John Feffer

What happens if the maniacs win?

John Feffer, The Future of Autocracy

At the dawn of America’s forever wars, President George W. Bush and his speechwriter David Frum teamed up to create a meaningless, hyperbolic phrase that lumped together Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, setting the stage for two decades of foreign policy fallout.

“States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world,” said Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address. “They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States.” Left unsaid was that the United States had, in the early 1950s, bombed North Korea flat and helped to overthrow the elected government of Iran. Bush’s invasion of Iraq the next year would decimate that country and send it into a downward spiral from which it’s never emerged.

“I was to provide a justification for war,” Frum later admitted, but the “axis of evil” speech was seen as not only putting a target on Iraq but, wrote Alex Wagner of the Arms Control Association, “setting the stage for military actions against one or all of these states in the next iteration of the administration’s war on terrorism.”

Within a year, it was already clear that Bush’s rhetorical flourish had backfired with real-world foreign policy implications. “The unintended consequences have proved serious, especially in the case of North Korea,” read one New York Times opinion piece. Eventually, the phrase “axis of evil” was even panned by Bush’s father, former president George H.W. Bush. And earlier this year, even Frum, in an article looking back on the speech, issued a halfhearted mea culpa for his “overheat[ed] rhetoric.”

Less than a year after that 2002 speech, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. It would stage its first atomic test in 2006 and a more successful one in 2009. Today, North Korea is a nuclear power with as many as 30 atomic weapons and is estimated to have enough fissile material for, perhaps, almost double that number.

While the Axis of Evil never actually existed, North Korea has been driven ever closer to fellow nuclear powers Russia and China, and is poised to become a leading member of what TomDispatch regular John Feffer, author of the Splinterlands trilogy, has labeled a possible future “Eurasian Union of autocracies.” Russia, he notes, may even be modeling itself after the hermit kingdom. Will Bush and Frum’s fake axis help usher in this truly illiberal alliance? Let Feffer explain just how such an autocratic world order came to be and where it’s taking us. Nick Turse

As Falls Russia, So Falls the World – Exceptionalism Goes Global

Here’s a nightmare scenario: Unable to recruit enough soldiers from the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin takes North Korean leader Kim Jong-un up on his recent offer to send 100,000 North Koreans to join the Russian president’s ill-fated attempt to seize Ukraine. Kim has also promised to send North Korean workers to help rebuild that country’s Donbas region, parts of which Russian forces have destroyed in order to “save” it. Consider this an eerie echo of the fraternal aid that Eastern European Communist states provided Pyongyang in the 1950s after the devastation of the Korean War.

The current love connection between Russia and North Korea is anything but unprecedented. The Kremlin has provided a succession of Kims with military and economic support. If Putin were ultimately to rely on so many North Korean soldiers and laborers, however, it would mark the first time that country had returned the favor in any significant way. As a down payment on the new relationship, Pyongyang is already reportedly assisting Moscow’s war effort with shipments of Soviet-era rockets and ammunition.

An even tighter alliance between Moscow and Pyongyang, now just one goose step from reality, suggests the possibility of a future Eurasian Union of autocracies, including China and several Central Asian states. Just a few years ago, an anti-Western alliance making up nearly 20% of the world’s landmass and roughly the same percentage of its population would have seemed unlikely indeed. For all its autocratic tendencies, Russia was still pretending to be a democracy then and, together with China, maintaining reasonable economic relations with the West. North Korea, on the other hand, was an isolated outsider, suffering under a hereditary dictatorship and tight sanctions that restricted its access to the global economy.

Now, instead of North Korea adopting the political and economic norms of the international community, it’s surging to the front of the illiberal pack as Kim waves his tour-guide flag to encourage others to walk his way. Putin, for one, seems ready to enthusiastically follow his lead. Over the last decade, after all, he’s taken steps to eliminate Russian civil society, while creating a top-down, corporatist economy. After ordering the invasion of Ukraine in February, the Russian leader now faces the same kind of sanctions regime that plagues Pyongyang, forcing his country to pursue its own version of juche, North Korea’s philosophy of self-reliance. Both nations have largely replaced their governing ideologies of the 1990s — communism in North Korea, democracy in Russia — with an ugly, xenophobic nationalism.

At a more fundamental level, North Korea and Russia are both exemplars of exceptionalism. From its founding after World War II, North Korea has generally considered itself an exception to any rules governing international conduct. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, has cemented in place Putin’s version of a new Russian exceptionalism, meant to bury once and for all the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to bring the Soviet Union and its successor states into greater compliance with global norms.

Nor are Russia and North Korea exceptional in their exceptionalism. Thumbing a nose at international authorities has become an integral part of a growing authoritarian populism, which has manifested itself as anger at economic globalization and disenchantment with the liberal democratic elites who have supported that project. Although the assault on liberalism and the embrace of illiberal exceptionalism have taken an acutely violent form in the war in Ukraine, they can be found in less virulent but no less troubling forms in Europe (Hungary), Asia (Myanmar), Africa (Ethiopia), and Latin America (Brazil).

Ground zero for modern-day exceptionalism, however, has always been the United States, where a longstanding bipartisan consensus holds that America has the right to do almost anything it wants to maintain its global hegemony. Of course, exceptionalism here is also on a spectrum, with liberal internationalists like Joe Biden at one end and Donald Trump, a Russian-style autocrat in the making, at the other. Put differently, there’s a growing struggle here over the degree to which this country should play well with others.

What’s taking place in Ukraine — an exceptionalist power trying to crush a liberal internationalist system — is a version of that very same power struggle. Indeed, the ongoing bloodbath there anticipates the kind of carnage that could ensue in this country if Donald Trump or some politician like him were to take the White House in 2024.

The End of Accession?

Nationalists hate globalization because they believe that international bodies should not be writing the rules that constrain the conduct of their governments.

In Brazil, Trump-style President Jair Bolsonaro has lashed out at U.N. agencies and transnational environmental organizations for their criticism of his laissez-faire approach to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Euroskeptics like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers dislike having to abide by regulations from European Union (EU) headquarters in Brussels covering everything from the size of cucumbers to the freedom of the press. Trump famously pulled the United States out of every international accord that came within swinging distance of his MAGA machete, including the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Ukraine has moved in the opposite direction. After the 2014 Euromaidan protests sent its pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, packing, the more-or-less liberal governments that followed certainly didn’t shy away from appealing to Ukrainian nationalism. Still, they were also willing, even eager, to submit to the rules and regulations of external powers, at least those further to the west. The Ukrainian political struggles of 2013-2014, after all, centered around a desire to join the EU, support for which has recently topped 90%.

Putin has, of course, held out a very different kind of membership to Ukraine — in a Slavic brotherhood. Whatever the pluses or minuses of any future tight partnership with Russia and neighboring Belarus, it would flow from compliance with the parochial dictates of the Kremlin. In other words, Ukraine has faced an all-too-stark choice: become an unwilling partner of Russian exceptionalism or willingly accede to the rules of the West. Given such options, it’s hardly surprising that Euroskepticism barely registers there.

Nor, of course, is Ukraine the only country eager to knock on the EU’s door. Several others are already in the queue, undoubtedly including — if it votes to separate from the United Kingdom and its Brexiteers — Scotland. For Europe, in response to the challenges of economic globalization, including pressures to privatize and a potential race to the bottom when it comes to environmental and labor regulations, the response has been to establish a transnational system that preserves at least some social-democratic features. And that seems like an attractive compromise to a number of countries huddling outside the EU’s door, exposed to the harsh winds of free trade and onerous debt.

But Brexit has hardly been the only challenge to the power and breadth of the European Union. A refusal to abide by the democratically determined policies of Brussels has united right-wing populists in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, even as it’s generated a strong current of Euroskepticism in countries like Romania. Support for the far right — as well as the Euroskeptical left — remains strong in France, particularly among the young. A coalition of far-right parties historically allergic to European federalism is poised to take over the governance of Italy after elections later this month. In fact, the EU faces a threat even greater than its possible fragmentation: a hostile takeover by right-wing forces determined to destroy the system from within.

Such authoritarian nationalism is on the rise elsewhere as well. According to the metrics of the largely government-funded research institute Freedom House, only 20% of the world’s population now lives in “free” countries. (In 2005, it was 46%.) And of that 20%, many are in countries where authoritarian nationalists — Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel — have a plausible chance of taking or retaking power in the near future.

What a far cry from the 1990s when much of the former Soviet sphere scrambled to join the EU after the Warsaw Pact dissolved. In that decade, too, even China lobbied hard to join the World Trade Organization, finally gaining Washington’s support in 1999. It was such a golden age of United Nations conferences and international agreements — from the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development to the Rome statute establishing the International Criminal Court — that the name the U.N. chose for the 1990s, the Decade of International Law, seemed extraordinarily apt. Unfortunately, today it seems more like ancient history.

Of course, the need for international cooperation has hardly disappeared. Think climate change, pandemics, and the loss of biodiversity, to mention just three urgent crises. But any enthusiasm for creating binding international commitments has dwindled to the vanishing point. The 2015 Paris climate accord was voluntary. Transnational cooperation during the Covid pandemic, beyond scientific circles, was minimal and often undermined by export restrictions on critical medical supplies. Nuclear arms control agreements remain at a standstill, while the ”modernization” of such arsenals continues apace and military budgets rise as the weapons trade hits new highs.

The 2020s are shaping up to be the Decade of the International Scofflaw. Ukraine’s tragedy lies not just in its geography, so near to Russia and so far from God, but in its timing. Three decades ago, after the Soviet Union imploded, Ukraine’s desire to accede to international norms was unremarkable and its willingness to relinquish its nuclear weapons universally applauded. The worst response an EU application could have engendered back then was a cold shoulder from Brussels. Today, the desire to join Europe has led to war.

Whither Autocracy

Autocrats often hide behind sovereignty. China argues that what’s happening to its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province is simply none of the international community’s business. North Korea insists that it has the sovereign right to develop nuclear weapons. And, of course, in the U.S., Donald Trump’s MAGA crew stoutly rejects snooty foreigners passing judgment on the American attachment to fossil fuels, border walls, and guns of all sizes.

Sovereignty was once the king’s prerogative; he was, after all, the sovereign. Today’s autocrats, like Vladimir Putin, are more likely to have been voted into office than born into the position like Kim Jong-un. The elections that elevate such autocrats might be questionable (and are likely to become ever more so during their reign), but popular support is an important feature of the new authoritarianism. Putin is currently backed by around 80% of Russians; Orban’s approval rating in Hungary hovers near 60%; and while Donald Trump could likely win again only thanks to voter suppression and increasingly anti-democratic features baked into the American political system, millions of Americans did put Trump in the White House in 2016 and continue to genuinely believe that he’s their savior. Bolsonaro in Brazil, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, Narendra Modi in India, Kais Saied in Tunisia: they were all elected.

Yes, such leaders are nationalists who often act like populists in promising all sorts of handouts and feel-good nostrums to their supporters. But what makes today’s autocrats particularly dangerous is their exceptionalism, their commitment to the kind of sovereignty that existed before the creation of the United Nations, the earlier League of Nations, or even the Treaty of Westphalia that established the modern interstate system in Europe in 1648. Both Trump and Xi Jinping harken back to a Golden Age all right — of rulers who counted on the unquestioned loyalty of their subjects and exercised a dominion unchallenged except by other monarchs.

Sovereignty is the ultimate trump — sorry for that! — card. It can be used to end every argument: I’m the king of this castle and my word is law inside its walls. Autocrats tend not to be team players, but increasingly democracies are playing the sovereignty card as well. Even Russia, in so obviously violating Ukrainian sovereignty, has done that by arguing that Ukraine had always been part of Russia.

The war in Ukraine boils down to a conflict between two conceptions of world order. The first is defined by a one-against-all exceptionalism, the second by an all-for-one transnational cooperation. Unfortunately, the latter has become associated with economic globalization (which is really about ruthless competition, not global cooperation), Davos-style political elitism (which is usually more focused on collusion than transparent collaboration), and trans-border migration (which results from wars, the miseries of global economic inequality, and the ever more devastating nightmare of climate change). Anger at these three elements of “globalism” pushes voters to support “the other side,” most commonly an authoritarian exceptionalism rather than an authentic internationalism.

The dismal endpoint of such political devolution could be a Russia with North Korean characteristics: isolated, belligerent, and tyrannical. Today, countries that take such a path risk the outlaw status North Korea has enjoyed for 75 years. The question is: What happens if, in some future moment, the outlaws constitute the majority?

What’s truly frightening, however, is that this larger geopolitical conflict is a two-front war. Even as the West unites against the Russia that Putin built, it finds itself fighting homegrown variants of authoritarian exceptionalism, from Trump to Orban. Think of this as the geopolitical version of that commonplace horror-film twist: the phone call from the serial killer that turns out to be coming from within the house.

Can the heroine of this story, true internationalism, survive the onslaught of lawless maniacs bent on reviving a world of unaccountable sovereigns and promoting a war of all against all? We can only hope that our heroine not only survives these harrowing challenges but goes on to star in less horrifying and more edifying sequels.

A Last Supper for humanity? The true stakes of Russia's unhappy meal of horrors in Ukraine

John Feffer, A Last Supper for Humanity?

Yes, we’re at war. And no, I don’t mean Ukraine. The world is increasingly enveloped in what seems like a losing battle with extreme weather — from a devastating drought across much of the Horn of Africa to record spring temperatures (as well as floods) in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. And then there’s the Arctic, where temperatures are rising at a devastating seven times (yes, you read that right!) the global average. When it comes to extreme weather, though, you don’t have to leave the United States anymore. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about fires like those in a Southwest and West gripped by an unprecedented megadrought or floods like the stunning recent ones in Yellowstone National Park, it’s all intensifying. In fact, when was the last time you remember 100 million Americans being warned in mid-June to stay indoors due to extreme temperatures and humidity as a devastating early summer heat wave blanketed much of the country? Tucson broke its heat record at 115 degrees, while Phoenix tied one at 114 just as El Paso was topping its previous June records. And so it’s gone — and so, given climate change, it will indeed go with increasing intensity in the years to come.

And though for some of us this is news, it really shouldn’t be. After all, in 1965, a science advisory committee sent President Lyndon Johnson a report that predicted the effects of global warming in the early twenty-first century with remarkable accuracy. Similarly, in 1977, Jimmy Carter’s chief science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy circulated a prescient memo meant to catch the president’s attention on the coming climate crisis.

In neither case were there significant responses at the presidential level. And 35 years later, though the cost of alternative energy of various kinds has dropped significantly, we’re still a fossil-fuelized planet, emitting record amounts of carbon as President Biden prepares to travel to Saudi Arabia to beg its blood-soaked ruler to pump yet more oil. Meanwhile, as John Feffer lays out so vividly today, the great and not-so-great powers of this planet are spending their time focused on fighting a devastating oil-powered war right at the edge of Europe. And worse yet, in elections in November 2022 and 2024, this country, the second-greatest emitter of fossil fuels and historically the top one, may put a climate-change-denying Republican cult back in power in Washington, ensuring that we’ll do nothing whatsoever about any of this for the next six years or more.

So, it’s sadly clear to me why, on a heating planet, TomDispatch regular Feffer, author of the Splinterlands trilogy of dystopian novels, is thinking about humanity’s “last supper.” And if it comes to that, we know one thing. It will be a distinctly hot meal. Tom

China Will Decide the Outcome of Russia v. the West – Is Putin the Face of the Future or the Final Gasp of the Past?

In its attempt to swallow Ukraine whole, Russia has so far managed to bite off only the eastern Donbas region and a portion of its southern coast. The rest of the country remains independent, with its capital Kyiv intact.

No one knows how this meal will end. Ukraine is eager to force Russia to disgorge what it’s already devoured, while the still-peckish invader clearly has no interest in leaving the table.

This might seem like an ordinary territorial dispute between predator and prey. Ukraine’s central location between east and west, however, turns it into a potentially world-historical conflict like the Battle of Tours when the Christian Franks turned back the surging Ummayad army of Muslims in 732 AD or the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1975.

The pivotal nature of the current war seems obvious. Ukraine has for some time wanted to join western institutions like the European Union. Russia prefers to absorb Ukraine into its russkiy mir (Russian world). However, this tug of war over the dividing line between East and West isn’t a simple recapitulation of the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly has no interest in reconstituting the Soviet Union, much less in sending his troops westward into Poland or Germany, while the United States isn’t wielding Ukraine as a proxy to fight the Kremlin. Both superpowers have far more circumscribed aims.

Nonetheless, the war has oversized implications. What at first glance seems like a spatial conflict is also a temporal one. Ukraine has the great misfortune to straddle the fault line between a twentieth-century of failed industrial strategies and a possible twenty-first century reorganization of society along clean-energy lines.

In the worst-case scenario, Ukraine could simply be absorbed into the world’s largest petro-state. Or the two sides could find themselves in a punishing stalemate that cuts off the world’s hungriest from vast stores of grain and continues to distract the international community from pushing forward with an urgently needed reduction of carbon emissions. Only a decisive defeat of Putinism — with its toxic mix of despotism, corruption, right-wing nationalism, and devil-may-care extractivism — would offer the world some sliver of hope when it comes to restoring some measure of planetary balance.

Ukraine is fighting for its territory and, ultimately, its survival. The West has come to its aid in defense of international law. But the stakes in this conflict are far more consequential than that.

What Putin Wants

Once upon a time, Vladimir Putin was a conventional Russian politician. Like many of his predecessors, he enjoyed a complicated ménage à trois with democracy (the boring spouse) and despotism (his true love). He toggled between confrontation and cooperation with the West. Not a nationalist, he presided over a multiethnic federation; not a populist, he didn’t care much about playing to the masses; not an imperialist, he deployed brutal but limited force to keep Russia from spinning apart.

He also understood the limits of Russian power. In the 1990s, his country had suffered a precipitous decline in its economic fortune, so he worked hard to rebuild state power on what lay beneath his feet. Russia, after all, is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, its second-largest oil producer, and its third-largest coal exporter. Even his efforts to prevent regions from slipping away from the Russian sphere of influence were initially constrained. In 2008, for instance, he didn’t try to take over neighboring Georgia, just force a stalemate that brought two breakaway regions into the Russian sphere of influence.

Meanwhile, Putin pursued strategies aimed at weakening his perceived adversaries. He ratcheted up cyberattacks in the Baltics, expanded maritime provocations in the Black Sea, advanced aggressive territorial claims in the Arctic, and supported right-wing nationalists like France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini to undermine the unity of the European Union. In 2016, he even attempted to further polarize American politics via dirty tricks in support of Donald Trump.

Always sensitive to challenges to his own power, Putin watched with increasing concern as “color revolutions” spread through parts of the former Soviet Union — from Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2005) to Belarus (2006) and Moldova (2009). Around the time of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, he began shifting domestically to a nationalism that prioritized the interests of ethnic Russians, while cracking down ferociously on dissent and ramping up attacks on critics abroad. An intensifying sense of paranoia led him to rely on an ever-smaller circle of advisors, ever less likely to contradict him or offer him bad news.

In the early 2020s, facing disappointment abroad, Putin effectively gave up on preserving even a semblance of good relations with the United States or the European Union. Except for Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the European far-right had proven a complete disappointment, while his fair-weather friend Donald Trump had lost the 2020 presidential election. Worse yet, European countries seemed determined to meet their Paris climate accord commitments, which sooner or later would mean radically reducing their dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

In contrast to China’s eagerness to stay on good terms with the United States and Europe, Putin’s Russia began turning its back on centuries of “westernizing” impulses to embrace its Slavic history and traditions. Like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and India’s Narendra Modi, Putin decided that the only ideology that ultimately mattered was nationalism, in his case a particularly virulent, anti-liberal form of it.

All of this means that Putin will pursue his aims in Ukraine regardless of the long-term impact on relations with the West. He’s clearly convinced that political polarization, economic sclerosis, and a wavering security commitment to that embattled country will eventually force Western powers to accommodate a more assertive Russia.

He might not be wrong.

Whither the West?

Since the invasion of Ukraine, the West has never seemed more unified. Even previously neutral Finland and Sweden have lined up to join NATO, while the United States and much of Europe have largely agreed when it comes to sanctions against Russia.

Still, all is not well in the West. In the United States, where Trumpism continues to metastasize within the Republican Party, 64% of Americans are convinced that democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing,” according to a January NPR/Ipsos poll. Meanwhile, in a surprising Alliance of Democracies Foundation poll last year, 44% of respondents in 53 countries rated the United States, a self-proclaimed beacon of liberty, as a greater threat to democracy than either China (38%) or Russia (28%).

In Europe, the far-right continues to challenge the democratic foundations of the continent. Uber-Christian Viktor Orbán recently won his fourth term as Hungary’s prime minister; the super-conservative Law and Justice Party is firmly at the helm in Poland; the anti-immigrant, Euroskeptical Swiss People’s Party remains the most significant force in that country’s parliament; and the top three far-right political parties in Italy together attract nearly 50% in public opinion polls.

Meanwhile, the global economy, still on neo-liberal autopilot, has jumped out of the pandemic frying pan into the fires of stagflation. With stock markets heading into bear territory and a global recession looming, the World Bank recently cut its 4.1% growth forecast for 2022 to 2.9%. The Biden administration’s perceived failure to address inflation may deliver Congress to Republican extremists this November and social-democratic leaders throughout Europe may pay a similar political price for record-high Eurozone inflation.

Admittedly, the continued military dominance of the United States and its NATO allies would seem to refute all rumors of the decline of the West. In reality, though, the West’s military record hasn’t been much better than Russia’s performance in Ukraine. In August 2021, the United States ignominiously withdrew its forces from its 20-year war in Afghanistan as the Taliban surged back to power. This year, France pulled its troops from Mali after a decade-long failure to defeat al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants. Western-backed forces failed to dislodge Bashar al-Assad in Syria or prevent a horrific civil war from enveloping Libya. All the trillions of dollars devoted to achieving “full-spectrum dominance” couldn’t produce enduring success in Iraq or Somalia, wipe out terrorist factions throughout Africa, or effect regime change in North Korea or Cuba.

Despite its overwhelming military and economic power, the West no longer seems to be on the same upward trajectory as after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back in the 1990s, Eastern Europe and even parts of the former Soviet Union signed up to join NATO and the European Union. Russia under Boris Yeltsin inked a partnership agreement with NATO, while both Japan and South Korea were interested in pursuing a proposed global version of that security alliance.

Today, however, the West seems increasingly irrelevant outside its own borders. China, love it or hate it, has rebuilt its Sinocentric sphere in Asia, while becoming the most important economic player in the Global South. It’s even established alternative global financial institutions that, one day, might replace the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Turkey has turned its back on the European Union (and vice versa) and Latin America is heading in a more independent direction. Consider it a sign of the times that, when the call went out to sanction Russia, most of the non-Western world ignored it.

The foundations of the West are indeed increasingly unstable. Democracy is no longer, as scholar Francis Fukuyama imagined it in the late 1980s, the inevitable trajectory of world history. The global economy, while spawning inexcusable inequality and being upended by the recent pandemic, is exhausting the resource base of the planet. Both right-wing extremism and garden-variety nationalism are eroding the freedoms that safeguard liberal society. It’s no surprise, then, that Putin believes a divided West will ultimately accede to his aggression.

The Ukraine Pivot

There’s never a good time for war.

But hostilities have flared in Ukraine just as the world was supposed to be accelerating its transition to a clean-energy future. In another three years, carbon emissions must hit their peak and, in the next eight years, countries must cut their carbon emissions by half if there’s any hope of meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord by 2050. Even before the current war, the most comprehensive estimate put the rise in global temperature at a potentially disastrous 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century (nearly twice the 1.5-degree goal of that agreement).

The war in Ukraine is propelling the world full tilt in the opposite direction. China and India are, in fact, increasing their use of coal, the worst possible fossil fuel in terms of carbon emissions. Europe is desperate to replace Russian oil and natural gas and countries like Greece are now considering increasing their own production of dirty energy. In a similar fashion, the United States is once again boosting oil and gas production, releasing supplies from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and hoping to persuade oil-producing nations to pump yet more of their product into global markets.

With its invasion, in other words, Russia has helped to derail the world’s already faltering effort at decarbonization. Although last fall Putin committed his country to a net-zero carbon policy by 2060, phasing out fossil fuels now would be economic suicide given that he’s done so little to diversify the economy. And despite international sanctions, Russia has been making a killing with fossil-fuel sales, raking in a record $97 billion in the first 100 days of battle.

All of this could suggest, of course, that Vladimir Putin represents the last gasp of the failed petropolitics of the twentieth century. But don’t count him out yet. He might also be the harbinger of a future in which technologically sophisticated politicians continue to pursue their narrow political and regional aims, making it ever less possible for the world to survive climate change.

Ukraine is where Putin is making his stand. As for Putinism itself — how long it lasts, how persuasive it proves to be for other countries — much depends on China.

After Putin’s invasion, Beijing could have given full-throated support to its ally, promised to buy all the fossil fuels Western sanctions left stranded, provided military equipment to buoy the faltering Russian offensive, and severed its own ties with Europe and the United States. Beijing could have broken with international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF in favor of the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, its own multinational organizations. In this way, Ukraine could have turned into a genuine proxy war between East and West.

Instead, China has been playing both sides. Unhappy with Putin’s unpredictable moves, including the invasion, which have disrupted China’s economic expansion, it’s also been disturbed by the sanctions against Russia that similarly cramp its style. Beijing isn’t yet strong enough to challenge the hegemony of the dollar and it also remains dependent on Russian fossil fuels. Now the planet’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, China has been building a tremendous amount of renewable energy infrastructure. Its wind sector generated nearly 30% more power in 2021 than the year before and its solar sector increased by nearly 15%. Still, because of a growing appetite for energy, its overall dependence on coal and natural gas has hardly been reduced.

Reliant as it is on Russian energy imports, China won’t yet pull the plug on Putinism, but Washington could help push Beijing in that direction. It was once a dream of the Obama administration to partner with the world’s second-largest economy on clean energy projects. Instead of focusing as it has on myriad ways to contain China, the Biden administration could offer it a green version of an older proposal to create a Sino-American economic duopoly, this time focused on making the global economy sustainable in the process. The two countries could join Europe in advancing a Global Green Deal.

In recent months, President Biden has been willing to entertain the previously unthinkable by mending fences with Venezuela and Saudi Arabia in order to flood global markets with yet more oil and so reduce soaring prices at the pump. Talk about twentieth-century mindsets. Instead, it’s time for Washington to consider an eco-détente with Beijing that would, among other things, drive a stake through the heart of Putinism, safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty, and stop the planet from burning to a crisp.

Otherwise, we know how this unhappy meal will end — as a Last Supper for humanity.

'The five plagues testing humanity': Do we stand a chance?

For the first time in years, thanks to the Ukraine conflict, there’s been talk again of that nightmarish Cold War-era nuclear term “mutually assured destruction” (or MAD). Unfortunately, the madness of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (and the threat of nukes that, from moment one, went with it) has swept the news, leaving the other kind of MADness beginning to engulf our planet in the shade, at least for now. So it was good to see that, among all those focused on other issues, U.N. General Secretary António Guterres recently spoke about it in terms that couldn’t have been more blunt. “This is madness,” he said. “Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

How right he is! To take that version of MADness in, you can skip the fires now flaring in Texas, part of a megadrought in the American West that hasn’t been seen in 1,200 years and just head straight for the poles. If you do so this spring, however, in that once-upon-a-time domain of ice and snow, be sure to take your shorts and suntan lotion. After all, just recently it was 70 degrees Fahrenheit (yes, that’s not a misprint) warmer than normal in parts of Antarctica and 50 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm in parts of the Arctic. Both poles, in other words, are heating up in ways we’ve never seen before. That, of course, will mean potentially cascading changes globally as ice melts, sea levels rise disastrously, and increasingly iceless polar waters only absorb yet more of the sun’s heat.

Bad as Ukraine may be (and it is a genuine, if utterly unnecessary horror), the way it’s only increasing the urge to burn fossil fuels on this planet should truly frighten us all. Can there be any question that, in March 2022, the future of our world as we’ve known it is ever more in peril? No wonder TomDispatch regular John Feffer, author of the remarkably farsighted Splinterlands trilogy of dystopian novels, looks to the heavens today, turning not to us but to the gods for some kind of illumination. Tom

The Five Plagues Testing Humanity

Once upon a time, the tutelary gods of nationalism and internationalism met for a chat. They had a superb perch above the clouds. From there, they could see everything happening on the Earth below and they set to arguing, as they so often did.

Sophia, the goddess of internationalism, began by proudly pointing to the accomplishments of humanity. “Behold the United Nations,” she said, not for the first time. “See how all the peoples of the world cooperate across borders, languages, and cultures.”

Nikolai, the god of nationalism, whose followers believed that fortified borders and high walls make good neighbors, scowled. “It’s just a talking shop where I see lots of my people getting all up in each other’s faces.”

“Then behold the international charities,” Sophia replied with a smile. “People from one country giving to those in other countries.”

“What a waste of money!” Nikolai retorted. “So much lost to overhead and bureaucracy.”

“It’s 2015,” Sophia said, “and I don’t think I’ve ever seen internationalism looking stronger. The Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and how about Germany’s decision to accept a million refugees this year!”

“Nonsense!” Nikolai exploded. “Those agreements are farces and just wait for the German backlash. It’s going to be epic!”

Sophia groaned. “You’re incorrigible. I give you one example after another of international solidarity and you dismiss them out of hand. All you do is sit around complaining.”

“Not true,” he countered. “I’ve been roaming the earth, observing current events closely, and I’d wager that your beloved internationalists will give up their vaunted ideology when push comes to shove.”

“A wager, you say?”

“You’ve never put your devotees to a test,” Nikolai responded, rubbing his hands. “If I win, all humanity will be under my thrall. If you win, you can implement world government or whatever other nonsense you favor.”

Sophia considered her sparring partner. Both of them were new to the game. Other tutelary gods — the guardians of ancient cities, deities who presided over mountains and rivers — had been around for millennia. She and Nikolai, twin gods born only a few centuries earlier, had squabbled from the moment of their creation. Arriving just before her, he’d asserted the prerogatives of age and gender from the start.

Now, this infuriating brother of hers was raising the stakes. She briefly considered consulting her fellow deities responsible for peace and justice, but just responded, “I’ll take that bet and, what’s more, I’ll give you a free hand to test humanity with a succession of plagues — up to five scourges. In my heart of hearts, I know they’ll remain true to global solidarity.”

Nikolai was secretly pleased, for in his heart of hearts he’d already devised five plagues sure to be winners. He would show his soft-headed sister once and for all who was lord of the lands that lay below.

A Plague of Politicians

When they next met two years later, Nikolai looked triumphant. “I’ve come back from roaming the earth and everything’s working out in my favor!” he exclaimed, his male pride in full flower. “And it didn’t take much. A few votes here and there and suddenly the Great Blue Wall collapsed.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sophia responded.

“The U.S. presidential election, dear sister! Surely you registered the victory of Donald Trump last year and he’s already performed so admirably, the purest expression of American nationalism anyone’s seen in generations.”

The victory of Donald Trump had indeed caused her heartache.

“Behold the collapse of your Paris and Iran agreements, not to speak of the glorious wall he’s planning to build on the southern border!” her brother continued. “And it’s not only that, little sister! Behold the victory of the Brexit referendum in England, the growing strength of anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, not to mention the rise of my pals Modi, Putin, Orbán, Duterte, and Ortega — all now in office and prospering!”

She calmly considered her bloviating brother. “Has the United Nations collapsed?”

“Well, no, but — ”

“Has international civil society been repressed out of existence?”

“Of course not, but — ”

“And has the popularity of your dear Donald ever risen above 50%?”

“That’s not the point!”

“Oh, but brother, it very much is the point! Your argument rests on passing phenomena. Elections come and go; institutions endure. You’ll have to do better than offer me a set of buffoons as proof of your victory. I guarantee you that the voters will kick them out of office at the next opportunity.”

Nikolai’s face turned beet red. Sure that he would instantly triumph over her with his blitzkrieg electoral strategy, he now saw that he’d have to visit a more serious plague on humanity.

Enter the Pox

Grim as the moment was when they next reconvened, Nikolai was glowing. “All my men are still in office!” he exclaimed. “So perhaps it’s not such a passing phenomenon, little sister. Just to make sure, though, I decided to subject humanity to a physical test. How do you like my little coronavirus? It took only the tiniest of alterations to move it from bat to pangolin to human.”

“Ingenious,” she conceded.

“And you see its impact, right? Where there was once a debate about borders, now every country’s building its own walls to keep the infected out. Better yet, the richer countries are hoarding their medical supplies. You see, sister, in an emergency, everyone turns out to be a hyper-nationalist. And just wait until they develop a vaccine. It’ll be every nation for itself.”

“I beg to differ,” she replied. “There have been extraordinary examples of global solidarity. Shipments of equipment from one country to another. Doctors sharing knowledge. And the future will certainly be like the past. You remember the stories of international care workers risking their lives in Ebola hotspots?”

“Trivial examples,” Nikolai said in his most patronizing tone.

“Perhaps, but you’ve forgotten one crucial point.”

“And what’s that, dear sister?”

“A global pandemic requires a global response. It’s of no use for a single country to vanquish a pandemic only within its own borders. Even now calmer heads are building a cooperative response and internationalism will emerge stronger than ever.”

Nikolai furrowed his brow, but he’d prepared for this moment. “No matter, sister. For behold, I’ve sent a third plague on the heels of the second: the collapse of the global economy. You’ve always sung the praises of international trade, but supply chains are now collapsing, prices are soaring, and countries are refocusing on domestic production.”

Sophia was growing tired of her brother’s conspiratorial fulminations against “globalists,” sometimes siding with the far right, sometimes with the economic nationalists of the left — anything to win an argument. “You know as well as I do that bulls and bears come and go as frequently as politicians in electoral cycles, but the global economy has been a solid reality for more than a century. Yes, it suffered declines after World War I and during World War II that make the present moment look like nothing, but has the global supply chain truly shut down? Are we returning to a barter system? Again, dear brother, you’ve mistaken the trees for the forest.”

“The trees and the forest,” he practically shouted in frustration, “are going up in flames!”

“More importantly, you’ve mistaken my internationalism for rank neoliberalism, something I’ve never backed. If you want to continue this argument, take it up with Hermes who’s presided over commerce for so many more centuries than you and I have been around.”

Nikolai had no intention of arguing with Hermes. His beef was with his sister — and he still had two wild cards up his sleeve.

Trial by Sword

By now, Sophia was a little worried. Maybe she’d been over-optimistic in 2015. Maybe she shouldn’t have given her brother so many opportunities to test humanity. After all, there might indeed be a breaking point.

Trump had truly scared her and remained disruptive, even though no longer in office. Still, she was cautiously optimistic that similar leaders elsewhere would lose their next elections as well.

Meanwhile, the global economy was recovering, as she’d predicted, even if the international community still wasn’t addressing the staggering disparities in wealth within and between countries that had only been exacerbated by the pandemic. No less worrisome, the international response to the pandemic had been nowhere near as robust as she’d hoped. Some countries could boast more than 90% of their citizens fully vaccinated, while less than 1% of the population in the Democratic Republic of Congo had gotten even one shot and the situation in Chad, Madagascar, and too many other places wasn’t much better. Worse yet, new variants of Covid-19 were emerging.

Then, just when she thought her brother might have given up, the unexpected happened, leaving him exultant.

On that fateful day, he burst into her glade, interrupting her lyre practice. “Have you seen the news, sis? My tyrant-whispering has finally born fruit. Russia has attacked Ukraine!”

She gave him a stern look. “Brother, you’re unleashing demons.”

“You see how quickly the world reverts to its elemental passions?” he exulted. “It’s the glorious nineteenth century all over again!”

“There were no nuclear weapons then. You’re putting the world at risk of Armageddon.”

“Oh, don’t overreact, dear sister. You’ll see that this war can enflame nationalist passions quite nicely without ending life as they know it.”

Sophia began to keep tabs on the conflict. With every recent war — Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen — she’d hoped humanity would conclude that nothing justified such suffering. Perhaps the latest outrage would finally tip the balance sheet.

Soon, in fact, she was able to say to her brother, “You miscalculated. The Russian attack has only solidified support for my position.”

“What do you mean?” Nikolai asked, horrified.

“Your man in Moscow could have remained in power until his mortal end. Now, he’s thrown his country into economic peril, even as his geopolitical position becomes ever more fragile. Once, he presided over a veritable Nationalist International. Now, virtually everyone, including old friends in places like Hungary and Poland, is treating him like a pariah. If he’s not careful, he could end up all alone in his own country as well.”

“You exaggerate!”

“Do I? Your desperation mirrors his. Your desire to win at all costs has disabled your critical faculties. Tell me, brother, is this glorious war going well for Russia?”

He looked uncomfortable.

“Even if Putin manages to gain control over Ukraine through brute force, it’ll be momentary. Ukrainians en masse have already rejected such an occupation.”

“He absorbed Crimea,” Nikolai responded weakly.

At great cost. Surely you remember the woman who swallowed a fly, a story that does not end well.”

“Although you’re a goddess, you can’t see into the future.”

“No, I can’t. But I can see one thing. You’re coming to the end of your games and humanity has remained my faithful servant.”

“You haven’t won yet! Just you wait!”

She didn’t like the sound of that.

The Ultimate Challenge

The war in Ukraine continued, alongside all the world’s other ongoing conflicts. Nor had the pandemic, the fragility of the global economy, or political extremism disappeared. Sophia believed in her own arguments, but who could look at the planet below and remain truly optimistic?

As she glumly assessed the state of the world, Nikolai crept up and tapped her on the shoulder, a sly expression on his face and a hockey stick in his hand.

“I have no time for games,” she said.

“No games, sister. This is the final plague.”

“A hockey stick?”

“’Tis but a symbol — of the greatest peril humanity now faces.”

“Ah,” she said, the realization dawning on her. “That graph! Carbon emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But what does a problem that’s been going on for two centuries have to do with our present wager, especially now that your friend’s gone from the White House and the Paris agreement’s back on track?”

“Oh, sister, you know that those are only voluntary commitments that few nations are even paying much attention to right now.”

“It was just a beginning,” she ventured.

“But time’s running out,” he replied with satisfaction. “And climate change is only a symptom of a much deeper problem. Humanity’s exhausting the resource base of this planet, not just fossil fuels but minerals for so-called clean energy. And with every country still asserting its right to expand its economy and burn through yet more resources, forget about clean water or more land to grow food on. Even if some miracle happens and there’s a binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions, it won’t solve the larger resource problem.”

“We can mobilize international pressure to change the growth paradigm,” she countered.

Nikolai folded his arms and looked at her smugly. “More and more conflicts over ever fewer resources? And what will fuel those conflicts, my dear sister? The desperation of nationalism will inevitably overcome the slow and ineffectual efforts of internationalism.”

Sophia suddenly motioned to the human activity below, frenzied and ant-like. “Look at people mobilizing all over the world to protest on Fridays, plant trees, stop the building of coal plants.”

Nikolai smiled maddeningly. “Behold the overheating poles, the spreading fires, the rising seas. You can argue with me, dear sister, but you can’t argue with Mother Nature.”

“Solar panels,” she responded weakly. “Electric cars.”

“Requiring more resource extraction, which will only spur more conflict.”

“The war you started in Ukraine’s pushing Europe to move away from fossil-fuel imports.”

“But not quickly enough. Face it, sis, you’ve lost.”

She took a deep breath. Nikolai’s face had the same look of pride she remembered from their childhood when the wars he’d instigated destroyed the Concert of Europe she’d so proudly created in 1815. She realized it was finally time to tell her brother the truth. She almost felt sorry for him as she exhaled and said, “If I lose, everyone loses.”

“Exactly.”

“And if you win, everyone loses, too. In your eagerness, you’ve proven one thing: that nationalism’s the ultimate losing proposition. All these years, in other words, you’ve been driving at top speed right down a dead-end street. A deadly pandemic, nuclear Armageddon, planet’s end. I’m sorry, bro, but your philosophy just crashed into a brick wall.”

“No!”

“You’ve been hoisted by your own arrogant petard.”

In sudden anger, he raised the hockey stick above his head. “You’ve tricked me!”

“No, you’ve tricked yourself.”

He swung the stick in her direction. Her brother being easy to predict, she ducked automatically, pivoted, and wrapped her arms around him.

“Calm yourself, brother,” Sophia whispered in his ear. He was exasperating, but he was family. “Let’s sit back and watch what happens.” Then she added, in a voice filled with sadness, “I may have won our little wager, but you could still score the biggest Pyrrhic victory of all time.”

The terrifying world of 2025: Is a coming MAGA Cultural Revolution on the horizon?

’ve just wrapped up my shift at BurgerBoy and I don’t have much time before the weekly self-criticism session at town hall. This hour with my diary is precious, especially when I have to make a big decision. Writing used to be my job, but it’s so much more difficult after eight straight hours on my feet. It’s been more than a year since the disastrous 2024 election and I can’t overestimate how much I miss my old life.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

But I shouldn’t complain. Some of my former colleagues from the newspaper have it so much worse. My editor, for instance, is picking tomatoes not far from here under the hot Florida sun, which isn’t easy for a 45-year-old with bad knees. One of our former White House pool reporters is at a nearby chicken-processing plant. The few times we’ve met for a cup of coffee, I can’t bear to look at her hands.

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be slinging burgers and dumping shoestring potatoes into a fryer 55 hours a week, breathing in that oil-clogged air and barely keeping up with the lunchtime rush. But it’s not as physically demanding as working in the fields or chopping up chickens on a frigid factory floor.

We’ve been at these jobs for six months, which is how long the new Civilian Conservation Corps — a name borrowed from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but with none of the social-democratic content — has been up and running. At the newspaper, we all thought the new president was joking when he promised to revive the old Biden administration idea of a youth climate corps. Of course, he did so with a grim focus all his own and a new slogan that “everyone has to pitch in to make America great again!”

Left unsaid was the administration’s plan to deport millions of undocumented workers and plunge the country into a desperate labor crisis. What’s more, the president blocked all new immigrants from what he called “shithole countries” and somehow expected incoming Scandinavians to fill the vacuum, though Swedes and Norwegians were clearly uninterested in moving to America en masse to cut lawns and build skyscrapers at non-Scandinavian wages.

So, that left us, the former “expert class,” newly unemployed, to do the work.

“We’re going to send those reporters and other freeloaders down to the countryside to get a real education,” the president insisted when he signed the Civilian Conservation Corps into law. “This is the first step in really draining the swamp.”

After a lifetime dedicated to exposing the corruption, legislative double-dealing, and bureaucratic insanities of Washington, my journalistic colleagues and I never thought of ourselves as actual inhabitants of the swamp. We were the zoologists. We developed the taxonomies and performed the autopsies. So, we dutifully reported on the president’s speech, never thinking it applied to us.

It’s not as if we missed the early warning signs of this war on expertise: the reporters attacked during campaign rallies, the death threats against public health officials, the storming of school-board meetings. It’s just that we didn’t expect those rabid but scattered incidents to morph into an official presidential initiative after the 2024 elections.

On his first day in office, the president signaled his new policy by authorizing a memorial on the Capitol grounds to the “patriots” of January 6th and commissioning a statue of the QAnon shaman for the Rotunda. He then appointed people to his cabinet who not only lacked the expertise to manage their departments but were singularly devoted to destroying the bureaucracies beneath them, not to speak of the country itself. He put militia leaders in key Defense Department roles and similarly filled the courts with extremists more suited to playing reality-show judges than real life ones. In all of this, the president has been aided by a new crop of his very own legislators, men and women who know nothing about Congress and actively flouted its rules and traditions even as they made the MAGA caucus the dominant voting bloc.

We laughed bitterly as we reported on each of these acts of political surrealism. Soon enough, however, those laughs died in our throats.

The joke, we learned, was on us.

Bashing China, Emulating China

The president’s supporters started bringing up China during the protests following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 when activists began pulling down monuments to slaveholders and Confederate generals.

This was an American-style “Cultural Revolution,” right-wing pundits insisted, referring to the tumultuous period of Chinese history from 1965 to 1975 when young revolutionaries, encouraged by leader Mao Zedong, tortured and killed “reactionary” elements, destroyed cultural treasures, and fought for control of institutions like universities and factories. At the behest of the Communist Party, those Red Guards also supervised the expulsion of intellectuals and civil servants to the countryside for “reeducation.”

America’s racial-justice activists bore no resemblance to those Red Guards. Unlike the young Chinese radicals of the 1960s, America’s activists didn’t kill anyone or subject even the worst racists to beatings and public humiliations. They pressed their demands for the removal of statues through democratic channels.

With that false Cultural Revolution analogy, the president’s supporters were able to portray Democrats as communists, while they engaged in the kind of China-bashing they’d perfected on pandemic, trade, and security issues. Meanwhile, having learned just enough about the Cultural Revolution to advance their far-fetched comparisons, the president’s team also clearly gathered tips on what to do with intellectuals and other “running dog lackeys” of the “globalists.”

Early on in the current administration, “expertise” became the new Communism, with doctorates as suspect as Party membership cards. Scientists who insisted on “promoting the false religion” of climate change found themselves without funding and then without jobs. Witch-hunting committees were established to pin all the failures of the last several decades — the pandemic, the trade deficit, the immigration “crisis” — on the expert class, their attacks becoming the cornerstone for a new, all-American version of class warfare.

The discrediting of experts and their ouster from positions of authority allowed the president’s supporters to move into the recently vacated positions. Credentials now being unnecessary, they became university professors, top officials in federal agencies, and newspaper pundits. The newly created Civilian Conservation Corps became the “solution” to the “problem” of the newly dispossessed expert class. The president introduced it as a “big, beautiful job retraining program.” In reality, the CCC was little different from the vagrancy laws of an earlier era that press-ganged the poor into prison labor.

We initially thought this revamped Civilian Conservation Corps would be voluntary and somehow, despite our reportorial skills, failed to grasp how the machinery of coercion was being constructed behind the scenes. Soon enough, though, with the assistance of its deep-pocketed financial supporters, the government began orchestrating hostile takeovers of media outlets critical of government policy — just as the right-wing government of Viktor Orbán had done in Hungary. School boards, newly dominated by Three Percenters, Family Firsters, and other presidential allies, changed the rules of employment to oust superintendents, principals, and teachers. A coordinated attack on the “Deep State” purged “radicals” from civil service jobs. Laws were passed to make union organizing essentially illegal.

There were some scattered demonstrations against the CCC registrations. The Corps, however, was initially popular at the polls — a reflection of how much anger had built up against the “experts,” the “functionaries,” and all the teachers who were supposedly pushing “critical race theory” in their classrooms. The same people who vociferously attacked vaccine mandates as government overreach had no problem with a new federal agency registering 5% of the population for “job retraining” and “employment relocation.”

Even with pandemic travel restrictions still in place throughout much of the world, the wealthy and famous critics of the president managed to leave the country. A few eccentrics disappeared into the internal exile of mountain shacks and survivalist shelters. The rest of us, with our wishful thinking and slender means, were caught up in the dragnet.

Good, honest work, the president promised as part of the CCC. Well, I’m not in a concentration camp and I can just about live within my stipend as long as I eat most of my meals at BurgerBoy. (The grilled chicken sandwich with avocado isn’t bad.) It’s the first time in my life that I’m grateful to be unmarried and childless. Many of my former colleagues have to pull double or even triple shifts to feed their families on the meager CCC pay.

I can get by. But I’m really worried about what comes next.

Self-Criticism

Once a week, as a requirement of the CCC system, we “volunteers” gather in a town hall committee room to report on our “progress” at work and confess any “crimes” of “action, intent, or thought.” Over time, the 25 of us in this mid-sized town in central Florida have found a way to get through the proceedings in a relatively speedy three hours.

Actually, there’s even some truth to the self-criticisms I make. With important exceptions, we in the media did largely ignore the plight of working America, the people we now labor alongside in fast-food restaurants, on road-construction crews, and at hotel-cleaning services. We never truly grasped the difficulty of making a living at such unlivable wages. Nor did we understand the challenges of the jobs themselves until our new colleagues had to teach us repeatedly how to avoid burning ourselves at a fryer or pick tomatoes fast enough to make a decent piece rate.

Perhaps most importantly, we failed to understand the justifiable anger of the working class at how, in recent decades, this country’s economy had skewed so wildly in favor of the wealthy, a tipping of the playing field abetted by the political mainstream. I suppose there’s some poetic justice in sending us on these “assignments” to see how the other 95% live.

But last week, just as I was getting used to those self-criticism sessions, the rules changed. That’s when Karen, the local CCC director (who’d previously headed up the president’s reelection campaign in this town), informed us of a new directive from the administration.

“Saboteurs have infiltrated the CCC,” Karen told us solemnly. “We need to weed out and punish them.”

She painted a picture of wrecked factories and uprooted seedlings on farms. The “resistance” was apparently attempting to undermine “our president’s super-great plans and this has to stop.”

Therefore, Karen needed us to rat on our fellow “volunteers.”

There are four of us — an astrophysicist, a classics professor, a nutritionist, and me — embedded with the local BurgerBoy staff. We four like each other well enough, though I find it difficult to put up with how slowly the astrophysicist assembles the burger orders and I bristle at the little jokes the classicist cracks under her breath in Greek and Latin. After some initial suspiciousness, we now get along with the local staff, too. When Aishah, the longest-serving employee, lobbied for higher wages, we supported her campaign even though the salary increases don’t apply to us.

There isn’t much we can sabotage here at BurgerBoy, unless you consider over-salted fries and poorly mixed shakes acts of resistance. Even if we managed to shut down the whole place, the town would hardly grind to a halt. Customers would just migrate to the fried chicken joint where three other CCC “volunteers” work.

In fact, we’ve all pulled together. Thanks to the nutritionist, we’ve made a few fixes to improve the taste and quality of the food and I’ve rewritten the descriptions of the meals to make them sound more appealing. Aishah suggested changes to better meet local needs around hours of operation and family discounts. Our restaurant is now making money instead of consistently losing it.

Even as we’ve turned our BurgerBoy around, however, the rest of the country is failing, big time. The economy is a mess, despite all the conscript labor working to keep supply chains functioning. The shelves are only half-full at the local supermarket. Prices are skyrocketing. Yet another wave of Covid-19 has filled the local hospital’s ICU to the brim in a now officially maskless, vaccine-mandate-less country, which only aggravates the labor shortage.

The new administration needs scapegoats.

Of course, the fears of sabotage are not completely unfounded. There’s resistance all right. It’s just not coming from us.

Resistance

It started with a customer who overheard the former classics professor calling the chocolate shake theobroma — “food of the Gods” in Greek. The rest of us groaned, as usual.

“Hey,” the customer whispered to the professor over the counter. “That’s Greek, isn’t it?”

The professor, decked out in her BurgerBoy apron and cap, was all smiles. “That’s right.”

“I’m looking for a tutor for my girl,” the woman said. “Are you available?”

That’s when we first found out about how upset the locals had become over the changes in the schools. Almost everyone in town has been grumbling about the incompetence of the new teachers and the principal’s refusal to meet with any but the wealthiest of the parents. According to local gossip, the students aren’t learning a thing. As word of mouth spread and more customers began asking about our hidden specialties, my CCC colleagues started moonlighting.

And that was just the beginning. We soon found out from our customers that the healthcare system was falling apart because of a lack of competent administrators and dedicated public health officials. Social Security checks and Medicare benefits have been delayed because the federal bureaucracy has shrunk to near invisibility. Even with the addition of CCCers, there still aren’t enough pickers for the crops or enough experienced kill-room operators for the slaughterhouses.

Who needs saboteurs when the system set up by the new government is sabotaging itself? The leaders implemented their new laws on behalf of the People. But the actual people are beginning to have second thoughts.

I know this nightmare won’t end overnight. China’s Cultural Revolution stretched on for nearly a decade and resulted in as many as two million dead. Our now-captive media doesn’t report on the growing violence in this country, but we’ve heard rumors about mobs attacking a courageous podcaster in Georgia and vigilantes targeting a lone abortion provider in Texas. Things might get a lot worse before they get better.

Still, this former reporter needs to decide what part he’s going to play in dealing with autocratic rule in our town and the country at large.

Until now, I haven’t gotten any moonlighting gigs. It speaks volumes about my employability when a professor of dead languages gets more requests for tutoring than I do. But today, one of our customers, a secretary in Town Hall, passed me an envelope. She’d heard I was a journalist, so she took the risk of giving me this information.

According to the documents she slipped me, Karen has been siphoning off money meant for public infrastructure like roads and bridges into meeting her own private infrastructure needs like a remodeled kitchen, a new sports car, and a luxury sailboat. The envelope contains bank records, store receipts, and full-color photos that nail it all down.

So, Karen wants us to rat on saboteurs? I’ve got just the answer: if I have enough courage to confront her or somehow get this information written up and into the world. After all, she has the power to get me reassigned to a coal mine in West Virginia or a prison in South Carolina, if she wants.

I don’t know much about China’s Cultural Revolution, but I do know this: when Communist Party official Deng Xiaoping returned from cleaning out pig pens in the countryside, he didn’t just work to reverse the Cultural Revolution. When he became premier, he began a thorough transformation of the Chinese system.

I’m not a fan of a lot that has happened in China since, but I do know that we, too, need a thorough transformation here in America. If I ever survive the wrath of Karen and make it out of this BurgerBoy, that’s going to be my life’s mission. To exit this current mess, America needs its experts, but it also needs its pickers and cleaners and burger-flippers making livable wages and participating in rebuilding our country.

Drawing on our different skills, we turned around our little BurgerBoy. One day maybe we can bring our all-in-it-together revolution to the rest of this polarized, violent, desperately unequal, and ultimately failing country.

The ascent of the global far right is more disturbing than any time since fascism’s 1930s heyday

What alt-right guru Steve Bannon failed to create, German taxpayers have just stepped in to revive: a Nationalist International. Thanks to the German government, the far right is about to get its own well-heeled global think tank, complete with the sort of political academy that was so dear to Bannon’s plan for world domination.

Germany’s gift to the far right is the Desiderius Erasmus Foundation, the public-policy arm of the country’s most prominent extremist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Erasmus, a Dutch humanist of the Renaissance best known for his ironic essay “In Praise of Folly,” would have been appalled at such a grotesque misappropriation of his name. The AfD, after all, has built its political base on a series of follies diametrically opposed to humanism, from its initial anti-immigration screeds to its current overtures to the anti-vaccination crowd.

Strangely enough, the AfD underperformed in the recent German elections, its parliamentary delegation losing 11 seats. Still, by capturing a little more than 10% of the vote, the party made it into parliament a second consecutive time. As a result, it qualifies for what all other major parties also receive: government support of its foundation. Unless legal efforts to block this largesse succeed, the Erasmus foundation will soon enjoy the equivalent of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars a year.

Consider that an extraordinary shot in the arm for the global far right, since the AfD will be funded to establish outposts of hate throughout the world. The foundation of the left-wing Die Linke party, the more appropriately labeled Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, already has offices in more than 20 countries. The Green Party’s foundation, named after Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Heinrich Böll, is in more than 30 countries. The far right hasn’t had this kind of opportunity for global expansion since fascism’s heyday in the 1930s.

The notion that the AfD could engage in anything remotely resembling “political education” should be laughable. But that’s exactly how its foundation plans to use the coming federal windfall: to recruit and train a new generation of far-right thinkers and activists. The Erasmus Stiftung aims to hire more than 900 people for its political academy and allied educational institutions. That’s even more ambitious than the academy of intellectual “gladiators” Bannon once dreamed of creating in a former monastery in the Italian countryside.

The Erasmus website says nothing about its global ambitions. Based on the AfD’s latest platform, however, expect the foundation to gather together Euroskeptics to plot the evisceration of the European Union; advance the AfD’s anti-immigrant platform with counterparts across Europe like Lega in Italy, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, and several extremist groups in the Balkans; and pour money into establishing a “respectable” face for white nationalism by networking among identitarian groups in North America, the former Soviet Union, and Australasia.

This thunder on the right certainly sounds ominous. And yet, after the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 elections, the precipitous decline in public support for President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the ongoing efforts to counter the far right in Eastern Europe, the prospect of a Nationalist International might seem further away today than, say, four years ago.

One well-funded German foundation is not likely to change that forecast. Unfortunately, the Erasmus Foundation is anything but the only storm cloud on the political horizon.

In reality, the global disillusionment with mainstream politics that fueled the rise of Trump and his ilk has only grown more intense in these last months. New authoritarian populists have consolidated power in places like El Salvador — where President Nayib Bukele calls himself the “world’s coolest dictator” — and are poised for possible takeovers in countries like Chile and Italy. And who knows? Even Donald Trump might claw his way back into the White House in 2024.

In other words, just when you thought it might finally be safe to go back into the international community, the global situation may grow far worse. With the help of German taxpayers and aided by anger over vaccine mandates, a malfunctioning world economy, and the enduring corruption of the powerful, the global right could rebound, securing greater power and influence in the years to come.

The Building Wave of Reaction

At this point, by all the laws of politics, Donald Trump should be radioactive. He lost his re-election bid in November 2020 and his subsequent coup attempt failed. He’s had a lousy record when it comes to expanding Republican Party power, having helped that very party forfeit its House majority in 2018 and its Senate majority in 2020. He continues to face multiple lawsuits and investigations. He’s been barred from Facebook and Twitter.

For Trump, however, politics is a philosopher’s stone. He’s managed to transmute his leaden style — not to mention his countless private failings and professional bankruptcies — into political gold. The big surprise is that so many people continue to fall for such fool’s gold.

Because of his fervent, ever-loyal base of support, Trump continues to control the Republican Party and remains on track to run for president in 2024, with no credible Republican competition in sight. Even his overall popularity, which never made it above 50% when he was president, has recently improved marginally from a February low of 38.8% percent to an almost sunny 43.4%.

Led by this urban elitist from New York, the Republican Party has all but given up on cities and reliably blue regions of the country. Still, it now controls all the levers of power in 23 states, while the Democrats do so in only 15. With a mixture of gerrymandering, voter suppression, federal stonewalling, and a master narrative about fraudulent elections, the Republicans aim to win back control of Congress in 2022 — something the odds increasingly favor — on their way to reclaiming the White House in 2024. At the moment, Donald Trump is the bookies’ choice to win the next presidential election, largely on the strength of not being Joe Biden (just as he won in 2016 by not being Hillary Clinton).

Since he can’t run for king of the world, Trump cares little about building international alliances, but the growing potential for him to return to power in 2024 has inspired right-leaning populists globally to believe that they, too, can lead their countries without the requisite skill, experience, or psychological stability. Indeed, from President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, being vulgar and vicious has already served a variety of them all too well.

Even more troubling is the new generation of Trump-style politicians coming to the fore globally. In Chile, for instance, the once-traditional conservative José Antonio Kast has remade himself as a far-right populist and in November won the first round of that country’s presidential elections. Across the Pacific in the Philippines, an all-too-literal political marriage of authoritarianism and populism is taking place as Bongbong Marcos, the son of the notorious former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has selected Sara, the daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, to be his running mate in next year’s presidential election. Polling already puts them way ahead of the competition. In France, where Marine Le Pen has had a lock on the extremist vote for a decade, journalist Éric Zemmour is challenging her from the right with his predictions of a coming civil war and Muslim takeover.

