FATE OF EMPIRES
May 17, 2014
Search for Survival
Strauss and Howe do not appear to have concerned themselves with the need for a long term perspective on where civilization is going—whether it will continue advancing or must collapse, but their views could explain the bumps in the road civilizations inevitably encounter that bothered a few folks. The War Between the States was a shock—the beginning of a Crisis (1860). So was the Crash of ’29, 69 years later. Crises tend to begin with a jolt; while in progress, it is unclear what will resolve them. Not unexpectedly, purveyors of this view today disagree over whether to date the start of the present Crisis from the 9/11 attacks (71 years after the Crash of ’29) or with the Meltdown of 2008 (78 years after that event). My preference is for the former, which changed the mood of the country wholesale. Efforts to rollback government intrusions, e.g., efforts to force everyone to have a national ID card which had proven successful in the 1990s were now thwarted (REAL ID, 2005), and the Constitutional liberty movement generally ceased to make viable progress (Ron Paul’s increased visibility notwithstanding).
Joseph A. Tainter, an anthropologist, has a theory of collapse. In his absorbing The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) Tainter, who like many social scientists still tends towards positivism and thus sees terms like decadence as subjective and judgmental, argues that as they progress, civilizations become increasingly complex sociopolitically. Eventually their complexity reaches a point of diminishing marginal returns, i.e., costs begin to outweigh benefits. That is, their systems become costlier to maintain, including to individual members, responses to costliness are less adequate over time, ordinary people sense that they are paying more into the system than they are getting out of it and begin to chafe, and eventually something must give. The civilization destabilizes, drops to a lower level of complexity, then restabilizes. Obviously its standard of living has dropped, but its people adapt and survive.
Jared Diamond also has a theory of collapse. Keyed to the environmental movement, Diamond argued in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) that cultures and civilizations of whatever size collapse if they adopt modes of making progress that destroy necessary conditions for their own sustenance in their proximate environment. One of the major themes in Diamond’s work is that fossil fuels and other forms of resource depletion driven by the profit motive threaten Western civilization.
Dmitry Orlov, a Boston-based computer engineer and son of Russian immigrants whose claim to fame lies with his having been in the Soviet Union and observing its collapse first hand, made numerous observations comparing the situation that had existed in the Soviet Union prior to its collapse to that existing in the U.S. today. In Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects (2008) he argued that because of the basically dysfunctional nature of the Soviet economy—I noted in the first article that because its Marxist ideology never allowed an Age of Commerce or any equivalent to develop, its trajectory was thwarted—the Russian people were more resilient: they had adopted a cynical mindset of “Don’t expect much from the government and you won’t be disappointed.” Their families tended to stay together rather than spread across the country, so that sometimes three generations lived under one roof; neighbors communicated (unlike in the U.S.); people knew how to grow food furtively and make simple home repairs; they knew how to use public transportation. Thus though there was suffering, collapse affected them less deeply than future economic downturns are likely to affect Americans, most of whom think food comes from the grocery store and can’t fix their own appliances (which admittedly are often designed to be replaced, not fixed); and without cars, most will be stranded.
Orlov didn’t see his evaluation as necessarily pessimistic. Having little use for the mass consumption, car-dependent culture that prevails in a typical metropolitan area like Boston, he contends that following collapse we can look forward to cleaner air and water, healthier food, quieter surroundings, more self-reliant lives free of long commutes to jobs of mostly pointless busywork, and less stressful lives generally. Given the long hours and hard work that go into family farming, one wonders if Orlov is right about this, but that’s another article.
Glubb was concerned that he had been read pessimistically, and that once a civilization falls into an Age of Decadence, little can be done to restore its greatness. This he denies. He held that once we study the trajectory of empires and know what to look out for, we can gain control. He thus thought that history should include world history, not just national history. He called for a revival of religion, by which he meant not fundamentalism but just “the conviction that this life is not the end; that there is a spiritual world which, though, invisible, penetrates all creation, and which can strike a sympathetic note in every human heart. To accept the existence of this vast spiritual world immensely enlarges our horizon and enables us to see the pettiness of our quarrels and our attempts to grab for ourselves. It can result in a gradual transformation of our characters. But more often than not, pride in our own cleverness closes our minds to the spiritual world which everywhere surrounds and envelops us.”
am sure this will seem vague and New-Agish to many readers. At the opposite
extreme, however, are those who insist their reading of the Bible is
the only correct one, and if you disagree you are going to Hell (even
if you call yourself a Christian!). I confess I lose patience with such
dogmatism, just as I have little confidence there will be a “rapture”
that removes all believers from the physical realm. We should stop pretending
we know what we don’t know, and that we understand things we can’t
possibly understand. I am unconvinced that anyone’s reading of
Scripture is absolutely correct (that would include my own). This opens
the door to a lot of possibilities—including responsible, adult
dialogues with those whose beliefs differ from ours, in order to find
necessary common ground against common enemies.
Glubb’s common ground was the tendencies towards greed, immorality, and loss of courage and energy. These can be controlled. “Our duty,” he continues, “is … to inaugurate movements for the reversal of these trends; scrupulously to carry out our duties to our families; to work as hard as we possibly can, and to carry our subordinates with us, through comradeship and personal relations; to seize every opportunity to speak and write in favor of self-sacrifice, service, and unselfishness …” Among my own projects is both to point to the importance of worldviews in the guidance of a civilization and to criticize the dominance of a particular worldview, that of materialism, often simply confused with science, the consequences of which are the cynical irreligiosity we mentioned, greed, hedonism, absence of a moral compass, and eventually the loss of any long term perspective on the world.
