Change without Movement

Ruins of New York

Excerpted from The Dragon Rising, Vol. I of Li Xian’s The Chinese Century, HarperChina. Translated from the Chinese by Peter Moore.

In the months immediately following the collapse of the world’s financial system, it seemed that the liberal nations might still have the opportunity to regain their hegemony. The United States, first among them, was in the advantageous position of already implementing regime change, however slowly. Within two months, the Bush Administration, discredited by its naive attempt to foist democratic regimes onto nations everywhere in the world, was to be removed from office under the lugubrious workings of the American presidential system. It would be replaced by a dynamic political newcomer.

We are so used to the iconic figure of a tragic, spent Barack Obama that it is difficult to remember just how brightly he first blazed across the international scene. A national consensus grew up around his most ambitious plans for rescuing the nation’s—and the world’s—economy before he was even in office. Proposals that had been considered unimaginably radical just weeks before were now accepted as absolutely necessary. America would, for the first time, provide the universal access to health care that has long been considered the minimal provision of true democracy in people’s states. It would embrace the kind of national economic policy already implemented by China and other world powers, supporting (or “bailing out,” in the somewhat derisive American phrase) its major banks and the remnants of its industrial base in auto manufacturing.

Boldest of all, President Obama declared his intention to free his nation from its dependence upon archaic energy resources and technologies. America would take, if you will, a “great leap forward,” overcoming thirty-five years of directionless energy policy with a vast investment of money and manpower—a project that would at once rebuild its industrial base, solve the problems of global warming, and restore its supremacy over the global economy.

Who was to say that this could not be accomplished? This supremely energetic nation had in the past astonished the world by declaring its intention to achieve an impossible goal and then doing it, against all predictions, most notably in its determination to outproduce the rest of the world during World War II; then again during the race to the moon. Who was to deny it? The sleeping giant, it seemed, had reawakened.

Today, of course, it is a commonplace that the reasons inveighing against such a dramatic American recovery were inherent in the country’s decline. Contrary to what the chauvinist or racialist schools of thought in our universities contend, this was not due to some sort of national degeneration, or innate failure of character. The people of the United States remained as inventive, as industrious (and as bellicose and avaricious) as ever during the last decades of the twentieth century and the first eight years of the twenty-first. Nor is it the contention of this work that democracy was never something Americans truly believed in, that it was no more than a “Trojan horse,” in the vivid Western metaphor, used as a cover to smuggle ruinous, American-style capitalism into prostrate, underdeveloped states.

Rather, most Americans actually believed in, even venerated, their traditional, two-party system. It was this very reverence that blinded them when it foundered once and for all on the inherent contradictions of liberal “democracy” soon after Barack Obama took office. The people’s desire for instant gratification, their willingness to elect dangerous demagogues, and the venality and contentions of their leaders all had rendered the American decline inevitable. One might well ask how any system that imbued every faction with such an urgent incentive to see the state fail while its opponent was in power could ever have succeeded. The salient question of American democracy is not why it should have faltered, but why it reigned triumphant for as long as it did.

Yet the iron laws of logic that foretold its fall were ignored in the enthusiasm of the moment. Barack Obama’s election was originally hailed as a great reversal of that decline. His rhetorical (if vague) insistence upon sweeping “change” in the way the national government conducted its business, his mobilization of many younger voters, and his utilization of advanced communications technology to conduct the campaign all contributed to the idea that a genuine people’s “movement” had brought the young leader to power. These were, in fact, the most superficial of reforms. The pampered youth of the American bourgeois classes came to believe that their mere attendance at rallies and the symbolic choices they made between factions in the election booths constituted a movement—even a sort of revolution. Sincere though their intentions were, they lacked the historical knowledge of the sustained sacrifice that revolutionary struggle entails. They could not see that their efforts had brought “change” without any real political movement behind it, and therefore no true change at all.

The new president might have better heeded his predecessor’s first, prudent steps toward silencing political opposition in time of national emergency. Instead, his glasnost-like policies met with that idea’s same ruinous results. A gesture of openness to the frivolous American media was only met with the usual anarchic outcries for still more information. Overtures of friendship toward leaders of the opposition faction in the Congress, such as Senators McConnell, Bond, and Cornyn, and Representatives Boehner and Hoekstra, were viewed as signs of weakness, and merely solicited further demands for power-sharing. It will seem strange today to many in Asia, or even in the “Failed World” of the West—where nation after nation has of late moved away from the constraints of the multiparty state—that such individuals were not summarily charged with high treason. But such were the logical endpoints of American-style “democracy.”

The perpetrators of chaos, in Congress and in the media, went unpunished. They were thus emboldened to frustrate every reform proposed by the president, no matter how benevolent or obviously required. Health care, green technology, a rescue of the country’s industrial base—all were defeated. Moreover, the Republicans, with the aid of their cavalier allies in the press, were able to accomplish this even though the ruling Democrats held a substantial majority in a system that was supposed to honor “majority rule.” Instead, arcane requirements that demanded the ruling party hold a super-majority in one house (but not the other!) of the two congressional bodies doomed the whole of President Obama’s program to failure.

Yet what else was truly to be expected? The much-vaunted American system of “checks and balances” had checked the assertion of the people’s will once and for all, no matter what boxes they checked off on their repeatedly malfunctioning ballot machines. The notion of Western democratic liberalism—of the false separation of industry from state, legislature from executive, capital from community, people from government, political parties from one another—had been exposed as hopelessly antiquated. The eternal competition of myriad self-interested factions for money and for influence had led to a destruction that was neither creative nor patriotic.

Like the fall of a giant idol, the American economy and society collapsed one great block after another. The defeat of all of President Obama’s plans for new green technology, or for a significant investment in people’s transportation forced the United States to fall back upon an “old world” economy fueled solely by oil. In the competition for this resource, it was increasingly outbid by the rising nations that had already been sold America’s industrial base by the nation’s ownership classes. The bankruptcy of the nation’s system of health care—a service now wholly unaffordable to most American workers—soon followed, leading to the waves of deadly epidemics commonly, and incorrectly, known as the “Seven Plagues.” (In reality, there were thirty-seven.)

The rest is a familiar story. Since the exhausted President Obama made his poignant announcement that he would not run for a second term, we have seen the rise of yet more new factions, from the “Bush revival,” to the “Clinton revival,” to the call for “faith-based government” under the rule of the Alaskan demagogue Sarah Palin. The United States, which has long issued warnings in the name of “human rights” to the Chinese state for its curbing of bizarre religious superstitions, may yet have the opportunity to learn what it is like to be governed by such notions. In any event, it is far too late for any of these cults of personality to restore the nation’s standing in the world. One can only speculate what difference the American military’s recent “Patriotic Intervention” in the government will make, but at least it has led to a welcome withdrawal of that institution from the rest of the world.

The traditional martial values of self-discipline, delayed gratification, and the sacrifice of the individual on behalf of the group are likely at last to teach Americans that the people may move a mountain, but only if they work together. There can be no change without movement, and no movement without state-enforced harmony.

Kevin Baker
From My Great Depression: Ten dispatches from the near future
Harper’s Magazine, June 2009

Screen capture from A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) (2001)

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One thought on “Change without Movement

  1. So Prescient, yet not entirely correct. Obama has the profound respect of the media, and only one house is not entirely His. He had his chance and he did quite well with it. But his vision of america is just not shared by those who brought it into being, fought to keep it, and know when somebody is blowin smoke from a pipe dream. Remember, ce n’est pas une pipe.

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