The Multipolar Moment Has Arrived, and Not a Moment Too Soon
by Sameer Gupta
What does the future look like for the ‘Empire of Chaos’? The recent flurry of meetings among the transatlantic powers in Europe will likely prove to be a pivotal moment in answering that question. As the world’s leading imperial powers came together to articulate what the path forward would be for the besieged ‘rules based order’, the frequently deployed slogan of Build Back Better serves to highlight the bruised egos of a transatlantic bureaucracy smarting from the twin traumas of Donald Trump and Brexit, their countries enveloped by simmering social crisis at the hands of a financialized economy whose depredations continue to linger more than a decade on from the 2008 crash.
And while the US liberal commentariat’s eager, habitual indulgence in crude Russophobia meant that the US-Russia summit served as a domestic backdrop of sorts for Joe Biden’s widely anticipated European tour, the President’s agenda (two days before heading to Geneva for his meeting with Putin, Biden held court with NATO allies in Brussels) made it clear that this extended visit was aimed at reasserting American control over a disoriented transatlantic alliance.
After all, it was during his first State of the Union address back in April that Biden outlined his vision for restored American leadership at home and on the world stage, predicated upon a commitment to principles of justice, fairness and human rights within the framework of a more compassionate capitalism, the means through which the United States would “win the 21st century.”
That this decidedly unimaginative rhetoric was nonetheless enough for the usual coastal media sycophants to dub Joe “nothing will fundamentally change” Biden a worthy successor to FDR speaks to the cynical calculus of those backing what journalist Pepe Escobar refers to as Obama-Biden 3.0, a hollow vessel for elite interests and a beacon to any opportunist who wishes to eke out a career for themselves in the Social-Industrial complex. At best, what Biden has offered the American people and the western world at large is further enlargement of what can be best described as the wages of war. After all, there is a reason why many have called the military, an instrument of imperial domination, the most socialistic organization in America.
But what of Biden’s long-heralded shift left, toward policies which could at least be considered social democratic in nature? Those who still held out in the hope that the tireless campaigning on behalf of the Democrats by ordinary people across the country would be rewarded with a bona fide redistributive agenda for the working class didn’t have to wait long for their hopes to be dashed. The $15 minimum wage increase? Sorry, not possible. Debt relief of any kind? Non-starter. Social spending? Coming later now, maybe. Border camps meanwhile have merely been rebranded, continuing to hold thousands in squalid conditions. And despite Democratic majorities in Congress and the support of a significant majority of Americans, there remains no momentum in Washington for any form of universal healthcare coverage.
And while structural reforms of political economy were never really on the table, the speed at which the nascent Biden administration has moved to strengthen the grip of oligarchs on all aspects of American life should alarm progressives. The election hadn’t even happened yet when a fracking ban was taken off the table by the Biden-Harris ticket, and yet now in the midst of a historic heat wave that has suddenly made the costs of inaction on climate change frighteningly real for millions, they sound the alarm in a cynical bid to greenwash the efforts of America’s biggest corporations and hedge funds to cash in on an unfurling climate disaster that is already proving to be a catastrophe for the working class at home and abroad.
But it is Biden’s signature “progressive” proposals concerning tax reform that most clearly illustrate what any observers concerned with fairness and social justice can expect from American leadership of the world system. Central to Biden’s plan is the negotiation with OECD countries of an agreement to implement global tax rules which include a proposed 15% global corporate income tax, as well as other regulations meant to curb tax evasion. And yet, a complete exemption has already been carved out for financial services, at the behest of a sector which has facilitated the flow into overseas tax shelters of enormous sums of wealth totaling an estimated $5.6 trillion— equivalent to about 10% of global GDP. And domestically, it should be said that his much-celebrated “rolling back” of the Trump tax cuts (a giveaway to the rich of historic proportions) only brings the corporate tax rate to 28%, well short of the 35% pre-Trump rate. Of course all of this does little to address the long-running reality that few profitable multinationals pay anything close to the nominal income tax rate.
Rather than seeking “a fair deal” for the working class, the Biden administration’s agenda should be understood by progressives as the American plutocracy closing ranks against the threat posed to their rule by a coalescent populist left as well as the ascendant quasi-fascism represented by Donald Trump.
It is no secret that Biden’s administration, chock-full of K Street veterans, Clintonite war hawks and officials with cozy ties to Silicon Valley, came to power with the backing of much of the capitalist class. They have pitched themselves as staid imperial managers who, much like Obama once did, seek to cloak the United States’ nakedly exploitative “rules based order” with a veneer of humanitarianism and sustainability. And what project for humanity is this order ordained to protect? Confronted with a declining rate of profit, for the past five decades the oligarchy has sought to tighten its grip on property of all kinds in order to further destabilize the power of labour. As convergent crises of capitalism push the ruling class further toward what French philosopher Cédric Durand called ‘techno-feudalism’, for ordinary people the necessity of radical politics grows only more acute.
It is primarily this neofeudal drive to be the ‘absentee landlord of the world’ that fuels the imperial ambitions of the G7. And it is what makes the emerging multipolar order the most important development of the previous decade. While never to be underestimated, the unipolar world system has been dealt important setbacks in a few areas of strategic importance.
Despite aggressive US coercion in Latin America, the leftist axis of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua has been joined by anti-imperialist governments in Bolivia, Peru and Mexico. Meanwhile intense popular uprisings against client oligarchies in Haiti, Colombia, and Brazil suggest new limits on the west’s ability to project power in the region as alternatives to Washington Consensus politics emerge. In the Pacific, the world’s largest free trade deal was signed without US participation, a pact including China and traditional US proxies like Japan and Australia. The EU-US united front on Russia seems to be cracking, with Germany and France publicly chafing at the self-defeating policy of isolating the country. In Africa, the enduring memory of Libya as but a recent chapter in the sordid history of relations with the West ensures that NATO militarism will continue to face stiff resistance from people’s movements on the continent.
The begrudging concession of the US on the question of vaccine patent waivers (while continuing to insist on a plodding, bureaucratic negotiation at the WTO) is an acknowledgement of this emergent desire for a multipolar system of global governance, with the vaccine solidarity of countries like China, Cuba, Russia and now even Iran having quickly taken the lead from the COVAX system pushed by Western countries in ensuring the Global South can access vaccines, with a willingness to license technologies and invest in production capacity overseas. Words divide, actions unite - and the refusal of governments to simply wait for Western leadership during this pandemic have concretely demonstrated before the world that a future beyond the rules-based order is possible, if only when we have societies where the public is capable and ready to be mobilized in defence of humanity and not simply profit.
This budding South-South consciousness reflects the growing capacity of the would-be victims of capitalism to resist domination, a fearful prospect for managers of empire like Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And so even as the West becomes more transparently authoritarian in some respects (who is surprised that the architect of the draconian 1994 crime bill is once more pushing funds to a violent force which has killed more than 32,000 people since 2000?), our movements here in the imperial core must seize on the space created by this emerging axis of resistance in the global south. And in order to help those fighting subjugation at the hands of Western imperialism, it is imperative that we recognize our struggles are ultimately against a common foe. And so western imperialism must remain the principle contradiction, accelerating ongoing efforts to organize mass movements capable of demonstrating resilient leadership of large-scale working class mobilizations in response to ongoing and emergent crises which will only be resolved through a dialectical apprehension of entangled local and international dimensions.
As an upsurge of youth movements now clamour for leadership of a Western left that for 30 years embraced defeat, the multipolar world and its attendant possibilities await. Whether our movements will be ready to meet it, remains to be seen.
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