Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Fifth Side of the Triangle

One of the things I’ve had occasion to notice, over the course of the decade or so I’ve put into writing these online essays, is the extent to which repeating patterns in contemporary life go unnoticed by the people who are experiencing them. I’m not talking here about the great cycles of history, which take long enough to roll over that a certain amount of forgetfulness can be expected; the repeating patterns I have in mind come every few years, and yet very few people seem to notice the repetition.

An example that should be familiar to my readers is the way that, until recently, one energy source after another got trotted out on the media and the blogosphere as the excuse du jour for doing nothing about the ongoing depletion of global fossil fuel reserves. When this blog first got under way in 2006, ethanol from corn was the excuse; then it was algal biodiesel; then it was nuclear power from thorium; then it was windfarms and solar PV installations; then it was oil and gas from fracking. In each case, the same rhetorical handwaving about abundance was deployed for the same purpose, the same issues of net energy and concentration were evaded, and the resource in question never managed to live up to the overblown promises made in its name—and yet any attempt to point out the similarities got blank looks and the inevitable refrain, “but this is different.”

The drumbeat of excuses du jour has slackened a bit just now, and that’s also part of a repeating pattern that doesn’t get anything like the scrutiny it deserves. Starting when conventional petroleum production worldwide reached its all-time plateau, in the first years of this century, the price of oil has jolted up and down in a multiyear cycle. The forces driving the cycle are no mystery: high prices encourage producers to bring marginal sources online, but they also decrease demand; the excess inventories of petroleum that result drive down prices; low prices encourage consumers to use more, but they also cause marginal sources to be shut down; the shortfalls of petroleum that result drive prices up, and round and round the mulberry bush we go.

We’re just beginning to come out of the trough following the 2015 price peak, and demand is even lower than it would otherwise be, due to cascading troubles in the global economy. Thus, for the moment, there’s enough petroleum available to supply everyone who can afford to buy it. If the last two cycles are anything to go by, though, oil prices will rise unsteadily from here, reaching a new peak in 2021 or so before slumping down into a new trough. How many people are paying attention to this, and using the current interval of relatively cheap energy to get ready for another period of expensive energy a few years from now? To judge from what I’ve seen, not many.

Just at the moment, though, the example of repetition that comes first to my mind has little to do with energy, except in a metaphorical sense. It’s the way that people committed to a cause—any cause—are so often so flustered when initial successes are followed by something other than repeated triumph forever. Now of course part of the reason that’s on my mind is the contortions still ongoing on the leftward end of the US political landscape, as various people try to understand (or in some cases, do their level best to misunderstand) the implications of last month’s election. Still, that’s not the only reason this particular pattern keeps coming to mind.

I’m also thinking of it as the Eurozone sinks deeper and deeper into political crisis. The project of European unity had its initial successes, and a great many European politicians and pundits seem to have convinced themselves that of course those would be repeated step by step, until a United States of Europe stepped out on the international stage as the world’s next superpower. It’s pretty clear at this point that nothing of the sort is going to happen, because those initial successes were followed by a cascade of missteps and a populist backlash that’s by no means reached its peak yet.

More broadly, the entire project of liberal internationalism that’s guided the affairs of the industrial world since the Berlin Wall came down is in deep trouble. It’s been enormously profitable for the most affluent 20% or so of the industrial world’s population, which is doubtless a core reason why that same 20% insists so strenuously that no other options are possible, but it’s been an ongoing disaster for the other 80% or so, and they are beginning to make their voices heard.

At the heart of the liberal project was the insistence that economics should trump politics—that the free market should determine policy in most matters, leaving governments only an administrative function. Of course that warm and cozy abstraction “the free market” meant in practice the kleptocratic corporate socialism of too-big-to-fail banks and subsidy-guzzling multinationals, which proceeded to pursue their own short-term benefit so recklessly that they’ve driven entire countries into the ground. That’s brought about the inevitable backlash, and the proponents of liberal internationalism are discovering to their bafflement that if enough of the electorate is driven to the wall, the political sphere may just end up holding the Trump card after all.

And of course the same bafflement is on display in the wake of last month’s presidential election, as a great many people who embraced our domestic version of the liberal internationalist idea were left dumbfounded by its defeat at the hands of the electorate—not just by those who voted for Donald Trump, but also by the millions who stayed home and drove Democratic turnout in the 2016 election down to levels disastrously low for Hillary Clinton’s hopes. A great many of the contortions mentioned above have been driven by the conviction on the part of Clinton’s supporters that their candidate’s defeat was caused by a rejection of the ideals of contemporary American liberalism. That some other factor might have been involved is not, at the moment, something many of them are willing to hear.

That’s where the repeating pattern comes in, because movements for social change—whether they come from the grassroots or the summits of power—are subject to certain predictable changes, and if those changes aren’t recognized and countered in advance, they lead to the kind of results I’ve just been discussing. There are several ways to talk about those changes, but the one I’d like to use here unfolds, in a deliberately quirky way, from the Hegelian philosophy of history.

That probably needs an explanation, and indeed an apology, because Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has been responsible for more sheer political stupidity than any other thinker of modern times. Across the bloodsoaked mess that was the twentieth century, from revolutionary Marxism in its opening years to Francis Fukuyama’s risible fantasy of the End of History in its closing, where you found Hegelian political philosophy, you could be sure that someone was about to make a mistaken prediction.

It may not be entirely fair to blame Hegel personally for this. His writings and lectures are vast heaps of cloudy abstraction in which his students basically had to chase down inkblot patterns of their own making. Hegel’s great rival Arthur Schopenhauer used to insist that Hegel was a deliberate fraud, stringing together meaningless sequences of words in the hope that his readers would mistake obscurity for profundity, and more than once—especially when slogging through the murky prolixities of Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit—I’ve suspected that the old grouch of Frankfurt was right. Still, we can let that pass, because a busy industry of Hegelian philosophers spent the last century and a half churning out theories of their own based, to one extent or another, on Hegel’s vaporings, and it’s this body of work that most people mean when they talk about Hegelian philosophy.

At the core of most Hegelian philosophies of history is a series of words that used to be famous, and still has a certain cachet in some circles: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. (Hegel himself apparently never used those terms in their later sense, but no matter.) That’s the three-step dance to the music of time that, in the Hegelian imagination, shapes human history. You’ve got one condition of being, or state of human consciousness, or economic system, or political system, or what have you; it infallibly generates its opposite; the two collide, and then there’s a synthesis which resolves the initial contradiction. Then the synthesis becomes a thesis, generates its own antithesis, a new synthesis is born, and so on.

One of the oddities about Hegelian philosophies of history is that, having set up this repeating process, their proponents almost always insist that it’s about to stop forever. In the full development of the Marxist theory of history, for example, the alternation of thesis-antithesis-synthesis starts with the primordial state of primitive communism and then chugs merrily, or rather far from merrily, through a whole series of economic systems, until finally true communism appears—and then that’s it; it’s the synthesis that never becomes a thesis and never conjures up an antithesis. In exactly the same way, Fukuyama’s theory of the end of history argued that all history until 1991 or so was a competition between different systems of political economy, of which liberal democratic capitalism and totalitarian Marxism were the last two contenders; capitalism won, Marxism lost, game over.

Now of course that’s part of the reason that Hegelianism so reliably generates false predictions, because in the real world it’s never game over; there’s always another round to play. There’s another dimension of Hegelian mistakenness, though, because the rhythm of the dialectic implies that the gains of one synthesis are never lost. Each synthesis becomes the basis for the next struggle between thesis and antithesis out of which a new synthesis emerges—and the new synthesis is always supposed to embody the best parts of the old.

This is where we move from orthodox Hegelianism to the quirky alternative I have in mind. It didn’t emerge out of the profound ponderings of serious philosophers of history in some famous European university. It first saw the light in a bowling alley in suburban Los Angeles, and the circumstances of its arrival—which, according to the traditional account, involved the miraculous appearance of a dignified elderly chimpanzee and the theophany of a minor figure from Greek mythology—suggest that prodigious amounts of drugs were probably involved.

Yes, we’re talking about Discordianism.

I’m far from sure how many of my readers are familiar with that phenomenon, which exists somewhere on the ill-defined continuum between deadpan put-on and serious philosophical critique. The short form is that it was cooked up by a couple of young men on the fringes of the California Beat scene right as that was beginning its mutation into the first faint adumbrations of the hippie phenomenon. Its original expression was the Principia Discordia, the scripture (more or less) of a religion (more or less) that worships (more or less) Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos, and its central theme is the absurdity of belief systems that treat orderly schemes cooked up in the human mind as though these exist out there in the bubbling, boiling confusion of actual existence.

