“Today’s crisis is the afterbirth of yesterday’s triumph.”
Empire—the dream of all politicos with sense of great ambition—has its upsides. Traditional empires give the well-connected access to astounding amounts of opportunity. They allow for revolutionary changes in the imperial society, and broad-scale uplift in the early empire period. Often (though not always), they have two major positive effects upon the conquered: the shattering of entrenched hierarchies (and thus the lessening of oppression within the system) and broad-based economic growth and concomitant poverty reduction.
Generally, though, these desirable states are not what drive the rise of empires. Empires arise much more directly from the desire of leaders to be remembered among the “Greats” of history. Conquerors might get a bad name in the generations immediately following the decline of their empires, but in the long term, being a conqueror is one of only a handful of ways to achieve cultural immortality (prophets, breakthrough inventors, and artists run a distance second, third, and fourth in this race for “greatness”). The dream of American Empire goes back at least to Jefferson, but the powers-that-would-be faced an ongoing problem:
The American People basically don’t like Empires. It’s down deep in our cultural DNA. We’re the criminals, the rebels, and the uppity jerks that kicked the greatest empire in the history of the world off our continent (twice) and then proceeded to deal mortal wounds to other empires like the Spanish, the French, the Mexican, the Comanche, and the Portuguese, eventually making them all run home with their tails between their legs. We dislike empires so much that, for the bulk of American history, the notion that our own government might have an opinion about how we live and conduct business was enough to provoke violent insurrection, proud defiance, and utter lawlessness. From the Whiskey Rebellion to Prohibition, from the Draft Riots to the Labor Wars, from the Hatfields and the McCoys to Bundy Ranch, from Haight-Ashbury to the Stonewall Riots, Americans can take care of themselves, Mr. Fed, but fuck you very much for asking.
The fact that America itself has always been an empire of one sort or another...well, that’s something we mostly ignore. And, up until World War 2, we could basically ignore it until the cows came home, because what our government did in the broader world didn’t much effect us (the occasional conscription notwithstanding). That anti-imperialist cultural DNA put (imperfect) limits on Imperial ambitions—limits so severe that not even Woodrow Wilson could overcome them, even after hijacking the endgame of World War One and bending it into a Utopian moralistic Imperial fever dream the likes of which he could only masturbate about as a younger man.
To be fair, that wasn’t all that limited him. American understanding of how the world works (even among the intelligentsia) has always been deeply shallow because America itself is deeply shallow in terms of cultural history. We are made up of those who would not conform, who left home, who would not honor their parents and who would render precious little unto Caesar even at the point of the gun. We’re a nation descended from punks who literally would rather face death than bend the knee. We’re fluid and adaptable (and like to think ourselves even more fluid and adaptable than we really are). All humans reflexively assume that everyone else is basically like them, so we assume that everyone else in the world is like us: individualistic, rebellious, moralistic, and so committed to grand eternal truths (like human rights) that it justifies the razing of any other consideration or institution to the ground. This is why we always believe we’ll be welcomed as liberators when we invade a country, and why we stumble away in confusion when it seems we’ve become as destructive a force as the dictators we deposed.
This naivete has made a mockery of all our imperial projects except for two. It dashed Wilson’s peace against the rocks like the stillborn baby that it was. It doomed American adventures in the Philippines and throughout the rest of Southeast Asia, wrecked our involvement in Cuba and the rest of South America, and put a mortal enemy on our southern border for the better part of a century. The two exceptions to this uninterrupted legacy of miserable failure were:
The Westward Expansion
The Post-WW2 World Order
In both cases, unique in American strategy, the imperial projects were overseen locally by people on-the-ground who had an actual damn or two to give about the people in the occupied territories. In The Westward Expansion it was the colonists themselves who ran the show, not the governments—the government encouraged (and sometimes bribed) people to act upon their own initiative, then came in when they were called after the colonists got themselves into scrapes that required military assistance (or because a large mining or timber or railroad operation required military force to secure its claims against other colonists, and enough money greased the right palms to persuade the politicians to act). In World War 2, the Generals in charge of occupied Japan and Germany did everything in their power to rebuild the countries that they and theirs had previously destroyed, and generally tended to bias heavily towards local autonomy rather than tight-fisted rule.
