By Paul Street
Noam Chomsky’s 2016 book “Who Rules the World?” contains a passage in which the great left thinker asks readers to “imagine you’re a historian a hundred years from now—assuming there are any historians a hundred years from now, which is not obvious—and you’re looking back on what’s happening today.” This reflection appears in a chapter titled “The Eve of Destruction.”
It’s a bracing thought. Given the current state and rate of environmental destruction, the continuing advance in the destructive power of nuclear weapons systems, and the likelihood of pandemics in a warmer and more globalized world, there are good reasons to wonder if a human civilization with historians will exist a century from today. We may well be standing near the “end of history,” and not the glorious bourgeois-democratic one that Francis Fukuyama imagined with the end of the Cold War.
Western Provocations of Russia
Speaking of cold wars, United States neoconservatives and liberals have in the last three decades teamed up to create a “new” one with still heavily nuclear-weaponized Russia. The risk of a nuclear war catastrophe is greater today than it was during the Cold War, when humanity came close to disaster on numerous occasions. This reflects the ongoing development of nuclear weapons technologies and a series of U.S. and U.S.-allied Western actions that have provoked Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire:
● President Bill Clinton’s decision to annul a 1990 agreement with Moscow not to push the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) further east after the reunification of Germany and not to recruit Eastern European states that had been part of the Soviet-ruled Warsaw Pact.
● NATO’s decision to renege on its 1997 pledge not to install “permanent” and “significant” military forces in former Soviet bloc nations.
● NATO’s decision two years ago to place four battalions on and near the Russian border.
● The 1999 U.S.-NATO military intervention in the Yugoslav civil war, leading to the dismemberment of Serbia and the building of a giant U.S. military base in the newly NATO-U.S.-created state of Kosovo. This remarkable development has hardly stopped Washington from shaming Russia for deploying its military to “forcibly redraw borders in Europe” by annexing Crimea.
● President George W. Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
● President Barack Obama’s decision to deploy anti-missile systems (supposedly aimed at Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons and actually meant to intercept Russian missiles) in Romania and Poland.
● Obama’s decision to invest more than $1 trillion in an upgrade of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, which was already stocked to blow up the world 50 times over. The upgrade involves “strategic” bombs with smaller yields, something that dangerously blurs the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons. It has certainly helped spark a new nuclear arms race with Russia and, perhaps, China.
● U.S. provocation and endorsement of a 2014 right-wing coup against the pro-Russian government in Ukraine—on Russia’s western border—a development that predictably created war in eastern Ukraine and a crisis that has led to dozens of dangerous incidents between NATO and Russian forces.
● Washington’s self-righteous denunciation and slandering of Russia’s “very reasonable” annexation of Crimea (in the words of political writer Diana Johnstone), which was overwhelmingly supported by Crimeans as a natural response to the United States’ installation of a right-wing, pro-NATO government in Kiev.
Carbon-Gassing of Life on Earth
Perilous as the nuclear situation may be, the environmental danger is arguably greater. This is thanks to the shrinking time window for averting a climate catastrophe that is unfolding before our very eyes. Nuclear weapons don’t kill off the human species just by existing. If we continue to miraculously escape launch (and even a first strike could start nuclear winter on its own) for a century, we can thank our lucky stars and proceed to dismantle nuclear weapons in 2118. There’ll be no such luck available to us if we avoid action to stop the carbon-gassing of life on earth. We have 20 to 30 years (to be generous) to get off fossil fuels and curb mass consumption or it’s curtains. We are currently on pace for 500 atmospheric carbon parts per million—a level of warming likely to melt much of the world’s life-supporting Antarctic ice sheet—within 50 years, if not sooner.
Every new year of increased carbon emissions in an ever-warmer and more climatologically volatile world speeds us toward fatal feedback loops (perhaps already underway), bringing the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. The clock is currently at two minutes to doom, thanks to what leading scientists call “the failure of world leaders to … reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change.”
