Democratic Discontent, Black Swans, Constitutional Conventions, and Civil or Foreign Wars

by Peter Daniel Haworth on August 23, 2011 · 38 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Politics & Power

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Could the United States radically change via another constitutional convention, experience a new civil war, split into multiple confederacies, and/or engage in a massive foreign war in order to preserve its cohesion?[i] According to conventional thought, such possibilities are improbable. Nevertheless, while significant attention has been focused on recent riots in other parts of the world, some pollsters are measuring high levels of discontent here in the United States that might make such improbable events seem more plausible. Recently Paul Joseph Watson reported the following:

“Americans’ lack of confidence in their leadership is so fervent that they are now ‘pre-revolutionary,’ according to pollster Pat Caddell… A new Rasmussen poll shows that just 17 per cent of Americans believe that the U.S. government has the consent of the governed, an all time low. This dovetails with a record low for Congress’ approval rating, which stands at a paltry 6 per cent, while 46 per cent of Americans think most members of Congress are corrupt, with just 29% believing otherwise.”[ii]

When considering Americans’ skepticism about the legitimacy of their government, it is appropriate to question whether a “black swan” political-event (like one of the above) is in the making. Deriving its name from the surprising discovery of the first black version of a swan in Australia (after millenniums of the Old World believing all swans to be white), a black swan event is one that most people consider highly improbable, that is often associated with and catalytic for major paradigm shifts in the course of history, and that people tend to make retrospective explanations for so as to hide (often for the sake of maintaining peace of mind) its outlier status.

In the paragraphs that follow, I elaborate on the theory of black swans and, then, describe some outlier that are, at least, conceivable when hypothesizing about the future of the United States. These are not predictions; rather, they are merely possible events that convention trains us to ignore. However, though some balk at such possibilities, measurements of major political discontent (see above) could be a “trails of bread crumbs” that make such outliers intuitively more plausible. Ignoring the possibility of outlier events (like the ones discussed in this essay) is unwise, for they are frequent within and largely mold human history. Moreover, their occurrence would likely change the substance and course of the life that we are now accustomed to living.

Black Swan Theory and American Possibilities:

The concept and the above three-characteristic definition of “black swan” events were recently made famous by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (investment theorist and author) in his book, The Black Swan. Taleb discusses how many events in history actually qualify as black swans, and the list includes the world wars, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the spread of the internet, etc. According to Taleb, the irony is that most important changes in the world are actually black swans, but, yet, there is so little focus on them qua black swans in the social sciences. This is, in part, due to the conventional methodology of focusing on statistically probable phenomena, rather than the possibility of outliers. Taleb, moreover, goes beyond mere theory. He also describes how investors have and can employ black-swan analysis in their work; anticipating and preparing for the improbable can bestow significant rewards[iii] Thus, his insights about outliers have practical implications for how people prepare for the future.

Given both (1) Taleb’s analysis of black swans’ dramatic implications and (2) the high level of contemporary political unrest in America, is it possible that we are on the verge of a statistically improbable, paradigm-shifting event here in the United States? If so, it is worth speculating on the possible black-swan manifestations that Americans’ “’pre-revolutionary’” sentiment might precipitate. Before considering the more extreme outliers, I will consider one that is part of the current constitutional framework but which has never actually been employed: the states exercising their Article V powers to compel Congress into calling a constitutional convention for proposing amendments to the Constitution. The last time that states came close to reaching the two-thirds necessary to accomplish this was during their struggle to enact the 17th Amendment, which made direct election the means of selecting U.S. Senators. Faced with the prospect of having to call a constitutional convention, however, Congress preempted the states by proposing the 17th Amendment, which was then ratified. Is it possible that frustration about the current governmental system could spark another drive by the states for constitutional change? Could such an effort actually be successful because the Federal Congress is sufficiently disliked and, hence, could not successfully preempt a state-driven convention?

With respect to more extreme outliers, some have already started to consider the various possibilities, but their predictions are often discounted because they conflict with conventional thinking. Russian scholar, Igor Panarin, for example, has predicted that there will be another American civil war that separates the United States into four separate confederacies.[iv] Could this be possible?

