“The essence of capitalism is to turn nature into commodities and commodities into capital. The live green earth is transformed into dead gold bricks, with luxury items for the few and toxic slag heaps for the many. The glittering mansion overlooks a vast sprawl of shanty towns, wherein a desperate, demoralized humanity is kept in line with drugs, television, and armed force.”
– Michael Parenti, Against Empire
“What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand millions in diamonds and cocoa?”
– W.E.B. DeBois
“It’s being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas, we are being asked to believe that the U.S. marines are actually on a feminist mission.”
– Arundhati Roy, Come September
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
– J. Krishnamurti
Last week a startling meme showed up on my Facebook newsfeed. It pictured what was apparently the youngest US soldier fighting in the war on Afghanistan today, and noting that he was not even born when that war began. Perhaps what is more startling, however, is how quickly that shocking fact was buried. I imagine for many Americans it was simply one more news item to scroll on by.
It was about 1 ½ years ago that President Trump vowed to expand the US war in Afghanistan, now the longest one in American history. Started by George W. Bush (with the help of his father who made preliminary advances in the latter part of the 20th century) and maintained by Barrack Obama who happened to drop over 26,000 bombs around the planet in his last year in office alone, Afghanistan has become one of the most vital colonial assets to the American Empire. It has been called the “graveyard of all empires” a statement which tends to downplay the enormous suffering ordinary Afghans have had to endure through these imperialistic incursions over the centuries. But with each passing year that phrase appears to carry more weight. And as this assailed nation sits atop a treasure trove of rare earth minerals amounting to at least a trillion dollars, there is little doubt why the American Empire refuses to leave.
Militarism is essential to empire; but it is also its Achilles’ heel. This is because it exacts a heavy price and takes an enormous toll on the stability and capacity of a government to provide for the basic needs of its citizens. This is especially true of capitalist societies where profit flows upward to an increasingly smaller group of extremely wealthy people. While it spends trillions on war, it denudes its own society’s well-being in the process.
That the United States began by expanding westward across North America through violent ethnic cleansing, genocide and slave trade economics is no exception to the general course of empire. And in its short time on the world stage it has managed to become the most powerful dictatorship of capital wealth and money the world has ever seen. Here the ruling elite routinely buys the allegiance and voice of politicians and the media, and police and military agencies serve to protect the accumulated wealth of those upper classes. But like its forebears it is now an empire teetering on a precipice of social, financial and ecological catastrophe thanks to a convergence of climate change, endless exploitation of finite resources, and perpetual war to maintain it all. Join this with rampant corruption, gross social and economic inequities, a rising fascist element and the militarization of the police/surveillance state and a recipe for collapse is writ large.
Perpetual war is a hallmark of the American Empire. It has been in some kind of military action, occupation or intervention for at least 224 of its 243 years as a self-described republic. Yet despite the enormous and appalling healthcare, social and financial neglect of the working class veterans of its many wars, the magicians of the ruling class never cease in casting the spell of “American exceptionalism” over the general public. They routinely conjure up new villains and boogeymen, foreign and domestic, for ordinary Americans to project their animus, frustration and alienation on. Maduro today, Qaddafi a few years ago. Hussein some years before that. None of them were or are an actual threat to the American homeland, but they stood in the way of wealth and capital, the only thing the American ruling class truly cares about. And for that reason the lie of militarism and war must continue to go unchallenged.
In this way collective amnesia is induced every time a flag is unfurled or jets fly over a packed stadium. The illusion extends to popular entertainment. Themes of the “white savior” persist and are ubiquitous, giving American military exploits a veneer of nobility while masking its inherent racism. Even the American super hero genre continues to thinly mask an insidious militarism that almost always casts wealthy capitalists in an esteemed light while promoting a distinctly orientalist worldview. Others who happen to live outside the beneficent grace of capital, and in some cases within, who are in opposition to Empire, are vilified. This well financed and popular Hollywood generated mythology is no small thing since so much of the arts and humanities in the US have been greatly defunded or cancelled over the last few decades. And this has served to hollow out much of the conscience, awareness and critical thinking skills necessary for organized dissent to its violent, unending excesses.
But like so many other empires of history America is sleepwalking into calamity and, quite possibly, its quietus. Its ruling class, which includes the corporate media, routinely ridicules or renders invisible the warnings of its scientists. The moneyed and powerful from both ruling political parties continue to disregard the worsening plight of the working class. Infrastructure continues to crumble and the social safety nets that remain are riddled with holes. The police/surveillance state violently stamps out any real or substantive dissent. And the moral imagination of young people is diminished even as “reality” stars, the celebrity class, corporate executives and military generals continue to be put on pedestals. Most ordinary and working class citizens of the American Empire are perpetually repressed in a sort of prison of entrenched or intractable debt, terrified of being incarcerated or shot for a petty crime, and the growing costs associated with being sick, injured, educated, or housed. And all this while being ladled with guilt from the ruling classes who perpetuate the damning and willfully obtuse mythos of “self-determination” and “personal responsibility.”
