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by Franz Schurmann

Good News That Oil Hits Record Price, UN Report Says

(PNS) -- Could America fall apart?

It would never occur to anyone listening to the president's State of the Union message to ask such a question. Yet the scenario is not far-fetched.

If a gasoline crisis many times worse than the one in Oct. 1973 should erupt again, Americans could find themselves split into two hostile camps. One camp cannot be without a car and will demand that the American government provide them with gasoline at all costs. The other side regards the car as a useful technological tool, but not a moral imperative by itself.

The pro-car camp -- which might loosely be called the "democracy camp" -- believes that democracy is more important than freedom, while the latter -- "the freedom camp" -- believes that freedom is more important than democracy. By and large, middle classes are the heart and core of the democracy camp. They are by far the biggest consumers of cars and real estate starts.

The freedom camp consists of poor people and migrants -- many of them young -- pouring into cities all over the world. Both want what the American middle class now regards as almost an entitlement. But they also share a profound discontent with the status quo and visions of a better future. They tend to imagine life on a higher plane. Islam is the leading motivator of this camp -- for how long, only God knows.

When a lot of people polarize -- as between the democratic camp and the freedom camp -- political structures, even those that have been sturdy for a long time, unravel. The resulting civil strife slides into civil war. Only one side wins, but the defeated rarely accept defeat.

Russia, like America, is not immune to this kind of polarization. Like America, Russia is a vast expanse populated by highly diverse people. But whereas Russian wars for centuries have been civil wars, America's wars -- with the exception of the War of the American Revolution and the Civil War -- have been fought overseas.

In August 1991 a small group of military men "kidnapped" Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the vast Soviet Union. By the end of 1991 there was no longer a Soviet Union. Gorbachev -- who for a short time had an office in Moscow that propagandized "Russian democracy" -- embraced Vladimir Putin's vision of restoring Czarism. He thereby averted civil war.

Putin's czarist ambitions don't sit well with President Bush, who banked on Russia embracing his grand design of democratizing Eurasia with its huge reserves of fossil fuels. In early 2002 Bush invited Putin to his Crawford Ranch, only to discover that Putin had snookered him by reneging on his promise to keep the pro-Russian Northern Alliance out of the Afghan capitol of Kabul. Little wonder that, when the two men who could wipe out the world met with high school students in Crawford, Texas, they did little more than entertain them with jokes.

Many empires have gone down quickly in history. The British Empire decelerated fast after World War II. The Soviet empire decelerated even faster. An ancient Chinese empire ran from 6 B.C. to A.D. 220, then quickly came apart. (It took over 400 years for China to put the empire together again, but it's held together ever since).

If Bush winds up having to confront angry Americans from Maine to California, he'll have to do more than retread old themes as he did in the State of the Union address. The Democracy camp will push to keep the status quo but that won't satisfy the wants and needs of the Freedom camp.

The year 2008 could become a turning point in world politics. With so many countries consuming oil and LNG there are good chances that many of the 50 states will suffer severe shortages of energy. Both Russia and America are going to have new presidents, but both also will expand their militaries. In the face of growing civil strife, the state of the union itself could be in danger.

Franz Schurmann is emeritus professor of history and sociology at U.C. Berkeley and the author of numerous books

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Albion Monitor   April 2, 2006   (

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