Sunday, September 05, 2010

A Vision of the Future

For months now I have been holding out hope that the political winds might shift and that Obama might emerge from November’s elect ions in a relatively strong position, but that now seems almost impossible, and it is time to reckon with more depressing alternatives. The excellent web site fivethirtyeight.com now shows the Democrats likely to emerge with only 52 or 53 seats, and the Republican lead in generic House polls is increasing. (Fivethirtyeight is working very hard to develop an accurate prediction for the House but it is not yet available. It has just pronounced the Republicans likely to capture four additional state houses.) If the Democrats hang on to narrow majorities they will still be unable to take any major new initiatives for two years. If they lose even one House, we will be treated to new rounds of bogus investigations of imaginary wrongdoing, and, I feel sure, a government shutdown. And already it seems likely that the Bush tax cuts will be extended in toto—although it would be an act of political wisdom and courage for Obama to let them expire instead.

Ever since the Bush years, some Democrats have been worrying about the onset of some kind of Fascism under Republican rule. Such fears, I now think, are entirely misplaced, for reasons that I treated two weeks ago in my post on Lukacs. Both Fascism and National Socialism had disciplined visions of where they wanted their nations to go, and Nazism, in particular, embodied all the major aspects of mid-century centralized states, such as a new transportation network and benefits for workers. It also tightly controlled the economy. This is exactly the kind of national organization of which neither Republicans nor Democrats are capable any more, and the Republicans, in particular, have become their own species of Marxists, looking forward to the withering away of the state. Marx, of course, did not believe this could take place until a proletarian revolution had created a classless society, but in an astonishing feat of propaganda, the Republican Party and its media acolytes have persuaded many millions of Americans that their happiness depends on low taxes and unregulated markets, and Democrats have totally failed to make the case for the contrary position either in theory or in practice. That indeed is their most brilliant achievement: they will get back into power, if they do, without organizing uniformed militias or physically terrorizing their opponents. And meanwhile, Fox and Clear Channel have done something Goebbels must certainly have envied, turning media propaganda not only into a major political force, but into a profit-making machine.

Indeed, the Nazi, Communist and New Deal regimes all depended on a level of organization and a sense of national destiny which seems virtually to have vanished from the earth. Like most historical changes this is actually a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it makes it impossible to recreate the totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century on a large scale. On the other, it is making the United States literally ungovernable.

Ungovernability is indeed the experiment which we seem destined to try. With Republicans threatening to re-establish political hegemony based on the idea that we can continue to cut taxes and make do with less government, no serious problem, including the deficit, can be addressed. We will see further declines in state and local services and millions of unemployed, including many young people, with no prospecs of careers. The financial, medical, energy and fast food sectors of the economy will continue to thrive while the rest withers, thanks largely to the unlimited campaign spending which they can now undertake. The House and Senate will include more and more millionaires, as will the nation's state houses. (Jane Mayher explores all these trends at length in a recent New Yorker article on the Koch family, an energy powerhouse that has devoted much of its fortune to rolling back the history of the last 80 years.) Since the Republicans are determined to oppose immigration reform we will continue to number huge numbers of illegals in our midst, with all that that implies. Our infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and there will be no large-scale attack on our energy problems.

The United States was also largely ungoverned for several decades after the Civil War, when the KKK terrorized the South and industry and corrupt political machines ruled the North. Society in those days was much simpler, however and we do not know what the consequences of less and less government will benow. There will surely be a reaction against them, as there was then, but it will come mostly from Americans born since 1982 or so. Because they will not be organized to tackle great national tasks like the GI generation was, they will have to set a personal example of frugality (which their own problems in life will encourage) and do what they can to help people on the local level, for instance in the Charter School movement. The last Awakening (1965-84) took place in a politically secure era and focused on emotional and social isues. The next one, like that of the Progressive era (about 1882-1902) will probably be much more political.D

After the elections of 2006 and 2008, some Democratic political consultants apparently concluded that demographic shifts had created a new, permanent Democratic majority. I heard James Carville in particular make this argument not long after Obama took office. He was wrong. The New York Times reported last week that fewer younger voters are identifying themselves as Democrats, a trend that will continue if the economy does not pick up. It may also be a mistake to believe that Hispanic citizens sympathize with the plight of illegal Hispanic immigrants. It is good, of course, that citizens are holding the government accountable, but sad that the Administration has been unable to change many lives for the better, with the exception of state and local government employees who were not laid off.

When Strauss and Howe wrote their books in the 1990s they believed deeply in a coming regeneracy parallel to that which had taken place in the twenty years before their births. As recently as two years ago I had the same hopes. It is astonishing to think that only a little more than a year ago we were discussing sensible solutions to real national problems. But it seems this is not to be our fate. Other generations to come will re-establish the idea of a just society and a benevolent state. We shall evidently have to content ourselves with other kinds of satisfactions, and there is no reason to believe that our political structure will be fundamentally altered..

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Utterly depressing, but I think you're right in general.

You didn't address the spectre of a theocratic takeover, however; and that one seem very realistic.

Gerald Meaders said...

Professor:

Thanks for some great current summary remarks.

The comments on the power of propaganda are especially apt, and wonderful.

I too had hoped for improvement, for some sense of an urgency for larger political reforms; even while knowing better what the outcome was likely for a while still to be.

I wish that the decline, which you so movingly describe, were to be as pacific as you say.

Political ungovernability has, of course, as you well know, not always been notably pacific, and often lead, in its turn, to stronger, if not nicer, or better, political regimes.

all the best,
GM

Jordan Greenhall said...

Three things:

1. In distinction from many of their acolytes, I found Strauss and Howe quite undecided on what shape the crisis will take --- will it be WWII or the Civil War (i.e., will it be a positive or a negative crisis)? Will it leave an empowered generation of Heroes to drive the golden age or a demoralized generation of Nomads to make it through a regeneracy? Our die is not yet cast. You can only draw topological references to previous cycles, not parallels.

2. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the global linkages of this crisis. Entirely different to the revolution or the civil war or even WWII, this is a turning that seems to be resonating across many different peoples. Geography is not the binding factor - it is "generational similitude" and the forces of globalization (from media to economy to diplomacy) have entrained large swaths of the global population to this cycle.

3. Finally, there needs to be a consideration of how large-scale "phase changes" in civilization take place. Compare something like Foucaults societies of sovereignty, societies of discipline and Deleuze and Guattari's societies of control with Quigley's theories on the evolution of civilization and perhaps a post-Schumpeterian notion of deep cycles and you can get to the notion that perhaps this crisis is going to be about an entire social model and not just a set of social institutions. My personal opinion is that this is an "analog to digital" transition that will be comparable to "pre-industrial to post-industrial" in scope but obviously particular in kind.

A post-digital globalized society will be governable, but more like the way that eBay is governed than the way that the NYSE is governed. Look to emerging social communities that use things like reputation (Quora, Reddit, etc.) as examples of what early experiments of the new model might look like.

Patricia Mathews said...

So - another Gilded Age at the heart of a mega-Unraveling. It does sound as if Candide's final conclusion is depressingly correct.

Anonymous said...

Another aspect of the new unlimited campaign contributions will probably be the effect of corporate contributions to State Supreme Court Justices.
Little attention is ever paid to those elections yet there is where major battles are fought related to the environment.
Grishman has a book out on that very subject and it can show how a major corporation gain great advantage but subsidizing only a few judicial elections.
The new "Robber Baron" era may be upon us.

Bruce Post said...

Take a look at the implications of peak oil as foreseen by the Transformation Centre of the Bundeswehr. One snippet:

"Crisis of political legitimacy: The Bundeswehr study also raises fears for the survival of democracy itself. Parts of the population could perceive the upheaval triggered by peak oil "as a general systemic crisis." This would create "room for ideological and extremist alternatives to existing forms of government." Fragmentation of the affected population is likely and could "in extreme cases lead to open conflict.""

I suggest that we don't have to wait for the emergence of "ideological and extremist alternatives."

See: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,715138,00.html

Earnest Hussein Dodge said...

Don't be so demoralized Mister Sir. You sound like such a Boomer, your Platonic Ideals suddenly sprung a link. Me, I'm a scrappy X-er. I know how to survive. I've been what's been oh-so preciously called by Boomers a "Post-consumerist" for decades, and I can tell you, the lifestyle can be so much fun. I've never used a cell phone, driven a car, or used a credit card. I have no debt. I live in the real world! And I have a great time. All of my favorite possessions, my music and my books, are rapidly becoming vaporized into the cloud. Pretty soon, the appellation "Nomad" might be more than just an idea... why even live in one place when you can have all of your ideas wherever you are and be connected to the internet anywhere? The future is going to be a thing of beauty, humanity connected in global telepathy.

Anonymous said...

My apologies to my previous comment. I received an Email about History Unfolding, which it said the document was written by you. I found it so offencive that I had to comment on it. On later reading your blog on this website, it appears the document is not what you wrote.

I may not agree with everything you are saying, but if I were you, I'd do something about that article circulating around. It is very offencive, and couldn't disagree with it more.