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A Second American Revolution

12/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two weeks ago, I stepped outside into the smell of pinôn pines under a bright blue-sky morning. Aspen leaves lay golden across our steps and scattered out into the grasses around the house. The Gramma grass had gone black and at this time of year the long, tall Little Blue Stem turns purple. Seeds of delicate Threeawn and the Sideoats have almost all scattered, taken by winds and rain, hundreds of thousands of kernals of life, looking for a place to land.

The seasons were visibly changing on that morning and maybe too, the world was changing. Markets were gyrating. Recession mounting. Polls were swinging toward Obama. We might even, I thought, be into an ideological chaos from which may emerge changes more profound and deeper than any since the American Revolution.

Andrew Bacevich in his new book, The Limits of Power, does not think that much will change. Bill Moyers is also doubtful. Most progressives see the forces for continuation of the old order -- domination of big money -- as stronger than the forces for change, a nation essentially in paralysis, regardless of who is president.

But, today, let me respectfully dissent. The constellation of forces at play in this season of American history are not like those surrounding any election for at least 75 years, and in some ways the augurs of change are greater than at any time since the founding of the republic. Therefore I think that things will not remain the same. Not in any way. Not at all.

We seldom see revolutionary change without seeing both great characters and terrible times. Lincoln had to be just right and the times just wrong to bring about a new birth of freedom. Roosevelt had to be just right and the times terribly wrong to create a New Deal. Historically, the combination is rare. Sometimes there will be a fine leader, as with John Kennedy, but no social collapse. Sometimes there is social collapse, as in 1968, but only mediocre leadership. Historically, a conjunction of great character and terrible times has not occurred in this country since the 1930s.

Until now.

I believe that Barack Obama has demonstrated something more than capability, something more than charisma, more than organizational talent or knowledge of history and the law. I think his demeanor when he gave the speech in Grant Park on Tuesday night was Lincolnesque. There were no balloons and confetti. No glorification of his personal achievement. His demeanor rather reminded us of the speech that Lincoln himself gave when he boarded the train to leave Springfield, Illinois at the beginning of that first term 148 years ago. At that time in February, 1861, the federal union was already unraveling. South Carolina had already taken action to secede. Lincoln knew it. His remarks were somber.

When Clinton was elected, there was as sense of euphoria. But Obama in Grant Park on Tuesday night was different than Clinton; sunk deeper into the gravity of the place in which our country finds itself. Who could celebrate, realistically, when given the responsibility to unify, inspire, re-direct and strengthen a nation in emotional, economic and military disarray?
In Grant Park Tuesday night, an unusual man spoke to a nation eager for hope and gave to them sobriety and intention, but no popcorn and no fine wine. He did not feed our addiction for glitter and superficiality. He gave us a promise to do his best to bind us together. His greatness, if it comes to that someday will not be because he is black. Rather more, like Lincoln, he will be a man who suffers over the war. Like Lincoln, he will be a man who assembles serious and contentious advisors to deal with global warming, alternate energy and the economic collapse. He will be a steady hand. I heard a man in the barber chair next to me this morning moaning over the election and in desperate fear for America. He went on for 20 minutes without stopping, wondering how America will survive this man. But I do not agree. I think that this man is the best we have had for a very long time.

But will he simply put water on the flames, or will he take the country to new level of resolve, to systemic change? Will he help us redefine ourselves, create a fundamental shift or a revolutionary change in consciousness? That depends upon the other part of the equation, the conditions in which we find ourselves. Both pieces of the equation have to be present for fundamental change to occur. Today, I want to explore this second half of the equation. The fundamental conditions of 2008 and for the foreseeable future.

"A world ends when its metaphor has died," wrote the poet Archibald Macleish near the middle of the last century. He meant to suggest that when the images of old metaphors no longer have meaning, or no longer teach, then the age is over. "Empty as a conch shell by the waters cast/ The metaphor still sounds but cannot tell,/ And we, like parasite crabs, put on the shell/ And drag it at the sea's edge up and down." This is the destiny we say we own.

Today, the web of beliefs that we have held dear in America is being shredded and torn by new realities of many kinds. The shredding is comprehensive and unprecedented. Because -- and this is my thesis--it is so comprehensive and because Obama is so unusual we may be on the verge of something extraordinary. At this moment we have both the man and, unfortunately, the terrible times.

