I’ve had some fun and enlightening conversations with Russians who’ve moved to the Bay Area. We have a decent contingent of people who speak Russian in San Francisco, enough that certain parts of town have a few billboards with Cyrillic characters. Of course our ballots and our instructions for pumping gas have only English, Chinese, and Spanish. But everyone other than Americans speaks more than one language, right? So they can get by.
I always try to ask people who lived in the USSR about this: I’ve read that Americans who visited found the citizens surprisingly well informed about events in the outside world, despite government censorship. Westerners were flattered to learn that our radio broadcasts had helped, at least for some locations. But folks would also say, “You just have to learn how to read Pravda.” Simple example: if some big event is coming up, then they say nothing about it in the press, you know it went badly, and you can figure out why. If they trumpet it, you know it went well, and it’s probably being overblown, so you discount it a bit.
That sort of thing is pretty simple. We do it with the Cheney administration all the time. Now. I mean, you and I did it from before the beginning, but our leaders, and thus our media, are just starting to catch on.
Determined exegesis can sometimes extract useful information even from those whose points of view prevent from seeing the obvious meaning of the events they report. Reporters who don’t get it can still pass along data to their readers; it’s just more effort for the readers to sift it out. The government may classify stuff and lie with abandon, but it doesn’t openly censor.
Our media are not controlled like the Soviet media were; ours are controlled by corporations, which control the government. And, as Chomsky says, propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism. Our system is propaganda at home coupled with violence abroad. And realistically, it’s been that way for as long as we’ve had the capability to “project force”. The Monroe Doctrine — back off, Europe and Asia, we own this hemisphere — was imperialistic in nature, but it understood the limits of American power at the time.
We gained on the rest of the world, as Paul Kennedy describes in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, with the First World War, which cost the European powers dearly but didn’t touch our homeland; we lost people, but we didn’t have to rebuild our houses. The Second World War left us in an even better relative position: not merely the strongest militarily, but more importantly, says Kennedy, by far the strongest industrially, which means the strongest financially. That industrial, and therefore financial, strength is necessary to project military might.
If, in fact, that’s what you want to do. That was America’s method as long as its imperialism was, on its face at least, mainly economic. Original conquest was generally done by corporations and advertising rather than armies and bombing. In some ways this method was preferable to Rome’s: fewer people died as a direct result of invasion.
Rome’s heavy hand was felt mostly in taxes. Sure, they took some of the best artwork from your temples back to Rome; but they handled it with care and displayed it honorably, and left you to worship whatever was left in Pax Romana. In the main, they didn’t go around smashing stuff just for fun. Carthage, of course, was an exception, but that wasn’t for fun. Julius Caesar’s army burned the first library of Alexandria, but he claimed it was accidental, and that seems reasonable. Only later, with the merger of Christianity and Imperial government, did anti-intellectual currents reach the point of getting rid of impure knowledge.
If our conquests feel the heavy hand of America, the cost is more often paid these days in resources and in culture. Once we have you in our orbit, our extraction companies sign sweetheart deals — even, somehow, now that there’s a law against bribing foreign officials — after which we garrison in your country only the troops we need to protect our investment. (Chalmers Johnson counts 737 US bases around the world.) Then there’s our banks, our drug companies, our agricultural behemoths, and so on.
The barrage of “information” we project is equally imperialistic: it’s a true culture war. Americans are said to be subjected to a trillion ads per lifetime, and the folks represented by Madison Avenue want access to the new overseas markets as well; otherwise what’s the point of having an empire? We think we’ve grown inured to the ads by now, but they’re designed to prevent that, and to work with the subconscious of an increasingly sophisticated target audience. We get the message without meaning to.
Propaganda is to democracy…
In some ways, having a bunch of soldiers slaughtered on a battlefield, after which you had to pay taxes and your temples lost some artifacts, was a better deal. Your king was probably pretty awful anyway. Oh, and if you didn’t have written laws, or even an alphabet, well, you do now. Hail, Caesar!
If the functional goal is not empire, but concentration of wealth in the hands of your friends, then the projection of military power doesn’t require industrial might, except in the area of weapons. (And, what ho, that’s the only remaining industry in which we excel.) All it requires is that the war end with your friends in control of the major assets. If your country’s industrial might has moved offshore during the process, that will only put your friends farther ahead of the pack. How much of that will they be willing to spend on your library, eh?
