What do the United States, Russia and the Middle East have in common? They all have unpopular regimes run by out of touch kleptocrats who faced popular uprisings. The opposition groups in all those place don't have much in common, but the governments do.
The media elite might bemoan the Tea Party as the second coming of the Klu Klax Klan, but it was a far more honest expression of economic discontent than OWS, which limited its manufactured anger to the junior partners in the kleptocracy, while giving the men in power a pass.
Russian voters who watched Putin build palaces for himself while their roads decayed did the unthinkable by challenging his cult of personality at the polls, and despite the massive voter fraud, dealt a severe blow to his grip on power. As long as Putin holds executive power, the repression will double and the suicides, violent assaults and criminal trials against critics will continue-- but it's clear to everyone that he has lost any popular mandate to rule.
Obama lost his popular mandate in 2010 and no matter what happens in 2012, his rule has already ended. Like Putin he wields executive power, but without the support of the public. It's ironic that he played such a key role in removing Gaddafi, when he had more than a little in common with him. The vain showboating, the flagrant corruption and the constant speeches are a feature of both regimes.
There's also plenty of political DNA overlap with Putin. The shirtless photos and the cult of personality is a common element of both men. For now Obama hasn't resorted to having his aides plant animals for him to kill, but there have been plenty of equally cynical stunts. The Putin and Obama machines both sought to conceal their abuses of power under the illusion of mass popularity. But no amount of stunts, shirtless photos, dead animals or showgirls have salvaged Putnism and the Obamanation won't be saved by another trip to the beach or another ObamaGirl.
Oligarchies are as common as any global pest, but they're more easily tolerable when things are going well. Putin was popular when the money was rolling in and Americans tolerated Clinton's antics when the jobs were around. When the economy turns bad then the obnoxious behavior of the ruling class is more than an irritant or an item for the celebrity column, it's a spark of revolutionary anger. Who takes advantage of that anger is an open question.
In the Middle East, the chief beneficiaries of public anger have been the Islamists. In the United States the Tea Party revitalized the right, forcing the left to try and cobble together its own economic protest movement. In Russia there are no clear winners, but the anger is nevertheless very real as a generation that had been too young to be outraged by the Yeltsin era and thrilled that Putin seemed to have things well in hand has made it clear that no amount of threats or intimidation will keep them in line any longer.
The end of the 20th century has meant the end of the ideological dictatorship and the transition to the pure economic oligarchy in Russia and China, which exist only to monopolize wealth, which forces them to maintain a certain degree of economic freedom. Unfortunately this same situation has followed in the United States and Europe, which are locked into federal oligarchies spending unsustainable amounts of money and clamping on economic and political freedoms.
The liberalization in Russia and China, and the tyrannization in Europe and America represent a convergence as all the regimes move toward a common standard that give the elite maximum power without excessively restraining the economic possibilities that keep their respective oligarchies going as profitable ventures. Even Iran is tearing itself apart in power struggles between the ruling elites all looking to grab a chunk of its oil wealth. Across the Middle East, the children of the wealthy, the Islamist tycoons and the generals who control entire industries are facing off for control of entire nations.
An economic downturn makes the competition over diminishing wealth and resources burn hotter, not least because there are suddenly a whole lot more ordinary people willing to enlist in the struggle. The so-called Arab Spring is less about democracy and tyranny, than it is about the price of bread. Had the State Department kicked in enough wheat to get Mubarak over the hump, Tahrir Square would be no more than another obscure protest. And had Obama kept the corruption down to at least Clinton standards, the Tea Party might have never taken off.
Both regimes wielded legions of followers, their iconic images appearing on posters, shirts and stickers. But while Putin had a good ride, Obama's cult of personality came to a much quicker end. The difference between the two men was that the ex-KGB men who made up the Putin regime had long ago been disabused of the illusion that wealth was an infinitely elastic quality manufactured by government diktat. The USSR had run itself deep into debt and economic ruin that way, and they understood that wealth had to be created in order to be exploited, resources had to be developed and exploited for them to be monopolized.
