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Quick Takes

The Scarecrow in the Cucumber Field – ISIL, Ebola, and the End of the World (Order) As We Know It

In his best-selling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin, 2011), popular science author Jared Diamond meticulously and relentlessly plunges into a wide variety of historical case studies using what he terms the “comparative method” in order to answer the question that has preoccupied scholars from Edward Gibbon through Oswald Spengler – why do societies decline and ultimately disappear?

In his best-selling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin, 2011), popular science author Jared Diamond meticulously and relentlessly plunges into a wide variety of historical case studies using what he terms the “comparative method” in order to answer the question that has preoccupied scholars from Edward Gibbon through Oswald Spengler – why do societies decline and ultimately disappear?

Diamond makes it clear that he is not a “determinist,” particularly one of the ecological variety, although he does stress environmental issues, even in his earlier publishing writings, in an outsize way.

As the title of the book implies, history is in many respects like a game of cards.  Each people, nation, or cultural aggregate is dealt a certain hand with particular endowments, talents, or possibilities.  Yet it is how one plays the hand that counts.

Environment itself, or the pressure of powerful neighbors (think Poland), are constitutive factors.  But they are not destiny.  Destiny lies in the kinds of  “decisions” societies as a whole are apt to make.

As I write two of the four apocalyptic horsemen – pestilence in the form of the deadly Ebola epidemic and war in the guise of the unimaginably brutal, but militarily successful armies of the Islamic State – are  galloping across the global dais and shaping the destiny of many peoples and nations, including the United States.  If one takes seriously the doomsayers who are increasingly blogging on the internet and occupying the talk show air waves, the end of society as we know it may be looking less like the product of an ignited imagination and more like some kind of imminent reality.

Yet, as Diamond reminds us, the destruction of civilization is only conceivable these days at the planetary level.  “Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation…Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote … can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past.”


The End of the New World Order

What is happening is not the end of the world as we know it, but the end of what was once blithely referred to as the “new world order.”

As Stephen Walt writes, the now almost clichéd concept of the NWO emerged concomitantly with the heady birth of neo-liberalism in the early 1990s along with “the spread of markets, investment, supply chains, and the like” as well as the explosion of digital communications networks that fostered the illusion of global integration.

But the “dark side” of globalization, according to Walt, does not have to do so much with increasingly economic exploitation of the underclasses.  The net effect, he suggests, has been to mitigate wealth imbalances between the West and “the rest”, even if growing social inequality has become the domestic trend for the world’s former hegemons.

On the contrary, our current crises have more to do with the unravelling of what were once insulated, integral, and relatively isolated systems of cultural normativity.  The “unifying forces” of globalization “also encourage and reinforce powerful forms of local identity, some of them operating in strong opposition to the forces” of stabilization and integration.  “Globe-trotting elites who frequent the World Economic Forum, the Shangri-La Dialogue, and other lofty forums often forget that local forms of identity remain powerful political forces, whether in the form of nationalism, sectarian religious affinities, tribal loyalties, or ethnic solidarity.”

The NWO was originally envisioned as a globally expansive system of what sociologists term “managerial rationality.”  The contemporary notion of managerial rationality – or what we will dub “managerial reason” as a form of governmental policy and praxis – is the scion of Max Weber’s construct of bureaucratic power and authority, which he made famous through the lowering metaphor of the stahlhartes Gehäuse, usually translated as “iron cage”.   Michel Foucault’s theories of “biopolitics” constitute a sophisticated variation on this particular strain of social analysis.

Weber and his followers, who studied the evolution of the forms of social organization in the wake of the industrial revolution, understood managerial rationality as the inevitable outgrowth of the disintegration of traditional bonds, together with kinship ties and loyalties, which in the past had stitched groups of peoples solidly together.

If social cohesion could no longer be sustained by what often turned out to be what Benedict Anderson has termed “imagined communities” of blood, ancestry, or mother tongue, it could at least be enforced through the ideals of social democracy and the legal guarantee of abstract rights and privileges for all persons regardless of their unique racial or social traits.  Managerial rationality, therefore, served to render obsolete, all the while “de-territorializing” (to use Gilles Deleuze’s famous term), the historical particularities and contingencies of human culture.

It was a self-conscious strategy of promising “power to the people” while secretly eradicating the very markers of concrete peoplehood.


An “Apocalypse” of Managerial Reason

At the global level managerial rationality first manifested in the nineteenth century in colonialist administration of subject populations, a strategy which according to cultural theorist Walter Mignolo in his book The Darker Side of Western Modernity (Duke University Press, 2011), depended on the methods of ethnic classification pioneered during the European Enlightenment that became the framework for “scientific” racism.

Following the demise of international Communism in the late 1980s, it became instantiated as the master tenet of Western foreign policy that free market economies would now snowball from Lapland to Patagonia, gathering along the way all the blessings of representative democracies and the smoothly function apparatus of an emerging global “civil society” run by a new elite of educated “social engineers.”  Military intervention by former colonial powers in the conflicts endemic to so-called “failed states” with the aim of ensuring more rational and “humane” treatment of their inhabitants (so-called “nation-building” operations)  became the executive signature of these distinctive policies on which the NWO was premised.

The initial U.S. military victory in Iraq in 2003 was perhaps the high water mark of the NWO.   But it was also the beginning of the end for the proud tower of a systematic managerial reason applied on a global scale.

