In January 1961, president Eisenhower made his farewell address to the nation. The speech is famous for warning the US about the “military-industrial complex” that had taken shape since the Second World War, and that an economic and political landscape overshadowed by defense would be bad for democracy and bad for peace. But it was a different quote from the speech that caught my attention recently (cited in Hell and High Water, reviewed here):
Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
Prescient words, and what a shame nobody listened. Looking at the recent fiasco over the debt ceiling, the impotent wrangling between austerity advocates and Keynesians, and the gaping vacuum where global political leadership ought to be, an ‘insolvent phantom’ seems like an apt phrase for the modern Western democracy.
How do we breathe life back into that phantom? I think only serious reform will break through the cynicism. Direct democracy, participative budgets, more proportional representation, and you know what, that military-industrial complex still needs dismantling.
If you’re interested, here’s Eisenhower’s speech in full: