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by John Papworth

What is your choice? What aspect of the global crisis grabs you most? The rain forests? Energy? Population? Marine life? High-tech farming? Ethnic minorities? Fantasy economics? Ethical investment? Land ownership? Third World poverty? Giant dams? Pollution? Armaments? Disease? Motorways? Social decadence?

The choice is obviously wide and no informed person would deny that these and other factors are very real elements which help to constitute a crisis which now envelops all human affairs. However, there is a need to ask what it is that is prompting their emergence. Is there a common link which relates them all to a single cause?

Let us turn the question round. Would a resolution of any one of these factors result in a world free from the crisis? Would a Henry George approach to land ownership and taxation make the seas safer for whales? Would Third World affluence lessen pollution? Would ethical investment defuse the population bomb? Would organic farming halt the arms race? Would proper care of the rain forests stop the madness of motorway construction?

These questions may appear naive and might well evoke the response that if all the elements of the crisis were tackled together the crisis itself would disappear. Perhaps it would, but what then is prompting their emergence?

Most people, we have to say, have no informed opinion or even a casual concern for any of these matters except where their pocket or stomachs may immediately be affected. The fact that when they are affected, as indubitably they will be, they are likely to provoke the emergence of oppressive, irrational and totalitarian regimes rather than any prospect of amelioration, gives no ground for optimism. Indeed, we may well assert that such alienation on a mass scale is surely one of the dynamic aspects of the crisis, for what empowered community, one able collectively to determine its general pattern of life, would tolerate for an instant the emergence of any of the crisis factors confronting us?

The Heart of the Matter

We are indeed pointing to the heart of the matter, for the single element which unites all the factors of the global crisis in an unholy brotherhood is that of power; political, social and economic power, power which people do not and cannot exercise, power which is being abused on a massive global scale and power, above all, which is out of control, running amok, provoking every kind of crisis in human affairs and now threatening to accomplish the demise of civilisation.

There are those who believe such control can be achieved by promoting parties and leverage in legislatures which are in any case part of the anarchic and uncontrollable spectrum of forces now giving an appearance of dominating events when in fact such institutions are incapable of doing more than reacting to them. All this, however worthy in themselves such initiatives may be, is beside the point. Our crisis is a crisis of power, of power deployed in such vast aggregates as to be out of control. The basic problem before us is how we are to subject it to forms of social control which will halt its current anarchy and enable us to survive.

The Real News

Nothing is journalistically easier today than to respond to the degradation of life in which all of us are enmeshed by extolling the virtues of organically grown, stoneground wheat bread, free range eggs, chemical-free farming, the beauties of bicycling as distinct from the mordancies of mass motoring, the need to preserve and promote localised culture, to have a proper regard for the ozone layer and so on and so on. Engagement on such issues helps to mark us out as people who have woken up and are aware that they constitute the real news of what is happening in the world today.

But unless we see them in context, in context of the crisis of power which is generating these and many more problems, we are failing to do justice to the needs of the hour and we may well discover our campaigning is little more than a means of letting off steam, an emotionally motivated cop-out which ultimately negates our work because we are not confronting the power realities which are prompting the problems in the first place.

The alternative movement is a portmanteau word embracing perhaps the entire spectrum of people seeking to grapple with the crisis factors now confronting us and it must be said that collectively its most important achievement lies in the way it has generated a deep change of consciousness and made people generally more aware of our looming dangers.

Seeking Change

Yet it must also be said that there is a general failure for its concerns to resonate with the generality of people, people by the million who opt for private motoring (they will even motor to their church services!), who shop at huge supermarkets owned by global boardrooms, who feed themselves with tarted-up, adulterated and chemicalised foodstuffs, who want more motorways, theme parks, golf courses and caravan sites, who believe rival claques of professional power-seekers represent a genuine choice in democratic politics, who ignore the revolutionary attrition of local forms of government as they are swallowed up in the increasing maw of central power, who spend hours reading newspapers or looking at TV screens being doped with propaganda and being fed with material the content of which they have not the least power to determine, who are gullible enough to swallow the well-funded duplicity of the Europlot and so on and so on.

