Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Structure of Empires

Empires, as last week’s post noted, have been around for a long time. The evidence of history suggests that they show up fairly promptly once agriculture becomes stable and sophisticated enough to support urban centers, and go away only when urban life also breaks down. Anyone interested in tracking the rise and fall of empires thus has anything up to five thousand years of fairly detailed information from the Old World, and well over three thousand years from the New—plenty of data, one would think, for a coherent picture to emerge.

Unfortunately one major difficulty stands in the way of such a picture, and it’s one that was mentioned last week: empires attract doubletalk the way a dead rat attracts flies. Some of the doubletalk comes from rival power centers, outside the empire du jour or within it, that hope to excuse their own ambitions by painting that empire in the least complimentary colors that can be found, but an even larger amount gets produced by empires themselves—or, more exactly, by the tame intellectuals that empires produce and employ in numbers as large as the imperial economy can support. Between the doubletalk meant to make any given empire seem much worse than its rivals, and the doubletalk meant to make the same empire seem much better than its rivals, understanding is an early casualty.

Last week’s post gave a few examples of the first class of doubletalk. I could cite any number of examples of the second, but one that’s particularly relevant to the theme of this series of posts is that shibboleth of contemporary economics, free trade. That term’s become so thickly encrusted with handwaving and deliberate disinformation that it probably needs to be defined here; “a system of international exchange that prohibits governments from taxing or prohibiting the movement of goods, services, or money across borders” is as good a definition as any.

Pick up an introductory textbook of economics, though, and your chances of finding an objective assessment of a system of this kind are very low indeed. Instead, what you’ll find between the covers is a ringing endorsement of free trade, usually in the most propagandistic sort of language. Most likely it will rehash the arguments originally made by British economist David Ricardo, in the early 19th century, to prove that free trade inevitably encourages every nation to develop whatever industries are best suited to its circumstances, and so produces more prosperity for everybody. Those arguments will usually be spiced up with whatever more recent additions appeal to the theoretical tastes of the textbook’s author or authors, and will plop the whole discussion into a historical narrative that insists that once upon a time, there were silly people who didn’t like free trade, but now we all know better.

What inevitably gets omitted from the textbook is any discussion, based in actual historical examples, of the way that free trade works out in practice That would be awkward, because in the real world, throughout history, free trade pretty consistently hasn’t done what Ricardo’s rhetoric and today’s economics textbooks claim it will do. Instead, it amplifies the advantages of wealthy nations and the disadvantages of poorer ones, concentrating capital and income in the hands of those who already have plenty of both while squeezing out potential rivals and forcing down wages across the board. This is why every nation in history that’s ever developed a significant industrial sector to its economy has done so by rejecting the ideology of free trade, and building its industries behind a protective wall of tariffs, trade barriers, and capital controls, while those nations that have listened to the advice of the tame economists of the British and American empires have one and all remained mired in poverty and dependence as long as they did so.

There’s a rich irony here, because not much more than a century ago, a healthy skepticism toward the claims of free trade ideology used to be standard in the United States. At that time, Britain filled the role in the world system that the United States fills today, complete with the global empire, the gargantuan military with annual budget to match, and the endless drumbeat of brushfire wars across what would one day be called the Third World, and British economists were accordingly the world’s loudest proponents of free trade, while the United States filled the role of rising industrial power that China fills today, complete with sky-high trade barriers that protected its growing industries, not to mention a distinctly cavalier attitude toward intellectual property laws.

One result of that latter detail is that pirate editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica were produced and sold by a number of American firms all through the 19th century. Most of these editions differed from their British originals in an interesting way, though. The entry for “Free Trade” in the original editions repeated standard British free-trade economic theory, repeating Ricardo’s arguments and dismissing criticisms of free trade out of hand; the American editors by and large took the trouble to replace these with entries critiquing free trade ideology in much the same terms I’ve used in this post. The replacement of pro- with anti-free trade arguments in these pirate editions, interestingly enough, attracted far more denunciation in the British press than the piracy itself got, which shows that the real issues were tolerably well understood at the time.

When it comes to free trade and its alternatives, that level of understanding is nowhere near so common these days, at least in the United States—I’ve long suspected that businessmen and officials in Beijing have a very precise understanding of what free trade actually means, though it would hardly be to their advantage just now to talk about that with any degree of candor. On this side of the Pacific, by contrast, even those who speak most enthusiastically about relocalization and the end of corporate globalism apparently haven’t noticed how effectively tariffs, trade barriers, and capital controls foster domestic industries and rebuild national economies—or perhaps it’s just that too many of them aren’t willing to consider paying the kind of prices for their iPods and Xboxes that would follow the enactment of a reasonable tariff, much less the prices that would be required if we had the kind of trade barriers that built the American economy and could build it again, and American workers were paid American wages to make them.

Free trade is simply one of the mechanisms of empire in the age of industrialism, one part of the wealth pump that concentrated the wealth of the globe in Britain during the years of its imperial dominion and does the same thing for the benefit of the United States today. Choose any other mechanism of empire, from the web of military treaties that lock allies and subject nations into a condition of dependence on the imperial center, through the immense benefits that accrue to whatever nation issues the currency in which international trade is carried out, to the way that the charitable organizations of the imperial center—missionary churches in Victoria’s time, for example, or humanitarian NGOs in ours—further the agenda of empire with such weary predictability: in every case, you’ll find a haze of doubletalk surrounding a straightforward exercise of imperial domination. It requires a keen eye to look past the rhetoric and pay attention to the direction the benefits flow.

Follow the flow of wealth and you understand empire. That’s true in a general and a more specific sense, and both of these have their uses. In the general sense, paying attention to shifts in wealth between the imperial core and the nations subject to it is an essential antidote to the popular sort of nonsense—popular among the tame intellectuals previously mentioned, at least, and their audiences in the imperial core—that imagines empire as a sort of social welfare program for conquered nations. Whether it’s some old pukka sahib talking about how the British Empire brought railroads and good government to India, or his neoconservative equivalent talking about how the United States ought to export the blessings of democracy and the free market to the Middle East, it’s codswallop, and the easiest way to see that it’s codswallop is to notice that the price paid for whatever exports are under discussion normally amounts to the systematic impoverishment of the subject nation.

In the specific sense, flows of wealth can be used to trace out the structure of empire, which is a more complex matter than the basic outline discussed so far might make it seem. It’s entirely possible that a long time ago, when empires were new, there might have been one or two that consisted, on the level of nations, of a single imperial nation and a circle of subject nations; and on the level of populations, of a single ruling class and an undifferentiated mass of oppressed subjects. If empires this simple did exist, though, it was a very long time ago.

Nowadays an imperial system normally involves at least four distinct categories of nations, and an even more complex set of population divisions. On the level of nations, the imperial nation is in a category of its own; around it is an inner circle of allied nations, who support the empire in exchange for a share of the spoils; the third category consists of subject nations, the cash cows that the empire milks, and in due time will milk dry; finally, around the periphery, are enemy nations that oppose the empire in peace and war. In theory, at least, this last category shouldn’t be necessary, but it may not be accidental that when an empire loses one enemy, the usual response is to go shopping for another.

On the level of populations, the sort of crudely manipulative rhetoric that divides an elite 1% from an oppressed 99%, which was made popular last year by the Occupy movement, is a formidable barrier to understanding. An empire that tried to manage its affairs along those lines would fall in weeks. From ancient Rome to contemporary Washington DC, “divide and conquer” has always been the basic strategy of empire, and the classic way to do that in modern times is to hand out shares of wealth and privilege unequally to different sectors of the population. The British empire turned this into an art form, using arbitrary privileges and exclusions of various kinds to keep ethnic groups in each subject nation so irritated at one another that they never got around to uniting against the British. From the simmering rivalry between India and Pakistan, through the troubles of Northern Ireland, to the bitter mutual hatreds of Israelis and Arabs in what used to be British Palestine, the ethnic hatreds whipped up deliberately for the sake of Britain’s imperial advantage remain a live issue today.

These same divisions can be traced out within the imperial nation as well, and readily make hash out of any attempt to sort things out along the simplistic “us and them” lines favored by political activists. In contemporary America, for example, different sectors of the population are subject to the same sort of privileges and exclusions that defined so much of life in British India; if you’re an American citizen, the average annual income of your parents is a more exact predictor of your own income than any other factor, but your gender, your skin color, the location on the urban-rural spectrum of the neighborhood where you grew up, and a great many other arbitrary factors have far more to say about your prospects in life than America’s egalitarian ideology would suggest. These complexities are hardly accidental.

Still, there’s more going on here than simple manipulation from the top down. Within an imperial system, different nations and population groups are always competing against one another for a larger share of the wealth and privilege that empires make available. That happens on the scale of nations, for example, when a subject nation in a strategic location becomes an ally, or when an ally—as America did in 1945—supplants the former imperial center and takes the empire for its own. That also happens on the scale of populations, and on smaller scales still.

The ruling class of any nation, for example, consists of a loose alliance of power centers, held together by the pressures of mutual advantage, but constantly pursuing their own divergent interests and eagerly trying to claim a larger share of power and wealth at the expense of the other power centers. There are always families, factions, and social groups rising up into the ruling class at any given point, and others falling out of it; while outside the ruling class is an even more complex constellation of groups who support power centers within the ruling class, who expect to receive wealth and privileges in return for their support, and who rise and fall in their own intricate rhythm. Proceed step by step down the pyramid, and you’ll find the same complexities in place all the way down to the bottom, where a flurry of ethnic, cultural, and social groups compete with one another over whose oppression ought to get the most attention from middle class liberals.

On the level of nations or that of populations, in other words, it’s neither possible nor useful to divide the structure of empire into the simplistic categories of oppressor and oppressed, ruler and ruled. Many nations in any imperial system fall between the summit and the base of the pyramid, and are permitted to pump wealth out of nations lower down on the condition that they forward a certain fraction of the take further up. The vast majority of people in the imperial nation and its allies, and a certain fraction of those even in the most heavily exploited subject nations, receive at least a modest share of wealth and privilege in exchange for their cooperation in maintaining the imperial system, compete constantly for a bigger share, and generally limit their criticisms of the imperial system to those aspects of it that profit somebody else. That’s why empires have proven to be so enduring a human social form; the basic toolkit of empire includes an ample assortment of ways to buy the loyalty, or at least the passive acquiescence, of all those potential power centers that might otherwise try to destabilize the imperial system and bring the empire crashing down.

Yet empires do come crashing down, of course. The fact that the form has proven to be enduring has not given a comparable endurance to any individual empire. Britons during Victoria’s reign liked to boast that the sun never set on the British empire—though that may have been, as the Irish liked to suggest, because God Himself wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark—but the sun did set on that empire in due time, and once the sunset started, it proceeded with remarkable speed. Children who were just old enough to remember the celebration of Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, when the empire was not far from its zenith, had not yet reached retirement age when the last tattered scraps of that empire went whistling down the wind.

