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The Mittal/Arcelor case in the interpretation of the School of Economic Warfare

Gagliano Giuseppe

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Among the examples of economic warfare provided by the School of Economic Warfare in Paris, it is worth mentioning the case of Mittal’s takeover of Arcelor and the situation of European iron and steel industry vis-à-vis financial globalization.

Over the years, the increasing number of takeovers, unions and joint ventures became an for market competitiveness. In this context, some of the takeovers stand out as hostile financial actions aimed neutralizing the opponent. Such strategic maneuvers are a significant source of concern for economic operators, as they observe the reaction of both private and public sector, which is likely to intervene in order to protect the sectors of national interests.

The acquisition of Arcelor operated by Mittal is a case in point because it involves steel, which is both one of the symbols of the European industry and the main material for other productive and strategic sectors. Both Mittal and Arcelor were two titans of the steel sector: while Mittal’s primacy consisted in the largest number of employees and produced materials, Arcelor could count on the most robust trade volume. In fact, when Mittal took it over, Arcelor was a very healthy company that had just incorporated the Canadian company Dofasco. Through this surprising trial of strength that no political or economic operator could have foreseen, Mittal secured a significant advantage on its competitors. In order to understand the strategic interests of this acquisition, it is necessary to examine Mittal’s communication campaign and the lobbying role of all the players, from the steel market to public opinion.

Looking at the steel market trends between 1980 and 2005, it is possible to notice that since the minerals coming from the Soviet Union entered the global market in 1992, both prices and demand of iron ore and steel increased significantly. If it is true that over a hundred countries produce steel, there is only a small group of states that influence its market trend:  Brazil and Australia, for example, control 42% of the steel market.

Due to the impressive growth of recent years, China alone accounts for 40% of global steel production (349 million tons in 2005), of which only 3% is exported. One of the first crisis occurred when China decided to limit the export of carbon coke – the main fuel for blast furnaces. This resulted in a spike in prices of 600% and showed how a given economic choice (driven by the desire of full independence) had remarkable strategic repercussions.

In order to discuss the conflict emerged with the Mittal/Arcelor case, the School of Economic Warfare provides a deep analysis of the actors involved.

Mittal

The Mittal family was the majority shareholder of this company and its funds were located in tax havens. If on the one hand the choice of acquiring Arcelor was motivated by economic and fiscal reasons, on the other hand it also hides some interests that the economic warfare should explore. The Mittal family remained the majority shareholder (51%), whereas the remaining part was divided between investment funds and institutions. In designing such a stake distribution, Mittal showed its strategic intelligence: with such a property assets arrangement, it was impossible for Arcelor to regain its business through another takeover.

Arcelor

Since it is more difficult to convince more shareholders to sell their quotas rather than a single one, it is more difficult to take over a business when there are multiple owners. Therefore, from the strategic point of view, Arcelor’s large pool of stakeholders discouraged competitors from acquiring it. Besides, Arcelor benefited from a strong political support on the international level thanks to its strong ties with governments and to its strategic appeal, since it was the symbol of a united Europe. The main shareholders of Arcelor –involved in the evolution of the company – were:

–              The Luxemburg government: traditional stakeholder, represented at that time by Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker, who had been very active on the European level and who initially opposed the acquisition of Arcelor by Mittal.

–              The Belgian government, namely the Wallonia region, which also opposed Mittal acquisition after consulting Banque Lazard.

–              Colette Neuville, who held 2.5% of the stocks and represented the small shareholders, abstained from voting on Mittal acquisition. Even though she had such a small quota, Neuville could have played an important role due to the fragmentation of Arcelor ownership.

–              Romani Zaleski, French-Polish major shareholder and key man of Arcelor.

In order to secure its interests Mittal influenced decision makers and public opinion thanks to a network of associates:

–              John Ashcroft, representative of the U.S. Republican right-wing party, Attorney General between 2001 and 2005. At the end of his political career he founded a lobbying agency and was hired by Mittal because of his moral integrity and relations with several members of European governments.

–              Anne Méaux, press officer of Giscard d’Estaing, director of communication for Alain Madelin, who had entertained long term relations with prominent members of the French right-wing party.

