Decline of Empire in the Dark Ages of America


With the emergence of agriculture, the world was never again as it had been. Almost everywhere, the pristine economies and their cultures went down to defeat and memory loss.

– Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead

Jacobs will remind us that ours is the age in which the last of the agrarian cultures have begun the slow and narrow fall into defeat and memory loss. With the advent of the age of exploration, industry, capitalism came the slow encompassment of the globe in a post-agrarian form of economics and life. That we are living in the final stages of this globalization process is to see the dying embers of ancient civilizations still holding onto those dark fires and ancient ways. Yet, with this comes something else as well. The great imperial regimes that have one after another grown, peaked, and given way to larger more powerful political and social forces are reaching an end too. The age of empire is at an end, and with it the modes of production and cultural exchange are in themselves changing and will during the coming years give way to a new form of cultural amnesia.

Against such total loss she points to both Japan and Ireland as examples of cultures that survived the transitions to the post-agrarian world. The one incorporating the new economics and modes of being within the context of their traditional culture, the other surviving through a resurgence in song, art, and story. What path other countries take during this last stage will be to the social forms of their specific cultural reference points.

As she points out we in America are saturated with heart and emotion; bound to story and song: gospel music and blues; songs of labor, cowboys, and chain gangs; hits from musicals and films; country music; jazz, ballads, sea chanteys, rock and roll, and rap; patriotic, war, antiwar, and seasonal songs; nursery rhymes; school, campfire, drinking, homesick, and love songs; lullabies, revival hymns; and parodies.

Yet, even this cannot stay us against the hubris of empire, of the exceptionalism, and of total economic and monocultural overreach. That unless we maintain our cultural ties to the truth of what Lincoln once essayed of America as “the government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth,” we too shall be doomed to amnesia and forgetfulness, sinking into that dark age ahead.

As Chalmers Johnson in Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope says,

The failure to begin to deal with our bloated military establishment and the profligate use of it in missions for which it is hopelessly inappropriate will, sooner rather than later, condemn the United States to a devastating trio of consequences: imperial overstretch, perpetual war, and insolvency, leading to a likely collapse similar to that of the former Soviet Union.2

Morris Berman in his Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline will tell us that America’s historical amnesia is, of course, legendary, but this should shock even the most jaded reader: the most significant aspects of possibly the most important moment in our national history can simply be discarded, or disregarded.4 Yet, for Berman collapse could be a good thing, if not exactly fun to live through. The entire premise of America was a mistake from the beginning. A meaningful human society is not about endless hustling and technological progress; these can be part of the good life, but they are hardly equivalent to the good life, and the attempt to make them so has had some pretty untoward consequences. Sclerotic social formations need to step aside to make way for what is vibrant and flexible, although I think we can be sure that given the historical record, the American exit will not be a graceful one; it’s not in our DNA. (KL 4026)

John Michael Greer in Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America argues that one of the central tasks before Americans today, as our nation’s imperial age stumbles blindly toward its end, is that of reinventing America: of finding new ideals that can provide a sense of collective purpose and meaning in an age of deindustrialization and of economic and technological decline. We need, if you will, a new American dream, one that doesn’t require promises of limitless material abundance, one that doesn’t depend on the profits of empire or the temporary rush of affluence we got by stripping a continent of its irreplaceable natural resources in a few short centuries. (Greer, p. 276)

As Andrew J. Bacevich will admit in Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War our country is doomed to incompetence and degradation: the Washington rules deliver profit, power, and privilege to a long list of beneficiaries: elected and appointed officials, corporate executives and corporate lobbyists, admirals and generals, functionaries staffing the national security apparatus, media personalities, and policy intellectuals from universities and research organizations. Each year the Pentagon expends hundreds of billions of dollars to raise and support U.S. military forces. This money lubricates American politics, filling campaign coffers and providing a source of largesse— jobs and contracts— for distribution to constituents. It provides lucrative “second careers” for retired U.S. military officers hired by weapons manufacturers or by consulting firms appropriately known as “Beltway Bandits.” It funds the activities of think tanks that relentlessly advocate for policies guaranteed to fend off challenges to established conventions. “Military-industrial complex” no longer suffices to describe the congeries of interests profiting from and committed to preserving the national security status quo.4 The American path to a new dark age is paved with the witless stupidity of a government build on profit and greed.

Dmitry Orlov will tell us that collapse can be conceived of as an orderly, organized retreat rather than a rout. It may even be useful to think of collapse as a transition: a transition that has already been planned for us (so no further transition planning activities are needed) and will consist of the collapse of finance, consumerism and politics-as-usual, along with the collapse of the societies and cultures that are entirely dependent on them.5 He sees five stages or signs in an impending collapse from within a society: Financial, Commercial, Political, Social, and Cultural.

Stage one of the financial collapse begins when faith in “business as usual” is lost. The future is no longer assumed to resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.

Stage two of commercial collapse begins when faith that “the market shall provide” is lost. Money is devalued and/ or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm.

Stage three of political collapse begins when faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.

Stage four of social collapse begins when faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost, as local social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.

