Tocqueville wrote of an America in its infancy. And he was wrong. His assessment of America in adulthood is as it could only have been when it was written; one of many potential outcomes. America’s obsession with the past and Tocqueville’s narrative of a better Europe, cloned in a more advanced and sterile political laboratory, is what we’ve struggled to leave behind. It’s what we must leave behind though if we’re to take our proper place in the 21st century where the idea of places and paths will be defined within the framework of integrated competition.
This is part of the case that Bruno Macaes lays out in his third book, History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America.
In his first two books, Dawn of Eurasia and Belt and Road, Macaes charts the shape of the new geopolitical world; a world where the center has moved east from Europe and the variables of the future lie more within the outcomes of trade coalitions, technological dependence and supply chains woven, often intractably, between world powers growing more focused on regional influence at the crossroads of India, China and Pakistan and the Steppes. He moves on then in Belt and Road to focus on China’s strategy in the new great game; a strategy that moves more on value chains than on political integration or any goal whatsoever of the spread of liberalism.
America receives light treatment as only a potential but necessary offset to the supercontinent; more similar to Great Britain during the Napoleonic wars than the center of civilization. I recommend both books, the first being one of my favorites of the last few years.
Now Macaes takes on America from the periphery where the definition of what makes America great is less important than it is to the warring mobs of neoliberals, neoconservatives and Trumpists within her borders. Instead the question Macaes seeks an answer to is something more foundational with conditions far more fluid than many Americans are comfortable with. He challenges us, “What is this America we are considering and to answer that question in the framework of empty historical space.”
First, some grounding on the Macaes worldview. History has no predestined direction. And so neither does the future. Fukuyama wasn’t wrong so much as he wasn’t right. That nuance is important. The latter implies something open ended. This is the way the world always has always worked and always will work if you stand far enough away from the map to see the whole picture. There are forces that dictate the rules. But no predestined station to pull into. And we’re all about to embark on an adventure; one that may leave the adventureless world of European liberalism behind. History is not over. In fact, it’s just begun.
Macaes is comfortable admitting to mysteries he doesn’t quite understand. When he writes, he chooses to solve what he can through rapid fire adventures in philosophy and cultural reference, too many to list in a short 160 pages. Economics, government institutions and policy matter but they are the framework for the game. They don’t tell you who is likely to win or why. That comes from the more interesting domain of flesh and blood. To know somewhere you have to be somewhere. For the Dawn of Eurasia he trekked across the supercontinent in a now far gone time when that sort of thing was possible. And though he attended Harvard and lived in America, the case he makes for America requires a trek of a different sort. For America lives in the land of fantasy molded first by manifest destiny then by Hollywood and television and now the internet, where today it is simply not enough to consume the American experience one must also announce consumption and endorse, or cancel, by reaction.
The future of America lies within its unique strength. That strength is a contrast of America against the dull backdrop of European liberalism. Through the European lens, liberalism offers the answer to all things in life. And so deviation from the set system of values is impossible. Because the answer is always liberalism. In post war Europe, liberalism has held the ultimate value of moving away from the Nazism. It is not enough to simply progress and hope for the best because Auschwitz was not a result of a lack of progress but instead progress gone awry. And so the paths for European government and policy is predestined for here and ever after to endeavor to continue to move away from it.
In America, more so in the new America, sometimes the answer is something else. And sometimes it isn’t. That freedom comes from a detachment to reality. In his words, “The New America is founded on the principle of unreality: Everyone can pursue his or her own happiness so long as they refrain from imposing it on others as something real–as something valid for all.” Now in the age of social media, one can not only pursue their own happiness, they are able to announce it.
Americans believe that the lives we live are less important if we cannot weave them into the realities we believe and tell the world about them. The idea that there will be no audience for our lived experience is something of a modern tragedy. There’s something to this. I once walked into a bookstore in an airport in Tucson and saw four books on the shelf from authors I’d served with in the U.S. Special Operations Command. Rob O’Neil, the man credited with shooting Osama Bin Laden wrote an unauthorized book against policy, regulation, norms and even law for fear that he would live his life without being able to tell his story. A friend of mine once remarked that would be some sort of tragedy to have to keep it secret. This can only be true if the audience for one’s life has some tangible value. And this value can only exist if there is some agreement that these stories, and the perspectives they rely on, don’t harm others.
We may tell a story about rugged, self-determination and conservative values. And we may imply other ways of life are sinful and deficient. But as long as life may go on outside the pages of our memoir, all is ok. We simply join the coalitions of others like us in our social media feeds. And an America of a million stories carries on as if there were screenwriters in control. The story is not the saga Tocqueville started though. It’s a novel with many different characters and no limits on direction. So valued is the idea of choosing which character to be, the idea gaining momentum among many technology luminaries whose position gives them an advanced copy of the book, is that of universal basic income. Free from the burden of paying the rent, Americans can write more fantastical realities than ever. Socialism, after all, is not really socialism. It’s the theater of socialism as Babbitt’s capitalist American dream is also theater. The tension of these two shows dominates our near American history.
Kennedy wasn’t a president. He was a movie. Reagan was an actor who played a role that still lives with us from beyond the grave, spinning values attached to nothing real at all. And now Trump is the appropriate evolution. But he is not an empty vessel brought to the forefront by powers beyond his understanding. Instead he is someone who created himself in the image of America; “a symbiotic consciousness, a fusion of man and television.” The presidency is not the goal attained through the entertainment of performance. The fame and performance are the goal and the Presidency is simply a season ten. Success can be defined later. It’s ratings that’s the goal. And in that regard, President Trump has been inarguably, a titanic success.
