A Few Things Ill Considered

The Bottleneck Years

Chapter 2 Table of Contents Chapter 4

by H.E. Taylor

Chapter 3

Electronic Democracy, May 11, 2055

As I walked to CCU, I thought about what Jon was getting into. It was just like him to breeze in, drop a zinger and split before anyone could reply sensibly.

When I was growing up, I instinctively avoided politics. I knew the broad outline of our political history, only because it was unavoidable. A lot of what had happened in North America revolved around energy.

Dad lived through the oil crunch and sometimes he tried to explain to us what life was like before. He grew up just taking it for granted that when he turned 18, he would get a car and be able to drive anywhere, anytime. Everybody took it for granted. Old cars were cheap. Gas was cheap. The world was their oyster.

It wasn’t so much that people felt they were entitled to the energy and wealth, it was that they never questioned why not. They didn’t think of it as “energy and wealth.” To them it was coming of age — just a normal part of life. That was why the oil crunch was such a shock. It changed everything.

Dad saw energy prices become ridiculously high, then collapse… repeatedly. Half the economists were in denial, refusing to accept the fact that limits matter. The culture of unlimited growth collided head on with the end of cheap oil, both ideologically and practically.

As the price of oil whip lashed, the commodity markets went mad. Everything was tied to energy — transportation, clothing and food. Prices were up, down, up, down, then they stayed high. Planning became difficult, if not impossible, but people still had to deal with the day to day realities. Agriculture was impacted. The industrial agriculture system was predicated on cheap energy. The shortages began. The first to be affected were the poor, and retirees, people on fixed incomes or none. Soon everybody was complaining.

The rich and powerful had figured out how to subvert representational democracy and they ran the country into the ground. As the dollar disintegrated and the economy failed, the American empire collapsed. The era of permanent war came to and end. From country after country, the troops came home. The end of cheap petroleum made the logistics of supporting large overseas armies difficult, if not impossible.

The fading of unilateral power was not, as some had imagined, a new era of golden peace and prosperity. The conflict just changed shape. The nations of the continents retrenched and began to coalesce. Asia, already united in an economic union, formed the Asian Union. The United States of South America did the same south of Mexico. Russia, like Europe, was overrun by climate refugees and was arguably ungovernable. In a paroxysm of madness, the Middle East erupted in the Six Hour War. The holy lands were left a radioactive ruins. The rise of the Arab Democratic Union plunged the region into an impenetrable darkness. Africa became a proxy battleground where corporations fought for resources.

In the midst of this chaos, the survival of the United Nations was a minor miracle, but, seen in another light, it made perfect sense. In many failing and failed states, the UN Agencies were the only functioning authority. They were needed. They provided food, water and hope when no other could.

North America wasn’t quite failing, but change was in the air. Big change.

As for precisely how that happened…

Some historical events are so shrouded in mystery that it is not clear how to interpret them, either at the time or later. We know John Kennedy was shot, but who did it, who was behind Lee Harvey Oswald, if anyone, who was with him, if anyone, and why, are another matter. In the same way, we know the Second American Revolution happened, but just who was behind it, if anyone, is a confusing jumble of half-facts, conspiracy theories and lies.

Several facts are incontrovertible.

We know the oil crunch had struck.

We know that climate disruption had severely impacted agricultural production even before the oil crunch.

We know the anger of ordinary Americans was mostly directed at corporations.

We know that an increasing proportion of the US military consisted of foreign soldiers.

We know there was some kind of insurrection in Chicago.

And we know that Washington was destroyed by an approximately 80 megaton nuclear weapon.

Beyond these basic facts, little else is definite.

It was 2037, so I was only seven years old. I saw this with a child’s eyes. Later on, dad, school and the media added other facts and angles. As a child my main memory of those years was having to work in the garden. Dad had plowed up a bunch of lawn to expand the garden. A lot of lawns had become gardens.

I complained. We all three complained, but rather than argue, dad did a clever thing. He took us to the supermarket and, while he was in the produce department, asked us to run and get flour, rice and spaghetti. We scoured that store from one end to the other and gradually it dawned on us that there was none to be had. We didn’t complain about working in the garden after that.

Everbody talked about the shortages. Flood and drought never gave crops a chance. Forty five degree weather wilted those that did manage to grow. It was more than distressing. It was a great affront to many who had thought themselves immune to the misfortunes of others. Famines were supposed to afflict Africa, India, the third world, not us. Suddenly fat North Americans were in the same boat as starving Africans and they didn’t like it one little bit. A lot of reappraisal happened very quickly, and as every leader knows — when people are hungry, nothing is sacred.

The insurrection began in Chicago. Several reports of disturbances on military bases near the city circulated in the media. Whether it was part of an attempted coup is uncertain. I’ve heard stories both ways. But then Washington was nuked. Most of Congress, the President and half the Supreme Court were killed. The Vice President tried to enact the Continuity of Government Plan hanging around since Bush the Younger and more of the military rebelled. The National Guard refused to turn on the people and commanding officers were jailed instead. Severals states declared independence.

This is where things got fuzzy. There was no news. The American internet went black. For us in Canada, and indeed in the rest of the world, it was an anxious time. The fading super-power still had thousands of nuclear weapons and nobody knew what new madness might emerge.

Originally, the internet was designed to cope with the failure of random nodes. It was, in fact, intended to survive a nuclear attack. Under the centralizing influence of media monopolies, much of that practice had been lost, but the capability still existed. By radio, landline and the odd satellite connection, word trickled out telling of surprising developments in America.

After an initial spate of violence, local assemblies across the land had nominated representatives to a Second Constitutional Assembly. There is a famous picture of the delegates arguing in an old hall with half the roof missing. They met in Philadelphia to revamp the Constitution and the Bill of Rights for the Third Millenium.

What emerged was entirely logical and completely unexpected. They called it Electronic Democracy. Rather than vote for representatives, the people would vote directly. The web was pervasive, inescapable anyway. People were constantly being watched, polled and queried. Now government would become part of that electronic environment.

The idea crossed the border with ease. Canada, which had already been swamped by American climate refugees, was dragged along. Mexico, a failed state decimated by perpetual drought and famine, as well as the drug war, welcomed the change as a possibility for improvement. To smooth the transition, the Senates were retained as elected bodies. The Canadian House of Parliament, the Mexican Assembly of Deputies and the American House of Representatives were suspended indefinitely.

Cynics were quick to point out that what mattered was not who votes, but who counts the votes. And beyond that who frames the questions or proposals to be decided, but, as usual, nobody listened.

An interim Committee, consisting of business, legal and military leaders, was formed to fulfill a temporary executive function. One of their first acts was to strike an integrated Continental Security force, ConSec, from the remnants of the old military, police, national guard and security services. The surveillance society had been a fact of life since the war on terror and few noticed any change.

For most Americans, the Second Revolution was about corporate control. In the new Constitution, corporations were explicitly declared not to be people. That eliminated much of the corporate law of the preceding two centuries. The corporation was dead; long live the corporation.

At first, it seemed as though things had really changed. Publicly financed Senate elections were held. The appearance of democratic government resumed. The possibility of hope arose to tantalize and tease a world grown weary of presidential and corporate misdeeds. Those were heady days, full of bold plans and promising declarations.

But the Committee could not decree bountiful crops any more than the old Congress. When food riots broke out in New York, martial law was declared. Before long, most of North America was under martial law. Food rationing was imposed. ConSec became our de facto secret police.

As I said, I was young when this happened and frankly didn’t understand most of it at the time. I had been lucky without knowing it. I had grown up in a rich and bountiful country. It was not until I was older that I realized I was living in a dictatorship with democratic trimmings to distract the innocent, the gullible and the willing-to-be-bought.

As I approached the university grounds, a ConSec newseye drifted beside me for 30 seconds or so in a standard ID scan. Somewhere in the ConSec computer system, my identity was being checked, my normal pattern of behaviour, my profile, updated.

I ignored it as usual. There was nothing else to do. Privacy is an illusion.

Originally newseyes had been designed for crime scenes and war zones — places where journalists were not welcome. As they became more capable and robust, security forces began using them as well. They could be tele-operated, but usually they were controlled by computer.

As the newseye floated away, I couldn’t help wondering again why Jon was bound and determined to dive into what it represented —
the snakepit of politics. It was beyond me.


Excerpted from _The Bottleneck Years_ by H.E. Taylor

For further information see:
A Gentle Introduction.

Last modified August 26, 2012