It is very difficult to know why great empires fall: the causes and their effects are usually whirlwind. But it is clear that the hegemony of the United States, which was consolidated in the second decade of the 20th century, after the “First World War”, did not last much more than a hundred years.
(Its predominance happened, as we know, to the British. That empire was so powerful that, around 1925, an Argentine writer, still a child, Adolfo Bioy Casares, accompanied his wealthy parents on a long sea voyage that traveled the world without touching lands that were not they were English colonies. Many years later the writer would say that what impressed him most was learning, over time, that in those days the British Empire was already finished —and that nobody, then, seemed to realize it. That’s how they end, in general , the greatest powers —the Roman, the Spanish, the English, the American—: their death certificate is signed and they continue to pretend that they are alive and millions continue to believe it.)
The United States always complied with one of the most classic rules of the great empires in history: to the majority of its citizens, the rest of the world —their domains— cared little, they ignored it, they were unaware of it. In this particular case, that majority completed their ignorance with other similar ones: in those days, two out of five Americans believed that a god had created the world and men out of nothing and in their current state a few thousand years earlier —as he said his book of dogmas, the “Bible”. Ignorance worked and surely allowed his powers to handle them more easily. As in other such situations, the domination of the world was in charge of an intensely prepared elite, who believed or pretended to believe that their power was a blessing for that world:
Which worked better while there was an equivalent force supposedly threatening it: for most of the 20th century, in what the kitschism of the time called the “Cold War” against the Soviet Union and “international communism,” the United States presented itself as the defender of democracy, the “leader of the free world” (see chap.3). When that authoritarian block collapsed, in the early 1990s, it seemed that the United States would be left alone in that leadership since, according to one of its best-known theorists, “the end of history” had arrived, its culmination, and nothing but it would change radically.
Of course, the story continued. The United States made the mistake of getting involved in several unnecessary local wars that forced it to maintain a very expensive army (see chapter 22), exported many of its industries to cheaper countries and left part of its population without work or purpose (see chapter .15), allowed levels of inequality that outraged or discouraged millions of citizens (see chapter 3) and, above all, was wrong from the beginning in handling the new rising power, China (see chapter 10). Even so, the ultimate reasons for its decomposition, which marked the end of the Western Age, remain a great debate; If one considers that historians are still discussing the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, more than fifteen centuries ago, it will be understood that we still cannot finish ruling on it.
The reasons for the collapse are still not entirely clear, but the mechanism does seem so: before any military confrontation, the process was basically economic, as befitted those years of hegemony of money (see Prologue).
The enormous US debt, especially with China, put the United States in a weak position that was only maintained because the other states and powers understood that its fall, under these conditions, would be a general fall. Somehow, the conditions were being prepared for his fall to be just his fall: his allies tried to move away. Before, the United States would have its last big scare, a president who thought he could regain primacy—Make America Great Again, America First—and only covered himself in ridicule. We could call it a swan song if it hadn’t been the braying of a donkey. (That president had achieved something highly prized by politicians of the time: not seem political (see chapter 10). A man like him, a multimillionaire thanks to the real estate successes of his father and his own failures, he could denounce the “establishment” and present himself as an outsider. It was pure magic, implausible but effective, that worked for a limited time.)
And, within that debate, which is still open, some analysts insist that the main reason for the American fall was not their own but someone else’s: the unstoppable rise of China. Already in those days authors insisted on remembering that what Western history called the Middle Ages or Dark Ages had been so for Europe but that, on the other hand, it was a great moment for a good part of the rest of the world: Asia from the Mediterranean to China, many areas of Africa, the Mesoamerican empires. And that we should not rule out, they said, the possibility that the process could repeat itself: that the end of the last Western empire would be the opportunity for others to prosper, that the world would go back to what it was before Columbus.
In other words, Chinese power would be, they said, the recovery of a historical constant: that except for a brief period —between 1600 and 2000, from the prologue to the pinnacle of the Western Age— China, the “Empire of the Center”, had always been the most powerful and developed state in the world and, after that interval, had simply returned to being so and, therefore, imposing itself on all the rest.
