Tag Archives: Geopolitical Militarism

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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On Progressive Democrats: Sanders v. Clinton

4 Feb

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In past years, I tried to distance myself from ‘liberals’ by describing myself as ‘progressive.’ It was admittedly a middle ground between being a liberal, which I associated with being a comforter of the established order while opting for humane policies at the margins, and being a ‘radical’ or ‘leftist,’ which struck me as terms of self-exile outside domains of relevant discourse. My basic objection to liberals and their agenda was that they swallowed ‘the system’ whole while excusing themselves by claiming the mantle of realism and moral concern. In my view, American structures of militarism and capitalism needed to be transformed in socialist directions if humanity was to have a positive future, and this is what the liberals I knew didn’t want to hear about, believing that such structural criticisms would hand the government over to Republicans by alienating the mainstream and thus be a prescription for the self-destruction of the Democratic Party, and political darkness.

 

In my lifetime there never was a progressive presidential candidate in my sense, although George McGovern came close, as did Gene McCarthy, and their political failures, were often cited as proof that the practical wisdom of the liberal position should be heeded. Whenever I acknowledged having voted for the third party candidate, Ralph Nader, in the 2000 elections, the best that I could hope for from my liberal friends was scorn, followed by the allegation of irresponsibility, pointing out that the Florida outcome would likely have gone Al Gore’s way if Nader’s name had not been on the ballot, and attracted the vote of some 90,000 wayward citizens. And so the misery of the George W. Bush years would have been avoided, and in its place the lesser misery of Gore would have been experienced.

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With these considerations in mind, I am startled by the amusing controversy between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as to whether Clinton is entitled to claim the mantle of ‘progressive.’ What seems odd and unexpected is that both candidates competing for support among Democrats, avoid any reference to being a ‘liberal’ and both proudly claim to be a ‘progressive.’ Actually, when challenged, Clinton does behave like a liberal, claiming realism is on her side, and dismissing Sanders transformative proposals (on health care, college tuition, wages, tax reform) as not achievable. In contrast, she bases her appeal on a commitment to finish what Obama started and a record of getting things done. In other words, she shares the abstract language of Sanders, but when it comes down to it, her promised contributions will be limited to the margins, identifying her in ways characteristic of her long political career—as a liberal. In fairness I suppose both candidates and their minders have made linguistic calculations. In Sanders’ case it is to run away as far as possible from being called ‘a socialist’ and for Clinton it seems to be wanting to avoid the deadend boredom of being classified as ‘a liberal.’

 

If I had to associate the word liberal with a particular set of views, I would probably select Nicholas Kristof, a regular opinion page columnist for the New York Times, as exemplifying the liberal worldview. And sure enough, in a true liberal mode Kristof jumped to Clinton’s defense with a condescending pat on Barry Sander’s back along the way. Under the headline “2 Questions For Bernie Sanders” [NYT, February 4, 2016] Kristof puts forward the usual liberal ‘higher wisdom’: first, Sanders’ sweeping proposals would never get enacted in the real world of Washington politics, and secondly, nominating a self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ would alienate American voters to such an extent as virtually to assure the election of a dangerous Republican reactionary such as Ted Cruz. There is no doubt that the current makeup of Congress would block the policymaking ambitions of any Democrat who lands in the White House, whether Clinton or Sanders, but if this is the case then the election is almost as irrelevant as many young people have believed in the past, at least until Obama and now Sanders came along. This cynicism is itself dangerously simplistic as a Democrat as president at least can be counted on to do less harm.

 

No sensible person would doubt that these practical considerations are serious concerns, but they must be balanced against the deep structural deformation long associated with neoliberal capitalism and geopolitical militarism. For too long these deeper maladies of American politics have been swept under the rug in deference to the imperatives of practical politics, and Kristof never dares even entertains an assessment of why it might finally make sense to give up on the liberal option.

 

In my view, Bernie Sanders is a true progressive because he has the courage to confront structurally Wall Street America, although he can claim only the weak form of progressivism as he has yet to confront Pentagon America. Sanders contends that his movement is a call for ‘revolution’ but if that is the claim then to be fully credible it must also call into question the American Global Domination Project, involving the network of foreign bases, naval supremacy throughout the world’s oceans, nuclear modernization program, and the ambitious militarizing plans for the management of space. In the meantime, while impatient for the revolution needed in America, I greatly prefer a true progressive to a disguised liberal, and so did 84% of the young voters who backed Sanders over Clinton in Iowa.