–              Partner banks of Mittal Steels. There were five banks which acted simultaneously to support Mittal’s takeover of Arcelor: Goldman-Sachs, Crédit Suisse, HSBC, Citigroup and Société Générale. Goldman-Sachs, which had been previously involved together with Citigroup in Arcelor’s acquisition of Dofasco, played a prominent role in Mittal’s takeover of Arcelor; Société Générale opened up an eight-million-euro credit line for Mittal.

Arcelor’s network was quite complex. It mainly consisted in both personal and business relationships: the actors would pursue their own interests while immerged in a broader network of bigger interests that would tower over those of the single actors:

–              BNP Paribas and Calyon, Arcelor partner banks that had traditionally offered financial support.  Merrill Lynch and UBS drafted the strategy while other institutions were also involved: Michael Zaoui from Morgan Stanley (brother of Yoel Zaoui, main strategist of Mittal) was appointed by Arcelor Management Board to consider Mittal’s offer.

–                  DMG – Michel Calzaroni, international communication agency, embraced market battles on behalf of food titans and French energy companies.

–       Public Opinion. In order to influence public opinion, Arcelor chose Publicis Group, second best rated consultancy and media acquisition company.

–       Skadden Arps, international law firm whose team was made of twelve professionals from France, Belgium and United Kingdom.

Mittal’s acquisition of Arcelor was supported by a well-designed communication campaign. Communication capacities are an essential asset for big firms, especially for those with a large number of shareholders like in the case of Arcelor, where small investors represented 85% of shareholders. In fact, this was the main problem Mittal faced when acquiring Arcelor, even more than the legal and economic aspect or the anti-trust regulations. While competition authorities of the United States, Canada and European Union were in the process of approving this operation, Mittal was allocated huge economic resources in convincing thousands of investors to support its project.

Between the above mentioned personalities, Anne Méaux played a very special role in the deal: she chose a strategy using multiple communication tools (such as press conferences, advertising on business magazines, conference calls and travels to Mittal headquarters) in order to convince the investors of the opportunities of the project; in a context of economic warfare, these communication strategies are able to address competitors with hostile messages. Mittal’s strategy was very detailed and engaged trade unions as well. Since February 2006, Mittal Steel had committed to communicate to Arcelor’s trade unions representatives its intentions about the industrial plan supporting the acquisition. The main points were occupational advantages and better work conditions, together with promise of keeping in place the agreements they had previously made with Arcelor.

Mittal also conceived a special communication strategy targeting shareholders mainly using specialized press and popular weekly magazines. Communication agencies focused on conveying a very positive image of the leader Lakshimi Mittal, through describing him as a successful self-made-man able to gather consensus both between businessmen and public opinion. Their goal was portraying Mittal as a successful entrepreneur interested in the development of his country; this made him much different from foreign investors that delocalized investments and performed a “reverse colonization” both on the economic and cultural side.

Arcelor counter-campaign, instead, presented Mittal as an inferior competitor presenting an “Indian” offer, derogatorily referring to India as a poor country (quite inappropriate considering India’s fast paced economic development).  Supported by the belief to be able to rely on state aid, Arcelor tried every possible way to contrast Mittal’s attack and offered its small investors twice as much the dividends of 2005, hoping that they would have rejected Mittal’s offer. Since Arcelor’s strength consisted in the division of the ownership between small investors, in April 2006 this company offered another increase in the dividends. A month later, Arcelor announced to have received a very interesting takeover offer from a Russian company named Severstal: Mordachov, Severstal’s tycoon, would have acquired 32% of the company and the investors would have benefited from even more advantageous distributions of the dividends. Due to the initial lack of enthusiasm of Arcelor’s investors, Severstal decided to reduce its participation to 25% (that secured its position as majority shareholder), while discouraging Mittal from acquiring Arcelor and reassuring small investors on their pretty substantial profits.

Mittal’s decision to approach directly the group of Arcelor’s investors resulted in a winning move: almost the entire management board of Mittal – included Lakshimi Mittal – met with 70% of Arcelors investors and established open communication. This helped convincing their counterpart of the advantages of their acquisition offer.

