Sunday, January 9, 2011

Death Spiral of a Polity

American Veterans of Foreign Wars
American Veterans of Foreign Wars, Missoula, Montana, USA, 2004

A politician got shot in Arizona. The rightwing blogosphere is predictably screaming that "only the one who pulled the trigger is to blame." As always, it's a matter of personal responsibility, as long as it's someone else who's personally responsible.

Political violence is a pretty common feature in many countries. Get too uppity in Russia, and you might have an unfortunate encounter in your podyezd. Assassinations are an occupational hazard in Lebanon. Disappearances are a common feature in many South American republics. Now it's a feature of the American political landscape as well. A looney shooting a Congresswoman is one part of that landscape; the odd assassinations and apparent suicides of lower-level political operatives—John P. Wheeler III, for example—are another.

Political violence requires crazy, desperate, or fanatical people, guns or bombs, and a political climate that dehumanizes opponents, making them enemies, traitors, and subhumans. If you want more political violence, ratchet up the rhetoric against your opponents, provide a nice, simple ideology with straightforward answers, accentuate social problems that drive people to desperation, deprive unstable people of psychiatric care, and provide easy access to lethal weapons. If you want less of it, well, then do something about any or all of these factors.

Of these factors, the rhetorical and ideological ones are the most dangerous. This is because they can slip into a self-reinforcing spiral. Fiery rhetoric feeds fiery rhetoric; hard-line positions cause opposing position to harden as well. If the political actions driven by the ideological positions contribute to the number of crazy, fanatical, or desperate people and the easy availability of lethal weapons, we have a bomb that's virtually impossible to defuse. Cook these ingredients for several years, and structures of organized violence will crystallize out of it. Revolutionary movements with armed and militant wings; underground parties with a Leninist structure; lone operatives connected in loose networks.

I believe that the United States of America has crossed the point of no return, and is now in a long, slow death spiral, which will only end in either in the collapse of civil peace and subsequent dissolution, or its transformation into a corrupt, authoritarian pseudo-democracy on the Russian model. This won't happen all at once; instead, it'll be one shocking and quickly forgotten event after another, one 'security measure' building on another. The process will certainly take years to complete, but the pace is accelerating, and the social and ideological forces driving it are too strong to break. Wealth differentials in the USA are greater than ever, yet a supermajority of the population wants to abolish the 'death tax.'

In the next few years, we're going to see a continuing degradation of civil liberties, as the federal government struggles against the centrifugal forces, while its levers of governance fall into disrepair by being strangled of funding. Political deadlock will make it impossible to address the deficit or reverse the decline of the middle class. Ideological positions both on the left and the right—but more so on the right—will continue to harden. Political divides will become increasingly entrenched as social divides; Democratic-Republican marriages will become as rare as Jewish-Arab marriages in Israel, and will carry the same social stigma. The Tea Party will strengthen its connections with the already existing right-wing militias. The radical anti-globalization Left will organize into its own armed and violent cells. There will be demonstrations turning violent, threats and intimidation by armed, organized groups, more random acts of violence by apparent lone lunatics.

The breakdown of civil peace is always inconceivable until it happens. I've read the Finnish newspapers from 1917 and 1918. I've read up on the slow and in retrospect inexorable process that led to the shocking collapse of 'Switzerland of the Middle East' in 1975. Nobody—almost—saw it coming. Many didn't see it even when it had already started. When that busful of Palestinian civilians got shot up in Ain el-Remmaneh, life went on as normal in the rest of Beirut.

A few years down the line, the fanatics will find a way to use the lunatics for suicidal violence in a systematic way. Intimidation and assassination will become accepted tools of the political trade in Washington, DC, and not at the level of the occasional brick being heaved through an opponent's window like has already happened to Congresswoman Gliffords. We will see an increasing prominence of military figures in political life; ex-generals standing for elections, current generals participating in the political discourse. On the streets, civil peace will start to break down. There will be American equivalents of Russia's Neo-Nazis and Antifascists fighting in the streets, only under different banners. Police forces will be openly taking sides, becoming one more armed gang of thugs among many.

Put another way, America will become a country much like most others; Russia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, the People's Republic of China. That's not the end of the world. Living in any of them ain't so bad, as long as you keep your head down. I'm sure many parts of the US will remain quite nice and peaceful too.

You had a good thing going for a while, America. It's a shame you had to fuck it up.


  1. Perhaps I am even more pessimistic than you. I'm not sure where in our history we really had a good thing. A good idea, a stunningly advanced constitution for the 18th century, but the struggles, contradictions, and political violence of the U.S. are older than even that document, starting with the european settlers' treatment of the indigenous peoples of this land.

    Yet outside of some college classrooms there is no serious conversation about our history or our present reality. In recent years, even the civil drapery that covered our authoritarian apparatus has dropped, and few of us have even taken the time to look up from our social networking devices to notice or care.

    Political violence is actually nothing new, and the denial that you are seeing, the denial that the violent political rhetoric inspires unsettled people to commit real violence, is a symptom of our madness. They really don't see a connection.

  2. Everything's relative, Algernon.

    Perhaps America has always been a failure compared to her lofty ideals. However, compared to the rest of the world of really existing polities, she really has been a beacon of liberty and opportunity for a pretty good stretch of her history. America is built on genocide and rapine, for sure, but then so is almost any other country. It's just that those crimes are further back among the Old Worlders, and the Old Worlders have been dishing it out and taking it between each other for so long that it's impossible to sort out the criminals from the victims anymore, much (other than colonialism, of course, which is a whole 'nuther story.)

