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The Withered State

Disaster is the only news of the day. It was providential that a sinkhole has opened up in Guatemala. It is 100-feet deep with a circular chasm of 66 feet. An act of nature, it is felt, is so much easier to deal with than the many, too many acts of human despoliation. Oil plumes and the carcasses of gradually extinct species are blackening the Gulf of Mexico. Death stalks Af-Pak, not only on the land, but also from the sky, in drones manned by operators who sit in far off New Jersey and Nevada. A humanitarian flotilla en route to Gaza, one of the world’s most despondent slums (1. 5 million live on 360 square kms), is attacked on international waters by the Israeli State. A madman in Cumbria, near the Lake District, goes on a shooting rampage, not far from William Wordsworth’s home, Dove Cottage. I can hear Wordsworth’s “London 1812,”

We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

Then, as we take comfort in the natural terrestrial collapse in Guatemala, it turns out that even that has human causes. It is not a sinkhole, scientists say, but a piping feature – sewage and storm water eroded pipes not far from the scene, and the leached liquid gradually ate away the soil. Another disaster chalked up to social causes.

In 1975, the leaders of the most powerful countries descended upon Rambouillet, France, for the first significant summit of the Group of Seven states (G7): Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. In closed session, the leaders coordinated their assault against the insurgent Third World, whose New International Economic Order rode into the United Nations General Assembly on the wave of the OPEC oil shock of 1973. This was bad. It meant that the serfs of the planet had finally gathered the organizational strength to assault the G7 citadel. The Soviet Union and its satellites were prone, exhausted by the arms race, unable to engineer human happiness beyond the basic needs. It was not an existential threat. The rising of the Third World, however, was significant. It meant that raw materials might not be available at rock bottom prices, and that workers would not be willing to shoulder the burden on behalf of Northern prosperity. The G7 set in motion a process to crush the Third World. It has since succeeded.

Global inequality rates widened, as the debt crisis of the 1980s shocked the continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America into submission. Austerity programs created grief, and debt servicing payments sent vast sums of money to fatten the Atlantic banks, which then produced a credit-driven consumption regime among their populations. An American or a European could buy goods on credit, far in excess of their own purchasing power; their push out of industrial jobs did not substantially reduce their standard of living.

Rather than use the surplus capital to create social welfare programs in the North, the regimes cut social welfare and allowed private credit to take its place. Edifice envy drove up housing prices, and personal debt ballooned. Reagan-Clinton, Thatcher-Blair, Schmidt-Kohl – Right-Left, none of this mattered, as the political axes blurred in the face of a general commitment to neo-liberalism: class power had to be restored and the social compacts won by the various social movements had to be smashed. The illusion of equality was maintained by private credit, much of it derived from the tribute payments that came from South to North.

In the North, social spending had to be held down, for any such expenditure would only create the bonds of social solidarity. Far easier to prime the pump through massive expenditure on the military. It has the same function, preventing the irrational economy from implosion, but without the worry that the people being hired by the State or taking services from the State will believe in any kind of socialist experiment. The vast military now could be used against the rabble in the South, those who refused to pay the debt servicing or who wanted to forge some other kind of dispensation. It was not permitted. The bombs would fly, in the name of humanitarian intervention or anti-terrorism, but as often as not, to maintain the restored class power, which is the central theme of neo-liberalism.

Regulation of corporations went by the wayside. They were not required to worry about their oilrigs or workers’ rights. Municipal care was of no consequence, so that its sewage pipes could be of poor quality. Well-meaning socialists had to be thumped, not only by the client militaries, but also by the promotion of far-right religious and racialist parties, which are able to be populist at the same time as they are quite comfortable with the status quo. What they want is control over the bodies of women and the minds of men: they have no anti-capitalist agenda. They are safe, even if a little dangerous on the margins. When they act up, the drones can be sent off. Otherwise, they are the palace clowns, passing fatwas for the regime, or offering their mindless solace for the ails of the world. Between Pat Robertson, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Fahd al-Majid, there is little room.

My head peers out of the sinkhole. I search for the horizon. Out there in the distance there are people gathering. They have flags and songs, hopes and dreams. They will teach me to outgrow my despair, to clear my head, to rally the trembling forces of the will. But what path will we seek? Where will we go? Is there another earth we wish to inherit? When we let loose upon the earth, what will we do with it? The time of Revolution is not upon us yet. What we have before us is to gather the many social protests into a force powerful enough to change the agenda of our States. That is the first task. What comes after is considerable. We have the French Revolution’s tradition to digest, and the Bolshevik Revolution to come to terms with. The flags from both are with the masses. Lift both, and walk forward, take up the Withered State and bring it back to order, take up the Withered Planet and set it in order.

(This article is from BOL ASIA issue 04, Summer 2010).– See more at:

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