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America: origins of an empire

To understand the decline and approaching fall of the American empire, it’s necessary to understand how that empire came into being. That’s a complex issue, as all historical questions are these days, and a grasp of the tangled role of history in today’s political discourse may make it a little easier to avoid certain common but unhelpful habits of thought as we proceed.

Until the 18th century, in the Western world as elsewhere around the planet, the core language of political rhetoric came from religion. From monarchs who based their claims to legitimacy on theories of the divine right of kings, straight across the spectrum to revolutionaries who borrowed the rhetoric of Old Testament prophets to call for the slaughter of the rich, political argument drew primarily on theology’s vision of an eternal order imperfectly reflected in the material cosmos. Conservatives argued that the existing structure of society more or less mirrored God’s order, or would do so if the liberals would only shut up and behave; liberals argued that the existing structure of society was moving toward a more perfect reflection of God’s order, and would get there more quickly if the conservatives would only stop dragging their heels; and radicals argued that the existing structure of society was in utter conflict with God’s order, and had to be terminated with extreme prejudice (along, often enough, with the liberals and the conservatives) so that a new and perfect world can come into being.

The displacement of religion by secular ideologies in the 18th century left all three of these basic political viewpoints in place, but levered them neatly off their theological foundations, leaving their adherents floundering for new justifications. The standard response at the time, and ever since, was to force history to play theology’s role, by mapping theological ideas of good and evil onto the complexities of the past. Whenever a political question comes up for debate, accordingly, it’s a safe bet to assume that all sides will immediately drag in canned historical narratives that have been stretched and lopped to fit whatever simplistic moral dualism their ideology requires, so that they can tar their opponents by associating them with history’s villains (to the contemporary American right, socialists; to the contemporary American left, fascists) and wrap themselves in the mantle of history’s good guys.

Thus it’s vanishingly rare to see any public discussion of historical events these days that doesn’t fixate, often to the extent of caricature, on distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys—and when this is attempted, the first reaction of a great many listeners or readers is to figure out how to cram what’s been said into that same simplistic moral dualism. While there’s a point to applying ethical philosophy to history (and vice versa), though, there are entire realms of understanding that can’t be reached so long as the center of discussion is who was right and who was wrong. Over the next few weeks, I plan on talking about the rise of America’s current empire as a historical phenomenon and not a morality play, and leave my readers free to make their own moral judgments if they find those useful.

The use of history as moral ammunition in contemporary politics, mind you, accounts for only part of the complexity of the subject we’ll be discussing. Another part, a crucial one, comes from the intricate history of America’s empire itself; that, in turn, comes from the fact that the United States of America may be a single political unit but it has never been a single culture or, really, a single country; and the fault lines along which America has split repeatedly for more than three centuries can be traced right back to the European settlement of the continent’s eastern seaboard. We can start there.

When the first waves of colonists from western and central Europe arrived on the Atlantic shores of North America in the 17th century, none of them seem to have realized that they were the beneficiaries of a cataclysm. Around the periphery of the Old World, the European voyages of discovery found crowded nations with no spare territory for migrants, but the Americas and Australasia seemed all but empty. The native peoples of all three continents have reasonably enough objected to this description—after all, they were there—but the perception of empty space wasn’t simply propaganda. It reflected the aftermath of the most appalling demographic disaster in recorded history.

The accident of plate tectonics that opened oceanic barriers between the Old and New Worlds had an impact on disease that wasn’t clearly understood until quite recently. Most of the world’s serious human pathogens came to our species from domestic livestock, and nearly all of that happened in the Old World, because Eurasia happened to have many more species suitable for domestication than the New World did. One at a time, over the tens of millennia between the closing of the Bering land bridge and the voyages of Columbus, pathogens found their way from animal vectors into the human population, epidemics swept the Old World, and the survivors gradually picked up a certain level of resistance. Those pathogens didn’t cross the ocean to the New World until the first European ships began to arrive, but when they did, they hit the native people of the Americas all at once. Within a century of 1492, as a result, native populations collapsed to 10% or less of their precontact levels.