Meanwhile, Trump’s minions in America are strengthening their international connections to create a global field of dreams. For many of them, Hungary remains the home plate of that very field of dreams. Right-wingers have been flocking to Budapest to learn how that country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, transformed the most liberal corner of Eastern Europe into the region’s most reactionary country. (Admittedly, he now faces stiff competition from the Law and Justice Party in Poland and Janez Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party, among other right-wing forces in Eastern Europe.)

Elsewhere in Europe, the Spanish far-right party Vox has established its own Disenso Foundation to knit together a reactionary “Iberosphere” that includes the Mexican right, extremists in Colombia, the Bolsonaro family in Brazil, and even Texas senator Ted Cruz. But the Western Europe state most likely to follow Hungary’s lead is Italy. Right now, Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, presides over a technocratic administration in Rome. Italian politics, however, is heading straight for neo-fascism. The party that’s only recently surged to the top of the polls, Brothers of Italy, has its roots in a group started in the wake of World War II by diehard supporters of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It promotes an anti-vaxx “Italy first” agenda and, if elections were held today, would likely create a ruling coalition with the alt-right Lega Party and right-wing populist Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy.Typically enough, former vice president Mike Pence visited Budapest in September to praise Orbán’s “family-centric” anti-abortion version of social policy. This summer, Tucker Carlson broadcast a full week of his Fox News program from that same city. In the process, he devoted an entire show to Orbán’s virulently anti-immigrant initiatives, headlining it: “Why can’t we have this in America?” In fact, this country’s most reactionary political types are so in love with Hungary that they’re scheduling the annual Conservative Policy Action Conference for Budapest next spring, which will only cement such a transatlantic link.

Remember, in 2002, Orbán was kicked out of the prime minister’s office after one term in office, only to return to power in 2010. He’s been ruling ever since. The Trumpistas dream of pulling off just such a political comeback in America.

Meanwhile, several right-wing nationalists and populists are padding their CVs for a future role as the head of any new Nationalist International. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have the strongest claim to the title, given his longstanding support for right-wing and Euroskeptical parties, as well as the way he’s positioned Russia as the preeminent anti-liberal power around.

Don’t rule out Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, though. He’s mended fences with the far right in his own country, while trying to establish Turkey as a regional hegemon. Increasingly disillusioned with his NATO peers, he’s purchased weapons from Russia and even hinted at pushing Turkey into the nuclear club. And don’t forget Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi either. Working overtime to contain China, the Hindu nationalist has also been assiduously cultivating strong relations with the right-wing in both the U.S. and Israel.

Creating an actual Axis of Illiberalism from such disparate countries would not be easy given geopolitical rivalries, ideological differences, and personal ambitions. Still, the failures of current global institutions — and the liberal internationalism that animates them — provide a powerful glue with the potential to hold together genuinely disparate elements in an emerging right, adding up to a new version of global fascism.

When the future members of a Nationalist International argue that the status quo — a raging pandemic, runaway climate change, persistent economic inequality, staggering numbers of displaced people on the move — is broken and they have just the plan to fix it, plenty of non-extremists are likely to find the message all too compelling. Short on hope and desperate for change, the disaffected and disenfranchised have proven willing to offer the noisy nationalists and reactionary populists a shot at power (which, given their unscrupulous tactics, may be all they need).

Saving the World (from Liberals)

One of the most persistent symbols of international politics has certainly been the wall. Think of the Great Wall of China, designed to protect successive dynasties from the predations of nomadic outsiders. Many metropolitan areas around the world have retained some portion of the historic walls that once established them as city-states. The Berlin Wall was the most visible symbol of the Cold War, while Trump’s border wall was the only infrastructure program of his presidency (even if it was never truly built).

The far right is now — thank you, Donald Trump! — obsessed with walls, drawing on not only history but a deep reservoir of fear of the outsider. Like “austerity” for neoliberals, “walls” have proven the far right’s one-size-fits-all answer to almost every question. Immigrants? Wall them out. Climate change? Build walls now to prevent future waves of desperate global-warming refugees. Economic decline? Hey, install those tariff walls. Angry neighbors? Walls of weaponry and anti-missile defenses are the obvious answer.

The far right considers not rising sea levels but globalization — trade flows, the movement of people, expanding international governance — as the tide that needs containing. Far right populists are busy constructing dikes of all sorts to keep out such unwanted global flows and preserve national control in an increasingly chaotic world.

Moving down the great chain of governance, it’s no surprise that the far right also wants to culturally wall off communities to uphold what it calls “family values” against contrary civic values, different religious practices, and alternate conceptions of sexuality and gender. It even wants to wall off individuals to “protect” them against intrusive government practices like vaccine mandates. To secure such walls, literal or metaphoric, what’s needed above all are a bloated military at the national level, paramilitaries at the community level, and a semi-automatic in the hands of every red-blooded right-wing individual.

Such walls are a hedge against uncertainty, though ironically the far right’s truest contribution to modern political ideology is not certainty, but a radical skepticism. Sure, that ancient right-wing American crew, the John Birch Society, did traffic in conspiracy theories involving Communists and fluoridated water. But that was nothing compared to the way the modern political right has weaponized conspiracy theories to acquire permanent power. With claims of stolen elections, Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, and others have even cast doubt on the very capacity of democracy to represent voters, emphasizing that only populist extremists can represent the “authentic” wishes of the electorate.

On the other hand, elections that far-right candidates win, like the recent gubernatorial race in Virginia, are automatically defined as free and fair. Radical skepticism about the electoral system, after all, is only a convenient ladder that, once in power, the far right is all too ready to kick away.

The final conspiracy theory to fall will undoubtedly be the nefariousness of the “globalists” who have teamed up to sully the “precious bodily fluids” of pure Americans (or Brazilians or Hungarians). As long as liberal internationalists run global institutions like the World Bank and the World Health Organization, “globalists” will be useful bogeys for the nationalists to rally their followers. However, if the Trumps of this world capture enough countries and successfully infiltrate global institutions, then there will be no more talk of evil globalists.

In that worst-case scenario, even a Nationalist International will no longer be necessary as we discover in Hemingway fashion that, for Trump and his kind, the sun also rises. For all practical purposes, right-wing populists will have taken over the world. Given their blithe disregard for pandemics and climate change, such a victory would, of course, be pyrrhic.

Their win, humanity’s loss.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Featured image: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel in the trilogy, Songlands, has just been published. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot. More information about the new IPS project on a Global Just Transition can be found here.

The collapse of empire and the age of billionaires

It was supposed to be the greatest transition of modern times.

Practically overnight, a dirty, inefficient, and unjust system that encompassed 11 time zones was to undergo an extreme makeover. Billions of dollars were available to speed the process. A new crew of transition experts came up with the blueprint and the public was overwhelmingly on board. Best of all, this great leap forward would serve as a model for all countries desperate to exit a failed status quo.

That's not what happened.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Russia emerged from its wreckage as the largest successor state, government officials in the newly elected administration of Boris Yeltsin teamed up with a cadre of foreign experts to chart a path into a post-Soviet system of democracy and free markets. The West offered billions of dollars in loans while the Russians generated more funds through the privatization of state assets. With all those resources, Russia could have become an enormous Sweden of the east.

Instead, much of that wealth disappeared into the pockets of newly minted oligarchs. During the 1990s, Russia suffered an economic catastrophe, with the equivalent of $20 to $25 billion leaving the country every year and the gross domestic product (GDP) falling nearly 40% between 1991 and 1998. The Soviet Union once had the second-largest economy on earth. Today, thanks only to a reliance on Soviet-era fossil-fuel and arms-export industries, Russia hovers just outside the top 10 in total economic output, ranking below Italy and India, but still manages only 78th place — that is, below Romania — in per-capita GDP.

The failures of the Russian transition can be chalked up to the collapse of empire, decades of economic decay, the vengeful triumphalism of the West, the unchecked venality of local opportunists, or all of the above. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss such a cautionary tale as a mere historic peculiarity.

If we're not careful, the Russian past could well become humanity's future: a transition bungled, a golden opportunity squandered.

After all, the world is now poised to spend trillions of dollars for an even more massive transition, this time from a similarly dirty, inefficient, and unjust economy based on fossil fuels to… what? If the international community somehow learns the lessons of past transitions, someday we will all live in a far more equitable, carbon-neutral world powered by renewable energy.

But don't bet on it. The world is slowly replacing dirty energy with renewables but without addressing any of the industrial-strength problems of the current system. It should remind us of the way the Russians replaced state planning with free markets, only to end up with the shortcomings of capitalism as well as many of the ills of the previous order. And that's not even the worst-case scenario. The transition might not happen at all or the decarbonization process could be so endlessly drawn out over decades as to be wholly ineffectual.

The proponents of Green New Deals promise win-win outcomes: solar panels and wind turbines will produce abundant energy cheaply, the climate crisis will abate, workers will leave dirty jobs for cleaner ones, and the Global North will help the Global South leapfrog into a gloriously Green future. In reality, however, transitions of such a scale and urgency have never been win-win. In the case of Russia's transition from communism, nearly everyone lost out, and the country is still suffering the consequences. Other large-scale transformations of the past — like the agrarian and industrial revolutions — were similarly catastrophic in their own ways.

In the end, perhaps a key part of the problem lies not just in the flawed status quo, but in the mechanism of transition itself.

Pyramids of Sacrifice

Transitions can have harsh, even genocidal consequences. Just ask the Neanderthals.

Oh, sorry, you can't. They were wiped out 40,000 years ago in the great transition to modern homo sapiens. Those early hominids left behind some bones, a few tools, and a small percentage of DNA in the contemporary human genome. Neanderthals might have died out because of inbreeding or due to climate change. More likely, they were killed off by our ancestors over thousands of years of conflict. Poor Neanderthals: they were among the eggs that had to be broken to make the omelet that's us.

The fate of the Neanderthals is extreme, but not unique. Whenever humans take a great leap forward, they tend to do so over an enormous pile of bones.

Take the agrarian revolution, which spelled the end for hunter-gatherers, except for those who survived in isolated areas like the Amazon rainforest. On the plus side, humanity received the gift of civilization in the form of politics, trade, and literacy. On the negative side, as anthropologist Jared Diamond argued in a famous 1999 Discover article, the Neolithic transformation spawned disease, malnutrition, and gross economic inequality. It was, Diamond concluded, "the worst mistake in the history of the human race."

Ten thousand years later, humanity might have committed the worst mistake in the history of the planet. Sure, the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century eventually led to extended lifespans, food enough to feed the world, and TikTok. But the application of modern science and engineering to economic affairs also set in motion a ruinous despoliation of the planet. More ominously, as everyone who has gazed at the "hockey-stick" graph of carbon emissions knows, the industrial revolution marked the first time that humans, perhaps irrevocably, began changing this planet's climate by burning fossil fuels at an ever more staggering rate.

The new religion of economic growth at any cost also exacted a human toll. Children were put to work in the "dark satanic mills" of the early factories; a new proletariat was consigned to lives nasty, brutish, and short; and millions died as colonialism cut a huge swath of destruction through the global south. The oligarchs of the time, enriched by plunder and exploitation, created a Gilded Age of astounding economic inequality that, despite the best efforts of trade unions and social democrats, has made a striking reappearance in our own Age of Billionaires.

Though critical of the cruelties of capitalism, communists turned out to worship the same god of economic growth. Leaders from Vladimir Lenin onward firmly believed that state-led modernization and coercive tactics would enable new communist states to outproduce any capitalist country. Yet, in telescoping decades of industrial modernization into a few short years, their efforts to surpass the West magnified the horrors visited upon local populations. The collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s led to around 10 million deaths, while the similar Great Leap Forward in China that began in 1958 cost the lives of as many as 45 million people. As the bodies piled up, the communist 1% — a new class of Party officials and their cronies — orchestrated their own personal leap forward.

For sociologist Peter Berger, communism and capitalism both adopted a "sacrificial" conception of development in which myths of "progress" and "growth" claimed their share of victims, much as Aztec priests had once used ritual murder to propitiate the gods and save their civilization. In his book Pyramids of Sacrifice, Berger writes that the "elite almost invariably legitimates its privileged position in terms of alleged benefits it is bestowing or getting ready to bestow upon 'the people.'" More often than not, however, these promised benefits accrue to the elite, not the masses.

Which brings us again to the "great transitions" of the 1990s, in which countries that had gone down the road to communism doubled back to take the turn-off for capitalism. The losses for Russia in the 1990s were nothing like the horrors of collectivization. Still, aside from a small number of people who made out like bandits, virtually all other Russians took a step backward as the costs of transition fell disproportionately on pensioners, blue-collar workers, and farmers. As a result, in the early 1990s, one-third of Russians dropped below the poverty line. Due to a combination of alcoholism and unemployment, the life expectancy of Russian men suffered an extraordinary decline from 63 years in 1990 to 58 years in 2000. Disillusionment with liberalization helped to boost popular support for Vladimir Putin, a politician who has skillfully capitalized on those thwarted hopes. His approval ratings still remain relatively high so many years later, even though only 27% of Russians believe that their economic situation today is better than during Soviet times.

The rest of the former Soviet bloc suffered similar, though less severe, dislocations. In Poland, the first country to experiment with the "shock therapy" of an overnight transition to capitalism, the winners came to be known as Poland A, a younger, more well-educated, predominantly urban elite that successfully surfed the waves of change. Poland B — the older, less educated, more rural "losers" of that transition — would eventually exact their revenge at the ballot box by supporting the decidedly anti-liberal Law and Justice Party, which has ruled the country since 2015. Throughout the region, an Eastern Europe B has helped bring similar right-wing populists to power in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, and Slovenia.

Disenchantment with such liberal transitions notwithstanding, those countries benefited from something that wasn't available to Russia: the European Union (EU). A continuous flow of capital, and the provision of technical assistance on governance and the rule of law eventually enabled Eastern European countries to outperform their Russian neighbor. A large gap still separates much of Eastern Europe from the wealthier West, but the average Russian can only dream of the life of a second-class EU citizen.

Both of these experiences of transition offer valuable lessons for what may come next.

The Green New Deal

If you take the statements of the world's governments at face value, almost everyone is now treating climate change very seriously and nations globally are feeling the heat to declare carbon-neutrality by 2050 (or sooner). In August, articles about the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), emphasizing that global warming is "widespread, rapid, and intensifying," were accompanied by terrifying photos of its real-world effects: the wildfires in California and Siberia, the disastrous flooding in Germany and China, the record-setting temperatures in Canada and Sicily, and that's just to start down a list of climate disasters. Your head — or indeed, your entire body — would have had to be in the sand to ignore the emergency sirens going off all around you.

Nonetheless, despite such obvious warning signs of so much worse to come, the world has not, in fact, accelerated its pace of decarbonization. The next major climate-change conference is scheduled for Glasgow at the beginning of November, but the globe's leading economies are all still falling painfully short of the commitments they made in Paris nearly six years ago. More horrifying yet, the IPCC reports that, even if countries were meeting those commitments, they would, by 2030, result in a mere 1% reduction in carbon emissions from 2010 levels. To avoid the worst-case scenarios of an overcooked planet, those emissions would have to be cut by nearly 50% within the next nine years. Only a couple of countries are preparing for such a dramatic transformation.

The time for modest reforms is long past. A radical cut in carbon emissions can't be accomplished simply by banning drinking straws, ramping up production of electric cars, or even planting a billion trees. To meet the climate-change challenge will require a transformation comparable to the agrarian or industrial revolutions. But if those earlier system changes are guideposts, the losers of this next great leap forward will be legion.

Various "just transition" proposals are designed, at least on paper, to avoid such an enormous human toll. For a start, a "fair-share" approach would require the transfer of trillions of dollars to help the Global South keep fossil fuels in the ground while shifting to renewable energy. A similar approach within nations would provide the "losers of transition"– from coal miners to those on fixed incomes — with targeted assistance to "go green."

Alas, such an approach runs counter to current practices. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, the international community did not implement a "fair share" approach. The wealthiest countries largely cornered the market on vaccines, and poorer countries have had to rely on a trickle of handouts. Moreover, despite the unprecedented opportunity provided by the Covid crisis to begin to act on the next coming disaster, climate change, governments have generally failed to allocate recovery funds to finance any kind of major economic transformation. In the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan of 2021, for example, a mere $50 million went to environmental justice grants, while $8 billion went to airports. Similarly, fully one-tenth of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill now making its way (or not) through Congress is devoted to improvements to roads and bridges, which will only reinforce America's love affair with cars, SUVs, and trucks.

And where is the necessary shift of resources to the Global South to help with its transition? Back in 2009, rich countries had already promised to mobilize $100 billion for such climate financing by 2020. They're still $20 billion short and the assistance has come mostly in the form of loans, not grants, only deepening the dependence and indebtedness of the Global South.

Worse yet, richer countries have been at least modestly reducing their own carbon footprints at the expense of poorer countries by relocating polluting industries to the Global South or substituting carbon-intensive imports for domestic production of the same. Although China continues to boost its share of domestic renewable sources of energy, it's been financing 70% of all coal-fired power plants built globally (though its leader, Xi Jinping, recently pledged to end this practice). The European Union is actually phasing out coal power — which China is emphatically not doing — even as it continues to rely on high-carbon imports from coal-using countries like Russia, Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt.

To combat such a shift of carbon emissions from north to south — and protect its own less carbon-intensive industries — the European Union has proposed a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which penalizes imports of cement, fertilizer, steel, and the like based on the amount of carbon emitted in their production. Hitting Russia the hardest, this tariff would indeed push that country toward a "greener" manufacturing process for its Europe-bound products. However, countries in the Global South that don't have the resources to upgrade their export industries would be left out in the cold.

This lack of resources in the Global South is compounded by debt. The poorest nations are devoting nearly $3 billion a month to servicing their debts, diverting resources that could otherwise go into a transformation of energy and industrial infrastructure. Bridging this divide would require large-scale debt forgiveness; equitable debt-for-climate swaps; or, more ambitiously, an Organization for Emergency Environmental Cooperation that would marshal trillions of dollars in public financing to pay for the entire world to transition to clean energy.

Here, the experience of Eastern Europe is relevant. The European Union's transfer of resources, training, and technology from west to east helped cushion the transition that so devastated Russia. Although not enough to prevent the rise of Eastern Europe B, the EU's modest generosity at least gestured toward the kind of solidarity economics that the Global North needs to adopt in any future climate negotiations with the Global South. If there is to be belt-tightening to shrink the global carbon footprint, those who can most afford to lose the weight should step forward.

Such schemes address the all-important question of equity. But there's an elephant in the room that's so far gone unmentioned. And that beast is only getting bigger.

A Rising Tide

All the major transformations of the past were predicated on rapid economic growth, whether the increasing food production of the agrarian revolution or the incorporation of the Soviet Union into the industrialized world through its Five-Year Plans. Most versions of the Green New Deal adhere to the same growth paradigm, with electric cars filling the roads and more sustainably produced widgets circulating through the global economy.

Even as richer countries promise to shrink their carbon footprints, however, they still imagine that they can maintain their overall way of life and export that lifestyle to the rest of the world. But this high-energy lifestyle of computers, air conditioners, and electric SUVs depends on the Global South. By one estimate, the Global North enjoys a $2.2 trillion annual benefit in the form of underpriced labor and commodities from there, an extraction that rivals the magnitude of the colonial era. Moreover, the cobalt and lithium necessary for batteries for electric cars, the gallium and tellurium in solar panels, the rare-earth elements needed for wind turbines are predominantly mined in the Global South and their extraction is likely to come at a huge environmental cost.

The high-growth assumptions of the current system reappear under the rubric of "Green growth," promulgated by old-style industrialists in new Green clothing. During the transition from communism in the 1990s, "red capitalists" were well-placed in the old system to profit under the new dispensation. Today, a class of "green capitalists" have similarly emerged to enjoy huge profits from the early days of a putatively post-carbon economy — Elon Musk in the world of electric cars, billionaires like Robin Zeng and Huang Shilin with lithium-ion batteries, and Aloys Wobben when it comes to wind turbines. Huge sums of money are now available for the sketchiest of projects, from "blue hydrogen" to the sea-bed mining of rare-earth minerals.

