The Dark Enlightenment (Part 4e)

Cross-coded history

Democracy is the opposite of freedom, almost inherent to the democratic process is that it tends towards less liberty instead of more, and democracy is not something to be fixed. Democracy is inherently broken, just like socialism. The only way to fix it is to break it up. Frank Karsten

Historian (mainly of science) Doug Fosnow called for the USA’s “red” counties to secede from the “blue” ones, forming a new federation. This was greeted with much skepticism by the audience, who noted that the “red” federation would get practically no seacoast. Did Doug really think such a secession was likely to happen? No, he admitted cheerfully, but anything would be better than the race war he does think is likely to happen, and it is intellectuals’ duty to come up with less horrific possibilities.John Derbyshire

Thus, rather than by means of a top-down reform, under the current conditions, one’s strategy must be one of a bottom-up revolution. At first, the realization of this insight would seem to make the task of a liberal-libertarian social revolution impossible, for does this not imply that one would have to persuade a majority of the public to vote for the abolition of democracy and an end to all taxes and legislation? And is this not sheer fantasy, given that the masses are always dull and indolent, and even more so given that democracy, as explained above, promotes moral and intellectual degeneration? How in the world can anyone expect that a majority of an increasingly degenerate people accustomed to the “right” to vote should ever voluntarily renounce the opportunity of looting other people’s property? Put this way, one must admit that the prospect of a social revolution must indeed be regarded as virtually nil. Rather, it is only on second thought, upon regarding secession as an integral part of any bottom-up strategy, that the task of a liberal-libertarian revolution appears less than impossible, even if it still remains a daunting one. – Hans-Hermann Hoppe

Conceived generically, modernity is a social condition defined by an integral trend, summarized as sustained economic growth rates that exceed population increases, and thus mark an escape from normal history, caged within the Malthusian trap. When, in the interest of dispassionate appraisal, analysis is restricted to the terms of this basic quantitative pattern, it supports sub-division into the (growth) positive and negative components of the trend: techno-industrial (scientific and commercial) contributions to accelerating development on the one hand, and socio-political counter-tendencies towards the capture of economic product by democratically empowered rent-seeking special interests on the other (demosclerosis). What classical liberalism gives (industrial revolution) mature liberalism takes away (via the cancerous entitlement state). In abstract geometry, it describes an S-curve of self-limiting runaway. As a drama of liberation, it is a broken promise.

Conceived particularly, as a singularity, or real thing, modernity has ethno-geographical characteristics that complicate and qualify its mathematical purity. It came from somewhere, imposed itself more widely, and brought the world’s various peoples into an extraordinary range of novel relations. These relations were characteristically ‘modern’ if they involved an overflowing of previous Malthusian limits, enabling capital accumulation, and initiating new demographic trends, but they conjoined concrete groups rather than abstract economic functions. At least in appearance, therefore, modernity was something done by people of a certain kind with, and not uncommonly to (or even against), other people, who were conspicuously unlike them. By the time it was faltering on the fading slope of the S-curve, in the early 20th century, resistance to its generic features (‘capitalistic alienation’) had become almost entirely indistinguishable from opposition to its particularity (‘European imperialism’ and ‘white supremacy’). As an inevitable consequence, the modernistic self-consciousness of the system’s ethno-geographical core slid towards racial panic, in a process that was only arrested by the rise and immolation of the Third Reich.

Given modernity’s inherent trend to degeneration or self-cancellation, three broad prospects open. These are not strictly exclusive, and are therefore not true alternatives, but for schematic purposes it is helpful to present them as such.

(1) Modernity 2.0. Global modernization is re-invigorated from a new ethno-geographical core, liberated from the degenerate structures of its Eurocentric predecessor, but no doubt confronting long range trends of an equally mortuary character. This is by far the most encouraging and plausible scenario (from a pro-modernist perspective), and if China remains even approximately on its current track it will be assuredly realized. (India, sadly, seems to be too far gone in its native version of demosclerosis to seriously compete.)

(2) Postmodernity. Amounting essentially to a new dark age, in which Malthusian limits brutally re-impose themselves, this scenario assumes that Modernity 1.0 has so radically globalized its own morbidity that the entire future of the world collapses around it. If the Cathedral ‘wins’ this is what we have coming.

(3) Western Renaissance. To be reborn it is first necessary to die, so the harder the ‘hard reboot’ the better. Comprehensive crisis and disintegration offers the best odds (most realistically as a sub-theme of option #1).

