George Bush chose a risky moment for launching his New World Order. World stock markets have reacted to the vicissitudes of war with all the stability of a manic-depressive who won’t take his medicine when he’s feeling up and doesn’t see the point of taking it when he’s down. The mere rumors of war were enough to send oil prices up and stock prices down, but the brilliant success of the first day’s air attack caused an ebullient rebound in world stock markets and lowered oil prices by $10 a barrel. However, continued Iraqi resistance wreathed in the black smoke of a pipeline fire was enough to send the bears back into hibernation.
War is probably not the best medicine for an ailing economy that has just been hit by bank failures and tax increases. The money industry in the United States has been on the verge of crisis for some time. FDIC’s decision to take over the Bank of New England in January came hard on the heels of the temporary closing of Rhode Island Credit Unions, bankrupted by the failure of their insurer. If one can believe Ralph Nader and other “consumer advocates,” many large insurance companies are on the brink of ruin. Worst of all, the savings and loan industry, as a reward for its follies and chicaneries, is being bailed out by American taxpayers whose children and grandchildren will have to pay for the mistakes of incompetent regulators and corrupt liberal senators, yea unto the fourth generation. (One had always heard that Senator Cranston, impeccable anti-American leftist that he is, despised wealth, especially the wealth of American plutocrats, but it always turns out that socialists so firmly believe what they say about capitalist greed that they are determined to get in on the action.)
The causes of these emergencies are varied and complex. Some institutions have followed the Donald Trump model of investing heavily into real estate markets on the way up. only to discover that elevators can move in more than one direction. Others, in their rapacity for Arab petrodollars, showered billions of dollars on Third World countries, who used the money to pay the interest on their already massive debt. The general opinion is that the international American banks, Chase Manhattan, Hanover Trust, Citibank, Bank of America, et al., will never see a penny of the principal owed by Brazil and Mexico, but with the usurious rates of interest, premiums, and penalties they’re charging, it is a situation they can live with—so long as there is not a run on the bank.
But if there were, the nearly bankrupt FDIC will be sure to bail them out on the principle of “too big to fail,” which means apparently that the bankers who go into government service are committed to saving their own industry’s bacon. In the case of the Bank of New England, FDIC Director Seidman decided to guarantee all accounts, including those over the $100,000 limit.
On the other hand, when a small bank in Harlem failed, it was only under pressure that the FDIC agreed to settle on 50 cents on the dollar for accounts over $100,000—precisely the offer made by Mr. Potter to the depositors of the Bailey Building and Loan.
Of course, Mr. Seidman’s defense is that the Bank of New England is important to the New England economy, but the real difference is that major banks are players in the national and international money game; a black community bank is not, and it is the stability and security of international markets that must be preserved.
When the oilman-turned-international-avenger speaks of a New World Order, he clearly has in mind something a little less ambitious than world conquest but more grandiose than the mixed assortment of multinational corporations, international banks, and U.N. agencies (the IMF and the World Bank, for example) that set the economic agenda for most of the world. For years, we have been hearing complaints about America’s failure to keep up with Germany and Japan, and this country’s slow decline into a second-rate power seemed assured. However, once we establish a permanent military presence in the Gulf and after we take on a few other dictators who have the misfortune to rule a country with strategic assets, we will be in an excellent position to bully the axis powers.
There are one or two possible flaws in the new imperial strategy. Most obviously, the Germans and Japanese may refuse to accept the situation. After all, it is our electronic superiority that allowed us to take over Iraqi airspace with such ease, and either Germany or Japan could begin turning some of their technological capacity to what we euphemistically like to call defense.
America’s renewed bellicosity stems from the eclipse of the Soviet Union as a serious rival. But despite the mess Mr. Gorbachev has made of their moribund command economy, the Soviets are not out of the game. While the good empire was busy restoring emirs and keeping down oil prices, the bad empire was crushing resistance in the Baltic states and cracking down on the press. Was this part of a package deal arrangement: in return for their nominal support against Iraq, we promised—in addition to loans and credits—a free hand within their sphere of influence? Or is Gorbachev’s militancy nothing more than the predictable Soviet opportunism? (During the Suez crisis, they moved into Hungary.) It hardly matters, since foreknowledge in such matters is tantamount to responsibility, and we knew what the Soviets would do. By itself, the Soviet Union may be in no position to compete with the United States, but they do not have to go it alone. Thomas Molnar has been arguing for some time that the U.S.S.R. and Germany have every incentive for cooperation. Even in the short run, a German-Russian alliance could prove fatal to our imperial euphoria.
