The Bush II and Obama administrations and the transition from American hegemony to the “Post-American world”

This past weekend the Common Root conference was held in Minneapolis. Tom and Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Associates led the first plenary session, and my friend Jordan Peacock wrote the following as a summary statement of one of their points:

The Pax Americana is not necessarily the strongest ’empire’. It stands together with global capitalism, which, while largely birthed from the Pax Americana, shares no allegiance to it, and will likely outlast it.

I think this is an excellent point, and one that bears fleshing out a bit by contrasting the approaches of the Bush II Administration and what we’ve seen from Obama so far. The neoconservative plan seemed to me to clearly be an “American empire” kind of strategy, with American military power as the trump card in the world political game. “Regime change” and militaristic power politics, whether through direct military intervention or the funding of “satellite” armies in places like Israel and Colombia, seem to me to be parts of a larger strategy for attempting to maintain a specifically American hegemony over world affairs. The purpose of the use of military and other overtly violent forces in this fashion seems to have been to make the world safe for “democracy”, by which is meant the interests of “American” corporate entities (often really more multi- and trans-national) who have exploited the twin Bush II tools of unilateral military intervention (or the threat thereof) and implementation of neo-colonial “free trade” policies, combined with other corporate-friendly measures, such as the widespread loosening of labor, safety, and environmental regulations at home and undercutting the social safety net (which was already quite sparse in the aftermath of Reaganomics).

The adventure in Iraq is a signal example and convergence of the combination of military and corporate objectives with the toppling of the Hussein government and the swift looting of the country through a forced rewriting of Iraq’s economic laws in an attempt to create a “free trade paradise”, causing a descent into chaos and insurgency that, contrary to what you hear from the corporate media propaganda machine, really only picked up steam as the effects of the combination of economic deregulation and the insistence on American corporations rebuilding the country (translation: looting Iraq and fleecing American taxpayers) destroyed the ability of the average Iraqi to obtain basic needs and services.

Indeed, Iraq-as-originally-conceived could be considered a case study for the Bush II approach to Pax Americana. Key to neoconservatism is the concept that the welfare of corporations is intrinsically linked to the welfare of the nation-state and its security interests and policies. This convergence of military, corporate, and political machinations is the engine that drives the neoconservative American empire project. The very name of the neoconservative thinktank, Project for a New American Century (PNAC), illustrates the imperial designs of the people who made up the backbone of the Bush II administration, as does their stated belief that “American leadership is both good for America and good for the world”.

I want to say, at the outset of my brief foray into what we’ve seen so far from Obama, along with his campaign rhetoric, that in some ways Obama substantially continues some of the Bush II tactics and underwriting assumptions unchanged. Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, cites no less a media authority than the New York Times calling Obama “center-right” and then goes on to say:

The ideological pillars of America’s first Black presidency have been planted wholly within the parameters of governance allowed by big capital and the imperial military. Obama’s “transition” is more accurately seen as a “continuity” of rule by the lords of finance capital and their protective screen of warriors and spies. The Obama regime, still incomplete, already wreaks [sic] of filthy rich thieves and gore-covered war criminals.

The two biggest differences I see between Bush II and Obama-so-far are:

  1. a re-assertion of government playing a role in establishing some kind of common welfare through a kind of social democracy (NOT the same thing as “socialism”), albeit in a much-weakened state compared to LBJ’s “Great Society” and “war on poverty” programs, over and against the explicit undercutting of the social safety net that has occurred systematically since Reagan; and,
  2. while the desire to maintain America as the foremost world power, the notion of American hegemony seems to have given way somewhat to something perhaps more analogous to America as a “senior partner”. Obama was seen carrying a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which argues for “not.. the decline of America, but the rise of everyone else”. Zakaria sees this story, that of “the rise of the rest”, as the defining narrative for the rest of the 21st century. Obama’s talk, at least, regarding initiatives such as strong diplomacy and sitting down to talk with people with whom Bush II would not, may reflect a similar understanding of America’s role in the coming years.

The basic thrust of these same-nesses and differences between Obama and Bush II seems to me to be that Obama seeks to implement policies that will create greater stability in the world, at least as it relates to America, both at home and abroad, by strengthening regulation of the economy at home that will prevent unrest and by allowing the “junior partner” nations of the world a greater role in determination of world political action. That contrasts strongly with Bush II’s neoconservative agenda focused around American hegemony which in practice led to more destabilized conditions both at home and abroad.