Because competition is good, a pinch of Western Renaissance would spice things up, even if – as is overwhelmingly probable — Modernity 2.0 is the world’s principal highway to the future. That depends upon the West stopping and reversing pretty much everything it has been doing for over a century, excepting only scientific, technological, and business innovation. It is advisable to maintain rhetorical discipline within a strictly hypothetical mode, because the possibility of any of these things is deeply colored by incredibility:

(1) Replacement of representational democracy by constitutional republicanism (or still more extreme anti-political governmental mechanisms).

(2) Massive downsizing of government and its rigorous confinement to core functions (at most).

(3) Restoration of hard money (precious metal coins and bullion deposit notes) and abolition of central banking.

(4) Dismantling of state monetary and fiscal discretion, thus abolishing practical macroeconomics and liberating the autonomous (or ‘catallactic’) economy. (This point is redundant, since it follows rigorously from 2 & 3 above, but it’s the real prize, so worth emphasizing.)

There’s more – which is to say, less politics – but it’s already absolutely clear that none of this is going to happen short of an existential civilizational cataclysm. Asking politicians to limit their own powers is a non-starter, but nothing less heads even remotely in the right direction. This, however, isn’t even the widest or deepest problem.

Democracy might begin as a defensible procedural mechanism for limiting government power, but it quickly and inexorably develops into something quite different: a culture of systematic thievery. As soon as politicians have learnt to buy political support from the ‘public purse’, and conditioned electorates to embrace looting and bribery, the democratic process reduces itself to the formation of (Mancur Olson’s) ‘distributional coalitions’ – electoral majorities mortared together by common interest in a collectively advantageous pattern of theft. Worse still, since people are, on average, not very bright, the scale of depredation available to the political establishment far exceeds even the demented sacking that is open to public scrutiny. Looting the future, through currency debauchment, debt accumulation, growth destruction, and techno-industrial retardation is especially easy to conceal, and thus reliably popular. Democracy is essentially tragic because it provides the populace with a weapon to destroy itself, one that is always eagerly seized, and used. Nobody ever says ‘no’ to free stuff. Scarcely anybody even sees that there is no free stuff. Utter cultural ruination is the necessary conclusion.

Within the final phase of Modernity 1.0, American history becomes the master narrative of the world. It is there that the great Abrahamic cultural conveyor culminates in the secularized neo-puritanism of the Cathedral, as it establishes the New Jerusalem in Washington DC. The apparatus of Messianic-revolutionary purpose is consolidated in the evangelical state, which is authorized by any means necessary to install a new world order of universal fraternity, in the name of equality, human rights, social justice, and – above all – democracy. The absolute moral confidence of the Cathedral underwrites the enthusiastic pursuit of unrestrained centralized power, optimally unlimited in its intensive penetration and its extensive scope.

With an irony altogether hidden from the witch-burners’ spawn themselves, the ascent of this squinting cohort of grim moral fanatics to previously unscaled heights of global power coincides with the descent of mass-democracy to previously unimagined depths of gluttonous corruption. Every five years America steals itself from itself again, and fences itself back in exchange for political support. This democracy thing is easy – you just vote for the guy who promises you the most stuff. An idiot could do it. Actually, it likes idiots, treats them with apparent kindness, and does everything it can to manufacture more of them.

Democracy’s relentless trend to degeneration presents an implicit case for reaction. Since every major threshold of socio-political ‘progress’ has ratcheted Western civilization towards comprehensive ruin, a retracing of its steps suggests a reversion from the society of pillage to an older order of self-reliance, honest industry and exchange, pre-propagandistic learning, and civic self-organization. The attractions of this reactionary vision are evidenced by the vogue for 18th century attire, symbols, and constitutional documents among the substantial (Tea Party) minority who clearly see the disastrous course of American political history.

Has the ‘race’ alarm sounded in your head yet? It would be amazing if it hadn’t. Stagger back in imagination before 2008, and the fraught whisper of conscience is already questioning your prejudices against Kenyan revolutionaries and black Marxist professors. Remain in reverse until the Great Society / Civil Rights era and the warnings reach hysterical pitch. It’s perfectly obvious by this point that American political history has progressed along twin, interlocking tracks, corresponding to the capacity and the legitimation of the state. To cast doubt upon its scale and scope is to simultaneously dispute the sanctity of its purpose, and the moral-spiritual necessity that it command whatever resources, and impose whatever legal restraints, may be required to effectively fulfill it. More specifically, to recoil from the magnitude of Leviathan is to demonstrate insensitivity to the immensity – indeed, near infinity – of inherited racial guilt, and the sole surviving categorical imperative of senescent modernity – government needs to do more. The possibility, indeed near certainty, that the pathological consequences of chronic government activism have long ago supplanted the problems they originally targeted, is a contention so utterly maladapted to the epoch of democratic religion that its practical insignificance is assured.

