8.10.2010

greenwald: what collapsing empire looks like

I'm working on a big post which is taking some time. Meanwhile, this Glenn Greenwald column was posted in comments on this thread, about the poverty-stricken city of Camden, New Jersey, preparing to close its public libraries. I'm digging it out for more exposure.

One of wmtc's themes is the United States' downward spiral into a third-world country, a place where there is only very rich and very poor, where the rich are increasingly defended against all responsibility and inconvenience, and the poor are increasingly left to fend for themselves, with no jobs, no services and few rights: a global empire whose homeland is rotting at the core. My "US regression" tag also refers to the deterioration of democracy into a form of fascism that continues to maintain an appearance of democracy. Greenwald [see original for links]:
What collapsing empire looks like

As we enter our ninth year of the War in Afghanistan with an escalated force, and continue to occupy Iraq indefinitely, and feed an endlessly growing Surveillance State, reports are emerging of the Deficit Commission hard at work planning how to cut Social Security, Medicare, and now even to freeze military pay. But a new New York Times article today illustrates as vividly as anything else what a collapsing empire looks like, as it profiles just a few of the budget cuts which cities around the country are being forced to make. This is a sampling of what one finds:
Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further -- it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

There are some lovely photos accompanying the article, including one showing what a darkened street in Colorado looks like as a result of not being able to afford street lights. Read the article to revel in the details of this widespread misery. Meanwhile, the tiniest sliver of the wealthiest -- the ones who caused these problems in the first place -- continues to thrive. Let's recall what former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson said last year in The Atlantic about what happens in under-developed and developing countries when an elite-caused financial crisis ensues:
Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or -- here's a classic Kremlin bailout technique -- the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk -- at least until the riots grow too large.

The real question is whether the American public is too apathetic and trained into submission for that to ever happen.

UPDATE: It's probably also worth noting this Wall St. Journal article from last month -- with a subheadline warning: "Back to Stone Age" -- which describes how "paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue." Utah is seriously considering eliminating the 12th grade, or making it optional. And it was announced this week that "Camden [New Jersey] is preparing to permanently shut its library system by the end of the year, potentially leaving residents of the impoverished city among the few in the United States unable to borrow a library book free."

Does anyone doubt that once a society ceases to be able to afford schools, public transit, paved roads, libraries and street lights -- or once it chooses not to be able to afford those things in pursuit of imperial priorities and the maintenance of a vast Surveillance and National Security State -- that a very serious problem has arisen, that things have gone seriously awry, that imperial collapse, by definition, is an imminent inevitability? Anyway, I just wanted to leave everyone with some light and cheerful thoughts as we head into the weekend.

My only quibble with Greenwald is likely rhetorical. There is no question of whether the US public will submit to this. The water is already boiling.

11 comments:

redsock said...

My only quibble with Greenwald is likely rhetorical. There is no question of whether the US public will submit to this.

I would bet my year's salary that he knows this. He is too smart and the historical parallels -- as he has pointed out many times -- are blindingly obvious.

L-girl said...

I'm sure he knows it, too. That's why I think I'm only quibbling with rhetoric: "The only question is..." is just a way to phrase what he certainly knows.

James said...

It's better to curse the darkness than pay the taxes to buy candles.

Some Person said...

Note to self: hide out on L-girl's couch for a while after empire falls and anarchy plagues living space.

deang said...

It's better to curse the darkness than pay the taxes to buy candles.

And in the eyes of contemporary USians, better still to refuse to acknowledge the darkness because to do so might cause others to think of you as "playing the victim." If denial doesn't work, claim that your darkness is better than anybody else's darkness in the whole wide world and that everybody else is just jealous.

John F said...

Paul Krugman wrote a column on this subject a couple of days ago (entitled "America Goes Dark"): https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/opinion/09krugman.html?_r=1&ref=paulkrugman

L-girl said...

Yes, good stuff from James and DeanG.

Some Person, if we can get rid of the current sitting government in Canada, which is starting to feel permanent, we'll be able to keep a welcome mat out for you.

John F, thanks for the Krugman link, I would have missed it.

The Mound of Sound said...

Reagan catapulted the United States into its current mess. Before him, every president, Democrat and Republican, had reduced the national debt as a percentage of GDP. Reagan undid most of what his predecessors had achieved, transforming the US in eight brief years from the world's largest creditor nation to the world's largest debtor state.

Reagan also transformed America from a culture of production to a culture of consumption, a feel-good, bubble-driven debt machine.

Reagan's start on the debt/GDP fiasco was carried on under Bush I and Bush II. Remember Cheney convincing Bush to introduce further tax cuts for the rich on the basis that Reagan had shown that "deficits don't matter"?

While the rentier class flourished from globalization, the export of America's manufacturing base in pursuit of cheap labour, the middle class was hammered. A robust middle class is the backbone of a healthy democracy, moderating extremism and serving as the vehicle for economic and social advancement. Wiping out that middle class greatly facilitated the rise of corporatism and associated oligarchy.

America's march to oligarchy was powerfully assisted by a corporatized media unshackled from concentration of ownership and cross-ownership fetters. It did indeed make the American public complacent to the undermining of their vaunted democracy.

Sad, really. Very, horribly sad.

Nigel Patel said...

If I may invoke the image of a double helix, I think there are two forces acting. (against eachother?)
One, the classic John Birch Society anti-socialism (anti-democracy) that's been a vicious cancer in the U.S. since the 1930s and moderate, good-government types who are shockingly ignorant of the ways the Birchers would like to kill them.
I think our crumble into the third world is a sign that the moderates (the left has never had more than token representation) are starting to give up.
So we get a sham of health care reform and pretend financial regulation but public education disappears into history to join the pay phone and the drinking fountain. (and paved public roads)

M. Yass said...

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

What in the hell is this?!?

To an idiot bureaucrat, this looks like a no-brainer: It is true that helicopters are hideously expensive to operate.

Helicopters are also the safe, civilised way to deal with things like fleeing suspects: The bird in the air keeps track of the suspect while officers on the ground slowly box him/her in. No need for high-speed pursuits, roadblocks, discharging of weapons from vehicles, etc. All of those things inevitably end with a crash and almost always end with an officer or innocent bystander being hurt or worse.

I'm also very surprised to read this because typically there's tons of money for the police-industrial complex. If they're hurting . . . oy vey.

L-girl said...

@Nigel, that's good basic analysis, I'm sure you're right.

@MYass, I wouldn't have noticed that detail. It's true law enforcement usually have the funds, but I guess on the local level... as you say, oy vey.

@Mound, yes. Reagan. Obviously many of the seeds already had been planted - foreign wars of conquest, for example, were not a Reagan invention - but that was a sharp turning point in so many respects.