• On the Practical Exercise of Power – or why the Old White Dudes keep winning

    by  • July 26, 2011 • Everything Else • 4 Comments

    Umair Haque would like a taste of power.

    My suggestion is: let’s leave those stuck in a predictable, homogeneous, stagnating, we’d-believe-you-more-if-you-were-an-old-white-dude past in the past. Let’s smash through the iron curtains of the status quo–by creating the future. {source: Sidenotes: Smashing The Status Quo’s Iron Curtains}

    The reason the Old White Dudes (OWD) are in charge is because they are good at power. Consider, if you will, John Perry Barlow (OWD) on Dick Cheney (OWD)

    With the possible exception of Bill Gates, Dick Cheney is the smartest man I¹ve ever met. If you get into a dispute with him, he will take you on a devastatingly brief tour all the weak points in your argument. But he is a careful listener and not at all the ideologue he appears at this distance. I believe he is personally indifferent to greed. {source: Sympathy for the Devil}

    Now Barlow is Pretty Cool for an OWD. He wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead. He applied Gibson’s science fiction term “cyberspace” to the real internet. But perhaps most relevantly, he founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” In 1996.

    In the United States, you have today created a law, the Telecommunications Reform Act, which repudiates your own Constitution and insults the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, and Brandeis. These dreams must now be born anew in us.

    You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.

    Now, here is Umair’s problem in a nutshell. Umair Haque wants you to believe that the Status Quo is run by incompetents. The tragedy is that it is not: it is run by the best minds of previous generations, and even with these hyper-competent intellectual elites at the helm, we are still screwed.

    Umair Haque would like a shot at power, and sees these elites as self-serving men of limited vision. But the truth, from my limited but significant experience of dealing with these elites, is very different. Most of the people I’ve met at the top of the tree are incredibly intelligent, multi-talented interdisciplinary thinkers who are doing the best they can to manage an ungovernable world.

    The problem, if it exists at all in a simple form, is with the people, not their leaders. I am not at all convinced that I am smarter, or (given Barlow’s insights) better intentioned than Dick Cheney. We love to parody Cheney as the Father of Lies and the Master of Evil, but somebody has to do the hard thinking about bioweapons and structural power if democracy is to survive, and for about two generations it seems that person has been Dick Cheney. We cannot take power from these people unless we are ready, willing and able to replace them, and the public believes us. Now, you may say, why won’t the public – and their paid, professional content-filtering friends, the Media – take our message and tell the public that they should be listening to us, and not to Dick Cheney and his friends.

    The answer is really simple: the public govern the media, and not the other way around. The public govern the politicians, and not the other way around. For all that we would like to believe that elites control the media and the media control the public, a newspaper which does not sell is not a newspaper. People are voting with their wallets, and they are voting against change, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation.

    Politicians are entertainers, first and foremost. Just like pop stars, they are appointed by the public to stand in front of the camera and repeat to the public what the public wish to be said, and when they say things we don’t like – true or false – we replace them with somebody who gives us a message we would rather hear. This mess is the fault of the people, and if power resides with them, so does responsibility.

    The people know two things as implicit knowledge.

    1. We are rich because they are poor. Colonialism, the IMF, massive third world debt payments etc. all mean we built much of our prosperity on the backs of the poor.
    2. We are at a hard limit in environmental terms. Whether people give credence to global warming or not, peak oil and biodiversity loss and all the rest are real to people, consciously or unconsciously.

    These two facts together give rise to a third fact: we, the rich, the winners of the current global game, the G20, are going to get a lot poorer unless something radical changes. As the poor get richer, their increased economic power and increased consumption (hello China, first big player out of that gate) compete with our own societies, and we must struggle harder to keep up.

    When it was the working class whose jobs were disappearing to the East, we complained, but it was not us who were on the dole.

    Now the middle class, the intellectual and chattering classes, are beginning to feel the pinch of rising global competition for their salaries, and suddenly it is a global crisis.

    We have borrowed the money collectively which we could not borrow individually. Governments have acted on our behalf to raise funds to keep us at the rising standard of living to which we have become accustomed. Now the bills are beginning to be unpayable, and what then?

    Obama says that the rich have stopped paying taxes, and they have. But why have we allowed them to do this? The answer is simple: the Big Lie of our generation is that one day we will be the rich, and therefore we keep and feed the Rich as if they were exotic game animals, letting them get away with murder because of our secret aspiration to one day be one of them.

