Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Rise and Decline of All-Star Empires (You Are Not Alone)

Dune : Makeshift Studios 2013
I have to admit a fondness for the Percy Byshe Shelley Poem Ozymandias. Shelley's poem is focused on a statue in the desert, Ozymandias - King of Kings, that it is being eroded by weather and time. The really clever part is toward the end of the short poem, when the syntax begins to crumble to chime with the decay of the sculpture.

For those unfamiliar with this work, Shelley's poem is themed around the rise and fall of leaders and empire and I think that's pretty appropriate for the times we live in.

Global economic re-evolutions, social media, atomisation, protest against the ruling elites across the world, increasing disenchantment with the enfeeblement of democracy and the omnipotence of free market capitalism ( see : Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun- rushhour 11/08/2013).

Recent events, the rapid overthrow of Hosni Mubarak after 30 years as Egypt's unelected head of state (1981-2011), and the equally rapid removal of the first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, after 12 months, are examples of rise and decline (admittedly at different speeds and in different time frames).

Now, the Egyptian state, tottering on the edge of civil war, is considering outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood (again), from which Morsi emerged.

Of course, Egypt's convulsions were a long time in the making. The Arab Spring, the legacy of Mubarak's rule and before that the assassination of President Anwar Al Sadat, were all investments in the present history of the North African country.

But, it is not only political elites that tumble, economic empires are also liable to dissolve and fall apart as change, in its many different disguises - political, economic, social, cultural and technological - sweep across our lives.

In many ways, thinking about the poem, also reminded me of the American city of Detroit.

Once the motor capital of the world, Detroit was the city that gave its name to Motown, and was synonomous with Tamla Motown, Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas et al.

We could re-write The Supremes classic Where Did Our Love Go? Where Did Our Motor Production Plant Go? Where Did Our City Go?

Today, this proud old metropolis gives its name to the largest municipal insolvency in American history.

At the height of its powers in the 1950's, Detroit lived the American dream employing around 300,000 on manufacturing lines alone. The city's population, during this period edged up toward 1.9 million. But, in the intervening years since then, both the jobs and the population have rapidly declined.

Over 1 million individuals fled the city limits as manufacturing employment opportunities fell below 30,000 and the city's debt climbed toward $20 billion.

With the great corporates shrinking, the first victims are always the employees. This, inevitably, has a knock-on effect and backward linkage to those businesses that once fed off the major employers and those who worked for them. The restaurants, the cafes, the entertainment venues, the transport companies, the people who book holidays, the real estate agents, the people who maintain buildings : plumbers, electricians, painters and decorators. Basically, those who base their businesses around the booming economy.

Of course, when that upwardly thrusting economy slows and then gradually fades until there is no pulse, other economic agencies also start to fail - often more rapidly that the host.

Eventually, less people earning on the production lines, less people paying taxes, less cash to support local businesses or pay into the pension pot, less people staying around waiting for the sun to return.

Retired former city employees catch their breath as their pensions are threatened with reduction, there is no money for welfare, no taxes to pay for anything. In such situations, municpalities are decentralised because they are losing their independent means of running their city - never a good thing in any democracy.

It is a downward decline that spirals out of control and eats a hole in the core of the political, social and economic universe.

Change is constant, but it is not the fact that it happens, it is how we deal with it when it does, because we are all part of it and we all have a part to play in shaping it - and that's the exciting part.

(Author's note : I received a couple of emails this week that made me re-think the blog.  It started out as a vehicle to get my ideas down without being too constrained by the demands of editors, to help me think through issues while writing the bigger Rush Hour project.  I am delighted, however, with the emails I received but i think I need time to think things through and I will keep you all informed.  As a footnote 'Zero History of the World' is by far the most popular blog thus far. Second footnote Detroit's demise will be part of the Summer In The City Section of Rush Hour.)

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