Whatever happens next in Egypt – and that question remains wide open – it’s nice to see the good guys win one once in a while, ain’t it?
If it seems like that’s a rare occurrence these days, that’s because it is.
And if it seems like what happened in Egypt was the product of a long and hard fought battle against the forces of darkness and repression, that’s because it was. The people of that country had to endure thirty years of (just the current) dictatorship before they could finally emerge from underneath that heaviest of stones.
If you have any doubt about whether this is a victory for the forces of light over darkness, just look at the reaction of American neocons. Disingenuously claiming all these years to be champions of democracy and freedom, they are deafeningly silent today (at best), as democracy and freedom triumph in Egypt. I’m not sure which I like better, seeing Egyptians liberated, or seeing neocons exposed and squashed. But why decide? Today I get to enjoy both.
In a way, what has happened in Egypt makes perfect sense. In China, a near-totalitarian dictatorship has offered a grand bargain to its people over that same period of the last thirty years. The government said “We will give you prosperity, in exchange for which, you will shut up and never challenge our authority”. As obnoxious as repression and totalitarianism and wholesale human rights violations are, you cannot say that this was entirely a bad deal for the Chinese public, except in comparison to what it might have been in a more perfect world.
Which largely explains why dissent in China has been scattered and muted all these years. There are tens of millions of Chinese who are members of a brand-spanking-new middle class. They have good educations, good jobs, automobiles, computers and cell phones. They eat meat and they go to movies and concerts. Most of these people’s parents were – quite literally – dirt-poor peasants, living lives no different than their forebears did for millennia. This turnaround represents an astonishing, and astonishingly rapid, transformation of a society, and of the personal life fortunes of individuals. People can readily see the difference, because there was nothing incremental about it. Their parents were raised in the tenth century, they grew up in the twenty-first. What’s more, the future looks bright for increasing individual prosperity, and for increasing national power, in a country where nationalist pride and agitation is rising.
I don’t think that the Chinese government’s repression of political and human rights can last forever, and I especially don’t think it should. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that it is precisely such a process of economic empowerment in societies across the planet that ultimately leads to subsequent demands for political enfranchisement. This makes a lot of sense in the abstract, and it fits with the notions of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which argues that humans only pursue the niceties of art and culture and even freedom once they’ve satisfied the necessities of survival. So I won’t be surprised if the Chinese rise up at some point and demand their freedoms from an autocratic government. But neither am I surprised that they largely have not done so to date. So far, at least, the government has kept up its end of the bargain, and made the Chinese people rich. One can only complain so much about that. And even if you do, good luck finding loads of others to line up behind you, and to risk their newfound prosperity by doing so.
By the same logic, the rising up of educated young people in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and elsewhere in the region is not a surprise either. They didn’t get the bargain that the Chinese people got. Instead, they got all of the repression and none of the prosperity. And this is precisely what they are now agitating against. Their lives are shitty, and have heretofore shown no signs of changing for the better. Meanwhile, they are ruled over by repressive oligarchs such as Hosni Mubarak, people whose unmitigated desire for increasing wealth – even beyond what they could possibly spend in a lifetime – is as insatiable as it is disgusting. Mubarak is reported to possibly be the richest man on the planet. And yet he was presiding over a vast population of poor people, half of whom live off of less than two dollars a day. Somehow, I don’t think those two facts are coincidental, nor do I believe that the folks in Tahrir Square think so either.
It’s somewhat surprising that people will tolerate such a bad bargain for so long, but of course there are good reasons for that. Tradition is one. If you’ve never known anything different, you might not understand that you can do better. Ignorance of external alternatives is another. If you don’t know what other people have because of poor education, censorship and massive propaganda, you’ll be less inclined to rise up and demand something better for yourself. Then there’s always good old fashioned diversionary tactics. Your problem is caused by the Jews! Or the gays! Or the infidels! Etc. Finally, when all else fails, dictators can get a heckuva lot of mileage out of basic, unadulterated repression. There’s nothing like a secret police wielding various instruments of terror to pacify an angry public and deliver a compliant society.
