Fitzgerald, by then deep into an inglorious relationship with Gin Rickeys, was lucid enough, in 1936, to explain that “all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once.”
The traumas of the past three years – from the bank bailouts of 2008, through the Middle East’s revolutionary spasm, and the recent London riots – are certain to be debated and characterized across a broad spectrum of interested actors in the coming years. We might even recall them, perhaps blame them, in the course of those conversations, for they, despite the news media’s episodic euphoria, haven’t yet shown all their effects.
The Western world is cracking up today, and like a certain German philosopher-economist expected, it’s over economics. It’s over capital. In particular, it’s the product of technology’s forward march, and the social progress that naturally follows. The sum result renders our brand of capitalism impossible to sustain.
Demand is the beating heart of the West. All talk of stimulus spending — or tax cuts, for that matter — centers on how to stir it. But demand is not just simply the feeling of wanting, the siren song of aspiration that advertising strives to instill. Rather, it is both desire and means. When the two don’t jibe, you end up with, among other more complex complaints (high unemployment, poverty, growing national debt and consolidation of wealth, to name a few), men in balaclavas pulling plasma TVs off the wall.
Of course, the looting of London was not simply a materialist tantrum. If watched closely enough, long enough, one can’t help but notice that most of those televisions were smashed to bits; not bundled off home for a place in the living room.
This breakdown; this abrogation of the social contract was at its most telegenic up and down the UK, but the expression of nihilist rage is not only England’s concern.
Julian Assange, his disciples, and imitators are a higher-minded brand of the former. The question here is not what they did — the dissemination of millions of classified government documents opened a window into the inner workings of the Western state — but rather, why they did it.
We look to Christopher Hitchens, who once observed that “it matters less what you think but how you think.” Wikileaks, and to a greater extent Anonymous and LulzSec, are actively expressing frustration with an opaque ruling class. They’ve not been shy in expressing their desire to break down institutions. In that vein, they too are a nihilist force, having offered no considered (or even ill-considered) alternative.
The time for that is coming.
This is not to say The Revolution is around the corner; our way of doing business is almost sure to remain in place at least another generation or two. But the simple fact is that the West is no longer able to, in the harsh wind of the free market, keep its people in the life to which they’ve become accustomed. With companies obliged to fulfill the profit agenda (a shareholders’ world, this), it’s only natural that they’ve been stockpiling cash, thus removing it from the market and reducing re-investment to an afterthought.
Despite all this, a slick turn back to Keynesian principles, at least in this country, would certainly put off what now seems an inevitable slide. A delay is definitely in the current Congress’ power. The big picture though, taking in Euro zone cannibalization and the surge of South American and Eastern markets, makes our politicians seem smaller than the cable graphic boxes they so enjoy filling.
If the trend keeps on then one should expect more extra-political outbursts, this time in a corner shop much nearer you. Flash mob violence is on the rise, and earlier this minth in San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transport system (their subway authority) took the unprecedented step of cutting off social networking communication ahead of planned demonstrations.
So what’s next? The Bay Area protests could spread or become violent. But the most interesting plot, for political observers at least, is unfolding some 2,800 miles away, in the halls of Congress.
As the Tea Party and its supporters celebrated in the hours after the false dusk of the debt ceiling debate, over and again came the triumphant refrain: “We’ve changed the conversation in Washington.” And certainly they had. But could they possibly know where exactly this new debate was headed? Or is that with one piece of the drama done, the real capitalist “Crack-Up” had already passed us by?