Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Whither America?

Igor Panarin believes that the United States is doomed. Within the next two years, he says, this country will cease to exist, much like the USSR. Is this ex-KGB analyst, dean of the Moscow Academy of Diplomacy and a guest of the Davos economic forum a prophet, or a crank? His predictions attracted attention of the Wall Street Journal, which reported on them with marked incredulity. Other commentators, such as Doug Bandow, also gave Panarin little credence.

Now, it is entirely possible Panarin is engaging in projection. Having witnessed the dissolution of the USSR, he sees parallels in the current U.S. situation that might not really be there. For that matter, I have been viewing the situation in the U.S. through the prism of my experience with the end of Yugoslavia, and the Bosnian War. Fractured society, a credit-fueled boom that turned into a disaster when the bills came due, the same "it can't happen here" conviction that blindsided many Bosnians... do I see them here? Absolutely. This is why I tend to take Panarin a bit more seriously than most people. If current trends continue, then I really do think this country is headed to perdition. I am far less certain of what shape that perdition might take than Igor Panarin, however. It is one thing to posit likelihoods, and quite another to speak of exact timelines and even territorial divisions.

In a recent exclusive interview with the premier Serbian weekly NIN on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, Panarin compared the new president to the last leader of the USSR (translations mine):

The new American president is a very good speaker, and reminds me a lot of Gorbachev. His role is very similar, to soften the dissolution of the USA as much as possible. If the attempt to rescue the financial system fails, he can be the scapegoat: it's his lack of experience, etc. It would be USSR-like scenario, except it took us six years to collapse, and the USA will do it in 18 months. Things move faster these days...
He impressed me, too, in the beginning: he spoke well, and very reasonably. But I kept watching and he kept repeating the same things. He offered nothing new. He kept reminding me of Gorbachev. When Gorbachev came to power, many thought it a good thing - myself included. But after just six months, it became obvious that the words were all well and good, but the actual effect was the country's collapse.

He went on to explain how the USSR fell apart because Gorbachev had racked up foreign debt and bankrupted the state. (Yeltsin's henchman Yegor Geidar explained this in some detail in a paper he wrote for the American Enterprise Institute a couple years back.) So, in his mind, the crushing government debt will destroy the U.S. analogously.

The wrinkle here is that American debt is held in American-printed dollars; so long as the rest of the world maintains the dollar as the global reserve currency, the Fed will be able to print money and "create wealth" out of thin air with impunity. Where do you think those billions for the so-called "stimulus" are coming from? But if Washington keeps printing money, sooner or later it will reduce its worth below the level acceptable to foreign buyers. I don't know what that level might be; it depends on a variety of facts and perceptions and is essentially subjective. But any economic theory says that such a point must exist. And once it's reached, the U.S. dollar will be worth about as much as its Zimbabwean namesake.

One of the things Panarin only mentions in passing, but which I consider crucial, is the Americans' mental state. Modern politicians are fond of invoking the line about how "all men are created equal" from the Declaration of Independence, forgetting that the rest of that sentence, lifted almost entirely out of Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government, talks about the "unalienable Rights...[of] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" (or, as Locke put it, property). Whereas European governments of the time were still built around the medieval concept of a monarch being in charge of the landed gentry that lorded over the serfs, with some free citizenry thrown in, America was supposed to be the land of the free - i.e. those who owned property and did not depend on laboring for someone else. (Obviously, the whole slavery thing was a glaring fly in the ointment, but keep in mind that the Founders by and large considered the slaves less than fully human). Even if one was reduced to what Marx would call a proletarian - with no property but himself - the "American dream" was always to save up enough to buy one's own farm or shop, to be one's own boss.

Most people in today's America work for someone else, though. Most productive assets are owned by big businesses, which became big by collaborating with an ever-expanding government. And the government regulates and taxes everything to a degree where no one is actually free, and people in effect live and work at the government's sufferance. Now I know many will disagree with this assessment; small business owners who have to spend time and money making sure they are in compliance with the ever-expanding body of regulations and tax codes, however, know exactly what I mean.

