The first moment where I started to wonder was in 6th or 7th grade social studies. We had a textbook about “geography” which included some geopolitics; a picture on one page of Uncle Sam sitting in a circle with characteristic (even stereotypical) kids of various ethnicities. It wasn’t quite as bad as that the kid from Africa had a bone through his nose – not quite. The caption read “Americans want to be friends with everyone.” And when the page was turned, the picture was of a Red Army soldier in WWII uniform, with a ppsh tommygun held at port arms, “The Soviets want to rule the world.”
For a while, I used to search on Ebay for that book, since I sometimes wonder if it was just my imagination. For a long time I couldn’t accept that my country – for I still believed at that time that it was my country – would lie to me so ineptly, and badly. It had been around that time that I hung out with Boris. Boris was the son of a visiting Russian (still Soviet) professor, and he was just like me. He wasn’t stronger or meaner or smarter or dumber – he was just a kid; we had to figure out a bit about how to communicate – mostly we were swinging on a rope hanging from a tree, so there wasn’t much need for language. But I never forgot that here was this Soviet kid just like me, no tommy gun, no jackboots, liked to play with swings, too. Another thing stuck in my mind: some of the other kids in school made fun of me for being a “Commie lover.” Little memories like that stay in our minds, like grains of sand in an oyster’s shell, irritating us and making us think around them to make them lose their sting.
Then there was the visit of one of my father’s colleagues from WissenschafteKolleg Zu Berlin, Axel Von Dem Bussche. I was a teen-ager when he came to Johns Hopkins for a while, and I learned a few things about him. One of the things I learned was that he was a Nazi, at one point. But then it got complicated; he wasn’t really a nazi, he was a German nationalist who wore the uniform – including an Iron Cross, Knight’s Cross, and more – but he was actually, literally, in the position of trying to assassinate Hitler with a suicide-bomb, but dumb luck interfered with his plans and Von Stauffenberg’s attempt changed the security around Hitler so that Axel’s personal plan became impractical. I remember talking with him – he was a huge man who walked with a limp and spoke with a parade-ground voice – still very much the Panzergrenadier – and he didn’t tell me those parts of the story. He laughed silently and gently when I said I was interested in psychology and philosophy, and said, “If you figure anything out, let me know.” He didn’t like to tell stories about the war, though he commanded a regiment at Kursk which was some fighting indeed. He said, “war destroys philosophy.” I remember him tipping his head and giving me a long, serious, look when he said that. I got some static for being a “Nazi lover.” But my brief encounter with that strange, thoughtful, man left me more nonplussed about politics and war than anything else, and tilted me toward doubting the utility of war.
Doubting the utility of war has a tremendous corrosive effect on nationalism, because it’s impossible not to think about it and not to realize that it’s what nations do. Especially if you’re an American. I didn’t know much about Vietnam as a kid, except that most of the university professors were against it, so I was, too. Then there was the day when I snuck to the corner of the bookstore, where the Hustler Magazines were, and (in search of porn!) opened the issue where Larry Flynt decided to break a taboo by printing pictures from Vietnam that had not gone through the censors for approval. That was when I discovered that I sometimes faint at the sight of blood.
I joined the army in 1983 because I wanted to convert an enlistment bonus into a motorcycle, and, as an enthusiastic martial artist, I wanted to see what it was like. Really. I was that stupid. Then, I got a better view of the inside of the beast and realized that the whole thing was stupid. And that was when I started studying it from the inside, looking out, and put everything on the table and questioned it. I rolled my beliefs back to that geography textbook with the Red Army soldier, and re-constructed them forward. The hardening I felt in my heart and mind was cynicism – a deep, abiding, awareness that they don’t just lie to you: they always lie to you. And I began to read military history differently. Instead of reading stories of military glory, I started reading about colonial wars and imperial wars, and the great endless slaughter and stupidity that the powerful conjure up to consolidate or maintain their power a little longer. I read Halberstam and Hackworth, Sledge and Leckie, and Kogon and Gottlob, too. It dawned on me that military glory was a lie, that Smedley Butler – America’s own little military monster – was such a straight-out bastard that he told the truth for all to see: War is a Racket.