The collapse of the British empire is a fascinating story in its own right, but it’s also an object lesson of great importance just now. That collapse opened a window of opportunity through which several nations tried to climb, and the one that succeeded is today’s dominant imperial power, the United States of America. Understand Britain’s imperial sunset, and the broader patterns by which empires overshoot their economic basis and go under, and you understand one of the most important and least anticipated facts of the decades ahead of us—the parallel collapse of the American empire, and the struggle to replace it. We’ll explore that in outline next week.

End of the World of the Week #10

England has a long history of tolerating eccentrics, and its apocalyptic prophets have accordingly been among the more colorful examples of the species. From the Middle Ages through to the present, some truly exotic claims have been made by English prophets, but I know of only one who announced that she would bring about the Second Coming by the simple and elegant means of duplicating the role of the Virgin Mary and giving birth to Christ.

This was Joanna Southcott. Born in 1750 in the West Country village of Gittisham, Southcott led an unremarkable life until middle age, when she began to develop a reputation as what people at that time politely called a “wise woman” and earlier generations had called by the more robust label of “witch.” Her skills as a folk healer and fortuneteller attracted a modest following, which grew considerably in 1792 when she announced that she was the woman clothed with the Sun described in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. Moving to London, she began issuing prophecies in bad verse—one of them stating that the Second Coming would occur in the year 2004—and providing followers with seals that declared them members of the fortunate 144,000 who would enter into the New Jerusalem.

One of the job requirements of the woman clothed with the Sun, though, was to give birth to a man child who would rule the nations with a rod of iron. In 1814, at the age of 64, Southcott announced that she was pregnant and would give birth to the Messiah after the normal interval. Nine months later, with an exquisite sense of timing, she died; her followers, convinced she was in a trance, kept her body warm with hot water bottles until the smell of decay became intolerable.

—story from Apocalypse Not


Bruce The Druid said...

My first thought upon reading last weeks post was that it might be possible to work in modern corporations into the "empire" category. Now upon reading this weeks post, it seems possible to analyze a variety of corporate (business and political)structures in such a fashion.

The question of durability is also interesting. Every generation is aware of failed empires, but each generation seems to rationalize why they must be different. I heard for years the phrase, "American Exceptionalism" before realizing what it was referring to. It didn't become clear until the invasion and occupation of Iraq, where well meaning Americans thought they could transplant American culture and ideals, along with an American penal code, and "fix" Iraq.

Of course, when we realize why public schools and a common curriculum were so important to create and enforce, it becomes obvious why we seem to fail so spectacularly when it comes to learning from our own history.

DeAnander said...

The EB anecdote is tasty, thanks -- an interesting insight perhaps into the currently prevailing American (business-class) enthusiasm for (imho) insane, OTT intellectual property litigiousness... a predictable symptom of Empire?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I remember a charming anecdote quoting a Chinese diplomat (apologies but I can't remember where) who remarked about the US - Australia free trade agreement (where Australia has done rather poorly but won't renegotiate) and it was something along the lines of, "yes, but what did you get in return?".

A good example as to why this may be is sheep. Australia has more head of sheep than pretty much anywhere else on the planet and we produce wool and meat (lamb and mutton) cheaper than pretty much anywhere else too. Yet despite this and a US - Australia free trade agreement the tariffs on imported wool and sheep meat products in the US are such that they protect a very small number of sheep farmers in the US. Go figure?

The wealth pump is an old tool. Take one project for example, currently Australia is pumping money into the US military for the development of the Joint Strike Fighter project and we haven't seen a single aircraft yet. Unsurprisingly enough, earlier last century we were pumping money into the British military via the purchase of ships for the Australian navy which was intended to augment British sea power in the Pacific via Australian expenditure. Such is life on the in.

Your description of power centres, pyramids and shifting alliances seems spot on to me. Truly I no longer understand why people are so fixated on the old binary of left and right when discussing power struggles and politics. To me it seems more like pedalling influence and dividing the spoils which is why there is virtually no change when a supposedly ideologically different goverment is elected. I might be wrong, but that's how it seems to me.

I read a funny bit of invective that I thought you'd enjoy:

"That's shear bullypup!"

From the master story teller himself - Jack Vance.



John Michael Greer said...

Bruce, Santayana's famous dictum remains spot on -- those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Under the illusion, I might add, that they're doing something new and original.

DeAnander, without meaningful protection for intellectual property, writers, artists, musicians and other creative people have no way to make a living from their work. Of course the corporate sphere has taken that valid point much further than it should reasonably go, and the political sphere has taken it further still; still, I'd like to see the people who think they shouldn't have to pay for creative work stop getting a paycheck for whatever they do for a living, and see what they think of their own logic then.

Cherokee, I'll remember "bullypup" -- that's a good one. Down the road a bit we'll discuss the role of allies in an imperial scheme, but you've summed up one part of it well; the other part, well, how many graves marked ANZAC are scattered around the world as a result of the wars of Britain's imperial decline?

Igneous said...

Out of curiosity, John, have you read the work of the Korean political economist Ha-Joon Chang? Regarding your observation that "a healthy skepticism toward the claims of free trade ideology used to be standard in the United States," Chang likes to show American audiences the quote, "within 200 years, when the US has gotten out of protection all it can offer, then it too will adopt free trade." He then asks them who said it: Dennish Kucinich? He then shows them a $5 bill, pointing out that Grant was responding to the British Thomas Friedmans of the day, who were who argued that the U.S. would remain backward if it failed to open up its markets to the extent of Latin America. After all, the world was flat, right?

Igneous said...

Edit: I meant a $50 bill, although I'm sure that Lincoln would have agreed with Grant's sentiment.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

What role do you think language plays in this? I ask this because having travelled the world and lived amongst many different peoples, it really is the case that the higher the income ladder you go (in any nation), the more English is spoken, even if it is just loanwords tossed into the local tongue. With it comes of course cultural influences, values and ideas from the Anglosphere (now primarily America, but in the past it was Britain) that are only reinforced when people study English. Most of my colleagues from Asia who have sufficiently studied English to fluency might be nominally anti-American, but still readily digest the political philosophies and intellectual movements of the USA while dismissing their native cultural institutions as 'traditional'. With this comes emulation of social structures and political institutions.

Historically in former empires this was much the case as well. The whole of East Asia learned Chinese and with it Chinese values, statecraft and philosophy. During the heyday of Muslim empires everyone from Spain to India wanted to learn Arabic with similar results.

Basically, the language of an empire becomes a prestigious subject of study and the more an outsider learns it, the more access to privilege and wealth they will have. This is why the majority of children in Asia are expected, if not ordered, to learn English.

phil harris said...

I was going to write, 'spot on' but this seemed the theme of the first four comments; so take it as read.
In my last career but one when I was writing a chapter on GMOs, mostly genetically engineered crops, and risk assessment, I had access to a mass of official documents and opinion; UK, USA, international conferences. It became clear that 'ownership' of the global inventory of world crops was neither a trivial nor unrelated issue. There are interesting requirements enshrined in what were then, 1994, GATT agreements, and that are now subsumed under World Trade Organization (WTO). Signatories must for example adopt some legal plant variety property protection. I will not go on, but unresolved issues of 'farm-saved' or 'farmers' seed, were major obstacles. One way favored by conglomerates who were busy hoovering-up both seed companies and technology, was to move toward patenting. Stick a novel gene into it and it was yours and the world must pay rent for as long as it takes to reap large profit.
I have been thinking about these realities since I was 17 when I won a formal school debate, (England in the late 50s), using the slogan of the day: "Aid through Trade". I was an honest though naive lad and the arguments I had trotted out then kept coming back for detailed scrutiny over the years. Haunted me? Eventually they were refuted by examples both contemporary and historical.
It’ s interesting that a recent DOHA trade round failed in China because of agricultural trade, much to the puzzlement of a British politician who was doing time as the EU Trade Commissioner. Mandelson seemed genuinely not to understand why China could not go for free-trade in agriculture or horticulture. The fact could have escaped him that half the population of China still lives on the land while their children increasingly work in factories and building sites. They produce a lot of food per acre but perforce must eat most of it themselves and sell the remainder to buy essential inputs. A very tricky proposition for China not to pauperize that lot (i.e. deny them the means for a living) while feeding the growing urban masses with cheap enough food. And they must grow a middle-class at the same time. So it goes. Real instances trump theory every time. For whatever reason I do not know, but I keep worrying over details; so these discussions help.

wvjohn said...

A nice analysis especially in light of the current political maneuvering leading up to the next presidential election. Viewed from a cynic's perch, the paymasters of the American Empire must be rolling in the aisles laughing at the antics on the Republican side, with each candidate trying to empower an increasingly marginal but vocal following. It hearkens back to the days of the British Raj where the Majarajah of X was encouraged to dispute some marginal claim with his neighbors in the hope of a slightly larger piece of the pie. Of course, there is absolutely no reason the centers of power would want to see a change in the current regime: their interests are now well protected. The financial industries managed to nearly destroy the economy by a variety of actions, both legal and illegal, but the current administration is much more interested in shutting down online poker sites and locking up street level drug dealers than poking around Wall Street and alienating its “supporters.”

The ultimate purpose of this thaumaturgy is, of course, to deflect any meaningful discussion of anything that might upset the apple cart, both at the national and world levels. It would be amusing to see some talking head ask a candidate to evaluate the chance of the US becoming a client state of the Chindian Empire, as Greece has become to the EU. The list obviously goes on and on.

It is a daunting task to try and look down the timeline into the lives of our children and what that might be, much less the children of the 7th generation. But we can take heart from the fact that there is a growing community of people willing to discuss these issues with some intellectually honesty, and who are willing to begin the transition to a different form of society. As you have repeated in many different ways, when fresh vegetables get scarce, people will seek advice from the successful gardener, not the produce buyer at MegaMart. Thanks again and stay the course!

SMJ said...

Hello John,

You state that "the average annual income of your parents is a more exact predictor of your own income than any other factor, but... a great many other arbitrary factors have far more to say about your prospects in life than America’s egalitarian ideology would suggest."

A couple of paragraphs later, you state: "There are always families, factions, and social groups rising up into the ruling class at any given point, and others falling out of it; while outside the ruling class is an even more complex constellation of groups... who rise and fall in their own intricate rhythm."

The former asserts that social mobility is low, but the latter suggests that social mobility is quite high. There seems to be some contradiction here, or am I missing something?

AA said...

JMG, If one wishes to follow Santayana's dictum, what should one read (with regard to empires and imperial dynamics)?

Jim Brewster said...

I may be jumping the gun here, but I'm struck by some insights into one of the internal power struggles in the USA, that between the Democrats and Republicans.

In part it is grand theater to distract the populace from the main issues. That's certainly true of the "culture wars." As much as they foster true passion and have real impact on people, they are peripheral to the imperial agenda. Still, both parties need them to fire up their electoral bases.

I think I understand better why the faction of Democrats that took over the party with Bill Clinton has been so gung-ho on free trade and protecting the interests of companies like Monsanto®. It always seemed inconsistent with the progressive and socially-responsible image the Dems have so carefully groomed. But now I see it as the modus operandi imperialis (pardon my untutored Latin) of the Democrats , as opposed to the more overtly militaristic stance of the Republicans. Gotta keep the wealth flowing in somehow.

