Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Loneliness of American Exceptionalism

It is becoming increasingly lonely in the City on a Hill.The oceans that - we said - kept us from involvement in the rest of the world’s follies, also kept us isolated from the century by century give and take between global neighbors. While France endlessly adjusted its borders with Germany, Italy at times didn’t know whether it was Hapsburg or Savoyan.While Russia claimed access to Mediterranean waters through the Black Sea, America remained alone and proud of it, interacting with the rest of the world only to ensure that it served our needs, bought our products and agreed with our definition of freedom. Even in our hemisphere, we remained aloof - between inter-ventions deemed necessary to our interests.

Endlessly evoking the civilizing mission of its exceptionalism after dozens of wars, America can neither recognize the new constellations abroad, nor implement urgent change at home. The French cannot accept that their language, once the civilized world’s esperanto, has been replaced by English; similarly, America’s first Black President cannot point out that Caucasians constitute an ‘absolute minority’ on the planet, and that humanity will ultimately be the color of honey in all its gradations.

Specific histories and geographies create the impression that each conflict in the world is unique. In reality, conflicts are variations on the theme of equity. In the U.S., the subject of equity is avoided, while religion is a ubiquitous subject of conversation. In Europe religion is never talked about, but ques-tions of equity underlie most serious discussions. The global religious revival is a consequence not only of the world’s inability to draw back from the nuclear threat - but of America’s failure to move from all-out competition to solidarity.

Historically, the struggle for a fairer distribution of wealth was taken up first by the French, then the Russians, the Chinese and the Cubans.Now the Muslims, one fourth of the world’s population, are joining the fray. The reason why Wash-ington cannot fathom who it is dealing with, is that the Muslim demonstrators and fighters demanding a new order include Sunni, Shi’a, Baa’thists, and nationalists.

The British international civil servant Alastair Crooke pro-vides a detailed account of current Shi’a thinking in Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution , much of which is about equity.According to another British writer, Martin Jacques, in When China Rules the World, China’s support for Iran is not only about oil: There are similitudes between a Confucian tradition of virtuous leaders and Shi’a defense of the underdog.

Alas, failing to capitalize on either intellectual contri-butions or approval from abroad, the new administration failed to meet the expectations of the world and its voters. But the cracks in America’s glass ceiling are growing: lack of true ideo-logical differences between the ruling parties created the greatest income gap ever seen, bringing Blacks, Latinos and students to imagine a different narrative. In 2010, California students protested a 35% tuition hike in solidarity with rank and file workers, while young Latinos pressed for passage of The Dream Act that would enable them to attend college. A month ago Wisconsinites rose en masse over legislation to deny collective bargaining rights to government workers, and now Michiganians protest their governor’s plan to take over failing city governments.

Oliver Stone’s plea to the President to ‘end the empire’, fails to recognize the impossibility for him to defy the ruling machine. In 2008, Americans were allowed to elect a candidate who promised serious change, but he understood the rules he must follow. Obama is not weak, but supremely cognizant of America’s carved-in-stone impediments to change - and the price others have paid for challenging them. Refusing to play the ‘are you a socialist?’ game, he tries to nudge people toward desirable outcomes.Thom Geohagan recently provided us with the German blueprint for social peace and prosperity in Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, but the fight over the deficit suggests that Obama will not be allowed to join the rest of the developed world in converting oligarchy into social democracy.

He reluctantly admitted that European health care costs less and has better outcomes than ours, but felt compelled to agree with single payer opponents that such a system would not suit us. (One is reminded of Shylock’s:“When I am wounded, do I not bleed?”) Amidst warnings of a potentially fatal abandonment of self-reliance, Americans were told to hold their noses and save the financial sector, which among other things causes the inflation of health care costs. Instead of admitting that as an impartial administrator, government could provide us with the best care at an equally shared lowest cost, the right clutches its wallet amid calls for ‘taking our country back’ to the time of the horse and buggy.

