Deep Disruption. Some Trends since 2016, Part 1

[Some trends gathered from various media sources since 2016 and framed from my particular perspective. Mostly I haven’t bothered to note my sources, but they generally come from the Guardian Weekly, the Sydney Morning Herald, the New Scientist. I’ll follow this with more ecological and technological stuff later].

Deep Disruption. Some Trends since 2016 (Part 1)

In September 2016 the Doomsday Clock is set forward to two and a half minutes to midnight, its most critical position since 1948, due to North Korean production of intercontinental nuclear weapons and lethal autonomous weapons systems making killing decisions without human supervision, and notes: ‘The Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way’ (SMH Extra, 10/11/2017, p. 29).

In 2016 there is a sense of a watershed, of an acceleration of deep cultural (and digital) disruption, a new, more fearful zeitgeist and even possible ending (or heightening ?), of the forty-year neoliberal hegemony: there is a general acceleration of the authoritarian, anti-neoliberal, right-wing shift towards post-liberal police states and postmodern/premodern magic thinking, ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ forms of ‘friendly fascism’ (Bertram Gross). Are these the forerunners of the coming global storm? Increasing global disruptions in the economy since 2008, in liberal politics, technological innovation and Earth support systems seem to be combining and reaching a head.

Via the increasing fragmentation effect of increasingly concentrated online media, the spread of internet access to half the world and the expanding and intentionally addictive gig ‘attention economy’, there is a sense of a new zeitgeist and level of cultural, even epistemic, crisis, a hyper-postmodern age of ‘disruption’, ‘post-truth’, ‘post-facts’, of social media ‘news’ and ‘fake news’; democratisation of media, ‘future shock’ and information overload also encourage a new mass irrationalism of superstitions, conspiracy theories, state cyberwar manipulations and mass dis-information through social media self-confirming ‘filter bubbles’ and Big Tech self-confirming popularity algorithms in search engines: a blending of regressive premodern tribalism and naïve magic thinking with the dark cynical-nihilistic side of the postmodern zeitgeist.

There is further online concentration of Big Tech capital and power: in 2017 90% of searches are done via Google, and Facebook adds over a billion users. In 2018 Apple and Amazon are the two first companies in history to reach a capitalization of a trillion dollars. Globally there is also still a stark digital divide in internet access: while nearly 80% of Europeans are online, only 20% of Africans are; also, two thirds of internet users live in countries that regularly censor the internet.

‘Post-truth’ (a term first coined in 1992 re the Iran-Contra scandal and the Gulf War) is the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year after its general usage spikes 2000 percent since 2015 in the lead-up to the right-wing-populist (and data-mine manipulated) Brexit and Trump campaigns. More people are now more disoriented and disbelieving in any mainstream-liberal media and government, especially since the lies around the Iraq War in 2003 and the public bailout of the banks and hedge funds in the 2008 Depression.

Britain leaves the EU (Brexit) after a successful populist campaign and close referendum with a four percent majority (52%:48%) also manipulated by data mining analytics (Cambridge Analytica using data from 87 million Facebook users) and targeted disinformation strategies funded by right-wing billionaire Mercer and far-right activist Steve Bannon; Trump, believing in nothing but himself, is perhaps the first postmodern reality-TV, continually and openly lying, post-literate (like Reagan, he doesn’t read, doesn’t take advice, and watches three TVs in his bedroom to get his ‘information’), proudly narcissistic celebrity president to openly revel in populist conspiracy theories, ‘alternate realities’, outright lies and ‘fake news’ and to proclaim his corporate, racist and right-wing ‘policies’ by tweets; his mendacious, bragging behaviour causes outrage only among liberals; he has a large US base of 25-30% of American voters, mostly, but not exclusively, rural, rust-belt and white working-class who believe in him as an ‘authentic’ maverick and ‘can-do’ businessman who will ‘Make America Great Again’ no matter what he actually says or does.

