The United States is a fascinating source of entertainment for those with strong stomachs and capable of viewing it from a distance. Watched on television or read about over the Internet, it generates much the same psychological effect as must have been experienced by Elizabethans who crowded excitedly around the sand-pit to watch a bull being torn bloodily apart by terriers. Plus, it provides the merciful and self-satisfying illusion that one is up here rather than being down there, in the United States, amid the blood, noise and stink.
The problem with this pleasant detachment, which is extremely and increasingly evident amid even American webloggers and the few astute members of the official commentariat of that country, is that it is simply an illusion. There is no place where America cannot reach, and if they can’t blow you apart with a Hellfire they’ll get you with Goldman Sachs.
Dear old Julius Nyerere of Tanzania once remarked that Tanzanians should have the right to vote in American elections, since the media informed them more thoroughly about those elections than about the ones in their own country. He had a point. At the very least, we should be trying to find out what is going on in the United States, and if there are any chinks in their armour through which we can fit the needle-blade of a misericord.
It seems rather obvious that there are, for the United States is in a fairly bad way as a World Power. It has enormous global influence, of course; it can terrorise Syria with the best of them, and Western Europe looks instinctively to New York to decide whether the stock markets in Frankfurt or London go up or down. However, it is light-years away from the bright days of fantasy under Clinton, when it seemed to have won the Cold War and to be the unsurpassable ruler of the Free World and so on.
Let’s not forget that the Bush rampage was essentially a reaction to decline; Bush had convinced himself (with the help of a large team of like-minded imbeciles) that the Indispensible Nation was in decline because of the weak liberalism of Clinton, and that throwing a bit of weight around would resolve all the problems, especially those of international respect and financial crisis. Instead, America discovered that invading the Middle East was hard (having not learned from Israel’s fiascoes because the American neoconservatives listened to Israeli politicians rather than Israeli generals) and also discovered that in the end, lying about how rich you are doesn’t make you get any richer.
Obama has simply been trying to do the same sort of thing with far less resources, meaning less opportunity for error, and far less political support. His own party supports him only tepidly, being dimly aware of how corrupt and evil his policies are and more thoroughly aware of how unpopular his policies are everywhere outside the United States. His policies have made the United States far less secure, since apart from being universally disliked and distrusted, it is also weaker because of the financial catastrophe which he has done nothing to ameliorate. Hence, it’s about time that someone challenged him. However, it is impossible for this to happen from within the Democratic Party. Almost unprecedentedly, nobody even put up a primary candidate to challenge him, for fear that otherwise the vile Republicans might take heart from a division in the divine Democratic Party. Meanwhile, all potential third-parties are weak, gutless, heartless and hopeless. The OCCUPY movement, never as lively as its press agents made it appear, is dead. It would seem, therefore, that there is nothing to be expected from the left or from the stinking carcase of what was once liberalism in America.
Therefore one must turn to the conservatives for succour. Surely they, with their immense funding, their vast army of activists backed by researchers, their dominance of American intellectual journals, can provide an effective counterweight to Obama? Perhaps they can. However, there is no sign that they want to.
The Republican Party in the United States appears to have become a very strange organisation — perhaps stranger than most leftists realise. The American Right has been bizarre, by left-wing standards, for a long time. However, it is worth noting that the American Right has at least had an objective, a case on its own terms, since the days of Goldwater. The Right’s contention has always been that its opponents were cowards and also perverts, who were also selling the country out for gold, but also out of a desire for the destruction of America for its own sake. This was because the Right believed that its own policies were not merely perfect but self-evidently perfect, and therefore anyone else’s had to be not only wrong, but wilfully wrong.
This made a certain amount of sense so long as the actual goal shielded by this nonsensical concept was quite plain — to reverse the gains made by the American working class between 1880 and 1950. This was a reasonable, even understandable project, and since one of the chief allies of the American working class had been the liberals (who had basically allowed American workers to enjoy a satisfactory standard of living in exchange for social harmony) it was natural that this was cloaked under a denunciation of the liberals. (Since the liberals speedily jettisoned all support for the workers the moment they felt themselves criticised, this was not necessary, but it was convenient — because the effective demonisation of liberalism could be used by the ruling class to mobilise even the working class against its own interests.)
