What Is A Superpower To Do?

There is a recent piece on American military superpower and its decline. The author is Tom Engelhardt. He concludes with these thoughts:

Under distinctly apocalyptic pressures, something seems to be breaking down, something seems to be fragmenting, and with that the familiar stories, familiar frameworks, for thinking about how our world works are losing their efficacy.

“Decline may be in the American future, but on a planet pushed to extremes, don’t count on it taking place within the usual tale of the rise and fall of great powers or even superpowers. Something else is happening on Planet Earth. Be prepared.”

The very last sentence is silly. I guess the author was trying to offer a glimmer of hope or something. I don’t think there is any preparing for the unknowable and unpredictable.

As for the rest, it resonates. There is no doubt that, in many ways, power is power and nothing really ever changes. However, something does feel different compared to past empires.

Still, Engelhadt in this piece isn’t up to tackling the full complexities. It’s not clear that the US military is actually failing. Most likely, it is simply serving a purpose other than what is stated. The global markets and access to foreign resources is being maintained for US corporate interests. The US military doesn’t need to win any wars to accomplish that.

Besides, I don’t think the military is the most basic issue. It’s just an expression of present conditions. The world doesn’t turn on mere military power.

Yet the point remains. Something seems different. We are up against walls that didn’t exist in the past. The world never before felt like such a small place. The superpowers are chafing against the constraints of earthly existence.

* * *

I noticed the article in question was posted in multiple places on the web, under different titles. I’ll give the link to two of these because you should read the comments sections.

The Superpower Conundrum: The Rise and Fall of Just About Everything
(Common Dreams)

America’s Got the #1 Military in the World — and It’s Increasingly Useless

26 thoughts on “What Is A Superpower To Do?

  1. Simple: Go home and get its own house in order.

    That won’t happen, so long as the current crop of politicians and military leaders are in control though.

    • That gets at one of the issues that confuses the discussion.

      The old empires were built on patriotic ethno-nationalism in the home country. The US isn’t that kind of country and the US elite aren’t Old World aristocracy. The US government is less the political system that represents the American people and more the headquarters of a global plutocracy and oligarchy.

      This ruling elite isn’t at home in any particular country, for they have no national loyalty. Many of the powerful pulling the strings have citizenship in multiple countries along with houses and bank accounts as well. This is particularly true with corporate power which has almost enttirely divested itself of the old nationalistic ties.

      It’s harder to see the agenda the US military is serving. It isn’t even just the US military. It’s also the allied militaries of the UN, UK, Canada, Australia, Israel, Saudi Ariabia, etc.

      I actually don’t think the elected officials and military leaders are those who hold most of the power. It’s a vast network of power and it goes much further up. When you pay too close attention to one part, the big picture is harder to see.

      If you want to know where the central power resides, see who holds the purse strings. When a politician or a general retires, whose payroll do they go on? Which companies, lobbyist groups, and think tanks do they go to work for? Answer questions like that and everything else will make sense.

      It’s all of that which I felt Engelhardt was missing. Thinking of the US government and military in terms of old forms of power leaves you scratching your head.

    • It’s both really.

      The corporations have the power yes, and by extension, their shareholders. But as well, the ones that got into the high offices did so because they survived the “vetting” process. They would only ever choose people who followed their bidding – and amongst their own, while giving the largely the illusion of real choice.

      In theory, a person once elected to high office could defy orders and perhaps do good. They’d forfeit everything else though after leaving office. Far more likely though they’d probably be set up. Many have speculated that former governor of New York Spitzer was “set up”.

    • I know that a lot of what I say sounds conspiratorial. But I stand by my opinion that no conspiracy is required. Humans are social animals, and that is equallly true for the ruling elite. People act within and according to social systems that are difficult to see outside of.

      I agree with what you described. As you say, those who make it into powerful positions theoretically could do lots of things. But what is telling is that most simply follow along with the herd. Social systems, once established, are hard to uproot or to escape.

      Even the elite are ruled by ideas they take for reality. Occasionally, someone wakes up from the dream. When that happens, the system purges them, one way or another.

      My interest is how do ideas take hold in forming reality tunnels. That is why the whole symbolic conflation issue is never far from my mind. I was just now thinking about it (specifically, considering how Lakoff’s framing doesn’t go far enough).