This way, Mittal Steel managed to buy 34% of the Arcelor’s stake in May 2006. As the takeover took place, Mittal created the new management board in order to meet reassure the investors’ concerns about Lakshimi Mittal’s management, such as transparency of decision-making and compliance to share ownership arrangements. At the end of May, another key step was taken: in relation to a speculative investment fund, Goldman Sachs together with almost 30% shareholders requested to modify the approval procedure of Severstal proposal. At this point, the intervention of Zaleski – Arcelor’s majority shareholder – helped reaching a final solution. Thanks to the alteration of the procedures that Goldman Sachs had requested, Zaleski managed to buy more than 7.8% stocks so that by June 25th, Arcelor was fused with Mittal Steel with a final agreement granting shareholders 10% profits.

This case study highlights the importance of economic warfare that aims at protecting strategic sectors of a given field, preserving the resources and ensuring the employment development of related fields and more specifically of the industrial sector.

Besides the economic aspect of this kind of warfare, the School of Economic Warfare in Paris insists on its geopolitical aspects. In this perspective, the case discussed above has a number of hidden implications. For example, Mittal’s takeover of Arcelor can be interestingly considered as an operation aimed at containing Chinese expansionism.

Looking at the role of the United States, it is possible to argue that since the end of the Cold War, this country has adopted quite a unilateral approach in foreign policy that supported its role of world’s first economic power. Whoever challenges the American power, automatically becomes a rival, especially on the economic level. In this regard, China is a dangerous competitor that is able to successfully join forces with some African countries: through investing in education without linking any conditionality of human rights respect or fight against crime, Beijing creates alliances in another continent and gains profits from its own investments.

Besides, the Chinese government even reached a number of agreements with South American countries that are not limited to the economic sphere but also involve cultural aspect like the spread of Chinese language and culture. In Asia, China and India sealed an important deal aimed at going beyond containing the historical rivalry between the two countries: promoting in the Asian continent an environment of cooperation that is able to challenge the dominance of the United States.

Since India is the only regional actor able to contain China, the USA repeatedly tried to engage India as a trade partner, as mentioned in the deal between the two countries sealed in 2000.

In order to ensure its own economic growth and independence from other actors, China and India increased significantly their steel production and manufacturing.

In 2005, China’s consumption of steel accounted for one third of the world steel market and the very same year, Beijing became a prodigious exporter of steel. In the same timeframe, India’s steel production exceeded the needs of the country and this compromised supply-demand balance. In such a delicate phase for the steel sector, the political world did not welcome Mittal’s acquisition of Arcelor because of its impact on the strategic balance of power. From the United States perspective, Mittal was quite interesting and profitable:

–              according to the authorities of the country, Mittal Steel group was not Indian;

–              the reason for Mittal’s economic expansion was China. In fact, in 2004 Mittal was the first foreign company that managed to acquire 37.17% of a Chinese steel company.

The US financial community welcomed the fusion between Arcelor and Mittal, but the Department of Justice opened an investigation in order to make sure that the US could continue import large amount of steel from Arcelor. Besides, even on the financial level, Mittal’s acquisition of Arcelor confirmed the general world trend of the strategic formation of a few stable economic hubs.

As a final consideration on this topic, the European Union’s behavior vis-à-vis Mittal’s operation was quite surprising. Even though the EU originated from European Coal and Steel Community, (the organization promoting free trade for coal and steel), it did not adopt any measure to protect such a strategic sector whose value was both economic and symbolic.

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Economy

How War lead to the advent of Market Economy

Gulraiz Iqbal

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Evident throughout history is the belief that the bipolar divide of social reality has been between government and markets especially governments that wage war. Social reality is termed here in a sense to give an idea that how people place themselves in this context to either of the poles. That is to say that their political choice dictates their economic choices. Interestingly enough, the bipolar divide in its popular sense appears to be questionable. In fact, markets have appeared as a consequence of military adventurism led my governments.

David Graeber, an economic anthropologist at the London of School of Economics and Political Science aptly explores this historical anecdote in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years.In his account where he refers to the Axial age(600 to 800 B.C), a term coined by a German philosopher Karl Jaspers is a time period in which apparently all the major philosophical/religious movements came to the fore. What is most interesting is that it was the same period in which coinage was born. To keep things simple coinage was characterized by a set pattern of coins/currency being developed by local citizens and subsequently taken over by the government. This pattern followed in all the major regions such as Greece, China, and India. However, one thing of particular significance to this inquiry is that the first ever coins to be produced were in the Kingdom of Lydia which is the present-day Turkey.

