There would seem to be no chance that a man who made a fortune out of financial speculation might reach the White House just four years after private banks caused a crisis and had to be bailed out by taxpayers. The uncertainty to the very last minute about the outcome of the US election was probably due to worsening distrust of the state, and everything it does.
The problem of public debt is now at the very heart of US political life, thanks to the dramatic increase in budget deficits caused by the cost of two simultaneous wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), the bank bailouts and new enormous tax cuts (1). Some people claim that “we would love to help but we can no longer afford it.” Others also look to the incestuous links between government and private enterprise, the dubious process that transforms former heads of government into lobbyists or highly paid public speakers (see Blair Inc). The old fear of bureaucratic waste, parasitic middlemen and huge projects that come to nothing, is increasingly exacerbated by suspicions of venality.
The justification that “it costs too much and it won’t work” was already a powerful deterrent against any social action by the state. But perhaps there is now also a conviction that elected representatives have become too remote, too corrupt and too closely associated with the interests of an oligarchy to serve the common good. The right, claiming to be liberal, takes advantage of this lack of confidence and suggests (as with Mitt Romney) that if you want to run a country you might as well first prove yourself by managing a company or a hedge fund.
Yet fraud and waste are rife in the private sector, too. Unknown numbers of engineers, accountants and sociologists, trained at public expense, squander their talents on perfecting the lines of a car bonnet, a new packaging material or a cigarette filter, or on designing outlandish insurance contracts and tax-free investment schemes. Financial success is almost always more important to a company than the social value of its products.
A scandal may occasionally damage or destroy the head of a corporation; it generally does so without questioning the structures on which their activities and power are based. But prevarication by a mayor or a minister, supposed government capitulation to a lobby, or doubts about the funding of an election campaign have immediate repercussions for the state. They undermine its right to raise taxes, organise the country and mobilise the nation.
Almost everywhere people are eager for change. But without the proper instruments to achieve their aims, new or old, all they can do is feel their way, mark time, and sometimes — against all their hopes — go into reverse.