The New World Disorder
Three decades ago, with the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the South American dictatorships, many hoped that the much talked about ‘peace dividend’ promised by Bush senior and Thatcher would actually materialise. No such luck. Instead, we have experienced continuous wars, upheavals, intolerance and fundamentalisms of every sort – religious, ethnic and imperial. The exposure of the Western world’s surveillance networks has heightened the feeling that democratic institutions aren’t functioning as they should, that, like it or not, we are living in the twilight period of democracy itself.
The twilight began in the early 1990s with the implosion of the former Soviet Union and the takeover of Russia, Central Asia and much of Eastern Europe by visionless former Communist Party bureaucrats, many of whom rapidly became billionaires. The oligarchs who bought up some of the most expensive property in the world, including in London, may once have been members of the Communist Party, but they were also opportunists with no commitment to anything other than power and lining their own pockets. The vacuum created by the collapse of the party system has been filled by different things in different parts of the world, among them religion – and not just Islam. The statistics on the growth of religion in the Western world are dramatic – just look at France. And we have also seen the rise of a global empire of unprecedented power. The United States is now unchallengeable militarily and it dominates global politics, even the politics of the countries it treats as its enemies.
If you compare the recent demonisation of Putin to the way Yeltsin was treated at a time when he was committing many more shocking atrocities – destroying the entire city of Grozny, for example – you see that what is at stake is not principle, but the interests of the world’s predominant power. There hasn’t been such an empire before, and it’s unlikely that there will be one again. The United States is the site of the most remarkable economic development of recent times, the emergence on the West Coast of the IT revolution. Yet despite these advances in capitalist technology, the political structure of the United States has barely changed for a hundred and fifty years. It may be militarily, economically and even culturally in command – its soft power dominates the world – but there is as yet no sign of political change from within. Can this contradiction last?
There is ongoing debate around the world on the question of whether the American empire is in decline. And there is a vast literature of declinism, all arguing that this decline has begun and is irreversible. I see this as wishful thinking. The American empire has had setbacks – which empire doesn’t? It had setbacks in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s: many thought the defeat it suffered in Vietnam in 1975 was definitive. It wasn’t, and the United States hasn’t suffered another setback on that scale since. But unless we know and understand how this empire functions globally, it’s very difficult to propose any set of strategies to combat or contain it – or, as the realist theorists like the late Chalmers Johnson and John Mearsheimer demand, to make the United States dismantle its bases, get out of the rest of the world, and operate at a global level only if it is actually threatened as a country. Many realists in the United States argue that such a withdrawal is necessary, but they are arguing from a position of weakness in the sense that setbacks which they regard as irreversible aren’t. There are very few reversals from which imperial states can’t recover. Some of the declinist arguments are simplistic – that, for example, all empires have eventually collapsed. This is of course true, but there are contingent reasons for those collapses, and at the present moment the United States remains unassailable: it exerts its soft power all over the world, including in the heartlands of its economic rivals; its hard power is still dominant, enabling it to occupy countries it sees as its enemies; and its ideological power is still overwhelming in Europe and beyond.
The US has, however, suffered setbacks on a semi-continental scale in South America. And these setbacks have been political and ideological rather than economic. The chain of electoral victories for left political parties in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia showed that there was a possible alternative within capitalism. None of these governments, though, is challenging the capitalist system, and this is equally true of the radical parties that have recently emerged in Europe. Neither Syriza in Greece nor Podemos in Spain is mounting a systemic challenge; the reforms being proposed are better compared to the policies pushed through by Attlee in Britain after 1945. Like the leftist parties in South America, they have essentially social democratic programmes, combined with mass mobilisation.
But social democratic reforms have become intolerable for the neoliberal economic system imposed by global capital. If you argue, as those in power do (if not explicitly, implicitly), that it’s necessary to have a political structure in which no challenge to the system is permitted, then we’re living in dangerous times. Elevating terrorism into a threat that is held to be the equivalent of the communist threat of old is bizarre. The use of the very word ‘terrorism’, the bills pushed through Parliament and Congress to stop people speaking up, the vetting of people invited to give talks at universities, the idea that outside speakers have to be asked what they are going to say before they are allowed into the country: all these seem minor things, but they are emblematic of the age in which we live. And the ease with which it’s all accepted is frightening. If what we’re being told is that change isn’t possible, that the only conceivable system is the present one, we’re going to be in trouble. Ultimately, it won’t be accepted. And if you prevent people from speaking or thinking or developing political alternatives, it won’t just be Marx’s work that is relegated to the graveyard. Karl Polanyi, the most gifted of the social democratic theorists, has suffered the same fate.
The full text of this lecture is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.