Tuesday, August 21, 2018
The Suicidal Empire
Although these may seem like manifestations of many different trends in the world, I believe that a case can be made that these are all one thing: the US—the world’s imperial overlord—standing on a ledge and threatening to jump, while its imperial vassals—too many to mention—are standing down below and shouting “Please, don’t jump!” To be sure, most of them would be perfectly happy to watch the overlord plummet and jelly up the sidewalk. But here is the key point: if this were to happen today, it would cause unacceptable levels of political and economic collateral damage around the world. Does this mean that the US is indispensable? No, of course not, nobody is. But dispensing with it will take time and energy, and while that process runs its course the rest of the world is forced to keep it on life support no matter how counterproductive, stupid and demeaning that feels.
What the world needs to do, as quickly as possible, is to dismantle the imperial center, which is in Washington politically and militarily and in New York and London financially, while somehow salvaging the principle of empire. “What?!” you might exclaim, “Isn’t imperialism evil.” Well, sure it is, whatever, but empires make possible efficient, specialized production and efficient, unhindered trade over large distances. Empires do all sorts of evil things—up to and including genocide—but they also provide a level playing field and a method for preventing petty grievances from escalating into tribal conflicts.
The Roman Empire, then Byzantium, then the Tatar/Mongol Golden Horde, then the Ottoman Sublime Porte all provided these two essential services—unhindered trade and security—in exchange for some amount of constant rapine and plunder and a few memorable incidents of genocide. The Tatar/Mongol Empire was by far the most streamlined: it simply demanded “yarlyk”—tribute—and smashed anyone who attempted to rise above a level at which they were easy to smash. The American empire is a bit more nuanced: it uses the US dollar as a weapon for periodically expropriating savings from around the world by exporting inflation while annihilating anyone who tries to wiggle out from under the US dollar system.
All empires follow a certain trajectory. Over time they become corrupt, decadent and enfeebled, and then they collapse. When they collapse, there are two ways to go. One is to slog through a millennium-long dark age—as Western Europe did after the Western Roman Empire collapsed. Another is for a different empire, or a cooperating set of empires, to take over, as happened after the Ottoman Empire collapsed. You may think that a third way exists: of small nations cooperating sweetly and collaborating successfully on international infrastructure projects that serve the common good. Such a scheme may be possible, but I tend to take a jaundiced view of our simian natures.
We come equipped with MonkeyBrain 2.0, which has some very useful built-in functions for imperialism, along with some ancillary support for nationalism and organized religion. These we can rely on; everything else would be either a repeat of a failed experiment or an untested innovation. Sure, let’s innovate, but innovation takes time and resources, and those are the exact two things that are currently lacking. What we have in permanent surplus is revolutionaries: if they have their way, look out for a Reign of Terror, followed by the rise of a Bonaparte. That’s what happens every time.
Lest you think that the US isn’t an empire—a collapsing one—consider the following. The US defense budget is larger than that of the next ten countries combined, yet the US can’t prevail even in militarily puny Afghanistan. (That’s because much of its defense budget is trivially stolen.) The US has something like a thousand military bases, essentially garrisoning the entire planet, but to unknown effect. It claims the entire planet as its dominion: no matter where you go, you still have to pay US income taxes and are still subject to US laws. It controls and manipulates governments in numerous countries around the world, always aiming to turn them into satrapies governed from the US embassy compound, but with results that range from unprofitable to embarrassing to lethal. It is now failing at virtually all of these things, threatening the entire planet with its untimely demise.
What we are observing, at every level, is a sort of blackmail: “Do as we say, or no more empire for you!” The US dollar will vanish, international trade will stop and a dark age will descend, forcing everyone to toil in the dirt for a millennium while mired in futile, interminable conflicts with neighboring tribes. None of the old methods of maintaining imperial dominance are working; all that remains is the threat of falling down and leaving a huge mess for the rest of the world to deal with. The rest of the world is now tasked with rapidly creating a situation where the US empire can be dealt a coup de grâce safely, without causing any collateral damage—and that’s a huge task, so everyone is forced to play for time.
There is a lot of military posturing and there are political provocations happening all the time, but these are sideshows that are becoming an unaffordable luxury: there is nothing to be won through these methods and plenty to be lost. Essentially, all the arguments are over money. There is a lot of money to be lost. The total trade surplus of the BRICS countries with the West (US+EU, essentially) is over a trillion dollars a year. SCO—another grouping of non-Western countries—comes up with almost the same numbers. That’s the amount of products these countries produce for which they currently have no internal market. Should the West evaporate overnight, nobody will buy these products. Russia alone had a 2017 trade surplus of $116 billion, and in 2018 so far it grew by 28.5%. China alone, in its trade just with the US, generated $275 billion in surplus. Throw in another $16 billion for its trade with the EU.