Big profits minus serious regulatory oversight equals the possibility of big-time malfeasance. Fraud was rampant in European wind farms in the 1990s, while renewable energy companies in the Global North have been implicated in bribery schemes in the Global South. The additional bonanza of Green funds through recovery, infrastructure, or transition programs — like the one-time financial resources made available by Russian privatization — could easily disappear into dubious private ventures, bureaucratic black holes, or the swamplands of corruption.

A rising tide, it was once said, would lift all boats: economic growth would lead to general prosperity. But a "rising tide" now has a different meaning in a climate-changing world. The planet can no longer support that kind of growth, whatever its color.

The next transformation must be different from its precursors when it comes to both economic expansion and social equity. We can't simply grow our way out of this predicament, nor should we sacrifice millions of human beings in the process. Despite the enormous economic and political gaps that separate people around the world, we have to somehow join hands across vast differences to leapfrog over the fossil-fuel economy. United we transform or united we fall.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel in the trilogy, Songlands, has just been published. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot. More information about the new IPS project on a Global Just Transition can be found here.

Artificial intelligence is hurtling us toward humanity's inflection point — and we're not ready

My wife and I were recently driving in Virginia, amazed yet again that the GPS technology on our phones could guide us through a thicket of highways, around road accidents, and toward our precise destination. The artificial intelligence (AI) behind the soothing voice telling us where to turn has replaced passenger-seat navigators, maps, even traffic updates on the radio. How on earth did we survive before this technology arrived in our lives? We survived, of course, but were quite literally lost some of the time.

My reverie was interrupted by a toll booth. It was empty, as were all the other booths at this particular toll plaza. Most cars zipped through with E-Z passes, as one automated device seamlessly communicated with another. Unfortunately, our rental car didn't have one.

So I prepared to pay by credit card, but the booth lacked a credit-card reader.

Okay, I thought, as I pulled out my wallet, I'll use cash to cover the $3.25.

As it happened, that booth took only coins and who drives around with 13 quarters in his or her pocket?

I would have liked to ask someone that very question, but I was, of course, surrounded by mute machines. So, I simply drove through the electronic stile, preparing myself for the bill that would arrive in the mail once that plaza's automated system photographed and traced our license plate.

In a thoroughly mundane fashion, I'd just experienced the age-old conflict between the limiting and liberating sides of technology. The arrowhead that can get you food for dinner might ultimately end up lodged in your own skull. The car that transports you to a beachside holiday contributes to the rising tides — by way of carbon emissions and elevated temperatures — that may someday wash away that very coastal gem of a place. The laptop computer that plugs you into the cyberworld also serves as the conduit through which hackers can steal your identity and zero out your bank account.

In the previous century, technology reached a true watershed moment when humans, harnessing the power of the atom, also acquired the capacity to destroy the entire planet. Now, thanks to AI, technology is hurtling us toward a new inflection point.

Science-fiction writers and technologists have long worried about a future in which robots, achieving sentience, take over the planet. The creation of a machine with human-like intelligence that could someday fool us into believing it's one of us has often been described, with no small measure of trepidation, as the "singularity." Respectable scientists like Stephen Hawking have argued that such a singularity will, in fact, mark the "end of the human race."

This will not be some impossibly remote event like the sun blowing up in a supernova several billion years from now. According to one poll, AI researchers reckon that there's at least a 50-50 chance that the singularity will occur by 2050. In other words, if pessimists like Hawking are right, it's odds on that robots will dispatch humanity before the climate crisis does.

Neither the artificial intelligence that powers GPS nor the kind that controlled that frustrating toll plaza has yet attained anything like human-level intelligence — not even close. But in many ways, such dumb robots are already taking over the world. Automation is currently displacing millions of workers, including those former tollbooth operators. "Smart" machines like unmanned aerial vehicles have become an indispensable part of waging war. AI systems are increasingly being deployed to monitor our every move on the Internet, through our phones, and whenever we venture into public space. Algorithms are replacing teaching assistants in the classroom and influencing sentencing in courtrooms. Some of the loneliest among us have already become dependent on robot pets.

As AI capabilities continue to improve, the inescapable political question will become: to what extent can such technologies be curbed and regulated? Yes, the nuclear genie is out of the bottle as are other technologies — biological and chemical — capable of causing mass destruction of a kind previously unimaginable on this planet. With AI, however, that day of singularity is still in the future, even if a rapidly approaching one. It should still be possible, at least theoretically, to control such an outcome before there's nothing to do but play the whack-a-mole game of non-proliferation after the fact.

As long as humans continue to behave badly on a global scale — war, genocide, planet-threatening carbon emissions — it's difficult to imagine that anything we create, however intelligent, will act differently. And yet we continue to dream that some deus in machina, a god in the machine, could appear as if by magic to save us from ourselves.

Taming AI?

In the early 1940s, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov formulated his famed three laws of robotics: that robots were not to harm humans, directly or indirectly; that they must obey our commands (unless doing so violates the first law); and that they must safeguard their own existence (unless self-preservation contravenes the first two laws).

Any number of writers have attempted to update Asimov. The latest is legal scholar Frank Pasquale, who has devised four laws to replace Asimov's three. Since he's a lawyer not a futurist, Pasquale is more concerned with controlling the robots of today than hypothesizing about the machines of tomorrow. He argues that robots and AI should help professionals, not replace them; that they should not counterfeit humans; that they should never become part of any kind of arms race; and that their creators, controllers, and owners should always be transparent.

Pasquale's "laws," however, run counter to the artificial-intelligence trends of our moment. The prevailing AI ethos mirrors what could be considered the prime directive of Silicon Valley: move fast and break things. This philosophy of disruption demands, above all, that technology continuously drive down labor costs and regularly render itself obsolescent.

In the global economy, AI indeed helps certain professionals — like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who just happen to be among the richest people on the planet — but it's also replacing millions of us. In the military sphere, automation is driving boots off the ground and eyes into the sky in a coming robotic world of war. And whether it's Siri, the bots that guide increasingly frustrated callers through automated phone trees, or the AI that checks out Facebook posts, the aim has been to counterfeit human beings — "machines like me," as Ian McEwan called them in his 2019 novel of that title — while concealing the strings that connect the creation to its creator.

Pasquale wants to apply the brakes on a train that has not only left the station but no longer is under the control of the engine driver. It's not difficult to imagine where such a runaway phenomenon could end up and techno-pessimists have taken a perverse delight in describing the resulting cataclysm. In his book Superintelligence, for instance, Nick Bostrom writes about a sandstorm of self-replicating nanorobots that chokes every living thing on the planet — the so-called grey goo problem — and an AI that seizes power by "hijacking political processes."

Since they would be interested only in self-preservation and replication, not protecting humanity or following its orders, such sentient machines would clearly tear up Asimov's rulebook. Futurists have leapt into the breach. For instance, Ray Kurzweil, who predicted in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near that a robot would attain sentience by about 2045, has proposed a "ban on self-replicating physical entities that contain their own codes for self-replication." Elon Musk, another billionaire industrialist who's no enemy of innovation, has called AI humanity's "biggest existential threat" and has come out in favor of a ban on future killer robots.

To prevent the various worst-case scenarios, the European Union has proposed to control AI according to degree of risk. Some products that fall in the EU's "high risk" category would have to get a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval (the Conformité Européenne). AI systems "considered a clear threat to the safety, livelihoods, and rights of people," on the other hand, would be subject to an outright ban. Such clear-and-present dangers would include, for instance, biometric identification that captures personal data by such means as facial recognition, as well as versions of China's social credit system where AI helps track individuals and evaluate their overall trustworthiness.

Techno-optimists have predictably lambasted what they consider European overreach. Such controls on AI, they believe, will put a damper on R&D and, if the United States follows suit, allow China to secure an insuperable technological edge in the field. "If the member states of the EU — and their allies across the Atlantic — are serious about competing with China and retaining their power status (as well as the quality of life they provide to their citizens)," writes entrepreneur Sid Mohasseb in Newsweek, "they need to call for a redraft of these regulations, with growth and competition being seen as at least as important as regulation and safety."

Mohasseb's concerns are, however, misleading. The regulators he fears so much are, in fact, now playing a game of catch-up. In the economy and on the battlefield, to take just two spheres of human activity, AI has already become indispensable.

The Automation of Globalization

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of global supply chains. The world economy nearly ground to a halt in 2020 for one major reason: the health of human workers. The spread of infection, the risk of contagion, and the efforts to contain the pandemic all removed workers from the labor force, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Factories shut down, gaps widened in transportation networks, and shops lost business to online sellers.

A desire to cut labor costs, a major contributor to a product's price tag, has driven corporations to look for cheaper workers overseas. For such cost-cutters, eliminating workers altogether is an even more beguiling prospect. Well before the pandemic hit, corporations had begun to turn to automation. By 2030, up to 45 million U.S. workers will be displaced by robots. The World Bank estimates that they will eventually replace an astounding 85% of the jobs in Ethiopia, 77% in China, and 72% in Thailand."

The pandemic not only accelerated this trend, but increased economic inequality as well because, at least for now, robots tend to replace the least skilled workers. In a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, 43% of businesses indicated that they would reduce their workforces through the increased use of technology. "Since the pandemic hit," reports NBC News,

"food manufacturers ramped up their automation, allowing facilities to maintain output while social distancing. Factories digitized controls on their machines so they could be remotely operated by workers working from home or another location. New sensors were installed that can flag, or predict, failures, allowing teams of inspectors operating on a schedule to be reduced to an as-needed maintenance crew."

In an ideal world, robots and AI would increasingly take on all the dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs globally, freeing humans to do more interesting work. In the real world, however, automation is often making jobs dirtier and more dangerous by, for instance, speeding up the work done by the remaining human labor force. Meanwhile, robots are beginning to encroach on what's usually thought of as the more interesting kinds of work done by, for example, architects and product designers.

In some cases, AI has even replaced managers. A contract driver for Amazon, Stephen Normandin, discovered that the AI system that monitored his efficiency as a deliveryman also used an automated email to fire him when it decided he wasn't up to snuff. Jeff Bezos may be stepping down as chief executive of Amazon, but robots are quickly climbing its corporate ladder and could prove at least as ruthless as he's been, if not more so.

Mobilizing against such a robot replacement army could prove particularly difficult as corporate executives aren't the only ones putting out the welcome mat. Since fully automated manufacturing in "dark factories" doesn't require lighting, heating, or a workforce that commutes to the site by car, that kind of production can reduce a country's carbon footprint — a potentially enticing factor for "green growth" advocates and politicians desperate to meet their Paris climate targets.

It's possible that sentient robots won't need to devise ingenious stratagems for taking over the world. Humans may prove all too willing to give semi-intelligent machines the keys to the kingdom.

The New Fog of War

The 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan proved to be unlike any previous military conflict. The two countries had been fighting since the 1980s over a disputed mountain enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia proved the clear victor in conflict that followed in the early 1990s, occupying not only the disputed territory but parts of Azerbaijan as well.

In September 2020, as tensions mounted between the two countries, Armenia was prepared to defend those occupied territories with a well-equipped army of tanks and artillery. Thanks to its fossil-fuel exports, Azerbaijan, however, had been spending considerably more than Armenia on the most modern version of military preparedness. Still, Armenian leaders often touted their army as the best in the region. Indeed, according to the 2020 Global Militarization Index, that country was second only to Israel in terms of its level of militarization.

Yet Azerbaijan was the decisive winner in the 2020 conflict, retaking possession of Nagorno-Karabkah. The reason: automation.

"Azerbaijan used its drone fleet — purchased from Israel and Turkey — to stalk and destroy Armenia's weapons systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, shattering its defenses and enabling a swift advance," reported the Washington Post's Robyn Dixon. "Armenia found that air defense systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, many of them older Soviet systems, were impossible to defend against drone attacks, and losses quickly piled up."

Armenian soldiers, notorious for their fierceness, were spooked by the semi-autonomous weapons regularly above them. "The soldiers on the ground knew they could be hit by a drone circling overhead at any time," noted Mark Sullivan in the business magazine Fast Company. "The drones are so quiet they wouldn't hear the whir of the propellers until it was too late. And even if the Armenians did manage to shoot down one of the drones, what had they really accomplished? They'd merely destroyed a piece of machinery that would be replaced."

The United States pioneered the use of drones against various non-state adversaries in its war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. But in its 2020 campaign, Azerbaijan was using the technology to defeat a modern army. Now, every military will feel compelled not only to integrate increasingly more powerful AI into its offensive capabilities, but also to defend against the new technology.

To stay ahead of the field, the United States is predictably pouring money into the latest technologies. The new Pentagon budget includes the "largest ever" request for R&D, including a down payment of nearly a billion dollars for AI. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare has written, the Pentagon has even taken a cue from the business world by beginning to replace its war managers — generals — with a huge, interlinked network of automated systems known as the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control (JADC2).

The result of any such handover of greater responsibility to machines will be the creation of what mathematician Cathy O'Neill calls "weapons of math destruction." In the global economy, AI is already replacing humans up and down the chain of production. In the world of war, AI could in the end annihilate people altogether, whether thanks to human design or computer error.

After all, during the Cold War, only last-minute interventions by individuals on both sides ensured that nuclear "missile attacks" detected by Soviet and American computers — which turned out to be birds, unusual weather, or computer glitches — didn't precipitate an all-out nuclear war. Take the human being out of the chain of command and machines could carry out such a genocide all by themselves.

And the fault, dear reader, would lie not in our robots but in ourselves.

Robots of Last Resort

In my new novel Songlands, humanity faces a terrible set of choices in 2052. Having failed to control carbon emissions for several decades, the world is at the point of no return, too late for conventional policy fixes. The only thing left is a scientific Hail Mary pass, an experiment in geoengineering that could fail or, worse, have terrible unintended consequences. The AI responsible for ensuring the success of the experiment may or may not be trustworthy. My dystopia, like so many others, is really about a narrowing of options and a whittling away of hope, which is our current trajectory.

And yet, we still have choices. We could radically shift toward clean energy and marshal resources for the whole world, not just its wealthier portions, to make the leap together. We could impose sensible regulations on artificial intelligence. We could debate the details of such programs in democratic societies and in participatory multilateral venues.

Or, throwing up our hands because of our unbridgeable political differences, we could wait for a post-Trumpian savior to bail us out. Techno-optimists hold out hope that automation will set us free and save the planet. Laissez-faire enthusiasts continue to believe that the invisible hand of the market will mysteriously direct capital toward planet-saving innovations instead of SUVs and plastic trinkets.

These are illusions. As I write in Songlands, we have always hoped for someone or something to save us: "God, a dictator, technology. For better or worse, the only answer to our cries for help is an echo."

In the end, robots won't save us. That's one piece of work that can't be outsourced or automated. It's a job that only we ourselves can do.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel in the trilogy, Songlands, has just been published. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

Mordern dystopias: Still hanging on the edge in the pandemic twilight

I went to a birthday party recently.

The celebrants greeted each other with hugs on the patio. After an outdoor barbeque dinner, we stood shoulder to shoulder around the island in the kitchen, eating cake from small paper plates. We sang "Happy Birthday."

Ordinarily, an event like that wouldn't be worth noting, but these aren't exactly ordinary times. In this twilight world of ours, half-in and half-out of a pandemic, hanging around without masks and within spitting distance of vaccinated friends should be considered just this side of miraculous — a combination of luck, privilege, and a stunning series of events on a national scale that would strain credibility in a work of fiction.

To get to that birthday party required, first of all, surviving the pandemic, which has so far killed somewhere between 600,000 and 900,000 Americans, while infecting as much as one-third of the population (including, months earlier, a couple of the guests at that very birthday party). No foreign enemy has ever inflicted such casualties on America, and never in our lifetimes have American civilians faced such a catastrophic breakdown in homeland security.

Nor has the international scientific community ever responded with such dispatch and efficacy to a global crisis. Less than a year from the date of the initial outbreak, not one but several Covid-19 vaccines had been developed, tested, and approved. Then came the anxious wait for eligibility and the constant refreshing of vaccination websites to try to schedule an appointment. Only when enough people like me had gone through the extended regimen of inoculation and after the infection rate had begun to fall rapidly did officials in my home state of Maryland begin to lift quarantine restrictions.

Even though everyone at that birthday party was fully vaccinated, I still felt uncomfortably vulnerable without my mask. I hesitated before hugging people. My hands itched for a squirt of sanitizer. It was, in other words, a celebration tempered by uncertainty. We were navigating new rules of social discourse: Handshake? Bear hug? Peck on the cheek? And no one dared jinx the celebration by saying, as we normally would have, "Next year, same time, same place."

By temperament, I'm an optimist. By profession, however, I'm a pessimist. In my day job as a foreign-policy analyst and in the speculative realm as the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy of novels, I'm constantly considering worst-case scenarios.

So, yes, I'm well aware that Covid-19 infection rates have dropped to levels not seen in a year and that the United States may indeed be on track to reach a 70% vaccination rate among adults by July 4th, which could, as the president has promised, offer us a new version of "Independence Day." But this country is still experiencing the same number of infections (tens of thousands) and deaths (hundreds) as it did during the lull following the first outbreak last year. More infectious variants of the disease continue to emerge globally, most recently in India, where the numbers have been horrific, as well as in Vietnam. The current vaccines reportedly stave off such variants, but what about the next ones?

My professional dystopianism extends to the political sphere. I'm grateful on a daily basis that Donald Trump is no longer in the Oval Office or blathering on Twitter. I now take for granted a Democratic Congress (however marginally controlled), which seemed like a longshot last Election Day.

But let's face it, politically, things could go south fast. Even though the Democrats are working overtime to inoculate this country's economy with one stimulus shot after another, the Republicans could retake the Senate and even the House in 2022, and, three years from now, Donald Trump could still prove to be a viable presidential candidate.

By then, for all we know, an even more infectious strain of Trumpism — call it T.2 — might have emerged in the form of far-right challengers like Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, or even (god save us all) Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Their followers who lurched from Reopen rallies to Stop the Steal protests were struck dumb by the failure of their Duce to cling to power in January 2021. In the months since Joe Biden's inauguration, with a majority of Republicans still proclaiming his election stolen, they've again become restive.

Keep in mind as well that dystopia remains unevenly distributed around the globe. Trump is gone (for now), but other putatively democratic authoritarians remain in power. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is still effectively leader for life in Russia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro cling to their offices, and and rebel-turned-tyrant Daniel Ortega just arrested the woman challenging him this year for the Nicaraguan presidency.

Meanwhile, not only has India been overwhelmed by Covid-19, but the numbers in Brazil remain terrifying and Taiwan has recently been hit with a first wave of infections — and that's just to begin down a grim list. Even the Seychelles Islands off the coast of Africa, despite a world-leading vaccination rate of more than 60%, has recently experienced an unexpected uptick in cases.

In other words, as I left that party, it just didn't feel like the right moment to exhale.

Human beings are adaptable creatures. We have an unfortunate ability to normalize worst-case scenarios. Rising temperatures? Guess it's time to sell the beach house and move inland. Raging pandemic? A good opportunity to chill for a few months with Netflix and UberEats.

But dystopias are not just about objectively terrible things. Dystopia is about losing control over your life. It's about a faceless bureaucracy trying to evict you from your home. It's about a virus evading all your carefully constructed defenses. It's about right-wing crazies subverting democracy even as they claim to revere it.

So, tell me the truth: in June 2021, do you really feel back in control yet?

The Insurrection Next Time

The last scene of a horror film often elicits a gasp. The eyelid of the supposedly dead serial killer snaps open. A mad scientist, reportedly cured, is released from the asylum clutching a briefcase full of plans for his next planet-destroying invention. A puppy scampers into the kitchen with the telltale orange rash of a disease that was allegedly extinguished.

Such scenes are obviously setups for sequels, but they're also reminders that horrors seldom simply disappear. Instead, they mutate, hibernate, and burrow into our everyday world.