    No (big) country is entirely free of political violence. The scary thing is that we're seeing a normalizationof political violence. Rhetoric to intimidation and threats, threats to petty vandalism and low-grade thuggery, that to random acts of terror, that to systematic, planned, and targeted intimidation, thuggery, and worse.

    You really have had it pretty good, compared to most of the rest of the world. As polities go, until recently, only post-war Western Europe plus a smattering of small states here and there had something as good or better. I'm bummed to see all that go down the toilet.

    Oh well, at least things in South America are looking up. Maybe they ought to move Lady Liberty to Rio, one of these days. Put her in a bikini, too...

  3. I'd like to say I disagree, but you know I don't. I'd like to think this is some temporary reaction to economic instability, change in racial balances, or some other fleeting and changeable thing that will be dealt with and we'll be the stronger for it. It's not. I've felt for most of my lifetime the dwindling of my country, the shift from a pragmatic realistic idealism where upward mobility was expected, not suppressed, to an ideological, polarized, plutocracy where the poorly educated and mentally lazy are seduced with toys and lies to extoll the boot on their necks. The only comfort I get out of this is that I'm at the end of my time here and not the beginning, and with any luck, I may not have to see the ultimate dissolution.

    This incident could be a uniting and clarifying moment of truth; do you want to take bets about Monday hearing Limbaugh or Beck apologize for inflammatory language and urge a civil discourse? Sarah Palin apologize for her crosshairs, targeting and don't retreat, reload bullshit?

    HA! It will be spun by the rightwing echo chamber as it's already starting to be spun til it ends up, like everything they touch, a twisted opposite of whatever it really is.

    But maybe I'm wrong, eh? Stranger things have happened.

  4. a very timely and thought provoking post. i wonder though, you say - "the social and ideological forces driving it are too strong to break." - maybe so, but isn't this a rather disempowering and defeatist stance to take? in all liklihood i'm a naive idealist, but i don't necessarily think that's such a bad thing given the unremittently cyncial and pessimistic climate we live in.

    i read a post over on CAUTE by Andrew Brown which contains a quote i think quite important to take to heart in this instant - "If we abandon our conviction and fidelity to our own foundational events and basic hypothesis - our great idea - it seems to me that we will have begun to believe that the unjust and destructive madness we are seeing in our contemporary societies is our future and that we are powerless to create a very different order of things." - (

  5. @Jon: I don't buy the "defeatism" argument. It always crops up on the losing side in a conflict, and it's pretty pointless really. People are much more likely to fall into the trap of false optimism, considering unpleasant stuff as "temporary setbacks" or such, rather than face the music. It could very well be that I'm wrong—hell, I hope so!—but if I'm not, saying that I'm 'defeatist' wont' make any difference.

    Thing is, even if the US as an open society is fucked, it doesn't mean that everybody should throw up their hands and give up. Quite the contrary. It's always possible to act morally, to educate, to build, to resist the tide. Nothing lasts forever, neither the open societies those of us born into them so easily take for granted, nor the corrupt, authoritarian, oppressive structures in those places where they hold sway. Brazil and Chile are making great strides, for example, and it's only yesterday that they looked pretty hopeless.

    It's just that I think the current dynamic at play in the USA can't be halted, which means that it will have to play itself out and exhaust itself. The USA will be a very different and altogether less pleasant place once it gets to that point, but eventually it will, and then a new cycle will begin. The seeds planted now will make a great deal of difference at that time.

    Don't forget that this kind of thing has played itself out several times over in lots of places around the world. Europe went from a pretty civilized kind of place to the worst kind of barbarism and back twice over during the past century and a half. The USA has been uncommonly lucky with its constant ascent since its civil war. There's no reason to believe she won't rise again, even if she has to collapse into fascism or dissolution first.

  6. makes a lot of sense. thanks for challenging my pov and helping me to look outside the confines of it.

    i would agree that - "It's always possible to act morally, to educate, to build, to resist the tide. " - but as regards resisting, i'd be interested in hearing why you think it's important to given "the forces driving it are too strong to break"? perhaps because, as you say, nothing lasts forever?

  7. It's always possible to maintain islands of decency, however corrupt the system in which they exist. That makes an immediate difference to the people within them. Once the constellation of forces does shift, they can spread and serve as the seeds for something better.

    Resistance doesn't have to mean shouting from the barricades and getting your ass jailed. It's at least as important to keep your head clear, and maintain a space for others to do the same. The more oppressive the system, the more important it is to do that. The stars only come out at night, you know.

  8. I hope you are wrong, and I fear you are right.
    Having grown up in Finland it always struck me as odd -- comical at first, disturbing after a while -- how in the U.S. Nazi Germany is portrayed as the epitome of evil. Certainly the same narrow view of history is common elsewhere as well, but it is during developments such as these that it is worthwhile to remember how quickly one of Europe's most civilized and technologically advanced countries became the haven of genocide thanks to populist politics and economic motivators.
    Similarly, having been depressed by following the events in Pakistan surrounding Salman Taseer's murder, I wonder how many people see the parallels between, say, the anti-abortion movement and Intelligent Design groups and the hard-line Islamists.
    I have largely given up discussing politics amongst my friends, colleagues and acquaintances here. Either we agree on most things and nothing worthwhile is gleaned, or we disagree dramatically, and one of us has to be "wrong" and has to be brought to see the light of truth, and in the end the exercise leaves me frustrated and angry and not much wiser. Having polarized sources for information and polarized forums for discussion are a significant part of this problem, I believe. Not being able to discuss politics for fear of a real fight ensuing and friendships ending is really bothering me.
    Still, I hope that the United States proves to be more resilient than we fear and will dig itself up from its current hole, as it did after the McCarthy years. Otherwise, it may end up being yet another warning of the results of unchecked populist rhetoric combined with economic depression and inequality.