Friday, August 5, 2011

America’s Billionaires’ Coup (Part I)

The OB Rag just reprinted the following articles from two of Europe’s largest papers, Der Spiegel, in Germany, and the Guardian, from Britain, portraying the U.S. today as a third world banana republic controlled by a billionaire’s coup.
Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
 The articles are interesting for their outsiders’ perspectives and honest portrayal of the rapid and intense decline in living standards for the majority of Americans. However, they also both suffer from the same bogus nostalgia for a nonexistent golden age, in which “West” meant something noble and wonderful, and America was its respected leader.

The Der Spiegel article is reprinted below, with my commentary in italics. The Guardian article will be reprinted tomorrow, as Part II.

Once Upon a Time in the West
by Jakob Augstein / Der Spiegel (Germany) / August 4, 2011
Hate has become a part of the everyday culture of American politics.
This week, the United States nearly allowed itself to succumb to economic disaster. Increasingly, the divided country has more in common with a failed state than a democracy. In the face of America’s apparent political insanity, Europe must learn to take care of itself.

The “solution” to the debt crisis may actually be the beginning and cause of an economic disaster. It is true that the debt crisis was a fraud and fantasy, used by Republicans to ramrod through spending cuts. But they essentially succeeded. The spending cuts will devastate millions of Americans and exacerbate the real problem with the economy: people cannot afford to pay their living expenses because of slashed wages, unemployment, ballooning mortgage payments and evaporated equity.

The word “West” used to have a meaning. It described common goals and values, the dignity of democracy and justice over tyranny and despotism. Now it seems to be a thing of the past. There is no longer a West, and those who would like to use the word — along with Europe and the United States in the same sentence — should just hold their breath. By any definition, America is no longer a Western nation.

West may have meant “democracy” to some, but they were not paying attention very well. “West” included fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal. West included imperialism and wars of aggression by most Western countries, especially the U.S. Europeans may have once idealized American civil liberties as stronger than their own, but the U.S. still has greater civil liberties than many European countries (even if it has far fewer than a decade ago).

The US is a country where the system of government has fallen firmly into the hands of the elite. An unruly and aggressive militarism set in motion two costly wars in the past 10 years. Society is not only divided socially and politically — in its ideological blindness the nation is moving even farther away from the core of democracy. It is losing its ability to compromise.
America has changed. It has drifted away from the West.
Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

The governments of the U.S. and European countries have always been in the hands of the elite. The difference between today and the “golden age” is that unions have been so weakened that there is virtually no resistance to the greed and hubris of the wealthy. They are now unabashedly attempting things that they could only dream of doing just a few years back. In terms of militarism, there has been another change that has emboldened the U.S.: the collapse of the U.S.S.R., which served as a counterbalance with the ever present threat of the Cold War turning hot or even nuclear, should the U.S. go too far in its imperialist endeavors.

The country’s social disintegration is breathtaking. Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz recently described the phenomenon. The richest percent of Americans claim one-quarter of the country’s total income for themselves — 25 years ago that figure was 12 percent. It also possesses 40 percent of total assets, up from 33 percent 25 years ago. Stiglitz claims that in many countries in the so-called Third World, the income gap between the poor and rich has been reduced. In the United States, it has grown.

Call it a “coup” or whatever you want, but it’s still essentially just capitalism. Capitalism has always been class war declared by the rich against the rest of us, and the capitalists have always been winning this war. The difference today is that they are using weapons of mass destruction. They are fighting more aggressively than ever and meeting very little resistance.

Economist Paul Krugman, also a Nobel laureate, has written that America’s path is leading it towards the “status of a banana republic.” The social cynicism and societal indifference once associated primarily with the Third World has now become an American hallmark. This accelerates social decay because the greater the disparity grows, the less likely the rich will be willing to contribute to the common good. When a company like Apple, which with €76 billion in the bank has greater reserves at its disposal than the government in Washington, a European can only shake his head over the Republican resistance to tax increases. We see it as self-destructive.

Again, a weak labor movement makes all this possible. Wages have been steadily declining for the past 40 years in terms of buying power. As companies relocate overseas to exploit cheaper labor, competition for jobs increases and wages in the U.S. are undermined. With declining wages and purchasing power, Americans have become more dependent on cheap imported consumer products, accelerating the loss of domestic jobs. Meanwhile, automation and technological advances have pushed productivity to its highest levels ever, making workers superfluous, leading both to increased profits for the bosses and downsizing for workers. Rather than sharing the increased profits with workers or allowing them to relax and let the machines do the bulk of the work, bosses are pocketing the profits AND jettisoning the workers. The latter further increases competition for jobs and brings down overall wages.

The same applies to America’s broken political culture. The name “United States” seems increasingly less appropriate. Something has become routine in American political culture that has been absent in Germany since Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik policies of rapprochement with East Germany and the Soviet Bloc (in the 1960s and ’70s): hate. At the same time, reason has been replaced by delusion. The notion of tax cuts has taken on a cult-like status, and the limited role of the state a leading ideology. In this new American civil war, respect for the country’s highest office was sacrificed long ago. The fact that Barack Obama is the country’s first African-American president may have played a role there, too.

When was reason ever a universal trait of American culture? World War I? World War II? Scopes Monkey Trial? Internment of Japanese-Americans? Jim Crow? Fear of vaccines? Salem witch hunts? Communist witch hunts?

The West, C’est nous

There’s no deliverance in sight. One can no longer depend on politics in America. The reliance of Congress members on donations from the rich has become too great. Nor will there be any revolutionary storming of the Bastille in America. Popular anger may boil over, but the elites have succeeded in both controlling the masses and channeling their passions. Take the Tea Party, which has enjoyed godfather-like bankrolling from brothers and billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch and found a mouthpiece in Rupert Murdoch’s populist, hatred-stirring Fox News.

One never could depend on politics in American (unless they were wealthy). The difference today is that this has become very transparent to nearly everyone.

From a European perspective, it all looks very strange: it’s a different political culture. There are other rules at play, different standards. More and more we view America with the clear notion that we are different.

Still, America’s fate should serve as a warning: We must protect our political culture, our institutions and our state. The success of Thilo Sarrazin, with his anti-Muslim message, shows that even Germany isn’t free of the kind of cultural coldness that can eventually ossify the vital functions of the political system. Our society has already made significant and deplorable steps on the path towards growing inequality and de-democratization.

Nevertheless, at least one good opportunity springs from America’s fate: The further the United States distances itself from us, the more we will (have to) think for ourselves, as Europeans. The West? That’s us.
These last few paragraphs could be read as: “The European ruling elite now thinks of the American ruling elite as unstable and dangerous, a threat to their own wealth and power.”

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