Are the pessimists, followers of Optim’s antonymous sibling, right? In these waning years of the Age of Obama, it sure looks that way.
Obama and his minions, abetted by a “bipartisan” consensus in Congress, are hard at work ending the world: pace T.S. Eliot with both a bang and a whimper — and then too, as global warming continues and waters rise, with a devastating whoosh.
The three are related.
First, the bang.
Unless Obama et. al. are stopped in their tracks, it will be big — not big like THE Big Bang, big enough for a whole universe to form out of it — but big enough that a whole lot of misery, death and destruction will.
Viewed one way, Obama’s contribution is just another episode, the latest, in a long story. But stories play out and this episode, coming when it does, is more determinative than most – and potentially more devastating.
The story, or rather the relevant phase of it, began nearly a hundred years ago in the aftermath of The First World War.
Amid the devastation, revolutionaries brought down the Russian empire and reconstituted it on different bases, ostensibly for the benefit of Russian workers and peasants, and for the working masses everywhere.
Not long afterwards, diplomats representing the Allied powers superintended the demise of the Ottoman empire, picking up its pieces for the benefit of their respective ruling classes.
At the time, there were reasonable people – workers and intellectuals especially – who believed that the socialist order Bolshevik revolutionaries established would take root and flourish.
They looked forward to the construction of a new epoch in human history, built upon the ashes of the old, which would radically transform human life for the better. They saw the Russian Revolution as the first stage of a European revolution that would, before long, sweep the entire world.
But the pillars of world capitalism were not about to let this happen, and neither were the forces of reaction.
Revolutions in Germany and throughout central Europe were crushed, as the newly constituted Soviet Union faced the concerted and overt hostility of the Western powers.
There was also, from Day One, the prospect of a civil war in Russia itself. It soon materialized, causing incalculable harm.
The assault never stopped. Communism’s enemies did all they could to make the Soviet experiment go wrong. Unwittingly, the Communists helped them; they were their own worst enemy.
They did what they had to do. But they also did more than that – a lot more and a lot worse.
Even before the revolutionary moment faded, its leaders governed despotically, establishing a bureaucratic tyranny that degenerated, in the Stalin era, into a dystopian police state.
This ended by the mid-fifties, but the regime never really liberalized. Additionally, in contrast to the capitalist West, Communist governments never quite succeeded in delivering the consumer goods their peoples increasingly craved.
Nevertheless, the Soviet Union survived, as did faith in what the Russian Revolution began. It was not until 1989 that Communism finally succumbed. Then in 1991, the Soviet Union itself splintered apart.
The Ottoman Empire ended long before this — in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Its cultural and administrative center, reborn as Turkey, became a European-style nation state. Its far-flung provinces were sorted out into British and French spheres of influence, and turned into nation states as well.
The triumphant imperial powers redrew the map of the Middle East with scant regard for historical or geographical realities. Their machinations were motivated mainly by economic considerations. They had the power, and they took advantage.
In the process, the principle of self-determination for the world’s peoples, famously (though disingenuously) proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson, was ballyhooed, but scarcely honored.
Only some of the peoples that had been incorporated into the Ottoman empire got anything of the sort out of the peace conference at Versailles. Peoples living under British and French rule got nothing at all.
Even before Versailles, Britain had given the Zionist movement a green light to colonize Palestine. The hope was that European Jews would settle in that Ottoman backwater.
Religious Jews, across the theological spectrum, were largely opposed; and Jewish nationalism – as much a nineteenth century concoction as other nationalist movements — was slow to take on an expressly political, much less a statist, dimension.
At the time, therefore, and for several decades thereafter, few Jews took an active interest. Those who did were mainly interested in building a haven for victims of European anti-Semitism.
As it happened, some of the British diplomats involved with Palestine’s destiny were drawn to those strains of Anglo-Protestant theology that fuel Christian Zionism today.
They saw the “return” of the Jews to the Holy Land as a prelude to the Second Coming – and also, not incidentally, to the conversion or eternal damnation of Jews. Naturally, they made common cause with the Zionist minority in European and North American Jewish communities.
For the most part, though, the British promoted the colonization of Palestine in order to secure British economic and geopolitical interests. They regarded a Jewish homeland there as a Western beachhead in the heart of the Middle East that could prove useful in countless ways.
Their efforts were enormously consequential.
Even before the rise of Nazism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Zionism transformed the politics of the region.
For the Palestinians, it has been a catastrophe (a nakba).
Throughout the Middle East, its effects have been tumultuous – not just around the time that the state of Israel was established, but even more saliently after 1967, when, in the course of the Six Day War, Israel took hold of the remaining 22% of Mandate Palestine.
Nevertheless, the state system that European powers established in the region remained robust. The borders were draw with little regard for the peoples affected, but, to date, they have held up tolerably well.
It took the machinations of America’s two post-9/11 presidents to destabilize that historical settlement – probably fatally.
Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are still nominally intact, though, with the Islamic State (IS) now in control of large swathes of their territory, it is unclear how much longer this can last. Before long, it may also become necessary to add Jordan to the list.
The mini-states on the edges of the Arabian Peninsula could also slip out of the control of their ruling elites and therefore of the United States and other Western powers. So could Saudi Arabia, the linchpin of the world’s energy system and the main buttress of reaction throughout the region.
