The Resumption of History: Part 2 — The Age of Anxiety
by Carlo Graziani
Part 1, The Davos Consensus, and its Discontents ended like this:
How did we get from the “triumph” of 1991 to this? How do we explain the cancerous metastasis represented by this challenge to the neo-liberal order?
I have a candidate explanation: anxiety.
Beneath The Dormant Volcano
The thing is, below the notice of the Davos elites, all over the world, there were a lot of people for whom getting smart was not a ticket to getting rich. In the developing world there continued to be plenty of conflicts both above and below the threshold of Western media notice, affecting the hardscrabble lives of billions. And even beyond that old news, the shiny new world order brought strange, disturbing, destabilizing novelties.
Sudden market crashes due to instabilities caused by the replacement of human traders by computers wiped out many small nest eggs; global currency crashes plunged entire tiers of nations encompassing hundreds of millions of people into crisis for no reason intelligible to the immediate victims (including citizens of Russia in 1998, a particularly delicate time in post-Soviet politics).
An imbecilic war of choice by the US destabilized the Middle East by wiping out a Westernizing Arab Nationalist movement over 40 years in the making. In this context, “The West” has a longer-term historical sense than its 20th Century meaning: it is the cultural ecumene that succeeded “Christendom”, and is viewed by Islamists as such. In this sense Saddam Hussein was our (i.e. Westernizing) dickhead, as was Qaddafi, as were Assad pere, Sadat, Nasser, Arafat, et alia. They may have been Marxists, but Marx was, after all, a Western philosopher in the same sense. All of them looked back for inspiration to Kemal Ataturk, the pioneering Westernizing nationalist Turkish reformer (the destruction of whose modernizing works is the life project of Recep Erdogan, who has more than one iron in the fire in this narrative).
This is not hindsight: any half-lettered day laborer in the Sudan could have told you in 2002 that Sadam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden loathed each other far more viscerally than either despised George Bush, but apparently this fact passed beneath the notice of the US National Security Council. When the George W. Bush declared war on “evil” characters such as Hussein using language straight out of a Justice League comic-book morality tale, the effect was merely to discredit and destroy Arab nationalism, leaving the field open to medieval-minded Islamist dead-enders, the only remaining viable region-wide political alternative in the Middle East. This effectively turned the region into an roiling, uncontrollable, political seismic zone. It was the ultimate geopolitical own-goal.
A financial crisis straight out of 1929 wiped tens of trillions of dollars of small-investor wealth off the books all over the world, although oddly the people intermediating those transactions did OK. Weird new global pandemics, spread by frenetic new global travel patterns before COVID-19 (Avian flu, Ebola, Swine Flu, SARS-CoV-1) suddenly stalked the world. New, really new, weird, really weird weather, made large parts of the densely-inhabited world much harder to live in. And drove more desperate people to emigration, to competition, and to more conflict. Southern hemisphere nations that could not act as magnets for global outflows of jobs acted instead as sources for global inflows of migrants heading for the Northern hemishpere, where they were distinctly unwelcome.
Western Europe, long accustomed to scolding the US for its history of racial prejudice when such reproofs merely took the form of celebrating African-American cultural and political icons, suddenly discovered an ethnic and racial mean streak of its own, as it found itself struggling to assimilate hundreds of thousands, then millions of North African and Middle Eastern migrants fleeing war zones, famines, or simply poverty too abject to credit. The “choice” between being forced to see those people sleeping on streets and in train stations or sinking their teeming cockleshell boats at sea produced some of the ugliest political discourse I ever hope to hear in my lifetime.
All of this by way of saying, for many, many people, life was not only not getting more comfortable, it was getting weirder, more alarming, more anxious.
And that, I think, is the common thread. Anxiety. People, all over the world, saw a lot of change that they didn’t have any control over, that they didn’t like, that in many cases ran right over them, and that they wanted stopped and reversed, somehow. And their leaders, in most cases, were feeding them bullshit happy-talk about about how everything was getting better.
