A Choice of Tomorrows

America’s age of empire is coming to an end. The question that matters now is what will follow it


Article by John Michael Greer, author of Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America.

One of the perplexities about the contemporary crisis of American politics is that next to nobody wants to talk about its mainspring: the end of an era of American global empire. It’s considered impolite these days even to mention that America has an empire, and Heaven help you if you suggest that there’s a connection between the military garrisons we keep in more than 140 countries around the world and the fact that the five per cent of humanity that can apply for a US passport got to use, until very recently, around a quarter of the world’s energy and around a third of its raw materials and manufactured products.

Still, that connection has to be discussed. During the era that began with the Second World War and is ending now, Americans benefited hugely from systematic imbalances in the patterns of global exchange, which concentrated wealth here at the expense of the rest of the world. That’s how empires work. Not much more than a century ago, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, that was common knowledge.  In the fierce debates of that era over whether the United States would get into the empire business, the core of the pro-empire case was that countries with empires got rich from them. It’s only in our present mealy-mouthed era that such straightforward talk has dropped out of common currency.

Yet it’s impossible to talk meaningfully about the rising spiral of crises afflicting the United States without addressing the end of the imperial “wealth pump” that once propped up the American economy. The disintegration of our built infrastructure and the steady decline in most Americans’ standards of living are among the results. Fifty years ago, it’s worth recalling, many American families with one full-time working class income owned their own homes and lived relatively comfortable lives. Nowadays? In many parts of the country, one full-time working class income won’t keep a family off the street.

The United States is still a prosperous country on paper, because the notional wealth churned out by government and the financial industry still finds buyers willing to gamble that business as usual will continue for a while longer. Many people are wondering these days when the resulting bubble in paper wealth is going to pop. That might happen, but it’s also possible that all of that paper wealth could trickle away more gradually, by way of stagflation or some other mode of prolonged economic dysfunction. We could get the kind of massive crisis that throws millions of people out of work and erases trillions of dollars of paper wealth in a matter of months; we could equally well get the more lengthy and less visible kind of crisis, in which every year that passes sees more of the population out of the work force, more of the nation’s wealth reduced to paper that would be worth plenty if only anybody were willing to buy it, and more of the United States turning into one more impoverished and misgoverned Third World nation.

Either way, the economic unraveling is bound to end in political crisis. Take a culture that assumes an endlessly rising curve of prosperity, and slam that assumption face first into the reality of economic contraction, and you’re guaranteed trouble. As the American dream sinks into an American nightmare of poverty, disintegrating infrastructure, and hopelessness, presided over by a dysfunctional bureaucratic state that prattles about freedom while loudly insisting on its alleged right to commit war crimes against its own citizens, scenes like the ones witnessed in the Eastern Bloc in the late 20th century are by no means unthinkable here.

Whether or not the final crisis takes that particular form or some other, it’s a safe bet that it will mark the end of what, for the last sixty years or so, has counted as business as usual here in the United States. That’s a recurring pattern in our history. Three previous versions of the United States—call them Colonial America, Federal America, and Gilded Age America—followed the same trajectory toward a crisis all too familiar from today’s perspective.  Gridlock, political failure, and a collapse of legitimacy that in two cases out of three had to be reestablished the hard way, on the battlefield: we’re most of the way there this time around, too, as Imperial America follows its predecessors toward the recycle bin of history.

This fourth pass around the same track may be more challenging than those that preceded it. The crises that ended Colonial America, Federal America, and Gilded Age America all came to an end in part because a particular vision of America was fatally out of step with the times, and had to be replaced. In two of the three cases, there was another vision already in waiting: in 1776, a vision of an independent republic embodying the ideals of the Enlightenment; in 1933, a vision of a powerful central government using abundant resources to dominate the world while, back at home, distributing the promises of social democracy to its people.

In the third, in 1860, there were not one but two competing visions in waiting: one supported by the states north of the Mason-Dixon line, and one supported by those south of it. What made the conflicts that led up to Fort Sumter so intractable was precisely that it wasn’t simply a matter of replacing a failed ideal, but deciding which of two new ideals would take its place. Would the United States become an aristocratic, agrarian society integrated with the 19th century’s global economy and culture, like the nations of Latin America, or would it go its own way, isolating itself economically from Europe to protect its emerging industrial sector and rejecting the trappings of European aristocratic culture? The competing appeal of the two visions was such that it took four years of war to determine that one of them would triumph.

Our situation in the twilight years of Imperial America is different still, because a vision that might replace the imperial foreign policy and domestic social democracy of 1933 has yet to take shape. The image of America welded into place by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression and the Second World War still guides both major parties: the Republicans have proven themselves as quick to use federal funds to pursue social agendas as any Democrat, while the Democrats have proven themselves as eager to throw America’s military might around the globe as any Republican.

Both sides of the vision of Imperial America depended on access to the extravagant wealth that America could get in 1933, partly from its already substantial economic empire in Latin America, partly from the Appalachia’s coal mines and the oilfields of Pennsylvania and Texas. Both those empires are going away now, and everything that depends on them is going away with equal inevitability. Yet next to nobody in American public life has begun to grapple with the realities of a post-imperial and post-industrial America, in which debates over the distribution of wealth and the extension of national power overseas will have to give way to debates over the distribution of poverty and the retreat of national power to the borders of the United States, and to those few responsibilities the constitution assigns to the federal government.

We don’t yet have the vision that could guide that process. I sometimes think that such a vision began to emerge in the aftermath of the social convulsions of the 1960s. During the decade of the 1970s, following the impact of the energy crisis, the blatant failure of the previous decade’s imperial agendas in Vietnam and elsewhere, and the act of collective memory that surrounded the nation’s bicentennial, it became possible to talk publicly about the values of simplicity and self-sufficiency, the strengths of local tradition and memory, and the worthwhile things that were lost in the course of America’s headlong rush to empire.

This nascent vision helped guide the first promising steps toward technologies and lifestyles that could have bridged the gap between the age of cheap abundant energy and a sustainable future of relative comfort and prosperity. Still, that’s not what happened; the hopes of those years were stomped to a bloody pulp by the Reagan counterrevolution, Imperial America returned with a vengeance, and stealing from the future became the centerpiece of a bipartisan consensus that remains welded into place today.

Thus one of the central tasks before Americans today, as our nation’s imperial era stumbles toward its end, is that of reinventing America: of finding new ideals that can provide a sense of collective purpose and meaning in an age of economic and technological contraction.  We need a new American dream, one that doesn’t require promises of limitless material abundance and  doesn’t depend on the profits of empire or the temporary affluence we got by stripping a continent of irreplaceable natural resources in a few short centuries.

I think it can be done, if only because something of the same kind has been done three times already.  That said, nothing guarantees that America will find the new vision it needs, just because it happens to need one, and it’s very late in the day.  Those of us who see the potential, and hope to help fulfill it, will have to get a move on.

Article by John Michael Greer, author of Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America.

For more about the book and ordering information go to  www.newsociety.com/Books/D/Decline-and-Fall

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