Thursday, March 29, 2012

America: The Two Empires

It’s a curious feature of American history that some of its major turning points are best summed up by books. In the years just before the American Revolution, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was the book; it had a huge role in focusing colonial grievances to the point that they were ready to burst into flame. In the years before the Civil War, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; that’s the book that made the North redefine a troubled national dialogue over a range of regional differences as a moral debate over slavery, pure and simple, and so pushed both halves of the country into positions from which they couldn’t back down short of war.

Both of those books stayed famous long after the issues they influenced were settled, and back when American children actually learned about American history in school, at least, most people knew the titles—though you won’t find many people of any recent generation who read either one. The book that played a similar role in launching America on its career as a global empire didn’t get the same kind of treatment. Unless you know a fair amount about military history, you’ve probably never heard of it. Its title is The Influence of Sea Power upon History, and its author was Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Mahan was an officer in the US Navy; he’d seen combat duty in the Civil War, and remained in the service during the postwar decades when the country’s naval forces were basically tied up at the dock and allowed to rot. In the 1880s, while serving at the Naval War College, he became a leading figure among the intellectuals—a small minority at that point—who hoped to shake the United States out of its focus on internal concerns and transform it into an imperial power. He was among the most original of American military strategists as well as a capable writer, and he had an ace in the hole that neither he nor anybody else knew about when his book saw print in 1890: his good friend and fellow lecturer at the Naval War College, a New York politician and passionate imperialist named Theodore Roosevelt, would become president of the United States just over a decade later by way of an assassin’s bullet.

Mahan’s theory of naval power was influential enough, then and now, that it’s going to be necessary to sketch out the central themes of his book. He argued, first of all, for the importance of maritime trade to a national economy, partly because shipping was (and is) cheaper than land transport, and partly because most international trade had to go by sea; second, for the necessity of a strong navy to protect shipping routes and project force to defend national economic interests overseas; and third, for the need to establish permanent naval bases at a distance from the nation’s own shores, along important trade routes, so that naval forces could be refueled and supported, and so that a naval blockade could be effectively countered—Mahan here was thinking about his own experiences with the Union blockade of the Confederacy during the Civil War, a crucial element in the North’s victory. He backed up all these points with detailed case studies from history, but his aim wasn’t limited to understanding the past; he was proposing a plan of action for the United States for the near future.

In 1890, the United States had spent a quarter century following exactly the opposite advice. The Union victory in the Civil War, as discussed in the last two posts, handed control of the nation’s economic policy to industrial and agrarian interests that wanted high tariffs and trade barriers to protect domestic industry. As those took effect, other nations followed suit by raising tariffs and barriers against goods from the United States, and America distanced itself from the global economy of the late 19th century. Straight through the Long Depression of 1873-1896, economic self-sufficiency was one of the core elements of national policy; the idea was that American farms and factories should produce the goods and services Americans needed and wanted, so that the United States could avoid the state of permanent dependency British-supported policies of free trade, backed by the superlative size and power of the British Navy, was imposing on so many other countries at that time.

As we saw in last week’s post, though, Mahan’s advocacy of naval expansion came at a crucial time, when the wealth pump of America’s industrial system was struggling to keep from consuming itself, and a growing number of Americans were beginning to look enviously at Europe’s global empires. The huge success of The Influence of Sea Power upon History—it was an international bestseller, was translated into more than a dozen languages, and became required reading for politicians and naval officers around the world—had a massive role in reformulating the debate around imperialism. Armed with Mahan’s logic, the proponents of an American empire could redefine the pursuit of global power in terms of the nation’s safety and prosperity. By the mid-1890s, the obsolete Civil War-era ships that made up what there was of the Navy a decade earlier were rapidly being replaced by a new fleet on the cutting edge of naval technology. All that was left was an opportunity to put the new fleet to use and begin carving out an American empire.

That last step came in 1898, with the Spanish-American war. Those of my readers who think that the neoconservatives marked any kind of radical departure from America’s previous behavior in the world should take the time read a book or two on this now-forgotten conflict. Spain at that time was the weakest of the European colonial powers, with only a handful of possessions remaining from her once-vast empire—a few islands in the Caribbean, notably Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were among the most important. The project of seizing Cuba from Spain had been a popular subject of discussion in the South in the years before the Civil War, when finding new acreage for the plantation system had been a central theme of regional politics; Mahan’s book argued forcefully that the United States needed at least one large naval base somewhere in the islands to the south of the US mainland, and the hope that new territorial possessions might become captive markets for American industry gave new incentive to the old plan.

The Phillippines were another matter. In the pre-trade barrier era before the Civil War, the United States had begun to establish a presence along the western shores of the Pacific, sending a fleet to wring trade concessions from Japan in 1853 and making substantial inroads into the lucrative markets in China. The Civil War and the years of relative isolation that followed put paid to that, but regaining a place along the shores of east Asia was a high priority for the pro-empire party. The possibility of a US naval base in the Philippines was a tempting one, and added to the incentives for a war with Spain.

All that was needed was a provocation. That was provided, first, by propaganda campaigns in the American mass media accusing the Spanish government in Cuba of atrocities against the Cuban population, and second, by a boiler explosion aboard the USS Maine, one of the Navy’s new battleships, which was making a port call in Havana. The explosion was instantly blamed on a Spanish mine; public opinion in the United States, fanned by the media, favored war; Congress, which in those days still fulfilled its constitutional role by setting policies that presidents were expected to carry out, duly declared war; US naval forces were already in position, and sailed at once. Ten weeks later Cuba and Puerto Rico were conquered, two Spanish fleets had been crushed in separate battles nearly half the world apart, and the United States had its overseas naval bases and its empire.

The American president at that time, William McKinley, was not among the cheering majority. He was no opponent of American expansion—it was during his presidency that the United States annexed Hawai’i and what is now American Samoa—but service in the Union infantry in the Civil War gave him a more realistic attitude toward war, and he did what he could, with the limited power presidents had in those days, to stop the rush to war with Spain. He won reelection easily in 1900, but the next year he was killed by a lone gunman. His vice president was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, who proceeded to turn Mahan’s strategic principles into national policy. It’s an interesting commentary on the difference between the two eras that nobody, as far as I know, has ever proposed a conspiracy theory to account for McKinley’s death.

The dawn of American empire had impacts reaching well beyond the handful of territories the United States seized and held in McKinley’s day. The same Congress that declared war against Spain had passed a resolution forbidding the annexation of Cuba—this was partly to win support for the war from the anti-empire faction in Congress, partly a bit of pork-barrel protectionism for the American sugar and tobacco industries—and that limit forced the proponents of empire to take a hard look at other options. The system that resulted was one that remains standard throughout the American empire to this day. Cuba got a new constitution and an officially independent government, but the United States reserved the right to interfere in Cuban affairs at will, got a permanent lease on a naval base at Guantánamo Bay, and turned the Cuban economy into a wholly owned subsidiary of American commercial interests. The result fed the wealth pump of empire, but cost the United States much less than an ordinary colonial government would have done.

It also proved easy to export. In 1903, using a stage-managed revolution backed by US ships and Marines, the United States manufactured the new nation of Panama out of a chunk of northern Colombia, and established a Cuba-style government there under tight American control to provide a suitable context for a canal uniting the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea. Other Latin American countries fell under United States control in the years that followed, and had their resources fed into the increasingly busy wealth pump of American empire. Standards of living across Latin America duly began their long downward slide, while the United States boomed.

Meanwhile, as one of the last major acts of his presidency, Roosevelt launched what would be the definitive announcement that America had arrived on the world stage: the voyage of the “Great White Fleet.” In December 1907, sixteen battleships and their support vessels—their hulls painted stark white, the Navy’s peacetime paint scheme just then—sailed out of East Coast harbors to begin a voyage around the world, stopping at ports on the way. By the time they returned to Hampton Roads in February 1909, governments around the world had been forced to deal with the fact that a new power had entered the global political order.

All of this—Mahan’s theories, the Spanish-American war and its aftermath, the growth of a US empire in Latin America, and the military implications of America’s huge naval buildup and sudden attainment of global reach—was discussed at great length in books and periodicals at the time. What very few people noticed, because the intellectual tools needed to make sense of it hadn’t been developed yet, was that the United States was developing what amounted to a second empire, parallel to the one just described, during these same years. Where the imperial expansion we’ve just examined established an empire across space, this second empire was an empire across time. Like the move to global empire, this empire of time built on an earlier but more limited method of feeding the wealth pump, and turned a large but otherwise ordinary nation into a world power.

This “empire of time,” of course, consisted of the American fossil fuel industries. Where an empire extracts wealth from other countries for the benefit of an imperial nation, fossil fuel exploitation extracts wealth in the form of very cheap thermal energy from the distant past for the benefit of one or more nations in the present. The parallels are remarkably precise. An empire is profitable for an imperial nation because that nation’s citizens don’t have to produce the wealth that comes from foreign colonies and subject nations; they simply have to take it, either by force or by unbalanced systems of exchange backed by the threat of force. In the same way, fossil fuel extraction is so profitable because nobody nowadays has to invest their own labor and resources to grow and harvest prehistoric trees or extinct sea life, or to concentrate the resulting biomass into coal, oil, and natural gas. Equally, as we’ve seen already, empires go under when the wealth pump drives colonies and subject nations into poverty, just as fossil fuels become problematic when sustained extraction depletes them. In both cases, it’s a matter of drawing down a nonrenewable resource, and that leads to trouble.

Nobody seems to know for sure when coal was first mined by European settlers in the New World, but the anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania were already being developed by the time of the Revolution, and the coming of the industrial revolution made coal an important commodity. Like the real estate that fueled America’s westward expansion, coal was abundant, widely distributed, and of even more widely varying value; it was more than adequate to fuel the growth of a national economy, but not enough by itself to open the door to world power. It took the second empire of time—the one embodied in petroleum—to do that, just as the concentrated wealth that could be had from overseas empire made it possible for the United States to transform itself into a global force.

There’s another fascinating parallel between America’s overseas empire of space and its second empire of time. That latter began in 1859, with the drilling of America’s first oil well in western Pennsylvania, right about the time that the United States was making its first tentative movements toward intervention in Asia. For decades thereafter, though, petroleum was used mostly as a source of lamp oil. It took a flurry of inventions in the 1880s and 1890s—right around the time the push for overseas empire was taking shape in the United States—to turn petroleum from a useful commodity to a source of nearly limitless mechanical power. It was in the wake of that transformation that the two empires fused, and the United States vaulted into global power. We’ll talk about that next week.

End of the World of the Week #15

The apocalyptic thinking discussed in previous posts here has percolated in plenty of odd directions over the centuries, and traces of it can be found in plenty of unexpected places today. One example that’s worth at least a glance is the role of apocalyptic ideas in helping to shape the remarkably messianic notions the liberal end of the Baby Boomer generation has generally had of itself and its place in history.

Some of my readers may recall The Greening of America by Charles Reich, a book published to much fanfare in 1970. Reich argued that American history could be understood in part as a process of shifting modes of consciousness in which Consciousness I, which had been glued firmly in place from colonial times to the Second World War, had morphed into Consciousness II, or square consciousness. This, Reich insisted, was about to be replaced by Consciousness III, or hip consciousness, which would become universal just as soon as all the squares either died off or got a clue.

Ten years later, Reich wasn’t exactly looking like a prophet, but that didn’t stop Marilyn Ferguson from making much the same claim in The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980). Ferguson didn’t use Reich’s historical scheme, but the basic argument—that those of the baby boomer generation who were into the 1980 equivalent of hippie culture were the forerunners of a great wave of change that would make the world much better—was essentially the same.

Twenty years further down the road, the same claim was being circulated with a little less generational slant by Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson in their 2000 book Cultural Creatives. Under that flattering label, Ray and Anderson lumped the same ideas and attitudes that Reich assigned to Consciousness III and Ferguson to her Aquarian Conspiracy, and paired it with the same claim, that a great positive change of consciousness was on its way and would give boomer idealists the world they thought they wanted.

None of these grand transformations, it bears remembering, has happened, but it may be worth noting what happened instead. In the aftermath of 1970, the Sixties guttered out, and in the next presidential election, Nixon won by a landslide. In the aftermath of 1980, the alternative scene of the Seventies collapsed, and Reagan won the presidency. In the aftermath of 2000, we got the rise of the neoconservatives and George W. Bush in the White House. It seems unlikely that any of these sudden rightward turns were what the authors had in mind.

—story from Apocalypse Not


Yupped said...

Wonderful, thanks. I remember studying the Spanish American wars in college long ago, and at the time it seemed unremarkable to observe that America was just doing the imperial thing as was the rest of the west at the time. Well, duh.

