Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Alfred W. McCoy: In the Shadows of the American Century:
The Rise and Decline of US Global Power

This book is a mixture of history and commentary on the contemporary situation with regard to the “American empire” and the role of the U.S. in the world over the past century and more. Our group had a favorable to quite-favorable view of it, and our group average rating, on a scale of 0 to 10, was 7.38.

Barbara found the book very educational and said it is well written. However, since some of the major topics are American wars, torture, and other very unpleasant things, there was a lot of material in the book that she really didn’t want to read about. She had to force herself to read it, and perhaps for that reason rated it just a 5.

Ron said he agreed with the perspective of the book. He commented that the U.S. lost the moral high ground long ago. He pointed out that the American middle class is disappearing rapidly and for this and many other reasons the rate of decline of the United States and the American empire is actually much faster than McCoy assumes, and American world dominance will be over long before the 2030-2040 timeframe that McCoy predicts. Ron rated it 7.

Kevin said that he hadn’t really read the book, but based on his perusal gave it a 6. He emphasized the expense of maintaining the American empire and talked about the dangers to American society pointed out by Eisenhower in his farewell speech about the military-industrial complex. “It’s easy for the average American not to pay attention to what is being done in their name,” he said. Instead of American wars like the War on Terror solving problems, “they actually create terrorists faster than they kill them.” Kevin also commented that if we can’t find a way to avoid a war with China, nobody will win, and added that “if World War III is avoided it will be because of China, not the U.S.”. And he predicted that the U.S. as a world power won’t last another 30 years.

Vicki said the book covered a lot of ground, and a lot of material which she already knew about. She was interested to learn that back in the 1920s some Republicans were actually opposed to the development of today’s surveillance state. She felt that both parties, at various times, have tried to put limits on the process, but it has gotten away from them anyway. With regard to Obama, Vicki summarized his role as trying to cut back on foreign wars and trying to save money. But with drone warfare, massive surveillance, and such, it was extremely dangerous to the world and American society what Obama was trying to put in place. She added that Obama was trying to bolster the U.S. economy without getting rid of U.S. power in the world. She agreed with the book that the Bush administration’s wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) were the first blow to the U.S. reputation in the world. Vicki added that the U.S. decline is due to the great cost of maintaining the empire. Overall, she called the book very informative though not perfectly written. Her rating: 8.

John thought the first half and the second half of the book were somewhat in conflict with each other. The first half tried to make the case that though the U.S. wanted to be a benevolent hegemon its actions were counterproductive or extreme, and many of them have blown up in their face. This part of the book was also more critical of American power, focused on ill-advised wars, torture, U.S. government surveillance and manipulation at home and in other countries, and so forth. But the second half of the book seemed to be more pro-imperialist and argued not so much that American power was unjustified as that it should be “done right” (more wisely or more in keeping with America’s self-proclaimed principles).

John felt that McCoy is saying that the U.S. is faltering and that China is supplanting the U.S. as the strongest power in the world, but that this is largely due to ineptness and stupidity on the part of American leaders. John thinks it is a bit more complicated than that: the wealthy, the ruling class, are merely trying to advance their own economic and short-term political interests at the expense of the long-term interests of the country and even their own long-term interests. (Our whole group then discussed this point and many of us agreed that the short-term economic interests of the rich and their corporations had, for example, led them to close many U.S. factories and move a lot of production to cheap-labor China, while they were oblivious to the long-term consequences this would have for the U.S. as an manufacturing nation.) But John agreed with a lot of McCoy’s points. “China will have much more global influence over the next 25 years.” John said the topic in this book is important and rates the book as an 8.

Kirby gave the book our highest rating, a 10. But he also noted that there are various different ways of viewing this book. He couldn’t tell for sure if it is attempting to be an objective historical work, or if it is opposing the U.S. empire, or if it is more along the lines of critically supporting the American empire. Nevertheless, Kirby said there are more than a few interesting things in the book. “I agree with all his points,” Kirby said. “We are declining; we shouldn’t be torturing; we are losing out to China...” He adds that “this is an extremely important book”. But Kirby is still not quite sure exactly where McCoy himself is coming from. “I would really like to know what he thinks!”

Kirby then raised a central issue: Should we even care if the U.S. is not “number one” in economic or political power any more? But Kirby himself seemed to be of two minds about this. “If America is not number one, so what?!” he asked. He added that he has no problem with the U.S. decline. And even if the U.S. is not “the” dominant power, he thinks the U.S. will long remain one of the dominant powers. On the other hand, given “human nature”, says Kirby, whichever country is the dominant power it is going to do really bad things and be shit! And would we rather that be the U.S. or another country like China?! (This seems to suggest that Kirby does care after all that the U.S. is losing out and will soon no longer be “number one”.)

