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Pressure Triggers and Unity: A US/European Comparative Thesis

by Diane G Sat Feb 20th, 2010 at 02:32:57 PM EST

I have postulated here, and on Eurotrib about something I see as the possible problematic source of the lack of progress by the United States compared to our European counterparts.

This is my basic premise:

Size matters.

Switzerland is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is 10 times smaller than California alone.

England is approximately the size of Alabama.

History Matters.

European nations have a common History; each country has a collective consciousness of their historical trials and triumphs, from Wars to Coups to plagues to Religious transformations.

Ethnicity Matters.

European nations each have their own genetic physical similarities, language (dialects notwithstanding) and customs that help them self identify.

I will use all three of these memes to describe what constitutes a tribal-reaction among people and the likelihood it could occur in these United States, and why it has not as of yet.

The enormous land mass of the United States has historically proven to have benefits. We have natural resources in water, timber, ores and arable land for food production that had made us able to prosper economically.

In tribal terms, any hunter/gatherer could readily step outside his hut and nab his own deer (or job to stretch the analogy) in seconds.  Most of our predecessor nations had both less resources at their disposal and a larger demographic competing for those lesser resources. This necessitated the need for cooperation among their "tribe" in order to survive. It is not in the American collective consciousness to rely on a group hunt, an orchestrated cooperative effort to bring in what basics needed for survival, and then share those equitably. This is not to deny that Americans have the capacity for cooperation, nor deny examples of such behavior. There are many individual cases of town-level symbiotic behaviors. But overall, we have not needed to compete on any long-term basis; we have relied on individualism quite effectively in the past. In fact, the myth of that individualism is imprinted on our consciousness to a degree that will become crippling in our future.

This broad excess continued into the post-industrial time. We became a nation of manufacturing, with employment opportunities in excess of even the man power to fill the spots. In our very brief history we have never experienced the financial meltdowns smaller nations with more single-source productions have had to endure. We never had to create the fail-safes that people who have undergone these crashes have learned to make for their very survival.

The closest we came, is The Great Depression, and it seems only one generation held the memory, became "savers" and "planners for the future"... for shortly thereafter, The New Deal had workers again able to be economically sound. The next generation, confident that the Banks were now "insured" thought that their country had solved the problem, and believed fully it could never happen again. Those countries with longer histories learned by hard lesson, that without protections in place for their people, without constraints on the unrestricted power of the Wealthy, it not only could happen again, it would happen again.

We have never had to undergo a plague, serfdoms, despotic leaders, a potato famine, nor the total failure of a fishing season in a community sustained by fish. If one part of our country faces a disaster, in previous times other places could and would help appease the burden - on a temporary basis; again treating a symptom but never really addressing the cause, nor preparing a apparatus to be in place for a larger fail.

Lets examine our connection to our history here in the United States. Like most histories, they are written by the victors. In this case, us over the Throne of England, and European immigrants over the Native Peoples dismissed as savages. Unlike Mexico to our south, we did our best to eradicate rather than integrate the knowledge and lore of the People whose lands we stole. Mexicans have a sense of History that we do not purely because of this fact. Americans do not have an integrated history connected to the land, they are more prone to keep the historical memory of the individual nations from which they emigrated.

Nearly every European Nation has cities beautifully integrated with architecture new and ancient; great pains are taken to preserve historical places. America is the land of "new" and "change" being valued above all. We raze our history and rewrite it with no respect for our past. To be sure, we keep a few: The Liberty Bell, Pearl Harbor Memorial to name a couple, but for the most part, we are a People driven here by the newness and strive to make our own mark with each generation, rather than appreciating and learning from the marks writ past.

I compare this to the United States being a surly teenager, convinced of the ignorance of his parents, and intent on defying their wisdom to stumble blindly through their world by their own wiles. In a lifetime, this short-sightedness lasts less than a decade, but by the slow motion lifespan of a country, nearly every other nation has grown past this stage.

