The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

We have three major challenges all coming to peak close to each other.

Or possibly four, depending on how you define your terms.

First: the end of a sub-ideological era. Neoliberalism is on its last legs, just as New Deal liberalism was in the 70s. Ends of sub-ideologies tend to be tumultuous and it’s worse when it’s the end of a fundamentally extractive sub-ideology like neoliberalism, than it is with the end of a “building” ideology like the New Deal which worked to strengthen people, regulate companies and build vast human and inanimate infrastructure.

Neoliberalism was, fundamentally, the realization that all that build-up led to a huge looting opportunity. Get rid of the regulations, stop enforcing anti-oligopoly laws, force massive asset bubbles and those on the inside could get stinking rich.

The New Deal was a reaction to the problems created by a certain type of exploitative capitalism: a “we can’t allow this sort of abuse”, where neoliberalism was “man, abusing people, and destroying/privatizing institutions makes a lot of money.”

So, the 70s sucked, but they were nothing near as bad as the great depression and WWII.

But that’s also because the transition to neoliberalsim did not coincide with—

Second: the end of a hegemonic era. 1914 to 1945 is the end of not just British but European world hegemony. At the end WWII the USSR and US divide Europe in half, with the US controlling the Western half and the USSR the eastern. That the America glove was often velvet, did not change the fact that there was a steel gauntlet underneath (look up Gladio, as an example.)

The death tolls of WWI (21m), II(50m) and the Great Depression (uncounted), plus the anti-colonial wars, famines and the Japanese conquests(14m) and colonial wars is in excess of a 100 million. At the end of WWII, the world population was about 1.33 billion people. That’s a lot dead people and we aren’t counting all the people who were maimed, impoverished, made into refugees, raped or tortured. Nor are we counting the USSR pogroms (we probably should) or the colonial famines (we probably should.)

Hegemonic powers do not go easy into the sunset, and the more powerful they were, the harder they die.

But although there were some serious environmental problems in this era (the dust bowl, for example), the simultaneous end of the hegemonic and sub-ideological cycles which occurred in the early 20th century (which includes communism), didn’t have what we have coming—

Third: a worldwide environmental crisis which will reduce the Earth’s carrying capacity semi-permanently. At best reversal will take hundreds of years and be partial, because we aren’t going to be able to un-extinct all the species we’re killing and the depth and vibrancy of the ecological web is a huge part of Earth’s biological carrying capacity.

So, we can reasonably expect that a significantly greater proportion of the Earth’s human population will die during the upcoming period and more people will be impoverished, tortured, raped, turned into refugees and so on. It is not impossible to imagine a scenario where that didn’t happen, but it requires human social groups to act with decisiveness, wisdom, compassion and forethought which have no precedent in human history I am aware of.

These is what I’ve partially labelled in my categories as “The Age of War and Revolution” and “The Twilight of Neoliberalism”, but they are much larger than that.

Now there is also a larger cycle coming. You’ll note that I kept calling New Deal Capitalism and Neoliberalism sub-ideologies. They’re both capitalist ideologies, and the capitalist world-system has been around since the late 15th century, blossoming with the industrial revolution into a global world-system. Previous to this, contradicting the name, most world-systems didn’t cover the entire globe, but capitalism did. Even communism was part of the system (that’s an entire other article, but the USSR was not in autarchy and was forced to play the game by capitalist world rules.)

Capitalism is ending. There are a bunch of reasons (follow the prior link), but one big part of it is simply that it’s going to have been seen to have failed and be blamed by everyone for the environmental crisis (it’s not just a climate crisis, ecological collapse is at least as important). Democracy stands a chance of getting it in the neck too.

We aren’t just going to be changing sub-ideologies and swapping hegemonic powers and dealing with an enviro-collapse; we are going to be changing how we fundamentally run our societies, because it is almost certain that you can’t be capitalist and fix the environment, and in any case, again, capitalism will totally be discredited by all the deaths and catastrophes during this era.

Likewise, we are going to have to transition from the hydrocarbon era which has run since near the start of the industrial revolution because we cannot fix our environmental issues and have hydrocarbons be our primary energy source.

So, depending on whether you count the transition from capitalism to whatever, we’ve got the end of 5 eras or so. (WWI to II also saw a sub-transition in energy, from coal and steam engines to oil and internal combustion.)

This is compounded by the fact that end of sub-ideological and ideological eras always occurs with fanatically incompetent elites in charge. The classic western example is the fall of Rome, but look at the Weimar Republic, at Hoover, at Nixon/Ford/Carter and so on. The generations who created the previous system are dead or out of power and their heirs are boobs who don’t know how to repair their system. When the Lost generation, the last generation to remember the 20s, not just the great depression) died, a subset of the GI and Silent generations then destroyed the New Deal, both negatively (unable to deal with the oil shocks) and positively (Reagan/Thatcher/Friedman, etc..)

The people in charge now are radically incompetent at everything except internal power games. They are good at accumulating money and staying in charge and bad at everything else. They cannot fix any problems, at best they mitigate, and their mitigations (such as central banks printing money in response to the 2008 financial crisis) make underlying problems worse. On top of simple mechanical incompetence, they are also unimaginative: they cannot conceive of different ways of running society. Even when there are partial exceptions (Chinese leadership handling Covid semi-competently is an example) the elites can’t see their way to ending the ideology (capitalism, and yes, China is a capitalist mixed society) which is destroying the conditions for its own existence.

So this is where we are: the end of an ideological era; the end of a hegemonic era and a huge environmental crisis, all of which can’t be handled without fundamental ideological and leadership changes and which an reasonably be expected to kill billions of people while we “figure” or “fumble” it out.

Welcome to the fin de siecle. More than one. Enjoy the fruits of decadence while they still last.