Constant Conflict

Source: Ralph Peters

We have entered an age of constant conflict. Information is at once our core commodity and the most destabilizing factor of our time. Until now, history has been a quest to acquire information; today, the challenge lies in managing information. Those of us who can sort, digest, synthesize, and apply relevant knowledge soar–professionally, financially, politically, militarily, and socially. We, the winners, are a minority.

For the world masses, devastated by information they cannot manage or effectively interpret, life is “nasty, brutish . . . and short-circuited.” The general pace of change is overwhelming, and information is both the motor and signifier of change. Those humans, in every country and region, who cannot understand the new world, or who cannot profit from its uncertainties, or who cannot reconcile themselves to its dynamics, will become the violent enemies of their inadequate governments, of their more fortunate neighbors, and ultimately of the United States. We are entering a new American century, in which we will become still wealthier, culturally more lethal, and increasingly powerful. We will excite hatreds without precedent.

We live in an age of multiple truths. He who warns of the “clash of civilizations” is incontestably right; simultaneously, we shall see higher levels of constructive trafficking between civilizations than ever before. The future is bright–and it is also very dark. More men and women will enjoy health and prosperity than ever before, yet more will live in poverty or tumult, if only because of the ferocity of demographics. There will be more democracy–that deft liberal form of imperialism–and greater popular refusal of democracy. One of the defining bifurcations of the future will be the conflict between information masters and information victims.

In the past, information empowerment was largely a matter of insider and outsider, as elementary as the division of society into the literate and illiterate. While superior information–often embodied in military technology–killed throughout history, its effects tended to be politically decisive but not personally intrusive (once the raping and pillaging were done). Technology was more apt to batter down the city gates than to change the nature of the city. The rise of the modern West broke the pattern. Whether speaking of the dispossessions and dislocations caused in Europe through the introduction of machine-driven production or elsewhere by the great age of European imperialism, an explosion of disorienting information intruded ever further into Braudel’s “structures of everyday life.” Historically, ignorance was bliss. Today, ignorance is no longer possible, only error.

The contemporary expansion of available information is immeasurable, uncontainable, and destructive to individuals and entire cultures unable to master it. The radical fundamentalists–the bomber in Jerusalem or Oklahoma City, the moral terrorist on the right or the dictatorial multiculturalist on the left–are all brothers and sisters, all threatened by change, terrified of the future, and alienated by information they cannot reconcile with their lives or ambitions. They ache to return to a golden age that never existed, or to create a paradise of their own restrictive design. They no longer understand the world, and their fear is volatile.

Information destroys traditional jobs and traditional cultures; it seduces, betrays, yet remains invulnerable. How can you counterattack the information others have turned upon you? There is no effective option other than competitive performance. For those individuals and cultures that cannot join or compete with our information empire, there is only inevitable failure (of note, the internet is to the techno-capable disaffected what the United Nations is to marginal states: it offers the illusion of empowerment and community). The attempt of the Iranian mullahs to secede from modernity has failed, although a turbaned corpse still stumbles about the neighborhood. Information, from the internet to rock videos, will not be contained, and fundamentalism cannot control its children. Our victims volunteer.

These noncompetitive cultures, such as that of Arabo-Persian Islam or the rejectionist segment of our own population, are enraged. Their cultures are under assault; their cherished values have proven dysfunctional, and the successful move on without them. The laid-off blue-collar worker in America and the Taliban militiaman in Afghanistan are brothers in suffering.

It is a truism that throughout much of the 20th century the income gap between top and bottom narrowed, whether we speak of individuals, countries, or in some cases continents. Further, individuals or countries could “make it” on sheer muscle power and the will to apply it. You could work harder than your neighbor and win in the marketplace. There was a rough justice in it, and it offered near-ecumenical hope. That model is dead. Today, there is a growing excess of muscle power in an age of labor-saving machines and methods. In our own country, we have seen blue-collar unions move from center stage to near-irrelevance. The trend will not reverse. At the same time, expectations have increased dramatically. There is a global sense of promises broken, of lies told. Individuals on much of the planet believe they have played by the rules laid down for them (in the breech, they often have not), only to find that some indefinite power has changed those rules overnight. The American who graduated from high school in the 1960s expected a good job that would allow his family security and reasonably increasing prosperity. For many such Americans, the world has collapsed, even as the media tease them with images of an ever-richer, brighter, fun world from which they are excluded. These discarded citizens sense that their government is no longer about them, but only about the privileged. Some seek the solace of explicit religion. Most remain law-abiding, hard-working citizens. Some do not.

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