Even on the left, it would be extraordinary to find many who genuinely believe, after sustained reflection, that the primary driver of government expansion and centralization has been the burning desire to do good (not that intentions matter). Yet, as the twin tracks cross, such is the electric jolt of moral drama, leaping the gap from racial Golgotha to intrusive Leviathan, that skepticism is suspended, and the great progressive myth installed. The alternative to more government, doing ever more, was to stand there, negligently, whilst they lynched another Negro. This proposition contains the entire essential content of American progressive education.

The twin historical tracks of state capability and purpose can be conceived as a translation protocol, enabling any recommended restraint upon government power to be ‘decoded’ as malign obstruction of racial justice. This system of substitutions functions so smoothly that it provides an entire vocabulary of (bipartisan) ‘code-words’ or ‘dog-whistles’ – ‘welfare’, ‘freedom of association’, ‘states rights’ – ensuring that any intelligible utterance on the Principal (left-right) Political Dimension occupies a double registry, semi-saturated by racial evocations. Reactionary regression smells of strange fruit.

… and that is before backing out of the calamitous 20th century. It was not the Civil Rights Era, but the ‘American Civil War’ (in the terms of the victors) or ‘War between the States’ (in those of the vanquished) that first indissolubly cross-coded the practical question of Leviathan with (black/white) racial dialectics, laying down the central junction yard of subsequent political antagonism and rhetoric. The indispensable primary step in comprehending this fatality snakes along an awkward diagonal between mainstream statist and revisionist accounts, because the conflagration that consumed the American nation in the early 1860s was wholly but non-exclusively about emancipation from slavery and about states rights, with neither ‘cause’ reducible to the other, or sufficient to suppress the war’s enduring ambiguities. Whilst there are any number of ‘liberals’ happy to celebrate the consolidation of centralized government power in the triumphant Union, and, symmetrically, a (far smaller) number of neo-confederate apologists for the institution of chattel slavery in the southern states, neither of these unconflicted stances capture the dynamic cultural legacy of a war across the codes.

The war is a knot. By practically dissociating liberty into emancipation and independence, then hurling each against the other in a half-decade of carnage, blue against gray, it was settled that freedom would be broken on the battlefield, whatever the outcome of the conflict. Union victory determined that the emancipatory sense of liberty would prevail, not only in America, but throughout the world, and the eventual reign of the Cathedral was assured. Nevertheless, the crushing of American’s second war of secession made a mockery of the first. If the institution of slavery de-legitimated a war of independence, what survived of 1776? The moral coherence of the Union cause required that the founders were reconceived as politically illegitimate white patriarchal slave-owners, and American history combusted in progressive education and the culture wars.

If independence is the ideology of slave-holders, emancipation requires the programmatic destruction of independence. Within a cross-coded history, the realization of freedom is indistinguishable from its abolition.


Re-Animator (Part 3)

What makes a great city?

By far the most interesting element of World Expo 2010: Shanghai, was Shanghai. Whilst deeply-rooted regional traditions of courtesy sustained the fiction that this World Fair was about the world, it really wasn’t. Whatever the diplomatic benefits of the almost universally convenient internationalist pretense, to China and Expo’s foreign participants alike, Expo 2010 was about Shanghai, and for Shanghai. The Expo was global because Shanghai is, it was about China because Shanghai is China’s gateway to the world, it was about cities in order to be even more about Shanghai, nobody uninterested in Shanghai paid it the slightest attention, and Shanghai used it to restructure, intensify, and promote itself.

Expo as an institution was in decline before 2010, and continues to decline. Shanghai was rising before 2010, and continues to rise, but now infrastructurally upgraded, thoroughly renovated, and decorated with the historical merit-badge of Expo hospitality. Better City, Better Life, a typically airy and aspirational Expo theme, is a cold-sober description of the Expo-effect in Shanghai.

Cities are, in certain important respects, generic. There is such a thing as ‘the city in general’ as the work of Geoffrey West, in particular, has demonstrated. We know, thanks to West, that cities are negative organisms, with consistent scaling characteristics that structurally differentiate them from animals and corporations. As they grow they accelerate and intensify at a quantifiable and predictable rate, exhibiting increasing returns to scale (in sharp contrast to animals and businesses, which slow down in proportion to their size). Organisms and firms die normally and by necessity, cities only rarely and by accident.

Cities belong to a real genre, but they are also singularities, undergoing spontaneous individuation. In fact, they are generically singular – singular without exception – like black holes. It is not only that no city is like another, no city can be like another, and this is a feature that all cities share, arguably more than any other.

