The future won't be like the past: it never is.
Very clarifying as usual. A lot of people are gleeful about the apparent upcoming fall of western hegemony - the problem is that all vacuums will be filled eventually and I suspect a lot of people will get a nasty surprise when they find out what has filled this particular one. A key issue will be how various regional forms of 'hegemony' will be defined over time. In many ways, we've become so used to the western (US) form that by default China (or anyone else) will simply take on that mantle without clearly understanding the consequences.
I'm not so sure if one could say definitely that "future will not be like the past.". A lot of different things, even downright fantastical things, did happen in the past, after all. I suppose it would be more accurate to say "the future will not be like the past of our choice.".
I mean, Russians WERE in Hungary, in 1848-49, and in a context that would be recognizable to those who would witness the events of the latter half of 20th century. But the context of the Russian power over Central Europe in the 19th was notably different from the USSR during the Cold War: the legitimate governments of Austria and Prussia accepted Russian backing willingly and came in aftermath of Russia seemingly expending resources selflessly to fight for a noble principle against a warlike and nihilistic European ideology, after which it made no territorial gains in Europe. Or, in other words, Russia in the aftermath of Napoleonic Wars could be described as oddly similar to US after World War 2. A long list of historical analogies can be drawn about how the sequence of events between 1815 and 1856 are similar to those between 1945 and 202X, with many of the same names being repeated for bonus.
The point of the foregoing is not try to forced analogies between the future as unfolding and the past, of course, but how recognizable elements from the past keep showing up--just that they cast different actors in unexpected settings. I don't know if the future will NOT be like the past since humans remain humans and we would still be largely fighting over much the same things that we did in the past. But the pretexts, moral trappings, and power relationships among the actors will be different and these will be shocking to the powerful and comfortable of today. But will everyone be surprised? One of my favorite historical novels is "Wind and Waves" by Japanese novelist Yasushi Inoue. The setting is post Mongol invasion Korea and, as was the case during actual history, after making peace with Mongols, the Korean king volunteered to marry a daughter of Kublai Khan, which made things confusing to the Mongol generals--now, the Korean king was not (just) a subject ruler of a conquered kingdom, but a prince of the Mongol Empire who could actually order them around. Certainly a strange reassignment of roles and only in a few years' time, too
Well, doh... the West is demonstrating weakness and the future can be very different from the present -- that's kind of 'obvious'. The challenge - I guess - is to guess the bifurcation points and what the new phase will be like. At least in physics, this is hard and not hard, because the existence of all phases is already present there in the matter, and the phases just need to manifest themselves in the right conditions. Even after WWII, in the end of the day, with all the alleged randomness, Brazil went back home, the Soviet Union/Russian Empire expanded again, the countries that had more-than-less historically defined borders - UK, Spain, France - remained in their borders, the feeling on the part of white Europeans of being superior to the rest of people (i.e., European racism) remained, the rule by the national bourgeoisie (I use this word in a broad sense to mean individuals with the most property) with their ideology of liberalism and rights speak and insistence on organizing the world into nation-states led by a national bourgeoisie remained, and the ascent and dominance of English-speaking ethnicities over the rest of Europe and the world continued. If we were to take someone reasonably knowledgeable from ~1920 and transplant this individual to now, what would be the most surprising to this person? -- probably not that Germany had another war and lost, or that the Soviet Union expanded or that English was the dominant language or that electric cars still exist or that English suck and Germans excel at manufacturing or that the bourgeoisie manages the workers badly and deep dives into decadence, etc. Maybe the most surprising would be that the Soviet Union/Russian Empire dissolved internally and the bourgeoisie nation-states introduced what is called 'consumer society' and 'socialist policies' -- those things were probably somewhat random.