That may not seem like fertile ground for a philosophy of history, but the Discordians came up with one anyway, probably in mockery of the ultraserious treatment of Hegelian philosophy that was common just then in the Marxist-existentialist end of the Beat scene. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson proceeded to pick up the Discordian theory of history and weave it into their tremendous satire of American conspiracy culture, the Illuminatus! trilogy. That’s where I encountered it originally in the late 1970s; I laughed, and then paused and ran my fingers through my first and very scruffy adolescent beard, realizing that it actually made more sense than any other theory of history I’d encountered.

Here’s how it works. From the Discordian point of view, Hegel went wrong for two reasons. The first was that he didn’t know about the Law of Fives, the basic Discordian principle that all things come in fives, except when they don’t. Thus he left off the final two steps of the dialectical process: after thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, you get parenthesis, and then paralysis.

The second thing Hegel missed is that the synthesis is never actually perfect.  It never succeeds wholly in resolving the conflict between thesis and antithesis; there are always awkward compromises, difficulties that are papered over, downsides that nobody figures out at the time, and so on. Thus it doesn’t take long for the synthesis to start showing signs of strain, and the inevitable response is to try to patch things up without actually changing anything that matters. The synthesis thus never has time to become a thesis and generate its own antithesis; it is its own antithesis, and ever more elaborate arrangements have to be put to work to keep it going despite its increasingly evident flaws; that’s the stage of parenthesis.

The struggle to maintain these arrangements, in turn, gradually usurps so much effort and attention that the original point of the synthesis is lost, and maintaining the arrangements themselves becomes too burdensome to sustain. That’s when you enter the stage of paralysis, when the whole shebang grinds slowly to a halt and then falls apart. Only after paralysis is total do you get a new thesis, which sweeps away the rubble and kickstarts the whole process into motion again.

There are traditional Discordian titles for these stages. The first, thesis, is the state of Chaos, when a group of human beings look out at the bubbling, boiling confusion of actual existence and decide to impose some kind of order on the mess. The second, antithesis, is the state of Discord, when the struggle to impose that order on the mess in question produces an abundance of equal and opposite reactions. The third, synthesis, is the state of Confusion, in which victory is declared over the chaos of mere existence, even though everything’s still bubbling and boiling merrily away as usual. The fourth, parenthesis, is the state of Consternation,* in which the fact that everything’s still bubbling and boiling merrily away as usual becomes increasingly hard to ignore. The fifth and final, paralysis, is the state of Moral Warptitude—don’t blame me, that’s what the Principia Discordia says—in which everything grinds to a halt and falls to the ground, and everyone stands around in the smoldering wreckage rubbing their eyes and wondering what happened.

*(Yes, I know, Robert Anton Wilson called the last two stages Bureaucracy and Aftermath. He was a heretic. So is every other Discordian, for that matter.)

Let’s apply this to the liberal international order that emerged in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall, and see how it fits. Thesis, the state of Chaos, was the patchwork of quarrelsome nations into which our species has divided itself, which many people of good will saw as barbarous relics of a violent past that should be restrained by a global economic order. Antithesis, the state of Discord, was the struggle to impose that order by way of trade agreements and the like, in the teeth of often violent resistance—the phrase “WTO Seattle” may come to mind here. Synthesis, the state of Confusion, was the self-satisfied cosmopolitan culture that sprang up among the affluent 20% or so of the industrial world’s population, who became convinced that the temporary ascendancy of policies that favored their interests was not only permanent but self-evidently right and just.

Parenthesis, the state of Consternation, was the decades-long struggle to prop up those policies despite the disastrous economic consequences those policies inflicted on everyone but the affluent. Finally, paralysis, the state of Moral Warptitude, sets in when populist movements, incensed by the unwillingness of the 20% to consider anyone else’s needs but their own, surge into the political sphere and bring the entire project to a halt. It’s worth noting here that the title “moral warptitude” may be bad English, but it’s a good description for the attitude of believers in the synthesis toward the unraveling of their preferred state of affairs. It’s standard, as just noted, for those who benefit from the synthesis to become convinced that it’s not merely advantageous but also morally good, and to see the forces that overthrow it as evil incarnate; this is simply another dimension of their Confusion.

Am I seriously suggesting that the drug-soaked ravings of a bunch of goofy California potheads provide a better guide to history than the serious reflections of Hegelian philosophers? Well, yes, actually, I am. Given the track record of Hegelian thought when it comes to history, a flipped coin is a better guide—use a coin, and you have a 50% better chance of being right. Outside of mainstream macroeconomic theory, it’s hard to think of a branch of modern thought that so consistently turns out false answers once it’s applied to the real world.

No doubt there are more respectable models that also provide a clear grasp of what happens to most movements for social change—the way they lose track of the difference between achieving their goals and pursuing their preferred strategies, and generally end up opting for the latter; the way that their institutional forms become ends in themselves, and gradually absorb the effort and resources that would otherwise have brought about change; the way that they run to extremes, chase off potential and actual supporters, and then busy themselves coming up with increasingly self-referential explanations for the fact that the only tactics they’re willing to consider are those that increase their own marginalization in the wider society, and so on. It’s a familiar litany, and will doubtless become even more familiar in the years ahead.

For what it’s worth, though, it’s not necessary for the two additional steps of the post-Hegelian dialectic, the fourth and fifth sides of his imaginary triangle, to result in the complete collapse of everything that was gained in the first three steps. It’s possible to surf the waves of Consternation and Moral Warptitude—but it’s not easy. Next week, we’ll explore this further, by circling back to the place where this blog began, and having a serious talk about how the peak oil movement failed.

*************
In other news, I’m delighted to report that Retrotopia, which originally appeared here as a series of posts, is now in print in book form and available for sale. I’ve revised and somewhat expanded Peter Carr’s journey to the Lakeland Republic, and I hope it meets with the approval of my readers.

Also from Founders House, the first issue of the new science fiction and fantasy quarterly MYTHIC has just been released. Along with plenty of other lively stories, it’s got an essay of mine on the decline and revival of science fiction, and a short story, "The Phantom of the Dust," set in the same fictive universe as my novel The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, and pitting Owen Merrill and sorceress Jenny Chaudronnier against a sinister mystery from colonial days. Subscriptions and single copies can be ordered here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The End of the American Century

I have a bone to pick with the Washington Post. A few days back, as some of my readers may be aware, it published a list of some two hundred blogs that it claimed were circulating Russian propaganda, and I was disappointed to find that The Archdruid Report didn’t make the cut.

Oh, granted, I don’t wait each week for secret orders from Boris Badenov, the mock-iconic Russian spy from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show of my youth, but that shouldn’t disqualify me.  I’ve seen no evidence that any of the blogs on the list take orders from Moscow, either; certainly the Post offered none worth mentioning. Rather, what seems to have brought down the wrath of “Pravda on the Potomac,” as the Post is unfondly called by many DC locals, is that none of these blogs have been willing to buy into the failed neoconservative consensus that’s guided American foreign policy for the last sixteen years. Of that latter offense, in turn, The Archdruid Report is certainly guilty.

There are at least two significant factors behind the Post’s adoption of the tactics of the late Senator Joe McCarthy, dubious lists and all.  The first is that the failure of Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions has thrown into stark relief an existential crisis that has the American news media by the throat. The media sell their services to their sponsors on the assumption that they can then sell products and ideas manufactured by those sponsors to the American people. The Clinton campaign accordingly outspent Trump’s people by a factor of two to one, sinking impressive amounts of the cash she raised from millionaire donors into television advertising and other media buys.

Clinton got the coverage she paid for, too. Nearly every newspaper in the United States endorsed her; pundits from one end of the media to the other solemnly insisted that everyone ought to vote for her; equivocal polls were systematically spun in her favor by a galaxy of talking heads. Pretty much everyone who thought they mattered was on board the bandwagon. The only difficulty, really was that the people who actually mattered—in particular, voters in half a dozen crucial swing states—responded to all this by telling their soi-disant betters, “Thanks, but one turkey this November is enough.”

It turned out that Clinton was playing by a rulebook that was long past its sell-by date, while Trump had gauged the shift in popular opinion and directed his resources accordingly. While she sank her money into television ads on prime time, he concentrated on social media and barnstorming speaking tours through regions that rarely see a presidential candidate. He also figured out early on that the mainstream media was a limitless source of free publicity, and the best way to make use of it was to outrage the tender sensibilities of the media itself and get denounced by media talking heads.

That worked because a very large number of people here in the United States no longer trust the news media to tell them anything remotely resembling the truth. That’s why so many of them have turned to blogs for the services that newspapers and broadcast media used to provide: accurate reporting and thoughtful analysis of the events that affect their lives. Nor is this an unresasonable choice. The issue’s not just that the mainstream news media is biased; it’s not just that it never gets around to mentioning many issues that affect people’s lives in today’s America; it’s not even that it only airs a suffocatingly narrow range of viewpoints, running the gamut of opinion from A to A minus—though of course all these are true.  It’s also that so much of it is so smug, so shallow, and so dull.

