Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Nature of Empire

Niall Ferguson is arguably the most uneven of our living historians. His The War of the World is perhaps the best one-volume survey of the era of global war that began in a flurry of bullets at Sarajevo in 1914; his The Ascent of Money, by contrast, is little more than an exercise in cheerleading for the same misguided economic notions that are setting the stage right now for an explosion that may well rival the one that followed Sarajevo, and the same divergence can be traced straight through his work. Still, Ferguson’s writing makes an excellent starting place for any attempt to make sense of the phenomenon of empire—though this is something of a backhanded compliment, as his misses illuminate the subject at least as well as his hits.

It would be useful if the same thing were true of the other misunderstandings of empire that jostle one another in the collective conversation of our time. Regrettably, that’s anything but the case. In order to make sense of the impact that the fall of America’s empire is going to have on all our lives in the decades ahead, it’s crucial to understand what empires are, what makes them tick—and what makes them collapse. To do that, hovever, it’s going to be necessary to bundle up a mass of unhelpful assumptions and garbled history, and chuck them into the compost.

We can start with the verbal habit of using empire—or, more exactly, the capitalized abstraction Empire—as what S.I. Hayakawa used to call a snarl word: a content-free verbal noise that’s used to express feelings of hatred and loathing. The language of politics these days consists largely of snarl words. When people on the leftward end of the political spectrum say "fascist" or "Empire," for example, these words mean exactly what "socialist" or "liberal" mean to people on the right—that is, they express the emotional state of the speaker rather than anything relevant about the object under discussion. Behind this common habit is the most disturbing trend in contemporary political life, the replacement of ordinary disagreement with seething rage against a demonized Other on whom all the world’s problems can conveniently be blamed.

In too many cases this sort of thinking is taken to frightening extremes. Consider David Korten’s The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, which manages to be both one of the most popular works in the anti-Empire canon and one of the most profoundly antidemocratic tracts in recent memory. Korten’s argument is based on the theory that certain people—quite explicitly, those who share his background and opinions—belong to a higher "developmental stage" than anyone else, and the world’s problems can only be solved if power is taken away from those who have it now and given to the gifted few. If you want thoughtful analysis of the ideas and motivations of the supposedly less evolved people who hold power nowadays, don’t look for it in Korten’s book; what you’ll find instead is an unusually crude version of the standard left-wing caricature of right-wing thinking.

Empire, in Korten’s book, amounts to the whole of the existing order of society, portrayed in the shrill language of apocalyptic rhetoric—unless the gifted few who have "spiritual consciousness" get the power they ought to have, one gathers, all life on Earth is doomed. It’s interesting to note, though, that exactly how the utopian state of Earth Community will deal with the flurry of planetary crises luridly depicted in the first part of The Great Turning is nowhere detailed. The reader who is able to step back and cast a cold eye on the book’s argument may thus be forgiven for thinking that Earth Community is simply Empire with the ruling class Korten prefers, just as the "emerging values consensus" that guides Earth Community can be hard to distinguish from the ideologies that guide Empire, and so on down the list of inevitable parallels.

The need to sidestep this sort of manipulative rhetoric, it seems to me, makes it urgent to get past the habit of using terms like "empire" as snarl words, and recover their actual meaning as descriptions of specific forms of human political, economic, and social interaction. Getting rid of that initial capital letter, arbitrary as it seems, is one step in the right direction. Just as the younger Bush administration was able to disguise a flurry of dubious motives and justify a misguided rush to war by converting the tangled reality of Muslim resentment and radical militancy into the capitalized abstraction of Terror, too many people on the other side of the political spectrum have covered equally dubious motives and justified a range of unproductive actions by converting the tangled realities of influence, authority, and privilege in modern industrial states into the capitalized abstraction of Empire. The so-called Global War on Terror, of course, turned out to be an expensive flop, and much of what passes for "fighting Empire," though a good deal less costly in blood and money, has not been much more successful.

