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|Out of Sync with the world: Some Thoughts on the Coming Decline and Fall of the American Empire|
"It's a wrenching decision to think about leaving. But America is turning into a country very different from the one I grew up believing in."
In the Niagara of liberal angst just after Bush's victory on November 2, the Canadian government's immigration Web site reported a surge of inquiries from the United States, to about 115,000 a day from 20,000.' … Americans (are) fed up with a country they see drifting persistently to the right and abandoning the principles of tolerance, compassion and peaceful idealism they felt once defined the nation.'1
Will historians one day consider the American elections of 2004 -- and the country's clear division into red, or conservative, and blue, or liberal, states -- as the turning point of the American empire? Will they decide, in other words, that in November 2004 the high waters of American imperialism, having reached their peak, started to recede? History teaches us that all empires must rise and fall. There is no reason, a priori, to believe that the American empire can or will escape that global fate. The real question is then, not if, but when this is going to happen.
I shall, in this short essay, argue that the American empire -- despite its invincible army, undisputed dominance in science and technology, and powerful economy – has entered a declining phase for a variety of reasons of which three appear to be determinant: one, the shrinking relevance, or appropriateness, of the American 'model', or way of life, for the rest of the world; two, America's continued reliance on 'hard' power to resolve conflicts (as opposed to the 'soft' power solutions preferred by the European Union, for example); and three, the rise of other great powers, old and new, such as, the European Union, China, and even India. What will happen next cannot be predicted with absolute certainty. It is quite probable that a multi-polar world will emerge to replace the American empire. After that, we enter the domain of speculation. Some argue that it is inevitable that China will emerge as the next global empire. But given China's history of introversion, and even isolationism, that appears as unlikely. But, if it happens nevertheless, then, History will indeed have continued as 'eternal recurrence', and the philosopher with bushy moustache will have been proven right, once more.
In every culture or civilisation a typical, or emblematic, value defines behaviour, or social relations.3 I will argue that in America, that value is guilt. I would like to illustrate that argument with concrete and practical examples. Very often, American movies or television series have a two-stage plot: in the first, the protagonists do things that they themselves know are morally wrong – like cheating on their wives, betraying a friend, or making money in shady business deals; in the second stage, these same protagonists acknowledge their guilt and try to find ways to redeem themselves – by asking the forgiveness of their wives, or mending their ways, or doing penance in one way or the other ('community service' is a popular form of penance: white-collar criminals, in particular, are, in addition to fines and, often, suspended prison sentences, condemned to, say, three hundred hours of 'community service') . So redemption does come, but at a cost, and 'culprits' are thus given a 'second chance' in life (proving wrong the famous dictum that 'There are no second chances in American lives'). In the old days, 'Hollywood', or the 'entertainment industry', called that a 'happy end'. Today, the situation is a bit more complicated, the dénouements are not so clear-cut, but the principle of guilt-redemption still applies. Quality theatre has always been different: great playwrights like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill have written plays that reflect the reality, the tragedy and the psychological complexity of life. With respect of our guilt-redemption principle, the emblematic American play is, perhaps, Arthur Miller's The Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is the typical 'average Joe' let down by the 'American Dream'. But, for him, there are no 'second chances', and the 'American Dream' turns into an American Nightmare. In real life America, feelings of guilt, and the need to come to terms with them, is the reason why psychoanalysis is such a popular profession. The richer and more 'successful' Americans are, the more time and money they spend on the psycho-analyst's couch. Was, then, Thoreau right when he affirmed that, in America 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.'?
