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Dear Europe


I’m growing a little weary of post-election European commentary about the dangerous “stupidity” of the American masses. The reason for the commentary is of course the, well, unwise election (the first one actually) of the dangerous Bush, an action that was in fact based to no small extent on mass ignorance. The overseas reaction is understandable and predictable I’ve been saying for some time that bringing back Dubya Bush would significantly erode the welcome distinction that the rest of the world tends to make between the American people (“we like you”) and the American government and policy (“it’s just your government’s policies we don’t like”). Still, Kerry was hardly a champion of noble human Enlightenment and was thoroughly committed to the bloody racist imperial occupation of Iraq and had worked quite hard to distance himself from domestic peace and justice forces. Whatever mild efforts he would have made towards sanity and decency in foreign and domestic policy — the left tactical voting argument on his behalf was always more about what he wouldn’t do (privatize Social Security, drill in Alaska, attack Syria and Iran and wherever) than what he would do —- would have been qualified by right wing domination in Congress, judiciary, the state legislatures, and the powerful daily media “noise machine.” Not to mention his basic allegiance to corporate Neoliberal capitalism. So we’re all dangerous morons because we brought back Bush. But we would have been, what, benevolent, knowledgeable geniuses if we’d gone 2 percentage points differently and maybe tipped the “Winner-Take-All” Electoral College to John “I am not a Redistribution Democrat” and “I Participated in the Crucifixion of Southeast Asia” and “I Have a Plan to More Effectively Subordinate Iraq” Kerry? Please. Basically the US electorate breaks down about one third Republican, one third Democrat, and one third disengaged…that’s what we’ve seen in recent elections and it was still going on despite relatively large turnout in the last ‘wartime’ election. And the rise of the right ‘backlash’ forces, heavily weighted by Evangelicals, in the US, simply isn’t new. It gets a little tiring as a veteran observer of the American political scene, to see it re-discovered again and again. The Liberal Consensus cracked up in 1968 and Nixon and then Reagan relied to no small extent on the same “paranoid-style” (Richard Hofstader) forces that have helped make the loathsome Dubya into a two-termer. Whether Bush II will last four more years depends on whether or not God tells him how to blow up the planet. One of the biggest differences between the citizenries of the United States and Europe is that the second is much better informed about global and domestic events. The European media, as Mike Albert recently told me, “is way more combative and knowledgeable than here,” so that “the [European] populace, around many matters is far less ignorant, and in some instances even pretty well informed.” Albert also points out that the Italians and the Spanish have “elected outright fascists,” referring to openly neo-fascist elected officials in the Popular Party (Spain) and in Berlusconi’s “Forza Italia” (Italy). And “while there is a much larger and more effective social democratic sector in Europe – in some places ascendant and in other places not”, Albert adds, “there seems to less of a truly radical left and perhaps even of a progressive but organized left outside labor. The anti-war movement seemed, much to my surprise, less lively than here, as best as I could find – even in Italy.” Consistent with the good American people/bad American government dichotomy, Americans, when polled on an issue-specific basis, don’t actually give anything like majority support to most of the imperial policies that are being enacted in their name. A critical mass of Americans was convinced to go along with the invasion of Iraq not because they actually accept America’s preventive war doctrine (just 17 percent of Americans think that the US has the unilateral right to go to war if the US “has strong evidence of that another country is acquiring weapons of mass destruction [WMD] that could be used against the US at some point in the future”) but because “their” government and media had convinced them of something that was factually incorrect: that the US was in imminent danger of being attacked by a significantly WMD-armed Saddam. According to a recent comprehensive public opinion survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, 72 percent of Americans think that that the US should remove its military presence from Iraq “if that’s what a majority of Iraqis want.” But few Americans are properly informed about the significant extent to which Iraqis would like to see the Americans leave. In a similar vein, 76 percent of Americans think the US should participate in the International Criminal Court and 71 percent think we should go along with the Kyoto global warming accord, but relatively few Americans know about the extent of America’s official opposition to both of those and other international programs that Americans actually like. Another problem that is quite different from mass “stupidity” is mass hopelessness. Even for many relatively informed Americans, there’s a shocking disconnect between what many of them believe and what they think can be accomplished and are willing or feel able to do. Their lives are often bewildering, commodified, overworked and sickening chaos. They are living under the constant disabling shock therapy of savage inequality and brazen steep hierarchy, the natural and intended result of radical domestic neoliberalism (note to Europeans: don’t let this happen to you) The main obstacle to a really broad-based progressive movement for peace, democracy, and social justice in the U.S., I increasingly suspect, is not mass loyalty to dominant institutions and their rulers. It is instead traceable to the neo-liberal, corporate-imposed erosion of the social democratic public spaces that once served as the forums in which communities and peoples debated, analyzed, and participated in political life. We have witnessed in recent decades an unprecedented decline in popular engagement, the process by which ordinary and non-affluent people assert their interests and responsibility for their common destiny. The result: privatization (consumerization and commodification) of American life, with its concomitant sense that