This question is very serious in light of the late work of famed international systems expert, George F. Kennan, who was a major impetus for the United States’ early containment policy of the Soviet Union after World War II. Kennan’s book, Around The Craged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy, suggests, in a manner somewhat similar to Panarin, that the United States is a highly inefficient union that could (and probably should) be divided into multiple sectional republics, albeit while retaining a loose con-federal union. After some discussion of the problems of centralization, Kennan makes this bold statement:

It is under the influence of these views about the disadvantages of ‘bigness’ that I have often diverted myself, and puzzled my friends, by wondering how it would be if our country, while retaining certain rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment. I could conceive of something like nine of these republics—let us say, New England; the Middle Atlantic states; the Middle West, the Northwest (from Wisconsin to the Northwest, and down the Pacific coast to central California); the Southwest (including southern California and Hawaii); Texas (by itself); the Old South; Florida (perhaps including Puerto Rico); and Alaska; plus three great self-governing urban regions, those of New York, Chicago, and Los Angles—a total of twelve constituent entities. To these entities I would accord a large part of the present federal powers than one might suspect—large enough, in fact, to make most people gasp.[v]

If, for the sake of argument, Kennan is correct, it seems possible that future historical events will transpire to correct such disequilibrium. Could war between Americans be an unfortunate part of this correction? Hopefully, the answer is negative, but such hope should not impede serious consideration of the question.

Aside from sectional divisions, one can envision a slightly different mode of American conflict via reflecting upon Taleb’s own account of the Lebanese civil war. Here Taleb’s analysis can offer possible insight into the American scenario in that Taleb’s presentation reveals the Lebanese war as being both an outlier event and an example of civil war that was non-sectional in character. According to Taleb, the war in Lebanon seemed highly improbable to most given Lebanon’s history as place where different religious groups had lived in remarkable concord for several centuries.[vi] Furthermore, when the war occurred, it was fought between people-groups occupying the same territory; it was not a sectional fight akin to the 19th century American Civil War.[vii] If Lebanon could have such an unexpected struggle that destroyed its long-standing paradise, it seems conceivable that a similar non-sectional civil war could erupt in the United States among hostile groups—e.g., secularists versus religious-traditionalists. Such a war might involve neighboring town versus town and individual neighbor versus neighbor.[viii] This possibility might, then, be different from Panarin’s prediction of the American union rupturing into four confederacies, and it is another possible example of an outlier event that most now view to be improbable.

Another reflection entails the possibility of America becoming involved in a major war that results from economic and political unrest. Here I employ the insights of Stanley Hauerwas, a prolific theologian and philosopher at Duke. Hauerwas argues that American unity is often generated via the conjuring of civil religious symbols through American war-making:

War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the ‘Unum’ that makes the ‘pluribus’ possible. War is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.[4] World War I was the decisive moment because it was that war that finally healed the wounds caused by the civil war.[ix]

The realistic possibility of this statement has unsettling implications. If American unity is ever in jeopardy due, perhaps, to pathetic centralized economic and political policies and events, it might become politically (albeit, not ethically) intelligible for Americans to plunge themselves into a war with a foreign enemy, especially given our outstanding military capacity and the possibility of acquiring new economic assets during such a campaign.

Regardless of whether we are (a) on the verge of a black swan and (b) whether it could take the form of a new constitutional convention, civil war and disunion, non-sectional civil war, new foreign conflicts that create patriotic unity and economic opportunity, or some other manifestation, the outcome of any such mode of an improbable game-changer would be immensely disruptive for life as we know it. In following Taleb, we should realize that preparing for major outliers is both practical and often rewarding. Given both these considerations and the realization that black swans are (as Taleb argues) frequent in history, it seems prudent to continue exploring these issues. In fact such an examination might be one of the saner actions for us to pursue at this juncture.


[i] With respect to the title of this essay, I am in partial debt to Michael Sandel because I am playing off the title to his interesting book, Democracy’s Discontent.

[ii] Paul Joseph Watson, “Pollster: Americans are ‘Pre-Revolutionary’,” Infowars.com, http://www.infowars.com/pollster-americans-are-pre-revolutionary/, Accessed on August 10, 2011.

[iii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2010), xxi-xxxiii.

