Monday, September 29, 2008

Whose Reality Is It?

A few weeks ago, noting the two sharply different reactions to Sarah Palin's VP nomination, I posted about the particular gap in values in the US that has been widened and exploited by the Culture Wars. But today I'm reminded of another gap, the one that every now and then pops out and frustrates actors in the public sphere. Today the US House of Representatives voted down the proposed bail-out bill being pushed by leaders of both parties as well as by the mainstream media. In an Associated Press article, Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes

"We're all worried about losing our jobs," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., declared in an impassioned speech in support of the bill before the vote. "Most of us say, 'I want this thing to pass, but I want you to vote for it — not me.'"

Said Boehner, after the vote: "Americans are angry, and so are my colleagues. They don't want to have to vote for a bill like this. But I have concerns about what this means for the American people, what it means for our economy, and what it means for people's jobs. I think that we need to renew our efforts to find a solution that Congress can support."

In the wake of the vote, the Dow Jones index fell nearly 800 points. The AP headline declares that the vote "shocked the capital and worldwide markets." Apparently it does not occur to these folks in Washington, on Wall Street, or in the media that there might be an alternative to the non-solution of this "bailout." (Economists of every stripe seem to think that such a bailout will not solve the difficulties that both the economy and the economy's sector are in.) It's their way or no way, they're telling themselves. The thing is, though, that people who have no power to act in the public sphere, people who are generally ignored, don't share their mindset. Maybe we don't get all the complexities of a system gamed with the help of mathematicians and physicists (unable to get academic or research jobs), but we do have a certain distance that enlarges our perspective (and considerably greater emotional cool). I can't help but recall how shocked and stunned and frustrated the pundits were when a large majority of the US public refused to buy into the supposed necessity to impeach President Clinton. The pundits kept wringing their hands and moaning. They just don't get it! The ordinary person just doesn't understand what we've been telling them. What can we do to educate them? (Meaning: people are so stupid. If they weren't stupid, they'd listen to us and share our insanity.) According to Davis's article, Bush lobbied as hard for this as he's ever lobbied Congress for anything. And you can bet the paid lobbyists have been busy night and day. But for some reason, the anger of the public (which isn't allowed into the public sphere) carried the day with most members of Congress...

Yesterday I read a piece in the Observer that resonated with a conversation I'd had with Tom on Saturday afternoon. Tom said, "Osama bin Laden must be laughing his ass off. The US with all its imperial ambitions is sliding into bankruptcy, just as the Soviet Union bankrupted itself fighting the Cold War." Well, John Gray's A Sattering Moment in America's Fall from Power suggests that

The fate of empires is very often sealed by the interaction of war and debt. That was true of the British Empire, whose finances deteriorated from the First World War onwards, and of the Soviet Union. Defeat in Afghanistan and the economic burden of trying to respond to Reagan's technically flawed but politically extremely effective Star Wars programme were vital factors in triggering the Soviet collapse. Despite its insistent exceptionalism, America is no different. The Iraq War and the credit bubble have fatally undermined America's economic primacy. The US will continue to be the world's largest economy for a while longer, but it will be the new rising powers that, once the crisis is over, buy up what remains intact in the wreckage of America's financial system.

. . . .

The irony of the post-Cold War period is that the fall of communism was followed by the rise of another utopian ideology. In American and Britain, and to a lesser extent other Western countries, a type of market fundamentalism became the guiding philosophy. The collapse of American power that is underway is the predictable upshot. Like the Soviet collapse, it will have large geopolitical repercussions. An enfeebled economy cannot support America's over-extended military commitments for much longer. Retrenchment is inevitable and it is unlikely to be gradual or well planned.

Meltdowns on the scale we are seeing are not slow-motion events. They are swift and chaotic, with rapidly spreading side-effects. Consider Iraq. The success of the surge, which has been achieved by bribing the Sunnis, while acquiescing in ongoing ethnic cleansing, has produced a condition of relative peace in parts of the country. How long will this last, given that America's current level of expenditure on the war can no longer be sustained?

An American retreat from Iraq will leave Iran the regional victor. How will Saudi Arabia respond? Will military action to forestall Iran acquiring nuclear weapons be less or more likely? China's rulers have so far been silent during the unfolding crisis. Will America's weakness embolden them to assert China's power or will China continue its cautious policy of 'peaceful rise'? At present, none of these questions can be answered with any confidence. What is evident is that power is leaking from the US at an accelerating rate. Georgia showed Russia redrawing the geopolitical map, with America an impotent spectator.

Outside the US, most people have long accepted that the development of new economies that goes with globalisation will undermine America's central position in the world. They imagined that this would be a change in America's comparative standing, taking place incrementally over several decades or generations. Today, that looks an increasingly unrealistic assumption.

Having created the conditions that produced history's biggest bubble, America's political leaders appear unable to grasp the magnitude of the dangers the country now faces. Mired in their rancorous culture wars and squabbling among themselves, they seem oblivious to the fact that American global leadership is fast ebbing away. A new world is coming into being almost unnoticed, where America is only one of several great powers, facing an uncertain future it can no longer shape.

The Bush Administration, of course, has always claimed that it makes-- rather than submits to-- reality. At the same time, they (and just about every other person and institution in the public sphere) do their best to convince the public (i.e., everyone not in the public sphere) that late capitalism is the only reality possible for the 21st century. What I think? We live in "interesting times." "Interesting times," of course, are never exactly fun.

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