Only Americans continue to believe that inequality is the price of freedom.Our elegant architecture of checks and balances is in fact a cobbled together system that relies on volun-teerism for services that should be the responsibility of government. And anti-government propaganda fosters a lazy attitude among its employees, reinforcing the impression that it is wasteful.Our two hundred year old constitution that has been amended only twenty-seven times has been rendered almost moot by other mechanisms, beginning with a 19th century Supreme Court clerk’s stroke of the pen that granted cor-porations the advantages of personhood. (See Ted Nace’s Gangs of America for the full, astonishing story.) Money and perks are used the world over to make government responsive to certain interests, but in no other country is this practice legalized.

In the nineteenth century, when journalists still spoke their minds and insults were dispensed freely, the New York Times countered with the motto ‘All the News that’s Fit to Print’. Gradually, the press was tamed, and a clever feedback loop was created: things foreign were branded as either inferior or threatening; Americans responded by becoming isolationist; and if anyone questioned the media about lack of international news, it retorted with finality that ‘the American public is not interested in foreign affairs’.

We are shocked when legislators seek to deprive children of illegal immigrants born in the United States of citizenship, flouting centuries of Roman law known as jus sol. But fear of The Other is inscribed in the country’s genes.The Pilgrims exiled religious dissidents from their colonies, and suspicion of sym-pathy for a foreign power became the object of legislation as early as 1798, with the four Aliens and Seditions Acts. In 1917, Congress passed another Sedition Act, and in 1918 it passed the Espionage and Aliens Act. In 1938, long before McCarthy’s time, these documents led to the creation of the infamous House un-American Activities Committee, known as HUAC.

The Progressive movement that grew out of the fight against slavery was a victim of that trajectory. Although a member of the upper class, like Lenin, Mao and later, the Castro brothers, Roosevelt knew that robber baron capitalism was leaving too many people out in the cold. An obedient press conflated his New Deal with socialism, and socialism with ‘foreign’, making his reforms an uphill battle, and strengthening right-wing resistance to all things social. During the Second World War, American socialist, communist or worker’s parties had been viewed as scarcely lesser evils than Nazi Germany. After the defeat of fascism, the United States was forced by the military-industrial complex to rev up for the Cold War, preventing Harry Truman from completing Roosevelt’s New Deal with the creation of universal health care.

While the American press continues to confound the two, the rest of the world knows that fascism unabashedly served the few, (as is increasingly the case in the United States, with corporations essentially running the government), while socia-lism is at least intended to serve the many. Europeans know that communists and socialists were in the forefront of the fight against fascism, which explains why our warnings of an imminent Soviet takeover constituted at best an after dinner frisson.

Governments have oscillated between left and right of center, but none have questioned the welfare state. The French had pretty much got rid of God when they ousted their kings, but Louis XIV’s famous quip: ‘L’etat, c’est moi’, remained in effect. Top level jobs in administration, finance and industry are staffed by graduates of an elite school accessed through com-petitive exams, and founded after the war by none other than the conservative Charles de Gaulle. When government run com-panies such as Renault have been privatized, the government has kept watch, as it does over banks. Gasoline is taxed at 80%, ensuring that small cars are the norm.

Although the paranoia that defines this country appeared in retreat during the rebellious sixties, it is so fundamental to the American ethos that it was rapidly ‘born again’ under the neo-conservatives. Bush’s Patriot Act is as American as apple pie.

While much of the world argued about capitalism and communism, the Scandinavian countries extended the Protestant notion of responsibility to the political sphere, transforming themselves into social democracies that make room for the both the creativity of capitalism, and the equality sought by communism. As a bonus to the rest of the world, Scandinavia provides a number of envoys to strife-torn regions all out of proportion to its population. People educated to social democracy understand the universal aspiration for equity, whether expressed in the teachings of the Koran or those of Marx, and are thus better equipped to limit oligarchy.

