Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Overkill Emergency

Two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis a former Professor of American Civilisation at Brandeis University, Max Lerner, published his book entitled ‘The Age of Overkill’.

Mr Lerner – whose column for the New York Post earned him a place on the master list of Nixon political opponents [1] - noted that the early 1960s represented an historical epoch when, for the first time, at least two great powers have sufficient strength to obliterate each other – to overkill any and all enemy nations.

Lerner went on to describe what was then, and now, “the core of ‘classical politics’” [2]. He wrote that the crucial difference between classical economics and classical politics was that:

“the core of classical economics was wealth, while the core of classical politics was power. In the case of economics, with the acquisition of wealth at its heart, once could cling to a self-regulating system, but only so long as the naïve cult of self-interest could still sustain an economic order. In the case of classical politics, with power at its heart, there could be no question of laissez faire and self-regulation unless the balance-of-power principle is viewed as an automatic self-regulatory mechanism; power was the arbiter as well as the prize, and there was nothing to replace unless it was power itself.”

The animus of classical politics, Lerner explained is prescriptive, competitive and hostile. “The aim of each state is not only to acquire more power for itself, but to prevent enemies and competitors from acquiring more – or any.” [3]

The world, under this system of thought and action, becomes a world of enemies, potential enemies, allies and potential allies. The way to have peace, on the other hand, is to have bigger and better arms than the enemy. “The trouble is that the history to which [the followers of classical politics] point for confirmation is one that confirms the wrong thing. True, the world has always organized for war, but then the world has always got to war it organized for, and has had to pay for it. The payment this time will be intolerably high, which is why overkill has transformed the power problem.” [4]

“The fact is that the nation-state has ceased to be a viable unit of world order exactly because it cannot get along without at some point using its showdown war power, which it dare not do under overkill conditions; yet, when faced with a threat to its identity and survival as a nation, it dare not refrain from invoking its war power, however powerless it be.” [5]

Lerner didn’t suggest that the ‘power principle’, which he also refers to as ‘the principle of evil’ would be discarded in the then, near future. But he does point out that the ruling elites know that the dominance of this principle is a “short range perspective”.

“I suppose that relatively sane men still play with the idea of getting universal peace through universal empire….But, unilateralism aside, the road to world empire is unlikely to be achieved except by a world nuclear war – which might mean that there would not be very much of a world to enjoy the blessings of universal peace.” [6]

Today, forty five years after the publication of Max Lerner’s book, global citizens urgently need to use a much broader definition of ‘overkill’ and to treat the issue as the planetary emergency that it is. "Overkill is the use of excessive force or action that goes further than is necessary to achieve its goal.” [7] A glaring example of this, in the environmental and industrial context, would be the widespread use of residual and very toxic chemicals that are applied in a manner GUARANTEED to drift into drinking water catchments. This abuse is happening even when there are no long term economic justifications for the use these toxic chemicals.

In Siberia “the new rich Russians are hunting Siberian wolves from helicopters.” In Venezuela corporations interested in oil extraction and soya cropping send menacing guards to stop the Indians tribe of Guarani from “trying to protect the remnants of the forest in which they find all their needs for building their huts, natural medicine for health and food.” [8] In Australia – in our time of desperate climate emergency [9], [10], [11] - the world’s most carbon dense native forests are continuing to being intensely logged and converted to woodchip for sale to Japan and China. [12]

It turns out that overkill in classical politics has its equally threatening counterpart in economics. Max Lerner wrote that the historical concern in the classical form of economics was “largely with cyclical and fiscal theory, and with the controls needed to set the malfunctioning right.” In the postclassical stage of economics this disclipline “cuts across capitalist and socialist systems, and focuses on economic growth.” [13] “These growth ideas are being introduced largely into cultural systems where they are not at home” It turns out that economic growth is also “not at home” on a finite planet.

Economics, though, has always served the political agenda.

“The Government is not now and never has been an independent engine operating in a vacuum under its own momentum”; rather, it had ties to the profit economy by the common ideas and connections among people in influential positions. Men in government could not escape a philosophy of private advancement inherent in an economy characterized by intense competition for advantage, for raw materials, and for markets. “In short domestic politics and economics enter into foreign policy and influence its course.” [14]

Today we have, not one, but six global crises as a result of the long term use by Governments of the ‘power principle’ in both economics and politics. They are: the prospect of nuclear overkill; climate change; peak oil; global resource depletion; alarming species extinction rates and global economic collapse. They're all related to each other.

