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The Twilight of Liberal American Imperialism: Trump, Debt, and War

One of the most remarkable predictions in Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) is that, on its current trajectory and without a dramatic political correction, the United States will reach a point of wealth inequality that is historically unprecedented in the modern era and that nation states do not sink to asymmetries of this depth and magnitude without triggering large-scale violent uprisings, revolutions, or civil wars.

I began to discuss the apparent ‘inevitability’ of this looming catastrophe of civil breakdown with my colleague Dan Krier at Iowa State University, and, though I did not end up participating myself, I initiated the symposium on Piketty’s blockbuster text at the journal Critical Sociology in 2015 (Vol. 41, No. 2). My feeling a couple of years ago was that one thing you can always count in American politics is the rise of an internal populist demagogue to agitate the rabble in contradictory and self-defeating ways (e.g., the infamous pro-Nazi “Radio Priest” Father Coughlin during the Great Depression) and, externally, you can always count on a war to soak up and dispose of some proportion of the agitated mass (see Worrell 2011, 2013).

The Occupy Movement and the Tea Party signaled the estrangement and anger of millions of Americans over politics as usual across party lines but there was no sign of credible ‘charismatic’ leader on the horizon to galvanize either the right or the left and, since Vietnam, wars no longer function to dispose of large quantities of surplus young men. While we still dispose of mass quantities of enemy combatants, and ‘collateral damage’ accounts for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the permanent elimination of bodies on ‘our side’ has been replaced with the temporary removal of personnel by multiple deployments –– a kind of virtual suspended animation.

Like most of us, I assumed that Clinton and Homo davos would stay the course for a few more years, driving the nation closer to the edge of the abyss before crafting a new War on Something within the core designed to warehouse a few million would-be troublemakers while injecting more resources and personnel into an ever-expanding military project to control and discipline the globe. But Trump came out of ‘nowhere’ to capture the executive branch, at least temporarily –– one of the problems of discussing Trump is that one never knows if by the time you finish your thoughts he might be removed from office. But where Trump the man will be temporary, Trumpism will be more durable. Now we have our ‘charismatic’ leader (a bearer of what we might think of as ‘negative charisma’ or the impure and vulgar charm of a ‘pussy-grabbing’ anomie monster who abuses people, lies, and exploits with impunity). In a way, Trump represents what Leo Lowenthal referred to as the fantasized monster that enjoys unpunished enjoyment (Institute of Social Research 1945). The figure that filled out that space prior to and during the second world war was ‘the Jew’ of antisemitic propaganda (Worrell 2008). What every antisemite unconsciously wants is to be ‘the Jew’ that breaks taboos and gets away with it. It should come as no surprise that antisemitism has come roaring back in American political life along with a resurgence in neo-Nazis, the Klan, white supremacists, etc. Trump, like any demagogue, will promise his agitated base everything while delivering very little and holding the current neo-liberal project together a little longer before the ‘inevitable’ collapse. Despite surface appearances, Trumpism does not mark a break with the neoliberal order but an amplification of it: Turbo Liberalism, neoliberalism 2.0, neoliberalism on steroids, etc., and maybe its last gasp before the total breakdown of the American imperial order that has been moving across the planet since the turn of the 20th century. To prevent deception we have to keep in mind that what transpires on the imperial periphery is always reflected back into the domestic core, and vice versa.

The Contradictions of Neoliberalism

In simple terms, the Western neoliberal project has reached a point of near exhaustion. On the one hand, the domestic core of the US has been pushed to the breaking point with regards to stagnating wages and even wage reversals for many, outsourcing of jobs, overaccumulation of capital, negative interest rates, automation, degraded social services, decaying infrastructure, debased public education and soaring student debt, crazy religion on every street corner, guns everywhere, rising suicide rates and chemical dependencies, underemployment, deepening consumer debt bondage and the return of debtor prisons, the blooming of slave labor camps (prisons), financial deregulation and monetarism, the bloating of the state security apparatus, the militarization of municipal police forces, lower tax burdens for the wealthy and corporations, the destruction of labor organizations, etc. The list is nearly infinite. And while the Fordist version of the American Dream was going down in flames neoliberals were cultivating the cult of diversity. Where Fordism celebrated the Working Man and the Middle Class, the post-Fordist regime of accumulation and the new American lifeworld shifted the accumulation of cultural capital to what conservatives see as a rogues gallery of freaks and unicorns demanding a rainbow utopia. Let us not confuse diversity as a mechanism of social control (anti-solidarity and diversion) with actual pluralism.

