America in decline - Noam Chomsky

America in decline - Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky analyses the whithering of the American super-power and its causes.

"It is a common theme" that the United States, which "only a few years ago was hailed to stride the world as a colossus with unparalleled power and unmatched appeal is in decline, ominously facing the prospect of its final decay," Giacomo Chiozza writes in the current Political Science Quarterly.

The theme is indeed widely believed. And with some reason, though a number of qualifications are in order. To start with, the decline has proceeded since the high point of U.S. power after World War II, and the remarkable triumphalism of the post-Gulf War '90s was mostly self-delusion.

Another common theme, at least among those who are not willfully blind, is that American decline is in no small measure self-inflicted. The comic opera in Washington this summer, which disgusts the country and bewilders the world, may have no analogue in the annals of parliamentary democracy.

The spectacle is even coming to frighten the sponsors of the charade. Corporate power is now concerned that the extremists they helped put in office may in fact bring down the edifice on which their own wealth and privilege relies, the powerful nanny state that caters to their interests.

Corporate power's ascendancy over politics and society -- by now mostly financial -- has reached the point that both political organizations, which at this stage barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.

For the public, the primary domestic concern is unemployment. Under current circumstances, that crisis can be overcome only by a significant government stimulus, well beyond the recent one, which barely matched decline in state and local spending -- though even that limited initiative probably saved millions of jobs.

For financial institutions the primary concern is the deficit. Therefore, only the deficit is under discussion. A large majority of the population favor addressing the deficit by taxing the very rich (72 percent, 27 percent opposed), reports a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Cutting health programs is opposed by overwhelming majorities (69 percent Medicaid, 78 percent Medicare). The likely outcome is therefore the opposite.

The Program on International Policy Attitudes surveyed how the public would eliminate the deficit. PIPA director Steven Kull writes, "Clearly both the administration and the Republican-led House (of Representatives) are out of step with the public's values and priorities in regard to the budget."

The survey illustrates the deep divide: "The biggest difference in spending is that the public favored deep cuts in defense spending, while the administration and the House propose modest increases. The public also favored more spending on job training, education and pollution control than did either the administration or the House."

The final "compromise" -- more accurately, capitulation to the far right -- is the opposite throughout, and is almost certain to lead to slower growth and long-term harm to all but the rich and the corporations, which are enjoying record profits.

Not even discussed is that the deficit would be eliminated if, as economist Dean Baker has shown, the dysfunctional privatized health care system in the U.S. were replaced by one similar to other industrial societies', which have half the per capita costs and health outcomes that are comparable or better.

The financial institutions and Big Pharma are far too powerful for such options even to be considered, though the thought seems hardly Utopian. Off the agenda for similar reasons are other economically sensible options, such as a small financial transactions tax.

Meanwhile new gifts are regularly lavished on Wall Street. The House Appropriations Committee cut the budget request for the Securities and Exchange Commission, the prime barrier against financial fraud. The Consumer Protection Agency is unlikely to survive intact.

Congress wields other weapons in its battle against future generations. Faced with Republican opposition to environmental protection, American Electric Power, a major utility, shelved "the nation's most prominent effort to capture carbon dioxide from an existing coal-burning power plant, dealing a severe blow to efforts to rein in emissions responsible for global warming," The New York Times reported.

The self-inflicted blows, while increasingly powerful, are not a recent innovation. They trace back to the 1970s, when the national political economy underwent major transformations, ending what is commonly called "the Golden Age" of (state) capitalism.

Two major elements were financialization (the shift of investor preference from industrial production to so-called FIRE: finance, insurance, real estate) and the offshoring of production. The ideological triumph of "free market doctrines," highly selective as always, administered further blows, as they were translated into deregulation, rules of corporate governance linking huge CEO rewards to short-term profit, and other such policy decisions.

The resulting concentration of wealth yielded greater political power, accelerating a vicious cycle that has led to extraordinary wealth for a fraction of 1 percent of the population, mainly CEOs of major corporations, hedge fund managers and the like, while for the large majority real incomes have virtually stagnated.

