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  • Sun, Apr 08, 2012 - 08:25pm



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XrayMike has also posted some good summaries of Greer’s earlier work in the recent “Timeline’s…….” thread. In this week’s blog, Greer turns his attention to the British empire, comparing and contrasting their overreach to that of America in a similar time frame.

It is useful to look at not only other empires, but how long and difficult it can be to create them, and how their collapse occurs in a decidedly dissimilar fashion. And what lessons can be learned about our own predicament?

Perhaps the shriveling contraction of projected power in the British empire is analogous to what the American version will resemble when peak oil intersects the end stages of Capitalism. A figurehead “ruler” gesticulating with coy, partial movement hand waves from behind the bulletproof glass of a viewing window, while practitioners of the end of days strain of radical individualism clutch their “instructive” tomes with white knuckled grip- unwitting accessories to their own armed robbery.

But I think Greer has it about right, likely none of this will happen as fast as the doomsayers predict, as it is hard to overestimate the resourcefulness and unbridled adaptability of full throated Capitalism.

Leaving aside (for now) the race against time with respect to declining petroleum resources, one of the key theoretical impediments to this notion of catastrophic American collapse of empire is put forth in a most interesting recent book by David Graeber, “Debt- The First 5000 Years”. Written by an anthropologist about matters of empire and things economic, this 500+ page piece of scholarship brings forth a heretical accounting of money, the history of debt, and the relationship of these factors to empire, specifically, the American empire.

This book has created a tsunami of accolades and criticism (in nearly equal measure) for putting forth some striking theses that rock the neo-liberal world. For starters, he posits that based on anthropological evidence, there never really was any meaningful adoption of the barter system on any persistent scale-throughout civilization. In fact, in his view, barter is largely a contrivance of the neoclassical economists, used to piece together their incomplete theories of money so they might sally forth into the more interesting domain of the political economy. In his accounting of anthropology, although there were of course instances of barter, (usually between adjacent but unrelated societies) on balance, the requirement of the double coincidence of needs enabling peer to peer exchange is too difficult to meet on any consistent basis, and therefore money must inevitably be created and used, and it was.

Which brings us back to empire.

Graeber spends much of the book recounting evidence to support this thesis, advances some 5000 years, and then goes on to drop the bombshell- that money is used as form of tribute in the maintenance of empire, specifically, the American empire.

In essence he is claiming that American imperialism is substantially directed to force foreign nations to adopt and use the US dollar, or else. And “or else” means military (or economic) action against any nation that refuses to adopt the US dollar for international transactions and debt settlement. Consider of course that as the worlds’ reserve currency, the folks in charge of printing maintain a huge economic advantage over everyone else. Not unlike the mafia boss paying a visit to retail stores demanding protection money, in this case the mafioso are also actually creating the money.

Now his evidence of this is largely circumstantial, but he makes a convincing case, although as you might expect this conclusion is highly controversial and disputed vigorously- as near as I can tell mostly by the economists who are outraged that a anthropologist has stepped into their domain.

To those who might be interested in a lively academic debate with Graeber defending his assertions (sometimes unsuccessfully), you can read some of thIs here.

But if any of this is true, an empire that is able to augment a “wealth pump” with a military mandate to use the US dollar as described, in combination with current communications and weapons technology, would have an opportunity at a sustainable and long standing hegemony, and would likely be able to avoid much of the outcome of the British empire- or at least slow down the inevitability of collapse until other contravening effects (such as running out of oil).

So the take away here is that if there is any truth at all in Graeber’s thesis, the trajectory of American empire may have advantages not present when the British tried their hand.

Being mindful to not take this thread off piste, I will comment on a veritable Easter egg of controversy in Graeber’s book, it seems that in 500 plus pages, the most offensive claim has to do with a certain Apple computer comment that put forth the notion that Apple was founded and constructed by disgruntled Capitalists who not only wanted to unseat the dominant IBM, but wanted to rethink the way surplus value was distributed at the same time, which is to say equally among the workers. This is of course false, but in placing this paragraph in his book, he has unleashed a tirade of protestation that has strangely eclipsed the entire book. Economist Brad Delong, who I read regularly and generally admire, has come unglued at this assertion, probably because as a UC Berkeley professor, Silicone Valley is his bailiwick and such Althusserian suggestions that technology companies might structure themselves to benefit the workers and not the venture Capitalists must seem like blasphemy.

The genesis of this remark is traceable to another professor of economics, a Richard Wolff (University of Mass), who I hold in great regard. He has a remarkable outlook for (technology) businesses that is framed around distributing all of the surplus value to the workers, and none of it to bankers and other non participating elites.

But if there is a way out of empire, this might well be it.

Perhaps a better opportunity to expand these points is to wait for Greer to engage another empire of no less (historical) importance that those discussed to date, an empire nearly 500 years in the making that collapsed in 10 days.