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The Body Electric of America

The traditional geopolitical power of the United States, based on its dominance of the sea, land and air, can now also count on unprecedented domestic production of oil and gas - an energy revolution that shifts the geopolitical balance

by Mario Sechi
17 January 2019
10 min read
by Mario Sechi
17 January 2019
10 min read

Read WE 41, "The Big Reversal"

"Ising the body electric.” While I was reviewing the drafts of this issue of WE, the first verse of a poem by the great American poet Walt Whitman kept playing in my mind, like a pop song refrain. All of the pages of WE are electric, they vibrate with energy, telling us what the future will bring.

Unsurprisingly, this first issue of 2019 is dedicated to America, as we prepare for the great leap of the presidential elections in 2020. Donald Trump is on the horizon. No opponents are yet to be seen. They will come, voids in history are always filled. Meanwhile in the White House sits Trump, a revolutionary figure who, amid the real and apparent confusion of his politics, has upset the status quo, taking traditional ingredients and mixing them with Trumpism, upsetting the pieces on the chessboard and starting a new but old America First game. After meeting him, Sergio Marchionne, a visionary now sorely missed by the automotive industry, said: “He's a game changer.” How right and how farsighted he was.

Obama saved American cars from the Great Crisis of 2007-2008, Trump is trying to prevent the collapse of the American manufacturing industry. Deep down, they are more similar than you might think. The mission of an American president is to nourish that body, constantly rejuvenating it.

Tradition and scientific advances

“I sing the body electric.” Whitman’s verse keeps worming its way through my mind, and suddenly I remember a book by Ray Bradbury by the same title, an anthology of stories in which, using irony and paradox, the science fiction writer mixes the great themes of our technological society with the memories of provincial America, toying with the mysteries of family and machine, solving problems and complicating life. Technological transformation and scientific advances become the nail on which to hang a picture, presenting a vision you had never expected or seen before. This mixture of intimacy, psychological interpretation, technical evolution, biology and tradition is the playing field of today.

The main plot of this issue is power. Geopolitically, the U.S. is first of all a maritime power (in an age dominated by the virtual, one tends to forget how fundamental it is to control the seas), but also a power in space (the forgotten third dimension of the sky) and on land (the ability to project diplomacy and above all the infantry everywhere and quickly). These pillars create power in the classic sense.

Carl Schmitt’s delightful book Land and Sea emerges here like a volcanic island, filled with metaphysical elements that lead man, the terrestrial being, to dominate all that is encompassed in the oceanic dimension. The “skimmers of the sea,” first among them whale hunters, are the ones who possess this intimate essence. Unsurprisingly, the masterpiece of American literature is Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s hunt for the White Whale, the story of an obsession, challenged by the immensity of the deep, mysterious and sensual ocean. The biblical tone of Herman Melville’s novel emphasizes the power of the elements, nature, also the primary things that Whitman sings about: the “body electric” of America.

This body is above all historical (tradition is experience), this power feeds on energy, seeks it and, for the first time, sells it in competition with other countries for which until recently it was only the most important “customer.” This is the new development in today’s and tomorrow’s scenario. That customer was (is) a partner and, in exchange for the energy, it provides (provided) technology and security, science and weapons. This exchange lasted for seventy years, then political and technological change became intertwined, caused a short circuit, technology leaped forward (not by very much in purely scientific terms, but by a lot in economic terms) and this exchange weakened. One part, America, no longer needed the other as much. Fracking fractured the ground and above all international relations.

Thus the U.S. entered another “oceanic” dimension of its history, the ocean of American shale gas and oil, energy to consume and export. The future of this renewed power lies in the construction of networks - and security - to transport the energy produced all over the world. We are facing a major overturn in history. The U.S. has a potential dominance in the energy sector, but to make it solid and lasting it has to regain a terrestrial and maritime dimension (history echoes again). Terrestrial, by building infrastructure on its own soil (within the borders of the U.S.); maritime, by launching a fleet of ships that can cross the oceans faster than others (beyond the borders of the U.S.) and safely. Control of the liquid dimension is associated with that of the air, a system of satellites that can guide, signal and monitor.

