When time is running out

Faced with the various and serious difficulties of survival on Earth, we must urgently and radically rethink the assumptions of our action.

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The angel whom I had seen standing on the sea and on the earth, lifted up his right hand to heaven and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven, earth, sea, and all that is in them, and said:

 “There will be no more delay!”

John Apostle

Revelation10:5,6

In human experience, time has always been a matter of concern since ancient times[1]. Time is change, and as such, is subject to many and diverse interpretations (linear, cyclical, etc.), whose great variety distracts us from a universal certainty, namely, that everything ends.  Mayan wisdom has bequeathed us a beautiful expression of that certainty in the fragments of Chilan Balam book:

Every moon, every year, every day, every wind
walks and passes too.
Every blood reaches the place of its stillness,

as it comes to his power and his throne… “

For the Mayans, that end was brought by foreigners, who destroyed their civilization:

“They taught fear,
and they came to wither the flowers.
For their flower might live,
they damaged and sipped the flower of others…
Castrate the sun!
That is what foreigners came to do here…”[2]

Each profound crisis—war, invasion, plague, or environmental catastrophe—heightens the fear of the end of all.  Everything changes, is born, and dies, and also (perhaps) is reborn.  Behind all this flow, there is an anguish and a doubt, which is the consciousness of finitude. 

In nature—challenged today by science—everything ends and is renewed on any scale of the Being. What science has achieved with telescopes and microscopes is to extend the scale from the infinitely small to the outer space.  To visualize it, it is worth consulting the mathematical experiment to the power of ten, illustrated in the amazing film by Ray and Charles Eames, made for the IBM company, with the simple trick of adding zeros to each scale[3]. This is a spatial dimension, but it is also temporal. It seems to establish a notion of infinity, but experience indicates that, at every level, everything ends, from subatomic particles to the most distant galaxies.  Everything comes and goes, and so does the entire universe?

Here we come to the limit of science, that is, of reason.  This is the subject of the West’s greatest rationalist philosopher, Immanuel Kant, in his essay published in the late 18th century, entitled “The End of All Things[4]”. Kant asks himself: How to conceive the end of everything, that is, of time as well? There reason is lost, and gives way to another metaphysical, moral, or theological dimension, accompanied in the limited human experience by hope or terror, that is, by faith, which has nothing rational. Is there a beyond time, an after that ceases to be time? Is eternity another time?  or its entire cessation?  Reason has immense achievements, but it stops at a last frontier.  Kant repeats Hamlet’s monologue in a philosophical key.

Religions gave different responses to such (bloodcurdling) impossibility of knowledge, either seeking a path to Nirvana (Nothingness as beatitude), or by imaging a final judgment, which would be the prelude to the end of times. Human reason is incapable of giving an answer.  It faces an insurmountable obstacle, which the Greeks called aporia (from the Greek ἀπορία, difficulty in passage).  For a homemade image, think of the bather who goes into the sea until he cannot stand.  And we cannot think that swimming is the solution, because it only postpones the aporia, and the bather in the end wants to return to dry land.  In the individual human dimension, existentialism faces the aporia with the forceful phrase of Jean Paul Sartre “every man (today we would say ‘every person’) is a useless passion,” although we cannot do without it or its works.  Our lives and their works go, as they say in Brazil “from nothing to nowhere.”

Between the existential human dimension and the cosmic or theosophical scale is the collective or sociological dimension, which is the one that corresponds to the geopolitical section of which I am in charge. There are circumstances here in which time is also running out.  To illustrate the instance, I will refer to the war that we have to witness today with greater anguish and whose presence saturates all the media: the war in Ukraine.

Are we at the birth (by blood and fire) of an important nation, or its total destruction?  Is this a war limited to a single region or a world war[5]?  If escalation does not slow down, are we on the verge of a great terminal (i.e., nuclear) war?  And the final question: this war, however well or ill, it might end at once, is it not the example of a particularly perverse way of neglecting (some would say accelerating or provoking) a planetary disaster, in which our own time as a species is about to end?   We do not know if this is the end of one more war, or the beginning of a much worse end for everyone.  To answer, I will quote some of the details of the ongoing battles.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharviv region is important for its speed and extension (70 kilometers in three days and in multiple directions, surrounding the important city of Izyum).  It also eases the threat to Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region. This tactical defeat will lead the Russians to attempt a greater mobilization (conscription) to extend and intensify the war.  Throughout their military history, the strategy of the Russians has been to retreat like the tide, even with enormous losses, and then strike again with greater brutality.  They did it with Napoleon and then with Hitler.  For this, Russia has three advantage factors: its extension (strategic depth), its indifference to large casualties, and the most important “commander” of its territory: the “general” Winter.

In political circles and in the media, the Western world is pleased and welcomes the counter-offensive, which I believe is a premature celebration. From the perspective of the Russian leadership, the present humiliation must be met with a greater blow.  The war will be prolonged, become more violent, and spread.  Only after a long and cruel road will there be a glimmer of negotiation.  Desolation will be called peace; a new strategic balance will emerge in which Poland will play a greater role in the region and China in the whole world, in which devastated Ukraine will begin a painful reconstruction, and in which Vladimir Putin’s regime will be seen in distress within its own borders. This scenario I present is that of hopeful pessimism, which is the best I can think of.  It presupposes that the various actors in this conflict will stop themselves in the face of the abyss of a great general war. 

If that impasse occurs, time will come to rethink the main assumptions of our civilization.  In economic matters, how can we get rid of the premise of growth, without which the entire shelf of what has been called “dismal science” runs the risk of falling? In geopolitical matters, how can we get rid of the obsolete and disastrous concept of sovereignty that today spreads like a trail among the ruins of the most recent globalization?

Since I am not an economist, I will deal with the second question, seeking a new interpretation of the concept of sovereignty. 

The notion of sovereignty used today presupposes two things: (1) the right of each state to control the population within its borders as it sees fit recognized by other states, and (2) the right of each state to defend its borders against other states.  With the end of the Pax Americana, today many countries claim this position[6]. However, this double premise falls in the face of the challenges that the planet and the entire humanity that inhabits and swarms it faces today. Thus, some states emit toxic gases and others suffer them without emitting them, but some claim the right to do so because it would be fair, or ask, at best, for compensation.  But the atmosphere is affected for everyone, and there is no more time to settle rights to pollute while climate change worsens. A clear example of this impasse is the fate of Amazonia, which several governments in Brazil have allowed to devastate and where there are citizens who defend such action—of universal consequences—under the pretext of exercising sovereignty over that territory and achieving more development, that is, growth. 

If we move from flora to human fauna, some states defend the cruel treatment of some minorities as a sovereign right within borders.  From outside the borders, each state feels entitled to fight with other states in wars of conquest or election, under the pretext of defending its vital interests, such as a supposed containment of the malevolent intention attributed to other states. In a bit rude summary, sovereignty means in the end the right of an established state to internal repression and external aggression.  To make matters worse, the international “community” is not such.  For example, United Nations is a club of sovereign states that act with the logic outlined above and are defenseless in the face of great general challenges, to which they respond with high-sounding but inoperable statements. 

These games of “sovereignty” are long-standing (at least since the establishment of modern states with the Peace of Westphalia), but as time has passed, they result in a “tragedy of the commons” on a global level, because time is running and there is none left to continue in the same way or turn back, nor does it provide individual solutions to a series of planetary crises[7].

The only march is forward, starting with the redefinition of the concept.  In a world that, as Christopher Columbus said, “is a small thing” (and much less after the globalization he initiated), the only concept of reasonable sovereignty is that of a trust[8], in which each state undertakes to defend not simply its borders but the public goods that correspond to administer, and that extend from the environment to universal and potentially universal human rights. For example, two states that have waged war in the South Atlantic Ocean could lay down their arms and collaborate in patrolling illegal deep-sea fishing and the protection of other species, under the supervision of a multilateral entity[9].

All sovereignty presupposes for its maintenance some principle of legitimacy.  For Max Weber, on whom I rely, there are three main ones: tradition, legality, and charismatic enthusiasm. In modern times, sovereignty has been based on a general consensus around legal rules (a constitution and the laws that derive from it).  We can conceive the sovereignty of a nation as the right to its own decisions though always custodied.  In ancient nations (England is an example), the monarchical tradition is the custodianship, supplemented by a constitutional armor (democratic legality).  In other circumstances, constitutional primacy is sometimes replaced or surpassed by another custodianship: that of charismatic leaders with plebiscitary support (what Weber called “democracy with plebiscitary leadership”).

