The Hard Road Ahead

The latest round of political theater in Washington DC over the automatic budget cuts enacted in the 2011 debt ceiling compromise—the so-called “sequester”—couldn’t have been better timed, at least as far as this blog is concerned. It’s hard to imagine better evidence, after all, that the American political process has finally lost its last fingernail grip on reality.
Let’s start with the basics. Despite all the bellowing on the part of politicians, pressure groups, and the media, the cuts in question total only 2.3% of the US federal budget.  They thus amount to a relatively modest fraction of the huge increases in federal spending that have taken place over the last decade or so. (I sincerely doubt that those of my readers who were in the US in 2003 noticed any striking lack of federal dollars being spent then.) In the same way, those who protested the “tax increases” at the beginning of this year by and large failed to mentioned that the increases in question were simply the expiration of some—by no means all—of the big tax cuts enacted a little over a decade ago in the second Bush administration.
At a time when the United States is spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year it doesn’t happen to have, and making up the difference by spinning the printing presses at ever-increasing speeds,  a strong case can be made that rolling back spending increases and giving up tax breaks are measures that deserve serious consideration.  Any such notion, though, is anathema to most Americans these days, at least to the extent that it might affect them. Straight across the convoluted landscape of contemporary American political opinion, to be sure, you can count on an enthusiastic hearing if you propose that budget cuts ought to be limited to whatever government payouts don’t happen to benefit your audience.  Make even the most timid suggestion that your audience might demand a little bit less for itself, though, and your chances of being tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail are by no means small.

The only consensus to be found about budget cuts in today’s America, in other words, is the belief that someone else ought to take the hit. As politicians in Washington DC try to sort out which of the many groups clamoring for handouts get how many federal dollars, that consensus isn’t exactly providing them useful guidance. I’ve wondered more than once if the whole sequestration business is a charade, crafted by the leadership of both parties and tacitly accepted by the rank and file in Congress, that permits them to impose roughly equivalent budget cuts on as many federal programs as they think they can get away with, while giving each party enough plausible deniability that they can still manage to keep blaming everything on the other side. If so, it’s an ingenious strategem; the real challenge will come when Congress runs out of gimmicks of this kind and has to admit to the crowd of needy, greedy pressure groups crowding close around the feeding trough that the gravy train has come to an end.

That latter detail is the one piece of news you won’t hear anywhere in the current uproar.  It’s also the one piece of news that has to be understood in order to make sense of the American politics in the present and the near future. When the economics of empire start running in reverse, as they do in the latter years of every empire, familiar habits of extravagance that emerged during the glory days of the empire turn into massive liabilities, and one of the most crucial tasks of every empire in decline is finding some way to cut its expenses down to size. There are always plenty of people who insist that this isn’t necessary, and plenty more who are fine with cutting all expenditures but those that put cash in their own pocket; the inertia such people generate is a potent force, but eventually it gives way, either to the demands of national survival, or to the even more unanswerable realities of political, economic, and military collapse.

Between the point when a nation moves into the penumbra of crisis, and the point when that crisis becomes an immediate threat to national survival, there’s normally an interval when pretense trumps pragmatism and everyone in the political sphere goes around insisting that everything’s all right, even though everything clearly is not all right. In each of the previous cycles of anacyclosis in American history, such an interval stands out: the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, when leaders in the American colonies insisted that they were loyal subjects of good King George and the little disagreements they had with London could certainly be worked out; the bitter decade of the 1850s, when one legislative compromise after another tried to bandage over the widening gulf between slave states and free states, and succeeded only in making America’s bloodiest war inevitable; the opening years of the Great Depression, when the American economy crashed and burned as politicians and pundits insisted that everything would fix itself shortly.

We’re in America’s fourth such interval.  Like the ones that preceded it, it’s a time when the only issues that really matter are the ones that nobody in the nation’s public life is willing to talk about, and when increasingly desperate attempts to postpone the inevitable crisis a little longer have taken over the place of any less futile pursuit. How long the interval will last is a good question. The first such interval ran from the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 to the first shots at Lexington in 1775; the second, from the Compromise of 1850 to the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861; the third, the shortest to date, from the stock market crash of 1929 to the onset of the New Deal in 1933.  How long this fourth interval will last is anyone’s guess at present; my sense, for what it’s worth, is that historians in the future will probably consider the crash of 2008 as its beginning, and I would be surprised to see it last out the present decade before crisis hits.