China’s recovery had begun in the late 1980s: its advantage, in those days, was that its workers, after decades of subjugation, starvation, and privation, were dirt cheap—and, therefore, its industrial costs were unrivaled in the world. rest of the world. Another advantage was that the concentration of power in a single party allowed them absolute control and extreme planning. An author of the time recalls his visit to a medium-sized city, Tianjin, which in 1970 had three million inhabitants and, in 2020, 15 million. There local authorities took him to visit a hangar that contained a large model —20 by 20 meters. “The model represented the city and its port but not as they were then; as they would be in the middle of the 21st century. These gentlemen, very formal, explained every detail to me: how they would build a new port, the highways and railways necessary to serve it, housing for their workers, schools and hospitals for their families, parks, recreational spaces, police stations and barracks, train and bus stations: everything It had been conceived, with its designs and costs and deadlines, by a small group of state planners and surely their plans would be carried out as they were being carried out in so many other similar towns”. Later they took him to visit a textile factory where he spoke, one by one, with about fifteen young workers: “All of them, without exception, had come from the provinces and they declared —in front of their boss— happy to work 10 or 12 hours a day and live in the bedrooms on the floor, with real mattresses and hot water”. In those days, China already had 113 cities with more than a million inhabitants, the same as Europe and the United States combined.
That furious growth paid great costs: the massive destruction of the environment, the uprooting of hundreds of millions of peasants who abandoned their lands to go to work in the cities, their increasing dependence on market conditions, their growing dissatisfaction and resentment. —which increased to the extent that they saw that, while they had to resign themselves to subsistence wages, an urban “bourgeoisie” was emerging with increasingly ostentatious luxury consumption.
(On the other hand, the Western concern for their “freedoms” was not shared by the majority of the Chinese. There was an element that Western analysts could not compute: that this society, which they rightly considered authoritarian and repressive, was the most freedom that that people had known in its four thousand years of history —and that, furthermore, allowed them to eat every day.)
As its workers got better wages, China began to shift the simplest productions to countries with less pretensions and focused increasingly on the most sophisticated. Their development, it is true, maintained Western features: they carried it out with objects and customs and machines and procedures designed in the United States and Europe to live lives made up of computers, cars, skyscrapers, production lines, beers, telephones, televisions, blue jeans, sneakers, trains What had triumphed was not the East but a displaced, corrected West, with cheaper labor —capable of appropriating its products and manufacturing and selling them for its own benefit— and a heavy hand from the state. A country that, in many ways, functioned like England or Germany in the 19th century,
That is why some historians still dispute the end of the Western Age. They argue that the political and economic pre-eminence of the West had ended but was replaced by powers based on their ideas and models and that, therefore, their ways of thinking about the world they continued to prevail.
It is true that, despite its economic and geopolitical power, Chinese culture had not yet penetrated the rest of the world. Their only reference was, if anything, food, which had spread a century before from their great migrations. But neither his music, nor his literature, nor his cinema, nor his philosophy, nor any other cultural manifestation was then part of the global heritage: it was curious that a country that concentrated a fifth of the world’s population and much of its industry and powers, had nothing of what was then called “soft power”, soft power.
Experts are still debating whether it was because they were not interested in trying it or because they had not yet found the appropriate ways. We know, however, how it would all end.
In any case, beyond the labels, that authoritarian state had managed, for the first time in a history full of famines, to feed almost everyone. The number of undernourished people would have dropped —according to very doubtful accounts— from almost 300 million in 1980 to about 150 million in 2020 and meat consumption rose in that period from 20 kilos per head and per year to almost 60. Meanwhile, the GDP per Captain, a big liar, went from about 300 euros that year to about 10,000 in 2020. Inequalities —although the official discourse continued to deny them— increased in the same proportion. In a couple of generations, one of the most egalitarian countries in the world had become one of the most unequal.
In the Third Decade the rate of Chinese growth had slowed and, at the same time, its leaders ended up assuming that they had to expand. For years international commentators had drawn on the precedent of the great failed expeditions of the fifteenth century—when Emperor Ming’s fleets reached the African shores, scoured them with disdain, and decided the wilderness was not worth worrying about—to surmise that China would continue to despise the rest of the planet and concentrate on itself: that the old Empire of the Center would continue to be uninterested in the barbarians. But its leaders of the 21st century understood that, in this globalized world, autarky was not possible: that if they wanted to maintain their position they had to extend it around the globe.
They don’t find it difficult. They had these extraordinary reserves of money, the product of several decades of exports well above their imports—in a world where the other big ones were overflowing with debt—so they were able to take their investments to all corners. Its infrastructure works—ports, gas pipelines, highways, railways, and other means of improving its trade—spread the world. And its success made its country model a temptation for many others, who began to wonder if order was not a condition for progress, understood as the access of many people to levels of consumption that they had never had before.
