Saturday, December 31, 2005

Essay by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley, Superpower 11-22-05

Back in the year 2000, I believed almost without thinking about it that the US was a "superpower", the only "superpower" in the world. Maybe it was true and maybe it wasn't, but there was a lot of money around, Americans were pretty prosperous, and most people around the world had a benign view of the US. Maybe the clearest sign of our "superpower" status was that the right wing and the press could beat up on Bill Clinton with absolutely no effect on US power or the perception of US power. Beating up on Bill Clinton was a kind of parlor game that the participants cared about, but was in the end of no international import. The most surprising thing, then, about the last five years is how quickly and absolutely the US has ceased to be a superpower. We are a country that can no longer pay our bills, no longer wage an effective military action, and no longer protect our citizens from disaster. And it doesn't matter what fiscal responsibility individuals show, what bravery individual soldiers show, or what generosity individual Americans show. As a nation-as a geopolitical entity-we have been stripped of all of our superpowers and many of our powers, and it has been done quickly and efficiently, in the name of blind patriotism, by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and their neocon advisors. The very powers that these people thought they were going to enjoy exercising have slipped out of their grasp. It's laughable now to remember the name of the campaign against Baghdad, "Shock and Awe". No one in Iraq feels any "shock and awe" toward the US presence there any longer. "Fear and Loathing" is more like it. Whether or not the administration and the press know that the powers are gone doesn't matter. They are. And they aren't coming back, because the last twenty-five years of Republican free market political devolution have resulted in a completely different country from the one that in the course of the 20th century became a superpower. Bush and Cheney have provided the final, telling blows to American power, but actions of the corporatocracy laid the ground work. There is nothing left in the US of real substance. The only thing that remains is ego, bullying, and public relations. The question thoughtful Americans are going to have to answer eventually is one they should be thinking about
now-when our superpowers are gone, what are we and what do we want to be? As everyone knows, the multinational corporation has jealously preserved its right to pay its workers as little as possible-to put its factories wherever wages were lowest, and to exploit the natural resources of every corner of the globe while paying as little to the locals who ostensibly "owned" them as they could, preferably nothing This is such a precious idea for capitalists that when a company, like Costco, for example, operates on a different, more humane model, they become resentful and vengeful-it is implied that the power of Wall Street will be brought to bear on such a renegade business model-customers and workers must never come before shareholders. Nor must the public safety be considered. All regulations that protect the environment or even those who purchase some item, are to be as much as possible prohibited, or at least flouted with impunity. To these corporate types, the public safety of one's own fellow citizens is as much a matter of indifference as the public safety of people ten thousand miles away. What most Americans, indeed, most people, normally think of as desirable, such as stable communities with histories, jobs, and a middle class, is not what the corporations have shown themselves to care about. They do not care about the actual substance of the US, a set of geographical areas with a varied population of human beings. The taxpayers present themselves to the corporation much as consumers do-a bunch of suckers to be fooled and robbed for the sake of shareholder profit. The way you rob customers is by dressing up something cheap and worthless to look desirable. The way you rob taxpayers is by constantly challenging them to defend their patriotism and their religion. The average American has a long history of being reflexively xenophobic, so getting him worked up about enemies from abroad, especially dark-skinned ones, has always been an especially effective way of distracting him while you pick his pocket. But I say, let me be exactly as patriotic as some corporate executive who has outsourced his American workforce to India, bought homes around the world, made sure his children don't have to fight in American wars, and banked his money offshore so that he can avoid paying taxes. In exchange for the towns that Big Ag has depopulated, the cities that Big Manufacturing has hollowed out, the healthcare that Big Pharma has helped destroy, the environment that Big Chemical has contaminated, and the public school system that the corporate tax giveaways have hobbled, what has the average American gotten? Only the sense of grandiosity and self-righteousness that come from thinking of oneself as part of a "superpower. What does Ken Lay have to do with George W. Bush other than for a while they were good friends? When Enron fell, it became clear that there was nothing there, that the officers of the company had used it as a private bank and a private club. It was not actually expected, contrary to the understanding of customers and workers, to produce anything. It was a huge shell-game for stealing money (particularly from customers in the state of California) and moving it around. George W. Bush and his administration have used the federal government in exactly the same way. Only an idiot would have thought that FEMA would not, in the course of eight years, have to confront a disaster, either man-made or natural. But Bush has turned FEMA and the other federal agencies that used to work, more or less, into a big club that the has filled, willy-nilly, with incompetents who not only don't know how to do anything, but actually don't care enough to do anything. When Michael Brown was put on the spot for causing the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of people in New Orleans, his first instinct was to defend himself, not to express remorse for his fatal misjudgments. This is Bush's first instinct, and Cheney's first instinct. It is the instinct of business, not the instinct of public service. It is obvious that George W. Bush is a small, shallow man, the son of a rather dumb and bumbling father and a blinkered, vindictive mother. That his nature and nurture have been visited upon the country as a bwhole is an interesting detail of our decline and fall. No doubt someone, maybe Rove or Haley Barbour or some other corporate kingmakers
that we haven't heard of, considered him attractive enough (remember when they tried to make use of Dan Quayle in a similar way) as a public relations front man. It is their problem that he can't be shown in public too often because his true character keeps peeking through. It is also their problem that he seems completely uninterested in his job. Lots of vacations and a very light daily regimen have not worked. Now what we saw intermittently during the election of 2004 is evident in every public appearance- Bush feels that the duties of a leader require too much effort. And Cheney, who spent the week of the New Orleans disaster closing a real estate deal, is just as bored. Those who are a little bit energized by getting and exercising power are too jaded to do any work. Where have we seen that before? In the executive suite of Bernie Ebbers, for one. But unlike Bernie Ebbers, Bush never built anything. He was always brought in to enjoy the perks of power and influence while others did the work. Some reports say he enjoyed acting as his father's hit man in the early nineties. Maybe that was good use made of his mean-streak. Bush's main importance now is how he demonstrates the bankruptcy of the corporate model as a model of governing. Public service, even customer satisfaction, is out the window. Power, privilege, and perks are all they want. Enron and the US are now quite similar, and the US is engaged in an Enron-like futile effort to make the books look good before a final accounting. Bush's strategy, like that of Ken Lay, is to talk a good game and pretend ignorance. If he really is ignorant, then he is a fool. If he really isn't ignorant (of what is going on in Iraq, what is going on in our economy, and what went on and is going on in New Orleans), then he is a criminal. That's how it works with Lay and that's how it works with Bush. The corporations-big oil, big pharma, big media, big construction, big agriculture, and big finance-may be happy with what they bought and paid for. I have no idea. It is quite likely that they are convinced that they do not actually live in the same world we do, and for a while (until the effects of global warming really set in) they may be able to fool themselves with that thought. But as a result of their efforts and those of their incompetent pawns, America's former superpowers are gone and the big corporations are going to have to spend a lot more time and effort corrupting a plethora of smaller and less globally influential governments. They have killed the big one. Imagine this-trying to bring the entire Eurozone to heel? You have to know a lot of languages to do that, and those Europeans are more politically sophisticated than the average American The fact is, nations don't get to be great just because they say they are or because they try to bully others into thinking they are. Great nations have to be, at least, places where the average human being wants to come to, to live in, and to contribute to. While the Bush administration and their supporters continue to labor under the illusion that the US is a superpower, other Americans might be content to ponder how to make their country a decent place to live, which right now it is not. A decent place to live is one where a large employed middle class can most of the time afford to house, feed, educate, and care for their children, who are, in the regular course of events, safe. Canada is a decent place to live. The US is divided largely between those who live in indecent ghost-towns that have been gutted by the evaporation of jobs and those who live in indecent affluent communities that they can barely afford but are terrified to leave. When the corporatocracy paid the Reagan revolutionaries to roll back any and all regulations so that they could do every short-sighted and selfish thing they wanted to, they started us down the road to this. Whether there is any turning back remains to be seen. However, the fate of the Bush administration and their cronies is decided. Sooner or later they will be tossed and sooner or later America's powers will be so minimal that investment will go elsewhere. Money doesn't care who owns it, and it doesn't have ears to hear appeals to mere patriotism.

1 comment:

Whazdat! said...

Wow! What an entry Gerald! Jane Smiley is one superlative writer! Allow me to post a link to her article!

"As everyone knows, the multinational corporation has jealously preserved its right to pay its workers as little as possible-to put its factories wherever wages were lowest, and to exploit the natural resources of every corner of the globe while paying as little to the locals who ostensibly "owned" them as they could, preferably nothing "

That one hit me particularly hard. Then there was this one:

"When Enron fell, it became clear that there was nothing there, that the officers of the company had used it as a private bank and a private club. It was not actually expected, contrary to the understanding of customers and workers, to produce anything. It was a huge shell-game for stealing money (particularly from customers in the state of California) and moving it around. George W. Bush and his administration have used the federal government in exactly the same way."

What she says iis true. We are not the "superpower" anymore. We are on the decline. We must continue to act before we are in the fall! I fear that we may yet be headed for another Civil War! Literally speaking!