Lessons of History

Posted: November 24, 2007 in Economics, Politics

The oft-repeated trope is that those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, to which most of us laconically reply “So what? Big deal.” We’ve taken our eyes off the ball and don’t really care about history anymore, being contented with the illusory belief that our current stage of historical development can and will continue undisrupted into the middle of the century, which is probably the longest time horizon we really care about. But there are still plenty of academics and pundits studying history, drawing lessons from it, and sounding the klaxon regarding some threat or imminent transformation or collapse. Actually rousing citizens out of their satiated lethargy is undoubtedly too difficult a task just yet, but the alarm calls at least make for some interesting reading.

Three recent articles make comparisons between the current state of America and historical conditions here and abroad in an attempt to draw out the lessons and perhaps inspire changes necessary to stave off the collapse of our cherished institutions (read: the American way of life). In no particular order, the first in The Guardian appears to be a prepublication summary by Naomi Wolf of her new book The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, which compares fascist shifts in history to current America. The second in The Philadelphia Inquirer is an opinion column by Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, which column describes the decline of the so-called American Empire. The third is a transcript in The American Prospect of Robert Kuttner, author of The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity, giving testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services regarding parallels between fiscal policy in the 1920s and now.

The three authors are flogging their books, of course, and the arguments, parallels, and lessons drawn from history may lack complete novelty (often considered a damning criticism), but that doesn’t make their messages any less urgent. It’s a lot of reading to absorb, the articles no less than the books. Beyond the history lessons embedded in each of the articles, there are at least two implicit assumptions at work, namely, that (1) knowledge is the power necessary to avoid the trap of repeating history and (2) the American way of life in all its diversity is a hallowed though flawed institution worth protecting and indeed capable of protection. They’re strange assumptions, really, considering how the trends and politics that enabled America’s current prosperity (enjoyed quite unequally) and preeminence are also among those things that will eventually undo us. Moreover, the inescapable baseness of human nature also guarantees that history will continue to repeat itself in cycle upon cycle until we grow beyond our infantile state, an evolution or progression I don’t foresee happening any time soon.

Naomi Wolf appears to be primarily concerned that America has become an incipient fascist state and wishes to inspire a civic uprising to stop the trend before it’s complete. In short, she wants to restore former democratic freedoms (which may never have truly existed) where Americans were secure from harassment and interference by their own government, now conducted in the name of national security. Her nostalgia for an innocent America full of normal citizens going about their lives is a sizable assumption, which adds a curious sense of entitlement to her perspective. In her defense, however, she admits that for a variety of reasons Americans have grown complacent about civil rights and are unwilling to fight to protect them. That is, of course, a sense of civic responsibility that we’ve lost as life has become more harried. Her central thesis that a 10-part schema for fascism is currently being reassembled in America is ultimately quite convincing.

Chris Hedges offers no solution or hopeful response to his assessment that America is in decline, largely due to a “political class that no longer knows how to separate personal gain from the common good, a class driving the nation into the ground,” but also “in part because of the tacit complicity on the part of a passive population.” His defeatism doesn’t quite mask the desire that America retain its perch atop the world as a financial and military superpower for as long as possible before history overtakes us. The title of his book suggests he, too, believes a lamentable fascist shift is now taking place.

Robert Kuttner’s purview is more narrowly focused on financial policy, specifically, the dismantling of the regulatory era borne out of the New Deal in the wake of improprieties in the 1920s that led to the Great Depression. Again, the apparent assumption is that if we can get our ducks back in the right row, we can return to the prosperity and greatness of the post-war boom of the 1950s and 60s. Never mind that our former success was predicated on exploitation of natural resources that no longer offer such profitable opportunities, as well as the subjugation of foreign powers with a xenophobic and self-centered concern for singularly American interests. It’s the same sorry story of “I’ve got mine, you get your own.” It’s worth noting that the patriotic nonsense that what’s good for Company X is good for America has been abandoned in favor of a special sort of cravenness: what’s good for Company Y is all that matters (with little or no concern for laborers or the location in which Company Y operates). Companies in the new global marketplace have become supranational and thus owe no fealty to any government.

It is predictable, perhaps, that Americans would patriotically and blindly support a regime that has rewarded many of us with lives that are the envy of nations around the world. While identifying the internal rot, they all proceed from the assumption that Americans are inherently deserving of the advantages they have enjoyed for the last century. If only the American imperial system could yet be operated according to its brilliant design, we could stem the tide of history and resume our glittering preeminence. Only with Chris Hedges is there the glimmer of graceful recognition that our time is up. Nowhere is there any acknowledgment of a larger, human responsibility to stewardship and simple justice. Nor do they intuit that aged bureaucratic institutions ruling over entire continents must soon give way to a smaller, more ascetic way of life characterized by local control and considerable self-restraint.

That won’t happen, though. No one relinquishes power willingly. Instead, the U.S. will continue to project its power across the globe in a last, desperate bid for what’s left until at last it can’t anymore. Patriotic Americans will have no compunction about doing what’s necessary to secure their god-given way of life, no matter which foreign peoples must be subjugated to do so. Nonetheless, it can’t last for much longer. Other global players will play their parts, and we will all be reduced to fighting for our next meal in a brutal survival game. That, too, is a lesson drawn from history.

  1. grasshopperkm says:

    As often, I agree with you, Brutus.
    The outlook is so grim, however, that it pains me to think I play a role. I may be powerless, but that scarcely makes me blameless.
    Not for six hours running does it escape me that by living in this country, I contribute to its evils, despite my profound sense of not belonging here or anywhere else.

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