Those are big numbers, but they are nowhere near enough if the project is to build a turnkey global empire to replace US+EU in a timely manner. Also, there are no takers. Russia is rather happy to have shed its former Soviet dependents and is currently invested in building a multilateral, international system of governance based on international institutions such as SCO, BRICS and EAEU. Numerous other countries are very interested in joining together in such organizations: most recently, Turkey has expressed interest in turning BRICS into BRICTS. Essentially, all of the post-colonial nations around the world are now forced to trade away some measure of their recently won independence, essentially snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The job vacancy of Supreme Global Overlord is unlikely to attract any qualified candidates.
What everyone seems to want is a humble, low-budget, cooperative global empire, without all of the corruption and with a lot less life-threatening militarism. It will take time to build, and the resources to build it can only come from one place: from gradually bleeding US+EU dry. In order to do this, the wheels of international commerce must continue to spin. But this is exactly what all of the new tariffs and sanctions, the saber-rattling and the political provocations, are attempting to prevent: a ship laden with soya is now doing circles in the Pacific off the coast of China; steel I-beams are rusting at the dock in Turkey…
But it is doubtful that these attempts will work. The EU has been too slow in recognizing just how pernicious its dependence on Washington has become, and will take even more time to find ways to free itself, but the process has clearly started. For its part, Washington runs on money, and since its current antics will tend to make money grow scarce even faster than it otherwise would, those who stand to lose the most will make the Washingtonians feel their pain and will force a change of course. As a result, everyone will be pushing in the same direction: toward a slow, steady, controllable imperial collapse. All we can hope for is that the rest of the world manages to come together and build at least the scaffolding of a functional imperial replacement in time to avoid collapsing into a new post-imperial dark age.
well worth subscribing to Orlov's Patreon ( like i do) full of excellent writings. This man not only gets it, can write about but also can see the future (as it is the same as the past). Collapse indeed.
"What everyone seems to want is a humble, low-budget, cooperative global empire, without all of the corruption and with a lot less life-threatening militarism."
What I'm hearing here is, basically, let's go with the Globalism, the NWO, all masquerading as the oldest game in the book of history -- Total World Domination (TWD). Let's do that for awhile. We can sort out the kinks, like the distinction between trading another empire for yet another, and another empire, while we make our way to some new utopia.
The Baby Boomer's response to the idea of all empires was best eulogized in the 1960s rock anthem "Won't Get Fooled Again."
"Here's the new boss. Same as the old boss."
You simply cannot overcome human nature. Overthrow it? Maybe for a while. Human beings will go on being the same animal until they can't, and then they will . . . . Stop? Die? Annihilate themselves? Evolve?
"Of course I hate the Empire. But there isn't much I can do about it right now." -- Luke Skywalker.
"There are times when I wish Noah and his party had missed the boat." -- Mark Twain.
This is one of your best essays ever. You clearly understand history and the various forces that influence our world without the rose-colored glasses of ideology or wishful thinking. We treat our friends as bad as our enemies and eventually people will decide that they have had enough. I think Putin is the smartest leader in the world right now and he is doing his best to bring us all down to a soft landing. I am just afraid that the neocons and lunatics who inhabit Washington DC will test him to see if he really means what he says when he said there will be no war on Russian soil again.
Brilliant post again, Dmitry. But of course the wildcard in all this "extending a kinder, more benevolent empire" is that it's still all predicated on cheap oil and a whole host of non-renewable resources, which are all now in short supply, nevermind the effects of overpopulation, environmental degradation, and climate change, which are already locked in due to past practices, never mind the ongoing acceleration of same. To borrow a term that John Michael Greer (among others) truly hates, I really do think it's going to be "different this time" in ways we haven't even begun to suspect yet.
Dmitry, I was somewhat surprised by this post where you say:
"What the world needs to do, as quickly as possible, is to dismantle the imperial center, which is in Washington politically and militarily and in New York and London financially, while somehow salvaging the principle of empire. “What?!” you might exclaim, “Isn’t imperialism evil.” Well, sure it is, whatever, but empires make possible efficient, specialized production and efficient, unhindered trade over large distances. Empires do all sorts of evil things—up to and including genocide—but they also provide a level playing field and a method for preventing petty grievances from escalating into tribal conflicts."