So, to sum, we have one model out there in the world, where the public has rationally accepted a lack of political freedom in exchange for economic prosperity. And we have another where we can equally well understand a people who suffered with the lack of both in relative silence for decades, for all the reasons listed above. Likewise, we can also understand why they have finally risen up in disgust to demand serious change, especially as a new generation of wired-in young folks could finally come to see what others had and what they didn’t. All these scenarios make a good deal of sense.
What doesn’t make any sense is what is happening (or, especially, what is not happening) in the United States. This country had it made. In 1945, its economy was equal to the entire rest of the world’s, combined, while the population of the US equals only one-twentieth of the world total. Granted, part of the explanation for that was due to some very unique special circumstances of the time. Nevertheless, the United States was by far and away the richest country on the planet, and even remains so to this day. More importantly, for decades that wealth was distributed in an increasingly egalitarian fashion. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the United States built a massive and robust middle class where hardly any had existed before, and it put a much greater, though certainly imperfect, safety net underneath the poor than had ever previously existed. The differences between rich and poor were narrowing, and government programs were largely fully paid for through a system of adequate taxation, progressively structured.
Moreover, on top of this economic prosperity, the United States maintained an enviable record of democracy and respect for human rights at home (what we do in places like Egypt is another matter altogether). A record way less than perfect, to be sure, but if realistically compared to what could be found in the rest of the world, one that was still enviable.
What’s amazing in our time is to watch as this country trades in its very high level of national prosperity and a reasonably authentic democracy for economic and political systems that every day grow closer to the Mubarak model, even as Egyptians are simultaneously moving in precisely the opposite direction. It is obvious why the people of Egypt would want to trade up for something better. Rather less clear, shall we say, is why the American public has for a generation now consistently chosen to go in the opposite direction.
But that is exactly what has happened. Over the last three decades, as the Chinese middle class expanded and the Egyptian one idled, America’s has been contracting. Is that because the US economy has been stuck in neutral, or worse, in recession? Nope. GDP growth has been pretty darn healthy over those thirty years. It’s just that almost every penny of that growth has gone to the already rich, while the middle, working and poor classes continue to sink. Well, okay, did that maldistribution of wealth occur by accident? No, in fact, it is precisely the result of the public policies we adopted, on issues ranging from taxation to trade to labor relations to regulation to bailouts to spending priorities to corporate welfare. The net result of these has been to produce the greatest transfer of wealth in all of human history – upward, from non-elites to elites.
On the political side, the imperfect democracy of the past has turned into rather a shell of a democracy today. It’s an open question what would happen if the public tried to restore a real democracy to this country, through, say, a constitutional amendment providing for thorough campaign finance reform, with the result of divorcing money from politics and producing legislation crafted in the public interest, not for special interests. It may well be that we’re so far down the line now that such an attempt would be met with violent repression, thus necessitating an Egypt-like reaction from below. Or it may be that such change is still possible. What is absolutely clear, however, is that nobody is talking that talk right now, let alone walking that walk.
One of the most amazing facts about our historical moment is the near complete absence of a progressive narrative anywhere among serious players in our political constellation. Sure, there is the occasional Dennis Kucinich or Bernie Sanders. But, generally, there’s hardly any real difference from one politician to the next on these issues. All we have to choose from is right and righter, dumb and dumber, poor and poorer. Notwithstanding the ludicrous claims of the mouthfoamers on the right that Barack Obama is non-American Muslim socialist, this president is in fact to progressivism what the Monkees were to rock-and-roll. Except that, for all their flaws and artifice, I can actually stand to listen to the Monkees. Increasingly, I can no longer say that about Obama anymore. Despite the fact that when he speaks he says absolutely nothing – or is it precisely because of that fact? – when this human-platitude-production-machine of a president speaks these days, I can barely stand to listen.