Well, this is the kind of political tinder that evokes demagogues. It’s not possible to even be a normal politician when people get this angry and scared. And if you are the kind of politician who knows how to surf this kind of sentiment, it is child’s play to turn fear into anger, anger into hate, and hate into power. Like flies drawn to excrement, those demagogues showed up for work and promptly ate the lunches of the politicians who should have been carrying the neo-liberal gospel to further triumphs.
In the US, the dynamic began manifesting itself with the accelerating growth of wealth and income inequality, documented brilliantly by Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, further spurred by the inevitable, but utterly mismanaged economic dislocations driven by globalizing outflows of jobs—not discussed in polite company at Davos—compounded by the happy-talk of the elite celebrating trade deals such as NAFTA that were obviously—obviously—immediately immiserating to millions who saw middle-class status slipping away. And, of course, the inflow of migrants from the South, always a constant flow in the US, was growing, circumventing legal immigration limits, often enough facilitated by traffickers in ways that allowed it to be coupled in the public mind with crime, in addition to (less logically, but understandably) those disappearing jobs.
Following which, we have a couple of market panics driven by inscrutable forces, the 9/11 clusterfuck, and the 2009 financial crisis.
In parallel, populist spoilers on the right (Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot) and on the left (Ralph Nader) played as a chorus to Newt Gingrich’s nihilistic “bomb-throwing” republicanism, displacing Jack Kemp/Bob Dole “Intellectual” (really!) Republicanism as the template for the Republican demagoguery to follow: The Karl Rovian Imagineering, the Fox Empire enablers, and the PAC-men billionaires. All acting in cynical, demagogic, anxiety-manipulating maneuvering schemes to gain and maintain power.
It would actually be funny, if it weren’t so deeply tragic: Imagine the silly looks on the faces of all those entitled rich guys who thought they were in control of the GOP, and running it as a finely-tuned engine for stoking rube-rage and converting it into power and wealth, when it suddenly dawned on them that Trump and his army of trailer-park yahoos had them all naked, spread-eagled, and tied to a barrel, as he took control of the party that they had primed for him by whipping up all that hate, simply because he realized before anyone else that you don’t need a dog whistle if you’re prepared to bellow all the ugly parts at the top of your lungs. Kind of like those German oligarchs in the 1932 election, who thought those ridiculous idiotic Nazi street brawlers were useful, but not serious, and anyway they were under control.
I realize how schematic the above account is. I know that it leaves out the America’s shabby treatment of Blacks and the concomitant manipulation of racism, and also gives no account of the Religious Right, the culture wars, the Paranoid Style in American Politics, and other factors that are dispiritingly constant factors in US social history going back to the age of Andrew Jackson, if not earlier.
My point is that in prosperous times the toxic effects of those pathologies of American politics are containable. In anxious times they are decidedly not.
So that’s where we stood, in the United States. By 2016, it had come to Trump. To the extent that the US had ever upheld ideals that the rest of the world aspired to emulate, it was beginning to appear that those ideals, whatever they were, were destined for a trip through the shredder. The US had just elected President a figure that the rest of the world would have no trouble recognizing as an oligarch.
And then, to add insult to injury, our own kids (who, just as we did as adolescents, thought that history began on the day they started paying attention to news) blamed us for screwing up the world because we were “capitalists”, and because “free enterprise is stupid” (or “racist”, or “transphobic”, or whatever) and because “capitalism is destroying the environment”.
And how do you even retrieve a political discussion that’s so hopelessly confused? How did we allow it to get so muddled? Why did we allow ourselves to be intellectually cornered into defending capitalism, as if that was the point, as if free enterprise were the aspect of our societies that, if someone were to place limits on it, we would say “no, sorry, now our societies are not worth defending after all”? What the hell happened to our actual political values?
Tomorrow: Of Justice and Power
All 5 parts, once published, can be found here: The Resumption of History