Where does that leave us—Americans? Patriots are understandably very concerned about the future of their country. They are in their search for survival, understood as a restoration of Constitutional government of strictly limited powers. At present, the odds are against them. Those in power almost never give it up willingly, and are usually able to control the language of the debate by couching it in moral terms. Back in the early 1990s I was of the view that if “we” could seize the moral high ground from the politically correct left, “we” could take back the universities. At the time, I had little idea what “we” were up against: a firmly entrenched elite, hardly limited to higher education, that had become dominant long before I arrived on the scene. They were very well organized and very well financed. “We” had no unity, few resources, and little support for one another. “We” were a ragtag army of Constitutionalists, tax protesters, libertarians (some Christian, some hard core atheist; and needless to say, the two don’t get along), and pro-South activists. “We” often quarreled over whose red-button issue should get priority. There were also, I firmly believe, a few agent provocateurs and sociopaths in there for good measure (some really were racists; others were just con artists). Given the variety of different agendas and sometimes different premises, “we” were no more ready to fight a culture war than we were to fly to the moon.
Naturally, “we” lost. Moreover, by 2000 and with people being booted from jobs in private corporations for lack of political correctness, it was becoming clear that more and more of the general public was capitulating to the other side. The problem, it was clear to this writer, wasn’t simply expansionist government, bad as that was. The millennials, whom I called the Brave New Generation (here and here), were coming of age, and would be instrumental in electing Barack Obama president. They embraced the brave new world: one need only note how attitudes toward homosexual marriage changed over a 20 year period from revulsion to fascination to meek acceptance.
That this can happen is a sign that a civilization has entered its Age of Decadence. Those seeking to turn things around, whether by reviving the spirit of religiosity or by whatever means they prefer, they are up against a materialistic culture obsessed with possessions, much of which has absorbed political correctness, and largely lacks the historical perspective and other educational references to understand why all this is important.
So where do Patriots go from here? For whatever it is worth, my conviction is that the government seated in Washington D.C. will face a crisis of legitimacy in the near future. Specific predictions would be a bad idea; there are too many variables and unknowns. But consider the confrontation in Nevada a few weeks ago at Cliven Bundy’s Ranch. When push came to shove, the Bureau of Land Management put down their weapons. They surely realized that if they opened fire on the people assembled there, which included women and children, there would be no way to prevent its being filmed and uploaded to the Internet, possibly in real time. The willingness of the U.S. federal government to use brutality worthy of a dictatorship against peaceful dissent would have been revealed to the entire world. This would have prompted both uprisings of Patriots elsewhere in the U.S. itself as well as severe criticism from abroad.
Or consider that the State of Connecticut recently enacted one of the strictest gun registration laws in U.S. history. Well over a hundred thousand gun owners are refusing to comply, risking being declared felons. What does the State do? Although the Governor threatened door-to-door confiscation, obviously the State doesn’t have the manpower for that. If the feds went in using force, as they did in Boston following the bombing there, that would also definitely be noticed. Even if they singled out a few resistors and sent in SWAT teams to make examples hoping to intimidate the rest, this would be filmed—especially if anyone was killed or brutalized. This, again, would prompt protests from across the U.S., and possibly elsewhere. A crisis of legitimacy could easily ensue.
Thinking in terms of The Fourth Turning, the present Crisis could well end following a number of states or regions deciding they want out of the bloated, dishonest, violent, and ultimately incompetent Washington government—and some will have the resources to do it. Were Texas to gain independence, it would have the world’s seventh largest economy. Other states or regions likely to secede if the Washington empire breaks up include Alaska, Hawaii, portions of Oregon and California, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada; the entire Southeast; Vermont (home of the Second Vermont Republic). There are probably some I’ve missed. Many of these are quite different from others historically and culturally, and outside an empire would not be thought to belong under the same government. All have organizations looking at a threat of secession as a legitimate means of controlling federal power and actual secession as a last resort when all other attempts to rein in federal power have failed.
What may happen is separation as a necessary condition for survival when the house-of-cards money system experiences increasingly worse shocks, a result of over four decades of financialization and debt-fueled pseudo-prosperity. Events overseas, e.g., a war, could trigger a major meltdown (I envision one possible scenario here.) Common people will have to get free of a legal system preventing them from growing their own food, collecting and purifying their own water, trading locally without government licenses which will probably be unavailable, or using firearms to protect their property from the lawless.
One can only hope for a critical mass able to think about such matters, and able to get enough people on board to make it work. They may face government guns. So did the Bundy Ranch supporters, in Nevada. Despite threats, the feds have not acted, at least not as of this writing (I sincerely hope that doesn’t change!). The U.S. empire is dangerously close to a crisis of legitimacy, as even the most bleary-eyed sports fans start to realize Washington isn’t representing their interests. Survival will require acting appropriately and constructively, with an eye on the long-term future. There will still be a government based in a city called Washington, D.C., just as there is still a Rome in Italy. It may even continue to hold bread-and-circus elections every four years. But it will have become, in a broad sense, irrelevant.
© 2014 Steven Yates - All Rights Reserved
Steven Yates has a doctorate in philosophy and currently lives in Santiago, Chile. He is the author of Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (Brush Fire Press International, 2011). He also owns an editing business, Final Draft Editing Service.