Thursday, April 3, 2008


Ever since I read Aurora Levins Morales' recent essay (linked to at my post Thinking Outside the Ballot Box), I've been using her phrase "empire in steep decline" in conversation and as a reminder to myself of our current reality. One friend and I laugh merrily whenever one of us says it -- a means of acceptance without utter panic. Recognizing we are in the midst of this shift really does explain a lot of scary things, and in the big picture, I'm not sorry to see empires decline. They are always built on the equivalent of slave labor and increasing disenfranchisement of all but a small elite. Not what I hope for with the technology, information, and human consciousness that is available on this planet.

Interestingly, the idea and the phrase itself, "empire in decline", seems to now be cropping up in diverse places. Perhaps Aurora was a bellwether (wouldn't be the first time), perhaps she read the same sources, or, most likely, smart people all over the place are coming to the same realization. Anyhow, here's a couple of other good, and somewhat contrasting, reads on the idea.

The first is Alternet's coverage of this week's publication of Howard Zinn's latest book, A People's History of American Empire. Their article, subheaded "The End of Empire", begins:

'In Iraq, in Afghanistan, and at home, the position of the globe's "sole superpower" is visibly fraying. The country that was once proclaimed an "empire lite" has proven increasingly light-headed. The country once hailed as a power greater than that of imperial Rome or imperial Britain, a dominating force beyond anything ever seen on the planet, now can't seem to make a move in its own interest that isn't a disaster.'

What follows is a capsule history of the U.S. as only Howard Zinn can do it. I'll skip ahead (trusting you'll read the whole thing) to this section:

'Various interventions following the U.S. defeat in Vietnam seemed to reflect the desperate need of the still-reigning superpower -- even after the fall of its powerful rival, the Soviet Union -- to establish its dominance everywhere. Hence the invasion of Grenada in 1982, the bombing assault on Panama in 1989, the first Gulf war of 1991. Was George Bush Sr. heartsick over Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait, or was he using that event as an opportunity to move U.S. power firmly into the coveted oil region of the Middle East? Given the history of the United States, given its obsession with Middle Eastern oil dating from Franklin Roosevelt's 1945 deal with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, and the CIA's overthrow of the democratic Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953, it is not hard to decide that question.'

In the following section, "Justifying Empire", he states:

'The ruthless attacks of September 11th (as the official 9/11 Commission acknowledged) derived from fierce hatred of U.S. expansion in the Middle East and elsewhere. Even before that event, the Defense Department acknowledged, according to Chalmers Johnson's book The Sorrows of Empire, the existence of more than 700 American military bases outside of the United States.

'In wars, there is always a difference between the motives of the soldiers and the motives of the political leaders who send them into battle. My motive (as a bomber in World War II), like that of so many, was innocent of imperial ambition. It was to help defeat fascism and create a more decent world, free of aggression, militarism, and racism.

'The motive of the U.S. establishment, understood by the aerial gunner I knew, was of a different nature. It was described early in 1941 by Henry Luce, multi-millionaire owner of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, as the coming of "The American Century." The time had arrived, he said, for the United States "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit, and by such means as we see fit."'

His article concludes with the paragraph:

'Have not the justifications for empire, embedded in our culture, assaulting our good sense -- that war is necessary for security, that expansion is fundamental to civilization -- begun to lose their hold on our minds? Have we reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity?'

It was Helen Keller who first said "When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us." We in this country are emotionally attached to our Empire, even those of us being ground down by it, because we fear the alternative, a murky not-quite-imagined construct where our addiction to individualism and noble self-image might get tossed on the ash-heap.

I believe it is this fear, as much as fear of equally imaginary "Islamofascists", which keeps us complacent while latter-day imperialists openly unlace our governmental balance and our civil rights for their own gain, monetary and power. We think they will not go so far as to destroy the identity of America itself in their quest for control -- like the German elite, we think letting the Nazis go after the commies and Jews will "clean house" but be self-limiting. But one empire is virtually identical to other for those at the top. They care not a flip what the rest of us do, they have their compounds and their Saudi connections. They may get booed off the baseball diamond by their former constituency while throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, but they can buy their way into being the commissioner of baseball nevertheless.

As if to reassure us, this week the U.K. Prospect has an article by Michael Lind titled America Still Works, begins with:

'Anyone who reads the serious press about the condition of the US might be excused for believing that the country is headed towards a series of deep crises. This impression is exacerbated by economic slowdown and by the presidential primaries, in which candidates announce bold plans to rescue the country from disaster. But even in more normal times there are three ubiquitous myths about America that make the country seem weaker and more chaotic than it really is. The first myth, which is mainly a conservative one, is that racial and ethnic rivalries are tearing America apart. The second myth, which is mainly a liberal one, is that America will soon be overwhelmed by religious fundamentalists. The third myth, an economic one beloved of centrists, is that the retirement of the baby boomers will bankrupt the country because of runaway social security entitlement costs.'

Lind goes on to address and debunk each of these myths. My favorite part is where he explains that social security privatization is talked up by those who intend to profit from it, not because the fund is in serious trouble -- but the real problem, health care costs, are ignored by the same folks.

Less blunt than Howard Zinn, but with some still useful insights, he concludes:

'The US is facing major challenges—but they are not the ones usually identified. Long-term racial and linguistic balkanisation may not be a problem, but class lines in the US are hardening; there is now less social mobility in the US than in Europe. The US is not in danger of becoming a theocracy, but it is in danger of becoming a plutocracy. Social security does not threaten to bankrupt America, but healthcare cost inflation does. The US is not going to be eclipsed any time soon by another superpower, but it may exhaust itself by allowing its commitments to exceed the resources that the public is willing to allot to foreign policy. The sooner the mythical problems can be dismissed, the sooner the genuine challenges to America's future can be identified and addressed.'

The glaring euphemism in the above is, of course, is "it may exhaust itself by allowing its commitments to exceed the resources that the public is willing to allot to foreign policy". By foreign policy, he means the military-backed domination of the rest of the entire world for the profit of a small elite. In other words, empire in steep decline.

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