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<nettime> Katrina: The Spectre of a Soviet-Style Crisis in the U.S.
Paul D. Miller on Wed, 14 Sep 2005 10:29:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Katrina: The Spectre of a Soviet-Style Crisis in the U.S.

I remember waking up a teenager in the late 1980's and realizing that when the
Berlin Wall fell, it was all over for the Soviet Union. I wonder if Katrina spells
a similar fate for the U.S.



Emmanuel Todd: The Specter of a Soviet-Style Crisis

By Marie-Laure Germon and Alexis Lacroix
Le Figaro

Monday 12 September 2005

According to this demographer, Hurricane Katrina has revealed the decline of the
American system.

      Le Figaro. - What is the first moral and political lesson we can learn from
the catastrophe Katrina provoked? The necessity for a "global" change in our
relationship with nature?

      Emmanuel Todd . - Let us be wary of over-interpretation. Let's not lose
sight of the fact that we're talking about a hurricane of extraordinary scope that
would have produced monstrous damage anywhere. An element that surprised a great
many people - the eruption of the black population, a supermajority in this
disaster - did not really surprise me personally, since I have done a great deal
of work on the mechanisms of racial segregation in the United States.  I have
known for a long time that the map of infant mortality in the United States is
always an exact copy of the map of the density of black populations.  On the other
hand, I was surprised that spectators to this catastrophe should appear to have
suddenly discovered that Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell are not particularly
representative icons of the conditions of black America. What really resonates
with my representation of the United States - as developed in Apr=E8s l'empire -
is the fact that the United States was disabled and ineffectual. The myth of the
efficiency and super-dynamism of the American economy is in danger.

     We were able to observe the inadequacy of the technical resources, of the
engineers, of the military forces on the scene to confront the crisis. That lifted
the veil on an American economy globally perceived as very dynamic, benefiting
from a low unemployment rate, credited with a strong GDP growth rate. As opposed
to the United States, Europe is supposed to be rather pathetic, clobbered with
endemic unemployment and stricken with anemic growth. But what people have not
wanted to see is that the dynamism of the United States is essentially a dynamism
of consumption.

      Is American household consumption artificially stimulated?

     The American economy is at the heart of a globalized economic system, and the
United States acts as a remarkable financial pump, importing capital to the tune
of 700 to 800 billion dollars a year. These funds, after redistribution, finance
the consumption of imported goods - a truly dynamic sector. What has characterized
the United States for years is the tendency to swell the monstrous trade deficit,
which is now close to 700 billion dollars. The great weakness of this economic
system is that it does not rest on a foundation of real domestic industrial

     American industry has been bled dry and it's the industrial decline that
above all explains the negligence of a nation confronted with a crisis situation:
to manage a natural catastrophe, you don't need sophisticated financial
techniques, call options that fall due on such and such a date, tax consultants,
or lawyers specialized in funds extortion at a global level, but you do need
materiel, engineers, and technicians, as well as a feeling of collective
solidarity. A natural catastrophe on national territory confronts a country with
its deepest identity, with its capacities for technical and social response. Now,
if the American population can very well agree to consume together - the rate of
household savings being virtually nil - in terms of material production, of
long-term prevention and planning, it has proven itself to be disastrous. The
storm has shown the limits of a virtual economy that identifies the world as a
vast video game.

      Is it fair to link the American system's profit-margin orientation - that
"neo-liberalism" denounced by European commentators - and the catastrophe that
struck New Orleans?

     Management of the catastrophe would have been much better in the United
States of old. After the Second World War, the United States assured the
production of half the goods produced on the planet. Today, the United States
shows itself to be at loose ends, bogged down in a devastated Iraq that it doesn't
manage to reconstruct. The Americans took a long time to armor their vehicles, to
protect their own troops. They had to import light ammunition. What a difference
from the United States of the Second World War that simultaneously crushed the
Japanese Army with its fleet of aircraft carriers, organized the Normandy landing,
re-equipped the Russian army in light materiel, contributed magisterially to
Europe's liberations, and kept the European and German populations liberated from
Hitler alive. The Americans knew how to dominate the Nazi storm with a mastery
they show themselves incapable of today in just a single one of their regions. The
explanation is simple: American capitalism of that era was an industrial
capitalism based on the production of goods, in short, a world of engineers and

      Isn't it more pertinent to acknowledge that there are virtually no more
purely natural disasters, rigorously defined, by virtue of the immoderation of
human activities? Isn't it the case that the "American Way of Life" must reform
itself? By, for example, agreeing to the constraints of the Kyoto Protocol?

     The societies and ecological incorporations of Europe and the United States
differ radically. Europe is part of a very ancient peasant economy, accustomed to
draw its subsistence from the soil with difficulty in a relatively temperate
climate, spared from natural catastrophes. The United States is a brand new
society that began by working a very fertile virgin soil in the heart of a more
threatening natural environment. Its continental climate, much more violent, did
not constitute a problem for the United States as long as it enjoyed a real
economic advantage, that is, as long as it had the technical means to master
nature. At present, the hypothesis of man's dramatization of nature is not even
necessary. The simple deterioration in the technical capacities of a
no-longer-productive American economy created the threat of a Nature that would do
no more than take back its [natural] rights.

