Can the US Best the UK in the Art of Self-Destruction?
by Neil H. Buchanan
Russia, emerging from the ashes of the Soviet empire, was until less than a year ago thought to be a world power in its own right, with the invasion of Ukraine to be the first in a series of assuredly unstoppable steps to returning itself to the status of something like an imperial power. On the other hand, China's post-Maoist history is a mixture of impressive advances and setbacks. Turning more than 300 million rural peasants into middle-class city dwellers is, after all, almost incomprehensible in its scope. But perhaps its most consequential setback, as we recently learned, was not caused by a singularly bad decision (like Vladimir Putin starting a land war in Europe). There is now, instead, the sudden recognition that the country has badly mishandled its population policies for the last half century, with the result that there is now an "age bomb" threatening the country's still-unknowable future.
The colonial empires of the various European powers had all petered out by roughly 1960, with only the most ridiculous remnants remaining. For example, I have been spending the last month in the Netherlands, which is formally the Kingdom of the Netherlands, consisting of Aruba, Curaçao, the Netherlands and Sint Maarten. There is a royal family, but the king has actually piloted commercial jets incognito. (I am not kidding.) New Amsterdam (the city, not the now-canceled TV series or the Manhattan brewpub) was a long, long time ago. Last semester, I was in Austria, which does not even hold onto any remains of the Austrian or Austrian-Hungarian Empires. (It does have awesomely beautiful architectural grandeur that the country is maintaining very well, however.) France? Spain? Portugal? Sweden? Denmark? Germany/Prussia? Italy? Please.
I mention these recent and not-so-recent powers not because they are my focus today, but because I want to think about the two countries that have undeniably been global superpowers within the lifetimes of at least the oldest people alive today, and for much longer than that. The UK (technically the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) and the US (the United States of America -- USA, USA, USA!!) are the two most recent global hegemons. In both countries, things are not going well, and the trends all point in the wrong direction.
Why are both once-great powers now in such a bad way? And which one will flame out more ignominiously or spectacularly? In this competition that neither country should want to win, both the UK and the US show plenty of signs of losing by winning.
The editorial page of The New York Times, for all of its other problems, has done a good job of providing readers with commentary about the problems that are dragging down the UK. Among many examples, Times science writer David Wallace-Wells offered "Britain’s Cautionary Tale of Self-Destruction" last Wednesday, and two months ago The Times published a guest column by a journalist named Rachel Shabi, carrying a similarly doom-laden headline: "Britain Is Miserable, but Britons Are Fighting Back." Given how much time I have spent predicting the death spiral of the country of my birth, I cannot resist comparing the decline of these two powers.
I will start with a seemingly trivial parallel: dreadful media cultures. There is no need for me to go back over just how degraded the US media's coverage has been regarding just about everything (sadly lowlighted by current coverage of the looming debt ceiling crisis). With that in mind, however, it is worth noting that the UK's press is notoriously worse than ours in almost every way.
Shabi's column included a link to one particularly infuriating example of terrible media behavior from last summer, when a news show on ITV ("Good Morning Britain") broadcast a smug anchorman having an embarrassing back-and-forth with the leader of a British labor (sorry, labour) union. Note that the title of the YouTube clip is: "RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch Quizzed On Whether He's a Marxist Amid Biggest Rail Strike."
Interviewer: Um, can we just get one thing nailed to the wall before we get going here? You've been accused severally in the last few weeks of being a Marxist. It happened again last night. Uh ... a [unintelligible] piece said you're a Marxist with no interest in anything other than trying to tear down the government. Now, are you or are you not a Marxist? Because if you are a Marxist, then you're into revolution, and into bringing down capitalism. So, are you or aren't you?
Lynch: [Chuckles] Richard, you do come up with some of the most remarkable twaddle sometimes, I've gotta say.
Interviewer: Whoa, whoa! I didn't say you were a Marxist, I'm just saying that you are accused of being a Marxist. And that's not twaddle. That's called reporting.
Lynch: I'm not.
Lynch: I'm not a Marxist. I'm an elected official of [my union]. I'm a working-class bloke leading a trade union dispute about jobs, pay, and conditions of service. That's got nothing to do with Marxism. It's all about this dispute. It's an industrial dispute, and that's what it's all about.
Interviewer: Absolute, I emphasize I am not talking twaddle and accusing you of being a Marxist. I'm merely quoting people who are, including many of the newspapers.
Lynch: Well, that's what it sounds like to me.
Interviewer: Well, I'm sorry if it did, but I don't think it was. Anyway, to be absolutely clear, you are not a Marxist. Fine.
Lynch: I'm also not the international center of evil, which Piers Morgan called me the other night.
Interviewer: Enough of the badinage. Let's get down to the detail ...
The interview continued from there, and after a few minutes, when his co-anchor ended the segment, the interviewer unburdened himself of this: "It's interesting, isn't it? Mr. Lynch there, um, everything that everybody says on this, he says is nonsense, twaddle, and [he] disagrees with every single point that anyone makes."
I quote that interview at length because it so vividly captures the sneering contempt of a person who "reports" that other people are calling someone a Marxist, but then oh-so-helpfully adds the nonsense about that meaning that Lynch must be "into revolution." Tucker Carlson is always "just asking questions," and this twit hides behind other people's attack lines, repeating the scare-word "Marxist" eight times in 62 seconds, insisting that he is not doing precisely what he is obviously doing. And he cannot even leave bad enough alone, disparaging the union leader as being disagreeable about everything with everyone.
Again, British media are infamous for this type of thing. The Times of London, which the Murdoch empire purchased on the 1981, has been gradually going downhill ever since. When I was visiting in 2011, I happened to pick up a copy of that paper when the news of the moment was the leadership battle in the Labour Party, after the more left-wing candidate -- Ed Miliband -- defeated his brother David. Column after column in The Times referred to Ed Miliband as "Red Ed," which I would normally chalk up to the usual (and in this case quite literal) red-baiting; but given that there truly is a genuine "left" in the UK (of the sort that has long since disappeared in the US), I at least considered the possibility that he might be somehow radical.
[Note on 2/13/2023: I have edited the paragraph above to correct my error about the date of the purchase of The Times of London. I have also edited the last sentence of that paragraph for clarity.]
I honestly have insufficient knowledge to make a judgment about that in a broader sense, but I can say that I searched that issue of The Times for any clue as to what made Ed red. After reading at least ten columns by different writers -- supposedly straight news articles as well as opinion columns-cum-rants -- I can say that there was exactly one substantive claim: Ed Miliband did not agree that the UK government should balance its budget every year. As the saying goes: "That's the list." Ed Miliband was "red" because he thought that the budget should not be balanced in the immediate aftermath of a global financial crisis that had nearly turned into the Second Great Depression.
This is also one of the many ways in which the political conversations in the UK and US are similar, with both the press and politicians freaking out about deficits and taking as a given that being "fiscally responsible" can only mean being a hawk. Miliband even lost to David Cameron in the 2015 election after reportedly forgetting to include in an important 2014 speech a promise to "eliminate the deficit as soon as possible," where a news article in The Guardian described the deficit as "the issue that had hung over parliament like an ominous cloud for the previous four years."
Cameron, meanwhile, had elevated his Eton chum George Osborne to lead his government's economic team, which resulted in the UK's adoption of austerity budgets. Like the US, the UK has its own currency, which means it was not at the mercy of the German-led Eurozone hardliners who punished Greece for their supposed profligacy. This was entirely self-inflicted -- although, of course, the "self" in this case is other Britons, not the Osbornes and other Oxbridge types who clamored for other people to suffer. It is not as though Cameron himself had to "tighten his belt," as the deficit scolds like to put it.
Oh, and then Cameron agreed to hold a national referendum on Brexit, asking for input from citizens who had been hammered by the very austerity over which he had presided, giving everyone an opportunity to scapegoat Europeans who were able to live in Britain under the EU's free movement of labor guarantee. I wonder what ever happened with that vote?
Wait, I remember! In fact, I am in the UK right now, here for only a couple of days. Even so, my travel plans have become complicated and uncertain because the rail workers' union called strikes for yesterday and tomorrow. Why are they striking? Because the Conservatives are now on their fourth prime minister since Cameron skulked off the stage, and they continue to devote themselves to long-discredited budgetary orthodoxy. Naturally, this is combined with an unending drumbeat of red-baiting their opponents, a la the interview noted above. Both countries' right-wing parties are also more than willing to stoke racist ferment for political gain.
Having spent a total of five months here in the UK over the last four years, I find it depressing to see how a country that had so much going for it can harm itself so gratuitously. In this, they are very much the same as the US. Both countries have long believed that they are special, thinking that saying that they are the greatest and the best makes it so. Both sides of The Special Relationship have been boxed in by their respective right wings' devotion to budgetary orthodoxy, causing them to under-invest in their countries' futures.
It is a general version of the temptation to put off paying for maintenance, to say nothing of actually investing in something new. The New York City subway limps along with electrical switching systems that are literally a century old. Why? "We can't afford big government!" The UK does not have a debt ceiling statute, however, so at least they cannot accidentally destroy their economy in one blaze of inglorious basterdy. So even though the UK has been in decline for much longer than the US, it is our side that might have found the secret to accelerating the ride into oblivion.
Both countries also seem hellbent on ruining one of their best assets: higher education. As bad as things might become in the US, my colleagues at UK universities (even the most elite two) describe workloads and bureaucratic expectations that make my jaw drop. On the social front, the current Prime Minister gleefully plays the culture-war game by making noises about "woke nonsense," aligning himself with the Viktor Orbans of the world.
Which country will break first? The UK has the advantage of not being a gun-crazy culture. It also has a political system in which supporters of the right-wing party do not reflexively defend their idiotic leaders. The problem is that there is a never-ending supply of replacement idiots. On the other hand, the UK has many more decades of decline behind it, and its income levels post-Brexit are turning it into -- well, not a "Third World" country, as Monty Python described Yorkshire in "The Meaning of Life," but certainly an also-ran. Wallace-Wells's column includes this:
But the descent of Britain is in many ways more dramatic. By the end of next year, the average British family will be less well off than the average Slovenian one, according to a recent analysis by John Burn-Murdoch at The Financial Times; by the end of this decade, the average British family will have a lower standard of living than the average Polish one.
Upon arriving today, I rushed to one of my favorite lunch places, finding a sign saying that due to staffing shortages, they could offer only limited service (and by delivery only). The restaurant has gone dark. But who needs immigrants? Meanwhile, Republicans continue to rant about President Biden's nonexistent commitment to "open borders," even as we worry about the consequences of Americans finally realizing that their jobs are so terrible that they might as well retire early or in some other way disengage, if they can. Relative to the UK, we also have only a shadow of the labor movement that has pushed back on the government over here.
What country would do to itself what the UK has done? What country would do to itself what the US has done? The details are of course different in many respects, but both countries suffer from a combination of hubris and neoliberal certitude, with a huge dose of bigotry tossed in for good measure. Many valuable things remain in both countries that prevent them from suffering the full consequences of their disastrously bad policy choices. But they are spending down those assets at an alarming rate.
As long as the two countries' media environments remain trapped in their overlapping orthodoxies, the echo chambers will continue to do their worst. This is not a game, no matter how much the self-protecting right-wing politicians and their enablers in the press act like it is. People's lives are at stake, and things are getting worse.