Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Delusion of Current Events

With victory after victory, the American super-rich are destroying American democracy while their military-industrial allies impose the American Empire upon the world. Saddam is dead; bin Laden is dead; Washington is dropping bombs with impunity; Goldman Sachs is bigger than ever. And yet, America, looking weaker and sillier every day as its government implodes like Marie let them eat cake Antoinette, is neither honored nor obeyed. So what is happening: do events speak for themselves, or is something else going on?

The temptation to dwell on events when writing history is almost irresistible. Events are after all the building blocks of history, are they not? Well, perhaps, if you consider white caps to be the building blocks of ocean storms. But if you see storms as the culmination of the interactions of underlying forcescurrents, winds, submarine topography, temperature shifts, then you should see history as well as the story of underlying forcesgreed, the pursuit of justice, economic competition, cultural urges, security fears, ethnic antagonism, competition over scarce resources.

Consider the history of the 21st century so far. The main events have been:
  1. 9/11;
  2. the U.S. decision to respond with military force rather than via the system of justice;
  3. the U.S. invasion of Iraq;
  4. the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico;
  5. the recession;
  6. the end of the recession;
  7. the overthrow of Mubarak (just a wild guess that it will prove to be the harbinger of a serious Arab socio-political modernization process);
But do these events constitute the key things that happened during this period? Consider the following long-term processes (not one of which can really be called an event)

  1. the global rise in oil and food prices that set the modernization process of poor countries back by perhaps a decade;
  2. the loss of a crucial decade in the battle to overcome (or just survive) global warming;
  3. the rising scale of environmental disasters in an increasingly permissive and shortsighted regulatory context;
  4. the weakening of the U.S. via the roughly $20 Trillion hit taken by the U.S. economy as the result of its invasion of Iraq ($5T per Stiglitz and Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War) and $20T from the resultant recession (based on the near $1T official bailout plus follow-up hidden Government support to Big Finance; omitting the actual cost of lost productivity or unemployment checks handed out);
  5. the discrediting of the U.S. as moral leader of the global movement toward democracy;
  6. the relative decline of American power and rise in the power of Russia, China, and Iran;
  7. the exposure of the Wall St. model as both socially and financially harmful;
  8. the victory (!) of Big Finance in reestablishing itself, despite the recession it caused, in control of both the U.S. political and economic processes;
  9. the endless recession on Main St., where the tsunami of unemployment and foreclosures continues;
  10. the ability of radical Islam to resist the American Empire, or, to put it differently, the ability of Muslim societies to retain a measure of independence from the U.S.;
  11.  the Muslim shift from a focus on attacking the West to peacefully reforming Muslim socio-political systems;
  12.  the transformation of the U.S. from the global champion of democracy and reformist capitalism with a heart into an elitist plutocracy where the super-rich are intentionally destroying the middle class to replace democracy and the post-Depression egalitarian trend with a two-class society composed of a mass of impoverished, dependent, docile, and depoliticized workers exploited to further enrich the super-rich;
  13. the exposure of the weakness (via wars by the U.S. and Israel in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Gaza, and Lebanon) of modern, high-tech warfare as a means of stopping social movements and constructinganything.

Judging from events, the history of the 21st century so far has been the story of American punishment of Muslim independence combined with the advancement of the American Empire. Al Quaida was smashed, the Taliban were kicked out of power, Saddam was deposed, Iran was marginalized and economically strangled, Gazans were imprisoned, and southern Lebanon (briefly) depopulated. Simultaneously, the American Empire marched where it wished, expanding military bases with blazing speed and constructing a global financial empire even faster. True, some troops are moving around, but few bases seem to be returning to local hands. Also true, Lehman collapsed and AIG was, for a time, virtually nationalized, but Goldman expanded, and the old financial structure that brought us the recession (proximate cause) within the context of focusing on conducting war and making it invisible to the U.S. public (fundamental cause) was strengthened rather than being disciplined, much less overthrown.

And yet, after all the successes of the American Empire project, the U.S. seems far less secure and less domestically sound than it was a decade ago, while those countries offering an alternative approach to global governance (Russia, China, Iran) each find their non-military strategy has significantly strengthened its hand. Iran, barely surviving a generation ago, now has not only secure borders (in the context of the regional U.S. military withdrawal that appears to be occurring) but a real sphere of influence. China just keeps advancing economically, playing its cards close to its chest and casting bemused glances at the wild-eyed, clumsy Westerners who keep picking up rocks only to drop them on their own feet. Russia is gathering itself, carefully signing nice, legal, non-threatening petroleum contracts in every direction, in fundamental contrast to expensive American military moves that seem to leave the U.S. more and more out of the global hydrocarbon loop. Moreover, it remains unclear exactly what might be meant by any statement that the U.S. won the war in Iraq, while every indication is that the U.S. is losing the war in Afghanistan. And all the while, domestically, the condition of American infrastructure and the socio-economic situation of the American worker continue to decline like a Hollywood version of Das Kapital. (For a brilliant summary of the decline of U.S. governance over the past half century, see Noam Chomskys America in Decline.)

In short, events and reality appear to be telling precisely contradictory stories! Looking at events does not just give a superficial picture of reality; it gives a picture that utterly contradicts reality. The military successes of the American Empire project add up to a less secure and less powerful U.S. The financial successes of the super-rich add up to an increasingly weak and unstable American society whose future we may have already seenin the riots a few years ago in the suburban ghettos of Paris, in Greece more recently, and this past week in London.

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