Domestically, we are at the end of raw capitalism. In foreign policy we are at the end of raw militarism. Philosophically, we are at the end of simplistic dualism. The old myths that have supported these three pillars of American faith, capitalism, militarism and dualism, are now diluted, weak and unpersuasive. A revolution in thought will be required to adjust to new realities. Obama will preside over the first steps in this transition.

To say it another way, for thirty years, at least, we have been guided by myths that greed is good, strength comes from guns, and the world is divided between good and evil. These metaphors are not dead, but at the end of 2008 they are gasping, writhing on the ground.

First, capitalism.

According to Adam Smith's version of capitalism the free market was supposed to set value and establish morality. Rampant self-interest leads to the common good. The market regulates and therefore the government does not need to regulate. This has been the governing philosophy of American conservatives since Reagan. In 2008, Smith's formula has evidently not worked and the Bush administration has ushered in a massive program of government interventions. This autumn, conservatives have quietly been standing capitalism on its head. It is now clear to this administration and to everyone else that, contrary to Adam Smith, raw self-interest does not regulate for the common good or establish public morality. One particularly egregious example will suffice: Benefits for a former CEO of the now-failed AIG included stock options (in 2007) in the amount of $1.2 billion. Such excess in the face of world poverty and hunger is the opposite of moral. It is profoundly immoral. It is very close to obscene. That is especially so since the CEO did not apparently know what he was doing to keep his company alive. $1.2 billion as a reward for incompetence should make Adam Smith red in the face.

Further, in spite of the $700 billion bail out in October, bankers are not yet in November lending to other bankers. Credit is still tight. That means that the most elevated practitioners of capitalism do not trust the judgment of other bankers to whom they might lend, or that is do not trust the judgment of the other most elevated practitioners of capitalism.

At the same time, savings are drying up. That means that those at the bottom of the economy can no longer trust either elevated practitioners of capitalism at the top or themselves to provide a cash bridge into the future.

Altogether we are experiencing, in the autumn of 2008, a collapse of the theory of the unbridled free market, a theory upon which Americans have feasted without doubt, or reservation, or regulation for 30 years. Further, without a conceptual explanation for how we got into this mess or how we get out, no one in either party has a star to steer by. The Bush prescription, urging everyone to go shopping was a formula that brought us all a great deal of superficial prosperity that we cannot now pay for. It turned out to be a formula for grief; and perhaps bankruptcy.

Capitalism as a religion of consumption on credit is now demonstrably flawed. Such a theory does not explain the real world in which debts must be paid, eventually by the production of new real wealth. Let me say it again. Contrary to the orthodoxy of the last 30 years, credit as the source of commercial and industrial growth only works if there is, as a result, a return to the economy of additional real, commercial value. Derivatives do not do that. Hedge funds do not do that. Credit default swaps do not do that. They are only gambles. Gambles cannot be the basis of new real wealth.

But if capitalists have discredited capitalism so in the last 70 years have socialists discredited socialism and to say that any presidential advisor knew, or now knows, a new formula in words, or a slogan, or an economic ideology to guide us out of this confusion is to be hopeful beyond the evidence. It is not just Alan Greenspan who does not know; no one else knows how this will come out, either.

When it comes to commerce and trade, therefore, America, Europe, and all the developing nations, are today adrift, tossed on a sea of ideological contradictions. Capitalism may be partly good and partly not so good. But it is not the whole good.

A second pillar of American policy, post-World War II has been reliance upon military strength to keep us safe.

We now see that raw militarism does not work for three reasons. One, it does not work because tanks and guns do not protect against ideas. Two, it does not work because tanks and guns destroy cities and people that we need to keep whole and undestroyed. And third, tanks and guns do not stop global warming or any of the other more serious problems that endanger our survival.

First, that tanks and guns do not protect against ideas:

The biggest fear of many Americans is Islamic terrorism. But Islamic terrorism feeds on martyrdom and therefore feeds on defeat. Conversations in mud huts, at the water hole, around the poppy field, feed on the deaths of heroes. Islamic terrorism's yearning for justice is fed by defeat. Its sense of purpose is fed by defeat. Its identification of good and evil is fed by defeat. To go out and defeat Islamic terrorism with tanks and guns is therefore to go out and promote terrorism. Military defeat creates martyrs, heroes, and propaganda and demonstrates the need for the eternal struggle. No Westerner in his right mind would go around claiming that the West "won" the Crusades. There would be no surer way to fuel the fury of millions of Muslims. To plan to "win" the war on terror militarily is equally delusional.

