An empire is an arrangement among nations, backed and usually imposed by military force, which extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core. Put more simply, an empire is a wealth pump, a device to enrich one nation at the expense of others.
– John Michael Greer
John Michael Greer of The Archdruid Report’s new book is worth reading, Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America. The basic ploy is as old as Rome: the globalist nations are running out of both territory, resources, and what he terms the costs between the periphery and the core. Because of this we’re headed for a crunch, or as he terms it, a catabolic collapse:
To understand how empires collapse, two things have to be kept in mind. The first is the core concept of catabolic collapse … — the mismatch between maintenance costs and available resources. The second is the definition of empire … — that an empire is a wealth pump, a system of economic arrangements backed by military force that extracts wealth from subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core.1
He suggests that the American Empire and Western Civilization are slowly moving toward decline and fall, and that it is due to the a catabolic collapse as defined above. As Arthur Herman will tell us in The Idea of Decline in Western History, decline is actually a “theory about the nature and meaning of time”.2 That Western democracies and globalism are being eroded from competitive and aggressive forces and nations such as Russian and China is part of the reason, yet more than that is the West’s mythical inheritance in the ‘Myth of Progress’: every theory of progress also contains a theory of decline, since “inevitable” historical laws can just as easily shift in reverse as move forward. Likewise, whenever we meet a theory about the decline of Western civilization, we can probably find lurking underneath a theory of progress.(Herman, 2)
Yet, we’ve seen this surmise before in the works of such grand narrations as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. Spengler would at the beginning of his classic history of decline ask:
Is there a logic of history? Is there, beyond all the casual and incalculable elements of the separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity, something that is essentially independent of the outward forms — social, spiritual and political — which we see so clearly? Are not these actualities indeed secondary or derived from that something? Does world-history present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions? And if so, what are the limits to which reasoning from such premises may be pushed? 3
Reinhold Niebuhr in his own time would state that the lower middle class was often attracted to a politics of envy and resentment, and that the progressive tradition never grappled with the difficult questions but continually battled over false ideological quandaries of life – anti-intellectualism , xenophobia, racism.4 When it came down to it as Niebuhr would ask: If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict? (Lasch, 532)
Christopher Lasch himself felt the progressive tradition in American History was on decline, and even in its final death throws. For him the options were few and far between:
The need for a more equitable distribution of wealth ought to be obvious, both on moral and on economic grounds, and it ought to be equally obvious that economic equality cannot be achieved under an advanced system of capitalist production. What is not so obvious is that equality now implies a more modest standard of living for all, not an extension of the lavish standards enjoyed by the favored classes in the industrial nations to the rest of the world. In the twenty-first century, equality implies a recognition of limits, both moral and material, that finds little support in the progressive tradition. (Lasch, 532)
This last published in 1991. Yet, the rich or top 1% of the global world, and especially in America are not about to lay down their riches for the masses. That last sentence is telling as we watch nightly the austerity measures earmarked for working people while the rich live in hyper-luxury that even the ancient Romans would have envied. So what does John Michael Greer see ahead? “
Over the decades ahead, the people of the United States and the rest of the industrial world are going to have to deal with the unraveling of an already declining American global empire, the end of a global economic order dominated by the dollar and thus by America’s version of the imperial wealth pump, the accelerating depletion of a long list of nonrenewable resources, and the shattering impact of rapid climate change , just for starters. If history is any guide, the impact of those crises will likely be compounded by wars, revolutions, economic crises, and all the other discontinuities that tend to crop up when one global order gives way to another. (Greer, 264-266)
Of course there is nothing new there, more of the doom and gloom forecasting we’ve seen in many books over the past few years that offer us differing views of the coming collapse of civilization on a planetary wide scale. The accumulated effect is almost mind numbing. Michael C. Ruppert in his Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World would offer his own sobering conclusion:
At question here is not just the planet’s ability to sustain new growth, which is obviously a thing of the past, but its ability to support those who are already here. We must power down. There were only about two billion of us here before oil. There are almost seven billion of us today. Failing to address this single, overriding issue may result in the extinction of the entire species because, if we do not address this as a whole, it will be addressed for us by chaos, war, famine, disease, societal breakdown, collapse and very possibly nuclear war. This challenge may be addressed by those with vast money and resources in secret. It may be addressed by genocide, biological warfare or some other means.5
Another more scholarly or academic treatment on collapse came from Joseph A. Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies, wherein he demarcates four basic concepts that lead to collapse: first, human societies are problem-solving organizations; second, sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance; third, increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and fourth, investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns. (Tainter, 194) The combination of the first three into the fourth align well with Greer’s notion of the mismatch between maintenance costs and available resources.
