The Phantom of Empire
Perhaps it’s just an outward projection of the jaundiced attitude toward the holidays I expressed in last week’s Archdruid Report post, but it seems to me that this year’s New Year celebrations were a bit more restrained than usual, or more than a bit. Most of the people I know chose to stay at home on the last night of 2007, and while many of them claimed they were planning to toast in the new year with something more or less festive, my best guess is that most of them did some equivalent of hiding under their beds. One friend’s emailed New Year message expressed the bright hope that 2008 wouldn’t suck as much as 2007.
Nor has the opening of the year failed to live up, or down, to expectations; the news from 2008’s first business day is not precisely encouraging. As I write these words, the US stock market is doing its best to prove Isaac Newton right by dropping like a stone, on news that US manufacturing output has slumped unexpectedly. Gold has soared to a new record and oil is back above $97 a barrel; one-quarter of all US subprime mortgages are now in some stage of the foreclosure process, and default rates in the rest of the mortgage market, not to mention car loans and credit card debt, are climbing steadily.
My favorite story of the day so far, though, is the Australian real estate holding company that bought no fewer than 700 American shopping malls – I have a hard time imagining a better image of speculative excess than that one fact – using funds from the commercial paper market. They’ve got $3.4 billion in loans due for repayment on February 15, and their chance of finding a lender to roll those loans over just now ranks down there with the proverbial snowball in Beelzebub’s back yard. So the entire company is up for sale. I don’t imagine any of my readers cherish a lifelong ambition to own 700 shopping malls, but if I’m wrong, here’s your chance.
All this, for reasons that go beyond the obvious, makes an excellent backdrop for the subject of today’s post. My regular readers will recall that last week I introduced the redoubtable Oswald Spengler, whose theory of the decline and fall of Western culture got so much attention between the two world wars and has been dismissed so patronizingly since that time. Spengler argued that the cultural possibilities of Western society reached the point of diminishing returns around the beginning of the nineteenth century and run out completely by the dawn of the twentieth. The future of the West, in his view, was the same fate that overtakes every great culture: the fossilization of cultural forms and the rise of a gargantuan empire propped up by brute force.
He was far from the only thinker to envision the future in those terms. Not all of the others put the same negative spin on it, and one of those who saw the upside of empire had far more influence than Spengler ever did. This was Arnold Toynbee, whose ideas have appeared on this blog more than once already. Toynbee was by no means a mindless fan of empire, and much of his sprawling A Study of History focuses on the ways that empires inevitably destroy themselves. Still, like Spengler, he argued that societies go through predictable stages in their life cycle; like Spengler, he saw the rise of a Universal State as the next stage in the history of the Western world; unlike Spengler, he was in a position to help that stage come about.
Toynbee spent most of his working life at the helm of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (RIIA), and published A Study of History under its auspices. The RIIA is the British counterpart of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an influential association of prominent politicians and businessmen that has been a bugbear of the American conspiracy scene for decades now. The two organizations emerged right after the First World War out of the same network of business interests, and Toynbee was in some sense the pet historical theorist of both; in the early days of the Second World War, for example, all the notes and drafts for the not-yet-written volumes of A Study of History were stored for safekeeping at CFR headquarters in New York City.
What makes this relevant is that Toynbee’s work has been a template for public policy in Britain and America since the 1920s. Point for point, the mainstream in both countries has embraced all the things Toynbee considered good for empires and rejected those he labeled bad. According to Toynbee, for example, when an imperial power borders a poorer and less advanced society, it’s a fatal mistake to allow that border to degenerate into a guarded frontier. In case after case in history, this kickstarts a struggle that the imperial power will ultimately lose. The US policy of an open border with Mexico, maintained in the face of mass migration that has seen something like a tenth of Mexico’s population cross the Rio Grande, is hard to understand unless some overriding concern requires it; Toynbee may well be the source of that concern.
None of this is any sort of secret. Anybody with internet access or a decent library can get the membership list of the CFR, request copies of CFR position papers, and subscribe to Foreign Affairs, the journal published by the CFR, in which public policy issues come up for debate well before they find their way into politics and the media. The irony, and it’s not a small one, is that conspiracy theorists could have gotten plenty of ammunition from Toynbee, or for that matter from the pages of Foreign Affairs, if they had bothered to do a bit of research. Toynbee, remember, believed that the coming American empire would be a good thing. His reasons are unpopular in today’s political climate, but in the context of their own time they were by no means completely empty.