This post and the ones that follow it, then, will be discussing empire, not Empire, and as soon as we get past some initial questions of definition, they will be discussing specific empires—the one the United States currently maintains, primarily, but also the British empire that preceded it, and a variety of others that cast useful light on its past, its present, and its future. One striking detail, of course, sets today’s American empire apart from most of its predecessors, and that is the curious fact that very few people will publicly admit that America has an empire at all.

This is where Niall Ferguson enters the picture, because he’s one of the notable exceptions. In several books and a flurry of essays, Ferguson has argued that the United States fills exactly the same role in international affairs today that Britain held a century ago, and since nobody then or now finds it especially problematic to talk about the British empire, open discussion of the American empire ought to be an equally straightforward matter. He makes a very solid case that the United States is an imperial power. What makes this all the more interesting is that while most people who talk about American empire these days mean the label as a criticism, Ferguson does not. Quite the contrary, he thinks America’s empire is a good thing, and has publicly urged American politicians to take their imperial role more seriously—in other words, to get out there and lord it over the world in earnest.

Some of what’s behind this quixotic rhetoric is doubtless the spluttering indignation it evokes from liberal pundits—Ferguson has admitted that one of the motives that got him involved in conservative politics in his student days was the fun to be had by baiting the left—but there’s more to his argument than that. He points out that periods when one imperial power dominates any given system of nations tend to be periods of relative peace and stability, while periods that lack such a centralized power tend to be racked by wars and turmoil. It’s a valid point—imperial Britain’s century of world dominion from 1815 to 1914 featured fewer wars in Europe, at least, than any comparable period up to that time, and American dominion since 1945 has imposed even more rigid a peace on that fractious continent—and Ferguson goes on to claim, on the basis of that undoubted fact, that imperial rule is a good thing for everyone involved, ruled as well as rulers.

That last step, though, goes well past what the evidence will support, and a good hard look at the claim will prove revealing. Partly, this shows Ferguson’s tendency—which is of course shared by many of his peers in Britain and the rest of Europe—toward an unthinking Eurocentrism. While Europe was relatively calm between Waterloo and Sarajevo, there were very few years in that interval where the British army wasn’t busy fighting someone somewhere in the world, and the smaller colonial empires other European states acquired by Britain’s permission during those same years were in many cases just as racked with wars. Still, there’s another point that’s even more crucial, which is that peace, stability, and the Victorian British idea of good government for the natives are not necessarily the only goods worth weighing in the balance. By this I don’t mean to bring up such intangibles as freedom and self-determination, though of course they also have a place in any meaningful moral calculus; the issue I have in mind is one of cold hard economics.

A broader view of history may be useful here. The first explorers to venture outwards from Europe into the wider world encountered civilizations that were far wealthier than anything they had known. After returning to Italy from the Far East in 1295, Marco Polo was mocked as "Marco Millions" for an account of China’s vast riches that later travelers found to be largely accurate. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama made the first European voyage around Africa to India in 1497, he and his crew were stunned by the extraordinary prosperity of the Indian society they encountered. When Hernán Cortes reached the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlán in 1519, it was easily among the most populous cities on the planet—current estimates range from 200,000 ato 300,000 within the city alone, and another million in the urban region surrounding it—as well as one of the richest. A few centuries later, at the zenith of Europe’s age of empire, China, India, and Mexico ranked among the world’s poorest nations, while England, which had been a soggy backwater on the fringes of Europe mostly known for codfish and wool, was one of its richest.

Plenty of reasons have been advanced for this astonishing reversal, but there are times when the obvious explanation is also the correct one, and this is among them. The point can be made even more clearly by noting a detail I’ve brought up here before—the curious fact that the 5% of humanity that live in the United States of America, until quite recently, used around a quarter of the world’s energy and around a third of its raw materials and industrial product. This remarkably disproportionate share of the world’s wealth didn’t come to us because the rest of the world didn’t want such things, or because the United States manufactured some good or provided some service so desirable to the rest of the world that other nations vied with each other to buy it from us. Quite the contrary; we produced very little in America during much of our empire’s most prosperous period, and the rest of the world’s population is by and large just as interested in energy, raw materials, and industrial product as we are.

