Is that the scent of smoke? What’s that red glare? Must be nothing.
Why are the wheels coming off the American Project? Afghanistan is front and center in the news flow for obvious reasons, but since I have no expertise on that nation or America’s role there, I am stipulating these are general comments from a systemic perspective.
By the American Project I mean 1) global hegemony in both hard and soft power and 2) American Exceptionalism, the belief that America is not just uniquely strong but uniquely right in terms of holding the high moral ground.
1. If you don’t understand the problem, you can’t possibly arrive at a solution. It’s long been painfully obvious that U.S. presidents would be best served by their closest advisors being anthropologists with long in-country experience in whatever nation the U.S. is engaging.
Any anthropologist with experience in Vietnam would have dismissed the idea of an American “victory” by any means as a possibility. The same can be said of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, American presidents don’t listen to anthropologists, they listen to advisors with no real understanding of the nation and people the U.S. is engaging. Lacking a grasp of the situation, every characterization of the “problem” will necessarily be completely misguided and the proposed “solutions” cannot but fail miserably.
Rather than seek a deep understanding the nation and its people, U.S. presidents and their advisors see everything through the distorting lens of great-power rivalries, geopolitical juggling, American prestige and power and a profoundly parochial, provincial view of other cultures and societies. The resulting ignorance of U.S. policy is stupefying.
Willful ignorance and blind ambition are fatal siblings.
2. Since the U.S. can conjure trillions of dollars out of thin air at will, money is squandered freely without any accountability or care. From a systemic perspective, the primary role of the Federal Reserve is to conjure as many trillions of dollars as needed to supply the American Project with money to squander–as long as a healthy slice of the squandered trillions butters the bread of private interests in the U.S.
3. There was a weary-sounding saying in the Vietnam years: “It’s the only war we got.” Indeed. Historians of Imperial Projects may well note approvingly that America is a war-like nation. This is not uncommon in history, rather it is the rule. Being war-like is unexceptional.
America’s Founding Fathers were extremely wary of foreign entanglements and wars because America was extremely weak in its initial decades, lacking a Navy for defense and power projection. Nonetheless, war was viewed as unavoidable within a decade following the final ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the Barbary War in 1801) and a full-blown war with Great Britain followed 11 years later (1812). Two wars in 21 years more or less set the pattern.
As many have noted, war is an extremely profitable business if one manages to keep the conflict out of the home country. War profiteering has as long a history as war itself, and it took extraordinary efforts to put any sort of limits on war profiteering in the “good war,” World War II.
If a nation becomes politically and economically dependent on a vast, politically powerful and politically sacrosanct industry, then that industry will continue to do what it does, regardless of conditions. If that industry is construction, then when useful construction projects dwindle, the industry will soak up billions building bridges to nowhere, fully supported by the political and financial classes.
If the industry is warfighting, then wars will manifest, with “victory” being the stated goal but utilization and expansion of assets being the actual purpose. Wars that cannot possibly be “won” in any conventional sense are the ideal means to maximize profits and the utilization of assets.
It’s nothing personal, it’s just the way things work: “It’s the only war we got.” Provide a better war and the make-work one drops away.
The war-fighting cartel is not unique. America is little more than a putrid porridge of politically powerful and politically sacrosanct cartels: Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Banks, Higher Education, Sickcare, Bread and Circuses and so on. The only constants are infinite greed and near-infinite corruption and incompetence.
4. Sunk costs. When the costs of some misadventure / poorly executed investment reaches a threshold, stakeholders can’t stomach the loss to their pride and prestige, never mind the financial losses. And so they continue doing more of what’s failed spectacularly.
The sunk costs of America’s misadventures are piled to the rafters but losses aren’t allowed, so prevailing policy is to pile the losses and risks ever higher, hoping nobody will connect the dots when the whole rotten construct collapses in a heap of magical thinking and corruption.
5. The hubris of endlessly printed trillions. Since the Federal Reserve has gotten away with printing trillions out of thin air to buy the U.S. Treasury bonds that have conjured trillions out of thin air for the government to squander, American Exceptionalism now includes the eventually-fatal hubris that we can always buy our way out of trouble by conjuring another trillion or three out of thin air.
Since there’s no limit on how many trillions we can conjure out of thin air, there’s no limits on how many trillions we can squander and therefore there are no limits on American Exceptionalism or the American Project.
Since everything is for sale, and we can conjure endless trillions, then we can buy whatever is needed to keep the wagon rolling forever.
Until the wheels fall off, of course. And when that happens, then we can always deploy the last refuge of failing enterprises:
6. Managing narratives has replaced actually solving pressing problems. It’s now impossible in America to actually address pressing problems without stepping on the toes of one politically powerful and politically sacrosanct cartel or another, and so problems fester and multiply to the point they cannot be solved within the status quo, regardless of how many trillions are conjured and squandered.
To mask the coming collapse, narratives must be tightly controlled. Since collapse can’t be forestalled without making powerful enemies, the only politically expedient option left is to eliminate any dissent that questions the officially sanctioned happy-stories.
When a society and a state give up the search for solutions because real solutions will negatively impact politically powerful cartels, collapse is only one step away. It’s all fun and games in the unwinnable wars and simulacra reforms stage, but managing narratives isn’t the same as managing the real world, and the real world eventually crushes the happy-story narratives and those who actually believed them.
Is that the scent of smoke? What’s that red glare? Must be nothing. The wheels are coming off, but never mind, here’s a happy story to tide you over until the banquet of consequences is served.