However, this “change we can believe in” is a “change” designed to fundamentally underwrite the corporate consumer capitalist status quo and the continued advancement of an “economic growth” agenda. In other words, it’s a “change” that is geared towards producing “more of the same”. With a decreased link between the welfare of corporate entities and the welfare of the United States, I believe we will indeed see the Sines’ prediction play itself out in world affairs over the coming years. William Cavanaugh (in Theopolitical Imagination and Being Consumed) argues that the universality claimed by the modern nation-state is giving way to the universalizing tendencies of the global market, and the global market almost entirely consists of action by corporations. Also, Brian Walsh argues (in Subversive Christianity) that capitalism is a necessarily expansionist, even imperial, economic system. If the empire of global corporate capitalism is unconstrained by national borders, as is largely (and increasingly) the case due to “trade liberalization”, then its expansion, by definition, must increase beyond the hegemony of the USAmerican political nation-state entity.

Not only that, but it is also the case that the one-and-only responsibility of a corporation is to increase its value for shareholders. Indeed, neoliberal architect Milton Friedman called ascribing any other purpose to the corporation “fundamentally subversive” (he was specifically referring to the idea of corporate social responsibility). A corporation-based economy must grow or it will collapse, and the same is true of the current global debt-based monetary system – new debt must constantly be created to generate money to pay the interest on old debt, according to an ever-increasing practically exponential growth curve.

The empire of global capitalism is highly complex. Whereas the nation-state depends on territory for its very existence, the corporation theoretically is a territory-less entity. While I would argue that this is not true, strictly-speaking, because no economic activity can truly take place without there being land and material products involved somewhere, somehow, according to the currently-accepted rules of the game a trans-national corporation does not depend on the territory of any one nation-state, nor is it accountable to any entity outside its shareholders except insofar as maintaining relations of accountability and corporate social responsibility allow it to maximize profits and therefore value to shareholders. In addition to the “territory-less” nature, though, there is not any one entity that can serve as an object of wrath for those who oppose this evolving empire. Corporations are legion, they are interconnected, they are buttressed by international organizations and agreements, and We the Consumers play a major role in keeping them in business.

This seems to be the world into which we are headed, a world where “change” occurs to ensure “more of the same”, with the locus of imperial activity increasingly translocating from nation-state entities (particularly the United States) to transnational corporations and the entities that ensure their preeminence (such as the WTO). This does not mean that the emerging empire will not favor certain nation-states (or at least certain people in them), as mentioned above, certain nation-states will enjoy “senior partner” status (hence the continuing neo-colonial nature of global capitalism), but the world is shifting from under the dominating shadow of the United States to global corporate consumer capitalism, as illustrated by a comparison of the Bush II administration and what we’ve seen so far from Obama.

This was first posted on the Common Root discussion forum, but I wanted to also open it up for a possibly wider discussion here. Shalom!

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The irony of progress

However else it may be defined, it is generally agreed that a (if not the) major feature of modernity is the pervasiveness of the myth of progress. According to the progress myth, progress will be attained in a definite, concrete form as the continuing dialectic (and, in some forms, utopian end) of history if “we allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world. Progress enables us to acquire the technological power necessary to control that world and bring about the ultimate human goal: economic affluence and security” (from Brian Walsh, Subversive Christianity, Seattle, WA: Alta Vista College Press, 1994, pp. 39-40).

While the progress myth has come under fire in the 20th century, it clearly lives on in discourse regarding things like “making the world safe for democracy” and “bringing prosperity to underdeveloped nations”. Economic affluence through free-trade (neoliberal) economics and democratization have become intrinsically linked, and the juxtaposition of the two with neoconservative imperialism is just one example of the horrific possibilities of such a marriage. For exhibit one, see the aftermath of the attempt to turn post-American-conquest-Iraq into a “free trade paradise”, which might have had more to do with the explosion of unrest in the country than any other single factor (see this excellent article by Naomi Klein).

The discourse of progress is alive and well in the speeches of newly-inaugurated President Obama, albeit in some different ways than now former President Bush. The one thing that has certainly not changed, though, is the statement of faith that the United States is in some way a blessed nation charged with a divine mission to be a beacon of freedom, justice, and prosperity to the whole world. Obama drinks deeply from the well of America-the-Promised-Land.

My purpose in this post is not to criticize Obama per se, but I think it’s important to realize that despite the promise of change some things fundamentally have not changed – notably the public presentation of faith in the myth of progress, and faith in America as the driving engine of global progress (though the question is never asked – at what cost?). There is, however, a certain irony in this idolatrous faith.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted that his grandchildren would be able to experience a life beyond economic necessity. John Dewey believed that the visionary application of science and technology would cause the desert to bloom like a rose. Neither of these conditions has come to pass; indeed, quite the opposite has happened in both cases. Economic anxiety is at its highest point in decades, with the current generation projected to be the first in quite some time (possibly hundreds of years) to not fare, on the whole, better economically than its parent generation. And the former hotbeds of science and technological development, the cities and industrial centers, have become or are fast becoming post-industrial wastelands.