Aristotle said, 'Evil is the absence of good.' Thus, it is essential to distinguish between the 'presence of evil' and the 'absence of good'. Americans, like most people in the world, try to avoid 'the presence of evil' in their lives, but, it is my contention, that they, given the very competitive capitalist milieu in which they live, suffer more from the consequences of the 'absence of good'. Jefferson, who was, in addition to being a great statesman, a noted philosopher, wrote that: 'Happiness is the aim of life; virtue is the foundation of happiness; utility is the test of virtue.' Americans, usually, have no problems with the first and third components of that maxim: the search of happiness is indeed the aim of their lives (which, of course, is the aim of the large majority of the people in the world); and Americans are, indisputably, a very industrious people, working harder and longer than the Europeans, for example (35 or even 40 hour weeks, and four or five weeks of paid annual vacations are unknown in the United States). Their problem is with the second component: (V)irtue, alas, often, is not the 'foundation of (their) happiness'; because, again, the socio-economic system in which they must live renders that very difficult. Americans, most of the time, do not feel happy because they know that many of their actions are not virtuous. That doesn't mean that they don't want to be virtuous; it rather means that they are unable to be virtuous, and that is the reason why they spend a great deal of their lives, so to speak, between the two stools of guilt and redemption. In other words, the psychological needs of American Puritanism clash with the requirements of American capitalism. Here it is important to distinguish between the 'work ethic', which the puritans embraced, and the unethical concessions that the average American must make in order to succeed in an utterly capitalist system -- which the puritans, at least theoretically, reject. After all, the main tenets of Puritanism, based on Calvinism, are, in addition to the work ethic (the only way to save one's soul), austerity and frugality -- which are not exactly the values in evidence in American society today. As Vince Lombardi, a famous American football coach put it some forty years ago, in America, 'winning' is not simply very important (as it is in Europe and elsewhere), not even 'everything', but 'the only thing.' To make things worse, winning, or success, in America is, in large part, determined by how much money one makes. And no profession appears to escape that conundrum. Not even university professors, who are given 'big contracts' (large salaries, plus very generous perquisites) by extremely wealthy private universities -- such as Harvard, Princeton or Yale. No wonder then that Americans often feel that they have no choice, but be part of what they call the 'system', or, more cynically, the 'rat race'. The alternative is being a 'loser', a most pitiful and unbearable condition in American society, that most people would do anything to avoid. So, to conclude, Americans know that, ultimately, 'Virtue is its own reward,' but the society in which they must live -- and make a living -- makes the observance of that maxim almost impossible. Immanuel Kant wrote that virtuous actions are those that are capable of universal replication, i.e., of adoption by all men. He called them 'categorical imperatives'. Unfortunately for Americans, a society essentially based on winning, success and money seldom generates actions that are 'categorical imperatives', i.e., that can be universally replicated.
Heidegerr wrote: 'The technological society must in the end self-destruct.'; Schopenhauer, that: 'The cosmic will is wicked, because the increase of knowledge leads to an increase of suffering.' The two aphorisms are clearly linked. Their combination, in a more or less logical order, results in the following prophecy, or prediction: 'The technological society is one in which there is an increase of knowledge. That society must in the end self-destruct because the increase of knowledge leads to an increase of suffering; which, in turn, causes the cosmic will to be wicked.' America is, undeniably, technologically the most advanced society on earth, in which, in the twentieth century at least, there has been the greatest increase of knowledge. America is then, to the extent that Heidegerr and Schopenhauer are correct : one, the society that is the closest to self-destruction; and two, the society that contributes most to the wickedness of the cosmic will. It is possible to interpret these two conclusions, in an indirect and speculative sort of way, as another indication that the American empire has entered a declining phase.
The positive aspects of the increase of knowledge are well-known and undeniable. Thanks to it, in the rich countries, people live longer and healthier lives. The quality of food, shelter, availability of clean water, transportation, communication and leisure is immeasurably higher. Medical science and technology routinely saves lives that were doomed only thirty or forty years ago. And yet there exists a point when, good things, if they cross certain boundaries, or go beyond certain limits, can become bad. Sometimes that is called 'too much of a good thing'. But it is not only that. In economic science there is a law called 'diminishing returns': one cannot hope to reap growing benefits from increasing production, at some point, they will start falling. In the ethical field, Aristotle's 'Golden Mean' extols the value of moderation. Both extremes, too little and too much, are bad. In America we are mainly concerned with the damage wrought by too much (even though its opposite, too little, also exists for a poor minority). That damage is suffered, not only internally by America, but externally by the rest of the world as well. When America, which forms less than five per cent of the world's population consumes more than a third of its fossil energy; when its cars and industries produce a quarter of the pollution in the world; when its army invades a country under false pretences, and kills more than one hundred innocent civilians; not only America, but the whole world is concerned. And things are getting worse, because they have nowhere else to go. That's the general direction. And that is, I believe, what Heidegerr meant when he wrote that 'The technological society must in the end self-destruct.' Except that 'society' in our globalised, interconnected world means the whole planet.