It was always a bit of a head-scratcher to me how present day Americans have a hard time fessing up to the imperial itch. Maybe it’s part of a general shift in attitudes. Imperialism/nationalism/jingoism etc went out of fashion in Europe after WWI and II for obvious reasons. And there was a marked decline in imperial nostalgia in the UK post-60’s as the culture changed more generally. So perhaps it just became super unfashionable or awkward to refer to imperialism directly? But the wealth still needed to be pumped, of course.

Would be interested in your thoughts on that – why and when we went from naming the imperial drive for what it was, to being more uncomfortable talking about it directly, while still doing it?

Pat said...

Dear JMG,
This historical foundation that you are presenting is simply fascinating to read. Thoughts, incidents and consequences are gradually being connected that previously seemed totally unrelated.
Thank you very much.
While I rarely post a comment, I am reading your blog each week with great interest.

Mickyle said...

At the risk of producing a blush on the cheeks of my host, I just have to ask: how do you do it? You hold the lantern high and steady, and manage to consistently shine a great deal of light, over a vast historical and intellectual territory, to the benefit of a growing number of grateful students. I like to think that I am among the most grateful, and thank you ever so much.

(And about that blush, not to worry; who the heck can see it?!) ~ Mickyle

Craig T said...

JMG, I have learned so much over the last few months since discovering your blog and reading The Long Descent. Now, at 35, I feel like I'm learning American History for the first time with the path you've guided us on over the past few weeks. I really can't thank you enough for both what I've learned and your light-hearted approach to sharing it. Thank you! -Craig

AA said...

I wonder if you've glanced at FW Engdahl's "A Century of War," which seems to be pertinent to your leitmotif of oil being necessary for the budding American empire.

Ceworthe said...

Your remark that shipping was and is cheaper reminded me of a couple of local news article that describe expanding the Port of Oswego on Lake Ontario for international shipping, one of which states it will help reduce transportation costs. NYS expanded their Foreign trade zone to include Oswego, Madison and Cayuga counties and they pointed out shipping can go back and forth on the Barge Canal, descendant of the Erie Canal.
Onondaga Co, where Syracuse is, was already in the Foreign trade zone due to highway and air capabilities. Looks like the move to shipping via canals and waterways is starting already.

Rashakor said...

In casual conversations, I often observe that american history is peppered by lucky strikes; seemingly ingsignificant events across 300 years history of repeated luck. Stubborn, incredible luck! (no wonder americans think they are bless by God!)
Michael, you just illustrate one of the greatest lucky strikes of american history, the confluence of a healthy expanding land empire with the seemingly infinite mana of rock oil.
I would like to get your perspective about the Gold Rush, which was another of the lucky strikes I also identified as a factor catapulting the USA into world scene. An event that provided the USA with unprecendented liquidity, a few short months after stealing Higher California from Mexico.

Stu from Rutherford said...


Again, thanks for the essay. I may be able to add to the point about "conspiracy" theories about McKinley's assassination.

I have encountered such a theory, but it has little to do with Empire - at least America's. Instead, it paints Roosevelt as sort of a "Manchurian candidate" for British interests, in particular the London banks.

England was not particularly popular in the US at the end of the 19th century (as late as 1899, we were still conducting naval war games in which Britain was the imaginary adversary), but Roosevelt by that time was friendly to both the UK and its financial industry. (He had not been so friendly as a younger man.)

In the 1900 campaign, the VP slot was vacant, because Garret Hobart, McKinley's first VP, had died the previous year. Roosevelt was not only a war hero, but was the Governor of New York, which would help the ticket.

So the theory goes that the NY banks maneuvered Roosevelt in and then had McKinley shot. There are several problems with the theory, not least is that the security around McKinley was porous on McKinley's own insistence. Another is that the medical attention given him was minimal, again on his own insistence. (He did not want to worry his wife.) But most biographies of Roosevelt do discuss his presidency as the turning point in relations with the UK.

OrwellianUK said...

John, it really pisses me off when you use the phrase "Conspiracy Theory". Such use of the term is intellectually bankrupt. This phrase is used by the establishment and mainstream media to dismiss all discussion of world events where the official narrative is challenged.

It has been amply documented both by independent researchers and congressional inquiries that for instance, JFK was not murdered by the 'lone nut' Lee Harvey Oswald, yet the media still accuses those who wish to discuss the facts as "Conspiracy Theorists", despite the overwhelming evidence of CIA involvement.

The USS Maine you mention is another example that was a likely False Flag. Unless of course you're a coincidence theorist. A more mainstream example was UK prime minister Tony Blair's answer when challenged on the oil motive for invading Iraq:
"Oh that's just the worst of conspiracy theories".

Another point, is that quite often, the official versions of events are themselves often "conspiracy theories" - such as the US governments flawed and deceitful account of the events of 9/11* - yet strangely enough, they are never given this pejorative label despite being better deserving of it.

I've noticed you use this phrase before, but I've held my peace in the hope that someone who actually knows you personally would have a quiet word. I've encountered plenty of writers and journalists who scoff at "Conspiracy Theories" and they all seem to have one thing in common: None of them have seriously analysed the official version to see how THAT stands up to scrutiny.

It's odd how the justice system recognises that Conspiracies occur and that secrets are kept (when they are, by definition we don't know about them), yet the media insists that such thoughts are 'tin foil hat' thinking. It also stuns me that otherwise intellectual, intelligent people can so willingly fall into this trap laid for them by mainstream historical institution.

As for president McKinley, I'm not familar with that one, but it's interesting how all these convenient murders are blamed on equally convenient 'lone nuts'. This isn't to say that there aren't spurious theories out there concerning such events, but to use that phrase discredits by association, what may in fact be many years of serious, scholarly research.

*Where 19 men led by someone in a cave in Afghanistan, were lucky enough to have investigations into their activities quashed by senior FBI officials after which they successfully hijacked 4 aircraft, outwitting security, and the US NORAD defense system - who were inexplicably conducting multiple live-fly and simulated hijacking exercises at the time - hitting 3 of their targets in which everything vaporised including the black boxes with the exception of passports and red bandanas - this is by definition a "Conspiracy Theory", one that has never been proved in court where the term "conspiracy" is used on a daily basis.

Richard Larson said...

Now that is an expansion of thinking - for me at least.

But it makes perfect sense the imperialist neocons were hard at work well before our time. That they have a road map in place before embarking. That they have expanded the horizon to include the whole world of people, and oil.

I don't suspect this can be scaled back any, as enough backward movement would crash the plan entirely.

Hence the drive to keep expanding?

I do dislike this idea about President Roosevelt though, as he did increase federally protected wild lands. I guess one can not place any trust on anyone allowed top positions of the empire.

The next question is how does a citizen of empire truly balance his participation?

Kieran O'Neill said...

I've been reading Bill Bryson's "At Home: A Short History of Private Life" over the past few weeks while following these posts. Apart from being replete with scraps of useful knowledge to the Green Wizard, it's a fascinating counterpoint to see how many of the developments which define modern domestic life have their roots in the imperial adventures of Britain and the USA.

Joel Caris said...

Each week I read these posts and am reminded of how little history I know. It's a bit embarrassing, but at least I'm better recognizing it now. I think the particular narrative of empire you're laying out here is going to prove very helpful in holding onto some of this knowledge. I guess previous history lessons of mine have also included narratives, but this one seems to be sticking a bit more. I suppose time will tell if that lasts.

In the meantime, I obviously need to work up a reading list and do some further study. I've always felt a bit of chagrin at my lack of historical knowledge, so this is a good time to focus on increasing it.

The concept of parallel empires, both in space and time, is particularly good. That makes much sense to me and, under that rubric, it makes even more sense how this series of posts will fit into the theme of energy depletion. It's interesting that these two forms of empire have proven to mirror each other and appear now to be collapsing much at the same time. What an unholy mess that is and will continue to be.

I definitely worry how it's all going to come apart. Even now, listening to people on the left and right comment on higher gas prices, the first instinct is to blame someone else. Even amongst people I know who believe in peak oil and the inevitability of having to live without fossil fuels, that instinct to see nefarious dealings behind high prices is there. While they're not necessarily oblivious to the realities of depletion, it's so easy to blame speculators and oil companies and whoever else. If that's the first instinct, even with the people who know better, than I can't help but think our failures of empire are going to be dangerous times, indeed.

Of The Hands

Nano said...

Regarding the consciousness bit.

It seems that this is where Leary's SMILE*2 idea comes from? Space Migration, Intelligence Squared, Life Extension.

I'm also thinking of Ray Kurzweil's singularity proposition.

Petro said...

JMG, I'm gratified that I anticipated your "Two Empires" point just last week at Ian's place, thusly:

"I agree with JMG, where he posits that empires decline when the cost of maintaining it’s peripheral presence outstrips the wealth being extracted (if I may so crudely distill a point of his). Tainter says it happens when a key resource is exhausted… which, to me, is really another way of saying the same thing."

Glenn said...

Glad to see you mentioned the theft of Hawaii, even if only en passant. I'm a sailor, so I've heard of Mahan, though, like many of the "classics" I have not yet read his works.

Re, previous posts. Mono-cropping helps me understand the huge population drop after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It wasn't just confusion, anarchy and barbarians at the gates. After being depleted, the land simply could not support as many people. A lesson we need to appreciate here, where industrial farming uses dirt to hold the plants up while feeding it with mined chemicals and mined water. Even with intensive labour and the best of organic techniques, we cannot undo the loss of soil fertility quickly. We too will suffer a major die-off, how fast and how low is another question.

Marowstone Island

John Michael Greer said...

Yupped, we'll get to that. The short form is that admitting to imperialism was a major propaganda difficulty in the years when Marxism was a rising force, and the habit stuck -- at least this far.

Pat, thank you!

Mickyle, thank you! The secret, if there is one, is simply that I've been a history wonk since childhood, and haven't previously had the opportunity to talk about it much. (You *don't* discuss this sort of history in college, for example.)

Craig, thank you.

AA, thanks for the reference. I'll find a copy.

Ceworthe, I hadn't heard that but am not surprised at all. The sooner we get to work rebuilding the US inland waterway system, the better.

Rashakor, the California gold rush was only one of a series of lucrative mineral rushes that took place as the west was taken over and exploited. Think yeast getting into a series of flasks of sugar water and you've got a decent simile.

Stu, thank you! It's no more problematic than most theories of the same kind.

John Michael Greer said...

Orwellian, if you choose to take offense at my use of a common and readily understood phrase, well, basically that's your problem, not mine. It's ironic that you do so, though, in that this post talks about a bone fide conspiracy -- the manufacture of the Spanish-American war by a political faction in the US.

The point I think needs making is that there's a difference of some importance between actual conspiracies -- of which there have of course been many in history -- and the ideas being circulated in contemporary conspiracy culture. A conspiracy, like any other criminal act, is an excellent example of what E.F. Schumacher called a convergent problem -- that is, the more accurate information you have about it, the more tightly the evidence points to a single solution (in this case, who did it and why). In today's conspiracy culture, though, the opposite is true.

I'll take the JFK assassination as an example, as it's a field I've more or less kept up with over the years. Of the two most recent books I've read on the subject, one makes a case for Jimmy Hoffa and the Mafiosi Santos Trafficante and Carlos Marcello as the leading figures in the conspiracy to kill JFK, with one set of motives and one theory about how it was done. The other makes a case for the Texas political machine behind LBJ as the movers and shakers, with a completely different set of motives and a different theory about how it was done. Choose any ten other books on the subject and you'll get at least five more sets of suspects and at least ten different sets of motives and scenarios. The longer the controversy has gone on, the more the findings of different people in the conspiracy scene diverge. It's reminiscent of the Dealey Plaza scene in the Illuminatus trilogy, where there are so many gunmen trying to draw a bead on Kennedy that one of them finally exclaims, "Jesus Christ, how many people does it take to kill a president these days?"

The lack of convergence in the arguments made by the modern conspiracy scene is a clear sign that something is thoroughly out of whack in the logic and standards of evidence being used in that scene. Mind you, there have been plenty of equally severe problems in what I suppose would have to be called the anti-conspiracy scene; it's reminiscent of so many current debates, in which both sides have gone to absurd extremes, leaving the facts to sit all by themselves somewhere in the unexamined territory in the middle.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, er, the pro-imperial party in 1898 weren't neocons. They had similar values and goals, but a lot of differences as well. It's also interesting to me, at least, to note that Andrew Carnegie -- one of the richest men and leading industrialists in America at the time -- was a leading member of the Anti-Imperialist League, the main organization opposing the move toward empire. Simple dichotomies don't fit well with the complex nature of real history!

Kieran, thanks for the reference!

Joel, if I may offer a suggestion for historical reading, go for specifics. The broader and more general a work of history is, the more likely it is to reflect current assumptions rather than on-the-ground details from the past. It's in the texture of specific events in specific places that the broader picture emerges most clearly.

Nano, I'm not sure where Leary got his ideas, other than way too much acid. Kurzweil's Singularity, though, is simply the Rapture in science fiction drag: superintelligent computers in place of Jesus, robot bodies in place of the glorified bodies of the elect, outer space in place of heaven, and so on down the line. Kurzweil is simply the Harold Camping of the computer-geek scene.

Petro, excellent.

Glenn, that's why individuals, families, and communities need to get to work on intensive organic gardening right now, building the soil in small intensively worked gardens, which can take up the slack for collapsing extensive agriculture here, in much the same way they did in the former Soviet Union.

Glenn said...

Another reason we in the U.S.A. don't want to admit to being an "Empire" (Caps, big, evil, nasty) is the myth of our "Revolution". Actually more of a war of independence than a revolution; despite replacing a monarch (with a history of being deposed and elected by parliment) with an elected president; the parallels between the House of Commons and Lords on one hand, and the House of Representitives and the Senate on the other seem fairly similar to me. But I have digressed. The war of our National Sovereignty was, after all _against_ an "Empire". With that as a founding myth, it's a bit hard to own up having become one ourselves.
The nationalist revolutionaries in the Philippines, for instance, were both disappointed and (literally) crushed when we replaced the Spanish and put down the revolution ourselves (and invented the M1911 .45 ACP semi-automatic pistol in the process).

plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.


Marrowstone Island

Glenn said...


Organic message heard loud and clear. We've been building our soil for 8 years using humanure, trucked in horse manure, and small amounts of commercial phosphate (use it while you got it) and commercial bone meal. This weeks project is building new compost bins of more durable material than the salvaged shipping pallet wood we started with.

Oh yes we've been growing our produce for a while now, but not grains, sugar, oils (and fats) or dairy. And planted a lot of fruit trees, which are starting to bear.


Marrowstone Island

latheChuck said...

Re: JFK assassination. My favorite "alternative explanation" (which has been published in the book "Mortal Error") is that Oswald fired two shots AT Kennedy, after which an alert Secret Service agent jumped up and accidentally fired the fatal shot! In this version, you have an official story which isn't quite right, but no "conspiracy" other than "let's not embarrass our well-intentioned colleague".

If the Secret Service made changes to their tactics and procedures for executive protection, which would reduce the likelihood of such an accident (without admitting that any such accident occurred), I would find that supportive evidence. But I don't know whether or not that happened.

John R said...

I recently translated an article by a Japanese historian on the impact on US-Japan relations of the opening of the Panama Canal. This article included quotes from Mahan and Roosevelt and their contempories, and I skimmed The Influence of Sea Power upon History as part of my background research.
I was struck firstly by how explicit some people in the US were about their imperialist ambitions, and how blatant the US actions in Panama, Mexico and the Philippines were. More recently there seems to be more of an effort to disguise imperial impulses.
The other point that became clear to me was that the "unequal treaties" were deliberately unequal, and were recognized as such by both sides of the deal. (And nothing much seems to have changed with the way trade treaties are 'negotiated' now...)

[I've been reading the archives of this blog since I discovered it a few months ago - I'm about halfway through now - and have been constantly stimulated, informed and challenged. Thank you!]

Juan Wilson said...

The taking of Hawaii by America in 1893 was the crucial move that allowed America to dominate the Pacific in the Spanish-American War.

That was the beginning of the US Empire, not the taking of the Philippines.

Hawaii today is the US base of operations for the largest military operation in the world.

On my little outer island of Kauai that is crystallized in the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) that integrates the communications throughout the Big Rim.

The PMRF is the playground of DARPA, the DEA, Sandia Labs, ITT, Raytheon and all the military and corporate "players" that have a dog in the games of empire out here in the eye of the Pacific Ocean.

Under the shadow of the umbrella of power that PMRF provides are Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow Agro Science and the rest of the genetic engineering crowd making the world safe for GMO High Fructose Corn Syrup.

They have become the biggest agricultural operation in Hawaii.. forget about sugar and pineapple.

The Filipinos lucky enough to get jobs on the west side usually end up doing security for the PMRF base of GMO companies... if they are lucky. The less lucky ones end up living scarecrows in the GMO fields.

Ah, paradise... what a dream.

Bruce The Druid said...

It is interesting, to note the case of the USS Maine, that it being a new ship, the boiler may have simply exploded on its own (my understanding is that this was a not uncommon hazard at the time). What the conspiracy theorists seem to miss is that those doing the conspiring don't always need to "make" the event happen, they simply seized on a fortuitous event.

In the lecture my community college instructor gave, it was evident that the United States simply used the event to send troops and ships pell mell into Cuba, given that they had not devised a way to unload the cavalry horses they had shipped. Sailors finally rigged up an adhoc system to lower them over the sides, the horses had to swim to shore. Good thing the Spanish didn't actually oppose the landings!

Aside from that, in what context do you place the Mexican-American War? You may have mentioned this, but my memory fails me.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I'm really enjoying your history lessons. It is only through looking at the past that we can interpret the actions of those in the present. What is really interesting is that you seem to be showing us that the processes and actions that achieved and sustained a wealth pump in the past are being repeated in the present time. The problem is that now it is just not that effective and the return on investment is so much lower.

An interesting side fact. The Great White fleet docked here in 1908 to much local consternation! The simple answer was to fete them as visiting dignitaries, which seemed to work and they eventually went on their way. At the time a Russian invasion was considered a likely possibility.

I suspect that it must take a major crisis before a civilisation decides to change course and attempts different strategies to survive?

It is interesting that you write about South America and the wealth pump. Years ago, I read Che Guevara's book "The Motorcycle Diaries". It was a fascinating look into South American culture at the time from high to low. It began as two mates heading off into the wild blue yonder but after the motorcycle died they had to slum it with the peasants despite their privileged backgrounds. The tone of the book changed at about this point too.

PS: Thanks for the insights, your commentary is always valued. I've noticed a lot of my mates now have man caves as distinct from 2 decades ago when they would have had a shed. It is fascinating because they have not twigged that they have turned from repair and production activities into mindless consumption! Oh well.

Hi Matt and Jess,

What was sold as coffee may well have been chicory (or root chicory). This has sometimes been used as a coffee substitute, however this is not from personal experience.

Hi Jennifer,

Yeah, the discussion here is quite good exercise for the brain! I suspect one benefit for our host is that it keeps his wits sharp.

Hi Cathy,

How do you do JIT firewood? Can your timber be burnt green? Ours here has to be seasoned for about 12 to 24 months to remove the creosote which otherwise makes it hard to burn and also blocks up the flue in the wood box.

Hi Glenn,

I’m glad that you are questioning the logic of mono cropping. Even a mono culture forest is at risk from the same problems and there are plenty of examples of those hereabouts. The problem even extends into the soil flora and fauna too! Scary stuff.

PS: Not to make you lot jealous in colder climates but, I'm sitting out in the orchard in the early evening on the laptop with the 3G modem, writing / reading this blog whilst the chooks are scratching around doing their thing!



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey all,

Just for a bit of imperial trivia. The Queen is still the head of the government here in Australia.

You may think, so what? Well, back in 1975, the representative, the Governor General, sacked the elected government of the time. Imagine for a moment the reaction, if that happened in the US!

A few years back, we had a referendum to ask whether we wanted to become a republic, but overwhelmingly, the answer was no. So all, legislation for both state and federal parliaments still has to receive royal assent before becoming law.

By the way, voting is compulsory in Australia and you will be fined if you do not vote in any election or referendum.



Odin's Raven said...

Regarding the Kennedy assassination, there is a book which shows a convergence of interests and contacts between the main groups of suspects.

It is Michael Collins Piper's Final Judgment, available here for free download:

He shows that Israel, the CIA and the Mafia all felt threathened and betrayed by Kennedy. They had strong links, especially through Lanksky and Angleton.

Apparently Kennedy was trying to make Israel reveal and limit it's nuclear weapons, and to clip the wings of the Federal Reserve Bank. He wanted to disband the CIA over the Bay of Pigs affair. The Spooks and the Crooks were both outraged by his failure to topple Castro and recover their gambling interests. He had taken Mafia help to win his election, by cheating - and had betrayed them by letting his brother attack them. There were strong criminal, money laundering and spying connections with Israel. His successor, Johnson was an Israeli stooge (USS Liberty, for instance) with strong criminal associations, and reversed Kennedy's policies. All these groups benefited from his death.

Kennedy must have been a very foolish politician to antagonise so many rich, powerful and ruthless groups simultaneously. He wouldn't have lasted as an ancient or medieval king. He may have dreamed of Camelot but he was no Arthur!

OrwellianUK said...

John, you say:

"if you choose to take offense at my use of a common and readily understood phrase, well, basically that's your problem, not mine."

I take offence (if that is the right phrase) because as I wrote originally, it is used as a pejorative - a phrase coupled with a rolling of the eyes and scornful, snide remarks. I'm aware that you were discussing a bonafide conspiracy which is PRECISELY why I object to the phrase "Conspiracy Theory/Theories/Theorist" because it is always used as a bat with which to ridicule and deflect rational discussion. I find it strange that you assert that this is my problem. I say again, in it's modern definition, the phrase is intellectually bankrupt. It's bad journalism.

You mention the "anti-conspiracy scene" as the other side of the coin but I know of no "common and readily understood phrase" that is used to similarly ridicule those on that side of the fence. I call them "coincidence theorists" - a nod to John Judge, but that isn't a term which would illicit the same smirks and rolling of the eyes as its counterpart and it is not by any means a 'household' phrase.

There are many phrases which are "common and readily understood" but which are also recognisable by their objectionable nature, e.g. racist or sexist terms. I'm not implying that calling someone a "conspiracy theorist" should be directly compared to a racist slur, but I am saying that it is not a neutral or objective term.

As to the books you refer to, those kind of books which focus on a single 'villain' for the JFK murder are well known as books deliberately written to promote "false sponsors". For instance, the mafia were undoubtedly involved, but such books ignore the organised crime connections to the CIA with the former as the junior partner. The mafia for instance, couldn't have arranged to change the motorcade route to place the limousine right in front of the book depository or falsified the autopsy.

There have also been books claiming that the Soviets or Castro were behind the assassination, despite there being zero genuine supporting evidence. These books are written to muddy the waters and help keep alive the myth in one form or another, by pointing to Officially Designated Enemies or Bad Guys.

As one of my favourite writers is fond of saying, "I don't deal with conspiracy theory, only conspiracy fact". It occurs to me that the reason there is such a "conspiracy scene" is that people are now better educated after a fashion, much less ignorant and much less tolerant of class divides, therefore they question more. Also the availability of information (good or bad) is much greater even than when I was a child, due to a proliferation of web sites or books that can be found online when unavailable in mainstream bookstores.

Naturally, the establishment has responded to this with disinformation - such as the books you mentioned, which while undoubtedly containing much factual information also contain distortions and omissions. It is impossible to research the JFK assassination sincerely and fail to notice the involvement of US intelligence agencies.

Nevertheless, thanks for your continuing articles, which are an excellent source of information and concise logic.

beneaththesurface said...

You mentioned how Charles Reich, the authors of the Cultural Creatives, and others were convinced "that a great positive change of consciousness was on its way and would give boomer idealists the world they thought they wanted."

I think this is why the phrase "The Great Turning" rubs me the wrong way. And it's not just David Korten who uses the phrase, but many others in the "working to create a sustainable world" camp.

"The Great Turning is a phrase many are using to describe these tumultuous times. In the midst of an ecological revolution, we are moving towards a sustainable presence on the earth."

While there are certainly small numbers of people doing serious work that future generations will be thankful for, I'm not convinced we are in midst of an "ecological revolution," that we are part of some emerging mass transformation and mass movement to sustainability. And I think falling into such a belief mindset restricts us in the real work that we need to be doing.

OrwellianUK said...

This is a nice little article about the term "Conspiracy Theory"

Nathan said...

I don't know what you guys are talking about: Americans are open about talking about their empire, you just have to learn the lingo. Replace "empire" with "superpower" and all is well. Who would want to be an empire with their starchy uniforms and silly hats, when you could dress in skin-tight spandex and fly?

Take this sentence: "Other Latin American countries fell under United States control in the years that followed, and had their resources fed into the increasingly busy wealth pump of American empire."

With a superficial touch-up it becomes perfectly palatable: "Other Latin American countries were liberated by the United States in the years that followed, and had their resources added to the growing global economy safeguarded by the American superpower". JMG could get a job at the Brookings Institute with prose like that!

