Third Party & Independents Archives

Affluence Won't Destroy America's Future - Probably

David,

Congrats on an intriguing and well-written essay (posting of June 9), as well as the heated discussion it engendered. I hope that you will indulge me with a few thoughts of my own about the possibility of America’s eventual diminution.

As you observed correctly, the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to both physics and politics with equal validity: entropy ensues over time. Thus, every historical empire has failed. It seems to me that the most flexible imperial systems, those that accommodated disorder most effectively such as the British and Ottoman Empires, however, tended to survive time's arrow best. Because a secular democracy within a federated republic that protects human rights and individual liberties adapts to circumstances rather than endeavors to control them, the United States may be able to avoid the dissolution you apprehend.

I share your admiration for twentieth century America, but I believe that you ignore its most crucial precondition for success: imperialistic expoliation. At the end of the nineteenth century, the need of American capitalism for exploitable materials and labor had transcended its borders. As we embarked on our small wars of colonial expansion (our favorite target was the decaying Spanish Empire), we encountered the oxymoron of an imperial democracy. The political leaders of day could not decide whether the United States was liberating indigenous populations or merely replacing a colonial oppressor. We might be able to conquer the Philippines and Cuba, for example, but we could neither incoprorate them into the body politic nor suppress them dictatorially. Hence, we perfected the Puppet State, which engendered the cant and hypocrisy so pervasive in recent American foreign policy. First these puppets were employed as a method of de facto colonialism (remember that Japan's slogan for its attack on America's colonial military base at Pearl Harbor was "Asia for the Asians"). Later they became commingled with our Cold War imperative to oppose the expansion of international communism. Regardless, the imperial fruits of our victory in the First World War fueled the Roaring Twenties; our victory in the Second World War begat the birth of consumerism during the 1950's; and to a lesser extent, our victory over Stalinistic Communism yielded the Clintonian boom.

Obvioulsy, colonialism, either to defend private American interests or preserve the "free world", has become passe'. Yet, the net result of a century of the expansion of the American Empire has been to achieve Woodrow Wilson's ideal of making "the world safe for democracy" to a remarkable degree. It took us a little longer than he anticipated, but notwithstanding the invention of penicillin or a walk on the Moon, I believe that this will prove to be America's most enduring legacy of the twentieth century. I think that the question that you're struggling with becomes, having eradicated twentieth century totalitarianism in virtually all of its multifarious incarnations, where do we go from here? What is America's twenty-first century rationale? Will "liberty and justice for all" simply be supplanted by "greed is good"?

I think that the future bodes many challenges for the American Empire, but I don't share your catastrophic anxieties. First, you don't have to be Durkheim to see the futility in bemoaning the specialization of labor. I'm not interested in hunting for my own food (or even cooking it half the time, for that matter) or building my own house, but I certainly don't begrudge those who do. My skills lie elsewhere, and a sophicticated and specialized marketplace enables me to express and hone them effectively. Second, America has never been the kind of monolithic entity you postulated. Federalist No. 10 tells us that faction has been with us since the creation of the Republic. Although contemporary political arguments may seem a bit strident lately, at least our leaders aren't shooting one another (like Burr and Hamilton) or getting caned in the Senate chamber (like Sumner). In fact, America's greatest strength lies in its abilty to transform the competition inherent in diversity into cultural progress: political freedom, social stability and economic affulence. Further, to equate greed with affluence is to equate lust with love. The former may engender the latter, but not visa versa. Because the cardinal precept of the American canon is predicated upon individuality, some Americans will allow their inherent self-interest (or "self-importance") to transmogrify into solipsistic egotism undoubtedly. A society is not defined by its excesses, however. It's defined by its achievements. If the history of mankind has taught us one lesson it is that our quest for material, spiritual and intellectual improvement, our "pursuit of happiness" however we happen to define it individually, endures perpetually. This may be the elusive "more" to which you refer, and to rail against it is a quixotic endeavor. Finally, I don't believe that some kind of atavistic Luddism will stave off a doomsday conflagration or resolve America's twenty-first cultural malaise. In fact, I believe that the opposite is optimal: we shouldn't run from the future but toward it.

But how?

I think that the crisis facing the United States must be resolved by reaffirming of America's cultural values and its role within the world. One may disagree with President Bush's vision to democratize the Middle East, for example, or with how he has chosen to implement it or even with his sincerity in undertaking it. Nevertheless, unlike the Democrats, at least he has a vision. Most significantly, however, both Democrats and Republicans misapprehend America's domestic and international raison d'ĂȘtre. Mere democracy is not a panacea either at home or abroad. Tyrannies of the majority can and do occur. If the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany had held free and fair elections in 1938, both Stalin and Hitler would have received overwhelming popular support. Further, theocracy is antithetical to democracy, ipso facto. An Islamic or Jewish democracy is as oxymoronic as a Christian, Buddhist or Hindu one. The goal of the United States must be use its considerable influence to induce, rather than compel, every nation on Earth to adopt a limited secular democracy that safeguards human rights and civil liberties. Democracy may not be a panacea, but the equality of opportunity engendered by political freedom is.

The beauty of a federated republic lies in its reliance upon its constituent elements for its effective operation. It is based upon the principle that if each of those elements is predicated upon popular sovereignty and protects both the individual liberties and the natural rights of the polity, each of the subsequent structures it creates functions legitimately. From a school board to a congressional district to a county to a state to a nation, the optimal size of a republic depends upon ideology, not geography. Thus, Montesquieu's assertion that a democracy cannot govern a large nation-state becomes invalid. A large state must be configured uniformly with a plethora of small democratic units for it to function as a republic, but it can do so because, to quote Tip O'Neill's famous aphorism, "All politics is local."

If federalism and technology have eliminated the geographic strictures of republicanism, what inhibits the optimal size of a democratic nation-state? Physically, the size of a republic has no limits, and any boundaries that do exist are purely cultural. For example, one could make an excellent case that Germany and Japan are American colonies in the traditonal sense of the word. They were conquered by a foreign power that disarmed them forcibly and imposed its form of government upon them unilaterally. Even sixty years after the cessation of hostilities, the conqueror maintains a large and active military presence in both countries. Yet, very few people in Germany or Japan (or in the United States, for that matter) would contend that either is a colonial possession. Why? Because the nature of the government that the United States imposed was a secular democracy within a federated republic that respects human rights. Hence, the indigenous population, not the conquering nation, possesses national sovereignty. Thus, what prevents these three nations, for example, as well as others that share the same values and systems, such as the G-7, from strengthening the ties that bind them formally? I believe that the only obstacle is cultural. If so, because America's cultural mores achieve greater global hegemony daily, a unified political superstructure, a transnational democratic confederation if you will, must become the American imperative for the new millenium.

As a globalized economy demonstrates, this process has already begun. (In fact, the primary defect of economic globalization lies the ability of multinaitonal corporations to exploit the current international political power vacuum. Whether it's social economic or political, power is power, and its exercise tends to corrupt. Hence, uncontrolled economic globalization requires a global political organization to counterbalance and obviate the excesses and exploitation inherent in dissipative capitalism.) The process simply needs to be accelerated dramatically and promulgated vociferously by the United States. Thus, America's national rationale for the new millenium must be to redefine the nation-state as a constituent element of a transnational democratic confederation. In this way we can continue the work begun by our founders and achieve the global hegemony of their ideals, not merely socially, politically or economically, but culturally. By creating a multinational republic, we can ensure the success of the American experiment universally and permanently.

The nature of this confederation, its means and its methods, are fit topics of debate. Nevertheless, its existence becomes both more likely and more compelling daily. It seems obvious to me that we only have three choices: lead, follow or get out of the way, and as an arogant (and perhaps self-important) American, I suggest we lead.

Posted by Chuck Hanrahan at June 10, 2005 9:04 PM