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A multilateral challenge to US global leadership
Globally, a gathering Primal Horde is manoeuvring to slay their hegemonic Primal Father, the United States of America. This constellation of erosional forces include: President Xi’s recent summit in Saudi Arabia (KSA) with Arab leaders; the increasing number of nations seeking to join BRICS+; and the failure of Western sanctions to erode Russia’s ability to continue a long, grinding, war of attrition in Ukraine. Under the multipolar horde’s entropic stress, America’s unipolar world order is coming apart. Like a monotheistic God being undermined by a bewildering multiplicity of swirling pagan deities, a new global polytheism is awakening.
According to Gramsci, crisis occurs when, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” As US power recedes, the globe bifurcates into two blocs: the Western “Rules-based Order” group of wealthy nations. Challenging this regime of global power is the “Rest-of-the-World” bloc of producing nations. Neither side will be able to impose its will upon the other in the short-term, but Saudi Arabia does have a knack for picking long-term winners. In 1945 Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud met President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the USS Quincy, in the Suez Canal and pledged cheap oil in return for security guarantees. This agreement ended the Saudi’s previously close relationship with Britain, signalling the UK’s decline as global leader. The deal underlined the rise of capitalism’s new hegemon America, where bustling factories forged global power.
In 1974, KSA made a deal with the Nixon Administration to sell oil in dollars, creating the “petrodollar” concept. KSA agreed to plough its trade surpluses back into US Treasury Bills, thus supporting American deficit spending. By increasing the strength of the dollar, this deal began the process of American deindustrialization which is only now reaching its nadir. This deal marked the conclusion of the US productive phase of capitalist accumulation and ushered in the current financialization phase. From this point forward, instead of reinvesting accumulating capital domestically, on balance, the US began exporting it. Pricing oil in dollars forced most nations to hold large reserves of dollars. Since the financial crisis of 2009, the BRICS have been calling for a change to the dollar system. Pressure for currency regime change has intensified with the recent US/EU confiscation of Russian foreign reserves after their invasion of Ukraine. This easy usurpation of Russian sovereign wealth sent alarm bells ringing throughout the Rest-of-the-World.
At the recent Gulf summit with Arab leaders in Riyadh, President Xi called for oil trade in yuan. KSA will indeed sell increasing amounts of oil priced in yuan to China but there will be no “petro-yuan” due to this tendency towards deindustrialization that the global reserve currency carries. Instead, over the coming decade, BRICS+ will develop a commodity-based exchange currency to be used for international trade. Once introduced, this BRICS+ exchange currency will no doubt be boycotted by the West. The producing nations will eventually force the West to use it, if these finance-based societies wish to eat, heat, or fill their shops with commodities originating in the Rest-of-the-World.
Recently both the US and Europe have announced ammunition shortages and will be unable to deliver artillery shells and other weapons in the volumes required by the Ukrainian armed forces. The recent announcements of an insignificant numbers of modern battle tanks for Ukraine only reinforces this problem of industrial weakness. Meanwhile Russia’s domestic military industrial complex is keeping up with the demands of the Russian Armed forces, with help from Iran, North Korea, and perhaps China. Brimming with the lethal fruits of their arms industries, there are increasing signs that Russia will soon launch a massive offensive in Ukraine.
The Great Bifurcation is pitting the Food, Fuel and Factories of the BRICS+ against the Finance of the West. Although Ukraine has up to this point over-performed on the battlefield, Western weapons stocks, often built up by the West back when they were still able to easily produce goods, are nearly depleted. This war resembles the US Civil War, where the far superior forces of the North struggled and against the highly motivated and well-led armies of the South. But after a period of “fighting with one hand behind its back” the North eventually unleashed its fury and the South crumbled under this onslaught. Due to Angela Merkel’s recent admission that the Minsk II peace deal was only intended to buy time to arm Ukraine, the only way this current war can end is through the complete annihilation of the Ukrainian war-making machine.
