25 November 2008

American Gorbachev

The America our new president inherits bears an uncanny resemblance to our old enemy, the Soviet Union—right before it went under. Our country’s paranoia and stubbornness have secured us indifferent allies and intractable commitments. Not only is there Afghanistan—still Afghanistan—where we fight the same enemy we once created to bleed the Russians, but just to show that we can do everything twice as much, twice as well, as anybody else, we’ve added Iraq. And as we export our defective version of democracy to the Middle East, in Latin America, our own “near abroad,” our efforts have raised resistance to American influence to new levels. The Chileans, the Argentines, the Bolivians—they were pioneers, they privatized everything, and look at them now. Our satellites are dropping from their orbits! But what is to be done? As Colin Powell once said: “We do deserts, we don’t do mountains.”

Late-imperial malaise prevails on the home front too. Our new President presides over a recession (if not worse), a dilapidated infrastructure, an aging population, and more numerous environmental catastrophes: wildfires and drought in the Southwest, a longer and more brutal hurricane season along the Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard, harbingers of greater, unknown changes to come. We didn’t have a Chernobyl, but we had Katrina. (Or was it Katarina?)

There’s also the problem of the government itself. It wasn’t discussed much in the campaign. No anchorperson asked the candidates: What will the next President do to restore trust in American government and democracy? People may not like George Bush, but they have been liking Congress even less. They think the politicians are in it for themselves, or care more for party than for country, or are too tightly intertwined with the heads of industry: nomenklatura, in short. It may not matter that, like the Soviets did, we have a lovely Constitution.

What happened to us? In the earlier days of the cold war, America’s struggle with the Soviet Union was supposed to be the struggle of democracy against totalitarianism. (Never mind that half the guys we overthrew—from Arbenz and Mossadegh onward—had been democratically elected.) Then, in the ’80s, following Reagan and his party, America’s gradual defeat of the Soviet Union was set down to the inevitable triumph of capitalism over communism. This story, which also became the Democratic Party’s narrative, and, for much of the last two decades, the whole world’s fairy tale, did America the disservice of recasting it in the image made for us by our former adversaries: that of the capitalist imperialist. With our invasion of Iraq, we at last fully embraced the caricature. (The Bush people, in drawing up new laws allowing 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi banks, mines, and factories, and permitting the repatriation of 100 percent of profits, revealed what they thought a really lovely constitution looked like.) By throwing Marx into the dustbin, we accidentally dusted off and polished his view of history as the history of class struggle. Meanwhile, the self-evident truth of free-market thought has in recent months come to resemble the statist gospel of the Soviets. Who believes in it now?

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We tell our shrink—an NYU student shrink, really it’s as cheap as beauty school haircuts—that we don’t really think America will turn into a latter-day Soviet Russia.

“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?” the shrink replies.

But aren’t all dreams wish fulfillments of a kind?

“Who’s the Freudian here?”

Well, do we secretly hate America? Do we want it to fail? Is that what our dream was telling us? No, what we really want, our actual heart’s desire—

“Now we’re getting somewhere.”

—we want a President who will end the cold war!

“Hmn?”

Don’t you see? Gorbachev tried to end the war—and did, only things got out of hand—and we want a President with the courage to abandon the false ideological struggle between capitalism and everything else. Let the members of our old bloc go their own way—let them be Bolivarians if they want. We won’t intervene. We also believe in glasnost: at home, we need a new intellectual openness to wriggle free of the intolerant “old thinking.” Abroad, we need to stop staring into people’s eyes to see their souls, and start reminding them of American sanity and civility. And we want electoral reform while we’re at it—proportional representation, instant run-off voting, public financing of campaigns, all that stuff—because the way the nomenklatura currently acquire their posts has them flattering ideologues and servicing lobbyists. And we want perestroika, because without some economic restructuring we’re sunk. You can’t hold down wages while increasing consumer spending forever. You can’t run an economy on petroleum, debt, and accounting tricks!

We want our new President to be an American Gorbachev—to preserve the country by changing it—if only it’s not too late for him to avoid Gorbachev’s fate.

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