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Frostlands

It’s 2051 and Arcadia is under attack.
As the stand-alone sequel to Splinterlands begins, the sustainable compound in what was once Vermont is on high alert. Arcadia’s defense corps is mobilized against what appears to be a routine assault, one of many that the community repulses from paramilitary forces every year. But as sensors record a breach in the perimeter wall, even eighty-year-old Rachel Leopold shoulders a weapon and reports for duty. It’s a distraction from her urgent research to save the world from the horrors of climate change. Rachel is in a race against time as she battles Arcadia’s enemies, the rising waters and superstorms, and her own mortality.
Frostlands takes the reader from the remaining enclaves of North America to the ruins of Europe and what’s left of China before concluding with an explosive revelation that forces a reappraisal of all that came before.
Frostlands is available at bookstores and on-line.
“By taking us on a cautionary journey into a future planetary collapse where the term “one per cent” is redefined in a terrifying way, John Feffer forces us to look deeply at our own society’s blindness to ecological apocalypse and greed. But the novel’s enchantment goes beyond dystopia: the quest for salvation depends on a crusty female octogenarian who would make Wonder Woman salivate with envy.”
—Ariel Dorfman
“A worthy sequel to the thought-provoking Splinterlands, Frostlands is triumphant and absorbing science fiction, full of ecological and societal warnings. It is a unique and imaginative look at a future Earth scarred by environmental neglect…. In a short space, Frostlands touches on a variety of intriguing subjects. The killer drones and network-hacking warfare of Frostlands aren’t wild speculative fantasy of a remote future; Feffer is focused on the next fifty years or so, with an eye toward avoiding the mostly bleak landscape that Frostlands so vividly captures. Rachel and Arcadia represent the ability of humans to adapt and fight back against even self-inflicted environmental and societal wounds; their story is both edifying and entertaining.”
—Foreword Reviews

“Devotees of near-future science fiction adventures will root for resolute and energetic Rachel on her quest to save Earth.”—Publishers Weekly

“This fast read picks up after the death of Julian, the protagonist of Splinterlands, and can be enjoyed as a stand-alone sequel to the first book in the series. Its sense of urgency inspires readers to keep going and a pale glimmer of hope at the end is welcome after the quick, harrowing ride.”
—Library Journal

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Things Fall Apart

Democracy can be messy. In the northeast corner of Spain this week, democracy was downright chaotic.

Catalans went to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on whether to stay in Spain or go their separate way. The Spanish authorities, however, declared the vote illegitimate and sent in the national police to disrupt the referendum.

In many locales, as the police swept into the polling station to seize the ballots, the Catalans merely hid all the voting paraphernalia. When the police left, the Catalans set up again to register voter preferences, and lines reformed outside.

Such Keystone Kops scenarios would have been amusing if not for the outright violence of the Spanish police, which beat voters with batons and fired rubber bullets into crowds. In The Independent, Hannah Strange and James Badcock write:

Video footage showed officers from Spain’s national police — 4,000 of whom had been brought in by the government to help quash the ballot — fighting with elderly voters, some of whom were left bleeding, and dragging young women away from polling stations by their hair.

The Spanish government has been monumentally stupid. Its case for unity is much stronger than Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont’s case for independence. The Spanish constitution of 1978 speaks of the country’s “indissoluble unity,” while also according Catalonia considerable autonomy. “The Catalan government claims the right to self-determination,” The Economistpoints out. “But international law recognizes this only in cases of colonialism, foreign invasion, or gross discrimination and abuse of human rights.” None of those conditions applies to Catalonia.

Sure, the relatively wealthy Catalans are aggrieved that a portion of their economic success is redistributed elsewhere in Spain. But that’s a fundamental element of the modern state. New Yorkers subsidize New Mexicans, London subsidizes Leeds, Germans subsidize Greeks. Catalans can certainly challenge the terms of the economic arrangement — after all, the poorer Basque region doesn’t share much of its tax revenues with Madrid — but neither Spanish law nor international law allows them to gather up all their marbles and go home.

Meanwhile, the very process by which Puigdemont rammed through the referendum doesn’t reflect well on his democratic credentials. Writes Yascha Mounk in Slate:

The government rushed the necessary legislation for the referendum through the Catalan Parliament without giving deputies adequate time to discuss it. It passed the legislation in a late-night session even though the opposition was absent. It vowed to secede from Spain even if a majority of the population stayed away from the polls. And, taking a page from Trump’s playbook, it has been smearing everybody from opponents of secession to judges doing their jobs as enemies of the people.

With only a 42 percent turnout for the referendum, the Catalan authorities have no authoritative mandate for a declaration of independence. Many people who opposed secession simply refused to vote. On the other hand, the Spanish government’s reaction may well have pushed more people into the independence camp. On Monday, thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Barcelona to protest the Spanish government’s actions and assert their popular sovereignty. On Tuesday, unions called a general strike for the same purpose.

Ultimately the Catalan crisis boils down to consent — whether the Catalans continue to agree to be part of the larger Spanish nation. In an 1882 essay on nations and nationalism, the French philologist Ernest Renan famously wrote that the nation is a “daily referendum.” He meant that the nation is a matter not of inviolate borders or ancient history. Renan continued:

A nation is therefore a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make. It presupposes a past but is reiterated in the present by a tangible fact: consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.