All very well, but there were a couple of problems. The United States in 2000 was not the same as the United States in 1880, when it had been splendidly isolated from the rest of the world, impervious to foreign attack and almost entirely self-sufficient in manufacture and resource. It faced stiff competition from powerful foreign economic entities. Moreover, sustaining its society was technologically complicated. There was little value generated by unskilled labour; therefore, an educated labour force was needed, and such a labour force was very different from the blue-collar underclass exploited by the American elite in 1880. An educated labour force would be aware of the advantages enjoyed by educated labour forces in other countries; it would therefore be unhappy at being reduced below their level. It could be expected to resist, and if it did not resist it would become demoralised. This labour force was needed for its brains, and if it were intellectually depressed, the performance of its brains would suffer.
There was an additional problem. In 1880 the middle class had been small. By 1980, it had grown to a sizeable part of the population. If the ruling class were to acquire as vast a slice of the national income as it had enjoyed in 1880, the middle class would simply have to go. But unfortunately, the middle class was absolutely essential, because it was the class which generated the trade in goods and services which sustained the economy of the United States. Return to a pre-Fordist social structure would mean returning to a system under which the overwhelming majority could not buy very much — and therefore, the minority could not sell them very much. In other words, it required a considerable contraction of the US economy, and therefore ultimately a contraction of the wealth of the US minority. A return to the Gilded Age would mean a return to the age when billionaires were a rarity.
It seems quite clear that the American Right did not think at all about these things, and therefore went ahead and did what it could to slash wages, slash taxes, reduce social services, cut back on infrastructure maintenance, ship jobs overseas, downsize manufacturing in favour of financial services, and all the other things which neoliberalism brings us. Inevitably, with all this came stagnant growth and expanding unemployment. To counter this, the American Right permitted massive borrowing to finance the goods and services on credit. To reduce the cost of imported goods, the American Right obliged the same policies to be implemented everywhere in the world that the American writ ran. As a result, when this unsustainable system led to a financial collapse, it happened almost everywhere except in Russia and China and parts of Latin America, precisely the places where the American system was frowned on.
The apotheosis of this system is Willard “Mitt” Romney, the billionaire fund manager who has become the Republican candidate for the Presidency. That he is rich, effete and out of touch with the average American is obvious, but this is a red herring; the same is true of almost anyone who is likely to become a candidate for the job. What is much more problematic is that he appears to have no idea that the system which he is trying to manage is getting dangerously out of control.
Romney, following on the approved right-wing script, accuses his opponent of being socialistic — because he did not allow various American corporations to collapse, but instead gave them government loans when they went bankrupt due to their incompetence and due to the disasters caused by the system generated by the American government. He proclaims that the core problem is that government is doing too much, and that it must do less. To ensure that it does less, he wants to cut taxes, chiefly on the wealthy, even though America is currently running a vast budget deficit and is only very slowly growing, if at all. Tax cuts on the rich will not promote demand; they might promote investment, but America has immense amounts of surplus capital and is not investing it, so such cuts will simply expand this surplus. If the tax cuts do not increase growth then they will increase the budget deficit, providing excuses for further cuts in social services, but such cuts will definitely diminish demand.
It is evident that Romney has no new ideas and no consciousness of what his political class has done to the country. His concern is simply to defend what he has and to preserve the system which benefits him and his friends. It is essentially the same as the concern of his opponent, except that his opponent is also trying to pretend that he isn’t doing this — because forty years ago Democrats were supposed to oppose this sort of plutocracy, and sometimes even did oppose it a little. However, they opposed it out of a sense of fairness, not out of a sense of personal advantage. Whether or not the money was spread around a little, both Democrats and Republicans would remain rich. Now, however, the question is whether Romney’s economic policies — or even Obama’s — are actually sustainable, or whether the United States is not teetering on the edge of a complete breakdown of the economic system, a crisis of demand which will make 2007 seem minor.
It is probably this crisis which makes the United States and its allies ever more aggressive towards the weak countries which they want to plunder. There is no real difference between Obama and Romney over the proposed war with Iran. Meanwhile, Russia has provided India and China with improved weaponry with which to wage war with the United States should they need to, and China also has the money — while both Russia and India, and to a lesser extent Brazil, are unhappy at the way in which the United States’ global meddling is disrupting their own interests. Thus, just as the greatest power in the world finds itself in crisis and decline, the lesser powers find themselves indignant and empowered. The next few years may be a rather crisis-ridden period.