Last weeks’ post attempted, with the help of the ancient Greek philosopher Polybius, to trace out the trajectory that democracies—and in particular the United States—tend to follow across time. The pattern that Polybius outlined, and that American politics has cycled through three times so far in the course of its history, begins with most of the nation’s political power concentrated in a single person, and follows the diffusion of power to the point that the entire political system settles into a gridlock only a massive crisis can break. Just now, according to that model, we are in the stage of gridlock, and thus of maximum diffusion of power.
Now of course this interpretation flies in the face of the standard narrative that surrounds power in America today. Both sides of the political spectrum these days like to insist that too much power is in the hands of the other side, at least when the other side is in the White House or has a majority in Congress. The further from the mainstream you go, the more strident the voices you’ll hear insisting that some small group or other has seized absolute power over the US political system and is running things for their own advantage. The identity of the small group in question varies wildly—it’s hard to think of anyone who hasn’t been accused, at some point in the last half century or so, of being the secret elite that runs everything—but the theory that some small group or other has all the power that everybody else seems to lack is accepted nearly everywhere. Whether it’s Occupy Wall Street talking about the nefarious 1%, or the Tea Party talking about the equally nefarious liberal elite, the conviction that power has been concentrated in the wrong hands is ubiquitous in today’s America.
It’s an appealing notion, especially if you want to find somebody to blame for the current state of affairs in this country, and of course hunting for scapegoats is a popular sport whenever times are hard. Still, I’d like to suggest that an alternative understanding explains much more about the current state of the American political system. The alternative I have in mind is that the political system is lurching forward like a driverless car along a trajectory set by the outdated policies of an earlier time, and that just now, nobody is in charge at all. Unpopular though this way of thinking about power in America is, I suggest that it makes more sense of our predicament than the more popular notion of elite control.
It’s important to understand what my proposal means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. A great many of those who insist that power in America is in the hands of a small elite offer, as evidence for the claim, the fact that a relatively small number of people get an obscenely large share of national income and wealth, and they’re quite correct. The last three decades or so have seen America turn into something close to a Third World kleptocracy, the sort of failed state in which a handful of politically well-connected people plunder the economy for their own benefit. When bank executives vote themselves and their cronies million-dollar bonuses out of government funds while their banks are losing billions of dollars a year, just to name an obvious example, it’s impossible to discuss the situation honestly without using words like “looting.”
Still, the ability to plunder one corner of a complex system is not the same thing as the ability to control the whole system, and the freedom with which so many people pillage the institutions they’re supposed to be managing could as well be understood as a sign that there’s no center of power willing or able to defend the core interests of the US empire against death by financial hemorrhage. The only power the executives of, say, Goldman Sachs need is the power to block any effort to stop them from stripping their bank to the bare walls for their personal enrichment, or to cut them off from the access to tax dollars that’s made that process so lucrative. That much power they certainly have—but it’s a kind and a degree of power shared by many other influential groups in America just now.
Consider the defense industries that are busy profiting off the F-35 fighter, an impressively corrupt corporate welfare program currently chewing gargantuan holes in the defense budgets of the US and several other nations. Years behind schedule and trillions of dollars over budget, the F-35 is by all independent accounts a dog of a plane, clumsier and more vulnerable than the decades-old fighters it is supposed to replace. The consortium of interests that profit from its manufacture have the power to keep the process chugging along, even as the delays stretch to decades and the cost overruns head toward lunar orbit, and again, that’s all the power they need. It’s all the more telling that they’re able to do so when the F-35 project is directly opposed to crucial US interests: having the US and its allies equipped with a substandard fighter, at a time when China and Russia are both busily testing much better planes, risks humiliating defeat in future wars—and yet the program moves steadily forward.
Examples of the same sort of thing can be multiplied endlessly, and they aren’t limited to corporations. Cities and counties all over the United States, for example, are being driven into bankruptcy by the cost of public-sector salaries and benefits that politically influential unions have extracted from vulnerable or compliant local politicians. Equally, other countries—China and Israel come to mind—have learned to make use of the diffusion of American power for their own interests. It doesn’t matter how blatantly the Chinese manipulate their currency or thumb their noses at intellectual property rights, for instance; so long as they keep their lobby in Washington well funded and well staffed, they’re secure from any meaningful response on the part of the US government. I’ve come to suspect that the only reason the US government is down on Iran is that religious scruples keep the Iranian government from buying immunity the way the Chinese do; they’ve got the petroleum and therefore the money, and could doubtless have their own influential lobby capable of blocking hostile legislation in Congress, if only they didn’t let their ideals get in the way.
The power exerted by each of these groups is by and large a veto power. They may not be able to get new policies through the jungle of competing interests in Washington, a task that is increasingly hard for anyone to manage at all, but they can prevent policies that are not in their interest from being enacted, and they can defend any policy already in place that benefits them or furthers their ability to loot the system. They have that veto power, in turn, because no one in contemporary America has the power to get anything done without assembling a temporary coalition of competing power centers, each of which has its own agenda and each of which constantly has its hand out for the biggest possible share of the take.
Not every potential power center in American politics functions as a veto group, mind you. A great many groups have become captive constituencies of one of the existing power centers, and thus lost whatever independent influence they might have had. Compare the way that the Democratic Party has seized control of the environmental movement to the way that the Republicans have played the same trick on gun owners. In both cases, the party can ignore the interests of its captive constituency until elections come around, and then bombard the constituency with propaganda insisting that the other party will do horrible things to the environment or the Second Amendment if they win the election. The other party duly plays its part in this good cop-bad cop routine by making threatening noises about gun rights or environmental issues at intervals. It’s an efficient scam, and it keeps environmentalists voting for Democrats and gun owners voting for Republicans even though neither party gives more than lip service to the issues that matter to either group.
To the members of the captive constituencies, in turn, all this simply feeds the belief that there must be somebody in the system who has the power they lack; after all, they keep on voting for the right people, and yet none of their policies ever get enacted! Since very few gun owners ever sit down and share a couple of beers with environmentalists, there’s rarely an opportunity for them to compare notes and notice that neither side is getting what it wants, and the same gimmick is being used on both. The one place on the political continuum where this sort of comparison does take place is out on the fringes, where the extreme left increasingly bends around to touch the extreme right, and the paranoiac beliefs endemic to the farther shores of American politics turn the whole thing into yet another proof that the Freemasons or the Jews or David Ickes’ imaginary space lizards run everything after all.
Just as the ability to plunder one part of a system does not equal control over the whole system, though, the ability to manipulate a handful of politically naive pressure groups does not equal the ability to manipulate the whole system. It’s precisely because no one group has an effective monopoly on power that political parties and other power centers have to resort to complicated and expensive gimmickry to hammer together the temporary coalitions that enable them to cling to whatever power they have and, on increasingly rare occasions, force through some policy or other that favors their interests.
As the system settles ever more deeply into gridlock, in turn, policies put in place in previous decades become increasingly resistant to change. Even those that turned out to have severe flaws will inevitably get support from those who profit from them, and from employees of government bureaucracies whose jobs would go away in the event of a policy change. Machiavelli pointed out a long time ago that reforms always face an uphill struggle, since those who benefit from the status quo can be counted on to fight fiercely to hold on to what they’ve got, while those who might benefit from reform have less incentive to fight for gains they know perfectly well they may never see; factor in the mutual support among power centers who have a mutual interest in keeping the status quo fixed in place, and you have a recipe for exactly the sort of stasis the United States sees every seventy or eighty years, as the cycle discussed in last week’s post approaches its end.
How the endgame plays out is a matter of more than academic interest. In 1860 and 1932, a political system frozen in gridlock and incapable of anything like a constructive response to crisis finally hit a crisis that could not be evaded any longer, and the system shattered. In the chaos that resulted, a long-shot candidate with a radical following was able to pull together enough support from the remaining power centers and the people in general to win the White House and force through changes that redefined the political landscape for decades to come. That’s a possibility this time around, too, but a possibility is not a certainty, and nowhere is it written in stone that a crisis of the sort we’re discussing has to have a happy ending.
The range and scale of the crises facing the United States as it finishes the third lap around the track of anacyclosis, to begin with, pose a far more substantial challenge than the ones that punctuated the cycle in those earlier years. In 1860, as we’ve seen, the question was which of two incompatible human ecologies would dominate the North American continent; in 1932, it was the simpler though still challenging matter of how to pry the dead fingers of a failed economic ideology off the throat of the nation. This time, the United States faces two immense and parallel difficulties, neither one of which has the sort of straightforward solution that Lincoln and Roosevelt respectively had to hand.
The first difficulty, as I’ve discussed at length in these posts, is that the global empire established by the United States in the wake of the Second World War is coming apart. The American way of empire – the custom of leaving the administration of subject countries to puppet governments drawn from local elites – was cheaper than the traditional approach of subjugation and rule by an imperial viceroy, but it turned out to be more vulnerable to change and less directly profitable to the imperial government: American corporations profited mightily from the wealth pump directed at Latin America, for example, but very little of that money ended up in the coffers of the US treasury, where it could help cover the costs of empire.
As the American empire falters, in turn, rival powers expand their own military capacities and apply pressure wherever they can get away with it, short of being drawn into a premature war; the US military reacts with the same sort of stereotyped response that characterized the latter years of the British empire, preparing to fight bygone wars with ever more ornate and overpriced technology, while its most likely opponents show every sign of asking the hard questions about basics that lead to sudden revolutions in military practice. When this has happened in the past, the results have almost never been good for the established imperial power, and there’s no reason to think that things will be noticeably different this time around.
Meanwhile America’s “empire of time,” its once-immense energy resource base, has been drawn down at breakneck rates for more than a century and a half. Recent handwaving around shale gas reserves has served mostly to pump up the price of drilling company stocks, and enabled a certain number of rich men in influential positions to get away with another round of looting; we’ve all heard the strident claims that the United States will become an energy exporter sometime very soon, but the numbers don’t even begin to add up, and it’s a safe bet that a few years down the road shale gas will have gone the way of ethanol and all the other energy sources that were allegedly going to replace petroleum and keep the industrial age running smoothly ahead. The American economy is utterly dependent on very large quantities of petroleum; so is the American military; drastic changes, going far beyond the baby steps involved in manufacturing a few electric cars or running a naval vessel or two on biodiesel, would have to get started well in advance to cushion the end of either dependency, and those changes are not taking place.
The consequences of the end of these two empires can’t be dealt with on the battlefield, as the long debate over the shape of America’s human ecology was, and it can’t be dealt with by jerry-rigging a set of temporary expedients to overcome the mismatch between real wealth and a dysfunctional financial system, as the crisis of the Great Depression was. It will require massive changes in every aspect of American life, starting with a steep decline in standards of living and the forced abandonment of privileges most Americans think of as theirs by right. That would be an immense crisis at the best of times, and these are not the best of times; our political system has spent the last thirty years trying to evade exactly these issues, while sinking further and further into stasis, and it’s our luck that the crisis seems to be arriving just as American politics freeze up completely.
That might result in the kind of systemic shock that brings another long-shot candidate with a radical following into the White House, and catalyzes immense natonal changes. It might also result in the more extreme form of systemic shock that shatters a nation into fragments. In the weeks to come we’ll be discussing both those possibilities, and others..