As Andrew Glikson, the Australian earth and paleoclimate scientist, explained eight years ago: “Humans cannot argue with the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere. What is needed are urgent measures including: deep cuts in carbon emissions; parallel fast-track transformation to non-polluting energy utilities—solar, solar-thermal, wind, tide, geothermal, hot rocks; global reforestation and re-vegetation campaigns, including application of biochar. The alternative does not bear contemplation.”
“The alternative” is underway. There’s no mystery about the exterminist consequences of an open-ended increase in atmospheric carbon. The lethal results are richly evident in the planet’s geological record.
Can we survive and even maintain a decent or better existence into another and future centuries? Perhaps. But surviving will require massive, and combined, dialectically inseparable transformations in our relationships with each other and with nature, of which we are of course part. It will require a radical restructuring and revolutionary makeover. The British Marxist economist Michael Roberts is likely right to argue that we cannot undertake the collective planning and coordinated action required to save the commons under the bourgeois system of socioeconomic management and politics, with capital and profit at the chaotic and amoral commanding heights:
The potentially disastrous effects from higher temperature, rising sea levels, and extreme weather formations will be hugely damaging especially to the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet. But industrialization and human activity need not produce these effects if human beings organized their activities in a planned way with due regard for the protection of natural resources and the wider impact on the environment and public health. That seems impossible under capitalism. … What is really needed … require[s] public control and ownership of the energy and transport industries and public investment in the environment for the public good. …
It is important to note that the climate crisis hits disadvantaged populations first—and the rich and powerful last. One problem we face is that class rule (and capitalism is, among other things, a system of class rule) tends to delay a civilization’s capacity to perceive threats to its continued existence until the full consequences of the civilization’s deadly practices are felt by those who have been protected by class privilege from environmental harm. By the time the ruling class gets it, things have gone too far. This in one of the timeworn paths to societal ruin discussed in a paper published four years ago by mathematician Safa Motesharrei, atmospheric scientist Eugenia Kalnay and political scientist Jorge Rivas in the journal Ecological Economics. Reviewing past societal collapses, they reflected on a potential current global scenario in which:
[T]he Elites—due to their wealth—do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners. This buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe. It … explain[s] how historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases). This buffer effect is further reinforced by the long, apparently sustainable trajectory prior to the beginning of the collapse. While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.
Is this not the current state of humanity today, with many millions of disproportionately poor and powerless people already suffering from climate disruption while the wealthy few continue to enjoy lives of unimaginable, environmentally shielded opulence atop a recklessly fossil-fueled planet so vastly unequal that the world’s eight richest people possess as much wealth between them as the bottom half of the species?
It’s not an easy topic. The profits system seems fatally preemptive for the radical alterations in energy and resource that are required to avert catastrophe. But environmental beggars can’t be choosers, and there is a reason to feel reluctant to make (eco-) socialist transformation a prerequisite for saving chances for a decent future. Our time window for green transformation may be shorter than the period required for conceiving and birthing a socialist transformation.
This dilemma aside, one would think that an issue as significant as Homo sapiens sitting at the precipice of self-inflicted extinction would be front-page news. Think again. The climate crisis holds little interest for the U.S. commercial corporate media. The fact that the world stands at the eve of ecological self-destruction, with the climate-denying, fossil-fuel-loving Donald Trump White House in the lead, elicits barely a whisper in the reigning U.S. news media.
As far as “mainstream” U.S. media is concerned, the greatest danger posed by Trump has nothing to do with his insane commitment to the accelerated greenhouse gassing to death of life on earth. It’s all about the preposterous notion that he owes his presence in the White House to Russia’s supposed subversion of our unmentionably nonexistent “democracy.” It’s all about Russia, Russia, Russia and Trump, Trump, Trump or what I sometimes call “TWITR,” an acronym for “This Week in Trump and Russia.” It’s been an explicit programming decision—something I’ve written about at some length on at least three prior occasions (see this, this and this). It’s a remarkable choice—to put the biggest issue of our or any time on the back burner of the news.
U.S. — Benign Global Hegemon
Which brings me, curiously enough, to a second passage that jumped out at me in Chomsky’s “Who Rules the World?” On page 113 of that volume, near the end of an essay in which he reflects on how close John F. Kennedy helped bring the world to annihilation by engaging in a reckless game of thermonuclear chicken with the Soviet Union in October 1962, Chomsky reflects on a “basic principle” long shared by U.S. foreign policy makers and the reigning “elite” U.S. “intellectual and moral culture.” This principle, Chomsky writes, reflexively assumes “without question … that the U.S. effectively owns the world by right, and is by definition a force for good despite occasional errors and misunderstandings, one in which it is plainly entirely proper for the U.S. to deploy massive offensive force all over the world while it is an outrage for others (allies and clients apart) to make even the slightest gesture in that direction or even to think of deterring the threatened use of violence by the benign global hegemon.”
Consistent with Chomsky’s observation, a Pentagon study released last summer laments the emergence of a planet on which the U.S. no longer controls events. Titled “At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World,” the study warns that competing powers “seek a new distribution of power and authority commensurate with their emergence as legitimate rivals to U.S. dominance” in an increasingly multipolar world. China, Russia and smaller players like Iran and North Korea have dared to “engage,” the Pentagon study reports, “in a deliberate program to demonstrate the limits of U.S. authority, will, reach, influence and impact.” What chutzpah! This is a problem, the report argues, because the endangered, U.S.-managed world order was “favorable” to the interests of U.S. and allied U.S. states and U.S.-based transnational corporations.
Any serious efforts to redesign the international status quo so that it favors any other states or people is portrayed in the report as a threat to U.S. interests. To prevent any terrible drifts of the world system away from U.S. control, the report argues, the U.S. and its imperial partners (chiefly its European NATO partners) must maintain and expand “unimpeded access to the air, sea, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum in order to underwrite their security and prosperity.”
The report recommends a significant expansion of U.S. military power. The U.S. must maintain “military advantage” over all other states and actors to “preserve maximum freedom of action” and thereby “allow U.S. decision-makers the opportunity to dictate or hold significant sway over outcomes in international disputes,” with the “implied promise of unacceptable consequences” for those who defy U.S. wishes.
“America First” is an understatement here. The underlying premise is that Uncle Sam owns the world and reserves the right to bomb the hell out of anyone who doesn’t agree with that. To quote President George H.W. Bush after the first Gulf War in 1991: “What we say goes.”
What is Russia’s great sin in the age of Vladimir Putin? America’s New Cold War complaints have ranged far and wide, running from claims that it is concerned about Russia’s oligarchic and repressive internal power structure, its rigged elections, its weak environmental protections, its violence against ethnic and religious minorities, its murderous military actions in Chechnya and the Middle East, its cyberwarfare against other states, to its supposed key role in undermining “American democracy” by supposedly tilting the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Trump over the leading anti-Russian, New Cold War hawk Hillary Clinton.
This is all quite dubious, to say the least. The openly plutocratic and itself corporate-oligarchic and environmentally ruinous United States possesses no great “democracy” to subvert in the first place. As Thomas Ferguson and his colleagues have recently shown in an important study at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Russian interference was of tiny significance compared to the impact of big American money in helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton (and in helping Clinton defeat herself).
At the same time, the U.S. and many of its close allies commit the same crimes attributed to Russia by American New Cold Warriors. The world’s and history’s only global superpower, the United States, regularly interferes in other nation’s politics and kills people en masse abroad. It does both these things on a much bigger scale and much farther beyond its own borders than does Russia. Russia’s great sin for the American power and foreign policy elite is that it has dared to resist Washington’s supposedly God- and/or history-ordained right to run the world as its own possession even on Russia’s borders.