People who seek change surely need a theory of change to explain why it is necessary, where we ought to be going and what we ought to do; but where is that theory in power relationships which will prompt such change? Which will reverbate by that mysterious osmotic process which is the life force itself and the instinct for survival which serves it?

The absence of such a theory is today our greatest lack, a theory which explains in power terms just how the global crisis has originated, how we have become disempowered creatures of it and how we may re-empower ourselves in order to grapple with it effectively. To be clear in our heads on all this would enable us to see all the ensuing problems of the abuse of power in perspective and to give us an indispensable basis on which to roll back the tide of that abuse.

The Road to Dictatorship

This is why the factor of scale, especially as spelt out by Schumacher, Kohl, Illich, Roszak, Sale and others, is of such cardinal concern and why attempts to remedy particular abuses without reference to their work is all too likely to arrive at a dead end even as the broad, human-scale highway never ceases to beckon us.

When the history of our era comes to be viewed in its true perspective it is surely this factor of power, of power out of control and running amok, which will be seen as its salient characteristic. The First World War was a social disaster of unmitigated magnitude. Nations of Europe which centuries earlier had scaled heights of civilised magnificence unknown to any former age were reduced to massacring and maiming each other's citizens by the million! (And the organised religious leaders of the time could find no better employment than to endorse this manic ferocity and to egg their followers on to greater efforts of murderously destructive imbecility.)

The real lesson of that catastrophe, which has pulled the plug out of western civilisation, a lesson still waiting in the wings to be acknowledged, was that our societies and all the power that they had come to embody, were out of control. Their economic activities were out of control, their social systems were out of control, their political structures were out of control, their propensity for violence, for ecological and demographic excess was out of control and the morally and socially debilitated structures that prevailed after that monstrous bout of futile blood-letting proceeded to manifest the unspeakable monstrosities of the Stalinist and Hitlerian dictatorships with all the horrors of the labour and slave camps, the gulags and the Auschwitzes and Belsens which marked the next phase of human degradation.

A residue of the civilised heritage of former times was able to put an end to the more disgusting of these manifestations, but only to embark on more sophisticated degrees of moral affront in the form of a depraved inflation of the propensity to consume, to ravage and to destroy, so that it was the planet itself which became subjected to those out-of-control forces.

Today, it is not simply human life, it is the biological capacity of the planet to sustain any higher forms of life at all which is now under threat, for an economics-out-control which programmes with increasing imbecility a constantly increasing prodigality of consumption excess (all in the name of 'growth') whilst showing itself powerless to observe the most elementary degrees of restraint or even of economic justice, a failure condemning millions to starve or eke out a beggarly existence, is but the first round of a disposition for excess which can only result in civicide.

African Turmoil

For what else can ensue from such an assault on the dynamic biological balance of the planet, which renders millions imiserated, but increasingly despotic and immoral measures of political dominance to counter the massive populist protests which must ensue?

If we want to dip into the future as far as human eye can see we have no need to adopt the role of futurists, for the future of Europe, the USA and other areas where 'consumerism' has taken hold is already writ large in what is happening today from one end of the African continent to the other. Unless we change our ways the Africa of today is the world of tomorrow.

At present the peoples of the materially affluent world are being cushioned from reality here by the mere fact of affluence (for some).

Confronting Reality

But the foundations of that affluence are simply non-existent, it is a sugar-coated mirage in which the sugar is already dissolving as poverty, crime, drug addiction, financial chicanery and political depravity, to say nothing of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, increasingly dominate the lives of millions, despite the fact that the productive capacity of technology to lighten the load of labour and to ensure enough for all has never been greater.

To assume that these problems can be resolved by engaging in the mass electoral antics of the machine politics which have done so much to enslave and deprave is simply to confess to an inability to confront reality and accentuate the degree of mischief already lowering upon us.

The crisis of giant power of many kinds now out of control can only be answered by the deliberate localisation of power in people's hands at the level of the human scale neighbourhood or village where such control can be exercised. A whole new world of sanity, light and decency is waiting to be born and human striving, if the human adventure is not to be altogether eclipsed by greed and political opportunism on a mass scale, must make this alternative its most immediate priority.

John Papworth, Fourth World Review No. 79, 1996

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