Sunday, August 19, 2012

Book Report: "The Servant Economy" by Jeff Faux

"The future ain't what it used to be". --Yogi Berra

I had a tough time working my way through The Servant Economy by Jeff Faux. Not because it is intellectually challenging or particularly long, but because it is just one long descending downer of a book. Faux digs a really deep hole for the protagonist known as Uncle Sam, and in the end, doesn't provide much of a rope to get him out again. Of course, anyone who has paid any attention to long-term forecasting of world trends pretty much expects some type of cynically dystopian future, but Faux keeps on hammering until not even Old Sam's top hat is showing.

As usual, I ended up dog-earing the pages of nearly a quarter of the book with memorable quotes. I'll not inflict them upon you, merely to say that, if you haven't thought much about so-called "free trade", you'll be thinking a lot about it afterwards.

Working our way backwards, the narrative goes something like this: Can we really expect the United States of America, 5% of the world's population consuming 25% of its resources, to continue enjoying the pampered lifestyle of the post-WWII boom years? When the 21st century will require 2.5 Earths to continue the mandatory 3% compound growth of Anglo-Saxon (or Chinese Command and Control) Capitalism? Especially when the ruling class (I'm sorry, but I can no longer call them the governing class plus supporting business partners) has deemed the global extractive network system for the exclusive use to the highly inclusive and sequestered top-earner's club for basically ever?

To quote from the opening page, anyone who has paid any attention to current events recognizes that:
  • Most Americans had experienced stagnant real incomes, shrinking financial security, and fraying social safety nets.
  • The nation had been buying more from the rest of the world than it had been selling and was borrowing to finance the difference.
  • Despite the erosion of U.S. economic power, the governing class - Democrats and Republicans alike - insisted on maintaining its global hegemony, whatever the cost. 
Faux understands that, like all superorganisms, the United States will continue for a good long century or three past it's prime, mainly through hysteresis of power. It's got the soft and hard power, the connections, the street cred and reputation, and, yes, the monkey clever shrewdness, the utter callousness, and sheer brutality to keep it all going. America will be long in its decline (if the world's land, air, and oceans can hold out), but Americans will not.

To further quote, the nation is no longer rich enough to continue to finance America's three principal national dreams:
  1. The dream of the business elite for subsidized, unregulated capitalism
  2. The dream of the political elite for global hegenomy
  3. The dream of the people for a steadily rising standard of living. 
So, uh, guess which dream goes unfulfilled? Ah, you guessed it, number 3!

Faux spends the first two parts of the book providing a clear synopsis of American politico-economic history up to the first term of Obama, and does a very nice job of succinctly explaining how America, with no competition in a bombed-out world of the latter 20th century, quickly lost its pampered status by around 1978. The good times could never have lasted, regardless. Nixon (the last liberal, yes, I think so) attempted to keep the good times of the New Deal going. Carter attempted to introduce the nation to an adult conversation about our place and future in the world (and also planted the seeds of privatization which led to the Age of Reagan that we are still in). Reagan told everyone to go back to bed and sleep late, have a Sunday brunch, while dismantling public institutions and crippling labor and private industry through "free trade". And every president since Reagan (including our Blue Dog President Obama) has been stuck in his sandbox, financial kitty turds and all.

Faux presents the argument that any way out of our natioanl dilemma involves a Catch 22 of government intervention - in the form of a strategic long-term social and industrial plan not unlike what successful "socialist" countries such as Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Finland have pursued. The catch is the American public not only distrusts government, they consider it far more inept and inefficient than private industry (despite all evidence to the contrary). The ruling class, no slouches they, realize as much, but since they are not hurting, and the hurt applied to the poor, working poor, and middle class has zero effect on them, they have no reason to change the trends.

So, our bleak future extends to the horizon. This is part 3 of the book. The interesting thing to note is, despite the intolerable conditions our inept and incompetent elite fuckups have put us under, Americans endure all sorts of shit. We don't revolt. We just bitch. We may revolt. And if it happens, one would expect about the same as any other modern revolution, which is to say, chaos, anarchy, and then a return to power of a different flavor of incompetent fuckup, who generally is still controlled by the ruling class. There is, of course, the ever present threat of right-wing dictatorship here in America. One has only to look at our national character when pushed to the wall (vis the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, or the "sovereign citizens" movement of ugly nihilism and irrationally violent self-interest). This is not to say we don't have our positive attributes of altruistic community activism, but power being the thing that it is, I'll bet ugly wins out.

However, entropy being what it is, and laziness a major component of the American landscape, it is doubtful we will enter a Road Warrior future. Instead, look to even more frayed and tattered social systems and institutions, a shoddy and increasingly unsafe, shabby, and ugly infrastructure of roads, bridges, sewers, power grids, buildings, and water systems. An increasing concentration of privilege and opportunity towards the favored and fortunate rich, much less so for everyone else. Increases in illiteracy, innumeracy, previously preventable endemic disease, poverty, want, and squalor. In short "A Third World nation with First World prices". Or, if you will, as it turns out, the inevitable finale of Western Capitalism circa 2030, ironically, is Soviet Russia circa 1978. Fun times ahead! But Faux gives you some one hundred pages of the fun stuff. In more agonizing detail! If only there had been charts and graphics to ease the pain.

Is there any hope? Faux argues not from either party, and don't expect a moderate third party to appear.
Under the Democrats, it's takes a little longer for things to turn to shit. Under the Republicans (especially if they end up with all four portions of the government this fall), things very quickly turn to shit. (Perhaps as early as 2014).

Faux argues for some transformational politics (short of revolution). Well, but only if we don't have to rely upon the American people for it. At least not the current crop, who seem to have swallowed the conservative line of bullshit so far the hook is lodged deeply in their collective craw. If helping others is "socialist" or "commie", if those living under less fortunate circumstances than you are considered "lazy" "moochers" and "parasites", if you feel you owe your to wealthy, then, damn, you are just a fucking slave, and go lick the boots of the rich that ride in on you.

Faux offers a short piece of rope, and I've heard the suggestion before from OWS, a constitutional amendment to deny the personhood of corporations and eliminate corporate political donations. I see that as fairly ineffectual, and highly unlikely to come to pass. Progressives? OWS? No, especially given the monumentally execrable public relations ineptitude that resulted in the nation considering the OWS movement as a "hippies looking for handouts" joke. It was a terribly managed image formation, but not surprising, given funhouse lens it passed through via the corporate media.

It's a very depressing book, in keeping with the times, but worth reading. It will suck the hope out you, as it did me, temporarily, but as a cynical optimist, I'm not quite ready to move to Norway or Finland - or start building IEDs - just yet.


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  2. Note: Roscoe Gort attempted to comment, but ran into blogger technical problems. His comment follows:

    My own spin the condition of the United States, which I have not seen made by anyone else, is that we seem seized with an urge to self-destruct. I think such things have happened to societies before, such as Europe launching into WW-I for no real reason except perhaps the egos and boredom of the elites. - RG