The Post-American Future

One of the things I’ve learned repeatedly over six and a half years of writing Archdruid Report posts is that it’s a waste of time to try to predict which posts will appeal to my readers and which ones won’t. Last month’s narrative is a case in point. My original plan was to devote one post to a very brief scenario of American imperial collapse.  By the time I got the thing written, even after a great deal of trimming, it was the size of five regular posts; I decided to run it anyway over five weeks, since it did a good job of illustrating the themes I’ve been developing since February of this year, but I figured that it would be just another ordinary month for the blog.

Somehow that didn’t happen. Last month, The Archdruid Report had the second highest page view count of any month in its history; the first episode in the narrative is this blog’s most-viewed page ever, and the others are climbing rapidly to comparable positions. It’s interesting to reflect on the reasons why that happened, but I suspect that the most significant of those reasons is also the simplest: the narrative that I sketched out presented the decline and fall of the United States not as the end of the world, nor as an excuse for yet another wearily unthrilling Tom Clancyesque thriller, but as an ordinary historical event.

I’d like to expand on that a little, because—as regular readers of this blog already know—history is the primary resource I use to guide what’s posted on this blog.  The core hypothesis shaping my view of the future is the proposal that our time differs from the past only in the way that one past era differs from another.  The notion that the present epoch is utterly unique in history, popular as that is, fails to convince me, and the habit of using that notion as an excuse to project an assortment of utopian and apocalyptic fantasies on the inkblot patterns of the future strikes me as frankly delusional. It makes more sense, I think, to recognize that imperial overstretch is imperial overstretch no matter what technologies the empire in question happens to use, and that trying to make sense of the future on the basis of historical parallels is a more useful strategy than insisting that the future must conform to our desires, our fears, or both at once.

Thus I’d like to walk through some of the historical events I used as models for the trajectory of decline and fall in “How It Could Happen,” and talk a little about why those models are relevant.

The overall scenario of failed military adventurism leading to a crisis of legitimacy and the collapse of a government?  That was modeled on the Falklands War of 1982, though I could have used any number of other examples.  In the case of the Falklands crisis, the government of Argentina, facing a rising spiral of economic and political problems, gambled that it could improve its situation by seizing a set of bleak little islands in the south Atlantic, then as now owned by Britain and claimed by Argentina, on the assumption that Britain would be neither willing nor able to mount an effective military response.  It was a disastrous miscalculation; by the time the smoke cleared, Britain had retaken the islands by main force, the Argentine military had suffered a humiliating defeat, and the crisis of legitimacy that followed promptly toppled the Argentine government.

It’s worth noting that if the war had gone the other way—say, if Argentina had been armed with a hundred Exocet antiship missiles, rather than the five they had, and sent most of the British fleet to the bottom—Margaret Thatcher’s government would likely have fallen in short order.  The difference, of course, is that the transfer of power in Britain would have followed the normal rules of British politics; there would have been a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, somebody else would have moved into No. 10 Downing Street, and that would have been that. In Argentina, things were not so simple, because there was no straightforward way to get rid of an incompetent leadership and its policies without taking down an entire system of government and replacing it with something else.

One of the points of the narrative, in turn, is that the United States just now is a great deal closer to the Argentine situation than to the British one. Here in America, we’ve just spent a year seeing which of two interrchangeable candidates will take the presidential oath of office this coming January. Those of my readers who are Republicans, and downcast by Obama’s victory last night, should take heart; the policies we’ll see for the next four years will be exactly the same as the ones that we would have had if your candidate had won, and now you have the freedom to criticize them, while the Democrats have to put up with another four years of pretending that the man they helped put into office isn’t betraying every principle they claim their party stands for. The blustering and violent pursuit of the same failed foreign policy, the eager pursuit of national bankruptcy in the name of global security, the tacit refusal to prosecute even the most egregious financial crimes, the whittling away of civil liberties, the gargantuan giveaways to corrupt but influential industries, and the rest of it:  the whole package that’s been welded in place since the days of George W. Bush was guaranteed to continue whoever won.

Previous posts here have discussed the reasons why the policymaking machinery of the US government has jammed up, leaving this particular set of failed policies to play over and over again like a broken record. Sooner or later that process will end, if only because a government that fails often enough goes out of existence sooner or later.  The scenario I traced out in the narrative suggests one way in which the jam could be broken; there are plenty of others, but most of them involve the end, in one way or another, of the particular form of constitutional government we have in America today.