[iv] Andrew Osborn, “As if Things Weren’t Bad Enough, Russian Professor Predicts End of the USA,” Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123051100709638419.html , Accessed on August 10, 2011.

[v] George F. Kennan, Around The Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 149-150.

[vi] Taleb 3-10.

[vii] It is difficult to ascribe the term “civil war” to the great American war between the Northern and Southern states during the 19th century. This was NOT a struggle to control the federal government; rather, it was a war to prevent the Southern states’ from seceding.

[viii] Here I want to tip-my-hat to American historian, Walter McDougall, who mentioned this as a prediction made by a contemporary international relations analyst.

[ix] Stanley Hauerwas, “War and the American Difference,” The Harvard Icthus,http://www.harvardichthus.org/sections/features/2009/11/war-and-the-american-difference/ , Accessed on August 16, 2011.

 

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar meunke August 23, 2011 at 9:51 am

Regarding note 4: if this guy REALLY thinks that Alaska would stand for being part of the Russian Federation, then he really doesn’t understand Americans at all.

He is/was a KGB analyst? A GRU analyst wouldn’t be quite so silly.

avatar Stephen August 23, 2011 at 6:20 pm

That Russian professor also predicted that Kentucky and Tennessee would join the European Union. Now that WOULD be an interesting sight.

avatar Peter Daniel Haworth August 23, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Dear Meunke and Stephen: I think you are ignoring the good professor’s realist assessment of North America if and when his prediction about American disunion comes about. He is presuming that the resulting confederacies and/or isolated states will be politically and economically weaker and, hence, be compelled (or significantly motivated) to join foreign states and/or enter alliances. One can challenge the veracity of such assumptions; I am not convinced he is correct. However, given the extremely different facts-on-the-ground in a disunion scenario, it seems unfair to flippantly ridicule and ignore the professor for his statements about a hypothetical Alaskan Republic and Eastern Confederacy.

avatar John Médaille August 23, 2011 at 6:47 pm

The success of a constitutional convention depends on a high level of agreement on the causes and cures of our problems, and I don’t see that happening. War might be a possibility, since weakness and disunion encourage war. But on the other hand, we are pretty hard to get at, and have very pacific neighbors.

The truth about America is that it is an oligarchy. And that wouldn’t be so bad; we would easily accept an oligarchy if they could actually rule. But they can’t. We have the most stupid and incompetent oligarchs since the French aristocracy on the eve of the Revolution. We have the lowest labor force participation rate since before women started entering the workforce in large numbers, and of those in the official workforce, millions are without work, and millions more are working part-time or below their capacity.

I think break-up is the most likely possibility. As the central gov’t can no longer provide services, the periphery will cease to remit funds or to obey commands. Just think of this: California could solve all of its fiscal problems by simply succeeding from the Union; it sends more to Washington then it receives in services. Indeed, the shortfall ($50B in 20 months) is enough to handle not only the state’s problems, but the fiscal problems of all its subdivisions as well. At some point, they have no choice but to take that option.

Hang on, Front Porchers: localism is the wave of the future.

avatar John Haas August 23, 2011 at 6:51 pm

“He is presuming that the resulting confederacies and/or isolated states will be politically and economically weaker and, hence, be compelled (or significantly motivated) to join foreign states and/or enter alliances.”

The same presumption was operative in the 1780s, when the states were far more self-sufficient. In a nuclear-weapons filled, foreign-economy and foreign-oil dependent, age such as our own, the general presumption seems even more warranted.

avatar Peter Daniel Haworth August 23, 2011 at 7:22 pm

John Hass: as you suggest, security concerns have always been one reason for union. However, security issues must be appropriately assessed, and I am not convinced (as I said above) that disunion (especially, if it also entailed the creation of 2-5 confederacies) would result in foreign dominance. In the present, nuclear weapons are a very powerful deterrent against foreign imperialism, and the disunited States (and their confederacies) would have them.

avatar Peter Daniel Haworth August 23, 2011 at 7:24 pm

John Medaille: You raise very good points.

avatar JonF August 23, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Re: Russian scholar, Igor Panarin, for example, has predicted that there will be another American civil war that separates the United States into four separate confederacies.[iv] Could this be possible?

