Is this the Domino Moment?
The times changed, but the techniques have not. Indeed, we have scarcely moved a generation. Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carrie may be slightly out of favour, but still alive and still able to churn new novels. The straightforward divide between freedom and evil has not changed much; just the actors now have new names.
But, we altogether forgot about the 'domino' moment. There isn't a global ideological movement of any sort any more. True to our post-modern heritage, our world is fragmented, differentiated. Street anger can not be unified, much to the relief of sophisticated money-machines. From global protests and local dictators, we are in the age of a global empire and local protests. This is a sort of David-vs-Goliath configuration, and this time, divine blessings, technology and media are on the side of the empire. It seemed we could afford to forget the 'domino' effect.
However, unbeknown to us, we came very close to experiencing one in 2008. This was to be financial domino, though, by now, the very real horrors of the Asian Tsunami dominated public imagination and the talk centered around a financial 'tsunami', however inaccurate the metaphor. The 'caving in' of the bankers was much more like a domino, self-justified and self-initiated but unstoppable, than a Tsunami, triggered externally. But words have their life cycle, and it seems the domino imagery is certainly out of favour.
Niall Ferguson, the celebrity historian who indulges in fiction rather than research these days, have made a pointless point about the end of empires recently. He kept everyone happy by finding the rationale of his thesis in a set of paintings (if it was painted, it must be true): He said the end of an empire comes not rationally step by step, but in a moment of chaos. He compared the end of Soviet empire, which ended with a domino effect playing out within a short span of time and which most of us witnessed, and pronounced that all the historians justifications about the end of bygone empires are pointless exercises of reconstruction: When an empire falls, the reasons can't be foreseen or predicted. Indeed, Professor Ferguson's point was that the decline of American Empire is a pointless discussion, as empires don't decline step by step, rationally, but go out of business in a matter of days, caving in the middle of a chaos. His thesis further was that unless you are planning for next Hollywood blockbuster, it is of little use to even think where the end would come from, because it will be unpredictable and all encompassing, just like the domino conjured up by Cold War thinkers (who must have decided that only the paranoid can survive, quite the opposite of Prof Ferguson's thesis).
In a way, however, this unlikely thesis about the absence of a thesis allows us to think about domino more carefully. Even in a David-vs-Goliath battle, do we now see a definite turning point where Street Power is suddenly connecting up and the State Power is buckling down? Enough has been said about Internet utopia and that freedom will not come easy. In fact, Egveny Morozov makes the point in his excellent The Net Delusion, that free information does not mean freedom, and for all the talk about Internet expanding freedom, the agenda is really to spread conformance, the ideas of one global empire based on the principles of consumption of crumbs. The cycle will only break when people free themselves from the cycle of consumption, which it can never do under the Middle Class leadership, a class which believes in scripted lives and have too much to lose all the time. But, there may be a moment, which may follow a nuclear conflagration, or one of financial sort, where people lose everything including the hope: This is quite clearly happening in the Middle East right now.
In a way, the traditional regimes of the Middle East are on a retreat. The Police States of Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Kuwait are looking exceptional vulnerable. The pampered dictators, who held down these countries for the Imperial interests, are getting old and out of touch. Even if their troubles are carefully kept out of the media, the middle earth is shaking. The waning of American influence is suddenly very real, and people are on the move. The tinpot Al Queda, it must be said, have no part to play here: This is not about religious fundamentalism, but the inevitable road to explosion of the Middle East, young, poor, unemployed, without hope and without anything to consume. The point, of course, is whether these will remain isolated, or this will indeed start the domino.
Indeed, no scare-mongering and admittedly, we have been here before. But, in a way, America was never so unsure, never so much maligned. The 'freedom' rhetoric in tatters, American Foreign Policy is yet to discover the next big thing. National Interest being a maligned thing for an imperial power, and the democracy being abused and exposed within a space of a few years, the State Power is suddenly losing the advantage. At this time, the only thin line between business-as-usual and unmitigated disaster is the purchasing power of American Dollar; but, the usual, buy the middle class formula may not work in the middle east where Middle Class is non-existent.
True, a different world is emerging and this may stop the domino. George W salivated at the Indian Middle Class for a reason: The middle classes, eternally tied to the slavery of mortgages and pensions, are the saviours of the empires. But while we may believe that we have created a lot of middle class in the last few years (when creation of job became the top government priority all over the world), this may not have been the policy of the dictators in trouble today.
As it should, the setting of a domino does not come from outside, it comes from inside. The conflict between the love for middle classes and the love for complaint dictators is one such thing. This conflict is already in motion and will soon engulf the Middle East. The point, however, is that whether this will spread to other countries where the middle classes are firmly entrenched, like India. The point is that it could, despite the difference in political set-up, and this is because the operating principle of American Empire. These societies, built on illusions of consumption, are deeply dependent on the purchasing power of the greenback. Again, the success has created the fault line: Most of these societies are too consumption dependent and too corrupt to keep the safety valve of democracy operating efficiently. Again, an internal disconnect making these societies ripe for a fall: Will Middle East then provide the trigger?