Activist Paul Gilding tries to give a picture of what just one aspect of one of our global crises may look like. Taking the example of sea level rise from climate change:

“We thought maybe 0.3 to 0.5 metres by 2100 was the average sea level rise forecast, a few years ago. It's now gone from 0.3 to 0.5 to 0.8 to 2 or more. Right? So 0.8 to 2 metres by 2100 is a, technically speaking, a shitload of sea level rise. This is a lot of ocean increase, remembering especially that storm surge, in a storm goes in obviously according to geology, around 50 times the level of sea level rise, so a metre of sea level rise takes a storm surge 50 metres more inland, right? So the impacts of this are very, very severe, and very, very significant, and actually not the most important issue in climate change but the one we understand the most because it makes for good graphics.” [15]

We need to find a way to deny every nation its war-making power. We need to also coexist with diverse other life forms on the planet. Quickly. Our form of ‘civilization’ is killing the planet. Our predicament is that we cannot save ourselves with our own will power alone, for to do so “will only make the evil in us stronger than ever.” [16]

"The instinct to command others, in its primitive essence, is a carnivorous, altogether bestial and savage instinct. Under the influence of the mental development of man, it takes on a somewhat more ideal form and becomes somewhat ennobled, presenting itself as the instrument of reason and the devoted servant of that abstraction, or political fiction, which is called the public good. But in its essence it remains just as baneful, and it becomes even more so when, with the application of science, it extends its scope and intensifies the power of its action. If there is a devil in history, it is this power principle. "

Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin

[1] Max Lerner
on 1st July 2009

[2] ‘The Age of Overkill – a Preface to World Politics’ by Max Lerner. 1964. Publisher William Heinemann Ltd, Great Britain. Page 20.

[3] Ibid. Page 21

[4] Ibid. Pages 253 and 254

[5] Lerner qualifies this statement by pointing out that in actual fact the nation-state no longer exists in any sovereign sense “except in diplomatic abracadabra and in its formal voting in the Un and other international bodies. The working power units have become the power systems, which operate from power centers.” They hold “ a moving power equilibrium in the world…” Ibid. Page 254

[6] Ibid. Pages 254 and 255

[7] http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Overkill

[8] Overkill in Conservation and in the Pristine Forests.

[9] Outside of the Vortex. Brenda Rosser. Wednesday, March 18, 2009

[10] Australia’s catastrophic Summer of 2009. Brenda Rosser. Friday, February 6, 2009

[11] Climate Code Red. The case against carbon trading
Brenda Rosser. Tuesday, May 19, 2009

[12] Preserving old-growth forests is vital to saving the planet

[13] ‘The Age of Overkill – a Preface to World Politics’ by Max Lerner. 1964. Publisher William Heinemann Ltd, Great Britain. Page 153.

[14] American historian Charles Beard from his “Idea of National Interest” pages 89 – 120 as quoted in ‘The American Century – the rise and decline of the United States as a world power’ by Donald W White. Yale University Press. 1996. ISBN: 0-300-05721-0. Page 6.

[15] ‘The great disruption’ 14 June 2009

[16] Heini Arnold.


Shag from Brookline said...

Back in the mid-late-1930s, a big school yard game in Boston (and perhaps everywhere) was "King of the Hill." A King didn't last that long either because a new King ousted the old King or the old King "advanced" to another school. As Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." But it spreads. A recent "King," Rodney King, asked "Why can't we all just get along?" This was well before an earlier "King," Martin Luther King, Jr., who tried so hard that someone decided to kill him.

Jack said...

I'm not clear as to what you're saying about the relationship between political power and economic power. You citations of Lerner's thoughts seem to suggest that the two forms of power proceded along parallel tracks. Is that the case? If that is a poiint that Lerner was trying to clarify then I would suggest that it is naive. i can't think of any significant political event that did not have at its core an economic motivation. That motivation may not in all cases be immediate and obvious, but the will to political power seems always to have been provoked by the effort to gain or maintain economic power.

