System Demise, and What Happens Next?

“Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace,” the German journalist Holger Stark declared in the news weekly Der Spiegel, trying to explain Donald Trump’s America to his German readers. I think Mr. Stark is right; our way of governance is under deep systemic stress from both sides of the money/power equation.

The disrobing of the financial Emperors began with the financial collapse of 2008. As the elite who run the financial world stood naked amid their misdeeds, we glimpsed how, among many other things, they had packaged and sold bad real estate loans under false pretenses, for profit, with the complicity of the ratings agencies. (Iceland suffered mightily. See deeper coverage in my book Out in the Cold.)

The moment lasted no longer than it took their Maitre d’s to sweep the crumbs from the Emperors’ Michelin-rated dinner tables. The systems of financial governance they support patched things up, bailed them out and dispatched that nasty little business, and fast.

But the markets were left in turmoil. The elite’s solution was austerity, which resulted in rising unemployment. This led to mass protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy seized on rising inequality as a rallying device, calling themselves “the 99 percent,” pointing out that the top one percent of income earners, who are less affected by austerity measures, are generally the decision makers who caused the problem in the first place.

I think to watch the nascent Obama administration repair the Emperors’ balance sheets was a revelation for middle America. The former party of the working man, made up of all those out-of-work cadres to whom Donald Trump would later appeal, showed flyover country that whichever flag of political leadership flies over the land, the infestation of money has rotted the system clear through.

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It’s ALWAYS About the Money

In a Maslow’s hierarchy, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf ranks capitalism as more fundamental than democracy. He writes, “Democracy cannot function without a market economy.”

“In today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat.” By this Mr. Wolf means we should fear authoritarianism.

Mr. Wolf works for a newspaper whose focus is money, so it is not surprising that he might overlook flaws in the workings of the money part of the money/power question. But there are glaring flaws, and they give rise to alienation.

An alienated center’s loss of faith in institutions invites the rise of the fringes, the peripheral haters and dividers that always rise at times when the disillusioned are too crestfallen to keep up their guard. Opportunist would-be leaders are always ready to exploit such an electoral mood, and this is what we call the rise of populism, an affliction from which we currently suffer.

••••

The post-post-Cold War world is well and truly in flux. Conflicting signals are everywhere. Vladimir Putin’s unapologetic Russian nationalism has brought along bits of east Europe, notably Victor Orban’s Hungary and a grudge-wielding conspiracy theorist whose destructive policies seem driven by personal vendetta, the power behind the throne in Poland, PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Brexit deflated proponents of the European project. Donald Trump has NATO rightly alarmed. Mr. Putin’s loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale seek and may attain influence over a Europe teetering on terminal division.

We all see the challenges facing the German chancellor, who looks more tired by the day, after her fateful acceptance of 1.1 million refugees (or was that 890,000?) in the summer of 2015. A narrative is emerging that she “represents what many voters consider the failings of the past.” Her painful audience with the U.S. president could scarcely have bucked her up before the September electoral challenge from the SDP head Martin Schulz, who has the clear and canny benefit of having been away in Brussels and untainted by the immigration wars.

Still, for every Orban in Hungary there is an Austria, where 73-year old Alexander Van der Bellen ultimately won the presidency last December with 53.8 percent over Norbert Hofer, heir to Jörg Haider’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party. In Bulgaria the center-right has held, with the pro-E.U.-integration (and corruption-plagued) Boyko Borissov likely to retain his premiership after elections at the end of March. Then too there is the Dutch rejection of the nasty, isolated Geert Wilders. It appears the power side of the money/power question could go either way.

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An epic, scene-setting battle is being fought right now, before our eyes, and it is historic. After the 25 year lull we called the “post-Cold War,” this is the world-defining struggle for what comes next. It is history on fast-forward. For now, it is hard to see the emerging landscape for the early spring fog. The 7 May runoff in France and September elections in Germany will help to illuminate the path forward.

The potentially good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Donald Trump’s act wears thin as fast a Wal-Mart t-shirt. We have fast come to know him as a slight-of-hand president, a purveyor of diversion, and there is every chance that his dissipation of the common trust will in time bring the country to a crisis that will not end well. In the context of the times we live in, if there could be a worse time for my country to have installed an ignorant, self-involved unsteady hand on the presidential tiller, I can not think of when it would be.

His rank dissimulation may – just may – prevent our president from being trusted long enough to cause physical harm. How we get from here to there is plenty fraught. But surviving the Trump threat won’t be the end of our woes, for they are systemic. We will still be left to repair our system’s corrupted relationship between money and government. A subject for future consideration.

 

Note: Less than an hour after publication of this post the U.S. Senate did its part in the institutional disassembly process by changing its rules so that sixty votes are no longer needed to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.

This article also appears on Medium.

“there is going to be at least 10 minutes for us to break the fast.”

FezMorocco

Outside Fez, Morocco at dawn.