And, finally, stage five of cultural collapse begins when faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for “kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity.” Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources. The new motto becomes “May you die today so that I can die tomorrow.” (pp. 14-15)

One can decide for oneself where one’s particular city, state, nation fits into this sequence if at all. Orlov recites the incident of Colin Turnbull and the IK people of north Uganda. Even though his works has come under severe criticism it still has an interest as to aspects of societies under the harsh pressures of total collapse. Turnbull would describe this tribal society as one based on total lovelessness and cruelty. And as Orlov will recount Turnbull once away from this group after living with them for two years was like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness traumatized and lacking in full critical distance needed to convey an objective account but rather portrayed the inner truth of what he’d seen and participated in. As Orlov suggests:

Turnbull pointed out that all of us have a bit of the Ik within us, as a potentiality, and observed that people in the developed world are becoming more Ik-like: “if any persist in feeling that I am overly pessimistic in my interpretation of the facts, there can be no mistaking the direction in which these facts point, and that is the most important thing of all, for it may affect the rest of mankind as it has affected the Ik….[ T] he symptoms of change in our own society indicate that we are heading precisely in the same direction.”  “The Ik teach us that our much vaunted human values are not inherent in humanity at all, but are associated only with a particular form of survival called society, and that all, even society itself, are luxuries that can be dispensed with.”(p. 257)

This sense that with the collapse of stage four of society itself the true inhuman-core of humanity will reveal its darkest immanence as it dispenses with the social and symbolic fantasias and realities that have kept us locked within our civilizational value systems, and will give way to horror of sheer survivalist strategies. Cultural amnesia will set in and at this point we, too, will become cruel and merciless victims of our self-reflective nothingness, bound only to our cultural gravity wells sinking into oblivion. A Society based on total individualism without love, only the pure inhuman cruelty of hunger and sex and despair: or, as Nietzsche once described it – the cruel laughter of the gods.

That is unless the rebel in us awakens (Camus):

At this meridian of thought, the rebel thus rejects the idols of the market in order to share in the struggles and destiny of all men. We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time.6

As Michel Foucault reminds us if there was no resistance there would be no relations of power. Because everything would be simply a question of obedience. From the moment an individual is in the situation of not doing what they want, they must use relations of power. Resistance thus comes first, it remains above all the forces of the process, under its effect it obliges relations of power to change. I thus consider the term ‘resistance’ to be the most important word, the key word of this dynamic.7

Colin Crouch says in reference to those who criticized the antiglobalization demonstrators in Seattle, London, and Prague for their violence and their anarchism, “We must ask ourselves: without a massive escalation of truly disruptive  actions … will anything reverse the profit calculations of global capital enough to brings its representatives to the bargaining table? That is the question which most challenges the health of contemporary democracy. In fact, the demonstrations in Seattle, London, and Prague hardly tapped the possibilities for disruptive power in the twenty-first century.8

As France Fox Piven argues new conditions will require new forms of political action, new “repertoires” that both extend across borders and tap the chokepoints of new systems of production and new systems of governance, the points at which they are vulnerable to the collective defiance of ordinary people. They may also require new leaders less tied to inherited repertoires and the organizations that rely on them. (Piven, KL 17917-18321)

Saul Alinsky once reminded a group of young radicals that human beings do not like to look squarely into the face of tragedy. Gloom is unpopular and we prefer the “out of sight, out of mind” escape. But there comes a time when issues must be recognized as issues— and resolved. The democratic way of life is at stake. You cannot meet today’s crisis tomorrow. You cannot pick and choose when and what you will do at your personal convenience. You cannot dawdle with history. We must face the bitter fact that we have forsaken our great dream of a life of, for, and by the people; that the burning passions and ideals of the American dream lie congealed by cold cynicism. Great parts of the masses of our people no longer believe that they have a voice or a hand in shaping the destiny of this nation. They have not forsaken democracy because of any desire or positive action of their own; they have been driven down into the depths of a great despair born of frustration, hopelessness, and apathy. A democracy lacking in popular participation dies of paralysis.9

The job ahead is clear. Every conceivable effort must be made to rekindle the fire of democracy while a few embers yet glow in the gray ashes of the global nightmare. Once it goes out it may take generations before a new fire can be started. The fire, the energy, and the life of democracy is popular pressure. Democracy itself is a government constantly responding to continuous pressures of its people. The only hope for democracy is that more people and more groups will become articulate and exert pressure upon their government.  When we talk of democratic citizenship we talk and think in terms of an informed, active, participating, interested people— an interested and participating people is popular pressure! (Alinsky, p. 196)

Rebellion in the 21st Century will need to think quick, mobile, networking, flexible, open: the ability to act and react in the instant, the moment of the event, fluid and flowing, disrupting the flows of the capital systems at their most vulnerable. The rebellion is the rebellion of the earth in us against the shambles of a faltering global system of anti-life that is in its last stages of eclipse, and we the rebels of the earth must arise; and, like fragments of forgotten thought, assemble the tapestry of a new community and socius out of the death throws of capitalist civilization. Let us be rebels of life not death. Let us stand forth among the people of all races as one people planted firmly in the resilience of the earth. Let us apply pressure at the source of power. Stand together against power. Show the power elite they are done, finished, out-of-business. Let us sing songs with one voice and livingness, not as monocultural clones but as unique and thriving individuals whose subjectivity is born out of each others love rather than hate. Let justice go before us like the tablets of a new dawn, a symbol of our commitment to each other and the earth: to a community of the living, the demos.

1. Jane Jacobs. Dark Age Ahead. (Vintage, 2004)
2. Johnson, Chalmers (2010-08-17). Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope (American Empire Project) (p. 183). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
3. Berman, Morris (2011-09-13). Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (Kindle Locations 3263-3264). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.
4. Bacevich, Andrew J. (2010-08-03). Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (American Empire Project) (p. 228). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
5. Orlov, Dmitry (2013-05-10). The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit (p. 14). New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.
6. Camus, Albert (2012-09-19). The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (Vintage International) (p. 304). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
7. Caygill, Howard (2013-10-24). On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance (Kindle Locations 222-225). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
8. Frances Fox Piven. Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (Polemics) (Kindle Locations 1714-1717). Kindle Edition.
9. Alinsky, Saul (2010-08-25). Reveille for Radicals (pp. 193-194). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11. Greer, John Michael (2014-03-17). Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America (p. 276). New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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