During America’s 400 year history, the stunning wealth available from our natural environment transformed the United States from a society concerned with equal opportunity, to one in which the notion of equity is anathema. As revolutionaries, we were ‘patriots’; in the nineteenth century, the egalitarian autonomy required on the frontier fostered entrepreneurship, while the less daring became ‘wage earners’. By the time we became ‘citizens’, the heritage of self-reliance had transformed government into a tool of capital. The words that continue to ring like a shot around this nation are Kennedy’s: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” Instead of solidarity among our citizens, nationalism in the face of an imagined Soviet threat brought us the Reagan Revolution and neo-conservatism, which anointed us as ‘con-sumers’.  Finally we got Wall Street Wizards who turned us into debt-ridden ‘taxpayers’.

We are only ‘citizens’ when we vote, and if needed services are not profitable, ‘we’ don’t get them, because they cost ‘taxpayers’ too much. Individualism touts individual well-being, yet the notion of each person’s intrinsic worth, based on his internal authority or conscience, is ignored. Not only have we eliminated the individual’s say in how her money is spent, we have accepted that we cannot afford solidarity to ourselves.

Notwithstanding the realities that have endured for fifty years across the pond, Americans continue to be told that only market capitalism is compatible with individual freedom - and that Islamists hate us because of our freedom, when in fact, it is what we do with our freedom that they reject.

Re-experiencing the American system after living in half a dozen countries, I believe that fundamental change cannot occur in the United States by the election of a Black, supremely intelligent and when necessary ruthless president. It will come only if a solid majority of voters overcome a carefully nurtured, long-standing prevention against the state. Rather than a pariah that feeds off its citizens, government must be viewed as the means by which the solidarity of the community toward the individual is implemented. Creativity is capitalism’s greatest claim to superiority, but no country has achieved a fair distribution of wealth without government involvement.

Some CEOs do realize that their profits are obscene, and that they must find innovative ways to spread the wealth. Dubbed ‘corporate social responsibility’, this latest trend tries to increase the number of consumers while contributing to sus-tainability. Solar-powered laptops are used by African school-children and farmers, while in America new entrepreneurs grow bio-fuels and local produce on empty lots in former industrial towns. But either too little or too late, these initiatives could not prevent the market meltdown, or rising resentment in the developing countries. Obama will not be able to put Humpty-Dumpty together unless he is allowed to tell us that we must make products that can be fixed instead of junked, and back a fairer distribution of wealth worldwide.

Developmentally, the Old World was for a long time five or ten years behind the United States. But socially, America has not even caught up to 1960s Europe. There is talk of eliminating the minimum wage for teenagers but none about job-sharing. Working for a wage is not seen as alienating because action is equated with freedom. Workers have little awareness of the fact that external freedom can be limited by others, or that minds that are manipulated forget that their only real freedom is internal. Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, shows how much more vigorously Americans asserted their claims against government when they had fewer means for doing so. Today, between the newfound glorification of our founding documents, and McCarthy-inspired self cen-sorship, even the best minds dare not utter the word social-democracy. The obscene spread between the revenues of entre-preneurs and financiers and the rest of us is based on the notion that risk taking and initiative justify limitless wealth, even if that places us behind every developed country in education and health.

It is the fairy tale of American exceptionalism that has carried that illusion forward. Our fairy tale is to the renunciation of internal freedom, or authority, what suicide bombers are to Islamists. After alienating most of our internal authority to religion and nationalism, Americans have abandoned its last shred to the fairy tales spun daily to save them from the big bad world of solidarity. By making the most egregious fantasies seem real, cinematography contributed mightily to the media’s ability to distort or hide reality.

By the end of the millennium, President Clinton had left the working class an easy target for conversion to born-again Republicanism and the president had become an icon who would never tamper with an election. The deliberate con-founding by conservative think-tanks of the American and European definitions of liberalism blurred the difference between liberalism and socialism and added the former to the American Index.

After experiencing ‘really existing socialism’ for five years, I sensed that political labels were insufficient to understand the world. Luckily, Fritjof Capra and Gary Zukav were making physics accessible to the mathematically challenged, showing that in a circular, yin/yang world, there is no life without death, no pleasure without pain - and no final victory.

As Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan describe in exquisite detail in What is Life?, all living things are systems, and just about anything humans create are systems: a motor is a sys-tem, a marriage is a system, a government is a system, and all operate on the basis of energy. In closed systems, (such as an engine) as energy is consumed, the amount available for work diminishes until the system reaches a point of entropy, also known as equilibrium, disorder, or death. Luckily, when you hook up the gas pump, you turn your closed system motor into an open system which can import new supplies of energy, (and less desirably, export its waste), maintaing a new state of order and work.

The political systems that humans construct reflect the constant interplay between order and disorder, where ‘just-far-enough-from-equilibrium’ corresponds to a stable, or steady state. Change happens when a catalyst accelerates the flow of energy through the system until the system reaches a tipping point, or bifurcation, that will create a new system, order, or life. When political systems fail to implement necessary change spontaneously, catalysts arise to move things along, and bifurcations take the shape of revolt by those who produce the wealth that maintains the oligarchs. Stability does not mean immobility; it means maintaining a steady state, one “just-far-enough-from equilibrium” to avoid both entropy, and the unpre-dictable bifurcations that can result from an excessive flow of energy through the system. This means making choices that distribute wealth relatively fairly, and keeping oligarchy in check.  Paul Gilding's "The Great Disruption", just out, is based on these concepts and presents a plan for surviving the climate crisis that calls for greater equity.

Altruism and egotism are yin/yang pairs. Often, Having for healthy survival becomes Having for having’s sake, too closely linked to the Yang components of human nature - power, greed, selfishness, as opposed to its Yin components - non-differentiation of the Other, generosity, altruism. When that happens, instead of a natural, open-system process of alterna-tion, we get a wasteful, closed-system process of accumulation that, as Margulis and Sagan tell us, must end in entropy, known as thermo-dynamic death. At the tipping point when one system dies, bifurcation leads to the creation of another system.

It’s not that politics is a dirty business, or even that power corrupts, it’s that life proceeds via both competition and cooperation. And while political systems are physically open systems that undergo change, they are psychologically closed, exclusionary systems, based on the double internal/external, us/them dichotomy, which tends not to favor equity.

We need to find ways to constantly counterbalance the competing claims that societies generate. In At Home in the Universe, the biologist Stuart Kauffman describes three possible states that they can be in: one of equilibrium, one of near equilibrium - both of these being closed systems - and a far-from-equilibrium, open state that takes energy from outside and evolves toward a new dynamic regime.

Paraphrasing Kauffman’s formula, from the seemingly haphazard ‘edge of chaos’ created by energy flows, an open system can bifurcate to a new, ordered regime, where poor compromises are found quickly (totalitarianism), or a chaotic regime where no compromise is found (revolution). In the periods during which counterbalancing enables the system to maintain a steady state, relatively good compromises can be achieved, and this is democracy. But liberal democracy is a constant oscillation between the rigidity of oligarchy and the lack of cohesion that plagues a multiparty regime. While it ensures peaceful alternations of power, it does not solve the problem of equity, because those alternations are between competing interest groups which exclude the majority of citi-zens.

For progressive change to happen, the left must be suf-ficiently united to transform widespread desire for change into an increasing flow of energy through the system that can lead to bifurcations. Because the outcome of a bifurcation cannot be known in advance, the not unreasonable fear that we could end up with either fascism or anarchy discourages risk. In Sep-tember, 2006, President Bush eviscerated the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 that prohibits use of the military in domestic law enforcement, causing anti-government militias to spread like wildfire. Recently, however, Rebecca Solnit identified anarchy with direct democracy.

Because few Americans are taught that both socialism and anarchy are about individual responsibility (which I call internal authority), disruptive alternations known as revolutions are equated with both. And yet the word which means ‘without a head’, or leader, warned the ancient Greeks that external authority could easily become tyrannical. Greek citizens (i.e., male property owners), exercised their individual internal authority when they deposed tyrants who had abused their external authority. Unfortunately, the rediscovery of Greek civilization during the hierarchical, Church-dominated Middle Ages could scarcely assimilate the notion of responsibility, and the Western ethos has remained predicated on that failure.