     Americans need more heating in the winter and more air-conditioning in the
summer. If we are one day confronted with an absolute and no longer relative
penury, Europeans will adapt to it better because their transportation system is
much more concentrated and economical. The United States was conceived with regard
to energy expenditures and space in a rather fanciful, not well-thought out,

     Let's not point our fingers at the aggravation of natural conditions, but
rather at the economic deterioration of a society that must confront a much more
violent nature! Europeans, like the Japanese, have proven their excellence with
regard to energy economization during the preceding oil shocks. It's to be
expected: European and Asian societies developed by managing scarcity and, in the
end, several decades of energetic abundance will perhaps appear as a parenthesis
in their history one day. The United States was constructed in abundance and
doesn't know how to manage scarcity. So here it is now confronted with an unknown. 
The beginnings of adaptation have not shown themselves to be very promising:
Europeans have gasoline stocks, Americans crude oil stocks - they haven't built a
refinery since 1971.

      So it's not only the economic system you blame?

     I'm not making a moral judgment. I focus my analysis on the rot of the whole
system. Apr=E8s l'empire developed theses that in aggregate were quite moderate
and which I am tempted to radicalize today. I predicted the collapse of the Soviet
system on the basis of the increases in the rates of infant mortality during the
1970-1974 period. Now, the latest figures published on this theme by the United
States - those of 2002 - demonstrated the beginning of an upturn in the rates of
infant mortality for all the so-called American "races." What is to be deduced
from that? First of all, that we should avoid "over-racializing" the
interpretation of the Katrina catastrophe and bringing everything back to the
Black problem, in particular the disintegration of local society and the problem
of looting. That would constitute an ideological game of peek-a-boo. The sacking
of supermarkets is only a repetition at the lower echelons of society of the
predation scheme that is at the heart of the American social system today.

      The predation scheme?

     This social system no longer rests on the 'Founding Fathers' Calvinist work
ethic and taste for saving - but, on the contrary, on a new ideal (I don't dare
speak of ethics or morals): the quest for the biggest payoff for the least effort. 
Money speedily acquired, by speculation and why not theft. The gang of black
unemployed who loot a supermarket and the group of oligarchs who try to organize
the "heist" of the century of Iraq's hydrocarbon reserves have a common principle
of action: predation. The dysfunctions in New Orleans reflect certain central
elements of present American culture.

      You postulate that the management of Katrina reveals a worrying territorial
fragmentation joined to the carelessness of the military apparatus. What must we
then fear for the future?

     The hypothesis of decline developed in Apr=E8s l'empire evokes the
possibility of a simple return of the United States to normal, certainly
associated with a 15-20% decrease in the standard of living, but guaranteeing the
population a level of consumption and power "standard" in the developed world. I
was only attacking the myth of hyper-power. Today, I am afraid I was too
optimistic. The United States' inability to respond to industrial competition,
their heavy deficit in high-technology goods, the upturn in infant mortality
rates, the military apparatus' desuetude and practical ineffectiveness, the
elites' persistent negligence incite me to consider the possibility in the medium
term of a real Soviet-style crisis in the United States.

      Would such a crisis be the consequence of Bush Administration policy, which
you stigmatize for its paternalistic and social Darwinism aspects? Or would its
causes be more structural?

     American neo-conservatism is not alone to blame. What seems to me more
striking is the way this America that incarnates the absolute opposite of the
Soviet Union is on the point of producing the same catastrophe by the opposite
route.  Communism, in its madness, supposed that society was everything and that
the individual was nothing, an ideological basis that caused its own ruin. Today,
the United States assures us, with a blind faith as intense as Stalin's, that the
individual is everything, that the market is enough and that the state is hateful.
The intensity of the ideological fixation is altogether comparable to the
Communist delirium. This individualist and inequalitarian posture disorganizes
American capacity for action. The real mystery to me is situated there: how can a
society renounce common sense and pragmatism to such an extent and enter into such
a process of ideological self-destruction? It's a historical aporia to which I
have no answer and the problem with which cannot be abstracted from the present
administration's policies alone. It's all of American society that seems to be
launched into a scorpion policy, a sick system that ends up injecting itself with
its own venom. Such behavior is not rational, but it does not all the same
contradict the logic of history. The post-war generations have lost acquaintance
with the tragic and with the spectacle of self-destroying systems.  But the
empirical reality of human history is that it is not rational.


      Emmanuel Todd reviews for Le Figaro the serious failures revealed by the
storm.  He is also a research engineer at the National Institute of Demographic
Studies, historian, author of Apr=E8s l'empire [After the Empire], published by
Gallimard in 2002 - an essay in which he predicted the "breakdown" of the American

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