When one confronts the magnitude of challenges that threaten human survival in the near future, challenges our elites seem unable—and perhaps unwilling—to meet, there is no shortage of criticism to be leveled at our elites, and it is in any event apparent that a change is needed for our system of social organization. But then there’s this:
Relations between the Soviet Union and the West had become so tense 30 years ago that British officials drew up a speech for Queen Elizabeth to deliver to the nation in the event of a nuclear war, newly released archives showed on Thursday. . . .
“Now, this madness of war is once more spreading through the world and our brave country must again prepare itself to survive against great odds.”
This is a sobering reminder. Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan was president. His election to the U.S. presidency marked the rise of conservatism in the U.S., as a redemption from the landslide loss of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and as a redemption from Richard Nixon’s fall from grace in the Watergate scandal. It was just after Reagan’s presidency that the collapse of the authoritarian communist empire of the Soviet Union, that had in fact begun long before, and that might have happened more swiftly if not for hardline U.S. policy, finally became visible. And so we can also say that Reagan’s presidency was a culmination for the anti-Communist conservative movement, a movement that united a number of conservative factions in the U.S., a movement that had moderated over time, but had begun in the wake of World War II with a determination to smash the Soviet Union that was so great that it was not merely willing, but anxious to risk nuclear war, on a hope that some would survive. Such insanity does not seem so far removed from that of the vitriolic right that now plagues U.S. politics. Surely too, the movement can claim some credit for a near-unanimous fear among U.S. politicians of appearing “soft” on “national security.”
There were other times when the U.S. nearly got itself into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. One was when a U2 spy plane got shot down over Cuba and another had strayed into Soviet airspace. This time, it wasn’t any last minute diplomacy that saved the day, and saved most life on earth, but rather a Soviet submarine officer who refused to assent to the launch of a nuclear torpedo. In recounting that incident Edward Wilson points out as a general rule “that governments lose control in a crisis.”
“The queen’s speech was imagined to be broadcast in the spring of 1983 against the backdrop of worsening U.S.-Soviet relations, during a year in which then U.S. President Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’.” Politicians do not keep us out of war. Instead, it is their incessant preoccupation—a preoccupation that seems to have begun in the Neolithic—with which among them will control which resources and territory, and which among them may do what to which people, that leads us into war.
And yet, most of us continue to acquiesce to this system of social organization, perhaps because so many of us can’t imagine an alternative, perhaps because for the last five to ten thousand years, we have mostly ignored and our armies have crushed any other system of social organization. We do this even as it is increasingly apparent that this system no longer pays off for a vast majority of us.
Surely, one might think, such conditions should lead to a revolution. Perhaps, but in the United States, I do not sense it. I very much suspect that people elsewhere in the world will need to bring a vast revolution to us.
UPDATE: Within a few hours of this posting, Gar Alperovitz published an article on Truthout outlining several responses to the problem of elite failure. His analysis is useful but must be weighted against two problems: First, climate change is an extremely near term problem. Forecasts that humanity may be extinct within 100 years do not mean we have even 100 years to solve the problem, for a point of no return may be reached long before then, that simply takes 100 years to finish us off. Second, there is the issue of elite resistance. The long history, for example, of the labor movement includes numerous instances of extreme violence intended to preserve particular power relations.
- David Benfell, “Towards Sustainability,” April 11, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/04/11/towards-sustainability/↩
- Li-mei Hoang, “Archived papers reveal UK queen’s ‘World War Three’ speech,” Reuters, July 31, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/01/us-britain-queen-archive-idUSBRE9700MU20130801↩
- George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).↩
- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).↩
- Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.↩
- Democracy Now!, “‘An Extreme Choice’: Embracing Ayn Rand, GOP VP Pick Paul Ryan Backs Dismantling New Deal,” August 13, 2012, http://www.democracynow.org/2012/8/13/an_extreme_choice_embracing_ayn_rand; Eric Etheridge, “Godwin’s Law Comes to the Town Halls,” New York Times, August 13, 2009, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/13/godwins-law-comes-to-the-town-halls/; Ezra Klein, “The Republican Party’s big squeeze,” Washington Post, May 24, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/the-republican-partys-big-squeeze/2013/05/27/3814ee6a-c6fa-11e2-8da7-d274bc611a47_story.html; Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,” Washington Post, April 27, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/lets-just-say-it-the-republicans-are-the-problem/2012/04/27/gIQAxCVUlT_story.html; Steven Rattner, “Republican Extremism, Bad Economics,” New York Times, August 15, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/16/opinion/republican-extremism-bad-economics.html; Charles Simic, “Age of Ignorance,” New York Review of Books, March 20, 2012, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/mar/20/age-of-ignorance/↩
- Maureen Dowd, “Peeping Barry,” New York Times, June 8, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/dowd-peeping-president-obama.html; Christopher Drew, “Victory for Obama Over Military Lobby,” New York Times, October 28, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/business/29defense.html; Jason Leopold, “Former Guantanamo Chief Prosecutor: ‘A Pair of Testicles Fell Off the President After Election Day’,” Truthout, November 13, 2011, http://truth-out.org/news/item/4738:former-guantanamo-chief-prosecutor-%E2%80%9Ca-pair-of-testicles-fell-off-the-president-after-election-day↩
- Edward Wilson, “Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war,” Guardian, October 27, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/27/vasili-arkhipov-stopped-nuclear-war↩
- Hoang, “Archived papers reveal UK queen’s ‘World War Three’ speech.”↩
- David Benfell, ““We have found the enemy, and he is us” — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/03/06/we-have-found-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-and-our-system-of-social-organization/; John Horgan, “New Study of Foragers Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots,” Scientific American, July 18, 2013, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/07/18/new-study-of-foragers-undermines-claim-that-war-has-deep-evolutionary-roots/↩
- John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, (New York: Henry Holt, 2001); Noam Chomsky, “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship,” in Chomsky on Anarchism, ed. Barry Pateman (Edinburgh: AK, 2005); Jacqueline Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 2007).; Emma Goldman, “Address to the International Working Men’s Association Congress,” in Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, 3rd ed. (New York: Humanity, 1998).↩
- Associated Press, “80 percent of U.S. adults face near-poverty, unemployment, survey finds,” CBS News, July 28, 2013, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57595861/80-percent-of-u.s-adults-face-near-poverty-unemployment-survey-finds/↩
- Gar Alperovitz, “Current Political System Incapable of Meeting Social, Economic, Environmental Challenges,” Truthout, August 2, 2013, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/17799-five-possible-paths-to-political-economic-change-in-the-era-of-stalemate-stagnation-and-decay↩
- Cheryl Jones, “Frank Fenner sees no hope for humans,” Australian, June 16, 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/frank-fenner-sees-no-hope-for-humans/story-e6frgcjx-1225880091722↩
- Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.↩