Living in Dystopian Times

By Richard Falk

Prefatory Note
The text below is drawn from a talk given at the Spring Festival of the Arts in Beirut, Lebanon on 15 June 2017. Comments welcome.

How can we understand the present unfolding world order, with special reference to its relevance for developments in the Middle East? In my view a fundamental reversal of political expectations has taken place that calls for a new assessment of what is going on, and where the region and the world seem to be heading.

Twenty-five years ago there were three widely held beliefs about future trends on a global level: the assured preeminence of the United States; the continuing globalization of the world economy; and the expanding democratization of national governance arrangements.

It was also assumed that these trends were more or less descriptive of regional realities, including the Middle East.

Each of these trends that seemed so descriptive 25 years ago now seems to be completely out of touch with what is happening around us that is very disappointing when compared with earlier expectations, no where more so than in the Middle East.

These disillusioning changes of perception are contributing to a growing anxiety about what the future portends for all of us.

In addition to these changes of expectation as to international behavioral patterns, there exist a cluster of deeper tensions that concern the very nature of the human condition, extending to challenges directed at the sustainability and quality of life on the planet.

One unfortunate consequence of the preoccupation with these disturbing recent international political realities is that much needed attention is diverted away from these more fundamental issues of an ecological, technological, and cultural character.

As an American, I am especially conscious of the enormous and costly diversionary impact that the Trump presidency is having in weakening the understanding and planning needed if humanity is to have any realistic chance of coping with these emerging threats of great magnitude that have never been confronted in the past.

The most serious menace posed by Donald Trump, who is most accurately regarded as the first right-wing populist tweeting demagogue of the digital age, is his extraordinary talent to shift the conversation from the awkwardly significant to the banal trivial.

He is exerting a great influence on public discourse not only in America but in the world, especially by diluting our perceptions of crucial issues affecting the human species as a whole, including climate change as connected to the related decline of biodiversity, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the destabilizing effects of these technologies of the digital age especially when applied to security arrangements and the broad spectrum of societal policies bearing on individual and collective human wellbeing.

Under the weight of these threats it is not surprising that a dystopian moment is beginning to dominate the cultural imagination.

It discloses itself through a fascination with post-apocalyptic films and an interest in older literary dystopias such as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. These books that imagined a future that is in some respects our present are being widely read and discussed as if guidebooks to a set on conditions that were not anticipated.

Within the American political space the fragility of American democracy was prefigured in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here as well in scary premonitions of the imminence of digital age fascism put forward in the recent radical feminist post-apocalyptic novel, The Book of Joan (2017) by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Also indicative of the foreboding quality of the prevailing Zeitgeist is a bestselling booklet that is a collection of identifying markers of tyranny by the prominent historian, Timothy Snyder, with a deliberately provocative title and a pedagogical rationale, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017).

This ‘dystopian moment’ is reinforced by the absence of positive scenarios of the future, and the dismissal of the utopian imagination as worse than irrelevant because it allegedly created receptivity to promises that when translated into political reality produce totalitarian nightmares.

In effect, utopias, correctly understood, have themselves become in these dark times a disguised form of dystopia.

A recovery of societal confidence is a key precondition of envisioning a better future. Its loss is one dimension of the crisis confronting humanity at this time, and these days such failures of moral and political imagination are generally overlooked in the public sphere that is obsessively focused on the latest daily episode in the Trump political soap opera.

Naomi Klein reminds us in a recent interview, “Trump is not the crisis but the symptom of the crisis.” The point is that we must make the effort to grasp the social and political forces that gave rise to Trump and Trumpism. Klein also insisted that the negativity of progressive thinking in recent decades has had little political traction because it fails to present a positive alternative to the angry negativity of right-wing populism that targets the established order.

Klein’s new book has the title No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

Her text impressively couples a necessary critique of Trump’s pernicious leadership with an affirmative vision of how to move the political process in emancipatory directions. Read More »

Is there a way of reducing ethnic disputes?

By Jonathan Power

August 8th. 2017

It’s not that many years ago that Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, commenting on the outbreak of separatist ethnic strife in the 1990s in countries such as Somalia, Zaire, Rwanda, East Timor and ex-Yugoslavia, asked. “Where will it end? Will it end with 5,000 countries?”

It was a serious misjudgement. Separatist wars have fallen sharply. Minorities are not fighting for their own patch of territory at the rate they were. Since 1993 the number of wars of self-determination has been halved.

The list of countries where the problems of ethnic conflict looked potentially ominous but which are now vastly improved is a long one.

Baltic nationalists have moderated their treatment of their Russian minorities. Hungarians in Slovakia and Romania are no longer under threat. After a long war Croatia is respecting minorities.