With that in mind, let's revisit the final scene of this year's most talked-about horror story, the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.

Inflamed by the president's lies and conspiracy theories, thousands of people overwhelmed the Capitol police, broke into what should have been one of the most protected buildings in the country, and launched a search-and-destroy mission against various politicians located inside. The noose set up on the West Front of the Capitol was an unambiguous indication of the insurrectionists' intentions. Some of them had even brought bear spray, and they were indeed out for bear.

The story of the insurrection ended with order restored, legislators returning to their chambers to confirm the 2020 election results, and a modicum of bipartisan horror at what had just happened. But the very last scene elicited a gasp from the audience watching at home. Even as they condemned the violence that had just taken place in their midst, a handful of Republican legislators continued to claim election fraud. Early on the morning of January 7th, seven Republican senators and 122 members of the House refused to certify the election results in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Those votes were the sick puppy with the orange rash, the sign that the infectious horror of Trumpism had not been stamped out. At best, this country would experience a respite of unknown length before another surge captured the headlines. After all, Trump and his followers have been in the process of fundraising, assembling a cast and crew, enlisting thousands of extras, and beginning to film their sequel, while promising even bigger thrills and chills to come.

Their fans can't wait.

While most Americans go about their calmer post-Trumpian lives under the Biden administration, a significant number of their fellow citizens live in a different reality entirely. For them, a world of dystopian intensity has just begun. After all, those Trumpsters are now experiencing their worst-case scenario — a Biden victory in a "stolen" election and Congress in Democratic hands. They have no desire to normalize what they consider a socialist regime in Washington. Astonishingly, one-quarter of Republicans belong to the church of QAnon with its imaginary global syndicate of Satan-worshipping child traffickers.

Although it was the Trump administration that helped spur the creation of the Covid-19 vaccines, 41% of Republicans still say they won't get inoculated (compared to 4% of Democrats). Against all evidence, they believe the vaccines to be unsafe, ineffective, or even downright undemocratic in the way they subject their "victims" to nonstop surveillance through a supposedly injected microchip. Fixated on such imaginary threats, the anti-vaxxers are dismissive of a pandemic that is still a clear and present danger.

In the good old days, people with such a tenuous connection to reality would retreat to their armchairs to listen to Rush Limbaugh. They'd live in their own private dystopias — stocking their bomb shelters, polishing their guns, muttering to themselves — with lots of fire and fury but little real-world impact.

Thanks to Trump, the Proud Boys, and QAnon, however, the dystopians of today have turned their delusions into a political project even to the point of taking over the Republican Party. Mo Brooks, the Alabama Republican who still believes that the 2020 election featured the "worst voter fraud and election theft in history," repeatedly incited his followers to post-election violence. Gun nut Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, called Joe Biden a "tyrant" for his tepid gun-control proposals after a spate of mass killings this spring. Led by Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, the party is now rewriting the events of January 6th to blame the violence on supposed left-wing agitators.

Equally troubling, true believers of this sort are still attempting to overturn the results of the election, beginning with the vote "recount" in Maricopa County, Arizona. The outfit in charge of that recount, Cyber Ninjas, has been set loose in a basketball arena in Phoenix like the Keystone Kops on a mad caper. In the process, they're violating all the rules of a proper audit, from tolerating a huge error rate in tally sheets to flagging ballots as "suspicious" for things like folds, Cheeto stains, and suspected bamboo fibers (the result, supposedly, of having been sent from somewhere in Asia). According to Jack Sellers, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the Maricopa recount is "a grift disguised as an audit."

It's not the 2020 election that hangs in the balance, of course, since no amount of imaginary bamboo fibers — in Arizona or any of the other states the Trumpsters are targeting — can overturn what Congress has already confirmed. What can potentially be overturned, however, is American democracy itself. After all, it's now clear that the Trumpsters will treat every future election that doesn't produce the results they desire as a globalist plot no different from a new vaccine or a new pronouncement by infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci. Each contested election has the possibility of generating another potential insurrection, with the rioters perhaps chanting, "Remember January 6th!"

The nonsense now being spouted by the loony right would be grist for satire if we hadn't seen all this before. Karl Marx once proposed (and Groucho Marx proved) that "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce." Trump has turned this dictum on its head, since many of the laughable things he said on his road to the presidency — his paeans to his future "big, fat, beautiful Wall," his white nationalism, his love of Vladimir Putin — were indeed turned into tragic policy by his minions.

We laughed when Barack Obama roasted Trump at the Gridiron dinner in 2011, but those jokes likely kindled Trump's ambition to become president. We would be wise not to laugh at the antics of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has spouted QAnonsense and compared mask mandates to the Nazi treatment of Jews, or else she could ride similar waves of derision to even greater political heights.

The Power of the Marginalized

I have a great deal of empathy for many people in the Trump camp. I've never liked Washington, D.C., and its obsession with insider politics. I share the distaste that much of Trump country feels for the arrogance of the power elite and its incessant jockeying for influence.

After all, it wasn't Trump who created our current mess. Sure, he turned up the heat under the pot and gave its contents a vigorous stir, but he didn't assemble the ingredients or design the recipe. The climate crisis, the travesty of global military spending, the inequities of the global economy: these were created by the "adults in the room" backed by the mainstream political parties, Washington's "Blob," and an ever-ascendant military-industrial-congressional complex.

The MAGA crowd was right to reject this version of the status quo. With his economic populism, Trump gave voice to those who felt shafted by Wall Street, transnational corporations, and globalization in general. The wages of blue-collar workers, adjusted for inflation, had at best stagnated since the 1970s (while the incomes of America's billionaires have done anything but). Because the mainstream parties abandoned these voters, economically speaking, many of them naturally basked in the attention Trump showered on them. They felt that their dystopia of economic marginalization might finally be on the verge of lifting.

In challenging one pillar of the status quo, however, Trump consciously reinforced two others, the power of the wealthy elite and of white privilege. In the process, legitimate economic grievances became entangled with anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, and blatant racist rhetoric. Trump's electoral defeat has by no means silenced this white nationalism.

Fortunately, other voices have come to the fore as well, as millions of Americans rejected the status quo in more productive ways. One year ago, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, triggering the largest protests in American history (as well as demonstrations in more than 60 other countries). In exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly, those protestors were also very deliberately trying to regain control of their lives by rolling back a dystopia of police terror that has disproportionately harmed Blacks.

Similarly, the #MeToo movement has been a reassertion of control by women over their own bodies and lives. Thanks to such efforts, the dystopia of rape culture and patriarchal authority has begun to recede, though not everywhere or quickly enough.

Environmentalists are likewise standing up to the fossil-fuel companies, while economic justice advocates continue to challenge multinational corporations. Peace activists are protesting wars and military spending, while human rights demonstrators are rallying against authoritarian leaders. These efforts all contribute, little by little, to the possibility that we can regain control over our own lives. They are part of a long-term process whereby the powerless become subjects in their own stories rather than the objects of someone else's tales. Such challenges to the status quo would become more powerful still if joined by some of the economically marginalized previously drawn to Trump (as long as they check their white privilege at the door).

I've tried to describe such historic efforts in essays and in fiction. In my Splinterlands series of novels, I've done my best to peer into our future and consider the worst-case scenarios of climate change, unrestrained corporate power, and nationalism run amok. However, in the standalone finale, Songlands, I let a little sunlight break through the dystopian storm clouds to tell the story of an international community of activists coming together in the face of a planetary crisis. (George Orwell, meet Greta Thunberg.)

As I said, by temperament I'm an optimist. Sometimes, that optimism even leaks into my professional life.

Sure, I continue to worry about what the next wave of Covid-19 might look like. I fear both the continued lunacy of the Republican Party and the pallid incrementalism of the Democrats. But I'm heartened by the energy of people all over the world determined to beat back dystopia, take control of their lives, and transform the optimists' credo of "hope and change" into something a great deal more significant than a campaign slogan.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel in the trilogy, Songlands, has just been published. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

The coming cyber-apocalypse: A cold war has already turned hot

America has a serious infrastructure problem.

Maybe when I say that what comes to mind are all the potholes on your street. Or the dismal state of public transportation in your city. Or crumbling bridges all over the country. But that's so twentieth century of you.

America's most urgent infrastructure vulnerability is largely invisible and unlikely to be fixed by the Biden administration's $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.

I'm thinking about vulnerabilities that lurk in your garage (your car), your house (your computer), and even your pocket (your phone). Like those devices of yours, all connected to the Internet and so hackable, American businesses, hospitals, and public utilities can also be hijacked from a distance thanks to the software that helps run their systems. And don't think that the U.S. military and even cybersecurity agencies and firms aren't seriously at risk, too.

Such vulnerabilities stem from bugs in the programs — and sometimes even the hardware — that run our increasingly wired society. Beware "zero-day" exploits — so named because you have zero days to fix them once they're discovered — that can attract top-dollar investments from corporations, governments, and even black-market operators. Zero days allow backdoor access to iPhones, personal email programs, corporate personnel files, even the computers that run dams, voting systems, and nuclear power plants.

It's as if all of America were now protected by nothing but a few old padlocks, the keys to which have been made available to anyone with enough money to buy them (or enough ingenuity to make a set for themselves). And as if that weren't bad enough, it was America that inadvertently made these keys available to allies, adversaries, and potential blackmailers alike.

The recent SolarWinds hack of federal agencies, as well as companies like Microsoft, for which the Biden administration recently sanctioned Russia and expelled several of its embassy staff, is only the latest example of how other countries have been able to hack basic U.S. infrastructure. Such intrusions, which actually date back to the early 2000s, are often still little more than tests, ways of getting a sense of how easy it might be to break into that infrastructure in more serious ways later. Occasionally, however, the intruders do damage by vacuuming up data or wiping out systems, especially if the targets fail to pay cyber-ransoms. More insidiously, hackers can also plant "timebombs" capable of going off at some future moment.

Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all hacked into this country's infrastructure to steal corporate secrets, pilfer personal information, embarrass federal agencies, make money, or influence elections. For its part, the American government is anything but an innocent victim of such acts. In fact, it was an early pioneer in the field and continues to lead the way in cyberoperations overseas.

This country has a long history of making weapons that have later been used against it. When allies suddenly turn into adversaries like the Iranian government after the Shah was ousted in the 1979 revolution or the mujahideen in Afghanistan after their war against the Red Army ended in 1989, the weapons switch sides, too. In other cases, like the atomic bomb or unmanned aerial vehicles, the know-how behind the latest technological advances inevitably leaks out, triggering an arms race.

In all these years, however, none of those weapons has been used with such devastating effect against the U.S. homeland as the technology of cyberwarfare.

The Worm That Turned

In 2009, the centrifuges capable of refining Iranian uranium to weapons-grade level began to malfunction. At first, the engineers there didn't pay much attention to the problem. Notoriously finicky, such high-speed centrifuges were subject to frequent breakdowns. The Iranians regularly had to replace as many as one of every 10 of them. This time, however, the number of malfunctions began to multiply and then multiply again, while the computers that controlled the centrifuges started to behave strangely, too.

It was deep into 2010, however, before computer security specialists from Belarus examined the Iranian computers and discovered the explanation for all the malfunctioning. The culprit responsible was a virus, a worm that had managed to burrow deep into the innards of those computers through an astonishing series of zero-day exploits.

That worm, nicknamed Stuxnet, was the first of its kind. Admittedly, computer viruses had been creating havoc almost since the dawn of the information age, but this was something different. Stuxnet could damage not only computers but the machines that they controlled, in this case destroying about 1,000 centrifuges. Developed by U.S. intelligence agencies in cooperation with their Israeli counterparts, Stuxnet would prove to be but the first salvo in a cyberwar that continues to this day.

It didn't take long before other countries developed their own versions of Stuxnet to exploit the same kind of zero-day vulnerabilities. In her book This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth describes in horrifying detail how the new cyber arms race has escalated. It took Iran only three years to retaliate for Stuxnet by introducing malware into Aramco, the Saudi oil company, destroying 30,000 of its computers. In 2014, North Korea executed a similar attack against Sony Pictures in response to a film that imagined the assassination of that country's leader, Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, Pelroth reports, Chinese hackers have targeted U.S. firms to harvest intellectual property, ranging from laser technology and high-efficiency gas turbines to the plans for "the next F-35 fighter" and "the formulas for Coca-Cola and Benjamin Moore paint."

Over the years, Russia has become especially adept at the new technology. Kremlin-directed hackers interfered in Ukraine's presidential election in 2014 in an effort to advance a far-right fringe candidate. The next year, they shut down Ukraine's power grid for six hours. In the freezing cold of December 2016, they turned off the heat and power in Kyiv, that country's capital. And it wasn't just Ukraine either. Russian hackers paralyzed Estonia, interfered in England's Brexit referendum, and nearly shut down the safety controls of a Saudi oil company.

Then Russia started to apply everything it learned from these efforts to the task of penetrating U.S. networks. In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, Russian hackers weaponized information stolen from Democratic Party operative John Podesta and wormed their way into state-level electoral systems. Later, they launched ransomware attacks against U.S. towns and cities, hacked into American hospitals, and even got inside the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant in Kansas. "The Russians," Pelroth writes, "were mapping out the plant's networks for a future attack."

The United States did not sit idly by watching such incursions. The National Security Agency (NSA) broke into Chinese companies like Huawei, as well as their customers in countries like Cuba and Syria. With a plan nicknamed Nitro Zeus, the U.S. was prepared to take down key elements of Iran's infrastructure if the negotiations around a nuclear deal failed. In response to the Sony hack, Washington orchestrated a 10-hour Internet outage in North Korea.

As the leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013, the NSA had set up full-spectrum surveillance through various communications networks, even hacking into the private phones of leaders around the world like Germany's Angela Merkel. By 2019, having boosted its annual budget to nearly $10 billion and created 133 Cyber Mission teams with a staff of 6,000, the Pentagon's Cyber Command was planting malware in Russia's energy grid and plotting other mischief.

Unbeknownst to Snowden or anyone else at the time, the NSA was also stockpiling a treasure trove of zero-day exploits for potential use against a range of targets. At first glance, this might seem like the cyber-equivalent of setting up a network of silos filled with ICBMs to maintain a rough system of deterrence. The best defense, according to the hawk's catechism, is always an arsenal of offensive weapons.

But then the NSA got hacked.

In 2017, an outfit called the Shadow Brokers leaked 20 of the agency's most powerful zero-day exploits. That May, WannaCry ransomware attacks suddenly began to strike targets as varied as British hospitals, Indian airlines, Chinese gas stations, and electrical utilities around the United States. The perpetrators were likely North Korean, but the code, as it happened, originated with the NSA, and the bill for the damages came to $4 billion.

Not to be outdone, Russian hackers turned two of the NSA zero-day exploits into a virus called NotPetya, which caused even more damage. Initially intended to devastate Ukraine, that malware spread quickly around the world, causing at least $10 billion in damages by briefly shutting down companies like Merck, Maersk, FedEx, and in an example of second-order blowback, the Russian oil giant Rosneft as well.

Sadly enough, in 2021, as Kim Zetter has written in Countdown to Zero Day, "[C]yberweapons can be easily obtained on underground markets or, depending on the complexity of the system being targeted, custom-built from scratch by a skilled teenage coder." Such weapons then ricochet around the world before, more often than not, they return to sender.

Sooner or later, cyber-chickens always come home to roost.

Trump Makes Things Worse

Donald Trump notoriously dismissed Russian interference in the 2016 elections. His aides didn't even bother bringing up additional examples of Russian cyber-meddling because the president just wasn't interested. In 2018, he even eliminated the position of national cybersecurity coordinator, which helped National Security Advisor John Bolton consolidate his own power within the administration. Later, Trump would fire Christopher Krebs, who was in charge of protecting elections from cyberattacks, for validating the integrity of the 2020 presidential elections.

The SolarWinds attack at the end of last year highlighted the continued weakness of this country's cybersecurity policy and Trump's own denialism. Confronted with evidence from his intelligence agencies of Russian involvement, the president continued to insist that the perpetrators were Chinese.

The far right, for partisan reasons, abetted his denialism. Strangely enough, commentators on the left similarly attempted to debunk the idea that Russians were involved in the Podesta hack, 2016 election interference, and other intrusions, despite overwhelming evidence presented in the Mueller report, the Senate Intelligence Committee findings, and even from Russian sources.

But this denialism of the right and the left obscures a more important Trump administration failure. It made no attempt to work with Russia and China to orchestrate a truce in escalating global cyber-tensions.

Chastened by the original Stuxnet attack on Iran, the Putin government had actually proposed on several occasions that the international community should draw up a treaty to ban computer warfare and that Moscow and Washington should also sort out something similar bilaterally. The Obama administration ignored such overtures, not wanting to constrain the national security state's ability to launch offensive cyber-operations, which the Pentagon euphemistically likes to label a "defend forward" strategy.

In the Trump years, even as he was pulling the U.S. out of one arms control deal after another with the Russians, The Donald was emphasizing his superb rapport with Putin. Instead of repeatedly covering for the Russian president — whatever his mix of personal, financial, and political reasons for doing so — Trump could have deployed his over-hyped art-of-the-deal skills to revive Putin's own proposals for a cyber-truce.

With China, the Trump administration committed a more serious error.

Stung by a series of Chinese cyber-thefts, not just of intellectual property but of millions of the security-clearance files of federal employees, the Obama administration reached an agreement with Beijing in 2015 to stop mutual espionage in cyberspace. "We have agreed that neither the U.S. [n]or the Chinese government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage," Obama said then. "We'll work together and with other nations to promote other rules of the road."

In the wake of that agreement, Chinese intrusions in U.S. infrastructure dropped by an astonishing 90%. Then Trump took office and began to impose tariffs on Chinese goods. That trade war with Beijing would devastate American farmers and manufacturers, while padding the bills of American consumers, even as the president made it ever more difficult for Chinese firms to buy American products and technology. Not surprisingly, China once again turned to its hackers to acquire the know-how it could no longer get legitimately. In 2017, those hackers also siphoned off the personal information of nearly half of all Americans through a breach in the Equifax credit reporting agency.

As part of his determination to destroy everything that Obama achieved, of course, Trump completely ignored that administration's 2015 agreement with Beijing.

Head for the Bunkers?

Larry Hall once worked for the Defense Department. Now, he's selling luxury apartments in a former nuclear missile silo in the middle of Kansas. It burrows 15 stories into the ground and he calls it Survival Condo. The smallest units go for $1.5 million and the complex features a gym, swimming pool, and shooting range in its deep underground communal space.

When asked why he'd built Survival Condo, Hall replied, "You don't want to know."

Perhaps he was worried about a future nuclear exchange, another even more devastating pandemic, or the steady ratcheting up of the climate crisis. Those, however, are well-known doomsday scenarios and he was evidently alluding to a threat to which most Americans remain oblivious. What the Survival Condo website emphasizes is living through five years "completely off-grid," suggesting a fear that the whole U.S. infrastructure could be taken down via a massive hack.

And it's true that modern life as most of us know it has become increasingly tied up with the so-called Internet of Things, or IoT. By 2023, it's estimated that every person on Earth will have, on average, 3.6 networked devices. Short of moving to a big hole in the ground in Kansas and living completely off the grid, it will be difficult indeed to extricate yourself from the consequences of a truly coordinated attack on such an IoT.

A mixture of short-sighted government action — as well as inaction — and a laissez-faire approach to markets have led to the present impasse. The U.S. government has refused to put anything but the most minimal controls on the development of spyware, has done little to engage the rest of the world in regulating hostile activities in cyberspace, and continues to believe that its "defend forward" strategy will be capable of protecting U.S. assets. (Dream on, national security state!)

Plugging the holes in the IoT dike is guaranteed to be an inadequate solution. Building a better dike might be a marginally better approach, but a truly more sensible option would be to address the underlying problem of the surging threat. Like the current efforts to control the spread of nuclear material, a non-proliferation approach to cyberweapons requires international cooperation across ideological lines.