During the interval before the explosion, if history is any guide, the one thing nobody will be able to get out of the federal government is constructive action on any of the widening spiral of problems and predicaments facing the nation. That’s the cost of  trying to evade a looming crisis:  the effort that’s required to keep postponing the inevitable, and the increasing difficulty of patching together a coalition between ever more divergent and fractious power centers, puts any attempt to deal with anything else out of reach. The decade before the Civil War is as good an example as any; from 1850 until the final explosion, on any topic you care to name, there was a Northern agenda and a Southern agenda, and any attempt to get anything done in Washington DC ran headlong into ever more tautly polarized sectional rivalry. Replace the geographical labels with today’s political parties, and the scenery’s all too familiar.

If there’s going to be a meaningful response to the massive political, economic, and social impacts of the end of America’s age of empire, in other words, it’s not going to come from the federal government. It probably isn’t going to come from state governments, either.  There’s a chance that a state here and there may be able to buck the trend and do something helpful, but most US state governments are as beholden to pressure groups as the federal government, and are desperately short of discretionary funds as a result.  That leaves local governments, local community groups, families and individuals as the most likely sources of constructive change—if, that is, enough people are willing to make “acting locally” something more than a comforting slogan.

This is where the dysfunctional but highly popular form of protest politics critiqued in an earlier post in this sequence becomes a major obstacle to meaningful change, rather than a vehicle for achieving it. As that critique showed, protest is an effective political tool when it’s backed up by an independent grassroots organization, one that can effectively threaten elected officials—even those of the party its members normally support—with removal from office if said elected officials don’t pay attention to the protest.  When that threat isn’t there, protest is toothless, and can be ignored.

That distinction remains relevant, since very few of the groups gearing up to protest these days have taken the time and invested the resources to build the kind of grassroots support that gives a protest teeth.  Yet there’s another way that protest politics can become hopelessly dysfunctional, and that’s when what the protesters demand is something that neither the officials they hope to influence, nor anyone else in the world, can possibly give them.

If current attitudes are anything to judge by, we’re going to see a lot of that in the years immediately ahead. The vast majority of Americans are committed to the belief that the lavish wealth they enjoyed in the last half dozen decades is normal, that they ought to be able to continue to enjoy that wealth and all the perks and privileges it made possible, and that if the future looming up ahead of them doesn’t happen to contain those things, somebody’s to blame.  Try to tell them that they grew up during a period of absurd imperial extravagance, and that this and everything connected with it is going to go away forever in the near future, and you can count on getting a response somewhere on the spectrum that links blank incomprehension and blind rage.

The incomprehension and the rage will doubtless drive any number of large and vocal protest movements in the years immediately ahead, and it’s probably not safe to assume that those movements will limit themselves to the sort of ineffectual posturing that featured so largely in the Occupy protests a couple of years back. It’s all too easy, in fact, to imagine the steps by which armed insurgents, roadside bombs, military checkpoints, and martial law could become ordinary features of daily life here in America, and the easy insistence that everything that’s wrong with the country must be the fault of some currently fashionable scapegoat or other is to my mind one of the most important forces pushing in that direction.

Right now, the US government is one of those fashionable scapegoats.  The pornography of political fear that plays so large a role in American public discourse these days feeds into this habit. Those people who spent the eight years of the second Bush administration eagerly reading and circulating those meretricious claims that Bush was about to impose martial law and military tyranny on the US, and their exact equivalents on the other end of the political spectrum who are making equally dishonest claims about Obama right now, are helping to feed the crisis of legitimacy I’ve discussed in several posts here. The habit that Carl Jung described as “projecting the shadow”—insisting, that is, that all your own least pleasant traits actually belong to whoever you hate most—has a great deal to do with the spread of that mood. I’ve wondered more than once if there might be more to it than that, though.

It’s hard to think of anything that would give more delight America’s rivals on the world stage, or play out more to their advantage, than a popular insurgency against the US government on American soil. Even if it was crushed, as it likely would be, such a rising would shred what’s left of the American economy, cripple the ability of the US to intervene outside its borders, and yield a world-class propaganda coup to any nation tired of the US government’s repeated posturing over issues of human rights. Funding antigovernment propaganda here in the United States without getting caught would be easy enough to do, and plenty of hostile governments might find it a gamble worth taking. I find myself suspecting at times that this might be what’s behind the remarkable way that American public life has become saturated with propaganda insisting that the current US system of government is evil incarnate, and that any replacement whatsoever would necessarily be an improvement.