The idea was not yet attractive in the Rich World, where basic consumption used to be guaranteed, but it found more echoes in the Poor World. The “Chinese example” showed that there could be capitalist development with a one-party regime and more than limited liberties, or even that a strong and controlling state could be better for developing the economy. The Chinese Communist Party had 90 million members and it was very difficult to prosper without being part of it: for the official discourse, that 10 percent of the adult population was “a select and enthusiastic vanguard”, the ones who really cared about the destinations. of their town or something like that, and therefore it was logical that they were the ones who made the decisions. Which, of course, didn’t happen either. Power was perfectly concentrated in the higher instances of the party which, at the time, he headed a 24-member “politburo”, all men, commanded by a seven-man “standing committee” headed by President Xi Jinping: all of whom were over the age of 60. The “macho gerontocracy” label was, of course, widely used.
Another leg of the Chinese model was undoubtedly social control and, when it did not work, direct repression. But the omnipresent state did not usually need it: its control of its citizens was extreme. A single video surveillance project, Operation Xue Liang —Sharp Eyes— used some 200 million cameras distributed in all corners of large cities and crude computers that recognized anyone’s faces. This was supposed to limit crimes and attempts to contest; the punishments applied, meanwhile, were also extreme: China was, in those days, the world’s largest executor of the death penalty.
To these internal political mechanisms were added, abroad, the constant increase in its armed forces, its threats to invade Taiwan —an then-independent island that they considered part of their territory—, their flirtations with Russia about the formation of a warlike alliance, and the cunning of not appearing as judges or preachers.
Citizens in the Chinese city of Chaoyang in the district of Beijing, China, on December 30, 2022. Bloomberg
It was, among other things, a way to distance themselves from the American intervention model, irritating to many regimes. Where the United States had spent a century lecturing on morals and arguing that it should “defend democracy and freedom”—which had allowed it to pursue its economic and political interests everywhere and engage in wars and coups—China declared that “there is no single model to guide countries in the establishment of democracy. A country can choose the ways and methods of implementing democracy that best suit its particular situation, based on its social and political system, its historical background, its traditions, and its unique cultural characteristics. It corresponds exclusively to the people of the country to decide if their State is democratic”.
Unlike the previous power, the Chinese did not try to impose their model or to influence or interfere in the political definitions of their client countries: it was enough for them to show that it was “successful”—that it produced more wealth without moral alibis. Or, better: that his moral alibi was that success. They assured, instead, that they would support —with money, with materials, with power— the countries beyond their political regimes: that they renounced managing or judging them; that they, too, had suffered that violence and knew what it was, and that they never would. We know the consequences of that idea.
On the other hand, China was the only major country capable of controlling its companies, just at the moment when the great globalized corporations of the West began to surpass, with their power, the nation states, and confusion spread. Not only because of their reach and influence: companies like Google —an information organizer— or Facebook —a public square— acted beyond those borders and imposed their own rules that often went beyond the laws of each country. For that they used the collaboration of the “politicians”: through various corruption, job offers, coercion and threats, espionage, communion of interests, friendship and favors, simple fear, the majority of the participants in the government structures ended up favoring those companies with their actions and omissions.
In a time of rampant nationalism, the paradox was served: nations were led and represented by a nominal state, which still fulfilled many functions but failed to ensure the main one, which guaranteed all the others: the collection of taxes, which the large globalized corporations dodged. Already then, voices were beginning to be heard calling for the adaptation of political powers to the new economic circumstances: if the economy did not accept national limits, it was up to find supranational political forms that could control it beyond those limits. Nationalisms, suddenly, were the best allies of multinationals.
In this, China was also privileged. There, the large global digital corporations —communication, relationship, sales— were blocked, and there were local equivalents that fulfilled the same functions. Those Chinese companies were very successful: they had this absolutely captive market of 1.4 billion consumers. But they operated, like the old Western companies, in a single country, and were, therefore, obliged to comply with the directives of the state of that country – which was, moreover, one determined to be obeyed. Not only did they have to pay whatever the state wanted; They also had to provide him with all the information he requested. Thanks to that, state control of Chinese citizens—increased to levels that the great dictators would have envied. In the rest of the world, all that information, those controls, were more in private hands: in this, too, the traditional nation-states were losing their place. The true shape of the world was, increasingly, its economy.