Rich missed the meeting, but sent us these comments:

As far as my book review I give the book a 7 rating. I like the term Shadows in the book title because to me there are two very different United States. First there is we the working class people and then there is all the covert operations the military, CIA, and whoever are up to. For the working class a lot of these covert operations are in the Shadows. Thanks to Wikileaks, Snowden and others this stuff is coming out of the Shadows. The author does a good job of chronicling this history. I agree that the U.S. is in decline but my main concern is our integrity. If it takes imperialism and covert operations to maintain our #1 spot I’d rather shelve all this behavior and drop to wherever we drop.

One point on which those of us in our group had various differences with McCoy was about which historical point can be said to mark the beginning of the decline of America power. McCoy claims future historians are likely to say it was in 2003 with the start of George W. Bush’s disastrous War in Iraq. Kirby said it is more likely to be a combination of the election of Obama, and the resulting racist reaction which that election awakened among reactionaries in the U.S., along with the election of Trump. But Vicki and others disagreed with that. Scott thinks the decline is basically due to capitalist economics and its beginning therefore goes much further back than that, at least to the start of the Long Slowdown in the U.S. economy which began around 1973. Or perhaps the start of America’s more obvious decline relative to another country could be marked later, with the full emergence of capitalist China as a new imperialist power around 2001 when it joined the World Trade Organization.

As is often the case, Scott wrote up his own extensive comments about this book. Here’s his review:

For me this book had two aspects, one positive, one negative. The positive aspect is that it contains a lot of detailed exposure of the nefarious activities and crimes of U.S. imperialism. The negative aspect is that—despite this criticism and exposure of the “American empire”—the book is still written from a solidly bourgeois perspective, albeit a liberal one. In this mini review I’ll focus on that negative aspect, but I do wish to emphasize that the book is quite valuable because of all the exposures, and I strongly recommend it to others. Even Marxist revolutionaries, who already understand full well that American capitalist-imperialism is a viciously evil system, which is fortunately finally on its last legs, can make good use of the political ammunition these exposures provide to help hasten the demise of this horrendous system. Because of this positive aspect to the book, and despite of its quite negative ideological aspect, I’ll give it a rating of 8.

One thing to immediately note about the book is the refusal of the author to use the word “imperialism” in his extensive discussion of the American empire. It is almost as if he believes that there can be an empire without there being any imperialism! Why such a bizarre stance? Well, what is pretty obvious here is that McCoy is scared to use the words that Marxists use to describe “empires” in the modern capitalist era. He is scared to death of being called a Marxist! Of course he is not a Marxist, but liberals in America are still frightened souls who dare not give even the faintest impression that they agree with Marxists in any way, even to the point of avoiding the terms that Marxists frequently use, however inconvenient it is to avoid those words.

It is interesting to check the index to see the words and names that are omitted. The word “imperialism” of course, or any reference to Lenin, the premier theorist of modern capitalist-imperialism. There is one sole reference to Marxism (p. 15), where he “explains” why he carefully avoids the word “imperialism”—because it is a “Marxist-inflected term”. What a whimpering, gutless bourgeois academic he is! At several places in the book (pp. 46, 53, 84) McCoy refers to the concept of neocolonialism as the form of imperialism that the U.S. favors (as opposed to old-style open colonialism), but never refers to it by that name (which is the way it is most commonly referred to in the world—and not just by Marxists). Why not? No doubt because it is another “Marxist-inflected term”. You have to laugh at a brow-beaten, ultra-timid, ultra-nervous guy like this, who is scared to death of being called a radical! Instead he uses vague and amorphous terms like “global hegemony” rather than the much more precisedly defined term neocolonialism.

Another word that McCoy dare not use is “capitalism”, which also doesn’t appear in the index. He is simply too much of a bourgeois ideologist to recognize or admit that the American empire, like the British, German, Italian and Japanese empires before it (and also the Soviet empire in the state-capitalist period), had any necessary connection with capitalism as a socio-economic system. The fact that McCoy cannot understand and face up to this elementary truth is one of the most fundamental flaws in the book, and leads to many subsidiary errors. Here he is, writing a book about the rise and current fall of the American empire, without even recognizing the most essential economic nature of that empire and why it had to come to be and why it must now necessarily collapse.