What American leaders disparagingly call ‘mob rule’, is in reality a coming together of many individual authorities. Mobs can be manipulated by dictators, but they can also oust them. And what else are efforts in favor of decentralization and local decision making, if not recognition of the need for individual responsibility, and hence the crucial role of individual internal authority? Alastair Crook recounts that it was Hezbollah’s ‘flat’ fighting structure that enabled them to defeat Israel in 2006, and its leader Nasrallah calls for ‘flat systems and independent minds’. It would be ironic if the Lebanese Shi’a were to achieve a functioning community based on the internal authority of each individual, before the more ‘advanced’ American polity. Something like the communist revolution happening in under-developed Russia instead of the Kaiser’s Germany.  In a recent report in The Nation, Paul Amar described the aspirations of Egypt’s protesters as ‘anti-consumerist, anti-elite’, and rejecting the marginal status of women.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, published in the nineties and still being read today, also suggests there is more to understanding the world than ideology. Diamond describes how ancient geography, plants and fauna eventually contributed to inequalities between continents; he also brought the word kleptocracy into our vocabulary with a definition for all times: “The difference be-tween a kleptocrat and a wise statesman ... is merely one of degree: a matter of just how large a per-centage of the tribute extracted from producers is retained by the elite, and how much the commoners like the public uses to which the redistributed tribute is put.” I would add that klep-tocracy is an inherent manifestation of closed systems, and that nationalism increases its abuse to extent that the collective manifestation of the individual authority of each citizen permits.

When Americans refuse to be intimidated by their government’s ban on travel to Cuba, they are affirming their individual authority. Those whose interests qualify them for a general license discover that after fifty years of American blockade, even centrally-planned socialism offers some advan-tages over capitalism. Aside from free health care and education, Cubans can compare their government’s organized response to hurricanes, with American ‘aid’ to Haiti. A year after the earthquake, President Clinton noted with satisfaction that ‘the rubble has been cleared and we have several hotels.’

The continuing American blockade makes it difficult for observers of good faith to fault the Cuban government for prolonging (as does China), a one-party system. As Raul Castro began to implement cautious reforms, in a November, 2008 blog, I wagered that Cuba would become social democratic before the United States. On April 17th, 2011, as one-party regimes in the Middle East continued to fall, Cubans voted for far-reaching reforms, including term limits for leaders, while the Koch Brothers were instructing their 50,000 employees on how to vote in the mid-term elections...

Terrorism and revolution are regrettable ways of fulfilling the task of all life, which is to avoid thermodynamic death. But September 11th wasn’t God’s punishment for our sins, it was a major bifurcation that had been building after several decades of a precarious steady state. The focus on Bin Laden prevented us from seeing that he is a catalyst in a wider process that the world system is undergoing.  After the fall of the Soviet bloc, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unresolved, it was inevi-table that there would be a full-blown conflict with Islam. Since its founding, Israel’s refusal to grant the Palestinians a state has been the core of Middle Eastern opposition to America as successor to Britain’s Imperial presence and as cultural ikon.

International leaders are members of the same club, and even when they threaten one other, they agree on the need to keep their respective subjects in line. Torture and police brutality are increasingly routine tools for dealing with bigger and denser populations, tailored to what each polity will tolerate.

European leaders know that the roots of terrorism are to be found in unequal development, and take for granted the similarities between Latin American guerillas and Middle Eas-tern militias. But Americans can’t seem to get their minds around the fact that Hamas won the Palestinian election be-cause, like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, it has combined the struggle for independence with the running of schools and hospitals. Like the Muslim Brotherhood that inspired them, these so-called ‘terrorist organizations’ gain popular support by doing the same things that Che’s and Fidel’s guerillas did: being scrupulously correct in their dealings with the poor, and helping to solve some of their daily problems.

