Why We Must Cultivate Imagination to Fight the Rise of Fascism
This week I was in the beautiful city of Brussels, Belgium meeting up with friends and colleagues — many of whom I hadn’t seen in over two years. It was a great opportunity to reset, gain some wisdom, and also learn more about what’s going on in information warfare globally. I attended the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab 360/Open Summit event, which included a wide range of experts including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Maria Ressa.
I was able to synthesize an assessment of where things might go, in combination with my own views and research, and, well… it’s not pretty. But there are things we can do, and reasons to have hope. Here’s a rough overview of what we might expect:
- Putin will weaponize food shortages, inflation, fuel prices, and refugee flows. As fuel prices rise, so will food prices. This will cause widespread starvation in Africa, which will launch a flow of refugees from Africa into Europe, similar to what happened in 2015 but at a larger scale. This will trigger all manner of xenophobia in Europe and help weaken resolve. Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, and Hungary are already wobbly with respect to Ukraine support, for a variety of historical reasons. (Remnants of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Italian north-south rivalries, and a longing for the restoration of the Austro-Hungarian empire loom large, and just beneath the surface). Ukraine and Europe are also running out of ammunition, making the conflict entirely dependent on US supplies against Russia and China supplies.
- It never was about NATO, and there is no off-ramp. Yesterday, Putin made a speech wherein he likened himself to Peter the Great, and suggested that Russia’s action in Ukraine was merely a case of Russia reclaiming what was rightfully theirs. He is a Tsarist, and aims to recapture or colonize any territory that suits his imagination.
- The United States may descend into civil unrest, or revolution. Oil and gas cartels may push fuel prices as high as $10 per gallon in the US. This would clearly signify a new high-water mark and could usher in a wave of civil unrest. Biden will be blamed for this, even though fuel prices will rise globally, and it has nothing to do with him. Food prices will likewise go up dramatically, as there is little practical difference between food and fuel (both are energy). Banks are predicting that middle class Americans may have trouble paying for essentials like food and fuel, and are planning for ‘imminent’ and unprecedented civil unrest, according to a report obtained by The Byline Times. Given that this would help fulfill goals of the fascist international, we should expect that Republicans and their allies will be pushing this forward at every opportunity.
- Ukraine war will become a years-long war of attrition. Putin will use chaos in Europe and the US to undermine support for Ukraine and continue to throw raw resources and personnel, despite lack of training, at wearing down the situation there. A low-yield nuclear strike against targets in Western Ukraine is a distinct possibility — perhaps Lviv, which would limit easterly fallout affecting Russia — and would have the effect of activating “anti-war” activists in Europe and the US. This “Fifth Column” could be very effective given this new demonstration of force (and lack of judgment) in eroding continued support for Ukraine.
- If Ukraine falls, the Baltics, Poland, and Balkans will be the next targets. Russia can only be stopped if it is unequivocally defeated. If it is not, it will regroup (with its allies China and India) and resume information warfare then kinetic warfare against all its adjacent territories. The Baltics are very clearly in its sights already and will be attacked without question, unless stopped. Poland and much of the Balkan states are not far behind. While this may sound implausible because of how weak Russia seems right now, it is thinking in terms of the ~3 billion people represented by Russia, China, India, Brazil (et al) vs. the ~1 billion people represented by NATO. While that’s an apples to oranges comparison, the overall scales involved make the matching more even than it might seem on the surface.
- China may become more aggressive as it faces internal threats. China faces a demographic bomb as its population ages. Its single child policy means an elderly population will soon be gone, and it will face a shrinking population. China’s GDP is heavily dependent (around 30%) on overhyped real-estate schemes, many of which will never be occupied. The conflict with Taiwan continues to simmer and will eventually come to a head, creating a strategic threat against global production of integrated circuit chips. China is beginning to become more aggressive with its information warfare, and starting to threaten Australia. The historic Kuomintang network which seems to be associated with Guo Wengui and Steve Bannon is preparing itself as “shock troops” to take over when the CCP falls. While that may be fantasy, the situation definitely has elements of instability that should be closely monitored.
- Russia is increasing its aggression towards Japan over the Kuril Islands. The islands in Northern Japan, an important fishing ground, have been contested since World War II. Russia is threatening Japan, suggesting that it will return the islands to their control if Tokyo distances itself from the United States and the West. So far, this play has not been working, but they are continuing to become ever more aggressive in pushing Japan in this direction. Aleksandr Dugin sees Japan as part of the Russian sphere of influence and wishes to drive Japan apart from Western influence.
- We are dealing with a resurgence of individualism and propertarianism. Whether talking about “sovereign citizen” lunacy, or “sovereign individual” bitcoin fantasies, the propertarian legacy of slave ownership, or gold fetishists in Vienna longing for the restoration of the Austro-Hungarian empire, we are dealing with a resurgence of interest in hierarchy and its very close cousins, white supremacy and eugenics. The idea that money confers reproductive fitness is a recurring theme, even as it is nonsense, and we should be prepared, once again, to combat it.