Graeber argues that the Gold, Silver, and Bronze from which coins were made was initially only limited to the Kings and the nobility. That however started to change in an intriguing manner. Such precious valuables started circulating among the common masses which was how these coins were made. Here Graeber refers to David Schapsa professor of Classics: according to him, it was a period which he calls the ‘’generalized warfare’’. It is then of common sense to understand that in the aftermath and in the duration of war, loot and plunder is a consequential hazard. In such a circumstance it became inevitable that people were left with large amounts of precious metals. It is in this sense that Schaps argues:

‘’It may well have been the protracted wars among the states of these areas that first produced a large population of people with precious metal in their possession and a need for everyday necessities.’’

It is important to note here that at this point of time financial markets had virtually no relevance. It was only taken as war bounty initially but what’s fascinating to note is that it is in this very sense of material fulfillment that gave people both the want to diversify their economic life and as well the need to fullfil their basic necessities. Furthermore, in the context in which is discussed; war led to plunder and plunder led to the market trade based on exchange of valuable metals. Before dwelling deep into it, one should bear in mind that these metals and stones were not wholly looted for the fact of being simply precious but it had an added factor of being portable as well. As armies would mobilize according to situational needs, so their plunder would include such items which they can carry with them as well. Coming back to the central argument, Schaps further argues that:

 The constant warfare of the archaic age of Greece, of the Janapadas of India, of the Warring States of China, was a powerful impetus for the development of market trade, and in particular for market trade based on the exchange of precious metal, usually in small amounts. If plunder brought precious metal into the hands of the soldiers, the market will have spread it through population.’’(Pg 226)

As mentioned earlier the term ‘’generalized warfare’’ which engulfed the major empires did something which had no historical precedent; that is to say, it laid the foundations of a market economy. This might not be as straight forward as it may sound. The very fact that governments, the kings had the monopoly over national wealth and also the fact that the war was not a new phenomenon known to humankind and so the subsequent loot that would take place, the essential dissimilarity of the Axial age from the past was that during the times when coinage was born, the Greeks were improvising their war mechanics and sophisticating it.

This led to the demand of their troops world-wide and as obvious as it is, essentially a service of such sort demanded reward as well. Therefore, it is necessary to understand that these mercenaries were paid in diminutive value of what consisted as large-scale valuables. This leads to another factor explained above which is ‘’portability’’ of these items or to use an appropriate word, ‘’renumeration.’’ Any other form of exchange or barter would made it plausibly impossible for these mercenaries to carry them.

Governments had vested interests to monopolize this changing reality. On the one hand, due to the capacity it had, governments were responsible for distributing the newly formed currency/coins to the masses and on the other hand, due to this very fact it could regulate the flow of this currency internally by giving it an official value. This provided an eminent premise to create markets with the authorization of government subsiding all the other currencies which might have existed in one form of the other. Usage of coins as renumeration is believed to be a practice which started in the Kingdom of Lydia. Exploring the politically important regions of that time, Graeber concludes that as a practice of the day it was largely coinage which proved to be a solution to the prevailing debt crisis which happened to exist way before the coinage. Athens in this regard is an example of it where a crisis of such sort prevailed in 594 B.C. Any solution to curb the crisis would entail either being in servitude to landed elites or being a part of free- peasantry which would liberate the populace of debt servicing so that so their children would spend time training for the army. All the major economic activity of the time was centered around the distribution of looted goods in war and conflicts which has been repeatedly mentioned to be precious metals and stones. In Athens, it was not only limited to the distribution among the army but also the common masses.

A catalyst to this chain reaction was the phenomenon of slavery as well. With reference to Alexander’s army, Graeber describes that he had a long-standing army of more than 120,000 men which needed to be paid and since his attack on Persia resulted in large number war captive slaves. He directed them to mining fields in order to mine more gold and silver. Resultantly causing to formulate the ‘’military-coinage-slavery complex. ’’However, slavery is not of particular relevance to this inquiry but it did play a vital role in shaping the politico-economic landscape of that time. Exploring further, Graeber discovers the pattern to be similar in India as well. Divided in different forms of governments in terms of regions, the kingdoms here too held huge armies which were on the payroll of governing authorities. Simply put, those having control of the mines were able to sustain armies of large magnitude which would result in a more powerful assault on the enemy in case of war and the resultant cycle of subsequent war bounty. Eventually, the concept of the economic thought evolved. What is understood in modern terms as the public and the private sector find its ancestral roots in Axial Age. Governments reinstated officials on a fixed salary. The institutionalization took place in terms of establishing its monopoly of power and control. What started off as a consequence of war was extended to the entire governance system to establish economic monetization. The cycle of economic activity was established by having trading houses, warehouses etc. The aim was to put back into the treasuries the metals, stones and silver. This was the basis of economic commercialization.

