[Marxism] Kevin Phillips: declinist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 16 07:42:09 MST 2006

Decline and fall
Kevin Phillips, no lefty, says that America -- addicted to oil, strangled 
by debt and maniacally religious -- is headed for doom.

By Michelle Goldberg

Mar. 16, 2006 | In 1984, the renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer 
Prize-winner Barbara Tuchman published "The March of Folly," a book about 
how, over and over again, great powers undermine and sabotage themselves. 
She documented the perverse self-destructiveness of empires that clung to 
deceptive ideologies in the face of contrary evidence, that spent 
carelessly and profligately, and that obstinately refused to change course 
even when impending disaster was obvious to those willing to see it. Such 
recurrent self-deception, she wrote, "is epitomized in a historian's 
statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all 
sovereigns: 'No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his 
belief in its essential excellence.'"

Though the last case study in "The March of Folly" was about America's war 
in Vietnam, Tuchman argued that the brilliance of the United States 
Constitution had thus far protected the country from the traumatic 
upheavals faced by most other nations. "For two centuries, the American 
arrangement has always managed to right itself under pressure without 
discarding the system and trying another after every crisis, as have Italy 
and Germany, France and Spain," she wrote. Then she suggested such 
protection could soon give way: "Under accelerating incompetence in 
America, this may change. Social systems can survive a good deal of folly 
when circumstances are historically favorable, or when bungling is 
cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size as in the United 
States during its period of expansion. Today, when there are no more 
cushions, folly is less affordable."

For all her prescience, it seems likely that Tuchman, who died in 1989, 
would have been stunned by the Brobdingnagian dimensions of American folly 
during the last six years. Just over 20 years after she wrote about the 
Constitution's miraculous endurance, it's hard to figure out how much of 
the democratic republic created by our founders still exists, and how long 
what's left will last. The country (along with the world) is in terrible 
trouble, though the extent of that trouble is both so sprawling and 
multifaceted that it's hard to get a hold on.

It's not just that America is being ruled by small and venal men, or that 
its reputation has been demolished, its army overstretched, its finances a 
mess. All of that, after all, was true toward the end of Vietnam as well. 
Now, though, there are all kinds of other lurking catastrophes, a whole 
armory of swords of Damocles dangling over a bloated, dispirited and 
anxious country. Peak oil -- the point at which oil production maxes out -- 
seems to be approaching, with disastrous consequences for America's economy 
and infrastructure. Global warming is accelerating and could bring us many 
more storms even worse than Katrina, among other meteorological nightmares. 
The spread of Avian Flu has Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human 
services, warning Americans to stockpile canned tuna and powdered milk. It 
looks like Iran is going to get a nuclear weapon, and the United States 
can't do anything to stop it. Meanwhile, America's growing religious 
fanaticism has brought about a generalized retreat from rationality, so 
that the country is becoming unwilling and perhaps unable to formulate 
policies based on fact rather than faith.

At any time, of course, one can catalog apocalyptic portents and declare 
that the end is nigh. Obviously, things in America have been bad before -- 
there has been civil war, depression, global conflagrations. The country 
seems to have exhausted its ability to elect decent leaders, but some 
savior could appear before 2008. One doesn't want to be hysterical or give 
in to rampaging pessimism. Books about America's decline in the face of an 
ascendant Japan filled the shelves in the 1980s, and a decade later, the 
country was at the height of power and prosperity.

Yet just because America has endured in the past does not mean it will in 
the future. Thus figuring out exactly how much danger we're in is 
difficult. Are things really as dire as they seem, or are anxiety and 
despair just part of the cultural moment, destined to be as ephemeral as 
the sunny mastery and flush good times of the Clinton years? It's human 
nature to believe that things will continue as they usually have, and that 
we'll once again somehow stumble intact through our looming crises. At the 
same time, it's hard to imagine a plausible scenario in which the country 
regains its equilibrium without first going through major convulsions.

So how scared should we be?