social action and responsibility are futile propositions, stillborn by their very nature – the triumph of capital over hope. There is a broad, deep, skeptical, even cynical sense here that nothing much can be done about existing social problems — “The Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning” (one of the few Journey songs I can still listen to) — and that the only reasonable solutions to societal difficulties are to be found in the private realm, matters of purely personal correction. The world has grown too complex — too ossified — to be subject to meaningful collective agency. The resulting public vacuum is filled by a new American imperial fascism, a right-handed plutocratic state that steps in to pretend to provide the public service the social democracy would provide in a civilized place. Another key point regarding Europeans is that they have their own interrelated reckonings to make with both their own ruling-classes and with the imperial US ruling-class and that they are in a curious strategic position to act against the empire. And here I’d like to recommend perusal of the Marxist, world-systemic ruminations of Joseph Halevi, Yanis Varoufakis, and Samir Amin in a recent book from Monthly Review Press: Pox Americana: Exposing the American Empire (New York, NY: 2004). These writers point out that the Europeans have a pivotal choice to make between (1) neo-liberal Atlanticist alliance with the in-fact declining United States in the “collective imperialist” “core-state” subordination of the rest of the world (what world systemic thinkers call the “periphery” and “semi-periphery”) and (2) a more independent and social-democratic path of developing their own domestic and regional economies in ways that enhance social justice at home and greater economic, political, and even military autonomy from the parasitic US. Basically, these and other authors note, Europe stays mired in relative deflation largely because its neoliberal elites have been convinced that they must invest amounts of European surplus capital in the propping up the American economy, whose voracious appetite for foreign capital reflects the nation’s simply stunning trade and payments deficits. America is “the Global Minotaur,” a mass consumer non-producer state that totals up foreign IOUs like a junkie gathers needles. Foreign loans and capital infusions “protect the U.S. financial system from a crisis of domestic debt brought about by the unprecedented levels household and corporate net debt” (Halevi and Varoufakis). Europeans and others have tended to provide these infusions — at great cost to the development of their own societies and economies — because non-U.S. First World “elites” rely on the far flung US military empire to keep the world safe for business and exploitation and because they do not wish to be cut off from the massive US consumer market….or from vital oil supplies the US controls through direct and indirect means. And perhaps there is also here an intellectual problem….the significant extent to which European intellectuals and business persons have been infected by the US-hatched “neoliberal virus” (Amin), which provides abstract justification for maximum capital mobility across post-regulatory nation states. But now the empire has overstretched its bounds, using its preponderant military force to gain “exclusive access to the world’s second-largest oil fields” in what is certainly a brazen attempt (among other things) to control more productive and dynamic core states and regions (Europe and East Asia especially) that have much greater capacity for solid economic and social development than the declining, parasitic, debt-financed, post-industrial, dumbed-down, and military-dependent/military-addicted US. At the same time, Bushcons have tapped the “paranoid style” of fetus- and bible-obsessed proto-fascist rebellion and used 9-11 (a Bushcon security failure so great that many perhaps most people in the world think that the Bush cabal actually carried the action out [and I do not completely discount that possibility]) to fan a deep imperial bloodlust It has also granted massive tax cuts to the already obscenely wealthy few. The proto-fascism, which curiously targets the French for special ridicule but leaves the equally anti-war Germans out of the discussion (expressing a certain racist affection for perceived blond-haired Nordics perhaps?), bodes rather poorly for the civilized international cooperation that Europeans naturally want. The tax cuts mean more U.S. debt and thus a deeper American insistence upon European capital transfer, even while European economies struggle with massive structural unemployment and chronic deflation. Europeans: rail all you want about Americans’ “stupidity” but please also consider that you need to “come to terms with your own bourgeoisie” (as Canadian professor Sam Gindin puts it in the aforementioned Monthly Review book) if we are all going to meaningfully confront the Empire. You should press your elites to quit staving off the bankruptcy of American capitalism…to turn off the spigot of capital even as the Bushcons try to secure the last spigots of Persian Gulf oil. Push for a capital strike. Tell your elites — many of them already know — that participation in “collective imperialism” (Amin’s term) under US hegemony no longer serves their interests and that everyone in Europe will benefit from a more democratic and independent path. Please do not put it all on the crazy and “stupid” Americans. We are not as dumb as some may think and of course we are not “one America” as George W. Bush and Barack Obama like to proclaim but two, three and indeed many Americas. On the other hand you can see the mess this nation is in, the profound disabling of democracy that savage corporate-imposed hierarchy and ruthless commodification has imposed. Take it from me…this is a dangerous society. Any limits that you and the heroic resistance fighters in Iraq and others can impose upon our masters’ empire will be greatly appreciated, for empire is a profoundly regressive and repressive force in American domestic life and the obsession with foreign enemies – both real and perceived – and frontiers has long undercut the nation’s ability to deal with problems of peace and justice at home. The empire is the enemy of our domestic tranquility as well. Paul Street is a social policy researcher in Chicago, IL. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004).

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