One of the many dirty little secrets of the Cold War was that anti-communism functioned as a pretext and cover for Washington’s Wall Street-fueled ambition to force open and run the entire world system in accord with its multinational corporate elite’s globalist-“Open-Door”-political-economic needs. From this imperial perspective, the real U.S. Cold War enemy was not so much “communism” as other peoples’ struggles for national, local and regional autonomy and independence. The enemy to the “open door” in Moscow remains after the statues of Marx, Lenin and Stalin have come down. It doesn’t matter that Russia is no longer socialist. Nationalist and regional pushback against Uncle “We Own the World” Sam has been more than sufficient to get Vladimir Putin designated as the next official Hitler and Russia targeted as a malevolent opponent by the U.S. elite political class and media.
The Right-Wing Prefascist U.S. Presidency; Elitist, “Progressive” Neoliberals
The present moment is dire. We are witnessing the remarkable and dangerous continuation of a bizarre right-wing, prefascist U.S. presidency, subject to the weird whims and tweets of a malignant narcissist who doesn’t read memorandums or intelligence briefings. Unimpeded by a feckless “resistance” staged by a Russia-mad, inauthentic opposition party of elitist, anti-working-class “progressive” neoliberals (the dismal dollar Democrats), Trump poses grave environmental and nuclear risks to human survival. A consistent Trump belief is that climate change is not a problem and that it’s perfectly fine—“great” and “amazing,” in fact—for the White House to do everything it can to escalate the greenhouse gassing to death of life on earth.
The nuclear threat is rising now that Trump has appointed John Bolton—a frothing right-wing uber-warmonger and longtime advocate of bombing Iran and North Korea, who led the charge for the archcriminal U.S. invasion of Iraq—as his top “national security” adviser. As a candidate, Trump wondered aloud why the U.S. couldn’t use nuclear weapons and if the U.S. should equip Saudi Arabia—the most reactionary government on earth and the homeland for extreme Islamist Wahhabism—with nuclear weapons. Trump and Bolton hate Obama’s relatively sane nuclear agreement with Iran. Their determination to rip up that accord—another reflection of Trump’s wacky, white-supremacist obsession with destroying any and all accomplishments claimed by a first black president—threatens to generate a disastrous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the crazy orange-tinted Donald—who does (make no mistake) have a strange and potentially compromising history of Russian business dealings and who has behaved in suspect ways regarding Putin’s regime—has been convinced to expel dozens of Russian diplomats, leading to predictable Russian counter-expulsions.
The Clinton-Obama neoliberal Democrats and their many allies in the corporate media that helped create the Trumpenstein have spent more than a year running with the allegation that Russia magically subverted our nonexistent “democracy” to put Trump in the White House. The climate crisis holds little interest for the Trump and Russia-obsessed corporate media. The fact that the world stands at the eve of ecological self-destruction, with the Trump White House in the lead, elicits barely a whisper in the commercial news media. Unlike Stormy Daniels, for example, that little story—the biggest issue of our or any time—is not good for television ratings and newspaper sales.
Trump’s lethally racist, sexist, nativist, nuclear-weapons-brandishing, ecocidal rise to the nominal CEO position atop the U.S.-imperial oligarchy is no less a reflection of the dominant role of big U.S. capitalist money and homegrown plutocracy in U.S. politics than a more classically establishment Hillary Clinton ascendancy would have been. It’s got little to do with Russia, Russia, Russia—the great diversion that fills U.S. political airwaves and newsprint as the world careens ever closer to oligarchy-imposed geocide (a project shared by petro-capitalist Russia and the petro-capitalist United States) and to a thermonuclear conflagration that the “Russiagate” gambit is recklessly encouraging.
What will historians say a century from now, if they still exist? That the most intelligent known species in the universe seemed to have lost its mind. We have come to the precipice of self-annihilation under the command of an imperial power committed like Herman Melville’s Ahab to the endless pursuit of hegemony even over and against basic imperatives of survival.Φ
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014), and a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Z Magazine/ZNet, Black Agenda Report and teleSUR English. He has taught American history at several Chicago-area colleges and universities and currently lives in Iowa City, Iowa. This article appeared on April 4 at truthdig.