But as I posited above, we have not had to endure anything massive enough, save possibly our involvement in Wars, to take these disparate peoples and make them bond into a collective mentality.

I must for brevity's sake, oversimplify that disparity among our peoples, starting geographically into four region/interest groups.

First, the East Coast. It is an area where the primary income source is business/trade. A region of population-dense cities, it provides opportunities primarily for those with higher degrees, as such has become a seat of University Study. The second tier is the service industry class, those who support the needs of the higher income people there. By dynamic alone, this service industry, from restaurants and cabs at one end, to the Fine Arts at the upper end, service the class of people whose primary business is Finance, Insurance and Real Estate.

As such, it is has the highest concentration of those who hold a disproportionate amount of the country's wealth, and as such will be the last to be effected by any disaster and the least likely to join any type of coalition for the "All."

Second, the Rust Belt. A manufacturing community, who made great gains in the past for its laborer class, but is less reliant on Collegiate study, more reliant on apprenticeships for skilled trades for upward economic mobility. As investors on the East Coast find it more profitable to outsource jobs, it will be the hardest and first hit in any economic crisis. Young people relied on growing up and finding work in these industries, doing as their fathers had done successfully: working, providing home and shelter, and enough expendable income to do well. There are not diversified enough opportunities for other employment to sustain this standard, even for the relatively smaller number who have higher degrees.

Third, Midwest Farming. This area has already endured shocks as agribusiness drove out family farms starting approximately in the 70's. The people there, while being more self-reliant for actual physical survival have also learned how co-ops can benefit them all. They are more likely in some ways to create coalitions, yet in others ways may hold fast to the self-reliance that has served them thus far. This will be the second-to-last area to fall entirely from an economic collapse, if only for the tradition of canning and gardening to offset starvation; if only for the fact that farming does necessitate the longer history-memory of crop failures and natural disaster. These people are of the few in America who think long-term.

Last, The West Coast. Technology and Aerospace along with Entertainment drives much of their economy; yet there is farming and logging as well. Overall, it is an area nearly as driven by degreed skills as the East Coast for those who prosper there, yet technological "production" is at the mercy of those on the East Coast who charter its use. It will be second to collapse economically after the Rust Belt, for its industries from Silicon Valley to Boeing was based on a bubble economy. While it has bread basket growing abilities, its dense population and lack of fresh water makes it highly vulnerable. It is an areas that has valued thinkers more than doers, in the mode of immediate survivability, yet these very thinkers may hold the ideas that are revolutionary. They already lead the country in environmental progress.

The largest problem facing these four areas ever becoming one, is that they have little in common with one another and opposite needs for the immediate self-interest that ensues after a catastrophe.

Beyond that, in each of these areas, wave after wave of immigrants have been marginalized and blamed for those areas woes. There is rampant racism in America. America has never really been the "melting Pot" it proposed to be, has never really become "clan" with one another. Irish neighborhoods, Chinese neighborhoods, Italian, German, whatever... people clung to their roots as identity, ancient roots without every losing them entirely. The religious substrata to those identities makes it even harder. Listen to Lutherans and Presbyterians go at it some time in Minnesota. Each group clings to its idea of superiority in subset, and denigrates the next. Taking it to the non-christian divisiveness, Jews are fairly accepted here, but Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans and Atheists are met with distrust, if not open hostility.

Perhaps, were we more homogeneous, like the English in Great Britain, we would find it easier to accept "others" into our clan. But with so many clans, we don't feel the confidence that we will not lose our very IDENTITIES within our subset by accepting others.

We are divided by custom, music, food, lifestyles.

If any of those divides seem like insurmountable hills, then the Class Stratification is Mount Everest.

America has the 2nd highest economic disparity in the World, after Mexico.

