Out of the Cage

Tom Nairn

  • After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order by Emmanuel Todd, translated by C. Jon Delogu
    Constable, 288 pp, £8.99, July 2004, ISBN 1 84529 058 5
  • Bubble of American Supremacy: Correcting the Misuse of American Power by George Soros
    Weidenfeld, 207 pp, £12.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 297 84906 9

In some ways, millennium absurdity has not yet ended. Although the Dome reached oblivion in record time, a deeper dimension of fever, wild surmise and unhinged ‘radicalism’ has remained, greatly intensified since 11 September 2001. Its future was prepared by the non-election of George W. Bush in 2000, equivalent to the failed coronation of a pope in 1000. Simultaneously, the persistence of 1990s neoliberal science fiction (Homo economicus etc) provided some conceptual continuity for the usurper’s regime. Then, on the back of America’s reaction to the atrocities, teleportage was guaranteed to the planet of eternal terrorism, homeland security and the axis of good. All that was missing was an experimental test for this kingdom come, and now it has been supplied by Mesopotamia.

But as the experiment nosedives, more earthly diagnoses of the whole episode are starting to appear. These two essays come from widely differing positions, but intersect quite extensively on fundamental issues. They agree that US quasi-imperial supremacy is a ‘bubble’, a semblance that may have overawed the globe during a period of disoriented transition, but never derived from American military or economic power alone. It depended on the absence or indifference of the US’s earlier foes, Russia and China, plus the collusion of its former allies – ‘partnerships’ which would really be more accurately described as a decade and a half of abject self-prostration. Such empire as the Americans have had never of course depended on colonisation, a category disallowed by their own ideology of origins. It depended on something more novel, and ambiguous: the self-colonisation of their one-time fellow-travellers.

Now, self-colonisation is wearing off. The events in Spain after 11 March have shown how fast and how inexorably it is vanishing. Unlike those of the old Persian empire, the satrapies of neoliberalism needed a minimum of popular support (or of simple indifference or abstention). A shared merit of these books is their suggestion of the reasons for this shift. To summarise their complex narratives rather brusquely, both authors maintain that neither modernised ‘human nature’ nor the actual nature of post-1989 ‘globalisation’ was likely to put up for long with an American or any other imperium, or ‘leadership’. Misreadings of the one world bequeathed by 1989 have suggested that US hegemony – which is inseparable from its immediate circumstances – must also represent fate, or long-term inevitability. In truth it was more of a Magoo-like delusion, initially inflated by the cheap enchantment of millennial economism, and then (after 2001) by the storm-blast of a wounded American nationalism. Both Todd and Soros try to focus on more profound trends, and give different philosophical and anthropological explanations of what globalisation may really be about.

Soros is a hero of the capitalist world, known especially in the 1990s for his activity in Central and Eastern Europe. With the Central European University and a chain of Open Society initiatives, part of his wealth went towards supporting democracy in the post-Communist countries, as well as the extension of private enterprise and market values. When I arrived there in 1993, one of the Prague CEU staff warned me not to heed the smartarses and opportunists with whom Soros was inevitably surrounded: ‘He actually means what he says,’ was the message – the open society stuff wasn’t just coating on the free-enterprise pill. There was a substantial basis for his convictions, rooted in earlier travails and a passionate conviction that Karl Popper had been right, in his view of science and philosophy as well as in the theories of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). A little later, I and many others were convoked to a seminar at which Ernest Gellner, Soros and Popper himself spoke – it was one of Popper’s last appearances in public. He shared his recollections of the outbreak of World War One: it had ruined his school holidays.

This was an inheritance light-years away from that of the millennium’s righteous-cause addicts. Whatever the verdict on his open society, no serious analysis could confuse it with the open market religion of the 1980s and 1990s. In broad terms he was a social democrat, who thought that social engineering was indispensable for any liberal or capitalist society. Failures of the Cold War period have shown this concept to be more complex than anybody imagined in 1945; but they have not invalidated it for true believers like Soros and he returns to it here with renewed conviction. The global success and diffusion of market economics has simply made the dilemma more acute, and its avoidance (as with George W. Bush’s administration) more intolerable and destructive.

Todd is less well known to anglophones, but such ignorance is likely to be cured by After the Empire. Todd was the demographer who attended seriously to the almost invisible signs of decay in the Soviet Empire, and pored over the statistics of the Eastern Bloc for an explanation. The result was La Chute finale (1976), the first prediction of the edifice’s coming collapse. His figures showed the emergence of a middle class with typical falls in fertility, but without the socio-economic prosperity that accompanied such changes elsewhere. In other words, the Second World’s pseudo-colossus was already being invaded: a stealthy yet irresistible osmosis, preparing a fatal contradiction. The one-sided social advances of Communism, plus minimal information about the West, would lead to disenchantment, and eventually to implosion.

This alone would be good reason for heeding what Todd now writes about the West itself. When La Chute finale appeared, the table-thumping realists of the day had little patience with such idle speculation. Security specialists were what sensible governments were clamouring for, sound fellows with some influence on public opinion. Grave, gimlet-eyed prognoses of doom remained the staple diet, in responsible editorials and sock-it-to-’em columns alike. Today, ‘international terrorism’ may have shakily assumed the role of ‘Communism’. However, the hard nose and the reluctantly shaken head have easily weathered this change. If the new bunch have a distinguishing trait, it is born-again brazenness. In an analysis of Christopher Hitchens and his historic predecessor in the craft, George Orwell, in the LRB (23 January 2003), Stefan Collini coined a superb descriptive phrase: what the reborns stand for is ‘the "no-bullshit” bullshit’ of anti-liberalism, re-equipped with post-9/11 riot gear. In differing ways both Todd and Soros are taking on these bullshiteers, above all in political terms. But they can’t avoid doing so in a climate still regulated by the malignant gnome of 1970s anti-politics: ‘There is no alternative.’

Neither author can be accused of daft anti-Americanism. Soros has lived and worked mainly in the US for many years, and one of the asides in Todd’s book describes meeting up with his Jewish-Austrian grandfather in Disneyland in California. To an accompaniment of dancing Mickeys, his grandfather confessed that certain American attitudes ‘reminded him unpleasantly of the Vienna of his adolescence’. The son of the novelist and biographer Olivier Todd, he also owns up to a strong English streak, at once familial and cultural. Anyone inclined to dismiss After the Empire as a French tirade should reflect that nationalism is, if anything, understated by the author.

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[*] Heinemann, 352 pp., £12.99, November 2003, 0 434 01220 3.

[†] Colin Kidd will review Bayly’s book in a future issue.