Sunday, January 22, 2012

From Bruce Sterling's state of the world address:

: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2012
permalink #54 of 234: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 6 Jan 12 12:48
      *Alex Steffen weighing in here (#28):
"Paradoxically, perhaps, this feels to me like an optimistic development.
Things need to change profoundly, at systemic levels, and systemic breakdowns
are for the first time in decades putting the design of those systems (from
banking to urbanization to energy to democratic governance) on the table in a
very unavoidable way. Not a guarantee of a positive outcome, by any means, but
at least a situation to which we can imagine a positive outcome of the right scope,
scale and speed." *Well, there's something to this assertion, because it's what
Camillo Cavour wanted when he reunified Italy -- a "vast convulsion" that would
break up the stultified peace of Europe. Cavour got excellent results by cajoling
the French into attacking the Austrians on Italian soil. It was mayhem, but he
wangled his way through it by some deft leverage. But this wasn't just a
"systemic breakdown," because Cavour's government had an alternative system
entirely ready to roll. They had money, guns, the best-trained and best-equipped
Italian army, a constitution and an industrial revolution, plus more railroads
than everybody else in Italy. So it wasn't THEIR OWN system that was breaking
down but EVERYBODY ELSE's system that was breaking down, and that was why they
got away with it. Cavour successfully presented his government as the only
ALTERNATIVE to red revolutionary anarchy -- even though he'd provoked that chaos
himself. So it's possible to be paradoxically optimistic about systemic
breakdowns, because there are existence proofs of everything working out for
the best, or at least for the rather better. However, I've got objections.
First and foremost, as a futurist I'm always suspicious of "optimism" and
"pessimism." I think they're both objectionable attitudes that cloud one's
understandings of events. They also cloud the understanding that getting
what you want, or being deprived of what you want, are temporary conditions
and preludes to further complications somewhere down the line. No victory
lasts forever. And things that are great in one period, like internal
combustion, can be fatal when they're considered always "good." Also, in our
own period we've seen and experienced quite a lot of "systemic breakdowns.
" Sometimes they're "velvet revolutions" and they work out okay -- states can
rather implausibly "fail upward," especially if they get a lot of sympathetic
foreign help. However, we also see quite a lot of failed states, global
guerrilla areas, hollow states, "managed democracies," mogul captures of the
economy, organized crime zones, failed American military occupations, and other
unfortunate contemporary conditions. It's real, real easy to fail downward.
That's a major historical trend, obviously, but if you follow that kind of
transition-to-nowhere because you think, "well, this is a wave of change,
so I should surf it," that means abandoning civil rights and the rule of law.
And for what? You get a new order maybe, but quite likely you get a precarious
life as former citizens reduced to wretchedness. The logical extension of
domination by the global ultra-wealthy, and/or the local warlords, is for everyday
people to become their gangster molls and hired henchmen. This prospect may
seem like a stretch for Americans who've never witnessed or experienced that life,
but globally, quite a lot of people do live like this. Americans solve these
problems with cash and lawsuits. Other people can't buy their way out of that
life, and they can't sue their way out of that life. So, basically, they live
like the Corleone family in the Godfather movies; that's what a failed-state life
looks like when Americans do it. Of course the body count's particularly
high in that movie, because it's a drama. But life looks like that when the state
can't provide any equity or justice. That role gets filled by some canny
tough-guy with his sons and his consigliere. The don may have a lot of
street-smarts, but his economy isn't gonna work very well, because there's way too
much personal begging, threatening and knee-bending involved. It's a sclerotic
and parasitic means of production and distribution. I don't think the Tea Party
or the OWS are any major shivery threats to civilization; they're not like the
Fascist Black Shirts or the Chinese Red Guard. However, they both seem to me
like parodic and even goofier versions of their parent organizations, the
and the Democrats. They're not confronting or resolving the genuine problems
that the Republicans and Democrats so obviously have in running a competent
government. On the contrary, the Tea Party is a kind of slow-motion insurrection
by people who politically identify with churches and televangelists. While the
OWS is a very loose cluster of people who politically identify with flash mobs
and social networks; there's not an OWS guru around who could get elected
dog-catcher. So, you know, "paradoxical optimism." "The worse, the better,"
as Lenin used to cheerily remark. Yep, the bright side of forest fires is that
they free up a lot of minerals. What other attitude makes sense nowadays
I'm inclined to think that paradoxical optimism is a major temperament of
our times. But I'd cut a little closer to the bone and just call it
"dark euphoria." Because we're not working out solutions rationally;
we're just spitting for luck, and we're rolling the bones.

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