As a historian I am intrigued by transitions. How does one thing become another? What mechanisms should I be paying attention to? Which are mere diversions?
There is the grand narrative, told by Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein or, more recently, Giovanni Arrighi, that invites us to reflect critically on the broad movements of history: the gradual shift of investment from Italy to Spain and Holland in the 17th century; the gradual shift of investment from Holland to France and England in the 18th; and the shift in investment from England to Germany and the United States at the end of the 19th century; each transition accompanied by successively more horrid wars and followed by empires whose reach extended beyond that of its predecessor. Inviting, of course, the question: what is the next transition? Who will win? Who will lose? What will the casualty count be in the next conflict? Surely more than WWII’s modest 80M.
I am thinking about this today because all the news is Trump and Brexit — which is all so much “Tweedledee and Tweedledum.” It is not that wealth has vacated the scene. Far from it. Investors may still be seen boarding jets in New York, landing in Hong Kong, or boarding jets in London and landing in Dubai. The world of investment has not changed dramatically. And, yet, where they see our future has changed. They are no longer investing in industry — not in the US, not in the UK. Those ships have sailed. And the fact that the US commands the largest nuclear arsenal or that it has more troops garrisoned in more places around globe cannot change the patterns of investment. As surely as the Genoese sent their money to Amsterdam and Barcelona; as much as the Dutch plowed their capital into France and England; and as much as savvy British investors buttered their bread in Germany and the United States; so US investors are now using the US merely as a convenient tax haven, a transit point for higher returns elsewhere in the world: China, India, South America, even the EU.
So, while as a citizen of the US I have some longing for the “Good old Days” when US firms ruled the roost of industrial manufacturing, when union wages were high, job security certain, and the future bright, I entertain few illusions about what the future holds. The image fixed in my mind is of Satan seized by an Angel, tossed into the pits of Hell.
The fall will be violent — is already violent. Tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, will lose their lives. Our environment will be sacrificed. The lives of families escaping from environmental degradation, famine and war will be sacrificed. Whole futures of whole generations are on the chopping block.
And, yet, from a Braudelian point of view, we are simply witnessing a quasi-natural transfer of power — always violent, always destructive — from one hegemon to another — China, the EU, Russia, it hardly matters. In the long run, this is what the world order looks like. It looks like the end.
But, it is not the end. After the millions have been eulogized and narratives of their death historicized; after the disappearance of shorelines and cities has been normalized; after “the dust settles,” so to speak, we will awaken to a world where the US and the UK are peripheral, as peripheral as Genoa or Barcelona or Amsterdam. Mere ciphers in a world that has become something new.