Waiting for the Barbarians

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After two centuries of experiment with the theories of the Enlightenment and the volatile substances of democracy, America’s leading citizens have come to believe that they have safely arrived at the end of history. Substituting the wonder of money for the work of politics, (a dirty business best left to the hired help), the owners of the nation’s capital take comfort in the rising Dow Jones average (up 2,500 points in the last three years) and complacently assume that the engines of immortal oligarchy require little else except the chores of routine maintenance.

Unhappily, the political servants of the corporate state find it increasingly difficult to keep their master’s house in order. Both the Republican and Democratic parties find themselves adrift in scandal, discredited by their means of raising campaign money, suspected of crimes against the common good, convicted of neglecting the poor, despoiling the environment, raffling off the prospects of the country’s long-term future for the promise of a short-term vote.

Lewis Lapham received the 1995 National Magazine Award for his essay writing, in which the judges discovered “an exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity”. With invective all the more deadly for its grace and wit, Lapham presents the portrait of a feckless American establishment gone large in the stomach and soft in the head. His acerbic remarks on the 1996 Presidential election take into account Steve Forbes’ primary campaign, the non-candidacy of General Colin Powell, the comings and goings of Dick Morris, Senator Bob Dole’s triumphant return to television as a pitchman for Air France, the building of Hilary Rodham Clinton’s Potemkin village in Iowa, and the sublime vacuity of President Clinton’s inaugural address. A previously unpublished and substantial concluding piece looks at the fate of indolent ruling classes through history.

“Our American political classes, being themselves complicit in the well-financed banditry at large in the world, come and go talking of Hilary Clinton’s astrologer and the sins of children’s television, about the wickedness of the National Arts Endowment and Bill Clinton’s Penis. Their insouciance unnerves me. The barbarism implicit in the restless energies of big-time, global capitalism requires some sort of check or balance, if not by a spiritual doctrine or impulse, then by a lively interest in (or practice of) democratic government. The collapse of communism at the end of the Cold War removed from the world’s political stage the last pretense of a principled opposition to the rule of money, and the pages of history suggest that oligarchies unhindered by conscience or common sense seldom take much interest in the cause of civil liberty.”

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About the author (1997)

Timothy Brennan is professor of comparative literature, cultural studies, and English at the University of Minnesota. His books include At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now and, most recently, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of the Left and Right. He writes for a number of journals, including New Left Review and The Nation.

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government, and a member of the Departments of Anthropology and Political Science and the School of Public and International Affairs at Columbia University. His previous books include Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Citizen and Subject, and When Victims Become Killers. From Kampala, Uganda, he now divides his time between New York and Kampala.

Ilan Pappe is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. His many books include The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and, most recently, Gaza in Crisis (with Noam Chomsky). He writes for, among others, the Guardian and the London Review of Books.

Jacqueline Rose is Professor of English at Queen Mary University of London. Her books include Sexuality in the Field of Vision; The Question of Zion ; and the novel Albertine.

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