It’s considered distinctly impolite to suggest that the real reason behind the disparity is related to the fact that the United States has over 500 military bases on other nations’ territory, and spends on its armed forces every year roughly the same amount as the military budgets of every other nation on Earth put together. Here again, though, the obvious explanation is the correct one. Between 1945 and 2008, the United States was the world’s dominant imperial power, filling the same role in the global political system that Britain filled during its own age of empire, and while that imperial arrangement had plenty of benefits, by and large, they flowed in one direction only.

With this in mind, we can move to a meaningful definition of empire. An empire is an arrangement among nations, backed and usually imposed by military force, that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core. Put more simply, an empire is a wealth pump, a device to enrich one nation at the expense of others. The mechanism of the pump varies from empire to empire and from age to age; the straightforward exaction of tribute that did the job for ancient Egypt, and had another vogue in the time of imperial Spain, has been replaced in most of the more recent empires by somewhat less blatant though equally effective systems of unbalanced exchange. While the mechanism varies, though, the underlying principle does not.

None of this would have raised any eyebrows at all in a discussion of the mechanics of empire, in America or elsewhere, during the late nineteenth century. Such discussions took place, in the mass media of the time as well as in the corridors of power, and it was widely understood that the point to having an empire was precisely that it made your nation rich. That’s why the United States, after a series of bitter public debates we’ll be discussing a little further on in this series of posts, committed itself to the path of empire in the 1890s, and it’s why every nation in western Europe either had or desperately wanted an overseas empire—even Belgium, for heaven’s sake, had its own little vest pocket empire in Africa, and exploited it ruthlessly.

The near-total domination of the world by European empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in conjunction with the popular racism of the time—Kipling’s pompous blather about "the white man’s burden" was embarrassingly typical for its era—has given rise in some circles to the notion that there’s something uniquely European or, more precisely, uniquely white about empire. In reality, of course, the peoples of Europe and the European diaspora were by and large Johnny-come-latelies to the business of empire. Ancient Egypt, as already mentioned, was as creative in this as in so many other of the arts of civilization, and had a thriving empire that extended far south along the Nile and north along the Mediterranean coast.

The great arc of city-states that extended from modern Turkey through the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and the mountains and plateaus further east to the Indus Valley gave rise to dozens of empires at a time when Europe was a patchwork of illiterate tribal societies that still thought bronze was high tech. China had its own ancient and highly successful empire, and half a dozen other east Asian nations copied the Chinese model and pursued their own dreams of imperial expansion and enrichment. Sub-Saharan Africa had at least a dozen great empires, while the Aztecs were only the latest in a long history of Native American empires as splendid and predatory as anything the Old World had to offer. Empire is one of the most common patterns by which nations to relate to one another, and it seems to emerge spontaneously whenever one nation has a sufficient preponderance of power to exploit another. Its emergence sets certain patterns and processes pretty reliably into motion; we’ll be discussing those during the weeks to come.


In other news, I'm delighted to report that my new book The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil is now available for preorder from Scarlet Imprint, in two limited editions. (The paperback and e-book editions will be available for preorder a bit later.) Everything's on track for a release at the upcoming Spring Equinox. Please visit for full details and ordering information!

End of the World of the Week #9

Joachim of Fiore was a medieval monk, but in many ways it’s hard to think of a more thoroughly modern figure. He was born somewhere around 1135 in the Italian province of Calabria, worked for the government of the Kingdom of Sicily for a while, then got religion in 1174 and entered the Benedictine order—yes, that’s the twelfth-century equivalent of leaving your corporate job and ending up in a New Age ashram in Sedona. In 1184, while on his way to Rome on monastery business, he stopped at an abbey in Casamari, and that’s where he suddenly metamorphosed from common or garden variety mystic seeker to full-blown medieval guru.