Those city centers that have seemingly reversed these trends have done so by engaging the post-industrial economy by expanding the service-sector, increasing the emphasis on consumption, rather than production, and by creating “arts districts” that are little more than microcosms of the consumer economy providing barely-subsistence labor for advertising and other corporate-controlled “creative” enterprises. In the long run, these transitory economic schemes hailed as “new urban developments” are likely to cause more damage than good as the “consumer goods” that must be shipped into these places for consumption by shoppers (who are increasingly less likely to be able to afford them or be inclined to purchase them, given the current economic climate), create their own ripple effect of environmental, as well as labor and other human rights disasters on a global scale.

This is the grand irony of the progress myth: that it promises a glorious future through worshiping the idols of scientism, technicism, and economism, and yet the very fruits of that worship undercut the possibilities of the very future it promises us. Moreover, the problem is far from “just economic”. The dominant economic systems in place have a huge cost in human terms and in terms of damage done to the creation. I do not believe it is a stretch to call the results of the current economic empire ecocide, and possibly also genocide. The fruits of progress have not been increased prosperity; rather they have been turmoil resulting in conflict and “terrorism” (conditions the “war on terror” ironically reinforces), the Damoclean sword of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, and the increasing murder of God’s creation, the destruction of earth and depletion of resources, and despoliation of nature. This is a murder in which Christians have often all-too-willingly participated.

The myth of progress in its economic manifestation requires constant growth (and indeed the concrete systems in place supported by the myth will collapse without it – that is the real danger of recession). This requires a planet with finite resources to provide resources for infinite growth, while the profit motive supports increasingly wasteful use of those very resources (think “planned obsolescence”). While the nations of the world have been aware of the environmental crisis for some time, it has increased, not decreased over that time, particularly over the past couple of decades when awareness has drastically increased. This should not surprise us, as “an expansionary economic ethic necessarily destroys the earth.” An economics that “knows nothing of contentment, of ‘enough’, necessarily sacrifices the environment (and especially the environment of others) iin order to satiate its greed. It is powerless to do anything else” (Walsh, p. 43).

Deficit financing and environmental destruction go hand-in-hand – both destroy the prospects of the future. “A progress-oriented, future-facing society is robbing its own grandchildren of a healthy future” (Walsh, p. 44).

In light of this, what can be our response? With the false hope of progress revealed to be empty and destructive, the only solution can be to turn to the God of creation, the God who lovingly formed the earth, to whom all the earth belongs and everything that is in it – to turn from our faith in idols that destroy and do not save, and to prophetically engage the culture with grief and contrition, but also with hope that God will be who God has said he will be, and that God will make good on the promise that all things are being made new (Rev. 21:5). I refer you at this point to the essay linked at the top of this blog entitled “Prophetic” in hopes that it will stimulate your thinking. I’m also still asking the same questions as I was in this piece I wrote over 2 years ago. In light of the need to diagnose our current problem as not just a political, economic, or ecological problem, but primarily as a spiritual problem, one that persists in large part because of the enculturation of the church and its failure to live prophetically, I think it’s appropriate to close this post with the words of the Ash Wednesday collect.

Almighty and merciful God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent;
create in us new and contrite hearts,
so that when we turn to you and confess our sins
we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness;

through Jesus Christ our Redeemer
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

May God give us imaginations to live prophetically in this time, and in the time that is to come.

Glen Ford on Obama and MLK

Glen Ford is the executive editor of Black Agenda Report. This article hits on a number of points I’ve had swirling about in my head the past several days, which I hope to be able to collect coherently and post soon.

Yes, the article is from Al-Jazeera’s English site. If people can get over that fact and realize that Al-Jazeera is not a “terrorist news channel” (I have actually heard people call it that), they’ll find the quality of commentary and fact-gathering is consistently top-notch and often provides perspective we are SORELY lacking in our American media vacuum.

Excerpt:

When the New York Times describes the emerging Obama administration as “centre-right,” there is not much for an honest progressive to defend – and most African-Americans are progressive on economic issues and questions of war and peace.

Beyond a ritual counting of the president-elect’s African-American appointees, most African-Americans seem oblivious to the political nature of his cabinet, his policy pronouncements and shameful silences.

More likely, they pretend to be oblivious so as not to lose that once-in-a-lifetime feeling that happened when a black man won.

It is not simply that the Obama-ites failed to muster a defence in Harlem or Baltimore or other venues; admittedly, it is difficult to defend the indefensible.

What is most shocking – maddening – is their rejection of any political or moral standard for evaluating the black soon-to-be president.

All that remains is the fact of Obama’s power and the delusion that blacks somehow share in that power.

Ford goes on to say that Obama actually compares more to Lyndon Johnson than to Dr. King, if you must compare him to a political figure from the 1960’s. King realized that a movement for equality and economic uplift of those who are underprivileged cannot co-exist with war, a view most decidedly not shared by Obama.

Full text of the article