Jason said...

This is the sort of post that makes me grin with pleasure, as I feel things falling into place.

One thing I do think is -- funny may not be the word, but you have to laugh, and that is the cackhanded divide and rule tactic by Britain way after we stopped being an Empire. Between foreign nationalist governments who would flip us the bird and communist parties who would tip the scales towards the USSR, we could hardly find anyone to support, and whom did we ultimately often choose? Islamic militants!

And now we are supposed to wonder why these people are so well equipped, organised, ubiquitous and po'd...? :)

(Mark Curtis has an admirable history of our incomptence in this for anyone interested.)

I'd like more info on the missionaries and humanitarian NGOs though... what's their exact method of contributing to the cause? Something I've never really looked into.

This series of posts is going to be a joy... thanks.

BruceH said...

I enjoyed this post even though it mainly reiterated much of what I already understand. But, then again, I know you're just getting started on this series. I was somewhat surprised, however, that your analysis of empire this week was pretty much limited to the two most recent examples, Britain and the U.S. I hope you intend bolster your analysis by giving us more examples from other, less familiar empires in subsequent posts.

Vagrant Star said...


I don't want to start yet another barely-relevant discussion on your comment threads, but I feel compelled to point out that you've misrepresented IP-skeptics' logic.

Our logic is precisely that there are major differences between intellectual works and physical possessions, or between enforcing a copyright and enforcing a contract.

When one gets beyond a priori logic and the MPAA and RIAA's inflated (and often baseless) loss claims, there's a good bit of evidence suggesting that piracy isn't nearly as harmful as enforcing copyright. For example:

"The [Swiss] government then looked at 22 studies analyzing the effects of piracy on the music industry, with five showing a positive impact on sales and three showing no correlation.",2817,2397173,00.asp

Vagrant Star said...


I felt I should add this point, since the discussion of IP and piracy are usually boiled down to the binary of pro-piracy and pro-IP.

I'm not arguing that piracy is morally acceptable or never causes harm (14 of those studies did show a negative correlation, after all), but whether or not it should be legally prohibited is another matter entirely.

My belief is that cost of enforcement, both in terms of cost to taxpayers and the frequent collateral damage to free speech, is far too high at least for noncommercial forms of piracy. This is especially the case when you consider that the laws are unenforceable to begin with (consider how many pirates get away contrasted with how many are brought to court, let alone how many actually pay rather than declare bankruptcy).

blue sun said...

At the very bottom of last week's post, LewisLucanBooks posted a link to Rutilius Claudius Namatianus's "A Voyage Home to Gaul." I took a look at it, and this is a fine example of doubletalk.

I was hoping to find, as Lance Micheal Foster had commented, a window into the life of an individual who was part of a society in decline, and how he or she found meaning. Apparently Rutilius found meaning through doubletalk!!

He's writing this in the 400s. In fact, the Roman Empire had already collapsed. But in mind, it was still very much alive. It's amazing to hear his words:

"Listen, O fairest queen of thy world, Rome, welcomed amid the starry skies, listen, thou mother of men and mother of gods, thanks to thy temples we are not far from heaven: thee do we chant, and shall, while destiny allows, for ever chant. "

Rome was over, but it appears Rutilius simply refused to believe it. He was of the opinion that Rome's failure was setting the stage for a roaring comeback:

"Raise, O Rome, the triumphal laurels which wreathe thy locks, and refashion the hoary eld of thy hallowed head to tresses fresh and fair. Golden let the diadem flash on thy tower-crowned helmet; let the golden buckler belch forth perpetual fires! Let forgetfulness of thy wrongs bury the sadness of misfortune; let pain disregarded close and heal thy wounds. Amidst failure it is thy way to hope for prosperity: after the pattern of the heavens losses undergone enrich thee. For flaming stars set only to renew their rising; thou seest the moon wane to wax afresh."

Talk about flowery language. Enough already!

* * *

Now may be a good time to remind anyone who missed it, to go back to JMG's post on January 19, 2011. There's a link to a short and sweet essay: 'The Fate of Empires' by Sir John Glubb (Glubb Pasha). You could think of it as a basic primer on the subject: required reading for 'Empires 101.'

It’s easy and fun reading. That original link, posted by one Phil Knight, is now emptied due to copyright issues, but I found another link posted by somebody on Kunstler's December 4, 2011 blogpost:

Jamesneo said...

I do not think that the collapse of the American empire will follow the relatively fast timeline of the British empire. It is more likely that the collapse will occur more gradually over decades and maybe even over a century similar to ancient empires based on a conflagration of states such as the Zhou dynasty in ancient china. I suspect that the empire will collapse slowly as local powers(states) starts to ignore or gain considerable power when the federal government lost its mandate for rule for example by not helping the states due to the bankruptcy of the federal government. However, the american empire may linger on in name at least for more decades but in form local states will start to dominate and in the post peak world, it is even possible for different states to become aggressive towards each other over the different resources available.

vera said...

Interesting new series!

I am responding here to the side thought on intellectual property. If science can flourish while insisting on putting scientific publications into the commons from the start (or used to) perhaps there is a way to support artists and writers who do the same also.

Isn't human creativity a commons too, right along with scientific ingeniousness?

I myself would have preferred the pirated version of Britannica if I had lived in the 19th century. Privatization stifles further piggyback developments, while open source promotes it, nah?

someone said...

Very interesting to learn about 19th-century Americans opposing free trade, even going as far as rewriting encyclopedia entries. I didn't know about this.

Regarding the end of the US empire, I don't think this is something new. At least in continental Europe there have been books and opinion pieces about an emerging "multipolar world order" for years. The reasoning is that with the collapse of the other "empire", the Soviet Union, the US filled the void for a decade or so, but now others are up and coming.

These articles and books also usually suggest that we must build a stronger EU, loosen our ties with the US (at least to some extent) and cooperate more with Russia, China, India and the Middle East. As far as I can tell, this is quite an influential way of thought among many (continental) European politicians and is actively being pursued. Europeans have always been opportunistic, you know. :)

We certainly live in interesting times now. The United States are struggling to maintain their worldwide influence, but ultimately, this will prove impossible. Germany is slowly restoring its "soft hegemony" over continental Europe, with France as an accomplice (lately, Sarkozy has publicly suggested several times that France and the rest of Europe need to become more like Germany). Southern Europe is being forced to adopt the economic and political ways of the North (i.e. Germany). The EU is getting stronger and more dominated by Germany the longer the current "debt crisis" lasts - and it will probably last some time, because it's been convenient for Germany (and to some extent, France). The UK might eventually leave the EU altogether and intensify its relationship to the US; or, more likely, it might be forced to stay and accept even stronger integration by economic necessity.

And then there are Russia, China, India, Brazil and certain middle eastern countries trying to extend their own spheres of influence …

escapefromwisconsin said...

One significant difference between the British and American empires is that Britain used its colonies as cheap sources of raw materials that would be manufactured in British shops and factories and sold back to the colonies, providing jobs for the laboring classes and a positive trade balance in the age of mecantilism. They wanted to prevent the rise of domestic, self-sufficient industries outside of Britain (hence confict with the U.S.). Modern-day America, by contrast, exports raw materials and uses its trading partners mainly as sources of cheap labor (wage arbitrage), in the process exporting nearly its entire industrial base to China and leaving its own factories to rust in the rain. I remember seeing a reporter a few years back (I think it was on Moyers' show) at a West Coast port asking what came in and out. The manager replied that raw materials and agricultural products left the port, and manufactured goods from China came in. The reporter commented that this pattern was more in line with third-workd countries than the world's largest economy. Of course, the dollar's status as the world's reserve currency is what allows this. Meanwhile, instead of providing jobs its citizenry, the American empire has resorted to incarcertating them on a scale not seen since Stalin's Russia. One in four of the world's prisoners sits in an American jail. It also uselessly exhorts for "more education" as some kind of solution to this, despite its reluctuance to hire American labor (indeed, American corporations now hire more workers overseas than domestically, even before accounting for H1-B visas and the like).

Ruling over an impoverished and desperate populace seems to be an odd way to run an empire. More and more resources need to be spent on domestic policing just to keep the population in line. And to top it off, the welfare payouts that buy the complicity of the lower classes are not expanding, but rather are under assault by the wealthy class and their political backers in the Republican Party (We're broke!!). Are they nuts? Or do they really beleive their own rhetoric? Do they really think they can manipulate people through the media or intimidate them through the police and courts enough to keep their ill-gotten gains? The benefits of empire seem to be accruing to an ever-smaller slice of American society, while the costs (in money and blood) are quite well-distributed.

P.S. I was reminded of the intellectual property issue reading this BBC article on how Charles Dickens soured on America. America in 1842 was like China today - full of pirated of editions of Dickens' novels, costing him quite a hefty sum. Dickens came to America full of idealism, and left thinking of Americans as lacking in social graces, rude, and obsessed with money. Thank God we've changed since then :D!

Dwig said...

"Understand Britain’s imperial sunset, and the broader patterns by which empires overshoot their economic basis and go under, and you understand one of the most important and least anticipated facts of the decades ahead of us..."

I'd like to see the Soviet empire included in the mix of "recent imperial sunsets". (Also, I'm wondering how the American imperial project would have played out if it hadn't had large-caliber enemy nations that were imperial in their own right. "Global terrorism" is a pretty thin substitute for a real enemy nation, although it has its own virtues, such as the possibility of endless war.)

Dwig said...

Another quick thought: "divide and conquer" is such an old trick, and such a well known one, that it's curious how effective it still is. Exploring this might be worth a post in itself. (For example, what are the thaumaturgical principles involved?)

DeAnander said...

"Ruling over an impoverished and desperate populace seems to be an odd way to run an empire. More and more resources need to be spent on domestic policing just to keep the population in line."

The thought that popped into my head instantly was that privatised prison and security systems "solve" that problem by turning a public expense into a profit-taking opportunity for investors. More and more resources spent on domestic policing and incarceration... suddenly become a revenue stream for entrepreneurs!

Chris Balow said...

Great work, JMG. This week's post brings to mind something from Kunstler's blog a few months ago, in which he wrote about a visit to Sweden. In no uncertain terms, Kunstler seemed to paint Sweden as this fairy-tale land full of tall, attractive, and intelligent people who lived on higher moral ground than the stupid, ugly, militaristic Americans. When I pointed out, in the comments section, that the Swedish people profit quite handsomely (think IKEA) from the American Empire, I received several fiery denunciations. When I suggested that, if the Swedish really had a problem with what the Americans were doing, they would stop cashing in by selling us their overpriced furniture (or, more to the point, developing fighter jets for the DoD--see Saab), it seemed that I had ruffled quite a few feathers.

It's common on the Left these days to see Europeans as oh-so-enlightened and above the brutal engagements of the American empire, when in reality they have all taken their turn at the empire game, and still do quite well for themselves as tight-knit American allies. Your post this week serves as a great counterpoint to that mistaken belief.

