Friday, July 31, 2009

Dismantling the Empire

The United States has a lot in common with the Roman Empire.

Our country is not only a "world player," but an international hegemon, the last standing Superpower - similar to Rome's status after defeating Carthage. Our language is the lingua franca of the world. Our culture is exported around the globe. Our money is the international standard. Immigrants flock to our shores. For better or worse, we are the world's policeman, with military garrisons in every corner of the world.

Like Rome, we have a multi-ethnic, diverse culture that is convinced of its own superiority - not based on race, but rather based on our nationality. We even have a word for it: "Americanism." We routinely speak of America as the greatest nation in the history of the world - even if we've never been to another country or have read very little by way of world history. We tend to see people from other countries as "barbarians" - or at very least, as being our inferiors.

As with Rome, we are also a religiously diverse people. There is, for the most part, a tolerance of all religions, provided that one is not "exclusive" about it. There is a great and increasing social pressure to be syncretistic, to see all religions as equal. It is not uncommon to see school children praying around a flagpole, and for the flag to be displayed near the altar in churches.

We are also a very militaristic people. As the Roman eagle went well beyond the provincial borders of the empire, so too does the American eagle fly beyond our union of states. Our hegemony, our imperium, depends on military might - which is expensive. Large sectors of the economy, many of which are well-connected politically, depend on vast government expenditures on what President General Eisenhower termed the Military-Industrial Complex.

In many ways, the constitutional restrictions that defined the Old Republic have fallen by the wayside. The executive branch, which under the republican model, shares power with the judicial and the legislative, is becoming increasingly powerful, with the President of the United States almost occupying a deified status not unlike the Caesars - often identified even by civilians by his military title: "The Commander in Chief." As in the days of Rome, there are advocates of restoring the republic, even eloquent statesmen within the government itself, but their voices are often trumped by the well-connected, those who benefit from government contracts and largesse.

And now, like the Roman Empire, we are finding our economy at the breaking point - as the citizens at home demand government funded bread, circuses, and health care, and our military establishment seeks to increase our interests abroad. Both federal and state levels of government are under a crushing burden of debt. Just a generation ago, we were the richest country in the world, the world's largest creditor. Today we are the world's largest debtor. The money in our pockets, unbacked by gold or any commodity, is only worth what Chinese and other international investors are willing to pay for American treasury notes in what is, in effect, a futures market for our debt. We have become only a step from being slaves for sale to foreigners.

This identical thing happened in Rome as the empire was on the wane. In an attempt to prop up the failing economy of the tottering apparatus spread too thin by spending too much (largely on politically-motivated military expenditures), the government adopted the policy of a vast stimulus package that included the government's devaluing of the currency and paradoxically seeking to spend its way out of debt.

This did not solve the problem, but only hastened the demise.

As the Roman Empire crumbled, its once-invincible defenses of its own borders began to crumble, as the Senate and People of Rome began to live in fear of invasions of the barbarians they once held in check hundreds of miles away by what seemed at the time to be unlimited military might. We're seeing some of this kind of thing today.

At this point, we still have some control. Our economy has not yet totally collapsed. We still have the personnel and the hardware to protect our own borders, even if being the military police of the world is threatening to deplete all of our resources. We must re-prioritize and redeploy our resources in ways that will protect our borders but not bring us to economic ruin. We can't simply continue to live in the Pollyanna world that says we can eat our cake and have it too.

Here is an outstanding article that provides not merely historical background and analysis, but also a practical plan of transition for us to prevent a total collapse of our economy, way of life, and perhaps even our political independence by facing reality, by fiscal realism and conservatism, and by doing what is best for the country and not what is best for lobbyists, congressmen, and those who benefit from the Military-Industrial Complex.

The amount of money we spend maintaining our hegemony is astronomical. We simply do not have the resources to continue this spree of the Democrat Party's welfare state and the Republican Party's warfare state. Frankly, it should be obvious that we don't have the money to fund either party's vision of the Superstate. We're broke. The pax americana is over.

If we don't start acting responsibly, and very soon, we will one day turn on FOX and CNN and see that the country really has been overthrown by invaders whom we used to occupy as part of our own empire. They will be angry, and they will seek revenge. We will be helpless to do anything about it. We will look out the window and see another flag flying on the pole. But unlike the invaders of Rome (as St. Augustine details in Book One of his own "blog" responding as a Christian pastor to the fall of Rome in The City of God), our new masters will not likely be tempered by Christian ethics.

Maybe we should take charge of things now instead of living in the fantasyland of partisan soundbites and "can do" slogans from both sides of the aisle.

The Romans were also a people who thoroughly believed "Yes, we can!" But one day, they couldn't.


Monsignor Scott Rassbach said...

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. - William Butler Yeats

or perhaps,

"What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun. " - Ecc 1:9

I do not think the current republic will last much longer (100 years, maybe). It's common for large empire/republics to dissolve like this. Perhaps it will be the genteel decline of GB as opposed to the Roman implosion. I'm not hopeful, though, as the US doesn't have the moderating influence of the monarchy.

I think it's too late. I don't think people want a republic, or freedom. I think they feel entitled to security and services. I think Benjamin Franklin's comment is appropriate:

And, I think for those values which the founding fathers took to be valuable to be reinstilled in people, we'll need some suffering. To understand the value of these rights and freedoms and responsibilities we were bequeathed, we may have to have them taken away.

Greg said...

Thank you Larry, this is an excellent and sobering piece of writing. I have linked to it from my blog. You should consider submitting it to Lew Rockwell.

Matthias Flacius said...

The Roman comparisons always intrigue me. Frankly, I probably lean toward Fr Hollywood's ideas of politics, but probably not as far...I describe myself as a libertarian with conservative sentiments. However, the Romans had a pretty good run before their lamentable fall. The Republic was always expanding on the Italian peninsula from the mid-4th century BC onwards. If we use the western fall date of c.480 AD...that's a pretty good run. However, the Roman empire survived in the East for many centuries after that. If we just lament the loss of our Republic as it becomes an empire because we are Ciceros or Catos...that's ok. However, the idea that America is becoming a Roman empire is not necessarily a bad thing. If we begin with Caesar Augustus through Marcus Aurelius that is 200 years of really effective, prosperous empire. If you want a different, probably more neo-conservative perspective see Tom Madden, Empires of Trust.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Matt:

The problem with Empire is that it needs to expand to survive - like a giant ameoba. It sustains itself by subjecting others, by draining the resources of other people for the good of the citizens at home. This is how it is that Americans consume such a large portion of the world's resources in an increasingly competitive environment - and as third-world economies emerge, the competition for resources will drive prices up (e.g. oil).

Empire is eventually unsustainable, whether it lasts a thousand years or a hundred years. All empires have a lifespan. How the endgame is to be played out is somewhat under our control.

The American Empire is different from Rome insofar as we don't have provinces, but military bases and spheres of influence in host governments. We have puppet states around the world. We still largely control the world through "dollar diplomacy."

This breeds contempt (especially the quartering of foreign troops in sovereign countries, as our own Declaration of Independence points out) and terrorism. Bin Laden bluntly explained that 9-11 was in response to American bases in Saudi Arabia, and the humiliation of Arabs being under American occupation.

Eventually, (like the game "Risk") one's resources are too far flung across the globe, supply trains are too long, the costs of maintenance are too dear (especially as oil becomes increasingly expensive). And when this decline begins, it is a difficult (if not impossible) thing to arrest.

I don't think we have hundreds of years. The world moves at a faster pace than it did in the days of the Caesars. I think we're beginning to reap the whirlwind now, and I think the economic stress on the imperium is beginning to cause cracks in the entire system - at home and abroad, affecting guns and butter.

When it gets to the point where our soldiers are paid in scrip to risk life and limb in a cause that they no longer associate with defense of their own country - the empire will begin to disintegrate quickly, and things will become perilous. We will see political chaos. And something worse will fill the vacuum.

But if we can somewhat control the implosion and manage the contraction in an orderly way, we will be far better than simply pretending that because we're Americans (Yes, we can!), we're invincible, and can do anything we put our minds to. That plays well on FOX and CNN, but there is no philosopher's stone.

Once again, that was the lesson of the fall of Rome. And when it happened, it was little consolation to the Romans of that day that the Empire had a nice run of several hundred years.

And again, I'm afraid our fall will be a lot worse than Rome's.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Msgr. Scott:

I'm afraid I concur with your pessimism. We may have to endure some dark times before things get better. Come, Lord Jesus!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Greg:

Thank you. I thought about it, but given that there really isn't anything new here, and that this post already links to a couple of other LRC pieces, I decided to just post it here.

Thanks for the link!