Richard Lachmann’s First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers (Verso, 2020) is a two-for-one deal. The first half of the book is a historical analysis of why some empires transform their geopolitical power into global hegemony while others fail to do so, and why hegemons eventually lose their global predominance. Focusing on the great European empires (Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands), Lachmann argues that while imperial expansion can deliver more resources to their centers, they can also create dynamics of elite conflict and complacency that can either prevent an empire from attaining global preeminence, or prevent hegemons from undertaking reforms that would be necessary to maintain their power advantages over emerging rivals. His theoretical framework breaks from internalist theories of state formation and regime change by demonstrating how imperial expansion affects political development in the metropole.
In the second half of the book, Lachmann uses his theory of elite politics to analyze the decline of US geopolitical power from its post-World War II heights, which has manifested itself in rising inequality, increasing economic instability, and the failure to win wars despite its massive military budget. He shows how financialization has fostered predatory, short-termist accumulation strategies for economic elites, as they prioritize maximizing shareholder value over long-term investment. At the same time, military officers and weapons contractors team up to prevent reorganization of the military away from expensive high-tech conventional weapons towards resources that would be more useful for fighting insurgencies. In both cases, elites have been able to use their organizational resources to secure their own interests at the expense of the national interest.