If a majority of Catalans no longer consent to be part of the larger Spanish nation, then the specifics of the Spanish constitution are largely irrelevant. The people will force a change. Given that the younger generation favors independence, demography is on the side of the secessionists. The more polarized the situation becomes in Spain, the less room there will be for the sensible middle option of greater autonomy for Catalonia.

In the past, secessionist movements represented not a challenge to the nation-state system, but its ultimate expression. After all, rebellious provinces or peoples want nothing more than to become nation-states themselves. If every nation deserves a state, then how can the international community deny the Slovaks, the Slovenes, and the East Timorese? Secessionist movements were simply the continuation of a process interrupted by historical anomalies like the Soviet, Yugoslav, or Czechoslovak federations, or the often arbitrary border delineations of colonial administrators.

But the Catalan case suggests a different kind of future. In this future, economics, geopolitics, and technology all point toward what I’ve called in my latest book: the splinterlands.

Catalonia and the EU

The architects of the European Union imagined that their new entity would solve the challenge of endless division on the continent.

Europe has always been a patchwork of different peoples, all striving for sovereignty over their own territory. People of varying histories, cultures, languages, and religions have been mixed together in a way that has defied any easy drawing of borders. Order has usually come over the centuries by force of arms. In the last century, two world wars were fought to upend those orders, and a third war beckoned.

The EU was supposed to change all that by pointing toward something beyond the nation-state.

Not only did the EU weaken the powers of the state by appealing to the benefits of something larger — economies of scale, a unified foreign policy voice, greater individual freedoms to travel and work — it also appealed to a “Europe of regions.” According to this project, regions could deal directly with Brussels, bypassing their national governments, and also cooperate horizontally with one another: Provence with Basque country, Bavaria with Lombardy, and so on. Secession would be rendered moot, for Catalans could get what they wanted if not from Spain then from Brussels or other European entities.

Alas, it was not to be. Writes Anwen Elias back in 2008, “Regionalist or autonomist parties who saw in the EU an opportunity for organizing political authority on a post-sovereigntist basis were also forced to recognize that, in practice, Europe was still dominated by sovereign states and sovereignty-based understandings of politics.” Even in Europe, the nation-state held onto its privileged position. Attempts to revive the “Europe of regions” to accommodate pressures from below, particularly after the last Catalan referendum in 2014, came up hard against the growing Euroskeptical movements, the continued problems in the Eurozone, and ultimately Brexit.

The problem of consent, in other words, has infected the EU as well. Many citizens of wealthier European countries don’t want to subsidize the citizens of less-well-off countries. Europe-firsters have been unenthusiastic about the influx of immigrants that the EU as a whole embraced. Though others threatened to do so, the British have been the first to withdraw their consent entirely.

If the Catalans withdraw from Spain, they are also withdrawing from the EU, which would amount to a second defection in so many years. The decision could prove even more costly for Catalonia than Brexit is proving for the UK, since it doesn’t have an economy the size of England’s, hasn’t preserved a separate financial system (and currency), and doesn’t have the same international profile (for instance, Catalonia is not a member of the World Trade Organization).

Of course, would-be countries are often prepared to take an economic hit for the sake of independence.

But the Catalans have perhaps not factored in just how big a hit they’re going to take, naively thinking that the small bump up in revenues not turned over to Madrid will make the difference. They’re also disgusted, and rightly so, with the economic austerity measures that the EU has imposed on Spain. But little Catalonia will have even less power to resist these forces after independence.

Now that the “Europe of regions” has faded into irrelevance, Europe faces more fracture points. As a result of the Brexit vote, Scotland is once again reconsidering its commitment to the United Kingdom, though public opinion polls suggest that a second referendum on independence would fail by a narrow margin just like the first. In Belgium, the largest political force is a nationalist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which supports Flemish independence. Of course, the Flemish are the majority in Belgium, and Flanders is doing much better economically these days than Wallonia, but Belgian unity remains a fragile thing. Other regions of Europe are also restive — Basque country, northern Italy, Corsica.

Although the Catalan vote isn’t likely to unravel the tapestry of Europe quite yet, other forces are at work in Europe — and not just Europe.

iraqi-kurds-peshmerga

Kurdishstruggle / Flickr

Kurdistan, Finally?

Kurds have wanted their own states for centuries. They’ve attempted to carve out autonomous regions in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Last week, the Kurdish territory in Iraq held a non-binding referendum on independence, which garnered overwhelming support.

Surrounding states all took measures against the would-be new state of Kurdistan. Iran declared a fuel embargo, as did Turkey. Both countries moved troops to their borders for joint military exercises with Iraq. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the referendum “illegitimate.”

Baghdad, too, rejected the non-binding vote. But unlike Madrid, the Iraqi authorities did not attempt to stop the vote from happening. Iraq banned flights to Kurdistan airports and imposed sanctions on Kurdish banks. But it didn’t send in troops. The Kurdish government has announced new elections for November 1, and Baghdad seems to be waiting to see what the Kurds’ next move will be. Neither side wants war.

As in Catalonia, the referendum wasn’t simply a transparent bid for independence. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani used the vote as a way to boost his own popularity and that of his party, as well as to make a stronger bid for Kirkuk, a disputed oil-rich area that Baghdad also claims. Regardless of Barzani’s motives, however, independence is clearly popular in Kurdistan.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Kurds dialing back their ambitions in Iraq. They’ve been running a de facto state of sorts for years. They thought, not unreasonably, that they could trade their extraordinary efforts against the Islamic State for a shot at real, de jure sovereignty. They’ve even embraced a rather ruthless realpolitik to their ethnic brethren across the borders. Kurdistan has maintained strong ties toward Turkey — despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkey’s own Kurdish population — and have been cool toward the de facto Kurdish state of Rojava in northern Syria.

But there’s still a huge difference between de facto and de jure. Just as Catalonia can be the string that unravels the European tapestry, Kurdistan can be the string that unravels the Middle East tapestry. Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq all fiercely defend the unitary nature of their states, and the Kurds represent a strong threat to that structure.

Moreover, the region is as much of a patchwork as Europe. Yemen and Libya have already effectively fallen apart. Palestinians have been thwarted for decades from having their own state. Turkmen, Shia (in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), and others might lobby as well for a piece of their own pie.

But what if they get their slice just when the pie has become stale and inedible?

Slouching toward Splinterlands

What’s happening in Europe and the Middle East is part of a larger pattern.

The global market has been eroding the power of the nation-state for several decades, as transnational corporations flit around the world to get the best tax deals and the cheapest labor, international trade deals remove key points of leverage that national governments once had over various economic actors, and global financial authorities impose conditions on all but the largest economies that governments must meet or face default.

The global market has delegitimized states. No wonder, then, that subnational units are taking advantage of this weakness.

Technology has amplified this trend. Communications advances make this global market possible, and the transfer in microseconds of huge amounts of capital in and out of nation-states renders national economic policy increasingly illusory. The Internet and social media have broken the monopoly on national media, providing civic movements (along with global disrupters like the United States and Russia) the means to challenge the once authoritative narratives of the nation-state. What happened in the Arab Spring to authoritarian governments is now happening to democratic governments as well (witness the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory).

Finally, in the world of geopolitics, the overarching reasons for ideological unity are gone. The West no longer faces a “Communist threat,” while the East no longer huddles together against the “Yankee threat.” Sure, there’s the Islamic State and its ilk to worry about. But all nation-states see these non-state actors as a threat. The “war on terrorism” hasn’t forced states to give up a portion of their sovereignty for the cause — only citizens to give up a portion of their civil liberties.

In the 1950s and 1960s, utopians dreamed of a world government even as dystopians feared a global Big Brother. Today, when the international community can’t even come together to stop climate change, the prospect of world federalism seems impossibly quaint. A much grimmer reality presents itself in places like Libya and Somalia and Yemen: failed states and the war of all against all.

Today the world faces a crisis of the intermediate structure. The EU is under siege. The power of nation-states is eroding. If this trend continues, with the world continuing to splinter, the only entities left with any global power will be corporations and religious organizations, a world where frightened people pray to Facebook and the gods of Google that the fierce winds of nationalism and the rising waters of climate change and the random fire of lone gunmen will stay away for one more day.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 4, 2017

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A Fairy Tale from 2050

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I testified before the great assembly of our land.

When I describe this event to children today, it really does sound to them like a fairy tale. Once upon a time — a time before the world splintered into a million pieces and America became its current disunited states — this old woman was a young idealist who tried to persuade our mighty Congress that a monster was stalking the land.

“Did they listen to you, Auntie Rachel?” they typically ask me.

“Oh, they listened to me, but they didn’t hear me.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I thought and I thought, and I wrote and I wrote, and I put together an even better presentation,” I say patiently. “I had to somehow make that monster visible so those mighty people could see it.”

“What did it look like, Auntie Rachel?”

“It was invisible, my dear children, but we could feel its hot breath. And we could see the terrible things that it did. It could make the oceans rise. It could make the crops wilt in the fields. Still, we kept feeding this terrible beast.”

“But why?”

“It’s what the monster demanded. Some monsters want to devour little children. Others insist on young maidens. But this one insisted on tankers of oil and truckloads of coal. Even as it grew, it only demanded more and more.”

At this point, the children are always wide-eyed. “What did you do then?”

“I talked to those great people again. And this time I tried even harder to describe the monster.” As I slip into the past, the faces of the children become those of long-dead politicians. “I provided more detailed graphs of rising temperatures. I cited statistics on the impact of burning coal and oil and natural gas. I displayed photos of what the melting ice and the surging waters had already done. And then I showed them pictures of what the future would look like: submerged cities, drought-stricken lands, dead seas. They looked and still they didn’t see. They listened and still they didn’t hear. Great people,” I conclude, “are not always good people.”

“What did you do then?” they always ask.

“I stopped talking, my darlings. I came here to escape the monster. I came to Arcadia.”

They look disappointed. The children know their fairy tales. They expect someone — perhaps a knight in shining armor — to appear suddenly and slay the monster.

“There was no knight,” I lament. “And the monster still lives. We can feel its hot breath even now.”

Of course, my young charges don’t really understand my story. Today, in 2050, there is no Congress. There are no committee hearings. There are no intergovernmental panels or global gatherings. I might as well be telling them about Roman banquets or medieval jousts. And yet my little students always clamor for more stories of the vanished world of Washington, D.C., 2017, just as they would beg for yet another of Aesop’s fables. But they don’t quite see how these tales of long ago connect to their lives today.

