Not much action on this blog lately! Truth of the matter is that I got very ill early in March and stayed that way for most of the month. Nasty flu. Then I confess that I’ve had outrage overload for a bit and find myself uninspired to write. So, what I’ve decided to do is leave current affairs alone for a while. I’ve got over 50 posts on current affairs and I want to give that interest of mine a break. [We’ll see how long that lasts!] Instead, in this blog, I want to address some issues around evolution, particularly the notion of evolution as it applies to social institutions. As Harold Innis (1894-1952), the economic historian and political economist who spent most of his career at the University of Toronto after getting a PhD from the University of Chicago, was quick to point out, following many others including Thorstein Veblen, that empires come and go. There is no example to the contrary. Every empire in the history of our species on this planet is either deceased or moribund. Go back as far as you like. Empires don’t last forever, So the question is not whether or not an empire – say, the U.S.-centered finance corporate empire – will survive, the question is how will it die? How did the Roman Empire wane and die, for instance? Or the British Empire? Are there patterns in these events or processes? Indeed there are. Imperial overreach is a concept used to try to explain why empires fail. There are different versions of it (http://www.mmisi.org/ma/32_03/lankevich.pdf) as these two reviews of Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 make clear. But for me, it’s fairly straightforward, say in the case of Rome. Here’s how it works.
An empire is born in the ruins of previous failed and exhausted quasi-states. Said empire begins to grow slowly by conquest. In that it faces sometimes strong external opposition but also domestic strain because the more military conquest is the favoured instrument of international relations, a ‘thinning’ of the young males in the population is inevitable. As well, there is the stress of volatile consumer markets caused by military conquest. But wait! The empire grows stronger. Conquest brings wealth and new recruits. Military success fuels more military activity and the armies get spread farther away from home. In order to maintain conquered lands, military leaders from the Empire’s armies become governors and bureaucrats of far-flung provinces. There aren’t enough Romans to keep this machine in play so one strategy is to free trusted slaves or not enslave some of the opponents of the Empire, the really nasty ones (warlords, really) in what we now know as France, Germany, and Britain, negotiating with them instead entry into the Empire’s sphere of trading activity while allowing them to maintain land holdings of their own. Once this practice becomes commonplace, there is an internal threat to the Empire and that is the erosion of slavery, the real economic base of the Roman Empire. Rome grew too widespread geographically to control all of its subject peoples from Rome. Communications strategies just can’t keep up with the logistical and military demands of maintaining an empire like Rome, keeping enemies at bay and conquering new territories. That’s imperial overreach. The American Empire won’t fail for the same reasons because essentially there is no ‘American’ Empire.
The prevailing empire in the world today is not based in any country or nation state and it’s not geopolitical. It’s financial. As Thorstein Veblen was keen to point out, states are creatures of higher order institutions like private property and class power. Capital rules. In our times (for the last 700 years or so) merchant capital slowly gained in power at the beginning of the feudal period and held on to power pretty well into the early 19th century in Europe. It was replaced as the dominant form of capital by industrial capital which itself slowly gave way to finance capital in the second half of the 20th century. This is an evolutionary process. Marx sees the driver of this as the process by which capital replaces labour in production. Of course this is too simple a presentation of a very complex process, but essentially, that’s it. Of course all capital is a product of human labour, but capital has had a smaller and waning use for labour in the productive process as automation, Fordism and technology become prevalent. The price of labour-power varies in different parts of the world and for different occupations, but there is a long-term tendency for the value of labour to fall everywhere.
My point is that countries are not in charge, nor are politicians. Capital is and has been for some time. For centuries it’s been in a struggle with labour, the only reason capital exists, to gain a larger part of the value produced by human labour. For centuries now, capitalists have tried and largely succeeded in reducing the value of labour with the help of the state. In the US now we have the spectacle of corporate business leaders and politicians openly sharing the same bed, seemingly without any guilt or shame whatsoever. And we have the pathetic spectacle of vast numbers of people completely ignorant of how they are being manipulated by the state and its communications corporations blithely going about their lives in the belief that the American (and in my case, Canadian) government acts on their behalf. Flags fly everywhere. Patriotism is a powerful force. However, it’s not powerful enough to counter the despair and angst that will drive many marginalized and disempowered people from turning on each other and others in a desperate search for meaning in their lives in the absence of a good, well-paying job and a sense of social security.
The end of the finance capitalist empire will come only when it has reached and dominated every nook and cranny on the planet and when it has exhausted itself in trying to eliminate labour. Finance capital is well on its way to dominating the entire planet. Countries are still based on land and borders and are thus restricted in their activities. Corporations have few restrictions now and want even fewer in the future. Countries and their citizens don’t stand a chance against finance capital because they operate within an old paradigm. That paradigm is based on the false assumption that countries have economies, trade with one another and are the basic global unit of analysis. Yes, countries can still go to war with one another, but the more finance capital and production infiltrate every corner of the planet it makes less and less sense to bomb the hell out of your own factories in the target countries because chances are that where you’ve located them to take advantage of low wage costs. Global war is a thing of the past as global production drives us and our labour-power into a global market. That doesn’t mean that threats of war and local military operations aren’t useful to reduce domestic dissent by targeting a foreign enemy. We’ve experienced over the last hundred years or so the consolidation of states into larger and larger units. The European Union is an example of this type of consolidation but so are the plethora of free trade agreements that are part of the geopolitical map these days. And why this expansion? To help in the free flow of capital and labour. Globalization is foremost a process of freeing up capital to move as it sees fit unencumbered by elected parliaments and other political institutions. It’s also about the control of labour by the free movement of production. If a ‘Canadian’ forestry company moves one of its sawmills to the Philippines to take advantage of cheap labour there, it’s effectively controlling labour in Canada.
After decades of study and observation of geopolitics and capitalist production I can’t help but conclude that the future will be fraught with uncertainty as governments give up power to finance capitalists and we are left with no democratic way of deciding anything about our lives. Politicians have sold us out for a pittance and now we’re increasingly at the mercy of the big banks and business corporations that are psychopathic by their very nature, unrestricted in their expressed need to pollute the planet at will, dominate our lives with pharmaceuticals aimed a lot less at making us healthy than to making corporate profits, and privatizing all public lands and services. Profits rule. Who gives a shit if they serve to help us or kills us.
Marx predicted that the end of the capitalist mode of production will come when labour has been largely replaced by capital in human production. Machines don’t buy commodities so by eliminating workers and replacing them with machines, the capitalist class is eliminating itself. What’s the fate of countries like the US and Canada? Well, before it gets better it will get much worse. There is bound to be class war in the US and all over the world, it’s just a matter of time. Throw enough people out of work and out of their homes, make cities impossible to live in and see what happens. We haven’t suffered enough yet to push us into precipitating a revolution, but we’re headed in that direction. What can stop the momentum?