Beyond such generic singularity, there is an additional level of enhanced differentiation that emerges from the position cities occupy within larger systems. These systems are not only internally specialized, but also hierarchical, dividing core from periphery, and distributing influence unevenly between them. Ultimately, within the fully global incarnation of the ‘world system’, cities acquire secondary metropolitan characteristics, to very different degrees, in accordance with their geographical and functional proximity to the center of the world. They transcend their local histories, to become hubs or nodes in a global network that re-characterizes them as parts of a whole rather than wholes made of parts, as metropolis-versus-periphery rather than (or on top of) metropolis-versus-town.

The geographical structure and historical instability of modernity’s core-periphery architecture has been the focus of the ‘world system theory’ developed from the Annales School of Fernand Braudel (1902-85) by Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-) and – most impressively — Giovanni Arrighi (1937-2009). According to the world system theorists, the revolutions that matter most are not national regime changes, such as those in France (1789) and Russia (1917), but rather global re-organizations that mark out the basic phases of modern history, jolting the world into new core-periphery structures. Modernity has undergone four of these shifts up to the present, with each phase lasting for a ‘long century’, introducing a new core state, or hegemon, with enhanced capabilities, and a new urban center – successively, Venice, Amsterdam, London, and New York – that operate as an effective capital of the world.

As the example of New York attests, this status is not primarily political. Nor does prominence in manufacturing seem to be a relevant factor (the ‘world capital’ has never been the dominant industrial center of its respective region or state). Over the course of modern history to date, the crucial features of the world capital seem to be that it is the largest urban agglomeration in the leading (‘hegemonic’) region or state; that it is an established financial center that quite rapidly attains a position of global pre-eminence in this respect; that it is an open port city with clear maritime orientation; and that it has an exceptionally internationalized demographic profile, with a large segment of internationally-mobile, opportunistic residents. A significant period of leadership in the creative arts might plausibly be added to this list. Functionally, the world capital serves as the supreme nerve-center of the global economy, specialized nationally, and then super-specialized internationally, as the financial, logistics, and business services hub of a system whose global integrity is reflected in the city’s privileged singularity.

The exceptional drama of our age lies in its nature as a time of transition between phases of modernity, somewhere in the winter of a long century, when an epoch of hegemony is exhausted. More specifically, the walls are closing in on the American Age, as commentators of almost every intellectual and ideological stripe are increasingly aware. Overstretched, essentially bankrupted, politically paralyzed and disillusioned, America sinks into self-conscious crisis, its mood dark and clouded. It would be a mistake to limit attention to America, however, because the crisis is world-systemic, heralding the end of an international order that arose among the chaos of the world wars and achieved definition in the post-WWII United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions (IMF, World Bank, and the descendent of GATT, now the WTO). It affects not only the role of the US dollar as international reserve currency, an Atlantic-centered NATO and an Occidentally-skewed UN apparatus, but also the European Union, the post-colonial Middle Eastern state-system and (very) much else besides.

Over the next two decades, under the impact of economic forces of extreme profundity (far exceeding the responsive capacity of existing institutions), a revolutionary re-ordering of the world can be expected to unfold. If America succeeds in maintaining its position of leadership within the global system for a period that significantly exceeds the long 20th century (which began no earlier than 1914, and thus might be expected to persist for some additional years), it will have broken a pattern that has remained consistent throughout a half-millennium of history. Whilst not strictly impossible, perpetuation of the present hegemonic order would be, quite literally, a stretch.

Another vision of a break from historical precedent, this time transparently utopian, envisages – rather than the continuation of US pre-eminence — the obsolescence of the core-periphery global structure in its entirety, ending hierarchical geography and hegemony in general. Even If such a vision truly rises to the level of a definite expectation (rather than a nebulous exercise in wishful thinking), it remains ungrounded in reliable historical and theoretical foundations. Altruistic political intentions – were such ever credible – would still be quite insufficient to overcome the spontaneous, dynamic trend to approximate world systemic equilibrium, in which a core zone, and its metropolitan capital, are automatically nominated, by diffuse economic currents searching for a central clearing house.

Whilst no doubt deeply disappointing to utopian eschatology, and to all dreams of historical conclusion (or passage to the promised land), phase-shifts in the world-system are less ominous than they are often depicted as being. Among Arrighi’s most important insights is the reminder that whenever an attempted reconstruction of the world order has been based upon a frontal military and geo-strategic challenge to the hegemon, it has failed. This is exemplified, above all, by the German and Russian histories of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which repeated direct confrontations with the established Anglophone-dominated international system led only to frustration, regime collapse, and subaltern re-integration.

