Whoa–is the sky falling, or what? The Economist has finally gotten (partway) off its “rah rah, America” kick and published a (somewhat) honest assessment of what’s going on in the States. And a thing of beauty it is, too:
One source of angst is the sorry state of American capitalism (see article). The “Washington consensus” told the world that open markets and deregulation would solve its problems. Yet American house prices are falling faster than during the Depression, petrol is more expensive than in the 1970s, banks are collapsing, the euro is kicking sand in the dollar’s face, credit is scarce, recession and inflation both threaten the economy, consumer confidence is an oxymoron and Belgians have just bought Budweiser, “America’s beer”.
Wow! And that’s only the second paragraph. It goes on in that vein pretty much throughout the piece, with occasional excursions into the silly (which I’ll get to shortly.)
I think we can safely say this marks an epoch. Just a few short years ago, this self-same Economist was totally behind the Washington consensus. Rather like the woman in the famous picture, cleaning up after the elephant by catching its droppings in a big bag-on-a-stick as they fell, so they wouldn’t hit the ground and be seen for the vast load of shit they are.
Unfortunately, this moment of truth shall pass, as does everything else in the transitory world of market capitalism. And in fact, within the same article, we see evidence that the editorial writer doesn’t really get what’s going on at all:
America has got into funks before now. In the 1950s it went into a Sputnik-driven spin about Soviet power; in the 1970s there was Watergate, Vietnam and the oil shocks; in the late 1980s Japan seemed to be buying up America. Each time, the United States rebounded, because the country is good at fixing itself. Just as American capitalism allows companies to die, and to be created, quickly, so its political system reacts fast. In Europe, political leaders emerge slowly, through party hierarchies; in America, the primaries permit inspirational unknowns to burst into the public consciousness from nowhere.
The whole passage is pretty smelly, but that last sentence is a stinker.
Yes, they’re still in the rah-rah mode there; that Rumsfeldian slagging on “old Europe” hasn’t faded entirely from their consciousness yet. If they think the US political system is truly a “rapid response” mechanism, I have sad news for them: Machine politics are every bit as prevalent there as in “old Europe”. (Tammany Hall, anyone?) Where exactly does the Economist’s writer think it all came from in a nation of (predominantly European) immigrants?
And while the Economist may cling to the notion that Barack Obama is an “inspirational unknown”, anyone who’s actually been following his career from his senatorial debut onwards knows that he, too, is a product of the Democratic Party machine. How else to explain the fact that he and Hillary Clinton–the two LEAST progressive, and least inspirational, candidates–were the “front-runners” in a country where John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich were the closest to the true feelings of the masses when it came to the economy and foreign policy? One can tell the Economist wasn’t privy to this video, which was circulated by the campaign of another candidate that didn’t get far, thanks to the machine–a populistic maverick named Mike Gravel:
And no, I’m not a “Gravelian”; I just found this video very illustrative of how the machine works. The candidates least favored by the machine are invariably–LITERALLY–shunted to the sides, and given the least amount of time and consideration.
The rest of that paragraph is also pretty funny, considering the facts. Sputnik is not what drove the real funk of the Fifties. Sputnik, which came along rather late in 1957, was just an experimental gizmo that embarrassed the hell out of a country that had positioned itself–very prematurely–as a world leader in technology. The real funk-maker would be the Cold War, which started in the 1940s with the Manhattan Project. The space race began as a Russian response to the arms race, and guess who started that? (Hint: They are the same country that also is the only one so far to use nuclear weapons in a shooting war.)
“Watergate, Vietnam and the oil shocks” were all the products of what? Oh, surely not capitalism gone amuck in various ways. No, the Economist could never admit that. The unholy admixture of corporate, imperialistic supremacy-at-all-costs to existing machine politics? Are you kidding? That would make them start sounding like radical socialists. And everyone knows that when the Cold War’s last icy ember died, capitalism was the Last Man still standing…right? It was The End Of History…right? Right???