It is no wonder, then, that the wide use of psychotropic medications and opioids, two of the most heavily marketed items, have become normalized within American society. Of course there are many cases where these medicated responses to human suffering are warranted, but at some point one must also see that there is a goal, whether conscious or not, to numb the senses of the public to the crushing weight of their alienation, oppression and disenfranchisement and, indeed, to the looming crises ahead. Even young children are heavily medicated should they show “antisocial signs” which conflict with the required conformity to a profoundly ill society. And this speaks volumes to a system incapable of grappling with the root of its malady.
To be sure, in its present form and on its present course the American Empire cannot be salvaged. Nor should it be. After all, it represents a global capitalist class whose aim is nothing less than the full scale plunder of the planet via unending war on one side and utter contempt for the consequences of its ecocidal plunder on the other. And it must be understood that this is the reason for such a bloated military in the first place.
The US surpasses any other nation on the planet by far in military expenditure, but it would be foolish to think this is merely a sign of obsessive defense or excessive nationalism. While they are a component, the larger role of the US military is to protect the interests of global capital. It has no viable threats to its hegemony, especially following the fall of the USSR, so it invented the “war on terror,” a phantom that makes the US military into mere mercenaries in service to corporations and finance. While there are rivals like the Russian Federation or China, the US stills remains the most militarily powerful. Its client states including Canada, the UK, the EU, Australia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil and beyond understand that role completely and accept it. And this global ruling elite does not care about the future of the planet in the least.
It should come as no surprise then that on the same day President Trump announced the expansion of America’s imperial reach he also disbanded an advisory council on climate change. This was not some denialist ploy either. Trump, or at least some of the moneyed class and elite brass who surround him, understand that climate change calamity is not only real, but imminent. Indeed, the Pentagon has done several studies on the unrest that would accompany the unfolding chaos, albeit with a focus on containment and paying special attention to the risk toward the private property and resources of the rich.
In fact in the short time following this decision the US has seen several major climate change caused catastrophes, including the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico, the one Trump callously ignored and which claimed thousands of lives. To be sure, this is the primary reason for the “build the wall” campaign along the southern border. The ruling class understands that with drought and flooding comes famine, shortages and unrest. And all of the nations the American Empire has plundered to the south over the last two centuries will justifiably demand reparations. But Trump’s reasoning for disbanding the council on climate change is banal and simple. He merely does not want anything to impede or derail the flow of capital, and scientific evidence along with public panic might actually do that.
The only coherent response to any of this brutality is an unflinching solidarity among all who are oppressed by the Empire. Those who live at the margins of its selective beneficence. Those who have been disappeared or erased by its ruthless machine. And this, of course, extends beyond the artificial borders that it maintains. This solidarity must take the form of building communities of resistance and resilience that go beyond our personal or group identities. They must be about our status as an underclass within a ruthless global socioeconomic order bent on the rampant destruction of the biosphere for the profit of a few. These communities must be organic in origin and remain uncorrupted from the powers that be, because the unraveling of empire will undoubtedly be both chaotic and terrifying. And a ruling class that has remained drunk on its own purulent privilege, insulated to the real time suffering of the masses, and surrounded by the most elaborate surveillance/police state apparatus in history, will also be more belligerent and cruel when their power is finally challenged.
Indeed, the aim of the ruling class has always been the same: first to expand, then to crush, exploit, rape and plunder the vulnerable of the earth and the living earth itself for the gain of power and coin; and then to rewrite or erase them and their stories entirely from the pages of history. This much has never changed and it is aided today by a digitally enhanced, inverted totalitarianism, where self-censorship and bourgeois values of conformity to power not only go unquestioned, but are unassailably taken as absolute truths.
And this is why that story about the young American warrior, the one who wasn’t even born when the Empire began its bloody foray in Afghanistan, went buried so fast. It is why the memory of the dead civilians of Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Libya, and Syria, and Gaza, and Yemen, and Vietnam, and North Korea, and Laos, and Honduras, and Congo, and Indonesia, and so on, all victims of Empire, have also been buried alongside their bodies.
But we must remember also that irony is a gift of awareness most often missed by the powerful. So another thing that occurred on that day a year and a half ago might be seen as an omen. As he stepped out unto the White House balcony, appearing generally uninterested and even doltishly bumptious at the magnitude of the celestial event about to take place, Trump ignored the warning of scientists and stared briefly into the blinding rays of a solar eclipse without protective eyewear. And so it goes for the American Empire as it stares arrogantly into a blighted and brutal future, only seeing its own inflated greatness while the searing beams of reality scorch it all to ash.