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Cliffs Notes: On the Edge and Over a Barrel

Hopefully you’re enjoying the onset of the holiday season, especially the latest prefabricated crisis coming out of Washington for your yuletide amusement. It seems that we can never underestimate the capacity of the government to focus on the wrong issues, to view issues in unwarranted isolation, or to misdirect people’s energies toward false issues rather than those that really matter.

Such is the painfully obvious case with the so-called “fiscal cliff,” a market-tested example of political prestidigitation if ever there was one. While the world seemingly hangs in the balance as disasters mount, climate episodes cascade, war and violence proliferate, species go extinct, and resources dry up, career politicians fiddle about (yet again) over a crisis of their own making.

Even worse, in all likelihood the fiscal cliff is merely a pretext for further eroding the already-tenuous social safety net in America; it’s a veritable Trojan horse for a good old-fashioned dose of austerity-oriented shock therapy intended to remind us all to keep our place lest we get busted down a notch further on the socioeconomic ladder. It’s a potentially ruinous precipice, we’re told, so you’d better pay close attention if you want your trickle of water to continue coming down the cliff face…

Or at least pay close enough attention so that you won’t ask too many hard questions about the genuine cliffs you should be worried about. You know, minor stuff like the erosion of free will and the continued existence of the species. Here’s but a small sample of the non-trivial cliffs dead ahead:

The Climate Cliff

We’ve already been seeing the leading edge of anthropogenic climate change, with record-setting weather extremes, droughts and floods, superstorms, and “natural disasters” noted around the globe and escalating in their intensity. In the short term, such episodes will continue to produce acute food and water shortages, economic hardships, and increased refugeeism; in the slightly longer term, the likely consequences include low-lying areas rendered uninhabitable, national economies devastated, conflicts and wars triggered, and multitudes of people left on the knife’s edge of survival. If we continue to mass-consume fossil fuels and relentlessly pump carbon into the atmosphere, it becomes probable that within the span of our children’s lifetimes the world will see wholesale species extinctions and the eventual uninhabitability of the biosphere. We’ve moved from the realm of speculative fiction to mainstream prediction in mere decades, yet despite the closing window and the need for immediate action, the global elite haggle over abstract negotiations, urge unilateral standards with no accountability, and expand their plans for carbon-based resource exploitation —including even in polar regions unearthed by the rapid glacial melting we’ve already triggered.

The War Cliff

Meanwhile, global tensions are exacerbated as flashpoints and hotspots of conflict persist. Militarism is thoroughly established as the leading edge of international relations, and national economies are dominated by military expenditures. The U.S. is now unabashedly an imperial power, identifying resource control among its national interests meriting armed engagement whenever unilaterally deemed necessary. Saber-rattling, overt threats, and new fronts created under the guise of “humanitarian intervention” threaten to draw more nations into the spiraling global conflict. War is now a multi-generational enterprise, as youth become fodder for disingenuous recruiters only to discover the harsh reality after their wounds have been borne and their care is meager. The sheer magnitude of armaments and weapons around the planet—a scenario fomented by unscrupulous dealers and corporate profiteers—nearly ensures a violent future, especially as the stresses of climate change and resource degradation continue to manifest. Half a century ago, John F. Kennedy warned that “mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind,” yet since then we’ve greatly expanded the scope of the war machine and institutionalized its destructive dominance.

We’re addicted to political theater, economic blackmail, media machinations, resource wars, and our own comfortable captivity—and the “fiscal cliff” is but a clever trope to keep us ailing and addled.


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The Technocratic Cliff

Nonetheless, wars are sold to us as being waged to preserve our freedoms and bring democracy to the world. All the while, an expanding web of technocratic control ensnares the globe, as anyone who uses digital devices, computers, email, credit cards, or passports is subject to being tracked and rendered as a data point in a not-so-subtle version of the previously discredited attempt to develop an infrastructure of “total information awareness.” Personal privacy is mooted by the camera’s gaze, the satellite’s mapping capability, the airport’s checkpoint, the informant’s report, the digital footprint. Orwellian umbrage rapidly becomes “quaint and obsolete” as social control is achieved through a combination of pervasive surveillance and the apparent futility of resistance. War makers increasingly rely on remote technologies to do their killing, even seriously proposing next-generation devices such as robot warriors and technologically enhanced human soldiers. Technocratic “solutions” to climate change and resource depletion are likewise proposed, sounding more like farfetched and potentially apocalyptic science fiction plotlines than reasonable prospects for relief.

The Dependency Cliff

As a result of this technological web, humankind is rendered less resilient and almost utterly dependent upon an increasingly isolated global elite who control the means of production and the channels of consumption. In order to secure food, water, shelter, and energy, we are constrained to toil for the neo-feudal lords, accept their intrinsically worthless scrip in exchange for our alienated labor, purchase life’s necessities at their company stores, and accept the fact of their profligacy while continually inuring ourselves to the harshness of their imposed austerity. Even if the elites were to disappear into the heavens and leave the rest of us to squabble over the remains of a spoiled planet, we’d still be trapped in a state where the capacity to care for ourselves is a tenuous proposition at best. Our creature comforts have been used against us as weapons of mass dependency, rendering us wards of the corporate state. Mass media dumbs us down, education warps our minds, and the glad hands of army recruiters and prison guards eagerly await our arrival. Free will is archaic, and in short order generations are born and raised without even the desire to alter the conditions of their lives.

The Hopelessness Cliff

The glimpses we get in the present of these dystopian scenarios haunt us to the point of willingly seeking medicalization and other forms of escapism. The rampant changes in the social fabric are blithely accepted and blatant warning signs are met with casual indifference as the channel is changed or a shiny new app is downloaded. Still, with vestiges of our humanity yet intact, moments of longing persist and a nagging sense that all is not well infuses the spirit of even the most detached. Thus, those who transgress the rulers, fight back against the empire, or attempt to evade the web are brutally persecuted to serve as examples of the price of disobedience. People grow hopeless as the climate spirals out of control, war decimates entire populations, technology eclipses human morality, and the price of survival is pledging fealty to the moneychangers and technocrats. Perhaps the most pernicious cliff of all, a grand malaise pervades humankind as people around the world lose even the faintest glimmer of hope for the future, and as their children come into a world where the very concept of hopefulness is eradicated in favor of an overarching ethos of helplessness.

My apologies for the atypical display of fatalism, but it’s difficult sometimes not to scream from the rooftops, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The challenge, as always, is what is to be done about any or all of this. Among many others, I’ve expended myriad words on this subject, and I won’t reiterate them here except to note that the essential task of seeking opportunity in crisis is incumbent upon us without delay. For instance, on the positive side of this whole “fiscal cliff” claptrap to which we’re being subjected, we might also perceive it as a subconscious sign that we’re close to reaching that proverbial “rock bottom” from which we can finally get well. We’re addicted to political theater, economic blackmail, media machinations, resource wars, and our own comfortable captivity—and the “fiscal cliff” is but a clever trope to keep us ailing and addled. So, in the spirit of turning manipulated fears into moments of empowerment, I’ll offer as a closing antidote the words of Jimmy Cliff, who intoned upon the charade years ago in “The Harder They Come”:

Well they tell me of a pie up in the sky
Waiting for me when I die
But between the day you’re born and when you die
They never seem to hear even your cry…

Well, the oppressors are tryin’ to keep me down
Tryin’ to drive me underground
And they think that they have got the battle won
I say forgive them Lord, they know not what they’ve done…

But I’ll keep on fighting for the things I want
Though I know that when you’re dead you can’t
But I’d rather be a free man in my grave
Than living as a puppet or a slave…

Take heed, fellow cliff-dwellers. They may have us over a barrel today, but the final verse remains unwritten for tomorrow. Perhaps seeing the vista from the ledge is the wakeup call we sorely need.

Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

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