While he was at Casamari, to be precise, he had a series of visions that revealed to him the secret meaning of the Book of Revelations and the entire shape of the world’s history. The short form was that all of time was divided into three parts, which related to the three persons of the Christian trinity. The Age of the Father ran from the creation of the world to the advent of Jesus, and was the age of law; the Age of the Son ran from there to the downfall of Antichrist, which either Joachim or his students—nobody’s quite sure which—expected in the year 1260, and was the age of grace; the final Age of the Holy Spirit, the blissful age of love and liberty, ran from then on until the end of the world. Thus the various cataclysms of the Book of Revelations, in Joachim’s thought, were simply rough patches on the road to paradise on earth.

Joachim’s good news proved to be highly popular, and made him internationally famous. When King Richard the Lionheart was on his way to the Third Crusade, he made time to stop by Joachim’s monastery and ask for a prophecy about the upcoming war with the Saracens; Joachim obligingly did the necessary calculations, and told the king that the Crusade would be a huge success and Jerusalem would be recaptured by the Christians; he was wrong, but that did nothing to dent his reputation. He went to his death in 1202 serenely convinced that the wonderful Age of the Holy Spirit was going to arrive on schedule in not much over half a century. Instead, his views were condemned as heretical by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and when 1260 rolled around, nothing out of the ordinary happened at all.

—story from Apocalypse Not


DeAnander said...

I was waiting eagerly for Weds evening :-) and it's a nice kick-off to the proposed series. One reference that occurred to me as I read the ArchD's comments on the durable "empire as peacekeeper" trope was Byron Farwell's little book, "Queen Victoria's Little Wars," which documented the sheer number and variety of minor military actions carried out by British troops in the peripheral zones of the British Empire during the Queen Empress' reign... anyway, interesting reading if you like that period, and a good antidote to that popular trope.

I think there's also historical support for the suggestion that peace and quiet can prevail even in an absence of draconian centralised power: Ascherson's 'Black Sea' iirc documents a period of multicultural tolerance, diversity, and prosperity in a constellation of mid-size communities on the shores of the Black Sea. Alas it was not a lengthy period in historical terms -- a mere couple of centuries or so and a minor portion of the story he's telling -- but it must have been rather nice if you were born at the right time. The rest of his story is more conventionally filled with hostilities, skirmishes, and outright wars (sigh).

The other thing that strikes me (rather depressingly) is that empire might be a human pattern -- something like the concentric patterns of lichen growing on rocks, or the pattern of tree rings. Suppose that you have 4 human cultures sharing borders (map theorem stuff). If one of them is more populous or stronger or more aggressive than the neighbours, then it would tend to expand and absorb their resources and become even larger and stronger... a kind of Gresham's Law of politics, in which "bad" (aggressive, warlike) cultures drive out "good" (peaceful, good-natured) ones. However, its growth would eventually be limited by its ability to manage the complexity (Tainter) and/or the limits on biotic productivity in the region it's trying to metastasize into (Diamond, Ponting, CoR, et al).

Through this biological/pattern/systems lens, empire would be inevitable in any areas where biotic productivity was such as to permit the accumulation of surplus. So (as in fact we find) there isn't much empire in resource-poor environments (like the Kalahari, or the outback of Australia); places like that tend more to tribal bands who, while they may not be cute little Ewoks ('cos no one is), are not forming regimented armies and enslaving their neighbours for fun and profit... continuing this dismal line of thought, the pattern of human culture would be to occupy rich biomes, develop empires, loot the local biosphere until we hit complexity or resource limits, crash, rinse, repeat; if we strip the biome badly enough to make it into a desert (N Africa, etc) then the pattern is over and some more sparse, less regimented and complex culture is the new pattern. Any takers? I don't like this theory because it seems so darned deterministic, as if we had no moral agency at all; but when you look at our history, moral agency does seem to be hard to detect...