It's not too late. But to prevent a rush to the bunkers will take a concerted effort by the major players — the United States, Russia, and China — to recognize that cyberwar would, at best, produce the most pyrrhic of victories. If they don't work together to protect the cyber-commons, the digital highway will, at the very least, continue to be plagued by potholes, broken guardrails, and improvised explosive devices whose detonations threaten to disrupt all our lives.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel, Songlands, will be published in June. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

The great shrinking of America on an imperiled planet

The nightmare is over. The vanquished beast has crawled back to Mar-a-Lago to lick his wounds. The heroes are hard at work repairing the damage. As America returns to the international stage, the world heaves a collective sigh of relief.

That, at least, is the story the incoming Biden administration is telling. "America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back," as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the administration's nominee for U.N. ambassador, put it shortly after the election. According to this narrative of redemption, the globe's Atlas shrugged off its burden during the four years of Donald Trump's tenure but is now ready to reassume its global leadership responsibilities.

Don't believe it, though. Much of the rest of the world seems visibly queasy at the prospect of sitting on America's shoulders, since who's to say that Atlas won't shrug again?

And perhaps Atlas wasn't such a responsible fellow in the first place.

Over the last several decades, the United States has displayed all the hallmarks of a country suffering from a serious personality disorder characterized by mood swings of gargantuan proportions. From the compromised multilateralism of the Bill Clinton years, the United States pivoted to the aggressive armed unilateralism of George W. Bush. Then, after boomeranging back to the centrist (if still over-armed) internationalism of Barack Obama, it took the wildest of detours into MAGA-land with Donald Trump. In the latest case of foreign-policy whiplash, Joe Biden is now preparing to return the country to a "new and improved" version of Obama's global liberalism (with a dash of anti-Chinese fervor thrown in).

Americans are by now remarkably familiar with such side effects of twenty-first-century democracy. We've skimmed the fine print on the label more than once and become reasonably inured to the adverse consequences of our civic religion.

Much of the world, however, is not accustomed to such volatility. The Kim family has ruled North Korea from day one, while Paul Biya has run Cameroon since 1982. Over the last 30 years, China has settled into its predictable version of market Leninism. Putatively democratic countries like Russia and Turkey have had the same leadership for two decades, while a genuinely democratic country like Germany has had the same chancellor for 15 years. The rest of Western Europe has seen numerous changes in those who hold the reins of power, but oscillations in governance have generally stayed within a relatively narrow political spectrum. European Union policies have similarly remained on a remarkably even keel, despite disruptions like Brexit.

These days, however, democrats and dictators alike are unsure, from one day to the next, whether the United States will be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.

On the surface, the international community has generally provided a warm welcome to the incoming administration, if only out of profound relief at seeing the backside of Donald Trump. True, it took Vladimir Putin a while to get around to acknowledging Joe Biden's victory, while Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil grumbled about the departure of his American BFF, as did Hungary's Viktor Orbán and a number of other right-wing populists.

But Biden was a clear international favorite in the recent presidential election. According to an Ipsos poll of people in 24 countries, Biden had an edge of 48% to 17% over Trump, with only the Russians as outliers. And postelection, the favorability of the United States has only risen (except perhaps in Russia and China).

Beneath the surface, however, the world is hesitant, like an oft-jilted lover. Country after country has been burned too many times to throw itself back into such a relationship without reservations, if not a full-blown prenuptial agreement. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it with characteristic understatement, "There is a need to rebuild trust between Europe and the United States." Indeed, just about every member of the U.N. General Assembly would undoubtedly have agreed.

Such an erosion of trust defines what it means to be an unreliable superpower. Even as the Biden administration works to "build back better," allies and adversaries alike are busy hedging their bets, concerned that the United States is simply too unpredictable a place to park political capital. And where it remains all-too-predictable — as in its preposterous levels of military spending or its obdurate sense of exceptionalism — Washington no longer looks to many like a reliable global actor from the perspective of peace or prosperity.

The Biden administration seems remarkably tone-deaf when it comes to the hesitancy of the international community to repeat past mistakes. "We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world," Biden insisted in his Inaugural Address. "We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example."

With its talk of regaining global leadership, the Biden administration seems as committed to the notion that the United States is still "the indispensable power" as it was when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright uttered that phrase in 1998. "If we have to use force, it is because we are America," Albright told Matt Lauer back then on The Today Show. "We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us."

Particularly in the wake of the travesties of the Trump era, the global stature of this indispensable land has shrunk immeasurably. In their responses to crises like Covid-19 and a warming planet, other countries now stand taller and see further into the future. More ominously, the danger they do see increasingly has the stars and stripes plastered all over it.

Reversing the Reverses

Donald Trump didn't even have to wait for a new administration to reverse his policies. He was perfectly capable of reversing them himself — multiple times.

No wonder NATO head Stoltenberg has been preoccupied with the issue of trust. As a candidate, Trump swore NATO was "obsolete," only to change his mind within months of taking office. Yet, a year later, he was talking about pulling the United States out of the alliance completely. By 2020, on the other hand, he was suggesting incorporating Middle Eastern countries into it.

And Trump wasn't just fickle when it came to NATO. In 2017, he threatened North Korea with the "fire and fury" of nuclear destruction only to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un two years later. He went back and forth about Chinese leader Xi Jinping, too, claiming in 2018 that "Xi and I will always be friends," only to call him an "enemy" a year later. He then reversed himself with his early 2020 avowal that "we love each other," before turning hostile yet again in the COVID-19 era. What Trump diehards argued was crafty bargaining looked a whole lot more like beginner's incoherence.

Joe Biden has already taken a more consistent approach to reversing Trump's policies than The Donald did to his own policies. In his first executive orders, the new president brought the United States back into the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris climate accords. He reversed Trump's policies on immigration, cancelled the Muslim travel ban, and ended funding for the largely unbuilt wall on the border with Mexico. He quickly hit rewind on those environmental deregulations of the Trump administration and the previous president's approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

In addition, once the sugar rush of Biden's executive orders fades, an immediate threat lurks: Congress. The Democratic Party controls both houses — but just barely. The lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is likely to be a significant obstacle to any lasting transformation of key aspects of foreign policy in a more peaceful and cooperative direction, even if the Biden administration were committed to such a goal.

In addition, the Biden team soon hopes to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, revive arms control negotiations with Russia, and at least mitigate the impact of the trade sanctions against China.

That's all to the good. But who's to say that the next occupant of the Oval Office won't reverse Biden's reversal of Trump's reversal of Obama's initiatives?

Republicans are already hoping to delay the U.S. reentry into the Iran nuclear deal, complicate Washington's involvement in global efforts to address the climate crisis, and keep the pressure on both China and Russia. Trying to ratify a treaty to ban all nuclear tests or make the United States a member of the International Criminal Court, which would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, will prove even longer shots.

What Americans interpret as an insider game of partisanship, the rest of the world sees as a hamstrung country incapable of acting decisively on international problems. And such a deadlock might turn into something even worse. Trump's MAGA crew are, after all, alive and well in Congress and throughout the red states. Should things go badly economically or pandemically for the Biden White House, they could regain control of one or both chambers in the midterm elections of 2022.

Even more troubling is the extremist wildcard. The events of January 6th shocked the world into realizing that America's lunatic fringe is no longer content just to lurk on the margins of politics as Internet trolls and barstool conspiracy theorists. It's one thing to take into account the logjams produced by Republican Party obstructionism. It's quite another to worry that the United States will tip into a second civil war.

Smart money avoids such risks.

How the United States is Reliably Unreliable

Even when this country is predictable, it's still an unreliable global partner.

Take the issue of Covid-19. The Biden administration has made a splash by instantly rejoining the WHO and resuming its financial obligations to it. In the last stimulus package, Congress anticipated this trend by including $4 billion in funding for GAVI, a global vaccine alliance, with Democrats acknowledging that "we are not truly safe until the whole world is safe from the coronavirus."

But when the rubber hits the road — and the needles hit the arms — the United States has promptly fallen back on its usual exceptionalism. In the chaos of the immediate post-Trumpian moment, the Biden administration has been pushing to vaccinate as many Americans as possible without significant regard for anyone else. Along with other rich countries, Washington has exercised purchase options that could more or less corner the market on vaccines, securing enough doses, in the end, to inoculate Americans nearly five times over.

The global effort to vaccinate lower-income countries, also known by the acronym COVAX, is several billion dollars short of what it needs even to begin seriously implementing its plan. And keep in mind that the plan itself is woefully insufficient, since it aims to vaccinate only 20% of the inhabitants of participating nations by the end of 2021.

Not every country is practicing vaccine nationalism though. Even as it rushes to inoculate its 1.3 billion citizens, India is helping out its neighbors, providing two million doses free of charge to Bangladesh, aiding Nepal and Myanmar, and even sending its vaccines to Brazil and Morocco. Both China and Russia are also engaging in vaccine diplomacy, reaching out to the Global South with their lower-cost versions of Covid-19 drugs.

Putting America first extends to other aspects of geopolitics as well. The United States can, for instance, be counted upon to remain the world's top arms exporter in the Biden years. In 2020, it signed agreements for more than $175 billion in sales of military hardware to other countries, far above what runner-up Russia manages to push out. Of course, such exports, in turn, fuel armed conflicts overseas, while inflating military budgets all over the world.

America is also number one when it comes to overseas military bases, with hundreds of facilities around the world, which militarize communities and serve as launching pads for U.S. operations. In comparison, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom together maintain a total of 30 such bases. And add in one more thing: aside from Australia, a few island nations, and tiny Gulf states, the United States has the highest per-capita carbon footprint on the planet. In its rush to use the planet's resources, our country is making it more likely that the planet will soon be uninhabitable for much of humanity.

With a reliably unreliable friend like that, who needs enemies?

The World Hedges Its Bets

Russia was one of the few places on Earth, from its government to its citizenry, that showed little excitement for recent political developments in Washington.

"From Russia's perspective, the political situation in the United States has not fundamentally changed as a result of the election," said Dmitry Suslov of the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "The intense political polarization that we have witnessed over the past four years is not going away anywhere, so obviously Biden will not have a broad mandate to govern." Because of this political deadlock, Suslov added, Russia would avoid any direct conflict with the United States and instead improve relations with China and other powers like India.

Russia is a little late to the game. China was hedging its bets long before the November election. Its trillion-dollar-plus Belt and Road Initiative of infrastructure development in Eurasia (and northeastern Africa), launched in 2013 to refocus key global financial and economic relations on Beijing, was also meant to be an enormous insurance policy against any downturn in economic relations with the United States. Beijing's creation of separate global financial institutions — like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank established in 2015 — and trade pacts like the recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership of 15 Asia-Pacific nations (but not the United States) were also efforts meant to shield China from American missteps and inaction that could drag down the global economy.

U.S. allies, too, have been taking precautions. Europe has been slowly building up an independent military capacity just in case Washington does eventually decide that NATO is obsolete. What the Europeans have come to call "strategic autonomy" represents not just a next step for European integration but protection against the increasing unreliability of Washington. The European Defense Fund, set up in 2017, received a healthy chunk of capital in its latest budget — about eight billion Euro — and that's just a down payment on what France would like to see and Germany is grudgingly coming around to envisioning: the folding up of the U.S. security umbrella.

South Korea, one of this country's most trusted security partners, has been working on developing its own strategic autonomy for some time. Despite the budgetary pressures of a Covid-19-related economic downturn, strenuous efforts to improve ties with North Korea, and a generally friendlier relationship with China, the South Korean government pushed through a 5.4% increase in military spending for 2021. Seoul is similarly concerned about the possibility that Washington will, sooner or later, reduce its Pacific presence.

The United States continues to maintain by far the most powerful and heavily funded military on the planet. Its economy is either the world's largest or just behind China's, depending on what yardstick you care to use. Like former basketball star Michael Jordan contemplating one last NBA championship, the U.S. foreign policy establishment is reluctant to give up on the adrenaline rush of being top dog on Planet Earth. But a pattern of erratic behavior can gradually undermine the trust necessary to maintain the extensive military alliances and trade relationships that sustain superpower status. The United States might just be too tired, too divided, or too crazy to stay number one much longer.

A History of Volatility

When Joe Biden says that this country "will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example," it's not entirely clear what example he means.

Does he mean American economic innovation — iPhones and electric cars — or the astonishing economic inequality of a country with the most billionaires on Earth in which one in eight citizens go hungry? Does he mean the country that puts itself forward as a seasoned mediator of conflicts or the one that spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined? Does he mean the land with a Statue of Liberty that welcomes the "homeless" and the "tempest-tost," or the one that has routinely divided families through mass deportations?

The shift in tone from the Trump administration to the new Biden era is certainly extreme, leading many allies to hope that the November election provided the necessary dose of electroshock therapy to restore the United States to sanity. Plenty of Americans — and overseas friends of America — would like to believe that the Trump years were a bizarre deviation from the norm. But there's also a sneaking suspicion that extremism is becoming the new normal here and that events like the January 6th insurrection will only further fry what remains of the country's synapses.

That insurrection may have destroyed Donald Trump's chances of reelection in 2024, while possibly undermining the ambitions of his diehard champions in Congress like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz as well. It might even drive a fatal wedge through the Republican Party, whether or not Trump actually creates a third party as he's threatened to do.

But volatility has long been a fixture of American politics, from fist fights on the floor of Congress in the nineteenth century to the Barry Goldwaters and Newt Gingriches of the twentieth century. In our time, the resistance of the Tea Party, white nationalist militias, and QAnon to the United States becoming a truly multicultural country has kept American extremism alive. This paranoid style may have reached only an intermediate peak with the presidency of Donald Trump.

If such forces once again gain power or even mobilize enough strength to derail the modest ambitions of the Biden administration, the U.S. "example" will be one the world will want to avoid at any cost. Political instability will be the next compelling reason, after the Covid-19 pandemic fades, to quarantine this country. As for America's unreliability as a global partner, it could prove to be an early sign of inevitable superpower decline into dissension, decay, and madness.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel, Songlands, will be published in June. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

Sliding toward apocalypse: There's no returning to normal after Trump

Imagine for a moment that Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election in 2016.

Imagine, in other words, that the "blue wall" of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had held firm four years ago. Claiming election fraud, Donald Trump would have insisted on a recount and Election Day would then, too, have stretched into election week and election month. Eventually, Trump would have given up, though not without insisting that the "deep state" had stolen his victory.

Once in office, Clinton would have set to work building on the Obama legacy. The United States would have remained in the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement would still be in force, and perhaps a more robust health-care plan might even be in place. Competent civil servants would have taken charge of federal agencies, a tax cut for the wealthy wouldn't have gone into effect, and the Democrats would have been well positioned in 2020 to reelect the first woman president and build a stronger congressional majority.

America wouldn't have gone down the rabbit hole of Trumpism. Civic discourse wouldn't have been coarsened. The country wouldn't now be in such complete and utter...

Hey, wake up!

If Hillary had somehow managed to eke out a victory in 2016, she would soon enough have faced a Republican Party as hostile to compromise as the one that hamstrung Barack Obama. Opposition from Congress and Republican-controlled states, combined with her own centrist instincts, would have kept the country mired in a failing status quo: an increasingly unequal economy, crumbling infrastructure, a growing carbon footprint, a morbidly obese Pentagon, and other signs of a declining superpower that we've come to know so well.

Now, imagine what would have happened when the pandemic struck in 2020. Clinton would have responded more competently than The Donald because virtually anyone over the age of 12 would have been better suited to handle the emergency than he was. Indeed, if the United States had managed Covid-19 with anything faintly approaching the competency of, say, Germany under Angela Merkel, the country would have had, by my calculations, 2.6 million infections and about 45,000 deaths on the eve of the 2020 elections.

That obviously would be better than the 10 million infections and more than 245,000 deaths the United States is currently experiencing.

Keep in mind, however, that Americans wouldn't have known just how bad the situation could have been. Quite the opposite: having set up a bully pulpit in an alt-right Fox News-style media conglomerate after his loss in 2016, Donald Trump would have led the charge on Clinton's "mismanagement" of the pandemic and her direct responsibility for all those deaths. He would have assured us that the resulting economic downturn, with striking numbers of Americans left unemployed, could have been avoided, and that he as president would have prevented both those deaths and business cutbacks by immediately closing all borders and deporting any suspicious foreigners. He would have labeled the president "Killer Clinton" and, given the misogyny of significant parts of the American electorate, the name would have stuck.

In 2020, Donald Trump would have run on a platform of making America great again and won in a landslide.

Don't, however, think of this as just some passing exercise in alternative history. Substitute "Joe Biden" for "Hillary Clinton" in the passages you've just read and you'll have a grim but plausible prediction of what could happen over the next four years.

On the Road to 2024

Hillary Clinton would have faced challenges of every sort if she'd won the presidency in 2016. They nonetheless pale in comparison to what now awaits Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

The Republicans are already gunning for the new president. They're blocking the transition process to handicap the incoming administration. President Trump has forbidden federal agencies from even cooperating with the Biden-Harris team. The 2020 presidential election forms part of the Republican Party's denialism trifecta: the pandemic, climate change, and now Biden's victory are all simply liberal "myths."

The Republican Party will either control the Senate -- pending the outcome of two run-off races in Georgia -- or, at least, be able to disrupt any major pieces of legislation. The Biden administration will be hard-pressed to roll back the tax cuts the Republicans handed out to the wealthy in 2017, pass a major green infrastructure bill, or expand affordable health care.

When Biden tries to implement a nationally cohesive program to combat Covid-19 through more testing, tracing, and investment in medical equipment, he's guaranteed to face resistance from a number of Republican governors who have refused even to mandate the wearing of masks. And then there are all those Republican-appointed judges just itching to rule on any legal challenges to Biden's executive orders, not to speak of a Supreme Court now located in the bleachers beyond right field that will serve as an even greater constraint on an activist agenda.

And those are just the political obstacles. The pandemic is clearly spiraling out of control. The economy has yet to crawl out of its hole. And Donald Trump has a couple of more months to scorch the earth before his army of incompetents are driven out of Washington, D.C.

Then there are the 71 million Americans who just voted for him despite his criminal conduct, gross mismanagement, and near-psychotic view of the world. Short of a nationwide deprogramming campaign, the adherents of the Trump cult will continue to cling to their religion (and their guns). In the Biden years, they're sure to form an industrial-strength Tea Party opposed to any move the federal government makes. And let's be clear: their resistance will not be exactly Gandhian in nature.

At the same time, it's essential to separate their illegitimate complaints laced with racism and misogyny from their all-too-legitimate grievances concerning the American economy. Much of Trump's base sees that economy, quite correctly, as unfair and the elite as not sharing the wealth. Unless the Democrats succeed in proving themselves to be the party of the 99% and successfully show how the Republicans are the 1% club -- by, for instance, publicizing the true impact of Trump's tax cuts for the rich -- the Biden administration will fall victim to charges of elitism, which is a political death sentence these days.

Everything that Hillary Clinton faced during her hypothetical first term in office will apply to Joe Biden in his very real first term. Trump will never give up on the fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen from him. He'll continue to rally his followers through social media as well as Breitbart and the One America News Network. Even if he doesn't have the fire in his 78-year-old belly to run in 2024, other true believers will eagerly pick up his torch, whether from his own family or a pool of loyalists that includes Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.

No matter how well President Biden does in dealing with Covid-19 and how quickly a vaccine comes on line, he'll be saddled with the responsibility for everyone who dies in the pandemic from January 20th on. Ditto with future economic problems, no matter that they were quite literally dropped in his lap as he entered the Oval Office. All the faults that Trump's followers refused to see in their own candidate will suddenly be magnified in their vision of Biden.

Trump, in their eyes, was a man who could do no wrong. Biden will be the man who can do no right. A significant percentage of those 71 million Americans will want to make sure that Biden, too, is a one-term president.

Unfortunately, several international examples can serve as models.

The Liberal Interregnum

Beware the right-wing revolutionary movement thwarted.

