[lit-ideas] Re: Katrina and the American Empire

  • From: "Andy Amago" <aamago@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 19 Sep 2005 23:56:42 -0400

Excellent article.  Right on target.  

> [Original Message]
> From: Andreas Ramos <andreas@xxxxxxxxxxx>
> To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
> Date: 9/19/2005 9:05:47 PM
> Subject: [lit-ideas] Katrina and the American Empire
> An interview from Le Figaro (conservative), where Emmanual Todd talks
about catastrophe and 
> neo-liberalism. Emmanuel Todd is also a research engineer at the National
Institute of 
> Demographic Studies, historian, and author of Après l'empire [After the
Empire], published 
> by Gallimard in 2002 - an essay in which he predicts the "breakdown" of
the American system.
> -------------------
> Emmanuel Todd: The Specter of a Soviet-Style Crisis
> By Marie-Laure Germon and Alexis Lacroix
> Le Figaro
> Monday 12 September 2005
> http://www.lefigaro.com/debats/20050912.FIG0354.html?083700
> According to this demographer, Hurricane Katrina has revealed the
> decline of the American system.
>        Le Figaro. - What is the first moral and political lesson we can
> learn from the catastrophe Katrina provoked? The necessity for a
> "global" change in our relationship with nature?
>        Emmanuel Todd . - Let us be wary of over-interpretation. Let's
> not lose sight of the fact that we're talking about a hurricane of
> extraordinary scope that would have produced monstrous damage anywhere.
> An element that surprised a great many people - the eruption of the
> black population, a supermajority in this disaster - did not really
> surprise me personally, since I have done a great deal of work on the
> mechanisms of racial segregation in the United States.  I have known for
> a long time that the map of infant mortality in the United States is
> always an exact copy of the map of the density of black populations.  On
> the other hand, I was surprised that spectators to this catastrophe
> should appear to have suddenly discovered that Condoleezza Rice and
> Colin Powell are not particularly representative icons of the conditions
> of black America. What really resonates with my representation of the
> United States - as developed in Après l'empire - is the fact that the
> United States was disabled and ineffectual. The myth of the efficiency
> and super-dynamism of the American economy is in danger.
>       We were able to observe the inadequacy of the technical resources,
> of the engineers, of the military forces on the scene to confront the
> crisis. That lifted the veil on an American economy globally perceived
> as very dynamic, benefiting from a low unemployment rate, credited with
> a strong GDP growth rate. As opposed to the United States, Europe is
> supposed to be rather pathetic, clobbered with endemic unemployment and
> stricken with anemic growth. But what people have not wanted to see is
> that the dynamism of the United States is essentially a dynamism of
> consumption.
>        Is American household consumption artificially stimulated?
>       The American economy is at the heart of a globalized economic
> system, and the United States acts as a remarkable financial pump,
> importing capital to the tune of 700 to 800 billion dollars a year.
> These funds, after redistribution, finance the consumption of imported
> goods - a truly dynamic sector. What has characterized the United States
> for years is the tendency to swell the monstrous trade deficit, which is
> now close to 700 billion dollars. The great weakness of this economic
> system is that it does not rest on a foundation of real domestic
> industrial capacity.
>       American industry has been bled dry and it's the industrial
> decline
> that above all explains the negligence of a nation confronted with a
> crisis
> situation: to manage a natural catastrophe, you don't need sophisticated
> financial techniques, call options that fall due on such and such a
> date, tax consultants, or lawyers specialized in funds extortion at a
> global level, but you do need materiel, engineers, and technicians, as
> well as a feeling of collective solidarity. A natural catastrophe on
> national territory confronts a country with its deepest identity, with
> its capacities for technical and social response. Now, if the American
> population can very well agree to consume together - the rate of
> household savings being virtually nil - in terms of material production,
> of long-term prevention and planning, it has proven itself to be
> disastrous. The storm has shown the limits of a virtual economy that
> identifies the world as a vast video game.
>        Is it fair to link the American system's profit-margin
> orientation
> - that "neo-liberalism" denounced by European commentators - and the
> catastrophe that struck New Orleans?
>       Management of the catastrophe would have been much better in the
> United States of old. After the Second World War, the United States
> assured the production of half the goods produced on the planet. Today,
> the United States shows itself to be at loose ends, bogged down in a
> devastated Iraq that it doesn't manage to reconstruct. The Americans
> took a long time to armor their vehicles, to protect their own troops.
> They had to import light ammunition. What a difference from the United
> States of the Second World War that simultaneously crushed the Japanese
> Army with its fleet of aircraft carriers, organized the Normandy
> landing, re-equipped the Russian army in light materiel, contributed
> magisterially to Europe's liberations, and kept the European and German
> populations liberated from Hitler alive. The Americans knew how to
> dominate the Nazi storm with a mastery they show themselves incapable of
> today in just a single one of their regions. The explanation is simple:
> American capitalism of that era was an industrial capitalism based on
> the production of goods, in short, a world of engineers and technicians.
>        Isn't it more pertinent to acknowledge that there are
> virtually no
> more purely natural disasters, rigorously defined, by virtue of the
> immoderation of human activities? Isn't it the case that the "American
> Way of Life" must reform itself? By, for example, agreeing to the
> constraints of the Kyoto Protocol?
>       The societies and ecological incorporations of Europe and the
> United States differ radically. Europe is part of a very ancient peasant
> economy, accustomed to draw its subsistence from the soil with
> difficulty in a relatively temperate climate, spared from natural
> catastrophes. The United States is a brand new society that began by
> working a very fertile virgin soil in the heart of a more threatening
> natural environment. Its continental climate, much more violent, did not
> constitute a problem for the United States as long as it enjoyed a real
> economic advantage, that is, as long as it had the technical means to
> master nature. At present, the hypothesis of man's dramatization of
> nature is not even necessary. The simple deterioration in the technical
> capacities of a no-longer-productive American economy created the threat
> of a Nature that would do no more than take back its [natural] rights.
>       Americans need more heating in the winter and more air-
> conditioning
> in the summer. If we are one day confronted with an absolute and no
> longer relative penury, Europeans will adapt to it better because their
> transportation system is much more concentrated and economical. The
> United States was conceived with regard to energy expenditures and space
> in a rather fanciful, not well-thought out, manner.
>       Let's not point our fingers at the aggravation of natural
> conditions, but rather at the economic deterioration of a society that
> must confront a much more violent nature! Europeans, like the Japanese,
> have proven their excellence with regard to energy economization during
> the preceding oil shocks. It's to be expected: European and Asian
> societies developed by managing scarcity and, in the end, several
> decades of energetic abundance will perhaps appear as a parenthesis in
> their history one day. The United States was constructed in abundance
> and doesn't know how to manage scarcity. So here it is now confronted
> with an unknown. The beginnings of adaptation have not shown themselves
> to be very promising: Europeans have gasoline stocks, Americans crude
> oil stocks - they haven't built a refinery since 1971.
>        So it's not only the economic system you blame?
>       I'm not making a moral judgment. I focus my analysis on the rot of
> the whole system.  Après l'empire developed theses that in aggregate
> were quite moderate and which I am tempted to radicalize today. I
> predicted the collapse of the Soviet system on the basis of the
> increases in the rates of infant mortality during the 1970-1974 period.
> Now, the latest figures published on this theme by the United States -
> those of 2002 - demonstrated the beginning of an upturn in the rates of
> infant mortality for all the so-called American "races." What is to be
> deduced from that? First of all, that we should avoid "over-racializing"
> the interpretation of the Katrina catastrophe and bringing everything
> back to the Black problem, in particular the disintegration of local
> society and the problem of looting. That would constitute an ideological
> game of peek-a-boo. The sacking of supermarkets is only a repetition at
> the lower echelons of society of the predation scheme that is at the
> heart of the American social system today.
>        The predation scheme?
>       This social system no longer rests on the 'Founding Fathers'
> Calvinist work ethic and taste for saving - but, on the contrary, on a
> new ideal (I don't dare speak of ethics or morals): the quest for the
> biggest payoff for the least effort. Money speedily acquired, by
> speculation and why not theft. The gang of black unemployed who loot a
> supermarket and the group of oligarchs who try to organize the "heist"
> of the century of Iraq's hydrocarbon reserves have a common principle of
> action: predation. The dysfunctions in New Orleans reflect certain
> central elements of present American culture.
>        You postulate that the management of Katrina reveals a worrying
> territorial fragmentation joined to the carelessness of the military
> apparatus. What must we then fear for the future?
>       The hypothesis of decline developed in Après l'empire evokes the
> possibility of a simple return of the United States to normal, certainly
> associated with a 15-20% decrease in the standard of living, but
> guaranteeing the population a level of consumption and power "standard"
> in the developed world. I was only attacking the myth of hyper-power.
> Today, I am afraid I was too optimistic. The United States' inability to
> respond to industrial competition, their heavy deficit in
> high-technology goods, the upturn in infant mortality rates, the
> military apparatus' desuetude and practical ineffectiveness, the elites'
> persistent negligence incite me to consider the possibility in the
> medium term of a real Soviet-style crisis in the United States.
>        Would such a crisis be the consequence of Bush Administration
> policy, which you stigmatize for its paternalistic and social Darwinism
> aspects? Or would its causes be more structural?
>       American neo-conservatism is not alone to blame. What seems to me
> more striking is the way this America that incarnates the absolute
> opposite of the Soviet Union is on the point of producing the same
> catastrophe by the opposite route.  Communism, in its madness, supposed
> that society was everything and that the individual was nothing, an
> ideological basis that caused its own ruin. Today, the United States
> assures us, with a blind faith as intense as Stalin's, that the
> individual is everything, that the market is enough and that the state
> is hateful. The intensity of the ideological fixation is altogether
> comparable to the Communist delirium. This individualist and
> inequalitarian posture disorganizes American capacity for action. The
> real mystery to me is situated there: how can a society renounce common
> sense and pragmatism to such an extent and enter into such a process of
> ideological self-destruction? It's a historical aporia to which I have
> no answer and the problem with which cannot be abstracted from the
> present administration's policies alone. It's all of American society
> that seems to be launched into a scorpion policy, a sick system that
> ends up injecting itself with its own venom. Such behavior is not
> rational, but it does not all the same contradict the logic of history.
> The post-war generations have lost acquaintance with the tragic and with
> the spectacle of self-destroying systems.  But the empirical reality of
> human history is that it is not rational.
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