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The Age of Hypercontrol

Energy is a major source of power and conflict (Photo: IANS)

Guns, gas and gossip

The 21st century, still young, is already in the grip of three superstates: the defence industry; energy cartels; and the infotech behemoths turbo-powered by the greatest technological advance in the history of science and ingenious invention. They are not unipolar. Their companies compete. But they protect spectacular gains and advance their global interests with an arsenal of shareholder finance, psychological intimidation, legal acumen, and the persistent promotion of their wares as the chief guardians or motivators of human welfare.

The defence industry is as old as the cudgel and will, in the company of the indefatigable cockroach, be the first to revive after the nuclear Armageddon, emerging from personalised bomb shelters with placards headlined I Told You So!, Never Again! and Unused Nuclear Missiles at Heavy Discount! Security has had a lock-hold on the human psyche ever since Cain, the rogue son of Adam, lured his naïve brother Abel into the fields, killed him, and then told God that he was not his brother’s keeper. Defence companies rushed to Abel’s heirs.

Insecurity began with creation. Oil is recent, and the net barely pubescent, but all three are dominant.

The dimensions of their power make old terminology seem inadequate. Terms such as “super” and “power” require a rethink, for their supreme power has been virtually unshackled from the constraints of responsibility. In the old hierarchy, governments sat at the top, with the ability to regulate industry and steer inventions towards the public’s convenience. Governments themselves were accountable, obviously so in a democracy; but even dictators could not fly too far from the compulsions of good governance. The Roman dictator-emperors summed it up in a cynical formula: bread and circuses. The emperor who forgot to provide bread for the citizens soon lost his head.

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The private sector military-mineral-infotech industrial complex has positioned itself as indispensable. In a best-case scenario, it works in partnership with governments, minimising friction; but it sets the agenda, driven by the terms of global capitalisation and global markets. National space is of secondary importance.

Using the sanctuary of tax havens or exploiting tax loopholes when they can, the private companies are able to multiply their own profits even when advanced economies teeter on the edge of recession. Governments have been reduced to enablers, in a bid to share the rewards. Indeed, the international standing and economic health of a nation can depend on the capacity of its companies to supply guns, gas or gossip to the world. “Super” is too weak a word. Think hyper. Power is passé. Think control.

The defence industry makes very healthy money out of legitimate business; but its real wealth comes from purchases by ego-driven politicians and generals who justify bloated defence budgets by theories like “balance-of-power” and its multiple derivatives. The first influential theorist was Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian Wars. Over 25 centuries later, no one has improved upon the central justification of his argument: realism. His realism implied that the ability to fight a war was the only guarantee of peace, and if you thought that was a paradox you were sailing on a dreamboat towards the edge of a waterfall.

The most successful ploy in advertising is the conversion of part of the truth into the whole truth. Defence is a genuine necessity, and always has been. The art of profiteering lies in the manipulation of threat perception, in which the defence boys brandishing bespoke brochures have developed great expertise, while their agents divert ad-spend to the bribery budget.

The energy brainiacs have a better story to tell, for they have a better product to sell. Oil was a flicker in the wick lamp until it became the mainstay of a value-added industrial revolution and the fuel for new machines which altered the meaning of comfort and travel. This energy transformed lives dramatically. It also provided the death industry with a re-imagined range of armaments. It was the perfect double whammy.

Inevitably, Europe’s colonial powers seized desert nations to take control of oil wells when they were discovered in the sands of Iran and Arabia in the late 19th century. America had enough oil of its own but got into the game because it was so cost-friendly. This colonial inequity was effectively challenged only in the 1970s when producer-nations under the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) umbrella finally ended price-fixing by the buyers, and then survived the bruising propaganda onslaught which followed. Half-a-century later, oil producers have become what they always wanted to be: partners, not stenographers taking dictation. This is the basis for the rediscovered self-confidence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. They also took the sensible decision to ensure that their governments held majority control of their natural resources companies.

Oil does not require much sales talk. We know the brand of our toothpaste, but who knows the name of the company that provides Norway’s oil or Qatar’s gas? Traditional firms like Burmah Shell and Esso advertised only when they went into direct retail.

One was intrigued therefore to find that the hitherto silent, discreet and successful Saudi giant Aramco had taken billboard space during the last Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament in India and sponsored the T20 cricket championship in Australia. Something different was happening. The wealthiest oil company in the world had clearly been nominated flag-bearer of radical change in what had become a closed kingdom. Aramco is leading the reinvention of Saudi Arabia as a land of sport leadership, futuristic urban spaces, and Halloween fun.

If Dubai can become a hub of cricket, why should Jeddah not host the Olympics? Ignore the weather. Jeddah could create an Iceland in a stadium if it wanted, and in winter this port city on the Red Sea can be salubrious in the mornings. It might need an early start for the marathon, though.

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The vulnerable side of the behemoth triangle is the tech industry, which is ironic since it has contributed more to genuine radical growth than the other two sides combined. Within three decades, it has reached more homes across the globe than any other product in history. It will not be hobbled by such reach, and will continue to expand because of its miraculous utility, but it has already been wounded by a human flaw—the inability of owners to distinguish between profit and greed. Greed required distortion, which they could not resist. Lifted from college-dorm anonymity to multi-billionaire world fame within a decade, they became consumed by hubris. The masters of this social universe broke the first and last commandment of communication, credibility.

The computer revolution began at the apex of virtue, as a final-frontier answer to the continuous quest for greater knowledge. It changed more aspects of behaviour, conscious and unconscious, than any previous invention. But a branch of the net, following insatiable appetites, became the monster that now threatens the maker. Even in the grapevine of gossip, there is good and bad; most chatter is nourishing. The problem is that the bad overwhelms the good. A remarkable platform for personal communication became a stage for mass hysteria under the cover of free speech. It does not matter where the hysteria came from, left or right; the diatribe was protected by the tribe.

