Friday, March 17, 2006

It's the end of the world as we know it

via, Salon's review of Kevin Phillips' latest book, "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century". Some excerpts:
At any time, of course, one can catalog apocalyptic portents and declare that the end is nigh. Obviously, things in America have been bad before -- there has been civil war, depression, global conflagrations.... Books about America's decline in the face of an ascendant Japan filled the shelves in the 1980s, and a decade later, the country was at the height of power and prosperity.... Yet just because America has endured in the past does not mean it will in the future. Thus figuring out exactly how much danger we're in is difficult. Are things really as dire as they seem, or are anxiety and despair just part of the cultural moment, destined to be as ephemeral as the sunny mastery and flush good times of the Clinton years?
The segment in bold is, to me, a misconception that America desperately needs to disabuse itself of. The reality of the 1990s was that America's relative power was declining rapidly, just not as rapidly as the USSR's had. This gave the appearance of unbridled power, while the reality was that American power had peaked (I would argue) decades earlier. "Power", in this case, needs to be defined simply as the ability to compel action from another country. While this kind of power is never absolute, I think the record of the 1990s is clear that US power was effective in fewer and fewer cases. A 100-day bombing campaign over Kosovo achieved remarkably little, all things considered.

There's a left-wing belief that George W. Bush is somehow the root of all of America's problems. He's not. America had problems during the Clinton years - exactly the ones that Phillips addresses in his new book, in fact. Those problems were left unadressed by the Clinton administration, and the election of 2000 was the result. Bush is a symptom, not the cause. For my money, there's a lot more continuity between Reagan and Clinton than most American Democrats would like to admit. To put it simply, the primary qualification for an American president since 1980 has been to keep Americans from ever suspecting that the world beyond their borders might be important. More from Salon:
The end of previous empires, Phillips explains, also corresponded with the obsolescence of their dominant energy source. The Netherlands was the "the wind and water hegemon" from 1590 to the 1720s. In the mid-18th century, Britain, harnessing the newly discovered power of coal, became the leading world power, only to be left behind by oil-fueled America. "The evidence is that leading world economic powers, after an energy golden era, lose their magic -- and not by accident,"
When someone makes a predictive theory for Social Sciences, I usually run screaming the other way. But this one has some appeal, largely because I'm just now reading Paul Roberts' book, The End of Oil. (Fantastic, by the way.) One of the themes that Roberts emphasizes is that it's unrealistic to assume ExxonMobil or BP can simply walk away from literally hundreds of billions of dollars worth of capital investments. Even if the option was there - that is, even if there was something waiting to replace oil - EM or BP would be insane to abandon oil.

Similarly, Phillips' argument makes sense, simply in the sense that the dominant energy paradigm is bound to be defended by powerful incumbents. If someone does manage to crack cheap solar, or wind, or fusion or whatever, it's likely to be fought tooth and nail in the US and Canada. And that fighting might get nasty:
Desperate economic times are not good for democracy. The Great Depression, which ushered in the New Deal, was an anomaly in this regard. In an Atlantic Monthly article published last summer, the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman wrote, "American history includes several episodes in which stagnating or declining incomes over an extended period have undermined the nation's tolerance and threatened citizens' freedoms." During the Midwestern farm crisis of the 1980s, when tens of thousands of families lost their land due to a combination of rising interest rates and falling crop prices, the Posse Comitatus, a far-right paramilitary network, made exceptional recruiting inroads. One poll had more than a quarter of Farm Belt respondents blaming "International Jewish bankers" for their region's woes.
It must be so easy to be a fascist - you never even need new material. Just blame the jews. Nobody ever accuses the fascists of needing a better message, or worries that the fascists are too enthralled by their base. Or, for that matter, that the fascist bloggers are too extreme for the party's mainstream appeal.

Once I'm done The End of Oil (plus a few papers) I'll be reading Phillips.

No comments: