A Social Revolution is taking us to the Edge of Civil War
We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.
― Clay Shirky
I was talking to some people a week ago about the times we live in. I wondered aloud if this is what the 1960’s felt like with societal upheaval seemingly everywhere. Are we in the midst of a similar level of upheaval that will leave a much different World in its wake? Looking at the World the signs of major change and the inevitable reaction to it are everywhere. The ubiquity of the Internet through mobile computing is changing society in a myriad of ways. Demographics are approaching tipping points while the inequality of wealth is at or over an economic tipping point. Open bigotry, racism and class struggle are erupting across the World. Fear mongering and demagoguery are the stock and trade of politicians seeking to benefit from the under-currents of discomfort. The populace is afraid and the political opportunists are poised to take advantage.
Terrorism and ISIS are simply symptoms of the times rather than driving forces. The same for the rise of right wing extremism in the United States (and Europe); it is a symptom of the times. They seem to be driving the issues and debate, but instead should be viewed as the most glaring evidence of the conflict poised to erupt. Both of these major problems are simply rather natural reactions to the upset of numerous equilibriums we once relied upon. Numerous forces have destabilized our society and reactionary movements are to be expected as a result.
Change is not what we expect from religious people. They tend to love the past more than the present or the future.
― Richard Rohr
My conclusion is that today’s World is in the midst of changes and conflict that may be larger, more dangerous and more pervasive than anything we have seen for centuries. The 1960’s were tranquil by comparison to the storm we are living through.
The essence of Conservatism is fear: fear of what is not understood, fear of change, fear of the new, fear of what’s different, fear of the other.
― Gene Pozniak
While the two symptoms would seem to be at odd with each other, they are actually allies, forces of conservatism trying to overthrow the vast changes pushing forth out of demographics, economics and technology. Both ISIS and right wing extremism have strong religious elements combined with a distain for the new, liberalism arising everywhere. The new societal structures emerging are terrifying to the traditional elements in society. Nothing spurs a conservative response like feminism, sexuality and gender. Both have elements of violence in their approach being pervasive with ISIS and still on the fringe with right wing extremists, but becoming more normative. While both use technology to varying degrees in furthering their cause ultimately technology is one of the elements driving these forces toward reactionary extremist views.
Through the open warfare conducted by the fearful right wing in the West and terrorism from the Islamic World, we see effective combat against the forces of change in society across the World. Whether it is directly through violence as with ISIS or the rise of the National Security state in the West, the open, pluralistic and secular society is driven back into the shadows. In many respects the impact of terrorism is similar to the military-law enforcement’s response to it; the freedom of the populations exposed to it is reduced. It acts to squash the liberalization of society by violence or the response to it. Fear of terrorism is the greatest impact of terrorism and its most powerful weapon. The right wing reactionary movements in the West act to empower terrorists by stoking the elements of fear in society. These right wing movements use fear to further their own goals for pushing back against secular elements.
When we change the way we communicate, we change society
― Clay Shirky
In this way ISIS and the right are allies. They both seek to drive social progress backwards and revert the rules of life back to the middle ages. They hate each other because of bigoted religious views held on both sides, but socially their aims are quite similar. Both seek to impose a religious rule at home and across the world largely in reaction to the discomfort arising from the vast changes in society that make them
uncomfortable. Religion in this case is simply a tool of the fearful to drive away the changes that drive their discomfort. Perhaps nothing stokes the fear of the reactionary elements like sex. Whether it is the empowerment of women in society toward equality, freedom of sexual expression, normalization of homosexuality, broader changes in the definition of marriage, or gender, these conservative elements respond with anger, violence and fear.
Our social tools are not an improvement to modern society, they are a challenge to it.
― Clay Shirky
Of course this societal Molotov’s cocktail is fueled by more than just sexuality; it has an economic element to push it over the top. We have an economic system that is near crisis. In the United States the inequality of wealth is near an all-time high. In the past this level of inequality preceded massive upheavals. Society stands on the brink of tumbling into despotic governance or rampant corruption if it isn’t already there. The rich know this and work actively to control the levers of power to hold onto and increase their ill-gotten wealth.