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Economy

Pandemic Recovery: Follow the trail of silence

Naseem Javed

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When common sense becomes the enemy of state; deep silence slowly slips and slides, covering high and low competence in order to survive; gagging new ideas and killing change.  Discover hidden peaks of such fears, lack of skills and incompetency and follow the trail of silence and here to achieve a faster pandemic recovery engage in open discussions eliminating fears of change and encourage upskilling. Wake up the sleepy isolated Rip Van Winkle from the dreams as the world has already changed.

Now is post pandemic recovery time. Follow the silence and engage in constructive dialogue.

Trapped in post-pandemic paralysis of local economy facing restless citizenry; today, some 200 nations mostly in critical lack of digital transformation, without speed and efficiency to uplift the nation, all delayed for fears of change and lingering incompetency, already leaving some 100 high potential nation critically behind.

Digitization of Public and Private Bureaucracies of the world became critical necessity decade ago, almost free many years ago, but the deep silence never allowed any open bold debates on transformation for fear exposure of mismanagement risking job securities.

Today, stripped naked in public are broken economies of the world, buried under mountains of crumpled twisted paper, trying to figure out backlogs and deep losses. Nations without digitization will remain crumbled economies, businesses without digitization will not survive and individual office workers without advanced understanding on such topics may have no future. Any business model irrespective size, type, location to go forward must base on solid digitization to bounce of global stage.

When people stepped out of caves or from darkness into light, a time came when without electricity a business could not function.  Digital transformations of world economies during the last decade were at a snail pace. Now Covid-19 simply stepped on that snail. Calling nations to digitize or linger on bankruptcies. Institutions lagging behind, like Chambers and Trade Associations in old models and Public Private Sectors of the world all now openly challenged.

Pandemic recovery needs massive real value creation, calls for revitalized national SME base, digitized on global standards, capable and upskilled citizenry to produce quality, performance and profitability. Ability to dance on global digital platforms and showcase talents creating collaborative synthesizim.  Today, any absence of national mobilization of entrepreneurialism and upskilling of national SME on digital platforms for exportability is becoming number one national economic and political issue.

Trade wars mostly become issues when nations lack skilled citizenry with speed to earn exportability and create foreign exchange to boost economy and create grassroots prosperity….hence, chaos on the streets, towers of debts, broken economies. Today, the global masses are not waiting for The Fourth Industrial Revolution as what they need is ‘mental-industrialization’ a serious process of self-discovery gymnastics to liberate them from blockades of old mental-divides and enter into new digital-divides.

Daily Briefing 365 Days: Cold Facts and Harsh Realties

The world learned quickly, how national leadership could shine with daily LIVE briefings, regimented execution and presence with all hands on deck to tackle issues of national importance. The populace of the world is thrilled. Following are the current critical issues of national economy, craving for the national leadership to go LIVE daily and hold open and bold discussions with questions answers and shine. Make daily briefing a yearlong agenda to fast economic recovery.

The tectonic shifts, affecting nation by nation

Hastily, societies all over the world are losing addiction to endless consumption like repulsion; such shifts on buying behaviors will alter consumption based economic models and create new narratives. This may shrink Retail 50% in developed economies. Offices may shrink by 50% due to remote-work acceptance. Downtowns may shrink 50% in selected countries. The ‘cement-structure based retail’ as predicted decade ago will eventually give-in to ‘cyber-structured-retail’ now fully dressed up in cyber-windows with AI+AR+VR 24x7x365 a new thinking emerging.

What are the new game plans; how to bring all such calamities to calm and authoritative regional and global debates and Round-table discussions to achieve sustainable systematic solutions?

