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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Revolution abroad, entropy at home

The great crisis of 1914-45 (1914-21 or so in Eastern Europe, 1933-45 in Western Europe, East Asia and the United States) pitted competing authorities against one another. Beginning in 1917 in Eastern Europe, centuries-old empires gave way to Communist revolution and, after a failed attempt to introduce democracy, military and authoritarian rule in most of the region. In Western and Southern Europe several totalitarian regimes took power, and in Japan, an effective dictatorship of Navy and Army officers terrorized the civilian government. The new governments of Japan, Germany and Italy unleashed a world war. It becomes clearer and clearer that we will not face anything similar in our lifetime. Instead of competing authorities, our problem is a collapse of authority.

Although we are once again distracted by a natural and man-made catastrophe--the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which has brought about a meltdown at a nuclear plant--the situation in the Middle East has much greater long-term implications. Like the Communist regime in Eastern Europe, Middle Eastern regimes are collapsing more or less on schedule. The post-colonial Tunisian and Egyptian regimes dated from the early 1950s, and Egypt experienced an Awakening (largely thwarted by the government after Anwar Sadat's assassination) in the 1970s. Now they are 60 years old, the age at which old regimes begin to totter. They are not, however completely dead: although their leaders have been forced out, their militaries and governments continue to function, rather like Russia in the first half of 1917, and their future remains completely uncertain. Qadaffi's regime in Libya, however, is almost twenty years younger, and he can still draw on a cadre of middle-aged subordinates who were only children when he took power. After appearing to teeter on the edge of collapse, he now seems to have recovered the initiative, and the West is faced with pressure to intervene. News reports today suggest that the highly touted no-fly zone may well prove ineffective, since Qadaffi is not primarily relying upon air power as he roles back the rebels. The American foreign policy elite, however, is still in the grip of the idea that it should not allow evil to continue to exist in the world, and the pressure on the Obama Administration will grow. Secretary Gates has emerged as the somewhat unlikely hero of the drama, swearing off any further large-scale military interventions in Asia (or presumably Africa) at West Point, and trying at last to push for more reasonable foreign policy objectives.

Trouble continues, meanwhile, in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In Bahrain a Sunni monarchy rules a Shi'ite majority; in Saudi Arabia the Shi'ite minority is restive and the whole people may be chafing under dictatorship. Bahrain hosts the U.S. naval presence in the area and Saudi Arabia is of course the world's leading oil producer. The Saudis are a completely traditional society that has never known western institutions or western rule, and I have never succeeded in identifying any generational rhythm in their politics. Something similar could have been said of Russia before 1917. We do not know where this will go.

In 1933-45, the governments of Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, Great Britain (after 1940), and the United States became much stronger to deal with foreign and domestic problems. Now the government of the United States is getting steadily weaker. The new Republican House majority is determined to do away with much of the federal government as we have come to know it, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation (which for decades now as provided poorer Americans with the only access to the courts that they have), and much of Head Start. They are also trying to destroy Planned Parenthood, a purely ideological move. Those cuts are already part of the House Budget proposal. Michelle Bachmann has just introduced a bill to end the regulation of light bulbs as well, allowing to continue relying on 100-watt incandescent bulbs rather than save energy with the new generation that we now use in my house. So far the Republicans have not, of course, done anything about the real sources of our financial problems, our income tax rate (too low since 2001), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic downturn, and the exploding cost of health care. Indeed, they rode into office promising to repeal the Administration's attempt to get health costs under control, and the Supreme Court may eventually collaborate in that effort.

In the last few months, jousting with some (but not all) of the posters from Generation X on fourthturning.com, I have come to understand that there is a powerful generational component to what is happening in the United States. The Boom generation rebelled against the institutions created by its parents and grandparents, but assumed that all would be well as soon as they got in charge of institutions themselves. (The result, of course, has been the opposite, in the economy, in universities, and in politics.) Generation X, however, was born in the era of collapsing authority, the 1960s and 1970s. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that they have never seen the federal government accomplish a major task successfully. Many of their childhoods were marked by the collapse of their parents' marriages and that helped give them a lifelong distrust of institutions. They care fiercely about their own families and will do anything to give their children the security their own childhoods lacked, but they have no faith in political parties or politicians. This is not new. Previous Nomad generations showed the same pattern. The Gilded generation (born about 1822-41) brought government in the United States to a low point late in the nineteenth century, and the Lost generation (born 1884-1903) generally disliked FDR and even voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, the only generation to do so. The Lost, however, lost the great political battles of their age to a coalition of the older Missionaries, led by FDR, and the younger GIs, who provided the votes for him. It seems clear that there will be no similar coalition between a left-wing Boomer President and the young Millennials this time. Governor Walker and the Republican legislators who have just rolled back workers' rights in Wisconsin belong to Gen X, and so do many (I don't know how many) of the new Republican members of Congress. We have reached the point where few if any new Baby Boomers will be entering elective office any more.

