War was, of course, the greatest man-made scourge of the era and has remained at the top of the list until now. The relative treatment and status of men and women has moved significantly towards equality, especially in the last two centuries (however large the remaining gap); still, the play stands as a constant reminder of the complexity of power structures.
To me the most striking idea in Lysistrata is the demonstration of the power of the so-called powerless. When cast in gender terms, Aristophanes showed that the hunger/dependency of men on the availability of women for sex made women powerful… if they chose to exercise that power.
The Modern era has been marked (indeed, was arguably created by) the willingness of a broad swath of people to recognize that they, in fact, did hold power, despite the centuries of epistemology about the embedded power of the “better” classes (nobility and clergy). The revolutionary spasm in Paris in 1789 has echoed far and wide. It has led to disruption of a variety of static and sclerotic societies (and, occasionally, real change).
At an international level, nothing of this sort has yet occurred. The evaporation of formal Western Empires in the mid-20C, led to the nominal independence of many peoples; although their subservient status from economic and cultural perspectives (aka “neo-colonialism”) made clear that power remained in the hands of the wealthy and technologically-powerful states of the West (and the Soviet Union). The rise of China beginning in the late 20C might be taken as a sign of change in this regard; although it is quite arguable that its regional hegemony and broader global stature owes little to notions of a different type of political order and is, instead, traditional power politics in a new configuration.
One of the more interesting ideas in the latest sci-fi novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (which I strongly recommend), is that “developing” countries, particularly India, begin to swing their weight (i.e., exercise their power) in order to defend their own (especially vulnerable) people from the environmental havoc wreaked primarily by the rich West over the past several hundred years. In Robinson’s telling, this initially takes the form of climactic geoengineering with widespread (and generally beneficial) effects. It extends to a more assertive diplomatic stance made more effective by the combined efforts of many countries. Robinson includes other, more violent actions taken by people leveraging the power wrought by new technologies in order to change the vector of human development and its climactic impact.
So, here’s a variant of that story: “poor” countries band together and refuse to trade with the rich until the latter step up to carbon markets and other fundamental changes necessary to preserve the general level of “civilization” of which the people in those well-off countries are the principal beneficiaries. Or, even easier to imagine: they enter into global trade negotiations en bloc to apply pressure to the rich. It’s a sort of Lysistrata in a global commercial frame. Even the process of organizing such a group of countries and harnessing them with like-minded people in the “rich” countries could itself prove potent, or at least disruptive.
As recent hiccups in the global supply chain have made clear, we (i.e. the well-off Western consumers) are at least as vulnerable to such disruption as the suppliers of cheap labor and commodities around the world, especially if the disruption is intentional, managed, and sustained. The effects would be far more alarming than our current concerns about a few empty shelves at Safeway or shortages of Christmas toys.
Even from the perspective of the less well-off countries, the considerable losses from reducing global commerce would have to be weighed against the on-coming global disaster from which their people would suffer earlier and more extensively than those in the “rich” countries.
What is not clear is the type and extent of disruption/chaos necessary to prompt the embedded global power structure to take sufficient action on the environment. In Ministry for the Future it is an extended heat wave that kills 20+ million people in South Asia. Given the cultural inertia and fear of change currently being demonstrated as both democratic principles and public health are under widespread attack, I suspect that even this would not be enough. (I fear that if the species comes out the other side of the coming cataclysm with fewer than a few hundred million people dead, we would have to account ourselves (relatively) fortunate.) Moreover, most people have the remarkable ability to psychologically separate themselves from others’ plight, so that massive and deadly climactic effects in Asia/Africa would not rouse us in the West. Until it happens here—in a big way—it’s hard to see the US and EU mustering the political will for the kinds of fundamental economic and cultural change necessary to abate the crisis.
We live in a world with deep interdependencies at the level of trade, finance, and culture. We live in a world with deep political dysfunctionality at both the national and global levels. Things are out of whack. Hardly anyone in Paris in 1787 or St. Petersburg in 1916 contemplated the revolutions that were soon upon them. It’s not clear why we should assume that we are any more perceptive.
Radical threats require radical action. It is not far-fetched to compare the ravages of modern capitalism with those from ancient inter-Hellenic war. Is the modern lust for consumer goods—the latest iPhone, athletic shoes, or palm-oil-enriched foods—comparable to Spartan warriors’ desire for hot sex? Can those most at risk from the diversions of the “powerful” find their own leverage points? Will the necessary changes happen any other way?