Somewhere around the age of 20, I was a thoroughgoing nihilist; not the stereotypical “kill the world!” sort that is caricatured in comics and movies, but rather a person who had developed a corrosive skepticism about every moral argument, political justification, or political ideology that served anyone except for the masses. I tried to crack Marx but, try as I might, I couldn’t help but feel that it was also a load of bloviation; Marx was simply offering a different form of dominance, as an alternative to the ruling form of dominance. I tried Mill, but I felt that it was too much hand-waving (I still do!) – then I read Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism and it felt like some lights had come on: there were a lot of people who had concluded that nationalism and government were lies. I realized I was backing myself into a corner, mentally – I was perhaps coming to understand why that gentle German professor who once wore the Iron Cross had said, “If you figure anything out, let me know.”
Military history (and UNIX kernel source code) remained my mainstay reading until I was browsing dad’s shelves and pulled down David S. Landes’ The Unbound Prometheus. When he saw me reading it a few days later, he cocked an eyebrow and said merely, “that is a great book.” What Landes teaches us, or what I learned from Landes, anyway, is that inequality in industrial output is just as much of a cause of wars as jingoistic nationalism. It was inevitable that once German industrial capacity rocketed off the chart, leaving everyone in the dust, it would occur to Germany’s rulers to use it for the purpose of aggrandizing the worthless remaining years of their lives – no matter the expense to everyone else. I studied World War I with new eyes, seeing it as a gigantic squabble between a bunch of dysfunctional elite twits (who were mostly cousins) – who killed millions, horribly, because of unequal industrial output, technological disparity, and sheer stubbornness.
I believe it’s impossible to really look at World War I and World War II and remain a nationalist, afterward. What we see, over and over, is that the power elites of all the nations involved, were not operating out of any kind of moral principles – they were barely doing things that made sense at all from their own national perspective – it is impossible to believe in the international system or the idea that the leaders of a country have anyone’s interest in mind but their own. All you have to do is watch Hitler making deals and betraying everyone, for what end? It ought to have been obvious that global conquest was not possible. It ought to have been obvious that the only result that could come from World War I and World War II was the United States Empire.
Again, my perspective began to shift; I started to look at the evolution of the US – not as a “democracy”, but as a new form of empire that the planet had never seen before. My little encounters with Marx and Mill and Landes made me see empire as an economic problem, not a military one. Somewhere around then, I whipped through Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and was rattled enough that I asked dad, “do historians have a consensus on Zinn?” Usually, when I ask my father questions about history, I do not feel the need to be oblique – I just reach out and turn on the knowledge-valve. This time, I signaled clearly that I only wanted a trickle. So he said, “Zinn is problematic but very important.” In other words, “If a trickle is what you want, a thimble-full is what you get.” I began bouncing all over the place, desperately: Thucydides, Gibbon, Tom Holland, Churchill, RAND Corporation studies on nuclear deterrence… I had always been interested in nuclear weapons as the marvels of engineering that they are, but I had never thought of them in the context of imperialism. I felt foolish, over and over, as what I saw were great chunks of puzzle falling together. And the puzzle said that politicians are shit, and civilization has been suborned by the rich and powerful to create a worldly playground for their endless stupidity. Civilization is, in fact, a creation of the rich and powerful; maintaining their place atop of the heap is the greatest ponzi scheme, ever.
That’s where I am, now. And, unfortunately, I don’t see disconfirmation at all. I constantly check myself for confirmation bias but under the shit, all I see is more shit. Let me wrap up with a sketched outline of the big puzzle-pieces I am currently jiggling around. There are two areas of the puzzle that interest me. First is the idea that the US is a new type of empire; it’s Imperial Capitalism. Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were examples of Water Empires states in which the control of water flows equated to the flow of agriculture, which in turn equated to control over people. Like all forms of imperialism, it was simply that: a way of achieving vast leverage against a disproportionate number of people. The water empires fell (because, they were static and based on infrastructure) to the Smash-and-Grab Empires: Rome, the Mongols of Genghis Khan, empires that exploited disproportionate local military power to play a gigantic game of Whack-a-Mole with the map, running around crushing whatever power stood against them, successively, and grabbing their gold. Then there were the Mercantile Empires like France and England, which were the smash-and-grab with an attempt to build colonial assets into the imperial economy. The mercantile empires, naturally, relied on military force as much as they did negotiation – so the British managed to cobble together a vast empire that kind of worked, until they discovered that you cannot industrialize a vast empire fast enough to compete with a superior industrial power, and Europe punched itself in the face over and over again. The US is an evil new thing in the world – it’s a capitalist empire that uses smash-and-grab to kick open the doors to new markets; to force places around the world to build Starbucks’ franchises at bayonet-point, and the cash, the reason for it all, flows back to the greatest collection of consumers in the history of the Earth. American Imperial Capitalism will blow the crap out of a country to get good deals on natural resources, then sell them the tools they need to repair the damage, and it doesn’t care as long as its ruling elite can siphon their ‘vig’ off the top. Sometime around the reign of Theodore Roosevelt, the US’ leaders realized that it is not necessary to control a resource or a place; it is only necessary to have the means to bring it under control as necessary. In other words, there is no need for Hitlerian conquest and annexation; we simply get other nations to acknowledge that conquest is possible and therefore not necessary. That is what the nukes are for; they are the ultimate “poison pill” – if we kick over the table and storm out of the game, nobody else will ever get to play it, ever.
The second big puzzle-chunk I am trying to place is that apparently the capitalists that rule the US have always known this. I’m not ready to hoist the “conspiracy” banner, but it’s suspicious as hell that the oligarchs who founded the US [stderr] did it to protect their corrupt trade in human flesh. And, they constructed the new nation to preserve their personal power using that same trade as financial and political leverage [stderr] – as the US entered its industrial revolution, it rapidly outstripped Germany and England (by ruthlessly ripping off their technology) and proceeded to re-arrange its entire economy in order to prevent labor from ever having a say in what happens, again by dividing and conquering its own people along racial and class lines. The history of the depression, bonus army, Wall St Bombing, Battle of Homestead – those go back to the beginning, when Alexander Hamilton put the screws to the little guy in order to strengthen the government and larger businesses’ interests. That triggered the Whiskey Rebellion, which brought the United States its permanent, standing, domestic counter-insurgency capability.
It was one of the commentariat here who recommended The Whiskey Rebellion, and that was a great recommendation; it’s a border-piece, that delineates one of the early indicators of how Imperial Capitalism evolved. The oligarchs ruling the horrible new pimple adorning the face of the planet Earth, had realized that it’s not necessary to tightly control everything – it’s just necessary to be able to control things when necessary. And the easiest way to do that is to give the people you wish to control just enough to keep them happy – and don’t let them see how high on the hog the elites are living.
This year I am 54, and I hate America. I have come to loathe the United States and what it stands for, especially because I see that it has metastasized like a cancer into the world’s political economy. Imperial Capitalism has positioned itself so it cannot be rooted out without killing its host. It cannot even be slowed down without killing its host.
This chart tells me that the US is using almost as much energy as China, which has 1/4 of the world’s population. Another way of putting that is that the US is dominating global resource use even though it’s relatively small – i.e.: Imperial Capitalism has been working just great. Of course, it’s never early (or late) innings; nothing short of a nuclear war or massive ecological disaster is going to upset the game. The US is going to keep its boot on the world’s neck for a very long time – probably until it falls apart from its own internal stresses brought on by its own corruption and inequality.
Axel Von Dem Bussche [wikipedia]