The End of Empire

All empires collapse. Some have a shorter shelf life than others, but all eventually share the same fate. The Roman empire survived in the East until 1453, and survived (at least in name, if not in fact) in the West until the 1806. But it collapsed. The Soviet Empire also collapsed, nearly instantaneously, by Roman standards. The United States has been around along time by modern standards. Our political regime is actually older than any other in the world right now. The British monarchy is older, but survives mostly as a living tourist attraction and drain on the public treasury, rather than as a real political regime. Despite being a "young" country, we actually the longest-running continuous political regime on the planet right now. Older than anybody. Can we continue? Empire is an expensive proposition, a hobby of the rich. Are we rich enough to maintain our empire?

Here is a truly interesting presentation by Dmitry Orlov about the comparisons between the collapse of the Soviet empire and the (rapidly approaching collapse) of the American empire. One does not need to agree with Mr. Orlov entirely, but his analysis is useful. It is at least amusing, and that's always worth something in an election season. His observation on American elections:

It is certainly more fun to watch two Capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one Communist party to vote for. The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little tokens of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing. The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two Capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos. The latest innovation is the photo finish election, where each party buys 50% of the vote, and the result is pulled out of statistical noise, like a rabbit out of a hat.

11 comments:

P.M.Lawrence Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 9:12:00 AM CDT  

There are numerous errors here.

"All empires collapse. Some have a shorter shelf life than others, but all eventually share the same fate."

This is incorrect as a positive assertion of established fact, in two respects:-

- Some empires have ended in other ways, e.g. the Persian Empire fell to Alexander, and the British Empire faded away. Perhaps "collapse" was being used in a way that was not clearly the same as others might use?

- There is quite simply not enough of a statistical basis to show that all empires collapse; for all we know so far, though it seems unlikely, there may be some yet to come that will not. This is very different from, say, the strong statistical basis we have for supposing that all human beings will die, even though quite a number are alive at present and many have not yet been born.

"The Roman empire survived in the East until 1453, and survived (at least in name, if not in fact) in the West until the 1806".

The latter is false. That refers to the "Holy Roman Empire", not the Roman Empire in the west (which ended, by ordinary reckoning, with Romulus Augustulus in 476).

'The United States has been around along time by modern standards. Our political regime is actually older than any other in the world right now... Despite being a "young" country, we actually [have] the longest-running continuous political regime on the planet right now. Older than anybody.'

That is plain nonsense. The last major shift in Britain was 1707 (or 1688 by some reckonings - see below). The last in Denmark was in the 16th century. If incremental change is also to count, the USA experienced such in its 19th century civil war and in its 20th century changes like direct elections to the Senate - more recently than comparable changes in Switzerland, Holland and Sweden, let alone the others cited.

"The British monarchy is older, but survives mostly as a living tourist attraction and drain on the public treasury, rather than as a real political regime".

But the monarchy is not the regime, and hasn't been since the Civil War. The regime has in fact and in law had great continuity. There has been constitutional monarchy since at least 1688, and a single unified controlling polity since 1707 (since other possessions were subordinated to England, only Scottish separation was material).

John Médaille Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 12:21:00 PM CDT  

Mr. Lawrence, the conquest of an empire would count as it's collapse. And I mentioned that the HRE was so in name only, not in fact.

One could date the current English regime to the liberalization of the 1830's and the extension of the franchise.

Coll Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 8:02:00 PM CDT  

Regardless of whether ALL empires collapse, the key question here is that the US and the Us-lead Western economy a) stand a strong chance of collapsing and b) are poorly prepared for such a collapse. Whether or not Americans or other Westerners are prepared to recognise it, a collapse is highly possible, though in my opinion, not necessarily inevitable. A partial collapse, such as the Depression could lead the US to surviving the current economic trends.
One thing that was learned from the Depression was this: small, localist (if not Distributist) societies fared better. The rural societies that bought and sold very little outside of their local area were less affected by tumults on Wall Street or the London Stock Exchange. These societies were economically poorer to begin with but suffered much less from the dislocations of the Depression.
Distributist economies are better prepared for collapse than state-run or capitalist-run economies.

