Has 2010 been a watershed year for Western politics or just a continuation of the move towards a neoliberalised system?
Mark LeVine Last Modified: 16 Nov 2010 11:09 GMT
It has been a strange political season. It began sitting in Istanbul with Swedish friends, digesting the news that the rabidly anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats had won an unprecedented 5.6 per cent of the vote in the country's parliamentary elections. Analysts immediately began to predict that the election would mark "an entirely new political landscape" and "the beginning of an era of sharper political division in Sweden".
Who would have thought that a mere six weeks later, pundits and analysts across the Atlantic would write almost identical words in the wake of the US midterm elections? Do these similarities point to a bigger story? Is 2010 proving to be a watershed year in politics in the West (we could add the historic defeat of the British Labour Party to this list, as well as elections in Greece in which the ruling Socialist Party pledged to impose unprecedented austerity measures)?
Or do the results reflect rather an underlying continuity in the generation-long evolution of Euro-American politics towards a fully neoliberalised system - one which supports the pursuit of unbridled wealth by elites while those with the most to lose conveniently spend their energy attacking immigrants, minorities and the poor - the system's ultimate victims?
Coming only days after Turks had held an unprecedented constitutional referendum sponsored by a supposedly "Islamist" government, the contrast was striking. Turkey - more specifically, Istanbul - seemed like the future, while Sweden seemed to be moving towards an outdated model.
"Sweden is over. We're becoming America," several friends solemnly intoned.
But back in Sweden a few weeks later, the huge electoral victory of the Tea Party-infused Republicans in the US made it a bit hard to get worked up at the electoral "success" of its Swedish Democrat cousins.
Such facile comparisons between right-wing movements across the West confuse more than clarify the situation. Specifically, while the Tea Party and the Swedish Democrats, like their counterparts elsewhere in the West, have made the immigrant and particularly Muslim "threat" cornerstones of their rhetoric, their economic philosophies can contrast sharply.
The American Right wholeheartedly embraces lower taxes and government spending and increased militarism, while in Sweden or Denmark the far-right supports the preservation of the vaunted Scandinavian welfare state. Indeed, immigrants are attacked precisely as the biggest threat to its survival.
What is clear, however, watching the US election season unfold from Europe and the Middle East, is that the entire process - whether Barack Obama's lackluster job performance or the ease with which the corporate Right used the anger of millions of Americans to strengthen their power even more -represents the seemingly unalterable decline of the US from the hyper-power status it has enjoyed for the last 65 years to merely one of a group of major powers, none of whom unilaterally have the power to bend other countries to their will.
This was brought home with full force when Obama failed to secure any kind of favourable action to help trim the US' trade deficit and encourage US exports at last week's G-20 Summit in Seoul - something even the American press described as a "humbling" experience that reflected the US being "left out in the cold" in an unprecedented manner.
The fruits of globalisation from above
Many around the world are no doubt cheering at the loss of US power - both its ideological hegemony and military preeminence on the ground. It is worth remembering, however, that whatever its flaws - and they were many - the US in the post-war civil rights era offered a model of economic advancement, political democracy and equal rights that people around the world wanted to emulate (even if the US itself refused to grant them that privilege time and time again).
Under its leadership, the so-called "welfare states" of the Western world achieved historically high and widely distributed levels of prosperity across their societies. Of course, these systems arose out of the ashes of the Great Depression and World War II, and the long struggles for workers' rights that predated both by more than half a century. Corporations and governments redistributed wealth to workers because they had no choice but to do so in the post-war era.
But with the advances in technology, production and communications that enabled the birth of contemporary globalisation in the latter 1960s and the failure of the Soviet communist economic model, workers in the West lost much of their bargaining power while governments became increasingly allied to the corporate and banking elites.
The rise of "Thatcherism" and "Reaganism" in the late 1970s provided an ideological veneer that cemented the shift in power from states and middle class voters towards corporate elites, whose full blooming we have witnessed in the last decade. But the seeds were sewn at the moment of greatest prosperity, in the 1950s, when as President Eisenhower warned, a "military industrial complex" began to assert unprecedented power to shape both foreign and economic policy in the US.
As Andrew Bacevich demonstrates in his new book, The Warfare State, by the time the Vietnam War was in full swing the military and its corporate and political allies and patrons had developed an ideological-economic apparatus that ensured that the US economy would increasingly be shaped to serve its interests, regardless of the larger social and even strategic costs. This powerful coalition would ultimately claim the civil rights and economic justice movements among its primary victims, while the "endless war" of the last decade is merely the logical continuation of this decades' long process.
