The Deindustrialisation of the United States

The situation in which the United States currently finds itself – a lone superpower that lacks true power, a world leader nobody follows and few respect, and a nation drifting dangerously (Wallerstein 2003, 17).

One of the consequences of the supposed ‘end of the Cold War’ in eastern Europe and Russia has been the process of deindustrialisation. With the aggressive ‘shock therapy’ of the 1990s, industries in one country after another in that part of the world were bought up by western European companies and promptly shut down.

On the many occasions I have been in that part of the world, I have passed by former factories, now crumbling and overgrown. Even locals who have no sympathy for communism lament this deindustrialisation. As a consequence, there has been a re-agriculturalisation along with significant temporary or permanent immigration to other parts of the world as people seek work. If the country is large enough, like Russia, it has become a major exporter of raw materials. In Russia at least, there is vigorous debate as to what a re-industrialisation might look like and who would drive it.

But I have a bit slow in picking up that the United States has become increasingly deindustrialised in the last 30 years or so. I do not mean some ‘loss’ – more or less – of manufacturing to overseas locations, but wholesale deindustrialisation. It hit me only recently as I was reading some local Chinese news about the growing trade wars the United States is waging with nearly all countries in the world. As I looked more closely, I saw that the main items exported by the United States are in fact agricultural products. China has been until recently a major importer of soy beans, among other produce. To be sure, there are a few niche industries that continue, such as aircraft manufacture. But Boeing’s main focus is the production of military machines, so it receives significant government support. Further, China – to take one example – has mostly been buying from Airbus, so much so that Airbus has eclipsed Boeing as the leading manufacturer of domestic aircraft in the world. Another niche industry is in some areas of high-technology. Even this is fading, since more new breakthroughs happen in China than in the United States, and China is a net exporter of high-tech products.

There are many angles on this aspect of decline, more than I can mention here. One is the heavy focus in recent years on the ‘financialised market’ (which Marx already foresaw in the third volume of Capital). In this case, money apparently produces more money (M-M1), so much so that wealth is made through speculation and not through actually making anything much. For example, in the first decade of this century a third of manufacturing jobs disappeared, so that now less than ten percent of employment is in manufacture. Meanwhile, financialisation took hold in more and more areas. The catch is that the crucial mediating role of making commodities (M-C-M1) is either concealed or goes elsewhere. By contrast, the Chinese socialist market economy focuses clearly on production, having already been the world’s largest manufacturer for almost a decade. A major feature is significant infrastructure investment and construction. So sustained has this focus become that Chinese technology now outstrips that found elsewhere. No wonder Chinese bids for international projects are usually the best available – blocked occasionally by bumbling politicians elsewhere keen to make themselves look strong.

Another factor is the longer-term decline of the United States. In 2003, Immanuel Wallerstein published The Decline of American Power. It was written immediately in response to the successful attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, but the idea runs further back. In fact, Wallerstein argues that it began with the defeat in Vietnam, in which the communists defeated the vastly superior United States armed forces. It was not even that someone dared to challenge that power, but that they did so successfully. The decline has been economic, ideological and political. At the time he published the book, many dismissed the suggestion that ‘the eagle has crash landed’, but since the Atlantic economic crisis of 2008, many have begun to take notice. Crucially, it is clear on this matter that Trump simply continues the trajectory since the first Bush presidency: a declining power never does so happily. Increasingly, it uses or threatens to use the only thing it has left: military power.

All of which brings me back to deindustrialisation. Not only is the United States becoming mainly a producer of primary materials, but it also has crumbling infrastructure. The cracks become wider, the worn machinery more and more dinted. The place is literally falling apart – materially, socially and politically. By comparison, even Pyongyang has been able to build a shiny new airport.

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2 thoughts on “The Deindustrialisation of the United States

  1. Ir reminds me of the period between 1920-1938. Failing industry, unemployment rising, prices rising, America’s policies of isolationism, followed by a stock market crash. Then more poverty, national belt-tightening, and the rise of the Far Right in parts of Europe, leading to war. Seems like this has all happened before…
    Best wishes, Pete.

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