A civil war? No. For one thing, people’s personal connections are scattered all over the country for any a war. For example, I have friends or relatives whom I have seen or spoken to in the last year in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Idaho, Washington (state) and Alaska. Would I want to go to was against those people? Of course not!
However I think a non-violent crack-up might be a possibility, albeit probably not in my lifetime (I am 44; do the math). It could easily affacet our neighbors too, with Canada also splitting up (and parts of it merging with the neighboring US states), and northern and southern Mexico splitting.

Contrawise I could also see a huge super-state, some version of a North American Union coming into existence by the century’s end depending on how many other events play out.

avatar Scott Kelly August 24, 2011 at 11:31 am

Peter, well written and thought provoking. But one thing which is missing and probably the strongest case against de-unionizing would be the corporate influences. In the event something of this magnitude were to occur, large corporations whom employ large amounts of the population of particular cities (ie. Intel, Honeywell, etc.) could theoretically have such great influence upon such large numbers of people as to be advantageous for the companies and becoming empirical in their own right. These influences could lead to localized governing by corporate leadership which would all but abolish their competition in their regions. Now, where would that leave the people whom are in the company’s charge? They are forced to ‘Play along’ with the corporate leadership. This could lead to fragmented relations and unrest within the communities as corporate policy will slowly work into the personal belief’s of the rank and file forming a class society. Because of the unrest within, corporations would then become more of a police state in their respective regions. Small businesses would die out as the larger corporations would dictate and govern which of the smaller businesses were allowed to continue and which would simply go away. Corruption would be much more prevalent and we’d eventually see small imperialist ‘states’. Then where does the decentralization of our military come in? Our military is vast and provides much more than security from outside influences. Entire cities and micro-economies across the world, let alone the country are founded and operated almost exclusively because of the military existence within the area. With dis-unionization, the military itself, would become a union or perhaps a police-state with arms extending throughout the world. Corporations such as Haliburton/KBR which have very close ties and large contracts with the military would probably then have an even larger influence within the military, leading to more corruption as well, which leads us back to Corporate governing of the people. In an attempt to limit corporate rule, people would form local governments to limit the corporate influence upon their communities and in order to make these governing bodies influential over the corporate leadership, they’d have to unite with other such governing bodies in areas across the former US. Basically leading back to unionization in the form that we already possess.

I do see states having larger influence in an attempt to unclog the bottleneck in Washington to better serve their needs. In my opinion, the make up of our country is too complex to allow it to fall apart. I can see a “revolution” happening. But this would be a revolution that fleeces the corruptible nature currently within our government and holds politicians accountable for their actions in the form of civil lawsuits that would affect offenders personal wealth and leading to possible incarceration. These laws already exist, but are rarely enforced. Less governing isn’t always a good thing, it leads to corruption and imperialism. Too much governing leads to an ineffective and inefficient government. There has to be a happy medium which our current system does meet. At times it may swing closer to the poles of either side, but it’s always somewhere in the middle. Which in my opinion is where it should be and needs to be to continue to be a prosperous and free nation.
~Mouse

avatar John Haas August 24, 2011 at 12:17 pm

“California could solve all of its fiscal problems by simply succeeding from the Union”

Nothing succeeds like secesh!

avatar Anonymous August 24, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I think is interesting, particularly in light of the European experience that is unfolding in front of us. Why would we want to create the unworkable European disconnect between fiscal and monetary policy that these suggestions inevtibaly imply.

avatar Mogden August 24, 2011 at 4:35 pm

If we simply stopped the federal government from doing the 90% of things it does now which are unconstitutional, there would be no need for a civil war. The states could already play the role of “sub-republics”, as they were intended to do all along.

avatar mymikey August 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Using Patrick Caddell to support your argument does not lend you a lot of authority. Only 17% think the government has the consent of the governed? How does that break down? How many actually think that both Democrats and the GOP lack consent of the governed?

