Slouching toward Bethlehem, 2013-style
IN THESE northern climes, this turning into the year's final quarter feels written in the blood, or at least into the legacy code of culture. The leaves skitter across the streets in an early twilight, chill winds daunt man and dog, the landscape buttons itself up for the long sleep and human activity moves indoors - including the arduous festivities around the spooky solstice. We take the comfort that we can in all that.
But a strange torpor of event attends this year's turning. In the year's final happenings, nothing seems to happen, and what little does happen seems not to matter. The world sits with frayed nerves and hears a distant noise, which is the cosmic screw of history turning.
The nation gets over everything without resolving anything - fiscal cliffs, debt ceilings, health-care implosions, domestic spying outrages, taper-talk jukes, banking turpitudes, the Syria bluster, the Iran nuke-deal fake-out. It's dangerous to live as though there was no such thing as consequence. Societies have a way of reaching a consensus about something without ever stating it outright. The American public has silently agreed to sit on its hands though one more Christmas and after that things shake loose.
What happens, for instance, in the limbo months of Obamacare ahead, when people either won't sign in for health insurance, or can't because of the stupidity of the website design, and the failure of its work-arounds, and the number rises of people falling seriously ill without insurance, and the ludicrously extortionate hospital bills start rolling in and the machinery of bankruptcy and re-po turns the screws on tens of thousands of families - while the insurance company executives spend their 2013 bonus money on Beemers and McMansion additions? There must be some threshold for criticality there, some breaking point that prompts a swindled population to break out its fabled arsenals. Say, somewhere in America a child tragically dies after being hit by a car and three unsuccessful surgeries to try to fix the damage, and 30 days after the funeral the uninsured dad gets a bill for $416,000? I doubt a society can withstand many insults like that.
Above all, this big nation has failed to reckon the central quandary of our time: the fatal hypertrophy of finance. This ghastly engine of rackets and swindles has been going on far longer than the doctors and the witch doctors thought possible, and there is a foolish hope among the credulous that the larger organism of the economy must therefore be immortal. But the reality-based minority stoically awaits the final congestive infarction.
Everything points to 2014 as the moment that the pretending stops and things get real. Nobody believes anymore that the Federal Reserve can replace an economy of authentic transactions with promissory notes. There is only one final thing that can happen with the Fed, and that is losing all control over rising interest rates. Janet Yellen is being set up as one of the epic chumps of history, and proof of her academic fecklessness is the mere fact that she accepted the post as Fed chair. She will preside over a fabulous disappearance of wealth in America. The blame for it will be epic, too, but it will not represent any genuine understanding of what happened.
Much is being made of the loneliness of Barack Obama these days. He also occupies a rather tragic niche in history - or the arc of his story, at least, points that way these days. Right now, it is very hard to tell whether he has been a hostage or a fool. He could have moved to break up the big banks in January 2009, and any time since then he could have sent a memo to the Department of Justice instructing the prosecutions of financial crime to begin in earnest (or replaced the attorney general). Didn't happen. Was he being blackmailed by the likes of Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein, or did he just not know what was at stake?
The history of Obama will be one long record of omissions to act, not just overt failures. He is the Bartleby the Scrivener of our politics. He "prefers not to . . ." Hence, the powerful lure of the charismatic figure who is sure to act. Adolf Hitler was very clear about his proposed program in the early 1920s, a decade before he came to power. He spelled it out unmistakably in his speeches and his political testament, Mein Kampf: Do away with pain-in-the-ass democracy and destroy the Jews. He couldn't have put it more plainly. The residual admiration for Hitler among the extreme right-wingers of today derives mainly from the simple fact that the man actually did what he said he would do. You can't overstate the potential hunger for that sort of thing. The current climate of U.S. politics being Weimar-on-steroids, I'm sure that an American cornpone Hitler would have huge appeal for a beaten-down citizenry.
My bet, though, is that a fascist takeover of the U.S. would end up being as inept and ineffectual as Obamacare. It is one of the great hidden blessings of our time, actually, that anything organized on the massive scale is doomed to failure. But it is likewise the great mission of our time to prepare to get local and smaller, something we're not really ready for and certainly not interested in. The intertwining of these dynamics will be the story in the year to come.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency, The World Made by Hand novels and many other books.