U.S. shale changes international relations

The body electric releases energy, this expanding energy needs space, the U.S. is in conflict with other countries whose survival depends entirely on the raw material of energy. OPEC is the other player whose pulse and vibrations we need to keep measuring. Saudi Arabia and Russia are two poles of this galaxy. The Saudis are grappling with internal change and a struggle with other Middle Eastern countries, Russia is the permafrost titan and the fox in global diplomacy. Around them rotate other players worth keeping an eye on: Iran, with its flowering gardens and Shiites all over the world, Qatar and its gas, which has withdrawn from OPEC, the vibration of Oman, the hopes of Iraq and Libya, the promise of Algeria.

Price and transport, consumption and bilateral relations, a combination of the elements of power, are the Big Game being played in contemporary history. Sky, land, sea ... and fire. This last element is what changes the scene, energy. Its discovery, processing and transport are at the center of a furious battle and the U.S. continues to be the youngest power with the richest reserve of energy (once again history repeats itself).

Once the U.S. had decided to put its boots on the ground in Europe, the Second World War ended. Freedom was restored in Europe and the British Empire was no more. One maritime power was replaced by a new empire: America. A new maritime and terrestrial power had emerged: the United States. An age of deterrence started, the Cold War with Russia, but American dominance seemed unassailable. Then the pendulum of history swung and introduced us to an old acquaintance: the Celestial Empire, China. Ever since 2001 - the year when Beijing joined the WTO - the American empire has watched the Dragon race ahead, continually wondering what to do about it. Donald Trump has dusted off an ever-present weapon in American policy: import tariffs. It’s a story that began a long time ago, during the very first session of Congress in 1789, with the duties signed off by President Andrew Jackson in 1832 and so on through history. In all these comings and goings, as the hourglass of history fills and empties, seventy years after the war and peace of the twentieth century, here comes another conflict, this time economic and technological, and another empire has to protect itself and survive against the challenge of an ancient and remote but rejuvenated power. The British lost their empire, the Americans conquered it. Now they’re trying to hold onto theirs.

The contradictions of freedom

The American Century is over, but the one that started in 2000 continues to see the U.S. as the main player, because the other players are either too small or lack freedom: the enzyme in every virtuous chemical reaction that takes place in human beings. The America of consumption, the Silicon Valley oligopoly, the Pentagon military complex, the creeping war between opposites, the unhappy masses, the “forgotten man,” the armed hand, the mass nightmare of drugs, rich people who are too rich and poor people who are too poor, this contradiction of glaring lights, splendor and misery, remains the bulwark of freedom. In 1939, on his return to America after spending ten years in France, Henry Miller wrote a book called The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. One sentence from this book remains imprinted in my memory: “The blind leading the blind. It’s the democratic system.” The problem is that there isn’t a better one. Beyond it is only a backward step in freedom.

This scenario of American immanence, of necessity and presence, is dominated by the subject of the environment, the most unpredictable and powerful, the most forgotten and underrated, the most exploited and least explained - an element of which man can only control a small part. The COP24 meeting in Poland revealed the weakness of today’s leaderships in this respect. The division between advanced economies and those undergoing a full industrial revolution is a fact and, due to geopolitical asymmetries, the path to reducing greenhouse gases remains not only long, but increasingly arduous.  The real decisive factor will be technology, and again the laboratories of the great American institutions provide hope. Perhaps we have more time - the modeling of the rise in the Earth’s temperature and sea levels is constantly under review - but we certainly no longer have any alibi to at least do what is possible for us as humans. We can reduce emissions, not control solar cycles. But we must do it. The body electric lives on the Earth, our home.

 

Read WE 41, "The Big Reversal"

Author: Mario Sechi

Born in Sardinia in 1968, he lives out of a suitcase. He has laid out, titled and written for a large number of newspapers (L'Indipendente, Il Giornale, l'Unione Sarda, Panorama, Libero, Il Tempo, Il Foglio). Then one day, he decided to found List (www.newslist.it) and is very glad to divide his work between WE and List. He is a commentator on key political and economic events on leading TV and radio stations and writes and hosts TV and radio shows for Rai and Radio24. Now he has no time to write books – although he did write one for Mondadori, Tutte le volte che ce l'abbiamo fatta (‘Every time we made it’) – he has too many to read and not one in the drawer. He listens to music as he writes, pretending he can play the keyboard. As a child he wanted to be an astronaut, as a grown-up he came back to Earth.