Krugman’s Great Unraveling
Eight years ago, in the days of The Dark Age Blog, (and as some of you may recall) I wrote then that if Obama’s tenure as President delivered up only disillusionment and disappointment, it would be end in disaster. At the end of his term, Obama has delivered up only disillusionment and disappointment, and the disaster-in-waiting, the beneficiary of that disillusionment and disappointment, is Mr. Trump and the anti-democratic forces. How much of this is to be laid at the feet of Bush or Obama is for the historians to debate. It was probably too much to expect Obama alone to turn the tide of history…. or of the “end of history” as the case may be.
Reading Paul Krugman’s The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century (2004) brought to mind that earlier post in TDAB and the uneasiness I felt then about the great hopes that so many people, not just in the United States either, were investing in the Obama presidency. Although Krugman’s book is twelve (or more) years old, the Great Unraveling continues apace, even if I am late coming to his book.
Krugman’s book, a New York Times bestseller, is really only a collection of his short columns published in various media from the years 1997 to 2004, with an introduction that attempts to tie them altogether into an interpretive narrative of “unraveling” and his struggle to understand that unraveling himself. Although I’m presently more than half-way through his book, I’m never quite sure what it is he thinks is unraveling, apart from oblique references to “the American way” or “the rules”, or “the American Dream”, or, indeed, the very last word of the book — literally the very last word — that he leaves to John Dean — “democracy”.
In some ways the book reads like the account of a man who has, one morning, suddenly woken up to realise that he ain’t in Kansas anymore; and who, to his shock and dismay, discovers that he is a stranger in a strange land, struggling to find his bearings and to give a name to this Kafkaesque horror he now finds himself in. This is before terms like “New Normal” and “Post-Truth Society” came into vogue, both of which, nonetheless, are being anticipated in Krugman’s own articles.
And yes, the horror he has awoken to is quite disturbing and unnerving — an epidemic of political and corporate malfeasance, “mendacity” become thoroughly systemic and institutional, “greed”, “creative accounting”, cynicism and hedonism, societal “malaise” (a not uncommon diagnosis), “irrational exuberance” and the groupthink of political and economic bubbles (he foresees, even then, the market collapse that was to come four years later). He sees “short-term thinking” and even no thinking at all.
What is “unraveling” is the Old Normal or, more likely, the future itself, as is very nearly implied in the subtitle. Although he doesn’t explicitly say so, what is unraveling is not so much the past as it is the future. And although he does not say so, either, there’s a strange conjunction of the attitude of political and economic elites to live and act “as if there is no tomorrow” which attitude also meets the desperate graffiti of “No Future. No Hope”.
Is this not strange? Is it not strange that political and economic elites think, live, and act as if “there is no tomorrow” while the impoverished scribble “No Future. No Hope” on dilapidated buildings and abandoned walls? That’s the meaning of “malaise”. And, yes, it’s that form of nihilism called “decadence”, because decadence, as Rosenstock-Huessy put it, is the inability to reach the future in body, mind, soul or spirit. The “Great Unraveling” is simply Krugman’s term for “nihilism”, and the specific form of this nihilism is decadence, and decadence is the inability to reach the future — the loss of future.
This loss of future we can also pin on Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”, because it simultaneously abolishes future along with any sense of destiny — a transcendent or exalted destiny which is exchanged instead for “the same dull round”: “The same dull round, even of a Universe, would soon become a Mill with complicated wheels”, as Blake put it. This “same dull round” is, in fact, Blake’s “dark Satanic Mill”.
What is unraveling is the future, and whenever any other age had reached its “end of history” and the end of its tether, and had exhausted its fund of originary inspiration, it became the task of revolutionaries to re-create future once more. Revolutions re-inspire the corpses of dead eras by creating a new future. This Mr. Obama failed to do when it was needful. And this neither Mr. Trump nor Ms. Clinton can do either, since one is the candidate of reactionary nostalgia and the other the candidate for the status quo. They are both symptoms of the Great Unraveling.
The words of Antonia Gramsci are here most appropriate to describe the agony of the present situation:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
Morbid symptoms. It’s a perfect description of chaotic transition, isn’t it?