The Obama oligarchy saw the government and its power as the ultimate resource to be exploited. There was no need to go drill in the arctic, when you could just sink another shaft into the treasury and drill, baby drill. Call it a stimulus plan, or a bailout or a job creation plan, but just make sure the good stuff keeps coming. That kind of wanton criminality would have been bad enough in the 90's, but it was completely unacceptable in the middle of a recession.
The good times are over now, for Egypt, which is tottering into ruin, for Russia, which is choking on its own corruption even as there is less money to go around, and for the United States, which is stuck with a criminally stupid elite which seriously believes that the more it steals, the quicker the recovery will come.
If Putin was an old style mafia boss, Obama is the glib kid who starts believing that his cons actually help his victims become better people by relieving them of their material possessions. The Krugman school of economics teaches that wasteful spending is the path to wealth and high taxes bring on national prosperity. Plenty of world leaders have done stupid things, but none of them have convinced themselves that bankruptcy is the path to prosperity.
Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Obama's stupidity is their problem. America and Europe are still the pillars of the world economy and between the EU leadership and Obama, it's no wonder that the tin pot oligarchies elsewhere are collapsing. The force tearing them down isn't really democracy or a desire for freedom, it's the criminal stupidity and venality of the people at the top.
America is a wonderful country where the son of a Kenyan philanderer can go on to bankrupt not only its economy, but that of the world. And Europe is repeating all its old follies and turning the EU into an even more naked tyranny run by the same incompetent idiots responsible for its crises. And if Russia, Middle East and China's leaders wish they had a shot at the US Treasury, they have to settle for watching their enemies melt down, even as they try to ride out the accompany storm.
Bread and circuses, subsidized goods and political entertainment, can only go so far. Americans have stopped buying magazine covers with Obama's smug face leering back at them and Russians are far less interested in Putin matroshka dolls. When there are no jobs then it's time for the clowns to get back in the limo before the rocks start flying.
America and Europe are at the fulcrum of the mess, and the solution lies with them, but the only solution is for the oligarchies to give up some of their power, which they are not prepared to do. Federalization has gone too far, but no one can turn back. Turning your back on power requires leadership and the oligarchy is set up to exclude leaders.
When in doubt, pass the blame. Obama has decided to run his campaign on a theme of blaming the robber barons, though the only robber barons around are supporters of his campaign. It's one more thing he has in common with Putin who ruthlessly went after some oligarchs, while allying closely with others. Obama has already borrowed so much of the Putin playbook that a little more won't hurt.
After claiming to have channeled the spirits of FDR, JFK and Reagan-- Obama will call on the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt to tackle powerful economic interests. It would be more impressive if not for the fact that the few monopolies around today are in the communications industry and they are close allies of the administration.
Roosevelt's call for Direct Democracy and having the voters decide how government should run is as alien to Obama as it is to Putin.
When Theodore Roosevelt said that, "I believe the majority of the plain people of the United States will, day in and day out, make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men, no matter what their training, will make in trying to govern them," he was warning about this state of affairs.
Roosevelt's suggestion that judges could be recalled would give any modern day New York Times columnist a conniption fit and have him suggesting that maybe Sarah Palin doesn't seem so bad after all.
The monopoly of the present is the monopoly of government. It is an absolute monopoly which grows remorselessly and whose unrestricted growth threatens to destroy the nation. Roosevelt envisioned a great government for a great nation, instead what we have is a miserable government that is bringing the nation down with it.
This is the winter of our economic discontent, not ours alone, but a global discontent that crosses oceans and stretches across seas. It is the discontent of narrowing horizons, shrinking possibilities and diminishing hopes. This is how republics die and civilizations fall, and if the oligarchy cannot be expected to reduce the size of its government, then it will be up to the people of the nation to step forward and complete the task for it.