People here are trained from birth to shun classes they feel are economically "beneath" them. Somehow, we feel like we are doing "ok" as long as we are not doing as badly as "group x." As a consumer society, that has never need to, nor learned to use things to the end of their usefulness, rather values the new and trendy, these differences are immediately and completely recognizable at a glance to any one of us. Our clothing, our cars, our homes show our standing in this economic pyramid as easily to the American eye as a Caste Mark does to an Indian. Further, if one is confused or fooled by the outward appearance, the secondary judgment is readily made by conversation: regional linguist styles, accents and colloquialisms immediately separate the educated/upper class from the working/lower class. People tend not to cross to "the other side of the tracks."

I believe these three factors, these tribal divisions are what have thwarted America's growth as a Nation. In most countries, its a day trip border to border. Here, it is a week's and for many, financially impossible. We have never seen, nor had any immersion with our fellow Americans beyond our region, for the most part.

It is far easier for people in Switzerland, with a collective history, with a unifying language, with similar geography and resources, with far less economic disparity to vote for the Greater Good of all the Swiss. They have a bond of tribe we cannot seem to make.

(Less than a prime example I have been corrected, see below, but the point stands... sorry!)
Nothing bonds a small community like disaster. Any American community that has suffered tornadoes or floods has seen how people will throw in together, bond and help one another for the good of the all.

Why has that not worked here in the Macro?

We have not suffered a Historically Bonding Disaster. Yet.

People cannot bring themselves to vote for things they fear will benefit another group, a group they see as "other" here, and lets face it, most are "other" here to everyone else.

The West does not trust the East, the East ridicules the rubes of the Rust Belt, the Rust Belt thinks Midwest Farmers rubes, the whites blame the Blacks, the Blacks the Hispanics, the Muslims the Jews, the Christians blame Gays, the poor the Rich. The Rich blame no one, for all this divisiveness serves them, and cements their position of Power.

Our American Economic collapse is far from over, it is in fact, only beginning.

There is no doubt that our Government has been co-opted by Megacorporate interests.

The fact alone that 80% of the American people see this is heartening. The question remains, will utter poverty, will total disaster-level conditions be enough to make America see herself as one? Will it wake us up to our next level of growth, or cause our disintegration?

Either is as likely. It will be hard to get unemployed cab drivers to vote for farm subsidies. It will be hard for farmers to vote for unemployment benefits for crowded cities. Perhaps, the dissolution of the Union will be the end result.

However, if enough workers (the true asset of any country is in its people) realize that the 1% holding 95% of their financial coffers is the underlying cause of all of our problems, we may understand yet, that building a sane and sustainable system for our future is the only path to success.

Nothing bonds like a common enemy, and nothing creates growth but experiencing true pain from one's own bad decisions. Will our economic collapse cause a enough pressure to trigger the clan-protection response hard wired into the human psyche on a National level in a country this large, this diverse?

Will we be willing to pay enormous taxes to have access to health care, education, subsidized housing, will we be willing to Nationalize our Utilities, so that while taxes go up, our cost of living lowers proportionately?

I foresee chaos, and internal fighting before that realization comes, not unlike the factional fighting Europe endured before coming to the realization that Social Democracies make all their citizens do well. One cannot secure a future alone, one needs to secure it for their neighbors at the same time, or it fails. But it took much chaos, too, for Europe to reach that stage in a more homogeneous setting, and thousands of years of collective history.... will our infantile 200 years and childish ways be woken by this first real trauma?

Only time will tell.

(again, this is simplified, and abbreviated to the complexity of the issue)

There is more at stake here than any one person or movement can address. This is more than a simple strike or boycott will defeat.

We need a National Awakening.. a change of heart if you will, and the ability to abandon this failed system and build something entirely new.

Smacking down the PTB by media strike, general strike or vote will only cause their methods to become more subvert, and the punishments more severe.

We need to wrest power from them completely, and drive them into the sea.

Blood will be shed. Life will rise anew. It is the way of History.

by Diane G on Sat Feb 20th, 2010 at 02:33:57 PM EST
It is far easier for people in Switzerland, with a collective history, with a unifying language, with similar geography and resources, with far less economic disparity to vote for the Greater Good of all the Swiss. They have a bond of tribe we cannot seem to make.

You do realize that Switzerland is multi-ethnic, right?

