Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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DECEMBER 14, 2010 9:13AM

The End Is Nigh, And That's OK

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“Despite the aura of omnipotence most empires project, a look at their history should remind us that they are fragile organisms. So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003.”

This was the nub of a new essay in The Nation about the all-but-inevitable decline and fall of the American Empire within the next few years. Historian Alfred  W. McCoy even provides several possible scenarios for our eventual downfall, from peak oil to World War III to the rise of a New World Order.

These sturm und drang prediction pieces have been all the rage for the last couple of years, to the point where it’s impossible to figure out if they’re valid assessments of our current state or just amplifications of our current anxieties.

That said, no matter what their roots, these visions are likely correct: America is going to decline, probably within the next generation or two, and become a shadow of its former self. And it will decline for the same reasons all great powers decline: because the conditions that allowed it to grow just...changed.

We can’t produce anything, we can’t buy anything, and we’re rapidly running out of things to shoot. And if we aren’t a manufacturing power or a consumerist power or an overwhelming military power, where do we go next? Nobody seems to be able to come up with a viable alternative. There probably isn’t one, or at least not one that allows us to like our lives the way we’ve been able to live it for the last several decades.

Maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things here. Because it is so inevitable, it hardly seems productive to fixate on doomsday scenarios. Instead, we need to put our energies towards visioning a new future. And instead of picking over the bones of previously fallen empires to see how they failed, we need to be looking at the aftermath of the fall, to see what we need to avoid and what we might want to keep.

The fall of the Soviet Union was not a bad thing, but the aftermath could have gone better. The end of Communist rule could have been the beginning of a bright new future for the average Russian. While some have prospered, society as a whole has suffered from persistently high unemployment, high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, government corruption, organized crime and regional unrest.

It’s easy to see how those same things could happen here - hell, a lot of those things are happening here - so perhaps we should think about how we might better marshall our dwindling resources so as to allow the maximum number of Americans to live dignified, healthy lives of purpose, and to hold back the scavengers out to pick our national carcass clean.

At the same time, we need to think about our legacy. The Western Roman Empire  “fell” in 476 CE - just over 1534 years ago. And yet, we remember its words, its contributions, its art and its architecture. What will the world remember of us when we’ve faded?

We’ve come a long way, baby. We split from our colonial mothership and created a whole new form of government, which, while not as perfect as the Founder professed, has stood the test of time. From somewhat inauspicious beginnings, we made ourselves into a economic and military superpower. We formed a unique culture that has slowly, painfully slowly, become more inclusive and more tolerant.

If we’ve got nowhere to go but down, at least we can say we had a hell of a ride.       

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in the NY Times today, Brooks makes the point that America is not declining so much as other nations have caught up with us. Personally, I subscribe to the "imperialist" theory that imperial powers run out of pple to exploit, so they turn on themselves and begin to exploit their own people . . . until they destroy themselves. We see that happening everywhere in our country, especially within government....
what great and happy news.....we're going to platz

stop the advance of the 451s
Insightful and easy to read. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.
As a history major, I've been feeling that we are in the "fall" stage of our empire since Vietnam days. Why can't we wake up and settle for 'one among equals, or brother and sister nations,' or something with less arrogance and hubris? R
I agree that America is declining, certainly in the areas that politicians and Wall Street emphasize - military and economic domination. But the people running the country are doing great (half the Congress are millionaires), they are selling to and employing Indians and Chinese. They don't really care how they rape and pillage the US to fill their own bank accounts. They won't be coming up with a new vision, certainly not one that is inclusive of the rest of us peons. We need to come up with our own visions for our own communities. And if it takes opting out of the current economic models - and yes, I think we should at least consider socialism as a viable alternative - and making things work on a small scale, we can ignore what the American Empire does, since it is ignoring us.
"We can’t produce anything, we can’t buy anything, and we’re rapidly running out of things to shoot. And if we aren’t a manufacturing power or a consumerist power or an overwhelming military power, where do we go next? Nobody seems to be able to come up with a viable alternative. " Well many people suggested we can make a comeback by starting the clean energy revolution and selling our findings to the rest of the world, however with big oil's strong hold on politics, it seems like the ball still hasn't began rolling
It isn't over, although the 1989-91 events were misleading.
What happense next depends on choices we make with a view to a response of the Great Powers, and the budget is a key to that.
I had thought about doing a little Christmas decorating tonight to surprise my wife when she returns, but after reading the links, think I'll make a couple of aluminum foil hats and check the emergency kit again.
I say beware of these appeals to catastrophe. think about it. what upsets the mass more and leads to greater reaction? The nation already lives in enough fear--even if it is at present and has been for almost a century the wealthiest nation on the earth. Threaten them with scarcity and they become more imperial and xenophobic. If the projection isn't accompanied by an analysis that takes that into account I am especially convinced it is pandering. Not only that, but if the nation remains a pack primarily of pigs it doesn't deserve the wealth it has acquired. I'd think twice before I bought it.
Rated for analyzing the amplifications of our current anxieties.
I think the collapse will come much sooner then most expect. I see the great Ponzi scheme of US finance collapsing sooner rather then later due to the combined effect of supply side economics and a lack of leadership, somewhere around 2012-2014.
It's kind of like getting older -- it's okay if you adjust your expectations... enjoyed reading this.
this is a warm-and-fuzzy take on a very serious issue. I suggest you read some chris hedges on the decline of empire or barbara ehrenreich on "happy talk" messing up our psychology
the fall of a civilization can be gradual or abrupt-- or violent and bloody. think, french revolution. etcetera.
social unrest is *not* a pretty picture. we've been insulated from it for decades in the US.... but it seems to be on the horizon.
its happening elsewhere eg riots in france by immigrants or near-riots in britain over student tuition hikes etc...
As you pointed out in the second paragraph, a lot of these predictions about the decline of America (especially those about how it will happen) are pretty sensational, and that one in The Nation was no exception... I think you're right that we should be focusing more on what our country will look like after this inevitable decline, but our leaders are far too optimistic (or hubristic) to ever acknowledge that it will happen (which is not surprising, considering this is a republic and they'd all like to be reelected)... Were our 'beginnings' really 'inauspicious?' I think they were certainly idealistic, but it was a miracle that America made it through its first few decades... In the same way that all of our ancestors came here seeking improvement in some aspect of life (whether it was social mobility, religious freedom, economic opportunities or something else, who's to say?), would anyone feel comfortable leaving the country for good the way it stands today? In fifteen years?
" . . . because the conditions that allowed it to grow just...changed."