This was achieved through the connivance of the victim. The Opium Doctrine was in play, and like opium it was heady. In the middle of the 19th century, the absolute monarchs of the Qing-Manchu dynasty, in power from 1644, tried to stop the East India Company’s opium invasion of China by military force and law. Opium, with a little help from gunboat diplomacy, won. In the 1970s, the US launched a holy war against marijuana when Richard Nixon was in power. Marijuana, curated by mafia lords of Latin America, won. Once demonised as the drug that would destroy civilisation, it is now legal in half of America.

Like opium, Facebook or Twitter did not need to advertise to expand. Their model was the ultimate marketing fantasy. Every consumer became its advertiser. Word of mouth made a handful of tech companies into a Club of Diamonds, who then set the rules to serve their interests.

For Karl Marx, religion was the opium of the masses, and indeed the market-managers of traditional religions did make belligerent profits with their secret recipe for creation. The buccaneers of mass-tech, however, are more interested in their bank accounts than in any believer’s ledger log of sin and virtue. The Club of Diamonds, ever in search of escalating profits, turned part of the internet, once the potential church, mosque and temple of democratised knowledge, into the agora of sanctimonious slur. Their business had one great redeeming feature, though: humour. This, too, was a bestseller.

Having captured their millions of users, the Control Club raised their ambitions. They decided that they could also determine the fate of elections through suppression of information; that they could arbitrate on the meaning of right and wrong; that they could censor opinion by subterfuge. They turned globalisation into a quasi-religion, decrying nationalism as a heresy with the zeal of an inquisition. Some very good minds, and many prominent leaders, did not quite realise that they had been gulled into questioning the nation-state itself by a cartel’s business model.

A reaction was due. It may have begun.

Is Elon Musk a dynamite stick with a lit fuse? Musk is a contrarian and an egoist, and a disruptor, but less maverick than he purports to be. He understands business, or Tesla would have never been larger than a garage. He will not explode in isolation, if he does explode at all. If the Club of Diamonds decides to cut his hair, Samson Musk will bring the pillars of a larger structure down with him.

The only power to gain from Musk’s self-annihilation will be China, which has the Tesla car production facilities in its backyard and is ready to replace Twitter with TikTok after a tweak or two. TikTok is the sound of time. Twitter is a giggle. Time can wait.

The towering conceit of this century is that the blood and gore of imperialism is being whittled into a genteel new construct where knowledge and new mores are spreading light, harmony and reform. The first decade of the last 30 years was consumed by Afghanistan and Iraq; the second by Syria; the third is being chewed to bits by Ukraine. There is an obvious question. Is Ukraine the last war of the old era or the first one of the new age?

The causes, of course, lie in the past. President Putin may have seen the American sunset in Kabul and confused it with a Russian dawn. Perhaps he did not take into proper consideration the fact that America’s gut instincts are not aroused by revenge against zealot terrorists in strange robes but by a threat to its military and technological dominance. This means Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing cannot be locked away in Guantanamo. Ukraine is yet another splash of blood in the long war between Washington and Moscow. Russia may not be as strong as the Soviet Union, but it is still powerful enough to blow up the world.

Is China a bystander?

China takes pride in a lofty version of isolation. Its mandarins were unimpressed by thoughts of world conquest because in their view what the world had to offer was far inferior to what China already possessed. Their foreign policy was determined not by the rights of conquest but by the rights of superiority.

Foreigners were either supplicants or barbarians who had to kowtow. When barbarians, whether Mongol or Manchu, did breach the walls and seize Beijing, they were required to surrender to Chinese language and civilisation. The Chinese cannot easily forgive those foreigners who did not submit: the Europeans and the Japanese. The experience of European and Japanese invasion and conquest remains traumatic.

Mao Zedong was revered because he repositioned communism with Chinese characteristics, ignoring Lenin’s internationalism. Mao sent troops to Tibet to expand China’s suzerainty, and to North Korea to preserve a buffer zone against American aggression. Mao did not send troops to Vietnam. Mao’s successors have been cautious about getting involved in others’ wars. President Xi Jinping has struck a jarring note by upgrading his diplomats into wolf warriors, but he is most unlikely to throw caution aside. He will, in good Chinese fashion, wait, watch and pounce only when the opportunity becomes irresistible.

China’s strategy is to become the dominant power of the next world order, not of this one. It can wait for the present order to fall in disarray. The question then becomes different. Will Ukraine begin the swerve to a new order?

The Ukraine war will wind down. The price of sustaining it is too high on both sides. There will be a solution. People forget that a solution is liquid, not hard; from fluidity will emerge a compromise between the US and Russia which Kyiv will have to accept. In the middle of World War I, American President Woodrow Wilson proposed a peace without victory. There were no takers then, for Britain, France and Germany believed that total victory was possible. Ukraine is likely to end in a peace without categorical victory.

There will be fallout on all sides, as major nations take stock of what they have learnt from this war. The most important repercussion is one that has not been discussed.

Ukraine is a European crisis with Asian consequences.

Russia and China have reached out to each other. When they consider the future once the missiles stop, could they bring Iran into an informal alliance on the principle of an enemy’s enemy being a friend? That is what a wartime bloc is about in any case. After all, the confrontation with America and its allies will not cease. It will simply seek different arenas. It is likely China will assume leadership of the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran troika.

The three have acknowledged prowess in defence, energy, and technology. It is axiomatic that technology will be the heavy artillery of the next confrontation, with its wide range of insidious abilities to influence events and thinking. We cannot predict the specific geography of the next Ukraine.

What we can say with some certainty is that the next battle will first be fought in the mind.

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The article has been taken with permission from Open magazine.

(MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj)