Saturday, January 10, 2009

That Bastion of American Socialism

Over the past few months the American mainstream chatter has experienced a sudden spike in the gratuitous use of the term "Socialist." It was prompted by the attempts of the federal government to resuscitate insolvent financial institutions. These attempts included offers of guarantees to their clients, injections of large sums of borrowed public money, and granting them access to almost-free credit that was magically summoned ex nihilo by the Federal Reserve. To some observers, these attempts looked like an emergency nationalization of the finance sector was underway, prompting them to cry "Socialism!" Their cries were not as strident as one would expect, bereft of the usual disdain that normally accompanies the use of this term. Rather, it was proffered with a wan smile, because the commentators could find nothing better to say – nothing that would actually make sense of the situation.

Not a single comment on this matter could be heard from any of the numerous socialist parties, either opposition or government, from around the globe, who correctly surmised that this had nothing to do with their political discipline, because in the US "socialism" is commonly used as a pejorative term, with willful ignorance and breathtaking inaccuracy, to foolishly dismiss any number of alternative notions of how society might be organized. What this new, untraditional use of the term lacks in venom, it more than makes up for in malapropism, for there is nothing remotely socialist to Henry Paulson's "no banker left behind" bail-out strategy, or to Ben Bernanke's "buy one – get one free" deal on the US Dollar (offered only to well-connected friends) or to any of the other measures, either attempted or considered, to slow the collapse of the US economy.

A nationalization of the private sector can indeed be called socialist, but only when it is carried out by a socialist government. In absence of this key ingredient, a perfect melding of government and private business is, in fact, the gold standard of fascism. But nobody is crying "Fascism!" over what has been happening in the US. Not only would this seem ridiculously theatrical, but, the trouble is, we here in the US have traditionally liked fascists. We had liked Mussolini well enough, until he allied with Hitler, whom we only eventually grew to dislike once he started hindering transatlantic trade. We liked Spain's Franco well enough too. We liked Chile's Pinochet after having a hand in bumping off his Socialist predecessor Allende (on September 11, 1973; on the same date some years later, I was very briefly seized with the odd notion that the Chileans had finally exacted their revenge). In general, a business-friendly fascist generalissimo or president-for-life with no ties to Hitler is someone we could almost always work with. So much for political honesty.

As a practical matter, failing at capitalism does not automatically make you socialist, no more than failing at marriage automatically make you gay. Even if desperation makes you randy for anything that is warm-blooded and doesn't bite, the happily gay lifestyle is not automatically there for the taking. There are the matters of grooming, and manners, and interior decoration to consider, and these take work, just like anything else. Speaking of work, building socialism certainly takes a great deal of work, a lot of which tends to be unpaid, voluntary labor, and so desperation certainly helps to inspire the effort, but it cannot be the only ingredient. It also takes intelligence, because, as Douglas Adams once astutely observed, "people are a problem." In due course, they will learn to thwart any system, no matter how well-designed it might be, be it capitalist, socialist, anarchist, Ayn Randian, or one based on a strictly literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation.

However, here a distinction can be drawn: systems that attempt to do good seem far more corruptible than ones that have no such pretensions. Thus, a socialist system, inspired by the noblest of impulses to help one's fellow man, quickly develops social inequalities that it was designed to eradicate, breeding cynicism, while a capitalist system, inspired by the impulse to help oneself through greed and fear, starts out from the position of perfect cynicism, and is therefore immune to such effects, making it more robust, as long as it does not become resource-constrained. It seems to be a superior system if your goal is to keep the planet burning brightly, but when the fuel starts to run low, it is quickly torn apart by the very impulses that motivated its previous successes: greed turns to profiteering, draining the life blood out of the economy, while fear causes capital to seek safe havens, causing the wheels of commerce to grind to a halt. It could be said that an intelligently designed, well-regulated capitalist system could be made to avoid such pitfalls and persevere in the face of resource constraints, but the US seems laughably far from achieving this goal.

Taking intelligence itself as an example, if having more of it is a good thing, then a bit of socialism could have helped a lot. Let us start with the observation that intelligence, and the ability to benefit from higher education, occur more or less randomly within a human population. The genetic and environmental variation is such that it is not even conceivable to breed people for high intellectual abilities, although, as a look at any number of aristocratic lineages will tell you, it is most certainly possible to breed blue-blooded imbeciles. Thus, offering higher education to those whose parents can afford it is a way to squander resources on a great lot of pampered nincompoops while denying education to working class minds that might actually soak it up and benefit from it. A case in point: why exactly was it a good idea to send George W. Bush to Yale, and then to Harvard Business School? A wanton misallocation of resources, wouldn't you agree? At this point, I doubt that I would get an argument even from his own parents. Perhaps in retrospect they would have been happier to let someone more qualified decide whether young George should have grown up to incompetently send men into battle or to competently polish hub caps down on the corner.

Many countries, upon achieving a certain level of collective intelligence, or upon finding themselves blessed with a sufficiently intelligent benevolent dictator, followed a similar line of reasoning, and organized a system of public education that meted out educational opportunities based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. In countries where such reforms were successful, society benefited from the far more efficient allocation of resources, becoming more egalitarian, better-educated, and more stable and prosperous. The United States is one such country, where, following World War II, the GI Bill did much to mitigate against the oppressive social stratification of American society during the Great Depression, giving it a new lease on life. In a politically honest country, this achievement would have been touted as a great socialist victory. Here, instead of building on this success, it was allowed to ebb away, until now fewer and fewer qualified candidates can shoulder the high cost of higher education, and even these have to forgo education proper in favor of vocational training, in order to be in a position to pay back student loans.

Other traditional socialist victories include securing the right to housing, child care, health care, and retirement. In the context of US public policy, many people will point to Roosevelt's New Society "middle-class entitlements" as examples of such victories, Social Security and Medicare being the big ones. As they point, they should also laugh. What pitiable excuse for public housing are these "projects" in which many of the poor are forced to live? Are inner-city public schools "education," or are they, as many of the teachers who work in them would agree, jails for young people? Is free medical care such a great achievement if you have to survive to retirement age, either as a wage slave, or without access to health care, in order to qualify for it? To add insult to injury, there is a limitless supply of pundits and experts, who can always get free air time to claim that even these feeble attempts at an equitable society are fiscally unsustainable and therefore must be curtailed. Poor embargoed Cuba can afford to provide such luxuries, but the United States is too poor to do the same? Pardon me while I attempt to knit my brows into an incredulous frown while simultaneously twisting my lips into a disdainful sneer! Might there perhaps be another reason? Could it be that the lack of socialist education policies has allowed our collective intelligence to drop to a level where the bulb glows too dimly for us to see what is being done to us? No, these are not victories, and they are certainly not socialist.

You might think that an argument could be made that this is all irrelevant, because the flip side of a socialist defeat is a capitalist victory. You might think that all of this talk of social rights causes erosion of respect for money and property, followed by other kinds of moral decay. You might also think that it is unfettered free enterprise that has made mainstream American society the economically stratified, downwardly mobile and economically insecure place that it is, which is just as it should be. Alas, that argument is no longer plausible: the flip side of a socialist defeat is a capitalist defeat. No matter what your political persuasion might be, there is simply no way that an economically insecure, badly educated, badly treated population can be made to thrive, and this sets the stage for some very bad economic performance. As the economy collapses and economic losses mount, social and political instability become inevitable.

Luckily, the converse of case is not inevitable: a capitalist defeat does not automatically mean a socialist defeat. While an economy that has lost its ability to grow signals the onset of terminal illness for any capitalist system, socialist institutions can operate at a loss virtually ad infinitim, delivering worse and worse results, but distributing them equitably, so that no-one has more cause to complain or to rebel than anyone else. In an age of dwindling resources – be they mineral, ecological or financial – a socialist system stands a better chance of holding together than a capitalist one.

To further elucidate this fine point, let us consider two different environments: the cruise ship and the life boat. Aboard the cruise ship we find Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, George Soros and Warren Buffet, along with their assorted henchmen, fellow-travelers and capitalist stool pigeons. While they are aboard the cruise ship, these four worthies try to outdo each other in their outlandish spending behavior, and all rejoice in their orgy of conspicuous consumption. But now the cruise ship hits an iceberg and starts to go down, and the four capitalist luminaries take to the lifeboat, along with the passengers and the crew. While leaping aboard, Warren Buffet falls overboard and sinks like a rock because of all the gold bullion sewn into his belt, leaving three worthies to contend for the meager supply of biscuits and fresh water. They hold an auction, and Gates wins all of the biscuits. But before he manages to wolf down a single biscuit, he is compelled, under murky and tumultuous circumstances, to swallow a great quantity of seawater, bringing on hallucinations, renal failure, and death. Larry Ellison then announces that he has just gone on a diet, while George Soros looks around in confusion and says "Don't worry everyone, I am buying." The captain of the sunken cruise ship then asserts his authority, and, with everyone's vocal consent, confiscates all money and all provisions, and institutes biscuit and water rations. Luckily, it is the monsoon season, and the plentiful rain allows everyone to drink their fill by catching water in their hats, but the biscuits soon run out, and it becomes necessary to eat someone. They draw lots, and Ellison gets the short straw. Before he gets done explaining how many millions he is willing to spare in exchange for them sparing his life, a member of the crew drives a boat hook through his eye socket, and he is promptly eaten. By a strange and suspicious coincidence, Soros is eaten next. But then, after a month adrift, the castaways are finally rescued by a passing freighter. No charges are brought against any of them, because the acts of murder and cannibalism were deemed necessary to survival, and were performed fairly, by the drawing of lots, in accordance with the ancient custom of the sea. If their rescue were delayed, they could have eaten each other down to one final ancient mariner, who would then starve to death, all fair and square and above board.

But how, you might reasonably want to rejoin, might the sinking cruise ship of the United States conceivably effect a transition from a highly-capitalized, highly-leveraged system of for-profit private enterprise to a more socialist-minded lifeboat model? What institutions can aide with the transition? Would the whole thing need to be scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up? Now, these are very serious questions indeed.

Currently, a great many people are filled with hope that the incoming Obama administration will bring much-needed change. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama inherits an office much tainted by his predecessor, whose attempt at securing his legacy included a clandestine trip to Baghdad where, when he attempted to speak of victory, someone threw shoes at him and called him a filthy dog, all on international television. The US presidency is now a carnival side show: "Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and toss your shoes at Mr. President, for a chance to win an all-expense-paid stay at our luxurious Abu Ghraib suite!" Alas, Obama inherits an imperial mantle that has been trampled in the mud. Due to a certain quirk of the national character, most Americans have trouble understanding that honor is something you lose exactly once. (As H. L. Mencken pointed out, in America honor is used only in reference to members of Congress and the physical integrity of women.) This quirk may not be significant in domestic politics, but the US crucially depends on the rest of the world for every kind of support. There are countries, in the Muslim part of the world especially, where honor is of paramount importance, and having the highest office in the land turned into a laughing-stock is not conducive to securing their support.

And then there are the additional problems of poor advice and lack of authority. To build support for his plans, Mr. Obama must rely on the consensus advice of mainstream American economists. These astrologers to the wealthy, with their fancy astrolabes they call "models," may be popular during flush times, in spite of the feeble predictive abilities of their "science," but they start to seem downright foolish and feckless once the economy starts to implode. Still, these pseudo-scientists, with their pseudo-Nobel prizes and their tenured faculty positions, are quite entrenched, and will be difficult to dismiss, because the fiction they spin is so much more cheerful than the physical reality it is designed to obscure.

Add to this the fact that the financial and economic levers of control that are available to Mr. Obama are no longer connected to anything real. Mr. Obama's plans at economic stimulus may succeed in filling our pockets with newly printed money, but that money will promptly turn out to be worth its weight in kindling as soon as people try spending it, because there is no longer any faith or credit to back it up, and no growing economy in which to invest it. Should these money-printing initiatives succeed in stimulating a quarter or two of the usual anemic growth, the economy will again run into the same set of resource constraints, cause the next spike in commodity prices, another round of demand destruction, and economic collapse will resume apace.

What is needed, of course, is a concerted effort to build a new, vastly different economy, not squander remaining resources on attempts to resuscitate the current, moribund one. But politicians are never willing to dismantle the system that got them into power, and, like Gorbachev before him, Obama will do all he can to restart the current economy instead of letting it shut down and concentrating on planting the seeds of a new one.

If Presidential authority is unlikely to do the trick, then what of the US Congress? Even supposing that it members could betray their friends the lobbyists who write much of the legislation they pass without even reading it, as well as their base of well-heeled supporters, what could they do? What they do do is legislate. Perhaps someone might want to argue that there is a critical shortage of legal documents in the United States, and too few lawyers to creatively interpret them. No, if there is anything that is still in sufficient supply, it is tortuous legalese, the minions who toil over it, and the various courts, offices, and jails in which they toil. When it comes to economic collapse and social disintegration, an old and venerable legal codex is no handier than an old and venerable phone book. What is generally needed, to preserve life and order, is to commandeer and redistribute resources, and to compel people to do what needs to be done, legal niceties be damned. There is no time to stand idly by and wait while swarms of lawyers exercise their legal jowls. This calls for men and women of action, not a deliberative body that is accustomed to controlling the purse strings of a purse that they have finally succeeded in emptying. The third and final branch of American government – the judiciary – does not seem capable of the sort of judicial activism the situation calls for, and is entirely unlikely to try to get too far ahead of the legislative curve. So much for civics.

What, then, remains of that elusive American dream of having a country, rather than a country club, that offers something to everyone, and not just its most privileged members, even as the situation becomes progressively more dire? Well, there is just one such institution, but it is huge. I choose to call it, with all due bombast, the Bastion of American Socialism. Not only is it a huge institution in America itself – in fact, it is the largest, – but it is arguably the most powerful institution on the entire planet, at least in its destructive abilities, at least for the moment. It is the United States military. Since it is undeniably a bastion of sorts, I will concentrate on explaining why I think it is a socialist institution.

The various branches of the armed services provide numerous benefits to the enlisted men and women, the officers, and the veterans. These range from free family housing and day care to free medical care to access technical training and to higher education. For many sons and daughters of working class families, the military offers the only path away from the farm, the poor neighborhood or the ghetto, and toward a more prosperous life in the trades and even the professions. The Air Force even provides unlimited free travel and a chance to see the world. It is the single most socially progressive large institution that the United States has. In a bitter twist of irony, it is also its most brutal, designed, as it is, for politically sanctioned mass murder.

Of the working-class elderly, about the only ones who receive adequate medical care are those who have access to the Veterans Administration medical system. True, the services are often rationed, there are waiting lists to see specialists, and proving that you were injured in the line of duty often involves an exhausting paper chase. True, certain popular ailments, such as exposure to Agent Orange and depleted uranium, Gulf War Syndrome and the increasingly popular Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are politicized and judiciously misdiagnosed and ignored. But this is exactly what one generally expects to see in a system of socialized medicine.

I would like to assure everyone that I am definitely not any sort of American military triumphalist. The American military tradition is heir to the British one, and, as H. L. Mencken pointed out, the Anglo-Saxon has never been known to seek out a fair fight. The British military did its best work using rifles against pygmies armed with ripe fruit, and using machine guns to cut down cavalry. A wealth of racist terminology was brought to bear, to dehumanize the enemy, making such massacres palatable: the kaffir, the jap and the gook. They were all brutes, to be exterminated. The Americans have carried this tradition into the nuclear age, and used a nuke or two to subdue the Japanese, who had all the other weapons that were modern during that era. In the other theater of that war, on the Western front, the supposedly good fight was won by sitting it out for as long as possible, then ponderously bombing various hitherto picturesque historical districts of Europe in order to time the entry into Berlin to coincide with the arrival of the Soviet troops, who had a great deal more to lose, and could be relied upon to do all of the heavy lifting and most of the dying. So much for valor.

It is valid to ask whether the US military, aside from its socialist policies for those who serve it, is the least bit useful. Perhaps it is just a colossal, incompetent public money sponge that ruins countless lives and gives the country a bad name. In all the more recent conflicts save one (Reagan's invasion of the island of Grenada) the US military has not come out as the victor. Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf Wars I and II, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia are all fiascos of one sort or another. It can be said that the US military cannot win; it can only blow things up. Now, blowing things up can be great fun, but it cannot be the only element in a winning military strategy. The key element is winning the peace, and here the US military has, time and again, demonstrated outright incompetence, remaining stalemated and waiting for political support to be withdrawn and the troops pulled out and sent home.

In spite of these many failures, the US military blunders on undeterred. This immunity to the effects of failure is also a socialist trait: if a company does badly, the government gives it more money and hopes for the best. This trait extends to military contracts. For instance, Raytheon's Patriot missiles, as delivered, would shoot down trees, apartment buildings, each other – anything but the target. This was hushed up, and then Raytheon got more money and told to try again. Another example: the greatest threat to the US Navy is not any enemy, foreign or domestic, but Microsoft's Blue Screen of Death, because their heavily computerized systems run on the notoriously crashy Windows NT. The response is to reward Microsoft's inability to write reliable software with more government contracts.

It is also valid to ask whether the US military, in its current highly mechanized, mobile form, has any sort of future in a world of dwindling oil supplies, much of them controlled by foreign governments. The US military is currently the single largest consumer of oil in the world, maintaining over a thousand military bases on foreign soil, and burning prodigious amounts of fuel in resupplying them, rotating the troops, and maintaining patrols. As fuel supplies dwindle, these bases will have to be abandoned, and the troops repatriated. Luckily, such extreme mobility and global reach will be neither necessary nor desirable once the United States finds its new place in the world as an inward-looking failed former superpower. Once Hawaii is claimed by Japan or China, and Alaska reverts to Russian control, the remaining United States will be a contiguous landmass that can be traversed on foot. Thus, the US military may yet have a bright future, as an infantry equipped with small arms, horses, mules, bicycles and canoes.

Such a downsized military would not be able to project force halfway across the globe on a moment's notice, but it may be able to redeploy to a neighboring county, or even a neighboring state, by sometime next month, provided the weather cooperates. The modest defense services it would be able to provide would certainly be needed: the citizenry of the United States, much more than that of most other countries, needs to be defended from itself at all times. The number of unresolved social conflicts, old grievances and injustices waiting to be avenged, requires a constant police presence to be maintained at all times in most of the thickly settled areas – a presence that will dwindle along with municipal budgets. Add to that the already very high homicide rate, and the huge prison population – largest in the world – that will be released en masse once the municipal and federal funds needed to maintain it can no longer be allocated to the purpose, and you have a recipe for non-stop murder and mayhem. To mitigate against these effects, federal troops can be strategically stationed in some of the more troublesome areas. Local and state troops would be far less effective: it has been known since Roman times that forces brought in from another province are far more effective at quelling unrest than those drawn from the local population.

Beyond maintaining order and preventing unnecessary bloodshed, the military possesses a property almost unique among government agencies: the ability to execute arbitrary orders, not subject to political authority, not limited to job description, and not subject to questioning, because "an order is an order!" Issuing orders is quicker and easier than legislating, because laws are blunt instruments, and are always subject to interpretation. Don't even try telling a lawyer "A law is a law! Shut up!" It just doesn't work. To get things done in an emergency, it is better to bypass lawyers and courts altogether.

One useful order would be: "Grow potatoes!" As the current system of industrial agriculture runs out of the chemicals, fuel and credit needed to fund and run its large-scale operations, many more hands will suddenly be needed to operate hoes, shovels and pitchforks in order to grow enough food to meet even the minimum caloric requirements of the population. Although I am sure that my gentleman-farmer friends will do their patriotic utmost to keep us all fed, bringing to bear all that they are currently busy learning about organic farming methods, permaculture, no-till agriculture and other helpful techniques, having access to an organized, disciplined labor force would help the process immeasurably.

Despite these significant positives, life under what would amount to a military occupation, where the customary civilian rights are routinely disregarded, and where the citizen is constantly faced with arbitrary authority backed up by the threat of force, can hardly be described as pleasant. But here, too, the result may be an improvement of sorts. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans have become accustomed to thinking of war as something that happens elsewhere, to other people. Thus, the news that the US is bombing this or that land, for no adequate reason, killing and maiming numerous civilians, produces in us neither the normal human reaction of revulsion, nausea and disgust, nor the conviction that we must take the fight to our own monstrous leaders, lest we too become monsters. Life under domestic military occupation might bring home some welcome realizations, and start Americans down the long road of atoning for the sins of their forefathers, who have run roughshod over much of the rest of the planet for far too long. Paradoxically, as the legacy of US militarism fades away, it may leave behind a society that is far more humane, socialist even, than the one that gave rise to it.

45 comments:

Jimmy said...
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Anonymous said...

I agree that changes are coming to North America. If, as a society, we were sentient and wise enough to use the tools the founders of our constitution-based republic gave us, we would not be in the dire straits we now find ourselves. But, alas, we were not, the current domination/corruption model is broken, and a new model must take its place. Based upon the current thinking of our overlords, I say get ready for the Peoples Non-Constitution Republic of North America.

Martin said...
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Anonymous said...
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Jason said...

Dear Mr, Orlov,
Your book and your blog have been truly exceptional reads (and most especially this latest post). I thank you very much for your (always fun, entertaining, and well spoken) words of wisdom.

Rick said...

Excellent post, although I have a hard time imagining any happy ending, even in a post-militaristic U.S. Just one correction; Pinochet's coup was on Sep 11, 1973, not 1972.

Jon said...

Dmitry, thank you for you insights. Always welcomed.

I am one of those people who think that collapse is happening right now and has been happening since the late seventies or so. It’s just building momentum. To paraphrase Harry Truman, when your neighbor is watching the new Food Network show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dumpsters, in a store front window, it’s an economic downturn. When you are on the hook for the appetizer, it’s collapse.

You and others have mentioned Rome as a cautionary example of what can happen to superpowers. I think the comparison is apt, though in a different way than most people think. Rome didn’t collapse. It was downsized by the reigning CEO-King and reorganized in a new location. The wealthier and more powerful parts were consolidated (under a capitol named immodestly after the emperor) and the poorer performing bits written off. The western empire had its own bumpy plateau of city states of rising and falling influence for another thousand years. Historians like to put a date on things, but that was just when the unraveling threads finally caused the rope to snap.

I am wondering how much empire North America can sustain just using the technology and resources we have here? In other words, if all imports of oil and other resources were to stop, what kind of consolidation of power could we expect to see next? What new Constantine will forge together the worthwhile pieces of America? I can’t imagine there being a uniform and egalitarian equalization of ‘powered down’ eco villages and seaports. Some places will continue to be wealthy and powerful, albeit for a smaller population of elites. Many places will resemble a quaint village in one of Ken Follett’s dark ages novels. We may even see a return of ‘Privateers’ commandeering other nations’ ships and bringing them to American ports. Somalia, anyone?

We will continue to need food, so the ‘I’ states will revert to farming for a majority of the population, much like they did in the nineteenth century. Chicago will be important as a distribution center, along with increased shipping activity on the lakes and Eerie canal. Manhattan harbor will still be as valuable to shipping. So there will be trade. California is more valuable for its agriculture than its culture. We may see more rancheros. (I hope Zorro comes back.) New England will once again be valuable for its water power. I work at a university that was founded on an agricultural land grant. They still have a school of agriculture and maintain cooperative extensions for local farms. Cotton, tobacco, peanuts, hemp and bourbon will always be welcome in trade from the southern states. Places like Sturbridge Village, Mystic Seaport, Plymouth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg may be recycled as teaching aids instead of museums.

American culture has always been a first world and third world culture shuffled together, with the first world inhabitants (if you are reading this and are an American, that’s us) generally oblivious to the untouchables that live in our midst. We have trained ourselves to not see what disagrees with our American myth. Won’t this just get more obvious in the future? As more and more of ‘us’ fall into ‘mole people’ status, the remaining few will (brutally) reorganize society to cope.

The question is: What kind of government will structure this? If we are Rome, who is the new Constantine?

Jon.

RebelFarmer said...

Welcome back Dmitry!!!

You are a much needed voice out here in the wilderness of collapsing empire. It's so good to laugh when everything looks so grim.

I want to thank the commenters here as well. For the same reasons. Thanks especially to Jimmy, Martin, and Jon.

Anonymous said...

Dmitry,

Your humor is fantastic.

I developed a "Break Glass In Case Of Emergency" program for the US government, but I doubt they will be smart enough to deploy it the right way.

Maybe I should just let them steal it... that way they'll think they thought of it.

www.brightneighbor.com

Timo said...

"The question is: What kind of government will structure this? If we are Rome, who is the new Constantine?"

Rome lasted about 500 years as The Empire and another 500 years total before and after as developing one. So Rome really was unique one. USA empire resembles maybe Spanish Empire during 16th century, after the discovery of New World. Bright burning but short-lived.

About the future of USA: It probably will be Divided States of America by 2020. The main reason is simple election mathematics:

When a democracy/republic gets too big populationwise it becomes plutocracy (rule of the wealthy), mainly because election campaigns costs more and more, effectively shutting down the majority of people.

Sooner or later a revolution of the "lower" classes will happen because of this lack of political and economical power. Also the lobby problem gets progressively worse and worse with the population growth and also corruption becomes the main problem.

You can see the same sign in EU but luckily the Brussels has much less power than Washington, DC. The main budget items being agriculture and subsidies to the less developed EU areas (no imperial military at least yet!)

USA started with mere FOUR million people and one Representative per about 30000-40000 people. Now there is one Congress member per over 700000! You would need whole stadium full of Congress members (10000) to go the original ratio! Imagine waiting for your turn to say something.."Now speaking #2396 from Kansas" :)

So in a way dividing USA is the only sensible solution but how to get there is going to be at least one helluva bumpy ride. Even pure hell Beirut/Jugoslavia style is not out of the question in some parts of the country.

Jon said...

I agree that administration of a large empire is daunting. Rome’s solution was to have vassal states run their own affairs while paying tribute (misspelled ‘taxes’) to the state. Just add a military presence to dissuade the local population from rebellion and there you have it. Empire in a drum. Only certain people could buy citizenship, so the Roman Empire was more like mycelium threads running through a barely functioning host.

Dividing up the (soon to be former) United States makes sense, though some regions will have more power than others. Could a collapsing federal government control enough of the military (with energy use guaranteed to the pentagon) to keep vital corridors and state services running? It seems that a lot of the collapse talk on the web assumes that we have two options: Orwellian surveillance state under the control of a wild eyed Dick Cheney or anarchy. Maybe three, if you include bucolic gentleman farmer eco villages.

States have national guards and police. The feds have the military. These are powerful organizing agents. Stabilizing and controlling the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, with its interstate highways, rail lines and harbors, will be a priority. Where I live, in what is picturesquely called ‘The Other Connecticut’ (the one without money) will only be viewed by planes flying on military missions from Bradley fields to Green Airport. It’s probably safe to assume that I will be experiencing blackouts and brownouts while Millstone point continues to provide adequate power to the Sub Base, the Coast Guard and EB.

Thus the future USA will be threads of power running through North America along strategic lines and geographically favorable corridors, much like it was originally. Maybe the new capitol will be called Obominople.

Rob said...
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Anonymous said...
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Kati said...
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Dave said...

Wow! One of your best. So well written and fluid. I wish I could write like that!

I'm so glad you're back in the saddle.

Dave
http://daveeriqat.wordpress.com/

kollapsnik said...
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Anonymous said...

Dmitry, thanks for posting this very lucid essay. We have reached a point in American history where language is dissociated from anything concrete: under the surface of most of the gossip that is served up (ad nauseam) by the media and the bureucrats who double as pundits and opinion editorialists, there is NOTHING. They're not even lies! For a rationally oriented person, this is the ultimate irony. They can talk about socialism, capitalism, "recovery", and so on, but it all means nothing. There is only a vague emotional appeal, which unfortunately is also based on nothing (for current purposes, past glory as well as absurd aspirations are nothing). I wonder if the next step won't be nationalism of the worst sort. It has happened before.

By the way, a book that kollapseniks would enjoy is Karl Polanyi's _The Great Transformation_. It gives some very good historical background on the topics you touch upon in your essays. And Leopold Kohr's _The Breakup of Nations_ is also scarily prescient.

With so many fine minds pointing out the situation for decades, I don't think the public and governments can claim that this is all a big surprise. It's in the books!

Kati said...
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Dmitri said...

Hello tezka,

Excellent post. Did you ever consider publishing your works in Russian and in Russia? There is a great appetite in Russia right now for anything dealing with the US descent (publications about problems elsewhere in the world somewhat disguise Russian internal economic woes, and the state-owned media are happy to disseminate such stories). For example, recently the WSJ had a post about a Russian professor Igor Panarin, who also mentioned about Alaska reverting to Russians and Hawaii falling under Japanese or Chinese. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123051100709638419.html?mod=most_emailed_month
I did not read Panarin's own articles, but I saw him on Russian television. Having followed your works since 2005 and having read your book I can say that you'd look much better and more interesting. I believe that for an article like yours above one you'd get a good honorarium and wide recognition. You may not wish the Russian propaganda painiting you as a disgruntled Soviet immigrant to the USA, but a wider audience of your former compatriots may be well worth it.
Whether you decide to publish your works in Russia or not, I hope that you'll keep up your blog and will write more books.

S uvajeniem,

Dmitri

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M. Pyre said...

Good to see you back, but your optimism on Obama -- that his problems are in the system he confronts, and not within himself and his own perspective that refuses to criticize or change the system -- is unsupported by the record. There is no cause to believe Obama even WANTS to change anything -- his track record is one of sycophancy for corporatist-capitalist-consumerist Empire. Why would anyone examine that track record and imagine Obama to be any kind of savior, or change-agent? I don't know. Naivete, gullibility, willful blindness are the choices I see.

Nonetheless, I share your view that socialism can succeed where Obama & Co will fail. My point simply is this: Obama is not the man to encourage socialist thinking. He's benefited far too much from consumerist-corporatist-capitalist-Imperial workings, his whole adult career has been directed toward those things.

He will not and cannot change that now. To make that change would require him to reject his wife, his children, his job, his home -- EVERYTHING he treasures.

Obama will do whatever it takes to keep the corporate capitalist masters happy. That's how he sees himself, that's how he sees America. So what does that mean about how he sees Americans?

It means he doesn't care about us.

peter said...

Mr. Orlov,

thanks to link at TAE I've found your wonderful essay, and will be sharing it with friends-in agreement with others here-excellent writing.

Jon, UConn or URI? I'm in Brooklyn (CT) and would like to share more ideas/plans with like-minded, thinking people. If interested: pdarwinjones@hotmail.com

Anonymous said...

I agree with Pyre that Obama is not an agent of change. As far as I can tell, he has not offered a single original idea. He has also been careful in omitting certain words from his vocabulary: poor, poverty, working class, rail, trains, agriculture... it doesn't bode well.

He seeks to maintain what were called, famously, the "necessary illusions" (best country in the world, right to teach everyone else how to live, copyright of "democracy" and "freedom", all sorts of rights, like the right to be rich, etc.). At this late date, such illusions are not only not necessary but incredibly harmful.

No real change from Obama, I fear. Any change will happen in society, possibly through the emergence of a parallel underground economy. This is already happening, by the way.

The late George Carlin had a line that he liked to repeat in his shows: "They don't care about you, they don't care about you." He was a lucid man.

Jon said...

I guess I'm still naive. I want to believe that Obama is different, even if he is shoveling sand against the tide. Though I know that the future will be too much for any one person to handle and whatever power reconstitutes in North America will be horrendously different than anybody can image now. I tell my daughter to ‘brace herself.’ Get out of debt, don’t buy a house, be flexible and be lucky. In a sense I kind of wish that the McCain rootin-tootin, caribou shootin’ express had been elected. Then we could laugh our way into the abyss.

Peter, I work at UConn at Storrs campus. I tell people that we make basket ball players. :)

Jon.

RPtizzle said...
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kollapsnik said...
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kollapsnik said...
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Anonymous said...

A pleasure to read, for your eloquence, insights and the creativity of your ideas. Astounding. We Americans need a wider perspective and you give it to us.

JGrace
http://flourishingincrisis.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

As I have just discovered you, I am glad you haven't stopped posting. You are a very interesting guy.

Earth said...
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kollapsnik said...

Earth -

States come and go, but a distinction can be drawn between historical nations (France, Russia, etc.) and transitory clumps of alphabet soup (Union of Semi-Socialist Regions, United Fruit of America, etc.). Some historical nations have added to their name to record revolutionary victories (Republique Francaise, Estados Unidos Mexicanos). Russian Federation is actually a piece of Soviet-era alphabet soup (the R and F in RSFSR) but the name fits, because ethnically pure Russians (if there is such a thing) are a minority, but the amount of intermarriage between ethnic groups is huge. It is a federation that is a historic nation.

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Wayne said...

Shortly after reading Mr. Orlov's original post, I encountered what I thought was a perfect example of the word "socialism" being (mis)used the way he described: After Bailout, Get Out. But then I read all the other comments here, and I thought, hmm, maybe I shouldn't post it, everyone else is talking about about other stuff, about Alaska mostly. But wasn't Orlov's original point about socialism?

kollapsnik said...

Thank you, Wayne. You are absolutely right, this article has nothing to do with Alaska. I will now delete these off-topic comments and reject all future comments that mention Alaska.

Sublime Oblivion said...

I've had similar ideas about the current necessity of forcefully limiting material throughput and pollution to optimize the chances of attaining a sustainable equilibrium during this century. (Socialist systems, even those focusing specifically on industrial growth as with the USSR and Maoist China, produced less pollution than they otherwise would have under market-based development - imagine the potential of a socialist system geared specifically towards sustainability). Somewhat whimsically I have called such a scenario Green Communism (http://www.sublimeoblivion.com/2008/12/31/communism-is-our-road-to-redemption/).

However, the (probably fatal) predicament is that doing so would require concerted global action, since artificially contracting the industrial base will hurt national military power, which will rise greatly in an age of resource conflicts - but the signs are that globalizing tendencies are going more and more disrupted as we tumble into the Olduvai Gorge.

Anonymous said...

"However, the (probably fatal) predicament is that doing so would require concerted global action, since artificially contracting the industrial base will hurt national military power, which will rise greatly in an age of resource conflicts - but the signs are that globalizing tendencies are going more and more disrupted as we tumble into the Olduvai Gorge."

I think the opposite is going to happen: globalist tendencies are going to win. And that could be catastrophic for the various populations. Only the breakup of large units into sustainable and nonmilitaristic units can lead to economies not based on growth.

The paradigm of wealth based on growth is a large part of the problem. It leads to Ponzi economies that essentially borrow against the future. A more sane view would be to assume that the future is not going to be better and deal with the here and now in a sustainable way. Yes, market economies can be run without excessive borrowing, particularly if they are nonmilitaristic economies.

Also, the crucial problem of providing employment, which has been an open problem for many decades, cannot be attacked by expansion and growth. It requires different modes of production that are labor-intensive and require only modest capital investments.

This will be the hardest change to make, since there is another paradigm, namely that of absolute efficiency. If this were replaced by relative efficiency (not optimal but "adequate" and cheap technology), you could provide employment to many more people. Europe, for example, has never managed to create anything like full employment since WWII. It is their toughest problem.

And now, instead of assumed or theoretical scarcity, the world is going to have real scarcity of energy, water, and possibly food. Add this to the endemic unemployment problem and the picture looks grim.

Only local units with very precise and very modest goals of survival can make it. No global efforts, even if they were well-intentioned (and I doubt that they are), can succeed, in my opinion. The guy in Tanzania and the guy in Detroit cannot be simultaneously helped by a huge central planner.

To be continued, perhaps...

Anonymous said...

The following article strikes me as a perfect example of utter cluelessness regarding the present situation of collapse, so well analyzed by Dmitry:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ashton-kutcher/creating-a-nation-of-phil_b_158773.html

It betrays an innocence that would be heart-breaking were it not also potentially dangerous. We all become philantropists and nobody's responsible? It reminds me of people who were resorting to prayer so that gasoline prices would come down. No, I am not making that up...

Anonymous said...

This string calls to mind a cynical colleague's observation that polar bears will not go extinct so long as they survive him. I take some solace in my advancing years. I am on page with the speculations here except as to their assumed timing. I question whether we aren't all "misunderestimating" the inertial momentum of this huge economic dinosaur. It strikes me that the descent could be very protracted and spasmodic. Witness the utterly improbable decline in price of gasoline as just a small example. I suspect that we may have a bubble or three left in the system before this unwinds with defining direction. How's that for audacity of hope?

Anonymous said...

"It strikes me that the descent could be very protracted and spasmodic."

I think so, too. You can keep the wheels spinning for quite a long time. The least predictable factor, in my view, is what Orlov calls the political collapse. If and when you have that, the dinosaur goes directly into corpsehood, no burial. There will be no illusions to maintain because there will be no faith in the political system.

Two or three bubbles? Thank God for small favors... I'll take them gladly. However, I doubt that any substantial market bubbles or at least sustained rallies will occur this year. I see the market tanking very badly. The financials are taking everything down with them. We still don't know the full extent of the emptying of the financial basket.

Anonymous said...

"Leopold Kohr's _The Breakup of Nations is also scarily prescient."

So was Kohr's death, a poor, lonely old author, beaten up in his council house by an invading local yob. Straight out of Clockwork Orange, that.

Horatio said...

I love your articles Dmitri, and believe you are on the money as they say. However in this article on socialism I feel you meandered around a bit, and your black humour merged into cynicism too often. Innocence is a great quality too, not just sophistication, which can become wearing if it is too relentless.

Jason, from New Zealand

das monde said...

... systems that attempt to do good seem far more corruptible than ones that have no such pretensions. Thus, a socialist system, inspired by the noblest of impulses to help one's fellow man, quickly develops social inequalities that it was designed to eradicate, breeding cynicism...

I do not agree with this stereotypic description. The socialist record on inequalities is not bad: witness the jump in inequalities in post-communist Russia and East-Europe. These are inequalities. And corruption is of different level as well.

What were the worst inequalities in the Soviet zone? Party bureaucrats had privileges, of course - but they took their job and responsibilities rather seriously, and there were comparable recreational opportunities for everyone. Ironically, it was a class of former Soviet bureaucrats (especially in courts and law enforcement) that made the most comfortable transition to the wild capitalism. Why not ask them, which inequalities they would prefer?

Maria said...

Thanks