Once on a trip through Morocco, we spent a couple of days with a driver named Mohammad. He conveyed to me the most elaborate thing I’ve ever been made to understand with my schoolboy French. He told us how just this past year he’d left Morocco for the first time – to the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He was awed by it all and spoke of the whole experience with awe and obvious warmth.

I asked if he worked, himself, during the holy month of Ramadan, when the devout must not eat, drink water or smoke from sunrise to sunset and he said he did. This is what he told us in French:

When this moon, rising full tonight, wanes and first reappears in two weeks, Ramadan begins. It begins a little earlier each year, to the rhythm of the moon rather than the calendar, and he’ll work this year and it won’t be so hard not to drink water all day because it’s winter.

But around fifteen years before, Ramadan was in the summer and buddy, if I may paraphrase his French, working during Ramadan in the summertime, driving all day with no water, no smokes, was one pain in the ass. Summer gets hot in Morocco.

Now comes a story about a different set of Ramadan challenges in the Arctic. Read about observing the fast in Rovaniemi, Finland.

Eid al-Adha: A Guest Post

Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, is celebrated annually on the 10th day of the 12th and the last Islamic month of Dhu-al Hijjah. Use of the lunar calendar explains why the date drifts each year by 11 or 12 days. 

This year's festival was celebrated yesterday. A year ago, my friends Bobby and Carol Long took part in the festival in Morocco, and Bob has contributed this guest post:

•••••

We were in Morocco for last year's feast, and it was an extraordinary experience. Hamid, our driver and guide, arraigned for us to dine at his aunt's house. We were a bit nervous, being last minute guests, but Carol bought a nice gift of sweets that really broke the ice. It was a walk up apartment with a well worn kitchen and a water closet that you could find with your nose. They had a rooftop terrace that was serving as an abattoir and kitchen for the event. There were four slaughtered sheep and a very agitated live one. I felt sorry for it.

We entered the public room which was rectangular in the Arab style, with seating on the three walls. Hamid's 92 year old grandfather held court in the place of honor, where he would recline from time to time. The women sat on one side of the room and the men on the other. Hamid served as translator.

The kids wasted no time sitting around me and asking me my name. Bobby is always pronounce Bo-Be outside of the US, so I pointed to myself and said, "Ali Baba", much to their delight. We tried out our French, Spanish and Berber for everyone's amusement. The ladies then returned to the roof and Carol went with them. I watched Hamid's uncle preparing kababs of something I was unfamiliar with. I inquired and was promptly handed a piece of boiled sheep's liver. It was a good thing I like liver. He was placing thin strips of sheep's fat around the skewers of sheep's liver. (You can see it in the attached picture) From time to time, a pretty young Berber teen would come through the room bearing a skewer of grilled lamb, and we would each take a piece. It was the best lamb I've ever had.

I walked up to the roof to watch the proceedings, and Carol said that Hamid's aunt wanted a picture of the two of them. So, I headed down to the car with the kids in tow. I decided to use my point and shoot, so as to be somewhat discreet. I turned to take a picture of the children, only to find that I had a dead battery. I said, "Un momento", and turned around to grab the Nikon with the big, wide angle lens. The kids squealed with surprise when I turned around with that rig. I've attached the two pictures I took. You'll note the tiny grill being used to feed a houseful of hungry guests.

Soon the ladies retired to their dining area and us men got to feasting. Skewer after skewer of lamb was served, followed by a large plate of lamb shank and flat bread to eat it with. I made a point of sitting on my left hand, so as not to give offense. I heard, "Eat, don't be shy" until I was about to burst. Hamid's grandfather used sign language to make sure his honored guest was having a good time.

We were on a schedule, so too soon, it was time to leave. I practically had to drag Carol away from the ladies. Language barrier be damned, they were all having a very good time. It was an experience that you can't buy, and one we will never forget. I imagine we were mentioned during Sunday's feast. Wish we could have been there for it.

There is a whole world of decent, god fearing people out there that Americans know nothing about. I'm happy that I can now claim to be a bit less ignorant of it.

– Bobby Long, November 2012

Eid al-Adha1

Eid al-Adha2

Photos from the author

More from Morocco: Wednesday HDR

One more from our friends Carol & Bobs' recent Moroccan adventure. Bob says it's a traffic jam in Tineher. It was the Aid el-Kebir (The Grand Festival). Worshippers were leaving an outdoor morning service to head home and, as is traditional, sacrifice a sheep.

Moroccanhdrsmall

Processed from a single RAW in Photomatix Pro & finished in CS5.

One More from Morocco: Wednesday HDR

Moonhdr

One more in the recent series from our guest contributors' recent Moroccan safari (previously here and here). They ended their trip in Fez, Morocco's second largest city after Casablanca, a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to the oldest continuously functioning university in the world (since 859), the University of Al-Karaouine, and one of the world's largest and most fascinating medinas.

There are more photos in the Morocco Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, and you can read the technical details of creating this HDR photo after the jump.

Our thanks to our friends Carol and Bob for the photos this week.

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