Perhaps ironically, a marked subjective aversion to hard power assertion and the assumption of hegemony can be quite reliably taken as a positive indicator for the objective emergence of hegemonic status. Holland, Great Britain, and the United States of America were all, in certain crucial respects, accidental imperialists, whose successive ascents to world dominance shared a prioritization of commercial motives, retarded state involvement, strong ‘isolationist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ cultural currents, and a determined avoidance of ‘Clauswitzean’ decisive collision (especially with the prior hegemon). The British and American ways of war, in particular, are notable for their common emphasis upon hedging and triangulation, such as the exploitation of offshore position and maritime supremacy to avoid premature entanglement in high intensity ‘continental’ conflicts, the usage of financial and logistic capability to manipulate conflicts at a distance, and the diplomatic inclusion of defeated adversaries in reconstructed, poly-centric, ‘balanced’ systems of power. Hegemony was, in each case, peacefully inherited, even when it was cemented by war (in partnership with the previous hegemon) and later gave rise to opportunities for increasingly aggressive imperialistic adventurism.

Given this broadly uncontroversial historical pattern, it is all the more surprising that the German example is so widely invoked in discussions of China’s ‘peaceful rise’. In fact, China’s ascent has stuck far closer to the model of hegemonic hand-overs than to that of confrontational challenges, as indicated by the prioritization of commercial development, the highly cooperative (even synergistic or ‘Chimerican’) relationship with the prevailing hegemon, the gradual accumulation of financial power by way of spontaneous, systemic re-distribution, and the equally gradual consolidation of maritime interests, emerging out of the global trading system, which draw the focus of government strategic policy – perhaps reluctantly – from domestic concerns out into the high-seas.

Historically, China has been far more a continental than a maritime power, and this fact provides the single most persuasive objection to the assumption of an impending Chinese (Long) Century. The emergence of a continental world system core would be as decisive a departure from precedent as any yet discussed, and if such a possibility is entertained, disciplined prediction falters. If inverted, however, this problem becomes a forecast in itself: the trajectory of China’s rise necessarily implies its transformation into a maritime power (an insight already tacit in the controversial 1988 Chinese TV series River Elegy).

A vague intuition, partially but elusively crystallized by Expo 2010, is now precipitated by sheer historical pattern-recognition into the form of an explicit question:

Is Shanghai destined to become the capital of the world?
(Part 4 to come)


Re-Animator (Part 2)

Expo transformers – the uninvited guests

What was inside the UK national pavilion at Expo 2010? Did anyone get in there? Maybe they could pass on the inside dope? Because one thing is for sure, if ‘Anglosphere’ cultural resonances mean anything, expectations can be pitched down to sub-basement levels. Like the UK, Australia did a good — even excellent job – with the outside of its pavilion, but its exhibition was, to be brutally frank, a disgrace. Vacuous, patronizing, revoltingly sentimental, and despicably cowardly – details would be nice, of course, but actually there weren’t any — it served to perfectly illustrate the collapse of Expo, from a festival of dynamic modernization to a whining indulgence in modernity’s most destructive cultural pathologies. Where once an exhibition, whether corporate or national, boldly declared: “This is what we’re doing (isn’t it magnificent?),” now they exhaust their attenuated energies exploring new, although consistently unimaginative, ways of saying “sorry.” Narcissistic guilt flaps pointlessly about the exhibition space like a shoal of stranded fish, dying on a beach.

Incredibly, the USA pavilion was even worse. Not only was the pavilion itself a prefabricated strip-mall insult, unworthy of comparison with a second-tier Wallmart, but the exhibition inside took the obsequious pandering of the Australians to a whole new level. We wanted a space shuttle or a predator drone and they gave us Hillary Clinton saying “ni hao” plus some nonsense about planting flower-beds in the ghetto. Anyone who left this pavilion without deep and abiding detestation for everything America represented itself as being probably thinks Barney is a pretty cool guy. This was the society once capable of staging the Chicago Expo of 1893, the New York Expos of 1939-40 and 1964-5, of making incredible things and exhibiting them, of depicting a compelling vision of the future, and now … morbid Spenglerian reflections were inescapable.

Wandering amongst these monuments to misdirection, bland meaninglessness, sugary PR, and piteous ‘please-don’t-hate-me’ concessions to the strident anti-modernist moralism of the age – which is to say, to sheer, ruinous decadence — consciousness pixilated out into semi-random dot-pattern, swirled kaleidoscopically by a storm of frustration that could only be relieved by barking out at the local Expo authorities, and beyond them at the city, country, and region that was hosting this event “Could you please stop being so danged polite!”

