Tragedy of the Commons

Attending the left forum this year was a fine if exhausting time (The Pace University building’s design strategy of putting windows in the hallways but not the classrooms reminded me once again that I don’t understand modern architecture). The panels were numerous and varied, a high proportion sounded interesting, and the tiny proportion I attended were excellent. Read reports by more famous bloggers Louis Proyect and Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb (who was also a speaker) here, here, and here. Doug Henwood’s talk is here, and a response here. Rather than give a report on every panel, I only want to concentrate on one basic theme, though one that has many twists and turns.

Which is, observations/predictions of the future of American (and more generally ‘Western’) ideology. Depending on who you ask, the end of neoliberalism will inevitably occur when the zombie march of bank bailouts and credit-fueled military adventures encounters its absolute limit with the collapse of the U.S. domestic economy (I am more skeptical). But whether or not neoliberalism as a more or less coherent strategy and set of policies is finished, the ideology of free market evangelism with the U.S. military as security hegemon is certainly ‘bankrupt,’ even in the most conservative press. What will replace it? This is implicitly also a question of what will be the new dynamic sector of the ‘global’ economy.

Let’s go with green technology and green jobs, just because it appears to be the only sane choice. Iain Boal reminded us that not even objective necessity necessarily guarantees anything: Obama’s energy secretary Steven Chu is pitching the environmental crisis as an engineering problem to be solved in large part by heavy investment in synthetic biology and biofuels — which unfortunately seem to be an unconvincing proposition for Wall Street, driving a number of the biofuel distilleries into bankruptcy. Nuclear would seem to be the most economically feasible option at this point at the rate politicians keep cautiously talking it up. But while solar power doesn’t seem to be doing much better than biofuel, neither does nuclear (let’s just not bring up coal). One is inevitably reminded of Carter’s failed attempt at an eco-revolution in the ’70s…and then one must think about something else.

So let’s say the socialists are right, and freedom doesn’t work. Say someone at the top finally figures that out, or is forced to from below, and we get our Green New Deal. Where’s the other shoe? Seymour was part of a panel on market ideology’s better half: human rights (here‘s one of his many posts on the subject). Historian Samuel Moyn argued that key components missing from human rights (and present in Enlightenment formulations of natural/universal rights) are those that involve social and economic rights, and strong support for the political right of self-determination — by the 1970s, any pretense of these older concerns had fallen away, a development coinciding with the rise of ‘free market,’ dollar-regime-driven neoliberalism. He described human rights as a form of Victorian philanthropic ideology, a sort of ‘realism’ which functions to deny the possibility of any solution to mass suffering beyond charity while justifying violent military intervention as needed.  During the Q&A,  someone asked if a much-speculated-upon shift to realpolitik would negate future Clinton-style humanitarian intervention. The answer that this is the script that typically follows the period of adventurist ‘idealism’ — “we tried to give them freedom, but clearly all they’re capable of is stability” — seems convincing enough. Human rights should not be understood as the basis for policy. Though it sometimes returns as blowback (i.e. Guantanamo and the Gaza strip) the framework seems vague enough to remain nonbinding, regardless of how aggressive the state is in using it as a pretext for war.

The construction of this emerging narrative, centering around a global reduction of aspiration, seems basically to involve the throwing up of ghosts of the past in the hopes that something will stick. From where I’m sitting, they focus around three major genres: the 1930s (depression, FDR as iconic patriarch and healer of class conflict), the 1970s (energy crisis, green whatnot) and finally the 1890s. The flipside to Victorian philanthropy is Victorian imperial administration, as (self-consciously) personified by Robert Kagan in this recent piece. Here he is reading the ruling class its horoscope:

“Realist” is now a mark of respect, “neocon” a term of derision. The Vietnam analogy has vanquished that of Munich. Thomas Hobbes, who extolled the moral benefits of fear and saw anarchy as the chief threat to society, has elbowed out Isaiah Berlin as the philosopher of the present cycle. The focus now is less on universal ideals than particular distinctions, from ethnicity to culture to religion. Those who pointed this out a decade ago were sneered at for being “fatalists” or “determinists.” Now they are applauded as “pragmatists.” And this is the key insight of the past two decades—that there are worse things in the world than extreme tyranny, and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves. I say this having supported the war.

So now, chastened, we have all become realists. Or so we believe. But realism is about more than merely opposing a war in Iraq that we know from hindsight turned out badly. Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization. This poses what, for realists, is the central question in foreign affairs: Who can do what to whom?

And then comes the form of this harsh, purifying knowledge, the new science of society:

And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

Bureaucratic and economic networks alike find their real ontological ground in the ground itself. The most natural of social sciences provides a new language of globalization, a new way to bypass the claims of rogue and ‘failed’ states. Kagan renders computer and even trade networks phobic. Always open to contamination by nuclear arms, terrorist hate, and uncontrolled populations against which the epidermal layer of national boundaries becomes less and less effective, the world is in need of a new kind of policing for which he will supply the transcendental logic. He counterposes his geographic/strategic realism to liberal humanism and universalism, slyly relying on its homnymy with economic liberalism, the very thing it was supposed to moderate, to bury economic reason even more deeply within the unconscious.