John Michael Greer said...

Igneous, I haven't, and clearly I'll have to. I wasn't aware of the Grant anecdote, either, though I've read some very cogent deconstructions of free trade ideology by American authors of his era.

Jeffrey, good. The spread of the language and culture of the empire du jour is another, subtler aspect of the exercise of power.

Phil, the details matter, and yes, dominating the agricultural sector via patented seeds is simply one more form of wealth pump. We'll be talking about that and much more down the road.

Wvjohn, I've occasionally wondered if the US parties have brokered a deal by which they alternate in the presidency, eight years each, and the other side agrees to throw the elections they're not supposed to win. The GOP seems to be going out of its way to find the most unelectable candidate they can.

SMJ, no contradiction at all. Social mobility is relatively low, but it's not nonexistent; there are always some people moving up a notch or down a notch, and that's equally true at the very top.

AA, I'm beginning to create a reading list. For now, pick an empire, any empire, hit your local public library and read half a dozen books on it. Detailed knowledge of actual cases beats abstract theory three falls out of three.

Jim, exactly. The Dems' effective motto since 1980 has been "We're going to do the same thing to you that the GOP will, but at least we'll use lubricant."

Jason, it's as though they've gotten so deeply into the habit of stirring up hatreds that they can't get out of it. As for NGOs and the like, that's going to take a good long post or two all by itself; all in good time.

Bruce, of course! I'm starting with the comparison between the US and British empires, because it's clear and very easy to document, but we'll be going much further afield as we proceed.

Vagrant, if you want authors to write books, musicians to record albums, artists to create art, and other creative people to create for your entertainment, there needs to be some way for them to get paid for their work, so they can afford to keep working and don't have to go flip burgers instead. When people steal my books online -- and there's quite a bit of that; check out how many torrent sites come up when you Google my name -- they're taking money out of my paycheck and making it harder for me to pay my bills and keep writing. If you don't like the current system of intellectual property, fine -- come up with some other way for writers, artists and musicians to make a living while doing their work; I'd be entirely cool with that. Unless you're willing to work for free, though, don't expect writers, artists and musicians to do so.

John Michael Greer said...

Blue Sun, it's a classic, and well worth applying to modern parallels.

Jamesneo, I think you're mistaken, and will explain why in the posts ahead.

Vera, if you can come up with a way that writers and artists can make a living without having to ask people to pay for their works, I'm good with that. For the time being, I have to make a living by selling my books, the same way that a baker makes a living by selling loaves of bread, and having people steal my livelihood is a problem.

Someone, I'd heard more than once that such talk has been in circulation in Europe; most of my audience, though, is American, and next to nobody's been talking about it over here.

Escape, the frantic pursuit of short term profit and advantage on the part of the American upper classes is a major reason why, as I mentioned to Jamesneo a little further up the comment string, I expect the collapse of the US empire to happen very quickly. It's as though they know that the whole thing is going to come crashing down, and are simply trying to stuff their pockets as fast as possible before the crunch hits.

Dwig, we'll be getting to that!

Kieran O'Neill said...

Serbia is a fascinating case study in the structure of empires. My wife still has family there, who have been somewhat swept up in the nationalistic fervour of the past two decades. Although the country is extremely poor (most of Europe has been reluctant to trade with them since the atrocities of the wars), my wife's relatives are convinced that their "Russian brothers" are helping them out.

When I heard this, I had to go and look up the trade situation between Serbia and Russia: it turns out that there's a four to one trade deficit in Russia's favour. So much for brotherhood.

It's a fascinating example of the common people being exploited in an imperialistic fashion, but being entirely convinced that they're getting a good deal.

SLClaire said...

While reading about the ways that the U.S. empire doles out modest amounts of wealth and privilege to portions of its population to buy their support, I've been engaged in figuring out what proportion of the flow I've been able to tap into. Might as well be honest about how I've bought in. I started writing them all down in this post, but they are so many that I ended up deleting that part. Suffice it to say that even though my husband and I don't have quite enough income to pay any federal income tax, between past and present direct and indirect benefits we've received, we can live reasonably comfortably on that income. I figured out how to work the system to my benefit early on and was fortunate enough to have a head start at it because my ancestors worked it pretty good too.

Besides making it a bit hypocritical for me to protest the powers that have brought me so many benefits, reflecting on this makes it a little clearer where my own vulnerabilities are. With that knowledge, I'm learning how to be really useful to myself and others when the swag ends. I'm looking forward to the rest of the posts in this series in anticipation that they will help me to be more useful and less harmful.

Joel Caris said...

I like the image of a pyramid to describe the general structure of empire.

I was reading Overshoot last night and taking particular note of chapter five, I believe it was, in which Catton writes about how low population pressure leads to greater social inequality and vice versa. That idea struck me, in the sense that obvious ideas that I hadn't yet grasped often do.

As resource-depletion continues to eat at our empire, then, the empire will protect its core not just by pulling from the subject nations, but inevitably pulling resources from the favored constellation of neighbors. This is the nation-level of social inequality, in essence. As that happens, it destabilizes the whole pyramid by weakening the supporting blocks directly beneath the top piece or even kicking them down to a lower level, thus eliminating part of that direct support. Each destabilization causes the top to teeter a bit more, until the inevitable.

This seem a proper interpretation, or am I looking at it a bit too simplistically?

In regards to IP, I have to wonder if the eventual end of the internet as a widely available technology might just settle many of these issues. Once IP is back to being rooted largely in physical copies without this odd ability to easily make an infinite number of copies, things may settle back down. Not that there won't be piracy, but it will be more of the sort we're used to dealing with.

Of The Hands

Vagrant Star said...


That I agree with. There is a need for some system to help those who work in the non-scarce economy adapt to the wider, scarcity-based economy. I'm also in favor of implementing any such alternate system alongside copyright and patent systems to see if they actually work.

In a way, that's already happening thanks to the growing supply of open-source software and Creative Commons-licensed content based around alternative business models.

And, for all that, I think the issue will largely solve itself. The current furor about piracy is a product of widespread access to computers and only makes sense in that context. Subtract the oil that makes that situation possible and we're back to the days where any significant level of piracy requires a costly printing press.

Phil Knight said...

Salutations to Blue Sun for mentioning the Sir John Glubb essay. It's available on quite a few places on the net now, and I'd recommend it as essential reading. The section about lewd 14th Century Arabian pop stars is particularly eye-opening (al-Kadashian, anyone?)

If we're allowed to big up our own blogs, I did a little piece about a particularly poignant moment at the end of the British Empire here:

That said, I'm not a serious blogger - nowadays, I'd rather be down the pub, to be honest.

Twilight said...

There have been many cycles even in the relatively short build up of the American empire. Within the factions of the elite (cats in a sack) there have always been some that would take absolutely and leave nothing to the greatest extent possible. There have been others who recognized the instability of this approach, such as perhaps FDR. Periodically the scorched-earth set got the reigns and invariably over-reached with the expected backlash.

However, in times past there has been sufficient extra wealth in terms of natural resources or the spoils of empire after WWII to allow a correction back to stability. This time is a bit different, in that after the US peaked in oil production in the 1970s we moved into the realm of debt. We relied much more heavily on the tools of empire to provide the energy resources we needed. But we found there wasn't any need to take everything and leave nothing when you could simply create more out of thin air. The wealth pump ran overtime, but that was nowhere enough and the difference was borrowed – from the future and from the rest of the world.

There don't seem to be any reasonable voices anymore, maybe because it's obvious we cannot pay it back and there won't be enough, maybe because the idea of compromise got left behind when we believed we could have it all by borrowing. So now the scorched-earth crowd is everyone and there won't be enough spoils to buy off the large numbers who can't get what they want this time around. Those who can appear to be taking everything they can without regard for preserving any future viability.

Richard Larson said...

Apt ternary description concerning the inner workings of an empire.

The free trade thing is only a theory and will never happen on a world-wide scale. Human nature, cultural differences, and limited resources are barriers. I coined a phrase that never seemed to get any attention, and that is countries should employ "mirror trade" with one another. That would be fair.

Of course, the one-world-government theory would make all equal, but other than lasting no more than one second, it is just another enforcement agency protecting those making the most off of the trade.

If that lady back in the 1700's grew to having 144,000 followers (interesting ploy, by the way), she no doubt died a rich witch...

Just think, other than having so much competition, the cost of selling eternal life is zero!

jph said...

There's a fourth leg to the free trade definition you mention (goods, services and money) and that's the free movement of labor across international boundaries. See Philippe Legrain's work.

ando said...

As it relates to intellectual property. JMG puts a variety of good pointers out in this blog, free of charge. I propose that all of us who benefit from his generosity, pitch something into the tip jar.



Thijs Goverde said...

Once again a very good post.
It affords an interesting view of the fix Europe has gotten itself into: the Northwest (Germany, Netherlands, France) has been pumping wealth out of Greece (and the other 'garlic countries' as they are known here - a term of affection I'm sure) for decades, through free trade and the interest we made them pay on the money we loaned them to freely buy expensive things from us in the first place.
A neat scam, until you realise you're actually in a financial union with the poor buggers.
Now it's our problem, too.
Not so much the problem of the European Northwest as a whole, but rather the problem of the non-upper classes, as governments make the draconian budget cuts needed to solve the problem 'caused by those pesky Greeks (et al)'.
No telling how much of this is on purpose and how much is just stupidity, but it sure reeks of the frantic pursuit of short term profit and advantage on the part of the ... upper classes you mentioned earlier.

dylan said...

Jeffrey - Good point, and why the most effective way to break a culture is to outlaw, and destroy their language.

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, it's still very much in use. Watched the Dems and the GOP recently?

DeAnander, over the short term, definitely. Over the long term, it's a massively bad idea. More on this later on.

Chris, I enjoy Jim's weekly rant, but there are times when I just end up rolling my eyes, and that post was well up there on that latter list. We'll be discussing just now deeply committed Europe is to the US empire in a bit.

Kieran, most interesting! How much of that is what's left of the old Pan-Slavic ideology, do you think?

SLClaire, that's impressive. Most Americans would rather gnaw on a live sewer rat than face up to the reality that they benefit from the existing order of things. Thank you.

Joel, no, that's not overly simplistic at all. You've anticipated part of the argument of forthcoming posts, in fact.

Vagrant, I'm perfectly willing to work with the people who want greater freedom of information exchange, provided that they're willing to address my concerns. As for the longterm prospects of the phenomenon, yes, well, I tried to bring up the longevity of the internet here a while back and got the most remarkable display of "La, la, la, I can't hear you" from the geekoisie, so we'll let that pass for now.

Twilight, that's certainy my take these days.

Richard, true enough; it could be claimed that salvation is the only infinitely renewable resource!

Jph, granted, but that's not part of the standard definition, which is what I was using.

Ando, thank you! And a thank you as well to all who've done so.

Thijs, excellent. That's actually a point I'll be discussing next week.

John Michael Greer said...

