I want to get thing one thing straight before I start this post: I am not a marxist.
If religion is the opiate of the people, then marxism is the methadone of the people--what you take when you know something is bad for you but you can't quite kick the habit, or I should say, the festering need. The things that make religion dangerous--the idealism, the moral rigidity, the factionalism, the division of the world into true believers and infidels--are all prominent features of marxism. This shouldn't be news to anyone, but too often I see religion and marxism set in opposition. Who hasn't seen the argument that what makes marxism evil is its prohibition of religion? In fact, marxism just does what all totalizing religions do. It denounces all other belief systems as false.
Okay, having gotten that out of the way, let's take a look at some recent developments.
In the common discourse, there are many dire warnings about the future of the planet. We can rattle them off without thinking: the exhaustion of the oil reserves, global warming, nuclear war, population explosion, mass extinction, the rise of "Islamofacism," the rise of American imperialism, the bioengineered end of human nature, etc etc etc. The one I try to keep tabs on is the perilous economic inequality between the "North" and the "South," that is, the industrialized world and the developing world.
It stands to reason that a rich and powerful ruling elite is vulnerable to overthrow, or as the marxists would have it, revolution. The risk becomes greater as certain trends continue. The masses may become more impoverished in an absolute sense, unable to meet basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. They may become more impoverished relative to the ruling class. They may grow to a larger population relative to the ruling class. Or community connections between the two groups may decay.
It stands to reason that a situation where a small number has much and the vast majority has little will lead to resentment, regardless of whether these riches are legally "earned," or are otherwise "deserved." The ruling elite will tend to forget this, because they are only surrounded by people who have "made it." It's easy for them to say that the poorer people simply failed to work hard enough, especially as community connections decay, because they have no evidence to the contrary.
The poorer people, however, have plenty of evidence to the contrary. Sure, their communities may have real failures in them, but they will also have people who are valued by the community, who make every effort to further themselves and their community, but who still have what they started with: nothing. When people who try and people who've given up are alotted the same deserts, it's hard not to see the system as unfair, even if a small percentage of people who try hard "ascend into heaven," to the ruling elite. Especially if these saints are never heard from again.
I think we may be seeing the beginnings of uprising. The breakdown of the WTO talks in Cancún is a possible sign, as developing nations refuse to allow the industrialized world simply to dictate the terms of trade. But there are much more concrete signs in Latin America. The election of Lula in Brazil, of Chávez in Venezuela, the protests and ultimate presidential resignation in Bolivia, the economic situation in Argentina--all of these can easily be interpreted as strident noes to the status quo, the economic and political domination by the industrialized world, particularly the United States. The CIA seems to agree, given its actions in Venezuela. (And of course, historically the United States has intervened when these sorts of refusals have occurred in the past, in Brazil, in Guatemala, in Argentina, and most infamously, in Chile.)
But today, the United States is mired in the problems of Iraq. The president of Bolivia implored and implored the Bush administration for financial assistance, for an amount that would have been a pittance compared to the fortunes spent in Iraq. He got nothing, and now he is gone. What does this say about the United States' ability to defend its usual interests? The whole world is watching to see how the United States reacts to the Lula presidency, and so far, nothing.
There is a fantasy, I think, among the industralized elites, that as long as they have the biggest guns, the biggest factories, the flashiest gadgets, and the most vapid TV shows, that they will be able to keep the rest of the world, if not mollified, then at least at bay. And almost certainly, certain degrees of inequality are sustainable. But what worries me is that some people, like the Bush administration, seem hellbent on consolidating the wealth and the power even more, and as I've said, that just makes instability more likely. And as inequality increases, more resources need to be spent on maintaining it, and I think we are seeing the Bush administration's reluctance to commit those resources.
The elites also fantasize that their influence on the rest of the world far outweighs (or can, if they so desire) any influences within the the communities of that rest of the world. This expresses itself as the belief that anyone can be bought, or brought to heel by force, or that everyone wants to be one of them. The idea that these outside communities might have values and principles of their own often seems never to occur to them. And when these influences, these values and communities, combine in such a way that they permit collective action with regard to the elites, the power of the elites instantly diminishes, even vanishes. How did the British rule India for so long, and how were they driven out without the firing of a shot?
I wonder if these confluences are beginning to appear. I wonder. The worldwide protests against the Iraq war, for all their ultimate futility, were a colossal organizational feat, made possible only by the internet. The development of communities of the disenfranchised and unrepresented, from sexual minorities to computer hackers to bloggers to craftmakers and collectors, has heretofore been rather innocuous. But after those protests. . . if a worldwide peace movement is possible, what about a worldwide environmental movement? Or a worldwide trade union?
My guess is that it depends on the Americans. Americans, economically, are decidedly among the elite, at least from a global perspective. They own a ridiculous proportion of the world's wealth, and use a grotesque proportion of its resources. Yet this status quo seems, or seemed, sustainable, at least for a while. With the support of the American middle class, the elites within the United States could claim to be offering the world a chance at a certain lifestyle; and the middle class could use its intracommunity influence, now magnified by the internet, in support of the status quo.
But Americans now feel threatened. Their sense of security is threatened by foreign influences that the military seems ill-equipped to fight, and their economic security is threatened by attempts by American elites to further entrench their own wealth. If this situation continues, unemployed manufacturing and service workers may come to believe they have more in common with workers in other countries, in that both groups suffer under a common adversary. They may then decide to work together, rather than to cut a deal with the adversary at the expense of the other. That situation, if it were to occur, would still be a long ways off. But that decision to work together is essentially what happened in Cancún.
And globally we see an analogous situation: the world's middle class, i.e., the other industrialized and industrializing nations, were willing to perpetuate American power because it granted them military security and the chance at a certain level of wealth. American military exploits and diplomatic fiascos are now undermining the military security. France and Germany warily to corral the United States, the UK is caught in the lurch, South Korea weighs its options with regard to North Korea, Turkey prefers to milk the Iraq situation for cash and now military influence rather than goodwill, and so forth. Many of these countries still align themselves with the United States economically, and definite themselves in opposition to the Cancún-birthed Group of 22. But these relationships are fraying as well.
Unlike the marxists, I don't foresee, or even dare to hope for, some utopian resolution to these problems. The problem of inequality seems to me to be an inevitable structural feature of economic scarcity and human nature's being finite. It can only be managed to provide the most stability and the least suffering. But increasing the tension among all these relationships, tipping the world closer to sudden, even violent, resolution of these tensions, cannot be in anyone's interest. The Bush administration seems not to recognize that. They seem to believe that they and theirs have enough power, enough wealth, to get away with anything. Political omnipotence, if you will. That is their fantasy. That is their opiate. And they sure don't seem ready or willing to kick the habit.
--Melissa O, at 12:50