Americans seem to always want more, never to have enough. Bigger houses, bigger and more luxurious ('gas-guzzling') cars and SUVs, more expensive clothes and exclusive vacations, and so on. America seems to be about the absence of limits in wealth, power, status and privilege (which the expressions such as 'I want it all' and 'the sky is the limit' illustrate). One can rise very high very fast, but when the fall comes, as it does inevitably, it is also fast and very low. The reason is, I feel, the rising very fast and very fast, somehow, lacks substance and meaning. America's top people – politicians, movie 'stars', business tycoons -- often are, in the philosophical sense, mediocrities. Their 'knowledge' is often specific and technical, they know little of foreign cultures and don't speak foreign languages. In the old days, the excuse was that they didn't 'need' to learn other languages, because everybody else spoke English. That was seen as an advantage and a blessing, it has become a handicap and a curse. As for the 'average' American, the level of ignorance of things non-American can be frightening. It is the American paradox.
An other example of American extremes (in the Aristotelian sense) is the rejection of two of the most basic natural consequences of life: getting old and dying. I will limit myself to two examples: cosmetic surgery and the deep-freeze of bodies immediately after death. The former's purpose is to restore the appearance of youth. Until fairly recently, it was mainly women who resorted to that 'solution'; but not any longer, men are these days as numerous as women to seek the help of the knife to restore their youth. But worse is the refusal to die. Which is different from wanting to delay, as much as one can, the inevitable rendezvous with the Grim Reaper. No, here the goal is achieving immortality. A small but growing number of people choose -- at a cost of about $ 100,000 for the whole body, and a fraction of that for only the head -- to deep-freeze their body immediately after death. The purpose of the 'operation' is to conserve the body intact until science discovers a way to bring it back to life. The procedure used, based on cryogenics, is widely used in chemistry. There are several companies that do it. Already hundreds of bodies and heads are immersed in liquid hydrogen, close to absolute zero temperatures, in hermetically closed containers, waiting to be resuscitated in twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years. Americans are deeply religious; 90 per cent, or more, of them believe in the existence of God. That doesn't augur well for the future of the industry which, I don't believe, is destined to a great future. Nonetheless, it will probably continue to grow in the coming years, reaching perhaps an annual business of tens of thousands deep-frozen bodies and heads.
For Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in the middle of the 19th century, the 'tyranny of the majority' was the greatest danger faced by the American democracy. (4 Some fifty years earlier, , in 1787, when the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia to write the Constitution, they had not been, except for George Mason, particularly concerned by that issue. It was thanks to the insistence of the 'missing giant' of the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson (who was in Paris as Minister to France), that a Bill of Rights was included in the Constitution. These rights are about a number of the freedoms, such as: those of religion, speech, press and association; and a number of rights: like to petition the government to redress grievances, the necessity of a 'Warrant' to search one's residence, a speedy and public trial, etc. So the 'majority' here is represented by the State, and the 'minorities' are groups of individuals. In fact, the Bill of Rights applied to a minority of men who were all White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant (WASP). Women were not part of the picture. Neither were Native Americans or Blacks. In fact, slavery, racism and sexism continued in American society for a long time to come. It was very slowly, and very gradually, that the civil rights and liberties were extended to Women, Blacks and Native Americans who together form the majority of the American population.
How about today? Is the 'tyranny of the majority' still the greatest danger faced by the American democracy? The answer is a categorical yes, but the rules of the game have changed. In today's America, politics is dominated by money and the control of new technologies of communications that can, very effectively, manipulate public opinion. Today, the same 'techniques' are used to sell cars, pharmaceuticals and political messages. Public opinion polls are utilised to check if these political messages are being 'bought' by the 'majority', or not. TV spots play a big role in all of this. And it can be said that the Presidential elections of 2004 were hijacked by a neo-conservative coalition -- of business tycoons, politicians, intellectuals and journalists -- that, very successfully, packaged and sold to a large part of the public its neo-conservative political message.
So, given this sorry state of affairs, one is entitled to ask: Is America still a democracy? Or has it become an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy? I believe, the answer is both. America is certainly a democracy, owing to the reality, vibrancy and truth of its civil society. At local, grass-roots, level, tens of thousands of associations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), religious groups, self-help groups, etc. function well and make demands that the official, governmental institutions can ignore only at their own peril. But America is also an oligarchy, owing to the disproportionate influence of money in politics, and also because elections no longer have the same legitimacy that they had in the past, due to their manipulation.
