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The Road Down From Empire

Here in the Appalachians, at least, there’s something about the month of January that encourages sober thoughts.  Maybe it’s the weather, which is pretty reliably gray and cold; maybe it’s the arrival of the bills from the holiday season just ended, or the awkward way that those bills usually arrive about the same time that the annual crop of New Year’s resolutions start landing in the recycle bin.  Pick your reason, but one way or another it seems like a good time to circle back and finish up the theme I’ve been developing here for most of a year now, the decline and fall of America’s global empire and the difficult task of rebuilding something worthwhile in its wake.

The hard work of reinventing democracy in a post-imperial America, the subject of several of last month’s posts, is only one facet of this broader challenge.  I’ve mentioned before that the pursuit of empire is a drug, and like most other drugs, it makes you feel great at the time and then wallops you the next morning.  It’s been just over a hundred years now since the United States launched itself on its path to global empire, and the hangover that was made inevitable by that century-long bender is waiting in the wings.  I suspect one of the reasons the US government is frantically going through the empties in the trash, looking for one that still has a few sips left in it, is precisely that first dim dawning awareness of just how bad the hangover is going to be.

It’s worth taking a few moments to go over some of the more visible signposts of the road down from empire.  To begin with, the US economy has been crippled by a century of imperial tribute flowing in from overseas.  That’s what happened to our manufacturing sector; once the rest of the industrial world recovered from the Second World War, manufacturers in an inflated tribute economy couldn’t compete with the lower costs of factories in less extravagantly overfunded parts of the world, and America’s industrial heartland turned into the Rust Belt.  As the impact of the tribute economy spread throughout US society, in turn, it became next to impossible to make a living doing anything productive, and gaming the imperial system in one way or another—banking, investment, government contracts, you name it—turned into the country’s sole consistent growth industry.

That imposed distortions on every aspect of American society, which bid fair to cripple its ability to pick up the pieces when the empire goes away.  As productive economic sectors withered, the country’s educational system reoriented itself toward the unproductive, churning out an ever-expanding range of administrative specialties for corporations and government while shutting down what was once a world-class system of vocational and trade schools.  We now have far more office fauna than any sane society needs, and a drastic shortage of people who have any less abstract skill set.  For the time being, we can afford to offshore jobs, or import people from other countries to do them at substandard wages; as our empire winds down and those familiar bad habits stop being possible, the shortage of Americans with even the most basic practical skills will become a massive economic burden.

Meanwhile the national infrastructure is caught in a downward spiral of malign neglect made inevitable by the cash crunch that always hits empires on the way down.  Empire is an expensive habit;  the long-term effects of the imperial wealth pump on those nations subjected to its business end mean that the income from imperial arrangements goes down over time, while the impact of the tribute economy at home generally causes the costs of empire go up over time.  The result can be seen on Capitol Hill day by day, as one fantastically expensive weapons system after another sails through Congress with few dissenting votes, while critically important domestic programs are gutted by bipartisan agreement, or bog down in endless bickering.  The reliable result is a shell of a nation, seemingly strong when observed from outside but hollowing out within, and waiting for the statistically inevitable shove that will launch it on its final skid down the rough slope into history’s compost bin.

You may well be thinking, dear reader, that the logical response of a nation caught in a predicament of this sort would be to bite the bullet, back away from empire in a deliberate fashion, and use the last bit of income from the tribute economy to pay for the expenses of rebuilding a domestic economy of a more normal kind.  You’d be right, too, but there are compelling reasons why very few empires in history have had the great good sense to manage their decline in this manner.  Imperial China did it in the fifteenth century, scrapping a burgeoning maritime empire in the Indian Ocean, and of course Britain did it after 1945, though that was largely because a 500-pound gorilla named the United States was sitting on Britannia’s prostrate body, informing her politely that in future, the global empire would be American, thank you very much; other than that, examples are few and far between.

The logic here is easy to follow.  Any attempt to withdraw from imperial commitments will face concerted resistance from those who profit from the status quo, while those who claim to oppose empire are rarely willing to keep supporting a policy of imperial retreat once it turns out, as it inevitably does, that the costs of that policy will include a direct impact on their own incomes or the value of their investments. Thus politicians who back a policy of withdrawal from empire can count on being pilloried by their opponents as traitors to their country, and abandoned by erstwhile allies who dislike empire in the abstract but want to retain lifestyles that only an imperial tribute economy can support.  Since politicians are, after all, in the business of getting into office and staying there, their enthusiasm for such self-sacrificing policies is understandably limited.