On a completely different subject - 'Libra' by Don Delillo is a great (fictional) book about the JFK assassination. Just like that event itself, the book is like a fog of innuendo and possibility.

DW said...

@ Joel: I'll second JMG's recommendation to go to more specific recounts of history -- Nassim Taleb has the same recommendation: the best accounts of history are those that present facts w/o interpretation; the more someone tries to move from facts (what happened, when) to motives (why), the more the truth of the matter gets obscured by the author (historian's) own bias. Better to read the details, then draw your own conclusions and not hold them too tightly.

@JMG: a strange congruity...I've been taking a break and reading some pop-fiction lately, most recently James Frey's "Bright Shiney Morning", which is sort of a case-study of modern-day Los Angeles told through disconnected story-lines of multiple characters. It paints a picture of a mini-Empire collapsing under its own weight; crime, water, oil, pollution, it's all there...the US in not-so-micro-cosm. The cool thing though, and the convergence with your posts, is that each chapter has been moving forward with a curious blurb about the building of the LA-empire over time from the initial settlement forward. It builds a set of facts (the roads, the aqueducts, the laws, the developments) to weigh against the fictional accounts he sets forward in the rest of the narrative. Anyway, I've found it immensely enjoyable; and since I got the hard-back at my library store for $3.00, a great value.

sgage said...

@ Cherokee

"How do you do JIT firewood? Can your timber be burnt green? Ours here has to be seasoned for about 12 to 24 months to remove the creosote which otherwise makes it hard to burn and also blocks up the flue in the wood box."

Seasoning firewood does not remove creosote - it removes water. It's water that makes green wood hard to burn. It takes a lot of energy to remove that water at burn time, resulting in a cooler fire, resulting in a situation such that the compounds which we call "creosote" do not get combusted and end up going up the flue and condensing there. Blockage is a problem - chimney fires are a real problem!

A good hot fire with dry wood will use that stuff as fuel - indeed, it's a valuable part of the BTU value of firewood! Just don't want it going up the flue for sure...

No, you really can't JIT firewood.

Matt and Jess said...

Hi, Chris. I wonder if there are any cold weather climates left in the world anywhere? March is typically our snowiest month (or 2nd snowiest) and it's been solid 70's here for weeks! I'm really feeling the "the desert isn't a great place to survive the next few decades" vibe just now. Also, chicory--well, it won't fool me. If worst comes to worst later on though, it's good to know there's something to wean yourself onto.

Also, JMG, have you heard of the author James Loewen? His life's mission is to correct the abysmal history taught in American schools nowadays. You might enjoy him.

Thomas Daulton said...

Me having been born in Hawaii (from haole immigrants), I second the motion to hear JMG expound more on the Hawaiian annexation, or the prospects for the modern Hawaiian sovereignity movement and a return to native Hawaiian culture after the oil runs out and isolates the islands to some degree. It's such a textbook example of modern American imperialism, back before Americans felt they needed to disguise such things. And it happened within the lifetimes of several regular readers of this blog, no doubt. Anyone who thinks the US has always stood for self-determination, or that businesses don't simply dictate policy in the US with politicians as their stenographers, needs to read the story of the Hawaiian annexation. Our sugar manufacturers need some lebensraum!

Then, just to totally muck up the discussion about conspiracy theories, my compatriot Justin (who has often posted here) turned me on to this article: What if he was actually, in fact, shooting at Connaly?

John D. Wheeler said...

"It’s a curious feature of American history that some of its major turning points are best summed up by books."

I wonder what book they will consider for the early 21st century... The Eco-Technic Future, perhaps?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi sgage,

Thanks for the correction. It's kind of funny living in a small community in that over the years you start building up a picture of the people around you and all of their quirks and habits. Anyway, there is one house around here that every year or so, the local volunteer fire brigade gets called out for - chimney fires! Most years too, so far that I can remember. You can almost mark it off your calendar as the beginning of serious winter weather (although it is probably pretty mild weather from some of your perspectives)!

Hi Matt and Jess,

ha-ha! We won't get fooled again. I'd like to try some chicory root just to see what it is like as a coffee substitute though. It's probably like swapping chocolate for carob (I do have a carob tree growing here). Apparently the plant is quite easy to grow unlike coffee trees.

I've been building up a herb garden recently and have found that many of the plants have useful purposes as herbal teas which could also be a good coffee substitute. I don't know how I ever got by without the herb feverfew before. It is amazing for relieving the occasional bout of hay fever.

Still if you have mild winters, coffee beans would be a good cash crop in the future. 70's sounds quite pleasant and your garden should be growing quite well. Hopefully, being early days, your summer isn't too hot. It is about 85 here today which is about normal for this time of year and it will rain tonight. The garden and orchard is growing like crazy although some trees are starting to turn now.



Thomas Daulton said...

Ooops, mea culpa, I was compressing the timeline between annexation and the Statehood vote there. The Statehood vote happened not too many years before I was born in Honolulu, and I'm sure there are readers older than me on this blog. However I doubt anyone posting here was actually alive during the annexation and the rein of Queen Lili'uokalani.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Cherokee Organics:
How do you do JIT firewood? Can your timber be burnt green? Ours here has to be seasoned for about 12 to 24 months to remove the creosote which otherwise makes it hard to burn and also blocks up the flue in the wood box.
I was referring to the chopping - mostly the wood is delivered in quarters or large chunks, and to get it to fit in my woodstove, I have to at least split them in half, and I'm usually behind in that task, so before I get a fire, I have about 10-15 minutes of splitting to do. :-} Hence JIT.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, I know you get it. I'm mostly making comments about organic gardening for the benefit of the readership in general.

Chuck, yes, I saw that one too. A good example of the spreading divergence of theories.

John, it's simply a matter of current habit that the blatantly unequal nature of the treaties can't be discussed in the US media. Current trade treaties are no better.

Juan, for that matter, you could trace the American empire back to the first seizures of Pacific islands as maritime bases in the 1850s.

Bruce, true enough. As for the war with Mexico, I mentioned it earlier -- it was a straightforward act of piracy, aimed at grabbing territory. Since the territory was incorporated into the US rather than being administered as a subject nation, though, it's not empire in the narrow sense of the term as I'm using it. Ruthless, amoral, and unjustifiable? Sure.

Cherokee, the Great White Fleet caused a lot of consternation all over the place -- that was the point. It was meant to prove, among other things, that Britain wasn't the only nation that could send a fleet of battleships to any corner of the world it wanted to.

Raven, I like your use of the word "apparently." It's a nice way to cover the very dubious evidence for many of the claims Piper makes.

John Michael Greer said...

Orwellian, I'd encourage you to work on spreading the phrase "coincidence theorist" -- it's a good one, and for more than the obvious reasons. Coincidences happen, just as conspiracies happen; a theorist who insists on explaining any historical event by one or the other exclusively deserves a label, and not necessarily a favorable one, either.

Still, some of the tactics you used in your comment are among the reasons why so many people roll their eyes when conspiracy theories come up. For example, you've claimed that the books that disagree with your preferred explanation of the JFK assassination are disinformation issued by the establishment. The authors of those books could make the same claim about you, or about the authors you prefer, and any effort you make to prove them wrong can be dismissed as more disinformation. Using that kind of logic, I could make a strong case that JFK was shot by Elvis.

All this is a long ways off topic, and I'm going to draw a line under the subject at this point. Still, thank you; you've made me think that there may be a point to writing a book on the subject of conspiracies and secret societies, one that -- like my book on the UFO phenomenon -- will challenge the preconceptions on both sides. I'll definitely give that some thought.

John Michael Greer said...

Beneath, excellent! You get tonight's gold star. Exactly; the whole point of insisting that a "Great Turning" is going to transform human consciousness is that it means that you don't have to do the work yourself -- you just sit there and wait for something to happen. If I may put on my archdruid's hat for a moment, it's been my experience that transforming human consciousness takes place one human individual at a time, and only if that individual is willing to do the hard work involved.

Nathan, granted, doubletalk is always popular! Still, the spandex and cape is just for show; underneath it's the same stiff uniform and funny hat, and that fact bears discussion.

DW, haven't read it -- I'll consider it. Thanks for the suggestion!

Thomas, the problem there is that I could fill a hundred posts with specific case studies of one or another bit of US expansionism, and once this relatively brief history is over, we have a lot of ground to cover!

John, probably not. As a member of one of the minority religions nobody talks about, I'll be lucky to get a footnote.

John Michael Greer said...

Guilherme (offlist), if you could edit out the profanity and resubmit, I'd be delighted to put your comment through -- it's something a good many people, here in the US and elsewhere, could benefit from reading. Still, you know my policy: even the most justified swear words won't get posted, and since I can't edit people's posts, that means the "delete" button.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Your description of transformation / change as taking place one individual at a time reminds me of my time spent training under graduates. People don't change or learn unless they want to and/or are open to it. However, when the light goes on in the initiate (ie. undergraduate), it is one of the most rewarding experiences for them and yourself.

I'm delving deeper into medicinal herbs and increasing my collection of plants and it truly astounds me that modern medicine doesn't seem to coexist with plant lore. The Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" is more applicable than I've ever previously understood. It is quite humbling. I still can't quite get my head around why all avenues of medicine can't be pursued? Seems like some sort of turf war to me.

Hope you don't mind if sometimes if I play a laid back clown character like Jar Jar Binks because it is a relief from the seriousness of life. About a week ago I attended a Christening celebration with friends and saw all of the children running around in the church like crazy during the ceremony and realised in a flash what is actually at stake. It is almost guaranteed that at some stage in their future that those kids will be reduced to abject hunger and poverty and who knows what else.



Guilherme de Baskerville said...

JMG, I ended up writing a LOOONG post. I'll post it in smaller chunks here. BTW, sorry for the curse words. I was in a lousy mood for being sick on a friday night :)

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Alright, I'm sorry, JMG. The swear words were probably a result of not being exactly happy having a fever on a friday night and missing out on going out with friends. That tends to irritate me :)

Let's try and be more constructive here, then.

For starters, for the people who are afraid to live without coffee, I wouldn't be too worried about that :)

The global trade in spices predates fossil fuel usage. Granted, coffee wasn't exactly popular before the XIXth century, but I think that was just a case of people in europe developing a taste for it late in the game. Sugar, coffee, salt, pepper (and other spices of the genre), dried herbs of various kind (tea, for example), alcoholic beverages of all kinds, tobacco, etc are all products that can be effectively transported and distributed in a non-fossil fuel economy. These are high-price, low volume, non-spoiling products. Granted, they may get more expensive (way more expensive in some cases), but I wouldn't get too worried about those unless you live somewhere who's very far from any coast, canal system or railroad link and totally dependent on road transport. And if THAT's the case, worrying about coffee would be the least of your concerns in case the trucks stop rolling...

People in northern latitudes, or in the hinterlands of any continent (for example, the midwest) should probably worry more about fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. These will NOT be economic to move long distances like we do now, so you'll be entirely dependent on what can be produced locally, and that will be complicated for people in regions with long winters, seasonal draughts, etc. A winter eating nothing but grain, dried meat and canned food will not be pleasant, IMO.

Alright, so, back to the original post I sent: The whole point I was trying to make is that the american empire may be something below the consciousness of most americans, something not discussed in public, something you guys do in a double-think kind of way, but it is NOT so around the world. I can say for a certain that Latin America for example has no illusions that what happened in here was pure and simple exploitation.

Schoolchildren here in Brazil are tought about the Monroe Doctrine in this fashion: "America for (north) americans". Every history book has a cartoon of a Uncle Sam with legs stretched from Alaska to the Tierra del Fuego and carrying a big stick. That kind of thing. The reality of american empire is felt very harshly around the world, and it's not something that most people in the affected regions enjoy. I sometimes get the sense that the average american person has no idea that a significant proportion of the world population dislikes or hates the US in general. And when said american is confronted with that reality, he's baffled by the causes and comes up with things like "It's because they envy our democratic way of life" or "Because the UN is a front for One World Government" or some other stupid argument like that. The truth is that people just don't like living on the business end of a wealth pump.

That's not even talking about the muslim world, which has it's own internal dynamic and another set of reasons to dislike the US.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Getting closer to home, for example, as recently as the time-frame from the 60's to the 80's, the CIA, the State Department and a host of big corporations was very busy installing, maintaining and financing a set of military dictatorships in latin american countries, regimes that employed large scale domestic terrorism, kidnapping, torture and murder of their own citizens in a attempt to stop communism and socialism from spreading and generally protecting american interests. Oh, and btw, Latin America was not on the verge of turning "commie", but it was trying to reform itself into some sort of welfare capitalism, like post-war Europe , but to do that it would need to curb a lot of the effects of the wealth pump, so that's the real reason we ended up with those dictators. That means that a lot of your readership, JMG, was alive when all of this was going on. That's not ancient history.