Because McCoy doesn’t recognize why the advanced capitalist countries had to turn to imperialism (to expand their markets, to expand their exploitation to larger parts of the world, to export their excess capital, to find new sources of cheap raw materials and cheap labor, etc.) he cannot possibly properly explain why modern imperialism—including the “American empire”—arose in the first place. And because he can’t understand the inherent contradictions in capitalism, and most essentially, the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, he can’t understand the deepest reasons why the American empire is now in ever-more serious decline.

McCoy talks about the overreach of the American empire with the disastrous and endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the now perpetual War Against Terror throughout the Middle East and way beyond. He says the American decline can be measured from the start of the Iraq War in 2003. But this makes it seem like the decline of U.S. imperialism is a mere political accident, that didn’t have to happen at all. He can’t explain why capitalist “empires” always begin to overextend themselves in the end and what the deeper reasons are for this. In reality, the most fundamental explanations for America’s decline are 1) the inherent tendency of capitalism toward economic crisis, and the long-running and still-developing current overproduction crisis that began around 1973; and 2) the inevitable uneven development of different capitalist-imperialist countries, which leads some to move ahead and then later to fall behind.

McCoy doesn’t talk much about economic crises. In one of the hypothetical scenarios for the future he does consider a possible bad recession sometime in the 2020s. But since he doesn’t understand capitalism it never occurs to him that there might be something far worse than that in store—namely a new, intractable great depression. McCoy does recognize that the climate change problem is aggravating the U.S. predicament (though of course he does not see that as in any way the result of capitalism). But he fails to see the vastly bigger growing capitalist economic crisis problem as being even an aggravating factor, let alone the basic cause, of the decline of the American empire. His economic ignorance and blindness is really quite amazing, though typical of bourgeois ideologists.

Yet another extremely important term you won’t find in McCoy’s book is “fascism”. One of the clearest lessons of history—and McCoy, after all, is a historian—is that in times of economic and political turmoil and crisis, such as the present, governments are ever more likely to further curb the little true democracy and rights of the masses which exist, and resort to more and more fascist laws and measures, and even make the full-blown switch at some point from bourgeois democracy to outright fascism. The growth of fascism is indeed a major characteristic of the decline and crisis for most modern empires. But McCoy has nothing to say about it. The reason? No doubt the usual bourgeois excuse: fascism is identified in their superficial minds almost exclusively with the absence of elections and not with the growing restrictions on the rights of free speech, press, protest, assembly and organization, or even their virtual elimination. For bourgeois ideologists there is no such thing as fascism as long as there are elections—no matter how useless or meaningless those elections are.

McCoy mostly talks in polite and supportive terms about the American empire. Thus instead of referring to U.S. weapons (including many ferocious weapons of mass destruction) he calls it “America’s arsenal” just as imperialist U.S. presidents do. (P. 186) He frequently seems to be glowing with pride at the technical wonders of the latest American machinery for mass murder. (See chapter 6 on the “Pentagon’s Wonder Weapons”.) I think this is why John and Kirby in our group found it difficult to determine exactly where McCoy is coming from, even given his criticisms of U.S. wars, torture and the surveillance state. He argues that America means well despite its very frequent support for “autocrats and dictators”, and its frequent overthrow of democratically elected foreign governments. (P. 78.) He absurdly describes the U.S. naval domination of the oceans as being for the purpose of protecting the “freedom of the seas” (p. 216), even though he admits elsewhere that among its other purposes is to potentially deny China access to Middle Eastern oil by blocking the Straits of Mallaca (p. 198). McCoy describes the advent of American imperialism some 125 years ago as America “first stepping onto the world stage” (p. 160). Talk about putting lipstick on a pig! Despite his criticism of what he no doubt considers to be “some excesses” of the American empire he still basically supports it. He’s what we might reasonably call a “critical supporter” of the American empire. In other words: Just another naïve and disgusting liberal apologist for U.S. imperialism.

McCoy is a real fan of certain American imperialist shapers and leaders, and he especially singles out the Wall Street lawyer and long-time influential government official Elihu Root for praise in getting the basic mechanisms of the American empire first established; Zbigniew Brzezinski for supposedly wiping out the USSR in the deadly Cold War competition between capitalist empires; and his most recent hero, Barack Obama. Every one of them a mass murderer. But McCoy lauds them as “grandmasters” of geopolitics. Man, oh man! You can tell who a person really is by who they select as their heroes.

