Friday, 3 October 2008

Empire of illusions

Perhaps it is my Eupropean roots, but Zinn's column, outlining an alternative means of confronting the credit crisis, doesn't strike as wildly radical (1). Perhaps it sounds like some sinister new madness in the U.S.A., but in Europe, we GET government intervention. We appreciate that no intervention is, in fact, a form of intervention.

So Zinn's suggestion that the government use the $700 billion to relieve families frightened of losing their homes (because people aren't going to spend money if they think their house is at risk) and create jobs doesn't strike me as something fiendishly Leninist. Quite the opposite - it is Rooseveldian or even Eisenhowerian 'dynamic government' - something that used to be very American, even very Republican, until about thirty years ago.

It's the sort of thing John McCain would be talking about if he was one tenth of the maverick he pretends to be. But even given this excellent and patriotic pedigree, I'm not optimistic.

Gore Vidal was tactless enough to announce the end of the American Empire, in The Nation, as long ago as 1986. He was even able to fix an exact date for it:

On September 16 1985, when the Commerce Department announced that the United States had become a debtor nation, the American Empire was as dead, theoretically, as its predecessor, the British. Our empire was seventy-one years old and had been in ill financial health since 1968. Like most modern empires, ours rested not so much on military prowess as on economic primacy. (2)
Time has passed since then, of course. The USA has remained the largest and most powerful economy in the world in the interim, though this is perhaps more due to the comparative weakness of the emerging economies than any robustness or revival in the US economy. China has been growing, but slowly - ironically the factor feeding its growth into a nascent superpower has been the USA's desperate attempts to squeeze every last cent of profit from light industry, gifting the Maoists what they traditionally lacked - expertise, capital and slick administration. In return, the multinationals got cheap labour, the willing assistance of an authoritarian regime and avoided all the pesky legislation that made making STUFF in the civilised world just too damn expensive for the consumers in the civilised world to afford. Meanwhile, Japan's emergence was hampered by one unalterable issue - lack of landmass. Vidal, in the same essay in The Nation, speculated that China and Japan might ally in pursuit of their common interest:
China is now reassembling itself, and Confucius, greatest of all political thinkers, is again at the center of the Middle Kingdom. Japan has the world money power but needs a landmass; China now seems ready to go into business with its ancient enemy. (2)
This seems unlikely at this time, as the two coming powers are too strongly nationalistic to share primacy. The spate of the Japanese attempts to downplay the massacres of Nanking is a symptom of this continuing disunity - it will delay China's supremacy, not not (since the USA is blindly giving China everything it needs) prevent it.

The illusion economic primacy has been maintained for a few years more, as credit was used to disguise the fact that the USA didn't actually do anything any more. Blue collar jobs were being out sourced to China and Mexico, white collar work was following the money overseas. The 'information economy' was sustained only so long because people were able to buy lots of shiny STUFF from overseas - made my child slaves in China, but who cares about exploited children in far away places when there's a nice, shiny new THING to be bought at Wal-Mart? Ironically, this desperate effort to maintain the appearance of continual growth and prosperity has sped the rise of China and the consequent decline of the U.S.A.

Because lots of people didn't have jobs, and people that did have jobs didn't have job security, the only way the quality of life was maintained at a level that allowed people to think they were still enjoying the good times was by continuing to reduce production costs - so that meant more cheap overseas labour, keeping retail prices down at a level where people could carry on buying their STUFF, and reducing lending controls so people could continue to live the American dream- not realising that the 'dream' was meant literally now, not metaphorically.

Well, now its all gone sour for them, and I wish them luck, because what happens int he USA will affect everyone else. Since the media is generally controlled by the capitalists, it will selll the bailout to the public, who don't want it, but will get told, over and over again, that it is essential they get the system up and running again, so that everyone can enjoy wealth and security once more. Only, the system has been shown to be incapable of supplying that to most people - a few people get very rich, and thus the idea that "average" americans are generally getting wealthier is maintained - the implication to anyone who dares to wonder why, since they seem to be an "average" American, they aren't getting richer, is that they should work harder at it, and they obviously aren't as decently "average" as they thought.

And so the illusionary empire will be kept going a little bit longer. The opportunity to change things, as outlined by Zinn, will be missed, whichever of the pawns gets to parade about the Whitehouse after the four yearly illusion of democracy has been completed. But the reality is that whereas before American capital was supreme even if the American people weren't, that is no longer true, an unpleasing truth that many would still rather not face.

1 - "From empire to democracy," by Howard Zinn, published in The Guardian, 2nd of October, 2008. (
2 - "The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas," by Gore Vidal, published in The Nation, 1986. Reproduced on
3 - ibid.

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