[A-List] A Planet at the Brink

Bill Totten shimogamo at ashisuto.co.jp
Fri Mar 6 05:08:08 MST 2009

Will Economic Brushfires Prove Too Virulent to Contain?

by Michael T Klare

ZNet (March 01 2009)

The global economic meltdown has already caused bank failures,
bankruptcies, plant closings, and foreclosures and will, in the coming
year, leave many tens of millions unemployed across the planet. But
another perilous consequence of the crash of 2008 has only recently made
its appearance: increased civil unrest and ethnic strife. Someday,
perhaps, war may follow.

As people lose confidence in the ability of markets and governments to
solve the global crisis, they are likely to erupt into violent protests
or to assault others they deem responsible for their plight, including
government officials, plant managers, landlords, immigrants, and ethnic
minorities. (The list could, in the future, prove long and unnerving.)
If the present economic disaster turns into what President Obama has
referred to as a "lost decade", the result could be a global landscape
filled with economically-fueled upheavals.

Indeed, if you want to be grimly impressed, hang a world map on your
wall and start inserting red pins where violent episodes have already
occurred. Athens (Greece), Longnan (China), Port-au-Prince (Haiti), Riga
(Latvia), Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sofia (Bulgaria), Vilnius (Lithuania),
and Vladivostok (Russia) would be a start. Many other cities from
Reykjavik, Paris, Rome, and Zaragoza to Moscow and Dublin have witnessed
huge protests over rising unemployment and falling wages that remained
orderly thanks in part to the presence of vast numbers of riot police.
If you inserted orange pins at these locations - none as yet in the
United States - your map would already look aflame with activity. And if
you're a gambling man or woman, it's a safe bet that this map will soon
be far better populated with red and orange pins.

For the most part, such upheavals, even when violent, are likely to
remain localized in nature, and disorganized enough that government
forces will be able to bring them under control within days or weeks,
even if - as with Athens for six days last December - urban paralysis
sets in due to rioting, tear gas, and police cordons. That, at least,
has been the case so far. It is entirely possible, however, that, as the
economic crisis worsens, some of these incidents will metastasize into
far more intense and long-lasting events: armed rebellions, military
takeovers, civil conflicts, even economically fueled wars between states.

Every outbreak of violence has its own distinctive origins and
characteristics. All, however, are driven by a similar combination of
anxiety about the future and lack of confidence in the ability of
established institutions to deal with the problems at hand. And just as
the economic crisis has proven global in ways not seen before, so local
incidents - especially given the almost instantaneous nature of modern
communications - have a potential to spark others in far-off places,
linked only in a virtual sense.

A Global Pandemic of Economically Driven Violence

The riots that erupted in the spring of 2008 in response to rising food
prices suggested the speed with which economically-related violence can
spread. It is unlikely that Western news sources captured all such
incidents, but among those recorded in the New York Times and the Wall
Street Journal were riots in Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India,
Indonesia, Ivory Coast, and Senegal.

In Haiti, for example, thousands of protesters stormed the presidential
palace in Port-au-Prince and demanded food handouts, only to be repelled
by government troops and UN peacekeepers. Other countries, including
Pakistan and Thailand, quickly sought to deter such assaults by
deploying troops at farms and warehouses throughout the country.

The riots only abated at summer's end when falling energy costs brought
food prices crashing down as well. (The cost of food is now closely tied
to the price of oil and natural gas because petrochemicals are so widely
and heavily used in the cultivation of grains.) Ominously, however, this
is sure to prove but a temporary respite, given the epic droughts now
gripping breadbasket regions of the United States, Argentina, Australia,
China, the Middle East, and Africa. Look for the prices of wheat,
soybeans, and possibly rice to rise in the coming months - just when
billions of people in the developing world are sure to see their already
marginal incomes plunging due to the global economic collapse.

Food riots were but one form of economic violence that made its bloody
appearance in 2008. As economic conditions worsened, protests against
rising unemployment, government ineptitude, and the unaddressed needs of
the poor erupted as well. In India, for example, violent protests
threatened stability in many key areas. Although usually described as
ethnic, religious, or caste disputes, these outbursts were typically
driven by economic anxiety and a pervasive feeling that someone else's
group was faring better than yours - and at your expense.

In April, for example, six days of intense rioting in Indian-controlled
Kashmir were largely blamed on religious animosity between the majority
Muslim population and the Hindu-dominated Indian government; equally
important, however, was a deep resentment over what many Kashmiri
Muslims experienced as discrimination in jobs, housing, and land use.
Then, in May, thousands of nomadic shepherds known as Gujjars shut down
roads and trains leading to the city of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, in
a drive to be awarded special economic rights; more than thirty people
were killed when the police fired into crowds. In October,
economically-related violence erupted in Assam in the country's far
northeast, where impoverished locals are resisting an influx of even
poorer, mostly illegal immigrants from nearby Bangladesh.

Economically-driven clashes also erupted across much of eastern China in
2008. Such events, labeled "mass incidents" by Chinese authorities,
usually involve protests by workers over sudden plant shutdowns, lost
pay, or illegal land seizures. More often than not, protestors demanded
compensation from company managers or government authorities, only to be
greeted by club-wielding police.

