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Fundamental Political and Economic Mistakes are Speeding Up America's Decline

The new American century was swiftly throttled in three stages: 9/11 (blowback); invasion of Iraq (preemptive war); and 2008 Wall Street meltdown (casino capitalism).

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Meanwhile, one may argue that Europe still has its non-Western opportunities, that, in fact, the periphery increasingly dreams with European -- not American -- subtitles. The Arab Spring, for instance, was focused on European-style parliamentary democracies, not an American presidential system. In addition, however financially anxious it may be, Europe remains the world’s largest market. In an array of technological fields, it now rivals or outpaces the U.S., while regressive Persian Gulf monarchies splurge on euros (and prime real estate in Paris and London) to diversify their portfolios.

Yet, with “leaders” like the neo-Napoleonic Nicolas Sarkozy, David (of Arabia) Cameron, Silvio (“bunga bunga”) Berlusconi, and Angela (“Dear Prudence”) Merkel largely lacking imagination or striking competence, Europe certainly doesn’t need enemies.  Decline or not, it might find a whole new lease on life by sidelining its Atlanticism and boldly betting on its Euro-Asian destiny.  It could open up its societies, economies, and cultures to China, India, and Russia, while pushing southern Europe to connect far more deeply with a rising Turkey, the rest of the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa (and not via further NATO “humanitarian” bombings either).

Otherwise, the facts on the ground spell out something that goes well beyond the decline of the West: it’s the decline of a system in the West that, in these last years, is being stripped to its grim essence. Historian Eric Hobsbawm caught the mood of the moment when he wrote in his book  How to Change the World that “the world transformed by capitalism,” which Karl Marx described in 1848 “in passages of dark, laconic eloquence is recognisably the world of the early twenty-first century.”

In a landscape in which politics is being reduced to a (broken) mirror reflecting finance, and in which producing and saving have been superseded by consuming, something systemic comes into view. As in the famous line of poet William Butler Yeats, “the center cannot hold” -- and it won’t either.

If the West ceases to be the center, what exactly went wrong?

Are You With Me or Against Me?

It’s worth remembering that capitalism was “civilized” thanks to the unrelenting pressure of gritty working-class movements and the ever-present threat of strikes and even revolutions. The existence of the Soviet bloc, an alternate model of economic development (however warped), also helped.  To counteract the USSR, Washington’s and Europe’s ruling groups had to buy the support of their masses in defending what no one blushed about calling “the Western way of life.”  A complex social contract was forged, and it involved capital making concessions.

No more.  Not in Washington, that’s obvious.  And increasingly, not in Europe either.  That system started breaking down as soon as -- talk about total ideological triumph! -- neoliberalism became the only show in town.  There was a single superhighway from there and it swept the most fragile strands of the middle class directly into a new post-industrial proletariat, or simply into unemployable status.

If neoliberalism is the victor for now, it’s because no realist, alternative developmental model exists, and yet what it has won is ever more in question. Meanwhile, except in the Middle East, progressives the world over are paralyzed, as if expecting the old order to dissolve by itself. Unfortunately, history teaches us that, at similar crossroads in the past, you are as likely to find the grapes of wrath, right-wing populist-style, as anything else -- or worse yet, outright fascism.

“The West against the rest” is a simplistic formula that doesn’t begin to describe such a world. Imagine instead, a planet in which “the rest” are trying to step beyond the West in a variety of ways, but also have absorbed that West in ways too deep to describe.  Here’s the irony, then: Yes, the West will “decline,” Washington included, and still it will leave itself behind everywhere.

 
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