We Are in the Middle of Transformational Change: It's Time the Debate Matches up with the Huge Challenges Ahead of Us
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"Old" nations such as China are profoundly different than they were less than 50 years ago -- never mind 300 or 1,200 years ago. The same is true of “middle-aged” nations such as the United States. (The United Nations had 51 members when it was founded in 1945. Today it has 192. Thirty-three nations have come into existence just since 1990. It’s that dynamic that makes even a relatively new kid on the block such as the U.S. middle-aged.)
But be they ancient or newborn, all nations today are struggling to define their relationship to global corporations loyal to no nation-state whatsoever. For the time being, governments are not effectively regulating the behavior and setting the rules of the road for corporations. Clearly, it is the other way around.
The United States is as good a case in point as any. To be sure the American Revolution created an effective alternative to the tyranny of the British throne. But more than 200 years later our system of government is conspicuously not up to the test of offsetting the tyranny of Big Finance, Big Energy and Big Health Care.
At the same time, as the role and power of the nation state has changed, so has the nuclear "balance of power." Yes, the possible use of nuclear weapons by countries that possess them, most notably the United States, remains a threat to the world. But now, so does the possibility of their use by non-state actors such as Al Qaeda.
Naturally, such dramatic change creates both noise and confusion. How could it be otherwise? Much of the 20th-century world order was explained and even predicted by Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, C.L.R. James, Albert Einstein, Frantz Fanon, and others. But that has yet to happen for the emerging world order of the 21st century.
There are some exceptions, but mostly what we have instead are the utterly inadequate "cutting the foot to fit the shoe" efforts of neocons, neoliberals and neo-Marxists alike. None of their theories entirely anticipate or fully contend with the five big forces identified earlier.
The obsessive looking backward of many political thinkers and activists is itself evidence of disorientation in the face of these powerful changes. In the U.S. for example we hear calls from all points of the ideological spectrum to take America back, recapture the American dream, restore America’s place in the world, "save" this and "defend" that, etc. Elsewhere Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other organizations are also dedicated to restoring a long-gone and never-to-return economic, political and social order.
But can the new reality be crammed back into the old assumptions and structures? Is "left to right" the immutable and permanent way of defining the political positions that humans can adopt? Three-hundred years from now will the descendants of Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell still be going at it tooth and nail?
The left-right spectrum does retain some descriptive power. But as a genuinely useful tool of analysis, let alone the source for envisioning better ways to organize human activity -- not so much.
That is not to say that efforts to start from today’s reality are not underway. Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman in their book, Spontaneous Evolution: Our Positive Future and How to Get There from Here; Grace Boggs drawing on the foundation laid with the late James Boggs; Naomi Klein; Jeremy Rifkin in his new book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in World Crisis; scholars at the Ho Chi Minh Institute in Hanoi; the editors and writers of Monthly Review and many others are working to understand, describe and define the forces in play. It is not an easy task. The new reality is extremely complex and the pace of change adds a whole other level of difficulty. That said, perhaps a breakthrough is right around the corner.