Needless to say, the leaders of China's Communist Party have been
reluctant to acknowledge such incidents. This January, however, the
magazine Liaowang (Outlook Weekly) reported that layoffs and wage
disputes had triggered a sharp increase in such "mass incidents",
particularly along the country's eastern seaboard, where much of its
manufacturing capacity is located.

By December, the epicenter of such sporadic incidents of violence had
moved from the developing world to Western Europe and the former Soviet
Union. Here, the protests have largely been driven by fears of prolonged
unemployment, disgust at government malfeasance and ineptitude, and a
sense that "the system", however defined, is incapable of satisfying the
future aspirations of large groups of citizens.

One of the earliest of this new wave of upheavals occurred in Athens,
Greece, on December 6 2008, after police shot and killed a fifteen
year-old schoolboy during an altercation in a crowded downtown
neighborhood. As news of the killing spread throughout the city,
hundreds of students and young people surged into the city center and
engaged in pitched battles with riot police, throwing stones and
firebombs. Although government officials later apologized for the
killing and charged the police officer involved with manslaughter, riots
broke out repeatedly in the following days in Athens and other Greek
cities. Angry youths attacked the police - widely viewed as agents of
the establishment - as well as luxury shops and hotels, some of which
were set on fire. By one estimate, the six days of riots caused $1.3
billion in damage to businesses at the height of the Christmas shopping

Russia also experienced a spate of violent protests in December,
triggered by the imposition of high tariffs on imported automobiles.
Instituted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to protect an endangered
domestic auto industry (whose sales were expected to shrink by up to
fifty percent in 2009), the tariffs were a blow to merchants in the Far
Eastern port of Vladivostok who benefited from a nationwide commerce in
used Japanese vehicles. When local police refused to crack down on
anti-tariff protests, the authorities were evidently worried enough to
fly in units of special forces from Moscow, 3,700 miles away.

In January, incidents of this sort seemed to be spreading through
Eastern Europe. Between January 13th and 16th, anti-government protests
involving violent clashes with the police erupted in the Latvian capital
of Riga, the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, and the Lithuanian capital of
Vilnius. It is already essentially impossible to keep track of all such
episodes, suggesting that we are on the verge of a global pandemic of
economically driven violence.

A Perfect Recipe for Instability

While most such incidents are triggered by an immediate event - a
tariff, the closure of local factory, the announcement of government
austerity measures - there are systemic factors at work as well. While
economists now agree that we are in the midst of a recession deeper than
any since the Great Depression of the 1930s, they generally assume that
this downturn - like all others since World War II - will be followed in
a year, or two, or three, by the beginning of a typical recovery.

There are good reasons to suspect that this might not be the case - that
poorer countries (along with many people in the richer countries) will
have to wait far longer for such a recovery, or may see none at all.
Even in the United States, 54% of Americans now believe that "the worst"
is "yet to come" and only seven percent that the economy has "turned the
corner", according to a recent Ipsos/McClatchy poll; fully a quarter
think the crisis will last more than four years. Whether in the Russia,
China, or Bangladesh, it is this underlying anxiety - this suspicion
that things are far worse than just about anyone is saying - which is
helping to fuel the global epidemic of violence.

The World Bank's most recent status report, Global Economic Prospects
2009, fulfills those anxieties in two ways. It refuses to state the
worst, even while managing to hint, in terms too clear to be ignored, at
the prospect of a long-term, or even permanent, decline in economic
conditions for many in the world. Nominally upbeat - as are so many
media pundits - regarding the likelihood of an economic recovery in the
not-too-distant future, the report remains full of warnings about the
potential for lasting damage in the developing world if things don't go
exactly right.

Two worries, in particular, dominate Global Economic Prospects 2009:
that banks and corporations in the wealthier countries will cease making
investments in the developing world, choking off whatever growth
possibilities remain; and that food costs will rise uncomfortably, while
the use of farmlands for increased biofuels production will result in
diminished food availability to hundreds of millions.

Despite its Pollyanna-ish passages on an economic rebound, the report
does not mince words when discussing what the almost certain coming
decline in First World investment in Third World countries would mean:

"Should credit markets fail to respond to the robust policy
interventions taken so far, the consequences for developing countries
could be very serious. Such a scenario would be characterized by ...
substantial disruption and turmoil, including bank failures and currency
crises, in a wide range of developing countries. Sharply negative growth
in a number of developing countries and all of the attendant
repercussions, including increased poverty and unemployment, would be

In the fall of 2008, when the report was written, this was considered a
"worst-case scenario". Since then, the situation has obviously worsened
radically, with financial analysts reporting a virtual freeze in
worldwide investment. Equally troubling, newly industrialized countries
that rely on exporting manufactured goods to richer countries for much
of their national income have reported stomach-wrenching plunges in
sales, producing massive plant closings and layoffs.