Quite apart from the prospects for American hegemony, the New World Order may not prove to be a blessing for most of the world’s inhabitants. Just as nationalism grows at the expense of lesser allegiances—localisms and provincialisms—so internationalism (always a code word for imperialism) battens upon a diet of national loyalty. In the economic sphere, the internationalists are driven by the vision of a world in which every human being is bound to every other by links of production, consumption, and exchange. It is international capitalism’s answer to the great chain of being. At the top stand the international corporate giants, and at the bottom are GM assembly line workers or Mexican peasants who have only recently made the transition from subsistence farming to growing cash crops for Green Giant.
Terms like “the free market” or even “capitalism” hardly seem applicable to the international economy. Most of the multinationals have learned how to manipulate governments to their own advantage. ITT—with its record of collaboration with Hitler, gifts to political parties, and attempts to overthrow unfriendly regimes (ITT allegedly offered the CIA money to help get rid of Allende)—is only the most glaring example. And where the corporation cannot influence a government, it may choose to pursue its own international policy, often at the expense of the country in which it is chartered.
The most obvious examples are the many businesses in Europe and the United States that found methods—illegal as well as legal—of selling technology to the U.S.S.R. Less obvious are the political entanglements of international banking studied by Benjamin J. Cohen in his Council on Foreign Relations study, In Whose Interest. An internationalist to the core, Cohen still cites case after case of conflict between the foreign policies of the United States and U.S. banks.
In the case of Poland, the State Department encouraged the banks to make loans as a means of gaining leverage over the liberalizing regime of Edward Cierek. The real effect of these loans, however, was to sink the Polish economy under a burden of debt. When General Jaruzelski eventually cracked down on Solidarity and imposed martial law, the U.S. government had to balance the strategic needs of its own policy against the banks’ desire for repayment. The solution was tough talk and a little-publicized rescheduling of the Polish loans that put $344 million of American taxpayers’ money into the coffers of such major banks as Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Morgan Guaranty, and Bank of America.
A fitting allegory for our predicament is the evolution of money from hard currency into Eurodollars. What, exactly, are Eurodollars? For real information, ask an economist, but so far as an economic illiterate can gather. Eurodollars function as a sort of offshore international currency that allow a Dutch or Japanese investor to transact business in a French or German bank, even though the business may involve securities and currencies from Britain or the United States. Actually, the term Eurodollars is misleading, since the system, so far from being limited to Europe, is a worldwide attempt—and a successful one, at that—to get around all the petty restrictions that nation-states impose upon financial transactions.
This is a long way from what simple people have usually regarded as wealth, much less money. Before the invention of money, wealth consisted of property and possessions: arable land and the crops that could be grown, the flocks and herds that could be raised upon it; as well as useful works of craft and art. The beauty, usefulness, and scarcity of precious metals led gradually to their use as one means of measuring wealth, and steps were eventually taken—in Lydia and Greek Ionia—of stamping fixed quantities of gold, silver, and the gold-silver alloy of electrum with a symbol indicating their weight or worth.
A semioticist might say that this early money—and indeed all hard currency—is money as sign, that is to say, so much weight in gold or silver indicates so many jars of oil, so many bushels of grain. At first, anyone with a sufficient supply of precious metals could coin money, since it was worth nothing more nor less than the weight of the metal. Temples, with the constant stream of offerings pouring into their treasuries, were among the first mints, but it did not take the rulers of Greek city-states very long to figure out that it was in their interest to claim a monopoly on creating money.
Precious metals in general and money in particular have many advantages over flocks and jars of wine, not the least of which is the ease with which they can be accumulated and multiplied. In a pre-monetary economy, power and wealth is a very clumsy and material affair: a thousand armed retainers who can be fed and clothed on the lord’s estates, so much tribute in oil or servants owed from tributary villages. (The mainland Greek terms obol and drachma are conventionally derived from words meaning a “spit” and a “handful of spits.”) But with money comes a more efficient system of trade and the chance for breeding money by lending it at interest (the Greek word for interest means “offspring”).
