Podcast • May 19, 2011

Simon Schama: this “imperial calamity” we inherited

Simon Schama, the silver-tongued historian, is indulging me with a further reflection on this “imperial calamity,” as he put it, that we Americans seem to have inherited from his other country, Britain. There is no ...

Simon Schama, the silver-tongued historian, is indulging me with a further reflection on this “imperial calamity,” as he put it, that we Americans seem to have inherited from his other country, Britain. There is no way out, he seems to conclude — no relief from the burdens and sorrows of empire. I am wondering: what teaches a great power that its time is running out? “Bankruptcy!” he exclaims, about the British experience. In the American struggle with strategic decline, Schama says, there will be no silencing the “neurotic insistence” on American exceptionalism, and no cure for “the testosterone of fury.”

“Obama’s whole project, which is incredibly difficult to bring off, is basically to be the manager of declining expectations. Now you can’t go to the hustings and say to the people: my plan for the future of the Great American Republic is that we become more ordinary, that we run foreign policy on the cheap, and have a humble posture in the world. You really have to educate the American public in a more realistic way about what’s possible in the American future — but not in an election year. As we say, good luck on that, mate.”

My other country is a small island, 60 million population. It took a long time — I grew up in a period of declinism, really, where we got used to runs on the pound, botched fiascos — a long, bloody, somber education in our limitations. But there was something always about the British temper that was historically ironic. At least when I grew up, notwithstanding the gorgeousness of Churchillian rhetoric, there was also the sense that history is a kind of tableau of the tragic irony of overreach; even Thucydides saw that.

Irony is in very short supply on Capitol Hill, and it’s regarded as a kind of jaded, European admission of defeat. We’ve got back now to our founding fathers. The only figure among the great founding fathers who had no problem with irony at the same time as he had no problem about envisioning a great continental democratic future was of course the peerless Benjamin Franklin, who did put all those things together in an un-defensive way. And we’ve just blocked that ever since.

I suspect I’ll be long since gone to the buttercups and the tombs of my fathers, but in the end — and I guess the question is more about imperial Rome — we will simply, over a long period of time, become accustomed to our limitations. And at some point in the future there will be some Edward Gibbon sitting in the ruins, meditating on the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, and nailing it.

Simon Schama with Chris Lydon at Columbia University in NYC, May 12, 2011.

Podcast • March 1, 2011

Parag Khanna: Why Nobody Runs the World

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Parag Khanna. (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3) Parag Khanna — the young freelance adventurer, noticer and scorekeeper in geo-politics — broke the news in the mainstream press three ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Parag Khanna. (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3)

Parag Khanna — the young freelance adventurer, noticer and scorekeeper in geo-politics — broke the news in the mainstream press three years ago that the United States’ “unipolar moment” had expired in the ruins of Iraq. Who Shrank the Superpower? was the cover headline on Khanna’s debut in the New York Times Sunday Magazine — counting on top of military costs the loss of American moral and economic “soft power” in the era of George W. Bush’s unilateralism. Globalization, as Parag Khanna argued in his first book, The Second World, had become a three-way street, meaning that aspiring peoples between the “first” and “third” world (think: Venezuela, Turkey, Kazakhstan) had the choice now of modernizing with the financial and technical help of (1) the U.S. (2) China or (3) Europe– and that the American route was looking less and less attractive.

The title of Khanna’s new book, How to Run the World was slapped on with deepest irony, or perhaps cynically for the airport racks, because it suggests the opposite of his essential point: that power in the world has devolved into a possibly benign anarchy as in the Middle Ages — that what looked like a “unipolar” world at the end of the Cold War has become not so much a “multipolar” as a “heteropolar” system today. The power of states (and the United States) continues to ebb, and the non-state actors include a mismatching multitude of impulses and institutions, public and private — including the stateless statesman George Soros, the Arab money pool known as Dubai, Cameron Sinclair and his Architects for Humanity, the Catholic Church and Al Qaeda. Nobody runs a networked world, and nobody is about to:

We still accord this privileged status, intellectually or otherwise, to the nation, the state, the territorial, that bounded geographic unit, as if, if and when a terrorist group or a company really does become as important as a state it would become a state. That’s not true at all. We are in a trans-national, trans-territorial sort of space globally, in which Royal Dutch Shell is perfectly happy not being a state as such. It has a global footprint and global operations. The Gates Foundation does not have to be a state to influence policies of hundreds of countries when it comes to public health. George Soros calls himself very proudly a stateless statesman, because of the diplomacy that he conducts everywhere on behalf of the causes that he holds dear.

