December 27, 2010
Annals of Life at the Ending of Empire

The half-way mark of Obama’s first term draws to an end. Most of the fine dreams that brought him to office have so far been frustrated. Worse, the dreamers on whose shoulders this presidency rode to Washington are alternately mocked and patronized, with the barely hidden assumption that anyone to the left of Wall Street is not a serious citizen, but instead is either a wild-eyed leftist who believes that wealth is evil, a bleeding heart who’d bankrupt the country for temporary and futile assistance to the needy, or a simpleton incapable of understanding the complex workings of modern economies.

To some extent this is based on the continuing use of an obsolete mode of thought. After the Second World War, American industry dominated the world in a manner never seen before. The other pre-war industrial powers were largely in ruins, with huge losses in population and industrial plant, while the US homeland was unscathed, and we lost far fewer soldiers from a larger population than we had in our Civil War. We were hurt, but our industries were pumping out new items so fast, our problem was to find ways to create markets. The Marshall Plan was not purely an act of humanity, though it was that, or of smart diplomacy, though it was that in spades. It was also a attempt to get the European market on its feet as fast as possible; otherwise American industries would soon find themselves overproducing and be forced to cut back, sending the economy back into a depressive spiral.

At that time it made some sense to see the success of the American method and its distribution of benefits through a wide swath of society as based on our industrial might, our ability to produce massively more than we needed or could even realistically consume. If our industries continued to prosper, the thinking went, our economy and society would, too. Of course there was a certain silliness to this line of thought; wartime prosperity happened because of the endless markets and full employment the war created. Still, it made sense politically to promise continued growing prosperity to a war-weary public.

So was the US then less plutocratic than it is now? To some extent, perhaps; but more importantly, the plutocracy is now headed by financiers rather than captains of industry. In other words, we no longer make things, we merely shuffle bits, so we no longer need lots of workers. In fact, having lots of workers just divides the pie into smaller chunks, so we prefer the smallest number of workers possible. The result is that an increasing subset of the population is excluded from the economic recovery the media and the administration tout, and many of those who are still included endure worsening conditions.

As our main industry is now Wall Street, we should probably adjust our thinking to include the obvious fact that what benefits Forbes-list types no longer trickles down even to the small extent it used to. People involved in what Calvin Trillin called “this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place” only need the person on the street to con, and as a resource when a con goes bad and has to be paid off by the taxpayers. Witness on both counts the recent real-estate meltdown and the scams that caused it.

Thus it’s not surprising that we alternate between Democrats who represent Wall Street and Republicans who represent Big Oil. And unfortunately it’s also not surprising that Americans raised on television and superheros continue to believe that the next representative of Wall Street or Big Oil will save the economy and the environment concurrently, stop the wars, end the torture and the illegal surveillance, and return us to the democracy we thought we had. Though we haven’t had it for a very long time, and only a minority of us even then.

So Obama promises change and delivers not a bit of it. In fact he doubles down on the most horrific Bush policies with the exception of Iraq, from which he transfers troops to Afghanistan. Where we now have a hundred thousand troops and likely at least that many contractors, presumably searching for the hundred or so al Qaeda operatives thought to be hiding somewhere near the border with Pakistan.

Most likely the military presence has nothing to do with projected routes of oil pipelines. It is interesting to note, however, that oil and weapons are two more of the biggest remaining US industries, and that the interests of Wall Street and Big Oil converge when it comes to hostilities, especially those aimed at procuring and securing oil.

In any case, the old model no longer applies: what’s good for American mega-corporations is rarely good for the country as a whole. But American presidents continue to operate on the old model.

From this point of view, we can understand Obama’s promise to find a middle ground as aimed at an audience consisting of the industries represented by the two parties, in particular finance and oil. Seen from this viewpoint, the first two years have been a great success: Obama has maneuvered along traditional lines to please the two greatest destructive forces the country has yet produced, using the tried and true method of foreign war against a helpless adversary. Even better, a mercurial one, so that we no longer need to demonize a nation or a people, which is considered racist nowadays. We can, though, still manage to scare ourselves with belated realizations that our worldwide exploits and exploitations have not always been greeted by the locals with the fondest of regards.