Today, the Middle East domino effect constitutes a crucial bifurcation point: we can either try to transform an entire area of the world so that we can go on destroying the planet through the use of carbon emissions; or we can gradually transform our society into one that can be sustained, while assisting the majority of humanity to access sustainable development.

Our confrontation with militant Islam is nothing com-pared to the unintended consequences of travel and climate change, the natural disasters and epidemics which call urgently for the creation of an international relief and emergency structure, and a body with the power to bring CO2 under control. For that power to enhance equity while saving the planet, a reconstructed U.N. will have to be the modern equivalent of a universal umma, where decisions are made among equals, with justice and compassion.

We are in a race against the clock, nearing what may be the planet’s tolerance for our bungling. When global warming begins to overwhelm the system, it will not suffice for Madison Avenue to sell us green lifestyles. We will need inde-pendent minds and local democracy rather than capitalist/nation-state democracy that serves a greedy minority.

At last the financial meltdown has paved the way for the right questions to be asked: does the use of capital have to be exploitative? What kind of economy and society could we build on the ruins of the old that would preserve the planet as fit for human habitation? Pundits ritually ask the question but cannot bring themselves to speak the fateful words of solidarity.

American progressives need to see that the ground of morality and hence of political responsibility, lies in Being with the Whole - the planetary system. We must strive for peace, all the while knowing that peace will always be threatened, since it consists in the balancing of a steady state between the extreme of disorder and death, and the order that leads to bifurcations which cannot be controlled. This suggests that the job of politics, rather than to substitute one group of rulers for another, is to enable citizens to select the least corruptible leaders and for political activists to fulfill the role of watchdog.

The Arab spring warrants a decisive American move to the left to counter-balance the Tea Party. Although  attempts to create a third party from scratch, have never been successful, the very success of the Tea Party shows that one resulting from a split of one of the two major parties can change the dynamic.

The Democratic Leadership Council will try to prevent this, and yet, the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, the Progressive Caucus and the Women’s Caucus and the Greens could conceivably join the dormant Social Democratic Party. This would enable the United States to help steer a rapidly evolving climate crisis before it is too late to save the planet. Recognizing that governments will have to relinquish a part of their sovereignty to a supranational organization that can act quickly and effectively, American leaders could begin to grant the United Nations the powers of an incipient world govern-ment.

The longest serving independent in the US Congress, Senator Barney Frank, identified himself as a Social Democrat on Democracy Now, while breaking the news that Europeans have for decades been getting more than a month vacation and the publisher of The Nation, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, has become a regular on MSNBC.

Fear of others creates the conflict over Having that imperils Being. But belief in God can be transformed into recog-nition of the on-going phenomenon of order/disorder that humans can influence, but not determine. Who can say where the American Black community would be today were it not for its churches?  And why condemn Muslims for believing that it is God’s will that they treat each other with equity, justice and compassion?

Maybe it’s because politics grew out of religion and philo-sophy, after philosophy became separated from science, that activists still tend to think exclusively in ideological terms, instead of analyzing power and its processes in systemic terms. The corporate grip on the media has kept information about how things are done elsewhere from reaching the American public, and books by American progressives are limited to small presses, concentrating activists minds on the peccadillos of state power rather than on the possibilities of individual power.

The world-as-system supersedes the concept of nations, blocs and regions. Given the disruptive capabilities of its com-ponents, until governance concerns itself with the system as a whole, we are bound to have problems of increasing size and scope.  Natural disasters and terrorism will both be threats until we complete the long-term process of bringing the entire world up to the standard of living that human invention and technology permit.

Until now, behind a facade of democracy, the United States has coerced others into behaviors that increase wealth for the few. But it is the social democratic variety of liberal democracy that will be the most compatible with Confucian China, and the Muslim ideal of an egalitarian umma.  America can continue to view the world as a closed system destined to experience ever-increasing violence, or it can foster a flow of energy through the system that will permit the world to reach a higher level of organization and civilization, by joining the emerging main players.




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