The world is playing out multiple scenarios — the best and the worst of worlds.
Unprecedented wealth and devastating social and environmental consequences; new realms of freedom and the extension of repression (from torture to digital control and global policing of the information world); the celebration of common values and the “ethical cleansing” of the global order by the erosion of the rule of law, ie, the practice of self-exemption and double standards; accumulated knowledge and expanding ignorance — all are simultaneous dimensions of a reality whose intricate interactions and distances are far from being deciphered or grasped.
Practices of resistance and building (local) alternative forms are disconnected, limited in reach, and often experience defeat. This was the case, for instance, when 40 million citizens around the globe protested against the planned intervention in Iraq in 2003, to no avail.
Thus, a question looms: Can a major transformative shift, leading to a desirable scenario, be made by a “thousand cuts” as Wolfgang Streeck puts it, or does it require a different strategy?
A part of the answer lies in recognising the need to refocus on an exceptionally threatening issue — that of war.
Reaffirming peace as the prime imperative of the human species, in other words, respecting life as the highest value, has to become a global cultural and political endeavour (as a character in Amin Maalouf’s novel Nos frères inattendus, says, death is our only enemy, not other nations or races).
Dismantling war as a practice, instrument and institution is the prime precondition to depart securely from the present and reach a desirable future.
But since Hiroshima, the human species has invested increasing cognitive and material efforts to produce and perfect the weapons of mass destruction that are capable of eliminating the future as a dimension of human history.
Since the end of World War 2, instead of upholding consistently the uttered promise “never again”, and above all getting rid of nuclear weapons, humankind has instead opted for, as Paul Virilio points out, the “continuation of total war by other means” by embarking on an “infinite development of armament” that is an “infinite preparation for war”.
This practice was implemented despite arms control treaties, détente, deterrence, and surges of peace movements. It was the consequence of technological advances and the character of the power elites. The sophistication of weapons radicalised the dimension of speed and increased the independence of machines from humans. Machines are gaining the capacity to make decisions, marginalising or even eliminating human reflection as an overriding factor.
This practice of preparing for war has continued in spite of the end of the Cold War. The apocalyptic logic of the arms race, increased military expenditure, and the production of increasingly sophisticated lethal arms have not been suspended, as the military interventions and the display of weapons in ensuing conflicts in the post-Cold War world testify.
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Economic interdependence has been proven to have no preventive capacity, the UN has dissolved into a non-effective preventive and peacemaking institution, and the pain of previous suffering and destruction has not had a lasting, self-restraining or moderating effect.
And so here we are now, amid a new Cold War, as some authors such as Stephen F Cohen put it, a conflict deadlier than the previous one, with numerous military interventions, the highest military expenditure ever, and facing, alongside other conflicts, a war in Ukraine that is generating a global economic, energy and food crisis and with each passing day bringing the world closer to a nuclear showdown.
This is the prime context within which we are deliberating on the transformative scenario in the 21st century — amid the shame and mystery of war, amid the possibility of an apocalypse.
Somewhat paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci, we are leaving the present but without reaching the future.
In order to reach that future, two major conditions are required.
The first is a major transformative shift in the US, the most powerful state in human history. This means the US abandoning its ahistorical project of eternal hegemony, and restraining the power of the military-industrial complex and financial centres which are now beyond democratic control.
It means abandoning the project of maintaining by any means available the capacity to outcompete other nations in all domains. Internally, it requires transforming the neoliberal capitalist paradigm that has for decades assaulted US society (as per Noam Chomsky), polarising it, angering it, silencing it, de-democratising it, and revitalising serious concerns about the future of practices leading to equality, solidarity, social justice and participative democracy.
And second, we need the emergence of a new South, an alliance of victims who are able to think through a paradigm shift by understanding the workings of the global system, its historical traumas, structural hurdles and internal missteps.
In other words, a global transformation in the desired direction requires the transformation of the prime Northern actor, the US, resisting changes it imposes due to its overwhelming military and economic power, and the re-emergence of the voice and alternative practice of the Global South.
These two directions may bring a new “never again”, a chance for the future. DM