It may be no coincidence that the introduction of money is followed very quickly by a political innovation, both in Lydia and Greece, that was known as tyranny, after the Lydian name for this sort of ruler. The unwieldy old family-based monarchies, chieftanships, and aristocracies were replaced by a new, more efficient style of rule that depended on wealth, a paid bodyguard, and the power to make popular decisions that were contrary to the customary usages of the land. Conservative and reactionary Sparta, it should be noted, opposed both tyrants and money, clinging to its cumbersome iron weights.
Not long after the rulers established their monopoly on money, they began to use it politically. When Periclean Athens embarked on its policy of conquest and empire, the Athenians tried to impose their money as the only legal tender in the Aegean. Standardization of money was not necessarily a bad idea, since the different weight standards of the city-states must have complicated trade considerably. Of course, coins had greater value in their home territory than elsewhere—if only to cover the cost of striking. There was also the temptation to inflate the money supply by debasing the coinage. However, so long as other coinages were in competition, these dishonest measures could only succeed in devaluing the state’s currency—and its credit. For this reason most Greek cities jealously protected the value of their coinage. The Romans did the same, and much of the Byzantine Empire’s success was due to its hard money policy; when they were forced to debase the solidus, their political as well as their economic power were doomed.
Ancient money was always concrete, and the coins were often things of beauty. It was as if the Greeks could not clearly distinguish the hypothetical exchange value of a coin from its intrinsic quality as a work of art. In modern times, new and abstract forms of money have been devised: letters of credit and bank certificates promising to pay the bearer so much in gold. But even when most advanced nations were still sticking to a gold standard for their paper money, banks and governments could issue notes based not only on their gold reserves but also on money they were owed.
The inflationary tendencies of flexible gold standards and fractional reserve banking were pointed out long ago by Ludwig von Mises. From there it is a significant but not a giant step to the creation of fiat money, which stands not for any amount of gold or flocks or any other form of material wealth. It is money not as sign but as symbol, something to be pursued for its own sake, bred for its own sake, a sort of Ponzi scheme in which we are continually taking each other in as suckers that will someday be repaid by more promises to take in more suckers.
Standing behind all fiat money is the bayonet: the power and majesty of the state and the conviction that, come what may, the state can settle its accounts. On occasion, bankers learn that this is not always so, when they make loans to Weimar Germany, Poland, or Mexico. But in recent years, at least, it has not been the faith and credit of Poland and Mexico that back their loans and support their seashell currencies. It is the United States and the international economy in which U.S. interests dominate.
We began this 1066 and All That monetary history with Eurodollars because of their challenge to the sovereign interests of the United States in the conduct of its foreign policy, but there are even broader implications for sovereignty. If it is true that the creation of money (as opposed to bank notes redeemable in money) has generally been the exclusive prerogative of the state, then—setting aside historical complications like the early American reliance on Spanish coins or occasional coinages by banks—we can see that money and sovereignty have been to a large extent coextensive. (The rulers of the Athenian and Roman Empires certainly thought so.) If a new international currency has really emerged in the past twenty-five years, then perhaps the New World Order for which we are shedding our blood is an already accomplished fact, and the most paranoid fantasies of the John Birch Society were only the faintest glimmerings of the real nightmare: a world order brokered by the great internationalists, men of the stripe of Robert McNamara, James Baker, ARAMGO executives, and David Rockefeller; a world in which the great nation-states, after sucking the juice out of regional and state communities, are now to be themselves drained and absorbed into the higher order of the global economy.
It is easy to see what the executives of multinational corporations and international banks get out of the new order, but what are the rewards for the shopkeepers, small farmers, and factory workers—for the bulk of humanity at the end of the great chain of capital? Adam Smith would have said that foreign trade generally benefits all the parties concerned. Division of labor and specialization of skills creates markets for new goods that feed the human appetite for novelty. When we buy Japanese cars and video equipment, they use the money to buy houses in San Francisco and golf courses in Iowa, and everyone benefits economically.