      This post is about how conditions have changed in the world. Old ideas can’t make sense of what is going on, because new ideas and hence new social realities have taken hold. Human understanding typically lags far behind such changes.

      It is like feudal peasants trying to make sense of why they were being kicked off the commons and why factories were being built where their villages once stood. Many of the feudal lords probably were equally as confused and disturbed by the emergence of industrialization, global capitalism, colonial imperialism, and the new powerful professional middle class.

      It seems to me that we are at a similar historical point of transition. It’s never clear what the new society will be like, until it fully emerges. We sense the changes and that is all we know. That is why telling us to be prepared is so pointless. Prepared for what exactly?

  2. Unfortunately, at least in the short to medium term, it would seem that things are going to get worse.

    The elite will not give up their power or their wealth without a fight. Plus their actions are likely to set other things in motion like serious global warming problems, more wars, and the declining living standards. The 19th century saw people in pretty appalling conditions as well.

    The US seems to be heading towards a Banana Republic right now, with the rich behind gated communities and the rest.

    This is literally the image of society:

    Complete with a surveillance state and wars, along with an ideology (free market capitalism vs Soviet style Communism).

    • I wouldn’t even try to argue against any of that. My point is that a lack of understanding will lead people to fight shadows, instead of what is casting the shadow. But maybe it doesn’t matter.

      During the end of feudalism heading into the early modern revolutionary era, most people didn’t know what they were fighting about either, often not even knowing what they were fighting for. The landless peasants didn’t have to understand the global forces at work to realize that they were poor and without work, homeless and starving. Ignorance or not, they rioted and revolted, sometimes put down and sometimes getting the upper hand, even if only for a brief moment.

      Meanwhile, the world went on changing. Wars were fought. Empires fell and new societies arose. Many died and many others got by somehow, until new conditions formed for new generations.

      As has happened before, things will likely get worse before they get better, assuming they do eventually get better.

  3. It’s looking like something like the old USSR is what I am trying to say, in the late 1980s.

    We are seeing:
    – Declining standards of living for all but those on top
    – Declining health of the average person
    – Increasing surveillance state
    – Use of war and military force to try to revive the economy, which is in deep decline
    – Use of police to try to quell discontent
    – The aggressive use of propaganda and “exceptionalism” ideology

    Granted, it’s not as bad as the USSR in terms of living standards or for that matter freedom of speech (at least the two of us are allowed for example to have this conversation, although judging by the Snowden leaks, it’s likely the NSA or someone is reading this as well).

    I doubt the top people even believe in capitalism – they just use it as a crutch, much like how the top Soviet leaders never really tried to build a socialist worker’s paradise. It was just an excuse.

    • It’s not as clear to me to how much conditions in the US are declining overall. It’s hard to add it all up and average it all out. Some things are getting better and other things worse.

      That is actually a main part of the problem. If things were clearly, obviously, and overwhelmingly getting horribly bad in a visceral way, then it would be guaranteed that the US social order and political power would collapse or fall apart or lose legitimacy, maybe a revolution even, violent or peaceful.

      Instead, what is happening is that the standard of living is being propped up for many people with the welfare state. There are millions of Americans who would be homeless or worse if not for some kind of benefits or assistance they receive from government, national and local. The US social safety net is inadequate, but it does keep a significant number of people out of the most desperate conditions, the kind of conditions that would incite them to riot and revolt.

      As for most of the rest, they are putting into prisons. These act as warehouses for surplus labor, often to be leased out on the cheap to private companies.

      I sometimes fantasize about the libertarian fantasy of shrinking the government. Sure, get rid of the big government spending on the welfare state and prison-industrial complex. I’d love to see what follows. Change would happen real quickly then.

      That is a vision that even most liberals fear, which is the real reason liberals rarely complain too loudly and protest too much about the injustices of prisons, poverty, and such. The average liberal is middle-to-upper class. Prisons and poverty aren’t personally real to them. They are mostly just things they see on tv that makes them feel bad.

      Of course, as you suspect, none of this likely has much to do with capitalism. The US has never lived up to its own rhetoric of capitalism. There is no evidence that the plutocrats have ever attempted to live up to such rhetoric.

