By Junaid S. Ahmad
It is obvious that the coronavirus pandemic will be front-page news for a good part of 2020. And for good reason, since its human toll and social dislocation has been devastating.
Though not theorized in this way, this crisis can also be understood as yet another significant marker of our ‘Age of Transition.’ The world system of the past five hundred years plus, one of epistemic racist-sexist-colonial-capitalist Western hegemony, has been undergoing profound tectonic shifts that have reduced the ‘White Man’ – as a Fanonian political category – to a drunkard unable to stand up straight anymore. In other words, the limits of the existing colonial planetary political economy have been reached, and now we are just buying time to manage a neoliberal casino capitalist militarism producing destruction and mayhem in all corners of the globe. There are indeed three nodes of these global ruptures that will map out the direction of the world ahead. It is instructive to clearly identify them, so we know the beast that we are dealing with.
The first is the very obvious decline in American power. Years ago, analysts would laugh at such a thought. The Cold War had been won by the US and the ‘end of history’ had ushered in the unipolar kingdom of America. Since that time, the promised ‘peace dividend’ has of course been a fraud, since Washington has literally been engaged in nonstop war in all areas of the planet, especially West Asia, during this time. Though it’s hard to see if the most powerful military machine in the history of humankind has been able to obtain a single definitive victory during this time. On the contrary, since the declared ‘war on terror,’ we’ve seen more or less the opposite occur, wars dragging on forever and costing millions of ‘less-worthy’ lives and trillions of dollars.
The emergence of the US now as the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic may indeed seem like a dramatic cause of the rapid decline of its economic and political muscle. But that would be a mistaken view. What this pandemic’s impact on America has exposed so nakedly are the weaknesses of an empire in decline for quite a while now. In fact, this precipitous turn toward the dark side has come much sooner than many of us thought. The scandals and obscenities of the sundry aspects of American society that its rulers have tried to conceal all these decades, the country’s broken health care system, its obscene inequality and utter indifference to the lives ordinary working Americans, its century of both state and private propaganda and policies that have ripped apart social solidarity in times of crises, its ‘American exceptionalism’ allowing its plundering elites to deflect blame for all of the country’s problems on non-white people and other countries that can be invaded and bombed at a minute’s notice – this is what is now glaringly being revealed to Americans on a scale that they have not experienced before.
As opposed to the assessment of most analysts, I take the view of the most influential social scientist of the last half-century, the late Immanuel Wallerstein, that American imperial decline started to begin in the 1970s when a rapidly reconstructed Germany-based Europe and a Japan-based East Asia became serious competitors to US economic hegemony. Facing this crisis of ‘profitability,’ the ruling elites began dismantling Keynesian welfare states and instituted the neoliberal ideological-economic project to restore the class power of the financial aristocracy. Their profits in the financialization of the economy may have continued and expanded, but American productivity slowed down enormously as the wages and wellbeing of ordinary Americans suffered year-after-year from that point on.
It was precisely the realization of this economic decline over decades that had led to a variety of strategies by various factions of the American ruling elite. The neocon faction and it’s chicken hawk’ civilian officials, especially in the Bush Jr. administration, felt that this economic decline could be reversed by reliance on the area in which the US remained utterly dominant: its military prowess. 9/11 offered the opportunity, and the plan was the reorder the Middle East (and the world) via the ‘shock doctrine’ and ‘disaster capitalism,’ as Naomi Klein puts it, so that Uncle Sam’s hegemony is smoothly restored. Things didn’t exactly turn out that way. Rather, we saw the acceleration of imperial misadventures and decline. And this is not unusual for ‘wounded tiger’ empires: they try desperately in their last gasps to demonstrate their ability to flex muscle, but the outcome tends to be humiliation and displaying for all to see, as the saying goes, that the emperor has no clothes.
The Obama-esque faction of the American ruling elite also understands that the world has changed, that the US can no longer bludgeon everyone into submission the way it used to be able to. Though this faction also wants to halt or slow down the imperial decline, it also recognizes that may be nearly impossible at this point of growing multipolarity, especially the rise of China, a resurgent Russia, and other formidable countries like Turkey and Pakistan not being so predictable in their obedience anymore like the good old days of the Cold War. For them, at some point, it may just be a matter of providing a soft landing for the imperial war machine rather than the crash landing that the neocon hawks seem hellbent on pursuing.
Since the turn of this century, we can see three events that signify precisely the final stage of both American supremacy, as well as coinciding with Western hegemony of the world system in general. 9/11, the disastrous war on Iraq in 2003, and now culminating in the supposedly richest, most advanced country in the world unable to cope with a virus – all of these points to the final death knells of the American empire. That doesn’t imply the reduction of American violence, both externally and increasingly internally. Ultimately, colonial and neo-colonial violence abroad always comes back home in one shape or the other. But it does mean that Uncle Sam’s hundreds of satraps, quisling and client regimes won’t be so keen to do its dirty work for it as they’ve done in the past.
The second most evident node of the global rupture of the world system is the replacement of a single hegemon, the United States, by a world that looks like it will be without one for a very long time. That is, multipolarity seems to be on the horizon for decades to come since powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, and so on – don’t seem like they will be bullied around too easily anymore by the US or any Western power. An important point here is that this is not only a ‘de-centring of the West’ in political, economic, and political terms but also in epistemological terms. That is, the shifting balance of power in the global system has already begun the process of permitting the recovery of creative and alternative knowledge systems and paradigms of development and the ‘good life’ in contrast to five hundred years of Eurocentric colonial modernity, a civilizational project (of death) that went from “Christianize or we kill you,” to “civilize or we kill you, to “develop or we kill you,” to “democratize or we kill you” – and so on.
With a multipolar global system of nation-states and the collapse of a single hegemon, the third node of this systemic rupture will perhaps be the most important. While multipolarity can halt the excesses of imperial interventionism and militarism, which is not a small achievement, it certainly does not automatically translate into a more equitable global order for the social majorities of the planet.
2020 is a pivotal year in the struggle to define and shape the world to come. All of the multiple cascading political, economic, moral-spiritual, and, most importantly, ecological crises have been made so starkly visible by a single virus. What we have been witnessing, and will continue to do so, is intense pressure by elites to maximize state ‘socialist’ rescue of themselves from this crisis. That should lay bare what we are up against.
What emerges from 2020 is entirely unpredictable. All of the objective factors are in front of us, including elite ruthlessness, scandalous inequality and apathy to the lives and deaths of ordinary working people. The Age of Transition had begun before 2020, but this year marks its definitive historical trajectory and direction. The world system as we know it is coming to an end and the de-centring of the West is certainly a positive aspect of it. But the bifurcation of the world system, as Wallerstein pointed out, can lead to one of two directions.
The new world order can be worse than the previous one, more unequal and authoritarian. Or, if we take seriously the emancipatory ethos from both our prophetic religious and secular philosophical traditions, we can struggle to make it a relatively more just and egalitarian one.
(Dr. Junaid S. Ahmad is Professor of Religion and World Politics in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also a member of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
By Junaid S. Ahmad