An Unstable World? Part One: Russia and China

People have lately been asking me why I seem so calm.  It seems that every week brings news of yet another brewing disaster, with the world apparently spinning into chaos.  So much for Francis Fukayama’s famous line – around 1990 – that the rapid and unstoppable spread of liberal democracy would soon bring an “end of history.”

unstable-worldA few years earlier, I had made a different prediction. That the Cold War and the communist empire would soon shatter… (few believed it even remotely possible)… but that our struggles would move on to cultural strife between a rising world-liberal culture… and one branch or another of machismo… traditionally male dominated cultures upset over the prospect of seeing their women become like ours. At the time, I could not say which it would be… Latin, Hindi or Muslim machismo, though I guessed the lattermost of these. With the saving grace that – thereupon – the other two would swing our way.

But never mind that. Lately I’ve heard a lot of: “Brin, you warned us, way back a year ago, that 2014 could be world-shaking! You said the last three centuries began in their fourteenth year! Aren’t these ructions around the planet signs that you’re right?”

Well… yes… perhaps.  But here’s how to tell when someone really is in the future biz.  He doesn’t wed his ego to any one forecast! Or any twenty! I am in the line of posing possibilities to explore. Being proved right? I’ll leave that for others to judge.

In fact, looking at the crises of the moment, I have not yet broken a sweat. Maybe I’ll tell you why, later in this series.  But first, some specific trouble zones.

== What’s up with Russia? ==

ukraine-rebelsFascinating! The pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk (eastern Ukraine) are resurrecting Soviet symbols, incantations and methods, even collective farms — and (as described in this article), it was already happening in other disputed territories like South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

We already know that Russian President Vladimir Putin called the breakup of the USSR “History’s greatest tragedy.” But… but… he’s also supervised the most spectacular rise in oligarchic-moneyed inequality since the days of Ivan the Terrible. So… what gives?

I have to tell you that I lay 30% odds that Vladimir may be something that no one on Earth suspects. Sincere.

I may be alone in thinking it is possible. But lonely observations are what I do. (Why does no one even consider what I deem a 20% possibility: that the absolutely uniform chain of destructive-to-America outcomes from the GW Bush presidency might have been “manchurian”? It does parsimoniously fit the facts, much better than the standard theories: dogmatism, venality and stupidity.)

What do I mean by sincere? Ah, well, if you ever actually read Karl Marx (which I assume no member of my generation ever has done), you’d realize how easily the present situation in Russia is “adaptable” in Marxist-Leninist terms.  A couple of hundred oligarchs have consolidated all wealth, capital and power in a few hands? That is actually a well-described Marxist phase. When the time comes… but I will leave that as a what-if hint. Remember, I only laid a 30% on this one. But it fits.

Oh, one last item.  Look up this fellow: Fyodor Dmitrievich Berezin is a Ukrainian science fiction writer. In the Ukraine Civil War he currently serves as the deputy Defense Minister  of the People’s Republic of Donetsk.  His sci fi always features virtuous Russian or revived Soviet forces destroying decadent-smug American hegemons.  Wowzer.

== China: a humble historical correction ==

great-vault-forwardChina and the West are clearly heading toward an inevitable — and we hope very peaceful — reconfiguring and renegotiation over trade and other relations. Why? Because the trade imbalances… tsunami flows of money, capital investment, knowledge and intellectual property … have achieved their main historical purpose, lifting China in history’s Great Vault Forward, transforming that ancient land into a modern marvel. For which let us all say mazeltov! Let us get used to – and welcome – the idea that a billion talented and creative people are joining the world ranks of prosperous problem-solvers. It will be a better planet… after they adapt and finish their own, self-guided transformations.

(Indeed, they have started contributing to humanity’s highest art form — science fiction! You have heard me praise Liu Cixin’s terrific Three Body Problem trilogy. Coming this fall from Tor Books.)

We are obliged to be welcoming and glad about this Great Vault. Indeed, let us recall that Americans were intellectual property thieves, once upon a time. (Though we never stole so much that it killed the goose.)

east-westWhat we are not obligated to do, however, is swallow a narrative that is circulating over there. A smug and self-flattering tale that all of this happened because China invented just the right mix of state capitalism and clever, predatory, mercantilist ruthlessness. Or that any and all tactics – such as the rampant appropriation of intellectual property – can and should go on forever, for two reasons:

(1) Westerners are decadent fools and their proper role is to serve as (figurative-commercial) prey or cattle (that exact metaphor is used).

(2) That all tactics are justified as recompense and pay-back for centuries of oppression and colonialism by the West.