This means that a way of seeing the world that might have been appropriate against Charles V of Spain of the 16th century, or Napoleon in the 19th, or the Hun or even Hitler in the 20th will no longer lead to success against the threat we face in the 21st. The seasons of civilization change, and not just with the weather.

Second, militarism is obsolete because it tends to destroy territory rather to preserve it and preserve it we must if we are to expand markets.

With Toyota building cars in America and Germans owning Chrysler, and Wal Mart creating labor camps in China, and China, in turn with $5 billion of investment in Sudanese oil and owning more than $300 billion in US Treasury Bills, with Indians telephoning computer repair advice to Santa Feans, Venezuela making oil compacts with Russians, Dubai looking more like New York than New York looks like New York, victory in the old sense of conquest of territory is insane. Conquest is no more appropriate to today's competition with China and Russia or Germany and Japan than bows and arrows. Victory in the modern era will be when all the parts run smoothly, complementing each other, not when one of the parts runs by itself. The steering wheel of a car may feel very important but it is useless without the tires, the spark plugs and the carburetor. The Neo-Cons thought the steering wheel could go it alone. They explicitly went for American control. They were wrong. The result is that the whole wide world of finance has come grinding to a halt.

The conservative view of victory is the same as the illusion of victory in the Crusades. That victory, if there was such a thing, fueled, not peace, but continued tension and competition and hatred and nationalism that has persisted continuously through these last 900 years. "Victory" in an interdependent world is to take a slogan from the Iliad or from Caesar's wars, or from the Song of Roland as a strategy for modern foreign policy and that is frankly also delusional.

Finally, militarism does not solve our most pressing problems.

The icecaps are shrinking. Seas are rising. Deserts are heating up. Populations are exploding. Water and food are in short supply. Famine is spreading. The very rich stay rich, but the poor are sinking under. There is no one to shoot, no land to conquer, no nuclear threat to dismantle that will assist with any of these problems.

We are at a crossroads in global civilization for which traditional military power does not offer a solution. Nuclear weapons, stealth bombers, infra-red night sensors and body armor do not serve us to design a response to global warming, to the contradictions of free trade and fair labor, to the issues of population growth, the alarming increase in the number of failing states from Pakistan to Somalia to Zimbabwe, to the stupendous gap between the incomes of those who run corporations and those who work for them, to the disproportionate influence of big money on politics, or to the independent practically autonomous governments of giant multilateral corporations. In the four years to come, strength will not be defined by victory militarily so much as by innovations culturally, diplomatically, and most significantly, innovations that wean us from carbon fuels.

Which brings us to our third major ideological precipice, the even larger transition that is upon us, beyond capitalism's failings and beyond militarism's obsolescence.

From the wars of the Athenians against king Minos of Crete, through the wars of the Romans against Cleopatra, through the wars of Popes against the Cathars and eventually even the Templars, all the way to the wars of Dick Cheney and his attempt to extend American empire to the deserts of Iraq, the Western world has been dominated by a dualistic view. This is the view that won out in Athens in 500 BC and has remained in our mythology ever since. It is not a true view of the real world. It is not true because it is too simple. It attempts to explain a diverse and multi-sided world, a multi-polar world, as if it were either good or bad and in the simplification misses the chances for solutions that do not fit formulas of capitalism, or empire, or us vs. them.

In the first three chapters of Genesis, written about 1,000 years BC, we were told that man has dominion over the earth, that survival comes from power against the forces of nature, not from life in harmony with nature, that men shall rule women and that this hierarchy is to protect those who are good from those who are evil. We were told to choose sides.

In the last 1,000 years, Christianity, Judaism and Islam have all three been doing just that. They have been choosing sides and each has fostered the view that there are two worlds, one good -- which is us -- and one less good -- which is everyone else. Each of the three religions has promoted the idea of two, of someone on the other side of its religious confession, or outside the chosen people, or not of the people of the true faith, or in any case on the other side of some moral fence.

The values expressed in that earliest biblical literature are similar to those in Greek mythology of the same period and were of hierarchy, dominion, subordination of the weak, disconnection from the earth, rejection of intuition, and the supreme centrality of patriarchal property. Those who agreed were Greeks, those who did not were barbarians.