After all, they live in a post-political world.

The Death of Politics

Before the global thermometer went haywire, before the great economic panics of the early 2020s, before the battles escalated between vigilantes and jihadis, before the international community cracked like a mirror smashed by a fist, there was that initial death, which was barely noticed at the time.

As the historians — those left to tell the tale — will inform you, there were no funerals for the death of politics, nor were there obituaries. And even if there had been, few would have shed any tears. The confidence the American public had in Congress back in those days was lower than in any other institution — a mere 9% had such confidence, compared to 18% for big business and 73% for the military.

Politics in the muggy swamp of Washington, where I lived in those antediluvian years, had become a tug of war between two hated teams. Sometimes, one side won and dragged the other through the muck. Then the situation would be reversed. No matter: at the end of the day, everyone was left covered in mud.

Yes, things might have turned out differently. Radical reforms might have been enacted, a new generation of politicians cultivated. But at the moment of greatest peril — to the republic and the world at large — Americans turned their backs on politics, electing the most anti-political candidate in the history of the country. The founding fathers had done everything they could to ensure that the system would not produce such a result, but there was no way they could have anticipated Donald Trump or the circumstances that put him in power.

When the initial Europeans arrived in North America more than half a millennium ago, they brought weapons far more powerful than the stone axes and wooden clubs wielded by the First Nations. But it wasn’t just the guns that proved so devastating. The Europeans carried within them something far more lethal: invisible diseases like smallpox and the flu. Those viruses cut through the Native Americans like so many scythes, killing nine out of every ten of the original inhabitants of this continent.

Many centuries later, Donald Trump arrived in Washington armed with the explicit weapons of extremist rhetoric and sociopathic sangfroid with which he had destroyed his political opponents. But it was what he carried hidden within him that would ultimately turn out to be so catastrophic. Although he had railed against the political establishment in the election campaign that put him in the Oval Office, in his own way he had also played by the political rules to get there. Deep down, however, his greatest urge was to destroy politics altogether: tweet by tweet, outrage by outrage.

And his attack on politics would finish off the world as we knew it in Washington circa 2017. In the end, it would render congressional testimony and Congress itself irrelevant. Even today, more than 30 years later, the bodies are still piling up.

The Judgment of Paris

I teach science to the young children here in Arcadia. It’s not difficult to explain the basic scientific concepts that so changed our world, and we have a well-equipped lab for them to run experiments. So they understand the science of climate change. What bewilders them is how the crisis came about.

“Why didn’t our grandparents run the factories every other day?” a bright young girl once asked me. “Why didn’t they drive those stupid cars just on the weekend?”

Our children know little but Arcadia, and this community is fully sustainable. We produce everything we need here in this corner of what was once the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. What we don’t grow, we synthesize or create on our 3-D printers. We conduct limited trade with the few neighboring communities. If there is an unexpected death, we issue another birth permit. If our solar batteries run low during the winter, we ration energy. Everything is recycled, from our chicken bones to our night soil. The children of Arcadia don’t understand waste.

They also don’t understand the now-strange concept of an international community. They’ve never ventured beyond the walls of our little universe.  It’s only thanks to virtual tourism that they’ve seen the world outside, which just reinforces their desire to remain here. After all, the world out there is just a collection of sharp little shards, what my ex-husband used to call the “splinterlands” of this planet. My students can’t comprehend how those shards, most of them exceedingly dangerous micro-environments, once fit together to form larger nations that in turn sometimes cooperated to solve common problems. It’s like that old story of the elephant and the six blind men. The children of Arcadia can understand the parts, but unsurprising enough, given the events of the last three decades, the whole eludes them.

Think of that long-gone international community, I tell them, as a squalling infant born in 1945 to bickering parents. A troubled childhood was followed by an awkward youth. Only in middle age, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, did it finally seem to come into its own, however briefly.  Unfortunately, within a few short years, it was prematurely in its dotage. In 2017, at 72, the international community was past retirement age, in frail health, and in desperate need of assisted care.

Once upon a time, this aged collective creature, this Knight of the Sad Countenance, was supposed to be our savior, the slayer of the horrible monster. When the time came, however, it could barely lift a lance.

Without some knowledge of the life cycle of the international community, my children can’t possibly understand why global temperatures continued to rise in the first part of this century, despite the best efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens. Several countries, Uruguay and Bhutan among them, had gone to extraordinary lengths to reduce their carbon footprint, and more than a dozen cities eventually became carbon neutral. Individuals adopted vegetarianism, drove electric cars, turned down their thermostats in the winter — as if lifestyle changes alone could slay the monster.

Unfortunately, a global problem really did require a global response. The Paris climate accord, which 196 countries signed at the end of 2015, was just such an effort. Only two countries refused to sign, one (Syria) because it was mired in a civil war and the other (Nicaragua) due to sheer cussedness. And yet the terms of the agreement were far from adequate. The international community, which had come together in this twilight of cooperation, well understood the enormity of the challenge: to keep global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average. At best, however, the Paris treaty would have kept temperatures from rising three degrees.  And as everyone now knows, the best was hardly what happened.

In this way did that community abandon the very idea of sustainability and embrace its lesser cousin, resilience. I try to explain to my children that sustainability is all about harmony — maintaining balance, never taking more than what we give back. Resilience, on the other hand, is about making the adaptations required by a crisis, about simply getting by. The judgment of Paris, with its nod toward resilience, was, in fact, an acknowledgment of failure.

