“This craving…[Man] tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are…” — Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)
“What people do not get is the divide between the generations. The youth have it far worse than their parents and they want jobs, lower taxes, and freedom. The older generation simply looks to exploit the youth and take the approach of shut-up and obey your elders. That is not working in Europe, Scotland, Iran, and now in Asia.” — Martin Armstrong, Armstrong Economics blog (September 30, 2014)
For this ex-pat Scot, the endless prattling over profitability and pay cuts in the recently concluded Scottish referendum struck an all-too mercenary chord. Self-determination deserves no less than determined soul-searching. Yet too often, the same chutes, ladders and subsidies were being offered up as Exhibit A: maximizing EU rebates, boosting payments under the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy); in short, the pocketbook as clan crest with brave hearts on layaway. In the words of Peggy Lee, is that all there is?
The world is veering existential with a vengeance. Thus the standard Western default—economic self-interest—may no longer be enough to fill the tank. While England and Scotland renew their vows, there are some restive guests at the reception:
“More British citizens signed up to fight in Iraq and Syria than joined the Army Reserve last year, it can be revealed. Just 170 extra reservists enlisted over the past year – despite a Government target to boost the stand-by force by 11,000 by 2018. But at the same time the brutal al-Qaeda inspired ISIS forces tearing through Iraq have been boosted by ‘several hundred’ Brits…”—Mail Online, June 17, 2014
Across the globe, the day is fast approaching when we will be accosted on the street and asked who our god is, even before we’re asked for our wallets, and just before we’re asked for our heads. For some, their wallet is their god. This is not intended as a moralistic scolding, but rather an entreaty to those who believe the god business has been vacated for the science of morality, evolutionary ethics, kumbaya multiculturalism and economic growth as unwavering societal curative.
There is always a god or two skulking about. Consumerism is the somnolent god of distraction. Shop ‘til you drop and keep the deeper questions of identity at bay. However, pray to the cashier long enough and befuddlement begets befuddlement. The confusions rack up. In case no one’s noticed, super malls and military industrial complexes don’t win wars. The real business of civilizational struggle is to know thyself better than the opposition or else risk collapsing beneath the weight of one’s internal contradictions and buying sprees.
In The Vineyard of the Saker blog (October 13, 2013), a compelling case is made for the essential cognitive underpinnings of the Soviet Union’s systemic collapse. Here, he quotes an (unnamed) Pakistani diplomat circa 1992, “who, addressing an assembly of smug western diplomats, said the following words: “you seem to believe that you won the Cold War, but did you ever consider the possibility that what has really happened is that the internal contradictions of communism caught up with communism before the internal contradictions of capitalism could catch up with capitalism?!”
The distant wars of empire stretch internal contradictions to the breaking point. Conscript a man into the world’s largest military machine, send him to a stranger’s backyard with orders to protect some abstract geopolitical interest, and he will fight for his GI Bill. Fire a bullet through his rec room window and he will fight you unto death. Where we lay our heads is where we build our dreams. Cognitive frames matter.
Brzezinski’s Mujaheedin were neither causative agent nor game-changing military force but rather the reckless lighting of a long religio-ideological fuse that still wends its way through dozens of unforeseen locales and flashpoints. So much for the armchair hubris of grand chessboards. But again, strategy is a pale substitute for belief. The reason the Soviet Union collapsed was because, well, it collapsed first. All the rest is stolen applause and spurious causation. While the Western elite congratulated itself on a cold war well won, extremists in the Middle East were drawing far different conclusions. As Alastair Crooke points out:
“The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this [Soviet] experience was that the two major world powers were indeed vulnerable to overextend themselves both politically and financially through excessive hubris; through coming to believe in the illusion of their own narrative; through a loss of internal cohesion; and, above all, through simple exhaustion — lose the will necessary to sustain the elaborate mechanism of global hegemony.” –from Conflicts Forum, ‘The Inevitable Has Happened in Egypt’, August 23, 2013
Empire breeds hubris. Hubris glosses contradiction—until it can’t. America’s last remaining superpower status encouraged an exceptionalism that, wed to manifest destiny, ascended with ease to religious affectation. Like all monotheisms, the faltering petrodollar (the irascible Pepe Escobar recently called it a ‘pitiful anachronism’) was ubiquitous, omniscient and the Great Interceder in all earthly matters. Pax Americana was its ambassador, the Pentagon, its enforcer.
