United States Economic Collapse Facing Its Weimar MomentEconomics / Recession 2008 - 2010 Mar 16, 2009 - 01:23 AM GMT
Robert Freeman writes: In early 1919, Germany put in place a new government to begin rebuilding the country after its crushing defeat in World War I. But the right-wing forces that had led the country into the War and lost the War conspired even before it was over to destroy the new government, the "Weimar Republic." They succeeded.
The U.S. faces a similar "Weimar Moment." The devastating collapse of the economy after eight years of Republican rule has left the leadership, policies, and ideology of the right utterly discredited. But, as was the case with Germany in 1919, Republicans do not intend to allow the new government to succeed. They will do everything they can to undermine it. If they are successful, the U.S. may yet go the way of Weimar Germany.
World War I left Germany utterly devastated. The landed aristocrats, industrial magnates, wealthy financiers, weapons makers, and the officer corps of the military that formed the locus of right wing power were completely discredited. Their failure in provoking and prosecuting the War was catastrophic, undeniable, and complete.
The economy was destroyed. Prices were at 800% of pre-war levels and rising quickly. Agriculture, pillaged for the War, lay in ruins. Social insurance payments for the War's injured, to widows and orphans, and newly unemployed soldiers were astronomical. And all this was before the cost of rebuilding was even begun.
At the same time, Germany faced massive reparations payments to the Allied victors, France and England. But Germany's foreign properties had been confiscated and its colonies turned over to the victors. The combination of these conditions, both domestic and international, made it extraordinarily difficult for the German economy to recover.
As a result of the failure of the right, the German people elected a moderately leftist government to lead the nation's rebuilding. It was named the Weimar Republic for the city in which the new post-imperial constitution was written. The new government was led by Friedrich Ebert, head of the German Socialist Party.
But the country's new parliamentary system had allowed dozens of parties to run, making it impossible for any one party to win an outright majority. Ebert's party had achieved the highest portion of votes, 38%, in the first post-War elections, held in January 1919. Ebert would have to govern by coalition.
It was at this time that the right wing made its crucial decision. Despite its shocking, naked failure over the prior decade, despite the horrific devastation it had wrought on the German people, despite the discrediting of everything they had purported to stand for, they would fight Ebert, his new government, and its plans for recovery. They would do everything they could to make sure that the new government failed.
Their strategy was two-fold: first, stoke the resentment of the population about the calamitous state of its living conditions-no matter that those conditions had been created by the very right-wing oligarchs who now pretended to befriend the little guy. Rage is rage. It is glandular and unseeing. Once catalyzed it is easy to turn on any subject.
And stoking resentment was easy to do. Just before the War ended, the military concocted its most sensational lie: the German army hadn't actually been defeated. It had been "stabbed in the back" by communists, traitors, and Jews. It was an easy lie to sell. It entwined an attack on an alien political ideology - liberalism- with the latent, pervasive myth of German racial superiority.
The second strategy of the right was to prevent the new government from succeeding. To begin with, success of the left would conspicuously advertise the failure of the right. Moreover, success by the left would legitimize republican government, so hated by the oligarchs of the right. Much better for the people to be ruled by the self-aggrandizing right-wing autocracy that had governed Germany for centuries.
So the rightists set out to do everything they could to make it impossible for the leftists to govern. They would use parliamentary maneuver, shifting coalitions, domination of the new mass media, legislative obstruction, staged public relations spectacles, relentless pressure by narrow but powerful interests, judicial intimidation and, eventually, outright murder of their political opponents.
Contrition for their abject failure, humility for their destructive hubris, compassion for their crippled country-those had nothing to do with it. All they possessed was a blinding, visceral hatred of the left and a masturbatory lust for the return to power.
Eventually, they succeeded. Every setback in recovery - and there would inevitably be many - was met with hysterical demonizing of the left wing government. The lie was repeated relentlessly that the government was run by communists, traitors, and Jews-the same furtive cabal that had purportedly stabbed the country in the back at the end of the War. They steadily chipped away at the efficacy and, thereby, the legitimacy of successive republican governments.
By the time of the Great Depression, Adolph Hitler's ironically named National Socialist Party had become the biggest vote getter in the nation. The Nazis had once been derided as the lunatic fringe of the far right. But the "respectable" right-wing power brokers who had started and lost the Great War anointed Hitler Chancellor in January, 1933.
He immediately suspended the constitution, abolishing most civil liberties. He outlawed opposition parties, began a massive military build-up and a relentless propaganda campaign, and set Germany and the world onto the path of the greatest destruction it would ever know.
America now faces its own "Weimar moment."
The failure of right wing policy and leadership over the past eight years, especially in matters economic, is comparable to Germany's right-wing failure in World War I. It is catastrophic, undeniable, and complete.
According to the World Economic Forum, forty percent of the entire world's wealth has been destroyed in the recent financial collapse. In the U.S. alone, between housing and the stock market, more than $18 trillion in wealth has already been destroyed.
The private mega-banks that anchor the financial systems of the western world are bankrupt. This makes it all but impossible to jump-start the western world's economies which are heavily dependent on bank-system credit to operate.
More than 10,000 homes go into foreclosure every day. More than 20,000 people lose their job every day. And the collapse is accelerating, developing its own self-reinforcing dynamic. Job losses breed foreclosures, reducing demand, leading to more job losses and further degradation of the financial system. None of the stopgaps designed to stanch the bleeding have yet worked. There is no bottom in sight.
Meanwhile, debt has risen to astronomical levels. Reagan and Bush I quadrupled the national debt in only twelve years. Bush II doubled it again in only eight. It is now ten times higher than it was in 1980 when Reagan was elected. Total public and private debt exceeds 300% of GDP, half again higher than it was in 1929.
The government's unfunded liabilities, promises it has made to the American people but for which no payment source can be identified, now exceed $60 trillion, a literally inconceivable sum that can never, will never, be paid. Federal Reserve economist Lawrence Kotlikoff has suggested that the U.S. government is "actuarially bankrupt."
The full measure of the nation's plight is revealed in Hillary Clinton's first trip as Secretary of State. It was to China, to beg them to fund Obama's new fiscal deficits. Without loans from China, the U.S. economy cannot be revived. The significance of this cannot be overstated: the U.S. no longer exercises sovereignty over its own economic affairs. That sovereignty now resides in the hands of China, the U.S.'s greatest long-term rival.
Thanks to Republican policies of massive debt and shipping jobs abroad, the U.S. has technically become a colony of China. It exports raw materials and imports finished goods, together with the capital to make up the difference. Should the Chinese decide not to lend the trillions of dollars the U.S. is begging for, the U.S. economy will implode, plummeting onto itself in a World Trade Center-like collapse that will leave dust clouds circling the planet for decades.
Notwithstanding the destruction inflicted on the economy by Republican policies, the most devastating breakdown is in the intellectual foundation on which right wing economic ideology itself is premised. Free market doctrine, the secular religion of right-wing America, is in utter, irretrievable shambles.
One of the most lofty tenets on which free markets are premised is their claim for themselves that they are "efficient," that is, that market prices always reflect "fundamental values" of assets. But if that's true, how could the world's largest insurance company, AIG, have lost 99.5% of its market value in only 18 months? How could the world's largest bank, Citibank, have lost 98% of its value over the same period?
How could the world's largest brokerage company, Merrill Lynch, have gone bankrupt and need to be bought by Bank of America? How could the world's largest car company, General Motors, have lost 95% of its value and stand on the threshold of extinction? How could the world's largest industrial conglomerate, General Electric, have lost 85% of its value in only 18 months?
If the largest companies in the world, those at the very heart of the capitalist system itself, can lose virtually all of their value in only 18 months, what is the possible meaning of the phrases "efficient markets" and "fundamental value"?
The other core tenets of free market ideology are equally compromised. Major actors are clearly not rational - a breakdown of theological proportions admitted by no less an avatar of the cult than its pope himself, Alan Greenspan. Free markets clearly cannot, will not, regulate themselves. It is precisely their innate, irrepressible propensity for sociopathic greed and predatory fraud that has brought the whole of the world's economy to the precipice of collapse.
Free markets clearly do not align risk and reward, allocating capital to its most productive uses, as its promoters advertise. They clearly do not automatically return to equilibrium, but must be bailed out with trillions of dollars of injections from the shrinking coffers of the public to the ever-bulging coffers of a private priesthood of pillage and plunder.
And in perhaps the greatest indictment of all, one going back to its primeval roots in Adam Smith's eighteenth century opus, The Wealth of Nations, the unrestrained behavior of self-interested individuals clearly, manifestly, does not "coalesce as if by an Invisible Hand to the greatest good for the greatest number."
These are not peripheral premises that have failed. They are not tangential tenets. Efficient markets. Rational actors. Market equilibrium. Risk and reward. Self interest. These are the essential sacraments on which the entire free market system is founded. They are in tatters. And it isn't that any one of them has been discredited by the glaring, merciless force of events. All of them have been. All of them together. And all of them at the same time.
Free markets have long been the basis for a legitimate - though rightly debated - economic policy framework. But they have become little more than a robotically-recited cultural catechism, a mindless mantra mumbled to mask the looting of the nation's resources that is the true purpose of Republican economic policy as demonstrated by the staggering upward transfers of wealth that inevitably occur under Republican regimes. A more complete, conspicuous, catastrophic, and irrefutable repudiation of right wing leaders, right wing policies, and right wing ideology could not possibly be contrived.
So what is the right wing response?
They have adopted the strategy and tactics of the failed right wing plotters in Weimar Germany. First, stoke the resentment of the population about the increasingly dire state of its living conditions-no matter that those conditions were created by the very right-wing oligarchs who now pretend to befriend the little guy. Rage is rage. It is glandular and unseeing. Once catalyzed it is easy to turn on any subject.
Second, prevent the new government from succeeding in any meaningful endeavor. The Republicans have set all their efforts to doing everything they can to make sure the Obama administration fails. Rush Limbaugh's infamous, "I hope he fails" pronouncement is only the beginning of the fomenting of hatred from the right. As Limbaugh said, "Let's be honest. Every Republican in America is hoping for Obama's failure."
The same malignant hope oozes unadulterated from all the other Dogpatch Demagogues that rent themselves out to the Republican party to foment resentment against anything liberal: Joe the "Plumber," Rick Santelli, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, and virtually every other wing-nut operative whose intellectual stock in trade has been vaporized by the collision of right-wing policies with objective reality.
Equally so for the "respectable" members of the party, the all-but-three Republican members of Congress who refused to sign on to Obama's first stimulus package and continue to grandstand against every effort toward any form of progress. Contrition for their own abject failure, humility for their destructive hubris, compassion for their crippled country-those have nothing to do with it. All they possess is a blinding, visceral hatred of the left and a masturbatory lust for the return to power.
And what else can they do? Bereft of ideas, bankrupt in ideology, architects of collapse, obstruction is all they have. If Obama is successful, it will not only advertise the full extent of their failure, it will provide a model of liberal governance that would render Republicans irrelevant for decades, much as FDR's success left them out in the political cold for an entire generation. Liberal failure is a matter of life and death for Republicans.
And it's not at all clear that the liberals won't fail. No one should underestimate the task at hand. Never before - not even during the Great Depression - has the country inherited such a daunting, intractable set of economic problems: a debt burden so crushing; inequality so vast; a loss of financial sovereignty so constricting; an intellectual edifice so bankrupt; a private economy so uncompetitive; or an opposition so callously self interested in its own recovery and so cavalierly disinterested in the nation's.
The economy has been so damaged, successful rescue requires threading a series of policy needles, each of them so complex in their own right that none could be solved by any administration of the past 50 years. This includes rehabilitating and re-regulating the nation's banking system, restructuring health care, reducing national dependence on oil, reviving manufacturing so as to reduce the trade deficit, rebuilding the nation's crumbling infrastructure, dealing with a soaring national debt, trying to resuscitate a collapsing housing market, and all the while maintaining the safety net under 77 million baby boomers entering retirement with a net worth 60% what it was only 18 months ago.
Success will require much more than luck, hard work, brilliant policy, or soaring rhetoric. It will require cooperation and contribution from every American. It is those two offerings, cooperation and contribution, that Republicans are intent on withholding, the better to ensure Obama's failure. Simply put, the Republicans hate Democrats more than they love America.
If they succeed in derailing Obama's efforts, the cost will be incalculable.
After World War I, one of the consequences of the liberal government's failure was Adolph Hitler. Hitler had a genius for exploiting the resentment of the German people for their condition. More than 80% of the Nazi party's members were unemployed. It was these legions of idle thugs who made up the ranks of Hitler's brownshirt militia, the SA. The right wing oligarchy that had set out from the beginning to destroy the Weimar Republic recognized the potency of resentment and Hitler's genius at exploiting it. It was they who sponsored Hitler's ascension to Chancellor in 1933.
Resentment and obstruction are all the right wing in America have to peddle. Their policies are utterly discredited. Their ideology - even by its own standards - is a sham. They are so bereft of leaders, their de facto leader is a former drug addicted, thrice-divorced radio talk show host. That is literally the best they can muster. But they have built a national franchise inciting the downwardly mobile to blame the government, not the right, for their problems, exactly as Hitler did in the 1920s.
The Republican propensity for fascism must not be underestimated. Witness their phony justifications for the war in Iraq, fanning the flames of nationalistic aggression, just as Hitler did with Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in the 1930s. Consider their symbiotic embrace of corporate interests in the oil, weapons, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, finance, and other industries-the same type of corporate interests that sponsored Hitler's ascent to power. Look at their efforts to dismantle civil liberties with the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act. Or their relentless, pervasive propaganda laundered through their corporate-owned right-wing media machine.
These are the classic hallmarks of fascism. The strategy is to obstruct recovery, facilitate collapse, and then incite the faux-populism of public resentment to re-install a corporatist oligarchy which has failed, but which will not abide a reduction of its privileges or a diminution of its control. It is a fetid, seditious agenda, awaiting only its own latter day mustachioed messiah for its final fulfillment.
World War I was a once-in-a-millennium upset in the architecture of global power. In four years, it shifted the center of that power from Europe to the United States. But failure now by the U.S. will shift that center once again, from the United States to China, out of the western world where it has resided for the past 500 years. The psychic shock to the billion-odd people living in western civilization, with its liberal democracies, capitalist economies, and Enlightenment ideals, will be incalculable, irretrievable.
This shift may be inevitable and only a matter of time. It is quite possible that the damage inflicted on the western world's economy by rapacious Republicans is already beyond repair. But it will be tragedy beyond measure if such a shift is consummated by the very wrecking crew that took us down the road to ruin, all the while so unctuously proclaiming "patriotism" as its crowning ideal. They are not patriots and their goal is not the revival of American power. It is the revival of their own power, even at the expense of America's. They represent a very dangerous threat to the nation's future.
Robert Freeman writes on history, economics and education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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