Backfire: US and the World

Backfire, Webster’s: To have the reverse of the desired or expected effect (more familiar today, blowback, as used by Chalmers Johnson)—either way, America in a condition of overreach, an exaggerated, compulsive hegemonic demiurge, two centuries in the making and still counting.

It can’t be helped. Capitalism plays mean tricks on society, integrally, when its commodity structure gives rise to alienation (Marx’s Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844), and its growth imperatives give rise to imperialism, war, intervention, and social control-manipulation at home. So already, America is, in the long run, in trouble. But since the end of World War II, America has gone out of its way to court trouble and danger, to itself and the rest of the world, because of its unreasoning desire to prove itself, accelerate its power, and become the model, ideologically and structurally, for other countries, particularly those having alternative systems, to follow.

The obvious point of conflict is Russia and China, deemed perennial (if not also permanent) adversaries, a needed psychological construct to keep international politics at a boil, a war-dependent economy functioning (aka, acceptable rates of economic growth), and domestically, thoroughgoing indoctrination and regimentation with an eye to acceptance of and complicity in the values and practices of society’s upper groups, themselves further differentiated into ultra-wealthy and wealthy, in command of politics, economics, and the military. Capitalism via the concentration of wealth is a class-system, and would not, despite the rhetoric of classlessness, have it otherwise. System, ideology, power, assertive leadership and acquiescent populace, in combination, even singly (though they tend to cluster), add up, fused and carried, as here, to extreme lengths, to FASCISM, incipient or full-blown, a distinction becoming less meaningful as, daily, one is evolving into the other.

Trump is only a pale replica of der Fuehrer, America’s 21st-century version, so that fascism remains at a policy-stage of plutocracy and autarchy corresponding to the development of the political economy, not, at least yet, a rigid totalitarian state of concentration-camp dimensions. This does not mean that he is harmless, just as those leading up to his presidency are also not harmless, but only that the antecedent factor, capitalism with its myriad systemic requirements and traits, is the birthing context for arbitrary and aggressive rule. Here Trump is off to a good start; as I write, the focus turns from the Cold War as it presently exists to hemispheric affairs, relations with Mexico and Canada. Less significant in its own right, these relations indicate the backfire I noted, in which an Empire straining with every weapon at its command nonetheless is about to take a fall, in prestige if not still in power.

Authorization of The Wall (and its proposed method of payment, exclusively by Mexico) is sheer stupidity, among other things, counterproductive from the standpoint of advanced capitalism, and accompanied by threats regarding outsourcing and tariff penalties for reentry of US firms’ products, a disaster in the making. NAFTA may be thrown out in response, and, starting a chain-reaction, affect American-Canadian relations (including Keystone XL) as well. Once the questioning of dominance in its own neighborhood begins, the boa-constrictor hold of the US in its immediate surroundings sends a clear message to others throughout the world that America is slipping badly, and that all the king’s horses and all the kings nuclear armaments, standing army, military bases, targeted assassination, doctrine of permanent war, cannot put Humpty-Dumpty together again.

The seeming minor blip on the radar screen with respect to Mexico carries the hope, at least to me, that America has to reshape its global posture fundamentally, or face ostracism, disrepute, and worse still, loss of markets and claims to unilateral world leadership. Ideology is like the falling-domino theory: the pervasive fear that give an inch, and the whole game-plan collapses. At the moment, Great-Power relations may be at a temporary standstill, but it is the other, the less powerful, not calculated initially to cause problems, that might bring Goliath down to size in a world appreciative of just that outcome, and hence, willing, in bandwagon effect, to work to that end. If there is rhyme and reason in the universe, bullying does not always win out.

Mexico, judging from preliminary reports, is ready for comprehensive negotiations on its own terms, rather than the one-sided ones proposed by Trump. But Canada is equally exciting to watch, in spite of Trudeau’s feet stuck in Alberta tar sands and his disappointing appeasement of American capital. If Mexico gains substantive political and economic grounds for itself, then Canada, with or without Trudeau, is not far behind, as though a giant pincer-movement would put the squeeze on the US. If that were to happen, a wall South, a wall North, metaphorically if not actually, we would see a drastic change in international politics, either with ramifications affecting relations with China and Russia or, as sore losers, America’s resort to the nuclear option.

Trump’s luxury properties worldwide might give him reason to pause (one of the redeeming qualities about wealth is the tenacious desire—the obsession—to hold on to it and think twice about the conditions for its destruction), so that he is not quite the true believer—in anything. But don’t hold your breath. America cannot face its own decline, and will do what is necessary to avoid it. It would be ironic if, not the rising centers of power (China and Russia), but those which have been under America’s thumb, bring about its comparative downfall, an unintended consequence of the US geopolitical framework—not just ironic, but altogether moral and right.

Then and only then can America live honorably within the Family of Nations.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at