Saturday, December 17, 2011

The decline of the post-Revolutionary United States

Lidia, one of the commenters here, wrote about the decline in US civil liberties that has been accelerating more rapidly since 2001. Some people are surprised, I admit that I had been one, to see this acceleration in the withdrawal of the US commitment to civil liberties continue under President Barack Obama. From the Patriot Act to US torture facilities to the most recent law that arguably purports to nullify the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution for people accused by the government of aiding terrorism.

That is a topic that I have not written enough about but that is ripe for much more discussion.

I've for a long time believed that the US' pretensions of civil liberties are during the modern era more an artifact of the US' position as a nearly unchallenged power than of any US ideological position, and much less any reflection of US virtue.

As the US becomes less relatively powerful in a global sense, it certainly will give up the rights and protections it could offer when it was more dominant.

That, for most of the seven billion people in the world is probably more a good thing than a bad thing.

The US long ago stopped being the revolutionary country it was when it was founded. The US of 1780, keeping in mind that it was institutionally racist, was a radical nation. Before the formal invention of communism - which is an extension of liberal ideas - the US was one of the most radically liberal nations in the world.

The US of 1780 was a country that could sacrifice the secure execution of power by its government itself to an ideal such as freedom of speech. The US of 1780 was, for its time, a revolutionary country.

Today's US does not believe in sacrifice for ideals. Sacrifice for ideals is close to what it means for a government, an organization or even a person to be revolutionary. The 1780s US, racism aside, was more like 1960s Cuba or 1980s Iran than the 2011 US.

So the freedom of speech we see in the US in 2011 is not like the freedom of speech that existed in the US in 1780. The freedom of speech available in the US today comes only from the fact that the US government now has a lot of resources to securely execute power despite that.

The important thing I'm getting at is that as we see freedom of speech decline, we are seeing an accurate reflection of the decline of US relative global power - according to the perceptions of the US government itself.

From a global point of view, that is more exciting than troubling to me. I certainly welcome it and I'll do what I can to maintain myself as an individual but I as an individual, on a global scale, am very comfortable anyway. I'm nobody to worry about.

I've noticed what you've noticed, Lidia, but my feeling about it is far more intrigued than fearful.


Arnold Evans said...

This also raises the important question of when and why the United States stopped being revolutionary.

I could make up some guesses, but I haven't put enough thought into that question to really come up with an answer I'd feel comfortable presenting.

But I consider this a very important and interesting subject.

Lidia said...

Arnold, you just keep  surprising me - in a lot of ways. I suppose your idea about how the loss of formal liberties in USA could be a sign of something positive for the world as  a whole is a very interesting one. Unfortunately, USA are NOT going to stop making life miserable for other peoples just because USA's powers are in decline. On the contrary. 

Still, I wish you safety, as much as it possible now. 

Regarding USA history. I suppose somehow USA (and before it the colonies)  were never pure revolutionary, but still they were SOMEHOW revolutionary. Marx would say they were thus as long as there was some progressive potential in capitalism. My bet would be on the end of the Civil war, more or less. 

Arnold Evans said...

Starting to think about it I agree with saying the end of the civil war, more or less, and there was no sudden shift.

Propaganda aside, WWII was, as far as I can tell, a corrupt war for power for the US.  The United States did not enter that war to oppose any form or aspect of German despotism, much less in any way because of Germany's racist policies.  The US entered that war to ensure that if the British Empire declined, its power would not be replaced by Germany and Japan in Europe and the Western Pacific ocean respectively, but instead by the US.

WWI was a corrupt war for power.

The Cuban-American was was a corrupt war for power.

The US annexation of Texas was the result of a corrupt war for power.

And in fact the US had been at war with different groups of Native Americans from before it was a country in corrupt wars for power.

But the civil war was idealistic.  The United States of today would have fought all of the wars it fought except that one and maybe the revolutionary war.

The US of 2011 would absolutely not fight a war over any policy that a large portion of voting Americans consider acceptable.

The US temporarily suspended constitutionally guaranteed rights during the civil war when there were armies marching toward the US capitol.

Comparing that to the permanent reduction of rights due to Al-Qaeda, a tiny group thousands of miles away illustrates to me that between 1860 and now the US became a different kind of country, but I can't figure out exactly when.

I'll have to think about these things. Also what it means to be revolutionary, particularly before Marx and also with respect to the USSR later in history.  I don't have this well formulated in my mind yet.