On the homefront, though, these two successful exercises of imperial power had radically different effects from one another. With the Westward Expansion, the new lands west of the Mississippi added a third leg to the unsteady balance of power between North and South. The frontier provided a relief valve for Yankee and Dixie malcontents, black freedmen who didn’t want to deal with the suffocating racism of either the North or the South, and Irish and German immigrants who found the Eastern Cities already full-to-bursting. The cultural melange of the west meant that the Republican North and the Democrat South were no longer adequate to the task of forming a ruling coalition—now that the punks had their own geography, they couldn’t just be ignored. Both parties had to court the vote of the...sniff...undesirables.
I’d lay good money that this particular accident of history saved the US from a second civil war following close on the heels of the first.
The result was more economic growth, more freedom, and more local autonomy for decades to come, at least until prosperity had accrued to the point that well-fed people started to take an intense interest in the “moral character” of their social inferiors.
Fortunately for all involved, a couple world wars intervened, distracting a full generation from the domestic hatred and violence that was on the rise.
The Westward Expansion left America stronger than it had ever been, enabling numerous ill-fated imperial misadventures overseas—so strong that it could (and did) fail in virtually all of them, yet still became powerful enough to hijack the Versailles conference (ending a world war between all the other imperial powers on the planet) without raising so much as a move to censure.
The Post-WW2 World Order put America in the cat-bird seat, more powerful than any nation has ever been before...militarily. But by the 1990s, the decades of subsidizing the rest of the planet in order to buy their place in the alliance structure was showing its cost economically and culturally. As the tide of the Cold War ebbed away, it started looking like America had finally violated the one inviolable rule of maintaining an empire:
Don’t hollow out the home front.
World War 2 provided the unprecedented opportunity to restructure America from a country filled with small communities, individualists, and warring corporations into a regimented, conformist, scientifically-directable quasi-military entity capable of being commanded from above to move in formation, and plan the defeat of the Soviet Union. The “Third Way” economic system that the Federal Government imposed in the World War 2 era, and extended afterwards, was intended to accomplish exactly this end. Intrusions into the citizen’s personal life—such as income tax, loyalty oaths, drug prohibition, building codes, land use regulations, weapons regulations, FBI infiltration of community groups, the federalization of charity and medicine, universal compulsory schooling to national standards, Federal control of agriculture and finance and technology and higher education, and state intrusions into familial matters and marital disputes—that would literally have been grounds for armed revolt (and we know this because similar intrusions previously did precipitate armed revolts), passed from “unthinkable” to “mundane” in less than a decade because of World War 2. Instead of the old American way, in which the government had a small place in a citizen’s life, the new American way allotted the citizen a small patch of freedom nested within the vital life of the State. This New Deal put the United States on a permanent war footing, and made all its citizens soldiers—which (in many ways) worked out pretty well as long as the war went on.
But, in what may be one of history’s most spectacular ironies, the New Deal technocracy (rule by experts) worked at odds with the Cold War military imperative. To function well, a viable technocracy requires three things:
1) Incredibly high levels of trust in the expert class.
2) Very tight control over information flows.
3) A deep sense of civic duty on the part of the technocrats.
As the Chinese found out with the Mandarins, and as all startups learn when they become too successful, the nature of bureaucracy is that it bends towards nepotism and self-seeking within (at most) three generations. The great leaders of yesterday pick the best they can find to aid them and succeed them. That crop becomes pretty-good leaders, but, protected as they are by the bureaucracy, they do not have the experience won through hard-contact with reality, and so they pick for their successors the people they like working with. That generations then picks the people who will advantage them most and act in ways primarily oriented towards preserving and extending their own power.
On the other hand, in times of War—which the Cold War undoubtedly was, even though it saw very little battlefield combat—fighting the Soviets meant heavy investment into military projects like missile guidance systems (GPS), ad-hoc point-to-point mobile communication (cell phones and sat phones), satellite surveillance (optics and digital cameras), privacy protection tools for dissidents (encryption), publishing and distribution tools (miniaturized radios, tradecraft), ballistic missile technology (communication satellites), the Space Race (microwave ovens, DRO machine tools), a way to move troops reliably to resist invasion (the Interstate Highway System), a structure for coordinating different launch facilities in case the phone lines went down in the event of a nuclear war (the Internet), and a system for avoiding surveillance when snooping around on a network (TOR, PFS, hard digital assets, and just about every other privacy and payment tool except perhaps for blockchain).
These weapons—because weapons they were and weapons they are—were deliberately designed to allow a small, independent actor in, say, East Germany or Poland to thwart, frustrate, grow a revolutionary movement, and possibly destabilize a superpower that, at its height, ruled (directly or indirectly) the majority of humanity. By the late 1990s, most of these weapons were in the hands of nearly everyone on the planet. The Internet, especially, began to reach into everything because it pushes the cost of building a networked business (the most easily scale-able kind) from “billions of dollars” to “free.” By 1999 it touched every utility and university and corporate office. By 2013 (in the form of the smartphone) it touched every pair of pants on the planet. Business access democratized, as did access to information.