In a more philosophical vein. Smith might point out that man is not self-sufficient and is formed by nature to live in society. This argument goes back to Aristotle, who traced the development of human society to the incompleteness of male and female and the impossibility of living successfully even at the familial or village level. There is a natural evolution, he said, from couples to villages to states, a process leading to a condition of autarky, or self-sufficiency, which is the fulfillment of human nature. The internationalists, in one sense, are only extending this reasoning to the global level.
But prudence is the great political virtue, and while it may not be possible to form a general rule determining how great is too great, neither extreme—isolation and globalism—seems consistent with human nature. When Aristotle spoke of the human need for autarky, he did not imagine a series of anthills in which all the workers performed their individual tasks with automatic obedience. In general, the Greeks were suspicious of specialization, because of the damage it inflicted upon the human character. Their ideal gentleman was a man in superb physical condition who enjoyed sports and hunting; he had a sufficient income for his purposes but expected to manage his estates and household; he took an active part in the politics of his community and, when called upon, risked his life in its defense; he knew enough of Homer and the other poets to be able to draw instruction from them and could sing and play a musical instrument. If he were, like Plato and Aristotle, intellectually inclined, he wrote on a variety of topics—ethics, politics, literary theory, and the sciences, because an exclusive concentration on one discipline, mental as well as physical, narrowed a man. In other words, a free man was an independent man who could, at a pinch, provide for most of his own needs, even if he was occasionally served by “professional” poets, musicians, and speech-writers.
Land, of course, was the primary source of wealth, and a self-reliant farmer clear of debt is a man who does not worry about a boss’s good opinion nor look to a tyrant for handouts. The same can be true of any man whose income is largely under his control, but what proportion of working people today can reasonably claim independence of the Johnny Paycheck “You can take this job and shove it” type?
The criticism of big capital has come from two sources. Marxists have accused capitalism of destroying all the social and communal bonds between men and replacing them with the “cash nexus,” but in the 19th century such criticisms were more frequently made in Britain and America by Tories and conservatives. When Walter Scott saw the effects of industrialization on northern England, he prophesied divine vengeance against the men responsible. While the Whig liberals were taking refuge in the iron doctrines of utility and laissez-faire, the Tories were investigating the conditions of women and children working seven days a week in the mines. On a deeper level, the English Romantics and Southern Agrarians (including Richard Weaver and most recently Wendell Berry) deplored the subjugation of human nature to the machine and to money. Human beings were created to breed horses and cattle, not money.
In America, George Fitzhugh based his apology for slavery on the palpable evidence that slaves were better housed and better fed than the so-called “free” workers in Northern factories. And while the researches of Eugene Genovese and the authors of Time on the Cross tend to confirm Fitzhugh’s analysis, the nub of the question is not strictly economic. A factory worker may, today, work less and earn more than most independent farmers; he may be able to afford electronic luxuries undreamed of by the richest plutocrats of a generation ago. His health and welfare—and those of his family—are cared for by insurance, pension plans, and Social Security, but there is one thing he does not and can never have, and that is liberty, because he is nothing more than an employee, a tool at the disposition of other men.
Unlike the slaves of the ancient world or the plantation system, the modern wage-slave can quit and go to work for another company, but for the most part this is simply to change one master for another. He can also vote, send his children to government schools, and attend “the church of his choice” (as if faith were nothing more than a whim, at best a rational preference), but these are only rights without responsibilities, and it is responsibility that defines the character of the free citizen.
The picture is, at this point in our history, somewhat overdrawn. There is a tradition of personal independence in the U.S., deriving from our experiences as farmers, shopkeepers, and independent tradesmen and craftsmen. Many blue-collar workers preserve important vestiges of independence: truck drivers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians can all put their confidence in their skill, going from contract to contract without acquiring the habits of servility. Some factory workers can maintain their sense of liberty by looking upon their jobs as a 40-hour commitment willingly undertaken for the sake of their families. Even the unions, which have decayed into little more than interest groups, originally promoted the worker’s sense of worth and dignity.
But the pressures all run in the opposite direction. An independent craftsman or the owner of a small repair business not only has to worry about how to evade the unremitting scrutiny of government agencies and tax collectors, but must also provide for the health and education of his children in a society where the costs of health care and higher education are rising more rapidly than even a plumber’s wages. The small farmer or the owner of a neighborhood garage is now in the position of a masterless man in the early Middle Ages, and there is a strong temptation to seek refuge under the protection of a Japanese-style corporation. What a relief it would be to let the company worry about your future.