Oh, sure, there is some moral justification there in number 2, though Chinese leaders played a huge role in their nation’s slide from world pre-eminence, centuries ago. Still, the victim narrative only goes so far, for one simple reason.  And you all should be ready to deploy it, over the years ahead.

Let me reiterate that I say this in a spirit of friendship and respect. But the basic fact is… that in all of its 4000 year history, China never had a real friend.

Except one.

Indeed, one reason for that lack of friends was Chinese policy — proclaiming to all that they were Chung Kuo… the center of the world, an attitude that we are seeing glimmers of, again, across Southeast Asian seas.

And then, yes, came the abuse by many foreign powers, when China was no longer able to enforce that centrality.

Only, across all that time there was one nation that generally treated China well, or at least better than anyone else did. Just one nation that stood up for China (sometimes tepidly but at other times with ferocious loyalty) when China was down. Just one nation who (admittedly) did make some mistakes with China, and did a few wrong things, but generally could be seen trying, far more often than not, to be generous and fair. china-us

That friendly outsider was the United States of America. And if your reflex is to deny this, then in fact you know no history. No one else stepped up to tell the European powers to stop their expanding “concessions” and refused to seize any of our own.

No one else stepped up to help China resist brutal invaders – in the 1930s – and went into a savage war for which we were unready, and paid dearly, directly due to standing up for China, in its hour of existential need.

Even the long enmity of the Cold War was all about the U.S. choosing one “China” over another. All right, perhaps more subtlety was called for, then, and for a couple of years Chinese and American soldiers killed each other, each considering the other pawns to distant masters. But just as soon as Mao put his hand out, there was Nixon ready to shake it.

Again, there were mistakes! On both sides. But there is no way that China’s attitude toward the U.S. can be informed or ever justified by “getting even for colonialism.” If, across 4000 years, you can point to any substantial nation that was ever as good a friend… or that at least sometimes tried to be… then maybe we’ll listen to the “colonialism” guilt trip. But you cannot. And we should not.

Walmart-EconomyAnd we are still at it. Because the narrative about 40 years of trade imbalances could be viewed in another way, dear friends. We have raised up the billion people of the Central Kingdom, by the magnificent method called “foreign aid via WalMart.” The greatest uplifting in all the history of our species.  And it was not the act of bleating, helpless sheep, but deliberate policy, established by Marshall, Acheson, Truman and Eisenhower and so on, to establish counter-mercantilist trade flows. The only “pax” imperium ever to do such a generous thing. (China did nothing of the sort, when it was on top of the world.)

It merits real respect, this rise of yours, from the dust, to standing next to us, as brothers and sisters and equals. Well done!  But it also merits some gratitude. You’re welcome.

== So where’s the optimism? ==

ISIS-CRISIS-SYRIASorry, not this time. You’ll have to wait for me to plumb the “ISIS-Crisis.” And the endless disappointments between Israel and Palestine. And Ebola! And so many other modern ructions that make it seem that I was right about the “fourteenth year.”

Well, sure… I might be right.  Or I might be crazy.

But I am starting to perk up a bit, imagining that… I might be wrong.


== Food for thought ==

A fascinating quotation from George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” —

1984“…it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction — indeed, in some sense was the destruction — of a hierarchical society. In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance…”

diamond-social-structureThat is, indeed, what would-be lords fear most. The trend after World War II to create a diamond-shaped society, with an empowered and educated middle and working class so large that it outnumbers the poor and politically dominates the rich… this was key to every piece of good news since civilization’s nadir in 1943. It led to all fine things, from science and moon landings to the plummets in world poverty and (per capita average) violence that Stevn Pinker documents in his book that I cite below.

It would lead, eventually, to Star Trek and to a society in which a person might get rich – through smithian competition and new goods or services… but there would be no way for him or her to pass on to children the kind of obligate lordship that was the fiercely obsessive goal of every generation of brutal men, during all of the millennia leading to our Enlightenment Experiment.

It cannot be allowed to happen again! Orwell gave us a graphic warning…

…and yet, Orwell was crude in his interpretation of method. War, as a means of keeping society pyramidal, instead of diamond-shaped? Well, sure… but it is a chaotic, unreliable, destructive method, especially when an educated populace, if even 5% of it truly understands, will have the technological means to shatter everything.

tyrannies-futureNo… here is the fellow who got it right. The one who will win the old argument. Aldous Huxley. Tyrannies in the future will have to fool the majority into thinking they are still in charge. Distracting them, not with pain, but with pleasure.

Without any doubt we should all have skeptical hackles, whenever a president or politician raises a clamor for war. Indeed, elsewhere I have carefully parsed the differences between democrats and republicans in HOW they wage war, a stunningly opposite matter of style and effectiveness.