The usual result is a frantic effort to kick the can as far as possible down the road, so that somebody else has to deal with it.  Most of what’s going on in Washington DC these days can be described very exactly in those terms.  Despite popular rhetoric, America’s politicians these days are not unusually wicked or ignorant; they are, by and large, roughly as ethical as their constituents, and rather better educated—though admittedly neither of these is saying much.  What distinguishes them from the statesmen of an earlier era, rather, is that they are face to face with an insoluble dilemma that their predecessors in office spent the last few decades trying to ignore.  As the costs of empire rise, the profits of empire dwindle, the national economy circles the drain, the burden of deferred maintenance on the nation’s infrastructure grows, and the impact of the limits to growth on industrial civilization worldwide becomes ever harder to evade, they face the unenviable choice between massive trouble now and even more massive trouble later; being human, they repeatedly choose the latter, and console themselves with the empty hope that something might turn up.

It’s a common hope these days. I’ve commented here more than once about the way that the Rapture, the Singularity, and all the other apocalyptic fantasies on offer these days serve primarily as a means by which people can pretend to themselves that the future they’re going to get isn’t the one that their actions and evasions are busily creating for them.  The same is true of a great many less gaudy fictions about the future—the much-ballyhooed breakthroughs that never quite get around to happening, the would-be mass movements that never attract anyone but the usual handful of activists, the great though usually unspecified leaps in consciousness that will allegedly happen any day now, and all the rest of it.  The current frenzy of meretricious twaddle in the media about how shale gas is going to make the US a net energy exporter gets a good share of its impetus from the same delusive hope—though admittedly the fact that a great many people have invested a great deal of money in companies in the fracking business, and are trying to justify their investments using the same sort of reasoning that boosted the late housing bubble, also has more than a little to do with it.

There’s likely to be plenty more of the same thing in the decades ahead.  Social psychologists have written at length about what James Howard Kunstler has usefully termed the psychology of previous investment, the process by which people convince themselves to throw bad money after good, or to remain committed to a belief system even though all available evidence demonstrates that it isn’t true and doesn’t work.  The critical factor in such cases is the emotional cost of admitting that the decision to buy the stock, adopt the belief system, or make whatever other mistake is at issue, was in fact a mistake. The more painful it is to make that admission, the more forcefully most people will turn away from the necessity to do so, and it’s safe to assume that they’ll embrace the most consummate malarkey if doing so allows them to insist to themselves that the mistake wasn’t a mistake after all.

As America stumbles down from its imperial peak,  in other words, the one growth industry this country will have left will consist of efforts to maintain the pretense that America doesn’t have an empire, that the empire isn’t falling, and that the fall doesn’t matter anyway. (Yes, those statements are mutually contradictory.  Get used to it; you’ll be hearing plenty of statements in the years to come that are even more more incoherent.)  As the decline accelerates, anyone who offers Americans a narrative that allows them to pretend they’ll get the shiny new future that our national mythology promises them will be able to count on a large and enthusiastic audience.  The narratives being marketed for this purpose need not be convincing; they need not even be sane.  So long as they make it possible for Americans to maintain the fiction of a brighter future in the teeth of the facts, they’ll be popular.

The one bit of hope I can offer here is that such efforts at collective make-believe don’t last forever.  Sooner or later, the fact of decline will be admitted and, later still, accepted; sooner or later, our collective conversation will shift from how America can maintain perpetual growth to how America can hold onto what it has, then to how America can recover some of what it lost, and from there to figuring out how America—or whatever grab bag of successor societies occupies the territory currently held by the United States—can get by in the harsh new deindustrial world that grew up around it while nobody was looking.  It’s a normal process in an age of decline, and can be traced in the literature of more than one civilization before ours.

It bears remembering, though, that individuals are going through the same process of redefinition all by themselves.  This process differs from the five stages of peak oil, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, in that it’s not primarily about the emotional impact of loss; it’s a matter of expectations, and of the most pragmatic sort of economic expectations at that.  Consider a midlevel managerial employee in some corporation or other whose job, like so many other jobs these days, is about to go away forever.  Before the rumors start flying, she’s concerned mostly with clawing her way up the corporate ladder and increasing her share of the perks and privileges our society currently grants to its middle classes.  Then the rumors of imminent layoffs start flying, and she abruptly has to shift her focus to staying employed.  The pink slips come next, bearing bad news, and her focus shifts again, to getting a new job; when that doesn’t happen and the reality of long term joblessness sinks in, a final shift of focus takes place, and she has to deal with a new and challenging world.

