WESTERN CIVILIZATION DECLINE - OR FALL ?
This was a great refreshing read, written by Niall Ferguson, making the point that civilizations tend to decline very fast at their end, like the value of a put/call option as it nears expiry. It is easy to agree with Niall Ferguson but its also easy to disagree, especially as we get down inside his article in MO:
MULTIPLE CAUSES - ONE RESULT
Niall Ferguson says this about environmental and resource collapse: 'The notion that civilizations do not decline but collapse inspired the anthropologist Jared Diamond's 2005 book, Collapse. But Diamond focused, fashionably, on man-made environmental disasters as the causes of collapse. As a historian, I take a broader view. My point is that when you look back on the history of past civilizations, a striking feature is the speed with which most of them collapsed, regardless of the cause'.
That is true, but treating man-made environmental disasters as only a fashionable notion, not a prime driver of civilization collapse is wrong: these disasters have a long lineage and track record in causing collapse. Every time, the collapse is man-made. As the number of men and women increase - at about 75 million a year at present - the potential number and range of man-made collapses can only increase, and does increase. The plaintive and fragile populationist argument that for every 100 million extra human beings we get 1 new Einstein ignores the fact we need enough more food, energy, bioresources and other materials for all of them, including the extra Einstein. Some 900 million persons on the planet, using UN FAO data, do not eat enough today and every day, and this is good proof we are failing. But who cares ? We have iPhones, rejoice !
Niall Ferguson hedges his bets as he pursues his article: he can be accused of taking on board too many 1980s-fashionable neoliberal fear and angst themes, as triggers of Western civilization's collapse, like "loss of competitivity". He even cites the unlamented, to me, Steve Jobs expounding the neoliberal gospel of delocalisation and outplacement: every single Apple job exported from the US was more unemployment and bigger trade deficits for Americans, but an extra $10k bucks in Steve's pocket and those of a few croney capitalist pals, not that it prolonged his life all that much.
Doctrinal despair and degeneracy is a hallmark of floundering civilizations. We can ask why the neoliberal "competitive" model of delocaliation and de-industrialisation was not applied by, and therefore did not work against the carmaker Volkswagen, while it significantly weakened Renault and plenty of other European auto companies ?
The figures are easy to understand. Back in 2005 both Renault and VW produced about 1.7 million cars each, in Europe. In 2011 Renault produced about 450 000 cars in Europe, but VW produced 2.2 million in Europe. Volkswagen made so much extra profit in 2011 that this year it will pay a special bonus of 7,800 euros to every single employee. Renault, which is now heavily debt dependent and losing worldwide market share is paying nothing extra to its workers, but through croney capitalist friendly relations between Carlos Ghosn and French president Sarkozy, Ghosn has levered a low cost 600 million euro loan, to build a car plant in Morocco. In Morocco its local workers will be paid 250 euro-per-month (about $325 for 168 hours of work per month, that's $2 per hour !). They will be producing ultra low cost cars, because Ghosn's strategy of trying to rival VW, Porsche, Audi and Mercedes in the upmarket segment is a total failure, like his attempt to produce and sell all-electric gimmick cars. Gimmick capitalism runs on trash recyled ideas - and fails.
Ghosn is a four-wheeled Steve Jobs, parasitically exploiting low wages "over the horizon", to grab more profits in the very short term present, while gabbing about the unique virtues of Renault's design philosophy, the same way Jobs blathered about his design philosphy - whatever it was. The real action of these latter day captains of pedalo boats and loss of industrial muscle is delocalisation and outplacement and the main point is simple. The neoliberal-type competitive model is a failed model, it doesnt work. It applied Thatcher-style 19th century petit bourgeois notions - to the 21st century's problems, like overpopulation and resource depletion, and failed. Times have changed.
WESTERN SUICIDE APPLICATIONS
Niall Ferguson lists his "killer apps" that he says gave Westerners the advance on Resterners for what seemed so long, but was only an eyeblink of historical time. Competition he lists first. We already saw what pseudo competition inside the late stage pseudo capitalist state - the West of today - is doing for most western carmakers. These are now basically failed financial four-wheel-drive hedge funds barreling down the Highway to Hell, intent on de-industrialising at home, and exploiting low wages and loose environment and safety regulations anwhere they can "over the horizon". They fail. They shut down. They dump their employees in the gutter and run to the State for bailouts. The state prints cash and runs up more debts, and fails also.
The work ethic - which he equates with 50 hour or 60 hours work weeks - is next on the list of Niall Ferguson's wannabe's. But the first the work has to exist. Working 55 hours a week instead of 39 hours, sweeping the street or washing windows - a famous one-liner of Thatcher when blethering about how to tackle unemployment - is curiously evocative proof of the total intellectual and moral decline of western leaderships. With 75 million-a-year extra to feed and house in the world, the work should be there, but intellectually and morally degenerate leaders spouting Dodgy Doctrines have set the stage for failure. Niall Ferguson referred right at the beginning of his article to Edward Gibbons. For the Roman Empire, the intellectual and moral decline of leaders was far higher up the tree of causes for Rome's collapse, than "loss of competitiveness". With degenerate leaders, decline is 100% certain.
Defining competitiveness is not easy: in late stage western society it is mainly uncivilized animal aggressivity, as operated by footballers and football supporters, but society is based on cooperation, before and more than competition. Place a gung-ho animal aggressive football supporter under a bus, and watch him grovel for cooperation based ambulance and health services, if he stays alive ! Unleashing aggressivity was easy for westerners in the past - they could trundle off to a heroic war someplace, and maim or kill non-western brownskin locals, as virile Marines urinsting on Korans still do in Afghanistan today - but not for very much longer. The cult of conquest, that is early and primitive competition, only works when you have inferiors to fight, and inferior economic rivals to beat. Later on, when the playing field gets flat from the number of feet treading it down, the game plan changes. Competition becomes a frightening reality, and losers dont like it.