Let’s move on. The constitutional convention that spun out of control, and suddenly made the unthinkable a political fact?  That was based on the opening act of the French Revolution. The conflict between the states and the federal government in the narrative was a deliberate echo of the conflict between the French aristocracy and the king in the years before 1789. The aristocracy, struggling to reclaim its lost privileges, managed to pressure Louis XVI into calling the Estates-General, the rarely summoned national parliament of France, which had very nearly the same powers as an American constitutional convention. Once the delegates met, the crisis of legitimacy that had been been building in France for decades exploded; attempts to keep the meeting focused on its official purpose—solving the nation’s budget crisis—were overwhelmed by events, and over the weeks  that followed, a system of government that had endured for centuries came apart forever.

The rush toward extremism on the part of the American people in the months before the constitutional convention?  That was the United States of America before, during, and immediately after the 1860 presidential election.  It took not much more than a year for secession in most Southern states, and violent opposition to slavery and disunion in most Northern ones, to make their respective transitions from minority ideologies to popular causes for which hundreds of thousands of people would fight and die. “The story of 1860,” wrote historian Bruce Catton in The Coming Fury, “is the story of a great nation, marching to the wild music of bands, with flaring torches and with banners and with enthusiastic shouts, moving down a steep place into the sea.” (Catton’s book, by the way, should be required reading for all those convinced that the American political process is incapable of drastic change; for that matter, it’s one heck of a good read, and the two subsequent volumes, Terrible Swift Sword  and Never Call Retreat, are just as good.)

The dissolution of the United States via a never-used provision of the Constitution? That was inspired by the fall of the Soviet Union.  On paper, each of the republics that made up the Soviet Union had the right to secede from the union at any time. In practice—well, would you have wanted to try doing that when Stalin was in office?  Under Gorbachev, though, Boris Yeltsin could and did invoke that clause of the Soviet constitution without risking sudden removal from office via a pistol shot and an unmarked grave, and a Soviet system that was already in crisis came apart in days.

The failure of the military and of intelligence agencies to stop the collapse of the government by force? That was based on events across most of the Eastern Bloc right after the Berlin Wall came down. The Warsaw Pact nations each had, in theory, more than enough soldiers and secret police to prop up a troubled government by rounding up protesters and shooting them, say, or doing the other things that embattled governments routinely do to their people.  In practice, the final crisis of each regime saw military personnel standing aside or actively siding with the insurgents, and left commanders looking nervously at their own troops, uncomfortably aware that ordering them to attack civilians could quickly lead to civil war or, on a more personal level, to a bullet in the back of the head or a hand grenade tossed into a conference room, courtesy of their own soldiers. 

More generally, that’s the great weakness of every government.  The notion that the leaders of a nation exercise power is a convenient but misleading shorthand for a much more complex process, in which power is actually wielded by thousands of ordinary soldiers, police officers, minor officials, and the like, in obedience to dictates that come cascading down the chain of command through any number of intermediaries.  If anything happens to the willingness of those thousands to follow orders, or to the ability or willingness of the chain of command to function, the apparent power of the leadership can evaporate like frost on a sunny morning.  Whenever a government collapses, if it’s not simply thrown out by some other nation’s invading troops, that’s far more often than not the way that it goes.

Some of my readers will doubtless be objecting by this point that it would have been just as possible for me to put together a different set of historical analogies and tell a different story of the way that America’s global empire, and America itself, went to pieces. That’s exactly the point I hoped to make. The narrative presented in October’s posts, as I explained at the time, is not my idea of the way that the American empire will fall; it’s simply an account of one way that the American empire could fall, and its details were chosen to outline some of the most serious fault lines running through that empire and the society that the empire supports.

Of course the end of America’s global empire could happen in some other way. The utter failure of the political process might bring about a collapse of constitutional government at the hands of some charismatic demagogue or other; we could see a sustained insurgency break out in any of half a dozen parts of the country, shredding the economy and forcing the government to bring the troops home from overseas; a military failure of the sort I’ve outlined, instead of triggering the rush to dissolution, could usher in a long era of national retrenchment and reassessment, in which America’s once-traditional isolationism reasserts itself and George Washington’s advice about avoiding foreign entanglements once again becomes the centerpiece of the nation’s policy. I chose a relatively untraumatic option, in large part because so many people seem to find it impossible to remember that plenty of large, heavily armed nation-states down through the years have collapsed in one way or another without dissolving into civil war or assaulting the rest of the planet; still, there’s no guarantee that this will be the way that things work out. There are many options as we approach the post-American future.

