Is it the Year 69 again?  Are the provinces in revolt against the despotism of Nero?

This election cylce has seen numerous candidates for national executive office who come from the peripheries of American society: two women, four Westerners, a Latino, an African, several Catholics, and a Mormon.  Each of the last four states in the union were represented, three on the two major party tickets.  And of course, there were pereniial candidates Nader and Lieberman.  Perhaps it is appropriate for a society moving to consolodate its ’empire’ that the populations on the social, ethnic and geographic peripheries would take the leading role in its management.

Recently, this has fed into an arctic exotic with the nomination of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate.  My own notions of what Alaska is like come from the numerous photographs that my father took when in the Army: lots of snow, trees, mountains, and damage from the Good Friday Earthquake.  But he was there before oil.

Philip Gourevitch (“The State of Sarah Palin“, The New Yorker, HT: The Left Coaster) follows others to report on politics in the wilds of Alaska in order to glimpse what effect they might have on the national stage.  (Luckily, it is more about Alaska than specifically Palin.)  Throughout the article, Gurevitch notes the state’s dependence on oil revenues and and income from the federal budget (as well as the local patriotism that guides it).  Obviously, this should raise questions how applicable Alaska solutions are to American problem: we are the federal budget, and we need energy, not profit from its export.

Gourevitch, however, posits that Alaska is a ‘socialist state’.  He may borrow from a common notion, but the equation of Alsaka and socialism bears some examination.  On what basis is it socialist?  Concepts of collective ownership and payments to the population seem to be at heart:

In the past, [Palin] said, “Alaska was conceding too much, and chipping away at our sovereignty. And Alaska—we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” And she said, “Our state constitution—it lays it out for me, how I’m to conduct business with resource development here as the state C.E.O. It’s to maximize benefits for Alaskans, not an individual company, not some multinational somewhere, but for Alaskans.”

Unfortunately, I seem to be experiencing one of those moments when political terms are applied in a popular, haphazard manner.  Alaskan politics seems to be based on procurring payments from outside sources for the benefit of the population.  Some of it pays for development projects, some goes into the pockets of Alaskans, themselves.  It sounds like Chavez’s Venezuela, but could we also not call it “Wahabi America”, given Saudi Arabia’s use of oil revenue to stifle democratic reform and channel discontent in other activities?

“Collective ownership of resources” is more of an operational paradigm rather than a reality.  It may guide the state in negotiations with oil producers, but it has not led to a collectively-owned oil company (which would have expanded on collective ownership).  Moreover, it seems that the pattern of corruption in Alaskan politics resembles the affairs of other oil-exporting nations that caught “the Dutch disease.”  With many such states, the more important question is not how to get the most out of oil revenue, but how to use that revenue to foster stable development, social and cultural as well as economic.  That’s the Alaska I want to read about.

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