Is the economic meltdown of September '08 a comma or a full stop in America history, does it symbolize the fall of the Twin Towers or the fall of the Berlin Wall, is it 9/11 or 11/9?
For the British anti-utopian polemicist John Gray, the meltdown represents a "historic geopolitical shift", it symbolizes the end of the American global leadership and is, therefore, the US equivalent of the collapse of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989. Just as the crumbling of the Wall in 11/9/1989 marked the death of the utopian dream of Soviet communism, so, for Gray, today's meltdown represents the death of utopian dream of American free market liberalism:
The irony of the post-Cold War period is that the fall of communism was followed by the rise of another utopian ideology. In American and Britain, and to a lesser extent other Western countries, a type of market fundamentalism became the guiding philosophy. The collapse of American power that is underway is the predictable upshot. Like the Soviet collapse, it will have large geopolitical repercussions. An enfeebled economy cannot support America's over-extended military commitments for much longer. Retrenchment is inevitable and it is unlikely to be gradual or well planned.
Gray calls this a "shattering moment in America's fall from power." And he sees its consequences in an increasingly multipolar world, a stronger China, Russia and Iran, above all a world that American "can no longer shape." To Gray, however, what is odd about this great geopolitical crash is that nobody seems to have noticed it. Americans, he says, are so "mired in their rancorous culture wars" and so busy "squabbling among themselves" that they are oblivious to the historical magnitude of the collapse of their financial system.
The American journalist Anne Applebaum certainly isn't oblivious to its significance. But observing the September '08 meltdown from overseas, Applebaum sees it in terms of 9/11 rather than 11/9:
For if September 11, 2001 was the day that we had to reassess our ideas about America's role in world politics, September 15, 2008, the day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, may well be remembered as the day we had to reassess our ideas about America's role in the world economy. It's that cataclysmic, that decisive, that irreversible.
Thus, for Applebaum, the meltdown of September '08 represents "an economic 9/11". What strikes her about this comparison, however, is that just as 9/11 brought Americans together, so September '08 has separated them into un-9/11-like warring factions of indignant Democrats and Republicans, and of Wall St and Main St, all furiously baying for somebody else's blood. But Applebaum is less convinced than Gray that the meltdown represents a historic geopolitical shift:
Myself, I think it's too early to say that these events spell the end of American economic dominance: it's just as likely, after all, that they spell an end to the era of post-Cold War prosperity, not just for the US but for everyone else too.
Where Applebaum and Gray are in complete agreement is their observations about the rancorousness of political and cultural life in America. Once-upon-a-time, Tocqueville saw this as evidence of the inherent strength of democracy in America. But if John Gray is indeed right to argue that America's Berlin Wall came crumbling down in September '08, things are going to get ugly in America. Rather than a full stop or even a comma, the September '08 financial meltdown actually marks the first letter in a new chapter. Stay tuned. The American story is about to become very very rancorous.