The West is obviously spiraling down the drain, and what it needs, above anything, is some inspiring competition. In particular, and in 2010, it needed a western Pacific Rim, full-throttle development, blazing-a-path-to-the-future Expo that – purely by inevitable implication – maximized the humiliation of the senescent ‘developed’ world and jolted it with the roughest imaginable type of tough love from its path of decline. (Of course, the societies most in need of this shock therapy are too lost in the enthralling minutiae of their own degeneration to have noticed it, but still …) Instead, Expo 2010 remained scrupulously courteous, deferential to deeply decayed Expo traditions, and respectful of the multicultural piety that even the most wretched examples of systematic social failure have a dignity of their own. What it lacked was a massive injection of pure, unselfconscious, ethno-historical arrogance, based on unmoderated confidence in what was being achieved.

Perhaps this can be stated even more offensively: modernization should make people feel bad. Its most altruistic or epidemic function is to so thoroughly deride and humiliate all of those who are failing to modernize that eventually, after every excuse and projection has been attempted and exhausted, behavior is changed. Backwardness is made shameful, and thus corrected. That’s how history works. It began that way among the jig-saw principalities of Renaissance Europe, it worked that way in Japan (bringing modernization with the Meiji restoration), in China, long denigrated for its ‘stagnant Confucianism’, now big mummy of the Dragon economies, in India, finally lashed psychologically out of its absurd ‘Hindu rate of growth’ by the China model, and everywhere else that has ever climbed out of complacent sloth onto the developmental fast track. It’s long overdue to start happening in the West, because what has been happening there — for the best part of a century now — simply isn’t working, and this chronic social failure is nowhere near clear, painful, or embarrassing enough to the populations concerned.

Nothing would be better for the West than to have its nose rubbed in its own decay, the more abusively and insensitively the better. In order to accelerate the process, the entire treasure chest of colonial condescension should be re-opened and rummaged through, searching for whatever will best aggravate, provoke, and catalyze transformation, perhaps with strong insinuations of racial and cultural inferiority thrown in for spice. The lesson of history is that the human species is comfortable with inertia, and generally more than happy to gradually degenerate. One of the few things that ever stops people, and turns them around, is the transparent contempt trickling down from other, more dynamic societies. If Expo needs a ‘social dimension’, that’s it.

No doubt 2010 is still too recent for alternative or counter-factual history, for an Expo-punk (or X-punk) genre, searching out everything that might have been re-animated through the event — but the venture is irresistible. Call it Asia Unleashed 2010, an utterly impolite assertion of new socio-geographical realities that expresses, in raw and overwhelming style, the central truth of the age: the simultaneous de-westernization and radical re-invigoration of modernity.

Asia Unleashed could have borrowed heavily from the actual Expo 2010, adopting almost everything that was created by the host, in fact, and much else beside. The China Pavilion, Theme Pavilions, Urban Best Practices Area, Expo Cultural Center, Expo Center, Expo Boulevard, Expo Museum, and site landscaping, as well as the Shipping Pavilion, GM/SAIC Pavilion and exhibition, Telecoms Pavilion, Oil Pavilion, Shanghai Corporate Pavilion with all its stuff, Coca Cola Pavilion, plenty of the international pavilion designs, and even a few of the internal exhibitions … all keepers. What gets laughed out are the schmaltzy public relations videos, the sorry, sorry, really truly sorry song and dance act, the weren’t we awful performance, the Kumbaya Pavilion, the Environmental Hypersensitivity Pavilion, the Victimological Grievance Pavilion, the Beyond Growth Pavilion, the There Must Be A Gentler Way Pavilion, any national or corporate pavilion without exhibition objects (roughly half), almost everything bearing the imprint of tourist boards, media studies graduates, or diplomatic services, and every usage of solar panels that isn’t strictly tailored to commercial exploitation on a massive scale. In addition, any national pavilion based entirely on ethnic kitsch gets grouped together with others of its kind in an exotic tourism area, because it’s admitting to a complete absence of creative capability and needs to be mocked. No robots, no platform: that’s the rule.

Asia Unleashed also needs a lot of things brought in, most of all machines. Expo is all about machines, even though every Expo over the last half-century has been pitifully deficient in this regard. It scarcely needs mentioning that the entire Expo site should be pulsing, crawling, and twitching with robots of every type and scale, from industrial goliaths, automated submarines and space vehicles, through charismatic androids, to intelligent household appliances, Go players, robopets, and insectiform mechanisms. To push the process along, those countries and corporations with the laziest robot exhibits can be publicly ridiculed over the PA system.

Expo is an exhibition, and its historical sickness is perfectly tracked by the degeneration of this elementary conception into PR. Organizers at all levels, from the pinnacle of the international Expo bureaucracy (BIE) downwards, clearly need to be forcefully reminded of the difference. For instance, video technology is an entirely suitable object for Expo display, and videos themselves can quite appropriately play a supportive, informative role. To center an ‘exhibition’ upon videos, however, especially when they have been put together, using state-of-the-art advertising techniques, with the entire purpose of selling a national or corporate brand through image associations and spin, is a complete abnegation of responsibility and should straightforwardly be banned, or at least boycotted, derided, and rendered ineffective through inundating contempt. The only acceptable center of an Expo display is an object, preferably astonishing, fetched from the outer edge of industrial capability in order to concretely represent the trajectory of material progress. Displaying such objects – and thereby respecting audiences sufficiently to evaluate them for themselves – is the non-negotiable, basic function of Expo as an institution. If it can no longer accept this task, it should be terminated (by a giant robot, if possible).

Asia Unleashed is dedicated to the latest and impending phases of global industrial civilization, which should be more-or-less implicit in the fact that it is a World Expo, although sadly, it isn’t. There’s plenty of room for artworks and other singular cultural creations, but the emphasis is edgily modernistic. Green technology gets in because it’s technology, and the tourism industry gets in because it’s an industry, but in both cases the spin-meisters have been reined back hard, and the preliminary question insistently raised: “What, really, are you exhibiting here?” The only organizers who get to avoid such suspicious interrogations are the ones overseeing the erection of some fabulous structure that looks as if it comes from the set of a science fiction movie, or unloading partially-animated assemblages of glistening metal from mountainous stacks of shipping containers, because – clearly – they understand what an Expo is all about. The cyclopean space elevator anchor station, taking shape in the Extraterrestrial Resources Exploitation Zone, serves as a model for the guiding spirit of the festival. The machinery in the 3D printing pavilion printed the pavilion.

The mining industry employs monster trucks weighing 203 tonnes, with a capacity to carry 360 tonnes, they cost US$3 million each, their tires are four-meters in diameter, and driving one is like “driving a house” – why on earth didn’t Expo 2010 have one? Asia Unleashed most certainly would. For developed countries with the resources to put on an impressive show at Expo there needs to be something like a price for admission, and an awe-inspiring piece of industrial machinery fits the bill exactly. The Canadian tar sands are being criss-crossed by these monster trucks, and the Canada national pavilion should have been strongly advised to bring one over. Instead they brought … (hands up if anyone remembers).

All the imagination that has been squandered over decades in utopian speculations of the “another world is possible” type has been far more productively employed at Asia Unleashed, counter-balancing the tendency of advanced industrial capabilities to flee from the arena of spectacle. The monumental achievements and consequences of intensely miniaturized and softened technologies demand exhibition, from silicon chip fabrication, gene sequencing, and rudimentary nanotechnology, to cryptosystems, social networks, digital microfinance, and virtual architecture, even as they slip through their inner inexorable logic into invisibility. To present these frontiers of industrial capability rapidly, dramatically, and memorably to a highly-diverse, transient Expo audience requires the application of creative intelligence on a massive scale. The growing challenges of this task are worthy of the rising computer-augmented talents brought to bear upon it.

Asia Unleashed never happened, of course, partly because the international Expo institutional apparatus is locked into the Occidental death-slide, but mostly because it would have been impolite. Ultimately, postmodernist multicultural political correctness – today’s hegemonic globalist ideology — is an elaborate etiquette, designed to prevent the ‘insensitive’ identification and diagnosis of failure, and to elude, indefinitely, the blunt statement: “What you’re doing doesn’t work.” No Expo that remained true to its deep institutional traditions could avoid such a statement arising, implicitly, through contrast. Hence, Expo has been condemned to die, by inertial forces too profound for Expo 2010 to fully arrest, let alone reverse: Better decayed than rude.

From the wreckage of the Expo institution, however, Expo 2010 was able to extract, polish, and resuscitate a crucial modernist topic: the city as engine of progress. More on that in Part 3.


Re-Animator (Part 1)

Can Expo live again?

Different truths are ‘harsh’ to different people. For Chinese, one truth so harsh that it escaped public recognition at the moment where it most mattered is that almost nobody, outside the country, cared very much about the 2010 World Expo. By the time China eagerly but belatedly seized its chance to take up the torch for this global festival of modern civilization, Expo’s epoch of radiant significance had passed. Harsher still: this was the basic fact, and principal conditioning reality of the event, rippling with ominous implications for the future of modernity and the international response to China’s re-awakening. Ameliorating it are more shadowy, contrary truths – first among them that Shanghai had already discounted a tired world’s Expo indifference, and worked around it, in order to make the event into an opportunity for something else, and for itself.

The history of World Expo, from London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, is too abundantly documented to rehearse here. The basic pattern, however, is not difficult to outline, since it conforms to a relatively smooth curve from meteoric rise (1851-1940) into gradual decay (1958 onwards), almost perfectly tracking the trajectory of modernist optimism, from its ignition in the promethean forge of industrial revolution through to its expiry in postmodern / postcolonial cynicism, elite masochism, and apologia.

Importantly, this has remained an essentially Western story, despite the consistent globalism of its cultural ambitions. The ascent of Western, globalizing, industrial capitalism, in its European and American waves, was reflected in World Exhibitions of heart-stopping glory. The crisis and decline of the West – both relative and absolute — has thrown the event into marginality, neglect, and self-doubt, clasped in the death-grip of an embittered and self-mortifying anti-modernism. Most crucially — and astoundingly — the long-evident dawning of the historical revitalizing and frenetically modernizing ‘Asian Century’ seems to have had a negligible impact upon the declinist ‘Grand Narrative’ incarnated in World Expo, which has plunged ever deeper into twitchily gesticulating, hypersensitive panic at the supposed social and environmental calamity of modernistic growth.

The irony of this situation merits explicit emphasis. Precisely when globalization shifted from questionable aspiration and ideology to definite historical fact, with the emergence of robust, non-Western economic development cores, first in Pacific East Asia, then South Asia, and beyond, the project of cosmopolitan modernization underwent a seemingly irremediable delegitimation in the court of approved ‘world’ opinion. Apparently, if the West cannot any longer strut across the world stage with invincible and unchallenged confidence, the only acceptable alternative option is hair-shirts for all. If this epitome of triumphant dog-in-the-manger resentment does not exemplify ‘cultural hegemony’ at its most potent and most toxic, it is hard to imagine what might.

An overwhelming abundance of public evidence attests to the implacable momentum of Expo degeneration, although most of this data resists tidy quantification. Since the end of World War II, the original purpose of the event, which was to promote industrial modernization worldwide through a comprehensive public exhibition of advanced productive technologies, structural engineering, manufactures, and commodities, has been progressively phased-out, to be replaced by an agenda that reflects the concerns of inter-governmental bureaucracies, national diplomatic services, and tourism boards. Public relations displays have been systematically substituted for technological exhibitions, and the number of significant mechanical and product innovations achieving popular exposure through Expo – once substantial — has fallen to near-zero. Expo themes have been steadily stripped of their associations with accumulative materialism and refashioned into earnest exhortations for moral and social transformation, as an event that was initially designed to celebrate modernity has increasingly come to apologize for it. Predictably enough, this bureaucratically-alchemized transmutation of a festival into lament has been accompanied by a precipitous collapse of popular interest and engagement. Audiences that once flooded in to catch a vision of the future, now avoid an event that musters all the allure of a United Nations teach-in.

In the West, this is all tediously familiar. Scarcely anyone pays attention to Expo anymore, or cares much about it. Perhaps most, if jolted into an opinion on the matter, would vaguely approve of the politically correct course the event has taken, although not sufficiently, of course, to ever entertain the prospect of attending one. After all, few Westerners believe in modernity anymore, world trends distress them, and Expo seems roughly as relevant to their anxieties as the prospect of Mars colonization.

In the East, things are more puzzling. Societies undergoing rapid modernistic development make natural Expo hosts, as demonstrated consistently throughout the history of the event. There has never been a great World Expo that has not broadly corresponded to a moment of exceptional national and urban flourishing. Why, then, has Expo not undergone a profound Asiatic revitalization, restoring it to former glories? Why has the western Pacific Rim not captured Expo, re-tooling it into a promotional vehicle for its own developmental prospects, as America did in the early 20th century?

Weighed by sheer visitor numbers, the two largest World Expos in history have been East Asian. Yet the moribund, guilt-wracked pathos of Occidental decline continues to dominate the event. Japan spent its Expo 1970 attempting to prove that it could out-do even the West in growth-sapping sanctimoniousness (as its economy would later demonstrate), whilst the mood in post-Expo 2010 Shanghai seems remarkably devoid of any euphoric sense of accomplishment, and more akin to that which might be expected from a group of schoolchildren freshly escaped from an abnormally-uninspired six-month lecture on ethically-guided behavioral rectification, delivered by an international Mandarinate. Having just executed the largest discrete event in human history, the predominant feelings are dutiful relief and anticlimax, numbed by something like deliberate amnesia. In any case, there’s Shanghai to get on with, so why waste time remembering Expo? Doesn’t that just stink up the joint with the odor of Western death?

(Some suggestions, tentative answers, still more downside, and a lot more upside, to come.)