What Rough Beast Slouches into 2013?

It’s the end of the year 2012, and the passing of the 13th Baktun. I wonder which is more relevant.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Across the globe, it’s points of light in a broth of darkness.

The long proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran continued; Iran’s proxy, the Muslim Brotherhood, cemented its hold on Egypt after brushing aside the secularists and liberals and forging a modus vivendi with remnants of the old regime. Saudi influence was largely reduced to its loan guarantees, an item of some significance given that Egypt is a country which cannot feed itself, and whose population, paranoid, ill-informed, illiterate, and unskilled, cannot compete in the global marketplace — nobody is breaking down the doors to do business in this country, which can no longer manage to attract the same tourists that the Muslim Brotherhood used to murder as a matter of course. As has been said elsewhere, without these guarantees, Egypt will simply starve. Chinese pigs will eat better than Egyptian day-laborers. The long Saudi habit of fostering religious murderers and the propaganda which accompanies and justifies it isn’t helping either.

Saudi loans also kept Turkey afloat, as it wrestles with its identity and with the limits to Erdogan’s power. Like Egypt, Turkey needs this money; unlike Egypt, the Turks can both survive and thrive without it, if forced to do so. Whether Erdogan & Co. can do so is anybody’s guess.

The Iranians, on the other hand, are not exactly having everything their own way. The “corpse in armor” of Syria has finally collapsed into civil war. Unlike the long-overdue but spectacularly-mismanaged Libyan adventure (which has destroyed Mali, as fanatics take over its north, bringing their characteristic misery, destruction, and high body count), Syria falling is a nearly unalloyed blessing for the free world, were it not for the widespread civilian deaths. Nobody who knows the name “Assad” ever imagined one leaving power without first butchering his subjects, and thus far, the son seems to be following in his father’s murderous footsteps. But Syria’s influence on the world is strictly negative, and even if it collapses into a salafist playground, that is better for the world than the status quo ante.

Slowly but surely, however, the after-effects of a previous war make themselves felt. President Bush may be rightly-reviled for having set up part of the readily-emerging pattern of “security fascism” in the United States, but his war in Iraq redeemed the country’s honor by freeing the Kurds, who had been shamefully betrayed by his father. The Kurds have gone from having, as they say, “no friends but the mountains,” to major players in the region, with whom The Powers That Be must reckon. This is a good thing, for by and large the Kurds are friends of freedom, and their rise a breath of fresh air in a region with is otherwise largely hopeless — a place where ideologies go, not to die, but to gel and zombify in the sun. With a growing population (one of the only two in the region), and the prospect for a dynamic economy, the Kurds have the potential to exercise an outsized influence for the good.

Matters elsewhere are shaky at best. The BRICS are wobbling; Brazil’s emerging economic miracle is worthwhile, overdue, and long hoped-for, but many have overlooked the extent to which its rise was predicated upon fiscal “bubble” money looking for a place to park itself. It must diversify away from a resource economy, or else risk collapse during the next serious downturn. Spain’s economy makes Brazil’s look vibrant (with horrific levels of unemployment, in an ongoing banking crisis which will soon overtake France as well).

India has its own problems, involving nearly unbelievable corruption, and a culture which turns a blind eye to sexual assault, which has now exploded into a state-shaking crisis. While the perennially bitter, man-hating feminists of the west may decry their home as encouraging “rape culture,” India seems to actually have one.  China, of course, is anybody’s guess — the last bastion of physiocrats whose recipe for escaping the Middle Income Trap is to clamp down on precisely the social dynamism which the country (but not its mandarins) so desperately needs.

But at the end of the day, neither the US nor the BRICS rule the world: Goldman Sachs does. GS, whose fingers can be found everywhere from Brazilian exports, to Chinese 10-year Treasury-note purchases, managed not only the unthinkable, but nearly the unbelievable when the ECB, run almost exclusively by Goldman Sachs alumni, managed what amounted to bloodless coups in both Italy and Greece.

That’s not to say that we all need to put on our tinfoil hats, however (much as simply typing those sentences makes me sound like I need one) — Goldman Sachs, like Iran, isn’t having everything its own way, either. Many of the world’s governments, and precisely those over which it has the least influence, are running to the exits in order to buy as much gold as they can. When the fiat-money “quantitative easing” ponzi, exhausted into either default (as Greece needs to be), partial default (as America already is), or hyperinflation (already affecting the global price of food) finally collapses, those countries sitting on gold will be able to dictate their own position in whatever the emergent order shapes up to be.