This has already happened to a great many people in America.  It’s going to happen, over the years ahead, to a great many more—probably, all things considered, to a large majority of people in the American middle class, just as it happened to a large majority of the industrial working class a few decades further back.  Not everyone, it has to be said, will survive the transition; alcoholism, drug abuse, mental and physical illness, and suicide are among the standard risks run by the downwardly mobile.  A fair number of those who do survive will spend the rest of their lives clinging to the vain hope that something will happen and give them back what they lost. 

It’s a long, rough road down from empire, and the losses involved are not merely material in nature. Basing one’s identity on the privileges and extravagances made possible by the current US global empire may seem like a silly thing to do, but it’s very common.  To lose whatever markers of status are respected in any given social class, whether we’re talking about a private jet and a Long Island mansion, a fashionable purse and a chic condo in an upscale neighborhood, or a pickup and a six-pack, can be tantamount to losing one’s identity if that identity has no more solid foundation—and a great many marketing firms have spent decades trying to insure that most Americans never think of looking for more solid foundations.

That last point has implications we’ll be exploring in a later sequence of posts.  For the time being, though, I want to talk a bit about what all this means to those of my readers who have already come to terms with the reality of decline, and are trying to figure out how to live their lives in a world in which the conventional wisdom of the last three hundred years or so has suddenly been turned on its head. The first and, in many ways, the most crucial point is one that’s been covered here repeatedly already:  you are going to have to walk the road down from empire yourself.  Nobody else is going to do it for you, and you can’t even assume that anybody else will make it easier for you.  What you can do, to make it a little easier than it will otherwise be, is to start walking it before you have to.

That means, to return to a slogan I’ve used more than once in this blog, using LESS—Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation.  The more energy you need to maintain your everyday lifestyle, the more vulnerable you’ll be to sudden disruptions when the sprawling infrastructure that supplies you with that energy starts having running into serious trouble.  Today, routine blackouts and brownouts of the electrical grid, and rationing or unpredictable availability of motor fuel, have become everyday facts of life in Third World nations that used to have relatively reliable access to energy.  As America’s global empire unravels and the blowback from a century of empire comes home to roost, we can expect the same thing here.  Get ready for that in advance, and you won’t face a crisis when it happens.

The same is true of the extravagant material inputs most Americans see as necessities, and of the constant stream of sensory stimulation that most Americans use to numb themselves to the unwelcome aspects of their surroundings and their lives.  You will be doing without those at some point.  The sooner you learn how to get by in their absence, the better off you’ll be—and the sooner you get out from under the torrent of media noise you’ve been taught to use to numb yourself, the sooner you can start assessing the world around you with a relatively clear head, and the sooner you’ll notice just how far down the arc of America’s descent we’ve already come.

Using LESS isn’t the only thing that’s worth doing in advance, of course.  I’ve discussed elsewhere, for example, the need to develop the skills that will enable you to produce goods or provide services for other people, using relatively simple tools and, if at all possible, the energy of your own muscles.  As the imperial tribute economy winds down and the United States loses the ability to import cheap goods and cheap labor from abroad, people will still need goods and services, and will pay for them with whatever measure of value is available—even if that amounts to their own unskilled labor.  There are plenty of other steps that can be taken to prepare for life in a post-imperial society skidding down the far side of Hubbert’s peak, and the sooner you start taking those steps, the better prepared you will be to cope with that unfamiliar world.

Still, it may be possible to go further than that.  In several of December’s posts here I raised the possibility that, in the wake of empire, the deliberate cultivation of certain core skills—specifically, clear reasoning, public speaking, and democratic process—might make it possible to kickstart a revival of America’s formerly vibrant democratic traditions. The same principle, I’d like to suggest, may be able to be applied more generally.  Certain core insights that were central to pre-imperial America’s more praiseworthy achievements, but were tossed into the dumpster during the rush to empire, could be revived and put back to work in the post-imperial era.  If that can be done at all, it’s going to involve a lot of work and a willingness to challenge some widely held notions of contemporary American culture, but I think the attempt is worth making.  We’ll begin that discussion next week.

Image credit: davidkingham/flickr

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