The Post-American Apocalypse

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In Fareed Zakaria’s book, The Post American World, we find some apt criticisms of American behavior (and Western behavior in general). “In past crises,” he wrote, “the West played the part of the stern schoolteacher rebuking a wayward classroom. The lessons they imparted now seem discredited. Recall that during the Asian financial crisis the United States and other Western countries demanded that the Asians take three steps – let bad banks fail, keep spending under control, and keep interest rates high. In its own crisis, the West has done exactly the opposite on all three fronts.” Here Zakaria brilliantly exposes our unwillingness to face the music. We think somehow that we are the exception to the rule. This is because our collective character has been spoiled. It has long been my contention, that because we are “spoiled,” our culture has become a process of leveling as described in Søren Kierkegaard’s essay “The Present Age.”

The spoiled adult, like the spoiled child, doesn’t want to do the right thing. Furthermore, he hates his better, revolts against authority, and embraces the path of self-destruction. He doesn’t want the rules applied to him. Resentment, said Kierkegaard, “becomes a constituent principle of want of character, which from utter wretchedness tries to sneak itself a position, all the time safeguarding itself by conceding that it is less than nothing. The ressentiment which results from want of character can never understand that eminent distinction really is distinction.” Here is our crisis in a nutshell. We want to sneak ourselves a position. As Zakaria pointed out in his book, Americans have borrowed 80 percent of the world’s surplus savings, “using it for consumption.” In other words, he explained, “we are selling off our assets to foreigners to buy a couple more lattes a day.”

We told ourselves that because we won the Cold War we could begin a spending spree. We reached that blessed state described by Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history.” But in reality, the KGB and the Russian nuclear missiles never really went away. Zakaria recognizes the Cold War was the beginning of our arrogance, and our extreme addiction to debt, but he remains clueless about the consequences of the revival of Russian power. He does not see what is hidden beneath the surface. Communists are now nationalists – or national socialists – who have embraced capitalist means in order to achieve the end of capitalism. They do not admit to being Marxists, full of resentment against “that eminent distinction” that “really is distinction.” They call themselves democrats. They win elections under various false flags. They participate the in the process of leveling on their own terms.  

I am reminded of a quote from James Burnham’s book, Suicide of the West. Burnham wrote: “I have stated as my underlying hypothesis the proposition that liberalism is the ideology of Western suicide. My Americanized procedure might suggest narrowing the proposition to: liberalism is the ideology of American suicide. On two grounds I think that the wider assertion may be retained: first because … American liberalism is only a local variety of an ideology (and historical tendency) present in … the other Western nations; and second, because Western civilization could not survive as a going concern, as more than a remnant, without the United States. I take it as too obvious to require discussion that, if the United States collapses or declines to unimportance, the collapse of the other Western nations will not be far behind….” (Italics added.)

The wisdom of Burnham is not the wisdom of Zakaria. Of course, the latter does not say that the post-American world will be a world where the United States “collapses or declines to unimportance.” He doesn’t believe that such a collapse is occurring. Zakaria’s optimism intrigues me, because it seems so utterly unrealistic – lacking in foresight. My view is closer to Burnham’s view, closer to a traditional “balance of power” view. You cannot upset the superpower balance with impunity. If today’s economics of catastrophic leverage was encouraged by the fall of the Soviet Union, it is no coincidence that the Great Crash coincides with the reemergence of the Soviet successor state. Zakaria does not see the danger in what is presently transpiring. He sees the “rise of the rest” as opposed to the “decline of the West.” This is a pleasant interpretation, and we hope it is correct. Western civilization isn’t disintegrating, he argues. The rest of the world is merely catching up. It is a positive process if we establish a cooperative spirit and the right global institutions. But is this analysis really credible? Is it not tinged with utopianism?

Nations may cooperate, may form leagues or collective security organizations, but alien civilizations and cultures aren’t going to melt into each other under the auspices of the global market. In larger historical and global terms, such a process involves conquest and war as well as market forces. Sovereign power remains something unto itself, reserved for nations and princes. So-called “democracy” has always been a precarious stand-in, replacing the feud of armed men with the feud of words and ballots (i.e., unarmed men). Here a rule-based game has replaced the old power-and-violence game. It is logical to assume, that once the rule-based game effectively nullifies itself through its own progressive and steady derangement, there necessarily occurs a reversion to the power-and-violence game.

From the warlord we derive patriarchy, monarchy and aristocracy – bringing an end to feminism, democracy and egalitarianism. This reversal of the present order seems rather inevitable to me. Does anyone really believe, given the extent of history stretched out behind us, that the tenuous experimental formations of the moment stand any chance of long-term success? In doing what we have done, we are flying blind into the future. A Great Crash is what we should expect. At present this is inconceivable because we haven’t accepted what is happening before our eyes. As Zakaria points out, we refuse to let failing banks fail, keep spending under control and interest rates high. We have not taken seriously Joseph Schumpeter’s joke that modern capitalism is merely the decaying form of Feudalism. The seeming paradox has been neglected, namely, that liberalism itself was erected on illiberal supports, and has long sought to remove those supports; in other words, to commit suicide as Burnham painstakingly outlined.

Zakaria writes of future progress beyond the nation state. He writes of international institutions carrying humanity forward without a thought for the disappearance of old-style religious belief, or old-style aristocratic culture. I cannot help seeing this “vision” of the future as a deriving from that same self-indulgence that currently props up failing banks, spends trillions in bailout packages, and drops interest rates. There can be no institution worthy of the name that can escape its fate by such methods. And furthermore, the market cannot homogenize humanity the way a dairy homogenizes milk. We are not simply economic creatures. Our identity extends to family, creed and nation. George Washington was a general, not a social democrat or a Wall Street speculator. His task was not to homogenize. It was to oppose force with force.

Think of your favorite fairy tale, with its happy ending. History is not a fairy tale. If some episode in history seems to end happily, don’t be deceived. Happiness in history is a precursor to unhappiness. Nations that achieve great victories – Rome over Carthage or Greece over Persia – experience an inward decline as they devolve into civil war. As it happens, the United States won a great victory in 1945 and achieved great prosperity. This happiness is the source of our present malaise, which must lead us to an unprecedented political crisis. Because America is a superpower an international crisis is also engendered. Sophisticated observers in Russia and China know what I’m referring to. The unraveling of a society, a nation or civilization is a periodic occurrence in history. It has happened before and will happen again. It has happened to others, and it will happen to us. As Oswald Spengler predicted, we are passing from capitalism to Caesarism. There is something natural in the logic of this passage. The reversion to the armed man as supreme arbiter is not preferable, but merely inevitable given that human nature becomes spoiled by too much success. We should be reminded that nations are born in blood and renewed in blood. We do not like this. We don’t want it. But everything we are doing plays to this tragic passage. This is not a nice thing to say, and not a pleasant thing to acknowledge, but it partakes of a more realistic sense of history than mildly embracing internationalism and vaguely suggesting a move in the direction of unilateral nuclear disarmament as Zakaria does when he suggests (on p. 241) that American “credibility” depends on such moves.

If we realize what we are against, we can mitigate the danger. If we go on dreaming of a bright future, we are going to be caught short.

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About JR Nyquist