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Life During 1980. And 2007.

Over at The Danger Room, they've posted a reminder of a thin whispering voice from the 1980 zeitgeist -- a very funky live rendition of "Life During Wartime":

DANGER ROOM Soundtrack

My first thought was that I'd forgetten how hot that song was. My second was that this could be Bagdhad they're singing about. Or Gaza. Or Beirut.

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons
Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway
A place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I'm getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto
I've lived all over this town

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
This ain't no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey
I ain't got time for that now

[....]

Why stay in college? why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time?
Can't write a letter, can't send a postcard
I can't write nothing at all
This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
This ain't no fooling around
I'd love you hold you, i'd like to kiss you
I ain't got no time for that now

Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock
We blended in with the crowd
....

Lyrics: Talking Heads - Life During Wartime

There was something in the air, or the water, or the synchronistic ether in the late '70s. In the summer of 1980, I began the process of fleshing out an idea for a science fiction novel that would be set in a ruined, riot-torn city. A mysterious agent would enter the city as everyone else fled, set on a mission that he could not fully know. I like to think I know, generally, where I go the ideas. It emerged from a melange of influences, including (but far from limited to) Grahame Green's The Confidential Agent, riots in England (particularly Brixton) in 1981, and this song. I know I had the general idea as early as sometime in 1980; I don't think it achieved anything like final form until the fall of 1985.

I've drawn scenarios involving the collapse of urban civil societies in notes and sketches for many projects between about 1979 and the present, and encountered a great many more in fiction. What's impressed me about the real world in those 27 years is how ready it is to snap back to the norms. The general rule seems to be that when there's trouble, people will help one another out, to the extent that they know how or that they believe they can, without harming their own. England did not disintegrate after the riots of '81 (as I imagined it might, from the naive perspective of a 17 year old American conservative). Beirut eventually settled to a relative stability. I had begun to feel that order was the rule, in human society, not the exception.

But of course there are ways to make the tendency go the other direction, and the first and most important condition for a descent into chaos after disaster is the weakening of what for lack of what I regard as a better term I will refer to as civil society. It's not sufficient that there be poverty or that there be a disconnect between people and their government (be it local, state, or federal) -- there has to have been some kind of basic collaps of the ordinary day to day organizing structures of life. There's probably nothing specific, either, that needs to collapse. In Iraq, we can see many small things that combine to make life unstable; we can see the tacit encouragement to develop on-the-ground, ad hoc civil institutions to deal with issues like insecurity and shortage. Some of those institutions will be deeply cultural; those will be the ones that excite the most devotion, as they become the means by which people define "their own."

John Robb points out continuously that the "perpetual collapse of Iraq" is in direct relation to the failure of the Iraqi state. I would take that a step further, and say that it is in direct relation to the failure of civil society in Iraq. Robb points to Maslow to make his argument that there are some basic needs that need to be met before you can have security; I would point out that even if those needs are met, who meets them and how (i.e., the ideology that informs the new structures that stand in for the state) becomes a critical factor in what it's like to live in those states.

Put another way: Stability is a matter of perspective. Being Sunni or Shi'ite has a completely different bearing on the degree to which your Maslovian needs are being met, depending on whether you live in Mosul or Bagdhad, on whether you you side with or against the Sadrists, and so on. I'm not implying that's lost on Robb. He focuses on the economics and the gross factors, and he's right to do so. By doing so, he can arrive at what he calls the "humpty-dumpty principle":

States are increasingly finding themselves in perpetual disruption or complete failure. One driver of this is globalization. Globalization has diminished state power across the board ("it melts the map"). So,if we want to build a peaceful (and profitable) system that obeys a new rule set (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Barnett), the limits of state power must be a critical factor in its development.

Global Guerrillas: THE HUMPTY DUMPTY PRINCIPLE

The phrasing is interestingly precise: "the limits of state power must be a critical factor...." Not "Limiting state power," nor "bolstering state power"; instead, what the limits are. Because what they are will have a different result, depending on where you are.

But I digress, as usual. This whole set of ruminations started as a meditation on a song lyric, and there were certain parts of that lyric that haunted me back then more than the rest of them. They haunt me now not so much because I think they might come true, but rather more because they make me ponder what would have to happen to make them come true.

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons
Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway
A place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I'm getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto
I've lived all over this town

[....]

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
This ain't no fooling around
This ain't no mudd club, or c. b. g. b.
I ain't got time for that now

Heard about houston? heard about detroit?
Heard about pittsburgh, p. a.?
You oughta know not to stand by the window
Somebody might see you up there

[...]

Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won't help me survive
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace
The burning keeps me alive
Try to stay healthy, physical fitness
Don't want to catch no disease
Try to be careful, don't take no chances
You better watch what you say

Lyrics: Talking Heads - Life During Wartime

In America, I expect it would be a gradual process. We are too big to fail that quickly, and large parts of the country would retain or define their own stability. How they do that, though, is far from pre-determined. It's more likely to take the form of organization through the manipulation of power by a few than by the distribution of power to a many.

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