The American empire, having started in about 1890, is still young compared to its counterparts in the past: the Roman, Ottoman, Spanish and British empires, to name but a few. But, if we take into account the 'acceleration of History', that may not be so. The 20th century may be worth double or triple the 17th or the 18th centuries in that sense, not to mention the feudal or the classical ages. That means that the American empire has entered, if not its old age, then at least a ripe middle age. For Johan Galtung, a world-famous Norwegian pioneer of peace studies, America is both a republic and an empire. That distinction is essential, he believes, because America is loved for its republican qualities and hated for its imperialistic faults. Among the former, Galtung mentions: its work ethic and dynamism, productivity and creativity, the idea of freedom, or liberty, and a pioneering spirit; while in the latter, he includes: its aggressiveness, arrogance and violence, hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and ignorance of other cultures and extreme materialism.(5
In fact, it is well to remember that even the American republic was established very cruelly and violently. The foundation of the United States of America was associated with the systematic massacre of Native Americans. That catastrophe probably qualifies as the world's first genocide. And slavery as an institution continued in America after it was abolished in Europe. It took a very bloody civil war, in 1861-65, to extirpate it from the social fabric of the American life. Even if, the Civil War was not primarily fought over the abolition of slavery, but against the irredentism of the South, which wanted to secede from the Union and start its own republic, precisely because it wanted to continue a lifestyle based on … slavery. Abe Lincoln's overriding concern was the territorial integrity of the Union, a concern to which he later added that of the abolition of slavery. More than a moral crusade, the latter was an economic necessity for the rapidly industrializing North, which needed large numbers of free, i.e., mobile, labour. The indentured labour system of the South was thus a serious impediment for the rapidly industrialising North. The latter, in turn, gave birth to a powerful American business establishment that became the great champion of American capitalism.
And thus the close association between the American government and the American business establishment began. The former has always gone to great lengths to defend the interests of the latter. One of the C.I.A.'s main activities has always been the organization, usually with the help of corrupt and reactionary local generals, of military coup d'états, whose purpose was the overthrow or assassination of legitimate local foreign leaders whose misfortune was to have incurred the wrath of America, either because of their nationalism, or socialism, or both. There were, in the 111 years between 1890 and 2001 -- from the brutal murder of the indigenous population in Dakota, to the punitive expedition of Afghanistan – a total of 133 military interventions by the U.S., of which, about 70, took place between 1945 and 2001, resulting in between 12 and 16 million people killed.(6 Among the democratically elected leaders of their countries, either toppled or killed with the complicity of the C.I.A., were Salvador Allende of Chile and Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran. In the latter's case, that enormous blunder was the cause of the arrival to power of Khomeni and of the Mollahs. Among the revolutionary leaders killed with the help of the C.I.A., were Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba.
Galtung lists fourteen 'contradictions' that, he believes, in the next fifteen years, in 2020, will cause the 'decline and fall' of the American empire.(7 None of these 'contradictions'-- which he groups under the five headings of economic, military, political, cultural and social – are, strictu sensu, new. Galtung's merit is to have brought them together to show their global impact. In a time of economic globalisation, that is certainly the right approach. His economic 'contradictions' are those between production, on the one hand, and distribution, finance and the environment, on the other. The world has never been so rich as it is today, but, also, the gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider: the ten richest people on earth have a combined net worth of $ 255 billion – roughly 60 per cent of the income of sub-Saharan Africa; and the world's 500 richest people have more money than the total annual earnings of the poorest three billion.(8 And the rich are, increasingly, making their money in financial speculation – hedge funds, stock options, capital gains. In addition, the American trade and budget deficits are ballooning. Japan holds $ 715 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds, China more than $ 600 billion.