President Obama, meanwhile, continues to put the best face possible on everything that is happening and shies away from any direct confrontation with the Republicans. In a rare press conference on Friday, he bragged that domestic oil production was at its highest level since 2003, while looking forward to the promotion of new energy sources, and insisted that the housing market would slowly recover. He committed himself once again to the idea that Qadaffi should leave Libya but was very cautious about how the United States might bring this about. Regarding the ongoing budget negotiations, he pointed out correctly that even the maximum proposed Republican cuts, which have now been rejected by the Senate, would not make a significant dent in the budget deficit, but he asked only for a "conversation" on what we could do about Medicare and Medicaid, rather than make any proposals of his own. He cited just two programs--Pell Grants for college students and Head Start for children--in which he said he would not accept cuts, and he said nothing about planned parenthood and nothing in support of NPR. I was struck that not a single major newspaper, as far as I can see, printed the text of the press conference, and even more amazed that the White House web site has not posted the transcript. I honestly have begun to think that the Presidential handlers have decided that presidential exposure is bad for his poll numbers.

I am disturbed that earthquakes in Asia and revolts in the Middle East are forcing our own domestic crisis off the front pages. The outcome of the Republican attack on public employee unions remains uncertain. Governor Walker and many of the Republican legislators will be the subject of recall petitions and some polls suggest they have overplayed their hand, but they may yet succeed, and similar battles continue in many states. There is no real counterbalance in our political life to the Republican attack on government. Slowly but surely, we are being forced, finally, to let more of the rest of the world take care of itself. The Afghan government--the one in the rest of the world on which we are spending by far the most money--evidently does not even want us there. But sadly, it does not seem that we have developed the will to take care of ourselves.


Evan Hurrle said...

The republicans certainly seem to have overplayed their hand in Wisconsin, but it disappoints me to see how many Americans do not see these moves for what they truly are.

Meanwhile many states are trying to limit the political fallout from these moves by attempting to restrict voter rights. Legislation in TX is my favorite, a student id is not valid at the voting booth but you will be able to use your handgun registration card to vote.

David, I applaud you for your continued coverage of current events with historical context. Too many of our population does not seem to grasp the repetitive nature that our political discourse follows. I will continue to follow and share your blog with enthusiasm. Thank You.

Bozon said...


Thanks for writing this great gloss on current events in context.

I have not been fully persuaded by the adequacy, validity, or explanatory power of the Strauss and Howe generational model, yet, but continue to be amazed at its apparent efficacy in your hands.

I also have not attended the websites, as yet, where these 'generational jousts' occur;

so my views are blinkered by lack of this aspect of the generational account debate in which you have been involved.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

In discussing the Middle East, we might benefit from Anthony Wile’s discussion on The Daily Bell concerning how pricing oil in dollars and thus supporting the dollar as the world’s reserve currency might have as much to do with America’s many invasions of the region as well as our support of corrupt authoritarian regimes at Mid-East Conflict Not Exactly About Oil at

Also this article on the dangers to the region of copying the failing American regulatory democracy model titled A Middle East Warning: American-Style Democracy Isn’t the Answer is also a worthwhile read as he recommends the Swiss model of government as an alternative at


tructor man said...

I too, value your comments very highly. You hit the key problem:
"There is no real counterbalance in our political life to the Republican attack on government". There are a zillion reasons for this, but most prominent is the fact that both parties are dominated by big money interests: Republicans as slavish minions of the rich elite; Democrats as wimpy recipients of an unholy alliance of tattered social interests such as lawyers, remnants of unions, largely powerless Blacks and older women.
The tradegy is that potentially revolutionary turmoil in the '60's & '70's (remember the "New Left") not only did not result in pro-working class institutions of power, or even a viable coalition of labor, students and the poor, but propelled its veterans into safe, narcissistic niches in Boomer heavens of academia and the professions, seldom to be heard from again.
Although it is hardly ever stated, the collapse of the Soviet Union emanating from the corruption of "socialism", destroyed the only real global force feared by western capitalist elites. The previous shadow of a potential globally-organized working class (broadly writ) was always a potential "counterbalance" to ruling elites.
We are left with virtually no possoiility of rebuilding or re-inventing democratic communitarian institutions.
I wish it weren't so.