We normally believe that certain political systems offer inherent advantages over the rest of political systems, and by a political system we really mean both politics and economy and by certain political systems we naturally mean our political system. But what if political systems do not offer inherent overwhelming advantages in terms of prosperity, security and happiness to the state and the multitude and what if what also matters even more is the people populating the decision making roles in politics and economy. This is an update of the very well known ancient idea, which Aurelien clearly articulates in this piece -- good kings ensure good life for the subjects and expand their domains and bad kings allow the opposite. If we look at things this way, then may be what we are having in the West is a period of a 'bad king' -- of course we don't have kings, and we also have political and economic power in the same hands -- i.e., we have political economy -- so, then the present cadre of our politico-economic rulers (i.e., activist elite investors/private equity bosses/major CEOs/major banks -- what I call the national bourgeoisie above) are just bad at what they supposed to do. Because we are going through a period of a 'bad king', we feel like we are diminishing.
I don't see a revival of nationalism and regionalism, because a) I don't think nationalism and regionalism ever went away, it was the Chatham House idea to stop talking about planting the Union Jack on the furthest islands of the world and start talking about universal human values -- i.e., rights and values talk enclothes our aggression. British colonial years coincided with major changes in agriculture and huge population growth -- add to that primogeniture and sending the younger sons to make a fortune in the colonies was a convenient way to get rid of spare inheritors -- most of them died in the colonies in the first several years. Furthermore, we have promoted and supported nationalism all over the world -- Ukraine, Taiwan, Kurds, Yugoslavia, etc, etc -- and we want a break-up of Russia and China into small nation-states. Our conflicts with China, Russia and Persia are also ethnic conflicts. If anything, our diminishing will demonstrate that a nation-state led by an elite bourgeoisie may not be the most efficient politico-economic arrangement, and this may open the door to other forms of globalization and cosmopolitanism.
And b), I don't think we have invented globalization and internationalism. The West learned how to sail and sailed far but the penetration inland was superficial in most places (except most notably for North American and Australia). Before sailing, globalization had taken place over land. The West did not invent the trade in spices, silk, tea or slaves. It merely found new trading routes. With great improvements in over-land transportation, trade by sea may become less profitable. The future may see not merely globalization as in trade but agglomeration of massive Euro-Asian regions into huge integrated economic juggernauts that will make present economies look puny.
A really fine analysis. Just wondering what key readings/thoughts/experiences have shaped your perspective?
Anything from Michael Mann, Carl Schmitt, Max Weber?
I very much admire what you have been doing here. Well thought out pieces like this are welcome.
I think that the "culture wars" of the last decade reflect much of what you discuss here and the differing attitudes about the future. In my personal experience, I find that the professional/managerial class clings to the "more of the same" vision of the future to a much greater extent than those folks who aren't of that sanctified class.
The working class and the poor tend not to have to many illusions about how the future will treat them. All they have is uncertainty, they realize that the world is changing and have no earthly clue of what they should do. I think that Trump and Brexit were significant in the sense that the working poor and those not of the PMC voted not so much "for" Trump or Brexit as "against" what was happening to them.
The PMC and it's hangers-on are the folks who are hoping for incremental change for the simple reason they have it good and want the gravy train to continue. Deplorables see that the world that the PMC fantasizes has no place for them.
Ultimately speaking, whether or not the US can be said to have an Empire is a matter of definitions and semantics. It does have an outsized influence in world affairs, but it appears that influence is being steadily eroded. That being said, I find your argument for nationalism and regionalism to be persuasive. One could perhaps say that one of the weaknesses of the so-called American Empire is that the regionalism in the heartland is starting to pick steam and by doing so, threatens the economic and military advantages of the current "empire".
Interesting question as to whether the US is an empire. Clearly it doesn't resemble the earlier models. At the same, what should we call it? The vast number of foreign military bases -- 800, 900? -- spanning the globe have served some purpose. These weren't "peace-keeping" troops (like UN Blue Helmets), a kind of global gendarmerie; more often than not they stirred up trouble rather than keeping the peace. Whatever we might want to call this arrangement, it did enforce a kind of neo-colonial system, one in which direct physical control was eschewed for indirect economic and financial control. The West didn't need to occupy Saudi Arabia, only ensure that its vast revenues were recycled through Western financial institutions and manage indirectly (at least up until a short time ago) who had access to the energy resources. Empire v2.0?
Not a huge fan of the man, but Trump did have a point: why *is* the US keeping NATO afloat?