Creative Destruction

November 24, 2007

Lessons of History

Filed under: Economics,Politics — Brutus @ 3:02 am

The oft-repeated trope is that those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, to which most most of us laconically reply “So what? Big deal.” We’ve taken our eye off the ball and don’t really care anymore about history, being contented with the illusory belief that our current stage of historical development can and will continue undisrupted into the middle of the century, which is probably the longest time horizon we really care about. But there are still plenty of academics and pundits studying history, drawing lessons from it, and sounding the klaxon regarding some threat or imminent transformation or collapse. Actually rousing citizens out of their satiated lethargy is undoubtedly too difficult a task just yet, but the alarm calls at least make for some interesting reading.

Three recent articles make comparisons between the current state of America and historical conditions here and abroad in an attempt to draw out the lessons and perhaps inspire changes necessary to stave off the collapse of our cherished institutions (read: the American way of life). In no particular order, the first in The Guardian appears to be a prepublication summary by Naomi Wolf of her new book The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, which compares fascist shifts in history to current America. The second in The Philadelphia Inquirer is an opinion column by Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, which column describes the decline of the so-called American Empire. The third is a transcript in The American Prospect of Robert Kuttner, author of The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity, giving testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services regarding parallels between fiscal policy in the 1920s and now.

The three authors are flogging their books, of course, and the arguments, parallels, and lessons drawn from history may lack complete novelty (often considered a damning criticism), but that doesn’t make their messages any less urgent. It’s a lot of reading to absorb, the articles no less than the books. Beyond the history lessons embedded in each of the articles, there are at least two implicit assumptions at work, namely, that (1) knowledge is the power necessary to avoid the trap of repeating history and (2) the American way of life in all its diversity is a hallowed though flawed institution worth protecting and indeed capable of protection. They’re strange assumptions, really, considering how the trends and politics that enabled America’s current prosperity (enjoyed quite unequally) and preeminence are also among those things that will eventually undo us. Moreover, the inescapable baseness of human nature also guarantees that history will continue to repeat itself in cycle upon cycle until we grow beyond our infantile state, an evolution or progression I don’t foresee happening any time soon.

Naomi Wolf appears to be primarily concerned that America has become an incipient fascist state and wishes to inspire a civic uprising to stop the trend before it’s complete. In short, she wants to restore former democratic freedoms (which may never have truly existed) where Americans were secure from harassment and interference by their own government, now conducted in the name of national security. Her nostalgia for an innocent America full of normal citizens going about their lives is a sizable assumption, which adds a curious sense of entitlement to her perspective. In her defense, however, she admits that for a variety of reasons Americans have grown complacent about civil rights and are unwilling to fight to protect them. That is, of course, a sense of civic responsibility that we’ve lost as life has become more harried. Her central thesis that a 10-part schema for fascism is currently being reassembling in America is ultimately quite convincing.

Chris Hedges offers no solution or hopeful response to his assessment that America is in decline, largely due to a “political class that no longer knows how to separate personal gain from the common good, a class driving the nation into the ground,” but also “in part because of the tacit complicity on the part of a passive population.” His defeatism doesn’t quite mask the desire that America retain its perch atop the world as a financial and military superpower for as long as possible before history overtakes us. The title of his book suggests he, too, believes a lamentable fascist shift is now taking place.

Robert Kuttner’s purview is more narrowly focused on financial policy, specifically, the dismantling of the regulatory era borne out of the New Deal in the wake of improprieties in the 1920s that led to the Great Depression. Again, the apparent assumption is that if we can get our ducks back in the right row, we can return to the prosperity and greatness of the post-war boom of the 1950s and 60s. Never mind that our former success was predicated on exploitation of natural resources that no longer offer such profitable opportunities and subjugation of foreign powers with a xenophobic and self-centered concern for singularly American interests. It’s the same sorry story of “I’ve got mine, you get your own.” It’s worth noting that the patriotic nonsense that what’s good for Company X is good for America has been abandoned in favor of a special sort of cravenness: what’s good for Company Y is all that matters (with little or no concern for laborers or the location in which Company Y operates). Companies in the new global marketplace have become supranational and thus owe no fealty to any government.

It is predictable, perhaps, that Americans would patriotically and blindly support a regime that has rewarded many of us with lives that are the envy of nations around the world. While identifying the internal rot, they all proceed from the assumption that Americans are inherently deserving of the advantages they have enjoyed for the last century. If only the American imperial system could yet be operated according to its brilliant design, we could stem the tide of history and resume our glittering preeminence. Only with Chris Hedges is there the glimmer of graceful recognition that our time is up. Nowhere is there any acknowledgment of a larger, human responsibility to stewardship and simple justice. Nor do they intuit that aged bureaucratic institutions ruling over entire continents must soon give way to a smaller, more ascetic way of life characterized by local control and considerable self-restraint.

That won’t happen, though. No one relinquishes power willingly. Instead, the U.S. will continue to project its power across the globe in a last, desperate bid for what’s left until at last it can’t anymore. Patriotic Americans will have no compunction about doing what’s necessary to secure their god-given way of life, no matter which foreign peoples must be subjugated to do so. Nonetheless, it can’t last for much longer. Other global players will play their parts, and we will all be reduced to fighting for our next meal in a brutal survival game. That, too, is a lesson drawn from history.

8 Comments »

  1. Her central thesis that a 10-part schema for fascism is currently being reassembling in America is ultimately quite convincing.

    It would be more convincing if she was in jail and her book was being burned, instead of her being a sought-after speaker and her book selling like hotcakes.

    Comment by Robert — November 24, 2007 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

  2. According to her, it’s not so much would be as will be.

    Comment by Brutus — November 24, 2007 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

  3. i would love to offer an opinion, but i cannot opine until i have read the book. unfortunately, i do not have time to read the book at the moment, and dunno which moment it will be that i will be able to read it. if and when i do, i will let you know, if your blog is still up.