That's not me trying to paint a black and white picture of world history, either. The USA is not some cartoon villain. It's just a country like any other looking out for it's own interests (in a grander fashion then most). America and americans have done wonderful things. For example, after WWII the US had an amazing ammount of goodwill capital around the world. It's just that the dirty business of running an empire squandered it.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

I do wonder about the future of the american empire in the near to mid term. It seems to me to be way more fragile then most people think. After WWII, the US empire has been maintained trough a system of uneven monetary and trade policy managed by the IMF, World Bank and other such institutions. Those policies were backed up by implicit or overt use of force in case countries chose not to accept it. While the Cold War lasted, this use of force was framed as a fight against communism. That's not working anymore. The excesses of the neo-liberal ideology in the 90's crashed some of the countries that were forced to adopt it (Russia being the major case), which thoroughly debunked it as a viable economic policy for developing countries. The sucess of China is another example of a country that doesn't follow the prescribed wisdom doing very well. Other countries take notice of this. The failure of the Doha round of negotiations is very telling. So, it would seem that the backbone of the imperial ideology is not working anymore on keeping the other countries of the world doing what the empire needs, in the same fashion that rising protectionist tarrifs in the second half of the XIXth century was not what the British Empire wanted. That leaves the naked threat of force, or the actual use of it.

I would love to see what JMG and the american readership of this blog have to say about that (the comments are sometimes very insigthful here, I'm always amazed by the level of discussion in here). It seems to me that if it comes to that, the US military will have a hard time enforcing empire by naked force, both because of a institutional/technological bias (the kind of war the US military is hardwired to fight is not the ones they will get themselves into) and because the US does not have a national discourse that would support that. The american empire is the first empire in the world that has a hard time calling itself an empire, that does it's dirty business in such a double-think kind of way. I agree with the reader (and also JMG) who said that the fact that the founding myth of the nation in itself is that of a fight against an evil empire (Britain) makes it odd and unconfortable for americans to be running their own empire. Granted, people are very good at not having a counsciousness when having one threatens their wealth, but I wouldn't be totally surprised that, when push comes to shove, the people running the american empire have a nasty surprise about their ability to convince John Six-Pack from Iowa to volunteer to fight in some hell-hole for the profit margin of some big corporation. Then again, they are doing it in Afghanistan for no good reason at al... anway, that's it for the long rant, would love to heard back from you and the general readership on that point :)

OrwellianUK said...

John, the reason I refer to such books as disinformation is because they identify specific entities such as hoffa or Marcello at the exclusion of all the other 'interests' that were at odds with Kennedy, such as the CIA, the Right Wing, many big business interests and the anti-Castro Cuban faction.

It's well known and acknowledged that the CIA has writers and journalists 'on the books' in the mainstream for propaganda purposes. With the resources at their disposal they couldn't fail to notice the Intelligence connections, unless the authors were unwittingly fed limited information by their handlers. So maybe some of the books are written genuinely, but with restricted information. They fail to look at the big picture. The Jim Garrison investigation, hobbled as it was by CIA and FBI interference was close to the overall picture. Wherever they looked, the CIA kept cropping up.

The point of the original post though, was that I hope you will reconsider use of the term "Conspiracy Theory" in future as I have demonstrated that it is not a neutral term and I don't think John Judge's Coincidence Theory phrase is likely to get the same popular appeal. I hope you'll take time to have a look at that little article I posted earlier.

JessicaYogini said...

I think that the three books about the coming age of hipness contain a grain of truth. Knowledge producers (in the broadest sense) have been an emergent class for decades. However, to see that reality, but to completely ignore the transformations in social structure would be be required for that class to fully take its place in society is symptomatic of the fact that under the current system, one of the major tasks of this emergent class is to cover up the realities of the current class structure.
For a knowledge-driven economy to fully emerge, we need to both turn knowledge completely loose for all the use and build upon but at the same time fairly compensate those who produce that knowledge. No one knows how to do that on a society-wide scale yet. So instead of building a new society, many knowledge producers produce the many levels of obscuring that the current obsolete elite needs to maintain its power.

DeAnander said...

Seems like some sort of turf war to me.

oh, imho definitely a turf war... one which started during a wave of professionalisation (and masculinisation) of many trades, one of which was healing. it's all tied together over a messy few centuries: the denigration of the folk medicine that was often the particular province of village women (in Euroland), the denigration (and persecution) of the women themselves, the need of the Established Church to stamp out the last vestiges of paganism which were still associated with the healing arts, the denigration of the empirical method itself (which was revived during the Enlightenment as a men-only club), the Enclosure of arts like healing and brewing into a tight hierarchical structure of male-only guilds.

IIRC the suffix "-ster" (as in spinster) was a feminine nominative ending, and there was a time when women predominated in several food-and-drink-related trades (tapster, brewster, baxter) as well as, of course, in fibre arts (spinster, webster)... iirc as these activities were professionalised and masculinised, a distinction was drawn between "near beer" or homebrew, and "real beer" which was produced by guild members and somehow accredited... I think this transition took place between the 18th and 19th centuries -- as of the (mid?) 1700's in England a substantial majority of licensed brewers were actually brewsters (that is, women), but a generation later men had pretty much taken over the trade. and I think that "seamstress" is one of those wonderful redundant back-formations (like "irregardless") by which a later generation tried to refeminise an originally feminine noun describing a trade which had subsequently been masculinised!

... anyway, similar things happened to healing and medicine; the traditional knowledge of herbs and their medicinal uses was scorned (even declared subversive or heretical) and replaced by the "up to date scientific theories" of an all-male guild of doctors (who preserved some of the traditional methods and remedies but were far more interested in poisons, leeches, and other "heroic" interventions as well as complicated abstract theories about Humours and zodiacal signs and whatnot)... [aside: Will Allen's wonderful book The War on Bugs chronicles some of the connections between the alchemists (another masculinist guild), early chemical experimentation, and the fascination with poisons as medicaments -- which connects in turn to various patent medicine crazes of C19 and early C20, and hence to early pesticide formulations, leading inexorably towards poison gases as weapons and the incestuous feedback loop between the pesticide industry and the weapons industry... and the redefinition of agriculture as a kind of chemical warfare] [here I break this into 2 comments 'cos it got too long...]

DeAnander said...

[... continued ...]

some of this is fuzzy memory from long-ago reading about the history of medicine (and of witch-hunting) in Euroland, but I think the general outline is correct, and that the desire to Enclose medicine as a monopolistic (and high-status) trade persists to this day. you can still find doctors who get angry with patients who dare to research their own symptoms using internet tools, for example; currently there's a litigious struggle over people's access to vitamin/mineral supplements and herbal remedies (some of the professionals feel that all such substances should be controlled.. by them).

I suspect that this is another case of the outlawing of subsistence. if people were capable and knowledgable enough to do a lot of basic self-care and family care at home or at the village level, there would be that much less prestige and that much less profit for the accredited professionals. so, as with food production, education, and a host of other basic human activities, there's a tendency to outlaw (or at least to ridicule and devalue) the local and the homegrown and the DIY, and to insist on elaborate accreditation rituals that effectively prohibit subsistence activity.

I think Illich wrote a lot -- and harshly -- about professionalisation and its discontents, the way in which professionalisation creates a population of dependent clients vs a competent problem-solving elite, and increases the centralised, managerial power of the accredited and of the accrediting institutions. also think I recall someone writing about the fetishisation of bureaucratic competence, which has its counterpart in the fetishisation of the power and competence of doctors, lawyers, and other accredited professionals...

I'm not knocking trade skills as a useful thing to acquire, and I'm glad that there are people around with the knowledge and tools to set a broken bone and stitch up a laceration, should I be unfortunate enough to experience one; but the ignorance that has been drilled into the rest of us about the most basic useful herbs and simples is pretty appalling. the older I get, the more frighteningly ignorant I feel, the more I sense that I've been "raised in captivity" as a helpless client of impersonal institutions, deprived of fundamental knowledge and skills. hence the radical potential of reskilling and relocalisation...

phil harris said...

Cherokee Organics wrote
"About a week ago I attended a Christening celebration with friends and saw all of the children running around in the church like crazy during the ceremony and realised in a flash what is actually at stake.

Yes. I believe these insights are valuable. (I know what you mean. We have a 2 year old granddaughter.)
Our youngest daughter last night told me of her researches in family history. We learn that one ancestor (my paternal grandmother's great-grandfather) was transported for life to your part of the world; convicted of cattle stealing. He was a married middle-aged man with a large family. The justice system of those days around 1836 seems to have been somewhat arbitrary. One of the 342 men on the transport boat was a 28 year-old man convicted for 7 years for "stealing soot". This appears clearly written in the document.

Harsh times. Hard to reconcile the brutal social conditions with the kindness that seems more characteristic of my family inheritance coming through from previous generations, and with the care lavished on children through both good times and bad. My earliest memory is of being bombed out of our house. Hard to imagine what it was like for mum and dad. Left its mark I'm sure, but what I remember is the care and the fun and liveliness of childhood (leaving to one side some of the nonsense at school of course).
Lots of work left to do in my old age though, I guess.

DeAnander said...

I forgot to note that at the heart of the anti-subsistence, anti-autarky, anti-local push is, perhaps, the need to trap all people in our society into the money economy -- all Enclosure seems to aim at that goal, the totalisation of the wage economy, the hegemony of the market, whatever you wanna call it. "Get big or get out," as Earl Butz famously remarked. maybe we are on the cusp now of "get small or collapse"?

Diane said...

Someone mentioned Robert Kaplan recently so I found one of his books in the library "Monsoon" probably in our library because it is concentrated on the Indian Ocean. I was sort of stunned by it, he seems to just assume that the same old, same old will continue on. He makes little or no reference to energy or its decline, not in the subject index anyway, but at least I now understand why Obama and Gillard (Australia's PM) have cemented an agreement to station 1500 american troops in Darwin :-)

On a slightly different tack Counterpuch had an article by GEORGE WUERTHNER The Myth Of Peak Oil, I assume as a counterbalance to the recent article by Micheal Klare on "easy oil". It seemed to me that Wuerthner was staking a claim for climate change to be the main issue, he suggests that there is so much oil that it will totally destroy the environment. It amazes me sometimes, why people need to have a binary solution

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi DeAnander,

Thank you for the thoughtful and interesting reply. On a side, but related note, midwives have been effectively outlawed recently here because they can now only obtain insurance coverage if they work at a hospital and under the supervision of a doctor and under no other circumstances. Given the litigious nature of society, it would be a brave person to provide such services without the insurance coverage. It has the direct impact of banning home births or putting them under the radar. You are spot on about reskilling and relocalisation. PS: There are plenty of books on herbal lore which are well worth reading. I tend to read from a couple of sources before experimenting with medicinal herbs.

Hi Phil,

Yeah, having been set up originally as a penal colony and off shore farm for the UK, Australian history doesn't really get dressed up much. Transportation as a convict wasn't a death sentence, it was just hard work in appalling conditions. Glad to hear that you relatives went on to bigger and better things. As to the future, well, sometimes it can be ignored and there are other times when you get an insight into what is at stake.



Jennifer D Riley said...

Last week I meant to add Imperial Britain Navy turned the oceans into a quasi-British land mass. Germany over came it via bombing from the air, submarines under the water, and land forces.

Several weeks ago meant to add the financial crisis is exacerbated by the Internet and by communications measured in picoseconds.
Decades ago a family member bought stock in Smith Corona Marchant (SCM). We only tracked the progress daily via a state newspaper from a far away city. Today, the Internet allows High Frequency Trading that transports wealth or loss in--picoseconds.

Ceworthe said...

Joe six pack is fighting the corporation's wars IMHO because they believe the hype and don't realize that's what they're doing.

Edward said...


My parents were both school teachers and they accumulated a whole attic full of books which I've been cherry picking over the years. My latest acquistion was about a dozen histories of the USA and Pennsylvania, all written in the early 20th century. I selected a 1924 edition of Barnes's School History, first published in 1903. While probably a high school text back then, it would prove difficult for high schoolers nowadays. I was hoping to get through this and sort of keep pace with your telling of US history, but I'm falling behind.

Anyway, here's an interesting excerpt from the Preface: (since this book was first published)"the acts of a new generation have added momentous chapters to the story of our national life. Within this period the industrial and financial center of the world has crossed the Atlantic to our shores, and the united States has attained acknowledged preeminence among the world powers of the earth."