The one thing that isn’t an option at this point, I would argue, is a continuation of American global dominance for more than a short time to come.  Like the British empire a century ago, the American empire is visibly cracking at the seams as the costs of maintaining a global imperial presence soar and the profits of the imperial wealth pump slump.  Funds the nation can no longer afford to spend are being poured into military technologies that presuppose a way of war that’s rapidly approaching its pull date, while rising powers less burdened by the legacies of the past circle around, waiting for the first signs of weakness.  Which of those rising powers will turn out to be the next generation of global hegemons is a good question; China certainly seems like the most likely candidate just now, but then Germany looked like the most likely candidate for Britain’s replacement in 1912, and we know what happened thereafter. 

What does a post-American future look like?  To begin with, here in America, it’s a future in which the vast majority of us will be much less wealthy than we are today.  The American standard of living has been propped up since 1945 by the systemic imbalances that gave a quarter of the world’s energy resources and a third of its raw materials and industrial product to the five per cent of humanity that lives in the United States.  Everything we consider normal in American life today is a function of that flow of imperial tribute, and as that goes away, most of what we consider normal in American life is going to change. The economic troubles that have been ongoing since 2008 are the foreshocks of that seismic shift, which will see most American incomes drop to Third World levels. 

Those of my readers who are incensed by the extreme disparity in wealth between the rich and the rest in this country should remember that most of that disparity consists of paper wealth, much of it of very questionable value.  Trillions of dollars worth of dubious derivatives, asset-backed securities backed by wholly insecure assets, loans that will never be paid back, and equally hallucinatory stores of wealth currently pad the notional net worth of America’s rich; in any imaginable post-American future, all that will be reassessed at its real value, which in most cases amounts to zero.  Just as the Great Depression saw huge income and net worth disparities in American society drop like a rock as vast amounts of paper wealth turned into mere paper, the Greater Depression that will follow the end of American empire will almost certainly see the same phenomenon on an even larger scale. One moral to this story is that any of my readers who have their wealth tied up in paper assets of any kind might be wise to think, hard, about how long they want to leave it there.

Outside the United States, circumstances will no doubt vary.  Those nations that have linked their welfare or their survival too closely to American empire will be dragged down in their turn; those who align themselves with one or another contender for America’s replacement will rise or fall with their choice, while those that have the good sense to step back into neutrality until the smoke clears, and then make arrangements with the new hegemon, will doubtless do well.  I suspect, though, that Japan and western Europe in particular will be in for a rough awakening.  For decades now, they’ve reaped the benefits of having their national defense backstopped by gargantuan US defense budgets, and the end of that cozy arrangement will force them to choose between spending a great deal more money on their own militaries, accepting a new overlord who may be a good deal less congenial than the one they have now, or accepting a position of extreme vulnerability in an epoch where that may turn out to be an exceptionally risky thing to do.

Still, all these concerns are secondary to the most crucial factor, which is that the post-American future will still have to deal with the head-on collision between a global economic system that requires perpetual growth, on the one hand, and hard planetary limits on the other.  The end of America’s empire does not mean the end of industrial civilization; nor, for that matter, will it solve the twin problems sketched out decades ago in the prescient and thus profoundly unfashionable pages of The Limits to Growth: the exhaustion of necessary but nonrenewable resources, particularly fossil fuels, and the buildup in the biosphere of ecologically and economically damaging pollutants, particularly carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  Those forces are still the dominant fact of our time, and the end of America’s empire—traumatic as it may well be, and not only for Americans—is simply one more roadbump along the route of the Long Descent.

Regular readers of The Archdruid Report will be interested to know that the anthology of post-peak oil science fiction stories that came out of last year’s contest here is now available in print and e-book formats. After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum World features twelve stories set in futures of the kind we are most likely to encounter, in the largely unexplored territory off beyond today's tired fantasies of limitless progress and sudden apocalypse. Many thanks to all the contributors, and to Shaun Kilgore of Founders House Publishing, who made this project possible!

End of the World of the Week #47

If your last name is Prophet, you have certain advantages in setting up shop as a New Age teacher, and the redoubtable Elizabeth Clare Prophet took advantage of those advantages in a big way.  All through the 1970s and 1980s, her books could be found in every New Age bookstore worth the name, and her organizations—the Summit Lighthouse and the Church Universal and Triumphant—were significant presences across the New Age scene of the time, and remain active today.

A detailed account of Prophet’s writings, teachings, and activities would fill plenty of pages. Her place here in the End of the World of the Week rests, though, on one detail of her teaching—her repeated insistence that the end would come via nuclear war on April 23, 1990. She apparently received this information from the Ascended Masters, advanced spiritual beings who also dictated her many books. Still, the Masters apparently weren’t ascended enough to get their dates right, and April 23, 1990 passed without incident, like so many other purported doomsdays before and since.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not