Although about 70% of Swiss speak German as their native language, there are four (German, French, Italian, and Romansch) official languages.  Plus, the Swiss Germans are divided between those that are Catholic and those that are Protestant.  And all of these cleavages match up with territorial boundaries.  Swiss national identity isn't drawn together by ethnicity, it's based in a common national mindset that supercedes language and ethnicity.  The understanding that German and French speaking Swiss have of words like Democracy shares more in common with other Swiss across the language barriers, than with Germans in Germany and French in France.  

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg

by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Sat Feb 20th, 2010 at 02:41:05 PM EST
I'm an American, of COURSE I'm clueless about Switzerland.... my apologies for that, but the broader point of self-identifying more closely stands.

Maybe France for the French?

Thats what happens when an uneducated housewife makes thesis' over coffee.... yikes. I'm embarrassed.

Readers forgive, please, and take in my meaning despite an unworthy example.


by Diane G on Sat Feb 20th, 2010 at 02:47:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
France isn't ethnically homogeneous either, far from it: people migrated into since, oh well, the Ice Age and the Cro-Magnon prehistoric people. And since then: Celts, Romans, Franks (from which the name France is derived), Vikings (in Normandy); more recently: from Italy, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Africa and the Carribean...

And as for language: French really became a language spoken and understood by all French people only in the first part of the 20th century. Before that many people only spoke their region's dialect: public, secular and mandatory school for every child, generalized in the late  19th century brought the common language everywhere in the country.

But national sentiment, like in many other European countries, existed way before an unifying language and didn't require any homogeneous ethnicity: it is first and foremost a shared culture and history.

You can find similar process in just about any other European country, even those that don't have one single language (Switzerland, Belgium, Finland...) or those where the national sentiment is fairly recent: Italy and Germany didn't exist as countries until the late 19th century.

Bottom line: it's mostly about shared history (tumultuous and often bloody), common culture and shared values that brought European countries together.

And it's OK for not knowing that beforehand: that's why you're visiting us at ET, right? :-)

by Bernard on Sun Feb 21st, 2010 at 04:39:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
God, it is almost criminal how little we are taught about World History here.

Does this make my thesis wrong? Or at least naive?

by Diane G on Sun Feb 21st, 2010 at 08:21:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not necessarily: just forget the point about ethnicity (a very American obsession, if I may say so).

Your #2 point is more important: collective consciousness based upon common history, spanning over centuries, if not millenia.

As for your main thesis: indeed, there may be less sense of a "common interest" from sea to shining sea, but the difference is, I think, that in Europe there is still a feeling that what brings us together is somewhat more important than what sets us apart.

Also, the state and government institutions are perceived as important in guaranteeing the overall well being of the people: the Reagan/Thatcher war on government hasn't been as efficient on this side of the pond.

by Bernard on Mon Feb 22nd, 2010 at 04:52:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
France isn't ethnically homogeneous either, far from it: people migrated into since, oh well, the Ice Age and the Cro-Magnon prehistoric people. And since then: Celts, Romans, Franks (from which the name France is derived), Vikings (in Normandy); more recently: from Italy, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Africa and the Carribean...

Well, you forgot the Greeks (before the Romans), the Alans, the Vandals, the Suevis, the Wisigoths and the Burgundians in the 5th century, the Saracens in the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Magyars in the 10th century...

"Ce qui vient au monde pour ne rien troubler ne mérite ni égards ni patience." René Char

by Melanchthon on Mon Feb 22nd, 2010 at 12:05:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My point exactly; you can't list them all...

And you can say pretty much the same for all European countries, even the more "isolated" ones on peninsulas or islands: the place has been a melting pot ever since homo sapiens started moving in from Africa...

by Bernard on Mon Feb 22nd, 2010 at 04:38:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And the often forgotten Rroms from India in the 12th or 13th ... plus the return of the celts under the Briton name in the 7th century I think. We even got a bunch of Carthaginians with accompanying elephants at some point, although they just walked through.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Mar 1st, 2010 at 03:55:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
i lived there on and off for a year. the primary difference i saw was that swiss people think logically about their situation and position in the world, and thus vote accordingly, in their self interest. also they have been pressed together by outside forces for 1000 years, and have a common bond because of that.

correct, that smaller countries are far easier to govern than larger ones....

