Cursed With Life

The apocryphal curse “may you live in interesting times” is upon us. For some of us the suspense, far from killing us, is giving us something to live for.

Two things in recent news stand clear of the fog: protesters from Haiti to Ethiopia waving Russian flags (among other assorted flags, placards etc.), and Saudi Arabia defying the wishes of the US govt. by cutting oil production. On the street and in the palace, the global south is no longer transfixed by the stars & stripes.

After WW2, the US bourgeoisie was pleased to find itself ruling a country which enjoyed both sole nuclear power status, and a currency elevated by Bretton Woods to the status of virtual gold. Soviet (and later, Chinese) demonstrations of nukes hardly disrupted this, until little Sputnik passing overhead announced that suddenly, those nukes could be more devastatingly delivered than the West’s. But even then, the resulting strategic arms race turned out palatable, with a side-dish of nice proxy wars in Africa & Asia. The military-industrial complex perfected the $400 screwdriver; the “defense” budget never looked back.

What cemented US hegemony was the pageant of consumerism and superheroism under the banner of The American Dream. Never mind that some African-Americans ran onstage yelling and had to be ushered off, most of the world lapped it all up (except those cast as supervillains and their underlings). The grand finale was when the Soviet empire collapsed, and the end of history was heralded.

But of course, stuff kept happening. The war machine needed fodder, and after some experimental aggression in the 90s, havoc on 9/11 let slip the hounds of full conquest in Asia. It was all going smashingly but the home front began to wobble. Financial bubble-bursts one moment, black people & leftists getting underfoot and online the next. The Dream was turning nightmare. The world began to notice that the US is full of prisons and homeless people’s tents.

And: China started being bothersome. Infuriatingly, it abstained from proper supervillain things like invasions; it used sly virtue-signalling like building infrastructure all over the world. Lifted 400 million out of poverty (at what cost?). It achieved purchasing power parity with the US. Unforgivably, it accumulated dollars and started owning US assets.

The US bourgeoisie had always had fractious factions but now these plunged into a second, though behind-the-scenes, Civil War: how to deal with the workers, the blacks, the commies, the hippies, the foreigners? The old dialectic of protectionism vs. expansionism takes on a new guise in a digitalised economy. In the end, the consensus was the same as always: a war, this time in Ukraine. As always, it’s not so much a solution as a way of winning time.