    It is this dream of wealth which has corrupted our societies. It is not the rich themselves, but the license we have collectively extended them to abuse their privileges because of our own secret aspiration which has destroyed our economies. Democracy has not failed: we have.

    Umair Haque’s case is that we can all be rich, together. If we just invest in human potential, or whatever chunk of the last 30 years of solutions he’s either mining or rediscovering today (remember Triple Bottom Line and all that went with it?) somehow the rich can stay on top, and the current incumbent societies can continue to live oh-so-much better than the rest of the world. Haque tells us that if we flap our wings hard enough, we can continue to fly, even when the plane runs out of oil.

    Dougald Hine, another thinker of Haque’s generation, has a substantially different take. Rooted as he is in authors like Ivan Illich, and the deep scholasticism of western culture, Hine’s take is that we’re returning to the rest of the world, coming back to ground, whether we like it or not – and that it might not be a bad thing, in terms of our quality of life, our real human aspirations, and our sane, humane goals. That insight, and the thinking behind it, has been a major formative influence on my own work, as I try and extend from my simple engineer’s understanding of the hard physical limits to the continuation of our culture into the tricky cultural terrain of making real changes. I’m very happy to be collaborating with Dougald regularly, although (perhaps wisely!) we work as advisers on each-other’s projects, rather than in closer collaboration. It helps maintain the all-important perspective which lets cutting edge thinkers contrast-and-compare without groupthink. (There may be a footnote of some utility there.)

    I’ll be speaking at Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth‘s Uncivilisation festival in mid-August, near London, by the way.

    The real radicalism of our times has been radical since it was first proposed in the 1970s or so: an end to growth. We will not be richer than our grandparents, although we might have better gadgets. The price of a more equitable world will be the rich returning to earth, and not simply the billionaires and the ultra-wealthy, but all of us middle class westerners who sit on top of a hundred thousand dollars worth of education each, and tell the world how poor we are because we cannot afford a two bedroom house in a suburb and a car in the most expensive cities on earth. And this, fundamentally is the flaw in Umair Haque’s thinking: he has not realized that all of his readers are rich, not simply the Old White Dudes who run the world. Perhaps only a brown fellow can call out such an error in the thinking of another brown fellow, I don’t know, but what’s missing here is a genuinely global vision, one which speaks the truth about poverty and environment, not just about ossification and generational turnover.

    To replace the Old White Dudes we have to replace the vision of the world which they have been guardians of, in which a strong, mostly-white but not racistly so, liberal elite with nuclear weapons held down the world’s despotisms and communism. Cheney and the lads may well have slept well in their beds at night comparing themselves to Chairman Mao and his successors, and indeed when one looks at Putin and the mafiaization of Russian society, you might well want Cheney standing between you and that. Until we are ready to shoulder the burden of protecting Liberty globally, and with it Nature and the Poor, we are in no way, shape or form ready to overthrow the old guard and usher in a golden age.

    Social policy is an easy problem compared to national security. But it is national security which has bankrupted America, perhaps through poorly chosen 21st century wars, but more likely through the decision not to half the Pentagon budget in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. No amount of reinvestment can refloat an economy which spends half of its tax dollars on war, and spends more than the entire world combined on arms. Until we talk about a comprehensive demilitarization of American society, coalition-based global stabilization, and a true, deep reform of our attitudes and action relative to nuclear weapons, we are going to be broke, and stay broke, in all probability.

    The Old White Dudes are the last bastions of the power structures built up in the age of the Cold War. Haque and Hine are a little too young to remember the cold fear which was so much a part of my generation’s consciousness – the experience, at the age of 8 or 9, of realizing that the adults are holding the entire future to ransom, and that Nobody Is Doing Anything About It. The men in power saw that system come into being, lived through it and under it, and remember it etched into their bones. They fathered children expecting them to die with the world in the final nuclear exchange, and they soldiered on anyway, towards a brighter future, red button in hand. You must respect the generation which maintained global stability through the latter part of the 20th century, monsters though they may appear to be in the peace which they have created.

    Now they are old, and suffer the faults of old men. But I do not have big enough shoulders to replace them, and I do not blame them for hanging on to power, seeking for safe hands to cast off their burdens to. These Cold Warriors maintain the defense industry, which maintains the media (got a better link?) to a frightening degree, and thereby shapes much of what our culture regards as real. The people control the press by what they will buy and what they will watch, but none-the-less the editorial pencil is still in the hands of the military-industrial complex. They do not shape our taste, but they can still spike a story.