One thing -- I had a flurry of people try to pile onto the intellectual property issue, from all sorts of angles, none of them relevant to the theme of this week's post. I try to accommodate the vagaries of conversation, but there are limits, especially with a topic of this sort, which generates more heat than light. Since we have plenty of other things to talk about, no further comments on that subject will be put through. 'Nuf said.

Martin said...

"AA, I'm beginning to create a reading list. For now, pick an empire, any empire, hit your local public library and read half a dozen books on it. Detailed knowledge of actual cases beats abstract theory three falls out of three."

Just wanted to mention that I would be also be interested in a John Michael Greer recommended reading list. I am always impressed by the range and depth of the subjects that you tackle. Suggestions on how to "be like Mike" would be very much appreciated.


Kieran O'Neill said...

Definitely some of the old Pan-Slavism, although to be honest just about everyone I've met from other Slavic countries has said that there's no love lost between them and Russia.

I'd guess there's a religious component. The Serbs are the only people of the Western and Southern Slavs who are predominantly Orthodox (as opposed to Catholic).

The way my wife puts it, before Yugoslavia broke up, most people (her family included) were fairly lax in their religious practice, getting baptised but rarely attending a weekly service. Suddenly, during/after the wars, a large portion of Serbia became devoutly Orthodox again. And indeed the local minister seems to play a major role in shaping and nurturing the nationalistic sentiment.

Of course I'm sure there was a component of political expedience too -- Serbia hasn't exactly been popular over the past twenty years, and I'm sure that corrupt Russian oligarchs have been more than happy to take advantage of the situation.

Glenn said...

Free Trade Question:

Obviously it benefits the empire or more industrially developed nation involved.

But if the Trade is truly free, who is hurt? My request is, would someone please describe the mechanism, I can't quite visualize it.

Is it a matter of corrupting the elite in the smaller country and having them sell product, whether resources or manufactured below cost?

hadashi said...

"Proceed step by step down the pyramid, and you’ll find the same complexities in place all the way down to the bottom"

What this implies, in effect, is that no one feels secure wherever they, ahem, occupy the pyramid. Within the top 1% everyone is looking up at the 1% of that and so on and so forth like the series of images between parallel mirrors.

I remember reading once where one of the top handful of guys at the top of the heap admitting that he couldn't help wanting to catch the people on the rungs up above him, and that only then might he feel able to sit back and relax.

How bizarre the mechanism of empire that has us in its clutches.

John Michael Greer said...

Martin, I'll see what I can put together.

Kieran, fascinating. Thanks for the info.

Glenn, that's the standard rhetoric, of course. Who's hurt? The working class families here, who lose their jobs because it's cheaper to hire somebody at slave wages in the Third World; the middle classes in the Third World, whose attempts to create businesses of their own are crushed by competition from existing industrial nations; people in Third World nations generally, whose natural resources are siphoned off to feed the desires of the rich in the industrial world -- well, I could go on for a week. Free does not mean fair.

Hadashi, and the folks on top are also looking nervously downwards at the people one notch below them who are trying to supplant them, and so on right on down the pyramid. It cuts both ways.

Joel Caris said...

I was watching the NBA tonight on the old teevee and saw an ad for "America's Navy." It went like this:

There's a shot of the open seas. Superimposed over this image is the phrase, "70% of the world is covered by water." Fade and then the next phrase: "80% of all people live near water." Fade again and then the next: "90% of all trade travels by water." An aircraft carrier then cuts through this phrase, fully loaded. In it's wake is this phrase: "100% on watch." Final tagline as the screen fades into a global map littered with stars (which I assume are naval bases): America's Navy - A Global Force For Good.

If this isn't a tacit admission of empire, I don't know what is. After all, I don't see The Gambia, for instance, patrolling the world's waters and littering the globe with its naval bases.

This commercial also provided a few other amusing thoughts. Doesn't somewhere close to 100% of the world's population live near some water? I mean, you don't live long if you don't have something to drink. Also, I had the image of an air craft carrier drifting in circles in Crater Lake. 80% of people may live near water, but America's Navy probably doesn't have a presence in a good number of those various bodies of water.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

There's a general theme that gets raised regularly by commenters that I find to be quite interesting. There is a belief that any collapse must take place over a period of decades or even over the next century. It gets repeated often enough here so it must be believed to some extent.

I'm making no predictions, because I have no idea, but it does occur to me that we live in a rather abstract society.

If you take technology as an example. Over the past century or two technology has slowly developed on the back of older ideas / older technology. It's an incremental increase. To me current technology doesn't seem particularly backwardly compatible. A current vehicle, or say, a current tractor would be of little value in a world of constrained energy - even though the predecessors of that technology would have happily existed in a world of constrained energy.

Plus, with the loss of large scale, high volume manufacturing facilities in first world countries + the skills to build, operate, resource and maintain them you could not produce the appropriate technology items for a constrained energy world anyway - even if it was agreed that this was the correct way forward.

I guess the summary of this is, it is far easier to go up on a gentle trajectory, but virtually impossible to come down gently unless an organised retreat is generally agreed and acted upon.

Thanks for the mention of the ANZAC's. It never ceases to amaze me by how widely read you are. I can't adequately describe the national emotions surrounding the ANZAC's so I've attached a link to a song.

Redgum - I was only 19

Since the fall of Singapore during WWII, Australia has thrown it's lot in with the US. The US came south to defend us against the Japanese. When people ask why would the free trade agreement be run the way it is, it is because that's how it is. Historically we looked to the UK for protection and now we look to the US. There is a price to be paid for this and we pay it.



Jason Heppenstall said...

It's morbidly fascinating to watch as empires crumble and new ones arise - and all the shifting and swirling allegiances that follow.

Here in Denmark we're a whole lot closer to the 'rising East' than you are. I could literally get up from my desk and walk to Beijing, should I feel so inclined. One definitely senses something stirring. I'd say that 10 years ago the only way I could relate myself to China was a) Most of the goods I owned were made there and b) I loved eating dim sum.

Now, a mere decade later it's somewhat different. Some friends moved to Shanghai last week, the company where I work just opened an office in Beijing (and another in Delhi), I have two Chinese co-workers, the local language school has seen a surge of people wanting to learn Chinese, agents are popping up offering to sell your products to middle class Chinese etc etc.

I also see plenty of Chinese business men (yes, it's always men) walking around Copenhagen in small groups, hands folded behind their backs and looking for all the world like they're out shopping.

I'm starting to think that in the dark places at the back of some (European) people's minds there lurks a thought that China might be the one to bail us all out and keep the gravy train moving - thus allowing us all to continue living like there's no tomorrow.

It's already happening. Chinese concerns reportedly own most of the Greek port of Piraeus and are looking at purchasing a few Greek islands for 'holiday resorts'.

How do you say 'military base' in Mandarin?

Jason Heppenstall said...

@Chris Balow
Spot on with your recognition that Swedes are not all magical liberal fairies. I live in Denmark - which attracts similar attention from jealous liberals.

JMG wrote a post last November about Steiner's categorisation of Ahrimanic and Luciferic places and, reading it, I recognised Scandinavia as a Luciferic place.

Shakespeare - a uniquely perceptive human being - wrote 'There's something rotten in the state of Denmark.'

I'm beginning to think that some places fulfil the role of an untarnished Eden in the minds of true believers...

@Blue Sun - many thanks for the John Glubb link - I had read this and then lost it (and forgotten who wrote it). This time I'm keeping a hard copy.

Jim Brewster said...


"But if the Trade is truly free, who is hurt?"

That's a big "if." One of the structural problems of free trade as I see it is that the 4th leg mentioned by jph above, the free movement of labor, is usually missing or broken.

Another big problem is the loss of local self-sufficiency, especially in agriculture. Indigenous varieties of corn and beans, and the traditional methods for growing them, are being lost in Mexico because farmers can't compete with the cheap commodity crops from the USA. Like JMG, I could go on and on.

phil harris said...

Do Empires fail because they 'go soft', 'intellectualise', or otherwise become decadent?
Old Glubb Pasha, (mentioned here this week by more than one correspondent), speculates about just these matters. But, thoughtful and endearing old buffer though he seems, with a colourful career in front-line geopolitics, we need to remember he was British of his time and place toward the end of empire. There was plenty of decadence around in the upper reaches of European society pre-1914, but I am not sure that is what Glubb had in mind.
An alternative hypothesis occurs to me. Empires gradually go over the top by continuing the very same activities and expanding, or trying to expand the same structures that grew them in the first place? This might include expanding the reach of dominant aggressive sub-groups, or indeed, those sub-groups creating a whole culture in their own image. But it is BAU that does them in.
A study of the short-lived Swedish empire has revealed in that somewhat special case some stark realities and driving forces. An area of slow-growing forest where the season of good light is very short is not the eco-zone where one could expect much surplus food production. Convenient biomass while it lasts, iron smelting and export of iron and military equipment, can start a wealth pump, but it is a pump that needs ever more pumping. Any American doomsters looking for more fantasy material need go no further than large late-mediaeval armies roaming the adjacent erstwhile food-producing plains of North West Europe in the 17thC. An expert account is “Food, War and Crisis: The Seventeenth Century Swedish Empire”, Janken Myrdal, in Rethinking Environmental History, eds. Alf Hornberg et al., Altamira, 2007. Highly recommended.

Jim Brewster said...

Stumbled on this interesting bit of thaumaturgy. The Pentagon has produced a feature film!

Jim Brewster said...

And in other Euro-zone news, Portugal and its people are turning to former colonies for help when all Europe offers is austerity.

Seaweed Shark said...

This series of articles on imperial overreach and decline has just begun, and therefore it may be both premature and unfair to offer critique. If these comments are unwarranted I apologize, but I have seen enough hints in your previous writings to feel inclined to offer two warnings.

I hope you will not succumb to the temptation to goad your American readers unnecessarily with supposed proofs that their nation is a grasping empire and that its moment in history has passed. Both of these things may be true, but going on about them excessively, especially in a snarky way, will not help anyone accept what is coming, and will only make it easier for opponents to paint you as a frustrated intellectual "hater" on the margins of society. Chomsky does something similar, demonstrating with great skill that the USA is a terrorist state and so on. Such assertions, made on purpose to provoke anger and outrage, do not help people. Few are convinced or guided; most are only prompted to resistance. You know that old story from Aesop about the sun and the wind.

The second warning -- related to the first -- is that I see grave complications in any argument that suggests the baton of world empire is in the process of being passed to China, something you hint at in this article and have suggested more than once in your earlier writings. The current Chinese state is essentially as dependent on fossil fuels as the American, their cities are as wasteful, their aspirations just as much orientated towards information and physical superhighways as our own. To demonstrate, with any credibility, that limitations of fossil fuel energy will necessarily favor that nation relative to the USA, would require far more thorough accounting than you have so far provided. A related problem is that the passing of "empires" appears only marginally related to Peak Energy at all -- it happened before the big run-up in energy use began, and continued to happen while that run-up was in progress.

