Sunday, 21 August 2011

Ill fares the land

I hasten to acknowledge theft of this title from the incomparable historian, the late Tony Judt, because he was, as usual, remarkably prescient about where we are headed, both here in the U.S. where Judt ended his teaching career at NYU and in Europe from whence he sprung. (A pity he didn’t manage to hang on for a few more months—what an essay he would have penned over the recent upheavals back home in England.) This was the title of his last major lecture, delivered without notes from his wheelchair before ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’ incapacitated him completely.

The immediately evident illness afflicting our sister continents is the economic one, and I side with those pessimist commentators who think we are on the verge of something very big and very nasty. Despite the bleating reassurances from the permanent shill brigades, the evidence of my inexpert eyes tells me that the banking crisis of 2007-08 is soon to be back because, behind the smoke, the mirrors and the unfathomable trillions, it was never really solved. As Judt wrote, ‘The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come’. Judt would probably have been surprised to find his warning justified so soon.

The TBTF behemoth banks may or may not be solvent; but if they aren’t, we won’t know until it is too late as the lame state continues to permit them to obfuscate and hide their books (as well as cook them). Meanwhile, European banks are most certainly skating on very thin ice, and while they could be saved by a vigorous dose of supra-national, pan-European intervention—precisely the antidote not to be found in the Sarkozy-Merkel medicine cabinet—they won’t be. God only knows how this will play out, but recent market gyrations suggest that some big players are heading for the hills, cash in hand.

That Anders Breivik, the Norwegian nazi, should have appeared just at this moment to murder liberal teens is no accident, not in any direct cause-and-effect sort of way but because he reflects so aptly the racist and reactionary mood of that continent and, I think, our own. What the euro mess has exposed is that the monetary union was ill thought out for a variety of technical reasons with which I’m only minimally conversant. But the next step, deeper integration and merging of international destinies in one, big, happy, Euro eco-political project, is now both required and impossible. While the Europeans’ economic futures are intertwined in actual fact, in moments of stress it’s much easier for people to revert to exclusive solidarity with clan, tribe, race and nation. This, I believe, is in store.

‘We work while they eat souvlaki and drink ouzo’, sneered the extreme right-wing Dutch pol, Geert Wilders, whose anti-immigrant party has steadily gained electoral strength. Wilders was speaking of the supposedly profligate Greeks, but his tone is immediately recognizable: lazy bums on welfare. Nativist parties all over Europe are vetoing any attempt by their political leadership to save the euro through massive, central bank intervention despite the harrowing consequences that may result for the Fatherland, much as the Tea Party blithely weakened our own prospects with its sophomoric antics. The reactionaries set the terms, and the supposedly sane are impotent—or complicit.

Wilders would be at home in the Republican Party of Arizona or perhaps Alabama. Hard-working [fill in nationality here]’s are being victimized by [insert hints of race/ethnicity here]’s who just want to suck the teat of our tax-and-spend nanny state. Sadly, this is extremely appealing to bipeds and in fact has been the main tune on the GOP playlist since the Nixon era and probably before I was born. Given the glacially slow and painful victories of the civil rights movement, overt racism is bad form—but the wink-wink version is making a comeback, capitalizing on the presence of a black president.

Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn was asked whether Obama wants to ‘destroy America’. Coburn pretended to defend the president but then promptly said that, as an ‘African-American male’, he had benefited from government programs (affirmative action, wink-wink) and so ‘his intent is to create dependency because it worked so well for him’. Translation: uppity Negroes can’t make it on their own, so they like giveaways that take away from hard-working white people.

Then there is Texas governor Perry, the lastest nutbag on the scene, who distinguished himself with a crack about a ‘dark cloud’ over America, exactly the phrase my racist neighbors used to use when a black family would make a rare appearance in our Ohio town. Expect more of the same as the campaign heats up, and further expect Obama to pretend he’s not hearing what the dog-whistlers are communicating.

In Judt’s long essay, which was excerpted in the New York Review of Books, he draws a parallel with the run-up to 1914, in which few Europeans had any idea that their entire world was about to go smash in an orgy of destruction. The comparison is not reassuring. Judt did not, however, linger on one of the more depressing aspects of that debacle, the collapse of working-class internationalism in the jingoist flames of war. I anticipate a similar process of retreat away from the superficial pluralism of our times to a bold, resurgent racism, couched of course in permanent denial.

I’ve also foolishly predicted that our current president will be lucky to finish out his (single) term and that, despite the confident shaking of liberal heads over the wacko brigade presented by the GOP, one of these clowns is going to haunt our nightly news starting in 2013. But that is a detail about which I could easily be wrong. Whatever or whoever comes to rule in Washington, the financial elite is going to continue to hijack the ship of state into its privatized waters and pump the gold out of the hull until there is nothing left.

Joe Nocera illustrates by example in Saturday’s New York Times how it will work: we taxpayers are building a huge white elephant at the Ground Zero site, supposedly in honor of the hallowed victims. But what is really occurring is that in exchange for our hard-earned wealth, developers will make a killing, Condé-Nast will get subsidized office space to produce their elitist magazines, and payment will come out of bridge and tunnel tolls for decades to come. That’s because the Port Authority (which, bizarrely, owns and manages the twin tower site) must find some way to pay for its pathetically inefficient use of public assets for private gain.

Such is the panorama in store for us in the 21st century: obscene wealth accompanied by mass impoverishment and, eventually, social breakdown. No wonder Obama is busily trying to turn the Internet into a tool of the Surveillance State.

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