Thursday


A reader, Greg R. Lawson, commented on my last post, The Economic Future of Europe, including the following:

“Bigger issue now is, what does the US do with its western flank in an era most believe to be defined by the rise of Asia?”

Since my post about the European economy suggested a kind of European regionalism, I immediately began to think of the regionalism that I had described in a global context, i.e., I began to think in terms of global regionalism, and I realized that this would be a fruitful geopolitical perspective.

It is of the essence of geopolitics and geostrategy to think of social, economic, political, diplomatic, and military milieux in terms of their geographical distribution. That these generic strategic trends in human history are not equally distributed, and that the physical topography of the globe has a direct impact upon their distribution, shapes the world in which we live — the possibilities, the opportunities and the constraints.

A region is geographically defined, but not defined by nation-states. This distinction is important, because in the contemporary international system, the power is vested in nation-states. However, it must be observed that it has been primarily economic, military, and diplomatic power that have been vested in nation-states. Social, religious, and intellectual power have been attracted to the locus of economic, military, and diplomatic power of the nation-state, but the non-state structure of social, religious, and intellectual power has never been entirely eclipsed by the nation-state.

In the Islamic world, for example, the idea of the Ummah — the global Muslim community — is an important idea, and not a mere abstraction. The Ummah defines a region that is not a nation-state, just as do Catholicism, capitalism, and petrochemical producers.

A map of global Muslim populations shows the geographical distribution of the Ummah, which constitutes a region, but not a nation-state.

In the past, all regionalism was bioregionalism. A people’s way of life followed from the biome and the particular ecosystem in which they lived. Prior to the industrial revolution, the food that you ate, the clothes that you wore, the buildings in which you lived and worked, and the work that you did was all a function of your ecological situation. Since much of the language that one uses on a daily basis is derived from one’s food, clothing, shelter, and work, and the concepts embodied in language express these ideas, the greater part of our intellectual life also reflected bioregionalism. (This has been a theme I have urged since I started writing this blog.)

A map of terrestrial biomes from Wikipedia; each biome fosters a particular form of life in terms of the ecological resources that are regionally available.

With the Industrial Revolution this strong sense of regionalism was compromised once it become routine to import foodstuffs, clothing, building materials, and even forms of work that had not previously existed, or existed in the form that they came to have under industrialization. However, new and abstract forms of region began to supplement the declining strong forms of regionalism that once so completely defined life. Thus industrialization has changed regionalism, but has not eliminated regionalism. This is significant.

In the early part of the twentieth century many of the most advanced thinkers of the time seized upon internationalism as the direction in which the world was headed — what I would call the dominant strategic trend. A part of this intellectual fashion for internationalism was due to Marxism, which was always international in conception and ambition — communism was frequently called “international communism” in order to focus attention on it as a global movement, the communist anthem was called the “Internationale,” and the gatherings of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) were called “Internationals” — but not all of this fashion for internationalism can be attributed to communism.

The Wobblies were an explicitly international organization.

Many major thinkers who were in no sense Marxists consistently thought and expressed themselves in internationalist terms. Bertrand Russell is a good example of this. For Russell and many others, the obvious telos and rationalization of the de facto global political order could be nothing other than internationalism. This may sound a bit odd to my readers in the US, as internationalism never had much of a following in the US, where popular sentiment has often demonized the United Nations and other internationalist movements and organizations. And yet we did experience the international style in modern architecture, and a variety of related international movements made themselves felt in the US no less than in Europe.

But internationalism faltered under repeated blows to the international system throughout the second half of the twentieth century, not least the Cold War that divided the international system into two systems, at war with each other, and contesting their mutual periphery.

The global village that was once imagined as the consequence of universal telecommunications technology and a rapid global transportation network has not come to pass, any more than the “melting pot” model of diversity, which latter has since been replaced by the “tossed salad” model. Instead, the global village has become a place of its own, the region of cyberspace, which touches upon physical space at millions of points of contact, even while remaining distinct. We could map cyberspace onto physical space, or physical space onto cyberspace, but in each case the map is not the territory and the two spaces cannot be shown to be identical.

Internationalism, then, did not happen, or, at very least, did not happen as it was expected to happen. Instead, the growing complexity of the world facilitated the emergence of ever more forms of regionalism. Some have read in these tea leaves the perennial nature of the nation-state, but this is a delusion arising from limited imagination. The ultimate dissolution of the nation-state will come about not as a result of internationalism, but rather from a flourishing regionalism that subdivides nation-states like the inheritance of traditional estates when not checked by a custom of primogeniture. But this will not happen for a long time yet. Other trends must play themselves out for hundreds of years yet before the nation-state is a mere historical curiosity.

The structural forces in the world, then, that create and sustain regionalism are themselves important strategic trends that must be recognized. But that is not all. Above and beyond particular regionalisms there is regionalism itself as a force in world history. And we must even go beyond the understanding of regionalism as a strategic trend of the global system that facilitates other strategic trends. This is not at all wrong, but it is too limited. We must learn to understand regionalism on its own account, both driving other developments even as it in turn is driven by anterior developments.

Let us consider, very briefly, some of the major strategic trends of our time, and we will see that they are strongly regional trends:

● The Decline of Europe By “the decline of Europe” I do not mean the relative decline of European economic importance due to the increasing economic activity of other regions of the world, but the decline of the European idea as a force in world affairs. Europe has not only retreated from the apotheosis of its 19th century colonialism, it has turned against itself and its traditions and has adopted an attitude of atonement, frequently expressed in the form of foreign aid. Part of this attitude of atonement is also expressed by the liberal immigration quotas that has led to the rise of Eurabia. Europe is facilitating the disappearance of its own unique tradition.

● The Rise of Asia As with the decline of Europe, so too with the rise of Asia: this is partly about improving economic performance and industrialization, but it is just as much about the confidence of Asian peoples to assert themselves in the world as the Europeans once asserted themselves, and to do so they have borrowed heavily from the intellectual resources of the European tradition even while distancing themselves from that tradition. Colonialism and neo-colonialism are condemned, while quasi-colonial activity (like China’s growing role in Africa) is called anything but colonialism. More importantly, this is done with a clear conscience, as was also the case during Europe’s period of colonial expansion.

● The Stability of US Power Despite a great deal of declensionist talk that I have discussed in other posts (especially my recent From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), the American economy will remain the largest in the world for some time, and even after China’s economy becomes the largest in the world in terms of absolute numbers, the US economy will have the greatest productivity of any economy on the planet for an even longer period of time. The springs of ambition and invention have by no means peaked in the US, and we can expect the American people to continue to assert themselves aggressively in world affairs has has been the case since the end of the Second World War.

These three strategic trends together necessarily mean another strategic trend:

● The Shift from an Atlantic center to a Pacific center I have discussed the decline of Atlanticism and the possibility of a Pacific-centered world order in other posts. With the stability of US power as the fulcrum, the center of world affairs will slowly shift from the Atlantic, dominated by a declining Europe, to the Pacific, dominated by the rising Asia. I emphasize here that this shift will be slow and gradual.

The shift from an Atlantic-centered world to a Pacific-centered world will be a consequence of the decline of Europe and the rise of Asia, and thus this shift will not be consolidated until these developments are mature. In other words, the 21st century will not be the Pacific Century, but rather the century of the fluid periphery (see below), one of the developments of which will mean the shift to a Pacific-centered world order. It will be the 22nd century that will be the Pacific Century. So you see that when I say that this shift will be slow and gradual, I am talking on the order of centuries, not years or decades.

The shifting world center from the Atlantic to the Pacific is but one aspect another another major strategic trend that will be expressed in many different forms, and this is:

● The Fluidity of the Periphery The fluidity of the periphery will be expressed in a variety of distinct movements and changes, but the very fact that the periphery of the mature and established de facto global political order will be fluid is significant. In the past, the periphery was not fluid, but static. Nothing happened in the periphery, which was one reason that Ovid so lamented his exile to Tomis (now Constanţa, Romania) on the Black Sea. The periphery was once the edge of civilization, dominated by stalled technologies. In the future, more things will happen, and more history will be played out, on the periphery than in the center. The fluidity of the periphery will involve, but will not be limited to, the following:

* Atlantic to Pacific Shift The fluidity of the periphery will include the above-mentioned strategic shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but this shift will occur on such a time scale that it would be unnoticeable to most living through the shift except that we will know to watch for it. This will be a macro-temporal revolution in world history, and as such almost invisible to the micro-temporality of individual consciousness.

* Globalization Globalization in turn can be understood by many different labels — it is what I have called the extension of the industrial revolution to those parts of the world that have not yet industrialized; this global economic growth has been called “re-balancing” by Thomas P.M. Barnett; at the same time “re-balancing” might also be called a leveling of the global economic playing field, and this has also been called the global rise of the middle class. More tendentiously, I might call this strategic trend The End of Poverty, for when the gains of global industrialization are consolidated over the next two hundred years, one of the profound developments will be the end of the kind of poverty (made visible by the contrast between rich and power, and made more visible yet by the telecommunications technology that emerged from industrialization) that had typified the human condition since the dawn of agriculture and urbanism.

* Divisions internal to the Periphery Uneven development will more and more mark the fluid periphery, as some nation-states in Latin America and Africa develop rapidly, joining the global economy and catapulting their populations on a new trajectory of development, while other nation-states in Latin America and Africa cannot break out of the failure cycle, continuing to stumble and stagnate while neighboring nation-states pull far ahead of them. These divisions within the periphery will foster instability and tensions, as populations inevitably seek to better their lot by moving from failed and failing states into neighboring successful states.

* Global Divisions The consolidation of the democratization of the Western hemisphere will continue to contrast with non-democratic, non-representative, autocratic regimes throughout the fluid periphery and indeed throughout the Eurasian landmass. While there will be democratic regimes in the Western hemisphere that perpetuate the failure cycle, the slower pace of life that results will constitute a de facto social consensus for a society not to live in the fast lane. By contrast, outside the Western hemisphere, the failure cycle will be exacerbated by non-representative regimes that impose failure upon a restive population. These global divisions will be expressed as geostrategic tensions, which will in turn be expressed as flows between the divisions, and these flows — of populations, of resources, of smuggled contraband, of technology, etc. — will flow through the periphery, further destabilizing regions already destabilized by divisions internal to the periphery.

There are limits to the fluidity of the periphery. Fluidity is constrained by regional stability. Now by “regional stability” I do not mean a part of the world that is political stable (which is how the term is usually used in contemporary discourse) but rather that regional strategic trends that are geographically defined by not embodied in formal institutions. Actually, a distinction could be made between formal and informal regions, but I haven’t thought this through yet, so I will leave this potential distinction to another time. I hope that the reader will see, without further elaboration, that the same structural forces in the global system that create regions are powers that limit the latitude of other regions, sometimes simply by their existence, and other times by actively working against the strategic trend expressed by another region.

So that is my sketch of regionalism and how it will play out at least over the next two hundred years. I hope that even if the reader disagrees with the details of the picture that I have sketched, that you will at least see the power of differently-defined regionalisms in the global system, that this regionalism is a force to be reckoned with, and that regionalism may possibly become the dominant strategic trend, or a dominant strategic trend, over the long-term future.

There is much more to be said regarding regions, and I hope to think more on the matter, now that I have proposed it to myself in this explicit form, but for the time being I will close with the observation that regions are likely to play a larger role in history than either internationalism or nation-states.

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Monday


In Three Futures I considered a trio of possible developments based upon the extrapolation of certain strategic trends already present in the present. These three futures included:

Extraterrestrialization, in which the greater part of humanity eventually resides off the surface of the earth.

Pastoralization, in which urbanization and rural depopulation continue their trends with the greater part of humanity residing in cities (already technically true, in so far as more than half of all human populations today are urban populations, but the disproportion is not yet overwhelming) and the countryside is returned to something like pastoralism.

Singularization, in which escalating computer technology transforms the life of the greater part of humanity, or simply displaces it. This scenario is based on Ray Kurzweil’s technological singularity, though treated as a process rather than an event (we are, after all, talking about history and not about divine fiat).

Recently in Marxist Eschatology I acknowledged that an old favorite must be added to our list of possible futures:

Communism, in which, following the totality of globalization and there being under this global (crony) capitalist regime no alternatives to proletarianism, the workers really do throw the bums out and take over for themselves.

All three of these potential futures were treated in the spirit of developing strategic trends that could conceivably become the dominant strategic trend of the future, and in so doing define a new division of macro-temporality. In other words, the strategic trend in question is treated as possessing the possibility of becoming a macro-historical trend. I say here “developing” and “possibility” in order to stress that these strategic trends, even if they do become the dominant trend, will not come about with catastrophic suddenness, as the result of a revolutionary upheaval.

Central to my understanding not only of current affairs but also of history, and especially history understand on the grandest scale, is the idea of a strategic trend. A strategic trend is any historical phenomenon that takes on a life of its own. There are major strategic trends that shape macro-history and there are small strategic trends that are little more than fads. The decline of printed newspapers in the wake of the growing importance of the internet is a strategic trend. The refinement of precision munitions is a strategic trend. The collapse of the horse-drawn buggy industry in the wake of automobiles was a strategic trend in the past, but now is irrelevant.

Thinking in terms of strategic trends is a kind of extension and extrapolation of uniformitarianism. If the past is to be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present (which is uniformitarianism), so too the future can be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present, or to have acted in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the physical sciences focuses on physical laws discoverable in the present and applicable to natural events in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the philosophy of history focuses on patterns of human behavior discoverable in the present or the past, and possible applicable to distinct human societies at any time in history, past, present, or future.

It was never my intention to present these Three Futures as exhaustive or as mutually exclusive, and I guess I really ought not to worry too much about it, since no one has commented on this post and suggested that my intention had been misconstrued. In any case, my recent addition of a (revised and reinterpreted) communism should make the non-exclusive character of my original list obvious. In this spirit of identifying strategic trends in the present that may become dominant strategic trends in the future, and in no way committed to an exclusive or closed list, I want to propose another possibility for the long term human future.

Human beings being what they are, there is always the possibility of returning to a past mode of life that proved robust and sustainable. Our long prehistory dominated, as it was, by a cyclical conception of time has deeply inculcated the idea of a “return to roots” in almost all human societies. A “return” to the agricultural paradigm, following on the experience of industrialization, and therefore transformed by this experience, could constitute a new division of macro-temporality, and this possibility I will call post-industrial agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalization when speaking of an historical process.

I have written quite a number of posts touching on the nature of settled agricultural civilization. The most significant of these posts include:

Civilizations Settled and Unsettled

The Agricultural Paradigm

Some Rough Notes on Agricultural Civilization

Pure Agriculturalism

The Telos of Agriculturalism

Many other posts of mine have touched upon agricultural civilization, but these are the ones with the most meat in them.

The strategic trend of agriculturalism as it reveals itself in the present dates at least to the “back to the land” movement of the late twentieth century, especially in its counter-culture iteration, and continues to crop up now and again in the popular media. For example, Japan’s youth turn to rural areas seeking a slower life by Roland Buerk of BBC News, Tokyo, is a typical expression of this.

In contemporary society we can identify strategic trends that are both a “pull” toward agriculturalism and a “push” away from industrialism. I have written on many occasions about the dehumanization and depersonalization of industrial-technological civilization, and escape from this regime is a recurring theme of popular culture. That is the “push” toward the supposedly simpler life of agriculturalism. On the “pull” side of the historical equation there is the long tradition of a kind of mysticism of the soil, such that in the event of neo-agriculturalism it might be possible to speak of the re-enchantment of the world (since the disenchantment of the world — die Entzauberung der Welt — has been one of the discontents of industrial-technological civilization).

