Is The US Sparta, and The World Our Helots?
Perhaps you already know the legend of the Helots and Sparta. The Helots were the slave class of Sparta, and the cornerstone of its mindset. The famous military society of Sparta and its “spartan” lifestyle of discipline and deprivation was built around a paranoia that if Sparta were to fall, it would be to a Helot uprising. That fateful uprising never happened; instead, a critical military defeat led to a slow decline as Sparta failed to adapt to the changing world around it.
Helots were subjected to various ritualistic brutalizations to keep them in line. This included an annual declaration of war against Helots, systematic humiliation, regular whippings, and state-sanctioned massacre. Helots were perhaps given some level of autonomy, but only under the condition that they be constantly reminded of their inferior status and never try to rise above their station.
We can see some hints towards a Spartan-like culture in the modern United States. Our military budget exceeds the following nine highest spenders combined, accounting for 39% of the world’s military spending. While we do not generally promote temperance and self-control in our consumer society, we do own the distinction of having perhaps the worst social programs of any country at our level of economic development.
Additionally, we see a number of perspectives argue that the interventions, for they cannot properly be called “wars”, in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, are not about control over ideology or resources, but rather the maintenance of a monetary, political, or economic system enforced by US hegemony. In the case of the philosopher Baudrillard, 9/11 is understood as a reversal of the master/slave dialectic that had to be replaced with massive death and constant surveillance inflicted by the United States in order to preserve its global system. In other circles, I have heard conspiracy theories that the United States overthrew Qaddafi to prevent Libya from developing a currency independent of the US dollar.
Maybe no ideology has more at stake in this idea than post-Soviet Marxism-Leninism. Its system was implemented in countries all over the world, and yet it has been a disaster nearly every time it has been tried. Either these failures are due to the program and ideology itself, or blame must be given to outside forces, namely the United States and international capital. Ironically, perhaps the most successful iteration of Marxism-Leninism still exists in Cuba, the nation most prone to meddling by the United States. Of course, to their credit, the United States has a long list of coups and military interventions aimed at destroying even mild iterations of socialism.
If the United States are Spartans, then who are the Helots? Who is meant to be at the receiving end of the ritualistic brutalizations of the United States? Naturally, it must be the third world. Besides sweat shop labor and other regimes of back-breaking work and extremely low pay, tens of millions of literal slaves help support our modern supply chains. Without a global regime in which the United States controls the political destinies of other countries, it may no longer be able to extract labor from the people it dominates. This might mean I’d have to stop reading Deleuze and work much longer hours to maintain the lifestyle I’m accustomed to.
I didn’t write this article to express my own views. Rather, I wanted to put a name to a belief I find is held implicitly by many people, particularly on the left. I have two primary critiques of this viewpoint. First, it is far too nihilistic: it presupposes that other nations are unable to decide their own destinies without destroying the United States first. This is almost certainly not going to happen; the Helots outnumbered their Spartan overlords and initiated multiple slave rebellions, but ultimately were not freed until Thebes conquered Messenia and reformer kings gradually manumitted them as the city state declined. The power differential between the United States and the rest of the world is even more dramatic, as we saw in Iraq. Second, it is demeaning to the rest of the world: it presupposes that they haven’t been responsible for their own failures or successes, and that their contributions ultimately don’t really matter in the course of world history. Singapore, North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Iran, Rojava, and the Zapatista movement are clear examples to the opposite. Self-determination and multipolarity is still possible in the world today, even if the United States makes it difficult.
I’m not going to argue for an absolution of the United States: its violent outbursts and exploitative world system are beyond that. Rather, I refuse to conceptualizing the world system as a mere projection of the United States. The globe is still an ecosystem, and we don’t even know for how long the United States will remain the sole apex predator. I believe that the future is not in tearing down the current global system, the consequences of which are impossible to predict, but in building a new one. This must be done within the confines of a world system run by the US, but constraints have always existed and will continue to exist no matter who is in power.
For fans of US hegemony, there is another lesson here. Sparta’s military defeat ultimately stemmed from a build-up of resentment, for they were often abusive towards their neighbors. As Sparta lost the good will of other nations, Thebes emerged as a major power and took the opportunity to turn Sparta’s former allies against it and establish a new order. I have already written about how competitor nations like China are currently establishing their own prestige and alliance system based on being alternatives to the United States and its coercive, often brutal hegemony. The United States is going to need to learn how to cooperate with other nations as equal partners, or in a few centuries it may end up as irrelevant as Sparta.