After a successful 500-year run, why is Western hegemony slowly falling apart, and moreover, as Pogo famously said, why is it that “the enemy is us”? This essay will explore a complex of root causes, focusing on the built-in dynamics of the capitalist system, which drove it to produce the expected positive results – increasing wealth and power for the rich minority – for a long time.
However, I will argue that the same systemic power structure has caused an evolution that is ultimately self-defeating. I will attempt a synthesis of information drawn from many sources with which I expect the reader will already be familiar, so will not require citations. This analysis will be guided by a systems thinking perspective.
As Western society has lived by and large under a capitalist political economy, a short account of the dynamics of this system will serve as an introduction. Masquerading as “free enterprise”, the capitalist economy is effectively under private control A key structural driver is unlimited competition, which breeds the economic insecurity that reigns under these conditions.
As a solution to the perennial economic insecurity, businesses are propelled into a ‘king of the hill game’ whose primary rule is ‘maximize profit whatever the cost’. As the historical record shows, a first systemic consequence has been the growth of monopoly control in every major sector of the economy. The trouble with the rise of monopoly power is that it undermines the claim that the conumer public is in the driver’s seat, supposedly commanding the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. The result over time is that under laissez-faire capitalism, economic sectors claiming to serve the public interest – the pharmaceutical industry, the weapons industry, industrial agribusiness, communications, scientific research, etc. – fall under monopoly control, becoming legalized rackets for shaking down the public. So, like the private-public partnership known as Japan Inc., the economic sectors under capitalism evolve into War Inc., Healthcare Inc., Agri-food Inc., etc. Under these circumstances the public begins to question the official narrative; things are no longer adding up. This is the state of the system today as things begin to fall apart more rapidly.
Following the rule of profit maximization at whatever the cost to society, as global economic conditions became favorable circa 1980, US financial and industrial elites began to export the US industrial economy to locations of cheap labor and low environmental regulation, mostly in Asia. By now, the US has lost 5o% of its industrial capacity, with several consequences:
The first effect has been the gradual demise of the well-paid manufacturing working class – a “middle class” that had ensured a stable social order – as workers were forced into the lower income service economy. The resulting demand destruction and its knock-on effect began to shrink the whole US economy. At the same time, increasing concentration of wealth and related inequality, also an emergent property of the capitalist system, is destabilizing the social order. Amid rising discontent, ruling elites offered cheap credit in a ploy to prop up what is left of US prosperity (or at least maintain its pretense), with the result that now the US is financially insolvent at every level at every level from the federal government on down. For example, 20% of the top Fortune Five Hundred corporations no longer have the cash flow to meet their interest payments, making them zombie corporations temporarily carried by desperate investors.
Second, deindustrialization has shrunk the industrial and engineering capacity of the economy. As a result, the military high command admits that the US can no longer win a major war, and prosecutes all the minor ones since WW2 with proxy militias recruited from extremist factions, which as a result have failed to achieve their goals. The Western economies are now so weak that our own media report that the West can no longer keep the Ukronazi proxy army in weapons or ammunition. As one pundit put it recently, Russia’s goal was to demilitarize Ukraine; little did it realize that as a bonus benefit it would cause the West to demilitarize itself. Apparently, none of that matters to the alliance of Zionists, old school full spectrum imperialists, and a military-industrial-congressional complex – a ‘deep state’[i] in whose clutches the US is agonizing - as long as they and the global banker elite whom they serve can profit from the serial wars that are draining the country’s wealth.
Third, faced with the potential loss of the “gunboat diplomacy” that the US previously relied on to shore up the empire, its elites have resorted to more and more desperate moves: piracy on the high seas against oil tankers, confiscation of dollar reserves of Russia, Venezuela, Libya, Iran, Cuba, etc., sanctions aimed against Russia that instead are destroying the economies of the empir’s European vassals, and vast money printing to offset a lopsided trading balance. The upshot is to destroy its reputation as a law-abiding member of the concert of nations and accelerate flight of once obedient client states toward the emerging multi-polar alternative. Every week more nations seek to leave the economic slavery of the unipolar imperium. Massive dollar printing for the Covid Caper and the Ukraine war only adds to the exodus.
Of late, unforeseen blowback from sanctions and other policies of Western overlords have threatened the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, thus rendering it impotent as a tool of imperial economic and political power. First, after over a decade of the cheap credit policy, the US money managers at the Fed have painted themselves into a corner from which all available options cause a decline in the purchasing power of the dollar. Then, in reaction to their failing color revolution strategy in Ukraine, their ‘sanctions’ policies began to backfire, accelerating in several ways an already existing trend in non-Western nations to build an alternative trading and currency system to the Western one. The sanctions also have collapsed East-West trade, prompting Russia to fast-track the reconstruction of its domestic industrial economy, restoring its economic superpower status in an alliance with China. Moreover, the above-mentioned theft of foreign dollar reserves has destroyed trust in the West and impelled other nations to edge away from the dollar. Finally, the recent sabotage of Europe’s energy lifeline to Russia has raised energy values in the world market, earning windfall profits to Russia, the top producer along with Saudi Arabia in the global energy economy, and netting deals to trade Russian energy in non-dollar currencies.
Societies are complex systems, clusters of causally interacting variables. Those of us who study it as such know that one event or intervention can never do just one thing: it will inevitably generate many effects, many of which, because they are often distant in space and time, are unforeseen to those untutored in systems thinking. Feeding increasing disinformation into the system can transform perceptions, which in turn alter behavior, with unpredicted consequences.
The unexpected effect of two recent attempts by ruling elites to weaponize the mass media has spawned a ‘true believer’ effect in a large cohort of the public, in effect sanctifying the official narrative and penalizing heretics. First, the mass media spoke almost as one in a violent campaign to delegitimize the Trump administration and its supporters. Second, a highly orchestrated campaign of official disinformation via the mass media succeeded in generating a false belief in a “pandemic”. It managed to scare and stampede large groups into accepting a harmful, genetically engineered injection fraudulently peddled as a “vaccine”, again partly because the mass media, acting across the board in lockstep, created a herd effect of unquestioning belief in the official narrative. Finally, elites charged obedient online media moguls with unleashing an aggressive campaign of censorship and even chastisement of dissenting views.
A contagious effect of these crusades has been to spawn a climate of fear where most of society are struck dumb, ever more wary of offering a dissenting view on any subject. Described by psychologist Mattias Desmet as a mass psychosis, this climate has invaded Washington governing institutions to the point where it has snuffed out intelligence work that is essential to reality-based policy making, reducing the federal intelligence establishment to mere yes-men. The unexpected end result is a pattern of governance unanchored in the real world, where factions of true believers in fabricated realities, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, drive policy in one false direction, then another. Flipflops in the narrative from Washington are becoming more frequent as dynamics in the real world expose bogus policies. Thus, the very disinformation strategies that power elites deployed have in the end undermined the role of governments as the elite’s tool of policy control.
Underlying all this is the economic undertow of the end of the oil age: global oil discoveries peaked in 1965. Energy alternatives do not produce the net energy to support an industrial economy. A century of US energy gluttony has left the country increasingly reliant on expensive, unconventional oil. Factions of the Western global elite are aware of this already emerging crisis of Western civilization, and are scheming various strategies that would conserve most of the remaining global resources for their exclusive use. Considering how well the complexity and the evolving dynamics of the present unipolar system has disrupted their grip on global hegemony, there is a good chance that their plans for the future will also fail. Chaos will likely prevail for a while, but at the periphery decentralist groups may adapt to a lower energy life.
Ruling parties of the Western Empire have set in motion a convergence of processes which, because the rulers did not anticipate the consequences, is ending the empire’s centuries-long supremacy. Since civilizations accumulate complexity and inertia during their ascendancy, collapse often occurs in slow motion, fooling many of their denizens. System complexity brings problems of unpredictability, which have been a cause of the calamitous consequences of policy decisions, and which will continue to plague the leadership class as their struggle to restore supremacy becomes progressively desperate, following a historical pattern visible in failing civilizations.
Karl North has been a student, a farmer, a business owner, and a teacher. As a student, his strongest focus for over 50 years has been systems ecology and political economy (the power relations in social systems).