Again, apologies if these comments are unfounded. I am a long time reader and often find much of value in your works.

Jim Brewster said...

Chris and JMG,

I wonder if Kunstler is aware of how much he comes across as the crass, profanity-spewing, ugly American he professes to hate!

Glenn said...

JMG Said:

"Glenn, that's the standard rhetoric, of course. Who's hurt? The working class families here, who lose their jobs because it's cheaper to hire somebody at slave wages in the Third World; the middle classes in the Third World, whose attempts to create businesses of their own are crushed by competition from existing industrial nations; people in Third World nations generally, whose natural resources are siphoned off to feed the desires of the rich in the industrial world"

I got that already; what I'm having a hard time visualing is _how_ those resources get siphoned off. It's the functioning of the mechanism that escapes me. The 'what' you described above are the obvious results. I'm asking you, or someone, to remove the housing (raise the hood, if you prefer an automotive simile) so I can see the gears.

I speculate such things as corrupting the elites in the thrid world so sell at the lowest costs and skim the profits; there's the matter of providing food aid in the form of direct subsidized food stuffs that compete agains artisinal and subsistence farmers; etc... I'm just having a hard time visualizing the details on the industrial/resource end of it.

Marrowstone Island

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, hard to think of a better proclamation of Pax Americana.

Cherokee, that's part of the mechanism behind the stairstep pattern of decline I've discussed here so often. As for the ANZACs, you're welcome.

Jason, that would be 军事基地, Jūnshì jīdì. It's a phrase a good many Europeans will be learning down the road a bit.

Phil, we'll be talking about that in general terms next week, and then in quite a bit more detail further into this sequence of posts.

Jim, many thanks for the links!

Steve in Colorado said...

@ Glenn: How do free trade agreements act as a wealth pump? I think the mechanism goes something like this:

I'm a business owner who makes metal toys. It's 1970, and I'm doing okay. The workers in my American factory are unionized, so I have to pay them quite a bit. The workers in the steal mill are unionized and their operation is subject to environmental regulations that increase the cost of production, so I have to pay quite a bit to purchase my raw materials.

So I'm doing okay. I make 50 times the salary of the average worker in my company. But I could be doing better, much better.

What I need is a free trade agreement.

With a free trade agreement, I can move my entire operation to a third world country whose previous protectionist government has been recently overthrown by the United States. Once there, I don't have to pay my workers much, thus increasing my wealth, likely at their expense, since I've also brutally outcompeted any piddling local businesses. More, I can purchase my raw materials in this or another third world country whose compliant government has, again quite helpfully, eliminated any regulations that might have increased the cost of raw materials.

I thus extract, at a low cost to myself, resources directly from the periphery. I reduce the population in the target country to the condition of near-serfdom, especially if I buy up their productive land, which, thanks to that handy free trade agreement, I can do without restriction. Heck, I can even sell the fruits of their own labor and what used to be their land back to them at a markup.

Meanwhile, I get rich, the resources of the target country are transferred to me. My ability to leave renders the population in my home country more vulnerable, so that maybe in a few decades I can reopen a plant here at home at far lower cost. At the same time, the folks back home like the cheap goods I'm providing, and they also like the fact that it's someone else's land that's being destroyed to provide them, so they are unlikely to complain even as their living standard plummets. So everybody wins.

Is that basically it, or does anyone (JMG?) have a different understanding?

Steve in Colorado said...

& JMG: I thought you might find this interesting. I was reading Voltaire's "Letters on the English" the other day, written in the mid 1700s or so, when Britain was a great power but not yet the conqueror of the world.

He spends quite a while going on about English liberties, in a way that reminds me exactly of what is said about the USA. He then tells us that "The majesty of the people of England has nothing in common with that of the people of Rome." And why? Because the Romans were conquerors who "triumphed over and possessed to themselves of the world." But "the Government of England will never rise to so exalted a pitch of glory, nor will its end be so fatal."

Meanwhile, of course, the British Empire rose to a far higher "pitch of glory," than the Roman, and of course its end, which also followed a series of devastating wars with Germans, was exactly as fatal.

I'm not sure how much this contributes to the discussion, but I read all that and thought of every declaration of enduring Pax Americana I've ever heard.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Glenn: The actions of oil companies in Nigeria provide a glimpse of the gearing.

For the resource pump effect, here's an article which points out that Nigeria sees only about 20% of the profits from offshore oil drilling in their own country (though they are talking about forced renegotiations).

Some of the other ugly consequences can also be seen in terms of both corruption of the politics and direct harm to the health of the people. In the first case, see for example Halliburton's settling with the Nigerian government for $35 million dollars to avoid having Dick Cheney stand trial for bribery. In the second case, see the the example of gas flaring.

In this case, free trade means that the oil companies are free to take most of the profit from Nigerian resources, while leaving Nigeria with most of the environmental, health and political damage. I believe this is the common pattern for natural resource extraction from developing nations.

DeAnander said...

Oh dear oh dear... I was rather enjoying crusty old Glubb Pasha (rather like a crusty old port) until I got to this bit:

"In the tenth century, a similar
tendency was observable in the Arab Empire,
the women demanding admission to the
professions hitherto monopolised by men.
[...] Many women practised law,
while others obtained posts as university
professors. There was an agitation for the
appointment of female judges, which,
however, does not appear to have succeeded.
Soon after this period, government and
public order collapsed, and foreign invaders
overran the country. The resulting increase
in confusion and violence made it unsafe for
women to move unescorted in the streets,
with the result that this feminist movement

Well, I guess those uppity females got what was coming to them eh?

Sigh. Nevertheless an entertaining read and I thank the OP. It's interesting that Glubb ascribes the decline of empires to *deficiencies of character* in the population, accumulating over time (as sort of moral apoptosis) -- rather than to material factors like resource drawdown, lengthening supply lines, increased complexity with increasing inability to manage it, etc.

In essence he seems to be saying that manliness or masculinity -- warrior ethos -- leaches out of imperial culture over time, and this leads to collapse. I suppose a belief system not unlike this might account for the rabidity of some US right-wingers towards feminists and gays -- if those effete unmanly persons get too much social status, our glorious empire will become sissified and die!

John Michael Greer said...

Shark, I'll be talking about the US as an empire, of course, since the fall of that empire will be one of the major historical events of the next few decades; and that means among other things that I'll have to talk about how that empire rose, and how it's changed over time. That doesn't mean that I'll be engaging in an exercise in fingerpointing, though. The point here is to understand what it means that the US is the current imperial center in the world system, and what its fall from that status will mean.

As for China, there's an issue here concerning time frames that I think you're missing. Of course any prospective Chinese global empire will be dependent on fossil fuels (though global empires don't have to be -- the British Empire was built at a time when wooden ships powered by sails were the world's most advanced transport technology). Right now, as I've argued in previous posts, we're in the transition between one form of industrial society, which I've called abundance industrialism, and another, which I've called scarcity industrialism; that latter is geared to the early downside of Hubbert's curve in the same way that abundance industrialism was geared to the upside, and so we probably have fifty to a hundred years in which various forms of scarcity industrialism remain in place, at least in some parts of the world, while others slide down into the salvage societies that will be the next phase. The Chinese empire I foresee will likely last through that period, and then fall in its turn -- and it's exactly the increasing shortages of energy, and of the things that energy can provide, that will both drive the shift in power from the US to China (or, just possibly, another power center) and then drive the later shift away from Chinese hegemony.

Jim, "what you contemplate, you imitate" seems apropos here -- spend too much time staring at NASCAR audiences, and you start to resemble them...

Glenn, a couple of commenters already in the stack have done as good a job as I could have done, showing how the process works.

Steve, good! The funny thing there was that the British Empire already existed when Voltaire wrote. To a great extent, Britain for him was the same kind of inkblot onto which to project political fantasies as, say, Cuba sometimes is for some sections of the American left (in and out of the peak oil scene).

DeAnander, yes, that was a popular bit of codswallop at that time, largely motivated by the tantrum British conservatives were throwing just then about the movement to give voting rights to women. Gah. That reminds me -- I'm probably going to have to bring up Otto Weininger one of these days; I'd rather not, but his ideas (filtered through the overheated prose of Julius Evola) are being rehashed by some corners of the occult community again, and may well spill outside of it in the years ahead.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello JMG,

Stimulating post. Complexities indeed. One of my favorite examples: NAFTA enacted, the US sends insanely cheap government subsidized corn to Mexico. As a result Mexican farmers can't make a living, so when US ag companies send buses down and offer work to illegal immigrants in the US, what can the erstwhile farmers do but accept?

Then, up here they get exploited, vilified for "taking American jobs," and deported in numbers that make it seem the government is doing something about "the immigrant problem," but not large enough numbers to disturb what has become BAU. (Alabama now an odd exception, of course.)

Anyway, perhaps you'll appreciate the irony that I'm using money from a government grant to purchase some of your books for our school library. ;)

Glenn said...

Free Trade Again,

Kieran, Steve, JMG,

Not much help. You have described that which is quite visible to me.

What you have not explained is what lies behind it. Why is the government of the victim country so supine? Why are their elites so cooperative? They as well as their people would do better if they developed their own resources and industries for themselves.

In the classic case of colonialism in English North America, the home country had a monopoly on manufacture, while the colonies provided raw materials and paid the freight both ways. The English displaced the natives and exploited the land. The French traded with the natives for furs and other luxuries. Very different ways of exploiting the same land. In the end, the English model prevailed in North America.

OPEC manufactures nothing, exports a comodity and does very well. The Congo manufactures nothing, exports commodities and does very poorly.

Why the differences?

One model is that in the formerly colonial countries the elite were trained to rob the people and siphon the wealth to the colonizers. In West Africa, after independence they continued, but kept the wealth. That's pretty obvious to me.

But there are many countries the U.S. (and other industrial nations) exploits in that fashion, that have never been colonized and which we have never defeated in war. Why have they bowed to us, why have they engaged in these destructive Free Trade agreements?

I was not asking how Free Trade agreements impoverished one nation at the expense of another, I'm pretty familiar with that. I was asking why the exploited nation put up with it.

And one place where all this free trade breaks down is when all of the jobs in the imperium are sent overseas and the former workers have no money to buy the cheap goods and keep the economy going.

I would suggest that we are in the phase of "Empire" where the empire consists of transnational corporations colonizing the whole world.

Or would this be what JMG describes as the "hollowing out" phase of the American Empire?

Sorry to go on, but I obviously hadn't made my question clear in my previous posts.

Marrowstone Island

kalek said...

Could it be that inside the fractal pyramid of wealth that the left and right wing groups of America are better summarized in the vertical dimension? One is focussed on threat from above, while the other threat from below. What becomes clearer is that either ideology could pop up at any layer of the pyramid, and both depend on that structure to exist. I hope to find out if this is generally true for empires.

Phil Knight said...

It's important to point out though, that just as Britain blew its empire fighting Germany, so also the Germans blew their chances of an empire by fighting Britain - they should have dominated the 20th Century at least as much as the USA.

They'd have been first to the moon, too.