The potent mix of economic fatalism for the Average Joe and the deregulation (anomie) of economic institutions is superimposed on the logic of the imperial periphery where the US and its ‘partners’ have hit a brick wall. The long and the short of it is that the domestic core is spent, hurting and rightfully enraged while the DNC’s unicorns of the future project is further eroding the white male Boomer’s sense of entitlement. On top of this are the bonfires of ‘potlatch capitalism’ where we find the literal destruction of constant capital for the few that can profit from temporary fluctuations in equity prices (Worrell 2015; see also Krier 2005, 2008). Trumpism as next-level neoliberalism represents continuity with previous administrations, despite the bewildering narcissistic shell, and an intensification of the bonfire of sacrifice and scapegoating. Trumpism represents the sacrifice of everything deemed secondary to the goal of of reenergizing the engines of the global project that has stalled out during the Bush and Obama administrations. Department of Education? Environment? Worker protections? Health care for poor people? Protections and assistance for unmarried mothers and children? Old people? Everything that costs money and does not contribute to the enrichment of the rich, global military domination, and dollarization is sacrificable. Money and resources have to be liberated from social welfare systems such that they can be transferred to the elite and the Department of Defense and the internal security apparatus. Now, this seems to fly directly in the face of the populist and paleoconservative strains of Trump’s appeal to his base. Bear this in mind: the base of angry old white people who support Trump have already been compensated by receiving the recognition they feel they deserve and they might get a wall along with some anti-Other hatred spewing out of right wing hate radio programs. In other words, the domestic program promised by the Trump administration (the return of a great, golden age) is rhetorical and symbolic while actually accelerating the destruction and liquidation of the social infrastructure of the nation. The capitalist elite and their political lap dogs will suck trillions of dollars out of the melting down of America between now and the final plunge into the abyss while serving up racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia to deranged rural and small town Americans.

The anger that rises from the contradictions associated with making America “great again” while shepherding over its further degradation and immiseration will be vented not only on an internal enemy but also the planetary opponents of America. Military intervention in the Middle East has been a colossal and expensive failure –– the only metric we have to suggest anything like ‘success’ has been achieved is that no nuclear warheads have been detonated. We are bogged down with nothing to show for it except the triggering of more hostilities on multiple fronts, none of which can be won. China has seized the moment and is colonizing Africa, Russia wants to recover its status as a world power, and there is not much more we can expect from Americans in the way of contributions to this expanding folly except to stay in debt, continue consuming, and battling it out in futile wars all across the globe. And if the core lacks the resources to prosecute the war against the world then the world will have to pay for its own punishment. And this is another dimension of Trumpism: making even allies and partners pay more for their submission. We’ve created quite a mess and if you want protection you’ll have to start paying a lot more.

Debt and Tribute

What looks like a pure liability from a personal standpoint appears to another interested party as an asset. Under the Fordist regime of capital accumulation the US was a lending nation but in the post-Fordist, neoliberal epoch, the lender has become a debtor nation and within this new framework asset obligations in the form of Treasury bills, and so forth, are no longer fully contained within the traditional debt-asset framework. In other words, the worry over national debt (US) is the result of an outdated set of assumptions. A large and variable mass of national debt is imperial tribute. The variability of this sum will depend upon military force.

In the case of quantitative easing (QE) it was not simply a case of injecting “hot air” currency into the market to devalue alien investments. The Chinese response to QE1 and QE2 suggests that their capital investments were being devalued, and they were, but when a carrier battle group conducts training off the shores of Taiwan it signals that US bonds and currency are backed by brute force and as long as Uncle Sam can force-feed debt to nations, US currency and bonds are still ‘worth’ something, they are purchased, exchanged, and they stay in circulation, even as they are continuously devalued. Obviously, however, there is a limit to how much debt, devaluation, and force-feeding we can exact from our associates.

War and New Deals

The constant fear of default is largely irrelevant so long as the US maintains its position as the global superpower. The US Department of Defense is largely a state within the state dedicated to preventing the slide into a symmetrical competition between global hegemons. The full-scale US intervention in Africa is largely a check on China’s ambitions in the region; the war in Syria is, largely, a check on Russian access to ports and regional influence; the war in Afghanistan is, largely, a war on our friends in Pakistan; the war in Iraq is, largely, not a war for petroleum but a matter of disobedience and punishment going back to the early 70s when Iraq dared to make rules for itself –– notice Trump’s admonishment that next time we’re keeping the oil for ourselves; and the war on terror (the bow wave generated by imperial motion) is the perfect war in which to express command and discipline: it can neither be won nor lost, it is simply a new matrix for dollarization, denominating reserves, generating corporate war profits (nothing beats cost-plus contracts) and creating an obedient world system with the US at the helm.

