America in 2021: From the end of empire to the prospect of a new civil war

Democrats had a supposed majority — and revealed their fatal weakness. History, and the pandemic, kept on going

Published December 20, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Taliban fighters from the Fateh Zwak unit storm into the Kabul International Airport, wielding American supplied weapons, equipment and uniforms after the United States Military have completed their withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)
Taliban fighters from the Fateh Zwak unit storm into the Kabul International Airport, wielding American supplied weapons, equipment and uniforms after the United States Military have completed their withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Graveyard of empire

The enforced Afghanistan "withdrawal" was likely America's Suez moment. The reference is to the manufactured confrontation by Britain over the Suez Canal in 1956, after which the British Empire, which by that time existed in name only, became manifestly a paper tiger. It will take quite a few years for this realization to sink in among American policy elites, but my sense is that the vicious trauma caused to the establishment by the inevitable fall of Afghanistan is an accurate reflection of the new geopolitical reality.

It would have been easy to lay a bet on some confrontation during the later 2020s with China, probably in the South China Sea, as signaling America's Suez moment, but it seems to have arrived several years early. Pandemic politics played a role in the acceleration — but fear not, the world has taken full note of the American ignominy in Afghanistan over the last 40 years, with the final two decades embodying a desperate escalation that could only have had one denouement. The impact of this imperial defeat for the global balance of power will be the biggest story of this decade and beyond.

Liberal commentators, as they have for the last two decades, are cheering the collapse of Evergrande, the Chinese real estate giant, and as usual are cherry-picking statistics to forecast post-peak China, with declining Asian and global influence. In fact, China has already accumulated enough goodwill and power, increasingly soft power, to see it through any foreseeable turbulence and establish itself as the undisputed hegemon over large parts of the world well before the middle of this century. The fall of Afghanistan was a crucial signpost in this direction, which nobody around the world, except Americans, missed or misunderstood.

RELATED: Empire of chickenhawks: Why America's chaotic departure from Afghanistan was actually perfect

The hollowness of what passes for the American "left" was fully exposed in this moment, to the extent that they shared with the liberal elite lamentations over the fate of Afghans, or the alleged precipitous nature of the exit after 20 years of murderous dawdling, conveniently forgetting the imperial slaughter in the name of human rights with which we gifted the Afghan people, as we earlier gifted the Vietnamese.

The pandemic and public health

The neoliberal state was always unequipped, by design, to handle a collective emergency such as the pandemic. Wherever the neoliberal state — or its dark twin, the neofascist state — is in ascendance, the pandemic has typically heralded the most ruin. Some Asian, African and Latin American countries apparently never got the memo about mishandling the crisis by way of authoritarian economics, but this seems to be in part nature's revenge against the Chicago economists, Milton Friedman's "Free to Choose" and the multi-generational legacy of pitting individual against individual in an economic paradigm that has lost all touch with human empathy.

In a system where eight billionaires own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world's population, there can be no such thing as a broad-based, sensible, flexible public health response that does not rely on unwarranted authority seized by the very people who have failed the public on health issues, almost as a matter of professional definition, in the neoliberal health economy.

RELATED: Right-wing media and the pandemic: A toxic feedback loop that nurtured fascism

Will there ever be accountability for the hundreds of billions both the Trump and Biden administrations lavished on the private health care industry for such functions as efficient distribution of vaccines? Why did the discussion in this country never expand beyond the narrowest of parameters to include all that a normal human being would consider within the definition of "health"? Encouraging healthy behaviors and offering economic incentives in such matters as nutrition and preventive care, which are staples of public health everywhere else, was never going to be part of the single-minded assault on the viral enemy in this country.

Which side has not played cultural politics with science? Science is being fetishized as a system above and beyond politics, when no objective study of its aims and objectives can show this to be the case. Science, as much as any system, has played its part in creating inequality. Why would we expect it to behave differently during the pandemic? It is people, endowed with reason and perception, whose needs should come first, not the scientific establishment's self-generated propulsion.

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Build Back Better is not enough

Was Obama the new FDR, or is it Biden? Or was it Bill Clinton? Another day, another collapse forfended and another revived Roosevelt — the patrician man of the hour — to the rescue. Except that the solutions, from the Affordable Care Act to Build Back Better, not only do not fail to rise to the moment but only serve to exacerbate the deep-rooted inequalities that are driving this country to visible collapse.

To hear both left and right commentators, BBB, with its original $3.5 trillion tag, was going to be transformational. In reality, broken down over its 10-year duration, the amount was only about 1% of U.S. GDP — hardly transformational. One has to think back to the 2020 presidential campaign to recall figures amounting to many times the BBB price tag to even imagine making a dent against the environmental challenges whose hour has come. Besides, most of that money was going to be backloaded to the out years anyway, and subject to revision or cancellation by future administrations, even before the entirely predictable kabuki theater of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema took hold — evoking parallel, and much encouraged, in-party provocations going back several Democratic administrations.

This is not to say that components of Biden's BBB — most of which were severely compromised or extinguished in negotiations, and all of which appears to be dead for now — were not going to ease many people out of dire poverty, with such long-postponed ideas as permanent child tax credits (essentially a form of Universal Basic Income) or support for child and elderly care. But we always knew that Biden did not have the luxury of Obama's disdain, and that token gestures, or something a little more than that, would have to be made toward the recalcitrant workforce to get them enthused about capitalism again. Now all of that is deleted. Despite the appointment of Lina Khan as FTC chair, breaking up Big Tech, among the least controversial of reform initiatives, is not likely to become a reality under any of the current proposals under consideration.

