Radical media, politics and culture.

Louis Proyect, "The Autumn of the Hegemon"

The Autumn of the HegemonLouis Proyect

This was the year that the war in Afghanistan became the longest in American history. It was also a year in which a jobless recovery was threatening to spiral out of control, turning into a double-dip recession. For those with even the most underdeveloped capacity for making historical analogies, it should be rather obvious that the U.S. is facing the same kind of intractable contradictions that brought down the USSR.

Clearly, there are major differences between the U.S. and the USSR over the Afghan wars. The USSR at least had the merit of intervening on behalf of a progressive government that was attempting to emancipate the countryside from the kinds of misogynist and feudal-like social relations that both the current government and the Taliban-led resistance support to one extent or another. The war cost over 13 thousand Soviet lives over a ten year period while the U.S. has managed to keep losses at relatively low levels, a function of the low-intensity warfare it has developed ever since the end of the Vietnam War.

However, the costs of sustaining this war, as well as the low-intensity occupation of Iraq and the maintenance of military bases all over the world, are undermining the financial health of the republic. While Randolph Bourne was correct to identify war with the health of the state in terms of it being able to delivering "a tremendous liberation of activity and energy" to the citizenry, it comes at a significant monetary cost. In July of this year, the House passed an additional 33 billion dollars for the war in Afghanistan. The ability of legislators to grant the Pentagon's every wish will soon become understood as in violation of the "guns and butter" formula of the Vietnam era when the American economy enjoyed super-hegemonic status. Now it is really a question of "guns, not butter" as the economy sputters along on two cylinders.

Back in 1970, when the Vietnam War was going full-blast, American workers enjoyed well-paying jobs with excellent benefits all across the country. California and Michigan were two particularly advantageous spots for steel and auto. Many of these jobs are gone for good, a function of the evolving American economy based more and more on the financial sector. There is job growth elsewhere, especially in China and Germany, but this is a matter of indifference to the American capitalist class. As long as the American worker -- or the unemployed/underemployed -- remains docile, there is little pressure for job creation at home. This is despite the fact that The Nation magazine issues weekly proclamations for a new New Deal.

Will the U.S. go the route of the USSR? Can a ruling elite remain hegemonic when it shows so little capacity for acting in its own long-term interests? Despite the vast differences between the Soviet Union and the U.S., it is interesting to consider the half-baked efforts at reform that both societies attempted in their moment of crisis. The first would-be savior of the Soviet Union was one Yuri Andropov, a former head of the KGB who sought to eliminate the worst excesses of the system through a series of palliative measures, all doomed to fail because they left the bureaucratic system intact.

One might view Obama in the same light. Called upon to breathe new life into a decaying system, he has proved inadequate. The paradox of capitalist reform in the U.S. is that it relies on the very institutions that have created the crisis in order to relieve it. One of the greatest symbols of this paradox is George Soros, the billionaire hedge fund manager who writes articles and books warning about the collapse of the capitalist system all the while taking advantage of the insider game that makes his wealth possible.

American hegemony will certainly continue to decline. And as it does, it will become a more and more dangerous country like an old lion that turns into a man-eater because it lacks the speed to bring down its normal prey.

In both the USSR and today's America, the only answer to the crisis was and is a system that is based on political and economic democracy. The gulf between private interest and the public good will widen year by year until it becomes obvious to a television-watching, junk-food devouring, depoliticized population. When, for example, natural gas "fracking" comes to a neighborhood near you and causes the water coming out of your faucet to catch fire, it will be difficult to ignore. Spy novelist Alan Furst, one of my favorite, falsely attributed to Leon Trotsky the words, "You might not be interested in war but war is interested in you." Whether or not he said it, the words describe the fate awaiting the American people. A war is in preparation against everything they hold sacred, including a decent job and a retirement after they can no longer work. In order for the U.S. to retain its grip on the rest of the world, the workers will have to be sacrificed at the altar of profit. When a resistance mounts, as surely it will, all people who believe in social justice will be called upon to enlist in this war but against the rich and the powerful. In the autumn of the hegemon, the storm clouds of this war are on the horizon. Keep your powder dry.