End Of Empire,
End Of Civilization?
23 February, 2005
is quite ironic: only a decade or so after the idea of the United States
as an imperial power came to be accepted by both right and left, and
people were actually able to talk openly about an American empire, it
is showing multiple signs of its inability to continue. And indeed it
is now possible to contemplate, and openly speculate about, its collapse.
The neocons in power
in Washington these days, those who were delighted to talk about America
as the sole empire in the world following the Soviet disintegration,
will of course refuse to believe in any such collapse, just as they
ignore the realities of the imperial war in Iraq. But I think it behooves
us to examine seriously the ways in which the U.S. system is so drastically
imperiling itself that it will cause not only the collapse of its worldwide
empire but drastically alter the nation itself on the domestic front.
All empires collapse
eventually: Akkad, Sumeria, Babylonia, Ninevah, Assyria, Persia, Macedonia,
Greece, Carthage, Rome, Mali, Songhai, Mongonl, Tokugawaw, Gupta, Khmer,
Hapbsburg, Inca, Aztec, Spanish, Dutch, Ottoman, Austrian, French, British,
Soviet, you name them, they all fell, and most within a few hundred
years. The reasons are not really complex. An empire is a kind of state
system that inevitably makes the same mistakes simply by the nature
of its imperial structure and inevitably fails because of its size,
complexity, territorial reach, stratification, heterogeneity, domination,
hierarchy, and inequalities.
In my reading of
the history of empires, I have come up with four reasons that almost
always explain their collapse. (Jared Diamond's new book Collapse also
has a list of reasons for societal collapse, slightly overlapping, but
he is talking about systems other than empires.) Let me set them out,
largely in reference to the present American empire.
degradation. Empires always end by destroying the lands and waters they
depend upon for survival, largely because they build and farm and grow
without limits, and ours is no exception, even if we have yet to experience
the worst of our assault on nature. Science is in agreement that all
important ecological indicators are in decline and have been for decades:
erosion of topsoils and beaches, overfishing, deforestation, freshwater
and aquifer depletion, pollution of water, soil, air, and food, soil
salinization, overpopulation , overconsumption, depletion of oil and
minerals, introduction of new diseases and invigoration of old ones,
extreme weather, melting icecaps and rising sealevels, species extinctions,
and excessive human overuse of the earth's photosynthetic capacity.
As the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has said, after lengthy examination
of human impact on the earth, our "ecological footprint is already
too large for the planet to sustain, and it is getting larger."
A Defense Department study last year predicted "abrupt climate
change," likely to occur within a decade, will lead to "catastrophic"
shortages of water and energy, endemic "disruption and conflict,"
warfare that "would define human life," and a "significant
drop" in the planet's ability to sustain its present population.
End of empire for sure, maybe end of civilization.
meltdown. Empires always depend on excessive resource exploitation,
usually derived from colonies farther and farther away from the center,
and eventually fall when the resources are exhausted or become too expensive
for all but the elite. This is exactly the path we are on-peak oil extraction,
for example, is widely predicted to come in the next year or two-and
our economy is built entirely on a fragile system in which the world
produces and we, by and large, consume (U.S. manufacturing is just 13
per cent of our GDP). At the moment we sustain a nearly $630 billion
trade deficit with the rest of the world-it has leapt by an incredible
$500 billion since 1993, and $180 billion since Bush took office in
2001-and in order to pay for that we have to have an inflow of cash
from the rest of the world of about $1 billion every day to pay for
it, which was down by half late last year. That kind of excess is simply
unsustainable, especially when you think that it is the other world
empire, China, that is crucial for supporting it, at the tune of some
$83 billion on loan to the U.S. treasury.
Add to that an economy
resting on a nearly $500 billion Federal budget deficit, making up part
of a total national debt of $7.4 trillion as of last fall, and the continual
drain on the economy by the military of at least $530 billion a year
(not counting military intelligence, whose figure we never know). Nobody
thinks that is sustainable either, which is why the dollar has lost
value everywhere-down by 30 per cent against the euro since 2000-and
the world begins to lose faith in investment here. I foresee that in
just a few years the dollar will be so battered that the oil states
will no longer want to operate in that currency and will turn to the
euro instead, and China will let the yuan float against the dollar,
effectively making this nation bankrupt and powerless, unable to control
economic life within its borders much less abroad.
