Splitting Axes

Count me a fan of Niall Ferguson, but not his concept of the “axis of upheaval.” It’s clever, succinct, and evocative enough to make a criticism like this seem rather petty, but the obvious point does bear emphasis that what he’s describing is a huge movement away from axes of any kind. Making this point actually strengthens his piece, which powerfully recalls another essay, in another fine publication, published a full 15 years back:

To understand the events of the next fifty years, then, one must understand environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny, and the transformation of war.

Compare Ferguson:

Economic volatility, plus ethnic disintegration, plus an empire in decline: That combination is about the most lethal in geopolitics. We now have all three. The age of upheaval starts now.

But Kaplan’s extended vision of “the coming anarchy” hinged importantly, unlike Ferguson’s, on a heavyhanded metaphor:

“Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction.”

We are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger, part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Although both parts will be threatened by environmental stress, the Last Man will be able to master it; the First Man will not.

One of the great blindspots in American thought today, especially among those with liberaltarian sympathies, obscures the way in which only a naturally tiny portion — made all the tinier by what’s happening to the Western economy — of healthy, tech-rich people will wind up being masters of fortune. Most of the people who enjoy the basic liberal standard of material well-being will not be ‘masters’ of anything — neither their fates nor those of their country nor those of the world at large. Their mastery will be a hall-of-mirrors mastery over their lifestyle choices. Many citizens with all the Hegelian comforts and Houellebecquian peccadillos will simply lose their nerve amid the chaos of a shockingly retrograde future. The battle between liberaltarians and their enemies is part of a larger cultural conflict in the West, with liberaltarians unhappy to consider how seriously limited is the portion of any society that can thrive in an environment of sweeping cultural or lifestyle freedom.

There is a difference, implied in Ferguson’s piece but hidden by Kaplan’s, between a declining civilization that’s healthy and pampered and a class of people who are healthy and pampered the way a gladiator is — because every day he must fight to survive. Master-faters on the one hand…

We are entering a bifurcated world, all right, but one in which the post-industrial zone is very likely to become relatively worse off too — and to be, in important places, penetrated and broken up by chaos. In Kaplan’s world, for the typical Last Man, what you like is in the limo; in Ferguson’s, what you get is no tomorrow.

What a difference 15 years makes.