At the same time as it is political realism, we can also call Kagan’s positon the extreme right wing of the new environmental movement: the uninhibited revival of Malthus and MacKinder, the elimination of history in favor of directly using terrain and resource control as a way of controlling political ‘realities.’ As long as we don’t forget the role a certain kind of liberal environmentalism plays in legitimizing its right wing counterpart, keeping both in play for actual decision makers to employ whenever it suits them. The last generation included figures like Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich and Garrett “Tragedy of the Commons” Hardin. The key feature of this group is not so much the metaphysical Malthusian assumptions about fixed population growth rates and absolute ‘carrying capacity’ (though those are, amazingly, a recurring problem), but the idea that nature contains social laws we are obligated first to discover and then abide by. My suspicion is that Jared Diamond is the new chief spokesperson, but I haven’t read enough to say much more than that.

Again though, what someone like Kagan offers to the world’s bosses is not a set of rules to follow or ideal solutions to implement, but something more like freedom of movement — ideological flexibility.

Regardless of how the economic crisis is solved, or even if it’s not, it seems to me hopelessly naive at this point to think that a good solution will be arrived at through right argument. A proposal along these lines is just a potential tool with a certain set of use-values. The more easily it can travel, the more comprehensive it is, the more easily it lends itself to use by the most powerful as ideology. Doug Henwood and David Harvey’s hand waves toward “creeping socialism” at the conference, where alternatives to capitalist institutions are designed and employed at the local level, more or less gradually displacing existing structures — coupled with occasional campaigns to shift policy in more favorable directions — still seems like the most effective way to build the base that everyone on the left knows we don’t have. Without the capacity to realize them ourselves, all our great ideas are just fodder for the open source think tank.

6 Responses to “Tragedy of the Commons”

  1. Did you see this on Jared Diamond’s credultiy?:

    Very funny, one wants desperately to believe the libelees set him up from the beginning.

    Striking about Kagan is the “alltogethernow” marketing speak, how crude it can be: “last week we all were”… “now we’re all…” The parade of Zeitgeists. Just _insist_ something is in fashion – “everybody’s doing it” – and soon it will be. (At the same time but on another page of the magazine, celebrate the pluralist carnival of debate.) But it’s really extraordinary:

    ““Realist” is now a mark of respect, “neocon” a term of derision. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base…”

    We need the voice over to bring us up to date. Thus:

    “During the Q&A, someone asked if a much-speculated-upon shift to realpolitik would negate future Clinton-style humanitarian intervention.”

    what is the tone and situation of this episode?

    By the 90s audience was fragmented enough that there could be “realism” and “idealism” styles of the same policy playing on different channels. And even combinations. Now its even more fragmented. For the Iraq war justification there was a channel that was even playing “at least it will end the genocidal sanctions”. Vast variety, like the shampoo aisle. Kagan’s “now we’re all…” seems pretty hokey, but then if that fashion could mean really “no more Clintonian humanitarian interventions…” then it’s “working” in a certain way still. But perhaps just as style guidlelines for utterances in certain settings?

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    yeah, kagan’s definitely on top of his game here. the world for him consists of exploding populations, infectious viral idea waves, and geography to constrain all this wild, otherwise unpredictable bouncing around. but he implicitly gives populations and memes causality too (or there’d be no threat from them); it’s just illegitimate, piratical.

    here he is making iran sound like a sexy new brand:

    It is not an accident that Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower. There was a certain geographic logic to it. Iran is the greater Middle East’s universal joint, tightly fused to all of the outer cores. Its border roughly traces and conforms to the natural contours of the landscape—plateaus to the west, mountains and seas to the north and south, and desert expanse in the east toward Afghanistan. For this reason, Iran has a far more venerable record as a nation-state and urbane civilization than most places in the Arab world and all the places in the Fertile Crescent. Unlike the geographically illogical countries of that adjacent region, there is nothing artificial about Iran. Not surprisingly, Iran is now being wooed by both India and China, whose navies will come to dominate the Eurasian sea lanes in the 21st century.

    Of all the shatter zones in the greater Middle East, the Iranian core is unique: The instability Iran will cause will not come from its implosion, but from a strong, internally coherent Iranian nation that explodes outward from a natural geographic platform to shatter the region around it. The security provided to Iran by its own natural boundaries has historically been a potent force for power projection. The present is no different. Through its uncompromising ideology and nimble intelligence services, Iran runs an unconventional, postmodern empire of substate entities in the greater Middle East: Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Sadrist movement in southern Iraq.

    i just watched some of diamond’s national geographic series — the hokey presentation at least makes him sound barely distinguishable from kagan (thanks for the link to proyect btw, i think i stumbled across some of his commentary on diamond a year or so ago and forgot about it). the actual material on the role of geography in history is interesting, but as an explanation it requires this constant policing – you can go either way ideologically with the claim that random geographical differences have historically determined inequality, just so long as you don’t bring up history (those pesky proximate causes).

    there’s something potentially reassuring just knowing someone’s out there interpreting events in this way, regardless of whether one agrees or not. like what would ‘we’ do without the tea parties?

  3. There are no Easter Islanders left to sue Diamond for defaming them, but it’s no surprise to learn the story of ecocide he concocts about them is an alibi for European genocide:

    Click to access EE%2016-34_Peiser.pdf

  4. traxus4420 Says:

    more diamond bashing:

    this an old but thorough one found on proyect’s site:

    and this recently:

    “When foreigners come to our culture, we tell stories as entertainment”

    point for roger.

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