The Worst is Yet to Come: When the Center Cannot Hold

15 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in slightly modified form in

COUNTERPUNCH on July 15, 2022. It attempts to connect my despair about developments

In America with wider global systemic tendencies. It is not hopeful about the future, yet 

Its central message is that we should continue to struggle for a future we can believe in given that we live at a time of radical uncertainty.]

The Worst is Yet to Come: When the Center Cannot Hold

No lines of poetry are more resonant with our time than the celebrated lines of

William Butler Yeats’ famous poem ‘The Second Coming’:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

  are full of passionate intensity.”

This is especially true here in the United States, as it was in post-World War I Germany’s

nurturing the rise of Naziism and its demonic voice, Adolph Hitler, the consummate outsider who managed to crawl up the mountain to ascend its peak. The core disabling affliction of the United States in the 21st Century is an energized and armed extreme right-wing and a listless, passive center, a development lamented by liberals who would sell their souls long before parting with their stocks and bonds, all for a non-voting seat at various illiberal tables of power. This lack of humane passion at the political center serves as a reinforcing complement to the violent forces of alienation waiting around the country for their marching orders, as the January 6th insurrectionary foray foretells. Together these contrasting modes of ‘citizenship’ signal the death of constitutional democracy as it has functioned, with ups and downs, flawed by slavery, genocide, and patriarchy at birth, indeed ever since the republic was established in 1787 as ‘a more perfect union.’ In 2022 a fascist alternative is assuming institutional, ideological, and populist prominence with active support of many American oligarchs who fund by night what they disavow when the sun shines (again recalling the behavior of German industrialists who thought of Hitler as their vehicle, whereas it turned out to be the other way around).

This contemporary political ordeal is globally systemic, and not only the sad tale of American moral, economic, and political decline, temporarily hidden from public awareness by an orgy of excess military spending that has gone on for decades, a corporatized, compliant media, diversionary exploits abroad, and a greedy private sector that grows bloated by arms sales and a regressive tax structure, Pentagon plunder, and its profit-driven regimen. What may be most negatively revealing is the failure to take account of geopolitical failure or sanctified domestic outrages (mass shootings in schools and elsewhere with legally acquired weapons suitable only for organized military combat). It is time to link the inability to mount any serious challenge to the tyranny of the Second Amendment as interpreted by the NRA in cahoots with Congress and the Supreme Court, cowing much of the public to the sullen sense of befuddled spectators. Even before these hallowed institutions acquired their Trumpist edge, they shied away from constructing rights as if they were aware of the violent societal and ecological fissures tearing up the roots of bipartisan civility. The moral rot and criminality that victimizes society as a whole is less the work of the sociopaths among us than the outcome of a two-party plutocratic dynamic that is controlled by infidels and their bureaucratic minions who either actually like the way things are working out or feel impotent to mount a challenge with any chance of producing benevolent changes.

These same patterns of stasis are evident among the centrist elites who have been educated at the most esteemed universities. Perhaps the brightest, but surely not the best. Refusing to learn from Vietnam where military dominance, widespread devastation of a distant country, much bloodshed, resulted in a political defeat that should have induced some learning about the limits of military agency in the face pf colonial collapse and a new landscape of resistance. Instead of learning from the failure brought about by a changing post-colonial political balance in the countries of the Global South, anointed foreign policy experts in Washington whined about the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ that allegedly hampered a pragmatic recourse to military instruments to advance U.S. national and strategic interests because the American citizenry feared a repetition of Vietnam. It was President George H.W. Bush who reveled in the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the desert war fought against Iraq in 1991, not primarily because it restored Kuwaiti sovereignty but because it supposedly restored societal confidence that the U.S. could win wars of choice at acceptable costs. In Bush’s prematurely triumphalist words, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” (March 1991) 

In plainer language, that American military power had efficiently vanquished its Iraqi enemy without enduring many casualties or expending much wealth, and hence the leadership of the country could feel free again to rely on military threats, weapons, and intervention as a decisive geopolitical policy tool to get its way throughout the world. But was this triumphalism vindicated? Better understood, this First Iraq War in 1991 was a strictly battlefield encounter between asymmetric military forces, and as in many earlier wars, so unlike Vietnam, the stronger side won this time quickly and without body bags alerting Americans to the sacrificial costs of a war meaningless to the security of the homeland. The lessons of Vietnam for the foreign policy establishment were to the extent possible substitute machines for troops, reinforced by professionalized armed forces replacing a military conscripted by government decree, as well as adopting tactics that shortened the military phase of political undertakings designed to nullify forms of self-determination that seemed to go against American post-Cold War resolve to run the world to serve the interests of its wealthiest 1%. 

These lessons decidedly were not what should have been learned from a decade of expensive failed blood-soaked efforts in Vietnam. The true primary lesson of the Vietnam War was that the political mobilization of a people in the Global South behind a struggle for national self-determination could now usually neutralize, and often eventually overcome, large margins of military superiority bv an outside intervening power, especially if it hails from the West. The stubborn refusal by politicians and the most trusted advisors by their side to heed this lesson led to regime-change and state-building disasters in the Iraq War of 2003, Afghanistan (2001-2021), Libya (2011), and others less pronounced and widely acknowledged failures. No matter how many drones search and destroy mission or how much ‘shock and awe’ is staged for its spectacular traumatizing effects on a vulnerable society, the end result resembles Vietnam more than Iraq after the 1991 war. Despite this accumulation of evidence, there is still no relevant learning evident, which would be most meaningfully signaled by massive downsizings of the military budget and more prudently and productively using public monies at home and abroad. The bipartisan foreign policy, again evident in response to the Ukraine War, is locking that country into an expensive and lengthy dynamic of failure and frustration, somewhat disguised by dangerous deceptions about the true nature of the strategic mission. Instead of intervention and regime change, the dominant insider Ukraine rationale for heightening tensions, prolonging warfare devastating a distant country and bringing tragic losses of life, limb, and home to many of its people, is scoring a geopolitical victory, namely, inflicting defeat and heavy costs on Russia while sternly warning China that if it dares challenge the status quo in its own region it can expect to be confronted by the same sort of destructive response that Russia is facing. Long ago patriots of humanity should have been worried about the ‘Militarist Syndrome’ and paid heeded the ‘Vietnam Syndrome,’ with a sense of gratitude. This could have led the U.S. to adopt a war prevention strategy rather than insisting on worldwide capabilities enabling a reactive military response to unwanted actions of others. Pre-2022 Ukraine diplomacy by the U.S. led NATO alliance rather than seeking a war prevention outcome in Ukraine seemed determined to provoke a war dangerously designed to extent life support to an unstable unipolar geopolitical order disliked by most of the Global South as well as China and Russia. 

Here at home with its embedded gun culture, massive urban homelessness, and cruelty to asylum seekers at the Mexican border, it is the underlying systemic malady that remains largely undiagnosed, and totally untreated—namely, a lame and unimaginative leadership that is alternatively passively toxic and overtly fascist in the domestic sphere, and geopolitically irresponsible and transactional when it ventures abroad for the sake of Special Relationships or insists that global security anywhere on the planet is of proper concerns only for Washington think tanks, lobbyists, and upper echelon foreign policy bureaucrats. It is not surprising that in such a quandary, those on the extreme right with energy, passion, and excitement on their side seem destined to control the future unless a surge of progressive energy erupts mysteriously, and enables a new social movement to emerge that is animated by strivings toward bio-ethical-ecological-political sanity.

This drift toward fascism is not the only plausible scenario for a highly uncertain American future. There is also Yeats’ assessment made long before the current world crisis emerged. We should not be surprised that poets see further ahead than foreign policy gurus, politicians, and mainstream academicians who remain fixated on electoral or other performance cycles even in autocracies:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

And then there is to be newly considered Barbara F. Walter’s carefully researched assessment that the United States is drifting toward a second civil war, and not a fascist sequel to republican democracy. [See Walter, How Civil Wars Start and how to stop them, 2022] It presents a somewhat more optimistic view of the future, although it fails to contextualize the political challenge in relation to the global systemic damage done by neoliberal economic globalization, an unsettling lingering COVID pandemic, and a general planetary condition of ecological entropy.

Nevertheless, I find this prospect of civil wars less disheartening than the related drift toward fascism or the torments of anarchy. Civil wars end and can often be prevented, and the winners have a stake in restoring normalcy, that is, assuming the more humane side prevails, which under current conditions may seem utopian. At present, only respect for international law, responsible geopolitics, a UN more empowered to realize its Principles and Purposes (Articles 1 & 2), and ethically/spiritually engaged transnational activism can hope to turn the tides now engulfing humanity toward peace, justice, species survival, and a more harmonious ecological coexistence. Miracles do happen! Now more than ever before, struggle rather than resignation seems the only imperative worth heeding.

12 Responses to “The Worst is Yet to Come: When the Center Cannot Hold”

  1. Olivia Koppell July 15, 2022 at 7:28 am #

    The best I have read on the state of affairs. I am so disheartened about where we have arrived at this moment. Thank you for your keen analysis.

  2. roberthstiver July 15, 2022 at 9:12 am #

    I’ve found time for only the merest scan of this tour de force, but that is what it is: a tour de force. Thank you, Dr. Falk!

    (Along the course of my spin-through, this sentence within the penultimate paragraph —

    “It presents a somewhat more optimistic view of the future, although it fails to contextualize the political challenge in relation to the global systemic damage done by neoliberal economic globalization, an unsettling lingering COVID pandemic, and a general planetary condition of ecological entropy.” —

    caused me to consider/re-visit a dimension of “trouble now, trouble ahead” that I feel is not given adequate consideration at this time in any venue or forum I’ve encountered. I cannot adquately articulate my angst, but that dimension, to me, centers on the frightening presence and intrusion of the burgeoning [profit-driven, for sure] “Age of Information Technology” on the global body politic, social interaction, groupthink et al. I sense that “we” are spinning off, with untold and unstoppable and accelerating centrifugal force, toward an apocalyptic “end time,” with IT as its locus. I ask plaintively: does my “sense” make “sense” in these few words?)

    • Richard Falk July 16, 2022 at 11:20 pm #

      Robert: your IT terminal scenario is one way the world as we know it will crash, but
      there are others–imagined and unimagined–that involve gross ecological malpractice and a multitude of geopolitical follies. The forces of collective denial at the highest levels of economic and political authority mask reality, reinforced by the pragmatics of self-deception and sterile gestures of reassurance.

      • roberthstiver July 17, 2022 at 1:37 am #

        Agree, sir — thank you! The “forces,” in any form, shape or manner, are arrayed against all attempts for measured, sane, sustainable “advance of civilization” pursuits….

  3. Paul Wapner July 15, 2022 at 12:10 pm #

    Thanks for this global overview, with keen observations of US politics. Congress’ latest bipartisan increase in military spending underlines your points.
    It is helpful to hear your deepening frustrations. You speak for many of us. I can’t remember feeling this lost in decades. Manchin’s recent jettisoning of even watered down climate legislation—on top of the Supreme Court’s string of horrifying decisions (although ‘decisions’ may be too generous a word)—feels like another powerful stab in the chest. The capacity to breathe diminishes day by day.
    Given current events, your injunction to keep working for a saner world feels like a futile call in the dark. It nevertheless helps tremendously to hear your voice these days. As my own vision diminishes, it is comforting to listen for your abiding faith.

    • Richard Falk July 16, 2022 at 11:15 pm #

      Thanks, Paul, for once again lifting my spirits by reading with warm eyes! I do think the worst is yet to come, but after the stormy eyes clear, maybe a different future will unfold!
      Manchin bothers me less–a typical politician responsive to special economic interests–than those Democrats that remain intimidated by the NRA. At least symbolically bipartisanship with respect to the Second Amendment and the Defense Budget should be unacceptable even to centrist politicians. Without such minimal humane partisanship I fear for the future of the species and its natural habitats.

  4. Ray Joseph Cormier July 15, 2022 at 2:24 pm #

    Greetings Richard! So happy you’re still writing.

    On the 1st Gulf War of 1991, The Ottawa Citizen published this picture 13 years earlier, when gas masks were all the worry and concern leading up to that War.
    The Economic, Military and Political Pollution and Public Complacency is much worse these Days.
    In retrospect, I wished I included Religious Pollution as well since there’s way too much of that.

    On the plus side, I found 4 email addresses of Vatican organizations, and I took the chance one of them might have access to the Pope and it appears the chance paid off.

    April 18 I sent this,
    Dear Francis, my Brother in Christ,

    God strengthen you to resist the pressure from the US dominated NATO Nations to Judge President Putin. Only God is the Judge of you, me, the Cardinals, and all living Flesh from the Greatest to the Least.

    The old adage still applies, ‘TRUTH is the 1st casualty of WAR’ and that is especially TRUE in this War.

    US/NATO WAR Propaganda does not inform the Public the Ukrainian government increased the shelling of the Civilians in the Donbas that provoked Russia to make the incursion into Ukraine to stop it.
    US/NATO War Propaganda does not inform the Public why President Putin said Minsk is Dead in recognizing the Independent Status of Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. He did not annex the territories into Russia.

    The Path to Peace was embodied in the 2015 Minsk Agreement signed by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, requiring Ukraine to start negotiations with those territories giving them some Autonomy within a Federal Ukrainian system. Within those 7 years Ukraine REFUSED to negotiate as required. The US, Germany and France did not use their leverage to get Ukraine to the negotiating table. They just armed them for the Time the US/NATO WAR PLAN with Russia was ready to implement.

    I was very disappointed you did not go to the Islamic Mosque in Nineveh ISIS blew up in 2014, containing the Tomb of Jonah in the whale fame from the Jewish/Christian tradition during your visit to Iraq last year.
    No Religious or Political Leader recognized that event as the SIGN from Almighty God this Material is at that same point on the Path to Destruction, making that 3000 year old Bible record CURRENT.

    As if to buttress that SIGN, it was in the same Year of the Lord 2014, the US orchestrated the Coup/regime change of the Elected Russian friendly government, installing the Neo-Nazi anti-Russian government headed by the man US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland was caught on tape saying she wanted to head the changed government even BEFORE it was changed. That was by design, not co-incidence, and Russia knew it if Americans don’t…………………………

    None of the Addressees acknowledged receipt of the email, but 2 weeks later, on May 3, the Pope shocked the West by saying NATO might have provoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Searching Google just now, the Pope doubled down on that June 14.

    I sent a follow-up Message to the Pope July 5 suggesting things he could say re The Plains of Abraham in Quebec City when he visits there this month.

    Naturally, more than anyone, I will be paying attention to what he will say.

  5. Beau Oolayforos July 19, 2022 at 3:16 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    In a couple of sentences, you finger the problem with the gun nuts: mass shootings with legally acquired weaponry suitable only for organized military combat, while the 2nd Amendment speaks of “..a well-regulated militia..” But what can we expect from a Supreme Court staffed largely with political-, and in Clarence Thomas’s case, affirmative-action hires?

    Must differ with you about Germany “nurturing” Hitler and Nazi-ism. Germany turned to Hitler in desperation, as their economy and national pride was being crushed, saddled with guilt for a war they did not start. John Maynard Keynes called the Versailles Treaty “Carthaginian”. Hitler just said “Hell, no!” Reparations caused the scorched earth which spawned the ugly weed of fascism. Wonder if this rings any bells with our current sanctions-lovers and Russia-baiters.

    • Richard Falk July 20, 2022 at 12:19 am #

      I do not disagree. My formulation may have been misleadingly shaped by seeking to
      draw an analogy to the normative downfall of America. Your clarity and knowledge always
      gratefully received. Greetings, Richard

  6. SuzanneTaylor July 21, 2022 at 6:12 pm #

    Now, now, who says that “only respect for international law, responsible geopolitics, a UN more empowered to realize its Principles and Purposes (Articles 1 & 2), and ethically/spiritually engaged transnational activism can hope to turn the tides now engulfing humanity toward peace, justice, species survival, and a more harmonious ecological coexistence?” No miracle needed, just a different way to deal, and there isn’t any talk about that. Maybe we could have some here.

    You and others, like Robert Reich and Chris Hedges, are so inciteful about what’s wrong but no one has opened a space to say what we (we the people and not the government we’d be doing an end-run around) might do. If I ran the country, the first thing I’d deal with is getting a voice that would represent a body of thought that only gets delivered by individual gadflies. You could be the instigator. Create an ad hoc Wisdom Council by you picking one person, the 2 of you pick the 3rd, the 3 pick the 4th, until you get a good bunch of widely respected people that deliberates on what you would do if you ran the country. That would turn you into a force that everyone would listen to. Have a Suggestion Box so the rest of us can engage. The first thing I’d put in the Box is UBI. Go to what’s causal. Get us out of the implosion of so many in survival while the rich get richer. That’s the underlying thing that keeps everything that doesn’t work in place.

    And here’s a wild idea. Any trial or fraud conviction won’t put off Trump’s followers, where our country will stay divided even if we get our pounds of flesh. Instead, offer him total immunity from all prosecutions, criminal and civil, if he’d admit he knew he lost and if he came clean about all his machinations – omg, a Trumpian mea culpa would be something to behold. But he’d be speaking for the good of the country, to unite us, and he might love being that kinky hero — along with staying out of jail and in the chips.

    At some level we just lack for good ideas, so how about opening a document to collect more of them? I have others and if this strikes your fancy I’ll send them along. Richard, that could be the miracle – that we stopped being victims of legislators who serve an oligarchy instead of constituencies, and we turned to dealing with what we the people could do instead.

  7. SuzanneTaylor July 21, 2022 at 6:13 pm #

    I didn’t check the boxes to get answers and follow-ups, which I’d like.


  1. The Worst is Yet to Come: When the Center Cannot Hold – The New Dark Age - July 15, 2022

    […] Friday, 15 July 2022 — Global Justice in the 21st Century […]

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