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US: The End of Hegemony and Transition
by Elson Boles
19 February 2002 21:01 UTC
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> Ahmed Rashid came to our university yesterday for a talk and
> was very surprised to hear that some people have extrapolated the argument
> in his book to suggest that America's war in Afghanistan is all about the
> oil pipeline.  Building and maintaining a pipeline through
> Afghanistan even
> in the distant future would require a level of commitment to the
> reconstruction of Afghanistan that the Bush administration is clearly not
> pursuing.  Far from the pipeline, what the US has managed to get out of
> this war is a military presence in Central Asia.  This of course does not
> mean that that is why they fought the war in the first place.  But perhaps
> it is time to outgrow the traditional models of "imperialist wars" to
> explain US intervention in the 1990s and beyond.  When I look at the US
> wrapping up one war and girding itself for another these days, I don't see
> an imperialist war machine at work securing economic interests for its
> ruling classes.  I see a superpower run amok, a defense establishment out
> of civilian control, and geostrategic interests acquiring a
> significance of
> their own.
> Khurram Husain
> Lahore,
> Pakistan

On the less significant issue here: building an oil pipeline is probably not
the main reason for the US war in Afghanistan, though the geopolitical
interest in the short run of having a military presence in Afghanistan is
largely about oil.

More significantly: I think attacks on the recent US warpath as policy "run
amok" or "dementia" is ad hominem: it doesn't address contentions about the
strategic planning behind US rhetoric and action.  I agree that the
"traditional models of 'imperialist wars'" do not explain what's going on.
And I also believe US hegemony ended in the 1980s, if not earlier.

The system seems to be in decline and transition.  In this era the
traditional rules and patterns of capitalism have broken down.  Transition
began between 1945-50, when the US made intra-core military rivalries
obsolete and made the world (initially the "free world") safe for all
transnational firms.  It has taken more time to break down remaining
protectionist barriers that stood in the way of core capital, as well as
those in the new states of the periphery, and to thus undermine "national
development."  As this happened, hegemony based on territorialism --
military and industrial might -- became a thing of the past.  As Arrighi
astutely noted, for the first time in the system's history hegemony created
a split between core states with military power guns and those with money.
I take this rupture in the pattern and rules of the game as a sign of
transition.   The US fell behind its allies in the money chase, but advanced
significantly in the arms race.  That is new.

A reasonable recourse of action, from the perspective of US elites in the
state and private corporations (a blurry division indeed), is to get back
some of the money via a Mafioso-like military racket and neo-liberalism.
This is a key part of the Reagan Revolution: to transform Cold War
developmentalism from being burden on the elite to being a source of profit.
That includes efforts to turn around US corporate penetration in Europe, the
East Asian garrison states, which includes paving the road for US
de-industrialization and entry into semiperipheral and peripheral goods,
services, and labor markets, making development money profitable, and
dismantling domestic developmentalism (accomplished in part
de-industrialization and the decline of unions and in part by gutting Great
Society programs.) This change is not an effort to hold onto hegemony, as
much as US leaders might see it that way.  It is a way for US elites to
continue to prosper, as they have done during the last 30 years, in small
part, at the expense of the US poor and middle class.

How does the racket work and how is it a lever toward Empire?

First, there is the destruction of national developmentalism.  With the
petro-dollars that flowed into private banks and the IMF and World Bank,
huge loans were made to the periphery which couldn't be repaid.  The World
Bank and IMF fostered a self-sustaining debt crisis/globalization policy in
which countries that faced debt crises had to accept the Structural
Adjustment Policies to get new loans, which of course included slashing
budgets to make sure that these loans were being repaid.  In turn, this has
worked to (1) help US multinationals (e.g. Nike, McDonalds, GM), as well as
US producers, to get into "protected" areas with their goods and services,
including US companies benefiting from World Bank loans, in turn bolstering
their attraction to stock investors.  (2) It has worked to force countries
adopting the SAPs to increase export-oriented production in the most
competitive industries of the world-economy, e.g. cheap labor, coffee,
bananas, cocoa, bauxite, tin, etc. which thus worsened world terms of trade
for them and increased the degree to which semiperipheral and peripheral
areas subsidize core standards of living, especially in the US.  At the same
time, the SAPs, NAFTA, etc. helped to de-industrialize the US, lower
manufactring wages here.  The otherwise more rapid shrinking of the middle
class has been offset by cheap imports and by rising pensions funds as the
stock market boomed.

Second, to make war and the military-industrial complex profitable (and to
get back more of the petro-dollars), the US relaxed controls on military
equipment exports (recall "duel use" and the arming of Iraq and Saudi
Arabia), stoked up or did little to resolve regional instabilities, which in
turn justified increased sales (the Middle East is the best example).  The
petro-dollars came back and thensome.

Third, regional instabilities around the world, created, worsened, or
sustained by US policy were "contained" with a US military presence or
action, or stepped up sales of US military hardware.  When crises break out,
the allies pay for US "protection" directly with cash payments to the US.
The Gulf War and Kosovo are the best examples.  (There is no doubt that the
US lost money in Afghanistan in the short run.  But I suspect it will pay
off in the middle run.  Either that or the US racket will be challenged).

Forth, and perhaps more important, are how benefits accrued to the US elite
indirectly.  The global advantages gained by US firms from the debt crisis,
SAPs, and de-industrialization, combined with the various benefits from
regional instabilities (financial, military), instigated the great financial
rebirth of the 1980-1990s, which saw huge quantities of liquidity run to the
"safe shores" of US markets. The crisis was part of the most recent
financial rebirth, and its undoing, for it either flattened the bloated and
unprepared financial institutions (Southeast Asia, Mexico, Argentina) or
maimed them (S. Korea and Japan), leading to a sooner rather than later to
the end of the bull's run in 2000.

What next?  Eventually, Asia will take it's losses and restructure its
financial institutions according to the US-European models, just as the US
did during the Great Depression.  US-based multinationals, including US
banks, will (already do?) have a stronger footing in Asia.  Meanwhile, as
with past presidents since 1945, Bush is trying to sustain the foundation
for continued US military presence or action abroad in order to keep the
racket going.  In the recovery, Europeans and Japan may seek to break the
racket and call for a "de-colonization" of US military power, something
analogous to the US call for European de-colonization in 1945 (actually
beginning with Lenin and Wilson, as Wallerstein observed).  But US
decolonization will probably be a slower process.  If not a hegemon, the US
continues to be the world's policeman, and investment markets and financial
systems would become more unstable if the US pulls out.  I see no change in
the next 30 years altering this scenario.  Indeed, if neo-tribalism,
especially of the terrorist variety, continues or worsens, Europe and Japan
will probably not succeed in de-colonizing US forces abroad and undermining
the US Mafioso racket.

Whether they do or do not, a de-centered capitalist world-empire will have
formed, or perhaps already has.  Unlike the modern world-system, including
the period of its decline and transition, 1945-present, this empire will not
have or need hegemon as we knew them.  It has a functioning conservative and
core-controlled world government -- despite all its limitations -- which may
govern through the transition and turbulent times.  So we are likely, if
anything, to simply see a change in who is "Prime Minister" -- from a
violent US stewardship toward a more (relatively) peaceful Europe-Japan
stewardship.  Will it have a geoculture to justify itself?  That may form
with the shift of control, perhaps as a debate for real social change but
not really pursuing it.  Perhaps this will be the DeLampedusa scheme.  The
role of anti-systemic movements may be to assist in that shift, all the
while calling for real change -- a "Great Society" program for the world.
But that doesn't look likely unless, in the face of progressive
anti-globalization protests, the empire faces political crises severe enough
to undermine the legitimacy of core power and wealth.

Elson Boles

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