Kevin Phillips' grim new book, "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics 
of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century," puts the 
country's degeneration into historical perspective, and that perspective is 
not conducive to optimism. The title is a bit misleading, because only the 
middle section of the book, which is divided into thirds, deals with the 
religious right. The first part, "Oil and American Supremacy," is about 
America's prospects as oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, and the last 
third, "Borrowed Prosperity," is about America's unsustainable debt. 
Phillips' argument is that imperial overstretch, dependence on obsolete 
energy technologies, intolerant and irrational religious fervor, and 
crushing debt have led to the fall of previous great powers, and will 
likely lead to the fall of this one. It reads, in some ways, like a 
follow-up to "The March of Folly."

"Conservative true believers will scoff: the United States is sue generis, 
they say, a unique and chosen nation," writes Phillips. "What did or did 
not happen to Rome, imperial Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Britain is 
irrelevant. The catch here, alas, is that these nations also thought they 
were unique and that God was on their side. The revelation that He was 
apparently not added a further debilitating note to the later stages of 
each national decline."

There's a sad irony to the fact that Phillips has come to write this book. 
His 1969 book, "The Emerging Republican Majority," both predicted and 
celebrated Republican hegemony. As chief elections and voting patterns 
analyst for the 1968 Nixon campaign, he is often credited for the Southern 
strategy that led to the realignment of the Republican Party toward Sun 
Belt social conservatives. Today's governing Republican coalition is partly 
his Frankenstein.

Phillips has been disassociating himself from the contemporary GOP for some 
time now -- his last book, "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the 
Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush," attacked the presidential clan as 
a corrupt threat to American democracy. His concern with the growing power 
of religious fundamentalism was evident then. As he wrote in the 
introduction, "Part of what restored the Bushes to the White House in 2000 
through a southern-dominated electoral coalition was the emergence of 
George W. Bush during the 1990s as a born-again favorite of conservative 
Christian evangelical and fundamentalist voters. His 2001-2004 policies and 
rhetoric confirmed that bond. The idea that the head of the Religious Right 
and the President of the United States can be the same person is a 
precedent-shattering circumstance that had barely crept into national 
political discussion."

Since then, there's been much more attention paid to the role of 
evangelical Christians in the Republican Party. In "American Theocracy," 
though, Phillips brings something important to the discussion -- a global 
historical perspective on the relationship between growing religious zeal 
and the end of national greatness. "[T]he precedents of past leading world 
economic powers show that blind faith and religious excesses -- the rapture 
seems to be both -- have often contributed to national decline, sometimes 
even being in its forefront."

To tell the story of the impending end of American supremacy, Phillips 
ranges through history and across subjects, going into detail about 
seemingly tangential matters like the production of whale oil in 17th 
century Holland. It can be a slog -- Phillips is sometimes a dry writer who 
builds his arguments by slapping down numbers and statistics like a 
bricklayer. (At least he's self-aware -- at one point in his section on 
religion, he notes, "By this point the reader may feel baptized by 
statistical and denominational total immersion.") Much of what he writes in 
individual chapters has been covered elsewhere in numerous books about peak 
oil, the religious right and economic profligacy.

But Phillips' book is very valuable in the way he brings all the strands 
together and puts them in context. He has a history of good judgment that 
affords him the authority to make big-picture claims: In 1993, the New York 
Times Book Review wrote of him, "through more than 25 years of analysis and 
predictions, nobody has been as transcendentally right about the outlines 
of American political change as Kevin Phillips." Other recent books foresee 
American meltdown; James Howard Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" deals with 
some of the same gathering threats as "American Theocracy." Kunstler is a 
far more engaging writer than Phillips, but he's also more prone to 
doomsday speculation, and he sometimes seems to relish the apocalyptic 
scenario he conjures. It's Phillips' sobriety and gravitas that gives 
"American Theocracy" ballast, and that makes it frightening.

The first section, "Oil and American Supremacy," covers the history of oil 
in American politics, both foreign and domestic, and what it means for 
America when oil starts running out. The subject of peak oil has been 
extensively covered elsewhere, yet it remains on the fringes of much of the 
political debate in America, despite its massive implications. Essentially, 
peak oil is the point at which more than half the earth's available oil has 
been extracted. "After this stage, getting each barrel out requires more 
pressure, more expense, or both," writes Phillips. "After a while, despite 
nominal reserves that may be considerable, more energy is required to find 
and extract a barrel of oil than the barrel itself contains." Before that 
point comes, scarcity will drive prices to unheard-of levels. If that 
happens, the entire American way of life -- the car culture, agribusiness, 
frequent air travel -- will become untenable.