At present, oil revenues and the American military presence are keeping the status quo intact. But this cannot go on forever. There are already signs of fatal unrest. Instability nearby could be just the thing to undue stability back home.
1989 and 1991 marked the end of the era that began with the radical transformation of the Russian empire. Now the other great transformation imposed on the world in the aftermath of World War I, the political structure established for the Middle East, is also becoming undone.
The world is in a perilous state on both accounts; and, to put it mildly, American diplomacy is not helping.
The United States, with the EU in tow, is now aggressively moving against Russia’s efforts to reestablish its influence and dignity. It is treating Russia today the way that Cold War anti-Communists would have treated the Soviet Union, if they thought they could have gotten away with it.
This is extraordinarily reckless.
The world managed somehow to avoid catastrophe during the first Cold War, though it came perilously close several times. This time, with the West supporting hostile states right up to Russia’s borders, the world may not be so lucky.
But what Obama and the others are doing in Ukraine – and less conspicuously in other former Soviet republics and in Russia itself – is almost reasonable in comparison to their determination to press on in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world with the failed policies of recent years.
How could they not have learned, by now, that bombs and drones and special ops hit squads harden victims’ determination to resist; and that the so-called war on terror, or whatever the Obama administration chooses to call it, makes more “terrorists” than it kills?
How could they not have realized, after all these years, that siding absolutely with Israeli governments, no matter what they do, has horrific consequences not just for Palestinians, but also for Israeli society and for America’s standing in the world and therefore ultimately for American interests?
For that matter, how could they not see that whenever they do intervene, no matter what the reason, they make the situation they intervene into worse? The problem is not just that they lack the capacity – and the wisdom – to make things better; the problem is that, very often, they are the problem.
It was the Bush and then the Obama administration’s management of the occupation of Iraq, and their bumbling responses to the complexities of the situation that led to the on-going Syrian civil war, that brought on the sudden, very frightening, emergence of the IS, a group second to none in brutality, religious zealotry, and military proficiency.
Who knows what dire consequences will come from Obama’s efforts now to destroy the IS?
The one sure thing is that nothing good will. A ruinous big bang is more likely.
We can’t vote the problem away either – because what passes for normal politics these days has turned our never very democratic electoral system into a spectacle fit only for reality TV.
When Eliot wrote that the world would end “not with a bang, but a whimper,” he couldn’t have had the 2014 and 2016 American elections in mind. But he might as well have.
No matter what comes out of the several clueless Bush-Obama efforts to control the course of events in lands that were once parts of the old Russian and Ottoman empires, the body politic at home is passing into oblivion. Our politics is doing us in.
This has nothing to do with what people, informed by Marxism and bedazzled by the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, would have predicted – that in a classless society, the state loses its reason for being and therefore withers away.
It is happening instead because governing structures in our class-ridden society inspire justifiable indifference because they are no longer capable of reflecting popular aspirations or effecting urgently needed changes.
Our elections were never very consequential, except at the margins; they are rapidly becoming irrelevant.
Conventional wisdom has it that, come November, Republicans will retain control of the House and, more likely than not, gain control of the Senate.
Will this make our politics worse than it already is? Not likely, inasmuch as the most that can be said for nearly all Democrats these days – the only good thing, in most cases — is that they are not Republicans.
Nothing worth doing gets done now; nothing that stands a chance of happening in this November’s election will change this one iota.
The sad part is that it is probably a good thing that nothing does get done because the status quo, awful as it is, is better than anything Democrats, not to mention Republicans, would do if they could.
Sadder still, in all likelihood, the already useless Democratic Party, ostensibly the party of the lesser evil, will soon be getting even worse. The deterioration will begin the second Hillary Clinton decides to run for president.
That dreadful panjandrum, good only at attracting inflated speaker’s fees and luxury accommodations for appearances at “events” that any sane person would pay to avoid, is now positioning herself to the right of Obama on bombs, drones and hit squads, while missing no opportunity to pay obeisance to the criminal conspiracy that the Israeli government and its American agents have become.
If the Clintons decide to call in their chits, as they likely will, the nomination will be hers. And unless the Republicans somehow manage to field a candidate that reasonably lucid voters can abide, the White House will be hers too.
Imagine looking forward to and then living under that! It will make even Obama look good.
Imagine, the hopeless resignation. It is enough to cause fears of a big bang to fade, and to think that maybe Eliot was right, after all, about the world ending with a whimper.
Meanwhile, global warming is proceeding, and no one in government is doing much of anything about it.
The problem is not that we are afflicted with a political class that favors environmental devastation. It is that the paymasters of our political class are getting rich off activities that promote it. They are paying the piper and calling the tune.
In a political culture as corrupt as ours, why wouldn’t they? Obama and the others see no percentage in going out on a limb by doing the right thing – not when they can still, as the saying goes, kick the can down the road.
In this too, Obama is only the latest in a long line. But, again, his contribution comes at a time when the consequences of past inaction are beginning to be felt. The same old same old is, by now, tantamount to criminal negligence.
Of all Obama’s sins of omission, doing nothing to halt global warming is perhaps the most egregious.
The followers of Pessim seem to have hit upon the perfect trifecta: the way things are going, the world will end with a bang and a whimper and, as the waters rush in, with a colossal whoosh as well.
It doesn’t have to be this way; an aroused citizenry can still turn these impending disasters around. But only diehard followers of Optim are foolish enough to think that in the Age of Obama anything like that will happen in time.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).