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19 August 2017 15:12 (South Africa)
World

Making Waves. Big ones. Coming your way soon.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Image: Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1832

J. BROOKS SPECTOR watches a film on an iconic Japanese woodblock print and begins to think about the waves washing over America’s (and the world’s) political, social and economic systems. And worries about whether or not we all will be swamped in the process.

The other day I watched a BBC documentary on Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print. First produced in 1832 as part of a large series of varied views of Mt Fuji and entitled The Great Wave off Kanagawa, for many people this image has become virtually synonymous with Japanese art (and – more recently – the threats of Asian economic prowess crashing down on the rest of us). It depicts a massive wave bearing down on two boats and the drowning of their crews, even as the oarsmen struggle onward, knowing full well that their universe is about to destroy them.

Modern art critics have also noted that besides being a tour de force of the imagination and the perfection in technique coming from a lifetime of work by the artist, this image may also be read as an intuitive understanding of the modern mathematical concepts of fractals and Mandelbrot shapes (note the way the geometry of the sea froth mimics the larger shape of the wave), along with modern chaos theory. Beyond that, the picture also serves as a description of the moment of realisation that powerful, unstoppable forces are slamming down on one, rushing in from the immediate future.

In the first case, those rather abstract concepts of fractals and chaos theory can just as quickly lead us to the so-called “butterfly effect”. This is where one butterfly, by flapping its tiny wings, contributes the critical bit of energy needed to help push a weather pattern over the threshold and on to becoming a massive tropical storm, thereby causing vast destruction across the landscape.

Or, consider a more nuanced version of such things. Let’s consider the infestation of one beetle, a particular insect pest that attacks soya bean plants. This beetle, unchecked, is allowed to reproduce wildly and to spread widely throughout the Iowan farmland because of difficulties with pesticides use to control it. As a result of this spread of beetle larvae, the Iowa soya crop is devastated. Remember that Iowa produces massive amounts of soya beans for the Chinese market (more, in fact, than for the US itself). As the American crop is much smaller that season, soya prices swiftly rise globally. Soon, shortages occur in this staple crop, food riots break out, governments fall, and the entire dynamic of the international political order trembles. This is, of course, a way of reimagining that old adage, “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.”

That other, more subliminal meaning of Hokusai’s picture is an apprehension of massive, imminent changes, coming at great speed – and that cannot be prevented. That should lead us to think of the contemporary architecture of the global political and economic system.

Three quarters of a century ago, back when the US had less than 8% of the world’s population, it also had around half of global GDP. Together with a growing roster of similarly minded nations, they designed and built a new global political and economic architecture to replace the one that had been shattered by global warfare. This included the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF, as well as Nato and other international security arrangements.

Not everybody loved this arrangement or felt it was fair, but, taken together, it helped keep Europe (and the world) from yet another global conflagration; provided the framework under which the age of colonial domination came to a close, largely peacefully; averted an international nuclear military calamity; led to the most sustained improvement in economic circumstances the world has yet seen; provided at least fitful progress on international human rights measures, and carved out a space for a peaceful conclusion to the Soviet empire. And, at the minimum, there is now a growing global consensus (save for Donald Trump, perhaps) for concerted measures to avoid global climate catastrophe, in the absence of a real Plan B for humanity.

That earlier overwhelming American economic and political domination has receded, but the architecture of that earlier age remains largely as it was built back then. But there are massive changes already washing onto the shore, like great waves about to strike, that will probably shake it to its foundations.

Tightening the focus somewhat to a way of looking at developments, ostensibly only in the US, James Homan of The Washington Post has recently written about a presentation by Bruce Mehlman in which he has attempted to identify and then to clarify those successive waves already crashing – or poised to do so – upon our increasingly frail little boats. Mehlman is a veteran Republican political strategist but is now a lobbyist representing a range of hi-tech companies in their dealings with official Washington.

As Homan writes,

“…Mehlman, who has long represented technology companies, sees parallels between the cycle of disruption that’s churned through Silicon Valley and what’s now wreaking havoc on Washington. ‘The forces that set the stage for Donald Trump’s election are long-term, structural and global,’ Mehlman told me yesterday. ‘Much like Uber, Trump perceived the opportunity to reach directly to the public to disrupt a dysfunctional marketplace that lacked innovation and failed to satisfy consumers. Also much like Uber, he flouted conventions and tested the limits of traditional rules, fighting the entrenched establishment while seeking its acceptance … Disruption is hard and, well, disruptive. It usually leaves observers feeling exhausted, uncertain and ultimately either angry or exhilarated.’ ”

In that presentation, Mehlman has pointed to seven large challenges and changes occurring in the US, but, with just a little stretching of the imagination, they are easy to see in their global context as well, as they affect and dislocate the rest of the world’s nations and their political and economic lives.

The first of these from Mehlman was the massive social changes that happened in the past half century. While back in 1967 the wealthiest 1% of Americans controlled 27% of the nation’s wealth, now, even as there is much more wealth around, the concentration at the top has reached around 42% of the total. Back in 1967, fewer than 10% of children were born outside of marriage, now it is hovering around 40% and the very nature of the idea of a family seems to be evolving. Returning to levels last seen at the height of immigration into the US early in the 20th century, foreign-born individuals now equal around 15% of the total national population, some three times the level of a half-century ago. Similarly, the composition of the workforce has changed. There are many more women working full-time, there has been a great decrease in the percentage of white Americans without a university degree, and there is even a startling reversal of the pattern of early home leaving. Now, a third of 18-24-year-olds are living with parents.

Meanwhile, there is a rapidly accelerating wave of technological change hitting the nation. Mehlman notes it took nearly 390,000 workers to generate $1-billion in goods and services 50 years ago. By contrast, now it takes fewer than 27,000 workers to achieve the same result. While it took 75 years for telephones to be installed in 100-million homes, following its commercial development, it took only a few months for something called “Candy Crush” to hit that same level. (Ed: Is that progress?)

Third, the country is seeing a profound weakening of what Mehlman describes as “anchor institutions”. As Homan described Mehlman’s presentation,

Seven in 10 adults were married in 1967. Now it’s 50 percent. Three in 10 workers were members of labor unions then. Now it’s 11 percent. Two-thirds of Americans trusted government. It’s never been close to that since Vietnam and Watergate. The latest studies show only about 20 percent of the country trusts the feds to do the right thing.”

Similarly, and simultaneously, there has been a steep decline in what he calls “honest brokers”, especially with the nation’s media institutions. The survey data shows that:

Trust in media has been on a steady decline among not just Republicans but also Democrats and independents since Walter Cronkite [the veteran TV news presenter for CBS] was the most trusted man in America in 1972.”

Moreover, per Mehlman, the nation’s leaders have consistently overpromised and underdelivered, citing as his examples: an Obama promise for the Affordable Care Act that people could keep their doctors if they liked them under Obamacare; then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s statement that American troops would be welcomed with flowers and “greeted as liberators” in Iraq, rather than with the IEDs they encountered; Bill Clinton’s infamous comments about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and his predecessor, GHW Bush’s greatly misleading statement that his audiences should read his lips and draw from his mien that there would be no new taxes during his time in office.

Concurrently, the nation’s politicians have too often deferred the hard, awkward, unpleasant choices off to some vague, gauzy future. True to his Republican roots, Mehlman points to the fact federal entitlement (mandatory payments to qualifying individuals as specified by law such as welfare, pensions, medical aid, etc.) have come to occupy a growing share of the federal budget (along with interest on the debt and military spending, we should add). Meanwhile, however, politicians have avoided the tough choices that need to be addressed to address this question as such mandatory spending went from 53% in 1967 to 69% by 2016 and threatens to rise further with an ageing population, further skewing federal government spending.

Finally, according to Mehlman, and specifically within the political system, the two major political parties (the Democrats and Republicans), the way most voters have traditionally sought to affect policy choices for the nation, have lost their pride of place in the American political universe. Outside groups, more starkly ideological in their nature and more tightly focused on single-issue politics, have taken the centre ring instead. This trend has only accelerated with “the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. This has empowered plutocrats”, wrote Homan, citing Mehlman. Yes indeed, they have.

Beyond Mehlman’s own seven key variables, yet another should be added. This is one that Mehlman failed to mention, perhaps because it is now so ubiquitous in American society, and within the IT/hi-tech world. But like Mehlman’s seven, this does not simply affect America. This wave, too, has already begun to wash over the rest of the world. In this case, it is the increasing speed, volume, impact, and range of penetration of social media – in all its variations. This one means people are increasingly moving beyond the traditional institutions of American life to connect with each other – and thereby to find ways to amplify their grievances, desires, fears, angers, and hopes.

Globally, this seems to have had its first real effect some years back in the Philippines when mass protests were organised via simple SMS messages, calling protesters to arrive at a downtown square wearing black clothing, thereby helping drive President Jose Estrada from office. Such possibilities are only continuing to grow in speed, spread and severity. Just ask the losers in the many colour revolutions or the former regimes that had been swept away in the Arab Spring (even if what came afterwards sometimes resembled an apocalypse for some nations).

The result of these seven developments – plus our eighth one – mean that the changes in America’s political, economic and social systems are only going to accelerate and intensify, and these waves will keep coming and coming, swamping more and more boats, and without let-up. Moreover, regarding that old adage about America’s sneezes and the world’s colds, instead we are going to be patients in a world where “disease” vectors will come from every direction and every quarter, and we will all be sneezing and coughing from each others’ illnesses. DM

Image: Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1832

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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