While difficult on the tactical level, the war has been a smashing international success for Russia on the geopolitical level. During the height of sole US global power in 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his classic work, The Grand Chessboard, gave guidance to future American leaders on maintaining world dominance. One overriding strategic goal was to never let Eurasia unite--particularly Germany and Russia--as that would force America out of Eurasia, turning the US into a regional power. Back in the Glory Days of US hyperpower status, Brzezinski was confident the US could maintain her status, but there was one potential alliance that worried Brzezinski:
Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an "antihegemonic" coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances. It would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower. Averting this contingency, however remote it may be, will require a display of U.S. geostrategic skill on the western, eastern, and southern perimeters of Eurasia simultaneously. (Zbigniew Brzezinski The Grand Chessboard, p. 55)
Brzezinski never imagined that Saudi Arabia and even Turkey would join such an alliance, albeit couched in layers of ambiguity. The US has for decades stoked tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Following the summit in Riyadh, China sent their Deputy Prime Minister to Iran for discussions. China has also called for a resolution to the Palestinian occupation based on 1967 borders and an eventually fully sovereign Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. For this gathering Primal Horde to gain structure and coherence, both Russia and China will work with Iran and Saudi Arabia to reduce tensions between them and to liberalize their dogmatically religious domestic realms.
Marshalling the Morgenthau Plan
Global hegemony not only means being the military, moral, and economic leader--it also requires the continuous liquidation of rising antagonistic groups challenging the global leader. In order to get allied nations to accept the hegemon’s own particular interests as their general interest, all allied boats must rise under the hegemon’s regime. After the destruction of WW2 and their exposure to the Soviet threat, it was understandable that Europe was occupied by and dependent on the US during the Cold War. The Marshall Plan is universally seen as a win-win policy decision. However, this Euro-dependence has only continued, both as WW2 fades into the past and as Europe centralizes under the EU. But up until the present, Europe has been prosperous. A sign that the US’s hegemonic reign is coming to an end, in other words that the US’ own interests no longer serve as the general interest, is the terrible price Europe will be paying for meekly obeying the American political line against Russian and China. Cheap Russian pipeline gas will be replaced by expensive US LNG at six times the price. “Good-cop” Biden is telling the Europeans that this is a small price to pay to keep “bad-cop” Trump out of power. One day the Europeans will wake up and realize all “cops” have the same interest, and it is not theirs.
European prosperity has been based on cheap energy from Russia, cheap factory goods from China, cheap defence provided by the US/NATO and cheap credit from the ECB. Europe has lost, or is in the process of losing, all four of their critical flows. If this loss of competitivity is not attenuated by drastic salary cuts, a generalized deindustrialization of Europe will follow. Some of this industry will migrate to red-state USA, where cheap labour, cheap energy, cheap taxes, and non-existent environmental laws will act as a magnet for European companies unable to profitably produce at home any longer. Once industry begins fleeing expensive Europe, domestic consumption will plummet, the Euro will weaken, all creating a viscous cycle of lowering living standards.
For the US, both choices--either maintaining sole hegemonic power or slipping into regional power status within a multipolar world—have upsides. The US is blessed with plenty of natural resources, and if necessary, could temper financialization and resume producing fuel, factories, and food in a multipolar world. Europe on the other hand has little fuel, is losing its factories, and appropriating farmland for real estate development in the name of climate change.
During WW2, in response to the German Question--of how to stop Germany ever again threatening global peace--the US developed the Morgenthau Plan, which designed to deindustrialize Germany and turn it into a giant potato patch. After a victorious ending to WW2, wiser council prevailed, and the Marshall Plan blossomed both European prosperity and the idea that US interests were well aligned with the general interest. In 2022, an updated version of the Morgenthau Plan is de facto US policy and tensions are rising between France, Germany, and the US. The trap they have fallen into is finally dawning on European leaders. In response, the US is courting Poland and the Baltic nations to act as a barricade to any future Old Europe and Russia dalliances.
A review of the history of capitalism helps place this global bifurcation within an historical context. Knowledge of past cycles grounds speculation on future trajectories of the capitalist world-system. Seeing the Republic of Venice and the bankers of Genoa as an initial form of primitive capitalist society, economic historians Fernand Braudel, and his acolyte, Giovanni Arrighi describe a progression of three fully developed capitalist hegemonies and their capital cities: United Provinces / Amsterdam, United Kingdom / London, and the United States / New York. Arrighi, in his Adam Smith in Beijing, announces Communist China as the rising fourth global capitalist hegemon.
Each of the capitalist hegemonies go through two stages of capitalist accumulation. First occurs a productive stage, where profits are large and during these good times business and state see eye-to-eye: they are partners in very lucrative crime. But at some point, as local salaries rise, inevitably the rate of profit starts to drop, and business gets wandering eyes. Capital is mobile while territory is fixed. A period of financialization follows, where production is offshored, and instead of factories creating wealth, money alone begets more money through investments. The iron law of capitalist hegemonies is that cosmopolitan capital will flee the constrictions of their territorial containers and, in the process, end up financing the rise of the next epicentre of capitalist power. In Capital, Karl Marx described this process as it stood in the 1860’s:
Thus the villainies of the Venetian system of robbery formed one of the secret foundations of Holland's wealth in capital, for Venice in her years of decadence lent large sums of money to Holland. There is a similar relationship between Holland and England. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Holland's manufactures had been far outstripped. It had ceased to be the nation preponderant in commerce and industry. One of its main lines of business, therefore, from 1701 to 1776, was the lending out of enormous amounts of capital, especially to its great rival England. The same thing is going on today between England and the United States. A great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without any birth-certificate, was yesterday, in England, the capitalized blood of children. (Karl Marx, Capital, p. 72)
Looking back from today, we can easily see that the US started taking over stewardship of the capitalist world-machine at some point in the early 20th century. A period of extreme turbulence ensued, as global relations adjusted to the new power reality. After two world wars separated by a global depression, the US and her dependents enjoyed 30 years of capitalist prosperity and splendour. This prosperity was amplified by the Cold War and the West’s need for conspicuous displays of a high standard of living. The zenith of this prosperity was reached around 1968, when corporate industrial profits peaked. A decline ensued and progressively production was replaced by a decadent period of financialization--a period of which we are in the final palliative stages. During this financialization cycle, mobile capital fled the US and set up shop in China. Today we are in a strange epoch where a global division of labour is still prevalent. Impoverished and obedient workers in China produce commodities for obese and self-obsessed American consumers. At first Wall Street tapped into these huge arteries of cash flow. But increasingly China through its Belt and Road initiative wants to dominate trade infrastructure and keep for themselves that precious surplus value extracted from their workers.
As crisis engulfs the world due to the US-to-China transfer of capitalist power, there are two approaches the US can take. The first is to lash out like a vulnerable Primal Father, sanctioning all challengers with a phalanx of restrictions on capitalist flows. The second is to act as a global “Bon Pere du Famille” (Benevolent Family Father) by recognizing the coming changes and helping to manage them in a way that avoids the worse aspects of an epoch-transitioning crisis.
The Vicissitudes of Primal Fatherhood
Sigmund Freud popularized the concepts of the Primal Father in seeking to find an explanation for incest taboos within primitive cultures:
In Totem and Taboo (1913/1955) Freud analyzed the phenomenon of totemic religion, characterized by the centrality of the totemic animal, symbolizing the clan, in worship, and the incest taboo applied to all members of the same clan. This could still be observed directly among pre-literate cultures in our time. Freud asserted a connection between totem, taboo, and paternal authority.
He suggested that this connection stemmed from human pre-history, when humans lived in large groups, the primal horde, dominated by one older male, who could monopolize all females (this was first proposed by Charles Darwin). This tyrannical father was murdered and then eaten by the resentful young males, his sons, who then possessed all females, including mothers and sisters. The murdered father was then symbolized in the totem animal, which holds the authority within the horde. Through the sacrifice of the totem animal, the sons could try to allay their burning sense of guilt and to bring about a reconciliation with their father.
The primal crime, and the resulting guilt, where the starting point for civilization, morality, the incest taboo, and religion. The guilt-stricken brothers agreed to a social contract: Stop the war of all against all and to prohibit copulations within the clan, thus controlling, if not conquering, the disruptive and destructive impulses of sex and aggression (Primal Horde Theory by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi)
Today a Global Primal Horde is gathering within the BRICS+ where current members China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa are being inundated with applications to join from other resource-rich, fuel-factory-food producing nations such as: Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam. This coalescing alternative multipolar order rejects the idea of a global reserve currency and instead seeks to trade with an international commodity-based exchange currency that the BRICS+ are developing. This process will take decades to reach maturity but there is no question that the Primal Horde’s assault on the US Dollar has already begun. US sanctions are only accelerating this trend.
