America Fought a World War Against Social Democracy. It Lost. Will the World be Better For It?
There’s a strange myth Americans are taught, which is also a simple one. It goes like this: having an empire is good for them, and good for the world, too.
It’s not so odd when you think about it. Every empire from Rome to Britain has told itself this myth. Sometimes, it’s even true — in ways. But in America’s case, both parts are false.
One of the conditions necessary for America to make progress again — instead of the grim, bleak, light-speed regress it’s currently making — is to give up on empire.
Let’s take those points one by one, and along the way, I’ll explain what I mean by “American empire” — though I’d bet you already have a hint.
Was American empire good for the world? Let’s think about the long, long list of countries America destabilized, toppled, and destroyed. Chile, Argentina, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua…the list is almost endless.
It’s a myth — and a particularly dangerous one that American empire was some kind of gift to the world. DC insiders and American pundits see America as some kind of benevolent policeman, standing guard over the world, leading its peoples to freedom. Americans are weaned on the milk of this myth. But ask a Chilean how they feel about Pinochet’s death squads, an Iraqi how they felt about Saddam — and then being bombed to remove Saddam, anyone from southeast Asia about America’s decades long wars against them.
America was never a benevolent guardian of global peace or freedom. In fact, what was happening was this. Much of the rest of the world — almost every single country on my list above, in fact — didn’t want to choose the American path: capitalism, greed, violence, narcissism. It wanted something very different: social democracy.
Why? Because while Americans — at least white ones — might have enjoyed the fruits of global capitalism, it was the rest of the world which paid the price. With its labour, with its raw materials, with endless drudgery. And more crucially, with a lack of human rights, basic freedoms, or democracy. Hence, this rest of the world was much more influenced by European thinkers than American ones. From Marx to Fanon to Adorno. Latin Americans would name their kids Lenin, and Asia saw powerful socialist and unionist movements arise.
America wasn’t giving the world freedom. It was taking it away. The world wanted social democracy. But America wasn’t about to have it. Because American capitalism couldn’t work in isolation. It needed cheap oil, minerals, trees, meat. It needed capital and labour and markets, the more speculative and destabilizing, the better. But this was exactly what the world didn’t want.
Outside America, the fans of extreme, aggressive, predatory capitalism were few and far between. Almost nonexistent, in fact. What other region of the world chose it? Europe didn’t. Canada didn’t. Australia didn’t. But see the point: these were regions of the world that were free to choose — countries too rich, powerful, and altogether white for America to interfere much with. Yet if a country wasn’t any of those things — bang!
I really want you to reflect on this point. Outside America, nearly nobody on earth wanted to be a capitalist society. For good reason: they’d seen the ills firsthand that capitalism brought with it, from pollution to inequality to despair. America wouldn’t see them until the 2010s or so.
So what did America do? Well, it set to work forcing the world to become capitalist societies, anyways. Any way its elites deemed necessary. And if they couldn’t be capitalist ones, then America would settle for authoritarian ones. Hence, dictators like Saddam and Pinochet were installed — at least they were people Americans could “do business” with, aka people who would sell oil and labour cheap.
But this — America installing authoritarianism in country after country, to ensure capitalism’s health — also meant that the world never evolved the way it wanted to. It meant that the world was less free than it should have been. Think about it, if you’re American. If Chileans or Iraqis wanted social democracy — who are you to tell them they can’t have it?
And yet that’s exactly what American institutions did. In hard ways — they made war, with bullets and bombs. In soft ways — they used propaganda and money and disinformation.
Let me come to the point. Over the last century or so, the world has not become as free as it should have been: the net effect of American hegemony is that the growth of global social democracy was stifled and suffocated and strangled. Simply ask the question: if America hadn’t acted like a violent, greedy, bully — how many countries would have been stable social democracies long ago? A long, long list — just the same list above.
The world would have been a freer, more peaceful, happer, and far wealthier place without American empire. That’s for the simple reason that social democracies are freer, more peaceful, happier, and wealthier than capitalist societies — let alone the authoritarian dictatorships America installed. American empire, in other words, prevented, crushed, destroyed decades of genuine global progress — contrary to the milk-and-honey myth that Americans are weaned on, that without America, the world would be in chaos.