(Many of you will know this already and some of you will be familiar with my discussion of these themes in my book In Search of the Lost Feminine.)

This dualistic view is tribal -- King Solomon against the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites and the Hittites -- but the world is no longer tribal. Further, not only are we beyond tribes, we are beyond the simple construct of the nation state. The nation state is a 16th-17th century ideology that came to us on the heels of feudalism. France, we would then say, was different than Spain; China was different from Italy and that is who we were, French or Chinese. We saw a lot of that nationalistic feeling in China this last summer. But with China making goods for Italy and India watching American movies and Georgians speaking Russian, and Russians eating Georgian oranges, these boundaries drawn from the sky are no longer a true reflection of the real economic, political or cultural world. The nation state, like the tribe before it, is a concept dissolving beneath our feet.

For survival in today's world we must address a challenge that is not outside the fence. It is not some "them." It is not in those cultures that originally gave rise to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is not the Trojans who bedeviled the ancient Greeks, or the Babylonians who held the Israelites, or the Moors invading Spain, or Huguenots undermining French Catholicism, or Papists undermining English Protestants; it is not the Hun against democracy, or the Communists against freedom, or even today the fundamentalists of all stripes who scream out words of hate and terror. It is none of those threats that in the past led us to believe that we could divide the world into two. The problem is no one outside the fence. It is all of us. It is all of us inside and outside the fence.

The way of thinking that is obsolete is not just the way under George W. Bush, though it is most profoundly expressed in the Neo-Con movement and the seemingly irresistible urge to attack and vilify, demonize and view the world with disdain. It was the way of recent campaign attacks on Obama as someone not like us, or someone who associates with terrorists. Those attacks were primitive. But more than this they probably reflect the way we as a nation thought after the Second War, facing communism, or the way we think in democracies facing totalitarianism. It is the way we think of danger, altogether, as if it came from the outside. As if the world were divided into two parts. As if we could wall danger out. But of course we cannot wall us out, and it is our own energy use and our own profligate consumption, our own denial of the larger community of needs, our own denial of our responsibility to pay taxes, or even to discipline children and our own obscene waste on weapons (that are totally irrelevant to resolve these threats); it is all these things that make us all, globally, inside the fence.

The revolution that is before us in this election year is therefore not just about electing a black man or regaining wages for the working poor, or health insurance.

The greater reality is that, unlike the aftermath of any election in our history, the world in 2008 is ideologically chaotic because it is unexplained and the future is uncharted:

1) Classical economic doctrines lauding raw self interest are collapsing around us and there is no sensible concept of socialism to replace capitalism, we are therefore entering into an age of ideological confusion;

2) Militarism which has been the mainstay of our foreign policy for 50 years, fuels rather than diminishes terrorism, is irrelevant to conquer or influence the trading habits of China or India, Germany or Japan, and is irrelevant to address global warming that could cut us all down; and finally,

3) After three millennia, a dualistic way of seeing the world, one part good, the other evil, is delusional. Our earliest Greek philosophy and its dependent religions have prepared us for a world no longer extant.

Now comes Mr. Obama to a country wallowing in this ideological uncertainty. In Russia when this happens, the country turns to the right. In Pakistan, recently it has turned to murder. In Germany when this happened in the 1930s, the country turned fascist. But here, instead of being self interested, or geared to the pursuit of power for its own sake, this new man of ours comes with a high moral purpose. Instead of a self-righteous new president set upon "spending his political capital" to work his will on non-believers and the rest of the world, his stated purpose is to bind the nation together. Instead of seeking to protect the interests of lobbyists and large corporate interests who have held sway in Washington for years, he seems intent upon maintaining his independence. Instead of hammering the other party, he sends signals of his intention to include them in his cabinet. Instead of some hidden core of personal insecurity, he comes with an apparent inner core of bedrock self assurance.

I believe that both the good man and the desperate times are therefore right for significant change; we could be on the verge of something great and profound. We could be marking a new step in the progress of humankind toward greater dignity and compassion.

You in this room have all been working toward this end for years. You all have believed at some level that in spite of your fears and doubts, it could somehow come true. Take heart. We are not at the end of anything, as Winston Churchill once said. We are not even at the beginning of the end. But we are at the end of the beginning.

Thank you.