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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Long Descent

I’ve been quiet because I’ve been reading two books which, in different ways, expose the fragility of the world around us; and the theories and images so many people use to sustain their belief that, ultimately, the world is a benign place which can be controlled to ensure the continuation of the way of life portrayed in advertisements.
The first was The Long Descent – a user’s guide to the end of the industrial world which appeared in 2008. The book positions itself in the tradition of the 1972 Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" and argues that the window of opportunity we had then to take action is closed; that. as fossil fuel production dwindles, the Industrial Age will gradually unravel, leaving humanity where it was about 200 years ago. The "gradual" part is one of the author’s distinctive arguments. As supplies contract, he argues, we'll scale back. Prices then go down, and we begin to use more...resources run low and prices spike...so we scale back again, over and over until we are finally, hundreds of years from now, de-Industrialized. We will then rebuild society in a sustainable fashion. As he rightly observes
Most people in the developed world have never had to feed, clothe, house, or protect themselves with their own hands, and have only the vaguest notions about how to do so. They rely for every necessity of life on the industrial economy. Even the most basic requirements of life are tied to the industrial system; how many people nowadays can light a fire without matches or a butane lighter from some distant factory? The skills necessary to get by in a non-industrial society, skills that were still common knowledge a century ago, have been all but lost throughout the developed world.This disastrous situation results from the modern obsession with progress. When a new technology is introduced, the older technology it replaces ends up in the trash heap. Since new technologies almost always demand more resources, use more energy, and include more complexity than their older equivalents, each step on the path of progress has made people more dependent on the industrial system and more vulnerable to its collapse
You can see him presenting his ideas here (don't be put off by his appearance - his arguments are more sound than any in the mainstream) and read his weekly essays on his blog. One of his posts has an interesting reading list. The book complements Orlov's which I wrote about last September here and here.
I remember, forty years ago, being impressed with EJ Mishan's powerful attack on the worship of "growth" which seemed to have become Europe's new religion - The Costs of Economic growth (1967). The books's emphasis was on the social costs of wealth. Then came the environmental critique - the damage we were doing to ecological balance - with a lot of talk about (but little support for) "renewables". Latterly have come the peak-oil arguments which, at last, are recognised and clearly speak more loudly than the first two sets of arguments. The new wave of books such as Greer and Orlov basically argue that it is now too late for political action (as well as being unrealistic to expect it); that "renewables" have been over-hyped; and that we need to prepare individually and at a local level for a new type of living.

