Decline, collapse, and doom: Snapshots from Europe, America, and planet earth

This morning when I went to scan the day’s delivery of essays, news, and information, one of the first things that came to my attention was this:

Nothing I’ve heard from politicians or economists on the world crisis has shivered my spine like an hour spent with the gentle‑mannered historian Antony Beevor, whose mighty new book on the Second World War is making him the pundit of the moment. He does not mean to be alarmist, and that is why the soft warnings in his sunlit garden are chilling. Of course the rise of the Right in Europe is not the same as the rise of the Right in the Thirties, he soothes. But isn’t it terrifying the way the Greeks are portraying the Germans as Nazis in their popular press, with Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform? There are “far too many jibes” about a Fourth Reich. The weedlike eruption of extremist parties makes him “uneasy” – and if Beevor is uneasy, it probably means the rest of us should be scared witless. “The great European dream was to diminish militant nationalism,” he says. “We would all be happy Europeans together. But we are going to see the old monster of militant nationalism being awoken when people realise how little control their politicians have. We are already seeing political disintegration in Europe.”

— Elizabeth Grice, ” Europe is already falling apart,” The Telegraph,  May 28, 2012

That was shortly followed by this:

In Europe, what started out four years ago as a sovereign debt crisis, morphed into a euro currency crisis and led to the fall of several European governments, has now triggered a full-blown crisis of public confidence: in the economy, in the future, in the benefits of European economic integration, in membership in the European Union, in the euro and in the free market system. The public is very worried about joblessness, inflation and public debt, and those fears are fueling much of this uncertainty and negativity.

— “European Unity on the Rocks,” Pew Research Center, May 29, 2012

Both of those in turn came on the heels of this, which I read about 12 hours earlier:

In every economic crisis there comes a moment of clarity. In Europe soon, millions of people will wake up to realize that the euro-as-we-know-it is gone. Economic chaos awaits them…Europe’s crisis to date is a series of supposedly “decisive” turning points that each turned out to be just another step down a steep hill…Some European politicians are now telling us that an orderly exit for Greece is feasible under current conditions, and Greece will be the only nation that leaves. They are wrong. Greece’s exit is simply another step in a chain of events that leads towards a chaotic dissolution of the euro zone. During the next stage of the crisis, Europe’s electorate will be rudely awakened to the large financial risks which have been foisted upon them in failed attempts to keep the single currency alive…A disorderly break-up of the euro area will be far more damaging to global financial markets than the crisis of 2008. In fall 2008 the decision was whether or how governments should provide a back-stop to big banks and the creditors to those banks. Now some European governments face insolvency themselves…[T]here will be large scale capital flight out of Europe into the United States and Asia. Who can be confident that our global megabanks are truly ready to withstand the likely losses? It is almost certain that large numbers of pensioners and households will find their savings are wiped out directly or inflation erodes what they saved all their lives. The potential for political turmoil and human hardship is staggering…No one knows for sure how long they can delay the complete collapse of the euro, perhaps months or even several more years, but we are moving steadily to an ugly end…Forget about a rescue in the form of the G20, the G8, the G7, a new European Union Treasury, the issue of Eurobonds, a large scale debt mutualization scheme, or any other bedtime story. We are each on our own.

— Simon Johnson and Peter Boone, “The End of the Euro: A Survivor’s Guide,” The Huffington Post, May 27, 2012

One of the last items I came across in this morning’s scan was this:

On the eve of his return to Africa earlier this week, [renowned paleoanthropologist and evolutionary biologist Richard] Leakey spoke to The Associated Press in New York City about the past and the future. “If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you’ve got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena,” Leakey says. “Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change. Man accelerated, if not created, planet change phenomena; I think we have to recognize that the future is by no means a very rosy one”…Leakey, who clearly cherishes investigating the past, is less optimistic about the future. “We may be on the cusp of some very real disasters that have nothing to do with whether the elephant survives, or a cheetah survives, but if we survive.”

— Frank Eltman, “Scientist: Evolution debate will soon be over,” MSNBC (Associated Press), May 26, 2012

And for a kind of whipped-topping finish, these all came on the heels of this very able and absorbing collective review of and response to Morris Berman‘s three-volume trilogy on American decline, which I read three days ago, and which distills Morris’ basic message and insights in quite effective fashion:

Idiot deans, rancid rappers, endlessly chattering sports commentators, an avalanche of half-inch-deep self-help manuals; a plague of gadgets, a deluge of stimuli, an epidemic of rudeness, a desert of mutual indifference: the upshot is our daily immersion in a suffocating stream of kitsch, blather, stress, and sentimental banality. [Morris] Berman colorfully and convincingly renders the relentless coarsening and dumbing down of everyday life in late (dare we hope?) American capitalism [in his three-volume exploration of American decline: The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Dark Ages America (2006), and Why America Failed (2011)]…In Spenglerian fashion, Berman seeks the source of our civilization’s decline in its innermost principle, its animating Geist. What he finds at the bottom of our culture’s soul is…hustling; or, to use its respectable academic sobriquet, possessive individualism. Expansion, accumulation, economic growth: this is the ground bass of American history, like the hum of a dynamo in the basement beneath the polite twitterings on the upper stories about “liberty” and “a light unto the nations.”

…As a former medievalist, Berman finds contemporary parallels to the fall of Rome compelling. By the end of the empire, he points out, economic inequality was drastic and increasing, the legitimacy and efficacy of the state was waning, popular culture was debased, civic virtue among elites was practically nonexistent, and imperial military commitments were hopelessly unsustainable. As these volumes abundantly illustrate, this is 21st century America in a nutshell…The new Dark Ages will be socially, politically, and spiritually dark, but the economic Moloch — mass production and consumption, destructive growth, instrumental rationality — will not disappear. Few Americans want it to. We are hollow, Berman concludes. It is a devastatingly plausible conclusion. An interval — long or short, only the gods can say — of oligarchic, intensely surveilled, bread-and-circuses authoritarianism, Blade Runner- or Fahrenheit 451-style, seems the most likely outlook for the 21st and 22nd centuries.

— George Scialabba, “How Bad Is It? The New Inquiry, May 16, 2012

So, are you scared yet? Or gripped by a gut-level case of deepening despair? Or perhaps both? Then consider Scialabba’s final words in the Berman-oriented essay above. They resonate with me, at least, and express my own emotions quite well, even as the reasonableness of anxiety and despair still appears very real:

There is something immensely refreshing, even cathartic, about Berman’s refusal to hold out any hope of avoiding our civilization’s demise. And our reaction goes some way toward proving his point: We are so sick of hucksters, of authors trying — like everyone else on all sides at all times in this pervasively hustling culture — to sell us something, that it is a relief to encounter someone who isn’t, who has no designs on our money or votes or hopes, who simply has looked into the depths, into our catastrophic future, and is compelled to describe it, as Cassandra was.

Yes, I think that nails it: there’s “something immensely refreshing, even cathartic” in recognizing reality for what it is, especially when that reality is a nominally unpleasant one that normal human cultural and psychological tendencies would lead us to deny and repress. And even though Scialabba is surely correct when, in comparing Berman to Cassandra, he adds, “No doubt his efforts will meet with equal success,” that doesn’t change the point. Because, after all, what is “success”? Working one’s personal will and actualizing one’s partisan preferences by heading off reality itself, which in this case takes the form of a necessary collapse? Or learning to recognize and embrace reality at large for what it truly is?

Eckhart Tolle does as good a job as anybody I know of articulating the philosophical issues, and more, the real, pressing, pointed, existential-spiritual issues, that are at stake and at play here:

The ego is destined to dissolve, and all its ossified structures, whether they be religious or other institutions, corporations, or governments, will disintegrate from within, no matter how deeply entrenched they appear to be. The most rigid structures, the most impervious to change, will collapse first. This has already happened in the case of Soviet Communism. How deeply entrenched, how solid and monolithic it appeared, and yet within a few years, it disintegrated from within. No one foresaw this. All were taken by surprise. There are many more such surprises in store for us…A significant portion of the earth’s population will soon recognize, if they haven’t already done so, that humanity is now faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die. A still relatively small but rapidly growing percentage of humanity is already experiencing within themselves the breakup of the old egoic mind patterns and the emergence of a new dimension in consciousness…When this delusion of utter separateness underlies and governs whatever I think, say, and do, what kind of world to I create? To find the answer to this, observe how humans relate to each other, read a history book, or watch the news on television tonight. If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged, we will always end up re-creating fundamentally the same world, the same evils, the same dysfunction.

— Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (2005)

Yes, that’s the point, the purpose, and the power, all at once: changing the structures of the human mind by embracing reality with clear sight, an open mind, and an open heart, so that our currently dysfunctional world system won’t simply recreate itself spontaneously after its chaotic implosion. As Jesus tells Judas in Martin Scorsese’s wonderful cinematic adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, in a scene where he and Judas debate the nature of freedom and Judas insists on the necessity of “freeing the body” from the corrupt Roman government before going on to focus on more spiritual matters, “The foundation is the soul…If you don’t replace the spirit first and change what’s inside, then you’re only going to replace the Romans with someone else and nothing ever changes. Even if you’re victorious you’ll still be filled with the poison. You’ve got to break the chain of evil.” Presently, one concrete application of this wisdom is to accept that the civilization we’ve built really is rotting from within and flinging itself apart.


Immediately after first publishing this post, I was hit by another item of the same general tenor as the ones quoted above, but focusing on a different facet of the current dystopian situation, and written by none other than Slavoj Žižek:

Imagine a scene from a dystopian movie that depicts our society in the near future. Uniformed guards patrol half-empty downtown streets at night, on the prowl for immigrants, criminals and vagrants. Those they find are brutalised. What seems like a fanciful Hollywood image is a reality in today’s Greece. At night, black-shirted vigilantes from the Holocaust-denying neo-fascist Golden Dawn movement — which won 7 per cent of the vote in the last round of elections, and had the support, it’s said, of 50 per cent of the Athenian police — have been patrolling the street and beating up all the immigrants they can find: Afghans, Pakistanis, Algerians. So this is how Europe is defended in the spring of 2012. The trouble with defending European civilisation against the immigrant threat is that the ferocity of the defence is more of a threat to ‘civilisation’ than any number of Muslims. With friendly defenders like this, Europe needs no enemies…But Greece’s anti-immigrant defenders aren’t the principal danger: they are just a by-product of the true threat, the politics of austerity that have caused Greece’s predicament…The prophets of doom are right, but not in the way they intend. Critics of our current democratic arrangements complain that elections don’t offer a true choice: what we get instead is the choice between a centre-right and a centre-left party whose programmes are almost indistinguishable…Greece is not an exception. It is one of the main testing grounds for a new socio-economic model of potentially unlimited application: a depoliticised technocracy in which bankers and other experts are allowed to demolish democracy.

— Slavoj Žižek, “Save us from the saviours,” London Review of Books, May 28, 2012

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 29, 2012, in Economy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. There are days when reading the news is an exercise is ennui — only the names change. Of course, that’s almost every day. The American Empire keeps reaching out for more territory even while the cracks are beginning to show (The British Empire, anyone?). It’s keeping pace with Europe in turning to the right, moving closer to fascism with every pushback by those who are still awake. On the one hand I’m curious to see how it will all turn out. On the other, I’m glad I’m old enough that I won’t be around long enough to see very much of it.

    • You and I obviously share an overlapping sensibility when it comes to these things, Catana, because what you’ve written deftly describes a well-traveled corridor of my own mental-emotional world.

  2. This is very astute, Matt. How I manage to remain hopeful is a mystery—but we humans have faced a lot of horror before. My bet, however pollyanna-ish, is on our species evolving to meet the challenges. But it’s gonna be a rough ride with a lot of collateral damage.

    • I wouldn’t say it’s pollyana-ish, but it’s pretty unrealistic. Humans are doing pretty much the same things they’ve been doing for thousands of years — finding more interesting ways to destroy their environment and kill each other. When is this process of evolution supposed to start taking place?

    • I tend to agree, Michael — although I think the possibility of extinction is quite real, as is Scialabba’s mesmerizingly dark vision (drawn from Berman, of course) of a protracted future in Blade Runner or Fahrenheit 451 mode where collapse has happened but high technology still exists and is under the control of a totalitarian oligarchy. In other words, I think the possibility of a new sort of dystopian stasis, with a longevity and endurance unimaginable by the standards of former ages, is a real possibility. Wonderful fodder for the fiction-making imagination, but horrifying as a potential real-world scenario.

      Catana – The evolution is already happening. I think it’s easy to make a case that “positive” and “negative” have always run neck-and-neck in human (and planetary, and cosmic) history, with actions leading to reactions leading to actions, and with catastrophes leading to evolution/growth/change leading to other catastrophes. The drama is currently as much about an increase in consciousness as it is anything else. Or actually, it always has been, but this fact and the stakes involved have become more starkly evident in the past few centuries, and even the past few decades, and even in the past handful of years. And I mean consciousness as both a concrete subjective reality and an intersubjective social and Gaia-level phenomenon. No guarantees of the end result, of course, but the synergistic interplay of catastrophe and increasing consciousness is definitely there, or rather here.

      • I’m afraid I’d say that anyincrease in consciousness is limited to a tiny fraction of the population, and not much different from what happened in the sixties, but with less chance of bringing about any real changes. The differences are: the militarization of the police in every major city, the terrorism mentality that allows all dissent to be put down as equally dangerous, and the increasing pacification of the general public by the entertainment conglomerates and the withholding and falsification of significant news.

        But I do agree that we will see a long period of adjustment to various system failures, and a tightening of control over many aspects of daily life, rather than sudden and total collapse. And that *is* the fodder for a lot of my fiction.

  3. I have to agree with Catana. What’s going on now is merely a repitition and intensification of the same thing that’s been happening since Day One. I don’t wish to sound too cynical, Matt, but isn’t it the case that a lot of the ‘despair’ about is the result of people who are worried that their comfortable middle-class lifestyles may be under threat? I don’t see any great increase in ‘consciousness’; all I see is people wanting to ensure their own position is safe. And people only worry about the environment when their own life is threatened; up until that point they don’t give a damn and are happy to exploit it, or let others exploit it for them. As for the so-called ‘solutions’, bear in mind that someone like Zizek, for example, is a supporter of Soviet-stlye Communism. Is that really the answer? The minority have always known that a life of materialism is ultimately unsatisfactory and spells death for the soul, what’s going on at present is merely another confirmation of that. The best anyone with sensibility can do in regard to the world is to stay out of it as much as possible.

    • Well put, Karl. I freely acknowledge, and in fact embrace, pretty much everything you’ve said. I just don’t think it’s an either/or situation. I don’t think the truth of what you’re saying — which strikes me as self-evident — negates or excludes the possibility of a real shift in consciousness of the truly depth-ful, expansive, spiritually/socially/ecologically transformative sort happening right alongside it, and in fact threading its way all through it. That’s the mode in which, and the inherent principle by which, these developments have always worked. I’m certainly not saying this means life at large might not end up locked down indefinitely in a thoroughly dystopian situation like the Fahrenheit 451/Blade Runner one mentioned above. Nor am I disagreeing that “The best anyone with sensibility can do in regard to the world is to stay out of it as much as possible.” In fact, I’m convinced that Berman’s idea (drawn from both history and science fiction) of the “monastic option,” in which a person devotes his or her life to a deliberate project of cultural preservation in view of the real live dark age sprouting around us right now, as perhaps the only truly viable response to present circumstances. This of course stands in direct opposition to the idea of trying to reform or otherwise fix or salvage the current system of things.

      In other words, I think there are two distinct frames of focus or orders of magnitude (as it were) at which one can view the situation. On the collective sociocultural level, things are grim as you describe, and, I think, irretrievably so. Also as you say, this is not so different from the way they have always been, the human race being what we are. But on the individual level, for each of us the possibility of liberation from and transcendence of this consensus trance of humanness is equally real and equally perennial. And in the paradoxical way these things tend to work, this possibility is being called out, underscored, and highlighted by the very grimness of the outer circumstances. I can see this at work both in myself and in others.

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