Emmanuel Todd: The Specter of a Soviet-Style Crisis
By Marie-Laure Germon and Alexis Lacroix
Le Figaro
Monday 12 September 2005

According to this demographer, Hurricane Katrina has revealed the decline of the American system.

Research engineer at the National Institute of Demographic Studies, historian, author of Après l'empire [After the Empire], published by Gallimard in 2002 - an essay in which he predicted the "breakdown" of the American system - Emmanuel Todd reviews for Le Figaro the serious failures revealed by the storm.

Le Figaro - What is the first moral and political lesson we can learn from the catastrophe Katrina provoked? The necessity for a "global" change in our relationship with nature?

Emmanuel Todd - Let us be wary of over-interpretation. Let's not lose sight of the fact that we're talking about a hurricane of extraordinary scope that would have produced monstrous damage anywhere. An element that surprised a great many people - the eruption of the black population, a supermajority in this disaster - did not really surprise me personally, since I have done a great deal of work on the mechanisms of racial segregation in the United States. I have known for a long time that the map of infant mortality in the United States is always an exact copy of the map of the density of black populations. On the other hand, I was surprised that spectators to this catastrophe should appear to have suddenly discovered that Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell are not particularly representative icons of the conditions of black America. What really resonates with my representation of the United States - as developed in Après l'empire - is the fact that the United States was disabled and ineffectual. The myth of the efficiency and super-dynamism of the American economy is in danger.

We were able to observe the inadequacy of the technical resources, of the engineers, of the military forces on the scene to confront the crisis. That lifted the veil on an American economy globally perceived as very dynamic, benefiting from a low unemployment rate, credited with a strong GDP growth rate. As opposed to the United States, Europe is supposed to be rather pathetic, clobbered with endemic unemployment and stricken with anemic growth. But what people have not wanted to see is that the dynamism of the United States is essentially a dynamism of consumption.

Is American household consumption artificially stimulated?

The American economy is at the heart of a globalized economic system, and the United States acts as a remarkable financial pump, importing capital to the tune of 700 to 800 billion dollars a year. These funds, after redistribution, finance the consumption of imported goods - a truly dynamic sector. What has characterized the United States for years is the tendency to swell the monstrous trade deficit, which is now close to 700 billion dollars. The great weakness of this economic system is that it does not rest on a foundation of real domestic industrial capacity.

American industry has been bled dry and it's the industrial decline that above all explains the negligence of a nation confronted with a crisis situation: to manage a natural catastrophe, you don't need sophisticated financial techniques, call options that fall due on such and such a date, tax consultants, or lawyers specialized in funds extortion at a global level, but you do need materiel, engineers, and technicians, as well as a feeling of collective solidarity. A natural catastrophe on national territory confronts a country with its deepest identity, with its capacities for technical and social response. Now, if the American population can very well agree to consume together - the rate of household savings being virtually nil - in terms of material production, of long-term prevention and planning, it has proven itself to be disastrous. The storm has shown the limits of a virtual economy that identifies the world as a vast video game.

Is it fair to link the American system's profit-margin orientation - that "neo-liberalism" denounced by European commentators - and the catastrophe that struck New Orleans?

Management of the catastrophe would have been much better in the United States of old. After the Second World War, the United States assured the production of half the goods produced on the planet. Today, the United States shows itself to be at loose ends, bogged down in a devastated Iraq that it doesn't manage to reconstruct. The Americans took a long time to armor their vehicles, to protect their own troops. They had to import light ammunition.

What a difference from the United States of the Second World War that simultaneously crushed the Japanese Army with its fleet of aircraft carriers, organized the Normandy landing, re-equipped the Russian army in light materiel, contributed magisterially to Europe's liberations, and kept the European and German populations liberated from Hitler alive. The Americans knew how to dominate the Nazi storm with a mastery they show themselves incapable of today in just a single one of their regions. The explanation is simple: American capitalism of that era was an industrial capitalism based on the production of goods, in short, a world of engineers and technicians.

Isn't it more pertinent to acknowledge that there are virtually no more purely natural disasters, rigorously defined, by virtue of the immoderation of human activities? Isn't it the case that the "American Way of Life" must reform itself? By, for example, agreeing to the constraints of the Kyoto Protocol?

