Thursday, May 5, 2011

On Libya, ghosts, and the grinding balance of power.

The salvage and armament workshops of the Libyan Rebellion are not a conscious choice for "badassery," although that is certainly one easy (shallow) reading of it which a sympathetic audience informed by a particular kind of American ("Developed World"?) aesthetic could (will, does) make on first engagement. Something like this:

The theme of institutional collapse resonates with me. I see evidence of, I sympathize with, the post-industrial character of its teleology (christ, I hope I'm using that word right). I oppose dictatorships and blatant totalitarianism. Therefore, when these rebels whip a bunch of weapons together, I am inspired/entertained/thrilled.

Yet this isn't a case of life imitating art. It goes without saying that the rebels are not forging caltrops and cobbling armored trucks out of spare parts because they watched Mad Max or read any of Axler's Deathlands books and thought to themselves, "You know what would really take the wind out of Ghaddafi?..." It's proof of ... something resembling the converse, not "art imitating life" (certainly not "high art") but something along the lines of "tropes and memes and narrartives gaining recognition because of their realistic relationship with the characteristics of our time." It's about reflecting our attitude and understanding of what forces are in play, on the surface and underneath.

Libya might be seen as something like the first post-American war. While Iraq and Afghanistan were official operations of a desperate empire, and the mission creep conflicts in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere are a spreading transitional stain (culminating in bin Laden's capture, a hollow victory come much too late and at a high cost).... Libya has been a conflict for which the United States proper is much too busy and much too overstretched.

There were times when the U.S. would have been glad for an opportunity to swat Gaddfly, although he proved capable of playing his cards at opportune moments well enough to avoid too harsh conflict with The Cowboy and Co. But he and his country were never really priorities. The Superpowers of the Cold War could and did prop up the most necessary markets with dictators and take down the others through cold calculations. When America was a hyperpower it acted with still more impunity - hawks could argue this leverage was even wasted on "humanitarian" missions in countries like Iraq and Bosnia. 9/11 provided pretext to dispose the humanitarian approach that focused on crumbling countries and promote a more geopolitical strategy. Amidst these concerns Ghaddafi mattered very little.

A vortex of revolution.

Today one might think Libya would matter more to the United States, with the oil crisis and a Middle East more uproarious than any point in the last twenty years. There are interests to protect and promote. Yet the Obama administration is showing significant - and wise - constraint, electing to bust in the door but let NATO - France and Britain especially - sweep out the room and allowing the rebels to redecorate. That makes this an operation unlike any other in U.S. history. In its infancy, the U.S. was nearly at the mercy of the European powers, depending more on diplomacy to play one side off another while consolidating territory in the Americas. In the next period the United States openly pursued European-style imperialism, right down to owning colonies and conducting extra-territorial development projects, but differing in that after two World Wars the United States came out far ahead. At the beginning of the Cold War, post-imperial Europe depended on the United States to clean up its sloppy actions. After the USSR plummeted, the U.S. called on European powers to back it up or take on leading roles in volatile but less profitable crises.

Clearly one can read the current conflict in Libya as more of the latter. Or could - if it didn't happen within several broader historical contexts, of which I think three are decisive:

  • The "Arab Spring" and the failure of the Arabic dictators and terroristic jihadism to liberate and provide for the young generation or the populations in general.

  • Second, the inability and/or half-measures of neoliberalism (contemporary colonialism) to either a) incorporate these cultures and markets into the world economic order or b) continue to re-create/rejuvinate the existing oppressive orders and thus secure bargain-rate (globally competitive) exploitation from the native masses. Whereas b) is a trend that can be bypassed in the future by slaughter and destruction (resetting capital and labor), the self-determination of these markets in the global scene is not something neoliberalism wants nor encourages. Arabs beware: Western contractors have a hard-on for your wholesale catastrophes.

  • Third, a historic crisis of millennial capitalism - a term I use with malignant facetiousness, purposefully mocking the "new golden age" promised to us in the 1990s - a capitalism not only grown on the bones of neoliberalism and directed by the delusions of Western political egoism, but fed by the growth of the Internets and now starved of fattening credit. What we commonly call "the recession" ushered in this crisis, but in reality it is a watershed in economic decay. This form of capitalism goes out with a wimper, not the bang of the 1920s ... so far.
Libya's ragtag army illustrates particularly what is happening globally: a sort of conjoined wearing down of major global forces, with nothing waiting in the wings - no relief and no expectation of relief. NATO has not yet proven strong enough to oust Gaddhafi, nor is the United States prepared or willing to boot him forcibly. Gaddhafi is too weak to stay and too strong to leave (but not too strong to leave civilian targets alone, of course). His oil legacy and his mercenaries prop him up as artificially as NATO missiles and jets artificially clear the air for the ground-bound rebels. What happens to a war deprived of its decisive victories? Unless by the grace of Allah Gaddhafi is torpedoed sometime soon, we're about to find out.

My argument is that all around the world, in every government and in every social struggle, the whole balance of powers is on life support. No side of the antagonism clearly holds the power. Not in the case of Scott Walker vs. Wisconsin unions, where legalism has detoured either justice or tyranny into marshland courtrooms. Not in US/China trade relations, where devaluing the yuan remains necessary and impossible. Not a single traditional actor can act, and no traditional opponent retains the strength or street cred to pose a threat. Everyone seems to be in a race against time yet no one can move forward.

Scuffles certainly lie ahead - and by no means will I declare "decisive" victories a thing of the past. Yet the "decisive victory" over bin Laden also proves a divisive victory with the already-teetering Pakistan. Bold actions become fewer and far between because, unlike pre-Hiroshima Earth, post-Hiroshima Earth is all but incapable of World War. The atom bomb and worse still haunt our memory. I lay that scenario of ultimate nuclear annihilation to the side, here and in the future, because I want to believe it unlikely (we know better, there is limited prospect for conventional victory) and there's very little we can do collectively in the case it approaches that. (Except maybe turning to your Republican friends and saying, "I told you so.") (Nuclear terrorism and limited exchange are still very, very much in the scope of my analyses; in fact I would describe them as "almost inevitable.")

Without the mass destruction of capital and manipulated reconstruction, capitalism has to walk a very fine line. Too much reset and the situation could spiral out of control (for the individual actors as much as the species, thank god). Too little reset and profits plummet - you begin to *gulp* break even. Because anything approaching sustainability threatens growth, you can believe that not only is "green capitalism" predominately a PR hoax, you can also pretty much count out significant jobs programs that consider labor before the needs of business.

How long is the "fine line" itself sustainable? Isn't a balance of forces a good thing, something we should be thankful for after the long and bloody 20th century? Couldn't we, say, let the giant firms greenwash the polluters a lot in exchange for just a little energy efficiency, and blow up and rebuild terrorist hideouts so contractors generate some cash, and let the markets cycle Joe Stiffs through - you know, all for the sake of some rather 2000-2010-style dependability? Just to avoid all that gosh-darn insecurity that comes with too much conflict or not enough growth?

I think not, and for one very good reason that I humbly take zero credit in discovering: climate change.

Whereas humanity is becoming increasingly slow to act, it seems as though La Madre is sort of coming around. And her timing, from an anthrocentric perspective, couldn't be any worse. How long has it taken to recover from Hurricane Katrina? How long will it take to recover from the 100+ tornados that just whipped through the Midwest? NYC can't even figure out a monument to replace the Twin Towers from a man-made disaster 10 years ago and we're being asked, not as a city or nation, but as a species, to try to persevere against unusual weather patterns, and the awful effects of unconsciousable agricultural and industrial practices, and on top of that the "usual" shit, like the earthquake in Japan, which because of our haughty spread across the globe now have increased opportunities to hit us in vulnerable places simply because we have more vulnerable places than ever before and more disastrous consequences of being hit in each.

Add to that the fact that we have less and less of an idea where our gas, not to mention our food and water, is going to come from over the next 15-20 years. Not only do we, as a nation and as a species, have less of an ability to resolve our current problems, but those problems are only going to snowball and we have less of an ability to keep up.

Libya not only illustrates and hints at these trends, but it also shows the hope. It provides a snapshot of not, as Lenin once said, what is to be done, but instead what someday we will all have to do, in one fashion or another. Instead of bringing "new" products into production, which requires raw materials and fresh resources (preferably from a poorer neighbor), we can, should, and someday (if we're survivors) will - cannibalize, salvage, retool, repurpose. To illustrate another way, this process of reclaiming industry's product is to capitalism what necromancy would be to magic. To reinvest life into what has already been discarded. To find purpose in all the pointless doggerel of capitalism by rearranging it, now at no cost because, especially under duress, it has no exchange value.

And because, as capitalism insists is not true but as we know in our hearts, there is no real price on material things, and we enter into a contract with the earth as well as with our peers when we agree to use nature's bounty. All sociable nature, all rational humanity, detests the dictator, too, and the ghosts of labor that still abide in commodities can be cajoled into rising up and destroying such fiends, if we're willing to pay the price. This has been a long entry, but I want to end by saying that I hope that the Libyan rebels win their freedom against the tyrant who is equal or worse than bin Laden. And I hope in doing so they can point the way forward to all of us who yearn for the freedom to build our own lives out of the haunted scraps provided us.

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