The scale of the dieoff can be measured by a simple fact still rarely mentioned outside of the specialist literature: in 1500 the Amazon jungle as we now know it did not exist. At that time, and for many centuries before, the Amazon basin was a thickly settled agricultural region full of sizeable cities and towns with thriving local and long distance trade. The first Spanish explorers to travel down the Amazon described it in these terms, which were dismissed as fables by later writers who knew only the “green hell” of the postcollapse Amazon. Only in the last two decades or so have sophisticated archeological studies shown that the conquistadors were right and their critics wrong.

The same collapse swept the eastern seaboard of North America, where settled farming villages were established by 2000 BCE, and complex agricultural societies with rich political, cultural and religious traditions thrived for many centuries before 1492. (A thousand years before the founding of Jamestown, the level of cultural sophistication in the Chesapeake Bay tribes was arguably higher than that found among the inhabitants of Dark Age England.) After a century of dieoff, the survivors were scattered in small communities across a mostly vacant landscape. That was what the first waves of European colonists encountered. They told themselves they were settling in a wilderness, but they were quite wrong: they were arriving in a land that had been settled and farmed for countless generations before their time, and benefited immensely from the legacies of the peoples whose surviving descendants they elbowed out of the way.

Compared to cramped and crowded Europe, the eastern seaboard of North America seemed almost unimaginably vast—the distance between the two early colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth is greater than the entire length of England from the cliffs of Dover to the border with Scotland—and the sheer impact of space, together with sharp differences in climate and even sharper differences in the people who came to settle, drove the newly founded colonies in radically different directions. In what would become New England, English religious minorities made up much of the first wave of arrivals, and the society they built replicated 17th century English rural society as closely as the new environment would permit. The result proved impossible to transplant further into the country, which is why rural New England remains something of a world unto itself, but it wasn’t accidental that the Industrial Revolution got started in New England not much later than it did in the English Midlands: the same cultural forms that drove industrialization at home did much the same thing in the transplanted society, and the industrial society that emerged out of the transformation spread westwards as the country did.

Far to the south, in the band of settlement that started at Jamestown, matters were different. The settlers in what became the tidewater South weren’t religious minorities fleeing discrimination, by and large, but the employees of English magnates who simply wanted, like their masters, to make as much money as possible. From Chesapeake Bay south, the climate was suited to grow tobacco, and like most drugs, this was a hugely lucrative cash crop; after a few generations, cotton joined tobacco, and the basic pattern of antebellum Southern life was set. Sprawling plantations worked first by indentured servants shipped over from Britain and Ireland, and then by slaves shipped over from Africa, became the defining land use pattern along the southern half of the coast, and spread inland wherever climate and topography allowed.

Between New England and the tidewater South lay a poorly defined intermediate zone, a scattering of small colonies—New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland—and one very large one, Pennsylvania. Maryland and Delaware were mostly tidewater and might have gone the Southern path, Pennsylvania and New Jersey weren’t and might have gone the New England path, but Pennsylvania and Maryland both enacted religious liberty statutes early on and welcomed all comers, so the middle zone got dealt a couple of wild cards that ended up transforming the entire colonial enterprise: a torrent of religious and political refugees from central Europe, who fled the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, and a torrent of economic and political refugees from northern Ireland, who fled England’s tightening grip on her first and most thoroughly looted imperial colony. West of Chesapeake Bay lay the Potomac valley, one of the few easy routes into the mountains, and it’s likely that somewhere up that way—by the nature of the thing, nobody will ever know when or where—German and Scots-Irish traditions blended with scraps of a dozen other ethnic heritages to create the first draft of American frontier culture. Think log cabins and long rifles, homespun cloth and home-brewed liquor, a fierce habit of local independence and an equally fierce disdain for the cultures of the coast, and all the rest: that’s where it came from, and it spread westward along a wide front from the Great Lakes to the middle South.

All this ought to be part of any basic education in American history, though as often as not it gets lost in the teach-to-the-sound-bites frenzy that passes for education in America these days. What doesn’t get in even in those rare schools that teach history worth the name, though, is that these three nascent American cultures—call them New England, Tidewater, and Frontier, if you like—also define three modes of expansion, two imperial and one much less so.

