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Saturday, February 23, 2008

A peaceful crisis?

I have hesitated to predict Barack Obama’s nomination here partly from superstition. I am not accustomed to having too many things turn out as I had hoped, and I didn’t want to fall for any false dawn. Yet it seems more and more likely that he will win, and that this election might be a defining moment comparable to 1860 or 1932. And meanwhile, I have been doing some intermittent reading that suggests to me that, for all the depressing developments in recent politics that I have had to mention over these last three and a half years, things are not, in fact, going so badly, and the coming crisis in our political life could be as peaceful as the one that the British underwent during the 1860s.

My main source is Allan Nevins’s The Ordeal of the Union, whose first four volumes I read in their entirety close to thirty years ago, and which I have been dipping in and out of recently late in the evening. (The four volumes on the coming of the Civil War are perhaps the greatest work of American political history ever written; the further volumes on the war itself are, I regret to say, not as good.) Having begun with the Compromise of 1850, I have this time skipped the Kansas-Nebraska Act and gone straight to the election of 1856, the first one in which the new Republican Party fielded a candidate. The atmosphere is familiar, but there are major differences. Nowadays one can hear venomous partisan poisoning on your local clear channel radio station at any hour of the day or night, but in those days mainstream politicians, newspaper editors, and clergy were doling out the same kind of rhetoric—albeit in more inspiring language—over slavery. They represented the Good, their enemies the evil. Northerners at the least were arguing by 1856 that slavery must be confined to its existing home; Southerners were arguing that slaves were property like any other and that they should be able to take them anywhere in the Union—a view that the Supreme Court was about to endorse. The threat of southern secession if Fremont won, more than anything else, ensured Buchanan’s victory in 1856. A number of largely older politicians (and, one might assume, older voters as well), who still held the peaceful preservation of the union to be the supreme value, made Buchanan their choice. They included Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, no great friend of slavery, and, as it happened, Fremont’s father-in-law, who stumped for Buchanan to keep alive the tradition of the now dead Webster and Clay. Four years older there were that many more younger voters and that many fewer older ones; the Democratic Party split when even northern Democrats could not stomach the southern position on slavery; and Lincoln, though winning only a minority, was elected. The civil war followed.

Now the conservative hatred for everything the Democratic Party and Republican allies accomplished between 1932 and 1969 is perhaps equal to anything the northerners and southerners felt in the 1860s, but it has not actually infected leading Republican politicians, who understand, perhaps, that their constituents’ dreams simply can never come true. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the more extreme leftists (especially in academia) have essentially turned their back on politics for the last three and a half decades, and are confining their influence to college classrooms rather than spreading the word on talk radio. That, perhaps, is why Barack Obama thinks he can actually rise above the partisanship of the last two decades, and because there is no consuming issue like slavery to overcome, he may be right.

Nor, however, is there a single issue obviously demanding action, as there was in 1932, when the country was in the midst of almost complete economic collapse and threatened with social breakdown. Roosevelt faced little effective opposition during his first term because the status quo was simply unacceptable. He used that situation to enshrine the government as employer of last resort and regulator of the financial and securities markets. No one, today, believes such a wholesale restructuring of the government is necessary. On the other hand, Roosevelt in 1933 faced no pressing foreign policy problems and, indeed, took a more isolationist stance initially than Hoover had. Obama may want to do the same; he certainly seems willing to give up our imperial project in the Middle East.

The civil war crisis was violent; the crisis of 1929-45 was not, at least at home. Across the Atlantic, our British cousins in the 1860s and 1870s largely transformed their nation from an aristocracy into a middle-class democracy without either civil conflict or a large foreign war. We may, over the next twenty years, may be able to return the compliment and transform the relationship of our government to our society along more western European lines, again without major civil conflict or, perhaps, foreign war. That would be an extraordinary achievement. The bad news is that the Boom generation has been more divisive than the Missionaries (born about 1863-1884) and probably as divisive rhetorically as the Transcendentals who gave us the civil war. The good news is that, for all our bluster, we haven’t had such a big issue to fight about. I hope it will not change.

This may be my last posting for two weeks, thanks to vacation.


Anonymous said...

On a lighter note, there's a wonderful new Obama meme at http://obamawill.com Very funny!

CochiseandSpurLethr said...

Very nice article

Anonymous said...

We are, however, facing economic meltdown.

Anonymous said...

Marx was apparently correct when he said that when history repeats, it is often farce.

The feeble fascist regime of the Bush Administration – I mean “fascist” in the classic sense, as when, in most desperate times, the most reactionary section of capital takes control of the state to ensure its own ends; in this case, it was the US-based oil industry – was farcical in its brutal ineptness. Yet, for the American electorate – not to mention the world’s people, especially those in Iraq – it has been a costly lesson, in terms of money borrowed, good will squandered and lives sacrificed. If Americans go with Obama rather than McCain, we will be making a strong statement that we are now inoculated against the fascist impulse.

That said, after the neocon debacle, the jihadist terrorists are now emboldened. Their assault will continue until an aggressive, proactive, global program is implemented to undermine and divert their popular base. Does anyone see a plan for that?

The one thing that is qualitatively different in this fourth turning from those of the Great Depression and the Civil War is the near universal alignment of national saecula worldwide. That is a consequence of the imperialist era (circa 1870 – 1975) during which the rivalry and warfare among imperial powers (as well as their increasingly interactive economic depressions) gradually but steadily forged aligned national saecula, especially in the US, Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, China, Latin America and the republics of the former USSR.

This alignment does not only mean that that the saecula are (will be) mutually reinforcing, it means that they are, in the main, one global saeculum, the product of global integration that was initiated by imperialism and has flourished, liberated, in the 20 years since the end of the Cold War.

The question for Obama, as well as any other would-be Global Grey Champion, is can he find a way to make progress in addressing the actual problems of the long-simmering global crisis, first brought into global consciousness by 9/11. He has the advantage of being the elected leader of the most powerful state in the world, but, unfortunately, this is the era of declining power for nations and states.

The trick will be to find a way to tap the resources of the global economy to accelerate economic and social development at the local level, especially in underdeveloped areas of the world. The power structures of nation states and the UN (their federation) – and the US state, in particular – are old school, contradictory to the kinds of power structures necessary to most effectively solve problems along the global-local nexus in the era ahead.

If Obama can find a way to align the US government with the creation of these new kinds of power structures, he can reduce pressure on US taxpayers, enhance American prestige in the world and put real pressure on the world banking system to come forward with concrete action to address world problems. Specifically, the banking industry should be required to (1) establish a credit line for every adult worldwide (universal micro-lending); (2) establish a capital homesteading investment program to democratize corporate capital, foster global savings and ensure old-age personal security for everyone, worldwide (universal social security); (3) collect a small fee on every electronic commercial transaction worldwide to catalyze corporate-NGO, local-global problem solving partnerships (universal Tobin tax); and (4) create a means for popular oversight of these programs.

Under this kind of an agenda, the sacrifice of young adults – rather than as cannon fodder in war – really can be non-violent, peaceful and successful. It will involve the personal sacrifice of restraining global population growth (universal one child ethic) and the collective sacrifice of giving some years of subsistence level service in the local-global common interest (in exchange for education at public expense).

JoshSN said...


The emails that say Obama won't say the Pledge, or that he is (or even was) a Muslim, or that he won't wear an American flag lapel pin have probably reached millions already.

The Obama campaign has basically ignored it.