Conflicts between the central government and India’s Mizo people, the Gaguaz minority in Moldova and the Chakma tribal group in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hills have all diminished. One of Russia’s most important but least-noted achievements has been its peacefully-arrived-at power-sharing agreements with Tatarstan, Bashkiria and forty other regions.

A list almost as long can still be made for ethnic disputes unsolved.

But what we have learnt in the last few years is that the pool of ethnic conflicts is not infinite; that the ultra-pessimism of just a few years ago was misplaced; and that human beings can settle for less, as long as the dominant party recognizes the underdog’s integrity and gives it enough room for manoeuvre.

Nevertheless, there is no time for complacency as a new report by Britain’s Minority Rights Group makes clear. Read More »

What’s right? What’s left?

By Jonathan Power

July 11th 2017

It goes back to the French revolution of 1789. At the Revolutionary Convention the most radical of the insurgents decided to seat themselves on the left side. “Why not on the other side, the right side, the place of rectitude, where law and the higher rights resided, when man’s best hand could be raised in righteous honour?” wrote Melvin Lasky in what was then Britain’s most influential intellectual monthly, Encounter.

“Anyway they went left, and man’s political passions have never been the same since.”

When Oskar Lafontaine, the German finance minister, broke with Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in the early days of the last Social Democratic government, he explained it was “because my heart beats on the left.”

The right could never say that, even the liberal-inclined, ex-prime minister of the UK, David Cameron.

When Humpty-Dumpty insisted on his own “master-meanings” he reassured Alice, “When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra.”

British Leftists sometimes stretch their minds to work out if Prospect, today´s most influential monthly, is left or right. I tell them that it is hard to tell most of the time which is how an intellectual magazine should be. They shouldn’t be asking the question.

Perhaps if they and the rest of us want to study the ambiguities and contradictions of intellectual leftists they should be informed that once upon a time – a hundred and seventy years ago – there was a writer, a philosopher, who spent most of his time in the British Museum and who moved his family from down-at-heel Soho to elegant Primrose Hill.

He wanted his maturing daughters to have the chance of meeting a better class of men. His wife too was pleased because she could now invite ladies to tea. A suitor of one his daughters was given the door as he seemed unstable with his revolutionary opinions.

He wrote soon after that he thought the “historical” process had already started to undermine “bourgeois society”.Read More »

Peaceful Societies – Where Are They?

By Johan Galtung

3 July 2017

There are many of them – of different kinds – in world geography. We can try to identify the characteristics of their peacefulness.

Or we can start by identifying belligerent societies and then see peaceful societies as their negations. Let us try this one first.

Belligerent societies have a track record of violence across border, on the territory of others, often invoking “defense”– preventive, pre-emptive, proactive. For that they need weapons, arms, as an army or not. And the weapons, with their carriers, must be long range, offensive, to work across borders, inside another society.

By negating, we get three characteristics of peaceful societies:

1) having only short range defensive weapons for defensive defense;

2) having no weapons, arms, at all, nor the capacity to make them;

3) having a track record of no war, no attack across borders.

Comment:

No. 3, no track record, is no guarantee for the future.

No. 2, no arms, is no guarantee they cannot start making or importing.

No. 1, defensive defense, is no guarantee against longer range arms.

Peaceful societies may change? Yes, so may belligerent societies. They may stop attacking others, abolish their army (Costa Rica) or not get one–about 30 societies–or have defensive defense (Switzerland).

Have a look at the world: about 200 societies, countries, states. There may be border skirmishes, but attacks are rare. One reason: very few can afford submarines, ocean navy, tanks, bombers, missiles. An army only to defend the borders – the inland with militia – and if occupied non-military defense–rooted in doctrine to be credible, costs less.

Most countries practice offensive defence unwittingly.

The [1]->[2]->[3] scenario is a good peaceful society policy.

However, look at another approach. Read More »

Overcoming nuclear crises

By Richard Falk* and David Krieger**

TFF PressInfo # 420
June 30, 2017

Prefatory Note
This jointly authored essay was initially published in The Hill on May 30, 2017 under the title, “Averting the Ticking Time Bomb of Nukes in North Korea.” We did not choose such a title that is doubly misleading: our contention is not that North Korea is the core of the problem, but rather the retention of nuclear weapons by all of the states pose both crises in the context of counter-proliferation geopolitics and with respect to the possession, deployment, and development of the weaponry itself; a second objection is with the title given the piece by editors at The Hill.

While acknowledging the practice of media outlets to decide on titles without seeking prior approval from authors, this title is particularly objectionable. The term ‘nukes’ gives an almost friendly shorthand to these most horrific of weapons, and strikes a tone that trivializes what should be regarded at all times with solemnity.