The global educational delivery system crashed decades ago; the value of education lost years ago, with heavy burden on society in times of crisis must try to save itself under new models, pricing and thinking. Now speed and execution skills with complex problem solving with entrepreneurial leadership flares are the top skill needed for future, national leaderships must create daily briefing on such special areas to uplift the smartness of working citizenry.

Where is the national umbrella to park all these conflicting ideas but open discussions with new discoveries?

The small and medium size business will play the most significant role on coming years. The national trade groups like vertical trade associations and Chambers of commerce of the world will all need new adjustments to deal with new and digitally advanced entrepreneurial centric world. Some 100,000-trade associations and 11,000 Chambers must come together on digital platforms to lead in the future.

How mobilization of all such institutions and trade bodies land on digital platforms with amazing results?

Metamorphosis of Coronavirus; hidden in the damage is a bright future, the isolation and break down of economies have shifted the cause and action;  The global populace has now advanced, metamorphism has new craving; as if a caterpillar pretending asleep but in reality learning fast to fly; now leaves chrysalis, spread colorful wings and fly…

Next Step:

Firstly, speak, boldly explore and claim your path to victory and change; create big and small discussions, internal or companywide podcasts, local, national or global webcasts, but always bold and open discussions. After all, any lingering incompetency is only a proof of new grounds in big need of fertilization to uplift and upgrade knowledge. Lack of skills only represents that the discovery and exploration process of new skills never occurred. The world’s greatest people were all lifelong learners. They openly explored their own levels of competency, changed and advanced. The more you realize how little you know the more new doors you open to new ideas with amazing new information uplifting skills to advance your future, try it, share it. Follow the trail of silence and help achieve fastest economic recovery for all…

The rest is easy

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Economy

The COVID-19 Pandemic and the “Phoenix” of the Globalized Technological Capitalist System?

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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that three prominent intellectual figures spanning the 19th and 20th centuries forecasted the cataclysm of modernity. Thomas Carlyle, René Guénon, and Jacques Ellul provided reasoned accounts to justify their views that modernity is engulfed in a state of crisis on the basis that the not-mutually-exclusive hegemonies of technology, capitalism, and globalization are not invulnerable.

While each offered a slightly different viewpoint and a slightly different description of what they took to be the crisis, their views all coalesce around the general thesis that the continuous expansion of the material and technological built landscapes will eventually prove to be catastrophic. This is for two reasons. The first, because an ever-more complex system becomes ripe for error, an error which could cause the whole system to go haywire. Essentially, “the bigger it is the harder it falls.” The second reason is that in constructing an external environment as its hegemonic priority, humanity is neglecting giving attention to spirituality, philosophy, and developing the human inward nature. The external and material becomes the fog that humanity becomes ensconced in to such an extent that pursuing such things as the ascertainment of spiritual reality through intuition, the project Plato inaugurated academia with and inspired Christianity and Islam’s later development with, becomes wrested away wholesale from the consciousness of humanity. The two factors work in a type of synergy in that they mutually reinforce one another and precipitate cataclysm. The renunciation of the pursuit of constructing an ever vaster and more complex material system, which ostensibly implies a turn toward the spiritual as a premise, is the only means to stave off ever-greater cataclysms as the material system continuously grows more complex and more globalized.

Since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, technology, capitalism, and globalization have exerted their unquestioned domination only increasingly—until COVID-19. Technology, capitalism, and globalization have been unquestioned to such an extent that in hindsight it is obvious, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that a global emergency of major proportions was necessary to even entertain the question that they were bound all along to eventually lead to a breakdown and inflict unprecedented harm to global health and the global economy. World War II was a destructive moment, but in no way did it impede the post-war expansions of technology, capitalism, and globalization in the latter-half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st. The COVID-19 pandemic is dissimilar even to the catastrophe of World War II because of the magnitude and the nearly-universal geographic scope of the economic toll it has taken in such a short time. Moreover, while there was room for technology, globalization, and capitalism to both re-emerge and expand following World War II, their room for expansion from their forms immediately prior to the economic contraction COVID-19 exacted is likely to be minimal and is more likely to be non-existent or even negative. The contraction of the technological globalized capitalist system would inherently imply the beginning of a new post-globalization era.