But here I want to point out that cases like our present ISIS-crisis are no-brainers, if you want the era’s “pax” power to have any credibility, at all. And that, in turn, hinges on whether you can stomach the era that we now live-in… Pax Americana.

It has lasted all our lifetimes, since WWII saw the passing of the last vestiges of Pax Brittanica… the “British Peace.” (The term refers originally to Pax Romana or the Roman Peace that kept the Mediterranean placid and open to commerce for 600 years. Pax Sinica refers to similar epochs across China and east Asia.) War21Century-Pax

Here is the crux. Almost every Pax era has been better for average people on planet Earth than almost every era without a pax empire, when competing kingdoms would send armies slashing and burning and looting across each others’ territories. Average humans today live in more peace than at any time in the history of our species, as shown in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, with only a few percent ever experiencing personal and direct contact with war in their lifetimes. One top benefit: Pax-protected world trade has uplifted 2/3 of the world’s children out of poverty.

Are there costs, whenever there is a ruling imperium? You bet! When the First Emperor – Chin – squashed the Five Kingdoms and unified China, peace then reigned… along with one of the most brutal tyrannies ever, and a collapse of the vibrant, cultural competitiveness that had prevailed, before. Minority cultures had plenty to complain about, under Pax Parthia, Pax Alexandrine, Pax Romana, Pax Mughal etc… Where Pax Americana is different is in having reduced most of the bad outcomes of a pax era. Rigid domination, imperial mercantiism and repression of diversity. A priesthood with a lock on “truth.” Outright and barefaced conquest.

Suspicion-of-authorityIs Pax Americana perfect? Hell no! Many crimes, yes, I could name several dozen without even trying. But the memes that it spreads – especially through Hollywood – are critical memes, such as suspicion of authority and admiration of diversity, that you express, even as you fume at me for praising the pax that taught you all those values. Memes that encourage criticism of the pax power even (especially) by its own youths! Indeed, many of you are expressing that memic upbringing, as you glower at these words.

Here is more about Pax Americana: Pondering Pax Americana and the Government Shutdown.

Was PA awful at times? Sure… except compared to every single other nation that was ever tempted by such power. If you make that comparison, PA is day to their night. Was PA drooling-insane-stupid under both Bushes? Sure. So much so that you have to wonder if that Saudi-owned family did it on purpose.

Should Pax Americana be replaced with something grownup, at last, bringing an end to all empires? Sure! Would Star Trek be better? Sure! We’d all love to see your plan.

Will it happen if PA simply goes away or stops enforcing peace? Baloney. Before you prescribe NOTHING as a replacement to the current pax power, please find for us, across 6000 years, a lasting era when that prescription worked well.

PA is the only empire that ever had as its (hypocritical) policy “there should be no empires.” That hypocrisy has one saving grace…

…it will make itself come true.

== finally, too-big means get-smaller ==

The Federal Reserve is pushing the biggest U.S. banks to shrink so that they’re less of a risk to the financial system. Fed proposals include imposing additional capital requirements for the eight largest banks — including JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America — that exceed the levels mandated by international regulators. “Capital surcharges” would increase in proportion to how risky the regulators deem a bank to be. ken-burns-roosevelts

Ken Burns documentaries are always a great buy, for your viewing time. His most recent — “The Roosevelts” — focuses on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. Terrific. Fascinating stories. Only… I find my own thoughts drifting from the past, to the present and the future…

Galt’s Gulch Chile? One common theme that spans from leftist-hippies to followers of Ayn Rand is the notion of anarchic utopianism — that those who have free spirits and the right ideology can create an ideal community, free of the ills they perceive in our complex, compromise-ridden civilization. On rare occasions, these communities have thrived… ironically those that have been run patriarchally by brilliant administrators, replicating feudalism-of-old, with a patina of egalitarian catechism. But most swiftly collapse. As in the case of the AnyRandian ideal community described here.

This is not the only libertarian dream community in the works. Perhaps more sturdy, but still problematic, are seasteading efforts propelled by Patri Friedman and Peter Thiel.

LIBERTARIANS-PROPERTYIn the end, however, this is tragic for us all. Libertarianism might have served as a rational and pragmatic counter-balance to the tendency to try solving all problems with statist approaches. It might also have held true to the sane vision of Adam Smith – to do what is needed in order to maximize the number of skilled and capable young COMPETITORS in a flat-fair-open society. Instead, it has been hijacked by solipsists who never, ever mention the word “competition” anymore, in their obsessive defense of towering accumulations of PROPERTY, never noticing how this serves the proto-feudal wishes of the oligarchs who were denounced by Adam Smith, and have always been the greatest enemies of markets and freedom.

See my dissection of Any Rand here:


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