In conjunction with a thousand other little inventions and innovations old and new (microhydro and microwind, solar power generation, diesel distillation from plastic, wood gas reactors, home machine shops, 3D printing, high-productivity organic agriculture, hydroponics and aquaponics, etc.) it once again became theoretically possible to shake the system off entirely, to run asymmetric warfare against the most powerful government in world history, and to return to the punk roots of American culture which, despite several generations of systematic indoctrination to the contrary, lurked always as embers upon which the right winds might blow.
Meanwhile, on the technocratic side of the ledger, a series of disastrous failures have plagued the establishment since the 1960s. Whether in strategic calls like the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War and Afghanistan and Iraq, or in public health management like the Drug War and the AIDS Crisis and the COVID fiasco, or foreign relations failures as have been de rigeur since the end of the Cold War, or economic malfeasance such as happened in the response to the 2008 Financial Crisis and is currently happening with the massive run-up in spending and consequent inflationary spiral (which I expect will compound and worsen the boomer-retirement induced economic crash), or massive overreach in security policy (such as blackmailing tech companies into instituting censorship and information management that the government itself is not allowed to engage in without a proxy), we have moved in three generations from the most trusting and solid moment in our history to the greatest degree of social distrust since the pre-Civil War period along with a greater degree of governmental distrust than we’ve seen since the Revolutionary War.
Another wrinkle comes from the technocratic side of the ledger:
A vibrant and dynamic civilization depends upon having a large working class that feels enough dignity that they will do good work, a sizable entrepreneurial class that can act with a relatively free hand (since 90%+ of business ventures fail, there must be a potentially massive upside if you’re one of the lucky few who hits the market just right, otherwise nobody would bother), and a small managerial class (bureaucrats, politicians, judges, educators, etc.) that provides the connective tissue and lubricant that takes the edge off of social friction when it occurs (as it inevitably does).
In the Post-WW2 era, the Cold War required a massive ramp-up in the managerial class, and it developed a farm system (the Research University) by which to harvest the best-and-brightest from the working and entrepreneurial classes into the managerial class. The program was such a success that, seventy years on, the once-rare college degree is now so common as to be worthless. There are now three generations where 40-60% of all high schoolers have gone on to college, resulting in a top-heavy civilization overbalanced towards those who have been trained to believe they have the right and duty to run the world.
So here we find ourselves at the start of the great unraveling:
We have a political economy built upon embedded growth obligations...without the population growth to support it.
We have an historically unprecedented concentration of wealth almost exclusively among those over sixty years old...who comprise nearly half of the population.
We have orders of magnitude more people trained to be elites than we have the ability to give them something to do, and they are thus left to do things they consider “beneath” them in order to make ends meet...or, alternatively, they may enter the world-ruling business as a political entrepreneur.
We have a planet-spanning military occupation that’s no longer necessary and now being drawn down...after it wiped out the local hierarchies that once created regional stability.
We have the most sophisticated centralized infrastructure in history...and it’s all hooked up to the Internet where it’s vulnerable.
We have seven decades of asymmetric guerrilla and revolutionary weapons in the hands of everyone.
We have the ability to conduct financial transactions in a surveillance free manner, to organize away from the prying eyes of imperial agents, and to discover truths that are inconvenient to the establishment narrative.
We have a printing-press revolution cheap enough that it makes anyone with the inclination their own media hub.
We have worldwide international permeability of computer networks and information spheres.
In the United States, to the left, to the right, and in the center, we have large swaths of the electorate that despise imperialism in its various forms, and are finally beginning to see that their own government is the largest empire in the history of the world.
And everywhere, the forces of decentralization spin fast enough that even the authoritarian crackdowns in the US and China over the past twenty years have not been enough to allow those governments to effectively direct their societies in a fashion even a fraction as well as they once did, not so long ago, through consent and acclaim.
The world is now a tinderbox, and our politicians are playing with matches...
...which is a shame, because there was a time when a more peaceful kind of revolution seemed much more likely, and in which other bloodless revolutions were, if not common, at least very visible. And looking at that will give us some clues about how this tinderbox might just not go up in flames that consume us all.
But we’ll get to that next time.
In the meantime, I invite you to post any corrections or arguments in the comments, or send them directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.