What makes Carlyle, Guénon, and Ellul interesting to entertain in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is the grand, global, and “esoteric” natures of their philosophies of modern history. It should be noted that the dominance of scientific rationality, mechanization, and materialist economy in the modern era itself was the lens through which enabled their philosophies to bereceived as radical and “esoteric,” or not based on empirical, positivist, scientific evidence. If their views had found a way to usurp the hegemonic position in the popular collective consciousness, they would not have been seen as radical or off-base.

Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is an 1836 fiction book that essentially inaugurated and epitomized modern social criticism toward the blind commitment to the Enlightenment and the resulting emergence of the non-spiritual materialistic basis of 19th century European politics, economy, and society. It was a chief inspiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and a foundational book for American Transcendentalism as an intellectual movement in general. In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle offers a cryptic diagnosis of the ailment of modernity during the midst of its advent, the Victorian industrial age.

Speaking through the voice of the book’s protagonist, Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle theorizes of a “phoenix” that can be forecasted to take place roughly sometime in the 21st century. Carlyle writes, “we are at this hour in a most critical condition; beleaguered by that boundless ‘Armament of Mechanisers’ and Unbelievers, threatening to strip us bare! ‘The World,’ says [Teufelsdröckh], ‘as it needs must, is under a process of devastation and waste, which, whether by silent assiduous corrosion, or open quicker combustion, as the case chances, will effectually enough annihilate the past Forms of Society; replace them with what it may.’” This is flowery language that communicates Carlyle’s view that the world is destined to be consumed and destroyed as a function of the domination of those who uninterruptedly pursue the “boundless” construction of the material economy single-mindedly as their highest/only priority in conjunction with those who are non-spiritual, the “Unbelievers.” The “Armament of Mechanisers” and “Unbelievers” are synergistic and largely synonymous in that they are those who acknowledge only that which is material and perceptible by their senses.

To Carlyle, the “Armament of Mechanisers” and “Unbelievers,” by promoting the material economy, are inherently ignoring the spiritual realm, a realm that would be a moderator and reign in all-consuming materialism by embodying the virtue of renunciation (a virtue in nearly every theological and spiritual tradition). Humanity loses consciousness of the spiritual because modernity inherently divests the world of its spirit. Such a process is unsustainable because the finite nature of the world and its finite resources cannot sustain the pursuit of infinite material consumption and the increasing chaos that inherently manifests with a system that grows ever more complex. Thus, the materialist economy is bound to come into its full being, just like the mythic phoenix, before returning to ash and emerging in a different form. Carlyle reflects, “what time the Phoenix Death-Birth itself will require depends on unseen contingencies” and that it is a “handsome bargain would she engage to have [it] done ‘within two centuries.’”

René Guénon, a 20th century intellectual and metaphysician, offered what is perhaps the most sweeping and all-encompassing critique of the historical trajectory of Western civilization. He is also noteworthy in the contemporary sense as an inspiration for Steve Bannon, a chief political and policy adviser to President Donald Trump and a prominent promoter of traditionalist conservatism through such channels as Breitbart News Network. For Guénon, the West is in precipitous decline and he forecasted that it will reach a breaking point since the world is progressively displacing the realization of the quality of what he called the “Essence” of the transcendental realm (i.e. what lies beyond time and space and is perceived through the use of Platonic/spiritual intuition) with the realization of ever-greater quantity of the substance of what is material on Earth. Essentially, the progressive development of civilization corresponds to a cheapening of it and what he refers to as a “reign of quantity” rather than a reign of the quality of what can be nominally cast as the timeless Platonic Forms. Rather than conceiving of an ideal (i.e. a Platonic Form) through the use of intuition and then pursuing its realization in the Earthly material realm, everything modern defaults to gravitating around what Guénon takes to be the lowest-common-denominator, which is the measurement of everything by its quantitative rather than qualitative value. In other words, we are losing our ability to grasp and realize by intuition the ideal incarnation of all objects, concepts, and phenomena that are timeless and unchanging in the transcendent realm yet ephemeral in the material Earthly realm.

In The Crisis of the Modern World, published in 1927 shortly after World War I’s explicit embodiment of the rejection of the narrative of continual progress in modernity, Guénon reflects: “the belief in a never-ending ‘progress’, which until recently was held as a sort of inviolable and indisputable dogma, is no longer so widespread; there are those who perceive, though in a vague and confused manner , that the civilization of the West may not always go on developing in the same direction, but may some day reach a point where it will stop, or even be plunged in its entirety into some cataclysm.”