The predicament the mainstream media now face is as simple as it is inescapable. After taking billions of dollars from their sponsors, they’ve failed to deliver the goods.  Every source of advertising revenue in the United States has got to be looking at the outcome of the election, thinking, “Fat lot of good all those TV buys did her,” and then pondering their own advertising budgets and wondering how much of that money might as well be poured down a rathole.

Presumably the mainstream news media could earn the trust of the public again by breaking out of the echo chamber that defines the narrow range of acceptable opinions about the equally narrow range of issues open to discussion, but this would offend their sponsors. Worse, it would offend the social strata that play so large a role in defining and enforcing that echo chamber; most mainstream news media employees who have a role in deciding what does and does not appear in print or on the air belong to these same social strata, and are thus powerfully influenced by peer pressure. Talking about supposed Russian plots to try to convince people not to get their news from blogs, though it’s unlikely to work, doesn’t risk trouble from either of those sources.

Why, though, blame it on the Russians? That’s where we move from the first to the second of the factors I want to discuss this week.

A bit of history may be useful here. During the 1990s, the attitude of the American political class toward the rest of the world rarely strayed far from the notions expressed by Francis Fukuyama in his famous and fatuous essay proclaiming the end of history.  The fall of the Soviet Union, according to this line of thought, proved that democracy and capitalism were the best political and economic systems humanity would ever come up with, and the rest of the world would therefore inevitably embrace them in due time. All that was left for the United States and its allies to do was to enforce certain standards of global order on the not-yet-democratic and not-yet-capitalist nations of the world, until they grew up and got with the program.

That same decade, though, saw the emergence of the neoconservative movement.  The neoconservaties were as convinced of the impending triumph of capitalism and democracy as their rivals, but they opposed the serene absurdities of Fukuyama’s thesis with a set of more muscular absurdities of their own. Intoxicated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies, they convinced themselves that identical scenes could be enacted in Baghdad, Tehran, Beijing, and the rest of the world, if only the United States would seize the moment and exploit its global dominance.

During Clinton’s presidency, the neoconservatives formed a pressure group on the fringes of official Washington, setting up lobbying groups such as the Project for a New American Century and bombarding the media with position papers.  The presidency of George W. Bush gave them their chance, and they ran with it. Where the first Iraq war ended with Saddam Hussein beaten but still in power—the appropriate reponse according to the older ideology—the second ended with the US occupying Iraq and a manufactured “democratic” regime installed under its aegis. In the afterglow of victory, neoconservatives talked eagerly about the conquest of Iran and the remaking of the Middle East along the same lines as post-Soviet eastern Europe. Unfortunately for these fond daydreams, what happened instead was a vortex of sectarian warfare and anti-American insurgency.

You might think, dear reader, that the cascading failures of US policy in Iraq might have caused second thoughts in the US political and military elites whose uncritical embrace of neoconservative rhetoric let that happen. You might be forgiven, for that matter, for thinking that the results of US intervention in Afghanistan, where the same assumptions had met with the same disappointment, might have given those second thoughts even more urgency. If so, you’d be quite mistaken. According to the conventional wisdom in today’s America, the only conceivable response to failure is doubling down. 

“If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again” thus seems to be the motto of the US political class these days, and rarely has that been so evident as in the conduct of US foreign policy.  The Obama administration embraced the same policies as its feckless predecessor, and the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon went their merry way, overthrowing governments right and left, and tossing gasoline onto the flames of ethnic and sectarian strife in various corners of the world, under the serene conviction that the blowback from these actions could never inconvenience the United States.

That would be bad enough. Far worse was the effect of neoconservative policies on certain other nations: Russia, China, and Iran. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia was a basket case, Iran was a pariah nation isolated from the rest of the world, and China had apparently made its peace with an era of American global dominance, and was concentrating on building up its economy instead of its military. It would have been child’s play for the United States to maintain that state of affairs indefinitely. Russia could have been helped to recover and then integrated economically into Europe; China could have been allowed the same sort of regional primacy the US allows as a matter of course to its former enemies Germany and Japan; and without US intervention in the Middle East to hand it a bumper crop of opening wedges, Iran could have been left to stew in its own juices until it imploded. 

That’s not what happened, though. Instead, two US adminstrations went out of their way to convince Russia and China they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by accepting their assigned places in a US-centric international order. Russia and China have few interests in common and many reasons for conflict; they’ve spent much of their modern history glaring at each other across a long and contentious mutual border; they had no reason to ally with each other, until the United States gave them one. Nor did either nation have any reason to reach out to the Muslim theocracy in Iran—quite the contrary—until they began looking for additional allies to strengthen their hand against the United States.

One of the basic goals of effective foreign policy is to divide your potential enemies against each other, so that they’re so busy worrying about one another that they don’t have the time or resources to bother you. It’s one thing, though, to violate that rule when the enemies you’re driving together lack the power to threaten your interests, and quite another when the resource base, population, and industrial capacity of the nations you’re driving together exceeds your own. The US government’s harebrained pursuit of neoconservative policies has succeeded, against the odds, in creating a sprawling Eurasian alliance with an economic and military potential significantly greater than that of the US.  There have probably been worse foreign policy blunders in the history of the world, but I can’t think of one off hand.

You won’t read about that in the mainstream news media in the United States. At most, you’ll get canned tirades about how Russian president Vladimir Putin is a “brutal tyrant” who is blowing up children in Aleppo or what have you. “Brutal tyrant,” by the way, is a code phrase of the sort you normally get in managed media.  In the US news, it simply means “a head of state who’s insufficiently submissive to the United States.” Putin certainly qualifies as the latter; first in the Caucasus, then in the Ukraine, and now in Syria, he’s deployed military force to advance his country’s interests against those of the United States and its allies. I quite understand that the US political class isn’t pleased by this, but it might be helpful for them to reflect on their own role in making it happen.

The Russian initiative isn’t limited to Syria, though. Those of my readers who only pay attention to US news media probably don’t know yet that Egypt has now joined Russia’s side. Egyptian and Russian troops are carrying out joint military drills, and reports in Middle Eastern news media have it that Egyptian troops will soon join the war in Syria on the side of the Syrian government. If so, that’s a game-changing move, and probably means game over for the murky dealings the United States and its allies have been pursuing in that end of the Middle East.

China and Russia have very different cultural styles when it comes to exerting power. Russian culture celebrates the bold stroke; Chinese culture finds subtle pressure more admirable. Thus the Chinese have been advancing their country’s interests against those of the United States and its allies in a less dramatic but equally effective way. While distracting Washington’s attention with a precisely measured game of “chicken” in the South China Sea, the Chinese have established a line of naval bases along the northern shores of the Indian Ocean from Myanmar to Djibouti, and contracted alliances in East Africa and South Asia. Those of my readers who’ve read Alfred Thayer Mahan and thus know their way around classic maritime strategy will recognize exactly what’s going on here.

Most recently, China has scored two dramatic shifts in the balance of power in the western Pacific. My American readers may have heard of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillippines; he’s the one who  got his fifteen minutes of fame in the mainstream media here when he called Barack Obama a son of a whore. The broader context, of course, got left out. Duterte, like the heads of state of many nominal US allies, resents US  interference in his country’s affairs, and at this point he has other options. His outburst was followed in short order by a trip to Beijing, where he and China’s President Xi signed multibillion-dollar aid agreements and talked openly about the end of a US-dominated world order.

A great many Americans seem to think of the Phillippines as a forgettable little country off somewhere unimportant in the Third World. That’s a massive if typical misjudgment. It’s a nation of 100 million people on a sprawling archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, commanding the entire southern end of the South China Sea and a vast swath of the western Pacific, including crucial maritime trade routes. As a US ally, it was a core component of the ring of encirclement holding Chinese maritime forces inside the island ring that walls China’s coastal waters from rest of the Pacific basin. As a Chinese ally, it holds open that southern gate to China’s rapidly expanding navy and air force.

Duterte wasn’t the only Asian head of state to head for Beijing in recent months. Malaysia’s prime minister was there a few weeks later, to sign up for another multibillion-dollar aid package, buy Chinese vessels for the Malaysian navy, and make acid comments about the way that, ahem, former colonial powers keep trying to interfere in Malaysian affairs. Malaysia’s a smaller nation than the Phillippines, but even more strategically placed.  Its territory runs alongside the northern shore of the Malacca Strait:  the most important sea lane in the world, the gateway connecting the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, through which much of the world’s seaborne crude oil transport passes.

All these are opening moves. Those who are familiar with the rise and fall of global powers know what the next moves are; those who don’t might want to consider reading my book Declineand Fall, or my novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming, which makes the same points in narrative form. Had Hillary Clinton won this month’s election, we might have moved into the endgame much sooner.  Her enthusiasm for overthrowing governments during her stint as Secretary of State, and her insistence that the US should impose a no-fly zone over Syria in the teeth of Russian fighters and state-of-the-art antiaircraft defenses, suggests that she could have filled the role of my fictional president Jameson Weed, and sent US military forces into a shooting war they were not realistically prepared to win.

We seem to have dodged that bullet. Even so, the United States remains drastically overextended, with military bases in more than a hundred countries around the world and a military budget nearly equal to all other countries’ put together. Meanwhile, back here at home, our country is falling apart. Leave the bicoastal bubble where the political class and their hangers-on spend their time, and the United States resembles nothing so much as the Soviet Union in its last days: a bleak and dilapidated landscape of economic and social dysfunction, where the enforced cheerfulness of the mainstream media contrasts intolerably with the accelerating disintegration visible all around.

That could have been prevented. If the United States had responded to the end of the Cold War by redirecting the so-called “peace dividend” toward the rebuilding of our national infrastructure and our domestic economy, we wouldn’t be facing the hard choices before us right now—and in all probability, by the way, Donald Trump wouldn’t just have been elected president. Instead, the US political class let itself be caught up in neoconservative fantasies of global dominion, and threw away that opportunity. The one bright spot in that dismal picture is that we have another chance.

History shows that there are two ways that empires end. Their most common fate involves clinging like grim death to their imperial status until it drags them down. Spain’s great age of overseas empire ended that way, with Spain plunging into a long era of economic disarray and civil war. At least it maintained its national unity; the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires both finished their imperial trajectories by being partitioned, as of course did the Soviet Union. There are worse examples; I’m thinking here of the Assyrian Empire of the ancient Middle East, which ceased to exist completely—its nationhood, ethnicity, and language dissolving into those of its neighbors—once it fell.

Then there’s the other option, the one chosen by the Chinese in the fifteenth century and Great Britain in the twentieth. Both nations had extensive overseas empires, and both walked away from them, carrying out a staged withdrawal from imperial overreach. Both nations not only survived the process but came through with their political and cultural institutions remarkably intact. This latter option, with all its benefits, is still available to the United States.

A staged withdrawal of the sort just described would of course be done step by step, giving our allies ample time to step up to the plate and carry the costs of their own defense. Those regions that have little relevance to US national interests, such as the Indian Ocean basin, would see the first round of withdrawals, while more important regions such as Europe and the northwest Pacific would be later on the list. The withdrawal wouldn’t go all the way back to our borders by any means; a strong presence in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific basins and a pivot to our own “near abroad” would be needed, but those would also be more than adequate to maintain our national security.

Meanwhile, the billions upon billions of dollars a year that would be saved could be put to work rebuilding our national infrastructure and economy, with enough left over for a Marshall Plan for Mexico—the most effective way to reduce illegal immigration to the United States, after all, is to help make sure that citizens of the countries near us have plenty of jobs at good wages where they already live. Finally, since the only glue holding the Russo-Chinese alliance together is their mutual opposition to US hegemony, winding up our term as global policeman will let Russia, China and Iran get back to contending with each other rather than with us.

Such projects, on the rare occasions they’re made, get shouted down by today’s US political class as “isolationism.” There’s a huge middle ground between isolationism and empire, though, and that middle ground is where most of the world’s nations stand as they face their neighbors. One way or another, the so-called “American century” is ending; it can end the hard way, the way so many other eras of global hegemony have ended—or it can end with the United States recognizing that it’s a nation among nations, not an overlord among vassals, and acting accordingly.

The mainstream news media here in the United States, if they actually provided the public service they claim, might reasonably be expected to discuss the pros and cons of such a proposal, and of the many other options that face this nation at the end of its era of global hegemony. I can’t say I expect that to happen, though. It’s got to be far more comfortable for them to blame the consequences of their own failure on the supposed Boris Badenovs of the blogosphere, and cling to the rags of their fading role as purveyors of a failed conventional wisdom, until the last of their audience wanders away for good.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Free Trade Fallacy

As longtime readers of this blog know, it’s not uncommon for the essays I post here to go veering off on an assortment of tangents, and this week’s post is going to be an addition to that already well-stocked list. Late last week, as the aftermath of the recent election was still spewing all over the media,  I was mulling over one likely consequence of the way things turned out—the end of at least some of the free trade agreements that have played so large and dubious a role in recent economic history

One of the major currents underlying 2016’s political turmoil in Europe and the United States, in fact, has been a sharp disagreement about the value of free trade. The political establishment throughout the modern industrial world insists that free trade policies, backed up by an ever-increasing network of trade agreements, are both inevitable and inevitably good. The movements that have risen up against the status quo—the Brexit campaign in Britain, the populist surge that just made Donald Trump the next US president, and an assortment of similar movements elsewhere—reject both these claims, and argue that free trade is an unwise policy that has a cascade of negative consequences.

It’s important to be clear about what’s under discussion here, since conversations about free trade very often get wrapped up in warm but vague generalities about open borders and the like. Under a system of free trade, goods and capital can pass freely across national borders; there are no tariffs to pay, no quotas to satisfy, no capital restrictions to keep money in one country or out of another. The so-called global economy, in which the consumer goods sold in a nation might be manufactured anywhere on the planet, with funds flowing freely to build a factory here and funnel profits back there, depends on free trade, and the promoters of free trade theory like to insist that this is always a good thing: abolishing trade barriers of all kinds, and allowing the free movement of goods and capital across national boundaries, is supposed to create prosperity for everyone.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice?  Well, not so much. It’s not always remembered that there have been two great eras of free trade in modern history—the first from the 1860s to the beginning of the Great Depression, in which the United States never fully participated; the second from the 1980s to the present, with the United States at dead center—and neither one of them has ushered in a world of universal prosperity. Quite the contrary, both of them have yielded identical results: staggering profits for the rich, impoverishment and immiseration for the working classes, and cascading economic crises. The first such era ended in the Great Depression; the second, just at the moment, looks as though it could end the same way.

Economists—more precisely, the minority of economists who compare their theories to the evidence provided by the real world—like to insist that these unwelcome outcomes aren’t the fault of free trade. As I hope to show, they’re quite mistaken. An important factor has been left out of their analysis, and once that factor has been included, it becomes clear that free trade is bad policy that inevitably produces poverty and economic instability, not prosperity.

To see how this works, let’s imagine a continent with many independent nations, all of which trade with one another. Some of the nations are richer than others; some have valuable natural resources, while others don’t; standards of living and prevailing wages differ from country to country. Under normal conditions, trade barriers of various kinds limit the flow of goods and capital from one nation to another.  Each nation adjusts its trade policy to further its own economic interests.  One nation that’s trying to build up a domestic steel industry, say, may use tariffs, quotas, and the like to shelter that industry from foreign competition.  Another nation with an agricultural surplus may find it necessary to lower tariffs on other products to get neighboring countries to buy its grain.

Outside the two eras of free trade mentioned above, this has been the normal state of affairs, and it has had two reliable results. The first is that the movement of goods and capital between the nations tends toward a rough balance, because every nation uses its trade barriers to police hostile trade policy on the part of its neighbors. Imagine, for example, a nation that tries to monopolize steel production by “dumping”—that is, selling steel on the international market at rock-bottom prices to try to force all other nations’ steel mills into bankruptcy. The other nations respond by slapping tariffs, quotas, or outright bans on imported steel from the dumping country, bringing the project to a screeching halt. Thus trade barriers tend to produce a relative equilibrium between national economies.

Notice that this is an equilibrium, not an equality. When trade barriers exist, it’s usual for some nations to be rich and others to be poor, for a galaxy of reasons having nothing to do with international trade. At the same time, the difficulties this imposes on poor nations are balanced by a relative equilibrium, within nations, between wages and prices.

When the movement of goods and capital across national borders is restricted, the prices of consumer products in each nation will be linked via the law of supply and demand to the purchasing power of consumers in that nation, and thus to the wages paid by employers in that nation. Of course the usual cautions apply; wages and prices fluctuate for a galaxy of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with international trade. Even so, since the wages paid out by employers form the principal income stream that allows consumers to buy the employers’ products, and consumers can have recourse to the political sphere if employers’ attempts to drive down wages get out of hand, there’s a significant pressure toward balance.

Given trade barriers, as a result, people who live in countries that pay low wages generally pay low prices for goods and services, while people who live in countries with high wages face correspondingly high prices when they go shopping. The low prices make life considerably easier for working people in poor countries, just as the tendency of wages to match prices makes life easier for working people in rich countries. Does this always work? Of course not—again, wages and prices fluctuate for countless reasons, and national economies are inherently unstable things—but the factors just enumerated push the economy in the direction of a rough balance between the needs and wants of consumers, on the one hand, and their ability to pay, on the other.

Now let’s imagine that all of the nations we’ve imagined are convinced by a gaggle of neoliberal economists to enact a free trade zone, in which there are no barriers at all to the free movement of goods and capital. What happens?