A. Walsh,  Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 8:39:00 PM CDT  

Very interesting link, if it is a tad overdone, but Coll's point about it all remains true.

I just learned today from an US friend about an advertisement in the New York Times which claims a $53 trillion hole in government liabilities and unfunded pensions. Apparently $455,000 per household.
That is just so scary! I can't see how the US can tax cut and consume itself out of this one.

Not that things are that hunky-dory in Australia. Despite digging up and selling the farm to China, there is still a massive trade deficit. Also we have the problem of half the country in recession while the other half a rolling in money from the mineral boom.

John Médaille Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 9:22:00 PM CDT  

Coll. Another point is this: NOW is the time to organize, to evangelize, to build. Perhaps the very things that Dmitry finds to be handicaps can be made into advantages. The suburbs will depopulate; that's for sure. Can the remaining populations convert from suburban to rural, and supply the local cities? Hmm. Worth thinking about. they can occupy the smaller homes and turn the larger ones into sheds, warehouses, workshops, all for free.

A. Walsh, the $53T includes the Social Security deficits. I think the debts are understated. Usually, these things work themselves out, except when they don't. I suspect we are in perfect storm territory.

P.M.Lawrence Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 10:23:00 PM CDT  

The point I was making about the "Holy Roman Empire" was that it was not the Roman Empire in the west at all. It is not a case of continuity, apart from the continuity of ideas - but by that reckoning, it is still around because the idea is still around, e.g. among the few remaining Bonapartists.

The comparison I was making about British and US regime endurance was based on applying consistent standards. If you wish to use standards that make a break for Britain in the 1830s (which I would not), then you find far greater breaks in the USA later, with its civil war and the end of Reconstruction.

As for using "collapse" as a synonym for "end", well, redefining terms to suit yourself neither aids communication nor makes for rigorous argument.

Coll Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 10:31:00 PM CDT  

A.Walsh: the issues I see with Australia are not that we depend on mineral resources but that we depend on oil to move these resources and everything else. Cities by their nature must import a good deal (in our case, all) of their food. Our transportation system relies predominantly on trucks. To grind the country to a halt, an economic collapse is not required, only a severe shortage of diesel. My own town, Alice Springs relies on oil for the following:
o Energy - power station runs on diesel trucked in from Adelaide
o Food - 99% of food travels over 1000kms via truck and train. Over 50% of it travels over 2000km
o Medicine - as above
o Housing - materials are mostly shipped from interstate
o Water - pumped out of the ground (requires energy). 11 inches of rain per annum would require severe rationing if we were without energy.
That’s not to say we couldn’t have a non-fuel-dependent society here, but simply that we would not be in anyway ready for any sort of collapse.
We have one distinct advantage over the US, the media do at least focus more on some of the issues in an election rather than what church Mr Rudd or Nelson attended as a child and whether their kids ever smoked a cigarette before they were 18.
Sadly, you are correct about the disparity between the boom and bust economies occurring side-by-side here. The so called mining boom is owned more and more by a small group of capitalist (including the Chinese) so whilst there are wages transferring to some in the mining sector, the actual transfer of wealth (property) is away from the majority of the populace. The housing shortage has lead to a large amount of fly-in-fly out arrangements in the mines which is encouraging short-term rents rather than ownership - centralising the ownership of housing property, whilst dislocating local communities.

John: I’m more in favour of encouraging the growth of small towns (i.e. more small towns rather than bigger small towns): ideally rural communities with some spirit of localism. But at the moment, the arrangement you talk of would be likely. There would need to be an attitude amongst suburban folk first that this is what they’d want, much like Belloc's statement that the first step is to create the desire for real property.