Well, actually…wrong. But the Economist is loath to admit that, because it would throw into disarray their whole lovely theory about how a capitalism that “allows companies to die, and to be created, quickly” also virtuously infuses politics, so that “in America, the primaries permit inspirational unknowns to burst into the public consciousness from nowhere.” They’d rather cling to the now thoroughly discredited notion that capitalism, even if it does not exactly equal democracy, is still a democratizing force. A notion that is downright laughable when one looks at the very places where capitalism is still going like gangbusters today, so much so that the US seems anemic by comparison: totalitarian China and the various monarchic and definitely undemocratic emirates of the Middle East–like, oh, say, Dubai. Tell me, O capitalist wizards at the Economist–how soon do you expect them to democratize and let their wealth trickle down to the point where it might actually do the peons some good? Maybe, if you learn to salaam or kowtow nicely, they might even throw some of it at you just for their own amusement.
And then there’s this passage, which is strangely revealing, and yet at the same time, strangely concealing:
Abroad, America has spent vast amounts of blood and treasure, to little purpose. In Iraq, finding an acceptable exit will look like success; Afghanistan is slipping. America’s claim to be a beacon of freedom in a dark world has been dimmed by Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and the flouting of the Geneva Conventions amid the panicky “unipolar” posturing in the aftermath of September 11th.
Now the world seems very multipolar. Europeans no longer worry about American ascendancy. The French, some say, understood the Arab world rather better than the neoconservatives did. Russia, the Gulf Arabs and the rising powers of Asia scoff openly at the Washington consensus. China in particular spooks America—and may do so even more over the next few weeks of Olympic medal-gathering. Americans are discussing the rise of China and their consequent relative decline; measuring when China’s economy will be bigger and counting its missiles and submarines has become a popular pastime in Washington. A few years ago, no politician would have been seen with a book called “The Post-American World”. Mr Obama has been conspicuously reading Fareed Zakaria’s recent volume.
Well, so Barack Obama is reading Fareed Zakaria. The latter being a “firm centrist” (is there even such a thing, considering centrism caters to what is otherwise known as “the mushy middle”?), a vacillating journozoid who went from cheerleading for the “democracy-building” potentials of the GWOT, and explaining “why they hate us” (complete with overstated death counts of 9-11), to having sober second thoughts (and third, and fourth, and probably soon fifth and sixth ones) about it all. One of the corporate machine’s political weathercocks is reading another of the corporate machine’s scribbling weathercocks. So what?
The real story here, which is being glossed over more than a little bit, is the fact that the “bipolar” Cold war world, which collapsed into the “unipolar” world of the post-Cold War era, is now truly “multipolar”. Took it long enough! But actually, it was multipolar all along, and it was just the lenses through which we were forced to view it that made it seem otherwise. Those lenses are shattered and ground to sand now. And it’s a good thing, too–those lenses were more distorting than a funhouse mirror.
But if our own eyes have been naked and seeing clearly for some time now, the Economist’s are still clouded. There’s no mention of the biggest threat to capitalism, which isn’t terrorism. And no mention of where it’s coming from,
either–not the Russian bear, nor the Chinese dragon, nor even the gyring falcons of the Middle East. No, to see it, you’d have to look to the mountains and jungles of South America, where a sexy trio of democratic socialist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador is leading by good example. And the presidents presiding over larger economies in Argentina and Brazil are watching with interest and taking copious notes. Not a word about that here, and no wonder: that other America isn’t supposed to count.
But Latin America does count, because it’s where the unipolar worldview was first road-tested, and suffered its first ignominious smuck-ups from the instant the rubber hit the road. It’s where fascist regimes backed by Washington first imposed totalitarian capitalism on the citizens against their will, and enforced it with murders, tortures and disappearances. And it’s also where multipolarity was first talked about and recognized as the only fitting response to the corporate globalization of “savage capitalism” that was behind not only the Cold War, but the whole unipolarity farce that followed it.
No word from the Economist on why that should be, but it’s a safe bet that the Venezuelans know. Even before the Iron Curtain formally fell in Europe, they were already victims of predatory capitalism; the Caracazo preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall by a full seven months.