When there are no trade barriers, the nation that can produce a given good or service at the lowest price will end up with the lion’s share of the market for that good or service. Since labor costs make up so large a portion of the cost of producing goods, those nations with low wages will outbid those with high wages, resulting in high unemployment and decreasing wages in the formerly high-wage countries. The result is a race to the bottom in which wages everywhere decline toward those of the worst-paid labor force in the free trade zone.

When this happens in a single country, as already noted, the labor force can often respond to the economic downdraft by turning to the political sphere. In a free trade zone, though, employers faced with a political challenge to falling wages in one country can simply move elsewhere. It’s the mismatch between economic union and political division that makes free trade unbalanced, and leads to problems we’ll discuss shortly.

Now of course free trade advocates like to insist that jobs lost by wealthier nations to poorer ones will inevitably be replaced by new jobs. History doesn’t support that claim—quite the contrary—and there are good reasons why the jobs that disappear will never be replaced. In a free trade system, it’s more economical for startups in any labor-intensive industry to go straight to one of the countries with low wages; only those industries that are capital-intensive and thus employ comparatively few people have any reason to get under way in the high-wage countries. The computer industry is a classic example—and you’ll notice, I trust, that just as soon as that industry started to become labor-intensive, it moved offshore. Still, there’s another factor at work.

Since wages are a very large fraction of the cost of producing goods, the overall decrease in wages brings about an increase in profits. Thus one result of free trade is a transfer of wealth from the laboring majority, whose income comes from wages, to the affluent minority, whose income comes directly or indirectly from profits. That’s the factor that’s been left out of the picture by the proponents of free trade—its effect on income distribution. Free trade makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, by increasing profits while driving wages down. This no doubt explains why free trade is so popular among the affluent these days, just as it was in the Victorian era. 

There’s a worm in the bud, though, because a skewed income distribution imposes costs of its own, and those costs mount up over time in painfully familiar ways. The difficulty with making the rich richer and the poor poorer, as Henry Ford pointed out a long time ago, is that the wages you pay your employees are also the income stream they use to buy your products. As wages decline, purchasing power declines, and begins to exert downward pressure on returns on investment in every industry that relies on consumer purchases for its income.

Doesn’t the increasing wealth of investors counterbalance the declining wealth of the wage-earning masses? No, because the rich spend a smaller proportion of their incomes on consumer goods than the poor, and divert the rest to investments. Divide a million dollars between a thousand working class family, and the money’s going to be spent to improve the families’ standard of living: better food, a bigger apartment, an extra toy or two around the Christmas tree, and so on. Give the same million to one rich family and it’s a safe bet that much of it’s going to be invested.

This, incidentally, is why the trickle-down economics beloved of Republican politicians of an earlier era simply doesn’t work, and why the Obama administration’s massive handouts of government money to banks in the wake of the 2008-9 financial panic did so little to improve the financial condition of most of the country. When it comes to consumption, the rich simply aren’t as efficient as the poor. If you want to kickstart an economy with consumer expenditures, as a result, you need to make sure that poor and working class people have plenty of money to spend.

There’s a broader principle here as well.  Consumer expenditures and capital for investment are to an economy what sunlight and water are to a plant: you can’t substitute one for the other. You need both. Since free trade policies funnel money away from expenditure toward investment by skewing the income distribution, it causes a shortage of the one and a surplus of the other. As the imbalance builds, it becomes harder for businesses to make a profit because consumers don’t have the cash to buy their products; meanwhile the amount of money available for investment increases steadily. The result is a steady erosion in return on investment, as more and more money chases fewer and fewer worthwhile investment vehicles.

The history of free-trade eras is thus marked by frantic attempts to prop up returns on investment by any means necessary. The offshoring fad that stripped the United States of its manufacturing economy in the 1970s had its exact equivalent in the offshoring of fabric mills from Britain to India in the late Victorian era; in both cases, the move capitalized on remaining disparities in wages and prices between rich and poor areas in a free trade zone. In both cases, offshoring worsened the problem it was meant to fix, by increasing the downward pressure on wages in the richer countries and further decreasing returns on investment across the entire spectrum of consumer industries—then as now, the largest single share of the economy.

A gambit that as far as I know wasn’t tried in the first era of free trade was the attempt to turn capital into ersatz income by convincing consumers to make purchases with borrowed money. That’s been the keystone of economic policy in the United States for most of two decades now.  The housing bubble was only the most exorbitant manifestation of a frantic attempt to get people to spend money they don’t have, and then find some way to pay it all back with interest. It hasn’t worked well, not least because all those interest payments put an additional downward pressure on consumer expenditures.

A variety of other, mostly self-defeating gimmicks have been put in play in both of the modern free trade eras to try to keep consumer expenditures high while wages decline. None of them work, because they don’t address the actual problem—the fact that under free trade, the downward pressure on wages means that consumers can’t afford to spend enough to keep the economy running at a level that will absorb the available investment capital—and so the final solution to the problem of declining returns on investment arrives on schedule: the diversion of capital from productive investment into speculation.

Any of my readers who don’t know how this story ends should get up right now, and go find a copy of John Kenneth Galbraith’s classic The Great Crash 1929. Speculative bubbles, while they last, produce abundant returns; when free trade has driven down wages, forced the consumer economy into stagnation or contraction, and decreased the returns on investment in productive industries to the point of “why bother,” a speculative bubble is very often the only profitable game in town. What’s more, since there are so few investments with decent returns in the late stages of a free trade scheme, there’s a vast amount of money ready to flow into any investment vehicle that can show a decent return, and that’s exactly the environment in which speculative bubbles breed most readily.

So the great free trade era that began tentatively with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and came into full flower with Gladstone’s abolition of tariffs in 1869, ended in the stock market debacle of 1929 and the Great Depression. The road there was littered with plenty of other crises, too. The economic history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is a cratered moonscape of speculative busts and stock market crashes, culminating in the Big One in 1929. It resembles, in fact, nothing so much as the economic history of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, which have had their own sequence of busts and crashes: the stock market crash of 1987, the emerging markets crash of 1994, the tech-stock debacle of 2000, the housing bust of 2008, and the beat goes on.

Thus free trade causes the impoverishment and immiseration of the labor force, and a cascading series of economic busts driven by the mismatch between insufficent consumption and excess investment. Those problems aren’t accidental—they’re hardwired into any free trade system—and the only way to stop them in their tracks is to abandon free trade as bad policy, and replace it with sensible trade barriers that ensure that most of the products consumed in each nation are made there.

It’s probably necessary to stop here and point out a couple of things. First of all, the fact that free trade is bad policy doesn’t mean that every kind of trade barrier is good policy.  The habit of insisting that the only possible points along a spectrum are its two ends, common as it is, is an effective way to make really bad decisions; as in most things, there’s a middle ground that yields better results than either of the two extremes. Finding that middle ground isn’t necessarily easy, but the same thing’s true of most economic and political issues.

Second, free trade isn’t the only cause of economic dysfunction, nor is it the only thing that can cause skewed income distribution and the attendant problems that this brings with it. Plenty of factors can cause a national or global economy to run off the rails. What history shows with painful clarity is that free trade inevitably makes this happen. Getting rid of free trade and returning to a normal state of affairs, in which nations provide most of their own needs from within their own borders and trade with other nations to exchange surpluses or get products that aren’t available at home readily, or at all, gets rid of one reliable cause of serious economic dysfunction. That’s all, but arguably it’s enough to make a movement away from free trade a good idea.

Finally, the points I’ve just made suggest that there may be unexpected benefits, even today, to a nation that extracts itself from free trade agreements and puts a well-planned set of trade restrictions in place. There are plenty of factors putting downward pressure on prosperity just now, but the reasoning I’ve just sketched out suggests that the destitution and immiseration so common in the world right now may have been made considerably worse than they would otherwise be by the mania for free trade that’s been so pervasive in recent decades. A country that withdraws from free trade agreements and reorients its economy for the production of goods for domestic consumption might thus expect to see some improvement, not only in the prosperity of its working people, but in rates of return on investment.

That’s the theory I propose. Given the stated policies of the incoming US administration, it’s about to be put to the test—and the results should be apparent over the next few years.

****************
On a different and less theoretical note, I’m delighted to report that the third issue of Into The Ruinsthe quarterly magazine of deindustrial science fiction, is on its way to subscribers and available for sale to everyone else. The Fall 2016 issue includes stories by regular authors and newcomers alike, including a Matthew Griffiths tale set in the universe of my novel Star’s Reach, along with book reviews, essays, and a letter to the editors column that is turning into one of the liveliest forums in print. If you’re not subscribing yet, you’re missing a treat.