Donald Trump promised to turn the world upside down: to throw out the Washington elite, radically shrink government, close off borders, bolster white privilege, and restore American unilateralism. As a platform, it wasn't much more than the photo negative of Barack Obama's agenda, but it was a clarion call to shake things up that thrilled his followers.

Thanks to a mixture of bureaucratic inertia, liberal resistance, and his own managerial ineptitude, Trump failed to carry out his revolution -- and now the elite has struck back. The newspapers are full of columnists, Democrats and former Republicans alike, delirious with anti-Trump triumphalism: "Loser!," "You're Fired!," "Our Long National Nightmare Is Over." The Dow Jones is celebrating and Hollywood has popped the bubbly, while the foreign-policy mandarins are looking forward to the return of predictability and their version of stability. Even the Pentagon, particularly after the shocking post-election dismissal of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, will be relieved to see the end of the Disrupter-in-Chief.

But the celebrations may prove premature. Just consider recent examples of right-wing populist revolutions elsewhere that were stopped in their tracks by elections.

The Trumpian Viktor Orban was the prime minister of Hungary from 1998 to 2002. His time in office was marked by corruption scandals, tax cuts, and efforts to concentrate power in the hands of the executive. In the 2002 elections, a coalition of the Socialist and Liberal parties ousted him and, governing for eight years, seemed to have put Orban's brand of authoritarian politics in an early grave.

In the 2010 elections, however, he returned from the political dead and has since transformed his country from a bastion of liberalism into an autocratic, intolerant, uber-Christian friend of Vladimir Putin. In the process, the Socialists became synonymous with a corrupt, economically unjust status quo and the Liberals simply disappeared as a party.

Nor is the Hungarian experience unique. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party has moved the country's politics steadily rightward since achieving a parliamentary majority in 2015. But it, too, had an earlier experience (from 2005 to 2007) as part of a governing coalition. In between, the more liberal Civic Platform Party took charge, but did little to improve the livelihoods of the bulk of working Poles, ultimately driving ever more voters into the arms of the right-wing Law and Justice Party. In its second crack at power, those right-wing nationalists did indeed push through a number of economic reforms that began to redistribute wealth in a way that fulfilled their populist promise.

In Japan, right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a brief opportunity to govern in 2006-2007, only to return in 2012 after a failed effort by the opposition Democratic Party to reform Japanese politics. As the country's longest-serving prime minister -- Abe stepped down for health reasons in August -- he succeeded in making Japan "great" again as an inward-looking, jingoistic power.

Right-wing nationalists certainly learned something about wielding power from their first experiences of leadership, while their liberal successors, by failing to offer fully transformational politics, prepared the ground for the return of the right. After a period of tumultuous rule, most people don't want to jump from a bucking bronco onto another wild horse. So the prospect of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris appointing a competent cabinet and returning to the status quo ante by, among other things, rejoining the World Health Organization, signing onto the Paris climate accords, and welcoming back the Dreamers seems reassuring to many Americans. It won't, however, be faintly enough to drive a stake through the heart of Trumpism.

Apocalypse Later?

In "The View from 2016," an essay I wrote for TomDispatch in 2007, I predicted that Barack Obama would win the 2008 election and serve two terms, but also that his administration would make only half-hearted gestures at reform -- abiding by the Kyoto protocol on climate change, but not committing to deeper cuts in carbon emissions; canceling a few weapons systems, but not transforming the military-industrial complex; tweaking the global war on terror, but not ending it; and so on.

Apocalypse, I concluded,

comes in many different forms. There are the dramatic effects of sword and fire and famine. And then there's the apocalypse of muddling through. That's what happens when you just carry on with the same old, same old and before you know it, poof, end of the world. It's an apocalypse that's neither too cold nor too hot, neither too hard nor too soft. It's the apocalypse of the middle, the Goldilocks apocalypse.

In 2016, a hungry bear named Donald Trump emerged from the woods and took out Goldilocks. (Don't say I didn't warn you.)

After four years of bracing for a more conventional apocalypse precipitated perhaps by Trump's itchy nuclear trigger finger, we're back in Goldilocks territory. More than half the country craves a return to normalcy by dumping Donald Trump and then defeating Covid-19. Under the circumstances, it's easy enough to forget that the pre-Trump normal wasn't actually very good. The world was already in the midst of a climate crisis. The global economy was providing anything but a fair shake to everyone and so generating a politics of resentment that propelled Trump and his cohort to power. Countries continued to spend almost $2 trillion a year collectively on war and preparations for it, leaving societies ill-equipped to handle an onrushing pandemic's war on the health of humanity.

Joe Biden should learn this key takeaway from the Obama years: muddling through not only speeds us toward a Goldilocks apocalypse but makes it so much more likely that another bear will come out of the woods to "reclaim" its house.

Let's face it: Biden and Harris are card-carrying members of an elite that's enamored of the Goldilocks middle ground. The only way they could pivot from that position would be by implementing a full-blown green economic renewal that benefitted America's blue-collar workers while satisfying environmentalists as well. The blue bloods of the Republican Party will inevitably call such a jobs approach "socialism." The next administration has to push forward nevertheless, appealing over the heads of the Republican leadership to a base that desperately wants prosperity for all.

Remember: other bears are lurking out there and they seem to have acquired a certain taste for cautious politicians. Sure, a few disgruntled ursine types will go into hibernation after the 2020 election. But when the hoopla dies down, others will venture out, angry, resentful, and looking for their next big meal.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and volume two of his Splinterlands series. He is the author of the just-published book The Pandemic Pivot (Seven Stories Press).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Snce World War II.

Copyright 2020 John Feffer

Trump and the threat of an unrestrained mob

The white mobs didn't care whom they killed as long as the victims were Black. They murdered people in public with guns and rocks. They set fire to houses and slaughtered families trying to escape the flames. In East St. Louis in July 1917, white vigilantes lynched Blacks with impunity.

It was the prelude to what civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson would ultimately call Red Summer. The "red" referred to the blood that ran in the streets. The "summer" actually referred to the months from April to October 1919, when violence against African Americans peaked in this country.

In reality, though, that Red Summer stretched across six long years, beginning in East St. Louis in 1917 and ending with the destruction of the predominantly African-American town of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. During that time, white mobs killed thousands of Blacks in 26 cities, including Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C. In 1921, in a slaughter that has been well documented, white citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed the country's wealthiest African American community ("Black Wall Street," as it was then known), burning down more than 1,000 houses as well as churches, schools, and even a hospital.

During this period of violence, the mobs sometimes cooperated with the authorities. Just as often, however, they ignored the police, even breaking through jail walls with sledgehammers to gain access to Black detainees whom they executed in unspeakable ways. In Tulsa, for example, that campaign of murder and mayhem began only after the local sheriff refused to hand over a Black teenager accused of sexual assault.

Although white America repressed the memories of Red Summer for many decades, that shameful chapter of our history has gained renewed scrutiny in this era of Black Lives Matter. The Tulsa massacre, for instance, features prominently in the recent Watchmen series on HBO and several documentaries are in the works for its centennial anniversary in 2021. Other recent documentaries have chronicled killings that took place in the immediate aftermath of World War I in Elaine, Arkansas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

But memories of that Red Summer are resurfacing for another, more ominous reason.

White mobs have once again moved out of the shadows and into the limelight during this Trump moment. Militia movements and right-wing extremists are starting to turn out in force to intimidate racial justice and anti-Trump demonstrators. Predominantly white and often explicitly racist, these groups now regularly use social media to threaten their adversaries. This election season, they're gearing up to defend their president with an astonishing degree of support from Republican Party regulars.

According to a January 2020 survey by political scientist Larry Bartels, most Republicans believe "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it." More than 40% agree that "a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands." In a recent essay on his survey's findings, Bartels concludes that ethnic antagonism "has a substantial negative effect on Republicans' commitment to democracy."

As the 2020 election nears, that party is also desperately trying to flip the script by using fear of "their mobs" and "Antifa terrorists" to drive its base to the polls. "We have a Marxist mob perpetrate historic levels of violence & disorder in major American cities," tweeted Florida Senator Marco Rubio in response to the Democratic National Convention in August. Not to be outdone, the president promptly said: "I'm the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos."

Of course, this country has no such Marxist mobs. The only real groups of vigilantes with a demonstrated history of violence and the guns to back up their threats congregate on the far right. The white supremacist Atomwaffen Division, for instance, has been linked to at least five killings since 2017. In late May and early June, members of the far-right Boogaloo Bois conducted two ambushes of police officers and security personnel, killing two of them and injuring three more. Over the summer, as far-right organizations spread the meme "All Lives Splatter" around the internet, dozens of right-wingers drove vehicles of every sort into crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters.

The prospect of far-right vigilantes or "militias" heading into the streets to contest the results of the November election has even mainstream institutions worried. "Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90% between January 1 and May 8, 2020," reports the centrist think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If President Trump loses the election, some extremists may use violence because they believe -- however incorrectly -- that there was fraud or that the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden will undermine their extremist objectives."

As the violence of Red Summer demonstrated, such acts were once a mainstay of American life. Indeed, the not-so-hidden history of this country has featured periodic explosions of mob violence. Racial justice activists rightly call for the radical reform of police departments. As November approaches, however, uniformed representatives of the state are hardly the only perpetrators of racist violence. Beware the white mobs, militias, and posses that are desperate to establish their own brand of justice.

Mob History

When Donald Trump paints a picture of lawlessness sweeping through the United States, he's effectively accusing the institutions of government of not doing their jobs. In a September 2nd memo, the Trump administration laid out its charges:

"For the past few months, several State and local governments have contributed to the violence and destruction in their jurisdictions by failing to enforce the law, disempowering and significantly defunding their police departments, and refusing to accept offers of Federal law enforcement assistance."

As president, Donald Trump has refused to take responsibility for anything, not the more than 200,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States, not the pandemic-induced economic collapse, and certainly not the racial injustices that prompted this summer's wave of protests. Simultaneously above the law and outside it, the president consistently portrays himself as a populist leader who must battle the elite and its "deep state." With conspiracy-tinged tirades about Democrat-run cities failing to enforce the law, he has already symbolically put himself at the head of a mob -- for this is just how such groups justified their extra-legal actions throughout our history.

The right-wing racists who currently bear arms in defense of the president are part of a long tradition of Americans resorting to vigilantism when they believe the law is not protecting their interests. Whether it was the displacement and massacre of Native Americans, the horrors that slaveowners inflicted on African Americans, the wave of lynching that followed Reconstruction, the bloodletting of Red Summer around World War I, the murders conducted by the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist organizations, or even everyday resistance to federal policies like school desegregation, gangs of Americans have repeatedly taken the law into their own hands on behalf of white supremacy.

To be sure, mobs are hardly responsible for all the racist ills of this country. America has always been a place of institutional racism and violence. Slavery, after all, was legal until 1865. The U.S. government and its military did the bulk of the dispossessing of Native Americans. Police departments cooperated early on with the Ku Klux Klan and today's police officers continue to kill a disproportionate number of African Americans. Mobs have eagerly cooperated with state institutions on the basis of shared racism. But they have also stood at the ready to enforce the dictates of white supremacy even when the police and other guardians of order treat everyone equally before the law.

The mob has occupied an unusually prominent place in our history because Americans have cultivated a unique hostility toward the state and its institutions that goes back to the early years of the Republic. As historian Michael Pfeifer notes in his groundbreaking book, The Roots of Rough Justice, the violent libertarianism associated with the American Revolution and the subsequent lack of a strong, centralized state gave rise to mob violence that gathered force before the Civil War. He writes,

"Antebellum advocates of vigilantism in the Midwest, South, and West drew on Anglo-American and American revolutionary traditions of community violence that suggested that citizens might reclaim the functions of government when legal institutions could not provide sufficient protections to persons or their property."

Those mobs didn't necessarily think of themselves as anti-democratic. Rather, they imagined that they were improving on democracy. As Pfeifer points out, many of the vigilante outfits that targeted minorities practiced democratic procedures of a sort. Some adopted bylaws and even elected their own leaders. They held mock trials and votes on what punishments to mete out: hanging or burning alive.

Such mobs functioned both as a parallel military and, to a certain extent, a parallel state.

The two, in fact, went hand in hand. German sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, but that was the German tradition. In the United States, particularly during its first 150 years, the state only aspired to possess such a monopoly.

Instead, a rough form of frontier justice often prevailed. Before and just after the American Revolution, even whites were its targets, but increasingly its victims were people of color. Slave owners, slave patrols, and ad hoc mobs dispensed justice throughout antebellum America and the tradition of "Judge Lynch" continued long after the abolition of slavery. The pushing of the frontier westward involved not only the Army's killing of Native Americans but extrajudicial violence by bands of settlers. Historian Benjamin Madley estimates that the Native population in California declined by more than 80% between 1846 and 1873, with as many as 16,000 killings in 370-plus massacres. This "winning" of the West also involved the widespread lynching of Latinos.

The "Right" to Bear Arms

Mobs were able to dispense frontier justice not only thanks to a strong libertarian tradition and a weak state, but also because of the widespread availability of guns. Coming out of the Civil War, this country developed a distinct gun culture sustained by a surge in firearm production. Gun prices fell and so guns fell into the hands of more and more citizens.

Mobs used firearms in the infamous Draft Riot in New York in 1863, which ended up targeting the city's Black community, and in New Orleans in 1866 when enraged whites attacked a meeting of Republicans determined to extend civil rights protections to African Americans. In their drive westward, settlers favored Winchester rifles with magazines that could fire 15 rounds, giving them a staggering advantage over the people they were displacing. Early gun control laws seldom prevented whites from acquiring firearms because they were mainly designed to keep guns out of the hands of Blacks and other racial minorities.

Even today, widespread gun ownership distinguishes the United States from every other country. Approximately 40% of American households own one or more firearms, a figure that has remained remarkably consistent for the last 50 years. If you look at guns per capita, the United States ranks number one in the world at 120 firearms per 100 civilians. The next country on the list, war-torn Yemen, comes in a distant second with 52 per hundred. With more guns than people within its borders, it's no wonder that the federal government has often struggled to maintain its monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force.

Gun enthusiasts have erroneously enlisted the Constitution to justify this extreme democracy of firepower. To guard against tyrannical federal behavior, the Second Amendment of the Constitution preserved the right of state militias to bear arms. However, organizations like the National Rifle Association have campaigned for years to reinterpret that amendment as giving any individual the right to bear arms.

That has, in turn, provided ammunition for both the "castle doctrine" (the right to use armed force to defend one's own home) and "stand your ground" laws (the right to use force in "self-defense"). Armed extremist groups now imagine themselves as nothing less than the Second Amendment's "well-regulated Militia" with a constitutionally given "right" to own weapons and defend themselves against the federal government (or anyone else they disapprove of).

Improbably enough, for the last four years, the head of the federal government has become one of their chief supporters.

Donald Trump: Leader of the Pack

Long before becoming president, Donald Trump was already acting as if he were the head of a lynch mob. In 1989, he published full-page ads in the New York Times and three other local papers calling for New York City to reinstate the death penalty in response to a brutal gang rape in Central Park. He swore that the city was then "ruled by the law of the streets" and that "muggers and murderers... should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes."

It was language distinctly reminiscent of white mobs bitter about the failure of local law enforcement to execute Blacks accused of crimes. Like many of their predecessors, the accused Black and Latino teenagers were, in the end, found to be quite innocent of the crime. After a long legal struggle, the Central Park Five (as they came to be known) were released from prison. Trump has never apologized for his campaign to kill innocent people.

When he ran for president, he quickly moved beyond mere "law and order" rhetoric. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump deliberately cultivated a following among armed extremists. At a rally in North Carolina, for instance, he warned of what might happen to the Supreme Court if Hillary Clinton were to win.

"If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks," he lamented. Then he added in his typically confused and elliptical manner of speaking: "Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don't know." He was, in other words, suggesting that followers with guns could do something about Clinton's choices by shooting her or her judicial picks.

Throughout that campaign season, he regularly retweeted white supremacist claims and memes. At the time, it was estimated that more than 60% of the accounts he was retweeting had links to white supremacists. At his rallies, he encouraged his supporters to get "rough" with protesters.

As president, he's continued to side with the mob. He infamously refused to denounce neo-Nazis gathering in Charlottesville in August 2017, applauded the armed demonstrators who demanded the reopening of the economy in the pandemic spring of 2020, and defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse after he killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.

Trump has stood up for the Confederate flag, Confederate statues, and keeping the names of Confederate generals on U.S. military bases. In a recent speech denouncing school curricula that teach about slavery and other unsavory aspects of our history, he pledged to erect a statue of a slaveowner in a project he's been promoting -- building a National Garden of American Heroes park. The current administration has cultivated direct links to white nationalists through disgraced figures like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, as well as current advisers like Stephen Miller.

In his reelection bid, Trump pointedly held his first pandemic rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he excoriated Democrats who "want to take away your guns through the repeal of your Second Amendment" and "left-wing radicals [who] burn down buildings, loot businesses, destroy private property, injure hundreds of dedicated police officers." In a literal whitewashing of history, he made no mention of the White mobs that had looted businesses and destroyed property in that very city in 1921.

Trump's exhortations to his followers over the heads of state and local officials appeal to the mob belief that citizens must reclaim the functions of government, if necessary through force. Right-wing militias explicitly embrace that history. The "Three Percenters," a militia movement that emerged in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama, purports to protect Americans from tyrannical government. Their name derives from the inaccurate belief that only 3% of Americans took up arms to fight the British empire in the eighteenth century.

Of course, three percent of Americans are not now members of such militias and White nationalist movements, but their numbers are on the rise. White nationalist groups increased from 100 in 2017 to 155 in 2019. The several hundred militia groups now in existence probably have a total of 15,000 to 20,000 members, including an increasing number of veterans with combat experience. Far from a homogeneous force, some are focused on patrolling the southern border and targeting the undocumented. Others are obsessed with resisting the federal government, even in a few cases opposing Trump's various power grabs.

West Virginia University professor John Temple argues, in fact, that not all right-wing militias hold extremist views. "I have listened to many hours of 'patriot' conversations that didn't sound all that different from what you would hear during a typical evening on Fox News," he writes. "Many seemed to have joined the cause for social reasons, or because they liked guns, or because they wanted to be part of something they saw as historic and grandiose -- not because their views were far more radical than those of typical right-leaning Americans."

This is not exactly reassuring, since the politics of right-leaning, Fox News-watching Americans have grown more extreme. With nearly half of the Republicans surveyed by Larry Bartels prepared to take the law into their own hands, Trump has nearly succeeded in transforming his party into a mob of vigilantes.

Don't be fooled into thinking that the president is a law-and-order candidate. He flourishes in chaos and routinely flouts the law. By siding with right-wing militias and their ilk, he daily undermines the state's monopoly on legitimate violence.

The debate over defunding the police must be seen in this context. In a country awash in guns and grassroots racism, with a major party flirting with mob violence, getting rid of police departments would be akin to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire of uncontained extremism. Sure, local law enforcement needs major reforms, massive civic oversight, and right-sized budgets. Police departments must be purged of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The Pentagon has to stop supplying the cops with military-grade weaponry.

But remember: the police can be reformed. What was once an all-white force now better reflects America's diversity. The mob, by definition, is not subject to reforms or any oversight whatsoever.

This is no time to permit the return of frontier justice administered by white mobs and a lawless president, especially with a critical election looming. Mob violence has often accompanied elections in the past, with rival factions fighting over the results, as in the street battles of 1874 in New Orleans between Republican integrationists and racist Democrats. Like nineteenth-century Louisiana, the struggle this November is not just about Democrats versus Republicans. It's about the rule of law versus racist vigilantism.

White supremacy is not going to give up its hold on power without a fight. If you thought you'd seen real American carnage in Trump's four years in office, prepare yourself for the chaotic aftermath of the November election. The mob is itching to take the law into its own hands one more time on behalf of its very own mobster-in-chief.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 John Feffer

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