Book Review: First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship

Please enjoy this review of Richard Lachmann’s First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship by Emily Erikson.
First Class Passengers
Throw me a life vest, please! by Emily Erikson, Yale University 

I think we can all agree that Richard Lachmann’s latest book, First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship, is a masterful work of history and political analysis. The question I want to address is whether this book should be read as an analysis of the current situation of the United States, a work on elite conflict theory, or as a work on imperial decline? Or perhaps this question could be better phrased as whether this work’s greatest contribution is to contemporary analysis of the state of the United States, to the development of elite-conflict theory, or to theories of empire.  Lachmann has developed elite-conflict theory in, for example, earlier works like Capitalists in Spirit of Themselves, and From Manor to Market. In those books, as in this one, Lachmann mobilizes and develops elite-conflict theory to explain large-scale political outcomes. But this most recent book is not really about exploring the possible dimensions and contours of elite-conflict theory as much as it is about explaining imperial decline in general and US imperial decline in particular.  That balance between the general and particular is interesting because for a lot of readers there is going to be some implicit tension between how they feel about the current situation in the US and the idea of the end of US imperial ambitions. On the one hand, we might be ambivalent or even vaguely pleased about the end of an empire but simultaneously sad about the potentially disastrous way that era is winding down in the US.  To this end it should be noted that the book was finalized before the 2020 elections, and things surely looked much worse at that point than they do now, although Lachmann makes clear that he does not believe a change in administrations — however awful one outgoing administration may be — is going to resolve the underlying conflicts over resources propelling the decline of US power. He does, however, carefully keep the different outcomes of imperial decline and societal decline and/or stasis analytically separate.  It is mainly in the concluding chapter that the problem of rising inequality, the rise of populism, and the decline of democratic institutions are addressed. It is clear that the end of US global hegemony is going to play an important role in how these issues play out over time. But it is equally clear that other factors largely unrelated to international relations and global power also play an extremely important role — such as the presence of union organization and corporate tax rates. Just to drive this point home, only three nations have experienced global hegemony and decline, but nearly all nations have experienced changing patterns of inequality and democratization. Despite the fact that this analysis enters in at the end of the book, it is more than sufficient to advance a strong case that elite-conflict theory should also be at the heart of the analysis of these other very concerning trends — whether or not they intersect with imperial decline. In this regard, Lachmann’s analysis makes a nice companion for Thomas Piketty’s recent volumes, Capital and Capital and Ideology, which give quite a lot of information about laws, taxation, and property regimes, but less on the political configurations that give rise to these institutional outcomes and/or the configurations that might lead to the changes for which Piketty advocates.  

First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Power

Lachmann, Richard. 2020. First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Power. Verso Books.

First Class PassengersThe extent and irreversibility of US decline is becoming ever more obvious as America loses war after war and as one industry after another loses its technological edge. Lachmann explains why the United States will not be able to sustain its global dominance. He contrasts America’s relatively brief period of hegemony with the Netherlands’ similarly short primacy and Britain’s far longer era of leadership.

Decline in all those cases was not inevitable and did not respond to global capitalist cycles. Rather, decline is the product of elites’ success in grabbing control of resources and governmental powers. Not only are ordinary people harmed, but also capitalists become increasingly unable to coordinate their interests and adopt policies and make investments necessary to counter economic and geopolitical competitors elsewhere in the world.

Conflicts among elites and challenges by non-elites determine the timing and mold the contours of decline. Lachmann traces the transformation of US politics from an era of elite consensus to present-day paralysis combined with neoliberal plunder, explains the paradox of an American military with an unprecedented technological edge unable to subdue even the weakest enemies, and the consequences of finance’s cannibalization of the US economy.