So, from a country of free farmers and small businessmen, America has become a nation of regulated wage slaves. Worse yet, this economic transformation has gone hand in hand with a cultural and societal change. The growth of cities and the development of suburbs and highways has fractured and scattered families. In many places across the U.S. there is no longer a sense of community. Even regional identities have suffered due to migration patterns. Racial and linguistic identity politics aren't helping, either. And while this social atomization may seem like a fine thing to the government, as it promotes conflict and therefore enables control and encourages dependence (on the government, as the "solution"), it sows the seeds of misfortune for when the government eventually goes under.

Do Americans even have shared values anymore? What might those be? Self-reliance? Individualism? Liberty? Hardly, anymore. It seems that pursuit of money and the belief in government omnipotence are the only things America's diverse inhabitants have in common. That's a mighty thin fabric for a nation. Once money evaporates in a cloud of inflation and the government is shown to be impotent, what's left?

When someone asked me, a couple years back, whether I thought U.S. would have another civil war, I replied, "If and when it happens, there won't be anything civil about it." Yes, it's a pun. And yes, it's gallows humor. But look at it from my perspective: the American equivalent of what happened to Bosnia - and that's under the charitable assumption that things here would not turn out far worse - would be 150 million refugees and 6 million dead. I don't want to see that happen. No one in their right mind would.

And that is why I take Panarin's predictions seriously, if with a chunk of salt. While it may not happen as soon as he thinks, or in the manner he laid out, the end of the U.S. is both possible and increasingly likely. If and when it happens, I pray only that it resembles the Czech/Slovak "velvet divorce," or even the relatively bloodless Soviet model (where conflicts were confined to the periphery), rather than the bloody and tragic demise of Yugoslavia. I've lived through that already. Once was enough.


Unknown said...

Great piece, as usual. I also take Dr. Panarin very seriously. I do agree that it can happen to the USA, it would be the inevitable conclusion for a society that always wants to live beyond its means. The parallels are there. Your economic analysis is always a great pleasure to read and perfectly on the mark.

The speed and shape that the evolution of those negative trends might have isn't certain at all but they will be a problem, sooner or later.

For the US and Europe of course, especially countries with huge public and private debt burdens like the US, UK, Italy and so on.

I also agree with Dr. Panarin's view of Obama, who is yet another Serbophobe, sadly.

Certainly, as long as Western countries can print new money out of thin air the party keeps on getting prolonged but it must end at some point.

What you said about a civil war being, should it happen, un-civil in reality....it would apply to Western Europe too, of course.

How and when these things will happen can be debated, as far as the US and Western Europe, but I do think it will happen.

Hopefully not in the very bloody way the Serbs have been pounded during the destruction of Yugoslavia.

Nobody has suffered more than the Serbs throughout history, we better hope no future conflict will bring a pain comparable to the Serbs'.

Keep up the great work, Gray Falcon.


CubuCoko said...

Thanks. I wouldn't quite agree with you that "nobody has suffered more than the Serbs throughout history", though - unlike so many peoples that have perished, we're still around. For now.

Mark Johnson said...

Also have to take into account the fact that Panarin takes a 'snapshot' view of a US break-up which is probably a little too simplistic.

There would be multiple stages of dissolution and multiple stages and types of migrations in the event of the theoretical End Of America. Panarin has taken one stage of one particular route on the fall from grace that seems quite likely.

Adding to the complexity is that some residents may consider the US as it is now as their homeland, others their immediate 'suburb'. Others may think those two and everything in between are true also.

Look, either way we and the Americans are turd burgers the way the world is going.

Is there a word for a state of being that means 'a different government and identity of an area that doesn't come by violent revolution'?

I'll go with 'logical end-point of capitalism' for now.

Deucaon said...