As the neoliberal delocalisers and the pinwheel-and-casino capitalism losers are finding out almost every day. The most important cause of decline is therefore: intellectual and moral decline of western leaderships, right across the spectrum, from the political to corporate, from sports to academia, to books and films, the lot.
SCIENCE CHANGED COURSE
His next "killer app", the Scientific Revolution has problems: Ferguson can claim it was All Western for a long time, but that isn't so. The sweet spot for western scientific dominance came in a 300-year window after the Islamic science phase, and before the Asian and global science phase, which is now rapidly pushing western scientific dominance down into the history books. Taking even what to many westerners is an "all western science bundle", nuclear power, atomic weapons, quantum theory and thermodynamics, this was always shot through with non-western basic science concepts. For example the ultra mediatized w-boson or Higgs Boson, named for Chandresekar Bose. Was he a westerner ? And when was Bose active: 1995 or 1925 ? To be sure, Niall Ferguson constrains his western science apps to "17th century science". He could have also added 18th and early 19th century science, but this science-technology bundle and its industrial applications escaped from the West an awful long time ago. Nearly 2 centuries ago to be exact, and the timewarp is increasing with every year that passes.
Just as important, 17th century science did not make the West rich: it was 18th and 19th century industry, using the science-technology bundle, feeding off the west's rampant population growth and the low wages, poverty, disease, ignorance and easy exploitation that go with overpopulation. Today's sci-tech bundle is completely global, meaning that if the west wants to play globalized, it will face what it likes to think is "western science" in other peoples' hands and minds. Many hands and many minds, because rampant overpopulation was never a unique western thing - the west never had a unique ability to divide and multiply: overpopulation is a worldwide environmental curse !
Also important but not remarked by Ferguson, since about 1950 or 1960 and close-linked with, even a driver of the accelerating decline of the West, world science is moving away from industry, towards pure knowledge - leaving industry trapped inside a 19th and 20th century time capsule. Recent nuclear science is a perfect example: it is almost totally useless for energy and industry applications. This is well known, but in a confused way to many westerners. They are shown Old Industry images like ironwork factories and oil refineries with smokestacks belching CO2, before they climb into their steel-and-plastic car, ride to the supermarket and wheel a steel caddy around, buying industrial goods produced in China and India with 70% of the energy used to produce their goodies coming from coal - for example their cute iPhones - but what we do with this understanding is a very different subject. Knowing that industry is old, generates fear of the unknown. What will come next ? How can we overconsume in the future, like we did in the past ?
This fear of the future is itself a leading and potent cause of the west's accelerating decline.
This cause is related to Ferguson's "lost science leadership" theme, but is more basic. Fear of the future is the refusal of science - which is now a global discipline. Fear of the future is the refusal or rejection of The World, and world fear or anxiety, in German, is called angst. When asked why dumbing down and downsizing are so completely western, today, the real answer is: angst. The popular masses, like their political leaders and cash-grubbing corporate heroes are transfixed with fear, but refuse to show this shameful weakness in public. They playact confusion, they pursue trivial pursuits, they dumb down and avoid all discussion because - dangerously - this could lead to action. Angst tells them the future is always, but always worse than the past, so they refuse it. Quite soon, their civilization will collapse, guaranteeing the fearful future they could have changed but tried to avoid, ostrich style. It was pure and dumb mass psychology, Dr Watson.
Refusal of science, that is pure knowledge, and the pursuit of Trash Culture is most certainly the key weakness of the west, today. This refusal automatically exposes the west to what Niall Ferguson dismisses too fast, and perhaps Jared Diamond stresses too hard: man made environmental disaster. Science can and does tell us this is programmed, this is certain, there is no way out, the facts and figures exist, they are available to anybody who wants to know - but not wanting to know is not only basic to Trash Culture, it is a trash culture sign of success, virility, ersatz courage - of course only in a degenerate society feeding off trash.
Whether its the supply of food, energy or water, minerals and bioresources, or preserving genetic depth and biodiversity, the western legacy of Blind Growth and 19th century capitalist competition is poison for the planet. Simply for this reason, western civilization will fall.
As Niall Ferguson would likely agree, cotton clothes for all - and the late model consumer society where 600 out of every thousand persons each own a motor car burning 9 barrels of oil a year, and 900 have a TV and a cellphone, where most believe they have a god-given right or even duty to fly in wide-body jets, consume meat at every meal and destroy ancient forests for the paper to wipe their behinds - are not one and the same thing. Not at all. Science teaches that a change of quantity can cause a change of kind: like water turning to ice in the space of a single degree's change.
World population raced from 3.5 to its 7 billion of today through 1970-2011, but it will never attain 14 billion. Not in 50 years or, probably, not even 500 years. Demographers looking out to the end of the 21st century can only disagree - they can't predict and forecast, beyond about 10 or 11 billion, by about 2060. They will not take bets. The population clock stopped as in an Einstein or Gamow relativity maze - when just an eyeblink back in time it was racing frenetically ahead. The Blind Growth machine lost its wind-up mechanism. Countries as different in ideology, but the same in wealth per capita as Japan, Russia, Germany, Italy and Spain are now in outright population decline, despite their leaders attempts to bribe and cajole the masses into blindly procreating. Even China will soon be in negative population growth: times change.
Times change. This is the other main cause of western civilization's accelerating collapse: the west forgot about time. It thought it had killed History, or that time was unlimited, or perhaps that the west had outsmarted time, that it had tricked the video game Time Lords, but it was Oh! So wrong!
By Andrew McKillop
Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights
Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.
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