Globally oriented institutions established by the West over the last thirty years have entered a deeply ambiguous phase. Certainly the global economy faces the threat and actual prospect of multiplying trade wars. But this phase is not limited to the economy. There are large-scale shifts in power associated with the rise of China and India. The cultural life-ways of the West are also under challenge. This is so where terror confronts the assumed rights of Western citizens. But the challenge is far deeper than that.
The deep-set assumption of the West—arising out of the Enlightenment and associated imperial tyrannies—about its cultural superiority over other cultures is under pressure. At the same time that assumption remains alive in the West. For two centuries Indigenous cultures around the world suffered like no others. Nations like China and India will not easily forget the cultural humiliation that was their lot. While diminishing power transforms the effects of this assumption into shadows of the past—to be pitied or even despised—the effects are still real. They call out existential dangers.
We are living through the first stages of a profound social transformation that will leave the West, and its outposts like Australia, with deeply uncertain futures. While it will be a long road, the dominant leaders as well as publics in Australia hardly know the journey has begun. They show no sign of taking on board its significance in attitudes towards other cultures or in policy. They handle a difficult existential challenge by clinging, pathetically and counter-productively, to the remnants of Western power.
While this global transformation supports the rise of non-Western cultures, it leaves difficult unresolved social remnants. It is also a process with significant cultural contradictions in its own right. The very transformation that Western cultures have institutionalised—through, among other things, the championing of global markets—weakens their own internal cultures. This has issued in profound effects. Michael Marmot, an expert in health and life expectancy, recently noted that falling life expectancy in areas of the United States relates to the collapse of social stability and life supports. In these circumstances people turned towards the ‘depths of despair’; indeed they faced an existential choice: ‘suicide or voting for Donald Trump’.
On the other hand, as cultures beyond the West take up the opportunities made possible by global markets, they, too, face internal transformations that destroy the local economy and culture, both in non-modernised societies and in leading powers like China. This is a consequence of the distinctive social logic of global markets. Unlike modern markets, they are predatory upon everyday life-structures, undermining the ways social lives throughout the history of Homo sapiens have predominantly been ordered by place and social relations between the generations.
In other words, economic globalisation calls into being many novel elements, including the emergence of mass refugee movements and the phenomenon of mass tourism. In Europe populist parties have risen partly in reaction to refugee numbers: Italy has entered a political unravelling that threatens the EU, as well as its own internal order; similarly, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia and now Czechoslovakia are controlled by parties deeply opposed to globally oriented elites. There is also growing opposition to the effects of mass tourism on everyday life—especially pointed in Barcelona—that are associated with such things as the distortion of shelter resources caused by Airbnb, which supports generalised global movement.
While the United States is preoccupied with finding a way to contain China, the much larger question, crucial for everyone’s cultural future, is how to contain global markets. And there is no chance of achieving this without recognising that these markets are the offspring of the transformation of capitalism by scientific intellectual practices. This relation shifts technological change away from its dependence on incidental and individual creativity towards an institutionalisation, carried by the universities, that converts abstract ideas, via the techno-sciences, into social practice.
The hangovers that emerge out of this transformation of modernity are multifaceted. They can be read in two direct threats to our future: the ongoing conflict in Korea and the unfolding of Western policy and practice in the Middle East.
Now that the first summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un over the future of Korea has occurred, with open-ended outcomes—to the disturbance of many Western liberal warriors, including the US Democrats—it is time to step back and think things through. We cannot relax too much, because the reality is that this is still a nuclear stand-off. It could easily lead to a ‘nuclear winter’, a form of devastation that would be a sustained doomsday. That no one believes it could ever happen is a large part of the problem.
The Powers have never found a way of coming to terms with nuclear power and nuclear weapons. They keep trying to draw the weapons back into some kind of normality, which is not possible. Nuclear technologies emerge from an unprecedented engagement by intellectual practices with the natural world that has released energies human cultures cannot cope with. Nuclear energy has poisoned the nation that first developed it—the United States. This period saw the establishment of the National Security Council and the CIA, a Manichean view of good and evil and a deep anxiety about an uncontrollable world.
It is now seventy years since nuclear weapons were first deployed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States continues to use them as a threat. In fact, as Daniel Ellesberg demonstrates at length in his recent book The Doomsday Machine, the uncontrollable nature of nuclear weapons has allowed the US military to become all-powerful behind the formalities of democracy, hollowing out civilian power progressively for seven decades. The military has effective control over their use.
