Review: The Fall of The Us Empire | Tim Cloudsley

The Fall of The Us Empire
Global Fault-Lines and the Shifting Imperial Order. Vassilis K. Fouskas and Bulent Gokay. Pluto Press 2012


A central tenet of this book is that “globalization/financialization cannot survive under a dollar-based regime of accumulation, and that it threatens the fundamentals of US global supremacy established in the 1940s.” (xv) The book is a review of the gradual and painful decline of the Anglo-American political economies since the late 1960s, which have been beset by the rise of other capitalist caucuses around the world, especially in Asia. The roots of the present crisis, the authors argue, are to be found in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and are “consubstantial” with the relative economic decline of the United States as the key imperial power in the capitalist world order. The global financial crisis hit the Anglo-American heartland in 2007, and continued into a crisis of the “real economy” and of the “political classes that are trying – unsuccessfully – to manage it.” (xv)

The two main policy responses to their structural crises on the part of the US and the UK were “globalization and neoliberalism, which did not succeed in reversing the course of their downturn.” Crucially, these very policies not only “weakened their political economies further,” but supported the rise of other economies – particularly China, Russia, and India – which have embraced capitalism. After all the decades of fighting against the possibility of a different kind of economy and society than capitalism coming into being, the West now finds itself, in resentful resistance, threatened by the capitalist East: “US-led policy undermines the very dominance of the United States in the world socio-economic system.”(xvi) In a way, this last assertion is a huge supposition wrapped up into the concept of contradiction. But this is rather how the book is; in parts very good but in others drawing on such a width of theoretical explanation that it risks not really being able to explain very much at all.

This systemic transformation can, according to Fouskas and Gokay, be theorized to a good extent in terms of Trotsky´s concept of ´uneven and combined development´, but that theory retains some Eurocentrism in their view. A more radically appropriate concept is André Gunder Frank´s ´global fault-lines´, which no longer “assumes that the developmental impetus for the universe derives always from the West.”(xvi) The forces behind the power shift to the global East, which is neither linear nor symmetrical, rest upon developments that have taken place since the 1970s: these include the collapse of the USSR, financialization, and neo-imperialist US strategy after ´9/11´, constructed around the fabricated ´war on terror´ myth. “Continuous destruction of the environment” is also included in this list, but it is difficult to see how that is behind the shift of capitalism to Asia – this destruction, described briefly quite well and realistically in the book is scarcely a cause of the shift as it is hardly taken very seriously in any of the major capitalist centres of the world. The issue of resource depletion is a factor within the ´totality´ of processes involved in this transformation however, and that is well discussed in the book.

The issue of environmental destruction is a vexed one, even for the arguments of these authors, as at times they seem somewhat to celebrate the global capitalist shift to the East as something almost liberating, though they also state that: “The continuing degradation of the ecosystem at least from the 1970s onwards, speaks volumes about the inability of the ruling classes around the world to control… global fault-lines… These are constraints/vulnerabilities not just upon the United States, but upon all global powers and the world system as a whole. The world system may not have the capacity to sustain another full-fledged major developmental impetus led by China and India, so the prospect of a democratically and regionally/locally planned world economy, oriented towards satisfying social need rather than maximizing profit… arises as the only feasible alternative.”(xvii)

Indeed, and would only the latter come soon into being! But feasible or not, if capitalism persists anywhere in its present forms for very long, the consequences for human society and nature on our planet will be still more disastrous than they are now. The authors say “the world economy needs… an environmentally friendly socialist project”. Agreed; but then they say: “Global fault-lines… work in favour of socialism and green politics, emancipating new radical forces and social subjects.” (146) I wish I could see these last as hopefully as they do: “A socialist alternative (that) is more efficient, more humane and more ecologically sustainable… assumes that society is an inclusive social compact that builds structures around the human needs of the many, rather than the profits and privileges of the few. It would also have the potential to deal meaningfully with the world environmental crisis, because it relies on neither the growth imperative, nor the externalization of the costs of pollution…” (151) The examples given for such new radical forces include the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the US, the resistance to Austerity in Southern Europe, and the struggles for some kind of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. As for China, for which no specific anti-capitalist movement is cited, it is true that there have been considerable advances in some workers´ incomes and rights in recent years, but in general China is undergoing a gruesome capitalist industrial revolution and is facing immense problems of its own, including pollution, an ageing population, and a fall in exports in the context of the global crisis.

As Fouskas and Gokay see it, “globalization and neoliberalism as clusters of policy led by the Anglo-American core” (xviii) began in the wake of the Bretton Woods system´s collapse in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a politically conscious decision taken by the Nixon Administration in response to the pressure exerted on the dollar-gold link by “the other two caucuses of capitalist accumulation… Japan, on the one hand, and France and Western Germany on the other.”(3) But from 1971 to 1991 growth and profitability were very low. Despite a temporary pick-up during the Clinton era, the authors show quite convincingly that globalization and neoliberalism failed to reverse declining profit rates in the West or to resolve the over-accumulation crisis resulting from the earlier phase of Keynesianism and the fixed exchange rates regime.

