By far the strangest thing about the American debate concerning national economic policy, currently concentrated on whether a law lifting the present limit on the deficit will or will not be passed, is that it has been conducted without discussion of the largest item in the budget. This is the aggregate cost of running military interventions of one or another kind in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and sundry other unhappy and unlucky sites in the non-Western world, and that includes the global program of illegal individual assassinations by drones or dedicated military or civilian killer teams — all in democracy’s name. Cut that, even merely its blatant excesses, and the budget problem would disappear.

Instead the congressional debate is ideological: superficially about national economic policy, but actually all but totally committed to the issue of what level of taxation the smallest and most wealthy segment in the American population — its corporate leaders, heads of banks and private financial institutions, its hereditary rich and beneficiaries of market windfall gains — should be required to pay.

The second most passionate subject of debate is how much the government will reduce the country’s existing Social Security pension programs, for those individual Americans who throughout their lives have contributed to what they considered irrevocable contracts with their government, and the modest popular medical care programs that now exist for the middle classes, the old and the indigent. These are Medicare and Medicaid, plus the new health care program passed (barely) by the Barack Obama administration. These have all become “Entitlements” — a hateful word in the modern American political vocabulary.

The internal American debate may be said to center around how much to rob the poor, and how much to enrich the rich.

Obviously ours are generations that bear no resemblance to those Americans who grew up with the Bible, a consolation to the poor, the only book in the house, and a preacher to shout hellfire to sinners on Sundays.

This national memory aside, it should be worth reflection that the Western world was preoccupied with religion and its rewards, about sin and its punishments, until the European Enlightenment brought about the New Paganism, so called, and the New Reason. However, the Old Greed remains part of our new age, still driving its economics and politics.

The 18th and 19th centuries were revolutionary centuries, the overthrow of dynasties, aristocracies and the other relics of feudalism. Those centuries included the bourgeois revolutions of 1848, Italian independence and unification, German unification under Bismarck, Hapsburg and Ottoman decline and Balkan unrest, Civil War in the United States — a war over slavery but also between industrial and agricultural economies. The national and popular revindication of the people destroyed the old order. Russia’s serfs were emancipated in 1861, even before American slavery was ended.

The point of this gloss on history is that all of modern, post-Enlightenment history has primarily been driven by demands for political and economic justice. The difference between pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment struggle has been that the human search for justice and equality was, in the religious civilization of the past, focused on virtue and its reward in heaven. After religion was undermined by the Enlightenment, human plans, doctrines, ideologies and struggles for justice were necessarily confined to temporal lifetime.

If there were no God, as the philosophers of the Enlightenment insisted, then human and social justice had to be sought in this world, and the rulers, aristocrats, the rich and privileged, who stood between ordinary people and justice, had to be destroyed. The aristocrats, held responsible for the dynastic and imperialist wars of the period, and finally for the Great War itself in 1914-1918, had to be swept away.

That was what the French and other European revolutions were about. It is what socialism and then communism were about, initially in their idealistic and utopian versions, and then in their bloodthirsty and nihilistic versions in Leninist Russia, in “National Socialist” Germany, then in Spain and even in impoverished and exploited China. People resorted to violence under leaders thrown up from the working and middle classes.

They were all, of course, idealistic and ideological when they began. This is what brings me back to Washington in July 2011. Congressional Republicans and the Obama Democrats are locked in the most extreme conflict over social justice and the equality of citizens that the nation probably has experienced since the Civil War. They are at the same time mindlessly committed to what amounts to a kind of racial and religious war of America with Muslim civilization. They seem ignorant, or indifferent, to what such irresponsibility has led to in the past.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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