Although flawed, it was at least part of a process. That’s what democratic politics is all about, I tell my charges. You have to begin somewhere and hope to improve from there. After all, there’s always the possibility that one day you might even graduate from resilience to sustainability.

But, of course, there’s also the option of going backward, which is exactly what happened, big league — to use an expression of the new American president — in 2017.

The Trump Revolution

It’s an unfortunate fact of our world that destruction is so much easier than construction. Anyone can wield a sledgehammer; few can use a trowel. An inadvertent sneeze can take down the most elaborately built house of cards.

Donald Trump was more than just a sneeze. His devotion to the destruction of the “administrative state” was impressive. At the time, we were all so focused on the domestic side of that destruction — the toppling of the pillars of the welfare state, the repeal of universal health care, the rollback of legal protections and voting rights of all sorts — that we failed to pay proper attention to just how devastatingly that destruction spread internationally.

Yes, the new president cancelled pending trade deals, thumbed his nose at traditional allies, and questioned the utility of agreements like the one that mothballed Iran’s nuclear program. But those were largely bilateral attacks. Much more dangerous were his fierce sallies against the international administrative state.

The most important of these, of course, was his decision to withdraw from the Paris accord. Admittedly, it was a weak, voluntary agreement. Yet even that was too much for Donald Trump. The president declared that the agreement would disadvantage Americans and force workers and taxpayers “to absorb the cost” of reducing greenhouse gas admissions through “lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” It didn’t matter that none of that was true.  Renewable energy programs were creating more well-paying jobs in the United States than the dirty energy industries were trying to maintain.  In his surge of destruction, however, President Trump never felt the need to justify his actions with recourse to actual facts.

The United States, moreover, was both the richest country in the world and historically the largest producer of carbon emissions. As we tell our students here in Arcadia, if you’re most responsible for the mess, you should be most responsible for the clean-up.  It’s a simple concept for children to absorb. Yet it was beyond the ken of most Americans.

Worse than being merely indifferent, the new president was determined to hasten global warming, single-handedly if necessary, by expanding offshore drilling; green-lighting more gas and oil pipelines; reducing restrictions of every imaginable sort on the dirty energy industry; cutting support for the development of alternative energies; encouraging the production of, and reduced emissions standards for, gas-guzzling vehicles; and slashing the budget for the enforcement of environmental standards of every imaginable sort. Trump, in other words, wasn’t just willing to let the buried treasure of fossil fuels well enough alone.  He was eager to feed the monster even more than it demanded.

If we had been living in a normal time, it might have been possible to fight back effectively in political terms against this onslaught. But just as Trump’s carbon-based vision of America and the world was exploding upon us, politics was taken into a backroom and strangled.

The Politics of Antipolitics

I remember the birth of antipolitics. I was a young woman when dissidents in the communist world began to associate official political activity with support for an immoral order. Voting, they believed, was an empty gesture if the ruling party won 99% of the ballots cast. Parliaments were empty vessels if the Party leader and the Politburo always ended up making all the decisions. When politics are compromised in this way, all but the opportunists retreat into antipolitics.

Communism died in 1989, and politics was reborn in those lands of antipolitics — but all too briefly. Within a decade, the new converts to democracy began reverting to their earlier mistrust of anything political and conventional politicians became the enemy.  Collaboration and compromise were once again anathema.

And then this very dissatisfaction with politics as we knew it began spreading beyond the post-communist world. Voters elsewhere became dazzled by the most illiberal of politicians, a crew who were naturals for one-party or one-leader states. Donald Trump was just part of this new fraternity of nationalist populists that included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Viktor Orban of Hungary.  All of them quickly began concentrating power in their own hands in an attempt to rule by decree (or, in Trump’s case, by executive order). In the process, they used antipolitics strategically to defeat any potential challenges at the domestic and transnational level.

It was odd that, in so many countries, voters seemingly couldn’t wait to disenfranchise themselves through this new antipolitics. To a man, these autocrats came to power not through coups but through elections. Odder still was the fact that, in those years, it was increasingly young people who no longer considered it important to live in a democracy. When only the old believe in such a system, then it, too, is but one step from the grave.

Perhaps the culprit was economic. The major parties in these countries had almost uniformly supported policies that widened the gap between rich and poor, robbing young people of jobs and any hope for a future. No surprise, then, that they lost faith in the secular religion of democracy.

Or perhaps technology killed politics. The computer and the cell phone combined to reduce the attention span required for sustained involvement in public affairs. The micro-communities created by social media obviated the need to interact with those who didn’t share one’s own micro-concerns. And of course everyone began to insist on immediate results at a single keystroke, which, at the political level, translated into an increased preference for decrees.

For a brief moment, the Trump “shock” provoked a counter-reaction. In the United States, there were huge protest marches, while unsympathetic government bureaucrats dug in their heels — but this only strengthened the populist narrative of an irresponsible liberal elite and a hostile “deep state.” In this brief moment of seeming reversal, Trump’s allies in Europe even lost a few elections, but the victors in those contests continued policies that disadvantaged the majority economically and politically and in the next round or the one after the predictable happened.

