You Know Your Empire’s Collapsing When…
The following is from a speech delivered to the Second Vermont Republic’s celebration of Vermont Independence Day–when, in 1777, it declared itself an independent republic–in Montpelier on January 15, 2008.
I want to start out with a little game, called “How Do You Know When Your Empire Is Collapsing,” invented in a little different form by a political scientist on Long Island. Let me give you a few examples of how it works.
Let’s say for starters, you know your empire is collapsing when the empire that is your fiercest rival buys up a total of 26 per cent of three of your major Wall Street firms for $9 billion dollars, and declares that it has another $200 billion dollars that it is looking to invest.
[Since we’re going to be doing some numbers here, I should pause to give a little reference for the concept “billion.” A billion seconds ago was…1959—which means some of you here haven’t yet lived a billion seconds. A billion minutes ago Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee—more than 2 millennia ago. A billion hours ago, about 100,000 years before the present, the classic Neandertal peoples were wandering Europe and the Middle East, and Homo sapiens started to move out of Africa. We throw the term around a lot, but a billion is a big, big number.]
Next, you might figure your empire is collapsing when its total debt obligations amount to $50.5 trillion dollars. That is so big that it’s about the same as the total household income of everyone in the country, including the billionaires. In other words, we owe almost more than we make.
Or, take one more—you know your empire is collapsing when you start a war half the world away, on complete fabrications and in total ignorance, slog on for five years with no success—2007, you may have noticed, had more people in uniform killed than at any time since the war began—with an army half of which are lawless mercenaries and the rest are under-trained, ill-equipped, and unmotivated youth, and whose presence is not only making your homeland less secure but is damaging your reputation around the rest of the world.
Just like Ninevah, just like Tyre—in fact, it’s classic—just like all the empires that have preceded it, from Akkad to Hapsburg, from Babylonian to Dutch, from Persian to Ottoman, from Roman to Soviet, the American empire is collapsing, collapsing around us, and the consequences will not be pleasant.
You know your empire is collapsing when the UN, comparing a number of measures of child well-being in the industrial world, ranks you 20th out of 21, behind Poland, Portugal, and Hungary, ahead only of Britain.
Or when the World Health Organization ranks your healthcare system overall as 37th in the world, below Cyprus, Columbia, Morocco, and Costa Rica, just above…Slovenia.
Or when scholars, measuring worldwide standards of living, including health, wealth, happiness, and stability, give Norway a rating of 37, the highest, followed by Iceland at 35, Sweden at 30, and the Netherlands at 27, and give the U.S.—19, in other words, by this ranking the best country in the world is twice as good as America.
I have studied empires pretty carefully over the last few years, and I have figured out the basic nature of these systems and concluded that all empires collapse, and usually within less than a century, because of their inherent nature. They not only make mistakes but usually the same set of mistakes simply because of the inevitable character of the imperial structure, which ultimately fails because of its size, complexity, territorial reach, social stratification, economic disparities, heterogeneity, domination of people and nature, hierarchy, and environmental ignorance.
There are, to my reading, four basic reasons that empires collapse, and I’d like to set them out, particularly in reference to the modern American empire.
1. First, environmental degradation. Empires end by destroying the lands and waters they depend on for survival, largely because they build and farm and grow without a sense of limits. As Sumeria collapsed when its irrigation systems drained and salinated its waters, as the Roman collapsed when it turned the fruitful African littoral into the Sahara Desert, so the American is engaged in the massive destruction and pollution of its environment, worldwide. Science is in agreement that all the important systems upon which human life depends are in decline and have been for decades: the erosion of topsoils and beaches, overfishing of every ocean fishery, deforestation, freshwater and aquifer depletion, pollution of water, soul, air, and food, overpopulation, overconsumption, depletion of oil and minerals, introduction of new diseases and invigoration of old ones, extreme weather, global warming, rising sea levels, species extinctions, human overuse of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity. A lengthy Defense Department study two years ago predicted “abrupt climate change” was likely to occur within a decade, will lead to “catastrophic” shortages of water and energy, endemic “disruption and conflict,” and a “significant drop in the planet’s ability to sustain its present population.” The Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson said it more simply: our “ecological footprint is already too large for the planet to sustain, and is getting larger.”
That way to end of empire, for sure, maybe end of civilization.
2. Second, economic meltdown. Empires always depend on excessive resource exploitation, in their heartlands and then in colonies farther an farther away from the center, because their populations become large and their armies too extensive, and when the resources fail the economy fails. In addition, imperial trade systems are so widespread that they are not well controlled, with many booms and busts, and it is the imperial elites who prosper at the expense of merchants and farmers. As Teotihuacan collapsed in the 7th century AD because it deforested its hills for building and agriculture, as the Byzantine empire failed when it used up resources and found its economy eroded by inflation and its unpaid armies in revolt, so the American empire has built a fragile imperial economy that is unsustainable and is already on the verge of crumbling, as the recent stock crashes attest.
Unsustainable? We have a trade deficit of $763 billion dollars. And crumbling? The dollar has lost value everywhere—it is down by nearly 40 per cent since 2000—and the credit crisis is so vast that it is only by the most extraordinary financial contortions that anyone keeps any faith in the dollar at all. It will not take long before the oil states will no longer want to operate in that currency and the petro-euro will supplant the petro-dollar, and won’t take long for China to dump its worthless dollars, as it is already starting to do, in the process of buying up our banks.
[You know your empire is collapsing when those who have lost faith in its currency bid the price of an ounce of gold to a record high in January of $901, and you have to dump gold from your reserves to get it down.]
Add peak oil. You know your empire is collapsing when it is willing to pay $100 dollar a barrel for the oil it has unwisely built its whole economy on, can’t find a way to limit consumption (and slaps down those who try), and has about as much clue on how to develop an alternative as the Norse in Greenland did when they knew their herds were destroying the land but kept on using them until that society collapsed in the 15th century.
