The times they are a changing…

Writing for that normally hyperbolic anarcho-syndicalist rag the Financial Times, the historian Simon Schama takes stock of the moment:

Far be it for me to make a dicey situation dicier but you can't smell the sulphur in the air right now and not think we might be on the threshold of an age of rage. The Spanish unions have postponed a general strike; the bloody barricades and the red shirts might have been in Bangkok not Berlin; and, for the moment, the British coalition leaders sit side by side on the front bench like honeymooners canoodling on the porch; but in Europe and America there is a distinct possibility of a long hot summer of social umbrage [emphasis added].

So we face a tinderbox moment: a test of the strength of democratic institutions in a time of extreme fiscal stress.

Schama is hardly complacent. He believes popular rage and distrust could threaten Europe's political project:

On the one hand, we should be glad that the mobilisation of public energy in elections can channel mass unhappiness into change. That is what we must believe could yet happen in Britain. Elsewhere the outlook is more forbidding. In the sinkhole that is the eurozone, animus is directed at unelected bodies — the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — and is bound to build on itself. Those on the receiving end of punitive corrections — in public sector wages or retrenched social institutions — will lash out at their remote masters. Those in the richer north, obliged to subsidise what they take to be the fecklessness of the Latins, will come to see not just the single currency but the European project as an historic error and will pine for the mark or franc. Chauvinist movements will be reborn, directed at immigrants and Brussels diktats, with more destructive fury than we have seen since the war.

To be sure, rampant internal political animosity — if not war per se — would terminate any Euro-wide political project. A democracy deficit seems to be one cause of the danger at hand.

Schama's take on the United States is less certain in general but ominous nevertheless:

The same kind of pre-lapsarian romanticism targeted at an elitist federal authority is raging through the US like a fever. The best way to understand the Tea Party, which has just scored its first victory with the libertarian Rand Paul defeating the choice of the official Republican party, is to see it as akin to the Great Awakenings and the Populist furies of the end of the 19th century. There are calls to abolish the Federal Reserve or in some cases Social Security, fuelled by the conspiratorial belief that it was an excess, not a deficit, of government regulation that brought on the financial meltdown. Claims that Washington has been captured for socialism are preached on rightwing talk radio as gospel truth. As they did in the 1930s with Father Coughlin, the radio demonisers are pitch-perfect orchestrators of hatred for listeners in bewildered economic distress.

Against this tide, facts are feeble. When Senate Republicans succeed in briefly blocking financial regulation by representing it as an infringement on liberty rather than as a measure minimally needed for the security of the commonwealth, you know the truth needs help from the Presidential Communicator-in-Chief. He is back on the stump, but as with the case for healthcare reform, his efforts are belated and cramped by misplaced obligations of civility. But if his government is to survive the November elections with a shred of authority, it will need Barack Obama to be more than a head tutor. It will need him to be a warrior of the word every bit as combative as the army of the righteous that believes it has the constitution on its side, and in its inchoate thrashings can yet bring down the governance of the American Republic.

It is clear to some Americans, but not to the elitist Schama, that Obama intentionally broadly complies with the forces of reaction in the United States, is a fiscally conservative agent of the predatory fractions of American capital (the much despised FIRE sector), a dedicated leader and defender of the security-surveillance state in its most Kafkaesque form and, more importantly, a crisis manager of some skill. Given these qualities, it would be unrealistic, at best, to expect Obama to come to the aid of the commoner. Obama is not a man for all seasons but, rather, a man of his times, possessing the impulses of his peers and the goals of the American system as he found it. Although his considerable rhetorical skills might have gotten him elected to the Presidency, they may eventually prove deficient if Americans were to recognize the intentions of his administration and the social forces it represents. Hope elicited and then defeated can lead to resignation or to an explosive outburst buy those defeated by a country's normal politics. This situation is America's tinderbox, and it presently stands populated by arsonists, witless match lighters and deluded opportunists. We can thus anticipate an explosion even if we cannot rationally forecast its occurrence. Yves Smith concurs:

Having weakened faith in government and made considerable progress towards creating a social Darwinist paradise of isolated individuals pitted against each other, the oligarchs may be about to harvest a whirlwind.

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