[N]ew technology enables new kinds of group-forming.
― Clay Shirky
In the Islamic World this sort of inequality is epidemic and provides a fertile breeding ground for the sort of political-religious extremism that ISIS is. Nothing would defuse this ticking time bomb better than economic equality and education. Ignorance and poverty are the fuel for the violent extremism we see. Moreover the United States in particular and the World in general is well on its way to creating the same elements with itself due to corrupt and incompetent governance. This volatile mixture is itself the recipe for revolution or societal free-fall, but even more problems contend to make these times uniquely dangerous.
How is the United States at once the most conservative and commercial AND the most revolutionary society on Earth?
― Christopher Hitchens
Technology allows new things to happen, new ways of communicating, and new ways of living, and new ways of working. Each of these threatens the status quo and stokes discomfort especially among those not ready for change. In many respects technology has the impact of enabling the inequality to grow, but also democratize the masses and allow liberalization of many social norms. The rich and powerful have the advantage of training and education, buying technology, but have the disadvantage of being conservative and not accepting changes. The key to the discussion is the ubiquity of the technology’s capacity to create the environment for change and the threat it poses to the foundation of our lives.
One of the biggest changes in our society is the shift from prevention to reaction…
― Clay Shirky
This has played out in the Arab spring. Social media played a role in powering a popular uprising only to see much of the progress undone by reactionary counter-movements. To a large respect the cancer that is ISIS arose from this environment. Just as ISIS uses social media to spread its message, the populist movements similarly utilize this means to boost their power base. While the use of social media by ISIS is disquieting, the power of social media is strongly slanted towards being a force for liberalizing social structures across the World. To win the fight against forces like ISIS we must simply have faith that the force of light and good are stronger than the dark. Social media is like everything in humanity; it can be used for good or evil to equal measures. Those who would destroy its power because of fear act in a manner that makes them evil. The fear used and powering the right wing reactionary movement is itself an evil that must be defeated.
Collaboration is not an absolute good.
― Clay Shirky
The final element is this recipe for crisis is environmental danger. There is a combination of issues that will produce tremendous opportunities for warfare, violence and chaos. Climate change is an active element in producing and exaggerating economic and political problems Worldwide. Shortages of food, water and energy create wars and fuel elements of extremist movements. Every aspect of society that reacts poorly to social changes is driven further by environmental crises. Together these elements produce a deep well of danger for much of the World. At the same time we see the right wing reactionary apparatus is geared to denying the impact of environmental change. To a large degree this reaction is dominated by the business element’s desire to not kill the goose that is laying golden eggs.
What is changing in society? We are in the midst of massive changes in how our social structures work.
At the same time as this massive social change, we see economic conditions that are primed for conflict. The levels of inequality both nationally and internationally have evolved to a level that threatens the stability of society by themselves. We already dodged a bullet seven years ago when our financial system almost collapsed. We have done far to little to assure that the sort of bubble that created that problem cannot happen again. Instead we are primed for another crisis. In the United States the steady decline in the middle class is producing an increasingly stratified country. Levels of poverty are growing and the educational system that serves to buoy citizens against the downward forces is falling apart. The economic conditions produce a real source of fear and are useful for collecting people into fear-driven angry mobs.
The increasingly level of corpulent wealth among the rich is working to remove resources from society as a whole, and pitting the rich against the poor. The rich are growing in their ability to control the levers of political power primarily to attempt to stabilize the economic and legal systems in a manner that benefits the rich. The fear of change, terrorism and race is a perfect vehicle for the rich to exploit. All of these things create a recipe for an angry mob under the control of the rich and powerful. Right now the angry mob is supporting Donald Trump, and aren’t exactlyacting as the rich (aside from Trump) would like. The rich may get the last laugh and put one of their own puppets in control of the mob. Overall it is simply another element in looking toward a chaotic outcome.
The social fabric of society is also changing in ways that stoke the fears of the populace. Technology is changing how we interact with one another in a myriad of ways. Facebook is the simplest and perhaps most innocuous of these forces. Other aspects of the Internet and mobile apps have a greater degree of impact on society. Changes in how relationships form, develop and proceed are undergoing fundamental changes. The nature of the family unit, marriage and our basic identity as adults is evolving. Your tribe no longer depends upon locality, but now can form remotely and far more specifically a person’s interests and desired social niche.
The deepest penetration of this change has been seen in the societal adoption of gay marriage, but it is the tip of a societal iceberg. It is driven by a massive change in societal comfort with homosexuality. Almost everyone now knows an openly gay person, and sees them as someone who needs their rights to be respected. Beyond gay marriage movements are afoot to normalize polyamourous relationships, open marriage, and other forms of family and relationship dynamics. Online and mobile communication allows new communities to form without intersecting with traditional mediums of social structure.
Sexual freedom that provided one of the key elements for the 1960’s is undergoing a new renaissance revolving around mobile computing. Mobile apps and new forms of dating like Tinder, OKCupid are the most innocuous forms for these changes in the relationship landscape. The forces of conservatism are horrified and fearful of these changes, and are mobilizing to push back against them. All of this is ripe for deep and wrenching conflict on new social battlefields. Just as the forces of liberalization utilize modern technology, the forces arrayed against changes organize themselves with modern technology too (ISIS is an example!).
All of this comes together to challenge the traditional views of what constitutes moral behavior. Discussions of morality become the fuel for the right wing reactionary movements. This produces a deep societal tension between those who are freed by personal prisons through liberalization of morality and those whose power is magnified by the older moral norms. LBGT issues are a common lightning rod for polarization of the two sides of the equation. While LBGT is the epitome of the tensions around morality, it is the tip of the iceberg. All the elements in the modern World conspire to create quantries to be solved and challenges to traditional morality.
In the United States and Europe right wing extremism is a reaction to all of the change. There is a pervasive social, religious and racial basis to these reactionary movements. They are responding to all of the changes seen across society at large. The combination of quickly growing minority populations in Europe and the impending minority majority in the United States has the traditional white majorities terrified. The combination of gender, sexual and social changes in the structure of families and relationships are furthering the depth of fear of change. All of this is driven by a combination of demographic shifts, technology and generational changes that are inevitable. This does not mean that the forces of status quo will not fight back. The resistance to change will be mighty and the potential for violence is rather extreme.
ISIS is another reactionary force. It is a reaction to a broad based economic deprivation and widespread corruption in the Islamic World. Of course the West has had a hand in creating the elements in Islamic society that have produced ISIS. The form of extreme religious views is simply a detail, not the core of the problem. ISIS is not an Islamic movement; it is driven by large scale poverty, lack of opportunity and powerless masses. It derives its power and manpower base from the millions of poor, uneducated and desperate masses in the Islamic World. The elements of religious extremism play to lack of economic power and uneducated populace whether it is Islamic or Christian.
The irony of ISIS is how alike the American and European right wing movements they are. They should be allies and thankfully they cannot be. The truth is that the right wing movements in the West help ISIS with every bomb they drop and every right they suppress. The liberalization of the West is the single greatest weapon against ISIS. Feminism, secular society, mass media and sexuality all work to undermine the right wing whether it is Christian-based or Islamic. Our movies, television, Facebook and yes our porn all work to hurt ISIS. When the right wing religious zealots in the West attack any of these liberal forces, they help ISIS. The right wing in the West would like to unplug everything that would act to undermine ISIS.
Change is here; change is upon us. There is no going back, but there is going to be deep conflict around all these beachheads. The forces of inequality and traditional society will not go away quietly. Traditional religion, gender, family and inequality will not relinquish their power without a fight. The changes in society are giving power to the disenfranchised, and they will not go back into the shadows without a fight either. This is a recipe for conflict, warfare and perhaps even revolution. We may be set for a period of change in society that will make the 1960’s look like a peaceful serene episode in history.
This creates the recipe for war.
Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.
― Albert Camus