Mainstream conservatives and liberals alike still think in terms of contractual obligations and fear that the US is putting itself in a position of dependency upon other nations and transnational actors, as well as concerns over things like credit rating downgrades, etc., but, as Durkheim noted, while contracts are a form of partial slavery, when you are the global powerhouse, you are a slave to no one which means that contracts are only honored if they are in the interest of the one with all the power. In fact, consider an analogy from the world of organized labor: if your union fails to strike or even threaten a work stoppage, then it is not a union at all. At best your ‘union’ is a toothless collective bargaining unit that will be coerced by more powerful forces. Likewise, if your imperial master fails to bomb you periodically or threaten you with a deep recession the prospects of another stone age now and then, they are not much of an imperial master to be feared. This is, of course, the function of Trumpism in the US and why we are probably looking at a shooting war with at least one of our main trading partners and consumers of debt.

While my colleague Dan Krier sees a Schmittian logic to Trumpism and the cultivation of internal enemies (illegal aliens, Islam, etc.), and that is undeniably important, I think the big picture is more Treitschke than Schmitt. In Germany Above All (1915) Durkheim pointed out that for the powerful state any form of subjugation is intolerable, including contracts and obligations, e.g., debt to some other power. This is one of the essential benefits of war: the breaking of contracts and obligations (for the winner). It seems virtually ‘inevitable’ to me that the US is headed toward an actual shooting war with China because our ability to service debt in such a way that we never have to pay it back, and thereby losing our tribute, is impossible to maintain. The inner circle of the Trump braintrust probably has General Curtis ‘Strangelove’ LeMay on its mind –– the Soviets could have been clobbered at the end of WWII, saving us from the bipolar death struggle that lasted 50 years. We have the advantage now but every day we wait we lose the edge. The way out is simply to declare war soon, engage in a short-term naval, aerial, outer space, and cyberspace shock and awe campaign against China (avoiding ground forces and troop invasions as well as tactical nukes, not to mention embedded journalists that might spoil the narrative) that provides the mechanism for the suspension and breaking of all contracts and obligations and then negotiating new deals and terms. Thinkers infected with mainstream assumptions regarding the undesirable nature of devaluation associated with conflict with China miss the crucial relationship between value and devaluation –– there can be no accumulation of surplus without devaluations as a precondition; the devaluation of one thing is mechanism of surplus value emerging somewhere else and in some transfigured form. Besides, the wealthy are drowning in surplus value at the moment and there has to be a correction.

An actual shooting war with China (perhaps starting with an attack on a proxy like North Korea) might seem like economic suicide considering how integrated Chinese production is with Western finance and consumption. However, keep in mind that other Asian nations are now more attractive when it comes to low-cost labor power. China can beat Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea on the wage front but many manufacturers of low value consumer junk have shifted production to cheaper sources such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and now India. Africa will soon become a major competitor in the labor power market. This is also why the tiff with Mexico is not as consequential as it might seem on the surface for capital. American firms can find cheaper labor power elsewhere.

Kant believed that a national debt was, ultimately, self-defeating (1983) and he is undoubtedly correct. Paying it down will cause pain for someone. Eventually, empire will run out of steam and the world will turn against it. As Durkheim insisted, a lone political entity cannot stand against the rest of the world for long. Even now we see, for example in the Philippines, a ‘rebalancing’ of dependencies toward China at the end of the Obama Administration. With Trump, a wait and see approach has set in. But, ultimately, the neoliberal order will fail, ultimately, because it violates the structure of reason, it is unreasonable, and violently irrational.

The world system is a symbolic absolute that encompases individual nation-states and their ‘speculative’ relations with one another. This is a central point and something that we keep running into time and time again: as far as individuals go, the idea of the nation-state and unique cultural identity is still extremely powerful and vastly more important than multi-state conglomerates. Brexit and the rise of AfD in Germany, as well as recent right-wing gains in Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland (see Aisch, Pearce, and Rousseau 2016) attest to the continuing power of Nation as a social fact, and not just for stereotypical authoritarians, in the face of mass migrations and what is perceived as cultural dissolution and the paranoia over the imagined fatalistic altruism of Islamic theology. The one-world global order appeals to communists and capitalists. And a bipolar world of the kind we had during the Cold War, as an alternative, is one divided against itself with two main blocks serving as countervailing universalities, with some non-aligned leftovers extracting what concessions and deals as they can, playing one power off another. Ultimately, though, a world united under capital or divided along binary, countervailing lines will always disintegrate. The current neoliberal system attempts to sharpen the old Fordist logic whereby the triad of finance, production, and consumption (a fetish conception if there ever was one) is remapped across old geopolitical demarcations. Ultimately, Hegel is right: reason has a structure and it is cunning. When social organization becomes irrational it will destroy itself and a debt-tribute-finance world system is an insult to reason and national sentiments and values.


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