This is like saying a majority of americans want to repeal ACA — the problem is a non-insignificant part of those who don’t like it wanted it to go further, as in single payer.

avatar Pelagius August 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm

If you think you can predict a Black Swan event, I wonder if you’ve read the book. Taleb’s point is not that we should be “ready” for Black Swans, but that misplaced confidence in our mental ability to comprehend low-probability events leads to disastrous results. You seem to be exhibiting symptoms of what he calls “future blindness”. There is much that you can’t see, and you don’t know it.

avatar Shawn August 24, 2011 at 9:24 pm

I agree entirely with your points, and very much appreciate your insight. I had no idea that I was echoing Kennan in the last year, as I have been arguing the same to friends. I also believe that we are on the verge of a black-swan event; I think it inevitable now.

avatar Peter Daniel Haworth August 24, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Pelagius: I am not predicting anything, and I said as much in the essay. I was just elucidating possible negative outliers for the sake of encouraging their practical consideration. In Chapter 13, Taleb encourages caution about negative black swans in order to reduce possible risk. Moreover, he discusses the possibility of practically benefiting from positive black swans via exposing oneself to them. This does not entail making predictions; rather, it involves wisely considering (to an appropriate degree) possible contingencies and, then, taking prudent steps to prepare in case such outliers occur.

avatar Barry A. McCain August 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Thoroughly enjoyed the piece (and commentary); found them compelling and thought-provoking.

See also:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903461304576524313844439194.html

avatar David August 25, 2011 at 12:43 am

Seems a bit of delusional fantasy amid an echo chamber more than willing to encourage it. As long as social security checks are cut (not cut with dollars ruined by inflation, or cut at a later year in life, but completely not cut at all), and the most separatist groups turn against their own sons who’ve “patriotically” served in the military, and the vast resources of American businesses become independent on national structures, and the list could go on for miles.

Folks, we’re the only people who think anything would be improved by the railroad gauges diversifying. Most folks are glad when foreign countries use the same forks they are used to when they travel.

And right or wrong, oligarchy or no, “most folks” still run things.

There’s going to have to be something much bigger, much more terrible, much more personal and not correctable by applying (without apology) the full remaining force of economics, arms and what passes for culture in these “still united” states.

We’d rather stick together and burn some other country to the ground to keep it all going. And we will. God have mercy on our souls, we already have.

avatar Valli Genevieve August 25, 2011 at 6:43 am

I have to say, here in New England, there is conversation in my community, for the first time I can ever remember, along the lines of “When the South wanted to secede, we should have let them go. They have been nothing but a thorn in the side of the republic. The North would be better off without them = higher education levels, environmental responsibility, more rational healthcare system, etc. ”

Let the south go their own crazy tea party way, they seem to value lower taxes against all “common goods”. It may be time for them to live with the consequences of their politics and reactionary world views. But, it may be too late. The virus has spread and we may be looking at a civil war based on progressive versus regressive beliefs – a far messier and destructive outcome.

avatar Barry A. McCain August 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Folks, we’re the only people who think anything would be improved by the railroad gauges diversifying. Most folks are glad when foreign countries use the same forks they are used to when they travel.

That reminds me of joke a comedian told approx. five years ago–that still applies today:

“This country’s divided into three groups–10% are Republicans; 10% are Democrats [beat] the other 80% wish the Queen would just forgive us and take us back.”

Sounds about right to me: No matter which side where you stand on ObamaCare, Social Security, military spending, abortion, or any other “big ticket” issue, the fact that you have a serious opinion at all puts one in the minority.

avatar Carl Eric Scott August 25, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Sorry, but this is another instance of why it is impossible to take John Medaille seriously about politics.

Simplistic oligarchy talk, and as David hints, a bizarrely hopeful outlook about what a collapse of the American Union would probably entail.

He’s good on True Grit, though.

avatar Rob G August 27, 2011 at 1:38 pm

“The virus has spread and we may be looking at a civil war based on progressive versus regressive beliefs – a far messier and destructive outcome.”

The geographical distinction of North v. South does not apply to “progressivism” v. “regressivism” except in a general way, and to paint the Tea Party as a “southern” thing is just silly. If anything, the distinction is urban vs. rural. Forget the blue state/red state stuff — look at the breakdowns county by county. The urban areas are where progressivism tends to be concentrated. So unless you’re predicting a civil war between country mice and city mice you might want to rethink your observations.

avatar John Haas August 27, 2011 at 3:22 pm

There won’t be a literal civil war. (how do I know? OK, I don’t, but I feel pretty safe with that prognosis.)