In parallel, the cost of elections skyrocketed, driving both parties even deeper into corporate pockets. What remains of political democracy has been undermined further as both parties have turned to auctioning congressional leadership positions, as political economist Thomas Ferguson outlines in the Financial Times.

"The major political parties borrowed a practice from big box retailers like Walmart, Best Buy or Target," Ferguson writes. "Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, U.S. congressional parties now post prices for key slots in the lawmaking process." The legislators who contribute the most funds to the party get the posts.

The result, according to Ferguson, is that debates "rely heavily on the endless repetition of a handful of slogans that have been battle-tested for their appeal to national investor blocs and interest groups that the leadership relies on for resources." The country be damned.

Before the 2007 crash for which they were largely responsible, the new post-Golden Age financial institutions had gained startling economic power, more than tripling their share of corporate profits. After the crash, a number of economists began to inquire into their function in purely economic terms. Nobel laureate Robert Solow concludes that their general impact may be negative: "The successes probably add little or nothing to the efficiency of the real economy, while the disasters transfer wealth from taxpayers to financiers."

By shredding the remnants of political democracy, the financial institutions lay the basis for carrying the lethal process forward -- as long as their victims are willing to suffer in silence.

Comments

MarxTrek
Aug 22 2011 20:45

Chomsky you are a genius! You said what Aufheben said in a 60page two parter in their last two issues!

mojo.rhythm
Aug 23 2011 07:03

Spot on, as usual.

I was watching RT the other day, and someone made the point that an American Spring is quite unlikely because (a) the Tea Party has the backing of the elites, and (b) the people who are most likely to revolt cannot, because they are too poor!

The working class are so materially deprived, that they cannot take on the necessary expenses for a political campaign. RT interviewed someone from the 99ers, and she said that she has trouble affording to wash her clothes. Can she afford to spend her time being an activist for social change? Heck no!

Capitalism has put the proletariat in an airtight economic stranglehold that serves the interests of the Business Class in every conceivable fashion. Unemployment is at shocking levels and projected to increase, further increasing the deficit, and giving the Republicrats more political impetus to gut social programs. Private sector unions have been shelled and bureaucratized, further eliminating a long-time source of solidarity and protection for workers, and all the positive consequences that follow from a powerful union presence. Workers have been steadily indoctrinated by neoliberal leaders, turning their class hatreds into animosity towards one another, and fueling sectarian violence between proletarian populations. All this is positively euphoric if you are in the upper 1%.

For the rest of us, we have to suck it up and put our noses to the grindstone. I fear that a revolution is only possible if a transitional period of utter hell transpires first. I can't imagine what it will be like.

MarxTrek
Aug 23 2011 17:04

I would love to talk more about the notion that things have to get worse before the get better. Is that what you mean by "utter hell"?

shug
Aug 24 2011 11:53

While it’s undoubtedly true that liberal/radical commentators like Chomsky, Klein, Monbiot, Pilger etc are a useful source of information, somehow I expect Libcom posters to be a bit more iconoclastic than the hailing them as ‘genius’ would suggest. There’s an undercurrent in this Chomsky piece that suggests with the right policies, the right regulation, the right form of parliamentary oversight, then the current economic crisis could be resolved. “Under current circumstances, that crisis can be overcome only by a significant government stimulus, well beyond the recent one” …… “Not even discussed is that the deficit would be eliminated if, as economist Dean Baker has shown, the dysfunctional privatized health care system in the U.S. were replaced by one similar to other industrial societies' “……. “By shredding the remnants of political democracy, the financial institutions lay the basis for carrying the lethal process forward”. (The latter quote appears to suggest that sometime in the past political democracy had some kind of real content rather than always being an expression of class rule.) Chomsky further writes: “The self-inflicted blows, while increasingly powerful, are not a recent innovation. They trace back to the 1970s, when the national political economy underwent major transformations, ending what is commonly called "the Golden Age" of (state) capitalism.Two major elements were financialization (the shift of investor preference from industrial production to so-called FIRE: finance, insurance, real estate) and the offshoring of production.” This is true, but the implication seems to be this was the result of the machinations of a particular robber barron faction of the state, rather than the result of the inherent logic of capitalist accumulation. The “golden age” of state capitalism – the 50’s and 60’s – were the result of the massive destruction of capital (and slaughter of millions) in the second world war. By the 70’s, capital’s crisis was back, and it’s response, as always, was to increase the exploitation of the working class. The social wage came under attack, production was moved to where wage labour was cheapest, and debt was used to maintain consumption. And meanwhile huge masses of capital that couldn’t be profitably invested in production any more swilled around global markets fuelling the huge global fictitious capital Ponzi scheme. But the heart of all of this is capital’s accumulation crisis (and for me only the falling rate of profit theory of Marx, Mattick, Grossman etc offers a convincing explanation). There’s much hot air being spouted by leftists/liberals/radicals that with proper regulation, proper taxation, proper long-sightedness, the crisis can be avoided. Even if this were the case ( which it isn’t) capitalism is a form of class rule and ruling classes rule in their own interests; its crisis is chronic - revolution isn’t just a nice idea, but crucial if we are to avoid barbarism. Imagining that a regulated, ‘fairer’ class rule would solve the crisis is both reactionary and as sensible as suggesting that if only feudalism’s robber barrons had been a bit more regulated and ‘fair’ we could still be living under feudalism.