The first mode is the New England industrial model, which spread west to the Great Lakes early on and trickled gradually southward from there. It’s one of the shibboleths of modern thought that industrial systems create wealth, but as Alf Hornborg points out usefully in The Power of the Machine, their main function is actually to concentrate wealth; the wealth that would have gone to a large number of small proprietors and skilled craftspeople in a nonindustrial society goes instead to the very small minority with the money and political connections to build and run factories, control access to raw materials and energy resources, and the like. That’s why every nation on Earth that has ever built an industrial economy within a free market system has ended up polarized between vast fortunes on the one hand and an even vaster number of hopelessly impoverished workers on the other. That’s the New England model—it was also the English model, but that will be relevant a bit later on—and it drives a very specific kind of imperial expansion, in which sources of raw materials, on the one hand, and markets where industrial products can be exported, on the other, are the central targets of empire.

The second mode is the Southern plantation model, which spread due west from the tidewater country until it ran up against certain hard political realities we’ll discuss next week. The plantation model started out as a straightforward export economy, but found itself drawn into the orbit of the rising industrial system; cotton from Southern plantations was eagerly sought by the textile mills of the English Midlands, and the political economy of the cotton belt morphed into a pattern that ought to be profoundly familiar to Americans today, though it’s generally not: it’s the pattern found today in Third World nations under American or European domination, in which raw materials for industry overseas are produced under harsh conditions by a vast and impoverished labor force, while a small upper class is well rewarded for keeping the system running smoothly. That’s the Southern model, and it drives a very different mode of imperial expansion, in which arable land and cheap labor are the central targets of empire.

The Frontier model is something else again. It also had a powerful expansionist dynamic, but it was egalitarian rather than hierarchical, and didn’t provide anybody with a convenient place to hook up a wealth pump. What Frontier culture craved from expansion was simply real estate, where people could build a cabin, break the sod, plant crops, and make a life for themselves. Over time, as the model ripened and values shifted, it gave rise to a vision of American expansion in which an entire continent would be seeded first with frontier homesteads, then with prosperous farms and nascent towns, and replicate political and economic democracy straight across to the Pacific. What would happen once that limit was reached was a question very few Americans asked themselves.

Before that point was reached, though, these three cultures were going to have to sort out their relative strength and influence on the new American nation. We’ll talk about that next week.

***************

End of the World of the Week #12

Hegel, whose personal contribution to the history of false prophecy was the subject of last week’s End of the World of the Week, was one of dozens of 19th century intellectuals who were convinced that their careers marked a great turning point in human history. Unlike his competitors, though, Hegel proved to be a major inspiration to future generations. Most of the ideological follies of the 19th and 20th centuries drew on Hegel in one way or another; Marx was only the most successful of the people who fell under the enchantment of Hegelian dialectic and spouted prophecies that turned out to be just as wrong as Hegel’s had been.

Still, a special place belongs to Francis Fukuyama. A US State Department policy wonk turned neo-Hegelian academic, Fukuyama got his fifteen minutes of fame in 1989 by proclaiming, in a widely read essay and a book, that history was over. His argument, a sort of pop Hegelianism reduced to the lowest common denominator, was that history is a Darwinian struggle among different systems of political economy, in which whichever one crushes the competition is by definition the best; that the defeat of Communism showed that “liberal democracy”—that is, the country club Republicanism of George Bush senior—was the winner of the great contest; and that, just as soon as the last stragglers got with the program, humanity would henceforth bask in peace and prosperity forever.

What made all this a masterpiece of unintended irony is that almost identical claims were retailed by the Marxist regimes whose collapse Fukuyama’s essay was intended to celebrate. Not that long before, in fact, the American conservative movement was notable for its skepticism of Hegelian handwaving and grand theories of history’s march to perfection, while the Marxists they opposed spent their time proclaiming that history was on their side and everybody else simply had to get with the program. By Fukuyama’s time, that skepticism had given way to blatant imitation—compare the official US arguments for the invasion of Iraq with articles in Pravda justifying the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan sometime, and see if you can find a significant difference—and the neoconservative movement, which was heavily influenced by Fukuyama’s work for a time, proceeded to launch itself along the same track to history’s dustbin that the Marxist regimes they loathed had followed before them.

—story from Apocalypse Not

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