If it were only human folly

Note, January 5, 2015: This post has been modified since its original publication, amplifying an argument and correcting a reference from Russian nuclear carriers to Russian nuclear submarines.

It’s been entirely bad enough that governments have failed to meaningfully address climate change, leaving humanity exposed to an existential threat.[1] But at least I had a couple decades where I was a little less worried about nuclear holocaust.

I grew up with MAD, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in which a balance of terror kept any of the nuclear powers from actually initiating nuclear war. It was hardly peace; there were proxy wars all over the place which drew in superpower support on each side. But, a few harrowing incidents aside, they managed to avoid directly engaging each other. Hence, the name, “Cold War.”

A nuclear arms race was an essential feature of the Cold War and of MAD. This was truly suicidal. It was widely understood that the superpowers already possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. But they each sought larger and more advanced arsenals than the other. Of course, each advance, if one can call it that, was met by a corresponding advance on the other side.

But then came the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and of the Soviet Union itself. The West, seemingly, had won. Instead of a bipolar world, neoconservatives saw it as unipolar with the U.S. as the sole surviving superpower, and I heard rumblings of a multipolar world in which power would be more widely distributed.

Fast forward a couple decades and we’re back.

It was already apparent with the bickering over Ukraine that we were in a new Cold War.[2] And now we have the nuclear arms race again, as Russia triumphantly boasts new nuclear submarines capable of carrying new cruise missiles, which may or may not be nuclear armed. The U.S., as well, is upgrading its nuclear force. Some agreements preventing these developments have expired. Others are simply being disregarded. And, of course, each side points an accusing finger at the other.[3]

I’ve been skeptical of Gerhard Lenski’s classic conclusion that while elites were self-serving, on the whole, humanity was better off with them than they would be without them. For one thing, he was writing during the 1960s, a time when, at least for white workers, unions were strong, pay was relatively high, and social inequality seemed not so bad. Even so, his conclusion was only that the good outweighed the bad. It was hardly an unqualified endorsement of an authoritarian system of social organization.[4]

C. Wright Mills, writing in the 1950s, was more skeptical. He noted that elites determine the criteria by which they promote people to positions of power over others and that these criteria implicitly included the absence of a threat to the status quo.[5] And indeed, Christopher Hayes has noted that pretenses aside, our so-called meritocracy in fact serves to protect the positions of the powerful.[6]

Lenski’s conclusion, however qualified, has clearly not stood the test of time. Neoconservatism and neoliberalism have been ascendent ever since, with conditions made ever more favorable for the rich, very much at the expense of everyone else.[7] And the fall of the Berlin Wall was mistaken for an affirmation of neoliberal righteousness.[8]

It is ever more apparent that the elite no longer seek consent of the governed. Lenski’s notion, widely held, that it is easier for elites to maintain power by attempting to maintain legitimacy[9] no longer holds.[10] The U.S. increasingly bears the trappings of a criminal regime.[11]

And with the reignition of a nuclear arms race in a second Cold War, in combination with the threat of climate change, humanity obviously faces two perilous existential threats. (Actually, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, keepers of the Doomsday Clock, lists more.[12]) All due to our elites.

But do you suppose we’ll reconsider our system of social organization? Of course not. Even as much as I have pleaded for that to happen in this blog and elsewhere. Climate change may have prompted the disastrous change to an authoritarian system of social organization as we moved from the Paleolithic into the Neolithic.[13] But I see no sign that climate change will prompt us to reconsider that disaster. We can’t even manage to avoid a second nuclear arms race.

It would be one thing if this were only about us. I could just say that humans are headed for a richly deserved extinction. But it isn’t just about us. We share this planet with many other species. We’re already in a sixth major extinction event.[14] We’re taking a lot of other species, species that bear absolutely no responsibility for human folly, with us.

  1. [1]Mark McDonald, “U.N. Report from Rio on Environment a ‘Suicide Note’,” New York Times, June 24, 2012, http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/24/u-n-report-from-rio-on-environment-a-suicide-note/; Eugene Robinson, “Our politicians are flunking the vision test,” Washington Post, November 3, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-our-politicians-are-flunking-the-vision-test/2014/11/03/2776c154-639e-11e4-836c-83bc4f26eb67_story.html; Roberto Savio, “The Future of the Planet and the Irresponsibility of Governments,” InterPress Service, November 21, 2014, http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/the-future-of-the-planet-and-the-irresponsibility-of-governments/; Roberto Savio, “The Sad Future of Our Planet,” InterPress Service, December 15, 2014, http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/the-sad-future-of-our-planet/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “It’s back: The Cold War,” Not Housebroken, August 28, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=6278
  3. [3]Julian Borger, “US and Russia in danger of returning to era of nuclear rivalry,” Guardian, January 4, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/04/us-russia-era-nuclear-rivalry
  4. [4]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  5. [5]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  6. [6]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  7. [7]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012); George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  8. [8]Melvyn P. Leffler, “The Free Market Did Not Bring Down the Berlin Wall,” Foreign Policy, November 7, 2014, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/11/07/berlin_wall_fall_25_anniversary_reagan_bush_germany_merkel_cold_war_free_market_capitalism
  9. [9]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Never mind popular consent, nor even the propaganda seeking legitimacy: Rulers now rely on coercion,” Not Housebroken, April 26, 2013, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=5488; David Benfell, “Why there might be change at the CIA, and why there probably won’t,” Not Housebroken, December 15, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7052; David Benfell, “Itchy trigger fingers,” Not Housebroken, December 25, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7096
  11. [11]David Benfell, “Even criminals call the U.S. criminal,” Not Housebroken, November 30, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=6992
  12. [12]Robert Socolow, et al., “An open letter to President Obama: The time on the Doomsday Clock is five minutes to midnight,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 14, 2013, http://thebulletin.org/open-letter-president-obama-time-doomsday-clock-five-minutes-midnight
  13. [13]William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008).
  14. [14]James Hansen et al., “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PLOS One, 8, no. 12 (December 3, 2013), doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081648; Dahr Jamail, “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” TomDispatch, December 17, 2013, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175785/tomgram%3A_dahr_jamail%2C_the_climate_change_scorecard/; Igor Matutinovié, “An Institutional Approach to Sustainability: Historical Interplay of Worldviews, Institutions and Technology,” Journal of Economic Issues 41, no. 4 (December 2007): 1109-1137; Carl N. McDaniel and David N. Borton, “Increased Human Energy Use Causes Biological Diversity Loss and Undermines Prospects for Sustainability,” BioScience 52, no. 10 (2002): 929-936, doi: 10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0929:IHEUCB]2.0.CO;2

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