As his other books about the state of the global community dare to give light treatment to America, Macaes book about present day America gives relatively light treatment to Trump. He gets there, but it’s worth pointing out that the book is not about Donald Trump. It’s neither celebration or condemnation or Trumpism either. He does not debate that the President tells more lies than anyone. Only that the lies are simply a part of the script. Sometimes the script matches reality, sometimes it doesn’t. And so with the lies comes many truths. They’re not bound by the old American narrative so in many ways both the honesty and the lies are liberating.
Moreover, Trump is not Putin, weaving propaganda lies towards inherently authoritarian ends, unless of course that’s in the script, a notion of which Macaes is skeptical. Instead, Trump is a luxury hotel owner telling you about his beautiful property of America in a commercial. The dirty secrets of underpaid staff, cooked books and low sanitation standards aren’t just not in the commercial. According to the script, they don’t exist at all. And there is no reality outside the script.
Again, there’s something to this. Growing up in Atlantic City during the rise and fall of the Trump gaming empire, the story never changed even as the properties cratered and shareholders lost. Once it finally fell, Trump simply left and told the story somewhere else. The story became impossible to tell in one place. But the script had to go on. Perhaps it ought to be different with something as important as the American presidency. Three years in, it is not. It’s still just show business.
All this entertainment leads to a sense of adventure in American politics. Something Macaes believes is beautiful. “Ugly and ridiculous as democracy should be” as he said in a 2018 interview with Tyler Cowen. This is where it’s perhaps a bit easier for Macaes to withhold criticism for President Trump as someone lesser effected by the outcomes of his government. As for Americans, we’ve got more skin in the game. Though the notion that my own criticism of President Trump has at least a little to do with the neoliberal script of America I’ve been watching has some merit. I am a cold war kid. More specifically one who cut his teeth as a Naval Officer when we had just “won” it. And so I’ve got deep grooves in my mental patterns that desire a direction for the world. The patterns don’t match with American foreign policy results of the last fifty years though.
Outside America’s borders, we transition from the script to a sense of reality. And in that reality lies the crisis of the American empire; two crisis to be exact. The Vietnam War was an expansion of the narrative that America was uniquely accountable to stop communism in a literal sense, around the world. Even that real failure could be spun to believe it wasn’t a failure in principle but instead one of execution. After Vietnam, our wars wouldn’t be long dwell half-hearted attempts. They would be “storms” of our own choice against foes who had no chance. They would be shock and awe. No draft. No required service. All that’s asked is to unconditionally love the troops and how mighty our platforms were. The 80’s gave us movies like Top Gun where heroes of technology and style bested nameless foes. There was combat…but no war. Not in the protracted sense.
To this day, it’s not obvious from which nation came the jets Maverick blasted out of the air. But I do know that a generation of my classmates at Annapolis grew up wanting to fly F-14 Tomcats. We didn’t though. Instead we went off to fight in Iraq, where the script failed. The aftermath of which we haven’t yet recovered from.
When combined with the failures of nation building, the 2008 financial crisis takes us to Macaes’ beginning of history. And the truth, hidden in a million lies that Donald Trump tells us, is that we have the chance to rid ourselves of the powers that brought us our recent failures. Obama and the neoliberal belief that the world will become America simply by letting it. Bush and the neoconservative sense of nation building and interventionist policy. Lastly, the hyper-globalization of the EU and the WTO that try and fail with technical solutions to political problems. What’s left now, what the Trump transition can represent, is something that can clear the cache and enable focus on a task better suited for the 21st century: “To defend our interests in a world that is essentially alien.”
It could be a movie poster; a task America was made for.
One interesting point is that the book was written in advance of the Covid-19 pandemic. An updated release will include a chapter on the topic which will be interesting as one can imagine how it might play out in advance. In some way a reality that the American fantasy must come to terms with outside our borders was delivered inside it with Covid-19. The response by the Trump administration was in line with the Trump luxury brand. And the distance between the script and reality may be simply too real and present for Americans to stomach. What could have been another sort of narrative of Trump the savior had there been any semblance of coherent strategy has turned into one of Trump the failure. The administration is now at the mercy of the pandemic outcomes. While in a material sense, no one, save a few Southeast Asian countries responded well, America responded simply as poorly as others but appeared to do it in grand Trump fashion. As traders say, if you own the market on the way up, you own it on the way down. As the pandemic goes, so goes the Trump administration.
If there is a criticism of the History Has Begun, it’s that it relies on such a fantastical hypothesis of American delusion that it runs the risk of being dismissed by the more “serious” American thinkers who we require to accept things in order to be considered canon to the American narrative. There’s some material and philosophical nonsense in the sort of hypothesis being thrown out by Macaes. But in it there is also truth. Not dissimilar to Trump calling “fake news” on everything and being quite often right (and wrong) enough to excite people, Macaes points out just how much fantasy lives in the American dream. Different than Trump though, Macaes identifies and synthesizes the fantasy into critical questions for the future. Questions that require new ideas to answer. Trump represents no new ideas. Simply the demand signal that we need them.
Bruno Macaes has provided us with permission, even a mandate, to dare to answer new questions about America in an uncertain world. Short and dense like good books should be, and riddled with follow on reading opportunities, the offering is a unique pattern of an American description. Within the broader body of his work, it’s a consistent worldview. Macaes is a thinker to follow. And while it’s time I wander a way from his work for a bit to investigate other pastures, I look forward to whatever project he takes on next.
Categories: Book Review