3. The third major cause of imperial collapse is military overstretch. Empires are by definition colonizers and trying to keep control over hostage peoples by force inevitably leads to large and often uncontrollable armies, massive drains on the economy, and ultimately rebellion on the periphery. As the Roman empire collapsed when the “barbarians” at its frontiers revolted and the Roman legions, stretched from Germany to Africa to Persia and grown unruly and corrupt, were defeated, as the Persian empire fell in the 5th century BC because it was unable to maintain the colonies it had established from India to Africa and the peripheries rose in revolt, so the American empire is overextended, weakened at the peripheries, forced to use ill-equipped and undertrained troops to maintain it, and even the generals admit that it can’t be sustained.
We have 547,000, more than half a million, active troops, based at, this is amazing and little understood, more than 725 admitted military bases in at least 40 countries around the world, plus a formal “military presence” in no less than 153 countries, on every continent but Antarctica, and nearly a dozen fully armed carrier and missile fleets on all the seven seas.
We are now fighting in four admitted wars from Eritrea to the Philippines and winning none of them. The cost is enormous and draining the treasury at $3 billion a week–total cost an estimated $609 billion dollars so far, another $200 billion next year, and a projected $2.1 trillion even if some troops are withdrawn by 2013. And that does not include the mercenary budget—for the Blackwaters and such– paid by the State Department, estimated at $100 billion a year, or the troops run by the CIA out of its unknown black budget. It is a cost that is putting a severe strain on the American treasury, whether we acknowledge it or not, and its effect of undercutting all other domestic discretionary spending—for example, on education, infrastructure, homeland security, and food and drug inspections—has already had severe social consequences and will continue to have more.
[You know your empire is collapsing when you spend billions of dollars that you don’t have, to create a missile system that doesn’t work, to use against an enemy that you don’t have either.]
And all of that to try to maintain an empire that is already shrinking. Latin America, which used to have U.S. colonies from Cuba to Argentina, has thrown off most American influence, installed governments hostile to America and welcoming to the Chinese, and mostly refused to bow down to the “structural adjustments” that the World Bank used to be able to use to manipulate their economies. [You know your empire is collapsing when the leader of one of the countries there that we used to have in our pocket, and couldn’t pull off a coup to oust, comes to the United Nations and makes fun of your emperor and says he smells sulphur where the emperor just was standing.] All of the Moslem world is hostile to American interests and policies, including the Saudis leading the jack-up of oil prices, so is much of South Asia, and American prestige and influence has fallen considerably in Europe, central Asia, and Japan. We are good friends with Slovenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgystan, that’s about it.
For all of our 725 bases, we no longer control the world, and our attempt to do so has been a disaster.
4. Finally, empires fall because of domestic dissent and upheaval. Crashing economies, food shortages, political repression, military drain, and increasing disparities between the rich and poor create domestic discontents that, lasting long enough, lead to rebellion and civil war. As the Mughal empire of India collapsed when excessive taxes to support the military led to armed resistance, as the Aztec empire collapsed when its population showed no interest in defending the central government that had been bleeding them of tribute when the Spanish arrived, so the American empire faces a prospect of increasing dissent and division, malaise and disaffection, even a growing movement toward outright secession, now with organizations in at least 30 of the 50 states. It is not yet revolt and rebellion, but the institutions of this nation—Presidency, Vice Presidency, Pentagon, Congress, the lot—are held in greater disdain and disrepute today than any time since opinion polls began to measure this—and rightly so.
[You know your empire is collapsing when, according to a poll taken in the fall of 2006 by the Opinion Research Corporation and broadcast by CNN on October 23, 71 percent of your citizens agree that “our system of government is broken and cannot be fixed,” and another 7 percent agree it is broken but “hoped” it could be fixed. Broken and CANNOT be fixed.]
Well it’s not rebellion, thanks to the increasing sweeping and illegal repression of dissent by the Bush regime—leading up to, by the way, the vicious McCarthyistic House Resolution 1955 passed—404 to 5—and sent to the Senate, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, nothing less than the establishment of thought police to find and jail anybody that thinks unpleasant and subversive thoughts about this nation.
Thanks also, I should note, to the success of the system’s modern version of bread and circuses, a unique combination of entertainment, sports, television, internet sex and games, consumption, drugs, liquor, and religion that has so far successful deadened most of the general public into apathetic stupor.
But it is hard to believe that a nation that is, first, so thoroughly corrupt as this—in all its fundamental institutions, its boughten parties, military contractors, academies, corporations, banks, brokerages, accountants, governments—and, second, so thoroughly economically unequal —2005 figures show that the income of the 3 million Americans at the top was equal to that of the 166 million at the bottom—can survive without revolt.
The Bush administration has shown, in fact, that it is not capable of governing a population of this size and complexity —Katrina above all, energy deregulation (Enron etc.), subprime credit collapse, unregulated housing boom, gasoline mileage, FDA inspections, mine-safety inspections, no-bid contracts to favorites, misuse of wiretapping, Abramoff-Delay bribery, consumer product safety, the list of failures go on–and there’s no imaginable successor that could: the empire is too vast and intricate, the homeland is too immense and diverse, the systems are too complicated and fragile. The citizens will someday rise in protest, I predict.
Those four processes by which empires inevitably fall—environmental, economic, military, and civil—are inescapably operative now, in this latest empire. I would be willing to make a sizeable bet that a combination of several or all of them will bring about its collapse within the next 10 years. The lesson from Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse is that almost no society is capable of escaping the kinds of peril that an empire like this faces.
Unless you secede from it, and the sooner the better.
You know your empire is collapsing when that idea just makes plain good sense.