Experts differ about when we might pass the peak, but as Phillips notes, 
"even relative optimists see it only two or three decades away." 
Unfortunately, the United States is uniquely unable to grapple with the 
mere idea of life after cheap gasoline, because the country's entire 
sprawling infrastructure was built on the assumption that oil would remain 
plentiful. Writes Phillips, "[B]ecause the twenty-first-century United 
States has a pervasive oil and gas culture from its own earlier zenith -- 
with an intact cultural and psychological infrastructure -- it's no 
surprise that Americans cling to and defend an ingrained fuel habit 
hardening of old attitudes and reaffirmation of the consumption ethic since 
those years may signal an inability to turn back."

The end of previous empires, Phillips explains, also corresponded with the 
obsolescence of their dominant energy source. The Netherlands was the "the 
wind and water hegemon" from 1590 to the 1720s. In the mid-18th century, 
Britain, harnessing the newly discovered power of coal, became the leading 
world power, only to be left behind by oil-fueled America. "The evidence is 
that leading world economic powers, after an energy golden era, lose their 
magic -- and not by accident," he writes. "The infrastructures created by 
these unusual, even quirky, successes eventually became economic obstacle 
courses and inertia-bound burdens."

"American Theocracy's" middle section deals with religion. Once again, the 
book's value lies not in any new revelations -- Phillips mostly relies on 
the work of other reporters and analysts -- but in the context provided. In 
his sweeping overview, he misses some subtleties. He writes, for example, 
"Opponents of evolution -- successful so far in parts of the South -- are 
indeed busy trying to ban the teaching of it and textbooks that support it 
in many northern conservative or politically divided areas." That's not 
quite true -- Darwin's foes might dream of the day when he's expunged from 
the schools, but right now, their focus is on having creationism or 
"intelligent design" taught alongside evolution, not in place of it.

That's a relatively small point, but it's indicative of the rather cursory 
treatment Phillips gives to the dynamics of the movement he decries. He's 
much more interested in what it portends -- a kind of soft theocracy that 
itself is an indication of an empire in decline. What he's talking about is 
not a Christian version of Iran, but a country ruled by an evangelical 
party whose electoral machinery is integrated into a network of 
fundamentalist churches.

Again, the most fascinating part of this section lies in Phillips' 
comparisons of America with past global powers -- the intolerance of 
Christian Rome, the militant, expansionist Catholicism of 17th century 
Spain, the theocratic Calvinism of the mid-18th century Netherlands and the 
evangelical enthusiasms of Victorian Britain. Toward the end of the 
Netherlands' worldwide dominance, he writes, "Dutch Reformed pastors called 
for national renewal and incessantly attacked laziness, prostitution, 
French fashions, immigrants and homosexuals."

Phillips' final section, about national debt and the increasingly 
insubstantial nature of the United States economy, follows the model of the 
rest of the book, offering a summary of others' research on the subject, 
followed by historical analysis. What concerns Phillips here is not just 
the country's staggering national debt -- although that concerns him plenty 
-- but also the shift from a manufacturing to a financial-services economy, 
which he calls financialization. Instead of making things, Americans 
increasingly make money by moving money around. Finance, he writes, 
"fattened during the early 2000s -- this notwithstanding the 2000-2002 
collapse of the stock market bubble -- on a feast of low interest 
enablement, credit-card varietals, exotic mortgages, derivatives, 
hedge-funded strategies, and structured debt instruments that would have 
left 1920s scheme meister Charles Ponzi in awe."

Unless the United States proves immune from the economic laws that have 
heretofore prevailed, this arrangement is unsustainable. As former Federal 
Reserve chairman Paul Volcker wrote last April in the Washington Post, 
under the placid surface of the seemingly steady American economy, "there 
are disturbing trends: huge imbalances, disequilibria, risks -- call them 
what you will. Altogether the circumstances seem to me as dangerous and 
intractable as any I can remember, and I can remember quite a lot. What 
really concerns me is that there seems to be so little willingness or 
capacity to do much about it."

