Something feels bizarre about living in the current era, the era in which the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just concluded that we’re metaphorically 100 seconds away from the extinction of humanity. This strange feeling has been present for a while now, going back to when the Bulletin’s “Doomsday Clock” reached 2 minutes to midnight in January of 2018 for the first time since 1953.
The Bulletin’s statement from this year on why we’re just 100 seconds away from annihilation cites the fact that “An extremely dangerous global failure to address existential threats—what we called ‘the new abnormal’ in 2019—tightened its grip in the nuclear realm in the past year, increasing the likelihood of catastrophe.” The new abnormal began creeping up in the middle of the last decade, when the U.S. empire reacted to its dwindling hegemony and the rise of its geopolitical rivals by effectively restarting the cold war. Following the beginning of Obama’s pivot to Asia at the beginning of the 2010s, where Washington began a campaign of military buildup against China in the Indo-Pacific, in 2014 Washington installed a fascist regime in Ukraine that started a proxy war with Russia.
Nuclear tensions between the great powers once again flared up, and in January of 2015 the Doomsday Clock was set at 3 minutes to midnight for the first time since 1984. As the threat of World War III continued to escalate during the next few years, with alarming skirmishes breaking out between the U.S. and Russia in Syria and Washington engaging in wild provocations against China and Iran, the clock was for the first time moved to 100 seconds to midnight in January of last year. Given the great risks of further geopolitical tensions the Eurasia Group anticipates for this next year, which will be spurred on by the projected 2021 crash of the dollar, it will surprise me if the clock gets further away from midnight next year.
Of course, the clock is only an arbitrary marker of where the global conditions are perceived to be at, one which can give us a kind of comfort purely because of how it provides our psyches with such a simplistic numerical assessment. What more reliably creates psychological horror is examining the practical details behind why the risk of a third world war is now unprecedented. We can intellectually understand the great-power conflict risk estimates that I’ve mentioned and the surface-level causes behind them that I’ve described, but we can’t grasp what they mean without looking at exactly which forces are shaping this historical nightmare.
The root cause of the clock’s current placement is that capitalism and U.S./NATO imperialism are in a state of crisis. Washington’s illegal and catastrophic invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in reaction to 9/11 set off a chain reaction where amid the rise of China and the emerging geopolitical independence of Russia, the U.S. began to rapidly lose its superpower status. Then the 2008 economic crash, along with the even greater crash in 2020, hollowed out the U.S. empire’s internal productive power by throwing tens of millions into unemployment and poverty. By 2017, the Pentagon was willing to create a paradigm of great-power tensions even more dangerous than that of the Cold War, as expressed in a U.S. military document from that year which Nafeez Ahmed described as follows:
“The document is particularly candid in setting out why the U.S. sees these countries as threats—not so much because of tangible military or security issues, but mainly because their pursuit of their own legitimate national interests is, in itself, seen as undermining American dominance. Russia and China are described as “revisionist forces” who benefit from the U.S.-dominated international order, but who dare to “seek a new distribution of power and authority commensurate with their emergence as legitimate rivals to U.S. dominance.” Russia and China, the analysts say, “are engaged in a deliberate program to demonstrate the limits of U.S. authority, will, reach, influence, and impact.””
Since the United States is the largest empire in the history of the world, and has weapons that are capable of destroying all life on the planet, its process of imperial collapse is naturally what’s bringing humanity closer than ever to extinction. Declining empires tend to engage in reckless war provocations with rivals to try to regain lost territory, or commit horrific atrocities as part of their internal political reaction; an ominous fact of history is that Nazi Germany emerged because of the decline of the German empire. It was only logical that in the case of the United States, the outcome of decline would be a situation like ours, where the globe hangs on the brink of nuclear holocaust and will remain so until the U.S. ceases to exist.
And whether or not this holocaust happens, the reality for those within reach of the empire’s deadly grip is one of ever greater bloodshed, poverty, and trauma. In its first week, the Biden administration has accelerated the rate of drone strikes in Somalia so much that at the current frequency, the number of U.S. drone strikes in Somalia for 2021 will surpass those from within the last several years. The new administration is refusing to lift Trump’s sanctions against Iran, which especially in the Covid-19 era amount to a policy of genocide. The IMF is imposing more austerity, privatization, and wage cuts across 81 countries as Biden’s team quietly aims to push for more austerity in the U.S., and as Big Tech moves to expand the surveillance state under the “Great Reset” brand. All the while, the climate crisis drifts towards its inevitable point of creating vast humanitarian catastrophe for even the Third World countries, with Wall Street taking advantage of this fact by turning the increasingly scarce water supply into a betting commodity.
In the backdrop of these late-stage capitalist conditions is war, war of a kind that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimates to be more dangerous than anything humanity has faced before. This is the war of perpetual nuclear tensions in an age where economic, environmental, and geopolitical stressors are making conflict ever more likely. In response to these conditions, the U.S. war machine has taken on a conscious mentality of unrestrained belligerence, as expressed in this part from the 2017 Pentagon document:
“The post-primacy reality demands a wider and more flexible military force that can generate advantage and options across the broadest possible range of military demands. To U.S. political leadership, maintenance of military advantage preserves maximum freedom of action… Finally, it allows U.S. decision-makers the opportunity to dictate or hold significant sway over outcomes in international disputes in the shadow of significant U.S. military capability and the implied promise of unacceptable consequences in the event that capability is unleashed.”
This is the essence of why the time we’re living in is an insane one, of why we’ve reached 100 seconds to midnight: the system can only think to react to the emergence of destabilizing factors by creating even more potential for destabilization. Whether it’s engaging in provocations against rival powers in reaction to the loss of a unipolar world, or driving down the population’s living standards even further in reaction to an economic crash, or reacting to the climate crisis by further engaging in military buildup even though the U.S. military is the world’s largest polluter, the system’s only solution is to move us even further towards our doom while telling us that these decisions are nothing but rational. It’s madness that’s presented to us as the only sensible path forward.
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