Anonymous said...

Crowley's "resignation" prompted, quite
predictably, these scathing observations from
Glenn Greenwald, citing other influential critics
responses on Twitter, shortly after the news
broke on Sunday:

So, in Barack Obama's administration, it's perfectly
acceptable to abuse an American citizen in
detention who has been convicted of nothing by
consigning him to 23-hour-a-day solitary
confinement, barring him from exercising in his
cell, punitively imposing "suicide watch" restrictions
on him against the recommendations of brig
psychiatrists, and subjecting him to prolonged,
forced nudity designed to humiliate and degrade.
But speaking out against that abuse is a firing
offense. Good to know. As Matt Yglesias just put it:
"Sad statement about America that P.J. Crowley is
the one being forced to resign over Bradley
Manning." And as David Frum added: " Crowley
firing: one more demonstration of my rule:
Republican pols fear their base, Dem pols despise it."


Anonymous said...

Chick Swallow in Peter De Vries's 'the Tents of wickedness' said , " The trait most likely to accompany an extreme is its opposite." But in USA we have a President faced every day with an extreme and he still looks for a consensus solution . It is very disspirting for those of use wanting to see a real fight for American ideals and values cherished by the working poor and middle class.
Mac - The Lighthouse, Bluff,NZ

Winsor said...

I'm always surprised at the public reaction of Democrats to what Scott Walker is trying to do in Wisconsin. Many of them say privately that public sector unions have gotten too strong and something needs to be done a la Scott Walker. FDR and the AFL/CIO's George Meaney spoke out against public sector unions decades before. It's pretty bad here in Rhode Island, isn't it David?...the public sector unions here have been pretty much in control of the General Assembly for decades, and we have the budgetary problems to prove it.

At least the Republicans are up front with it, willing to incur the wrath of the unions and their supporters. Democratic senators in Wisconsin flee to an adjacent instead of staying to fight. my guess is that some of them privately are admiring what the Republicans are willing to take on head-to-head with the public unions. Interestingly, the fire and police were not threatened with the so-called 'loss-of-workers rights'...am presuming the Republicans didn't want to bite off more than they could chew at the moment.

Unknown said...

The real reason why Hillary is jumping off the
sinking ship.

“Obviously, she’s not happy with dealing with a
president who can’t decide if today is Tuesday or
Wednesday, who can’t make his mind up,” a Clinton
insider told The Daily. “She’s exhausted, tired.”


Anonymous said...

Progressive Government Is Obsolete
The rule-based civil service was a
step forward from Tammany Hall.
But today's regulations stifle
government workers at a time when
getting value for tax dollars is
more important than ever.

Would an increase in the
"progressivity" of the tax system
be the way out of our budget woes?
More and more, urban mayors
understand the futility of trying
to tax their cities into
prosperity. Few would dispute the
fairness of a progressive tax
system—but there are limits. In
New York City, the highest-earning
1% of tax filers pay approximately
50% of the city's income taxes.
Those paying the most are also
best-positioned to relocate.

We need a new approach to
governance that includes more
respect not only for students in
need of high-quality education but
also for taxpayers, that has less
job-killing red tape, and that
fosters a more productive work
force. The first rule of city
government should be an unwavering
commitment to delivering real
value to the public with every tax
dollar. That would be real


Anonymous said...

The 2010's and the 2020's and the 2030's will not be the 1930's and 1940's and 1950's. New century...turn the page.

Forget any repeat of the New Deal. The Entropy at home needs to continue to its logical conclusion, since the institutions it is ravaging are beyond recovery. We really do have to "destroy the country to save it."

The Left will not solve this crisis; neither will the Federal Government. The solution will not come from the top down. The New Deal is irrevocably dead, and will not re-emerge.

Nothing but the dead and the dying left in progressive politics (and on the Left)...its day is over, and it will not be the savior of our nation.

The solution will come from the bottom up, and from technology.

Turn the Page.