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,
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
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.
Normalcy, however, is the last thing our leaders want: a crisis is so much
more exciting. As Rahm
Emanuel, the new regime's chief enforcer put
it: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."
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
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.
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
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
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
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.