But we already have one, by proxy, and it’s occurring of course in congress.

The newly-born-again deficit hawks (you know, the same people who–like Paul Ryan–were throwing money we didn’t have at all their preferred projects back in the aughts) are doing everything but caning their opponents on the hill. It will stay that way, I suspect, for as long as there’s political advantage in keeping the country dysfunctional on the opponent’s party’s watch.

Put them back in power and it will no doubt be back-to-the-future, spending-wise. And otherwise, too. They’ve already made clear that if Libya were up to them, we’d be partying like it was 2003.

avatar JA August 27, 2011 at 9:36 pm

A few quick observations:

1) While some of these events are possible, neither a civil conflagration of arms nor a great power war is plausible. Americans are too sissified for such business. We are truly Nietzsche’s last man, too comfortable at the end of history.

2) Generalized polls are extremely problematical. The phrasing of the question matters too much, and such a vague query tells us little, as another poster notes above.

3) Writers on the FPR, at times, evince an apocalyptic rhetoric, akin to something one would experience at a dispensationalist church or in the environmental movement. Contra to Professor Deneen, who some time ago referenced an investor speciously claiming that the world economy is facing imminent collapse, John Medaille, who believes that the current order is so unsustainable to be soon undone, or this article, which fantasizes about the end of America, the world is likely to keep on turning as it has for some time. There is a lot of ruin in a nation, and the current American order, for all its problems, is unlikely to dissolve, ushering in an era of localism.

We don’t need to be delusional in order to be a faithful remnant. We may never see a restoration of true and vibrant communities as our ancestors knew them. We certainly won’t see anything like the subsidiary arrangements of the pre-modern world. The state, the mass market, consumerism, monadic liberalism, etc., will take centuries to unravel and the process has yet to even begin. They are here to stay. Instead, take the long view and merely be faithful.

avatar JonF August 28, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Re: Americans are too sissified for such business.

Hardly sissified. Rather the cost of total warfare has gotten too high, with a potential death toll in the billions. Prudence, not “sissification”, dictates we shun such possibilities.

avatar Steve Adams August 28, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Unless there is a massive power killing EMP much more likely the some large regional districts are state level increases in independence. People are less disgusted with their state gov and most states have some level of financial responsibility from balanced budget mandates. Plus, those levels of government are far more responsive to the will of the people and seem to be less wasteful and corrupt. States rights changes in the next decade will change the country.

avatar pb August 29, 2011 at 7:54 pm

“The state, the mass market, consumerism, monadic liberalism, etc., will take centuries to unravel and the process has yet to even begin. ”

Did you factor in resource depletion?

avatar JA August 29, 2011 at 10:43 pm

@JonF: Have you missed events since Vietnam? While there are certainly demographic groups in the US who would be willing to shoulder casualties, the country, as a whole, is not. We spend billions developing and employing weapons to minimize American casualties on the slim margins, even if this means prolonging conflicts that cost more civilian lives. This is the only way that Americans, again, as a whole, are willing to stomach wars. Any number of casualties, even if only a few hundred, is enough to rile substantial public opposition.

@pb: Yes, I did. Did you not catch the reference to Deneen’s earlier post?

On your part, can you demonstrate that resource depletion is imminent? That is not clear at all. Certainly, there are questions regarding oil reserves, fresh water, topsoil erosion, etc., but nothing to suggest that society will collapse within our lifetimes. Innovation has kept modernity going so far. Now, it will eventually fail, but only hoping or fantasizing that it does, if only to usher in a communitarian promised land, is pathological apocalypticism and an exercise in willful blindness.

avatar pb August 29, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Innovation that has based on cheap energy. One can be an agnostic because no hard proof is available, but that doesn’t mean one can’t lean towards an opinion being more probable based on extrapolation from current trends being unchanged. If the current way of life is unsustainable then one can do what one can in order to change things, while believing that such effort may not be enough. I don’t know how old you are, but I think it is not that far-fetched to surmise that consumerism and monadic liberalism (social atomism?) will not be around for another 50+ years. As for collapse –it may be possible that the state is strengthened in order to perpetuate itself as long as it can, but for some that’s just another indication of collapse.

I don’t know how many FPR contributors are “hoping or fantasizing that modernity” will fail soon — I think each is doing something to initiate some form of response to the evils of our political economy, even if it is primarily through education.

avatar JA August 30, 2011 at 2:10 am

@pb: The current trends, if we are to extrapolate based on expert opinion and not wishful thinking, is that there are problems of resource depletion. However, there are very few experts who suggest anything like your wild assertion that the death of consumerism and the collapse of the modern economy is nigh. Furthermore, my guess is that you (like myself) have no expertise in resource management. If so, on what grounds have you staked this opinion? Have you reviewed the literature–not just one or two people whose interests align with your own, which would merely be an exercise in confirmation bias–but rather the entire field? This is a complex matter, after all, and your post seems riddled with unquestioned assumptions and fideistic declarations.

Finally, this matter of resource depletion, which is both incidental to my claim, in that a consideration of it isn’t central to the claim, and a demonstration of it, in that the confirmation bias and apocalypticism you exhibit is exemplary of the phenomenon about which I have written, cannot be dismissed by calling attention to the good that some of the writers here do. In fact, I agree with most of them on the points and objections that they raise; I just also think it prudent to avoid the foolish hysteria of proclaiming the imminent end of the current order on street corners. It makes them look like nuts. Most ironically, it is reminiscent of the same dispensational evangelicalism that many of the writers here disdain.

avatar pb August 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Is anyone going to have the sort of omniscience that is needed to have knowledge of particulars to make exact predictions? No. As for the literature, you don’t need much to form an opinion unless one is going to hold to abiogenesis with regards to the production of oil–in which case there is no evidence that oil fields are being replenished at a rate matching consumption. So no, unless one believes that natural resources are created ex nihilo in order to satisfy mankind’s demands, then one will have to accept that depletion and the ignoring/destruction of ecological cycles will have consequences if rates of consumption are maintained.

I already admitted that I was writing primarily from opinion, not from knowledge, strictly speaking. So what? Much of practical life is predicated upon opinion and not knowledge. For some it is sufficient for them to re-evaluate their way of life and make changes. For others, they approach it from another angle, already realizing that the current political economy is unjust and unsustainable. Might it happen that demand for oil is cut down in the future and that the downside of the peak oil curve is not that sharp? Sure. You might not think that the worst, “apocalyptic” scenarios are likely to happen. Fine. (Is that an excuse for inaction?) If there is no reasonable response by oil-dependent societies to peak oil, do you think the continued production, movement, and consumption of cheap goods is likely once oil goes beyond $200/barrel?

avatar pb August 30, 2011 at 4:37 pm

For those who might be interested:
An English translation of the analysis of peak oil by the Bundeswehr is now available: http://energybulletin.net/stories/2011-08-30/complete-english-translation-german-military-analysis-peak-oil-now-available

http://fabiusmaximus.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/24215/
Recovering lost knowledge about exhaustion of the Earth’s resources (such as Peak Oil)
by Fabius Maximus

avatar pb August 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Just saw this notice as well:
http://www.springer.com/engineering/energy+technology/book/978-94-007-1815-9

Peeking at Peak Oil
Aleklett, Kjell, Lardelli, Michael, Qvennerstedt, Olle
1st Edition., 2012, 200 p. 100 illus., 50 in color.
Softcover, ISBN 978-94-007-1815-9
Available: May 29, 2012
approx. $34.95

Discusses the major social and economic implications of peak oil
Explains the world before and after the point in time when the rate of oil production enters terminal decline.
Written by an authority in the field to be accessible to a broad audience

avatar JA August 30, 2011 at 6:43 pm

PB: It is difficult to respond adequately because you ascribe intentions and beliefs to me that I never advocated. For instance, after speculating that peak oil may not be near, you ask, “Is that an excuse for inaction?” Yet, if you read me, I make no such claim about action or inaction at any point. I do not claim that the current consumption of oil is sustainable over the long-term. I do not claim that an innovation will come along, like an instance of Deus Ex Machina, to allow rates of consumption to continue at current levels. I do not think the current economic and political order will exist indefinitely.