At some level all administrations are motivated to concentrate wealth in certain hands as opposed to others. Every candidate receives contributions of money, time, and influence. Once elected, most of their programs have the effect of redistributing wealth in some fashion; government can’t do much without money, and that money comes from somewhere and goes somewhere.
But with the Cheney administration, the motivation couldn’t be more obvious (to the point where it’s beginning to be noticed by reporters and pundits in the remote highlands within the Beltway). For example, what do administration spokesfolks want the Iraqi “government” to do more than anything? Pass the bill that allocates oil revenues among the various sections of Iraqis. And gives the force of law, whatever that turns out to mean, to the sweetheart contracts for American oil companies. They seriously need that baby passed before January 20, 2009.
As long as they end up holding the wealth of Iraq, the common wealth of the United States can go to hell. Or China, or Brazil, or Venezuela even. Just not Cuba.
The problem with the current workings of the American political system is that Presidents nearly always represent the rich, or they wouldn’t have been able to raise enough money. (By my definition, you’re not rich if you answer your own door.) As Internet contributions broadened the available base, new possibilities open for candidates to raise money in small chunks from huge numbers of people. At this point, though, we’re still in the era of small numbers of big contributors to many politicians — I think saw a report that three-quarters of Clinton’s contributions come from about 5,000 sources.
There are clearly still politicians who represent industries, or particular corporate interests, or a group of extremely wealthy families, ahead of everything else. Of course any viable candidate has contributors with deep pockets. The question is, who are they and what do they want? We need to keep checking those donor lists…
In American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips talks about industrial flight and the rise of financialism in the context of what previous empires have done. Toynbee says dying civilizations tend to spawn religions near the end; Phillips notes the turn from manufacture to finance that accompanied the last stage of imperial power in Rome, Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain.
Ours appears at this point to be an extreme example of the type. Phillips, if memory serves (my copy’s loaned out), lists manufacturing at about 12% of the current US economy, and finance at about 44%, a startling reversal from a couple of decades back when we led the world in making damn near everything, more and better.
Nowadays, we’re borrowing a couple billion every day from banks in China and Japan and elsewhere to keep ourselves in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. Our savings rate is holding near zero, sometimes slightly below that. We’re working more hours for the same income — real wages are about what they were in 1973 — while corporate profits seem to set new records every year. And these aren’t five or ten percent increases, either. CEOs’ retirement packages alone dwarf the total income a normal family could hope to put together in their collective lifetimes. Come to that, Paris Hilton probably pays her publicist more than I make in five years. (On the other hand, I’m not in jail.)
Overall, we’ve got an economy whose base has narrowed significantly in the past half century. We now specialize in weapons, finance, drugs, and industrial-strength agriculture. We might yet make a prophet of Neal Stephenson; in his near-future Snow Crash, the US leads the world in only three areas: movies, software, and pizza delivery. (The hero, Hiro Protagonist, the Deliverator, works for Uncle Enzo’s Pizza, where if the pizza doesn’t arrive within thirty minutes, Uncle Enzo helicopters in to apologize in person. After which he’ll visit with the local franchise.)
To some extent the damage done to the US economy as we lose our manufacturing base has positive effects in the new host countries. Bill Greider, in One World, Ready or Not, provides his usual combination: lots of relevant detail, extraordinary ability to put it all in perspective, and the skill to explain it clearly and to show why it matters and what it means. Some countries are poor enough that even Nike and Reebok factories are a win.
The market explanation would be that, as soon as the poorest countries catch up with the rest of the world, things will even out and Utopia will bloom. As far as I’m aware, though, they’re unable to come up with any (historically accurate) examples of this type of plan succeeding. The so-called Asian Tiger economies have done quite well employing many forms of government interference in the market. The US refuses on principle to coördinate activities among private ventures (though of course that’s only a principle, we don’t always have to go by it; laws, after all, are only advisory in nature for those whose accountability moments are past). Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, for example, has no such qualms.
Our biggest industry is finance, which in principle doesn’t care where the jobs are located as long as production costs are minimized and profits maximized. This is what existing financial theory takes to be a basic tenet of capitalism. But, beloveds, I ask you: what kind of basis for a decent and just society is this transfer of wealth from poor to rich, here or there?
I suspect the best hope for maintaining the current structure of power and privilege (if that’s your goal) is to allow the insertion of a soul into the juggernaut of capitalism. Otherwise, our trajectory seems headed for something between another Depression and another Paris Commune.