So to me the idea that something is becoming like a state is a linear projection, a teleological assumption that more power means becoming more like a state. That’s not what the new Middle Ages, as I’m calling it, is really going to look like. Religious groups and religious actors, even those in the world of Islam who want a global caliphate, are really thinking much more about spreading that geography and community of belief, more than they’re thinking about what straight-line borders are they going to put down on a map. So I think we have to be very imaginative about what forms about identity and power are going to shape the 21st Century and focus ever less on just who is a state and who is not a state. …

Parag Khanna in conversation with Chris Lydon.

Podcast • October 19, 2009

Chris Hedges: Requiem for the Reading Republic

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. When I got to the New York Times (some years before Chris Hedges) in the late Sixties, Alden Whitman had the bad news moniker, writing obits of great figures for the paper of record. When Alden Whitman knocked on your door for a long interview about your life, you were supposed to know it was almost over. It’s Chris Hedges’s gig now, observing all of us. After most of 20 years as a war correspondent with the Times, Chris Hedges in 2003 charged his paper and others with “shameful cheerleading” for the war in Iraq, and left to study up again on ancient history, theology and classic literature, and to write his own classic, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. In his new jeremiad, Empire of Illusion, pro wrestling and pornography are the bookend spectacles in a parody culture all around us now — the grotesque joke representations of power and eros in the end times. I find these resonant arguments, from the rare daily-news ace who’s trained himself also in the long view:

To believe somehow that we are the culmination, that time is linear, that we are progressing morally, is to ignore human history and human nature, and essentially to remain in a state of infantilism. That’s what illusion is about. If we had an understanding of what the dying days, the twilight hours of great civilizations were like we would be able to see all the flashing lights, the warning signs around us. But I think that the illiteracy which has gripped the country (a third of this country is either illiterate, or is technically literate but doesn’t read anymore); that shift from a print based culture into an image based culture, the belief that how we are made to feel is a form of knowledge, propaganda being a kind of ideology — these are the hallmarks of a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states are image based, spectacle based states.

We have set the ground for a seamless transfer from a democracy into a kind of corporate state. With the corporate state always comes the rise of the surveillance or the security state. We lack the capacity, having been unmoored from print, and relying on skillfully manipulated images, to fight back… We see it in the environmental crisis; we are literally destroying the ecosystem that sustains the human species; the gap widens between the illusion of the world we think we live in, and the reality of that world.  What you’ve done is render huge segments of the population into a kind of childishness which makes them emotionally, intellectually and psychologically unprepared for what it is they are about to face. They will react like all children, which is to reach out for demagogues who promise a new glory, vengeance and moral renewal.

CL: What survives of American hegemony if in fact it’s over?

CH: Well, it is over. We can’t continue to borrow, to sustain either a level of consumption or the empire that we demand. It’s just a question of when, and how do we respond. I don’t think learning to live without the piles of junk that have been bequeathed to us by consumer culture is going to impoverish our lifestyle. I don’t think that learning a new humility as empire is dismantled is a negative. We will have to learn another language other than the language of force by which we speak to most of the rest of the world, certainly those in the Middle East. It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of hope or a life of meaning or a life of richness; it just means a different kind of life. The danger is not grasping this reality. That’s the danger. if we’re not prepared for this reality, if we continue to live as the most delusional nation on the planet, than we we will end up like Yugoslavia. The war in Yugoslavia was caused by the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia — it vomited up figures like Slobodan Milosevic; the Weimar republic did the same; did the collapse of Czarist Russia…