Now of course that latter is a common opinion in revolutionary eras; equally common, of course, is the discovery that as bad as the status quo might happen to be, its replacement can be much, much worse.  Those who witnessed the French and Russian revolutions, to name only two examples, got to find that out the hard way. It would be helpful, to use no stronger word, to avoid a repeat of that same unpleasant object lesson in the postimperial United States.  As long as Americans keep on trying to convince themselves that the limits to growth don’t matter, the profits of empire never came their way, and the reckless extravagance that American popular culture considers basic to an ordinary lifestyle is no more than their due, steering clear of some such outcome is going to be a very tricky proposition indeed.

It would be helpful, in other words, if more Americans were to come to terms with the  fact that deciding what kind of future they want, and then insisting at the top of their lungs that they ought to have it, is not a useful response.  Instead, it’s going to be necessary to start by thinking, hard, about the kind of futures a postimperial, postpetroleum America might be able to afford, and then trying to make the best possible choice among the available options. Making such a choice, in turn, will be made much easier once we have some practical experience of the way the various options work out in the real world—and this brings us back again to the question of local action.

Nobody knows what political, economic, and cultural forms will be best suited to thrive in the wake of America’s failed empire, or to deal with the broader consequences as the industrial world stumbles down the long, ragged slope toward the deindustrial world of the future.  Plenty of people think they know; there’s no shortage of abstract ideologies proclaiming the one true path to a supposedly better future; but betting the future on an untested theory or, worse, on a theory that’s failed every time it was put to the test, is not exactly a useful habit.

What’s needed  instead, as the United States stumbles toward its fourth great existential crisis, is the broadest possible selection of options that have been shown to work. This is where local communities and community groups can play a critical role, for it’s precisely on the local scale that options can be tested, problems identified and fixed, and possibilities explored most easily.  Furthermore, since the whole country isn’t committed to any one response, options tested in different places can be compared with one another, and the gaudy rhetoric of triumphalism that so often fills so much space online and off—how many projects, dear reader, have you seen hailed as the one and only definitive answer to the crisis of our time, without the least bit of evidence to show that it actually works?—can be set aside in favor of straightforward demonstrations that a given option can do what it’s supposed to do.

In an earlier post in this sequence, for example, I discussed some of the possibilities that might come out of a revival of traditional democratic process.  The simplest and most effective way to launch such a revival would be by way of existing community groups, which very often retain the remnants of democratic process in their organizational structure, or in newly founded groups using democratic principles.  These groups would then become training grounds from which people who had learned the necessary skills could proceed to such other venues as local government, the organization of new political parties, or what have you, and put those skills to good use.

The same principle applies to almost any other aspect of our collective predicament you care to name. Whether the issue that needs a meaningful response is the impending shortage of energy and other resources, the increasingly unstable climate, the disintegration of an economy in which accounting fraud is nearly the only growth industry left, and so on down the list, the scale of the problem is clear but the details are murky, and the best way to deal with it remains shrouded in blackest night. For that matter, there’s no way to be sure that the response that works best in one place will be equally well suited to conditions elsewhere. Tackle the issues locally, trying out various options and seeing how well they work, and the chances of hitting on something useful go up sharply.

It will doubtless be objected that we don’t have time for any such program of trial and error. Quite the contrary, we no longer have time for anything else. Spinning grand theoretical programs, waiting for the improbable circumstances that might possibly lead to their being adopted on a national or global scale, and hoping that they work as advertised if they ever do get put to the test, is a luxury best suited to those eras when crisis is still comfortably far off in the future.  We don’t live in such an era, in case you haven’t noticed.

Over the decades ahead, the people of the United States and the rest of the industrial world are going to have to deal with the unraveling of an already declining American global empire, the end of a global economic order dominated by the dollar and thus by America’s version of the imperial wealth pump, the accelerating depletion of a long list of nonrenewable resources, and the shattering impact of rapid climate change, just for starters. If history is any guide, the impact of those already inevitable crises will likely be compounded by wars, revolutions, economic crises, and all the other discontinuities that tend to crop up when one global order gives way to another.  It’s going to be a very rough road—quite probably at least as rough as the road the world had to travel between 1914 and 1954, when the end of Britain’s global empire brought the long peace of 19th century Europe to a messy end and unleashed a tidal wave of radical change and human blood.

Equally, the hard road ahead will likely be comparable in its scope and impacts to the harrowing times brought by America’s first three rounds of anacyclosis. To live through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or the Great Depression was not an easy thing; those of my readers who are curious about what might be ahead could probably do worse than to read a good history of one or more of those, or one of the many firsthand accounts penned by those who experienced them and lived to tell about it. The records of such times do not give any noticeable support to the claim that we can have whatever kind of future we want. The kinds of hope they do hold out is a point I plan on discussing next week.