Malic: I was under the impression that you were in America temporarily since you have been there a decade or so and you still aren't a citizen. In any case, I'm sure you wouldn't have to experience the war because you could simply leave the country since I doubt the Ol' US of A (or what's left) isn't going to be under an UN embargo.

CubuCoko said...

Your impression is correct. It's just that the "temporary" has somehow dragged on for 13 years. So much for American efficiency, right? But yes, I am not a citizen, and in theory will be allowed to leave if/when things go to hell. Actually, the trick is to leave before.

Unknown said...

Nebojsa, today 5 February marks the 13th anniversary of the first bombing of the Markale market in Sarajevo. I have been bugged by a doubt ever since: were the victims all or mostly Serbs or were they all pro-peace Muslims just trying to feed themselves (and perhaps they had given their votes by Adbic?). Your last piece on Antiwar.com is masterful as usual and almost paints an inevitable picture. Was it just a coincidence that such an article appeared on such a sensitive anniversary (for the Serbs as a whole, I feel, not for the BiH Serbs). Best wishes.


CubuCoko said...

Honestly, I hadn't even thought of the Markale event until you mentioned it. One of these days I'll have to write an article about it specifically. Whoever those poor people were (and judging by the names on the monument, there were both Muslims and Christians among the dead), I don't doubt in the least that they were simply trying to survive for one more day, and hoping for the accursed war to end. But I also have no doubt that a CSI: Markale would reveal some things that would enrage and embarass the Keepers of Official Truth.

CAP said...

U.S. fragmentation or dissolution would presumably be along state lines - much as the last civil war. The U.S. is, after all, a federation (like the U.S.S.R.) and there has been a lot of resentment at the creeping centralist or federalist accumulation of power for the last 20 - 25 years.

If Amerika's economic demise seems unfair to some states, or effects them more than others - I can easily imagine the issue of federalist versus state powers coming quickly to the for. There's also the lead shown by California is pursuing independent environmental policies and dealing with foreign nations, purely as a state, that has set a crucial precedent. Cali is big enough to do that, but interestingly, several surrounding states have tagged along, introducing similar legislations on CO2 levels, carbon trading etc. So there are building blocks (or blocs) in place for deeper schisms.

Deucaon said...

M: The problem with that is that (just like the USSR and Tito's Yugoslavia) there are minorities in those republics who don't see themselves as apart of said republics. Then you have states which have expressed wishes to become super states (which would annex neighbouring states) or to become a regional new USA (or something similar) like California, Texas, New England, CSA, etc. In any case, if the USA does break apart it will be much more bloody than the dissolution of any current country or state on planet if the last civil war is anything to go by. Malic can probably explain this better than I.

Michael Averko said...


Cut and pasting this below link and clicking into it will lead to an interesting read on what Panarin said.


Concerning Panarin, perhaps there's a bit of a sarcastic payback for earlier commentary suggesting that Russia will break up. Recall Brzezinski's Foreign Affairs article on that subject.

CubuCoko said...

Thanks, Michael - I somehow missed Garreau's piece. I'm a little surprised, given that he wrote the "Nine Nations". Now I see he renounced that work. That's stupid. "Nine Nations" was a good read, and had the added benefit of being true until immigration patterns of the 1990s broke up those cultural and regional identities (by accident? I don't think so).

I've already agreed that Panarin might be projecting a bit. The part where he sees the Feds as too weak is case in the point; if anything, they are too strong - and aren't supposed to be! That's one of the things I've tried to underscore in my post - the U.S. were (note the plural) a layered arrangement from the start, with a clear of who had what authority at which level. Not so Russia, where all power flows from the Kremlin, regardless of whether the country is run by the Czar, the Politburo, or Vladimir Putin.
In the U.S., however, the centralization has gone so far, that it might just be the backlash that starts the collapse.
And then there's the possibility that by merely speaking out about it, Panarin was seeking to start the thought processes that would eventually make the dissolution a reality.