The crucial conceptual apparatus for this treatise is that of global fault-lines, which is also an analogy or metaphor taken from geology: “Crisis has not come out of the blue. It is the outcome of deep-seated contradictions… of the global economic system. It is not a ´failure´ of the system, but is central to the mode of functioning of the system itself. It is not the result of ´mistakes´ or ´deviations´, but rather it is inherent to the disintegrative logics of the capitalist system… This is a discussion of shifting tectonic plates in the world economy… Just like the movements of the tectonic plates that originate in the Earth´s radioactive, solid iron inner core, the vast shifts in the structures of the global political/economic system are the outcome of changes that have been taking place beneath the surface of economic life over years, if not decades.” (148-9)

The authors want to emphasize that they are not subscribing to a unipolar determinism in some kind of undialectical (positivistic?) one-directional causality: “Social and class struggle… (are) ramified in the spatial contours of the social and technical division of labour and capital as the West and East penetrate each other´s domains and social power structures.” (8) In other words, to paraphrase Marx, men make their own history but not in conditions of their own choosing. In line with the authors´ notion of a post-­Hegelian and post-Marxian totality (one might consider Lukács) across historical time and space, socio-economic reality is something “whose elements and instances (political, economic, cultural, ideational, societal, geopolitical, geographical and ecological) are discursively interconnected.” (xviii) But if so, is it the case that other options have been or are available to Western Capitalism or not? This is the old “structure/agency”, “determination/creative activity” chestnut again: how many degrees of freedom have there been or are there within the dominant determinations, with respect to any of the vital issues discussed in this book?

The general mode of Marxian analysis adopted by Fouskas and Gokay integrates well with their assertion that: “Every major capitalist crisis has both long-term structural/systemic roots and shorter-term precipitate causes… We argue that the historical/structural roots of the current crisis are to be found in the expiration of the model of capitalist accumulation for the core countries in the West in the 1970s, whereas the short-term precipitate causes are to be found in the contradictions of financialization/globalization. Both sets of causes, seen as social and political processes, cross each other.” (15) It is worth bearing in mind not only Marx, but also Braudel in this kind of consideration.

Another major issue involves the whole Marxist concern with “the falling rate of profit”. The authors show convincingly that there has been such a long-term fall in what they call the “productive economy” in the “Western caucus” over more than fifty years; but that makes one wonder: was not Marx´s own thesis about this meant to speak about capitalism as a whole, rather than merely one part of it, in time or space? Was it not meant to address a supposed fundamental tendency of the whole system, conceived abstractly, which nevertheless pertained to empirical reality? If that is the case should we not be talking not only about the West, but about global capitalism: if so, how does that work out if we consider the entire capitalist world, no matter how “globally fault-lined”, and where does it leave us over the question of “productive”, “financial”, and “financialized”, capital?

In the authors´ view each of these three are distinct kinds of capital. The issues here are complex, and cannot be easily discussed in a brief fashion. Fouskas and Gokay argue essentially that productive capital concerns investment in the “real economy”. This is and has been a highly convoluted and controversial area both within Marxism and outside it. It is related to the original analysis in Marx, which pertained not only to capitalism, but implicitly to any socio-economic system, or mode of production; it is underpinned by the labour theory of value – an essentially unprovable way of conceiving societies as systems of human interaction or “metabolism” with nature through ever-changing forms of labour-process. In respect of capitalism, the idea was that productive labour produces surplus value, whilst unproductive labour, even if “necessary” (such as in transport and distribution), is paid out of surplus value. The problematic distinction between unproductive and productive labour was highlighted by Marx himself in “Capital” in an amusing passage that refers to schoolmasters, who apart from belabouring the heads of pupils, are effectively productive labourers in a privately-owned school and unproductive labourers in a state or non-privately owned one. If the labour theory of value is jettisoned – and Fouskass and Gokay do not mention it – is not the concept of a real economy rather difficult to maintain in any kind of rigorous way? The authors outline the very many ways Marxists have defined it, including their own distinct way.

Financial capital on the other hand is banking capital which has direct links with production, manufacture, and industry (and the issues raised above return here) whereas financialized capital is money concerned with making more money through speculation and, even more dangerously, through debt.

The interactions between geopolitics, war, military intervention and economic/financial logic are discussed in numerous places, but rather briefly. I did not feel these immensely complex issues were resolved, but perhaps they cannot be. For example, was the 2003 invasion of Iraq driven by the needs of US capital – especially finance capital as in the view of some neo-Marxists – or was the war cripplingly onerous and erroneous for US neo-imperialism both economically/financially and militarily/geopolitically (as the authors say the Vietnam War was), in spite of the personal profit reaped by Dick Cheney and others? Was it perhaps driven more by neo-conservative ideology, or even to put it crudely, by a “kick arse” impulse of the Bush regime (Saddam had “tried to kill my Dad”)? Similarly with the example discussed in the book – the US base built in Kosovo in the wake of Milosevic´s capitulation, by Kellogg Brown & Root, a company of which Cheney was managing director, and which was also interested in a trans-Balkan oil pipeline. The authors state: “The merging between US politics and its energy interests and militarily undertakings is obvious.” (71) Yet in a Note they write: “We do not wish here to give the impression that the war between NATO and Yugoslavia in 1999 was because of US energy and military economic interests in the Balkans. This is certainly one factor… the US could not allow Serbia, a client state of Russia, to be in its underbelly as a hostile force.” (165) But is it perhaps possible that the Clinton administration genuinely wanted to prevent a real mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (by Serbia surely, not Yugoslavia!) which had not been prevented in Bosnia nor Rwanda; and that opportunists jumped on the bandwagon to make a fortune?

It is difficult to review comprehensively a book like this in a restricted space, as it is so involving and multifaceted that one could easily write something about it almost as long as the original book! That is obviously not a review, and so I commend all those who are interested in this most important subject matter, to read the book itself.

(Cloudsley, Tim @

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