Alarmingly, tensions between the United States and North Korea have again reached crisis proportions. The United States wants North Korea to curtail any further development of its nuclear weapons program, as well as to stop testing its missiles. North Korea evidently seeks to bolster its security by acquiring a sufficiently robust deterrent capability to discourage an attack by the United States.

The unpredictable leaders of both countries are pursuing extremely provocative and destabilizing patterns of behavior. Where such a dangerous interaction leads no one can now foresee. The risk of this tense situation spiralling out of control should not be minimized.

It is urgent that all governments concerned make a sober reassessment in a timely manner. The following questions need to be addressed:

• What can be done to defuse this escalating crisis?

• What should be done to prevent further crises in the future?

• What could be learned from recurrent crises involving nuclear weapons states?

It is discouraging that the White House continues to rely mainly on threat diplomacy. It has not worked in responding to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions for the past few decades, and it is crucial to try a different approach.

Currently, there are mixed signals that such a shift may be underway. President Trump has turned to China, imploring that it use its leverage to induce Kim Jong-un to back down, and has even mentioned the possibility of inviting Kim for crisis-resolving talks. Also relevant and hopeful is the election of Moon Jae-in as the new president of South Korea, and his insistent calls for improved relations with the North.

In the end, no reasonable person would opt for another war on the Korean Peninsula. The only rational alternative is diplomacy. But what kind of diplomacy?

American reliance on threat and punitive diplomacy has never succeeded in the past and is almost certain to fail now. We assuredly need diplomacy, but of a different character.

It is time to abandon coercive diplomacy and develop an approach that can be described as restorative diplomacy. Coercive diplomacy relies on a zero/sum calculus consisting of military threats, sanctions, and a variety of punitive measures. Read More »

Washington’s new threat against Syria, Russia and Iran: Invitation to false flag operation

By Farhang Jahanpour
TFF Board member

June 29, 2017

TFF PressInfo # 419

On Monday 26th June, the White House released a statement saying that the United States had “identified potential preparations for another chemical attack by the Assad regime…” It went on to say: “If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, followed that statement by tweeting, “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people.”

On Tuesday morning, speaking on BBC 4 Today programme, the British Defence Minister Sir Michael Fallon was asked how Britain would respond to another American attack on Syria, and he responded “we will support” future US action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

With these unsubstantiated statements on Syria, the Trump Administration is dragging the world towards the law of the jungle. As if the situation in the Middle East was not bad enough, these warlike statements have made the situation much worse, and are in fact leading us towards a major confrontation in the Middle East with unimaginable consequences.

Some 14 years ago, in total violation of international law and without any authorization by the Security Council, former US President George W. Bush launched a barbaric attack on Iraq, which destroyed the country, killed and wounded more than a million people, and gave rise to ISIS that has since waged a campaign of terrorism throughout the world.

Far from having learned any lessons from that disastrous mistake, the Trump Administration seems intent on committing a similar mistake on a grander scale. During the campaign, Candidate Trump accused the former US Administration of having created ISIS, not indirectly but deliberately. He spoke about America having spent six trillion dollars on illegal wars in the Middle East and having nothing to show for it. He vowed that he would not be interested in regime change and was intent on resolving international disputes through negotiations and deals.

Whether he has changed his mind or whether the neocons in the Administration and the deep state have infiltrated and dominated his administration makes little difference. The clear fact is that the Trump Administration is acting in a dangerous and arrogant way and is dragging the world towards another catastrophe.

Shortly after coming to power, President Donald Trump and his disgraced National Security Advisor Michael Flynn singled Iran out for condemnation and put her on notice, despite the fact that the Iranian government had spent hundreds of hours in constructive talks not only with the United States, but with all the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and had reached a landmark agreement that was then endorsed by the Security Council.

The agreement blocked all the paths to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, even if she ever had any intention of manufacturing them, something that Iran has denied, and years of investigation have not provided a shred of evidence to the contrary.

President Trump chose Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahhabi fundamentalism that has provided the ideological framework for nearly all the militant Sunni terrorist groups from Al Qaeda, to the Taliban, to Boko Haram and finally to ISIS and its various affiliates, which have created mayhem throughout the world, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, as the venue for his first foreign visit. While in Riyadh, he bizarrely formed a “coalition against extremism” with Saudi leaders at its head.

However, as Trump made absolutely clear in his speech to the unelected Arab monarchs, the main aim of the coalition was to unite those Sunni potentates against Iran.

In the past few weeks, America has launched a number of attacks on the positions of the forces allied with the Syrian government in their battle against ISIS. On 18th May and 6th June, Read More »

Abolishing war

By Jonathan Power

June 20th 2017

Frederick the Great of Prussia was a friend of Voltaire and enjoyed ribald evenings with the philosopher discussing the intricacies of life’s dos and don’ts. Before becoming king he was persuaded by Voltaire to become a pacifist.