The institutionalisation of the mass bombing of cities in the Second World War removed any pretence about protecting civilians in warfare. When combined with the advent of nuclear weapons, warfare was taken to yet another level—one that could reasonably be called post-human. Since its ‘perfection’ in the struggle against Nazi Germany, mass bombing has been pursued against cultures and peoples who are non-Western. Asian peoples have suffered enormously. The only use of nuclear weapons in warfare was in Japan and, significantly, this followed another massive and sustained bombing with napalm, especially in Tokyo, where 100,000 people, largely civilians, died in one night. Such ‘campaigns’ are inconceivable unless the victims are regarded as barely human.
Napalm, of course, became a focus of resistance two decades later in Vietnam. But in a recent book by Michael Pembroke, Korea: Where the American Century Began, another chapter to this history is added that preceded Vietnam and helps to explain the unusual character of the North Korean nation and regime. Few people know how napalm was secretly flooded across the cities of North Korea in the early 1950s—relentlessly and without pity—in an attempt to offset a highly damaging defeat of US military power on the ground by China. Consequently, North Korea has a deep fear of what the United States might do at any time. When Donald Trump threatens North Korea—‘You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used’—many in the West regard this as bluster. Only a little empathy would allow one to see why North Koreans shouldn’t.
There are some signs that the two Koreas, cruelly created by the Cold War out of what was, for centuries, a united people, might be ready to seek to come together. Certainly President Moon of South Korea appears more open to a real resolution of this division than any prior political representative. Given the history that has unfolded over the last seven decades, unification will be an extremely difficult process. But the ideological blindness of the United States where there is any trace of a communist history, overlaid by militarist attitudes, a military presence and nuclear threats, means it is unlikely to be a peacemaker here, whatever Trump may wish. De-nuclearisation of the peninsula is a goal to be desired, but the United States is so locked up by dogmas that have emerged out of its own nuclear history that it should withdraw from the Korean peninsula, allowing de-nuclearisation to occur in that context. Ultimately it must reconsider its own attitudes to nuclear weaponry if it is to be anything like a viable peacemaker.
Moving to the Middle East, that centre of deep dispute, we see here, too, an imminent point of potentially uncontrollable conflict. The United States has had huge influence in the shaping of the region’s political and cultural fractures. There is no doubt that oil has been a matter of intense great-power competition for generations, but the West’s cultural blindness is the underlying source of an unravelling that now threatens the world.
A primary supporter of settler-colonial development in Palestine, the United States has never learnt from its own history, which largely eliminated the first peoples of North America. US exceptionalism is inseparable from the cultural superiority felt towards others, especially Indigenous others. John Gray points out that the United States is the only nation formed out of Enlightenment radical individualism. This individualist cultural ground supports a profound blindness towards those other cultures formed through varied and distinctive institutions of cooperation. A crucial element of the ongoing disaster in Iraq, this blindness has lain at the heart of not being able to see the cultural rights of Palestinians.
Now we have a further development with US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Jerusalem is of course a sacred centre for Islam and the Palestinians. To recognise it as the capital of Israel undoubtedly marks a further move against the Palestinians.
Jerusalem is also sacred for Christianity. In fact, for some evangelical groupings in the United States it could not be more important, given relatively recent changes in how they think about the world and salvation. The new evangelism takes a disturbing turn in that it regards peace and prosperity as a threat. It welcomes growing turmoil in the Middle East especially as an expression of the End of Times, even embracing—as Michael Northcott demonstrates (in An Angel Directs the Storm)—the unleashing of nuclear weapons that will ‘scorch the earth’ and ‘rent it asunder’. Jerusalem now becomes the focus of US evangelicals: ‘instead of building Zion in America’, they now support ‘financially and strategically rebuilding Zion as the State of Israel’.
These are not matters that directly concern most US citizens. They are nevertheless associated with the major support base of Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the past and now, of course, that of Donald Trump. The new evangelism also attracts the growing numbers of people shut out of contemporary society referred to by Marmot above. It is surely significant that Trump sent leading evangelical figures Robert Jeffress and John Hagee to the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.
The existential danger to the world promised in the nuclear age and carried by the Powers has entered a new stage. We could be sleepwalking towards a clash like no other.