    The reinvention must be a demilitarization, an end to the age of war, not simply gilding the lily of capitalism with a new tier of social values. A less evil capitalism will still be anchored in space and time by nuclear weapons policy, and shaped by the hands of those who must maintain a society in a certain shape to maintain nuclear weapons capability. The fatal mistake is to assign malign motives to the nuclear bureaucrats: they do what they do because they sincerely believe it to be the best thing they can do under the circumstances.

    So I am content to work incrementally, trying to round off the worst parts of the hard end of human life over, perhaps, a 20 or 40 year project. I don’t know what to do next, and I don’t know how to unpick the Gordian knot of the world. And this is not to say that there is no room for young turks, but a little humility goes a long way. Haque does not cite sources for most of his thinking, and has little connection to what is old, solid and true. Blathery demagogues do sometimes get things done, but given the complexity of our situation, there is no time or space for easy answers. And Haque’s answers are easy answers: we can do more of the same but better, we don’t have to cut our environmental consumption by 75% to 90% within twenty or forty years, we don’t have to make space at the table for the poor or face their armed wrath. It’s not that radical to suggest making money while not being an asshole, Umair!

    The truth is that it’s all coming down. A hard truth, but the real truth: between shifting global balances of economic power, the massive need to cut our over-consumption by at least 75%, and the enormous amounts of money we all owe the fundamental truth is it cannot go on like this. Haque’s failure of imagination, to conceive of a world which is on the other side of these massive shifts in economic, political and military power, and call it “the future” is dangerous enough on its own, but sold as The Great New Future, it joins Thomas Barnett‘s work as a dangerously misleading brand: to sell “more of the same” as radical innovation crowds out the space for radical innovation. Chiapas is radical innovation, not the next generation of leaders at Harvard Business School.

    Lest you think this is simply a brutal takedown of Umair Haque, it is not. It is a call for renewed political awareness, not in the simple party-politics sense, not the dumb left-versus-right debates which have left us unable to govern ourselves without paralyzing clouds of rhetoric obscuring all sense, but a real sense of the hard problems of the world as the ones to which we should be addressing our power to create a better future for humanity. Let me frame five of those hard problems for you.

    1. Environment – US is at 8+ times footprint, Europe at 4+ times. We have no sane development path for 5 billion poor people trying to get a foot on the ladder.
    2. Poverty – one billion are regularly hungry, 9 million children a year die of preventable disease.
    3. Freedom – can free societies make tough decisions, or will authoritarian states like China endure hardship more effectively? What about creeping fascism and legalized torture in our democracies?
    4. Democracy – has failed, to a substantial degree, when combined with Imperial Power. Can the world be governed by democracies?
    5. Technological Risk – we have essentially no mechanism to regulate global risks from nuclear, biotechnology and nanotechnology. All three are spreading like a plague. Now what?

    Working on these problems is radicalism. Working on how to keep Americans rich is not. We need to get real global perspective, and I’m singling out Umair Haque for a beat down because he’s telling people what they want to hear and dressing it up as radical truth. If he went into politics, he’d be Bob Roberts.

    I don’t have easy answers. I’m staring, day-in-day-out at the insolubility of the hardest problems that we face as a species, and I do not see hope. A people like us, but better, could thrive and prosper on this world, but we are as we evolved to be, and we are mismanaging ourselves into extinction. The murder of the poor by the rich is a genocide, every bit as vicious and brutal as the Nazis, Stalin, Mao and the rest, and we have made it OK in our minds because it is far away and caused by The Economy, our god. That the poor should die in gutters is a law of man, not nature. To act without hope, in good faith and with clear reason, is the mark of the radical in these times. We must soldier on, under the same burden as the Cold Warriors who kept the peace while planning to annihilate the world, and try and solve the insoluble so that the future has a future, and each new generation may make its own mistakes.

    But I respect my predecessors who faced the issues of their day bravely, and kept us all alive. The Old White Dudes got us this far, and until we can face the challenges that they struggled with and overcame to get us the world peace which we have mostly enjoyed, we are not entitled to power. Show me a feasible plan which handles the five issues I have outlined as big problems, and I’ll gratefully hail you, whoever you are, as the one I’m following.

    So, for now, peace, and I’m going back to chipping away at my part of the problem. Let us leave false claims of grand strategy behind, and get back to work.


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    4 Responses to On the Practical Exercise of Power – or why the Old White Dudes keep winning

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