2010s >> 2019 >> no-1376-april-2019

Pathfinders: Heartland of a heartless world

What connects next-generation 5G technology with a geographer’s theory of world conquest from 1904?

If you enjoy intellectual breakfast snacks delivered in 5-10 minute videos from the BBC, and you can stomach the usual assumptions of the institutional elite, you could do worse than munch through bbc.com/ideas/playlists, which offers everything from a history of the nipple to an A-Z of -isms (there’s a flash-doc on Is capitalism here to stay? though at just 3 mins 23 seconds don’t expect it to blow your mind).

In the section Ideas that shaped the world you can find a two-part mini-doc called The blueprint for world domination that spooked America. This is an exposition of the Heartland theory, first put forward by geographer Halford Mackinder in 1904, which argued that since land transport had been revolutionised through railway networks, classical sea power (in particular British sea power) was no longer the key to world domination. Instead, access to land-based resources and minerals located in Eastern Europe and Russia – the Heartland – would in future dictate politics across the Eurasian continent or ‘world-island’, and ultimately across the entire world. As Mackinder memorably put it, ‘Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island. Who rules the World Island commands the World.’

Mackinder is credited as one of the founders of the ‘science’ of geopolitics, and although he wasn’t really saying anything that would have been a revelation to the likes of Caesar or Genghis Khan, his cold-blooded big-picture approach allegedly had a profound effect on those convening at the 1919 Versailles peace treaty, who were otherwise being bombarded with idealistic, one-new-world rhetoric from the likes of the US president Woodrow Wilson. At all events, the conference attempted to drive a wedge between Germany and Russia by creating intervening buffer states in order to divide power in Eastern Europe along the lines of the Heartland theory. Of course it didn’t work, and besides, Mackinder’s theory was arguably soon rendered obsolete by its own reasoning – if sea power was superseded by land-based transport, this itself was also superseded by air power and then by nuclear ballistic missile power. Though America became paranoid about all things Soviet, control of Ukrainian grain and Siberian forestry supplies no longer had much to do with it.

Now, however, the Heartland hypothesis has been revived in a new form.

Huawei kidding?

There’s been a lot of hype lately about 5G or fifth-generation internet technology, and bold claims have ranged from it being ‘orders of magnitude faster than 4G’ to being the next industrial revolution. Donald Trump, pretending far-sightedness beyond the capability of mere mortals, has even been talking about 6G, which has left industry insiders scratching their heads in bafflement as there is no such thing as 6G and probably never will be (this was Trump’s fatuous equivalent of the Buzz Lightyear catch-phrase ‘To infinity and beyond!’).

There are good reasons to think that much of the hype around 5G is complete nonsense, and that in many cases its massive increase in bandwidth won’t deliver any significant speed improvements. But it’s not really about speed, it’s about capacity, and the coming ‘internet of things’ is going to need a lot of that.

That means every house, domestic appliance, autonomous vehicle, traffic light, industrial component, digital watch, phone, banking system and national power grid, all combined in an interactive network communicating at near light-speed, in the background, for our human convenience, but also fostering our total human dependence.

It’s not hard to reapply the Heartland theory to the new territory of 5G cyberspace. Who controls the internet of things controls the world.

Imagine if any or all of this is hacked. It’s not just a matter of turning the lights and data off. A hostile hack could theoretically weaponise your house against you, cause traffic pile-ups, drive planes into stadiums, melt down nuclear power stations, you name it.

It’s also not hard to see, from this, why the US is so paranoid about the shadowy Chinese telecom giant Huawei (pron. Who are we), which is building 5G core tech for much of the world’s emerging 5G networks, and which for all anyone knows is building ‘backdoors’ into its software for future exploitation by the Chinese military. Huawei is keenly playing the innocent and blaming the West for its ‘pride and prejudice’ (ie racism), while protesting that they would never give such access to the Chinese government. Founder (and Communist Party member) Ren Zhengfei insists that any such skulduggery would be bad for the firm’s overseas business.  But who is he kidding? Chinese companies are legally obliged to cooperate with state security services, and Huawei like all Chinese companies has a Communist Party committee, whose leader is a senior member of the Huawei board.

There is probably a hint of venerable ‘Yellow Peril’ racism here, in truth. All capitalist states connive in mutual surveillance and dirty tricks to give themselves a military and market edge. If the US bought all its 5G tech from Japan, Sweden or Britain, there is no reason to suppose firms in those countries couldn’t be induced to do the same thing Huawei is being accused of. Indeed, something like this may well have happened back in 2016. When the FBI asked Apple to create an iPhone backdoor so they could hack the phones of terrorists, Apple refused to create the software, and the federal government issued a writ. Apple was lauded for defending customer confidentiality, but was probably bricking it behind the scenes, being caught between a rock and a hard place. Very conveniently however, just a day before the case went to court, the FBI announced that it had found a mysterious third party which could hack the phone, and promptly called off the lawsuit, thus saving Apple’s bacon. What seems more likely in reality is that a deal was struck privately whereby Apple gave the FBI what it asked for, on condition the FBI didn’t reveal the surrender in public, thereby leaving Apple’s reputation intact.

So is Huawei being scapegoated for what all capitalist companies would do anyway? Probably. But western-style countries have good reason to fear Chinese power, because it is not subject to periodic government change, does not tolerate effective unions or political dissent, and is thus able to pursue single-minded market policies more efficiently and over longer terms than any liberal democracy can match. And socialists ought to worry too. If Chinese totalitarianism can be shored up by hi-tech surveillance and control of 5G, other countries might get the idea that democracy is no longer necessary for running capitalism. If that happens, workers could face increasing attacks on basic democratic rights including perhaps even the right to vote. Just one more reason why we need to work for that revolution for common ownership now, before it slips too far out of reach.

PJS