Monday, January 30, 2006

The decline of myths

Jim Kunstler sent by email an interview with Emmanuel Todd from Le Figaro published in September 2005 (here it is translated in Truthout). It gets at the issue of legitimacy in his recent post, excerpted below.

Here's Todd discussing the aftermath of Katrina.

What really resonates with my representation of the United States - as developed in Après l'empire - is the fact that the United States was disabled and ineffectual. The myth of the efficiency and super-dynamism of the American economy is in danger.

We were able to observe the inadequacy of the technical resources, of the engineers, of the military forces on the scene to confront the crisis. That lifted the veil on an American economy globally perceived as very dynamic, benefiting from a low unemployment rate, credited with a strong GDP growth rate. As opposed to the United States, Europe is supposed to be rather pathetic, clobbered with endemic unemployment and stricken with anemic growth. But what people have not wanted to see is that the dynamism of the United States is essentially a dynamism of consumption...

The storm has shown the limits of a virtual economy that identifies the world as a vast video game.
Legitimacy is a kind of practical myth. As long as everyone buys into the myth - in this case of a mighty global economic leader - things run fairly smoothly. Todd and Kunstler are both saying that the myth itself is collapsing. I've said this in the past as well in regard to other factors of contemporary global life. For one thing, we see a shift of foreign students seeking to study in Europe more than in the United States. We see an international sphere look increasingly to Europe or regional leaders (such as Chavez) for moral support. The European Union has strict human rights requirements for membership into the Union, which do not merely receive lip service or collapse into double standards. The myth of legitimacy for the US, however, is empirically challenged by the inefficiencies, double standards, and over-extension of American society and policy. Todd again:
Americans need more heating in the winter and more air-conditioning in the summer. If we are one day confronted with an absolute and no longer relative penury, Europeans will adapt to it better because their transportation system is much more concentrated and economical. The United States was conceived with regard to energy expenditures and space in a rather fanciful, not well-thought out, manner.

Let's not point our fingers at the aggravation of natural conditions, but rather at the economic deterioration of a society that must confront a much more violent nature! Europeans, like the Japanese, have proven their excellence with regard to energy economization during the preceding oil shocks. It's to be expected: European and Asian societies developed by managing scarcity and, in the end, several decades of energetic abundance will perhaps appear as a parenthesis in their history one day. The United States was constructed in abundance and doesn't know how to manage scarcity. So here it is now confronted with an unknown. The beginnings of adaptation have not shown themselves to be very promising: Europeans have gasoline stocks, Americans crude oil stocks - they haven't built a refinery since 1971.

Moreover, there are certain kinds of values in play here. Critical theorists have long exposed the rot at the heart of this system, but it seems to have gained particularly transparent traction in the last several years where the system no longer even tries to conceal it. We might say that the myth is inverted at just the moment where material conditions begin to show the limits of the American consumption/production cycle. Rather than move towards sustainability, we see a darker route. Todd refers to this "ideal" as "predation."
This social system no longer rests on the Founding Fathers' Calvinist work ethic and taste for saving - but, on the contrary, on a new ideal (I don't dare speak of ethics or morals): the quest for the biggest payoff for the least effort. Money speedily acquired, by speculation and why not theft. The gang of black unemployed who loot a supermarket and the group of oligarchs who try to organize the "heist" of the century of Iraq's hydrocarbon reserves have a common principle of action: predation. The dysfunctions in New Orleans reflect certain central elements of present American culture...

American neo-conservatism is not alone to blame. What seems to me more striking is the way this America that incarnates the absolute opposite of the Soviet Union is on the point of producing the same catastrophe by the opposite route. Communism, in its madness, supposed that society was everything and that the individual was nothing, an ideological basis that caused its own ruin. Today, the United States assures us, with a blind faith as intense as Stalin's, that the individual is everything, that the market is enough and that the state is hateful. The intensity of the ideological fixation is altogether comparable to the Communist delirium. This individualist and inequalitarian posture disorganizes American capacity for action. The real mystery to me is situated there: how can a society renounce common sense and pragmatism to such an extent and enter into such a process of ideological self-destruction? It's a historical aporia to which I have no answer and the problem with which cannot be abstracted from the present administration's policies alone. It's all of American society that seems to be launched into a scorpion policy, a sick system that ends up injecting itself with its own venom. Such behavior is not rational, but it does not all the same contradict the logic of history. The post-war generations have lost acquaintance with the tragic and with the spectacle of self-destroying systems. But the empirical reality of human history is that it is not rational.
I think we have to add to this that there is a form of rationality at work here. Orthodox neoclassical economic thought bleeds into all of American policy-making. This combined with the death or historically gradual deemphasis of American egalitarianism in the name of a crude individualism, combine for a particularly wicked form of "predation." This entire scheme itself is "rational," as in rational actors behaving according to their own self-interest. Many of us who have long been critical of this mode of thinking and policy-making, even using American historical sources (Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Dewey, etc.), have argued that a particular framework posing as universal has come to dominate American thought and policy. Its domination is reinforced through its implicit claim that it represents the peak of historical rationality in socio-economic governance. Its irrationality lies in its attendance to solely short-term rational self-acting and the ignorance of values other than those that fit various neoclassical models. Thus, we begin to see the collapse of infrastructure, the consequences of poor planning, the anomie of vacuous residences and neighborhoods, the violence of some of those impatient with the rate of liberation, and a body that feeds on itself. Predation.

In other words, we've never grown up, we little demonic tot omnivores. The events of the past few years - 9-11, Katrina and Rita, the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo - appear as grand surprises, even divine (or devilish) strikes against America. And then we ask, if only briefly and through the jumble of short-term memory loss, "how did we get here?"

1 comment:

Neil Shakespeare said...

Nice report in the wake of Exxon's record profit taking.