Under the weight of rising inequality, social marginalisation by neoliberal globalisation, demographic change and increasing mass immigration from poor countries, there are regressive populist shifts to the blind politics of fear and anger, of conspiracy theories, of resentment and post-imperial nostalgia for military or industrial ‘greatness’, of mass devotion to authoritarian, nationalist narcissists and ‘postmodern’ (‘post-truth’) populist right-wing ‘strong leaders’ and demagogues. Are the post-liberal states in the west are drifting ever more to the right and some consumerist, surveillance-capitalist form of postmodern ‘friendly fascism’?

These right-wing populist demagogues, like Trump (‘Build the Wall’, ‘Drain the Swamp’, ‘Make America Great Again’), Duterte, Orban, Erdogan, Marine Le Pen, often successfully manipulate mainly old working class and lower middle-class class humiliations and resentments against neoliberal globalisation and mass immigration, i.e. de-industrialisation in high-wage countries and outsourcing to low-wage countries, loss of real wage levels and standards of living, loss of perceived status and identity through economic change and immigration, loss of perceived ‘national greatness’, class hatred against neoliberal elites and urbane cosmopolitanism, mass migrations, multiculturalism and demographic shifts to non-native or non-white people (non-Hispanic whites to be minority in US by c. 2040). Fearful (still slender) majorities hope for authoritarian ‘change’ from ‘strong leaders’ or elite billionaires who promise to ‘drain swamps’ of the elites and stop immigration, shifting diffuse resentments from increasing inequality and powerful economic decision-makers onto powerless and stereotyped scapegoats via premodern magic thinking and xenophobia (the ‘they’ outgroup: foreigners, migrants, asylum seekers, Muslims, terrorists, petty drug runners and addicts). A poll after the Charlottsville ‘alt right’ events finds 9% of US Americans (30 million people) believe holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable; in November 2017 in Warsaw 60,000 march under far-right symbols and slogans ‘Pure Poland, White’, ‘Refugees, get out!’, some also explicitly anti-Semitic.

The Trump election also stimulates a progressive, feminist backlash in the US, a peaking fourth-wave feminism relying on social media and blogs (Valenti 2004, Burke 2006, Gay 2014), and then via the #MeToo campaign from 2017, globally, causing further cultural shift against elite male sexism and abuse in the entertainment industry and elsewhere.

Anti-modern backlash and anti-Enlightenment cultural regression into magic thinking by authoritarian populist right: while the Trump admin bans the phrase ‘climate change’ from official EPA documents, in 2017 Erdogan bans the theory of evolution from the Turkish school curriculum, increases references to Islam and increases the number of religious schools. In 2017 Suez University in Egypt also accuses an academic teaching Milton’s seventeenth century epic poem Paradise Lost of ‘rejecting that which is sacred in favour of the authority of the human mind’, of spreading ‘destructive ideas’ that have disturbed ‘public order…in an anarchic call disguised as comparative literature textual analysis’ and of ‘glorifying Satan’.

Socio-cultural dis-synchronicities globally re religion/Enlightenment secularism, premodern/modern mindsets. A US Gallup survey in 2017 finds belief in Biblical Creation (‘God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years or so’) is prevalent (almost 50%) among those with high school education or less, over 40% among those with ‘some college’, and, astonishingly, still almost a quarter of college graduates and 21% of postgraduates and professionals. However a global Ipsos 2017 survey across 23 countries of more than 17,000 people finds that globally half (49%) believe religion ‘does more harm in the world than good’ (Australia/Germany/Spain 63%, Belgium 68%) and globally only a third (32%) believe that ‘the religious make better citizens’ (Australia 25%, but in contrast Russia 44% and US 45%); while 60% of Australians tick a religious faith box in the census form (c. 30% said ‘no religion’, up from 22% five years earlier) only 27% say their religious faith ‘defined them as a person’ (UK 23%, Japan 14%, but in contrast US 49%); however globally half also believe ‘religious practices are an important factor in the moral life of my country’s citizens’ (Australia 40%, and US 66%). There is economic-cultural crisis and increased regression to magic thinking outside politics as well: in Italy (with 11% unemployed, 35% among young people) the number of faith healers and fortune-tellers rises fivefold since the 2008 GFC, about a quarter of population visit astrologers, fortune-tellers, tarot card readers (three million more than in 2001).

There is a temporary weakening of neoliberal free trade hegemony but also a historical impossibility of returning to protectionism or the old social-democratic, Keynesian welfare state without global economic depression or collapse; with Trump there is a further decline in US imperial hegemony via geopolitical multipolar stresses from competition with rivals Russia and China, the rising hegemon. 1702 freight trains travel 12,000 km to arrive in Europe from China in 2016, double the previous year’s total, and halving time taken by sea to c. 15 days. Xi Jinping, while consolidating his internal dictatorial power and increasing repression, launches an extension of the mammoth New Silk Road and Belt infrastructure project of railways and ports for globalising Chinese hegemony across Eurasia and into Africa, as central to his nationalistic ‘Chinese Dream’ to ‘realise the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people’. In 2016 the number of Chinese scientific publications outnumbers those of the US for the first time and Chinese R&D expenditure reaches $234 billion; under the Thousand Talents Plan, Chinese and non-Chinese scientists from overseas are given full-time positions at prestigious universities and larger than normal salaries and resources. However, the IMF warns that China’s total debt has quadrupled since GFC to $28 trillion at end of 2016, c. 235% of its GDP, with debt now becoming less effective in stimulating economic activity and needing three times as much credit to achieve the same amount of growth as in 2008.

‘Peak inequality’ and the global plutocracy are at an all-time historical apex: the richest eight men now own 40 percent of the world’s wealth, while the bottom fifty percent own no more than one percent! The three richest men in the US, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Warren Buffett, in 2017 own as much wealth as the bottom half of the US population, 160 million people. This is now a new ‘Gilded Age’, with inequality back at pre-1914 ‘robber baron’ levels. The world has 1,542 dollar billionaires owning $6 trillion in 2017, and gaining average returns on their capital of 17% in 2016. At the same time, five million garment workers in Bangladesh producing clothes for Western companies and consumers still earn less than a living wage to cover their basic needs (c. $113 a month). Continuing concentration of capital: in 2016 Bayer buys Monsanto for $ 66 billion.

With a global right-wing backlash against neoliberal globalisation and peak inequality, a surge in authoritarian nationalism and a retreat from international treaty obligations, there is also a human rights crisis: a World Justice Project Rule of Law index for 2018 finds that fundamental human rights have diminished in almost two-thirds of countries surveyed; 38 countries have seen their overall Rule of Law score diminish since 2016, the UK drops out of the top 10 to 11th, the US ranks 19th but falls to 26th in the fundamental rights category (with worsening levels of discrimination and due process plus decreased guarantees of the right to life).

The elimination of the human right to privacy and total digital state surveillance increases everywhere. Police forces across the world launch face-recognition programmes, using cameras to scan (and intimidate) crowds at public events, protests and demonstrations, sporting matches, festivals without people’s consent or often knowledge. A 2016 audit of the FBI finds it has built up a database of more than 400 million face images, including half the US adult population, without proper oversight, and suspected criminals make up less than 10% of the library. The Chinese government uses face-recognition technology to monitor and discriminate against the Muslim population in Xinjiang: people are scanned as they enter markets or buy fuel, and police are alerted when targeted individuals stray 300 metres beyond their homes or workplace. It also uses face-recognition programs (‘Sharp Eyes’) integrated with police databases (‘Police Cloud’) and a so-called ‘social credit score’ system (bad/good citizen) to control the population in general. In 2018 even Microsoft calls for government regulation of the development and use of face-recognition technology.

The premodern and postmodern also merge in the phenomenon of postmodern slavery: global slavery, including indentured labour, migrant and sex trafficking, is affecting tens of millions (40 million in 2017); based on data drawn from 51 countries over 15 years, at least 21 million are now directly in some form of postmodern slavery according to UN’s International Labour Organization, with annual profits from slavery estimated at $150 billion and postmodern slave traders making a return on investment 25-30 times higher than eighteenth and nineteenth century slave traders; the world’s biggest cotton producers India and Uzbekistan are still plagued by outright slavery and child labour. Huge migration flows are supplying a ready and easily exploitable supply of victims for industries such as commercial sex, fashion, seafood.

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 7, 2018.

One Response to “Deep Disruption. Some Trends since 2016, Part 1”

  1. somethings gonna blow….

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