Unfortunately, the international economic order does not often provide the level of security offered by Toyota or Mitsubishi. Even the U.S. corporations with long-standing policies on job security will give them up when the choice is retrenchment or extinction. For confirmation, ask any of the several thousand recently fired employees of Control Data Corporation.
When American business was substantially bound to the continent (as in the 1950’s), a man’s job might be precarious enough, since his future depended on powerful political and economic forces within the United States. However, now that economic performance depends more and more on events in Japan and Western Europe, it is increasingly difficult even to imagine the strategies and policies, the bungles and boondoggles that can lead to recession and unemployment. Under these circumstances, a man might be excused for putting his head down, concentrating on his day-to-day tasks, and hoping that someone will take care of him if all goes wrong, but he is less of a man if he does.
Welfare dependents and the servile tools of international business are not the stuff out of which empires are made. Is this the explanation for the Pentagon’s reliance on technological wizardry and the gloating early reports on the success of our air attacks? America, with its 250 million people, gigantic GNP, and overwhelming superiority in military hardware and personnel, is the only remaining superpower in the world. One would have thought it a small matter to take on a Third World country with an area the size of California and a population less than New York’s. But in the inflated rhetoric of George Bush and his admirers in the press, a petty Arab thug is blown up into another Hitler, Iraq into Germany, and the air strikes on Baghdad another D-Day.
The upwelling popular support for the war demonstrates that most Americans have their hearts in the right place. They don’t like bullies and they trust their leaders enough to believe that they would not be dragging us into a war, if there were not vital interests at stake. As Metternich said of the Germans, our hearts are always sound; it is our heads that get led astray.
As laudable as this resurgent patriotism is, it cannot justify either the bullying tone of public spokesmen nor the rising tide of anti-Arab sentiment. It is as if we cannot fight a war without first degrading the enemy people, demonizing their leaders, and trumpeting our own virtues and victories like a rooster on a dunghill. The only conclusion to draw from our embarrassing self-congratulation is that this nation is not ready to assume the responsibilities of empire even under the pleasant guise of a New World Order, which President Bush now describes (on January 23) as the “rule of law” imposed upon the world—a rule of law that presupposes a sovereign power capable of enforcing it.
When the Romans imposed their rule of law upon the decadent nations of the East and on the savage nations of Europe, the Italian peasantry were still a vigorous people eager to take risks and confident of Rome’s destiny. But even without practicing imperialism abroad, we already have the characteristics of a bloated and decadent empire, groaning under the weight of an arrogant bureaucracy and torn by ethnic dissensions. Rome’s soldiers and administrators, even provincials whose fathers had learned to speak Latin late in life, could look back on the great saga of Roman myth and history as a story that shaped their present experiences. But we, at the very moment we are embarking upon our own adventure of conquest, teach our children nothing but counter-myths about the racist and sexist oppression exercised by white, Anglo-Saxon Christians in America. Is anyone, black or white, Jew or Christian, ready to die for cultural diversity?
Other decadent empires have attempted to use war as a means for restoring their self-confidence. Paul Kennedy, in taking the Wall Street Journal to task for its jingoism, offered the analogy of Spain’s disastrous conquests under Philip IV. Like the United States in the 1990’s, Spain was riddled with domestic difficulties. Kennedy concludes his analysis with a warning; “If the U.S. wishes to recover its ‘reputation,’ it might begin by repairing its inner cities, public education, crumbling infrastructure, and multiple social needs, at the same time resisting the temptation to follow the path of Spanish grandees.”
Perhaps an even more ominous parallel is the Byzantine Empire’s successful wars against Persia in the early seventh century. Heraclius reconquered Syria, Egypt, and Palestine and brought the Persians to their knees. The Byzantine exultation was short-lived. They had not only strained their resources, but in eliminating their competitor they had created a power vacuum into which the abhorrent forces of nature rushed from Arabia to fill. By the time of his death in 641, Heraclius had witnessed the Arab conquest not only of Egypt and Syria but of Persia itself The rest, as George Bush would say, is just history.