The world as we know it is a world that never was

07 December 2016

Craig Berry  - Deputy Director at SPERI

Donald Trump’s election reminds us that world order is based on American imperial power, not liberal ideals – the American empire’s unravelling will now be accelerated

There has been much anxiety expressed in recent days on what the election of Donald Trump in the United States, on the back of the Brexit vote in Britain, says about ‘us’ (whether the referent ‘us’ is the Anglosphere, the West, or the human race in general). The general consensus seems to be that the world as we know it – the liberal world order, with NATO, the European Union and free(ish) trade at its institutional heart, and democracy, individual rights and tolerance as its foundational political values – is over.

To take just one example – singled out precisely because of how reliably sharp an observer of the United States he usually is – The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has written prolifically and apocalyptically in the last few weeks on Trump, prophesising ‘a new age of darkness’.  Even the neurotically neutral BBC has asked whether Trump’s win marks ‘the end of liberal democracy’.

It should lead us to wonder whether our world would have been much different today had Donald Trump earned only 269 votes in the electoral college. In truth, this world as we know it never really was.  To understand our world as a physical manifestation (or even approximation) of liberal ideals is to ignore the reality that it is essentially an imperial order,  centred on American economic and military power, which is itself an echo of Britain’s empire.

America’s empire has been more completely realised than its British ancestor – using ‘soft power’ much more effectively to exercise a degree of influence in every corner of the world – but may ultimately prove to have been more short-lived.

Empires are by nature oppressive. But to redefine the liberal world order as an imperial order is not to denounce every feature of American leadership.  Rather, the point is to recognise the role of the unequal distribution of power internationally in the constitution of world order, and indeed the exercise of hegemonic power both through and beyond the formal system of sovereign nation-states.  Conflict is presented by imperial leaders as an aberration, but instead is endemic, a necessary companion to the stability that characterises an empire’s core territories.

All empires are characterised by a civilisational paradigm. For the Anglo-American imperial orders, liberalism – in its many guises – has served this purpose.  The liberal paradigm often constrained Anglo-American imperial practice, even as it has legitimised it, and offered opportunities for self-realisation and enrichment for many individuals across the world, including those belonging to previously oppressed groups (so long as they refrain from directly challenging the imperial order).

Liberalism has also sustained capitalism – a crude but indispensable term for describing the patchwork of economic practices that ultimately underpin American power – by offering both moral and pseudo-scientific legitimacy to capitalism’s key organising principles.

And it is at this point important to make my argument abundantly clear. While liberalism has delivered many benefits, it has always been secondary to the maintenance of imperial order, and as such co-existed globally (and, to a lesser extent, domestically within Western countries) with multiple forms of deprivation and inequality.  ‘The world as we know it’ is a patronising trope to those for whom 2017, whatever it brings, will not seem all that different to 2016.

The liberal paradigm did not instantaneously disappear on 23rd June or 8th November.  It has in fact been under attack from a pathology of its own making for several decades.  The emergence of neoliberalism in economic thinking in the 1970s – immediately following the strengthening of liberalism in cultural terms in the 1960s – is the key historical milestone we need to understand if we are to appreciate the historical significance of the present moment.

Neoliberalism can be defined as the valorisation of private enterprise, and indeed of the state’s (illiberal) role in enforcing related values in economic organisation.  On the one hand, the emergence of neoliberalism represented the moment at which imperial elites abandoned the belief that their power had to be cloaked in a more inclusive liberal perspective.

On the other hand, however, it also represented an unmistakeable signal of imperial decline. Capitalism was faltering as a source of meaningful prosperity, and the dissemination of neoliberal ideas served to discipline unruly subjects that were inconveniently becoming accustomed to perennial increases in living standards.

The neoliberal era has further eroded capitalism’s productive capacity, and will prove to be the zenith of the American imperial order. One of the paradoxical hallmarks of decline is that the imperial elite rarely see the end coming.  Witness Barack Obama’s surprisingly warm White House welcome to President-Elect Trump, in which he told his successor that ‘we now are going to do everything we can to help you succeed, because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.’

Obama has not been converted to Trumpism. Instead, he typifies the hubristic aloofness of empire, convinced that the normal order will resume once the Trump experiment fails.  Better to indulge Trump now than denigrate the presidential office, which so vividly personifies American imperialism.

Tellingly, Obama has subsequently asserted that Trump will not abandon the NATO alliance, despite Trump’s own contrary suggestions.  Obama’s remarks echo those of Henry Kissinger, who has argued that high office will moderate Trump because ‘he cannot reinvent history’ – Kissinger’s history is of course itself an invented one, defining American leadership as the protagonist in a heroic defence of civilisation.