As those of a certain age remember, Trump himself eventually fell from power, undone in the end by his own self-defeating vengefulness.  At that moment, his critics exulted in their schadenfreude, only to find that he was replaced all too soon by someone who shared his destructive anti-politics without his noxious personal traits.

Trump stunned the international community. His successors gutted it.  And as everyone in Earth’s splinterlands now knows, the monster continued to be fed, while the thermometers, floods, droughts, wild fires, sea levels, tides of refugees, and all the rest continued their inexorable rise.

Childhood’s End

Fairy tales should have happy endings. I assure our children that they are safe inside Arcadia. They can see for themselves how successfully we raise our crops. They are far enough from the ocean’s tidal waves not to fear the waters. They participate in the democratic political life of our community. The occasional breakdown notwithstanding, Arcadia is a small island of hope in a sea of despair.

The temperatures continue their climb. Outside, the scramble for resources becomes bloodier by the year. Many of the communities that once dotted the landscape around us are nothing but a memory. The walls surrounding Arcadia may be next to impregnable and our armory remarkably well stocked, but the question remains: Can we survive without our founding members, who are just now beginning to die off?

We raise and educate our children under the threat of the same monster grown larger yet. As they get older, some of the young accuse my generation and me of failing to slay that creature and, unfortunately, they couldn’t be more right. I believe that we, at least here in Arcadia, did do our best, but sadly it wasn’t good enough.

Soon, it will be our children’s turn. They will tend the crops and maintain the armory. They will continue the search for a scientific solution to climate change in the absence of a political one and an international community to enforce it. And they will be the ones who must make sure that the monster, however much it huffs and puffs and threatens our very livelihood, does not in the end blow our house down, too.

TomDispatch, July 18, 2017

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My Novel (Accidentally) Predicted Trump

It’s terrifying when your dystopian nightmares begin to come true.

Donald Trump is consolidating a circle of extremist advisers. Hardline restrictions on immigration are going up, regulations on Wall Street are tumbling down, and ordinary Americans can no longer agree on simple truths, let alone politics.

Abroad, Europe may be splintering, too, Asia looks volatile, and wars continue to rage in the Middle East. And everywhere, climate change creeps forward.

For me, however, the rise of the Trump era held a special terror.

My novel Splinterlands, which I finished in March 2016 and published in December, imagines a world that breaks into a million little pieces. It begins with the destruction of Washington, DC by a terrible storm — which I called Hurricane Donald — and goes downhill from there.

I tell the story of the unraveling of a family, which takes place against the backdrop of the break-up of the European Union, the collapse of China, the disuniting of the United States, and a massive financial crisis that wipes out the middle class everywhere.

After submitting the final draft of the book to my publisher, I watched in bewilderment as the British public voted to withdraw from the EU. I was astonished some months later when the American public elected Donald Trump. And I was dismayed to watch the new administration begin to undermine U.S. democracy even before it officially took office.

I also felt a strange sense of déjà vu. It was a feeling akin to traveling back in time to watch the unfolding of an assassination or the lead-up to a world war. I’d already gamed out these scenarios when I was plotting my novel.

I’m no Nostradamus, and I didn’t intend Splinterlands as a prediction of the future.

When I was writing the book, I was concerned about the rise of far-right extremists, the rollback of democracy, and growing divisions here and abroad. And the half-measures the international community adopted to address climate change didn’t bode well for the health of the planet either.

I wanted my new novel to serve as a wake-up call. The world — and our country — could easily fragment, I warned, if we didn’t pay more attention to the sources of the new populist nationalism.

Economic globalization was benefiting some and leaving others behind. Faith in the democratic process was eroding as political elites engaged in corruption. Social media was undermining the distinction between real and fake news.

In past eras, progressives challenged these developments with calls for greater economic equality, more democracy, and solidarity across social identities. But mainstream progressive parties have often backed the same 1 percent-friendly policies as the right, leading to skyrocketing inequality.

The decline of the left has provided enormous political opportunities for the far right.

They’re climbing in the polls all over Europe. And here in the States, the white-supremacist alt-right played a critical role in getting Donald Trump elected.

But novelists don’t write dystopias because they think the dismal future they portray is inevitable. 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale: These were all calls to arms. If humanity didn’t change its ways, the novelists warned, those dystopias would be more likely.

Americans, fortunately, are already responding to the threat.

The protests following Trump’s inauguration brought millions of people onto the streets. And the executive order banning Muslims from seven countries from entering the United States has generated unprecedented backlash.

The United States is divided, but still it stands.

I’m terrified. But I’m also hopeful. My novel Splinterlands remains mostly fiction, and I’ll work hard with millions to keep it that way.

OtherWords, March 1, 2017

Categories
Books Eastern Europe Featured Fiction

Splinterlands

splinterlands2

Part Field Notes from a Catastrophe, part 1984, part World War Z, John Feffer’s striking new dystopian novel, takes us deep into the battered, shattered world of 2050. The European Union has broken apart. Multiethnic great powers like Russia and China have shriveled. America’s global military footprint has virtually disappeared and the United States remains united in name only. Nationalism has proven the century’s most enduring force as ever-rising global temperatures have supercharged each-against-all competition and conflict among the now 300-plus members of an increasingly feeble United Nations.

As he navigates the world of 2050, Julian West offers a roadmap for the path we’re already on, a chronicle of impending disaster, and a faint light of hope. He may be humanity’s last best chance to explain how the world unraveled—if he can survive the savage beauty of the Splinterlands.

Publication Date: December 6, 2016; order here.


Related Articles

From Here to Dystopia, Foreign Policy In Focus,

Excerpt — AlterNet, December 7, 2016

How Donald Trump Changed Everything, 2016-2050 — TomDispatch, December 6, 2016

Splinterlands: The View from 2050 — TomDispatch, November 10, 2015


Interviews

KGNU, December 27, 2016

Catskill Review of Books, December 23, 2016

C-Realm, December 21, 2016


Event Videos

At the New School on February 16 with Elzbieta Matynia, Jeffrey Goldfarb, and Bill Hartung

 

Reviews

 

“In a chilling, thoughtful, and intuitive warning, foreign policy analyst Feffer (Crusade 2.0) takes today’s woes of a politically fragmented, warming Earth and amplifies them into future catastrophe. Looking back from his hospital bed in 2050, octogenarian geo-paleontologist Julian West contemplates his fractured world and estranged family. West is writing the follow-up to his bestselling 2020 monograph, Splinterlands, in which he analyzes the disintegrated international community. By 2050, the refugee-saturated European Union has collapsed; the countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China have splintered; and Washington, D.C., is gone, destroyed by Hurricane Donald in 2022. There are water wars, imitation foods made from seaweed, inequality, disease, and sleeper terrorists. On a virtual reality trip to make amends, West visits his children—professor Aurora in a deteriorating Brussels rampant with kidnappings; wealthy opportunist Gordon in Xinjiang, no longer part of China; and freedom fighter Benjamin in prosperous Botswana. His ex-wife, Rachel, lives in a commune in a snowless Vermont, now a farming paradise. Lending credibility to his predictions, Feffer includes footnotes from West’s editor written around 2058. This novel is not for the emotionally squeamish or optimistic; Feffer’s confident recitation of world collapse is terrifyingly plausible, a short but encompassing look at world tragedy. ”
—Publisher Weekly, Starred Review

 

“Feffer’s book is a wild ride through a bleak future, casting a harsh, thought-provoking light on that future’s modern-day roots.”
—Foreword Reviews



Splinterlands is a compelling account of what may happen to our world if there is no common future.  At 150 pages, the novel is short and readable. I think it would be an excellent supplemental text for both introductory and advanced courses in International Relations, which can provoke discussion, thought and no doubt consternation in students about the world that they are about to inherit.”
E-International Relations Review


“Splinterlands is a timely and chilling dystopian novel.”
Washington City Paper

 

“Readers who enjoy dystopian stories that hold more than a light look at political structures and their downfall will more than appreciate the in-depth approach John Feffer takes in his novel.”
–Midwest Book Review

 

“John Feffer is our 21st-century Jack London, and, like the latter’s Iron Heel, Splinterlands is a vivid, suspenseful warning about the ultimate incompatibility between capitalism and human survival.”
–Mike Davis

 

“Splinterlands paints a startling portrait of a post-apocalyptic tomorrow that is fast becoming a reality today. Fast-paced, yet strangely haunting, Feffer’s latest novel looks back from 2050 on the disintegration of world order told through the story of one broken family– and offers a disturbing vision of what might await us all if we don’t act quickly.”
—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickle and Dimed and Living with a Wild God, and founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project“A chilling portrayal of where the politics of division could take us. Now I only hope he writes the sequel to tell us how to avoid it!”
—Naomi Oreskes, co-author of The Collapse of Western Civilization

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

From Here to Dystopia

Shortly after the November elections, a friend sent me a photo via Facebook. It was a sandwich board outside a bookstore in Massachusetts. It read: “Post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to our current affairs section.”

My friend added a note of her own: “Trump’s election should help with sales of your new book.”

My gain, humanity’s loss.

My new book is a dystopian novel about how the world falls apart. Splinterlands, published this month by Haymarket and available here, was not intended to be a depiction of current events. I didn’t think that Britain would vote to leave the European Union last June. Nor did I think Donald Trump would win the November elections.

But when I was writing the manuscript a year ago, I was certainly worried about the trend lines.

After all, the EU has sustained a number of heavy body blows over the last several years. These challenges have ranged from the Greek economic crisis and the assault of Euroskeptical governments in Eastern Europe to the greater popularity of right-wing populists in Western Europe and the rising xenophobia that has accompanied the large influx of immigrants from conflict zones in the Middle East.

In the United States, meanwhile, Donald Trump was articulating the profound unease that many Americans have felt about economic globalization, political elites, and liberal culture. I didn’t think he’d win in 2016 (and, according to the popular vote, he didn’t). But I was worried that a more capable politician would run on Trump’s platform and eke out a victory in 2020.

So, Splinterlands was supposed to be a warning. Britons were supposed to handily defeat Brexit; Hillary was supposed to easily win the Electoral College. Don’t be complacent, I was warning my future readers: The EU could still fragment, and the United States could still elect a neo-fascist. I’d issued a similar warning in August 2008 about a “Goldilocks apocalypse”happening as a result of the aggressively centrist policies of Barack Obama.

Now, with millions of Americans concerned about a Trumpocalypse, complacency is no longer my chief concern.

Sometimes, the future rushes at you like an oncoming car that suddenly crosses over the centerline of the highway. Jerked out of a near-snooze, you try to swerve. But the future hits you head on. In the wee hours of the morning of November 10, what’s the last thought in your head before you sink into unconsciousness?