Life is not a dress rehearsal

by johnfire (johnfire@christopherrehm.com) on Sun Feb 21st, 2010 at 05:27:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Something I learned long ago during the filming of a BBC documentary on the North Slope of Alaska: there's a delicate balance of energy in harsh conditions. The scientist we were interviewing was an ornithologist and he spoke about the 'decision' of an Alaskan bird in winter. If the bird expends more energy in seeking food, than the found food delivers, there's a net loss of energy. If this happens several times it means death.

In Finland, historically, heat for wooden houses came from firewood. The firewood needed to last from perhaps November to April. So if you didn't chop enough in the autumn, and your firewood ran out, you were dead.

This kind of thinking becomes part of a culture. Finns don't like big houses - more to heat. But this becomes wider culturally than just heat. It's about thinking and planning ahead.

The most harmful change in our societies over the last 50 years has been a shift to a quarterly time slice in business, or a 4 year slice in politics. If you don't plan way ahead, a 'winter' may kill you.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Feb 20th, 2010 at 03:21:40 PM EST
Strongly Agree. As an ex pat american living in Europe, and patiently waiting for the day I am eligible for my German citizenship, I have to say your observations are about dead on. the single biggest problem in America today is the notion of individualism above everything. when the only thing you think about is yourself you do not have a society you have a form o anarchy or law of the jungle. that would describe modern america almost perfectly....

Life is not a dress rehearsal
by johnfire (johnfire@christopherrehm.com) on Sun Feb 21st, 2010 at 05:20:17 AM EST
also one of the biggest mistakes I see Europeans making is that they assume Americans will sit down and rationally work out our problems. i see absolutely nothing of the sort happening. given the denial, and negativity of the Right there is no solution to any problems in America that does not involve civil strife at some point between opposing fractions. Civil war? probably not.. but there is going to be a lot of low grade violence in the streets between various interest groups over the next ten years. America is going to be a VERY violent and dangerous place in the future...

Life is not a dress rehearsal
by johnfire (johnfire@christopherrehm.com) on Sun Feb 21st, 2010 at 05:23:55 AM EST
I would note that there was a significant degree of communal effort amongst settlers on the ever advancing frontier in the 19th century USA. It was a practical necessity to quickly accomplish large tasks such as barn raising. But these were communities that were largely self sufficient. They found crops or other resources, such as fur or alcohol, that they could sell for cash, but initially they were not too much a part of a national market economy.

As transportation allowed they came to be integrated into the national market. Canals and riverboats first, followed by railroads. As this occurred the livelihoods of individual families came more and more to be defined by cash income from a full time job. But large portions of the country retained sizable populations that obtained a substantial amount of their resources from subsistence activities. This got many families through the Great Depression of the '30s, my father's family included. They grew and canned vegetables and fruit, raised and butchered most of their meat. My grandfather had paid for one of his daughters to go to college at Tahlequah, Ok which education qualified her as a school teacher and her cash income replaced the income he had previously earned from growing cash crops and renting out his wagon and mule team at harvest and for driving the "kiddie wagon" for the Wahn, Ok. School District.

In the '50s girls were still taught all of the requisite skills for such tasks in Home Economics while the boys had Shop and Mechanical Drawing. But this was on the way out. Our family had access to a 40 acre commons and kept a milk cow, kept chickens, for a while kept a horse for my aunt and uncle, raised two calves and a hog for slaughter and kept a large garden. I used to make butter with a hand crank churn while watching I Love Lucy and The Jackie Gleason Show.

That lifestyle was effectively pushed out by the abundance of jobs and the availability of inexpensive foods at new supermarkets. The prices of agricultural products was pushed down by government policies that were supported by corporations that benefited from selling products to large scale agriculture.