The World Bank's 2008 survey also contains troubling data about the
future availability of food. Although insisting that the planet is
capable of producing enough foodstuffs to meet the needs of a growing
world population, its analysts were far less confident that sufficient
food would be available at prices people could afford, especially once
hydrocarbon prices begin to rise again. With ever more farmland being
set aside for biofuels production and efforts to increase crop yields
through the use of "miracle seeds" losing steam, the Bank's analysts
balanced their generally hopeful outlook with a caveat: "If
biofuels-related demand for crops is much stronger or productivity
performance disappoints, future food supplies may be much more expensive
than in the past".

Combine these two World Bank findings - zero economic growth in the
developing world and rising food prices - and you have a perfect recipe
for unrelenting civil unrest and violence. The eruptions seen in 2008
and early 2009 will then be mere harbingers of a grim future in which,
in a given week, any number of cities reel from riots and civil
disturbances which could spread like multiple brushfires in a drought.

Mapping a World at the Brink

Survey the present world, and it's all too easy to spot a plethora of
potential sites for such multiple eruptions - or far worse. Take China.
So far, the authorities have managed to control individual "mass
incidents", preventing them from coalescing into something larger. But
in a country with a more than two-thousand-year history of vast
millenarian uprisings, the risk of such escalation has to be on the
minds of every Chinese leader.

On February 2nd, a top Chinese Party official, Chen Xiwen, announced
that, in the last few months of 2008 alone, a staggering twenty million
migrant workers, who left rural areas for the country's booming cities
in recent years, had lost their jobs. Worse yet, they had little
prospect of regaining them in 2009. If many of these workers return to
the countryside, they may find nothing there either, not even land to work.

Under such circumstances, and with further millions likely to be shut
out of coastal factories in the coming year, the prospect of mass unrest
is high. No wonder the government announced a $585 billion stimulus plan
aimed at generating rural employment and, at the same time, called on
security forces to exercise discipline and restraint when dealing with
protesters. Many analysts now believe that, as exports continue to dry
up, rising unemployment could lead to nationwide strikes and protests
that might overwhelm ordinary police capabilities and require full-scale
intervention by the military (as occurred in Beijing during the
Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989).

Or take many of the Third World petro-states that experienced heady
boosts in income when oil prices were high, allowing governments to buy
off dissident groups or finance powerful internal security forces. With
oil prices plunging from $147 per barrel of crude oil to less than $40
dollars, such countries, from Angola to shaky Iraq, now face severe

Nigeria is a typical case in point: When oil prices were high, the
central government in Abuja raked in billions every year, enough to
enrich elites in key parts of the country and subsidize a large military
establishment; now that prices are low, the government will have a hard
time satisfying all these previously well-fed competing obligations,
which means the risk of internal disequilibrium will escalate. An
insurgency in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, fueled by popular
discontent with the failure of oil wealth to trickle down from the
capital, is already gaining momentum and is likely to grow stronger as
government revenues shrivel; other regions, equally disadvantaged by
national revenue-sharing policies, will be open to disruptions of all
sorts, including heightened levels of internecine warfare.

Bolivia is another energy producer that seems poised at the brink of an
escalation in economic violence. One of the poorest countries in the
Western Hemisphere, it harbors substantial oil and natural gas reserves
in its eastern, lowland regions. A majority of the population - many of
Indian descent - supports President Evo Morales, who seeks to exercise
strong state control over the reserves and use the proceeds to uplift
the nation's poor. But a majority of those in the eastern part of the
country, largely controlled by a European-descended elite, resent
central government interference and seek to control the reserves
themselves. Their efforts to achieve greater autonomy have led to
repeated clashes with government troops and, in deteriorating times,
could set the stage for a full-scale civil war.

Given a global situation in which one startling, often unexpected
development follows another, prediction is perilous. At a popular level,
however, the basic picture is clear enough: continued economic decline
combined with a pervasive sense that existing systems and institutions
are incapable of setting things right is already producing a potentially
lethal brew of anxiety, fear, and rage. Popular explosions of one sort
or another are inevitable.

Some sense of this new reality appears to have percolated up to the
highest reaches of the  intelligence community. In testimony before the
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 12th, Admiral Dennis
C Blair, the new Director of National Intelligence, declared, "The
primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global
economic crisis and its geopolitical implications ... Statistical
modeling shows that economic crises increase the risk of
regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year
period" - certain to be the case in the present situation.

Blair did not specify which countries he had in mind when he spoke of
"regime-threatening instability" - a new term in the American
intelligence lexicon, at least when associated with economic crises -
but it is clear from his testimony that officials are closely watching
dozens of shaky nations in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and
Central Asia.

Now go back to that map on your wall with all those red and orange pins
in it and proceed to color in appropriate countries in various shades of
red and orange to indicate recent striking declines in gross national
product and rises in unemployment rates. Without sixteen intelligence
agencies under you, you'll still have a pretty good idea of the places
that Blair and his associates are eyeing in terms of instability as the
future darkens on a planet at the brink.


Michael T Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at
Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers,
Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (Metropolitan Books, 2008).

This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation
Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and
opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder
of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture
(2007), and editor of The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the
New Age of Empire (2008).



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