My claim was that because prognostication is fraught with difficulty, even for the experts, to hope, assume, or even fantasize as to a possible imminent end of the current order is pathological. It is a phenomenon that we see in other movements. Your claim that your opinion is not based on a thorough review of the literature on the subject only corroborates my claim.

avatar pb August 30, 2011 at 7:01 pm

“Your claim that your opinion is not based on a thorough review of the literature on the subject only corroborates my claim.”

Not really — despite reviewing the literature, my opinion would be still be opinion. It would not be knowledge in the strict sense because I would be taking on faith much of what is reported as data and I have no means to independently verify these on my own. “Informed opinion,” but still opinion, nonetheless, even if I find the reasoning sound.

avatar Greg Panfile September 6, 2011 at 11:58 am

I’d say, one, that modern technology makes a constitutional convention very unlikely… process too slow, convoluted, invented when life moved at the speed of horse and wind.

For civil war or dissolution to happen, things have to go very bad for quite a while. Before either of those, there’s the real big issue.

Which is, to wit, that you have four major powers with nuclear arms who have serious dependencies on external resources for their prosperity and continued domestic tranquillity: US, Europe, China, India.

Any war over the resources, any disruption of the supply lines… and all bets are off, worldwide depression. So the most likely outcome is some sort of grand bargain or division that shares the resources, and protects the supply line, after some negotiating.

Some smaller countries that have those resources will either be conquered outright or receive take-it-or-leave it ultimatums.

In no case is it likely that a major power with nuclear arms is going to let its population starve or sink into poverty without fighting for the needed resources first, unless such a deal is made.

Just a question of time, which place, when. Very likely Dick Cheney thought all this through a while ago…. hence the army we have, and where it is, and where it can move fairly quickly.

avatar Paine September 8, 2011 at 7:31 am

JA labors under the delusion that “it takes two to tango.”

That chunk of the American populace that has been bearing the burden of military service since Vietnam isn’t likely to care if lifer politicians and urban progressives don’t want to play blue-versus-grey on a “fair” basis.

They’re pragmatic people. Their response—after lining the oligarchs and progressives up in front of a wall—will resemble that of the Clint Eastwood character in Unforgiven: “Unarmed? Well they should have armed themselves.”

avatar Peter September 11, 2011 at 9:10 am

After a quick scan of the emails (sorry if I missed anything) – the question is how can we reduce the tension. I do see a great conflict coming. What is the solution?
1) A return to Federalism – the federal govt doing what is to do under the Constitution and the states do the rest. The more decision making is centralized concerning actions / services that can best be handled by the state or locally, the more non-responsive are those decision makers. We don’t need a Department of Education to education our youth.
2) Coral the Supreme Court – there decisions shake up not only politics, but also culture, economics, also religion. It is one thing to declare a law, etc, as unconstitutional, it is another to determine policy. Remember Russel Kirks statement that the is (or at least was) an unwritten social constitution that work in conjunction with the written constitution. The Court has laid waste to the social constitution which government people. That in turn has called for more government.
3) Respect the First Amendment – establishment and free exercise clauses, but we need a statement (amendment) recognizing a Supreme Being (God, the Author of the World, etc) and that a concern over the establishment of a religion does not mean the two most important institutions in society are separated. What a ridiculous premise. Washington said our Constitution will only work for a religious and moral people. He realized that with religion people learn self-control, moderation, and prudence. With such, they need less government.
4) Reduce, coral, or eliminate government spending on research and in the academia. In President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address we tend to focus on his warning on the military industrial complex. A warning not to be dismissed. However, he also warned about reliance of a new emerging elite that similarly pose a threat to our liberty:
“The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
5) Lastly (sorry this is so long), maintain and protect our national sovereignty against trans-national organization, treaties, and foreign policy academics who are ready to surrender our sovereignty and dismiss our Constitution and democratic institution.
I think waging the good fight for these ideas will reduce the tension and save the nation. Reduce the national government, its rule over the culture and economy, return it to the people in the closest form of government that respects their local interest and encourages their involvement, protect our beliefs, so they can not be determined from above, and we should survive.

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