RELATED: Beltway media's moronic coverage of Build Back Better is cheating the nation

Inflation, like the "great resignation," is being downplayed by liberal economists. But both are integrally connected, and are in fact hopeful signs of runaway inequality finally facing the music. Tens of millions of Americans decided that it was entirely rational, and more lucrative, to stay home and do nothing, or close to nothing, rather than persisting in wage slavery. BBB has no real answer to this.

What can progressives do at the local level?

Minneapolis voters rejected an initiative to replace the police with a new department of public safety. In the impassioned first days after George Floyd's murder, the only sensible idea to address state-sanctioned violence — to end policing as we know it — caught the imagination under the label of "Defund the police" (recalling "Abolish ICE" from the early Trump years). But within a matter of days, organizations blessed by the liberal establishment started redefining and narrowcasting what "Defund the police" really meant. How thoroughly the argument has been lost came to light during the 2021 local elections, when mayor after mayor, even of a progressive bent, campaigned on some version of "reforming" police, often rehashing ideas that have outlived their usefulness and shown to be of little value over decades of incrementalism. Even incoming Boston mayor Michelle Wu, arguably the most progressive of the lot, takes a firm stand against defund the police.

RELATED: Democrats and the dark road ahead: There's hope — if we look past 2022 (and maybe 2024 too)

In short, the potent energies unleashed in the first pandemic spring by the enforced lockdown, resulting in a concrete set of radical demands that arose spontaneously — which is the only way they can matter — were quickly diluted into familiar liberal nostrums about better training and awareness. A required national policy has, in typical fashion, devolved to the local level, directed hither and thither by the waves of passivity the media can generate by exaggerating crime and violence. In Atlanta, one of the more progressive candidates, Andre Dickens, won in a runoff, but the palliatives offered in the South, compared to a northern city like Boston, leave much to be desired.

Other necessary national initiatives, like the Green New Deal (mightily watered down and repackaged as a liberal-capitalist initiative via BBB), have likewise descended upon the overstretched shoulders of municipalities. Over the next few years, Boston will offer a good test case of how far progressive initiatives — with regard to housing, transit, health care and a revived social safety net — can extend, but judging from past experience, we shouldn't hold out much hope. This failure of national imagination, in a moment of unprecedented inequality, cannot be addressed piecemeal and over long periods of time by disempowered jurisdictions..

Woke America vs. Primitive America

This year saw the shreds of meritocratic America, the counterpart to Reagan's libertarian America, further assimilated by the "woke" social justice movement, just as free-market libertarianism has become dominated by what I call Primitive America, the mirror image of Woke America. Primitive America proudly offers a point-by-point refutation of the woke creed, in favor of a rejuvenated barbarism of the national spirit. Meritocratic America's peak moment was Barack Obama's ascendancy, and its signal failure was Hillary Clinton's second campaign. Likewise, libertarian America's peak moment was the George W. Bush presidency, a period of transition toward primitivism, although not yet full-blown in his era.

The 2021 Virginia governor's race, the most discussed of the cycle, was seen as a repudiation by the electorate of critical race theory (CRT), which has lately served as a catch-all symbol of everything that Primitive America sees as wrong with Woke America, challenging it for blaming America excessively and without cause. Woke America, on the other hand, only feels strengthened by each defeat, and even by electoral setbacks, aided by the fact that it has wiped out, in academic and artistic circles, any challenges to its hegemony. It is too easy to dismiss the Virginia outcome as successful Republican demagoguery around CRT, but Woke America, with its unchallengeable rituals and dogmas, has deviated so far from any original credibility it might have had that corporate America now finds it an indispensable prop to the system.

RELATED: Can the real lessons of Virginia rescue the Democrats in 2022? It's definitely worth trying

Sharp internal division has existed in the CRT camp from the beginning, as with Randall Kennedy and other scholars' assertions that CRT is overly preoccupied with issues of symbolism that concern the well-established bourgeoisie. The class component has been ignored, increasingly so, even at the height of the pandemic.

The issue of immigration reflects CRT's failings perfectly. The woke party of choice, the Democrats, have predictably empowered the Senate parliamentarian to effectively overrule the needs of tens of millions of people by blocking eminently reasonable proposals to put undocumented immigrants on the path to legal status. A third option, offering temporary status, is currently under consideration, but Democrats continue to treat the parliamentarian as though she had divine power. Partly this failure is a reflection of Woke America's lack of a class analysis of immigration (or of globalization and its discontents) and trusting the liberal party of symbolism, which built its case for electability around weakening norms of "democracy" — which only the most naïve could believe had any validity under present conditions of inequality — to take on the burden of treating immigrants fairly.

These five realities add up to the sense of de facto civil war, which became more palpable during the course of 2021 than even in the preceding election year. An uncanny impression of stasis, with no resolution in sight, defines this era, as was true of the 1850s in America. In both instances, an economic system that had lost legitimacy was the culprit, and there was no political solution to the crisis. Nothing that happened in 2021 had a sense of randomness or unpredictability about it — at least not to me — if you held the long perspective of a gathering disintegration whose roots extend into our very creed. Neither Woke America nor Primitive America passes the test of Enlightenment principles — but then again, the foundational institutions of American democracy, as was so evident throughout 2021, did not pass that test either.

By Anis Shivani

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Afghanistan Build Back Better Commentary Critical Race Theory Democrats Joe Biden Wokeness Year In Review