As if it weren't obvious to anyone but the most ideologically blinded that America, if not yet a lame duck, is an empire in serious decline, the recent injunction by a federal judge against embryonic stem cell research is further evidence. And a further nail in the coffin.
America was once thought to be the land of pragmatic innovation, the pinnacle of what capitalism could achieve - particularly market-driven capitalism. America brought us mass production, in particular of the automobile, the airline industry, Hollywood, TV, computers, radio, etc. Not that Americans invented all of these things but they popularized them in a way that made America the epitome of technological advancement and its associated social progress.These advances were the reason that by the end of World War 2 America had the world's largest economy by a long shot, with around half of global industrial production originating on American shores.
Those days are over.
America's obsessive self-image of itself as the world's cop, a sort of John Wayne figure, meting out justice in the wild west of the rest of the planet, has not been without its costs. For one thing, it's mean that the bucket-loads of money that the US has spent on military hardware didn't get spent in productive investment and research.
Other countries, firstly post-war Germany and Japan, invested their social surplus back into the economy. Without the drag of a vast and unproductive military apparatus, these countries were able to quickly rebuild and surpass their rivals, with Japan ultimately becoming the world's second largest economy and Germany becoming the world's largest exporter.
That advancement eroded America's relative economic dominance. Today American industrial production is down to around 20% of the global total. And even that position is eroding with the Chinese behemoth moving up fast. China just surpassed Japan as the world's second largest economy and has passed Germany as the world's largest exporter. As a still relatively undeveloped country with a vast population, almost five times that of the USA, China has lots more room to grow rapidly and is likely to fly by the USA some time this century; some say sooner rather than later.
America's response to this has been multifold but for the purposes of this discussion, there's two elements that stick out as key. The first is a growing reliance by the USA on its overwhelming military dominance as the means to secure and guarantee what is euphemistically called "American leadership" of the world. America's military budget is greater than the next half-dozen countries' military budgets combined.
The second element of the American ruling class' attempt to sustain America's position is a sort of domestic retrenchment, both ideological and economic. On the economic front it has been a multi-generational war against unions and working people, leading to the slow erosion of living standards, education levels, social infrastructure and just plain happiness amongst American workers. On the ideological front, America has become increasingly brittle, hunkered down in a state of siege to defend "American values", which are defined increasingly narrowly. This stridency and aggressiveness has done its job in terms of keeping the population as a whole sufficiently cowed, if not active supporters of the "American Dream." And Protestant Fundamentalism, the unofficial religion of the American state, has played an important role as the most coherent ideological arm of the repressive state apparatus.
But here's the contradiction. Take one look at China. A length critique can be written about conditions inside of China from labour and human rights to environmental regulation. I don't want to lionize China as a model to pursue - either in terms of socialism or capitalism (China is, in any case, clearly the latter type of social order). However, China's development is unhindered by ideological rigidities of the American type. China's ideological and political repression derives from its attempt to keep a fast-moving train from going off the tracks. America's is the repression necessitated to achieve an orderly retreat. In the case of China, their repression is actually aiding the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy - it has to be said, largely at the expense of the Chinese working class. But in America, the repression that has been necessitated by its slide is itself becoming a factor in America's further descent, which brings us back to the reason for this blog post: the injunction against embryonic stem cell research.
The control of women's bodies has always been a key element in the ideological toolkit of capitalist society, no less in America than in Stalinist Russia. Hammering away at the idea of women's proper role (i.e. as baby-carriers) is another route to the idea that everyone has their proper place in society. It is a powerful tool (along with racism) through which to exercise social control. This is reinforced in America through the use of a particular kind of religious discourse and it is a KEY prop of Americanism. The battleground over that prop has been through abortion rights, which the right wing has steadily eroded over the past thirty or so years. America now has the most retrograde attitudes towards women's right to reproductive choice in the advanced capitalist world (and more retrograde than significant sections of the newly industrializing world). But, like military spending, this has its cost. In this case, religious zealotry has become an obstacle to economic innovation. Countries like Taiwan and, increasingly India and China, are catching up with America in the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology. China is now the number two producer of solar panels on the planet and sells more solar panels in California than any other country, including the USA. The stem cell decision, of course, isn't itself an obstacle to innovation in renewable energy or in other forms of scientific advancement. But it is symptomatic of a broader trend in American society: it is the age of retreat. And in a period of retreat there is always less room to question. There will continue to be fits and starts - Bushes and Obamas - but the general trend is one of narrowing and descending (and if Sarah Palin wins the presidency, that pace will certainly speed up).
On the one hand, I don't really have a horse in the race. I don't live in America and I am a socialist. On the other hand, I live next door and I don't like the idea of a very large, heavily armed neighbour who has turned into a crazed, heavily armed survivalist. I would much rather see the American people rise up and throw off the parasites, imbeciles and lunatics who lead them.