I was reminded that the impetus for exploring a western route to India in the late 15th century was the fall of Constantinople in 1458 which threatened trade between the west and the east. Thus the fall of Constantinople, as the last vestige of the Roman Empire, provided a link for me between the Ancient empires and the modern world.

Genoa and Venice had dominated trade up until that time, and became less important as their trade routes were cut off. Spain led the way in exploration, first with the water route around Africa, and then the discovery of the new world. Spain quickly became the dominant world power due to the gold and silver brought back from Central and South America.

Colonies from other European nations struggled, while trade in furs, fish, and even Sassafras became profitable, especially for the English and the French. Once they discovered that tobacco and later cotton could be grown, the wealth pump kicked in, in favor of the English.

Ruben said...

For the ham radio fans...

Introducing Gmail Tap

Steve said...


Busy week getting the ground prepped for the orchard and planting potatoes, but I just wanted to drop a note to say thanks for continuing to impress. This series is informative and exciting for me as an amateur history nut. Also, the supplemental readings you've introduced have been enlightening. I'm already looking forward to next winter when I have time to dive into more 19th century US history. In the interim, it's time to make soil while the sun shines.


Thanks for reposting your cleaned-up thoughts. As a USAn who grew up post-Vietnam I'll offer you my thoughts on two things you brought up

1) Will the USAns support a gov't policy of open imperialism?
Yes, I think by and large we will. The national dialogue has been rife with doublespeak for decades, from "We will be greeted as liberators" to "This aggression against Kuwait will not stand" to the World Bank and the IMF. Our foreign policy language has grown more frank over the last 10 years as well, and politicians of both parties are overwhelmingly in favor of using military force for any reason (or no stated reason at all). Getting the masses to fall in line has been relatively straightforward, mostly by following Goebbels' own strategy of berating peaceniks for being unpatriotic. Most USAns don't think about the US empire except in terms of "how did all our oil end up overseas?" When they do (like a college friend of mine) it's often in terms like, "If we need to fight a war over there to ensure our way of life, that's okay with me."

2) That brings us to who will do the fighting. That the US has had an economic draft since Vietnam has been very apparent to just about everyone, even if we feel it's impolite to talk about it. Military recruiters almost always set up shop in poor areas and neighborhoods, and they show up at high schools with promises of good pay, signing bonuses, money for college, and all the rest. Middle class kids occasionally sign up for ROTC in college to help with the bills, but the front line soldiers typically come from very poor areas with few or no job prospects.

The military has also overtly been pursuing military "automation" which relies on drone "pilots" who basically play video games of flying and bombing people on computer screens from military bases in Idaho and Georgia. Getting young USAn men to sign up for a job like that is not difficult at all, and the military knows that. It's also much safer politically, which is why we've seen escalations in frequency and scope in drone use (from early recon missions to cross-border bombings today in Pakistan).

Both of these topics are not considered polite conversation, but many USAns understand that it's happening, even when we're not consciously aware that we understand it. To suggest to a bright, middle class teenager that he/she should join the Army in front of their parents is kind of like farting loudly in an elevator - people might be too polite to let you know that they're offended, but they will certainly say so to each other when you've left. Likewise, to suggest to most USAns that we shouldn't get involved in foreign affairs, especially when oil is at stake, is to cross a line that most of us recognize without openly acknowledging.

Thanks much for your perspective from Brazil. It jives well with what I've heard from many others who are more familiar with Latin American history.

Hidden Author said...

I am still confused by all this "Empire" talk. Some posters have commented about "national interests" driving Empire but I would like it if the Archdruid could clarify the matter for me.

It seems to me that the United States of America is more of a hegemon rather than a true empire. I define a hegemon as a nation that can overpower a foreign nation here and there whereas an empire is a coherent system by which one nation can systemically dominate others.

I say this because the so-called American Empire has some weak spots.

1. While most empires insured a flow of wealth to the state treasury, with the American hegemon, the wealth pump to the extent it exists directs wealth solely to multinational corporations which evade taxes to the greatest extent possible.

2. When you read history, you notice that ancient emperors as in Rome and the Great Khanate took the punishment of foreign enemies very seriously, even going so far as to lead the army into battle personally.

By contrast, with America, the punishment of enemies seems to be an arbitrary, whimsical game. The US destroyed everything in sight in Germany and Japan but propped up the USSR with foreign aid and trade. The US sanctioned the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Krajina and Kosovo but endangers soldiers with restrictive rules of engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It removes petty despots in Haiti and Grenada but is infinitely patient with Karzai and the Saudis. I mean, Karzai expressed sympathy with the Taliban but is not assassinated. The media reports that Saudi princes sponsor terrorism but does not name them nor does the USA take action to eliminate them.

Again, I do not deny that America throws its weight around but its elites seem to be more insane rather committed to the coherent, systematic establishment of American national interests!

SLClaire said...

Thinking about Guilhermes' question (and btw, thanks for being willing to be so honest with us!), I mused on an interesting demographic quirk that may have some relevance.

It hinges on remembering that the people who benefit most from the wealth pump of both the spatial and temporal empires are those who run large corporations, are the long-standing and most powerful people in legislative bodies, and are at the highest level of the military. People who make it to these high levels of the hierarchy have spent many years doing so. By and large, they are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Now remember that anyone in the U.S. in this age range was alive and of an age to pay attention at the least to the Vietnam War, if not have been eligible to fight in it. Take me as an example. Now 55, I was 11 in 1968, one of the most tumultuous years of that war. Today's 65 year old would have been 21 in 1968; today's 75 year old would have been 31. My 58 year old husband still has his Vietnam War draft card (luckily for him, he never got drafted ... but he could have been, and we have friends who fought in the war).

It's hard to convey the level of general disgust and distrust that was prevalent among people in this age range during the height of the war to you younger readers. The people who were at risk of having to fight, and who were doing the fighting (or if young enough, their older siblings, cousins, and friends were doing the fighting), were in exactly this age range. Vietnam has imprinted itself on us in a way that I am not sure anyone not in this age range can fully appreciate.

Fast forward to 2012. Most of the most powerful people, the ones who benefit the most from the wealth pump, have vivid memories of how difficult it is to fight a war in a foreign land, against a unified enemy force with tremendous popular support, when your own force largely consists of the unwilling and resentful. This is why we don't have a military draft: the current wars are foreign wars fought against forces and civilians more like those of Vietnam than not, so it's important to have our forces want to be there and want to do what is needed. But there isn't the general level of popular support for such wars here in the U.S. to commit much more than the current troop level, despite considerable effort to change that attitude. Because of the Vietnam history, I cannot imagine sufficient political support for a draft, at least not till enough of us boomers age out and die off that we no longer are the most populous demographic among the most powerful people. That will be, say, another 10 to 15 years. Hence, IMHO the U.S. as a whole does not have the support or will to hold on against much more of a challenge to our spatial empire than we are already seeing. I think that's why we are talking about Iran a lot but haven't done anything more, and why I suspect this will continue. Perhaps this is one of the factors John is considering when he says the spatial empire could collapse rather suddenly in the rather near future. It wouldn't be enough by itself, but it could have some influence.

Red Neck Girl said...

@ Guilherme de Baskerville

I suppose in some ways I never followed the crowd. I was a different kind of kid that never quite fit in, a little too smart, too concerned with the world around me. With this as a preface I can say I grew up in the 60's and became more globally aware in the 70's as I matured so I can't say I didn't know what was going on in the world, a awareness which has never really gone away from me.

However, my family was working class and I had many male relatives enter the military, although not as officers. In another time or poorer country my family would have been artisans, builders, craftsmen. My family roots aren't far from the land either, land always being important for us although the cultural pressures of their times worked against them.

Considering the times I've lived in I've always been at least subliminally aware of the military muscle of the USA. 'We' have always been 'ruled' by money interests. The Revolutionary War was promoted by the large land holders of the time. After the Revolution wars were fought over first nations land, for territory from Spain. Prior to the Spanish American War W. R. Hurst wanted to sell news papers and a comment made by him seemed to indicate he was waiting for a war to up his circulation. It seems that every war we've ever fought was to enrich the 'monied class.'

I am well aware that South American development has been subverted for the financial interests of large corporations and it wasn't the first time nor the last. Why do you think the Shah of Iran was re-instated and the democratically elected president of that time over thrown? And I'm well aware how much the Middle East 'loves' us!

I am also quite aware of the fact that the monied interests are now 'strip mining' our farming soils for their bottom lines. We are VERY shaky right now with regional factionalism rising up due to the fact and example of New Orleans and Katrina. There are strong movements in the country for localizing food production and instituting local rule during a major disaster. This on top of regional dissatisfaction with state and federal governments attitude toward the working class.

I'm also sure most of us realize how blatantly money is being used to influence our internal politics and how little attention is being paid to the progressive deterioration of the middle class in this country.

Me personally I've bought a little pygmy goat and learned how to milk her. I can already grow a garden like gang busters if I have the land to do it on and the only difference between here and my last garden is literally this area is cooler than the town of my birth. With my two horses, some goats and some chickens all I need is some property which I'm working on getting. Soon, I hope!

Wadulisi Tsalagi

(which means Cherokee bee)

guamanian said...

Thanks for this series, JMG! I'm a long-time reader and sometime-poster with a keen interest in the topic: I'm literally a child of empire -- I was born in the US Naval Air Station hospital on Guam -- and empire has directly shaped my life ever since, in Southeast Asia, Central America, and ultimately in my choice of Canada as an adoptive country. I'll probably chip in on the geo-politics later, but what strikes me right now is the temporal-politics...

If the US and its surrounding vassals and dependencies more or less successfully colonized the past through exploitation of fossil fuels, it seems to me that we have also attempted to colonize the future, through the creation of multi-generational debt.

We can loot the past through its physical residues... but we can only loot the future by pulling abstract symbols back through time. There is no real wealth that can be transferred, so the trick of using future repayment of debt to finance excess current consumption fails almost instantly... that it keeps being tried would be amusing, if it were not for the real suffering that is caused in the attempt.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jennifer,

You are more correct than you may know. About 25% of all transactions on the Australian Stock Exchange are now made by computers running quite sophisticated algorithms. This is one of the reasons as to why volatility in both volumes and prices have increased on the markets in recent years. Australia is a back water too compared to the US exchanges. Scary stuff. Trading in stocks is akin to gambling in my mind, the average punter doesn't stand a chance.

Hi SLClaire,

There is an unspoken assumption in your comment which whilst you have obviously learned from history, most others simply don't, which is why mistakes are repeated. A lie that is often told is, "it'll be different this time". Such thoughts tend to sweep away all obstacles and messy lessons from the past.



Jim Brewster said...

It's interesting and perhaps inevitable that the American innovation of empire by franchise arose when it did. The old model of direct possession was already passé in the West, as people were becoming aware of the economic, political, and moral costs incurred by European powers in administering their empires. Anti-imperial sentiment was high and could be used to paint the invasions of Cuba and the Philipines as "liberation." A win-win for the imperialists until that model started to look a bit threadbare itself in the 1960's.

In the same way the enfranchisement of minorities (racial/ethnic and later sexual) and women into the postwar "American dream" has ultimately been in the imperial interest as the enfranchised are more willing participants with a greater stake in the system. At one time the Republicans were aware of this.

The franchise system seems to stem naturally from our federal system of government, with a delicate balance of liberty and control, using law and economics as the first line of enforcement, backed up by physical force when necessary. TR's "speak softly and carry a big stick" working at all levels.

Looking at the Civil War experiences of Mahan and McKinley, their different attitudes toward war are not at all surprising. Mahan, the Naval Academy grad, experienced war in the abstract. According to wikipedia:

Despite his professed success in the Navy, his skills in actual command of a ship were not exemplary, and a number of vessels under his command were involved in collisions, with both moving and stationary objects. He had an affection for old square-rigged vessels, and did not like smoky, noisy steamships of his time; he tried to avoid active sea duty.

Blockade and naval bombardment were like the 19th century equivalent of aerial bombardment. McKinley OTOH was directly involved in the brutal border campaigns of MD and VA, including the bloodbath at Antietam.

Matt and Jess said...

Guilherme, thank you for pointing out so clearly the West's predicament! And not only are we accessible only by road, our rivers don't even reach the ocean anymore. It's April and we've already seen deadly fires here (started last month). In MARCH. This is incredible. You point out that people in northern climates ought to be worried about fruit and veggie production but I think this should be applied to the west and all areas dependent on depleting aquifers. I have family way up north in Minneapolis and their winters were very mild this year and our family grows quite a lot of their own fruit and veggies for canning with zero problems and have done so for many years, before these mild winters. My personal opinion is that with global warming or whatever, the north isn't going to be that bad at all and very preferable to the west especially if hoophouses become more commonplace. I have been complaining about this for years but we have yet to find the means to get settled anywhere we'd like to. (MN is not an option. When I say family, it doesn't imply any kind of relationship.)

