As the Fourth of July, the 237th anniversary of America’s famous epoch-staging revolution against Britain arrives, the world is gripped by the strangest of ironies in this strangest of times. The “sweet land of liberty” is increasingly viewed by those who after centuries of world wars and collapsed despotisms finally began hymning the insurrectionary anthem as the new cradle of tyranny to be resisted with a renewed fervor.
The ever burgeoning scandal over NSA spying on people around the world, especially presumed European “allies”, has become the overwhelmingly central factor in the sudden change in perception about the global role of the US in fostering democratic rights and values.
In Egypt, where British writer Stephen Gardiner once quipped “the living were subordinate to the dead”, revolution in the name of “freedom” is constantly and suddenly and constantly erupting, as it did in France from 1789 to 1830.
At the same time, the vast armies of protesters occupying once again Tahir Square have openly sneered at the United States, which they see as always siding with the oppressors over the oppressed – in the most recent case the increasingly despised Islamist regime of President Morsi.
The US ambassador to Egypt has been the special target of withering criticism of the Obama administration’s recent tendency to be on the wrong side of history. Yesterday’s military intervention and the deposing of Morsi has solidified anti-American sentiment, which runs deeply through the Egyptian masses.
Germany, a country whose name has been a stock metaphor in the rhetoric of politicos for over a century for Ordnung at the expense of personal freedom, has become the most vocal and persistent critic of the NSA’s recently revealed, omnibus surveillance program. German legislators, along with the president of France, have called for suspension of vital US-European trade talks, and some have even suggested Chancellor Merkel should grant fugitive Edward Snowden political asylum.
So much of the outrage have focused not just on American policy, but on the person of President Barack Obama, who when elected in 2008 became the rallying point for global expectations about democratic change and the hope that America would assume a bold leadership role in promoting a a new kind of world order that was enforced with grand ideas and aspirations rather than armies of occupation and smart bombs.
As Financial Times columnist Gideo Rachman puts it, “it has taken a long time, but the world’s fantasies about Barack Obama are finally crumbling. In Europe, once the headquarters of the global cult of Obama, the disillusionment is particularly bitter.”
Rachman goes on the emphasize, however, that the disillusionment was inevitable, because no American chief executive could truly embody or carry out the messianic expectations heaped upon him, as if he were not a simple mortal. The failure has been with the liberal imagination itself.
As I point out in my forthcoming book Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy, not to mention elsewhere in prevous blogs, we still suffer from the grand fantasy that our noblest ideas can be engineered through the power of the benign and omnicompent state. The the state is like any wild predatory beast. It can seems friendly and tame when it is still small, but as it growth it inevitably becomes ravenous and turns on even its masters.
The surveillance state was inevitable after the shock of September 11, and we are only slowly beginning to comprehend its massive intrusive effects. The American Revolution was all about limiting state power. The current revolution in Egypt has the same motivations behind it. Morsi’s efforts to use the growing power of the state apparatus to impose political Islam parallels the various political efforts in America to legislate various forms of religious or moral convictions from both the right and the left.
The dysfunctions of the global economy in recent years has been the direct result of both incompetence and overreach on the part of the world’s governing elites, particularly its various academic ideologues and political symbol-manufacturers, who have used the mechanisms of the state to mobilize and deploy non-productive corporate capital as well as media persuasion.
As Alain Badiou notes in his introduction to The Rebirth of History, “under the interchangeable rubrics of ‘modernization’, ‘reform’, ‘democracy’, ‘the West’, ‘the international community’, ‘human rights’, , ‘secularism’, ‘globalization’, and various others, we find nothing but at an unprecedented attempt at a historical regression.”
But the bubble is bursting. There is a revolution against the “soft power”, but phony moral pretensions, of the postmodern social benevolence state, which is now revealed in its bowels as the surveillance state.
It is ironic that Egyptians need to remind Americans what the Fourth of July means. In Tahir Square fireworks have been going off for days, whereas in the United States they are widely banned.