Mojo’s claim that the unions, protectors of the national interest, mediators in the exploitation of workers, and recruiting sergeants for capitalism in times of war, are a “long-time source of solidarity and protection for workers, and all the positive consequences that follow from a powerful union presence”, suggests we have a radically different understanding of their role and practice over the past 100 years.

Chilli Sauce
Aug 24 2011 13:17

In short, yeah, Chomsky has gotten progressively more social-democratic in his old age.

TRYYEOMD
Aug 26 2011 00:04

Suggesting that the current government(s) and institutions could be operated in a manner that more fairly distributes wealth and allows for a more fairly distributed economic recovery is a far different thing from suggesting that a state is required and ultimately advantageous to the population. Chomsky's arguments are almost always based on pure historical observations and logical conclusions drawn from those observations. Take his observations for what they are, historically accurate truths, but don't try to extrapolate his personal beliefs and ideals from them.

piter
Aug 26 2011 06:44
Quote:
Take his observations for what they are, historically accurate truths, but don't try to extrapolate his personal beliefs and ideals from them.

I feel that this is exactly the problem with Chomsky, revolutionnary politics is for him "ideal and beliefs" but he don't really takes it as something practical, so in practice he takes "social-democratic" stands not revolutionnary ones, and his historical analysis don't goes beyond that. it is one thing to show the possibility of a "fairer" bourgeois state, but a revolutionnary must also point that it has nothing to do with human emancipation.

TRYYEOMD
Aug 27 2011 07:57

@piter To reaffirm his anarchist principles, Chomsky could end every essay he writes with "PS - Authority Principal etc etc etc. SMASH THE STATE!" but I don't see a need for that. Whether you personally see it fit to "bestow" Noam with the title of Revolutionary, that is obviously up to you. I find it much more "revolutionary" to have the guts to buck the anarchist norm (in this case simply pointing out historically founded truths regarding a "'fairer' bourgeois state"), than to mold otherwise relevant observations around a predetermined belief system. Being unable to accept truths, regardless of their political connotations, is the exact same rational that right-wing evangelicals in the US use to sustain their beliefs and actions. The truth is not my enemy.

Malva
Aug 27 2011 08:10

@TRYYEOMD There is no such thing as the 'Truth'. Things happen in the objective world but how you interpret them is highly subjective. The point that Piter is making, correct me if I'm wrong, is that the subjective interpretation brought by Chomsky as a historian doesn't offer a revolutionary perspective it only offers a Leftist/Democratic-Socialist perspective and therefore is of questionable use.

LBird
Aug 27 2011 08:34
Malva wrote:
There is no such thing as the 'Truth'. Things happen in the objective world but how you interpret them is highly subjective.

Completely agree, Malva, as long as we agree that the 'subject' is a 'social entity', not an 'isolated individual'.

'Truth' is not the same as 'reality'. 'Truth' is reality seen from a social perspective.

TRYYEOMD
Aug 27 2011 09:05

@Malva I had a college professor that loathed the word "truth." He researched and had an amazing grasp of the history of what we think of as and how we analyze "truth." This included that it is fundamentally impossible to prove the system that we use to recognize ideas or theories as "truths" within its own parameters. This is a difficult concept to envision but it can be summed up like this; 1. The basic law of truth is that facts, to be considered as such, must be reproducible under exact laboratory conditions or the "scientific method." 2. Statement 1 can not be proven by its own measure because there are no laboratory conditions with which to test it. So fine, there are no truths, everything is subjective, Chomsky is a Democratic-Socialist. Meanwhile I will live in the real world where reproducibility is as good a measure as I have for "truth" or "fact" or "authenticity" or what-have-you as I can find. So when Noam says "Under current circumstances, that crisis can be overcome only by a significant government stimulus" it is from a point of reproducibility drawn from historical events (a conclusion I would hope would stretch across political allegiance because of its historical foundation). It may not be "truth" but I'll take it as my closest option.
As Daniel Guerin says "Truth alone is revolutionary." Even if you remove the word "truth" from this statement and replace it with learned "reproducibility drawn from historical events" or what we more commonly refer to as "knowledge", it loses no weight. Again, it is up to the reader to determine whether or not Chomsky holds a "revolutionary perspective" but I believe that all logical and historically founded observations are useful. Stating it is of "questionable use" is only valid if you subscribe to a personally or ideologically selective and thus reaffirming view of history.

Malva
Aug 27 2011 09:05

@LBird. Yes. Although I am not sure what you mean by your last sentence. The concept of 'Truth' with a capital T is just an argument from authority used to mask that something is actually highly social/subjective in origin.

Malva
Aug 27 2011 09:19

@TRYYMEOD I don't deny that what Chomsky says is 'true' and backed up by evidence within his own framework of thinking. It is more that I don't really care about how a social-democrat analyses events because that analysis is only useful for realising social-democratic goals. In the same way I don't care how a racist analyses immigration. They might be right that immigration could have been stopped by doing such and such a thing but its a goal that is totally contrary to my own and makes too many assumptions that are contrary to my own: that immigration is a bad thing. Or that a 'fairer' bourgeois state is the answer to the problems facing people who live in the geographic region currently known as the United States. (Forgive the hyperbolic analogy. I was only thinking of an obvious example. I don't think being a Social Democrat is the same as being a racist! tongue).

LBird
Aug 27 2011 09:25
Malva wrote:
@LBird. Yes. Although I am not sure what you mean by your last sentence. The concept of 'Truth' with a capital T is just an argument from authority used to mask that something is actually highly social/subjective in origin.

.

LBird wrote:
'Truth' is not the same as 'reality'. 'Truth' is reality seen from a social perspective.

Nah, you're correct, of course. I just happen to have started both sentences with the word for the concept 'truth', and so used a capital letter.

I'm impregnated with bourgeois ideological conditioning about 'correct spelling and grammar'!

And I don't wan't to pretend to be 'down wid de kids' or a 'yoof'.

But, to prevent a spurious ideological conflict with a fellow Communist, you can have it your way:

'truff ain't reality, bro, innit? truff is de communist yoof!'

Sigh...

[fuckin' progress...]

Malva
Aug 27 2011 09:39

@LBird am no longer confused. tongue

AIW
Sep 11 2011 09:29
Quote:
Faced with Republican opposition to environmental protection, American Electric Power, a major utility, shelved "the nation's most prominent effort to capture carbon dioxide from an existing coal-burning power plant, dealing a severe blow to efforts to rein in emissions responsible for global warming,"

Capturing carbon dioxide from power station emissions is pointless because the energy required to capture such emissions would be more than the energy you got from the power station. That's why power stations offer planners "Carbon Capture Ready" of "15% Carbon Capture" rather than "15% less emissions per unit power delivered". It's better for the environment to just burn the coal than to burn it and then try to catch the gasses in some kind of bull shit machine. It's less damaging again to use the coal to make steel for renewable energies. Carbon Capture is a bosses lie that has been promoted by collaborating union officials.