America’s battle over the nature and direction of change itself
Predictions for the year ahead must be so ephemeral that they become pointless. The ‘unknown unknowns’ are too many; the situation, too dynamic. Yet, it is possible to take some key variables, which are all too easily taken for granted, and to look them more directly ‘in the eye’. Why do that, if ‘to look’ is uncomfortable? The answer, the ancients, told us is, that without that piercing ‘look’ of consciousness, our unspoken anxieties evolve through our unconscious, into psychosis – or physical sickness. Our bubble boundaries requires firstly rupture.
Let us then start with the US at this point of fundamental inflection: Biden’s Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan speaking in recent days, exuded confidence that Biden’s chumminess with lawmakers ‘across the aisle’ in the Congress will help push through his China policies: “He (Biden) knows his mind on China and he is going to carry forward a strategy that is not based on politics, not based on being pushed around by domestic constituencies (sic - interesting comment). Sullivan described it as a “clear-eyed strategy, a strategy that recognises that China is a serious strategic competitor to the US - that acts in ways that are at odds with our interests in many ways including trade.” Yet, at the same time, “it is also a strategy that recognises that we will work with China, when it is in our interests to do so”.
What is there to complain about in such ‘a normal, rational statement’? Nothing per se – except that it presumes a return to the old bi-partisan politics, in which Red and Blue lawmakers attend the same Washington cocktails, and assumes a shared desire to engage together in the ‘business’ of Washington.
Patricia Murphy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who has been covering the senatorial runoff in Georgia, noted that: “Republicans just don't trust the election … Not one Republican voter, Murphy has spoken to since Election Day, believes that President-elect Biden won. “Not one, not a person”, she said. “And many of them don't even think he'll be inaugurated on January 20”.
Murphy’s statement speaks forcefully to two American realities: One is rooted in a deep distrust of the élites, and of a soiled status quo; the ‘other’ reality views Murphy’s interlocutors as not only in denial, but views them with contempt.
We have today almost unlimited web access: Yet, its sheer overload seems to cause us to ‘dig in’, rather than ‘open up’. Anyone who wants it, can find a whole universe of alternative viewpoints online, but very few do. Paradoxically, the Information age has made us less willing to consider worldviews unlike our own. We cleave to the like-minded. We want to hear from the like-minded and have them as our friends.
And since it is so much easier to confirm our perspective and biases - and disdain others’ - the notion of politics by argument or consensus, is almost entirely lost. We can, and do, live in our segregated digital worlds, even when physically, those ‘others’ may indeed be our next door neighbour. This has meant for the architects of the Trump campaign that his campaign - and politics more generally – must be about mobilisation -- rather than persuasion. Politics, in other words is now Post-persuasion; post-‘factual’.
The ‘insurrection’ at the Capitol Building – for those who may have witnessed revolutionary mobs elsewhere – was comparatively inoffensive (one unarmed, former US Air Force vet protestor, was shot dead by the police through a closed door). Clearly, this assault on the Hill was never intended as a real ‘coup’; it was rather Trump manoeuvring to keep his base energised and mobilised -- and with him firmly in control of the Party. Nonetheless, it has been PR disaster, leaving many of his supporters bewildered. If the aim were to expose details of fraud as part of the confirmation hearing, it failed.
If it were a coup at all, it was one aimed by Trump at the GOP ‘old guard’, such as Romney, (who was taunted as a traitor, by fellow passengers during his flight to Washington). It is the country-club GOP élite who are struggling to ‘take-back’ the Party from the Trumpistas. Will they succeed, in the light of what has happened? The Deep State has closed ranks irrevocably against Trump. Are his nine (cats’) lives now expended?
Though Trump be at the forefront of what happened on 6 January, it is not just about him (as the MSM insist). Rather, the US today is skirmishing its way towards an existential fight: This is a battle over the nature and direction of change itself; Over where society and its constitutional order are going; and how the legitimacy of republican rule, in its essence, is to be defined.“Simply, America’s longstanding political equipoise (from c. 1876) has completely broken down. Continuity and change, for better or worse, is now locked in a classic death match. How will it be resolved? How will it end?”.
Not trusting in the election, in US democracy, therefore flags a profound change in politics taking hold in America and in Europe. The Georgia loss, perhaps, is less crucial now: Elements of the GOP are preparing for radical opposition (to save the Republic, which they see as courting complete loss). The objecting members of Congress knew that they could never succeed in obtaining supporting majorities in both houses of congress for their objections. Their aim rather, seemed to be to establish a baseline (evidence of fraud) for future activist opposition to the results of the 2020 election. Along this baseline they will insist that Biden/Harris are not legitimately elected, and are usurpers against whom any means of resistance is justified. They hoped to inherit Trump’s base, and to ‘ride its wave’. Is there a vacancy now? That is a question for 2021.
The next question for 2021 then, concerns that old adage: ‘Beware not to win too much’. It can be a mistake to corner your adversaries to having nothing to lose. The Blue state has ousted Trump; and Blue has taken everything across ‘the board’, and are ready to implement the ‘Re-set’ -- the ultimate subjugation of Red by main force, achieved by the preponderance of wealth, ruling institutional leverage, and military power. A social ‘woke’ revolution, as well as a political transformation. The full outcome would likely reconstitute the constitutional order, in ways unrecognizable to most Americans today.