Also regarding the draft...I have a little boy and it worries me that when he turns 18 things will be very different than they are now. His dad is a veteran and the benefits of his service have been good. He's received 4 years of valuable education and has money for one more year which will be put to very good use. I think all these benefits must have been put into place as a compensation for trading drafting to all voluntary service.

Overall I have a very different view of our empire after these posts. I've always been aware of the groups that are very anti-empire like SOA Watch and such; now I'm more aware of how privileged I am and have more questions about the fate of the world had Russia or Germany filled that void instead.

Jim Brewster said...

Hidden Author, I think it may be a bit of a semantic question. Clearly the USA is lead player in some kind of international power structure, call it an empire or not, but IMO if it quacks like a duck...

Anyway, I understand what you are saying. This also addresses Guilherme's question. I think it is certainly a coalition empire since the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War, with the USA, UK, and France at the core. Add the rest of Western Europe under the NATO umbrella. Add those members of the British Commonwealth dominated by ethnic Anglo-Europeans (Canada, Australia, New Zealand).

These are the main countries that have generally seen net economic benefits from the imperial arrangement, and whose continued willing participation is considered most crucial. Every other country has been subject to some kind of American force, threat of force, or protection from someone else. Foremost in the protection category are Japan, South Korea, and Israel, who also have benefited economically.

There is a fine line between coalition, coercion, and protection for NATO and Commonwealth countries too. But if the UK broke away it would be hard for the USA to maintain its empire/hegemony in many parts of the world. And if any Commonwealth country broke away what would the UK do?

Jim Brewster said...

Hidden Author wrote:
It removes petty despots in Haiti and Grenada but is infinitely patient with Karzai and the Saudis. I mean, Karzai expressed sympathy with the Taliban but is not assassinated. The media reports that Saudi princes sponsor terrorism but does not name them nor does the USA take action to eliminate them.

It's because in the latter cases the stakes are higher and our power is weaker. Heck, the State Department wants to negotiate with the Taliban, but if Karzai gets too cozy with Iran you'll see a different outcome.

And we are in a long-term civil stalemate with the Saudis, themselves in a not-so-civil stalemate with their disaffected populace. We need their oil, they need our money and threats to Iran (and previously Iraq). They need to not seem too close to us or risk riots in the streets. There is a similar distaste among the US population for close relations with the Saudi princes, but not as near the boiling point.

This is the game of cat and mouse that has played across the Middle East for decades. It is arguably the weakest geopolitical point of the empire, in the backyards of our strongest rivals: China, Russia, and Iran.

Jim Brewster said...

SLClaire, one of my most vivid memories of early childhood was seeing the Vietnam War footage on the CBS Evening News (with Walter Cronkite, of course!). While perhaps I can't appreciate it at quite the same level, rest assured the sense of outrage and disgust has filtered down into younger generations, especially those of us drawn to the music of the era and remembering anti-romantic movies like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Some thaumaturgy of the left, I suppose, but there you have it. I remember a sense of outrage when Selective Service registration was reinstated in the 1980's. Since I needed federal financial aid I felt little choice but to comply, and there was always very little chance, as you say, for another draft.

But one of the unintended consequences of the all-volunteer military is a much stronger cultural divide between military and civilian culture. Most of us are relatively untouched by the current wars, or there would likely be more active opposition.

LewisLucanBooks said...

This is what it was like, for me, during the Viet war. I was "draft age" but managed to hold onto a student deferment from 18 to 22. Then I lost my deferment, and the timing was such that I was in the first lottery.

It was on TV. They put everyone's birthdate into a huge tumbler. 366 little ping pong balls with birth dates on them. And, they started pulling them out. Based on your birthdate, you either had a high number or a low number. I can still remember mine. 363.

I was immediately called up for an induction physical. I passed and was 1-A. Prime meat. The way it worked was each draft board covered a geographical area and had a quota of inductees to meet. They called up in this order. All the 18 year olds, 1-366. Then the 19 year olds, and so on until they filled the quota. But there was kind of a silver lining. If you weren't called up within a year, you were no longer liable for the draft.

I thought about Canada a lot, that year. But, apparently, they filled their quotas before reaching my age group and birthdate. It probably helped that i came from a rural county, with plenty of 18 and 19 year olds who didn't go to college.

I told this story about the lottery to a much younger woman one time. She was horrified by the process and observed that it was like some kind of sick game show. Ah, yes. With very high stakes.

My 12 uncles and father all served, either in WWII or the Korean War. All branches of the service. At one point the VFW declared them "America's Number One Service Family." Even so, I don't remember any pressure to "join up."

I'm glad I didn't have to go, but to this day, I occasionally feel what I can only describe as survivor guilt. So many people I knew had to go or signed up. Some didn't come back, and some who did were pretty screwed up.

Glenn said...

@Jim Brewster:

"But one of the unintended consequences of the all-volunteer military is a much stronger cultural divide between military and civilian culture. Most of us are relatively untouched by the current wars, or there would likely be more active opposition."

Speaking as a Vet, I don't think it was uninteded at all. The military-industrial complex had a real problem during the Vietnam war era. I think it was deliberate policy to create a "professional" military out of a poorly educated economic underclass that would, perforce (being poorly educated, and presumably easy to manipulate with propaganda) do as they were ordered with little questioning. You will also note the increasing use of aerial bombing and finally remotely operated drones to further insulate the killer from his actions. Sticking a knife or a spear into a fellow human being is a totally different esperience than pushing a button and having something happen on a screen. Hiking in the heat with over a hundred pounds of pack, weapons and armour is a far different thing than commuting to an air conditioned office in an air conditioned SUV.


Marrowstone Island

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Guilherme: Excellent synopsis on the empire side.

I will say, however, that there are more options available than just canned food and grains during Winter in colder climes. There are plenty of fruits and vegetables which keep well -- squash, carrots, onions, garlic, parsnips, cabbages, potatoes and apples to name a few. And animals can be fed on hay or grain, ensuring a supply of meat and cheese (admittedly this will have to be a bit more expensive and constrained than it is now). Oh and if the Winter isn't too severe, or you have sunny windowsills, you can grow a wide range of fresh herbs to keep meals flavoursome. We've gone for two Winters now in Vancouver eating almost exclusively in season and local food (with the exception of grains and legumes, which still likely come from factory farms in the USA). It's really not that bad!

But I've been to Brazil, and I can understand how the idea would be somewhat outside your experience. The food in Brazil is astonishingly cheap and abundant, and you barely have seasons to speak of -- I'm quite sure you grow crops year-round. And, although your agriculture is slowly industrialising, much of it still relies on manual labour, so is less vulnerable to oil scarcity. I suspect that Brazil will end up with something of an empire by the end of the next half-century. Certainly Brazilians are less likely to be facing starvation than many other parts of the world.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Hidden Author

You should go back to JMG's working definition of an empire as a wealth pump, which the USA clearly is. It may accomplish that through hegemony, but for the purposes of this discussion, the term "empire" applies.

As to some of your other points:

1) During the Occupy movement's height, I did a bit of research and calculation on where Americans sit in terms of the global wealth scale. While the richest 10% lie within the global 1%, lending some support to your statement about the wealth pump only benefiting big corporations (and their benefactors), 99% of the rest of the American population all lie within the world's richest 33%. Just to reframe that, all but the most destitute 1% of Americans are better off than 2/3 of the rest of the world's population. There are other metrics, too, like per capita use of minerals and energy, which suggest strongly that the entire population, no matter how poor, benefit from the wealth pump.

2) I think Jim addressed this pretty well. The USA is quite happy to remove despots and engage in "police-style" warfare (for humanitarian when it has minimal economic interest. Even then, no American boots hit the ground (e.g. Yugoslavia). When there's an economic interest (Iraq) or a national bloodthirst to quench (Afghanistan), it's different.

As for the contrasts in attitudes, you can also account for much of that in terms of maintaining the delicate balance between imperialistic jingoism and the "leader of the democratic world" narrative.

Jennifer D Riley said...

Hi Cherokee, didn't include it, but on Wall Street there is now the phenomena of "carrier hotels." The finance sector is so desparate to keep High Frequency Trade (HFT) going so that Wall Street is buying buildings as close as possible to Wall Street exchange itself, to get the jump in HFT.

Think back to the Cray I computer: it was fast because light travels at a constant and someone figured out to harness, no wire connector in the Cray I should be more than 8 inches long. Cray was built in a semicircle, had only 8 inch wires, and had its own air conditioner to keep it cool.

Same thing now on Wall Street. Can't remember where I read it, was in some magazine in the past three weeks, but you can Google "carrier hotel." The ultimate of course will be Wall Street and all servers...stacked up on top of one another, no more than 8 inches high...and then, when all physical limits are exploited, the greed and corruption will have to find a new approach. Maybe "execute trade that I'm thinking."

Kieran O'Neill said...

Speaking of the topic of empire being taboo in American dialogue, I just happened upon this little term, apparently coined by none other than Thomas Jefferson:

"Empire of Liberty".

Seems it's not so taboo after all...

Thijs Goverde said...

John Michael, you stated to Joel: It's in the texture of specific events in specific places that the broader picture emerges most clearly. which is precisely what I was trying to say to you a couple of weeks ago, discussing the Roman Empire. Thank you for formulating it so clearly!

And by the way, I won that other story competition, which means there will be a recurrent LARP-event featuring solar cookers, rocket stoves, Art of Memory and permaculture (a-and... some Academie de l'Espee stuff thrown in for fun, if I can manage it), as well as the more traditional elements of elves, dwarves, orcs etc. The setting will be a mixture of Tolkien and Stars Reach and my own most recent book, with a bit of This Immortal thrown in to 'explain' how it all fits together.
I'll be talking about it in more detail on the Green Wizards forum shortly.

Jim Brewster said...

But one of the unintended consequences of the all-volunteer military is a much stronger cultural divide between military and civilian culture. Most of us are relatively untouched by the current wars, or there would likely be more active opposition.

What was I thinking? That was very much an intended consequence!

DeAnander said...

I've been thinking that the draft had an unintended consequence that has now been engineered out: aside from claiming children of the privileged middle class, it also swept up dissenters, objectors, young men who doubted the whole thing and went unwillingly, full of skepticism and/or outright hostility to authority and to the project. Trouble-makers. Whistle-blowers. The documentary "Sir! No Sir!" is a real eye-opener on this count: much of the resistance to the Viet Nam war came from the US soldiers themselves.

An all-volunteer army is more likely to be compliant, even gung-ho; as my Mum used to say, anyone who eagerly volunteers to be a cop, or a prison guard (or a soldier in this case) should be automatically disqualified. [Same is probably true of politicians, but I digress.] My buddy Stan (over at Feral Scholar) comments on the Army as enforcer and theatre of "probative masculinity" -- and the attraction it holds for the same kind of young wannabe thugs who might otherwise join other uniformed gangs such as Hells Angels, Crips, etc.

Stan noted One veteran called into the NPR program and [...] said that he knew a lot of guys who weren’t twisted by their war experience. A lot of his buddies, he pointed out, stated before they ever deployed that their goal was to kill someone – anyone. The suggestion was that they might be mentally ill, and they should have been screened out. But my experience in the Army was exactly the same, and it wasn’t the minority that stated they wanted to kill people. It was the majority. Men, at any rate. White men in particular. Everyone wanted to be Davy Crockett. Audie Murphy. John Wayne.

Guys who think killing people sounds like manly fun would be more likely to volunteer to be soldiers. An all-volunteer army, therefore, would contain (proportionally) more of these guys than an army some of which was unwillingly conscripted. Which would mean... fewer dissenters, whistle-blowers, refuseniks, etc -- fewer Ronald Ridenhours and Hugh Thompsons -- fewer Winter Soldier Reports -- a very good thing from the management's point of view. A very bad thing from the POV of the occupied nations -- or for the national interest in the long term.

MawKernewek said...

I searched "carrier hotel" and found an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier converted by the Chinese into a luxury hotel.

I suggest the same will happen to the US's fleet in due course, if anyone's still rich enough to afford luxury hotels that is...

Robert Mathiesen said...


The Vietnam-era draft boards, if I remember the times correctly, were staffed by men who had lived through WWII, and mostly had fought in it. Many of them were genuinely surprised and puzzled that so many of the young draftees turned out to be pacifists and dissenters, and that some of them were even suspicious of the motives of the US government. They knew that war was hell, that hardly anyone would really want to be a soldier if he had another choice, and that some men would try to get out of being drafted for purely selfish reasons. What really "did not compute" for them was that many men -- not just the few Quakers and "Plain Dutch" (the Amish and the Mennonites) -- might have reasons of high principle to resist any draft. They had genuine trouble wrapping their heads around that notion.