From Jean Jacques Rousseau onwards, sovereignty resides on the People, who will be its main custodians. But from the ancient Romans onwards, all custody of sovereignty is faced with a big question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  (Who will watch the guards themselves?). 

Let us do a brief review of Argentine history.  President Bartolomé Mitre (1862-1868), addressing the People assembled in a civic act, took off his hat, lowered his head, and said that rather than rallying as leader he takes off his hat to the sovereign. For his successor in the presidency Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1868-1874), the practical response to the dilemma of the custodians was to “educate the sovereign.”  Its legacy of general and free education allowed a great Argentine development for many decades.

The question and its answer are as relevant today as they were then. With the advent of totalitarian movements, another dilemma emerged: the sovereign people versus the proselytizing plebs[10].  Today it is still valid, but it goes back a long way, from Plato’s skepticism of Athenian democracy to Tocqueville’s concern about American democracy. In the American political tradition, the founding fathers devised their answer to the age-old question about custodians: the constitution must establish a division of powers.  It is the republican remedy to a potentially populist democracy and the dangers of charismatic and totalitarian leadership.

How to adapt these questions and dilemmas to the conception of a trustee sovereignty? To do this, we must ask another question: who is the grantor of the trust and who is the beneficiary? If the grantor is a power behind the back of the People and the beneficiary a powerful external group, the transfer of sovereignty is not legitimate, and the trust is another form of submission.  But if the grantor is a true democratic representative, or the entire People through a consultation, and the beneficiary is a set of peoples equally consulted, the trust is legitimate.  The trust (partial transfer of sovereignty) must be deposited with supra or trans-governmental organizations whose interest is neither profit nor particular control, but interest in the general public good. If we move in that direction, we will arrive at the gates of a future world government, today seemingly distant but eventually feasible.  We must take the first steps without wasting more time[11].

In a post-globalized world, our destiny is not the return of “sovereign” nationalisms as seems to be happening today, but the treatment of the natural, social, and cultural heritage as indivisible, in order to proceed to administer it in a coordinated and collective manner.  But we must hurry.  Let us put in the mouth of a Roman his reflection on the fall of the Empire and therefore of its civilization: Tempus fugit, vita mutatur etiam tollitur (time flies, life changes and also ends).


[1] See https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v44/n16/robert-cioffi/this-is-the-end

[2] See https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chilam_Balam

[3] https://vimeo.com/215888892

[4] https://www.scribd.com/doc/261686734/Kant-El-Fin-de-Todas-Las-Cosas

[5] For Papa Francisco the third world war has already been declared.

[6] According to Max Weber, the modern State is an institutional, political organization whose ultimate objective is the maintenance of the domination over a given territory in a lasting and unquestionable way on the part of the different actors of the system.  This classic definition is today insufficient and dangerous.

[7] The tragedy of the commons describes a situation in which individuals, motivated solely by their personal interest, end up overexploiting a limited resource that they share with other individuals.

[8] In technical terms, a trust is a form of ownership that separates beneficial ownership from legal ownership. It designates a trustee as the legal owner of the assets, while designating one or more beneficiaries who will enjoy the benefits of the assets deposited in the trust. The person who created the trust and transferred ownership of the assets to the trust is known as the grantor or settlor. The grantor establishes the conditions and rules of use of the assets of the trust. The trustee carries out these instructions for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the trust.

[9] In the case I have in mind, and in comic/ecological form, I would propose, “Neither Falklands nor Malvinas, the islands are penguin.”

[10] For the Italian case see https://www.economist.com/culture/2022/09/15/italians-memories-of-fascism-are-dangerously-inaccurate

[11] Even with today’s imperfect actors, as this interesting article suggests: John Tokatlian, “The United States Should Play a ‘Constructive’ Role in the Falklands,” International Policy Digest, 09.16.2022. https://intpolicydigest.org/the-platform/the-united-states-should-play-a-constructive-role-in-the-falklands/

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