In a 1956 interview with Anna Louise Strong, Mao described American imperialism as a paper tiger. Of course, the military strength of the United States is unparalleled, especially because this country accounts for about half of worldwide military spending. Even so, the last three significant wars have shown that the country has been unable to defeat weak, relatively impoverished countries.
Yes, the US government can bully small countries to make concessions in order to avoid having their government overthrown or experiencing a bout of humanitarian bombing. In another sense, however, the government is a paper tiger, which has been domesticated by big money. We’re coming down to the world of one lobbyist, one vote. Even if the government wanted to aggressively corral business, the global economy allows sufficient escape routes to make business feel secure. For example, tax havens make it virtually impossible to collect significant revenue from major corporations.
Rather than a source of power, more and more, the government is becoming an agent of redistribution, in which the taxes that it does collect are efficiently given back to powerful interest groups. This phenomenon becomes especially pronounced with the elimination or privatization of virtually every public service expected of a healthy government.
Domestically, the government can project power by regulating individual behavior, well on its way to creating a virtual panopticon. A young person downloading music, or a sick person seeking relief from marijuana, or even a woman fearing that her pregnancy could threaten her health may all feel the power of the government. Police in battle gear can bully people seeking redress from their government. In contrast, a major corporation spewing toxins that do great harm to generations of people has nothing to fear.
At the same time, financialization, deindustrialization, the destruction of education, the decline in healthcare for the masses, and many other symptoms of toxic neoliberalism threaten to eventually undermine the grotesque military power of this country, eventually making the US into Mao’s version of a paper tiger. Or, to be less extreme, a second rate power, comparable to previous imperial powers, such as Holland or England.
Michael Perelman is professor of economics at California State University at Chico, and the author of numerous books, including The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (Monthly Review Press, 2011). Read Perelman’s blog Unsettling Economics at <michaelperelman.wordpress.com/>.
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