Today, Abrahamic identities of all stripes sense a fresh opening, or if you prefer, a second coming. We know money is a god because it requires a supreme act of faith to believe it exists. How is a Central Bank keystroke any more in-the-world than a burning bush? How many credit default swaps dance atop the head of a pin? If the $700 trillion (notional value) derivatives complex collapsed tomorrow, not one house of good stone would fall. Oil is an indispensable resource that only condescends, via fraying security arrangement, to the yardstick of King Dollar. In the final analysis, as energy market strategist Chris Cook has pointed out before, dollars are priced in oil, not vice-versa. This is more than a subtle distinction. Large numbers, hardly a sign of strength, are a metric of frenetic distraction and unhinged greed. Complexity is vulnerability. The Western financial complex is a threadbare and teetering magic trick that mistakes itself for a breakaway paradigm. One day soon it will all come tumbling down.
Inevitably, one must lump together the secessionist energies brewing in Scotland and numerous other places in Europe as earnest attempts among ostensible pan-Europeans both to reacquaint and recoil, on a more primal level, within themselves—and not a moment too soon. The yoke of globalism is being thrown off everywhere at the same time. The end of history, it turns out, was mere recess. Henry Kissinger suggested in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial that, “the traditional European approach to order had viewed peoples and states as inherently competitive…” His assessment was intended as a retrospective. In fact the tradition is reasserting. People instinctively regress to the mean of tribal identity when a mortal enemy is at the gates of the city, or in this thoroughly modern multicultural instance, milling about inside the gates. At least the medievalists understood the wisdom of moats. Gazing on at the hubris and complexity of Brussels one must wonder, has Europe forgotten the simplest things?
There is also a compensatory dynamic. To the extent Europe thinks it believes in nothing, ISIS will champion the business of belief with more homicidal fervor, if for no other reason than to force the rootless post-modern infidels to confront their own spiritual confusion. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) can lower capital requirements, but it cannot lift hearts. Those in the Ukraine marching under the banner of further austerity measures march towards their own destruction. Visceral believers enjoy a tactical advantage over the coupon-clippers; the blood-spattered versus the bloodless rentier. That’s also why ISIS and similar extremist movements are going to blow through Europe like it’s a rickety popsicle stand. There is nothing to stop them. No transcending belief. No delusionary conviction. No core. No will.
ISIS is less a weird variant than we’d care to admit. Liberal democracy is the new-fangled and unprecedented interloper. The burden of proof thus lies with it to prove the post-WWII era is more tectonic shift than curious, evaporating anomaly. There was much to shift away from. As George Steiner reminded us recently, Europe’s pre-war sense of cultural superiority was a profoundly misplaced article of faith:
“Twentieth-century barbarism sprang from within the heartland of Europe culture, from the very center of the philosophic, aesthetic, and classical education. The death camps were not built in the Gobi Desert.” — from “A New Literacy,” The Kenyon Review, Winter 2007
Already, the race is on in Europe to give flesh to that looming shadow-form, democratic illiberalism, a sanitized ism for 1930’s-era fascism. Recently, Hungarian leader Viktor Orban described the current moment as, “the world [trying] to understand systems which are not Western, not liberal, maybe not even democracies yet they are successful.” (EU Observer, July 28, 2014) Meanwhile, central banks play three-card-Monte, swapping debt obligations back and forth that will never be repaid. The first thing the invaders established in Libya was a central bank. After that, not much else. Whack-a-mole seems the thinnest reason for cartographer’s ink. Contending with a specific regional overlay, Sykes-Picot, ISIS’ caliphate is on about much the same: God before borders, belief before loan terms.
Unacknowledged gods are no less operable for being unacknowledged. So far, Europe’s grown-ups have voted (at least implicitly) for bank austerity measures and a world made safe for about a half-dozen doddery multi-billionaires, beneath whom the former hope to complete their golden years with an ebbing modicum of comfort. That means, in order to sustain the unsustainable Ponzi of debt maintenance and loan production in a hyper-deflationary environment of collapsing growth, the real economy must be crushed further. The fire is ebbing? Starve it!
Satyajit Das recently reported the growth rate for the 1500-1820 period at 1.7% per century while Jim Rickards estimates that, for every dollar of debt created today, the economy offers up an anemic $.03 of growth, down from $2.41 in the 1950-70 period. By historical standards, growth is an ephemerality that even the most extreme Keynesian interventions now struggle to reprise. Clearly we are not believing hard enough. What wealth that is created must be thrown backwards which means Europe cannot even limp forward. The future feeds the present. The old dine on the young.
Therein lies the implicit tenet of our own brand of madness: Lopping the head off the future to save the dying banks. Europe’s young people must feel their necks being eyed from all quarters. Indeed they are the first-order tinderbox within the heart of Europe to which ISIS and the BIS are but competing executioners. Soon, bail-ins and wealth taxes will give lie to the elders’ object of misspent youth. The demigod Mammon is pathologically unaccountable and un-beholden, keeping faith only with himself. Hell on earth beats Pax Americana any old time. Chaos is the new ethos, trumping order. Shame on the old farts for breaking bread with existential greed. May they choke on their decrepitude and servile pomp before it all runs out:
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty, before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp.
–Mammon addressing his fellow demons, from ‘Paradise Lost’
So where exactly do Europe’s young people rank within this brave new secular construct? Youth unemployment in Greece and Spain hovers north of 50%, that is, over half the children are on notice that society can find no real business for their existence on the planet. Structurally superfluous, their adult lives can accrue no meaning, except that their lives will accrue meaning, though almost certainly in violent contraposition to the current arrangement.
We’re in an interregnum period. Marching orders are being assembled. In an effort to save what it has mistaken for its skin, Europe is grooming a home-grown, standing army just as the Mail Online reports. Islamic jihadism and other extremist movements have a plan for this generational disownment (the ultimate treachery) and why not? With mounting contempt for their parents’ invested peonage, the youth will embrace some twisted notion of glory. Kids will swap out the drip-drip of gerontocratic amortization for a lurid nihilism that can avail their youthful energies.
Already, ISIS is recruiting in the center of Europe. At first blush, one might assume this is fed mostly by the large Muslim populations in Germany and France, etc. In fact recruitment growth from among white German youth is surprisingly robust. The globalist’s half-realized dream of integration (a stalking horse, really, for watered-down sovereignty, subdued national passions and universal debt peonage) is on the verge of a reactionary boomerang with calamitous long-term implications for Europe.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani remarked recently (at the 69th annual session of the United Nations Assembly in New York): “I am struck that these murderous groups call themselves Islamic.” I’ve read the Q’ran, albeit in English. There is much in its pages to admire. However, all the lofty exactitudes—what it espouses—are somewhat beside the point now, as Rouhani suggests. The brand has been expropriated. Islam for many is little more than a vague organizing principle—complete with bad-ass black capes and ethereal white SUV’s—that doesn’t take shit from anyone. This Mad Max, dystopian mystique, (or is it Saw 4 with religious affectations?)—is potential music to the ears of some disaffected 19-year-old holding up a wall in Madrid.
Others like Alastair Crooke beg to differ. For Crooke, ISIS and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism are the ‘true Islam’, certainly two competing monotheisms that claim, contradictorily, the indivisible blessing of the One God. Someday this contradiction will be resolved. For the moment, both are content to pour their contempt on Assad’s Syria in a bid to shatter the Shia Crescent.
Pascal assures us people need to believe. It’s messy. It’s irrational. But it’s a hole that must be filled. Europe’s post-Christian secular humanism (tempting to so many and on so many levels) is the religion of irreligion, no more than a placeholder that demigod and demagogue alike rush to fill. Overshadowing this deific jostling is the age of nihilism wherein all belief has been rendered provisional anyway (Crooke sees a potentially reversible “nihilistic mechanism opening on several fronts.” However there is no switch to reverse this appointed time in history. Decommissioning the prevailing mechanisms will do nothing to tamp down fresh nihilistic outlets.) Nonetheless strategic advantage accrues to those who summon best the fires of belief. Europe’s ostensible ‘post-religious’ stage precludes it, for the moment, from embarking on this elemental descent; hence its acute vulnerability.
Materialism is a half-measure that leaves its believers neither here nor there. The Straussians, quite beyond good and evil, believe in nothing but the will to power. Wed to programmatic deception (permissioned by exceptionalism) and as a bulwark against the void, they fashion enemies and construct dialectics draped in a ‘moral clarity’ that invariably tempts the Bible Belt to action. There are 50 million Christian Zionists in America. That’s a lot of onward Christian soldiers. Beheadings are the WMD’s of the moment, the exoteric tale that might just re-mobilize a war-weary American heartland.
‘I came to a high place of darkness and light
The dividing line ran through the center of town’
—from ‘Isis’, by Bob Dylan
Thus we find in the imminent ruins of Petrodollar Heaven a newly divided town presided over by the Gods of Uncompromising Extremes: Mohammed of Medina and Nietzsche. (It remains to be seen whether this strange new Jesuit Pope creates a triad with Liberation Theology.) The point is Europe’s essential looming conflict is as inexorable as it is generational. Grassroots militarism is a non-translatable American fixation. How will Europe’s youth respond? Who will arrive to command their hearts and minds? Extremism delineates the likeliest suitors.