This is something that the Chinese should bear in mind (though I actually think the next big empire will be Korean, if both halves of that country can reunite peacefully).

phil harris said...

I'm glad I am not the only one who found Old Glubb's prescriptions for what makes a good empire a touch old fashioned, and very much of his British day. The Victorian teaching of Classics and/or Muscular Christianity seems to have been bent on serving a unitary purpose among our upper classes.

(There were and still are our Public Schools, which in Brit Speak still means high-fee Private Schools for the privileged minority. There's a nice propaganda skill in making a name suit your agenda. That old devil Hastings Banda (Malawi) thought this kind of teaching of classical virtues might still work in his corner of the post-imperial world.)

I'm glad you mentioned Cuba and inkblot projections. Transition Towns in the UK promoted a nonsense film purporting to show that Cuba more than survived it's oil crisis by adopting Permaculture and urban farming. I like promoting waste-not want-not, but their film was not remotely an accurate account.

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, I do indeed appreciate the irony. Many thanks!

Glenn, no, you weren't clear at all. "What lies behind it," for that matter, could be taken in any number of senses. If you're specifically interested in why the governments of subject nations submit to having wealth taken for the benefit of the imperial center, though, er, you have heard the phrase "regime change," I trust? That's what happens to a subject nation that fails to toe the line. Of course there are less extreme measures, ranging from ideology to bribery, but the threat of force is always present in an empire. As for the "hollowing out" phase, we'll get to that -- it's a complex matter.

Kalek, that's a perceptive suggestion. I think there may be more going on than a response to perceived threats, though -- there's also envy of those above, and contempt for those below. I'll have to mull this over.

Phil K., that's why I expect China to do absolutely anything to avoid war with the US in the decades to come. They realize, as the Germans never did, that they don't need to fight; they just have to wait, and apply nonmilitary pressure, until the hollow shell of the old empire implodes (for reasons we'll be discussing next week).

Phil H., I was thinking of that very video, yes. It's frankly embarrassing to watch the left painting a dictatorship in warm and fuzzy colors -- not that it's any less absurdy than watching the right do the same thing. If it walks like a goose, so to speak...

JP said...

What I really want to know is the impact demographics have on the formation and behavior of empires.

For instance, in China, you have a nation that is going to have it's population peak and then age. Japan is already declining.

The U.S. is stable and growing through immigration.

I'm not arguing for a position here with respect to demographics and empire, I'm just not sure whether there is a link between them or what that link would be.

With respect to the issue of Global War (China), you have John Xenakis ( arguing that there will be war because of generational psychology once the generation that never knew war takes the place of those who lived through the wars (in China).

I don't see a high risk of war between the U.S. and China yet. That may change over the next 5 to 15 years. I don't know.

Steve in Colorado said...

Glenn, googling the names Jacobo Arbenz, Jaime Roldos, Sukarno, Mohammed Mossadegh, and Salvador Allende might prove instructive.

Joel said...

>a sort of social welfare program for conquered nations

I think that's a more productive comparison than you suggest, although perhaps it should, properly, be formulated backward.

A lot of Federal money goes from "Blue" to "Red" states, i.e. from the Union to the conquered Confederacy. The states that receive this money seem to be the most politically motivated to shut off the tap, and their arguments on the matter tend to be framed in terms of sovereignty.

I don't think that social welfare programs are entirely about internal colonialism, but I do think that the idea deserves more attention.

MawKernewek said...

Apparently the US Army base at Fort Drum in New York State is an excellent location for launching an invasion of Canada...

LarasDad said...

"geekoisie" -- priceless !!!

MawKernewek said...

In timely fashion - the BBC (one of the last institutions of the British Empire...) is running a 5 part TV series about the British Empire, starting 9pm (GMT) Monday evening.

If your viewpoint on IP allows - perhaps you could "acquire" it somehow - I'm sure it will turn up on torrent downloads in due course for those outside the UK.

pentronicus said...

Thinking about the wealth pump of our empire, it occurred to me that the pump is bi-directional, and what we Americans pump overseas (other than waste and computer software) is that thing which we are so good at manufacturing: debt. In our financial system, money is created by banks making loans, and most dollars represent an IOU from someone to somebody else. Our financialized economy depends on creating an ever growing supply of debt. If that process stops, everything stops, yet the core of the empire can only absorb so much. We're drowning in debt. What to do? Ship it overseas! Make development loans to third world countries, loan monies to foreign companies and individuals, get other countries to only accept dollars for their goods so someone will have to borrow dollars. Trade government debt for stuff made in Asia. The opportunities are endless.

The incentive for free trade wasn't just vacuuming up all the good stuff that's out there. It was just as importantly a way for us to unload something we desperately have to get rid of. I guess my point is that it seems to be a push-pull type of arrangement, and the push part may be as important as the pull.

Cathy McGuire said...

I have been reading with interest, and I wish I had the time to read more on these empires. The “wealth pump” idea makes a lot of sense, and I was often uneasy when NGOs reported on all the “good” they were bringing “poorer countries” – too often it seemed they were giving with one hand and crippling with the other!

I read the Glubb article, and it had much food for thought. However I did want to mention that red flags were raised for me in several areas, and I don’t think people should read it uncritically – ex: when he first says that the empire dates were “somewhat arbitrary”, but then immediately used the “amazing similarities in dates” as the basis for much of the subsequent article! That felt like slippery logic. So I looked up the range of empire dates (using Wikipedia – which I realize is also not meticulously verified) and some of Glubb’s dates matched, but a number of them seemed way off, which messes up his theory. Another example of sloppy thinking (or writing, at least): Poor, hardy, often half-starved and ill-clad, they abound in courage, energy and initiative, overcome every obstacle and always seem to be in control of the situation. I have to ask: Why, if they are “in control of the situation” are they “often half-starved and ill clad”?? It’s that kind of inconsistent reasoning that made me cautious.

And I became increasingly uneasy with all the “manly virtues” stuff, and no mention of women at all… and then I came to: An increase in the influence of women in public life has often been associated with national decline. Um… really?? Elisabeth the First might argue with that, or Boedicea, or Catherine the Great or Cleopatra… or more recently Maggie Thatcher and Hillary Clinton. He makes this blanket statement that reminds me of the “water must be making me drunk…” logic (if you haven’t heard that one, tell me). So then he lost quite a lot of credibility (not just because as a woman I bristle at this “inferior sex” stuff, but because I know the history of this better and so can refute it without a lot of research.) So all I will say is: caveat lector – read the pdf with a sharp, attentive mind. But definitely some stuff in there to think about.

Glenn said...


I'm pretty familiar with Salvador Allende. I was in High School when our CIA murdered him and installed Pinochet. My first girlfriend had lived in Chile with her mother in the late 60's and was totally heartbroken. So yeah, I know how it worked in Chile. And how many other countries? Only recently we've (most of the public) learned the details of the overthrough of the elected government of Iran and the installation of the Shah, which lead in the long run to the current theocrats running the country.

Those are isolated examples. Can one assume that this has been the general pattern of behavior for the U.S.? And if so, how far back?
I admire Thomas Jefferson; but why did he sent the Corp of Discovery all the way to the Pacific? The Louisiana Purchase was entirely within the Mississippi Valley watershed...

Marrowstone Island

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Is one of the prerequisites of empire that the dominant empire has another country / empire / ideology to focus its' attention on. I can't help but notice how many commenters refer to China and I wonder if somehow China is being portrayed as the new bogeyman? Is this a necessary thing to divert attention away from internal matters?

A couple of decades ago I used to work for a badly run business that always spent more than they earned. Eventually, the directors conceded their problems and decided to get financing. Fortunately for them a Malaysian company provided that financing very cheaply in return for equity in the business. So the directors kept spending on their merry way, until eventually the Malaysian company owned the business outright. It was an exceptionally cost effective way to purchase a business and avoid all that messy goodwill component. I think that the China - US situation is more like this.

It is unlikely to be settled on a military front, as they need you as much as you need them. There is often talk about China relying on its' large domestic market to see out any global downturn. This talk is poodledoo (I made that up!), because China relies heavily on imported energy and raw materials and their economy would quickly collapse without an export market with which to provide foreign exchange reserves to pay for it all. It is not for no reasons that China has such massive foreign exchange reserves (as well as raw materials). It is their buffer. Sure, they built an aircraft carrier, but they are more interested in rattling sabres with their neighbours over a few rocks in the South China Sea.

Hi pentronicus,

A lot of interesting financial products were sold off to Australia which turned out to be toxic assets (sub prime mortgages etc). Inevitably, in the derivative markets some new products will slip past the keeper and end up here, but, by and large people and institutions are wising up. You'll note that none of these toxic assets are on the balance sheets of Australia's big 4 banks.

What did Bob Marley sing, "You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time".

It is a trick that cannot be pulled in a big way more than once.

Hi Cathy,

Err, not to mention Queen Victoria. The good Queen would have tolerated no nonsense from that guy. "Manly virtues" - what a joker, honestly he’s been watching too many action films.

I tried to change the photo too, so hopefully you all get to have look at fatso the wombat.



John D. Wheeler said...


You, sir, are no politician. What you are missing is a political calculus. The fear of death may keep puppet dictators in line, but they had to have already been driven by a lust for power to get into that position. What the Empire provides to its puppets is aid in keeping the local population in line.

Another part you're missing is laziness. Of course the exploited edge of the Empire would be better off materially if they didn't have to pay tribute. But being a puppet is much less work. If you were given a choice between working 10 hours a week and earning $10,000 a year, or working 50 hours a week and earning $100,000, which would you choose? Most would probably choose the one that pays twice as much per hour. But what if those were millions instead of thousands? $10 million a year is plenty for most, and they would be willing to take it not to have to work so hard.

barath said...

petronicus -

One thing that still amazes me a bit about our (U.S.) debt is that the federal reserve is now by far the largest holder---more than China or any foreign country. The treasury is effectively borrowing dollars from the Fed, which is creating them electronically out of thin air. But since other world currencies are also in shambles for various reasons, the dollar hasn't been losing much value (or sometimes is even gaining) due to QE.

I wonder about Orlov's succinct observation about the end-game:

One such untenable arrangement rests on the notion that it is possible to perpetually borrow more and more money from abroad, to pay for more and more energy imports, while the price of these imports continues to double every few years. Free money with which to buy energy equals free energy, and free energy does not occur in nature. This must therefore be a transient condition. When the flow of energy snaps back toward equilibrium, much of the US economy will be forced to shut down.

Phil Knight said...

Defending Glubb somewhat, his emphasis on hardiness is not much different in essence to the arguments put forward by Toynbee in the first couple of books of "A Study Of History", in which he compares tougher peoples with softer ones (even using the Scots vs. the English as an example). Toynbee connects hardiness to the paucity of the land, and Glubb does much the same thing.

Also, with Glubb, I seem to remember that he comments that women tend to rise toward the end of the lifespan of a civilisation because they remain less decadent than the men - he's not suggesting that women themselves bring on the decline.