The rise of the neoliberal warfare system was also the moment when new forms of religious fundamentalism (or better, "neo-fundamentalism") emerged across the world. Whether Evangelical political Christianity, militant Salafi Islam or settler Judaism, such religious movements represent what French scholar Olivier Roy astutely describes as "holy ignorance", whereby religion and the larger secular culture no longer form the kind of organic whole in which each can temper the more destructive tendencies of the other. Such closed and hostile forms of religious and cultural belief and practice quickly entered into dangerous synergy both with militarism and the kind of ideology that celebrates personal and corporate aggrandisement.
Anarchy rules, or new beacons on the horizon?
The weakening of US power and growing assertiveness of once junior partners - such as Germany, Brazil and Turkey - on the world stage represents the return to a multi-polar, "anarchic" world system just when global unity is most needed to address humanity's pressing problems. Yet these three countries offer interesting lessons for how a new political-economic model could emerge to confront the challenges of the 21st century.
Both Turkey and Brazil have emerged out of decades of disproportionate military influence and even rule, as well as high levels of inequality, to enter periods of significant economic growth and political and human development. Lessening inequality, reining in the power of the military, increasing access to education for society's poorest members, have all been at the root of their success, and have brought them increased prestige on the global stage.
As important, both are in the midst of periods of cultural openness while beginning to address core historical problems - for example, in Brazil, slowing the rate of rainforest destruction, in Turkey opening space for discussing previously unmentionable issues such as the Armenian genocide and Kurdish rights - the continued avoidance of which would have become festering wounds dragging down the larger process of development.
Germany remains perhaps the healthiest of all the Western economies, having ridden out the global recession in better shape than most other advanced industrial democracies. In good measure this owes not just to its well-tuned industrial base, but to the continued acceptance by the country's political and corporate elites and the industrial working class of the need to accommodate broader societal needs rather than looking out for their narrower, potentially sectarian interests.
Of course all three countries face numerous problems, from the often flagrant racism against Muslims in Germany to even worsening corruption in Turkey. But at least there seems to be a kind of societal equilibrium in place - however contested from various quarters - to allow them to move forward as the US' political, economic and cultural disequilibrium continues to worsen.
Two sides of the past, and the future
Arriving in Berlin on November 9 - the anniversary of both the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938 and the fall of the Berlin wall 51 years later - put these two opposing directions in sharp relief. Here were the two sides of the project of modernity, one of its greatest triumphs and its darkest passenger, still engaged in the ongoing dance that thinkers as far back as Ibn Khaldoun have told us has always shaped the rise and fall of civilizations.
While Germans celebrated the historically unprecedented transformation of the last 65 years, a dark shadow lurked beneath the surface - specifically in the Berlin S and U-Bahn systems, where seemingly every other billboard was festooned with an ad for the global release - also on November 9 - of the new video game Call of Duty: Black Ops.
The game, which allows players to commit mass murder and political assassinations in a Cold War setting, is a troubling reminder of humanity's - better, mankind's, since most players are men - innate pleasure at engaging in wanton violence. However unthoughtful the release date, in a relatively healthy society like Germany such a game will likely do little to encourage increased militarism and violence.
But what about in the US, where both are in much greater supply? In a review of the game New York Times writer Seth Schiesel explains that it has made the Cold War a "cool event": "I wanted to try to assassinate Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion again ... And pilot a gunboat through the Mekong Delta again, shooting up sampans while listening to Sympathy for the Devil. Black Ops glistens with such moments. The Cold War was never so much fun."
That this kind of utter historical amnesia, in which the deaths of millions of people, many of them at the hands or encouragement of the US, can be described as "fun" and "cool" by the US' (and once upon a time, the world's) paper of record, says just how far the US has sunk. The fact that this review could share the newspaper with a report on how the CIA helped Nazi war criminals enter and remain in the US in the name of Cold War science, and former President Bush cheerfully admitting that he had ordered the waterboarding of detainees, gives an even greater sense of aphasia at the descent of the country's political culture and moral compass.
And for those who might reply that Black Ops is merely a game that has no relationship to reality, I suggest visiting the quite chilling CIA kids' section of the CIA website, which offers a history geared towards school children that is utterly whitewashed of all the coups, murder, violence and oppression the agency has perpetuated over the years in the name of the "cool" Cold War.
It is hard to know how many young children visit this site. What is clear is that it reflects the ongoing historical amnesia in the US about the violence it has wrought that is at the root of the continued ideological and political power of the "warfare system". It is precisely this historical reckoning that was at core of Germany's post-war miracle and at the democratic development of countries like Turkey and Brazil.
Unless the US can achieve a similar level of self-awareness soon, there is little doubt that a future generation of gamers will relish playing video games in which the slow destruction of the US by forces foreign and domestic will be the coolest thing around.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden.