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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Liquidating Empire

Chalmers Johnson, author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (the third installment of his Blowback Trilogy), takes the bold and sobering position that the United States is doomed to inevitable collapse if steps are not taken to liquidate the manifestations of her empire (via
I believe that there is only one solution to the crisis we face. The American people must make the decision to dismantle both the empire that has been created in their name and the huge (still growing) military establishment that undergirds it. It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire. By doing so, Britain avoided the fate of the Roman Republic -- becoming a domestic tyranny and losing its democracy, as would have been required if it had continued to try to dominate much of the world by force.

I have written about the problems of complex societies here and here, and it has been my position that civilization always precipitates collapse. This is, I believe, a fact not only borne out by historical observation, but also through the analysis of the intrinsic attributes of civilization. It is always pleasant to entertain the idea that there is indeed a way to avoid collapse, depressing as it is that the remedies, as Chalmers notes, appear to be too utopian as to be viable:
Normally, a proposed list of reforms like this would simply be rejected as utopian. I understand this reaction. I do want to stress, however, that failure to undertake such reforms would mean condemning the United States to the fate that befell the Roman Republic and all other empires since then. That is why I gave my book Nemesis the subtitle "The Last Days of the American Republic."

While Chalmers Johnson and I seem to be talking about two different things (Empire and complex societies, respectively), I would submit that the aspiration for Empire is an inevitable symptom of collapse, and that the only complex societies which are not aspiring to Empire are those who are too busy dealing with other, more powerful, societies around them. In essence, it is the presence of other "worse actors" which puts the inflammation of the disease of complexity into temporary remission.

Johnson cites the "voluntary" dismantling of the British Empire as an example of avoiding the fate of Empire:
...It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire...

I submit that it was not a voluntary undertaking at all, but merely the inevitable response to having a larger power emerge after the war. Empire is the spearhead of collapse, and whoever has the means and the delusionary will to take that spear up will find that other societies, after some contest of strength if necessary, will stand down and allow the "big dog" his run.

(I was once in Bombay twenty years ago, in a posh hotel lobby, the sole American among about five crusty British pilots. Besides my apoplexy over their insisting upon referring to our servers as "coolies" - perhaps precisely just to tweak the Yankee - I was repeatedly verbally browbeaten over the fact that the "Americans" were the new world Empire. And they were not happy about the fact that we weren't exercising our "prerogatives," as such, with full muscularity. Heh. I'd love to ask them what they think of us now.)

As meager the hope that Johnson's proposed remedies brings - or rather, the hope that they could actually be carried out, I have doubts of a higher order. (Go on, read it - selling back some 700 out of 737 military bases worldwide, eschewing Security Council exceptionalism in the U.N. - specifically veto power, defanging the National Security Act from most covert action and including the Senate for oversight for what is left, adopting cooperative rather than protectionist trade policies - I swear, if the U.S. did even one of those things I would be gobsmacked.) The reason is that I consider the pursuit of Empire a symptom of the disease of complex society, not a disease in and of itself. This is not to say that the treatment of the symptoms would not be palliative, but it will only put off the inevitable collapse.

For it is Tainter's position, however tentative, that Man is not naturally pre-disposed to complex society. I share that view. Civilization is not alive - it is merely a vestment of existence, a manner of living. Man, who is actually alive, continues whether he is "civilized" or not. We in the West have so romanticized the "civilized" man as being of a higher order that we can barely shake the idea that it would be an utter disaster if our civilization collapsed like the "failures" of history.

I applaud Chalmers Johnson's analysis of the hubris and appalling excesses of the United States government in its modern incarnation, and I would very much like a level of awareness to emerge that would avoid the horrid violence which accompanies the involuntary collapse of Empire. However, unless we begin to see the folly of centralization, specialization and other attributes of "civilized" complex societies, then we will not be able to avoid the anguish attendant the cognitive dissonance which will result from its collapse.

Again, please review my other posts on complex societies here and here.

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