The Decline and Fall of an American Empire

The American Empire was not like other historical empires, for from the very first it has been made up of various different ethnic and cultural groups. Initially French and Spanish. Then Dutch and British. With other nationalities coming later. Irish and German and Russian and (in my case) Finnish.

Like all other empires though it was doomed to fall at some point. History as well as statistics tell us so. As Chris Hedges points out here - siting such figures in the the field as anthropologist Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress”.

“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada. “They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in ‘A Short History of Progress’ the ‘progress trap.’ We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”

Hedges essay deals with what he calls the Myth of Human Progress but I see it as very key to empire itself. That the bigger myth is that of a single American culture. We see evidence of it especially today with the fracturing of even the right wing movement. That what has bound people together was not some American history but rather a myth of American history built around some mythical culture.

Dmitri Orlov brings this up in this interview he did lat last year on Businessmatters radio. You can download and listen to it here. One of the things he (Orlov) brings up is the lack of community and the collapse of community standards as it were in especially those areas that were hit hardest by Sandy last year. This is not surprising since community was week at best even in those more upscale areas that were hit and was organized almost entirely around economic status and materialistic values. So when those were destroyed, so were the symbols of the "community".

Communities as we here knew them in the past were organized almost entirely around some ethnic and cultural group. Sometimes religious but mostly ethnic and cultural of those who live there. The Italian or German or Irish or Chinese or etc. sections of nearly every metro area. This was also the case in the rural areas. The farmers were of similar cultural groups.

But as these people had children, fewer and fewer of these children would cling onto the cultural heritage of the parents and grand parents. Because of this the sense of community began to be lost or at best was some superficial aspect, such as their financial status or the suburban area or car they drove. It has no real roots. It was manufactured and sold by the media. The generic white anglo saxon male dominated family. Leave it to Beaver. My Three Suns. The Brady Bunch. Etc. And it was based almost completely on some personal self centered agenda rather than the greater good. A product of Madison Av. and Hollywood.

Orlov in this interview and his previous entries on his blog likes to compare the ex-Soviet Union with the US but I think he misses of key point. That is that the Soviet Union was make up of ethnic and cultural Russians for a large part. It was Russians fighting for other Russians during WWII, which is why they won it. This deep clan or tribal bond. Very like a family bond that America really does not have.

Which is why nearly all the war propaganda was about either fighting against something or some one. IE Nazis or Japs or Commies. Or for some vague ideal. Freedom. liberty...etc. Rarely - if ever - for America. That attitude or belief in always helping your fellows has never really existed in this country outside of ones ethnic/cultural enclave. The superficial suburban groups never had it since it was based almost entirely on material standing. And once one lost this, one was out so by definition there would be no help.

So with this economic grouping quickly falling by the wayside as the down turn accelerates, what we are seeing with the gun nutz and tea party right wing is a last desperate attempt to maintain some kind of cultural identity where none actually exists.

It's this lack of any real cultural identity that the Washington/Wall Street cartel is taking advantage of and to an extent trying desperately to preserve. It's also why the coming collapse of the American Empire will not look like those in the past as there is little to bond us together in it except mutual hardship.

Whether this will eventually bring people together as a whole and when this will occur is anybodies guess. I am sure there will be more and more community formed on an isolated and small scale, but as a larger unification is at this time doubtful. It would take a great deal of time. This culture of personal gain and benefit over the grater good will be difficult at best to over come.




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building community

welshTerrier2's picture

So many things fragment community.  We often work far from where we live.  "Work friends" are frequently torn apart by firings, plant closings, job changes and even career changes.  Extended families rarely live in the same household and often not even in the same town or state.  The average American relocates many times during their lifetime.  We are prisoners to our cars and our tv sets and our jobs. We have failed to span the gap between the races, the generations and the economic classes.

There was once a time in America where we knew many of our neighbors and depended on them in one way or another.  Have you been to any good barn-raisings lately?

But all is not hopeless.  Human beings, and I learned this from my dog, are pack animals.  No matter how strong our society's anti-social conditioning may be, associating with other humans is encoded deep down in our genes.  Put another way, the ugliness of our perverse "progress" has dehumanized us.  This, then, cannot stand; we are currently experiencing a dehumanized, out-of-balance, unnatural condition that sooner or later must be forced back to the norm. I see this happening on a very encouraging scale right here in my little suburban town.  Local residents are demanding it and have been building frameworks to support it.