    Comment by greywhitie — November 24, 2007 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

  4. enjoyed reading your post. very thoughtful, well-argued, well written. i am impressed. a little long for my short attention span, but very thorough nevertheless.

    Comment by obie1993 — November 25, 2007 @ 11:10 pm | Reply

  5. It seems to me Brutus that the concern is not so much world domination as preventing decline through mismanagement.

    This is not a zero sum game. Freedom from authoritarianism at home is not diminished by freedom from authoritarianism elsewhere. Good domestic economic policy does not require other nations to have bad domestic economic policies.

    The prosperity of the United States, to a significant degree less than many past empires, is not simply a wealth transfer from the subjugated powers to the colonial power. Nor does U.S. prosperity rest on exploitation of natural resources — we haven’t had that kind of third world economy for a very long time. For the most part, U.S. prosperity is a product of a high technology economy generated by a highly educated work force. The places in the world that are truly suffering do so more out of neglect than exploitation.

    Comment by ohwilleke — November 27, 2007 @ 4:42 pm | Reply

  6. Ohwillike makes several successive sweeping generalizations or contentions without the benefit of support:

    It seems to me Brutus that the concern is not so much world domination as preventing decline through mismanagement.

    Huh? Fascism is probably more about repressing a country’s own population than dreams about world domination. (Or perhaps they go hand in hand.) But as near as I can tell, none of the authors I cited is arguing about world domination.

    This is not a zero sum game. Freedom from authoritarianism at home is not diminished by freedom from authoritarianism elsewhere. Good domestic economic policy does not require other nations to have bad domestic economic policies.

    Again, huh? I find these statements difficult to connect to anything that’s said in my post or in the authors’ articles. In relation to whom or what are you making these statements?

    The prosperity of the United States, to a significant degree less than many past empires, is not simply a wealth transfer from the subjugated powers to the colonial power.

    If you believe this, then I submit you’re not paying attention to trends. The globalization of trade and outsourcing of U.S. jobs to cheaper foreign labor creates U.S. wealth (not a strict transfer of wealth) on the backs of subjugated powers, or more precisely, the powerless. Those foreigners may be subjugated economically rather than militarily (foreign companies disrupt local economies and make manufacturing cities operated by virtual slave labor the only work available), but they are nonetheless working to enrich American companies (and others). So long as transportation remains relatively cheap, it will be advantageous, for instance, to have Nike shoes stitched together by 14-year-old Asian girls working for less than subsistence wages, ship the shoes to rich Western markets, and pocket the profits from the insane mark-ups. That’s the new style of corporate imperialism.

    Nor does U.S. prosperity rest on exploitation of natural resources — we haven’t had that kind of third world economy for a very long time.

    Patently untrue. These manufacturing stats show that “the proportion of workers employed in manufacturing declined from a recorded peak of 32 percent in the early 1940s to just below 13 percent in 2000. But over this period, U.S. manufacturing output has actually increased dramatically, more than eleven-fold from 1940 to 2000.” And according to The National Center for Policy Analysis, “[t]he truth is that U.S. manufacturing is doing quite well in every way except in the number of people it employs. Furthermore, few economists would judge the health or sickness of any industry based solely on employment. By that standard, agriculture has been the sickest industry of all for decades because employment has declined — although farm productivity rose dramatically in the past century. Industrial health is better measured by output, productivity, profitability and wages.”

    So we still have a robust manufacturing sector, even though it employs a smaller percentage of people. Moreover, it’s not sensible to measure prosperity solely in terms of production. We’re rabid consumers, too. For instance, the U.S. trade deficit (goods and services) was $56.5 billion in September 2007, down slightly from August. The exploitation of natural resources ultimately matters to us whether they be situated in North America or Asia.

    For the most part, U.S. prosperity is a product of a high technology economy generated by a highly educated work force.

    According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 12 industry supersectors: construction, education and health services, financial activities, government, information, leisure and hospitality, manufacturing, natural resources and mining, other services, professional and business services, transportation and utilities, and wholesale and retail trade. Professional, scientific, and technical services accounts for about 5.4 percent of all employment. If you add education and health services, as well as financial services, that number increases to 24.0 percent of all employment, which is still a fairly modest minority. If you’re arguing that those sectors are driving the economy, that might be possible to show (though I’m as yet uncertain, considering just how much of that wealth has been shown to rest on nothing but irrational exuberance), but it’s certainly not fair to characterize the bulk of U.S. labor as being highly educated and working in technology-related areas. Our economy is undoubtedly different from countries operating a peasant economy, but even those countries manage considerable modern infrastructure. So I request that you clarify your remark.

    The places in the world that are truly suffering do so more out of neglect than exploitation.

    Neglect? All those corrupt governments around the world run by thugs and religious fanatics cause suffering by sheer neglect? You’re living on a different planet, my friend.

    Comment by Brutus — November 28, 2007 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

  7. outsourcing is not a clear-cut, black-and-white issue. the folks who think they are hurting are american workers who stand to lose to competition from abroad. speaking of which, yes, there are sweatshops that exploit local laborers, especially children, but these jobs also help those people by giving them work.

    don’t forget that some other countries, especially japan, are outsourcing manufacturing of cars to the u.s. because labor is cheaper in the u.s. than in japan, and japanese car companies pay better wages and benefits than many american companies in america.

    levis strauss used to pay children to stay in school until they were old enough to work for him. levis makes good jeans, too.

    Comment by obie1993 — November 28, 2007 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

  8. Reblogged this on The Spiral Staircase and commented:

    Here’s something I wrote nine years ago that seems still on point.

    Comment by Brutus — September 8, 2016 @ 11:16 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: