Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Time of Discontent

As much as it would surely surprise numerous family members, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and probably hundreds of other people who occasionally read my verbal detritus I actually learned something recently. This new tidbit of knowledge was pretty amazing since like most Americans I grew up believing the accepted Cold War mentality that of the protracted and shadowy struggle between the United States and Soviet Union, to paraphrase one of my favorite movies, there could ultimately, “be only one.” The source of this curious piece of information was an article written by John Feffer entitled “Did Market Leninism Win the Cold War?”

He writes that during the 1960s and 1970s there was a view among certain intellectuals, like economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who believed the competing systems of the United States and Soviet Union would eventually converge. The idea being that the forces of capitalism would be tempered by planning and that the communist system would be invigorated by the dynamic forces of the free market. If that is too abstract a concept a better way to describe this convergence theory would be to say the end result would have had the northern hemisphere become one giant warm and fuzzy Sweden-like entity.

Yeah, in hindsight the idea seems like the insane ramblings of some 1970s college professor suffering from delusions after taking one too many hits of acid. The idea that a communist country would ever allow any type of market forces to gain an advantage over central planning committees is just as crazy as thinking Western democracies would take a backseat to some force outside the governments elected by the people. Just a little hint for future reference, that's sarcasm and I'll be peppering this rant with several more just for fun.

Of course, all this was contemplated before Red China began its economic liberalization, before the United States was tied to a dizzying array of free trade agreements that help gut the middle class, and before the Supreme Court declared that corporations are people. At least Americans can still take solace in the idea that, like the great and all powerful Reagan predicted, the evil Soviet Union has for years been consigned to the dustbin of history with Russia now firmly part of the western family of nations.

Sorry, even that one small segment of Reagan's great achievement has evaporated with the authoritarian Putin playing international bully engaging in lebensraum in the former-Soviet republic of Georgia and now the Ukraine. Not only that, this new strongman has started a new arms buildup for the Russian military that should give aging Cold Warriors like myself a really bad case of deja vu.

It was one of the assumptions of the West's supposed victory in the Cold War that democracy was going to walk away from that struggle the new global standard for the nations of the world. Once the Iron Curtain fell the former nations of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union's nice name for its eastern European empire, couldn't run to the West fast enough to become both members of NATO and the European Union embracing democracy and capitalism in the process.

Now the eastern European nations of Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are all in many ways turning their backs on the hard won freedoms they had to snatch away from the Soviet Empire. Hungary's Vikor Orban has rewritten that country's electoral laws, curbed press freedoms and appointed numerous flunkies to important positions in the government. The former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Slovakia's current PM, Robert Fico look to Orban as a role model and his illiberal policies as the way to run their own countries. Poland has a new prime minister now and it's my sincerest hope that their new leader has turned her back on the anti-democratic tendencies of her predecessor.

No, instead of waltzing into a wonderful era of convergence like Galbraith expected with everyone living in a nice and pleasant Sweden, something far darker is taking shape in the twenty-first century. The entire world appears to have backed into convergence's dystopic twin merging the worst aspects of unrestrained capitalism and authoritarian collectivism. This brave post-Cold War world is one of massive inequality between the rich and the poor, rampant corruption on all levels of government, the not so slow institution of surveillance states that I'm sure would have George Orwell telling everyone, “I told you so dammit!”

No, I'm not leaving the United States out of this trend nor excusing it recent actions since 2001 and before. First and foremost corruption has become so bad that we no longer dare call it by that name. It turns out that the “land of the free and the home of the brave” has a good bit of rot eating away inside it.

Feffer's article points out that we have revolving door politics that allows former politicians to leave office and then immediately start lobbying for any and all special interest groups, like major corporations, that freely write out huge checks for reelection campaigns. In most other organizations such behavior would be a criminal conflict of interest, but remember, our Supreme Court has declared corporations people with the First Amendment right of free speech. Let me also remind everyone that these same corporations and their elected sycophants are working hard to both destroy organized labor and prevent them from spending money on campaigns to defend their interests.

Another aspect that should send shivers down the spine of any self-aware person are the organized voter suppression movements that have curiously popped up in several American states. While supporters of these authoritarian measures like to frame their arguments that they are just trying to stop voter fraud all independent studies say that is not an issue in American elections. Lets be open here and just state the facts, certain scared people in the United States don't like the fact that minorities are making a larger percentage of the voting population every election cycle. And these people are enacting these voter suppression laws in an attempt to blunt their growing political power.

I have to remind everyone that out of all the nations on this planet the United States has more people in prison than any other, even more than communist China, which naturally because of this mutated convergence is not really commie anymore. No, what we have here in the United States are dangerously overcrowded prisons “housing” a surreal number of African-American men whose worst crimes are often low-level drug dealing. While I hope exceptions exist, the entire American prison system looks to be a dangerous societal pressure cooker where inmates only learn to be meaner and better criminals once they are released.

Instead of dealing with the growing gap between the rich and the poor and failing schools Americans in large part are okay with throwing kids into prison creating a larger inmate population which in turn creates a demand for more prisons to be built. The greater mass of white suburbia and their worker class counterparts just don't give a damn about the ongoing human tragedies in American cities, so they follow the rule of out of sight, out of mind. Sooner or later we might just want to build prison walls around the borders of the entire country, in the long run that's where we are going anyway.

So with the dust now settled on the Cold War who exactly won that expensive and ultimately self-defeating conflict? It might be easier to say who didn't win, then move over to the actual victors.

First loser, of course, is the Soviet Union being that it doesn't exist anymore except in the minds of many Russians who even now hunger for a rematch, no matter the expense to their country or humanity as a whole. This desire to get even for their humiliating fall from superpower status has Putin playing a game of chicken with NATO countries, talking about building American-sized aircraft carriers, and generally being an incredible douchebag all in the name of nationalistic glory.

The second loser award goes to the United States, after hundreds of billions of dollars spent to defeat godless communism all it got us was a vastly powerful military/industrial complex that even now pulls more strings with our elected leaders than the voters. Throw in the banker and Wall Street types and to say the United States is a democracy of, by, and for the people strains the bounds of the most tenuous credibility. Another reason the United States is a Cold War loser was all the deals made with third-world tyrants over the decades to secure our addiction to cheap oil, other resources, and simple geopolitical concerns and many of those chickens have come home to roost.

Simply put, if you think a lot of the animosity the Middle Eastern peoples have towards us Americans is because they “hate our freedoms” you are an idiot. My best advice to such people would be to turn off Duck Dynasty and other shows like it, along with Fox News and read some actual journalistic publications along with history books not written by semi-fascist, right-wingers who think Jesus is coming back.

I would be remiss not to add that while being supposed winner of the Cold War has given Americans a possibly fatal case of hubris. Naturally, when someone comes to believe their shit doesn't just stink but smells like roses they think giving others some of it is a favor. In reality such people greatly overestimate the smell of their poop and are totally wrong to think anyone else wants even the smallest amount. I would be wrong not to paraphrase the character of Bane from one of the best Batman movies, and say that victory in many ways has defeated us. 

The third loser award goes to humanity as a whole. Despite it being one of the worst cliches, wars and conflicts never solves anything. All they really do is create more hate and fear that leads to more death and destruction.

Now the winners of the Cold War, and because I'm tired I'll keep the comments at a minimum.

The first winners are the multinational corporations. With some earning more money than medium-sized countries they are able to play games with the environment and people that are criminal. With the triumph of capitalism there is no opposing force that people can rally around to blunt their excesses. In many cases here in the United States to say anything negative about any business, no matter their abuses or crimes, is to be instantly labeled a Obama-loving socialist.

The second winner would have to be China. This ancient country has emerged from the debris of the Cold War and its own self-inflicted horrors to become in many ways the richest nation on the planet. What threatens its status is a whole host of internal problems that could suddenly end its winning streak and quite frankly leave it a shattered husk.

In short what the world and the West is now facing is nothing less than a good old existential crisis of what it means to be free. The ideological struggle of the twentieth century went out with a whimper instead of a bang, which given how the latter would have sterilized planet is definitely a good thing. But the absence of an “enemy” to focus our attention and energies on has left us adrift and ready to abandon our principles and turn on each other.

Corporations, the chief winners of the Cold War, promise convenience, easy living, and plenty of material goods but this says nothing of the cost that has to be paid in environmental destruction and the degradation of human liberties and dignity. Maintaining the true principles of the West takes vigilance and a desire to truly work at building something respectable that we can hand down to our children. But that takes maturity and a willingness to accept our own faults and work to fix them. Some nations of the West have that ability, others like the United States rejects any and all criticisms to the point a person can risk their reputation and even safety if they voice the truth. The question as to whether we can change and take charge of our future again is something up to debate, but I have come to doubt it.


Pixel Peeper said...

I still believe that events rarely turn out to be quite as horrible or quite as great as experts predict. So I still have some optimism left. And some hope that possibly Bernie Sanders could be elected - not to "turn everything around" but to adjust the course a bit.

Beach Bum said...

Pixel: You're right, I do have a little hope left that things can be turned around. All ages and eras do end and this corporate-dominated one is no exception.

As you can probably tell I went a little off the rails on this post. I lost my original idea somewhere but picked up another.

As for Bernie, I really do like him but I'm not convinced he can get elected. The fault is not with him, it's the American public which someone once said you can never go wrong underestimating their intelligence.