- In the end, this resolves to one key conflict: carbon fuels. Carbon fuel producers really don’t want to stop producing carbon fuel; they have massive, long term investments they wish to productively amortize over a decades or centuries. Pesky democracies that want to shut down the party now are ultimately a minor annoyance. Converting energy flows into influence — by purchasing politicians, organizations, and capturing government — is straightforward enough, and simply a matter of positioning the right marketing campaigns, politicians, and cults in service of the task. Influence is 20th century technology perfected by the marriage with 21st century finance and technology. And the kicker? The best way to capture a government is to eliminate it. Obviously, the need to address anthropogenic climate change is real, and is impeded by the capture or elimination of government.
- Some have already decided that climate isn’t fixable, or wish to rely on techno-solutionism, to address our dilemma. “Longtermist” followers of Nick Bostrom have proposed that the near-term fate of humans on earth isn’t as important as the eventual fate of all humans, i.e. the human species. From this perspective, tending to the poor or the climate or any immediate challenge we face is foolish in comparison to the importance of becoming a so-called “multi-planetary species.” Elon Musk, his pal Grimes, Jack Dorsey and Peter Thiel seem to be exhibiting signs of internalizing this philosophy.
- The January 6th hearings are not going to have a noticeable effect on any of this — even as it’s helpful for the public, journalists and historians to develop an accurate historical record of what happened. Many in the US are expecting big developments from the January 6th Committee Hearings. This is probably misplaced, especially from a global perspective. Besides for establishing a political narrative that the Republican Party has engaged in a long-term effort to overthrow democracies in the US and elsewhere — a fact that has been well established and long-known — it is unclear whether this will meaningfully move public opinion. And again, I say this not to be discouraging, but rather to encourage folks to think more broadly and creatively in terms of how we might counter this. From a governance perspective, it’s very good that the committee is laying out the details of the conspiracy to overthrow the government. This is what constitutional democracies should do, and we must do this to demonstrate clearly that we still aspire to be one. But it is unclear what effects, if any, these hearings may have on people who do not believe anything wrong took place that day. For that reason, advocates for democracy should also stay focused on current emerging threats and the ongoing undermining of democracy by people like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, and their allies in the fascist international — not least, the emerging alliance between Russia, India, China, and Brazil. The gambit to overthrow pluralistic democracies didn’t begin or end on January 6th and is very much still ongoing.
- Musk will complete the Twitter deal, most likely. Musk has become an avatar for a network of global fascists. He’s already found a syndicate of backers for the Twitter deal and is going through motions to satisfy his complaint about bots. He’s also started, apparently, to talk about acquiring the OANN cable news channel. We should expect this same global fascist syndicate to provide the funding (and ideological backing) for this effort, and for goals to be aligned between Twitter and OANN — a bizarre and terrifying thought. The US should be looking to potentially oppose these moves on national security, anti-trust, and FARA grounds.
So we are faced now with a dilemma. How do we fight forces resistant to institutional power using institutions? Arguably, we cannot; it is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use every institutional mechanism that we can, but we need leadership that articulates and is almost uncomfortably honest about our current situation.
- We must admit that our institutions are under systemic attack. From capture of the legislature and the courts to the dismantling of executive agencies, there is no surface of our federal government that isn’t besieged. The goal is to build a bottom-up challenge to the US Government drawing from the Constitutional Sheriffs movement.
- Cultivate imagination in all its forms. Everything being done to undermine our democracy is a product of long-term, imaginative designs meant to work both institutionally and extra-institutionally to exercise raw power and dismantle the government. Imagination is a strategic asset and we should be thinking as creatively as possible (while remaining inside the law, obviously — even as that’s not a constraint for the opposition). Still, there is an endless reservoir of wildly imaginative counters that can be mounted that can put opponents on their back foot and force them to react. Use them in every possible way, and cultivate participation from every sector of society, from regular people to artists to business-people.
- Demonstrate leadership — and articulate and amplify simple, clear, and honest messaging. Leadership is everything right now, and we have many good elected ones. But we also have leaders in business, in public service, in education, in non-profits, and the arts. Step up, raise your voice, and help lead. Not to grandstand, but to be part of the team that helps expose and counter exactly what’s happening now. Everyone can help. If you have particularly strong ideas, work to get them in front of people. My friend, a software engineer named Stephen Diehl, recently exemplified this kind of leadership by developing a clear message from technologists about the risks posed by cryptocurrencies. The letter, signed by regular people (including myself), caught the eye of the press and has been amplified beyond his wildest expectations. We all have that kind of power, if we try.
You may recall after September 11, many concluded that it was the product of a “failure of imagination.” That is true; we failed to piece together information that could have resulted in the plot being foiled.
But speaking more broadly, it is a lack of imagination that has led us into being vulnerable to attack after attack. To quote the inimitable Hunter S. Thompson, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” We are dealing with so much professional weirdness — which itself is calcifying into a kind of brittle rigidity—it’s time we get as weird as possible in response. As the world melts down, we will increasingly be called to cultivate the strange in opposition to evil.
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