Do you see how starkly opposed the myth and the reality are? American empire is seen in America as a moral crusade — “we bring peace and prosperity to the world!” But the world laughs at this kind of naivete — precisely because the reality is that America’s missiles and bombs have brought not just death and despair, but decades of the lack of progress the world should have rightly seen, wanted, and freely chose for itself, over and over again.
Now. If American empire had a steep price for the world — country after country wanted to be a social democracy, but America used force and power to make them capitalist societies, or authoritarian states — what about America? Did America pay a price for empire, too?
Can you already see it coming?
American empire didn’t just America in the ways that Americans are beginning to understand. It’s true — America spent trillions on wars, sacrificed countless lives, wasted its time and energy, its “human capital.” There was a deeper price. Just as America denied the world the chance to progress into social democracy — it never could, either.
Today, America is the world’s first poor rich country. A 15 year old in Bangladesh has a higher chance of living to 50 than an American boy does. Think about that for a second. Isn’t it staggering? But how did it happen? It wasn’t just because America was busy making war on the world. There was a subtler effect happening.
The more that America fought against what the world wanted — social democracy — the less it could ever have it at home. It’s collective mind — its public sphere, its discourse, its ideas, its thinking — all became stunted, polluted, crippled. The basic ideas of social democracy were presumed to be sinful, horrific crimes — in a kind of Soviet way. Nobody could ever argue for, say, public healthcare, education, retirement — and hope to have a career as an American thinker, academic, intellectual, pundit. But that was only logical. America was fighting a global war against social democracy — though nobody in America could ever even that much — and a society can’t allow itself to argue for the thing its fighting against.
It was only left able to think in terms of violence, in the end. “Which country should we bomb this year, Morning Joe?” “I don’t know, Ezra Klein — maybe Iraq?” “Let’s see what David From and Max Boot think!” “They love the idea!” “Let’s run it by Paul Ryan and the gang!” America’s intellectual class became a cesspit of the world’s most foolish, violent, and clueless men. Men who wouldn’t stand a chance as thinkers in any other country at all. But what do you expect when you’re fighting a war against what the world wants?
In the end, something genuinely bizarre and remarkable happened. Something that history will remember — and shudder — but something we don’t understand yet.
America built the most perfect killing machine ever made. Click, tap, swipe — Wham!! An entire village, town, city goes up in flames. From the comfort of an air-conditioned room, by pressing a button, just by glancing at a screen, the operator could kill literally anyone, anywhere on earth. Think for a moment about just how twisted this is. Wouldn’t all of history greatest monsters have applauded? The perfect killing machine. It’s hard to imagine a better one in fact — than simply by pressing a button, you kill anyone, anywhere.
But at the same time, Americans didn’t have any of the following. Healthcare. Retirement. Affordable education. Stable incomes. Savings. Community, trust, happiness. Their lives cratered. The average American lived paycheck to paycheck, couldn’t raise $500 for an emergency, and, shockingly, died in a mountain of debt. He never broke even his whole life long. And yet American economists — Soviet, by now — pronounced that all was well in the empire.
But all wasn’t well. The price of American empire for America was that it could never progress to the stage of social democracy — because that was the very thing it was fighting a world war against. All it could do were violent things, which had precisely no benefit to anyone, really whatsoever. Like building the most perfect killing machine in history. But not hospitals, schools, retirement systems, and so forth.
America regressed as a society — because it couldn’t advance. It grew more and more violent, focused on violence, in love with violence, until at last, authoritarianism arose. The very kind it had installed around the globe. But that wasn’t a surprise, either. Capitalism had to be kept afloat. By any means necessary. If authoritarianism was ok with Americans in Chile, Iraq, Argentina — why wouldn’t it be in America, too, in the end?
We’ve barely begun to understand the price of America empire yet, as a world — or as Americans. But that price has been crippling. It has been ruinous. Shattering. American empire cost the world freedom, development, happiness, peace, maturity — the world chose social democracy, but America prevented it, violently. It fought a world war against social democracy. But the price for America was that it never became a social democracy, either. It became a more and more predatory, extreme, aggressive capitalist society — what else could it become.
America became the kind of society that built history’s most perfect killing machine. But couldn’t give its own people insulin, an education, healthcare, retirement. And that kind of society, my friends, implodes — just as America’s doing today.
America’s world war against social democracy failed. America lost — not because an enemy defeated it, but because the costs were too steep to ever be borne. And so we should all celebrate — if we are thinking, decent, humane, worldly people — the end of American empire.