In Toynbee’s vision of history, every civilization is born when a people facing a serious challenge responds to it by achieving a new level of integration as a society, and develops exactly as long as its leadership can meet new challenges with responses that inspire the respect and loyalty of the rest of the population. Once the leadership starts trying to force new problems to fit old solutions, its power to inspire breaks down, and the civilization enters a time of troubles from which only the rise of a universal state can save it. In Toynbee’s eyes, the time of troubles for Western civilization arrived in 1914, and the rise of an American empire was the only thing that could prevent Europe from sliding further down a death spiral of internecine war.
Behind this interpretation of history, and its equivalents in Spengler and many other thinkers of the same time, lay a belief that Western history was locked into a parallel with a specific period of the past. Every schoolchild in Spengler’s Germany and Toynbee’s Britain learned about the quarreling city-states of ancient Greece, which created most of classical culture and then nearly destroyed it and themselves in an age of fratricidal warfare. In the wake of 1914, people across Europe decided that their own society had reached the equivalent of 431 BCE, the beginning of the Peloponnesian War and ancient Greece’s time of troubles. To many of them, the comparison between Greece and Europe made a comparison between Rome and America inescapable, and no small number came to hope for an American equivalent of Augustus Caesar – someone who would reign in the unruly nation-states and impose peace on the world.
This was Toynbee’s view. It also seems to have been the view of the CFR, the RIIA, and those sectors of the American and British political classes who shared their agenda. It’s popular these days to assume that this was simply window dressing over a desire for power, but that says at least as much about our contemporary habit of demonizing political enemies as anything else. Doubtless the people who backed the project of American empire thought about how they might benefit from it, but then such motives are anything but absent from many of those who denounce American empire today. In a world reeling from the effects of two catastrophic wars, the idea of a global Pax Americana had an appeal that was by no means wholly imaginary.
What neither Spengler nor Toynbee realized, though, was that the American ascendancy in the twentieth century rested on foundations far more fleeting than Rome’s. The basis of American power was geological, rooted in the accidents of paleoecology that left immense deposits of crude oil in half a dozen American states, and can be measured by the fact that in 1950 the United States produced more crude oil than the rest of the world put together. Winston Churchill famously remarked that the Allies had floated to victory in the First World War on an ocean of American oil, and the Second depended even more dramatically on oil production, with oil-poor Germany and Japan overwhelmed by the tanks, ships, and planes of oil-rich America and Russia.
By the first wave of energy crises in the 1970s, however, the geological basis for American ascendancy no longer existed, because most of it had been pumped out of the ground and burnt. I’ve argued elsewhere that the American political class in the Seventies faced a difficult choice between a transition to sustainability and a high-tech, high risk nuclear society, and ended up choosing neither because the costs on both sides were too high. Since then, political and economic gimmicks and a willingness to burn through our remaining resources with reckless abandon have papered over the hard reality of American decline.
It’s in this context, I’ve suggested, that the neoconservative adventures of the last decade needs to be interpreted. By the end of the 1990s, it was very likely clear even to the most recalcitrant members of America’s political class that trusting the free market to find a long-term solution to America’s energy dependence had failed. It’s a matter of public knowledge that investment banker Matthew Simmons, one of the first voices to raise an alarm over peak oil in the 1990s, was brought in as a consultant to Vice President Cheney immediately after the 2000 election. The march to war that followed can best be understood as a desperate attempt to keep the dream of empire from collapsing completely by giving America control over Iraqi oil reserves.
It was a bad plan, pragmatically as well as ethically, and the incompetence with which it was put into effect has not exactly helped the situation. Still, I’m far from sure that those Americans who talk about their eagerness to see the troops come home from the Middle East have quite grasped what they are asking for. For the last sixty years the American way of life has depended on wildly unequal international relationships that guarantee the 5% of the human race that lives in the United States access to more than 30% of the world’s energy and other resources. The collapse of American empire, when it occurs, will see that state of affairs come to an end. It remains to be seen how enthusiastic the critics of empire will be when their own standard of living drops to one-sixth of its current level.
It’s hard to ignore the likelihood that some such discontinuity waits in America’s near future. Our political class, chasing after the phantom of empire, has followed it right over the edge of a cliff. Exactly how the results will play out is anybody’s guess right now. Equally uncertain is how the political classes in America and elsewhere will respond when a vision that has guided public policy for most of a century turns out to be as insubstantial as air. One way or another, though, we are likely in for a wild ride.
Even Archdruids deserve a vacation now and then, and after a busy and demanding year, this particular Archdruid rather badly needs one. This will be the only Archdruid Report post for January 2008; I will be resuming weekly posts again on February 6th. See you then!