A new cult of individualism replaced actual self sufficiency: Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative" and the works of Ayn Rand, etc. The loss of the actual was replaced by the myth. Think tanks supported and pushed this meme. The sense of communal spirit didn't just fall, it was kidnapped and replaced with an impostor who has grown in stature ever since.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Feb 21st, 2010 at 03:21:45 PM EST
Not only that, but the settlers in the 19th C were basically subsidised by the Federal government: lands were bought for them and sold below cost, conquered for them by federal troops, whatever it took.

The 20th C suburban middle class was also a creation of the federal government - highways, GI Bill degrees and all.

What's strange is that the anti-government sentiments of the two Gilded Ages arise just after the once-enslaved black population makes significant legal gains - abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. It would be awfully easy to think that big government is just fucking dandy so long as the money isn't going to them black folks.

But that would be silly, since we know that the US is much less racist that Europe. They elected a black president, doncha know.

While I'm here, I'll note that the underlying idea of the diary is precisely the one that Hayek and co invoke to explain why a political EU can never work: people only want to help people like them. It makes sense if you're a right-winger with (pretty much by definition) a highly restricted view of who is in your tribe.  Not racist, necessarily, though that's almost always an element of it.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Feb 22nd, 2010 at 07:04:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not only that, but the settlers in the 19th C were basically subsidised by the Federal government: lands were bought for them and sold below cost, conquered for them by federal troops, whatever it took.

I recently happened upon Little House in the Big Woods and was struck by the candid description of genocidal land speculation. The Ingalls move to indian land (Kansas) and start building a farm, hoping that the cavalry will run off the indians. They are a bit surprised when the cavalry actually does not, and they have to leave.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Feb 23rd, 2010 at 04:38:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
re: serfdom --feudalism-- in the US

The nicest quality of A People's History of the United States is that it compiles, in short order, events which do not comport with sanitized, textbook versions of national import. Therefore, it is a great index to political or economic subjects that deserve greater scrutiny and that have actually been analyzed in detail by historians (of various persausions) other than Mr Zinn. Consider the Anti-renter movement of the late 1830s, leaving aside momentarily its social significance with respect to popular repudiation of such institutional wonders as slavery, comparative advantage, seignorage and securitization, whiskey and the cotton gin, sharecropping undsoweiter.

In this way generations to come become familiar with the term patroonship and recognize the technology dressed in its contemporary form. Zinn summarize the scholarship of Henry Chrisman in Tin Horns and Calico --not to mention Veblenese satire of absentee ownership-- thus.

It was a protest against the patroonship syste, which went back to the 1600s when the Dutch ruled New York, a system where (as Christman describes it) "a few families, intricately intermarried, controlled the destinies of three hundred thousand people and ruled in almost kingly splendor near two million acres of land."

The tenants paid taxes and rents. The largest manor was owned by the Rensselaer family, which ruled over about eighty thousand tenants and had accumulated a fortune of $41 million.... By the summer of 1839, the tenants were holding their first mass meeting. The economic crisis of 1837 had filled the area with unemployed seeking land, on top of the layoffs accompanying the completion of the Erie Canal, after the first wave of railroud building ended.... When a deputy sheriff tried to sell the livestock of a farmer named Moses Earle, who owed $60 rent on 160 acres, there was a fight and the deputy was killed. Similar attempts to sell livestock for ren payments were thwarted again and again. The governor sent three hundred troops in, declaring a state of rebellion existed, and soon almost a hundred Anti-Renters were in jail.

Do search the innerboobs for further information.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Sun Feb 21st, 2010 at 04:46:06 PM EST
I think your model is somewhat simplistic/naive but that doesn't mean it can't be useful.

One question - I assume that you are folding 'The South' into East Coast in your four-way split of the US. Given what I've read about the distinct trajectory of economic/social/political development in this region, is this defensible?


-- #include witty_sig.h

by silburnl on Tue Feb 23rd, 2010 at 12:51:29 PM EST

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