It's a sociological fact that the sexual and gender "norms" that were fairly rigid until as recently as the 1950's have changed enormously in the ensuing decades. Now, this might be a good thing, but Glubb's suggestion that this is a temporary phenomenon associated with the breakdown of a civilisation does undermine the notion that it is a result of social "progress" in this area.

And as uncomfortable as that idea may be, I think Glubb is right on this. I would be very surprised indeed if the social and sexual mores of the West in one hundred years' time turn out to be as liberal as they are now. Indeed, it may be the case that future tribesmen in Afghanistan end up shaking their heads at how puritanical and intolerant those fanatical Westerners are.

Matt and Jess said...

Hi JMG, looking forward to this series on the Empire, and how the collapse of the empire will happen what with peak oil and all that. I second the call for a reading list! I've enjoyed the books recommended here before, Lewis Mumford especially and would appreciate learning of more of the esoteric or odd stuff too.

I happened to see a link to this article this morning, others are talking about it as well:

LewisLucanBooks said...

I am currently reading a book by Morris Berman ("Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire.") An interesting quote "But normally, light does not get shined on the hidden machinery; instead, we are dazzled by the visible commodity." In reference to Adam Smith's "invisible hand."

Have you read him? Thoughts?

John Michael Greer said...

JP, the demographic question is interesting, but it's not one I plan on addressing. My analysis centers on other factors.

Joel, that's a complex issue; the Civil War was a while ago, and the balance of power in the nation has shifted quite a bit -- you'll notice that much of what was the Union in 1861 is now known as the Rust Belt. More on this down the road a bit.

MawKernewek, until the Second World War, the annual exercises of the US Army focused on repelling a British invasion launched via Canada. A lot of old bases along the northern tier of states were pretty clearly positioned in case that became a possibility. Thanks for the links, also!

Dad, thank you!

Pentronicus, good. Another way of thinking about that is to notice that the US gets to import the wealth of the world and pay for it with essentially worthless IOUs.

Cathy, Glubb is problematic -- he's fascinating, in large part, because he's such a fine example of British imperial ideology. You'll notice that I don't cite him.

Cherokee, America's collective psychology always needs an enemy. Jung's comments on projecting the shadow are highly relevant here. I'm not so sure that all empires have the same requirement. As for China, if they're smart -- and I would bet that way -- they're utterly uninterested in fighting us; their best strategy is to wait until our empire collapses, and pick up the pieces, much the way we did with Britain in 1945.

Phil, my guess is that the shift in gender roles in recent decades will turn out to be more durable than that; the old structure of gender relationships had long since stopped being functional in much of any sense. Still, we'll see.

Jess, I'll be putting together a reading list as time and circumstances permit. Between the peak oil science fiction anthology, the peak oil and magic book, and the Green Wizardry book, time's been a bit sparse. Still, two of those are out of the way -- the anthology went to the publisher last week, and The Blood of the Earth is through proofs and indexing -- so I should be able to put more time into the literature of imperial collapse.

Lewis, I read his The Reenchantment of the World years ago, found it profoundly frustrating and problematic on many different levels, and haven't really followed his work since then. I'll have to take another look, though, since he's done a number of things on the decline of the American empire.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I reckon your thoughts are spot on and an early warning sign will be when the rest of the world collectively decides that international trade would best be done in another currency - perhaps the yuan? Free energy for the US will certainly disappear at this point.

Also as a general off topic question, if you could indulge me a little bit, what is the obsession with the 1950's? It has always been my impression that gender inequality was actually at an all time peak during this period - historically and ecologically it was unparalleled. I suspect that it had something to do with the excess availability of energy and resources during this period?

My travels through the developing world have shown me that consistently both males and females in a domestic unit work. Their work may not look like the perceived notions of work that Westerners hold, but both parties contribute to a particular households economy. Sure there are vast differences between individual households, but essentially everyone contributes and there doesn't seem to be a dialogue which suggests that one party contributes more than the other party.

Sometimes, I think we project our own cultural viewpoint and filters onto other cultures and it just can not fit them. Plus, we look backwards with a glossy perspective which just isn't warranted.

Sorry to ask such a sticky loaded question, but it just keeps raising its' ugly head and I think it may have something to do with a perception of decline but not an acknowledgement of decline. Hindsight can make things look so much better than they actually were.



Jim Brewster said...

Matt and Jess,
I just commented on the article and linked back to ADR (hope you don't mind JMG!). The author makes a passing mention of "scarcity of energy or water," but otherwise completely disregards energy, wealth pumps, or anything of a thermodynamic nature when he argues that we will become more like Europe and maintain a fairly high standard of living.

Jim Brewster said...

The fact that we talk about the US empire starting in 1898 says something about our cultural biases, even today. It may be true from an "Old World" perspective, but for the Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, Creeks, etc., it goes back a long ways before that.

In a broader sense, then, where do you draw the line between expanding state and empire? The Romans had long since conquered Italy and were exerting direct control around the Mediterranean and Gaul as a de facto empire by the time of the Caesars.

Cherokee, that Bob Marley line goes back to the 19th century in various forms, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, though that attribution is apocryphal according to wikiquote. But hey, great songwriters borrow from the best!

SLClaire said...

Given your definition of empire as a wealth pump, I've been considering what sort of wealth the U. S. might offer to another empire when such arises. The answer seems pretty clear to me, having lived for most of my life in the Midwest: farmland. Lots and lots of it. And about all of the land from about the Missouri-Kansas border east is farmable on rainfall, at least under current climate conditions. I wouldn't blame other nations with large populations for looking at that resource, and the way we've mismanaged it, with an eye toward making better use of it than we have.

phil harris said...

I have just finished watching the first episode, 1/5, of BBC (Jeremy Paxton) series 'Empire' (British). Thanks for the tip from somebody here. I tend to rate things by whether I learn new stuff or not. I did.

I thought some of you could get a wry chuckle over one description of the British 'temporary' occupation of Egypt, 70 years, as "armed tourism". We were there because of the Suez Canal of course.

The program was pretty good on the Balfour Declaration as well.

PS. For Lewis & JMG.
Morris Berman came a long journey from "Re-enchantment of the World". Along the road over the decades I for one was grateful for many of the subjects covered; not least his forensic antidote to New Age hind cast projections on to the ‘inkblot’ Palaeolithic. His more recent "Dark Ages America" to this non-American began to read like an extended rant, but I actually found it was interestingly well-researched, and moving. I don't think MB properly understood (2005/2006) peak oil, but he has a lovely quote from the great Cavafy poem "Waiting for the Barbarians", and an accompanying choice from Robert Lowell about policing the earth in a new Heart of Darkness; “our children when they fall in small war on the heels of small war”. This was Bush 2nd Term; maybe 'the barbarians' already were in charge, but Berman still bravely believed with Vidal, that we can count on "time's mystery and man's love of light". Otherwise he is firmly depressing and I guess rightly so.

Leo said...

just a thought.
if empires gain wealth by pumping it from other nations, could it get trapped into a thought pattern that insisted that it has to keep pumping wealth and can't produce any or enough on its own. if so then that could be one of the reasons that most alternatives are ignored by the mainstream since most renewables and alternate production methods are inheriantly decentrailised and internal to a country.

Matt and Jess said...

SLClaire, that's kind of an unnerving thought. That leads me to the thought that travel by water would be (I think) the easiest way to ship food by long distances in a lower-energy world...which leads me to wonder about the role of the Navy in the future. Wouldn't another empire have to ship the food by water if they were to make use of our farmland? I know that the Navy must be very vulnerable to peak oil and empire collapse ... I wonder how long we'll be able to maintain that, and what types of navy the next empire would come up with, post peak oil.

Cathy McGuire said...

This might be a beginning symptom of the 2012 syndrome (in an update, I hear the legislature voted it down):
(note: thanks to the new updated Blogger, it seems the live link HTML doesn't work)

Wyoming Republican state legislator David Miller has introduced a bill to prepare his state for a doomsday scenario in which the nation's economy and social structure completely collapse.
"Things happen quickly sometimes — look at Libya, look at Egypt, look at those situations," Miller told the Star-Tribune. "We wouldn't have time to meet as a legislature or even in a special session to do anything to respond."
Miller's bill seeks to create a state-run continuity force that would study and prepare Wyoming for potential national or worldwide catastrophes. One specific component of the bill calls for the state to look into the possibility of issuing its own currency in the event the U.S. dollar collapses.
"If we continue down this course, this is the way any society ends up — with a valueless currency," Miller told the Star-Tribune.

@Chris: I tried to change the photo too, so hopefully you all get to have look at fatso the wombat.
So that’s why I didn’t recognize you! LOL!

@Joel Caris: Also, I had the image of an air craft carrier drifting in circles in Crater Lake.
It would have to twirl like a top, and only if Wizard Island were submerged!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jim,

He was a great musician, but not a very nice person. At least it's good to know that he was in good company.

Hi Cathy,

hehe! It's a formidable wombat too.



JP said...

Xenakis is again fretting about the coming global war with China.


"China's military buildup continues 'unabated'

Admiral Robert Willard
Admiral Robert Willard, head of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China is continuing its military building buildup "unabated," and independent of anything that the U.S. does. "They continue to advance their capabilities and capacities in all areas," he said, including in the maritime, cyber and space domains. As I wrote several months ago in "New Pentagon report outlines China's military buildup," China's plans for total war with the United States appear to be coming to fruition, and an attack within 12-18 months is a reasonable expectation. China will be unveiling its 2012 military budget in the next few weeks, and this will provide a more detailed update. Reuters"

He's not particularly accurate when it comes to timing global events.

However, his analysis does have a point, with respect to the rising "world leader" competitor, namely that the internal actions of any nation, be it the U.S., Germany, China, Russia, or anyone else, are dictated by internal processes that may, or may not, be aligned with external reality.

China may, or may not, be biding it's time. And the next generation may be quite different than the prior one.

Jim Brewster said...

Leo, beware military and ex-military prognostication. They have vested interest in the war machine.

Given the latest unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese have plenty to deal with at home.

Joel Caris said...


I saw that bit of news and found it interesting. It didn't seem terribly unreasonable to me--especially for any legislative body in this country--though I imagine a state task force isn't going to be nearly so helpful as local and individual actions in response to actual circumstances. Most likely, it would just become a special interest frenzy for corporations looking to cash in on any actual attempts at creating local currency.

The part I found most amusing wasn't in the article you linked but a different one. That was this quote: The Wyoming House of Representatives advanced the legislation on Monday, but eliminated language calling for plans to implement its own military draft, army and acquire an aircraft carrier.

An aircraft carrier?? Maybe Rep. Miller is confused about the true nature of Ocean Lake?

As for Crater Lake, maybe the aircraft carrier can spin atop Wizard Island. That would be a sight to see.

goedeck said...

Reminds me of the Life of Brian scene where the Judeans ask "What have the Romans ever done for us?" "The Aquaduct... the roads...the wine", etc lol.

There is a good article in the Smithsonian December 2011 issue about small farmers and artisanal bakers growing and using heirloom varieties of wheat.