Early on in the introduction to “Raging Twenties”, Pepe Escobar points to the change, the disruption that confronts the Established Elites who for 30 years ruled the globe with a free hand: “The Empire we have been taught to accept as a fact of life is irretrievably losing its leadership position—and will have to deal with much pain implicit in the acceptance of an increasingly multipolar world.”
Escobar’s concept from “Raging Twenties” that impressed is: “We are all being carried forward through the tides by a harpooned whale, with no idea how, where, or when our journey ends. Like Melville’s Ishmael, we’ve got to stay cool as we relentlessly fight the winds of fallacy, fiction, fraud and farce that the expiring system manipulates non-stop.”
This is the vision of Pepe’s book “Raging Twenties”, a volume of works dedicated to the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on people, governments and world affairs, especially the macro world economy.
Escobar is a man of many journeys, an adventurer, explorer, mapper and story-teller. For decades he has traveled the capitals of the globe and trekked the backroads of the third and fourth worlds more than any writer in our lifetime.
His professional vocation is understanding the human condition and transmitting via his writings that understanding of facts, people, events and situations. He has a unique quality to absorb information he personally gathers, demonstrating his grasp of geopolitical, philosophical and historical context, from ancient to modern.
Focusing on this decade, the “Raging Twenties”, a collection of Pepe’s definitive prose, is a “voice-over” that narrates the change in our world from a single-polar hegemon to a multi-polar world order in the time of a pandemic. He teases apart the complexities that often are unknown, misunderstood or misconstrued. His “voice” is pleasing though authoritative, yet instantly familiar. Writing that talks, as if it were an audio track, is his style.
“For the first time in two millennia, China is able to combine the dynamism of political and economic expansion both on the continental and maritime realms, something that the civilization-state did not experience since the short expeditionary stretch led by Admiral Zheng He in the Indian Ocean in the early 15th century. Eurasia, in the recent past, was under Western and Soviet colonization. Now it’s going all-out multipolar—a series of complex, evolving permutations led by Russia-China-Iran-Turkey-India-Pakistan-Kazakhstan.”
Escobar is a man comfortable in any of the five civilizations on Earth. He moves easily in the West, China, Russia, India or Iran, and most parts neighboring these giant cultures. He presents his narratives, tales of his travels and meetings in differing performances. Escobar has mastered four story-telling voices–philosopher, court jester, mystic, historian. He moves through these presenters seamlessly, embellishing his writing with intellectual depth and artful illumination.
In Chapter 8, “How the Riddler may teach us to fight a disease”, we perceive the Philosopher investigating the nature of our universe through the eyes of Heraclitus, the Riddler. “In his heart of hearts a contemptuous aristocrat, this master of paradox despised all so-called wise men and the mobs that adored them. Heraclitus was the definitive precursor of social distancing.”
“Heraclitus was a Taoist and a Buddhist. If opposites are ultimately the same, this implies the unity of all things. Heraclitus even foresaw the reaction we should have towards COVID-19: ‘It is disease that makes health sweet and good, hunger satiety, weariness rest.’ The Tao would approve it. In the Heraclitus framework of serial cosmic recycling, disease gives health its full significance.”
The Court Jester authors Chapter 5, entitled “We are all Stoics now”. Imagine a Court Jester flowing with Stoicism as pop culture in Ancient Greece. Pepe brings it to you. Escobar marks the first punk in History, Diogenes the Cynic. “It’s enlightening to know that the upper classes of the Roman empire, their 1%, regarded Zeno’s insights as quite solid, while—predictably—deriding the first punk in History, Diogenes the Cynic, who masturbated in the public square and carried a lantern trying to find a real man.”
He follows the transition from Greece to Rome as the ideas of the Stoics migrate over the centuries and better suit the Roman minds of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, the trio we view as role models of Stoicism.
“The Stoics were very big on ataraxia (freedom of disturbance) as the ideal state of our mind. The wise man cannot possibly be troubled because the key to wisdom is knowing what not to care about.”
Have you ever read such a ‘take’ on Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans, Humanists, and Skeptics? Pepe ties it into the impact of the pandemic.
“Perhaps the ultimate Stoic secret is the distinction by Epictetus between things that are under our control—our thoughts and desires—and what is not: our bodies, our families, our property, our lot in life, all elements that the expansion of COVID-19 now put in check.”
“What the postmodern world retains from the Stoics is the notion of resigned acceptance—which makes total sense if the world really works according to their insights. If Fate—once again, Zeus, not the Christian God—rules the world, and practically everything that happens is out of our hands, then realpolitik means to accept “everything to happen as it actually does happen”, in the immortal words of Epictetus. Thus, it’s pointless to get excited about stuff we cannot change. And it’s pointless to be attached to things that we will eventually lose. But try selling this notion to the Masters of the Universe of financial capitalism.” You can hear Pepe’s laughter.
“So, The Way—according to the Stoics—is to own only the essentials, and to travel light. Lao Tzu would approve it. After all, anything we may lose is more or less gone already—thus we are already protected from the worst blows in life.”
As with each of the personas of Pepe we perceive in his collected work, he changes from one to another in mid-flight. The Court Jester can be seen and felt throughout “Raging Twenties”. Just take a tour of the Chapter Headings and the section sub-headings. Pepe does floor gymnastics, handstands and backflips, cartwheels and tumblesaults with terminology and labels. That big Escobar smile and hearty chest laugh abound: “Remember Pax Mongolica”, “The Sirens and La Dolce Vita”, “The Westlessness Myth”, “East is East, West is More”, “Barbarism With A Human Face”, “Enter The Triad”, “The City In A Time of Plague”, “Show Me Your Fragility”, “Barbarism Begins At Home”, “Flying Dragon, Crashing Eagle”, “Blake Meet Burroughs”.
The modern Mystic is with us in Chapter 10, “How Confucious, Buddha and The Tao Are Winning This War”, as well as the anchor chapter, “Eurasia, The Hegemon and the Three Sovereigns”. The Mystic appears most definitely in Chapter 25, a retrospective column Pepe chose to explore the digital ether that has wrapped around our brains. “Kim No-Vax Does Darpa” is a trip back into the early days of AI,3 research financed by Darpa, the teat that nearly all US computer scientists sought to suck. Reading this nostalgia spotlights the many dead-ends of US technology that generated the perverse present High-Tech Silicon Valley feudalism.
Travel with the Mystic to Venice, Chapter 3, “The Sirens and La Dolce Vita”. Pepe floats in Venice waterways to retrace selected steps with Ezra Pound. In “The Cantos”, we find The Sirens, sculptures that represent to Pound the beautiful culture, a time and place of the best which preceded a time (the present) of tawdry cheapness. The Mystic smoothly elides into “La Dolce Vita”, the Fellini film, that epitomizes the glitzy ugliness oncoming in the sixties. A period of trash culture that now envelopes the globe, foretold by Pound, embossed by Fellini and absorbed by us.
Pepe the Historian appears nearly everywhere in the pages of “Raging Twenties”. In a most clever Chapter 13, “Siren Call of A ‘System Leader’”, Pepe wends through the Mongol age of Genghis Khan, to the death of Kublai Khan and the end of that Empire right into the 21st Century where the USA Empire, like the last great Khan, faces China. However, China is a part of Eurasia, the vast resource of the multi-polar sovereigns China, Russia, Iran, India, their neighbors and friends, arrayed ready to construct a new world based on four civilizations, not an ideology like the failed Empire of the USA.
The Historian gathers from Thucydides and others regarding plagues. Pertinently, Escobar delivers the connection of the fall of empires and plagues as cause. “Predictably eyeing the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, a serious academic debate is raging around the working hypothesis of historian Kyle Harper, according to whom viruses and pandemics—especially the Justinian plague in the 6th century—led to the end of the Roman Empire.”
Escobar’s journalistic roots remain in real politic while consistently pointing out the gap between the twisted souls that feel the need to lie, cheat and murder to achieve their ends. With acerbic ink, he writes: “Those were the days when NATO, with full impunity, could bomb Serbia, miserably lose a war on Afghanistan, turn Libya into a militia hell and plot myriad interventions across the Global South. And of course, none of that had any connection whatsoever with the bombed and the invaded forced into becoming refugees in Europe.”
Pepe’s economic interest in Belt and Road and the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era opens our eyes to the real geo-political shifts. The pandemic has fractured world trade. “Soon we will be facing three major, interlocking debates: the management of the crisis, in many cases appalling; the search for future models; and the reconfiguration of the world-system.”
Peering over our Covid masks, we read Chapter 12, “How To Think Post-Planet Lockdown”. Pepe’s main insight remains valid: the state of exception has been completely normalized. And it gets worse: “A new despotism, which in terms of pervasive controls and cessation of every political activity, will be worse that the totalitarianisms we have known so far.”
“As dystopia and mass paranoia seem to be the law of the (bewildered) land, Michel Foucault’s analyses of biopolitics have never been so timely, as states across the world take over biopower—the control of people’s life and bodies.”
Pepe gives us, among many, Giorgio Agamben, who redoubles his analyses of science as the religion of our time: “The analogy with religion is taken literally; theologians declared that they could not clearly define what is God, but in his name they dictated rules of conduct to men and did not hesitate to burn heretics. Virologists admit they don’t know exactly what is a virus, but in its name they pretend to decide how human beings shall live.”
In the section, “Enter the triad”, Chapter 10, Pepe postulates: “I offer as a working hypothesis that the Asia triad of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu has been absolutely essential in shaping the perception and serene response of hundreds of millions of people across various Asian nations to COVID-19—compared to the being is the greatest joy.” It also helps to know that “life is a series of natural and spontaneous choices. Don’t resist them—that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Buddhism runs in parallel to the Tao: “All conditioned things are impermanent—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” And to keep our vicissitudes in perspective, it helps to know that, “better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.”
Quo Vadis. Where are you marching?
Pepe shows us the way, the paths we are on. He offers, too, a pantheon of “travelers” who opine from the high clouds of history, from books on dusty shelves of libraries, from blogs and videos on digital platforms, all snatched by his rapier mind to weave affirmation into his ideas and analysis. In sum, a feast awaits the reader, taken as a banquet or a serial read chapter by chapter. Enjoy.