On a less cheery note, it’s been a while now since I proposed a contest, asking readers to write stories about futures that went outside the conventional binary of progress or decline. I think it was a worthwhile project, and some of the stories I received in response were absolutely first-rate—but, I’m sorry to say, there weren’t enough of them to make an anthology. I want to thank everyone who wrote a story in response to my challenge, and since a good many of the stories in question deserve publication, I’m forwarding them to Joel Caris, the editor of Into The Ruins, for his consideration.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

When The Shouting Stops

I've been trying for some time now to understand the reaction of Hillary Clinton’s supporters to her defeat in last week’s election. At first, I simply dismissed it as another round of the amateur theatrics both parties indulge in whenever they lose the White House. Back in 2008, as most of my readers will doubtless recall, Barack Obama’s victory was followed by months of shrieking from Republicans, who insisted—just as a good many Democrats are insisting today—that the election of the other guy meant that democracy had failed, the United States and the world were doomed, and the supporters of the losing party would be rounded up and sent to concentration camps any day now.

That sort of histrionic nonsense has been going on for decades. In 2000, Democrats chewed the scenery in the grand style when George W. Bush was elected president. In 1992, it was the GOP’s turn—I still have somewhere a pamphlet that was circulated by Republicans after the election containing helpful phrases in Russian, so that American citizens would have at least a little preparation when Bill Clinton ran the country into the ground and handed the remains over to the Soviet Union. American politics and popular culture being what it is, this kind of collective hissy fit is probably unavoidable.

Fans of irony have much to savor. You’ve got people who were talking eagerly about how to game the electoral college two weeks ago, who now are denouncing the electoral college root and branch; you’ve got people who insisted that Trump, once he lost, should concede and shut up, who are demonstrating a distinct unwillingness to follow their own advice. You’ve got people in the bluest of blue left coast cities marching in protest as though that’s going to change a single blessed thing—as I’ve pointed out in previous posts here, protest marches that aren’t backed up with effective grassroots political organization are simply a somewhat noisy form of aerobic exercise.

Still, there’s more going on here than that. I know some fairly thoughtful people whose reaction to the election’s outcome wasn’t histrionic at all—it consisted of various degrees of shock, disorientation, and fear. They felt, if the ones I read are typical, that the people who voted for Trump were deliberately rejecting and threatening them personally. That’s something we ought to talk about.

To some extent, to be sure, this was a reflection of the political culture of personal demonization I discussed in last week’s post. Many of Clinton’s supporters convinced themselves, with the help of a great deal of propaganda from the Democratic Party and its bedfellows in the mainstream media, that Donald Trump is a monster of depravity thirsting for their destruction, and anyone who supports him must hate everything good. Now they’re cringing before the bogeyman they imagined, certain that it’s going to act out the role they assigned it and gobble them up.

Another factor at work here is the very strong tendency of people on the leftward end of American politics to believe in what I’ve elsewhere called the religion of progress—the faith that history has an inherent tilt toward improvement, and more to the point, toward the particular kinds of improvement they prefer. Hillary Clinton, in an impromptu response to a heckler at one of her campaign appearances, phrased the central tenet of that religion concisely: “We’re not going to go back. We’re going to go forward.” Like Clinton herself, a great many of her followers saw their cause as another step forward in the direction of progress, and to find themselves “going back” is profoundly disorienting—even though those labels “forward” and “back” are entirely arbitrary when they aren’t the most crassly manipulative sort of propaganda.

That said, there’s another factor driving the reaction of Clinton’s supporters, and the best way I can find to approach it is to consider one of the more thoughtful responses from that side of the political landscape, an incisive essay posted to Livejournal last week by someone who goes by the nom de Web “Ferrett Steinmetz.” The essay’s titled The Cold, Cold Math We’ll Need to Survive the Next Twenty Years, and it comes so close to understanding what happened last Tuesday that the remaining gap offers an unsparing glimpse straight to the heart of the failure of the Left to make its case to the rest of the American people.

At the heart of the essay are two indisputable points. The first is that the core constituencies of the Democratic Party are not large enough by themselves to decide who gets to be president. That’s just as true of the Republican party, by the way, and with few exceptions it’s true in every democratic society.  Each party large enough to matter has a set of core constituencies who can be counted on to vote for it under most circumstances, and then has to figure out how to appeal to enough people outside its own base to win elections. That’s something that both parties in the US tend to forget from time to time, and when they do so, they lose.

The second indisputable point is that if Democrats want to win an election in today’s America, they have to find ways to reach out to people who don’t share the values and interests of the Left. It’s the way that Ferrett Steinmetz frames that second point, though, that shows why the Democratic Party failed to accomplish that necessary task this time. “We have to reach out to people who hate us,” Steinmetz says, and admits that he has no idea at all how to do that.

Let’s take those two assertions one at a time. First, do the people who voted for Donald Trump in this election actually hate Ferrett Steinmetz and his readers—or for that matter, women, people of color, sexual minorities, and so on? Second, how can Steinmetz and his readers reach out to these supposedly hateful people and get them to vote for Democratic candidates?

I have no idea whether Ferrett Steinmetz knows anybody who voted for Donald Trump.  I suspect he doesn’t—or at least, given the number of people I’ve heard from who’ve privately admitted that they voted for Trump but would never let their friends know this, I suspect he doesn’t know anyone who he knows voted for Trump. Here I have a certain advantage. Living in a down-at-the-heels mill town in the north central Appalachians, I know quite a few people who supported Trump; I’ve also heard from a very large number of Trump supporters by way of this blog, and through a variety of other sources.

Are there people among the pro-Trump crowd who are in fact racists, sexists, homophobes, and so on? Of course. I know a couple of thoroughly bigoted racists who cast their votes for him, for example, including at least one bona fide member of the Ku Klux Klan. The point I think the Left tends to miss is that not everyone in flyover country is like that. A few years back, in fact, a bunch of Klansmen came to the town where I live to hold a recruitment rally, and the churches in town—white as well as black—held a counter-rally, stood on the other side of the street, and drowned the Klansmen out, singing hymns at the top of their lungs until the guys in the white robes got back in their cars and drove away.  Surprising? Not at all; in a great deal of middle America, that’s par for the course these days.

To understand why a town that ran off the Klan was a forest of Trump signs in the recent election, it’s necessary to get past the stereotypes and ask a simple question: why did people vote for Trump? I don’t claim to have done a scientific survey, but these are the things I heard Trump voters talking about in the months and weeks leading up to the election:

1. The Risk of War. This was the most common point at issue, especially among women—nearly all the women I know who voted for Trump, in fact, cited it as either the decisive reason for their vote or one of the top two or three. They listened to Hillary Clinton talk about imposing a no-fly zone over Syria in the face of a heavily armed and determined Russian military presence, and looked at the reckless enthusiasm for overthrowing governments she’d displayed during her time as Secretary of State. They compared this to Donald Trump’s advocacy of a less confrontational relationship with Russia, and they decided that Trump was less likely to get the United States into a shooting war.

War isn’t an abstraction here in flyover country. Joining the military is very nearly the only option young people here have if they want a decent income, job training, and the prospect of a college education, and so most families have at least one relative or close friend on active duty.  People here respect the military, but the last two decades of wars of choice in the Middle East have done a remarkably good job of curing middle America of any fondness for military adventurism it might have had.  While affluent feminists swooned over the prospect of a woman taking on another traditionally masculine role, and didn’t seem to care in the least that the role in question was “warmonger,” a great many people in flyover country weighed the other issues against the prospect of having a family member come home in a body bag. Since the Clinton campaign did precisely nothing to reassure them on this point, they voted for Trump.

2. The Obamacare Disaster. This was nearly as influential as Clinton’s reckless militarism. Most of the people I know who voted for Trump make too much money to qualify for a significant federal subsidy, and too little to be able to cover the endlessly rising cost of insurance under the absurdly misnamed “Affordable Care Act.” They recalled, rather too clearly for the electoral prospects of the Democrats, how Obama assured them that the price of health insurance would go down, that they would be able to keep their existing plans and doctors, and so on through all the other broken promises that surrounded Obamacare before it took effect.

It was bad enough that so few of those promises were kept. The real deal-breaker, though, was the last round of double- or triple-digit annual increase in premiums announced this November, on top of increases nearly as drastic a year previously. Even among those who could still afford the new premiums, the writing was on the wall: sooner or later, unless something changed, a lot of people were going to have to choose between losing their health care and being driven into destitution—and then there were the pundits who insisted that everything would be fine, if only the penalties for not getting insurance were raised to equal the cost of insurance! Faced with that, it’s not surprising that a great many people went out and voted for the one candidate who said he’d get rid of Obamacare.

3. Bringing Back Jobs. This is the most difficult one for a lot of people on the Left to grasp, but that’s a measure of the gap between the bicoastal enclaves where the Left’s policies are formed and the hard realities of flyover country. Globalization and open borders sound great when you don’t have to grapple with the economic consequences of shipping tens of millions of manufacturing jobs overseas, on the one hand, and federal policies that flood the labor market with illegal immigrants to drive down wages, on the other. Those two policies, backed by both parties and surrounded by a smokescreen of empty rhetoric about new jobs that somehow never managed to show up, brought about the economic collapse of rural and small town America, driving a vast number of Americans into destitution and misery.