Again, as Phillips shows, the historical record provides warnings: 
"Historically, top world economic powers have found 'financialization' a 
sign of late-stage debilitation, marked by excessive debt, great disparity 
between rich and poor, and unfolding economic decline."

Looking at the possible crises facing the country, Phillips writes of the 
"potential for an incendiary convergence if -- a big if, to be sure -- 
several of the worry-wart camps prove to be correct 
 I can't remember 
anything like this multiplicity of reasonably serious calculations and 
warnings. It is as if the United States, like the poet Oliver Wendell 
Holmes's 'One-Hoss Shay,' is about to lose all its wheels at once."

For someone who is profoundly uneasy about America's future right now, 
there's something perversely comforting about reading this from a figure 
like Phillips. It suggests that one's enveloping sense of foreboding is 
based on something more than the psychological stress of living under the 
Bush kakistocracy. A feeling that the world is falling apart is usually 
associated with neurosis; now, it's possible that it's a sign of sanity.

But if Phillips is correct, the coming years are going to be ugly for all 
of us, not just blithe exurbanites with SUVs and floating-rate mortgages. 
With oil growing scarce and America unable or unwilling to even begin 
weaning itself away, we could see a future of resource wars that would 
inflame jihadi terrorism and bankrupt the country, shredding what's left of 
the social safety net. As Phillips notes, a collapsed economy would leave 
many debt-ridden Americans as what Democratic leaders have called 
"modern-day indentured servants," paying back constantly compounding debt 
with no hope of escape via bankruptcy. The prospect of social breakdown 
looms. The desperation of New Orleans could end up being a preview.

Desperate economic times are not good for democracy. The Great Depression, 
which ushered in the New Deal, was an anomaly in this regard. In an 
Atlantic Monthly article published last summer, the Harvard economist 
Benjamin Friedman wrote, "American history includes several episodes in 
which stagnating or declining incomes over an extended period have 
undermined the nation's tolerance and threatened citizens' freedoms." 
During the Midwestern farm crisis of the 1980s, when tens of thousands of 
families lost their land due to a combination of rising interest rates and 
falling crop prices, the Posse Comitatus, a far-right paramilitary network, 
made exceptional recruiting inroads. One poll had more than a quarter of 
Farm Belt respondents blaming "International Jewish bankers" for their 
region's woes.

The right's ideological infrastructure has only grown stronger since then. 
Kunstler may not have been exaggerating when he told Salon, "Americans will 
vote for cornpone Nazis before they will give up their entitlements to a 
McHouse and a McCar."

Eventually, like Spain, England and the Netherlands, the United States, 
shorn of imperial fantasy, may evolve into something better than what it is 
today. But terrible times seem likely to come first -- years of fuel 
shortages, foreign aggression, millenarian madness and political 
demagoguery. A Democratic president could stop exacerbating the country's 
problems and could reconcile with the rest of the world, but it's unclear 
how much he or she could really turn things around. America's economic and 
energy foundations are too badly eroded to be restored anytime soon. 
Besides, redistricting and the overrepresentation of rural states in the 
Senate mean that the GOP will remain powerful even if a decisive majority 
of Americans vote against it. Zealous conservatives in Congress and the 
media will almost certainly mount an assault on any future Democratic 
president just as they did on Bill Clinton. Governmental deadlock, as 
opposed to flagrant recklessness and misrule, is probably the best that can 
be hoped for, at least for the next few years.

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, it was clear to everyone that the United 
States had suffered a hideous blow, but few had any idea just how bad it 
was. It didn't occur to most people to wonder whether the country's very 
core had been seriously damaged; if anything, America had never seemed so 
united and resolute. Almost five years later, with Bush still in the White 
House, a whole cavalcade of catastrophes bearing down on us and a lack of 
political will to address any of them, the scope of Osama bin Laden's 
triumph is coming sickeningly into focus. He didn't start the country on 
its march of folly, but he spurred America toward bombastic nationalism, 
military quagmire and escalating debt, all of which have made its access to 
the oil controlled by the seething countries of the Middle East ever more 
precarious. Now the United States is careening down a well-worn road faster 
than anyone could have imagined.

-- By Michelle Goldberg



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