overstretch. Empires, because they are by definition colonizers, are
always forced to extend their military reach farther and farther, and
enlarge it against unwilling colonies more and more, until coffers are
exhausted, communication lines are overextended, troops are unreliable,
and the periphery resists and ultimately revolts. The American empire,
which began its worldwide reach well before Bush II, now has some 446,000
active troops at more than 725 acknowledged (and any number secret)
bases in at least 38 countries around the world, plus a formal "military
presence" in no less than 153 countries, on every continent but
Antarctica-and nearly a dozen fully armed courier fleets on all the
oceans. Talk about overstretch: the U.S. is less than 5 per cent of
the world's population. And now that Bush has declared a "war on
terror," instead of the more doable war on Al Quada we should have
waged, our armies and agents will be on a battlefield universal and
permanent that cannot possibly be controlled or contained.
So far that military
network has not collapsed, but as Iraq indicates it is mightily tested
and quite incapable of establishing client states to do our bidding
and protect resources we need. And as anti-American sentiment continues
to spread and darken-in all the Muslim countries, in much of Europe,
in much of Asia-and as more countries refuse the "structural adjustments"
that our IMF-led globalization requires, it is quite likely that the
periphery of our empire will begin resisting our dominance, militarily
if necessary. And far from having a capacity to fight two wars simultaneously,
as the Pentagon once hoped, we are proving that we can't even fight
dissent and upheaval. Traditional empires end up collapsing from within
as well as often being attacked from without, and so far the level of
dissent within the U.S. has not reached the point of rebellion or secession-thanks
both to the increasing repression of dissent and escalation of fear
in the name of "homeland security" and to the success of our
modern version of bread and circuses, a unique combination of entertainment,
sports, television, internet sex and games, consumption, drugs, liquor,
and religion that effectively deadens the general public into stupor.
But the tactics of the Bush II administration show that it is so fearful
of an expression of popular dissent that it is willing to defy and ignore
environmental, civil-rights, and progressive groups, to bribe commentators
to put out its propaganda, to expand surveillance and data-base invasions
of privacy, to use party superiority and backroom tactics to ride roughshod
over Congressional opposition, to use lies and deceptions as a normal
part of government operations, to break international laws and treaties
for short-term ends, and to use religion to cloak its every policy.
It's hard to believe
that the great mass of the American public would ever bestir itself
to challenge the empire at home until things get much, much worse. It
is a public, after all, of which, as a Gallup poll in 2004 found, 61
per cent believe that "religion can answer all or most of today's
problems," and according to a Time/CNN poll in 2002 59 per cent
believe in the imminent apocalypse foretold in the Book of Revelation
and take every threat and disaster as evidence of God's will. And yet,
it's also hard to believe that a nation so thoroughly corrupt as this-in
all its fundamental institutions, its boughten parties, academies, corporations,
brokerages, accountants, governments-and resting on a social and economic
base of intolerably unequal incomes and property, getting increasingly
unequal, will be able to sustain itself for long. The upsurge in talk
about secession after the last election, some of which was deadly serious
and led on to organizations throughout most of the blue states, indicates
that at least a minority is willing to think about drastic steps to
"alter or abolish" a regime it finds itself fundamentally
at odds with.
Those four processes
by which empires always eventually fall seem to me to be inescapably
operative, in varying degrees, in this latest empire. And I think a
combination of several or all of them will bring about its collapse
within the next 15 years or so.
recent book detailing the ways societies collapse suggests that American
society, or industrial civilization as a whole, once it is aware of
the dangers of its current course, can learn from the failures of the
past and avoid their fates. But it will never happen, and for a reason
Diamond himself understands.
As he says, in his
analysis of the doomed Norse society on Greenland that collapsed in
the early 15th century: "The values to which people cling most
stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were
previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity."
If this is so, and his examples would seem to prove it, then we can
isolate the values of American society that have been responsible for
its greatest triumphs and know that we will cling to them no matter
what. They are, in one rough mixture, capitalism, individualism, nationalism,
technophilia, and humanism (as the dominance of humans over nature).
There is no chance whatever, no matter how grave and obvious the threat,
that as a society that we will abandon those.
Hence no chance
to escape the collapse of empire.
is the author of twelve books, including Human Scale, The Conquest of
Paradise, Rebels Against the Future, and The Fire of His Genius: Robert
Fulton and the American Dream.