But will Red America succumb from exhaustion, or lack of leadership; or, on the other hand, might it find the energy to revitalise ‘their’ Republic? We shall see -- a big question whose ramifications might make the EU élites particularly nervous. Of course Blue now possessesforce majeure. But there is another old adage: ‘No passionate, partisan assessment has any value, save to inflame’ – and Big Tech and the MSM’s censorship and accompanying humiliation of Trump may turn him a martyr, and make the spirit of defiance all the stronger.
Despite the GOP Old Guard attempted ‘counter-revolution’ (talking 25th Amendment action), the divisions between the two Americas are now so great that it can only mean ultimately a de-coupling of the ‘across the aisle’ chumminess (even if this has to be postponed until the 2022 congressional election round). Is Jake Sullivan’s optimism that Biden’s chums across the aisle will allow him to push through his China policies unscathed – especially as Biden is viewed as deeply blemished in respect to China? Might 2021 rather underline the new era of civil conflict, rather than a return to old civilities - and hence to new, ‘take no prisoners’ politics?
The priority issues for all western leaders surely will be Covid; the concomitant push-back from small and medium sized businessmen against lockdown, and dealing with the noxious ‘them-and-us’ effects of a ‘free money’ economic paradigm. Foreign policy – other than China and Russia (on which there exists the one, and almost only, US bi-partisan consensus) – may garner lesser attention.
And here are the inter-related shibboleths that may require a little more critical re-thinking for 2021: America and the EU - understandably – desperately want their economies to snap-back into recovery: “Biden’s blue wave almost guarantees it”, the Telegraph’s economics editor Evans Pritchard exalts – “as Fiscal stimulus meets monetary jet fuel already tanked in the system - just as America comes out of the pandemic”.
It may seem a tad curmudgeonly even to question such panglossian hopes. The vaccines have been sold as ‘the hope’ for normal; but the notion that the vaccines are about to propel the US tout suite into jet-fuelled nirvana, seems premature. The WHO says that it is yet to be determined whether the vaccines actually stop infection (as opposed to merely mitigating its more severe symptoms).
It is yet to be discovered whether the vaccines are effective, at all, against the new strains of the Covid virus (such as the UK and South African mutations); and it is uncertain how many Americans will even accept to be vaccinated. It seems rather, to boil-down to a race between accelerating infections, and dawdling vaccine manufacture and distribution - with a final outcome to this race still uncertain. That outcome, whatever it is, will have political consequences – for the EU in particular in the year ahead.
There is too, a fragile and peripatetic frontier (in both America and Europe), between the notions that Covid lockdowns are a deliberate élite ploy to concentrate the economy in the hands of a few oligarchs – and, on the other hand, a conviction that the infection is a grave risk, requiring a high degree of public discipline. Where this ‘frontier’ flows; on which side of the median it comes to rest during this year; as well as the success (or lack of it) in rolling out effective and safe vaccines, will constitute a key political event – maybe even an existential one for some governments and institutions.
It is hard to see growth simply springing forth out of further massive increases in government debt -- Biden’s ‘jet-fuel’. Since 2008, debt has suffocated growth, seeded a crop of zombie companies, and stimulated mainly a runaway asset appreciation. And it is hard to see such growth coming from an economy that is centralising around huge monopolistic behemoths, who stifle innovation, whilst small businesses are massacred. The question is about real growth, or are we looking at just another just another puff of liquidity pointed towards ‘make-believe’ growth? Polls (Forbes) suggest that 48% of American small businesses, risk closing for good.
Of course centralisation of economic activity around big business represents the central plank to the Great tech Re-set. The latter is promoted as an unstoppable, supply-side ‘miracle’ which will transform productivity, and growth. Yet, this thesis seems is not supported by history: “For a quarter of a century, post WW2”, the Chicago Booth Review notes, the value of production of every worker hour rose 2.7 percent per year. Then there was a slowdown for 20 years, from 1974 to 1994, when productivity growth fell to 1.5 percent per year. This was a period that included the rise of the personal computer and the integration of new technologies in a number of industries – and, as is the case today, people wonder why it was that productivity growth slowed down”. Robert Solow famously said, “I see computers everywhere, except in the productivity statistics.”
“Eventually, we did see the computers in the productivity statistics. Around the mid-1990s, productivity accelerated again, up to about 3 percent per year. It stayed there for a decade, before slowing again. It hasn’t yet picked up. So the 1.2 percent average annual productivity growth we’ve been experiencing since the mid-2000s is less than half of what it was in the decade prior, and is slower even than the 20-year slowdown from 1974 to 1994.
“Despite what seem like incredibly rapid changes in technology, we don’t see technologically-driven growth in the data - and in fact we see the opposite pattern. Since economic growth requires productivity growth: If we don’t figure out why this is happening, and how to fix it, we won’t get sustained increases in GDP per capita”.
Blue has swept the board. Yet, the year is new-born: Blue’s embrace of the woke cultural revolution may turn out to be its Achilles’ heel. It runs contrary to the historic norms of human relations and cultures. The danger of the liberal-style Re-set for Francis Fukuyama, would bethat it cannot assuage the Homeric heroic ideal of Thymos - the greater passions which drive man to seek glory and renown. Fukuyama observes that “Thymos is the side of man that deliberately seeks out struggle and sacrifice”. With all our material and political wants satisfied, the human soul will search out deeper, older drives, a need for recognition and glory like that which drove Achilles, foreknowing, to his death on to the battlefield of Troy.
“Those who remain dissatisfied, will always have the potential to restart history”, Fukuyama observes.