But, you're right.  While localism has a definite role to play, it will never lead to a national spirit or a sense of common purpose.  It's not clear that such goals can ever be attained again.  It's sad to say that this leaves good governance with a challenging if not impossible task.  And so, we remain, perhaps forever, a nation divided.

Fear not, though.  Even with the inevitable collapse of the American Empire, the wealthy will do just fine. I'm sure we can all find some consolation in that.

Very nice essay, cmaukonen.  Thanks!

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America is a nation of invaders, descendants of invaders, and...

Ohio Barbarian's picture

immigrants who were promised streets of gold, or at least something better than the abysmal conditions in their mother countries. Even the Native Americans, if you go back far enough, were invaders, politically incorrect as that may be to say these days. 

The same applies to all European countries, as well. But America is a very young country, that has advanced far and fast. Probably too far and too fast. 

American Exceptionalism has roots in something that is actually true. Nothing like America has ever really happened before. That's just a fact. Doesn't necessarily make it better, but it is different. 

The problem is, America has been dominated by a system that advocates the rights of the individual over that of society as a whole. That in itself is not exactly a recipe for building a community with common values. 

The assumption that all people are created equal is demonstrably flawed. We're not, and that assumption has been taken to extremes. For example, treating a corporation as having the same rights and bargaining power as an individual citizen has led to gross injustices so numerous that I cannot even begin to enumerate them. 

Of course, the only "culture" of capitalism, and I use that first term very loosely, is one of enhancing material gain, by any means possible. It's insane, from any human or communal point of view. It's self-destructive. Americans have embraced that so-called culture. It's sick.

It doesn't work. Not for long, historically speaking, anyway. 

Still, the Little Doggie has a valid and hopeful point. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but of cooperation. There's still hope for the long run. 


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I had always though the lack of community

cmaukonen's picture

and willingness to help ones neighbors had to do with how much people were moving around. From place to place and job to job. I now think it's the other way around. That people could and would move around because there were no roots or very few to begin with outside of where one was born.

And if that place was some suburban planned community IE Levittown etc, there was little if any community.  Which I think has a lot to do with not caring or even being resentful of havint to help others there one did not care about in the first place.

I have stated a number of time that one big reason the France and England and Germany etc. have great social safety nets is because they have the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds and there by are more supportive of one another on the whole.

This kind of background is almost completely absent here in this country.  in the past those in the Jewish or German or Finnish or what have your areas supported one another and as was stated farmers and other country folk as well.

But did little for those outside of this enclave and area.  Not saying good bad or otherwise. It just is what it is.

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empires come and empires go, America is no different

sartoris's picture

The Romans had the longest run of influence.  The American Empire did not really begin to take shape until after WWII.  Britian is still a very relevant country.  No one would say that Germany is irrelevant, nor France.  America will remain relevant long after our global empire ceases to exist.  The question that we should be asking is what has American accomplished and what can (by can, I mean should) America accomplish. 

Nicely written essay.

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China is indeed still there

sartoris's picture

China was never really an 'empire', certainly not in the manner of Rome.  Heck, China never successfully invaded Japan.  Have you ever read about how Mao actually came to power?  Extremely interesting.  China was still being ruled by multiple warlords/strongmen at the time that Mao and Chiang Kai Shek were fighting for control of China.  This was during WWII, not exactly ancient history.  China has a very interesting history, however, I would not put them in the same category as the Roman Empire.  

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Do not think China was ever

cmaukonen's picture

Do not think China was ever really imperialistic. Not in the sense of the European nations. And Japan had only a brief fling with it after they industrialized and the US put a stop to that.

No.....empire was primarily a European thing. Probably left over from Rome and the..uhhumm..barbarian period.

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China has a history of geographically expanding to about its

Ohio Barbarian's picture

current limits and then falling apart, due to external invasions or internal discord, after awhile. 

I don't claim to understand China, but you're right; it's different from Rome. There was only one Roman Empire, well, mostly, but there have been mutliple Chinese Empires. 

What I meant was that China's still there. Rome isn't. Legacy, sure, but there's no Roman empire any more. 

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