Clinton’s campaign did a really inspired job of rehashing every detail of the empty rhetoric just mentioned, and so gave people out here in flyover country no reason to expect anything but more of the same downward pressure on their incomes, their access to jobs, and the survival of their communities. Trump, by contrast, promised to scrap or renegotiate the trade agreements that played so large a role in encouraging offshoring of jobs, and also promised to put an end to the tacit Federal encouragement of mass illegal immigration that’s driven down wages. That was enough to get a good many voters whose economic survival was on the line to cast their votes for Trump.

4. Punishing the Democratic Party. This one is a bit of an outlier, because the people I know who cast votes for Trump for this reason mostly represented a different demographic from the norm out here: young, politically liberal, and incensed by the way that the Democratic National Committee rigged the nomination process to favor Clinton and shut out Bernie Sanders. They believed that if the campaign for the Democratic nomination had been conducted fairly, Sanders would have been the nominee, and they also believe that Sanders would have stomped Trump in the general election.  For what it’s worth, I think they’re right on both counts.

These voters pointed out to me, often with some heat, that the policies Hillary Clinton supported in her time as senator and secretary of state were all but indistinguishable from those of George W. Bush—you know, the policies Democrats denounced so forcefully a little more than eight years ago.  They argued that voting for Clinton in the general election when she’d been rammed down the throats of the Democratic rank and file by the party’s oligarchy would have signaled the final collapse of the party’s progressive wing into irrelevance. They were willing to accept four years of a Republican in the White House to make it brutally clear to the party hierarchy that the shenanigans that handed the nomination to Clinton were more than they were willing to tolerate.

Those were the reasons I heard people mention when they talked in my hearing about why they were voting for Donald Trump. They didn’t talk about the issues that the media considered important—the email server business, the on-again-off-again FBI investigation, and so on. Again, this isn’t a scientific survey, but I found it interesting that not one Trump voter I knew mentioned those.

What’s more, hatred toward women, people of color, sexual minorities, and the like weren’t among the reasons that people cited for voting for Trump, either. Do a fair number of the people I’m discussing hold attitudes that the Left considers racist, sexist, homophobic, or what have you? No doubt—but the mere fact that such attitudes exist does not prove that those attitudes, rather than the issues just listed, guided their votes.

When I’ve pointed this out to people on the leftward side of the political spectrum, the usual response has been to insist that, well, yes, maybe Trump did address the issues that matter to people in flyover country, but even so, it was utterly wrong of them to vote for a racist, sexist homophobe! We’ll set aside for the moment the question of how far these labels actually apply to Trump, and how much they’re the product of demonizing rhetoric on the part of his political enemies on both sides of the partisan divide. Even accepting the truth of these accusations, what the line of argument just cited claims is that people in the flyover states should have ignored the issues that affect their own lives, and should have voted instead for the issues that liberals think are important.

In some idyllic Utopian world, maybe.  In the real world, that’s not going to happen. People are not going to embrace the current agenda of the American Left if doing so means that they can expect their medical insurance to double in price every couple of years, their wages to continue lurching downward, their communities to sink further in a death spiral of economic collapse, and their kids to come home in body bags from yet another pointless war in the Middle East.

Thus there’s a straightforward answer to both of Ferrett Steinmetz’ baffled questions. Do the people who voted for Trump hate Steinmetz, his readers, or the various groups—women, people of color, sexual minorities—whose concerns are central to the politics of today’s American Left? In many cases, not at all, and in most others, not to any degree that matters politically. They simply don’t care that much about the concerns that the Left considers central—especially when those are weighed against the issues that directly affect their own lives.

As for what Ferrett Steinmetz’s side of the political landscape can offer the people who voted for Trump, that’s at least as simple to answer: listen to those voters, and they’ll tell you. To judge by what I’ve heard them say, they want a less monomaniacally interventionist foreign policy and an end to the endless spiral of wars of choice in the Middle East; they want health insurance that provides reasonable benefits at a price they can afford; they want an end to trade agreements that ship American jobs overseas, and changes to immigration policy that stop the systematic importation of illegal immigrants by big corporate interests to drive down wages and benefits; and they want a means of choosing candidates that actually reflects the will of the people.

The fascinating thing is, of course, that these are things the Democratic Party used to offer. It wasn’t that long ago, in fact, that the Democratic Party made exactly these issues—opposition to reckless military adventurism, government programs that improved the standard of living of working class Americans, and a politics of transparency and integrity—central not only to its platform but to the legislation its congresspeople fought to get passed and its presidents signed into law. Back when that was the case, by the way, the Democratic Party was the majority party in this country, not only in Congress but also in terms of state governorships and legislatures. As the party backed away from offering those things, it lost its majority position. While correlation doesn’t prove causation, I think that in this case a definite case can be made.

More generally, if the Left wants to get the people who voted for Trump to vote for them instead, they’re going to have to address the issues that convinced those voters to cast their ballots the way they did. Oh, and by the way, listening to what the voters in question have to say, rather than loudly insisting that they can only be motivated by hatred, would also help quite a bit. That may be a lot to ask, but once the shouting stops, I hope it’s a possibility.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Reflections on a Democracy in Crisis

Well, it’s finally over, and I think it’s fair to say I called it. As I predicted back in January of this year, working class Americans—fed up with being treated by the Democratic Party as the one American minority that it’s okay to hate—delivered a stinging rebuke to the politics of business as usual. To the shock and chagrin of the entire US political establishment, and to the tautly focused embarrassment of the pundits, pollsters, and pet intellectuals of the mainstream media, Donald Trump will be the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. 

Like millions of other Americans, I took part in the pleasant civic ritual of the election. My local polling place is in an elementary school on the edge of the poor part of town—the rundown multiracial neighborhood I’ve mentioned here before, where Trump signs blossomed early and often—and I went to vote, as I usually do, in early afternoon, when the lunch rush was over and the torrent of people voting on the way home from work hadn’t yet gotten under way. Thus there was no line; I came in just as two elderly voters on the way out were comparing notes on local restaurants that give discounts to patrons who’ve got the “I Voted” sticker the polls here hand out when you’ve done your civic duty, and left maybe five minutes later as a bottle-blonde housewife was coming in to cast her vote.

Maryland had electronic voting for a while, but did the smart thing and went back to paper ballots this year, so I’m pretty sure my votes got counted the way I cast them. Afterwards I walked home—it was cloudy but warm, as nice a November day as you could ask for—and got back to work on my current writing project. It all made an interesting counterpoint to the nonstop shrieking that’s been emanating for months now from the media and, let’s be fair, from politicians, pundits, and a great many ordinary people all over the world as well.

I don’t see a lot of point just now in talking about what’s going to happen once the dust and the tumult settles, the privileged finish throwing their predictable tantrums, and the Trump administration settles into power in Washington DC.  There will be plenty of time for that later. What I’d like to do here and now is talk about a couple of things that were highlighted by this election, and cast a useful light on the current state of US politics and the challenges that have to be faced as a troubled, beleaguered, and bitterly divided nation staggers on toward its next round of crises.

One of those things showed up with rare clarity in the way that many readers responded to my posts on the election. All along, from my first post on the improbable rise of Donald Trump right up to last week’s pre-election wrapup, I tried to keep the discussion focused on issues: what policies each candidate could be expected to support once the next administration took office.

To my mind, at least, that’s the thing that matters most about an election. Four or eight years from now, after all, the personality of the outgoing president is going to matter less than an average fart in a Category 5 hurricane. The consequences of policy decisions made by the presidency over the next four years, on the other hand, will have implications that extend for years into the future. Should the United States pursue a policy of confrontation with Russia in the Middle East, or should it work out a modus vivendi with the Russians to pursue the common goal of suppressing jihadi terrorism? Should federal policy continue to encourage the offshoring of jobs and the importation of workers to drive down wages, or should it be changed to discourage these things? These are important issues that will affect millions of lives in the United States and elsewhere, and there are other issues of similar importance on which the two candidates had significantly different positions.

Quite a few of the people who responded to those posts, though, displayed no interest in such mundane if important matters. They only wanted to talk about their opinions about the personalities of the candidates: to insist that Clinton was a corrupt stooge, say or that Trump was a hatemongering fascist. (It says something about American politics these days that rather more often than not, the people who did this were too busy slandering the character of the candidate they hated to say much about the one they planned to vote for.) Outside the relatively sheltered waters of The Archdruid Report, in turn, that tendency went into overdrive; for much of the campaign, the only way you could tell the difference between the newspapers of record and the National Enquirer was by noting which candidates they supported, and allegedly serious websites were by and large even worse.