As said before, Russia slides further into tyranny. This surprises nobody. China also slides further into tyranny, surprising nobody except Thomas Friedman. It continues to alienate its neighbors with a foreign policy so mindlessly and purposelessly belligerent that it more-readily resembles America in the 1840s than a major world power of the 21st century. It has created so much anxiety that the unthinkable is now thinkable — South Korea and Japan may emerge over the coming decade as actual functioning allies — and the Philippines has openly welcomed Japanese re-armament. Strange times, indeed.

Chavez, the demogogue who reduced Caracas from being one of the Crown Jewels of the western hemisphere to a pitiable, mismanaged dump, has finally admitted that he’s dying, and publicly named a successor. There’s an odd chance that Venezuelans might breathe free air again, but the process will not be simple, and it will not be cheap, in either money or blood.

Under the radar, on the other hand, alongside the ongoing horror stories in central and Northern Africa, economic dynamism is gradually emerging — the irony of the 21st century will be that the African nations, long the plaything of other powers, gradually emerge into powers to be reckoned with on their own. It won’t be a fast process, but it’s already an emerging one, and if I had the chance to visit any “new place” for me, there is no question but that Lagos, Kinshasa, or Bamako would be very high on the list.

Technology, meanwhile, continues to change the game. It reaches the maturity to allow states to exercise wildly-effective tyranny a tthe same time empowering people to not only connect, but to collaborate in ways which promise to up-end the Industrial Era’s focus on mass-production and consumption. Private rockets reach orbit, a universal flu vaccine is close to hand, and it seems that almost weekly that somebody comes up with an “ow, wow” on the technological front (and we’re talking more than luxury electronics goods). Slowly the broad outlines of the Post-Industrial era emerges, with the Industrial Democratization of Man, where every garage can be a factory. Mass production will still have its place, but inexorably, “mass-produced” and “one-size-fits-all” will become anachronisms which are synonymous with “low-quality crap.” This is already being felt in the retail sector, where luxury goods tailored to the needs of their customers win the day, while big-box stores are thrashing about trying not to drown, and doing everything in their power to add value by customizing their service.

While business struggles to adapt to this new — and better!– world, it’s quite clear that governance hasn’t kept up. Every passing week demonstrates that the old Progressive model of technocracy which worked so well for delivering widespread prosperity in the first half of the twentieth century when the average citizen had a sixth-grade education, has now begun to fail, a victim of its own success. Technology has empowered the average citizen beyond the wildest daydreams of the Wisconsin Idea, and not not few, but many cases, these “average folks” have a better understanding of any given issue than the technocrats and government fixers do themselves. An easy example of this is the ongoing revolution in food, where regular citizens simply object to purchasing, let alone consuming, “food products” made of high-fructose corn syrup and other….well, to be quite honest, unhealthy shit, no matter what the Federal Government’s “food pyramid” says.

The “Blue Civil War” is arrived to American politics. While the Republicans are enmeshed in a three-legged civil war between small-government types, big-government social conservatives, and the last of the plutocratic “country-club Republicans,” the Democrats are having their own conflict, as union pensions threaten to bankrupt Blue Country. Union power has begun to collapse under its own weight, a relic of a bygone era and a victim of too many politicians’ shameless lies to their own constituents. Progressivism is dead – not because any given program is or was bad, but because those who would claim to run the show for the rest of us are simply so obviously inept. Our “social elites” look more venal and less impressive every day.

My daughter is three and a half years old, willful, stubborn, and a natural dancer, whose hair is more and more resembling her mother’s long tresses. I have no idea how best to prepare her for the incoming world, but as the western and Mayan calendars turn over, one thing is clear — the future is a new world, and the easy, well-worn answers of the 20th century, with its facile dogmas and shorthand utterings in place of argument, are no longer sufficient to the task. Real and serious crises of the first order approach us; it is not that society must reorganize… in a land where 10% of the children told Santa that what they most wanted for Christmas is “a daddy,” we must recognize that society IS reorganizing. How long the labor, and whether it will emerge vibrant, healthy, and far more capable than any of its parents…or stillborn, choked out by hyperinflation and the dead hand of an increasingly-inept government, remains to be seen.

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