The Venezuelan politics of the Cold War era might, to an uninformed viewer, make this sort of thing seem incomprehensible. Actually, it’s very comprehensible indeed; after the ouster of the last Venezuelan dictator, Marcos Perez Jimenez, in 1958, representatives of three Venezuelan parties signed the pact of Punto Fijo, which became the basis of the local political machine. Three became two in practice, however, as the AD and COPEI parties swapped the government back and forth between them while continuing to use the same repressive practices supposedly ended by the fall of the dictator–torture, disappearances, murders, censorship, violence, raids.
Thus was born the illusion of democracy in a country which still, in practice, had little to none. It enabled capitalism to steamroll Venezuela like so much asphalt; dissenters still faced the same horrors that would have befallen them under Perez Jimenez, only now they faced them surreptitiously. And it also squashed all semblances of real democracy, which kept springing up like weeds amid all the tarmac; non-Puntofijista parties kept forming, only to find their paths to power blocked by the machine. And no wonder: the machine had powerful backing from Standard Oil of New Jersey, and by extension, Washington.
Venezuelans developed a sneaking admiration for Fidel Castro after he took power in 1959, and no wonder: Venezuelan guerrillas had tried, and failed, to overcome both dictatorship and phony democracy in turn. Venezuela, alas, was not Cuba, and the Andes were not the Sierra Maestra. By the time a young second-lieutenant named Hugo Chavez had graduated from military academy in the early 1970s, the guerrilla movement was sputtering out. Chavez was sent to help quell it, but in the process he found there was very little left to quell, and what there was, often turned out to be not guerrillas, but campesinos being beaten to death by soldiers under false suspicion. This not only disgusted him, it also disillusioned him about many things: Venezuela’s bogus democracy, and the way its soldiers (many of them from poor backgrounds themselves) were being turned against their campesino brothers in an effort to shore up that sham. When he and a group of army comrades swore an oath under the same saman tree where Simon Bolivar once rested during his campaign to free Venezuela from the Spanish Empire, it was to vow the overthrow of that false democracy and bring about the real thing at the first opportunity.
That opportunity would have been the Caracazo, had Chavez and friends not been caught off guard; he was home with a fever the day the riots broke out. But the Caracazo galvanized his clandestine MBR-200 movement within the army, as other disaffected soldiers, sickened at having had to turn their guns against the poor, clamored to join. By 1992, things had progressed to the point where a coup attempt became plausible. The attempt failed and the conspirators went to prison, but popular support was on their side. Two years later, Chavez was pardoned, and his political career began. In 1998, it bore fruit: he was elected in a landslide, on a platform that promised, among other things, to do away with Puntifijismo, its machine politics and corruption, and most of all, the savage capitalism that had propped the whole mess up. He’s been making good on all of that ever since, and so have the leftist leaders who have been swinging into power all over the region since then.
And that “making good” has gotten Washington’s attention, all right–to the tune of numerous failed coup attempts against Chavez and everyone else trying to do what he’s been doing. Ironically, in the name of “democracy”, real democracy has been repeatedly subverted. But the subversion failed and continues to fail, for the simple (if incomprehensible to the whore media) reason that the same people who elected Chavez, Morales, Correa and others have long been wise to the neoliberal “alternative”, and have been expressing their rejection of it at least since the five days of the Caracazo, if not even longer.
That rejection of global, unipolar, neoliberal savage capitalism is why the funk that seems to have engulfed the US is not touching Latin America; why the latter region, long in the doldrums of poverty, is now coming alive with a can-do spirit of its own. It’s why the peoples of Latin America are evolving their own, home-grown answers to the global dilemma, and it’s why we should be paying attention to them.
I could have told the editors of the Economist all this and more. But would they listen? No. Just like the icons of failed capitalism and false-fronted democracy they’re still propping up, they don’t care what ordinary people like me think. Which is why they’re steadily losing relevance in a multipolar world that’s moving on–and seeking out truly democratic leaders who do listen to the people. And, more importantly, obey them. Even if that means favoring socialism over capitalism.
In fact, especially then.