Obama is both symptom and cause. It is now fully clear that he is part of the wrecking crew sent to annihilate the standard of living for 300 million people, so that a handful of plutocrats and oligarchs can add third football-field-sized yachts to their existing two. That an individual of his background and promise (not to mention promises) could sell-out so entirely is saddening and maddening, but ultimately more a statement of egregiousness than novelty. It happens a lot. Indeed, Obama didn’t even pioneer that ugly and shameful path. Bill Clinton did.
It isn’t so puzzling that people will sell out when the price is right, even someone emerging from progressive home values, someone who as a minority understands the significance of civil rights issues, someone who by trade has been a community organizer and a scholar of constitutional law. What is more difficult to understand is why the American public decided to spend the last three decades doing precisely the opposite of what the Egyptian public has been doing over the last three weeks. Why voluntarily lower your stand of living? Why voluntarily diminish your democracy? Why oscillate between crude kleptocrats like Reagan and Little Bush, on the one hand, and clever kleptocrats like Clinton and Obama, on the other?
I suspect probably what happened is that as the world emerged from its unnatural condition following World War II, the economic walls tightened a bit around somewhat artificially prosperous middle class Americans. In response, they have been looking for ways ever since to keep from sinking economically, and have accordingly been following snake-oil predators on the right who have been ever happy to sell them a pre-packaged formula of blame-based politics. Again, it’s the gays. It’s the illegal immigrants. It’s the foreign bogeymen. It’s the socialists.
It works. But more amazing is that it works in the long run. Imagine if you were an alcoholic, and your addiction had caused you to lose your job, lose your family, smash your car and wreck your health. Then imagine that you sat down and thought long and hard about finding a solution for your woes, only to decide that what you obviously needed to do was double the volume of booze you’re sucking down each day. Welcome to America, 2011.
We’ve gone from Reagan rightists, to Gingrich rightists to now Palin rightists, with the Democratic Party and the electorate following along, always one small step behind on this march over a cliff. And each time the radical program of the right not only fails to solve our problems but rather further exacerbates them, we reach for another, bigger bottle of that cheap regressive whiskey. Surprise, surprise, then, when the bottom falls out altogether, just as it is doing now.
If the reverse Egyptian paradigm holds true, we should be expecting the last systemic plank to fall into place sometime soon, that being political repression. You can still say pretty much whatever you want in the United States, though the more truthful you are the smaller your audience will be (the readers of this article will, I’m sure, attest to that, and I thank both of them for doing so!). But that freedom is likely to be tolerated merely as long as it is irrelevant to the existing plutocracy’s maintenance of power. Once political speech actually begins to challenge this order – if it ever does – all bets are off as to whether it will continue to be tolerated. At that point, there will be serious temptation on the part of the master class to add political repression to the existing suite of a hollow middle class and a hollow democracy. We shall see.
Meanwhile, if there’s bad news on the horizon it is that Americans have still not yet understood that the Egyptian paradigm applies equally to the United States. Both are, at core, kleptocratic regimes. In particular, I often find myself dismayed at the lack of consciousness among young people with regard to how prior generations (especially mine) have royally screwed them, partying away our on tax holidays, free wars and unmatched deficit spending, and leaving them instead crumbling infrastructure, a broken national reputation, and a massive pile of our debt in its place. There should be generational (at a minimum) revolution bubbling in this country, but if I mention these notions to my college students, I typically find that the older guy in the room is the only one angry about how they’ve been shafted. Alas, Egyptian kids get it, Americans haven’t gotten there yet.
If there’s good news on the horizon it is that technological development may make it very, very difficult to repress and smash movements for freedom in our time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the uprisings we’ve seen in Iran and Tunisia and Egypt, led by young folks, have come at the same time as the advent of mass communication through social networking technology. You can still repress people, but it looks like it’s a lot harder to do nowadays, when people don’t need a mainstream media anymore to send and receive information.
That’s a fact that may come in handy some day in the United States.
Part of me hopes not, because it will mean that the shit has finally hit the fan.
But more of me hopes so, because it will mean that the shit has finally hit the fan.