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home >> the library >> article archive >> America's Decline: Learning from the British Empire

America's Decline: Learning from the British Empire

by Palden Jenkins print version
print version (graphics)
History of the American Empire



What goes up must come down. Every empire suffers an urge for posterity, and every powerful, well-to-do nation and class has sought to perpetuate its position. This tendency is unique to no particular country or time. But something larger inevitably overrides it. The ascendancy of the powerful can be painful for those who are conquered, enslaved, colonised, co-opted or just affected. But a nation's descendancy can be equally tricky, for it and for them.

There comes a time when the structures, values and assets by which a great nation is built simply become outmoded by other developments elsewhere. There is choice in the manner of a nation's decline, and a graceful decline starts with a recognition that the game is changing and we've lost the plot.

Arnold Toynbee, in his Study of History, written during WW2, noted that when a culture reaches a peak of creativity, vigour and 'florescence', it is faced with an identity crisis. Where to go next? He wrote that, at such a point, a culture may opt to reproduce its successful formula, leading to an incremental loss of vigour, creativity and leadership, or to follow a path of transformation and rebirth, re-engaging the energies of new generations. It may choose, at its time of wealth, power and fortune, to create an entirely new quest. Not just a series of glitch-fixes, but a fundamental change in the aims and rules of the game it has won.

America's zenith came in the 1940s-1970s. With the 1960s came a transformative burst, born within the heart of modern American culture. It came in many forms, in culture, science, social movements and forward thinking. You Americans reached for the Moon. The heart and soul of your nation brought forth music, films and ideas to which the world paid rapt attention. Its most visionary form came as 'flower power', an outpouring which indeed could have fuelled a transformation.

This transformation was not to be, and today we pay the price. During the 1970s, vested interests clawed back control through diversion, co-option, suppression and corruption. In the Reagan period, this take-back was consolidated - a surreptitious systemic coup d'etat of which the arranged election of George Bush in 2000 was but a consequence. The powers-that-be re-captured the agenda. They resorted to increasingly formulaic reiteration of the nation's strong points, appearing innovative and radical yet really largely a multiplying and replicating what went before. A cult of consumptive materialism and hyperactive public acquiescence came to pass, in which everyone tried to rake off their cut. This doesn't work longterm. The buzz wears off, and then there's a sluggish, heavy, day-after feeling. And self-interest gets too firmly rooted, weakening the solidarity that can otherwise pull a nation through a crisis.

After Vietnam, a new perception emerged worldwide, especially amongst its victims, questioning American hegemony. The murmuring grew in Reagan's time. It quietened during Clinton's watch: the causes had not gone away but we wanted to give America a chance. After 9/11 it erupted as a dismayed-to-angry world consensus of doubt in the American monolith. The intense events following 9/11 turned the key: we saw a rapid transition from human pathos and family spirit in New York City to a state of accusing, hard-hearted, paranoiac warmongering. The wisdom and heart of the American people was quickly wrenched from it. The contrast was acute. The world's responses shifted rapidly. How could Americans indulge so much in the loss of their own people and security, when they didn't bat an eyelid to similar loss or devastation in Guatemala, Palestine or Bangladesh?

Salt was rubbed in when we were told that if we weren't for you, we were against you. This alienating declaration rested on an outward projection of badness on foreigners, an enemy out there. We had had enough of this in the Cold War, and here it was again. This projection was at best an exaggeration, at worst an attempted hostile takeover of the world agenda. It didn’t hold water.

Over the decades, the world had looked on in horror, fascination and disbelief as we saw killers, lawyers, evangelists, executives, pornstars, rednecks, coke-sniffers and glitzy stars strutting their stuff in America. Perhaps they would come to their senses sometime. USA had wondrous aspects too, with its high ideals, its freedom ideology, technical wizardry and rags-to-riches success stories. But really, we were watching a nation ill at ease with itself, domestically and internationally violent, and we vainly hoped all this would go away.

Much of the world didn't concur with American claims that it had won the Cold War. The Soviets had had the courage to recognise something America could not. They initiated its end and became the heroes. Perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were relevant to the West as much as to the USSR. But the 'free' West had sufficient wealth and ingenuity to carry on as if it had won. A clock started ticking in the 1990s, and the West soon showed signs of Soviet sclerosis, increasingly ruled by a nomenklatura (a privileged class of well-dressed managers) whose control and interests became all-important.

We heard the same old riffs and special effects from America, amped up higher each time. Sure, box office takings grew, as did stock market values and the millionaire class, but these are not everything. The materialism-cult of USA made it sound as if they were everything: we all bowed to trickle-down development, the 'Washington Consensus'. American power, here to save us, would be extended by innovating and investing so hard that no one else could catch up. Failing that, armed power-projection would fix things, cleanly and surgically.

The sheer creativity of America was dwindling, and its lead was increasingly propped up with tech developments, financial leveraging, marketing ploys, legal twists and immigrant labour. But these were all extensions of the same old gargantuan story - and it eventually took a little outfit like al Qaeda to puncture the glittering balloon. Something had come seriously unstuck.

Bush and the neo-cons have made America's decline blatantly obvious, but all the signs were there beforehand. The capture of democracy and freedom since the arrival of George Bush has led to serious internal schism, worrying rest-of-the-worlders more than it seems to worry Americans. The greatest threat to the world and to itself had clearly become the United States.

Here we are, watching a nation split down the middle. Whoever wins the presidency will leave half the nation angry, left out and ready for a showdown. We don't want to see a second American Civil War. We don't want to receive its fall-out. We don't want such a potential nightmare to develop. Yet we see before us the division of a manic-depressive nation talking to itself, 'doing oppo', tragically forgetting that something else is going on across the world.

The future is not one of American hegemony. The more USA tries to assert this, the more hegemony evades it. This is an historic change, quickened by near-sighted politics in DC. The perception that America has 'lost it' is now widespread worldwide, aided by USA's alienation of its own very supporters.

Now it's not that America has become our bad guy and the rest of us are good guys. The world is not as black-and-white as that. It's relative. The sheer scale on which USA makes its assertions, errors and omissions is dangerous for the world. It has the biggest arsenal of weapons, its government has lost its sense of proportion, and its tentacular hold is such that an American advance or a retreat will have an enormous effect on the world, either way. We've lost our trust. We don't believe God likes you more than everyone else.

So be it. We've had enough. We badly need America to step back and listen. Its dramas threaten to drown out the other tunes and noises going on around the world. Some of these are more relevant and important than America's pet themes. The international community, such as it is, stands at a delicate stage in which it is facing up to its interdependence. Americans want exceptionalism, as well as to interfere and dominate. Please decide: in or out! This is important, because you Gringos are outnumbered, and you need to do the right thing. We won't fight or invade you - it's just that, well, we surround you.

Deconstructing the British Empire

It will all come right in the end. Though Americans might be in for a long haul. It's not just regime or policy change that will do it. The American way needs a fundamental revamp. There's just one choice: whether to de-construct it voluntarily and with foresight, or whether it horribly collapses or burns out. The worst of America needs winnowing out, and that small matter of over-consumption needs addressing. America has a future, but as a normal place. This has been done before, and my own country, Britain, is a case in point.

Britain the Great got cut down to size, and it wasn't just the Germans' fault. We went through a terrible downfall. We went from superpower to aid-recipient in 30 years (1914-1945), falling as you Americans rose up. Our country was devastated, our empire dissolved. But today we're still here, we gained something from it and life goes on. America is unlikely to be reduced by world war - it is caught in more of a 'virtual' corrosion from within, fed by obsessive self-preoccupation - with a little goading from Osama, Saddam and other global dramatists.

If we take 1989 as a starting point, rather like Britain's 1914, USA is now 15 years into its process of decline, though the shit is yet to fully hit the fan. The prosperous 1990s staved off the agony, but the can of worms writhed underneath. Today, the right is worried about loss of power, the left is worried about loss of rights and everyone is worried about loss of what is, frankly, a state of excess. It's a creeping fear of cold turkey and what the nation might do to itself while going through it.

This is potentially dangerous, though less dangerous than the addiction itself. Trouble is, affluence and consumption bury old, unresolved pain and, when decline and belt-tightening come, anger and irritation come up and out, followed by depression and disorientation. Public feelings of powerlessness amplify it. Schism and underlying dissension feed it. At present, things are held in place by a strangely complicit nation, afraid of what might happen if truth emerges and change comes. Not just truth about Bush, but truth about America - a country that permits phenomena like Bush to happen. A recent German letter-writer to Newsweek observed that we can take Bush's first election to be an excusable accident, but re-election means American voters will be held responsible, and anti-Bush feelings abroad will become anti-American.
Truth can have a redemptive effect. It just depends which way Americans as a whole choose to go, when the chips come down.  America can do a managed retreat or have a big crisis. At present, it looks like a crisis is looming.

What astounds many non-Americans is that the nation is stacked with such intelligent, good-hearted people, yet it has fallen into such a dazed, sleepwalking nightmare. Right-wingers support it, liberals oppose it, democracy has become dysfunctional, and we all know that, in reality, USA is steered by a network of background interests. Yet even they are losing power. We see a stung giant lumbering around, swatting mosquitoes and wasps, falling over things.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is getting on with its own realities. Some people and places have had such a hard time that the only direction left is up. There is hope. Lacking wealth or facing big problems, they are innovating, evolving new strategies, sometimes painfully. But they have a future. Even hapless Iraq will emerge into a new day: in twenty years the Middle East could be a happening place. Meanwhile, America is likely to take time to adjust to its subsidence. Yet, while 20th Century Europe's decline made it a shadow of its former self, it nevertheless survived and reaped benefits from its reduced status. Let us hope USA doesn't rip itself apart as Europe did in its two world wars.

For America there is mainly a past, sugared with glory. Its sense of future is an extrapolation of it. The initiative has already been lost. To call the 21st Century 'America's Century' was, well, wishful thinking. Two centuries ago, when USA launched itself into its future, it didn't know what was to come, but it was driven to rise to it. Today, the losers of the 20th Century movie are stepping out, heading for their future in the 21st. Necessity - hunger, disaster, poverty, hardship - is mothering invention.

They know not where exactly they go, and the nature of change itself is changing. This is new. It has something to do with global justice, equity and sense of proportion, for humans and the natural environment. Civilisation in a truer sense. The solution is a reminder of the vision first identified in 1960s America, but it is pragmatic, not idealistic. It might be a bumpy ride, but this is our trajectory.

All is not lost. Worldwide, we like Americans really. Most of you are a bunch of real nice guys. Saudis, French, Colombians and Chinese are okay too. What we like about Americans, on a good day, is their welcoming, generous, imaginative and hearty openness, and we miss it. We don't mourn your loss of greatness, but we do regret your loss of creativity, friendliness and verve. Your humanness is becoming concealed behind a defensive barrier, sharing some characteristics with Russians' former concealment behind the Iron Curtain. We're losing contact with you. Brilliance still emerges, but it has lost its edge. Meanwhile, the stuff that lights people up now comes from elsewhere. Uzbekistan, Uganda and Uruguay are interesting places. Youngsters don't do pilgrimage to USA any more.

Some Americans say the world is ungrateful for the help you have given it. Well, it came at a price, so we have mixed feelings. Voicing mixed feelings is taken to be an expression of antipathy, so balanced views are difficult to utter. Many Americans at home feel ill-judged and misunderstood, yet exile and émigré Americans cringe at this angry defensiveness - they see more of the American impact on the world. Out here, we know you quite well: you have broadcast your lives and values to us for decades. But now our attention is elsewhere.

So we don't sound grateful. Nevertheless, we thank you for Thoreau, Startrek, Tamla Motown, Abe Lincoln, Coca Cola, Windows XP, Martin Luther King, Ginger Rogers, the Apollo mission, Disney, burgers and Jeeps. Now something else is happening - Bollywood, Daewoos, world music and fair trade. We know some Americans support these changes too, but your dominant culture is taking things the other way. This is making life difficult for us, acting as a drag factor - and there's a whole lot to do.

We'd prefer you to subside with grace, have a soft landing and rejoin the human race. Globalisation is now genuinely global, without a centre. Y'know, it's Vanuatu, Venezuela and Finland. This is the 21st Century, and the game is a world community game. We're all in it. In Americanese, we hang together or we hang separately. Ever shall it thus be so.

-------------------------------------

Palden Jenkins
Glastonbury, England
palden@palden.co.uk

© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2004.  This article may be forwarded freely and printed out in single copies for personal use. All other uses require permission from the author.

Read more of Palden's articles reprinted with his kind permission here at Satya Center in the Palden Jenkins Archive.




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