I don't think it's because conditions have changed. I think it's because we've been sold out by "our" elected leaders, who have created a system in which the rewards of the economy increasingly flow to a few at the very top. That's what you get when you have a political system that is basically funded by legalized bribery.

In that regard the Democrats are just as bad as the Republicans. The day is still young, and it may come to pass that Obama will be one of the worst.

How you think this is "ok" is beyond me. It means that more people won't get health care, will go hungry, be homeless, and walk around with bad teeth. The scavengers will continue to scavenge and suck up very dime that isn't glued down, and we will not have "dignified lives of purpose."
We are most definitely declining. Sadly it is due to greed more than anything else.
Who was the dumbest Roman Emperor? Palinitius.
“America is going to decline, probably within the next generation or two, and become a shadow of its former self. “
So who is going to:
1) develop new medicines and health care procedures?
2) explore the far reaches of space?
3) provide foreign aid around the world?
4) educate all students regardless of social class, ethnic background, handicap, etc?
5) work toward cleaning up our environment?
6) produce the best public and private university/college system in the world?
7) protect individual liberties and civil rights?
8) provide military aid when needed?
9) privately support the arts in so many ways?
10) build museums and libraries?
11) have comedy shows?

And I could go on. This doom and gloom stuff is just so misguided and self-centered. There’s a lot of good left in this country and good people too. We’ll make it. Just having a very rough period right now. It is ever evolving and the future will be different; but, it has always been that way.
ps in my opinion two major signposts of the decline of the US-- death of kennedy and 911. in both cases the country was unable to police itself effectively. as in "find the true perpetrators and prosecute them"
in both cases, likely an Inside Job.... symptomatic of corruption/rot/decay.
"imperial commitments will have been reduced"
dude I thought you were blindly PRO WARMACHINE..... thats some *real* crazy talk there.....
CA, I would argue that the traditional mechanisms of the fed to steer the economy have failed spectacularly due to the wealth disparity verging on near plutocracy [and for those of you who dont believe we are now in a plutocracy, what level of wealth disparity would you imagine would prove it?]. by reducing rates normally that means loans are cheaper & more readily available, but is that the case at all? it looks like the vast banking Cartel has formed that is siphoning off most of the cash whether the fed either lowers *or* raises interest rates...... anyway much more on all these issues in my blog....
factoid: military spending in the US has DOUBLED since 911..... its the elephant in the room.... or should we say the Drone In the Sky.....
other authors to read--
Naomi Klein on Shock Doctrine
Naomi Wolf on "steps to totalitarianism"
John Perkins on economic "assassination/warfare"
you know that when Bernanke admits wealth disparity is at critical levels, worries about permanent unemployment, and begs congress to spend the money he's creating.... the world is upside down.... even in a recession.... have you *ever* heard a ["nonpartisan"!!] fed chief talk like that??? in the entire history of the Fed? through maybe a dozen recessions? no way hose. this is the Mother of All Recessions....
"but you WANT things to blow up, for some perverse reason."
you're the only one who routinely blows up around here HAHAHHA