One of my more memorable moments happened in the early sixties, when one puzzled and angry old man shook his head over resistance to the draft and said something like, "Maybe we should just round up the entire generation, ship them over to Vietnam without weapons, and let the Vietcong get rid of them for us. Then we could start over again here." He didn't much like what he said as he was saying it, but he didn't know what else he could say to express his worries.

Candace said...

I suppose the question for the military is how many more willing recruits are there? I think the mechanized war keeps more people willing to join. The question will be how long can we afford the costs of our equipment.

On the other hand, as the economy gets worse there will likely be more willing volunteers.

I also worry that in the future student loan debt forgiveness will come with a military service price tag. That would be a pool for officers and the non-coms could continue to come from the communities where there is no other hope of getting a job.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, it's a turf war with billions of dollars a year at stake -- the medical industry is a massive profit center these days, and keeping a monopoly on the right to heal is thus a major issue for MDs, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and the like.

Guilherme, thank you! I'm at least somewhat aware of the way that Latin America has been fed into the meatgrinder at the business end of the US imperial wealth pump, which makes me atypical up here -- most people in the US make a point of forgetting how much of our prosperity has been at the expense of the rest of the Americas. (I spoke earlier about the unprovoked US invasion and conquest of the northern half of Mexico, which is now the southwestern quarter of the US.) We'll be talking about that later on, and about its likely future consequences, which will not be welcome on this side of the Rio Grande.

Orwellian, I read the article and disagree with it. The fact that conspiracies exist doesn't justify the shoddy logic and circular arguments used to prop up so many current conspiracy theories. (For example, your insistence that anybody who didn't focus on the CIA must have been misled by disinformation; the people who insist that it's somebody else can make the same claim about you, you know.) Thus there's a point to having a general label for the products of contemporary conspiracy culture, just as John Judge has done all of us a service by providing a general label for the other, and equally dysfunctional, end of modern political discourse.

Jessica, and yet the coming age of hipness keeps on sliding further and further into the future, like the Second Coming or the commercial potential of fusion power. I think it's more valid to suggest that the whole idea was nonsense to begin with.

DeAnander, generally that's pretty accurate, but you might want to take a second look before labeling alchemists a "masculinist guild" -- there have been plenty of female alchemists all along, from Hellenistic Greek times right up to the present, and there's never been any coherent guild-type organization; it's always been much more diffuse than that.

Diane, we'll be talking about Kaplan down the road a bit. He's a remarkable figure, insightful in some ways and utterly clueless in others, and he offers a useful glimpse into the mindset and the blind spots of the US foreign policy elite.

As for Wuerthner -- yes, I read the piece; another bit of peak oil denialism, part of the last ditch struggle not to notice the primary reality of our time. Expect more like it before the facts finish sinking in.

Jennifer, er, nobody's going to go looking back a couple of weeks to see what you said there, you know.

Ceworthe, well, that's one part of it.

Edward, quite a few Americans realized at the time just how big a turning point 1917 was; more on this in a bit.

Ruben, many thanks for the link!

Steve, thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Hidden, if you go back and reread the first three posts of this sequence, I think you'll find that most of your questions have been quite adequately covered there, and the rest will be dealt with as we finish the current historical survey and start discussing how the US empire currently functions and how it's coming to bits.

SLClaire, good. As I mentioned in a previous post, a great deal of the antiwar movement in the late 60s centered on the refusal of the US middle class to keep sending its sons to fight in a failed war. That drew a line that nobody has wanted to cross since then. The potential for a US military collapse, though, has other sources, which I'll discuss when we get to that.

Guamanian, good! The trick with debt, though, is that it's a way of seizing wealth in the present, by exchanging it for IOUs due at some point in the future. Those IOUs will never be paid off, of course, and that's the point; other nations are expected to accept ultimately worthless US paper in exchange for very real goods and services here and now.

Jim, an excellent summary. It was noted at the time that most of the people who rooted for imperial wars in the 1890s weren't among the combatants in the Civil War.

Kieran, and when's the last time an American politician quoted that phrase?

Thijs, congratulations on the story! As for the interaction between local textures and large scale history, though, my point remains the same: I certainly recommend that people go and read detailed histories of Roman provinces, say, but a book on the decline and fall of the American empire can't also be a history of Roman provinces; it has to sum up what can be learned from Rome, and that involves generalizations.

MawKernewek, I expect a rather different fate for US fleets. We'll get to that.

Candace, bingo. I've suspected for years now that the "solution" for the student loan crisis -- a crisis, mind you, driven primarily by the raw greed of the education industry, which has raised costs at several times the rate of inflation for decades now -- will involve military service or the equivalent in exchange for having loans erased.

Wistful said...

(Somehow I think I posted this on an older post of yours, so I'm reposting it where it belongs.)

Amazingly insightful post as usual, JMG, but I have one request for clarification. You say that "[s]tandards of living across Latin America duly began their long downward slide, while the United States boomed," beginning with the USA's imperial expansion at the turn of the 20th century.

I have no quibble with the last part of your assertion, about the boom in the US, but I'd argue that living standards in Latin America were already quite dismal, in large part because of the centuries of Spanish imperialism that predated the US version. Or do you have evidence to the contrary, that Latin American living standards suffered a long decline beginning in about 1903?

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

I'm very happy with the answers everyone provided, as always, the level of conversation in here is excellent. Will try to answer the most relevant issues.

Firstly, about the nature of the empire, I'm very much in agreement that it is a coalition of a number of nation-states: namely the english-speaking white settlement ones (USA, UK, Canada, Australia), the old Western European powers and some peripherals, like Japan and Israel. In those nation-states the main beneficiaries of the actual Empire are a class of capitalistas, financists, middle-class professionals and their support structure, but indirectly, everyone benefits due to higher local wages, better enforcement of laws, etc. As Kieran said, even "poor" americans enjoy a lifestyle that's quite above the majority of the population of the world, often for no particular reason other then being american (people on welfare, for instance). Everyone is either directly or indirectly benefitting from empire.

I would also argue that there are powerful interests in the exploited parts of the world that also benefit from empire, and those most be accounted as well. It is a very fluid structure, though it's all utimately based on the threat of american military intervention (and NATO, on a much smaller degree) and it's all grounded on a series of instituitions and mechanisms mostly drafted in the 40's and 50's that established the "rules" for the new world order that emerged post WWII (namely the Bretton Woods agreement, the UN, the IMF, World Bank, GATT, etc), with some changes to adapt to changing circunstances (the last nail on the gold standart in the 70's, the neo-liberal push in the early-90's, etc).

And, yes, that's clearly an empire, even if there are no flags being planted on some foreign soil.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Second, a lot of you seem to think that the US will have no problem enforcing it's imperial will due to the use of a voluntary, mercenary-style army, and the large supply of young, bordeline-psycho males who would like very much to be paid to shoot someone else with impunity. That doesn't bode well.

I would like to play at devil's advocate here. It seems to me the US public still has a very low tolerance for casualties. Would you people still believe the US public would be supportive of foreign occupatios if the attration rate was, say, 10k G.I's per year? Or twenty thousand?

You have to remember that one of the reasons the US military is so insanely expensive is this fixation on not suffering casualties. The armed forces learned, the hard way, that the body counts of the Vietnam Era totally sapped the ability of the country to fight a war that it was eminently capable of "winning" in the field. I just happen to think that this expenditure of large ammounts of money in high-tech gizmos to fight bush wars will simply be unsustainable in the very near future.

So, either the US will withdraw from a lot of these conflicts (thus negating it's ability to exercise imperial policy in these areas) or it will have to bite the bullet and use a lot more grunts in the field, with much less high-tech gear, with matching higher number of casualties. The level of casualties that the British Empire was ready to tolerate in places like South Africa, parts of India, etc, during the XIXth century is simply amazing compared to what we see today. In less then three years during the Boer War at the turn of the century, the British Army suffered twenty thousand casualties in the field. Just in that one theater.

Also, the number of casualties sustained is just half of the picture. The other half is the fact that foreign occupations are destructive. There's no way to sugar coat it. On many occasions, the only meaningful way to deal with a insurgency is to thoroghly crush the people that live in that area. The romans depopulated Gaul. South Africa was made "british" by killing or expelling every competing group (the boers, the zulus, etc) and reducing the rest of the black population to effective slavery. Compared to what empires have done in the past (and even the USA itself has done, in Central America), what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan is a kid's play. Things will get a lot uglier then that.

So, it seems to me that the issue is very cloudy indeed. Would the US public tolerate a (much) higher number of US casualties and "collateral damage" in the form of dead civillians in occupied territories? The armed forces would be able to maintain a strictly volunteer army faced with mounting attrition numbers? What would that represent to morale? How realistic is the ability of the US armed forces to project force in a future of constrained resources (financial and otherwise).

I'm not saying the US military will simply roll over and die, of course. I half-expect some ugly things happening in the medium term. Long term, I think the scenario JMG paints on Star's Reach not very far from what's possibly going to happen, with the military effectively taking over the running of the country and eventually turning itself into some sort of "army with a nation", much like the late roman empire.

I REALLY want to see what our gracious host has to say about all this, but I have the suspicion that he's saving that for a post further down the road.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

It's important to say that Latin America, and most of the "developing" world that ended up on the business end of the imperial pumps of the XIXth and XXth century, are not innocent maids viciously attacked by monsters. Most of these regions were poor for a reason. A lot of the time, the local elites are incredibly parasitic. High levels of internecine violence were also somewhat common. Like I said, the fabric of "empire" should also include the local elites that enjoy the benefits in their roles as foremans for the empire.

Having said that, the case of Latin America specifically is very instructive about how a imperial wealth pump works. First, we were "sucked" by our actual colonial overlords, Spain and Portugal. The level of wealth being pumped in those centuries was amazing. The majority of the silver and gold coinage circulating in ALL of Europe during the period was from american mines.

There's also a fairly well researched position that says that the majority of the wealth generated in all of Europe during the XVIth to XVIIIth centuries came, in the end, from the americas, due to expasion of the circulating medium, the enforced trading surplus that europe maintained with america meant the elevation of the standarts of living in Europe, which pushed for greater productivity in agriculture, etc. The american wealth also helped the europeans to finally turn around a long time trading defict they had with the Mid and Far East, which had been dragging the european economy troughout the middle ages.

What happened in the late XIXth and early XXth century is that this wealth pump was forcefully relocated from Spain and Portugal to Britain and, later, to the USA. We continued to live under imperial yoke, just with different masters. Several attempts during this period to pursue a more independent policy were met with repression by these new imperial interests, the main case in point being the military dictatorships in the 60's and 70's, in which the main supressive force was the CIA.

In some regions, the indirect empire maintaned by the U.K and, later, the US, was actually able to impoverish the population more then what the old imperial powers had managed. For example, in much of the region, there was a thriving peasant economy outside of the main cash crop areas (which were mainly worked by slave labor), a lot of times with collective land ownership and strong self-sufficiency. The forced enclosure of lands and other policies ammounted to a huge land grab from these peasants, who were reduced to poor labourers into plantation systems. United Fruits, in particular, has been guilt of this (with support from the Marines) in Central America.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

To Matt and Kieran, what I was really getting to is the importance of trade, even on pre-fossil fuel times. Historically, areas who were difficult to reach by boat or by river barge (and later by railroad) were most often very poor, "boondock" regions, even if soil fertility was there. I think that's a factor often overlooked on "survavilist" and peak-oil preparedness circles. Granted, on our own lifetimes, we should probably be ok if we relocate to somewhere that's remote but has potential to meet all essential life needs locally, but on a slightly longer term, these areas will be prone to a severe lack of hard currency, accompanied by a inability to trade for things that, while not essential, are important staples of civilization, followed by depopulation, end of the rule of law and then rural povetry, unless they are large enough to support some sort of mostly autonomous economy and society. Look for settlement patterns before the extensive use of trucks and road networks, to see what I mean.

And, Kieran, yes, we do grow food all year long. There's a LOT of the basic necessities (water, soil and sunlight) in here. We do have our issues, namely weather instability (draughts and floods are common), insects, etc. Also, while we still have a sizable small-scale agriculture establishment (with a much greater human labour component), specially in basic foodstuffs, we do have a very large and high-tech agribusiness sector that occupies a lot of the prime land of the country with soy, wheat, corn, sugar cane, oranges and coffee. I do expect this sector to suffer a very large contraction in the mid-term future as commodity trading takes a nose-dive.