The Bubble of Empire
The idea that the United States is the global hegemon, that we have first dibs on the title of world policemen – indeed, our entire post-WWII foreign policy – is nothing but a delusion. That is one of the chief lessons of the recent economic downturn, one that, unfortunately, the incoming administration has yet to face up to – and the pundits (ensconced as they are in the culture of hubris) have yet to realize.
Delusions die hard. This poor woman – faced with the dire prospect of having to sell the Palm Beach cottage, and, omigod, lay off Yolanda, the thrice weekly cleaning lady – is just beginning to wake up, albeit with great reluctance. Along with these people, she will live in a world of reduced expectations. Our rulers, however, show every sign of inflexibility in the face of the need to change.
For decades, we’ve been living inside a bubble, here at the epicenter of the imperial metropolis, protected from the dire fate of the rest of the world’s peoples – who live in poverty, tyranny, and worse – by the productive and political capital amassed by our intrepid ancestors, who built the world’s most successful (and freest) constitutional republic, and, because of that were able to create an enormous amount of wealth. Both are gone, now, and yet we are still acting as if they’re intact, like an amputee who feels pain in an arm that no longer is attached to his shoulder.
For example, the New York Times reports that President-elect Barack Obama is already backpedaling on his pledge to get our troops out of Iraq in sixteen months – yet how does he imagine we’ll have the means to keep them there even that long? The Times tells us that “the officials made clear that the withdrawal of all combat forces under the generals’ recommendations would not come until some time after May 2010, Mr. Obama’s target.” But by that time the Chinese will have long since stopped lending us the money to pay for it all.
President Obama is pledged to launch an Afghan “surge” that will dwarf our continuing efforts in Iraq – but how will we pay for it? He and his surrogates pontificate on the need to “reconstruct” Afghanistan, when he’ll be hard-pressed to reconstruct the economy in the wake of a devastating deflation.
Our present military budget is more than all the other nations on earth combined, an inconceivable sum that drains the very lifeblood out of our economy. Weapons are not capital assets. The productive energy used to produce them is captured and frozen in time, until the weapon is either used, or junked as outdated: in either case it vanishes. Ever since the end of the second great crusade on behalf of “democracy,” and the beginning of the cold war, we’ve literally been incinerating a good percentage of the national income on the altar of the war god. How long can we keep this up?
America is like a formerly grand billionaire, living on a palatial estate that could be foreclosed any day now, blithely carrying on in the same old extravagant way in order to keep up appearances. Foreclosure day is coming, however, and when our friends and former allies show up on the courthouse steps with their insultingly low bids, you can bet the smell of schadenfreude will be thick in the air.
Deflation is the great enemy of the moment, and “reflation” is the catchphrase of the day, the magical incantation that will set us on the path to recapturing our former glory. Yet the words themselves contain key clues to unlocking the mystery of our predicament: inflation, after all, projects the image of something stretched almost beyond its natural limits, while deflation implies a return to normalcy.
The bravado of the doomed makes for some good lines, to be sure, a rich source for a compendium of Famous Last Words. The problem for Emanuel, and indeed for the American political class of whichever party, is that the rising economic crisis roiling world markets gives every indication of having the potential to waste them. Blinded by hubris, however, our leaders are sleepwalking over a cliff, and the fall is likely to be long and terrifying.
How long after we hit bottom, in a decade or so, the country will begin to recover is anyone’s guess, but I can tell you this: the delusions of this ruling class will endure to the very end. The inhabitants of Washington, D.C., are incapable of realizing that the bubble of Empire has really popped, or can ever pop. They are like drug addicts who have imbibed so much of their poison of choice that their physiology has been permanently altered: they’re always and forever high.
For sixty-some years we’ve been high on the delusion of our God-given omnipotence and inherent goodness, convinced we can and should right every wrong, police every border (but our own), and fulfill our alleged destiny as the Promethean light-bearer of the world. This is mental and moral inflation, which was certainly encouraged by the monetary phenomenon: these absurdly inflated goals were financed by imaginary wealth, a good proportion of which has already disappeared.
The task of reflation, which the incoming government has set for itself, involves much more than merely printing lots of paper money, and spending it like crazy: it means maintaining the inflationary mindset, the inflated goals, the inflated rhetoric, and, most of all, the inflated military budget that supposedly ensures our role as the world’s last and only superpower. As the Obama crowd searches for ways in which to reflate the economy, the “stimulus” of military spending is bound to play a major role.
For a long time, people have been asking “what does America make anymore?” The old core industries – steel, cars, consumer goods – have long since decayed, and the vaunted “service” sector is undergoing a massive contraction. What’s left?
Well, we do make one thing in large quantities, that no other country makes, and that is decisions about the fate of the rest of the world. Due to our military power, our self-appointed role as the world’s policeman has carved us out a specialized niche in the international division of labor. The great problem with this evolutionary path is that it can only end in one of two ways: the international extension of the American nation-state until it covers the globe, or extinction. Having preemptively taken up the responsibilities and costs of a world hegemon, yet without the authority to enjoy all the prerogatives of a real World State, including global taxation, this path can only end in bankruptcy.
As indeed it has.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I also want to mention a radio interview I recently did with our very own Scott Horton, the real star of Antiwar.com, which came out pretty good (which means I managed to have at least two cups of coffee and lunch before opening up my mouth to speak). The theme is globalism, regionalism, and the future of resistance to growing State power. The discussion kind of takes off where this column leaves off, as Scott and I discuss recent proposals that seriously raise the issue of a world government.
Speaking of Scott, I highly recommend his recent interview with Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of The Nation, in which the latter opines that, far from resembling JFK, or Lincoln, our President-elect may turn into another LBJ. Fascinating stuff, with both Scott and Katrina drawing each other out and creating an interesting left-right synthesis as they analyze recent events overseas.
I have a new article coming up in The American Conservative, on the Blagojevich scandal, and the return of Fitzmas. That is hard on the heels of the last one, which was all about Garet Garrett and his astonishing relevance to our present economic predicament. Don’t you think it’s time you subscribed?
Tom Piatak has a very kind review of my recently reissued book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, in the current issue of Chronicles, which is illustrated by a wonderfully dated photo of the author: yes, I was rather good-looking, wasn’t I? *Sigh*
Speaking of Chronicles, I’ve got a piece in there on Obama as the New Lincoln, as well as a little polemic that raises the intriguing question: did McCain throw the election? To find out the answer to this, and more, check out the next issue, which I believe comes out in February, or, better yet, go here to subscribe.
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