I dont want *all* things to blow up. just the CORRUPT ones. hopefully, that is not EVERYTHING. but of course, these days, one has to wonder huh!!!
hahaha scaredya didnt I :p
but seriously-- so suppose the basic levers of the FED ie raising or lowering interest rates is in fact **failing** precisely because of the massive wealth disparity?? and this wealth disparity is mainly fueled by the BANKING CARTEL?
which by the way not a single politician has the nerve or the brains to call it that, which it clearly is??? if it bites like a vampire and sucks like a vampire, and cannot be seen in a mirror, it is in fact a VAMPIRE is it not???
what could have challenged the Vampire?
well the mainstream economists were shouting at the top of their lungs like Simon Johnson and Sheila Blair--- putting the *bankrupt* [and coincidentally *corrupt*] banks into RECEIVERSHIP. boy, did they botch that one!! they could have extricated the vampire/giant sucking squid, but instead managed to affix more tentacles to the US treasury!!! VOILA!!! BRILLIANT!!! APPLAUSE!!!
"You should go live in Chavez's Venezuela to see what real oppression is like.."
hey CA I would be just fine with you going on a long vacation there and sending us colorful postcards, Im sure you could live the dream way better than I ever could. you could blog about it. it would certainly be more interesting than anything youve written so far, wink =)
heck, you might even help out somehow on those recurring CIA plots/operations to overthrow Chavez!!! maybe you could stand at the airport and hand out brochures to tourists or something like that!!!
"Even in the wporst Great depression situation political leadership will arise, unfortunately perhaps fascist, if it comes to that, to preserve the Nation."
huh, thats interesting, the Patriot act [recently renewed by congress without debate] feels pretty fascist to me dude. or how about the Espionage Act being rekindled from the ashes like a phoenix, to swoop down and carry away Assange to some fate unknown [to put it diplomatically]??? how about Fema prisons as investigated by jesse ventura??? oops, sorry, that show was **censored**... good luck finding it. even jesse cant figure out what happened to that one. oh well do not fear the Memory Hole[tm]!!

"none are more enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free" --goethe
Transportation Security Administration--- because xraying and patting down your genitals makes the Nation Stronger!!!
Department of Homeland Security--- carefully avoiding/whitewashing all detection of Nanothermite and other domestic WMD!!!
"millions of soccer moms, etc., in the US will vote fer a Genedral Petraeus or Colin Powell, or what have you, to keep the imperial system rolling fer one more generation if that is what the consensus estimate boils down to.."
ok, ok, CA, I admit, you're right, there is no Santa Claus, there is no Easter Bunny. I think we just disagree on timing. as they say, timing is everything.
"millions of soccer moms, etc., in the US will vote fer a Genedral Petraeus or Colin Powell, or what have you, to keep the imperial system rolling fer one more generation if that is what the consensus estimate boils down to.."
@#%$& wheres LUKE SKYWALKER when you need him?
"Do people really believe that an advanced, industrial counytry is going to sink into Third World status, and allow the....fracking Chinese, with no history opf pluralistic democracy or civil society, to take over planedtary leadership?"
huh thats funny Im pretty sure the Chinese already have significant ownershp of the country..... thats kinda the way they acted when treasury secy Geithner went to talk to them.... hell sometime it even seems they act that way when Obama is around!!
"Do people really believe that an advanced, industrial counytry is going to sink into Third World status...."
oh by the way that was 2 year old study, wink
I've said for three decade to learn to say hello in Japanese.
I think that being a powerful empire is just as morally corrupting as being a powerful person is. It is the rare person who can handle power without giving way to corruption, and America hasn't been able to avoid corruption, either. Although there are many fine things about our country, and the political ideals of the Bill of Rights and Constitution are still worthy, the abuses perpetrated by our government against American citizens and other countries are increasing every day. Britain is still a good place to live, and is perhaps morally improved since shedding its empire. Perhaps we can follow the same path.
You very eloquently put into words thoughts that I have been having. Can you find a case where an unraveling empire has had a soft landing? Perhaps, Great Britain is a good example. They are a shadow of their former majesty, but there was a slow cultural shift, no unraveling of society. A controlled crash may be an impossibility, but that is not to say, not a worthwhile endeavor. What are the elements that prevent a good outcome? Maybe they are the same things that made us great. We built an empire on a continent of unexploited natural resources; gold, iron, and other minerals, but most importantly, virgin forests and topsoil that measured in feet rather than inches. Those things are exploited. At the same time the myth was that we were successful because we worked harder, had God on our side, were morally superior, and just smarter. As we fall we, as a citizenry, will cling to those beliefs and squabble over who is responsible for laziness, pissing God off, moral turpitude and stupidity. The richer will get richer as they prepare for the change in world standing. They will cling even more tenaciously to the industry that has made them rich. Everyone else will see shrinking income, fewer possessions, and the demise of the middle class.
At some future time - surely past my lifetime - we will reach some equilibrium and reinvent ourselves. Our grandchildren may actually live in a better world. It will depend on not being foreclosed on by China, building national alliances with other once powerful countries. We may have to go back to eating French Fries rather than American Fries.
@vzn and Caracalla....I could read you two going back and forth all day! Thank you both for keeping it lively here.

In fact, thank you everyone for your comments. This is why I write: to get other people to mix it up. :-)
And what a ride it has been! But In spite of all the odds and the old theory that 'what goes up, must come down' I still hold out hope that our expansive demographic as well as our historical tenacity when times get rough will be what brings some sort of resurrection in the end....although we'll probably have to wade through some deep s**t in the meantime. Terrific piece! I really enjoyed this....
We can’t produce anything, we can’t buy anything, and we’re rapidly running out of things to shoot.

Classic summation.