Watching, wide eyed, the revolutionary bonfire of institutions in the United States is a little alarming.
B001328.jpgIt’s alarming because these institutions have vital functions: they control the gains to dominant players by enforcing laws and regulations. They are guarantors of the sense of fairness that holds that society together. The Republicans’ clear intention is to unleash a tornado of profit making to reignite American capitalism. They are likely, of course, to simultaneously tilt inequality to nineteenth century levels and produce even deeper pits of despair to create the next Trump.*
This is exactly the cycle that destroyed the Roman Republic, whose separation of powers constitution was the model that inspired the US founding fathers. I see Trump as the Crassus who inevitably falls because of his own stupidity and greed. He died, with his legions, in the Syrian desert while trying to pillage the riches of the Parthian empire. Will he be followed by a smarter and more destructive Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Augustus, all successively trashing institutions until there are no impediments left to absolute power? Well I hope not. It all depends on whether the United States manages to resuscitate and reinvigorate its institutions. It’s therefore very heartening to see the absolute alarm and horror amongst progressive Americans as Trump organises his bonfire. Only their passion will recover those pillars of stability.
Systems rarely, of course, totally collapse. Instead, as a threshold is passed, the whole system suddenly transforms into a new stable state that’s less diverse. Usually there’s no path back. That’s according to Resilience Thinking – see Walker and Salt’s pioneering book on the subject, and this superb resource from The Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Walker and Salt’s most famous example is the effect of rising salt in the Goulburn-Broken Basin, Victoria’s most productive agricultural landscape. For decades, irrigators pumped more and more water into the subsoil, with no discernable effect, until saline groundwaters reached the root zones, and sudden system transformation began. Those farmers can never return to highly productive orcharding again.
It’s eerie how similar this is the rise of poverty in America. We pretended not to notice for decades, then suddenly the threshold passes, and the system teeters. Will it have the resilience to recover?
* According to Thomas Picketty inequality in the US has already fallen to 1930s levels under the influence of neoliberalism.