Here I feel that you have started answering a question I posed to you a couple months ago, when you solicited input on blog topics, which was something like "What do you consider good about 'Civilization', that we should in your opinion be trying to preserve in the face of failure and possible collapse of current systems?"
In this post you are talking about the "principle of empire", which is not quite the same as 'Civilization' in my mind, but the boons you attribute to it seem applicable to my question. Specialized production, global trade, and methods to deescalate conflicts sound good on some level, but do they balance out genocides, slavery, resource theft, and impoverishment of the areas outside the imperial core? I think it would be better to have less specialized production, less access to global commerce, and to be forced to find other ways to resolve tribal conflict, rather than the problems that come from imperialism.
If possible, I would appreciate if you would elaborate further why you think imperialism, organized religion, and nationalism are hardwired into humans. I am unconvinced, being someone who has personally never felt the appeal of organized religion, have never felt particular nationalist urges (even less so since reading your blog detailing the USA's crimes), and who feels that empire has always been an unjustified, selfish use of violence, perpetuated by a few elites over the objections of the common people making up the empires.
From your writings I already understand that you don't have a problem with nationalism and religion, but imperialism seems odd for you to advocate. In the "third way" you mention, you still are still talking about nations, but couldn't there be other ways of humans organizing and relating, which don't require national governments? This is what I am looking for: promising alternatives to what I consider a failed method, which has been based on arbitrary national identities and violently imposed elite control of the masses.
Thank you for your work Dmitry!
Great analysis as usual. I disagree with you on the nature of humans. If we keep building these empires we'll keep getting the same kind of humans. Without the influence of empire builders controlling information, humans have great potential.
Having the US as the world's sole superpower is analogous to Bubba, the strongman who protects the weak in prison. The inmates trade their autonomy and get protection, but they have to submit to Bubba in exchange for this.
Dmitry, this is very succinct. Thank you. It's something I've noticed for a while. People will say, Why doesn't Putin just do such-and-such to disrupt the west? Because we are all tethered to the same Anglo-Saxon ship and it is our interest to keep it going until the ties are cut. As you noted, the west has been neutered militarily, which is either good or bad. A cornered beast, you know. We are in dangerous times.
My hope is that when the new multipolar world order is in place, then players like Xi and Putin will sit down the Brussels and Washington swamp things and say, Listen. You're through. You can either play by the new rules or we will pull the plug. Good luck with what inevitably happens when the pantry is empty in every house in America and Europe.
If they are truly pragmatic, they will limit things like war crimes trials and reparations so as not to generate hardship and humiliation of those who are innocent, as unjust as this is. But letting some criminals off the hook is preferable to creating another Hitler.
Thanks again Dimitry for a stimulating read, and lesson in realpolitik. To answer the question of what replaces the empire, I suggest it is already in place. Corporations and other non-Government organisations (NGOs). Just as you have described the Russian diaspora, there is an un-named un-recognised amalgamation of trans-national organisations with 'shared values'. Nation States are soooo 19th century and simply a good way of enforcing laws and taxes on the citizenry. Our next ruler is like the automated call-centre with no physical office or elected representative we can vote out next election.
One way tha the Empire fights back. Strongly recommended: https://www.globalresearch.ca/washingtons-silent-weapon-for-not-so-quiet-wars-a-world-full-of-dollars/5651266
Another brilliant analysis. One thing you didn't mention, however, is the effect of climate change and keystone resource depletion on the next century of this industrial experiment we call modern living. How will a complex society, empire or not, survive when the net energy returned on on the energy invested is less then the amount needed to maintain itself and continue growing?
Industrial capitalism is a type of economic system that doesn't know how to shrink without dying, yet that is what the laws of the Universe require, because without cheap energy the party will end for sure.
Another wrench in the industrial system is population growth. Right now there are about 10 New York Cities worth of additional humans on the planet each year, all because of the successes of using the fossilized sunlight which is getting more and more costly to get. I really have a hard time thinking that the highly complex, inter-networked and fragile industrial system of the world can survive the severity of climate change much less peak everything. Maybe it can for an ever shrinking group of people somewhere, but eventually we will all be living on a desert planet in my humble opinion. If any of us are living at all.