The contemporary strategic trends of environmentalism and anti-globalization, while they garner a great deal of press, have not ultimately accomplished much. Environmentalism has changed the way some things are done, but a radical interpretation of environmentalism, the success of which would involve the abandonment of industrial-technological civilization, has made no headway at all. Only the most mild and inoffensive initiatives of environmentalism have had any traction, and certainly nothing that makes the ordinary person uncomfortable or even mildly inconvenienced is countenanced. That being said, the anti-globalization movement, in so far as it is a “movement” at all, has accomplished absolutely nothing except furnishing a pretext for protests and vandalism, which is great fun for a certain segment of society. However, in so far as “venting” is important, these protests have served a certain social function.

Despite this dismal record, and the likelihood that environmentalism and anti-globalization as strategic trends are likely to wither away in time as they become either irrelevant (anti-globalization) or completely co-opted by the status quo (environmentalism), these strategic trends might gain a new lease on a longer life if they feed into some larger movement that has a chance to fundamentally alter the way in which people live. Such opportunities come along only rarely in history, as I have attempted to argue on many occasions. Neo-agriculturalism would serve this functional quite competently, since environmentalism and anti-globalization could be given content (anti-globalization) and direction (environmentalism) by becoming associated with social change driven by a neo-agriculturist agenda.

When we think of a post-industrial agriculturalism in these terms, it becomes obvious that those strategic trends that ultimately become dominant trends that shape the next stage of macro-history are those trends that can be fed by the largest number of minor and middling strategic trend. In this way, a dominant strategic trend that comes to define a division of macro-history. Perhaps in the final analysis, the biggest tent wins. In other words, that strategic trend that can subsume under itself the greatest number of other strategic trend while retaining its essential coherency, may be that strategic trend that comes to dominate all other trends.

With this in mind we can identify a number of strategic trends that implicitly feed (or would feed) into neo-agriculturalism: being a locavore, and in fact the whole local food movement (and, to a lesser extent, the “slow food” movement), bioregionalism, eco-communalism, and radical environmental philosophies like deep ecology.

As I noted above, I don’t intend my identification of possible futures to be exclusive or exhaustive. Thus what I have previously identified as pastoralization could well coexist with neo-agriculturalization. Furthermore, pastoralization could be subsumed under neo-agriculturalization, or vice versa. A little more attention to detail would be needed to order to determine which strategic trend represented that of the greatest generality, therefore likely to subsume other strategic trends under it. However, this being history we are discussing, a certain degree of this determination is left to chance, circumstance, and contingency.

It should also be noted that these future scenarios I have been attempting to sketch do, at least to a limited degree, involve a reconsideration of, “the basic principles underlying our social order,” and constitute, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism” — two conditions that Francis Fukuyama named as necessary to refute his “end of history” hypothesis:

“At the core of my argument is the observation that a remarkable consensus has developed in the world concerning the legitimacy and viability of liberal democracy. This ideological consensus is neither fully universal nor automatic, but exists to an arguably higher degree than at any time in the past century.”

“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan – horrible as that would be for those countries – does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”

Francis Fukuyama, “A Reply to My Critics,” Fall 1989, The National Interest

For the record, I am interested neither in refuting or defending Fukuyama’s thesis, but his formulation does provide a certain clarification for what it takes to account for a genuinely novel historical development. I would be willing to state that, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism,” would be a sufficient condition for the definition of a new division of macro-history, and I would further hold that no such condition has presented itself since Fukuyama’s essay.

Again, however, we can identify strategic trends in the present that could well constitute a systematic idea of political and social justice that could displace that systematic idea of political and social justice that prevails today. For example, if we consider the idea of environmental justice we have a conception which if elaborated, extended, and expanded into the future could become an alternative paradigm of political and social justice. Such changes take time and cannot be seen in a single lifetime. Changes of an intellectual order I call metaphysical history, and metaphysical history is the summum genus of historical categories, subsuming even the macro-historical concerns I have been writing about here.

Notwithstanding the fact that, if humanity fails to transcend its planet-bound civilization its future will be necessarily finite (or we can also say that any successor species of homo sapiens will necessarily have a finite future), even given a finite future there would be time enough for many macro-historical divisions yet to be determined. One of these macro-historical divisions could well be a post-industrial agriculturalism.

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