not designed or empowered to challenge Western geopolitical maneuvers. Similarly, capitalism, still wanting to gain moral advantages in its rivalry with socialism, created social protection systems for much of its population, which while far from adequate, did introduce some degree of empathy into the dog-eat-dog life of a market driven society generating ever wider gaps of wealth and income.

When we consider the present, the situation of prince and merchant seems dismal by comparison. The United States exhibits an authoritarian, demagogic, and plutocratic leadership style that repudiates multilateral diplomacy even on the most vital of global challenges. Without even attempting to offer reassurances, Trump champions a law free sovereignty that is unapologetically dedicated to maximizing its national wealth and influence on a purely self-interested basis. This insular conception is backed up with escalating government investments in military capabilities. The avowed intention is to achieve a new form of global military dominance that will last forever.

Such a dark vision was set forth unabashedly by Donald Trump in his recent speech to the UN General Assembly that  provoked far more derisive laughter than applause, although tears might have been more appropriate. Trumps regressive geopolitics are coupled with the simultaneous launch of protectionist trade wars and private sector deregulation that encourages the continuing plundering of the planet, the further dismantling of domestic social protection structures, while being denialist or dismissive with respect to the grave multiple ongoing challenges of global warming, genocidal strife, massive human displacement and migration, expanding pockets of extreme poverty, and renewed threats of famine.

Yet it is not just a matter of this American populist embrace of what seems like a pre-fascist agenda at home and a disastrous retreat from engagement internationally, but structural trends along nationally distinctive yet globally convergent lines. Almost every large country is beset by right-wing ultra-nationalist leadership that mobilizes its base of support by finding scapegoats within its borders to account for mass frustration and anger, and favors walls to flaunt its exclusionary political will, epitomizing a callous rejection of  migrants fleeing combat, destitution, and despair. Such moral callousness is a sure sign of a fractured humanity and declining civilization. This global pattern signifies structural imbalances that have led to enraging levels of inequality, which results in stagnancy or worse for the multitude, while showering unprecedented wealth on tiny economic, often corrupt and criminalized elites.

Whereas Nerfin could invest his hopes in the creativity and visionary potential of people organized for fundamental change, we now have reasons to fear that the manipulation of democratic passions for the sake of order and vengeance will make a woefully inadequate system of world order even worse. The recent Brazilian elections are indicative of what we need to fear and oppose—an unqualified demagogic candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, known for his expressions of homophobia, hatred toward minorities, and harsh campaign promises to drain violently the swamps of government of its corrupt elements triumphs over traditional social democrats and even market oriented conservatives.

In this respect, we need to question whether and how the energies of the Third System, commoning, and globalization-from-below can be redirected toward emancipatory goals in ways that have mass appeal. If not, we must look elsewhere to meet the vital challenges of this bio-ethical emergency when organized global society seems distracted from such time-urgent policy priorities as climate change, genocide, and nuclearism.

To be fair, the Nerfin and Bollier perspectives do not expect media manipulated mainstream citizenries to provide the emancipatory energies needed. They are more reliant on accelerating detachment of persons and groups from these central organizing systems of state and market, finding free space to envision and enact alternatives in local settings that are indifferent, or even hostile toward conventional coding classifications of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Perhaps, such exploratory communities are civil societys incubators for civilizational transformations that will usher in a planetary civilization guided by human interests and planetary realism when it comes to the global agenda and by local governance with respect to the daily life of communities. Even if this is so, the world order crises that are threatening human and non-human futures with catastrophe pose immediate challenges that cannot depend on the long temporal rhythms of axial transformation, which may last for centuries. Humanity is now facing challenges that need restorative responses within decades if tragedy is to be avoided.

Nerfin recognized that while emancipation was a Third System undertaking, the organization of global complexities still required responsible action by prince and merchant. In this respect, there is no escaping the imperatives of turning the tables on right-wing populism and predatory capitalism if the human species is to find the time, space, and imaginative energies to fulfill the vision and potential of ecological humanism, the only ethos that can build credible hopes for the further unfolding of the twenty-first century, which future historians are likely to perceive as the threshold of a new phase of world history.    

 

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