The second book was McMafia – crime without frontiers which destroys the illusion that anyone may have had that the mob, triad and Mafia-type operations are a thing of the past. It demonstrates that they are stronger than ever and traces the modern spread of transnational crime to the combination of the break-up of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc in the late Eighties and early Nineties and the simultaneous deregulation of global markets. The link I have given above is a 20 minute presentation Misha Glenny (an expert on the Balkans) gave in 2009 about the book. There are longer presentations here and here 
The Soviet bloc incubated such favourable conditions for the development of criminal motivation and expertise. In Bulgaria, for example, the secret service played a key role in arms and drugs smuggling during the communist period. According to Glenny, 80 per cent of western Europe's heroin went through the sticky hands of the Bulgarian DS (equivalent of the KGB). At the same time, the communist system created a management class steeped in corrupt practices. When communism fell, there were suddenly thousands of unemployed cops and spooks in Bulgaria with first-hand experience of international crime. And there were also a great many wrestlers and weightlifters, pumped-up on state-issued steroids, who would make for ideal muscle in the protection rackets that quickly sprung up. Drugs, prostitution, car theft, money laundering and extortion followed on an industrial scale.
The book starts with 2 assassinations – one in a London suburb in 1994 of an innocent woman, the other in central Sofia in 2003 of a gang boss, Ilya Pavlov, one of many characters profiled in the book, revealing the intertwining of crime, government and security in a growing number of countries. Another review explains
- a former wrestler who married the daughter of a high-ranking secret police officer, Pavlov began his career as a small-time thug. In the 1990s, the combination of a collapsing state, unregulated markets, and lawlessness created enormous opportunities, which he exploited with entrepreneurial zest and murderous violence. Misha Glenny explains that in less than a decade, Pavlov had created a conglomerate that spanned many sectors (extortion, prostitution, smuggling, drug trafficking, car theft, and money laundering) and many countries, including the United States, where his subsidiary Multigroup U.S. owned two casinos in Paraguay, then the Latin American epicentre of the illicit trades (since displaced by Venezuela). By describing the thousands of mourners who attended Pavlov's funeral in 2003, Glenny conveys how deeply entangled his criminal enterprise was with Bulgaria's power elite. Everyone who mattered in business, politics, government, trade unions, sports, religion, the media, or the military seemed to be there.
Neal Ascherson’s review brings out well one of Glenny’s underlying points - “Mobs, mafias and global rackets are often performing useful and occasionally vital social functions that no other institution – governments, legal systems, the police, the economy itself – is capable of providing”.
The state had almost given up law enforcement, and organised crime stepped into the gap. In Russia, criminal outfits like the mighty Solntsevo Brotherhood, led by the ex-wrestler Mikhailov, not only provided bodyguards but also took on the enforcement of commercial contracts.In the courtyard of Steam Baths Number Four, on Astashkina Street in Odessa, there are two marble plaques with bunches of flowers laid on the ground beneath them. The first is engraved with the image of a man in his mid-forties, sporting cropped hair and looking sleek in a suit over a T-shirt; the second has on it a poem written by his closest friends after he, Viktor Kulivar ‘Karabas’, was felled on this spot by 19 bullets from an unknown assassin’s semi-automatic: ‘The sacred clay holds the remains/Of Viktor Pavlovich, our dear Karabas’.Karabas was gunned down in 1997. He and his mob had taken over the port city of Odessa as law and order disintegrated in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. One might call his reign a comprehensive protection racket. But, looked at in another way, Karabas became the only reliable source of authority and social discipline. He arbitrated the city’s commercial disputes (10 per cent of net profits was his price); he kept the drug peddlers to one area of Odessa, and prevented the horrific people-smuggling in the harbour district from infecting the rest of the town. Using a bare minimum of thuggery, he kept the peace. Karabas seldom carried a gun. Everyone looked up to him, and levels of violence stayed lower in Odessa than in other Russian and Ukrainian cities. His murderers were probably Chechens hired to break Odessa’s grip on the local oil industry, a grip coveted by Ukraine’s then president, Leonid Kuchma, who ‘during his ten years in power . . . presided over the total criminalisation of the Ukrainian government and civil service’.
Glenny is particularly strong on the bizarre economic liberalisation that took place under Boris Yeltsin and which produced the bloody reign of the oligarchs in the early Nineties. All price restrictions were removed by government, except those of Russia's natural resources: oil, gas, diamonds and metals. Overnight, a vast number of Russians were impoverished, while a tiny minority was able to buy up vital commodities at up to 40 times less than their global market price. 'This process of enrichment,' Glenny writes, 'was quite simply the grandest larceny in history and stands no historical comparison.' In turn the oligarchs required protection, and jailbirds and former KGB agents alike moved into the lucrative if deadly business of the 'kryshy' protection rackets, or 'armed entrepreneurs'.
Nowadays, Glenny quotes a US official as saying, a Russian businessman is as likely to be a member of the intelligence services as a criminal cartel, and quite possibly to be part of both.
The effects of the Russian organised crime boom have been experienced as far afield as Tel Aviv and New York, and all parts of Europe (although Nigeria, Japan, Colombia and China and others all have their distinctive mobs). In this reading, the East is little more than an opportunistic supplier to the West's insatiable demand. 'Organised crime is such a rewarding industry,' writes Glenny scathingly, ' ... because ordinary Western Europeans spend an ever burgeoning amount of their spare time and money sleeping with prostitutes; smoking untaxed cigarettes; sticking €50 notes up their noses; employing illegal untaxed immigrant labour on subsistence wages; admiring ivory and sitting on teak; or purchasing the liver and kidneys of the desperately poor in the developing world.'

The painting is by Zlatyu Boiadjiev (1903-1976) - often known as the Bulgarian Breughel

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