I sure hope the air bag works.

The Bomb Squad

There is nothing more frightening than a bomb squad that’s trained not to defuse munitions, but rather to blow up the very institutions they’re supposed to protect. Donald Trump is assembling quite a team of these auto-demolition experts.

There’s the EPA administrator who places his faith in fossil fuels and can’t wait to gutenvironmental regulations, the secretary of labor who wants to replace workers with robots, the head of the education department who would dearly love to privatize and Christianize the public education system. Then there’s Rick Perry, who once promised to eliminate the very Energy Department that Trump wants him to lead. Who knows what Ben Carson will do with housing or Linda McMahon at the Small Business Association. They’re eminently unqualified. Trump, the putative anti-elitist, would have done the world a favor by selecting nominees at random from the phone book.

Equally great damage will be done in the realm of foreign policy.

Consider John Bolton, who is up for the position of deputy secretary of state. It’s bad enough that the choice for secretary of state is a top oil executive who knows nothing about diplomacy and is looking forward to negotiating with Vladimir Putin, oligarch to oligarch. Incomparably worse is a nominee who knows the inner workings of international relations and wants nothing better than to blow them up. Expect Exxon exec Rex Tillerson to travel around the world and conclude deals that enrich his buddies. John Bolton, meanwhile, will be busy destroying everything in sight.

Margaret Thatcher once said that she didn’t believe in “society.” Bolton, similarly, doesn’t believe in the international community. He famously asserted that the UN complex in New York would be better off if it lost ten floors.

Bolton unapologetically endorsed the Iraq War, supported a military strike against Iran, and has savaged the détente with Cuba. He wants to go head-to-head with China. He’s a big fan of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He welcomed the Brexit vote as an escape from “the EU Titanic.” He can’t wait to take the gloves off to fight a civilizational battle against “radical Islam.”

How could the realm of international relations produce such a violent, abrasive bomb-thrower like John Bolton? You might as well ask why the human body produces potentially fatal cancer cells.

In my novel Splinterlands — and you can read an excerpt here at Alternet — I write about a future in which the international community has disappeared, the EU has fallen apart, and large nation-states like Russia, China, and the United States have fractured. Even organic farming communes have to maintain well-stocked arsenals to protect themselves from the war of all against all taking place outside their walls. The rich have seceded from society; the poor are at the mercy of the elements; and the middle class has been whittled down to a mere sliver. Without any international cooperation to speak of, the planet can’t address the common ills of climate change, global pandemics, and economic inequality.

It doesn’t take much to unravel the international community. One or two bomb throwers can do the trick.

Donald Trump is appointing a whole cabinet of them.

From Here to Dystopia

In that old TV ad, Madge the manicurist tells her customer to use Palmolive to wash dishes because it will soften her hands. The customer expresses doubt. “But you’re already soaking in it,” Madge points out, and the camera zooms in on the customer’s hand resting in the green liquid.

Dystopias are almost always set in the future. Readers might identify certain unpleasant aspects of contemporary life exaggerated for effect by the science fiction writer. Women have no control over their bodies in The Handmaid’s Tale. Everyone is stupefied by drugs in Brave New World. Water has become the most precious natural resource in The Water Knife.

But sometimes, as we dip into the latest dystopian fiction, we discover that, oops, we’re already soaking in it. George Orwell was famously undecided about the title of his most notorious dystopian fiction. He was certainly thinking of the date he finished the book, 1948, when he settled on its anagram, 1984. That fictional year almost immediately became synonymous with a future of unrelenting despair. In reality, as the Iron Curtain clanked shut in the middle of Europe, 1948 was already pretty dystopian. War between Oceania and the other two super-states was just around the corner, and Newspeak had already taken over the public sphere.

Orwell intended his novel as a cautionary tale. Unless the Britons of 1948 made wiser political decisions, they would one day wake up in Airstrip One with Big Brother staring at them from posters on every street corner. They had to be careful not to take the wrong turn off history’s highway.

In Splinterlands, the main character is obsessed with this very question of when the world took its fatal detour.

For decades, scholars have put the onus on large impersonal events — Hurricane Donald, the Great Panic of 2023, the displacement of the dollar — as if a policy nudge or two one way or another might have prevented these developments. I’ve always focused instead on 2018. As far as I can tell, that was the last moment when we had a definite shot at dodging the bullet.

The problem is: It wasn’t a single bullet and there wasn’t a single gun. If several EU countries hadn’t set up internal borders against refugees, migrant workers, and perceived terrorists, if the United States hadn’t made one last effort to preserve its global military “footprint,” if the world community hadn’t paid mere lip service to its previous commitments to curb carbon emissions, the story might have turned out differently.

Looking backward, history always seems inevitable. However, since we face forward into the unknown, we can always change our story. Even when the headwind is strong and the ground slopes up, we can alter our trajectory. Even when we look into the distance and Trump is as ubiquitous as a reality-show Big Brother, we can stubbornly refuse to accept this manufactured reality.

Dystopias are not always safely in the future. We may discover with a start that we are soaking in it. But we are not just passive readers. We are also active writers. And with a lot of grit and old-fashioned organizing, from bookstores to barricades, we can write ourselves a different story.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, Decembe r14, 2016