America’s empire is bankrupt
The dollar is finally being dethroned
Let’s start with the basics. Roughly 5% of the human race currently live in the United States of America. That very small fraction of humanity, until quite recently, enjoyed about a third of the world’s energy resources and manufactured products and about a quarter of its raw materials. This didn’t happen because nobody else wanted these things, or because the US manufactured and sold something so enticing that the rest of the world eagerly handed over its wealth in exchange. It happened because, as the dominant nation, the US imposed unbalanced patterns of exchange on the rest of the world, and these funnelled a disproportionate share of the planet’s wealth to itself.
There’s nothing new about this sort of arrangement. In its day, the British Empire controlled an even larger share of the planet’s wealth, and the Spanish Empire played a comparable role further back. Before then, there were other empires, though limits to transport technologies meant that their reach wasn’t as large. Nor, by the way, was any of this an invention of people with light-coloured skin. Mighty empires flourished in Asia and Africa when the peoples of Europe lived in thatched-roofed mud huts. Empires rise whenever a nation becomes powerful enough to dominate other nations and drain them of wealth. They’ve thrived as far back as records go and they’ll doubtless thrive for as long as human civilisations exist.
America’s empire came into being in the wake of the collapse of the British Empire, during the fratricidal European wars of the early 20th century. Throughout those bitter years, the role of global hegemon was up for grabs, and by 1930 or so it was pretty clear that Germany, the Soviet Union or the US would end up taking the prize. In the usual way, two contenders joined forces to squeeze out the third, and then the victors went at each other, carving out competing spheres of influence until one collapsed. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the US emerged as the last empire standing.
Francis Fukuyama insisted in a 1989 essay that having won the top slot, the US was destined to stay there forever. He was, of course, wrong, but then he was a Hegelian and couldn’t help it. (If a follower of Hegel tells you the sky is blue, go look.) The ascendancy of one empire guarantees that other aspirants for the same status will begin sharpening their knives. They’ll get to use them, too, because empires invariably wreck themselves: over time, the economic and social consequences of empire destroy the conditions that make empire possible. That can happen quickly or slowly, depending on the mechanism that each empire uses to extract wealth from its subject nations.
The mechanism the US used for this latter purpose was ingenious but even more short-term than most. In simple terms, the US imposed a series of arrangements on most other nations that guaranteed the lion’s share of international trade would use US dollars as the medium of exchange, and saw to it that an ever-expanding share of world economic activity required international trade. (That’s what all that gabble about “globalisation” meant in practice.) This allowed the US government to manufacture dollars out of thin air by way of gargantuan budget deficits, so that US interests could use those dollars to buy up vast amounts of the world’s wealth. Since the excess dollars got scooped up by overseas central banks and business firms, which needed them for their own foreign trade, inflation stayed under control while the wealthy classes in the US profited mightily.
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