Which, as Frank Herbert said, is the point.

If you think of yourselves as helpless and ineffectual, it is certain that you will create a despotic government to be your master. The wise despot, therefore, maintains among his subjects a popular sense that they are helpless and ineffectual.

Obama, of course, is no despot. Our system is not despotism but plutocracry, and it’s been that way since its founding. As Chomsky has taught for years, the powerful in America are bent on deterring democracy abroad and restricting it at home, rolling back the twentieth century as far as possible.

Obama is no more an agent of change than he is of despotism. The change he proposes is in the tactics of making deals among American mega-corporations as they divvy up the resources that our lives have become.

Perhaps that’s all he’ll need for re-election. That, and the weakness of any currently available Republican challenger, plus the bitter taste the public still has from the most recent Republican nightmare. Certainly he’s managed to alienate and even ridicule many of the most energetic of his former foot-soldiers, presumably following the classic Democratic strategy of assuming that they have nowhere else to go on election day. Unfortunately many will believe that.

As Gore Vidal says,

Our only political party has two right wings, one called Republican, the other Democratic. But Henry Adams figured all that out back in the 1890s. “We have a single system,” he wrote, “and in that system the only question is the price at which the proletariat is to be bought and sold, the bread and circuses.”

It’s passing strange to live in a country where people could take control of their lives and their government, yet choose not to.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at December 27, 2010 12:01 AM
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Here's the scariest thing that has happened to me politically in the last year:

A gentle older relative, economically conservative but not in general bigoted, emailed a Tea Party propaganda video, probably a Glenn Beck product, to several of us in the family. Her comment suggested everyone would enjoy it "regardless of your politics."

Of course the video was characteristic of a very particular kind of politics -- a mix of vague nationalistic bloviation, inchoate grievance against liberals and intellectuals, identification of the speaker with every ordinary petit-bourgeois who has lost something and feels entitled to get it back, and a closing series of Tea Party picket signs expressing nasty hostility toward immigrants, socialists, and other usual suspects. I mean, of course, that Leni Riefenstahl would have been proud.

Yet this dear member of our family manages to think something like this is outside "politics" because it doesn't mention a political party, nor for that matter any specific party program.

So, yes, I'm trembling for my country.

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on December 27, 2010 12:50 AM

Well said.
And a happy new year to you, too.

Posted by: John Gall on December 27, 2010 4:53 PM

A fine essay but I said "ouch" when you used the word "homeland". I hate that word. It's a word that originated with Hitler's Nazi's, or at least was something the Third Reich used repeatedly in their propaganda efforts. Brought back to us by the Bush family, the same family in which Prescott Bush was "called down" for trading with the Nazi's when they were our enemy. Personally, I think he should have been hung for treason but a Roosevelt was a kinder gentler sort than the torturing Bush regime. They would have hung the man, or at least sent him to Guantanamo to be tortured unmericifully. Oh wait, the folks at Guantanamo were mostly innocents paid for by bounty hunters who just wanted heads to count as enemy combatants.

See: Heimat on Wikipedia or:

Posted by: Buck on December 27, 2010 6:56 PM

Oh, and let me add another thought. I've decided to start calling corporations "collectivist organizations". The definition fits and it will drive the right wingers mad if we all do it. So join me in the fun.

Posted by: Buck on December 27, 2010 7:07 PM

Unfortunately for us prols, the powers no longer feel the need to even bother with bread, merely circuses.

Posted by: karen marie on December 28, 2010 9:03 PM

Unfortunately for us prols, the powers no longer feel the need to even bother with bread, merely circuses.

Posted by: karen marie on December 28, 2010 9:14 PM
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