Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Apocalypse on Sale

If Ronald Reagan gets credit for the fall of communism, who will history credit with the fall of capitalism?

The economic boom that followed World War II was quite clearly a fluke, a one-time windfall, God’s blessings on America, if you will, for killing Hitler. Capitalism has been propped up by false bravado since 1979, when the federal government saved the Chrysler Corporation with $2 billion in guaranteed loans.

After the wave of assassinations in the 1960s, arguably triggered by economic forces as much as by social upheaval, the seams showed through in the 1970s. Long gas lines and higher food prices led to discontent—and fear of a dismal future. Jimmy Carter’s call for a toned-down feeding frenzy—wear a sweater indoors to cut energy costs, he urged us—cost him a second term.

In the 1980s, everybody was encouraged to live on credit—I even vaguely recall a magazine article that (seriously) recommended credit-card spending as a form of investment for the future, since, the author reasoned, the dollar would never be as valuable as it was then, so the interest due would never out-value the products purchased (depending, of course, on the long-term value of the purchases).

The Reagan years were the years of DYNASTY, DALLAS, and LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS on TV—all variations on the theme of luxury—a sort of Grand Guignol devoted to conspicuous consumption. They also saw the resurrection of VANITY FAIR magazine, which had folded in the middle of the Great Depression, significantly. It was the era of baby boomers and yuppies, young urban professionals with new MBAs and jet-black BMWs with a “Baby on Board.”

(Looking back, it’s clear that Brett Easton Ellis’s AMERICAN PSYCHO is the definitive account of the eighties’ shark frenzy—the gym-toned young exec as serial killer, merging the decade’s two most potent archetypes.)

Reagan’s America was officially a consumerist paradise. Productivity was down, homelessness was up, social services drastically cut, including military veterans’ benefits and tax breaks for educators. All there was left of American culture was shopping—and product placements in every sort of media and on every available space.

It was the full flowering of credit and investment firms and big pharmaceutical companies. Just say no to drugs, indeed! Fuck a cure for cancer—just get rid of my bald spot and make my dick stay preternaturally hard!

The real payoff for Reagan’s “voodoo economics” (a term invented by George H.W. Bush when he was feeling less cordial towards the Gipper) was the Clinton years in the 1990s, or perhaps we should call them the Microsoft years. Computer technology took off, rewiring American business while at the same time facilitating the outsourcing of American jobs to nations where smart labor came cheap and making nearly every aspect of American finance, amusement, and life totally dependent on silicon technology—a technology which, more than any previous one, rapidly obsolesces … by its very design.

It was a radical new capitalism. More money could be made in buying and selling stocks than in actually producing something. (In entertainment, Mel Brooks’ 1968 film THE PRODUCERS proved prescient. Artistic failure was the new gold. Financing, insuring, and merchandising were where the big bucks could be made in Hollywood and Broadway.)

The success (still mostly symbolic in a nation newly riddled with panic attacks, ADHD, hostile takeovers, and bankruptcy) became enshrined in the fact that, when Clinton left office in 2001, the US federal government had a surplus of $237 billion.

Today, though, our national debt hit the $10 trillion mark.

Yes, capitalism is crumbling fast. The attacks of September 11, 2001, sent shockwaves through the world, but Hurricane Katrina, four years later, was the object lesson that brought it all home for many Americans—as we watched our government helpless in offering assistance to its citizens in need—and witnessed levels of desperation and futility we had assumed were the special property of the so-called “Third World.”

America is turning into a Third World nation—or, on a grander scale, the whole world has re-entered the Middle Ages—extremes of wealth and poverty reintroduce us to feudalism in its latest form, while troops campaign in the Middle East to fight Crusades and Holy Wars all over again; at home, religious superstition and mythography dominate scientific fact and reasoning; literacy declines, replaced by images and icons; we enshrine our values and beliefs in cathedrally impressive shopping malls and adjacent cineplexes with as many silver screens as stations of the cross; and once-free people cry out for great men to lead and protect them, quite willing to set aside democracy and personal liberties … all to save them from the devils within and without.

Can you tell me why A.J., in the last season of HBO’s THE SOPRANOS, found William Butler Yeats’ words so haunting?

“The darkness drops again; but now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, / And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Yes, I can.

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