Western progressives blamed conservatives for all too often wanting to put “boots on the ground” to solve the problems of regional administrative dysfunction, preferring to exercise in its place the “soft power” of foreign aid and consortial consensus.

Conservatives (or “neo-cons”, as they came to be called), meanwhile, routinely accused progressives of underestimating the refractory and vicious types of blowback, or resistance, that could be expected with any effort to maintain a vast empire of Western “good will” and political influence, no matter how benign it may seek to be (an argument made from the age of the Caesars forward).

The latter argument, of course, was largely responsible for enabling the second-term election of George W. Bush following the 9/11 shock to the body politic.  The former, in contrast, guaranteed the election of the cosmpolitan idealist Barack Obama in 2008 by an electorate weary of endless and seemingly inconsequential military engagement around the world along with the economic damage it seemed to be infliciting.

What we are waking up to realize today is that both “hard power” and “soft power” advocates have been equal victims of the self-delusion of creating a harmonious “one world” through the regimes of managerial rationalism as both pragmatic policy and as its own moralistic eschatology.

If we go along with Diamond’s insights, we realize that perhaps “rational choice” theory, as managerialism would have it, is not at all the best theory of choices to employ in our current era of chaos.

The failure of rational choice models has been bruited successfully, for example, by economist Nassim Taleb, who points out that it is singularities and anomalies, not the consistency of data sets, that should be our guide threads for decision-making, especially in light of the 2008 financial crash which, he insists, was not so much of bad behavior but conventional assumptions that history would prove horribly wrong.

The rampages of ISIS through Iraq and Syria and the seemingly unstoppable spread of Ebola turn out to be a distinctively farcical testament to the concealed madness of managerial reason’s unique methodology.

Managerial reason tends to dismiss all those anomalous disturbances, threats, or counter-instances, which occur within those structures of hypothesis, inference, and demonstration inscribed within its hard-as-steel housing (perhaps a better rendering into English of Weber’s famous expression)  of all the available “facts” it routinely mobilizes, as “extremist” or “irrational.”


ISIL and Ebola As Indigestible Anomalies for Managerial Rationality

President Obama’s early dismissal of ISIL as a “JV team,” followed up by his awkward retraction of that disclaimer and a promise to “degrade” and “destroy” the Islamic State using risk-aversive military strategy that has quickly shown itself to be fruitless, is an excellent illustration of global managerial rationality that is coming apart both at the seams and on the fringes.

The maxim of managerial rationality states: do not raise the prospect that something is more complicated or frightening than the comfort level of one’s consitituency, nurtured on a diet of “happy talk”, “can-do” motivational discourse, and repeated emphasis on “common sense” might possibly withstand.   Furthermore: when confronted with contradictions or counterevidence, gradually “escalate” the actionable items on the already prima facie agenda while pumping up those efforts that would keep the already well-reasoned-out game plan in place.

The patron saint of managerial rationality in this sense, of course, was Robert McNamara, defense secretary during the Vietnam War era, who kept what was a doomed military strategy from the get-go in place as the conflict became the most violent of bloodbaths, all the while asserting that he and his counterparts could see “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Another managerial rationalist in the news these days is Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the United States Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia.  Frieden has repeatedly given soothing assurances about how the Ebola virus can be easily controlled in America, only to be compelled to qualify and backpedal once real-world events contradict earlier statements.

Frieden’s initial reaction to the unwelcome news that Dallas health care professional Nina Pham had contracted the disease, in which he asserted that the reason could only have been a “breach of protocol” in the Ebola response system (even though Pham had been following the prescribed regulations and is regarded as a highly trained and competent nurse) followed the managerial logic of “our protocols can’t possibly be wrong because, after all,  they’re based on everything we know.”

Such a managerial rationale, of course, parallels McNamara’s celebrated Vietnam-era hubris, the powerful self-deception that if you have what journalist David Halberstam termed the “best and the brightest” you somehow have a repository of indubitable truth.  As CNN notes, Frieden himself relies totally for his judgments on the manipulations of numbers and statistics to forge his own unshakable assumptions.  “In Frieden’s view, data is king.”

Yet, as day-to-day incidents unfold, we are beginning to realize not only that managerial rationality is not really the kingly sovereign we once believed it to be, but that indeed the emperor indeed has no clothes!

The fear and loathing during this year’s American Congressional elections of a President many once considered a kind of “messiah” who would stop the planet with a sweep of his magic managerial wand from sinking into absolute disorder is indicative  of our utter disenchantment not so much with a person but with a certain secular world view, deeply derived from the Promethean fantasy of human omnicompetence that mass education and the profusion of the “knowledge society”  foists upon us.

Managerial rationality – and its would-be global exercise under the pretense of “saving the planet” or saving masses of disgruntled populations from themselves – is the giant, glittering idol of both the modern and postmodern eras that is now crumbling.

As Jerusalem came closer to conquest by the Chaldeans in the 6th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah warned his listeners against following the (idolatrous) ways of thinking practiced by the Goyim.

“Do not act like the other nations,who try to read their future in the stars. Do not be afraid of their predictions…Their ways are futile and foolish.”  Such idolatrous constructs “are like helpless scarecrows in a cucumber field!” (Jeremiah 10:1-5, NLT).

Today our “experts” are like these naked scarecrows.  But we are not scared of them.  We fear only the Living God of all history, the Alpha and Omega in whose gaze ISIL and Ebola are but sputum dissolved in time’s filthy bucket.

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