Danby Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 3:28:00 PM CDT  

That our empire will end is beyond question. How and when it will end are the questions. Orlov gives one scenario, based on what he has experienced in the collapse of the USSR. I think much of his scenario is not at all unlikely.

Empires tend to have the same sort of slope on the upside as on the downside. The Roman Empire took hundreds of years to build, and took hundreds of years to fall. The Alexandrian Empire took years to build and collapsed very quickly after Alexander's death. That's not always true, Britain built their Empire over 30 decades, and lost it in the space of 4 (if you leave the American colonies out of the equation) and may soon lose even Scotland and Wales.

Still, like the USSR, the U.S. built her empire over a very short course of time. On that basis, it will likely end quickly too.

The US empire is a financial empire. We control other countries (and extract their wealth)using our control of the resource and credit markets. It is of course backed up by our army, the most powerful the world has ever seen.

Now, thanks to the Housing bubble, and reckless federal borrowing, we are ones who are being controlled. The Fannie Mae bailout, over $300,000,000,000 (300 billion) was dictated by the Chinese central bank. They threatened merely to stop buying US Treasury bonds. That action alone would be enough to send our economy into a tailspin from which it might never fully recover. So now the taxpayer owns some $5,000,000,000,000 (5 trillion) in mortgages, an unknown number of which will require foreclosure and may never be repaid.

How this will all shake out at the level of the average person is very difficult to predict. Some commentators put it as a near-certainty that we are headed for a depression that would exceed the Great Depression of 1930. Others think the markets will recover by the end of next year, then it's good times for investors again.

Edward Rhodes Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 6:10:00 AM CDT  

A couple of points concerning the assertion that the US government is the world's oldest regime:
Firstly, I believe that San Marino (arguably, the world's oldest continuously republican government) is an older regime than the USA.
Secondly, it seems somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent to date the British regime to the 1832 Reform Act (which in some cases actually reduced the franchise), whilst apparently assuming that the US constitution operates in the same way as was intended in 1787.

Athanasius Wednesday, September 17, 2008 at 7:26:00 PM CDT  

The point I was making about the "Holy Roman Empire" was that it was not the Roman Empire in the west at all. It is not a case of continuity, apart from the continuity of ideas - but by that reckoning, it is still around because the idea is still around, e.g. among the few remaining Bonapartists.

The problem you are overlooking here is that the people in the Roman Empire remained Roman. Yes, the political government collapsed in 476, but the people remained Roman in culture and institution beyond Charlesmagne's time. Clovis, the Lombards, various Gothic kings all asked permission from the Roman Emperor in Constantinople to rule before they could be accepted by the people in Italy or in Gaul. The years after 476 demonstrated a great revival of classical Latin (e.g. Boethius) and a great effort of preserving and spreading Roman technologies and learning which had lost its state patronage.

So yes, the Roman empire is not the Holy Roman Empire in point of fact, but it is more than an idea, and according to some Orthodox sources (Vasilev, Zernov) Charlesmagne received permission to rule the lands he conquered as "Holy Roman Emperor" from the Empress Irene, whom he proposed marriage to in order to reunite western and eastern halves.

The title and the lineage indeed outlived the political expression of the Roman Empire, but has more lineage with it than a mere idea like a Bonapartist.

In any event both empires did collapse, but were replaced by a new political administration. Goths took over old Roman systems of administration, and what was formerly imperial administration fell to the power of local lords until the Prussian revolution. It is not that America is unused to change in government and we have known little different in 200 years, it is that we have had so FEW changes in government beyond that, who can imagine a different government ruling here? Can we not imagine that in the event of an economic and political collapse, that local communities forming their own governments and calling themselves different names might not be called treasonous? That is all over and above Orlov's points of course. I scarcely doubt that in most situations there will be anyone left.

Our country is comparatively young, and not at all equipped for a change in government.

Anonymous,  Friday, November 21, 2008 at 12:06:00 AM CST  

moral of the story. we're all fucked.

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