Trump will indeed fail, on most conventional measures, and even on his own terms. I would be astonished if he were elected for a second term in four years.  But Trump’s future failure will not herald a revival for the present order.  His is a movement of the interregnum between orders.  He has no coherent vision for making America great economically or militarily, or understanding of what made it great in the first place.

But Trumpism is essentially only possible because the American-led world order has so completely run out of ideas for its own renewal. Trumpism is simultaneously both an amplification of neoliberal rationality, and a post-rational response to its failure.  For Trump, America will only be great again once all of its citizens are working in service of national prosperity, but this is only possible if American jobs are protected from the market-based competition the United States invariably insists on implementing elsewhere.

The Keynesian economist and historian Robert Skidelsky has offered a bizarrely sympathetic hearing to Trumpian economics, arguing that Trump apes much of conventional Keynesian thought on deficit financing, and could therefore be ‘a solution to the crisis of neoliberalism’.  Yet even if Trump were to successfully implement a textbook account of Keynesianism in domestic macroeconomic policy, much of the rest of the Trump platform – such as his approach to immigration, climate change, the United States-China relationship and the dollar-based international monetary system – would, frankly, be suicidal for the American economy.

In reality, Trump is a product of the worst of American capitalism, and Trumpism a product of its inability to mitigate its most destructive tendencies.

Like Brexit, Trumpism is an attempt to maintain and deepen a domestic distribution of wealth and power in the face of mounting existential challenges.  An empire’s last stand, always, is to turn against the inhabitants of its own motherland, fostering domestic divisions as a final, desperate act of misdirection.

The end of American empire does not mean the end of globalisation – quite the opposite. Trump’s rhetoric on trade is pure froth; we only need to look at the business model of American firms such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber to understand that big capital today is not constrained by anything as archaic as a trade deal, or the absence of one.

The technologies underpinning these business models represent in fact one of the key elements of the United States’ imperial unravelling, as capital has become less dependent on the state’s support in developing (global) rent-seeking opportunities (despite, as Marianna Mazzucato explains, relying on the American state for R&D investment).  Paul Mason’s ‘postcapitalism’ thesis sees the liberatory potential in such a development, but the painful reality is that, in time, some nation, or group of nations, is going to find a way to tax the rents associated with these technologies, and indeed probably weaponise the technology too, ushering in a new imperial order.

It will probably not be the United States, the (outgoing) elite of which remains in thrall to the delusional and really quite small-fry philanthro-capitalism of Mark Zuckerberg et al.  The only serious contender is China, as its domestic tech firms begin to outstrip the American first-movers, and its economy adapts much more successfully to climate change.

It is precisely by seeking an accommodation with China that the American empire could yet be saved from itself – arguably the Obama administration has moved tentatively in this direction. Alas, Trump prefers to revive the notion of China as a new ‘yellow peril’, even accusing it of fabricating evidence of climate change.

The Chinese regime of course has many socio-economic contradictions to overcome before it is in a position to assume a hegemonic status in world affairs.  The intensification of internal strife over democratisation will also hamper the emergence of a Chinese-led world order (it is possible therefore that liberalism may yet have the last laugh).

My thesis, in brutally short terms, is that the American empire has outlived its economic usefulness. Crucially, however, this was true before Trump. The empire will of course survive for now, beyond Trump, but we can expect its decline to continue inexorably in coming decades.

The world will become more illiberal as a result, but we must not overlook the extent to which liberalism had only become selectively embedded in world order to begin with due to its hitherto compatibility with American imperialism. Trump’s election may in future be seen as a decisive break with liberalism, but the earlier turn to neoliberalism had already signalled that liberalism and American imperialism had become increasingly incompatible.

Trump’s election is useful analytically insofar as it reminds us of the value of studying world order through the lens of imperialism. From this vantage, it is possible to conclude that as hideous as the Trump administration may prove to be, in global terms Trump’s seemingly dysfunctional order will not feel substantively different from the world most people experience today.

Related posts

The American kids are alright

Rick Rowden - 23 February 2017

The significant public and political protests during the first month of the Trump presidency represent the backlash to the backlash

Read more

Rising powers to the rescue? The future of the liberal economic international order

Richard Woodward - 07 February 2017

Those touting China and other rising powers as saviours of the liberal economic international order are likely to be disappointed

Read more