Another possibility is that the American Empire is rejuvenated by dropping the apparatus of democracy. Much of the inefficiency of the Empire comes from the corruption of the political process, pork-barreling and political correctness. A more pure dictatorship than we already have could vastly improve the imperial machinery. This would come at the cost of personal freedom, too high a price, in my opinion.
I kept up with you for possibly a decade now. I know you don't need to address every issue in the envisioned future. But I would like you to ponder how we can minimize organized crime - whether the official, CIA; the privateered, ISIS; the stealth, NGOs; or the ethnic, Kosher Nostra. Organized crime is the world's largest problem, in my opinion. You have a novel approach to problems and dilemmas. So how do we manage power, money, and violence? That is a tall order. Sorry.
Dmitry never really said that “empires” are great ideas or that we even invented them. He said we “appear” to be inclined to create them because of something that may be hardwired into us, just like ants build mounds with no attempt to do otherwise. And if you review human history from a certain population point, it has been one empire after another without exception on EVERY continent. That is just simple fact. Being an irrefutable fact of our existence, it might be worthwhile to see if this inclination is there to provide us with some kind of advantage. For example: how to manage one billion people without having them loot and pillage each other and then serve the losers up for dinner. (I mean... you know... just as an example).
What would or could be a "soft imperialism" fostered by (a) "kinder hegemon(s)"... ?
Mu guess : it's hopeless... Hegel says that force is "by nature" the fundamental principle of any and every relation between different states. Whether we like it or not, it's obviously one of the very few tangible and provable observations or truths of political thought. To know why it is the case needs a lifetime of work and much more.
What Dmitry is suggesting here is still wishful thinking : there is no gentler solution to human nature... An empire is defined by its ability to dominate weaker ensembles and to make "victims". All states are "wanna-be" empires if they can dream of it... Even from a realist standpoint, the moral approach is a dead end. These beasts have domination in their DNA.
Time has come for the final decline of the west and the rise of some other civilisation... China, Russia or/and Islam, I don't care...
The real "margin of progress" is not to know if there is enough reason in us to create a milder form of imperialism, but to determine if there is any room for a new emergent civilisation or no. It could be transhumanism (if this bunch of crazies manage to "optimize" us) but it will also mean the end of mankind as we know it...
I like what Orlov writes (it's not only immensely intelligent, it's even beautiful at times), but the real deal is not about collapsing empires : what is really in question here is the conditions and the meaning of our death as a species, our final fate. The historical analysis is not sufficient if it doesn't stem from an ontological understanding.
I'm not here to brag, this is not easy. Not at all.
We are a species born of shared hardship. We are molded and made for a democracy of both pain and joy alike. For over a hundred thousand years our view of the ecology and material universe was imbued with reverence and awe, leading more often to restrained and careful long term use of resources rather than to competitive avarice.
We humans inhabit, not just a physical and collective landscape, but also a collective mindscape - CULTURE - a kind of collective cognitive niche. Our cognitive niches not just symbolic, they are also conceptual. We humans hyper-cooperatively share thoughts.
Story telling dominates there. Mythology often even incorporates a divine motivation to the foundations of whole ethnic groups, states, and empires. Mythology and religion thus operate to create collective mindscapes that bond people together by orchestrating similar individual reactions to stressful events.
There is no evidence that we are an evil and selfish species, or that elites are all psychopaths. The evil that unfolds really is banal; a function of belief and imaginative conceptualizations such as "nationalism" and "patriotism" that distort perception. Continued “economic growth” is not the solution to our most pressing existential problem, which is planet-wide ecocide and the ruinous greenhouse effects of burning fossil fuels. Nor is tinkering with our genome to make us less aggressive or more “suited” to civilized life: at least not if it means making us less willing to fight against injustice and inequality.
For many of us, presently grappling with these issues, is not that our brains that are stuck in the Stone Age, it is our concepts that are stuck in the present civilization. Are we willing to limit humanity's future options by asserting that any future civilized world can only result from the overreach of some coercive military empire? What if we are just befuddled by the story-telling and hubris of imperialism? What if our current crisis is not due our recent emergence from the Palaeolithic but rather due to a limiting mythology of great men making history and divinely inspired states? Throughout history, moreover, many of our so- called "stone-age brains" have seen through the hubris of the powerful and challenged the steady stream of motivated disinformation that rationalize ecocide, colonialism, racism, genocide, and war. People all over the world have even died to see justice prevail; they have sacrificed and struggled to make a world, again, fit for all our children to live in.
Humanity does not lack such people. Check your mirror.
- Helga Vierich
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