Guénon parallels Carlyle in Sartor Resartus in that he acknowledges the deeply problematic nature of cutting material existence on Earth off from any transcendent/spiritual/divine reality, a phenomenon which is only increasingly taking place in the context of modernity and not in previous ages. Devoid of any collective consciousness of transcendent reality that may prove effectual to moderating the continuous expansion of materialism and the “reign of quantity,” Guénon thinks modernity takes on a dimension antithetical to the transcendent and thus can be deemed “satanic” in the simplest nominal and non-theological use of the term. This narrative, Guénon maintains, explains the eventual dissolution of the modern world, as “the reign of quantity” will maximize the realization of quantity to its farthest limits, before triggering a cataclysmic contraction. According to Guénon in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, the “rectification” of modernity “presupposes arrival at the point at which the ‘descent’ is completely accomplished, where ‘the wheel stops turning.’” Guénon concludes that until such a breaking point is attained, “it is impossible that these things should be understood by men in general…”

Jacques Ellul, who was perhaps the foremost philosopher-critic of technology in the 20th century (and a chief inspiration for the Unabomber), largely reincarnated without citation Carlyle’s original criticisms of modernity. Ellul felt that modernity was synonymous with one vast global technical civilization that was autonomous and not subject to human control since its overall historical development as a system and long-term consequences are not subject to human control.Ellul defines what he takes to be technical civilization in his magnum opus The Technological Society, published in 1954: “technical civilization means that our civilization is constructed by technique (makes a part of civilization only what belongs to technique), for technique (in that everything in this civilization must serve a technical end), and is exclusively technique (in that it excludes whatever is not technique or reduces it to technical form).”

Ellul made known his theory that the technical civilization will have to perfect itself and sustain its perfection, as the only other alternative to perfection is the commission of an error, either small or large, that has the ability to cause the vast and interconnected system to go haywire. Ellul declares, “the technical society must perfect the ‘man-machine’ complex or risk total collapse.” For Ellul, technical civilization is a “Behemoth” and it can “rest easy” as nothing “will prevent him from consuming mankind.” Such an elucidation of the stakes involved in creating an ever-more complex and gigantic globalized and technological system are deeply relevant to the narrative of how COVID-19 wreaked havoc on global health and the global economy so quickly and so easily. Air travel and other forms of transportation infrastructure were technological developments that had reached a zenith at the time of the onset of the pandemic as a function of globalized capitalism also being at a zenith. The totality of the network of global transportation infrastructure manifested by technical civilization’s progressive global development since the Industrial Revolution was compounded by the growth in the levels of global travel on the part of the largest global population in history at the time of COVID-19’s onset.

Ellul denounces liberal political economy for providing the favorable climate necessary for the unquestioned manifestation of technical civilization and refutes prospective critics who would maintain that liberal economy and technical civilization are compatible for the long-term:

“It will doubtless be pointed out, by way of refutation, that production techniques were developed during the ascendancy of liberalism, which furnished a favorable climate for their development and understood perfectly how to use them. But this is no counterargument. The simple fact is that liberalism permitted the development of its executioner, exactly as in a healthy tissue a constituent cell may proliferate and give rise to a fatal cancer. The healthy body represented the necessary condition for the cancer. But there was no contradiction between the two. The same relation holds between technique and economic liberalism.”

Just as Carlyle documented what he took to be the crisis of modernity at its advent during the initial industrialism of 19th century Victorian England, Guénon documented in the context of retrospectively accounting for the catastrophes of both World Wars I and II, and Ellul documented in the context of the post-World War II exponential growth of technology, the COVID-19 pandemic provides another milestone with which to, at a minimum, revisit their mutually compatible theses with respect to the cataclysm of modernity. Whether COVID-19 proves to be the “big one” and arrests the hegemonic triumvirate of technology, capitalism, and globalization remains to be seen. At a minimum, what can be gleaned from Carlyle, Guénon, and Ellul is that modernity’s improvement of the material standard of living for so many globally needs to be balanced with a view toward moderation and long-term sustainability. Liberal political economy, science, and technological innovation have until now been single-minded seekers of continuous growth without acknowledging the need to at some point ossify or plateau the technical civilization they have each been instrumental in constructing so that it does not become a phoenix and burn to ash.

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