What remains? I think that unfortunately American culture (or cultures, for we once had many cultures with their own iconography and aesthetic, and a decentralized press that gave expression to local communities) was dismantled and destroyed in the 20th century and replaced with mass corporate culture… The drive of corporate culture was to implant the need for consumption as a kind of inner compulsion. Drawing on Freud, it was about manipulating people, appealing to subliminal desires and anxieties, often creating those anxieties, to fuel a kind of wild orgy of consumable products that were supposed to sort of ameliorate our alienation and atomization and loneliness and despair. And all of that is falling down around us. And yet we haven’t recognized that reality. It’s not unique. There’s that emotional incapacity to understand how fragile the world is around us and how rapidly it can disintegrate. I think having been a war correspondent, and having lived in societies that did disintegrate, I’m much more conscious. I can walk in my supermarket and imagine all the windows knocked out and the shelves bare and the neon lights hanging, because I’ve seen it. There’s that dual capacity to see how swiftly and quickly any society can collapse.

CL: We elected a president who promised literally a kind of transformation. I don’t want to to argue Obama politics, so much as just to ask: is transformation an illusion?

CH: Well, we elected a brand. We elected a presidential candidate who campaigned, like his rival, primarily on a personal narrative. You had rallies where people were chanting slogans like “yes we can,” which they stole by the way from FedEx-Kinko’s. It was campaign by experience: it was a very effective way of making us feel a certain way about a candidate. But Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state anymore than George W. Bush threatened the core of the corporate state.  That has been more than evidenced by Obama’s willingness to continue the looting of the American treasury, the largest transference of wealth upwards in American history. In the 17th century in England, speculators were hung. In our society they are given tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, and they run the government.

Chris Hedges in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 8, 2009.

Podcast • May 14, 2008

Bad News in High Style: Kevin Phillips

Kevin Phillips: how bad is it really? People I know count on Paul Krugman in The Times to give us all the bad news we can believe in. But Kevin Phillips (a Nixon-brain turned populist ...
kevin phillips

Kevin Phillips: how bad is it really?

People I know count on Paul Krugman in The Times to give us all the bad news we can believe in. But Kevin Phillips (a Nixon-brain turned populist grand historian) not only trumps Krugman in the Cassandra Stakes, he also explains why Krugman and media in general have gone soft and squishy (“now that the financial clouds have lifted a bit”) on the global apocalypse coming in the convergence of our housing collapse, the explosion of public and private debt, the fall of the dollar, the rise of (a) China and (b) $125 oil, and the consolidation of finance (the debt business) as our leading industry. Phillips notes that the best of big media, meaning the Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, hate to be out front with bad news. And Krugman, the best of the best, is too heavily invested in the Clinton Democrats’ myth of a renewable once-and-future politics of prosperity — and too polite to dwell, for example, on the financialization of the Clinton campaign base. Nobody I know tells the story of catastrophe with higher style and a broader sweep of knowledge than Kevin Phillips — in his new book, Bad Money and in conversation here:

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Kevin Phillips here (36 minutes, 16 MB MP3)

There’s a growing sense that the imperial era of the United States is over almost before it started. I think we’re seeing the weakness of the United States that has allowed the financial sector to take over the private economy… 20 to 21 percent of GDP is now finance, pushing manufacturing way down. I think what you’ll see happen to the US is… a degree of implosion that will involve everything from too much debt, collapsing home prices, rising oil prices and the declining dollar. It doesn’t spell the end of the United States, but it spells the end of the United States as the total big cheese in the world. We’re going to lose some of the yardsticks that everybody enjoyed for a long time…

We used to be leading world creditor nation, lead world manufacturer, leading world producer of oil; we’re now leading the world’s leading debtor, the largest importer of manufactures in the world, and we’re the worlds largest oil importer. It’s a disastrous transformation. The only part of the economy that’s really profited is the financial sector because an awful lot of the transition is towards more debt,

more credit, more living on things you can’t afford, more keeping up pretenses, and more ambition around the world and less to back it up. And the consummation of this in many ways has been the George W Bush administration…