Another sign of the gathering Primal Horde taking place is Russia’s go-slow policy in the Ukrainian conflict, where not just Ukraine but much of NATO is being demilitarized through the depletion of limited ammunition stocks. North Korea, Serbia, and Iran are aggravating tensions in their respective arenas. Today’s Primal Horde, just like the mythical band of brothers, know that alone, none of them can muster the strength to challenge the Primal Father. But together, they can stretch the West’s forces to the point where China will be in a position and to take Taiwan if they choose to do so. Currently the US is trying to retard China’s development through not only a ban on US semiconductor chips, but through a coercion campaign to get any other nations to stop selling chips, chip-making equipment and chip-designing software. Some European nations see this as a cynical ploy to increase US market share.
Global Bon Père de Familie
In French law, the concept of a Bon Père de Famille describes a legal duty of prudence and due diligence in managing an entity. Acting as a global Bon Père de Famille would be the US’ alternative path to the current Primal Father drama. Instead of provoking conflicts with an eye to maintaining domination, the US would accept that eventually China will lead the world away from the US-led order and towards a multilateral model of global power. Instead of trying to retard this development, the US could try to nurture and gently shape it with the full knowledge that the US has the resources and know-how to compete within the next global order.
Braudel and Arrighi's “UP-UK-US-China” progression reveals today’s problem. The UP-UK-US transitions were culturally and ethnically filiated--as if a favoured son were succeeding an aging father. While these transitions were relatively drama-free between hegemons, they were very violent between other challengers for the capitalist throne. The brutal Thirty Years War destroyed the Catholic Spanish /Hapsburg challenge and led to the Dutch hegemony, allowing the Protestant ethic to pollinate the spirit of capitalism. The Napoleonic Wars were a struggle over whether England or France would be the next hegemon. Ironically Napoleon’s defeat at Moscow tipped the scales in England’s favour. For the UK-US transition, Germany fought two world wars for global ascendency and was ultimately defeated by the USSR, which opened the door to US dominance. Today, once again, Russia is playing a major role in accelerating a capitalist hegemonic transition.
As they were losing their grip on power, the Dutch and the British grudgingly accepted that their favoured-son rivals would rise and take their throne. The US, on the other hand, is refusing to accept and respect China as the up-and-coming global power. Instead of adopting a healthy parent-to-child paradigm, one of guidance for the rising Chinese nation, the US is instead resorting to “sanctionism” and lashing out as a threatened Primal Father.
Imposing sanctions gives the US security state and popular hind-mind an instant shot of "fuel", a feeling of global dominance and power. Moral imperatives dominate the war-narrative. The battle against “evil” dissuades any rational examination of destructive economic "blowback" to the US, or more importantly, to Europe. After all, the true losers in this crisis must be the Europeans, as the US can thrive as a regional power, if the worst-case scenario prevails. Yes, the Europeans could also thrive as part of a unified Eurasian bloc, but the US is systematically blocking that possibility.
“Sanctionism” conjures the symbolic Lacanian phallic symbol--The Name/No of the Father--through repeated "Thou Shalt" dictums, for example: “Thou Shalt Have No Other Currency Before My $.” “Thou Shalt” commands are the discourse of the master and are intelligible only within the monotheistic realm of hegemonic domination. Within a community of rough equals, in a realm of geopolitical polytheism, ethical considerations are communicated by “ought.”
Is there any hope that the US will abandon the current Primal Father drama and transition into a global Bon Père de Famille, who gracefully fades into a sunset of regional power status? Such a strategy would collapse the gathering Primal Horde by turning China into an uneasy ally. But it may be too late. The global Primal Horde are tasting their first blood in Ukraine, stoking their collective death drive, and this growing bloodlust may ultimately only be sated by feasting on the sanctioner's bloodied corpse.
Can the Primal Father’s ever more stridently enunciated “Thou Shalt” transcend and reorder his disintegrating hegemonic earthly control? Or will the Primal Horde, acting as a radical Other, debunk the fetish of finance, and in a rebellion of materiality and immanence, level all nations to a community of “ought”? The spectre of geopolitical nihilism—the nothingness left behind by the death of a hegemonic God—haunts the looming crisis.