But on ascending to the throne he became the most ferocious and successful of Europe’s warrior leaders. He said of himself that he was “doomed to make war just as an ox must plow, a nightingale sing and a dolphin swim in the sea.”

So far the twenty first century has been far more peaceful than the twentieth. No world war and none are there likely to be, even though the great powers might have the occasional confrontation. Some say we are overwhelmed by small wars, understandably so since the media, especially the fickle eye of television, picks up on every altercation.

As Francis Bacon wrote, there has never been, nor will there ever be, a shortage of “seditions and troubles”. But in fact this century there have been no interstate wars and civil wars are down in number, way below their Cold War total when the big powers stoked their fires.

Perhaps war is sometimes necessary and just. Most people will say that Read More »

TFF PressInfo # 418: Humankind 2050 – A new better world: Peace, Development, Environment

West of Jondal is Torsnes, named after the Nordic war god Thor with his Hammer, a center of the Viking era from 800 to 1050, only 250 years. Why so short? Successful with raids and colonization–Gardarike in Russia, Iceland, Greenland, Vineland in Canada. And then: fini. Why?

Because they had no future. Evil Lóki had killed Good Baldur–next to Torsnes is Belsnes=Baldursnes. They were doomed. Enters Christianity with Evil Satan and Good God, restoring hope. The end.

The Soviet Union Empire had no future: Communism was undefined. Enters Orthodox Christianity–Putin is a true believer–hope restored.

The United States Empire has no future: “allies” refuse to fight US wars and US capitalism increases inequality with reduced growth. Enter Campaigner Trump ‘Making America Great Again’ by buying-hiring American; President Trump making America isolated, violent, unequal–an autistic, psychotic, narcissistic, paranoid in a psycho-pathological exceptionalist, us-them paranoid state. A perfect fit for the worst.

2050 is only 33 years ahead; 33 years back is Orwell’s 1984. Much happened.

The Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989; the Soviet Empire, Soviet Union and Communism followed. The US Empire declined, former clients refused to fight US wars, but not EU wars; eroding NATO.

The Cold war, threatening humanity with a nuclear arms race that in a hot war could obliterate the planet, melted away with a whimper.

China’s incredible growth, also in world presence, from the Deng Xiaoping revolution in 1980, has been mainly within that period.

The attack on Muslim countries by a “US-led coalition” and the reaction by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State-Caliphate: in that period.

All over the world regionalization, ELAC-Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, African Unity/Union, EU, ASEAN; most states being too small, civilizations blocking for a world state.

All over the world non-dominant nations asserting themselves.

And all over the world, inspired from USA, women emancipating.

A new world, in only 33 years of rapidly accelerating history with another new world in the next 33 years. Some forecasts, using Western identification of units-variables prolonging trends and Daoist identification of holons-dialectics, forces-counterforces, yin/yang; to catch both continuous change and the discontinuous, jumpy changes.

Development, defined as satisfying basic human needs by lifting the bottom up; reduction of inequality can be achieved before 2050. The idea of food-water, clothing-housing, health-education for all has arrived and been well received (maybe not in the USA); one formula being the last two free, the first four subsidized with monthly cash to buy. Homo sapiens being homo faber and homo ludens, productive and playful with lifelong support, not lifelong struggle for sheer survival.

True, ground and river water are scarce but ocean water is not, obtainable by boiling with parabolic mirrors, capturing the vapor.

Environment, defined as satisfying basic nature needs, diversity and symbiosis. Fighting CO2 omission, a bilateral relation for a very complex reality, is much too simplistic, fighting CFCs destroying the ozone layer and symbiosis, strengthening the diversity of biota and abiota beyond using only renewable resources make good sense.

Individuals stop smoking if they attribute death from lung cancer to smoking. A catastrophe attributed to insulting nature’s needs may elicit remedial action from collectivities. Likely to happen, but better pro-actio than re-actio. A key: the darker the earth the more heating by solar energy; cities are darker than villages. Therefore, move out from big cities ruled by elites to small local units ruled by people.

Peace, defined negatively as absence of parties being bad to each other, and positively as parties being good to each other–at the mega-macro-meso-micro levels–depends on ability to solve underlying conflicts and to concile underlying traumas–possibly increasing.

Forecasts for twenty cases spanning the world and the levels:Read More »

What’s offensive and defensive in Syria

There should be a lower level to the statements by a US Secretary of Defence.
There should be a debunking of the unethical behaviour that repeatedly state that there is only a political solution to Syria and continue to use only violence.
There should be a discussion about international law here.
There should be a discussion of what is morally defensible in this case, even assuming for the sake of argument that President al-Assad is the worst guy on earth.
Why isn’t there – after so many years and so much human suffering and destruction.
We need a very different discourse about Syria – ASAP.