They invade Iraq, partly in order to get Iraq’s oil which hasn’t been tapped too much historically, and they thought they might be able to get 6 or 7 million barrels a day, and they could use that to bust open OPEC, and that would bring the price down — that was their ambition. And the futures market showed briefly in 2003, that there was an expectation that oil would come down to $15-18 dollars a barrel. At the time it was $20-25 — and now its $120-125. The notion that this imbecility was orchestrated, totally contrary to what they wanted, by two people who came from the oil industry — we could have done better with two bums or two Good Humor men, than these two men from the oil industry who knew nothing about the forces they were unleashing…

There was the ‘neutron loan’ – it kills the people but leaves the housing standing. The real thing they did that made this thing gain legs, is that no matter how crummy the loans were, most were securitized…. It’s mindboggling — If these people were in the manufacturing business, production of these things would have been enjoined because they were unsafe. You have consumer safety product commissions and things like that — you don’t have a financial products safety commission, which we sure as hell should have.

Kevin Phillips, in conversation with Chris Lydon on Open Source, May 14, 2008

Podcast • March 4, 2008

The Post-Imperial Historian: Eric Hobsbawm

An historian of ever widening scope, Eric Hobsbawm has been taking the long view for a very long time. His definition of the historian’s trade is: “how and why Homo sapiens got from the paleolithic ...

An historian of ever widening scope, Eric Hobsbawm has been taking the long view for a very long time. His definition of the historian’s trade is: “how and why Homo sapiens got from the paleolithic to the nuclear age.” Born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, Hobsbawm is 90 now, but in his pungent writing and talk, the species is young, and the future is everything.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Eric Hobsbawm here (34 minutes, 16 mb mp3)


Eric Hobsbawm: on the Age After Empire

We left Africa 100,000 years ago. The whole of what is usually described as ‘history’ since the invention of agriculture and cities consists of hardly more than 400 human generations or 10,000 years, a blink of the eye in geological time. Given the dramatic acceleration of the pace of humanity’s control over nature in this brief period, especially in the last ten or twenty generations, the whole of history so far can be seen to be something like an explosion of our species, a sort of bio-social supernova, into an unknown future. Let us hope it is not a catastrophic one. In the meanwhile, and for the first time, we have an adequate framework for a genuinely global history, and one restored to its proper central place, neither within the humanities nor the natural and mathematical sciences, nor separated from them, but essential to both. I wish I were young enough to take part in writing it.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his autobiography, Interesting Times, Pantheon, 2002.

In an hour’s conversation in Hobsbawm’s house in Hampstead Heath, we didn’t have time to revisit the famously exotic dimensions of his life: his quasi-religious attachment to Communism and his fascination with jazz, or the polar views of the man and his work. Link here to the loving, the venomous and the measured. Hobsbawm’s bookshelves groan with a lot of my favorite jazz tomes, like Stanley Dance’s The World of Count Basie, and Robert Gottlieb’s collection, Reading Jazz. I am sending him Arthur Taylor’s marvelous interviews with the post-Parker jazz stars through the Civil Rights revolution, Notes and Tones. But in the time we had, it seemed best to hear the crunchy numbers and sweeping authority that are acknowledged from all points of the history profession — not least from his young opposite number, the neo-imperialist Niall Ferguson .

I asked him to speak of the themes in his pithy new book: On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy. I said it’s still mysterious to me that Tony Blair and long post-imperial Britain followed President Bush and the United States into Iraq.

CL: What does that war mean for the UK, the US, for the future of hegemony?

