Adieu l’ancien regime

The french term “l’ancien regime” referred to the pre-revolutionary France of the 18th Century — aristocratic, monarchical and feudal.  It was swept away by the French revolution, as were the other regimes of pre-modern Europe.   I’m using the term far more broadly.   I believe the United States is on the verge of transformative change that will alter the nature of our society and country.  The institutional structure of government and the constitution will be the same, but the nature of political life is about to be revolutionized.  It is as if our collective unconscious were undergoing a transformation, needing to push off old habits and embrace difficult but necessary change.

This is not just about Barack Obama.  He is coming to symbolize the changes about to take place — a very different kind of President than we are used to — but the change is not driven by him.   The changes are being pushed by a myriad of factors that are coming together at the same time to make our old way of politics and life unsustainable:

1.  The economic crisis.  As noted before, the US has reached the breaking point in a system that had us consuming far more than we produce, financed by large budget and trade deficits.   That went on for thirty years, ending in a series of speculative bubbles whose collapse now leaves us with a painful period of economic change.

2.  The energy crisis.  Yes, oil has dropped in price thanks to the recession, and this gives us a bit of time.  Will we use it?    To think that the current drop is an end to the problem would be to live in a fools’ paradise.

3.  The environmental crisis.   While global warming gets most of the coverage, the last century has unleashed so much poison into our ecosystem that we don’t know the long term effects.

4.  The humanitarian crisis.  Humanity is in crisis.  Mass number of our species are malnourished, living in war zones, exploited for profit, or in danger of disease and famine.

5.  An identity crisis.  We have defined ourselves as a superpower, first the leader of the West during the Cold War, and then as the “unipolar polar,” a guarantor of global stability through our military and economic power.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bring home the fact that our military power is of limited value in achieving political ends, and in fact this crisis is embedded in a global crisis of sovereignty.  The sovereign state is becoming an obsolete unit in a world defined by interdependence and globalization.

President Bush is the last President of the ‘old regime.’   Today, in fact, is the last day of that era.  His Administration epitomized the era from 1945 to 2008.   When the US was attacked on 9-11 he treated as another Pearl Harbor, designed to bring the country together against a dangerous foe.  But unlike 1941, our hyper-consumerist society did not want to sacrifice or be inconvenienced in challenging this foe.  We did not want our ability to enjoy material “stuff” threatened.  So we were told that our patriotic duty was to “go shopping,” a task we embraced with glee.

Nonetheless, our country did go to war, ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan with the help of a local alliance of various warlords and ethnic groups, and then ousting Saddam Hussein in a massive and overwhelming victory in April 2003.  Yet in each country military victory did not turn into political success.  While the Administration dreamed of comparing these states to Japan and Germany after WWII, they didn’t play that game, and now Afghanistan is slipping further into chaos, with the Taliban resurgent, and the US is being forced to leave Iraq without having transformed the Mideast.  In fact, Iranian influence in Iraq is intense, and one purpose of attacking Iraq was to weaken Iran.

The President also gave the country large tax cuts to get the economy moving.  And move it did!  The tax cuts and low interest rates created a massive increase in investment and wealth.  Or so it seemed.  The investments and wealth generated were simply on paper in the form of speculative bubbles.  They money didn’t go into strengthening or improving our economic foundation.  When these bubbles burst our economic weakness was laid bare, and we’re only now starting a long painful process of trying to rebalance.

The Executive Branch centralized more power than ever, seeing the country at war, and believing that success would lead the public to embrace the means used.  Instead, this changed world meant those old style policies would not work, and the public would sour on President Bush and the people around him.   But President Bush is only a symbol too.  He symbolizes the America of 1945 to the present, a brash, idealistic, often arrogant, and assertive America.  He symbolizes an America talking a great talk on individual rights, freedom and democracy, often blind to the contradictions between those principles and US policies and actions.     He symbolizes the America of Nascar, large SUVs and social conservatism.  An era passing.

Barack Obama symbolizes a more international flare to US policiy.  His father was Kenyan and he lived for awhile in Indonesia.  Much of his upbringing was in Hawaii, the last US state, by his grandparents who had their roots in rural Kansas.   His approach is secular, he’d probably wonder what the heck people saw in a NASCAR race, and would be more at home in Prius than a Hummer.  And we’ve all seen him bowl!

The country as a whole has to deal with needing to find some way to rebalance our economy to produce more and be less focused on crass consumerism or a desire for something for nothing.   President Elect Obama has plans for massive targeted government investments.   I’ve stated my skepticism in what I label a dangerous gamble.  But at least it recognizes that just tax cuts or sending people checks doesn’t work — that only feeds consumerism but doesn’t spur production.    Correctly targeted investments might actually work.

In foreign policy we need to recognize that the days of American leadership, unilateralism, and a belief that somehow we are the ‘indispensible power’ are gone.  Moreover, we have to get over our cultural ignorance about others.  Americans too long have assumed others are just like us, have the same goals as we do, and the same understandings of freedom and rights as we do.   In actuality, it’s a complex and diverse world, and we need to respect other cultures and ways of governance.  Moreover, we’ve vastly underestimated the ill will our military actions have brought us.  Many Americans seem genuinely puzzled that so many Iraqis hate us, since we think they should be pleased that we got rid of Saddam.  We don’t seem to understand that the santized version of the war covers up the intense damage we are directly or indirectly causing.

The good news is that to be successful the new regime will have to build on American values.   Those are freedom, hard work, community solidarity, and a belief that we can solve our problems and move forward.  The most important American value next to freedom is that kind of pragmatic optimism: whatever happens, we can solve any problem that arises and we can make tomorrow better than today.

And we can.   Recent years has seen a decadent America, with people so driven off course by materialism, consumerism and myopic selfishness that they’ve mistaken material plenty for progress and a good lifestyle.   We have become more connected to our stuff than to our friends, myself included.  We’ve let ourselves too often become apathetic, gluttonness, arrogant, and ignorant.   We don’t pay attention to the rest of the world, or to the needs of our neighbors.  We grasp emotional soundbites without listening to diverse points of view and really trying to understand others.  Simply: while the next few years may appear to be a time of material decline, it can also be a time of spiritual renewal.  We can reconnect with our core values, values hidden by all the materialism and bravado of the last few decades, but not yet destroyed.

So adieu, l’ancien regime.  It’s been fun, but not real.

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  1. #1 by Lee on January 20, 2009 - 01:56

    I think you are so on target when you say we as Americans are culturally ignorant. I’m not sure we believe people want what we want. I think perhaps we think we need to teach them to want what we want, because after all, we are Americans and the American way is “the” way.

    I think of how in most other countries being multi-lingual is desired. In the U.S. I still routinely encounter people who say that there is no reason to know anything but English because anyone who comes to our country should become fluent in English immediately.

    I do think that the bedrock values that helped form our country are alive and well and that the image of this new vibrant President seems to have galvanized our country. I hope that we realize that we are in for hard times still. It is a long road ahead to economic recovery, probably even more years to really repair the damage that we have done to our image internationally.

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