In actual fact the fall of the Soviet Union was only slightly sped up by its entrapment in a Vietnam-type of quagmire in Afghanistan; the central reason for its collapse was the fact that its form of state capitalism was even more moribund than the monopoly capitalism in the West (which is also failing, but at a slower pace), and therefore it could no longer economically compete with the West. McCoy’s erroneous analysis of the reason for the collapse of the USSR is just another aspect of his deeply bourgeois conception of the world.

The weird thing about his labelling of Brzezinski and Obama as “grandmasters” of geopolitics is that he does so even while recognizing that they were both failures in the end. Even if we (falsely) grant that Brzezinski “destroyed” the Soviet Union, McCoy says that he’s also responsible for the present endless War on Terror that the U.S. can’t possibly win. (Actually, that too would have developed even without the early support by the CIA for bin Laden and al Qaeda, and once again all Brzezinski actually did was speed up the process a little bit.) Similarly, McCoy as much as admits that the supposed underappreciated brilliance of the “grandmaster” Obama’s efforts to maintain the American empire have essentially disappeared with not much of a trace.

Some of McCoy’s views and scenarios are utterly ridiculous. One of most absurd is his scenario for “World War III” between the U.S. and China in coming decades in which China defeats the U.S. through cyber warfare “without a single combat casualty on either side” (pp. 246-9). His “logic” is that the Chinese might jump so far ahead of the U.S. in cyber war abilities that the U.S. GPS satellites guiding nuclear missiles could be sabotaged so that those missile fall harmlessly into the oceans. It is surprising how naïve McCoy is when it comes to technological issues like this. He seems not to know that ballistic missiles can be controlled by internal inertial guidance systems without the need for any GPS guidance or outside direction whatsoever. (This indeed was the way things were done before GPS.) As soon as the U.S. recognizes that there is even the most remote possibility that its GPS systems can be subverted it will of course switch back to inertial or other types of secure guidance systems. But perhaps it is somehow quite reassuring to liberals to imagine that even an upcoming World War III engaged in by “their country” might be fought “without any casualties”! The actual reality in the world today dominated by imperialist powers and their growing contention is much more desperate for humanity. We should not be fooling ourselves about the terrible dangers ahead.

McCoy’s technical ignorance is much more widespread in the economics sphere, and even if you don’t take into account his total ignorance of Marxist political economy. For example, a major theme of the book is that while the U.S. still has the biggest economy today, it is almost certain that China will surpass it by 2030 or 2040 at the latest. In reality, China has already surpassed the U.S. in the real size of its economy! McCoy doesn’t recognize this because he has presumably never heard of something called Purchasing Power Parity. How do you compare the size of two economies anyway? If they both use the same currency you can add up all the purchases of goods and services in each country and compare the two directly. But what if they don’t use the same currency? Then there are two different procedures. The easy, but very misleading procedure is to convert the GDP in one country expressed in its local currency into the currency of the other country based on the international exchange rate of the two currencies. However, economists recognize full well that this distorts reality, because the internal prices for commodities in the two countries do not in general correspond to the international exchange rate ratios.

If China, for example, hypothetically produces twice the amount of steel that the U.S. does (actually it is much more than that!), but the price of steel in China is less than half that of the U.S. at the international currency exchange rate, it will falsely appear that China’s steel industry is smaller than that of the U.S. when it is really twice as big! So to correctly—and honestly!—compare the size of two international economies you must use the PPP conversion rate for currencies. In 2016, according to the World Bank, in the exchange rate comparison the U.S. GDP was $18.57 trillion while China’s was only $11.20 trillion. But in that same year, if you use the PPP conversion factor, with the U.S. GDP still at $18.57 trillion, China’s actual GDP was considerably bigger than the U.S. and had already reached $21.42 trillion. Either McCoy is unaware of this, or else he prefers to hide the truth about the fact that China’s economy is already substantially bigger than that of the U.S. in the same way that the U.S. government does—namely by disingenuously using the phony prevailing currency conversion rate statistics. So this is either economic incompetence or outright dishonesty.

I could go on and on about the ideological shortcomings of this book, and the resulting distortions of reality. But I’ll wrap this up by emphasizing once again that this is a bourgeois book all right! One-hundred percent. Ideologically it is a gutless, superficial, simple-minded bourgeois book filled with gross omissions and elementary conceptual errors, and even some surprising technical ignorance at times. But at the same time, it is also a book filled with many well-expressed exposures of a number of the specific evil deeds and crimes of American imperialism. And that’s what makes it worthwhile and useful.

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