EH: The interesting thing about the Iraq war is that unlike the first gulf war, unlike even the first American intervention after 911 in Afghanistan, it has no common support, at all. Overwhelmingly most countries were against it, and the others were skeptical. With the single exception of Great Britain. Great Britain I think has been tied to the United States ever since, I think, its own status as a nuclear power became dependent effectively on the American supplies, and ever since its status as an international power became dependent effectively on access to American technical intelligence. And I think that’s one major reason why they felt they couldn’t possibly break. That doesn’t explain why we had to rush into it, devote an enormous amount of our energies and military force, and reputation. After all … when L. B. Johnson asked our Prime Minister Wilson to send the Black Watch to Vietnam, he refused to do it. Very quietly. He kept on repeating how totally in favor he was of the Americans, but he didn’t do anything. Unlke Blair. Blair rushed in, because I think he loved the idea of being as it were a deputy imperial power. And let’s make no mistake about it: he also thought somehow or other, there needed to be Western force which somehow controlled the disorder in the world — which is no longer controllable by anybody in the old 19th Century imperial way. That’s the thing to remember.

CL: And why not?

EH: The Iraq war has shown it but not only the Iraq war. Things like Darfur — where nowadays you say you need at least 26,000 troops simply to watch over the whole thing. The basic fact is that the populations of the world are no longer prepared to accept power as something that is authentic and authoritative. Imperialism in the old days was based on the assumption that quite small groups of people armed with high tech could establish themselves and be accepted, like it or not by millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions. Partly because power is there, and poor people have lived under power all the time. One or two exceptions — places like Afghanistan or Kurdistan, where nobody liked power, states or any kind of thing, never did and don’t now. But there was that, and at the same time also there was the possiblity of making alliances with locals who wanted modernization, which in those days meant Westernization. It doesn’t mean Westernization any more, and the power has gone and the willingness to accept the power has gone.

CL: We’re reminded that the British ran India with a civil service smaller than the welfare department of New York City.

EH: Once the Indians stopped accepting the fact that British Raj, the British domination, was as legitimate as any other conquerer that had ever been there and established their power, that was the end of the British Empire.

CL: Has the Iraq war moved the center in the world and has it changed the agenda of the new century?

EH: Well, it has in the sense that it makes the enormous military force and the enormous military technological superiority of the United States (unprecedented and really unlikely to be equalled by anybody within the reasonable future) it makes it irrelevent, because it doesn’t really help. What could you do? You could easily capture lots of Baghdads. What would happen then? We know what happened when we captured Baghdad. We know what happened after we captured Kabul. Several years after that, thirty percent of Afghanistan is under the vague control of somebody who came in then, by us. And the rest is not under control. So what’s the use of having this particular superiority? You cannot do it without a political base.

CL: Does the rise of China and does the rising wealth and numbers of an expanding Europe fill the gap?

EH: Europe doesn’t fill the gap. Europe in the broad sense belongs to the part of the world which no longer actually reproduces itself demographically, and therefore relies very largely on immigration. But basically speaking Europe is no longer — I mean, it has enormous assets and it is an economy which is as big as the United States; actually at this very moment the average British income, share of the GDP per person, is higher than the United States, which was last the case, I think, in 1890 — but the fact is: Europe is itself, apart from being a large cultural and above all economic unit, is not a major international political and military unit. The United States relies, I think, on the one thing which is unique for the United States, namely its military power. But that’s the one which is limited and there’s not very much you can do with it, short of bombing the world to bits. And there’s no sense in that. And in fact once a sensible American government comes back, they will get back to the position of, say, J. F. Kennedy who knew right from the beginning that bombing the world to bits was no solution for anything.

Eric Hobsbawm, in conversation with Chris Lydon, at his home in London, February 28, 2008.

When my recorder and I suddenly needed a pair of double-A batteries, Eric Hobsbawm jumped up and found them in his hardware drawer. And when he spoke briefly about the Internet’s penetration of culture and consciousness in little more than a decade, I realized the man is as modern as tomorrow. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawm.