Once a complex society enters the stage of declining marginal returns according to Tainter, collapse becomes a mathematical likelihood, requiring little more than sufficient passage of time to make probable an insurmountable calamity. (195) Yet, unlike Spengler, Toynbee, or even the notion of progressive decline as pointed out in both Arther Herman and Christopher Lasch, Tainter will tell us:
Collapse … is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity. The notion that collapse is uniformly a catastrophe is contradicted, moreover, by the present theory. To the extent that collapse is due to declining marginal returns on investment in complexity, it is an economizing process. It occurs when it becomes necessary to restore the marginal return on organizational investment to a more favorable level. To a population that is receiving little return on the cost of supporting complexity, the loss of that complexity brings economic, and perhaps administrative, gains.(198)
What he describes sounds much like Freud discussing the ‘Death drive’ which ultimately leads to a degree zero or annihilation into as Tainter would have it: “a lower complexity”. Problem with Tainter is that he speaks of the collapse of societies as if it were a mathematical abstraction devoid of human pain and suffering, as if it were just a matter of theorems and economic measures based on chaos theory, etc., where its all about loss or gains of complexity that can easily be handled by a top/down administrative tier of intellectual bureaucrats. Yet, he admits that his approach is neither dramatic nor romantic, and that they would never make a movie of it but that in the end it speaks the truth of societies as clearly as all those grand narratives without the emotional baggage, just the plain facts of the case.
Another rock star of collapse theory is Dmitry Orlov who tells us he has no qualifications other than experiencing the collapse of the Soviet Union:
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. (Orlov, 14) 7
In fact as he began studying collapse he discovered over and over certain basic patterns that turned up time and time again, which he ultimately laid down as the five stages of collapse:
Stage 1: Financial collapse. 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 2: Commercial collapse. 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 3: Political collapse. 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 4: Social collapse. 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.
Stage 5: Cultural collapse. 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.” (Orlov, 14-15)
Stage five almost reminds me of my abusive father who used to pound into me literally the motto: “It’s a dog eat dog world kid. If you don’t learn to eat them, they’ll eat you for sure. Learn to fight.” Have we truly come to that? Are we entering the stage of becoming our inhuman core? Sad. Yet, if one wanders through a few cities here in America that are now in financial ruins: Stockton, California; Mammoth Lakes, California; West Fall, Pennsylvania; Jefferson County, Alabama; Falls, Rhode Island; Vallejo, California; Moffett, Oklahoma; Pritchard, Alabama, etc. and the list could go on… (see Broken America) would we discover aspects of stage five’s cultural collapse?
That we are living in the twilight years of America is becoming obvious for many of us as we watch things fall apart. We can see many of the aspects in Orlov’s five stages already with us in differing parts of this country, and I’m sure other nations in Europe or elsewhere around the world would have their own tales. As Greer sums it up for us here in America:
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. I think it can be done, if only because it’s been done three times already. For that matter, the United States is far from the only nation that’s had to find a new meaning for itself in the midst of crisis, and a fair number of other nations have had to do it, as we will, in the face of decline and the failure of some extravagant dream. Nor will the United States be the only nation facing such a challenge in the years immediately ahead. Between the tectonic shifts in geopolitics that will inevitably follow the fall of America’s empire, and the far greater transformations already being set in motion by the imminent end of the industrial age, many of the world’s nations will have to deal with a similar work of revisioning. That said, nothing guarantees that America will find the new vision it needs, just because it happens to need one, and it’s already very late in the day. Those of us who see the potential, and hope to help fill it, have to get a move on. (Greer, 276)
As a poet in what Harold Bloom once termed The Evening Land of America it’s time for us to both envision and revision what it means to be America. Walt Whitman once said in a poem, America:
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
Let that be our motto going forward! Yet, it’s worth reemphasizing Greer’s last sentence: “…nothing guarantees that America will find the new vision it needs, just because it happens to need one, and it’s already very late in the day. Those of us who see the potential, and hope to help fill it, have to get a move on.“
1. Greer, John Michael (2014-03-17). Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America (pp. 14-15). New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.
2. Herman, Arthur (2010-05-29). The Idea of Decline in Western History (p. 1). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
3. Spengler, Oswald (2014-06-11). The Decline of the West: The Complete Edition (Kindle Locations 225-229). . Kindle Edition.
4. Lasch, Christopher (1991-09-17). The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (p. 531). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
5. Michael C. Ruppert. Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World (Kindle Locations 2275-2279). Kindle Edition.
6. Joseph A. Tainter. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Kindle Edition.
7. Orlov, Dmitry (2013-05-10). The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit (p. 14). New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.