Saul Wainwright commented on the previous post in this series, CLR James and the idea of an African revolution:
“I have been wondering about how to tie the Egyptian revolution into the larger world system. I was not aware that CLR thought there would be two more revolutions, one being Russian and other being American. Yet, as you rightly point out, the America that we understand extends beyond the borders of the geographic America. What does this mean for the potential of a second American revolution? Where would it be triggered? Much as the Egyptian revolution was triggered by the events in Tunisia it is possible that America’s revolution would be triggered from a far-off land.”
Saul, Now that the Egyptian revolution is definite, we can pose your question in a new light. Everyone likens events there now to 1989, not least Obama, who also links Egypt to Gandhi, King and the Ghana revolution. If the fall of the Berlin Wall was the beginning of the second Russian revolution, could Tahrir Square be the beginning of the second American revolution? After all, it wasn’t Russians who started the former, but Germans and Czechs, the Eastern European victims of the Soviet empire.
We know that the American empire was launched by World War 2 and has gone through two phases since. The French called the first les trente glorieuses from 1945 to roughly 1975, which was the heyday of the Cold War, but also a period marked by a developmental state on both sides of the Cold War committed to expanding public services and the purchasing power of working people. It was also the time when European empire was abolished by the anti-colonial revolution. After the watershed of the 1970s, we went through three decades of what came to be known as neoliberal globalization in which the power of big money to organize the world for its own benefit was unfettered. The end of the Cold War, the rise of China, India and Brazil as economic powers and the digital revolution in communications speeded up the formation of world society under American hegemony, even as these developments undermined it. This ended with the financial crisis of 2008 and we are now in the uncharted waters of the third period which might take in a full-scale depression, world war, a global democratic revolution, the end of life on earth, who knows? Whatever happens, it will be different.
The second phase of the American empire was put in place during the energy crisis of the 1970s. The US economy depends on Middle East oil. Just as the British empire yoked England to India, the US and the Middle East are a single political entity. When the British and French made their botched attempt to seize the Suez Canal in 1956, the Americans let them fail. First they built up Israel as their proxy in the region, a strategy that culminated in the six-day war of 1967. But the Egyptians and Syrians launched a surprise attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur war of 1973 to which the US, fearful of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, brokered a negotiated settlement. Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 in return for the Sinai peninsular and Israel kept Gaza on hold for a future Palestinian state. 1973 also saw the reinforcement of OPEC and a big oil price hike which brought the Saudis into the Middle Eastern settlement as the leaders of a new oil cartel. In the last decade we have seen the installation of US armed forces in Iraq, the second largest oil producer, and a protracted campaign in Afghanistan (Afpak) which has the advantage of diverting attention from the Middle East and of starting a shooting war at the intersection of China, India, Russia and the Muslim world.
It is clear that Obama/Clinton were under strong pressure at the start of the Egyptian protests (themselves a response to the Tunisian revolution, as you say) to support the status quo, that is Mubarak or a stooge from his circle. The house of cards built up in the Middle East was only apparently stable. The Israelis have been increasingly intransigent with impunity, since they could count on the US, Egypt and the Saudis to keep a lid on things, a certainty increased by the formation of Iraq as an American armed camp within the region and the demonization of Iran as the Shiite bogeyman with “nuclear” capacity. And political security led to the accumulation of massive personal fortunes by the ruling elites, mirroring the financial excesses of the credit boom everywhere. This cascading inequality became more acute after the crash of September 2008. Demand in the world economy took a big hit, despite the use of taxpayers’ money in the major capitalist countries to bail out the banks and flood asset markets (but not consumer demand) with hot money. This has cushioned the blow for the time being in America, Europe and Japan at the risk of a sovereign debt crisis, but in many parts of the world unemployment, food prices and energy costs have all risen, making the social legacy of neoliberalism intolerable to the better educated, wired youth whose families are suffering and who see no future for themsleves under the status quo.
There are many scenarios out of 11th February 2011, several of them extremely unpleasant. It is not likely that Americans themselves would take the lead in a world revolution which potentially removes the free credit that the dollar’s hegemony has guaranteed for decades. But if the situation escalates, as seems likely, Americans will find themselves involved in a shooting war on more fronts than they can imagine now, not just the Middle East. Obama at last found the words to say something he probably believes after the Egyptians threw out Mubarak all by themselves. The first American revolution provides the rhetoric and even the substance of the second. American society is Janus-faced, pulled between its heritage as the only genuinely democratic polity on the planet and the imperial plutocracy it has become since. It is already deeply divided, as has been noted by the media of late. But the causes of this division cannot be understood within the parochial limits of American society itself. Who knows what will happen inside America once the impact of the Egyptian revolution spreads?
The Russians dismantled their own coercive bureaucracy instantly and with almost no loss of life. I have always believed in the American people’s practical good sense and love of freedom. The last few decades have seen a massive deterioration in the quality of American public culture, but the United States is still the home of modern democracy and the class that controls politics and the media today will not easily survive the turmoil unleashed in the world from now on. We are witnessing the end of a social form that I call “national capitalsim”. It was lanched in the 1860s by a series of political revolutions of which the American civil war was the most decisive. I would not be surprised if a world revolution triggers serious conflict within the US too.
I have been blogging here for years about the possibility of us launching a third World War soon (see “Conversations with Abdul Aziz“). This is not inevitable, but it is more likely if we don’t even talk about it and have no means of heading it off. I am greatly heartened by the non-violent strategy of the Egyptian protesters and the ease with which seemingly solid power structures have melted away in North Africa, as in eastern Europe in 1989. It is interesting that both regions form the immediate periphery of Western Europe which is not in great shape itself right now. If we embrace the possibility of a global democratic revolution now, rather than after a world war, the direst scenarios may not come to pass.
In American Civilization, CLR James argued that there was a growing conflict between the concentration of power at the top of society and the aspirations of people everywhere for democracy to be extended into all areas of their lives. This conflict was most advanced in America. The struggle was for civilization or barbarism, for individual freedom within new and expanded conceptions of social life (democracy) or a fragmented and repressed subjectivity stifled by coercive bureaucracies (totalitarianism). The intellectuals, he thought, were caught between the expansion of bureaucracy and the growing power and presence of people as a force in world society. Unable to recognize that people’s lives mattered more than their own ideas, they oscillated between an introspective individualism (psychoanalysis) and service to the ruling powers, whether of the right (fascism) or left (Stalinism). As a result, the traditional role of the intellectual as an independent witness and critic standing unequivocally for truth had been seriously compromised. The absorption of the bulk of intellectuals as wage slaves and pensioners of academic bureaucracy not only removed their independence but separated their specialized activities from social life.
If the Egyptian revolution has done nothing else, it has issued a wake up call to intellectuals everywhere. It is not outlandish to suggest that this may be the beginning of the second American revolution that James predicted, just possibly the world’s last.