(9 The annual U.S. trade deficit, at around $ 600 billion, represents 5 per cent of the American Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Evidently, this situation is not tolerable in the long run. Meanwhile, pollution is getting worse and climate change threatens to become one of the most dangerous problems faced by humanity. And yet, the U.S. refuses to sign the Kyoto Treaty (which is a good beginning, but not enough to deal with the problem). Military 'contradictions' comprise: those between 'state terrorism' (Galtung's definition of war) and terrorism; those between the U.S. and its allies; and the impossibility for America to invade and occupy huge countries like Russia, China and India. Peter Ustinov once defined war 'as the terrorism of the rich', and terrorism 'as the war of the poor'; 'the only difference between the two,' he said is that 'war kills far more people than terrorism'. Terrorism is a symptom. Tackling it effectively requires dealing with injustice in the world, and by giving the Arab-Islamic world respect and a true influence in world affairs. A war between the U.S. and China, or Russia, and even India is inconceivable. So world supremacy will have, in the future, to be achieved, not militarily, but economically. The political 'contradictions' between the U.S., on the one hand, and the U.N. and the E.U, on the other hand, are bound to increase. The U.N. and the E.U. have chosen to resolve international conflicts peacefully and multilaterally; the U.S., while paying lip-service to collaboration and cooperation with its 'allies', is, in final analysis, prepared to use force unilaterally, allegedly, and perhaps partly, to 'spread democracy and liberty', but, in reality, and largely, to further its imperialistic interests. As for cultural 'contradictions', Galtung sees America's Judeo-Christian values clashing with the Arab-Islamic, Chinese and Indian values, which are essentially different. The social 'contradictions', finally, between state and corporate elites, and unemployed workers, and between the older and the younger generations, are bound to increase given the business establishment's . relentless quest for maximum profits. A large part of American manufacturing industries (as well as European industries) have moved to China where labour is cheap; a second 'Silicon Valley' is booming in India. The result of this 'outsourcing' of manufacturing is growing unemployment at home. And that situation is further aggravated by the aging of the population that puts more pressure on the working-age population.
W.B. Yeats', when he wrote the following two lines of his great poem, The Second Coming:
'The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.'
was thinking of the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe in the dark years preceding World War Two. Today, while it is still true that 'the worst (a)re full of passionate intensity', it is no longer true that 'The best lack all conviction.' It is my conviction and hope, as I write the closing lines of this essay, that 2005 will be the year of a new beginning, and that 'humanity', having, at last, stopped, 'like monsters of the deep, to prey on itself', will start building a better world.
Dr Zeki Ergas is a writer, scholar and social activist. Founder of Millennium Solidarity Geneva Group, Secretary general of PEN International's Swiss Romand Center
3) In the Orient it is shame. In Confucian China, a patriarchal society par excellence, family relations were based on its members' position within it. Rights and obligations, well-defined, were unquestioned and observed meticulously. A child's disrespect of his, or her, parents was not tolerated. Something of that authoritarian system or model remains in contemporary China. With the penetration of Western liberalism and capitalism, Confucian values are eroding in China, but that doesn't mean that they are on their way out. Deep down, they will always be part of the Chinese psyche. In Japan, in the old imperial days, the Samurai Code of Honour was very important. During World War II, many young pilots committed suicide, called kamikaze, by deliberately slamming their planes full of explosives on American warships. The prospect of having to lose up to two million men in the invasion of Japan was what made the Americans decide to drop the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1970, Yukio Mishima, a literary genius and the author of the The Sea of Fertility, a four-part novel that is a masterpiece, committed hara-kiri, a ritual suicide, when he was only 45 years old. He had felt ashamed that his country had, by adopting Western materialism, abandoned the noble traditions of its imperial past. In Islam -- or Arab Islam, to be precise (Asian or African Islam may be different) – it is humiliation In the PEN Congress of 2004, in Tromsö, Norway, Amin Maalouf, the celebrated Lebanese author and winner of the prestigious French Goncourt Prize, gave a remarkable keynote address on that subject. He also developed that theme in his book: In the Name of Identity. Violence and the Need to Belong (2001). The book was written prior to September 11, but it explains a great deal of the psychology behind that terrorist attack, and behind terrorism in general. Make the Arab-Islamic world feel that they 'belong', and that they are 'respected', and their humiliation, hatred and anger will vanish, as if by a magic wand.
4) Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian and diplomat who was a great admirer of the American democracy, as well as being one of its most perceptive critics. He published the two tomes of his famous masterpiece, Democracy in America, in 1835 and 1840.
5) Johan Galtung is the founder of Transcend Peace University. Among his numerous books are: Transcend and Transform. An Introduction to Conflict Work; and, with Carl G. Jacobsen and Kai Frithjhof Jacobsen, Searching for Peace.
6) Johan Galtung, Decline and Fall of the U.S. Empire by 2020 (2000); and On the Coming Decline and Fall of the U.S. Empire, TFF, Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (2004). See also, William Blum, Rogue State. A Guide to the World's Only Superpower, 2000
Copyright: Peace Media
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