The societies and ecological incorporations of Europe and the United States differ radically. Europe is part of a very ancient peasant economy, accustomed to draw its subsistence from the soil with difficulty in a relatively temperate climate, spared from natural catastrophes. The United States is a brand new society that began by working a very fertile virgin soil in the heart of a more threatening natural environment. Its continental climate, much more violent, did not constitute a problem for the United States as long as it enjoyed a real economic advantage, that is, as long as it had the technical means to master nature. At present, the hypothesis of man's dramatization of nature is not even necessary. The simple deterioration in the technical capacities of a no-longer-productive American economy created the threat of a Nature that would do no more than take back its [natural] rights.

Americans need more heating in the winter and more air-conditioning in the summer. If we are one day confronted with an absolute and no longer relative penury, Europeans will adapt to it better because their transportation system is much more concentrated and economical. The United States was conceived with regard to energy expenditures and space in a rather fanciful, not well-thought out, manner.

Let's not point our fingers at the aggravation of natural conditions, but rather at the economic deterioration of a society that must confront a much more violent nature! Europeans, like the Japanese, have proven their excellence with regard to energy economization during the preceding oil shocks. It's to be expected: European and Asian societies developed by managing scarcity and, in the end, several decades of energetic abundance will perhaps appear as a parenthesis in their history one day. The United States was constructed in abundance and doesn't know how to manage scarcity. So here it is now confronted with an unknown. The beginnings of adaptation have not shown themselves to be very promising: Europeans have gasoline stocks, Americans crude oil stocks - they haven't built a refinery since 1971.

So it's not only the economic system you blame?

I'm not making a moral judgment. I focus my analysis on the rot of the whole system. Après l'empire developed theses that in aggregate were quite moderate and which I am tempted to radicalize today. I predicted the collapse of the Soviet system on the basis of the increases in the rates of infant mortality during the 1970-1974 period. Now, the latest figures published on this theme by the United States - those of 2002 - demonstrated the beginning of an upturn in the rates of infant mortality for all the so-called American "races." What is to be deduced from that? First of all, that we should avoid "over-racializing" the interpretation of the Katrina catastrophe and bringing everything back to the Black problem, in particular the disintegration of local society and the problem of looting. That would constitute an ideological game of peek-a-boo. The sacking of supermarkets is only a repetition at the lower echelons of society of the predation scheme that is at the heart of the American social system today.

The predation scheme?

This social system no longer rests on the Founding Fathers' Calvinist work ethic and taste for saving - but, on the contrary, on a new ideal (I don't dare speak of ethics or morals): the quest for the biggest payoff for the least effort. Money speedily acquired, by speculation and why not theft. The gang of black unemployed who loot a supermarket and the group of oligarchs who try to organize the "heist" of the century of Iraq's hydrocarbon reserves have a common principle of action: predation. The dysfunctions in New Orleans reflect certain central elements of present American culture.

You postulate that the management of Katrina reveals a worrying territorial fragmentation joined to the carelessness of the military apparatus. What must we then fear for the future?

The hypothesis of decline developed in Après l'empire evokes the possibility of a simple return of the United States to normal, certainly associated with a 15-20% decrease in the standard of living, but guaranteeing the population a level of consumption and power "standard" in the developed world. I was only attacking the myth of hyper-power. Today, I am afraid I was too optimistic. The United States' inability to respond to industrial competition, their heavy deficit in high-technology goods, the upturn in infant mortality rates, the military apparatus' desuetude and practical ineffectiveness, the elites' persistent negligence incite me to consider the possibility in the medium term of a real Soviet-style crisis in the United States.

Would such a crisis be the consequence of Bush Administration policy, which you stigmatize for its paternalistic and social Darwinism aspects? Or would its causes be more structural?

American neo-conservatism is not alone to blame. What seems to me more striking is the way this America that incarnates the absolute opposite of the Soviet Union is on the point of producing the same catastrophe by the opposite route. Communism, in its madness, supposed that society was everything and that the individual was nothing, an ideological basis that caused its own ruin. Today, the United States assures us, with a blind faith as intense as Stalin's, that the individual is everything, that the market is enough and that the state is hateful. The intensity of the ideological fixation is altogether comparable to the Communist delirium. This individualist and inequalitarian posture disorganizes American capacity for action. The real mystery to me is situated there: how can a society renounce common sense and pragmatism to such an extent and enter into such a process of ideological self-destruction? It's a historical aporia to which I have no answer and the problem with which cannot be abstracted from the present administration's policies alone. It's all of American society that seems to be launched into a scorpion policy, a sick system that ends up injecting itself with its own venom. Such behavior is not rational, but it does not all the same contradict the logic of history. The post-war generations have lost acquaintance with the tragic and with the spectacle of self-destroying systems. But the empirical reality of human history is that it is not rational.