Recent times have seen the growth of efforts to more directly conjoin these two correlated processes. Individuals directly involved with political power have formed significant financial organizations for the express purpose of enhancing their economic power. Those that come immediately to mind are the Carlyle Group, the Blackstone Group and Kissinger Associates. This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Political and economic power seem to have always intermingled in the hands to a "small circle of friends."

Shag from Brookline said...

"I'm not clear as to what you're saying about the relationship between political power and economic power.

"Those that come immediately to mind are the Carlyle Group, the Blackstone Group and Kissinger Associates. This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Political and economic power seem to have always intermingled in the hands to a 'small circle of friends'."

Like described in C. Wright Mills' "The Power Elite."

Martin Langeland said...

And nothing about it is savage or noble -- those are the terms that define them from us. The rest is appearance.

Jack said...

I don't think that the issue is whether the results or the process can be described in terms like savage or noble. It has more to do with elitism and coordinated actions, something like co-conspirators. The worst of the phenomenon is exemplified by the confluence of influence when high level political functionaries move on to high level coordination of wealth centralization. I know I'm not describing this quite right, but it's a topic that is vague and complex all at the same time. In the most superficial sense it's the old influence peddling paradigm, but it has been elevated to a level that seems to pasteurize the intentions, the process and the outcomes. It's one of those issues that, like pornography, are hard to define but we all know it when we look for it.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

I think that Lerner was actually skirting around the issue of economics and the use of the 'power principle' within it. Trying to avoid linking economics with power overtly.

But it's clear that the rich nations of the world are using their transnational corporations to acquire the resources of other nations. It's imperialism, as usual. Some history (written in the early 1970s):

The industrial nations are attempting to get together to neutralize efforts of poor countries to take advantage of national rivalries. US-based global firms are resorting to joint ventures with Japanese companies in Latin America, on the theory that regulated market and resource sharing is better than unregulated competition. Under the same theory, General Electric is now minority shareholder in a Japanese electronics plant in New Jersey. Nevertheless, there is a perceptible shift in the balance of power between developed and underdeveloped countries. As global companies increase their share of the total trade of the advanced nations, the dependence of the rich on the poor will grow. The process is accelerated as more poor countries convert themselves into “export platforms”. In 1960 there were only four underdeveloped countries that were significant exporters of manufactured goods. By 1968, according to the studies of Hollis Chenery of the World Bank, there were thirty. Beginning with low-skilled industries such as textiles, these countries had by the mid-1960’s moved on to electronics, chemicals, steel, calculators, and computers. Chenery and Helen Hughes conclude that labor productivity in underdeveloped countries “is frequently higher for individual industries and even for the industrial sector as a whole than it is in developed countries.” Escalating energy demands throughout the industrialized world, the intensifying competition for profits by employing cheap labour in tropical islands, African jungles, and the Chinese countryside, and the frantic search for out-of-the-way places to locate contaminating factories are all translatable into increased bargaining power for the Third World. Countries like Brazil and Indonesia, while traditionally members of the US political orbit since their military coups of the mid-1960’s, are nevertheless, seeking to diversify their customers. ThusBrazil has been encouraging and receiving substantial German and Japanese investment. (According to recent [page 197] projections, Japan will be the number-one foreign investor by 1978.) Iran, though designated a deputy peacekeeper for the eastern Mediterranean under the Nixon Doctrine, is nonetheless negotiating with China for the sale of oil, thus preserving a degree of economic independence from the United States which can be used to exact better terms....

‘Global Reach – The Power f the Multinational Corporations’ by Richard J Barnet & Ronald E Muller. Publisher Simon and Schuster’. 1974. SBN 671-21835-2 Casebound. Page196 and 197. Chapter 8: ‘The Power of the Poor’

Jack said...

I think that the inter-relationships across national boundaries becomes more obvious when we stop thinking in national power politics terms. The wealthiest and most powerful individuals within those various boundaries seem, with some exceptions
as in Russia, to think in terms of coordinated effort. What's good for the economic elite in one port of the globe is likely good for those in the other parts of the globe. Certainly the growth and global nature of international corporations as well as asset management funds implies that the very wealthiest individuals see themselves as members of an elite de facto club with the same general goals.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

I am really worried about the direction the US and Australia have taken. We need to assert clear values and demand that our governments respect them. Here's an example of US Government values from the 1980s. (Things haven't changed since then).

"Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'"

President Reagan : 'The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.

"The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated."

The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion.

Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize Lecture