This wasn’t the fault of the candidates, as it happens. Whatever else might be said for or against Hillary Clinton, she tried to avoid a campaign based on content-free sound bites like the one Barack Obama waged against her so cynically and successfully in 2008; the pages of her campaign website displayed a laundry list of things she said she wanted to do if she won the election. While many voters will have had their disagreements with her proposals, she actually tried to talk about the issues, and that’s refreshingly responsible. Trump, for that matter, devoted speech after speech to a range of highly specific policy proposals.

Yet nearly all the talk about both candidates, in and out of the media, focused not on their policy proposals but on their personalities—or rather on nastily distorted parodies of their personalities that defined them, more or less explicitly, as evil incarnate. The Church of Satan, I’m told, has stated categorically that the Devil was not running in this year’s US presidential election, but you’d have a hard time telling that from the rhetoric on both sides. The media certainly worked overtime to foster the fixation on personalities, but I suspect this is one of those cases where the media was simply reflecting something that was already present in the collective consciousness of our society.

All through the campaign I noticed, rather to my surprise, that it wasn’t just those who have nothing in their heads that a television or a website didn’t put there, who ignored the issues and fixated on personalities. I long ago lost track of the number of usually thoughtful people I know who, over the course of the last year, ended up buying into every negative claim about whichever candidate they hated, without even going through the motions of checking the facts. I also lost track months ago of the number of usually thoughtful people I know whose automatic response to an attempt to talk about the issues at stake in this election was to give me a blank look and go right back to ranting about the evilly evil evilness of whichever candidate they hated.

It seems to me that something has been forgotten here.  We didn’t have an election to choose a plaster saint, a new character on My Little Pony, or Miss (or Mister) Goody Two-Shoes 2016. We had an election to choose the official who will head the executive branch of our federal government for the next four years. I’ve read essays by people who know Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump personally, and claim that both of them are actually very pleasant people. You know what? I literally couldn’t care less. I would be just as likely to vote for a surly misanthrope who loathes children, kicks puppies, and has deviant sexual cravings involving household appliances and mayonnaise, if that person supports the policies I want on the issues that matter to me. It really is that simple.

I’d like to suggest, furthermore, that the fixation on personalities—or, again, malicious parodies of personalities—has played a huge role in making politics in the United States so savage, so divisive, and so intractably deadlocked on so many of the things that matter just now. The issues I mentioned a few paragraphs back—US foreign policy toward a resurgent Russia, on the one hand, and US economic policy regarding the offshoring of jobs and the importation of foreign workers—are not only important, they’re issues about which reasonable disagreement is possible. What’s more, they’re issues on which negotiation, compromise, and the working out of a mutually satisfactory modus vivendi between competing interests are also possible, at least in theory.

In practice? Not while each side is insisting at the top of its lungs that the other side is led by a monster of depravity and supported only by people who hate everything good in the world. I’d like to suggest that it’s exactly this replacement of reasoned politics with a pretty close equivalent of the Two Minutes Hate from Orwell’s 1984 that’s among the most important forces keeping this country from solving any of its problems or doing anything to brace itself for the looming crises ahead.

Thus I’d like to encourage all the citizens of my country to turn off the television and the internet for a few moments, take a few deep breaths, and think about the tone of the recent election, and to what extent they might have participated in the bipartisan culture of hatred that filled so much of it. It might be worth pointing out that you’re not likely to convince other people to vote the way you think they ought to vote if you’re simultaneously berating them for being evilly evil with a double helping of evil sauce on the side, or sneering at them for being too ignorant to recognize that voting for your candidate really is in their best interests, or any of the other counterproductive habits that have taken the place of reasonable political discourse in today’s America.

The second point I noticed in the course of the election campaign connects to the one just discussed. That’s the hard fact that the United States at this point in its history may still be a single republic, but it’s not a single nation—and it could be argued on reasonably solid grounds that it never has been. Facile distinctions between “red” and “blue” states barely touch the complexity, much less the depth, of the divisions that separate the great urban centers from the rest of the country, and the different regions from one another.

I think it was Pauline Kael who, in the wake of Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972, commented that she didn’t understand how Nixon could have won—after all, nobody she knew voted for him! The same sentiment is currently being expressed in tones ranging from bewilderment and baffled rage from all corners of the affluent left and their hangers-on among the mainstream media’s well-paid punditry. The 20% or so of Americans who have benefited from the jobless recovery of the last eight years, and the broader neoliberal economic agenda of the last four decades, very rarely leave the echo-chamber environments where they spend their days to find out what the rest of the country is thinking. If they’d done so a bit more often in the last year, they would have watched Trump signs sprouting all over the stark landscapes of poverty that have spread so widely in the America they never see.

But of course the divisions run deeper than this, and considerably more ramified. Compare the political, economic, and social policies that have the approval of people in Massachusetts, say, and those that have the approval of people in Oklahoma, and you’ll find next to no overlap. This isn’t because the people of one state or the other are (insert your insult of choice here); it’s because they belong to different cultures, with incommensurable values, attitudes, and interests. Attempts, well-meaning or otherwise, to impose the mores of either state on the other are guaranteed to result only in hostility and incomprehension—and such attempts have been all too common of late.

Ours is a very diverse country. That may sound like a truism, but it has implications that aren’t usually taken into account. A country with a great deal of cultural uniformity, with a broad consensus of shared values and attitudes, can afford to legislate that consensus on a national basis. A country that doesn’t have that kind of uniformity, that lacks any consensus concerning values and attitudes, very quickly gets into serious trouble if it tries that sort of legislation. If the divergence is serious enough, the only way that reliably allows different nations to function under a single government is a federal system—that is, a system that assigns the national government only those powers and duties that have to be handled on a nationwide basis, while leaving most other questions for local governments and individuals to settle for themselves.

My more historically literate readers will be aware that the United States used to have a federal system—that is, after all, why we still speak of “the federal government.” Under the Constitution as originally written and interpreted, the people of each state had the right to run their own affairs pretty much as they saw fit, within certain very broad limits.  The federal government was assigned certain narrowly defined powers, and all other powers were, in the language of the Tenth Amendment, reserved to the states and the people.

Over the first century and a half of our national history, certain other powers were assigned to the federal government by constitutional amendment, sometimes with good results—the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws to all citizens, for example, and the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments’ extension of voting rights to black people and women respectively—and sometimes not—the Eighteenth Amendment’s prohibition of alcohol comes to mind here. The basic federal structure remained intact. Not until the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War did the metastatic growth of the federal government begin in earnest, and so in due time did the various attempts to impose this or that set of moral values on the entire country by force of law.

Those attempts have not worked, and they’re not going to work. I’m not sure how many people have noticed, though, that the election of Donald Trump was not merely a rebuke to the liberal left; it was also a defeat for the religious right. It’s worth recalling that the evangelical wing of the Republican Party had its own favorites in the race for the GOP nomination, and Trump was emphatically not one of them. It has not been a propitious autumn for the movements of left and right whose stock in trade is trying to force their own notion of virtue down the throats of the American people—and maybe, just maybe, that points to the way ahead.

It’s time to consider, I suggest, a renewal of the traditions of American federalism: a systematic devolution of power from the overinflated federal government to the states, and from the states to the people. It’s time for people in Massachusetts to accept that they’re never going to be able to force people in Oklahoma to conform to their notions of moral goodness, and for the people of Oklahoma to accept the same thing about the people of Massachusetts; furthermore, it’s time for government at all levels to give up trying to impose cultural uniformity on the lively diversity of our republic’s many nations, and settle for their proper role of ensuring equal protection under the laws, and those other benefits that governments, by their nature, are best suited to provide for their citizens.

We need a new social compact under which all Americans agree to back away from the politics of personal vilification that dominated all sides in the election just over, let go of the supposed right to force everyone in the country to submit to any one set of social and moral views, and approach the issues that divide us with an eye toward compromise, negotiation, and mutual respect. Most of the problems that face this country could be solved, or at least significantly ameliorated, if our efforts were guided by such a compact—and if that can be done, I suspect that a great many more of us will have the opportunity to experience one of the greatest benefits a political system can bestow: actual, honest-to-goodness liberty. We’ll talk more about that in future posts.

************************

In unrelated and rather less serious news, I’m pleased to announce that the second volume of my Lovecraftian epic fantasy series The Weird of Hali is now available for preorder. Once again, H.P. Lovecraft gets stood on his head, and the tentacled horrors and sinister cultists get the protagonists’ roles; this time the setting is the crumbling seaside town of Kingsport, where Miskatonic University student Jenny Parrish is summoned to attend a certain very ancient festival...

The Weird of Hali: Kingsport, like the first book in the series, The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, is being released first in two signed and numbered editions, one one merely gorgeous, the other leatherbound, traycased, and utterly over the top for connoisseurs of fine printing and binding. There will be a trade paperback edition in due time, but it’ll be a while. Those of my readers who find eldritch nightmares from the crepuscular beginnings of time itself better company than the current crop of American politicians may find it worth a read.