      I don’t know if they believe in capitalism or not. Going to church on Sundays and praying every day has rarely made someone more likely to live according to Jesus’ teachings and example. Belief doesn’t have a straightforward relationship to behavior. People don’t always know what they believe, and they also are perfetly capable of holding conflicting beliefs simultaneously.

      On the other hand, there are what social scientists call the SDOs (Social Dominance Orientation types). They are the natural born leaders that authoritarian types are prone to follow. There are the sociopaths as well. The SDOs and sociopaths in power unlikely care much about capitalism, except as it (or its rhetoric) can be used to control the masses or otherwise be used to their advantage.

  4. It is called winning on social issues, while losing on economic ones:


    Basically society is:
    – Becoming more secular
    – Tolerant of different races is going up amongst the younger generation
    – Issues such as abortion are gaining more support
    – Technology is advancing (mind you this is helping the corporations and organizations like the NSA as well)

    At the same time:
    – Inequality is going up
    – Job stability is going down
    – More and more people are in danger of falling off the ladder, so to speak

    You are right that many liberals are middle class. But at the same time, it does a lot of good if their policies do get implemented.

    – For those who are not white, it makes a difference if racial tolerance improves
    – For those who are unfairly imprisoned, it makes a difference if say, the justice system is more fair versus the “tough on crime” right wing mentality
    – For everyone, it makes a difference if civil liberties are protected

    We are however, seeing even the middle and upper middle class in trouble. I think that is why groups like Occupy Wall Street have formed. It’s because the inequality and other problems have reached a point where even the privileged in society are affected.

    • Yeah, it’s not as if the social justice victories aren’t important. But it is far from obvious that the good outweighs the bad.

      Even the social justice victories are minor compared to the social justice failures. So, the gays are free to marry, while blacks continue to be targeted, prisons continue to get filled, people are tortured, and pointless wars kill hundreds of thousands of people.

      Also, the economic failures are ultimately social justice failures as well. The social problems related to poverty, inequality, homelessness, etc are immense.

      These are systemic problems. People accept minor changes, as long as it doesn’t upset the status quo. The empty rhetoric about free markets and the American Dream forever go unchallenged, both by the right and the left.

    • This is why I’ve increasingly become critical of liberals. All the problems in our society wouldn’t be possible without the complicity of people across the political spectrum and across nearly all the demographic divides, even class and race. No significantly large group is willing and able to offer a radical alternative that challenges the lies and disinfo, the spin and propaganda.

  5. That’s because the Democratic Party has moved further to the right. They’ve been caught by the corporate interests. So too have most Social Democratic Parties in Europe and the NDP in Canada.

    To be fair, most Progressives really want an economically equal society and to address the economic issues as well. They would like to see a society about as equal as Sweden in the 1970s before it’s turn to neoliberalism.

    I have wondered about this – no nation seems able to resist neoliberalism right now.

    • This informs my sense that some greater shift is going on in the world.

      The power of neoliberalism isn’t dependent upon old forms of local governance and power. It transcends any particular place or people. It is a force of globalization, beyond the reach of any democratic reform.

      We don’t have the language to name what kind of beast we are faced with. Even a word like ‘neoliberalism’ doesn’t really tell us anything about its true nature. I constantly get the sense that misdirection is going on. The forces that be don’t give a shit about the ideological rhetoric and social issues that preoccupy local politics.

      It’s frustrating, to say the least.

  6. It’s even worse in Australia.

    This is a taste of what is coming:


    The Rupert Murdoch media is very dominant there.

    It’s happening everywhere though – like this article in Sweden.

    There has been some social progress here and there:

    The recent riots in Sweden due to poverty should not have been as surprising as many make it sound.

    • Rupert Murdoch is a good example. He is an Australian of British ancestry. Australia was, like America, a British colony. The continuing post-colonial dominance of the English language is built on this colonial history. Murdoch was born into a news media family, born into money and privilege.

      Then he became a US citizen simply in order to legally be able to buy US media. With the media companies he holds around the world, he is able to shape public opinion and influence politics in multiple countries. It’s a position of power that is defined by no political boundaries and not limited to any single set of laws. He is part of the emerging global plutocracy.

      I’m not sure it should even be called neoliberlaism. I doubt plutocrats like that actually care whether markets are free. I suspect actual free markets is one of their greatest fears. They just want wealth and power, by any means necessary.

      If the US is so powerful, how did an Australian businessman or any number of other foreign plutocrats gain so much power over the US? Why does the GOP, a major American political party, dance to the tune of an Australian media mogul? Also, if Israel is truly a client state of the US, why do US politicians (even strong progressive voices) fear to challenge Israeli leaders who act like they are in the position to call the shots?

      Who really holds the greatest power? Who is pulling the strings behind the scenes? Who or what is able to cause countries around the world, including strong social democracies, to near simultaneously shift toward plutocracy and corporatocracy using neoliberal rhetoric? What is being represented by the new class of global ruling elite?

  7. Probably the super rich and those who control the corporations.

    Neoliberalism has been basically a cover for the super wealthy to screw the rest of society. That and the people in positions of power appointed by the super rich.

    • Probably so. This is what differentiates the present ruling elite from the aristocracy of the ancien regime. In the emerging globalized society, money is the ultimate symbol and expression of power. It is what makes the world go around.

      Most of this wealth is inherited wealth, as it was with aristocracy, but the justifications for it are different. The present plutocracy is a lot less constrained. They don’t have to worry about such things as noblesse oblige. It’s not their social position that justifies their wealth, but the other way around.

    • Many of the early American slaveholding plantation owners were aristocracy. They were essentially carrying on with a neo-feudalism. Their immediate ancestors were feudal lords and they were trying to adapt to an imperial age of colonial capitalism.

      The wealth of the aristocracy was never primarily money. In fact, many of those aristocrats were severely in debt. Their wealth was that of connections and cronyism, social position and prestige, influence and power. Also, it was built on the control of land and those who lived upon it.

      An aristocrat with no money was still part of the ruling elite, for his economic condition was just a temporary situation. There were always ways for new wealth to be had for those part of the Establishment. Real poverty for them was to lose favor and prestige, to lose opportunities and the goodwill of creditors. Their social position was everything.

      For today’s plutocrats, wealth is typically inherited, but social position isn’t inherited to the same degree or in the same way. Social position is merely an expression of wealth. A title of aristocracy couldn’t be bought, but enough money in present society can buy anything. If a modern plutocrat loses all wealth and means, they are in a precarious position.

      That said, I’m willing to bet that the present plutocracy will form into something similar to traditional aristocracy, assuming it continues to develop along its present course. At some point, generations of social position will become of greater significance than the wealth itself. That might already be true for some families at this point. The Bush family, for example, seems to have established itself as something akin to aristocracy. A number of the Bush clan lost tons of money in failed business ventures and it didn’t undermine their social position even slightly.

      Some people worry about a new age of Robber Barons. I’d say that is already a reality. The plutocrats we have now are far worse than what was seen during the Gilded Age. I worry more about a new aristocracy, a large step beyond mere Robber Barons. What if the economic hierarchy becomes so rigidly immobile that absolutely demarcated classes/castes form, with an entrenched ruling elite and a permanent underclass? Have we yet reached that point of no return?

      It could be far worse than anything ever seen before. During colonial times, the aristocracy would’ve liked to have enforced their power and position across the entire world, but they weren’t able. Aristocracies were limited by ethnicity and nationalism. That won’t be the case, if and when a new plutocracy arises that has full global reach and becomes entirely untouchable by those below. At that point, they wouldn’t even need to pretend to support democracy and free markets.

  8. I’ve linked this one before, but this should be required reading for everyone:


    The damage though that the plutocrats today can do is far greater than what happened in Ancient Times simply because technology is more robust than in the past. They are every bit as ruthless and don’t care about the well-being of society, much like the aristocrats of old.

    As far as the other problems, it’s matter of wealth being more and more concentrated.

    • I own all the books mentioned in that article. I do think there are real cultural differences.

      I don’t know how much these differences have survived among regional elites or as separate traditions. Bernie Sanders could be seen as an example of a Northern politician that takes seriously the Northern tradition of public good and political responsibility.

      If we take these differences as significant, then that leads to a question. What causes one tradition to dominate for so long and then lose influence?

  9. Population changes and perhaps inter-generational changes – especially with the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers.

    Another possibility was they were always like this and the New Deal was always meant to be a temporary concession of sorts.

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