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Norman M. Klein

January 10, 2005

The panic after the election of George W. Bush has subsided. In fact, worse than subsided, it has sunk into a torpor very much like a low-grade nervous breakdown. To borrow the old Victorian expression, American culture has “taken to bed,” slipped into a nocturne about how hopelessly inept the Democrats have been, that the progressive side of liberalism needs someone more charismatic than Kerry, that Republicans have overwhelmed the debate.

And then there are the twin sides of the same coin: what really happened to the vote in Ohio and perhaps twenty other states? First of all, we know that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of votes were hacked or suppressed (ten hours waiting to vote in parts of Ohio, at universities and black districts in particular?). It seems clear that to correct the discrepancies probably would not overcome Bush’s victory in the popular vote (though in Ohio and even Florida, there may be some doubt about the electoral outcome). But most of all, it is quite clear that any election with less than five per cent margin of difference may be suspect; and that national elections will remain close to uncountable.

As a summary, consider this self-satisfied post-election comment from a conservative (letter to the LA Times): this election proved that freedom is more important than democracy. Indeed, he touched upon the central dilemma: essentially white, male freedom versus that annoying impediment—the vote. But now, of course, media can spin the vote. God encourages many to hack the vote, in order to save the unborn. What’s more, voting nuisances must be settled before Christmas, because the only American we genuinely trust—genuinely hold sacred—may be Santa Claus. Nothing must stop Santa from his global overnight delivery. A heavy turnout for Christmas shopping is probably more important than an honest count on election day.

With those “inalienable” facts in mind, I have been trying to summarize a few of the consequences that will now follow, as the next Bush administration takes charge. What the evidence suggests, trying to be as accurate about it as possible. Perhaps that might give me a clue about what to do next:

  1. We are undergoing a structural change in our national government. How deep depends on who you ask.
  2. Our ATM cards and our gas bill are much more reliable than our national elections. If elections were bank accounts, we might know what precisely the trends are. As it stands, we are forced to guess.
  3. The US is undergoing another “Great Awakening,” another Christian revivalist, evangelical uproar. There have been many since the Methodist revival of the eighteenth century, at least two in the nineteenth century, and two more before this one in the twentieth century.
  4. However, none of these evangelical movements captured all three branches of government so firmly. None stood as entrenched, and ready to roll, as this one.
  5. Globalized outsourcing and all its many linkages are at the core of this evangelism. The central government is shrinking. Job security and educational readiness is dissolving.
  6. As a result, our system of government is being restructured. Here is my theory on all this (already discussed in 2002-3, in various chapters written for The Vatican to Vegas, published last year):
  7. In 1789, thirteen sovereign nations agreed to let George Washington serve as the head of a new central government on at least six conditions.
    1. The national elections would be scrupulously accurate, not like those rotten-borough fiascos in England at the time.
    2. The president could not declare war without the consent of the legislature. Otherwise he would simply be a king posing as a president.
    3. The courts would never be a blind tool for the president’s will, a moral nightmare, as they were so often in “old Europe.”
    4. Oversight of all sorts would keep track of what the executive did. That meant newspapers and public rallies, along with many other checks and balances mandated by the constitution; thus safe from being summarily ignored. Nor should there ever be what we call today media controlled by foreigners, who in turn could twist the popular will of Americans into something infernal and self-destructive.
    5. Unlike “old Europe,” this executive would be responsible for much more than making war and using the courts to force his morality on the kingdom. He was accountable for every citizen, from the bottom to the top, what the French later called “the rights of man.” Of course, it was understood that this was a promise very difficult to keep. But the principle had to be held as the greatest inalienable truth, that in this country based upon the eighteenth century Enlightenment, this social contract made the executive branch a servant of the people. For example, in eighteenth century France (before the revolution), if the king were told that his subjects in Brittany or Burgundy were dying of famine, he had every right to say: Let us hope that local charities can help. And that God may watch over the unfortunate. Then people around him would say thank you, and thank God for his good heart. Of course, there were others who felt differently, but they were barely heard until the American Revolution put the heat under the mad policies of the French system.
    6. This was a vertical contract, with equal responsibility on all sides, and one implied agreement: that steadily, hopefully not too slowly, it would grow to include all its citizens, protect everyone from bottom to top; that despite all the corruptions in America, this growth would be incremental, that this social contract had a built-in perfectibility about it.

What a sour list for us to review this month, a rather frightening contract, considering what has been taking place. In many respects, as you already know, much of the contract has been abrogated over the past four years. And we can blame every political liar and tool of big capital over the past sixty years, but the problem still does not go away.

So what indeed will the new 2005-2035 social contract look like?

First, the executive branch will become more like a selective monarchy. It will be much less responsible—constitutionally and fiscally—for the rights/welfare of the entire citizenry, bottom to top. Instead, it will concentrate more on monarchical war, on gestures in flak jackets, rather like the king posing in a flak jacket while he sits a horse; that is, on “protecting” the borders of the kingdom, and using the courts as a moral weapon to keep God’s trust. Almost every policy will be designed to shrink the public service sector, until only war and functions remain.

Second, the states will return to something more like the Articles of Confederation. Like animals in a deep winter, they will grow thicker coats, become more self-reliant against the weather. Thus, the executive branch grows much less constitutional, while the states and localities shift more toward town-hall democracy.

How far in these directions the country goes is difficult to say at the moment. My guess is that we are in a ten to thirty year cycle, unless a fiscal crash or a military mega-disaster stops the entire process in its tracks.

However, the next step for progressives is very clear: We must invent a discourse that does not rely on a vertical social contract as it was understood even twenty-five years ago. Instead, we must reinvent a new version of the eighteenth century Enlightenment that is as large and thorough as the globalized economy has become; and as intimate and humanizing as a small local church singing their hallelujahs. Somehow all our new and old media, and all our perversely tourist-friendly cities have to be re-imagined, in a vision as thorough as what Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison had to work with in the late eighteenth century. Then probably, eventually, perhaps thirty years from now, we will have to redesign the constitution itself according to these new Enlightenment principles that have been remade to fit nimbly and honestly to our new condition. And with that done, we will once again become a beacon to the world, however bizarre, however violent and neurotic and banal and media-mad and shopaholic. It took our species ten thousand years at least to incubate and finally mature a United States, the imaginary America at least, a place for the bastard children of the world. And three hundred years to make it the strongest power since the Roman Empire, even though it was built out of the refuse and refused, literally the unwanted of the earth.

For generations, mostly since the Vietnam War, American progressives have pointed to the sickness of American imperialism violating foreign countries, told us to look at the poisons we spread abroad first, then find our moral center. Now we have to point toward the US itself first—to the US being colonized by its own economy; and losing its social contract. We here are the problem now. We are the foreign country; also the haunted specter to the world, the alien, the afflicted. What’s more, without a doubt, culturally the work toward this new discourse must be accelerated, if our civilization is not to become the gruesome joke of the century. Or at the very least, we may as well start laughing early, since this time, the joke is surely on us.