When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and shortly thereafter the Soviet Union collapsed only a few political scientists, they like to call themselves, could claim they saw it coming. Not just our hearts but our minds are fixed – “fixated” it might be better to say – on continuity, stability, notions of what is already known. Change, however, is not only constant, it sometimes proceeds abruptly, swinging from one state to another in unforeseeable ways.
Last week we entered one of those chaotic state changes. We experienced a bifurcation within a system we had been thinking of as linear. The outcome cannot be predicted.
In the case of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “West” was able retrospectively to justify what was an extraordinary transformation that virtually no one had foreseen by putting this great Wendung down to the normal and expected victory of (capitalist) human values, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc, etc, over an alien tyranny. [On this point, see this 5 Dec piece in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/05/soviet-union-collapsed-overnight-western-democracy-liberal-order-ussr-russia}
Behind such self-satisfied, chauvinistic reactions lies a larger dynamic. One crutch to which our minds cling is moral precept, which we imagine helps guide us through the chaos of our lives. Arguments people raise in political dispute are often ineffective because they come across like someone else’s moral precepts got up in the drag of reason.
I am no more exempt from these forms of blindness than anyone else. But a few weeks ago, like a cat who feels an earthquake in advance, I began battening down my mental hatches. I turned back in memory and then in inspiration to the political beliefs of my youth. I ended up voting Peace and Freedom as if grasping onto a raft after the wreck of a ship I had had forebodings about but boarded anyway. If you’ve got to go down, at least go down honorably in terms of your beliefs, preferably those you held when younger, when you still really cared.
If I knew how to bring capitalism to an end, a deep wish for most of my adult life, I might have tried harder or more systematically to do so. (On this point those who read French might enjoy Les thèses de décembre, the manifesto I co-wrote in Montreal when I was active in the socialist movement there forty years ago.)
I barely slept Tuesday night. When dawn came on Wednesday I felt I had been cast up by the vagaries of this storm onto a shore I had once sailed forth from. There was closure, of a sort, and in this closure itself a new beginning, at least for me.
Is Trump’s election one of those triggers which sets off chaos and eventually carnage around the world? We don’t know yet, but he is on record proposing a large number of policies destructive of world order as presently constituted. He is obviously an agent of creative destruction, the essence of capitalism according to the Austrian economist Schumpeter, who saw this inner dynamic as the principal contradiction which would led to its collapse. Others are not so sure. Like a virus which mutates to ensue its survival and proliferation, the economic system based on capital may well have a long future ahead.
So, yes, the sky may be falling, as chicken little warned. But the sky falls differentially depending on where and who you are. This is a corollary not only of chaos theory but of capitalism itself.