Podcast • February 4, 2008

After the Empire: Must Reading from Parag Khanna

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Parag Khanna here (60 minutes, 27 mb mp3) Everybody’s homework assignment this week is, first, to absorb Parag Khanna‘s breathtaking revisioning of the United States in the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Parag Khanna here (60 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Everybody’s homework assignment this week is, first, to absorb Parag Khanna‘s breathtaking revisioning of the United States in the world, and, second, to add your comment on the late great American Empire. Can it have come and gone so fast? Parag Khanna will join us in class with James Der Derian, the master of global security and media studies at Brown, on Thursday afternoon.

Parag Khanna: Who Shrunk US Power?

Parag Khanna’s scorecard-lineup of the “post-American world” is more striking for appearing counterintuitively in the safe, smug New York Times Sunday magazine. Five years ago in the same spot, Michael Ignatieff’s version at the start of the Iraq war was titled: The American Empire: Get Used to It. The headling on Parag Khanna’s piece was Who Shrank the Superpower? (Answer: GWB and “imperial overstretch.”) The main points, Letterman-style, might be these:

10. The Big Three in the real world these days are China, the European Union, and with a worrisome limp, the U. S. of A.

9. The big-name non-contenders are Russia, Islam and India.

8. The swing-states out there are the nations of what Parag Khanna calls “the second world.” Think Malaysia, Morocco, Venezuela, Vietnam, Turkey, Brazil, Kazakhstan: nations not of the First nor the Third World, but a mix of both: places often with their own “fissured personalities.” Their primary interests seems to be economic inclusion and self-development. Their acquired skill is in playing several angles of international politics at once. “Right now,” writes Parag Khanna, “from the Middle East to Southeast Asic, the hero of the second world — including its democracies — is Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.”

7. Our American cultural power is declining with our political charm.

Many poor regions of the world have realized that they want the European dream, not the American dream. Africa wants a real African Union, like the E.U.; we offer no equivalent. Activists in the Middle East want parliamentary democracy like Europe’s, not American-style presidential strongman rule. Many of the foreign students we shunned after 9/11 are now in London and Berlin: twice as many Chinese study in Europe as in the U.S. We didn’t educate them, so we have no claims on their brains or loyalties as we have in decades past…

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

6. China is the counter-broker of what we have thought of as our unanswerable power. As in: “Every country in the world currently considered a rogue state by the U.S. now enjoys a diplomatic, economic or strategic lifeline from China, Iran being the most prominent example.”

5. Globalization is a three-way street.

” Globalization is not synonymous with Americanization; in fact, nothing has brought about the erosion of American primacy faster than globalization… The second world’s priority is not to become America but to succees by any means necessary… the new reality of global affairs is that there is not one way to win allies and influence countries but three: America’s coalition (as in “coalition of the willing”), Europe’s consensus and China’s consultative styles. The geopolitical marketplace will decide which will lead the 21st Century.”

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

4. Russia — being bought out by Europe even as it becomes a petro-vassal of China — is reduced to being “the ultimate second-world swing state… For all its muscle flexing, Russia is also disappearing. Its population decline is a staggering half million citizens per year or more, meaning it will be not much larger than Turkey by 2025 or so — spread across a land so vast that it no longer even makes sense as a country.”

3. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela signals an ideological awakening in Latin America, but Brazil marks out an even more important structural shift in China’s direction, virtually a “strategic alliance.”

Their economies are remarkably complementary, with Brazil shipping iron ire, timber, zinc, beef, milk and soybeans to China and China investing in Brazil’s hydroelectric dams, steel mills and show factories… Latin America has mostly been a geopolitical afterthought over the centuries, but in the 21st century, all resources will be competed for, and none are too far away.

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

2. “Despite the ‘mirage of immortality’ that afflicts global empires, the only reliable rule of history is its cycles of imperial rise and decline, and as Toynbee also pithily noted, the only direction to go from the apogee of power is down.”

1. We have very little time to adjust our thinking and our policies. “Maintaining America’s empire can only get costlier in blood and treasure. It isn’t worth it, and history promises the effort will fail. It already has.”

Comments please, and push-back questions for Parag Khanna.