John Michael Greer said...

DeAnander, thanks for the reminder about Farwell! A useful book,and one I'll want to consult as we proceed. As for moral agency, as I see it, that's something that individuals have; the primitive organisms we call human societies show no sign of it.

hadashi said...

When the time came for us to choose the subjects we'd take in our final year of high school, my History teacher, Mr Hoskin, a Lord Kitchener look-alike, expressed disappointment that most of his class (including me) was going to do other subjects for the main (Science and Maths, me). He'd be proud, I feel, to know how avidly I'm devouring this blog for its lessons about the far and recent past.

Steve in Colorado said...


"Long time reader, first time writer," as they say. I was wondering two things:

First, was there a 19th century analog to the Soviet Empire, and, if not (I can't think of one), how can the US position post-WWII really be analogous to the British?

Second, are you familiar with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's book and concept of Empire (capital E intended)? I'm not writing as a partisan, but I think this idea has quite a bit of currency on the left. The idea is that the present global political-economic configuration consists of a whole mess of globe-hopping centers of power, with imperialism ("empire," as you define it) largely a thing of the past that enjoyed a recent, failed revival under the Bush crowd.

I think there's something to this idea. But I wonder how it relates to your concept of empire and the project you've outlined for this blog.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I assume corporations are also part of the mechanism of empire? I occasionally come across diatribes (snarls?) condemning corporations using the same language that people use to condemn the concept of empire. The East India company was a massive funnel of wealth back to Europe for a couple of centuries.

You’re probably not aware (and why would you be?) but my favourite news source has recently undergone a majority shareholder purchase by Australia’s (and one of the world’s) richest persons. Well done.

So, here am I sitting up in the forest on a hot afternoon, after a mornings hard work with a couple of hours to spare and wondering about the general merits of editorial integrity! It was quite auspicious that the question came up last week about what news services you yourself perused.

I usually only have time for a few websites, but to cut a long story short, I had a look at The Oil Drum and was most impressed. There are some bright people writing there.

However, I can see that they’ve fallen into a trap. They’ve raised the alarm, but there is little consensus on a way forward and therein lies the trap. They are also clamouring for someone, somewhere else to enact their bold visions.

In general, it comes across as if the information presented is all theoretical posturing. Harsh? Maybe? I’m a practical kind of guy and thoughts do not translate into actions.

Now, I don’t expect you to comment on the above for obvious reasons which don’t need to be spelt out.

But, given that so much of our society has a magical basis, I can see why people think the way they do over there at The Oil Drum.

On a different issue, I came across a natty quote recently I wanted to share: When you get in the mud with pigs, you get dirty and the pigs get happy. As part of that thought, I have been trialling your nonlinear thought / action process and have found that the do nothing approach has been very effective. I now have a new thought / action guide which is, if in doubt, do nothing. Very powerful stuff.

The same person who provided the quote also stated that people offering help were viewed in general with suspicion and perhaps even a little envy. This had never occurred to me as I’ve always offered help genuinely. The strange thing is, that it is rarely taken up and I’ve been given to wondering about why this may be. If people offer me help, I’m quickly organising times and dates. This thought has been on top of my strange experiences in the past couple of years with volunteering, where I deduced that people do not respect work that they get for free, so I have decided to no longer offer help to anyone.

What I can also deduce out of my experiences and learning is that social currency has no value and until it does I’ll look after my own affairs which entails getting my own house in order (which it mostly is). If in doubt, do nothing.

PS: I look forward to obtaining a copy of your new book.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Oh yeah. I think I may have worked out how the US empire funnels wealth back into the US. I'd been thinking about this for a while and picking up a bit of information here and there and then suddenly the light switched on.

Most forward exchange hedges and international purchasing contracts (including long term supply contracts) are conducted in US dollars. This is a constant right across the world (there are some minor exceptions).

When your federal reserve prints money and injects it yours and the worlds economy, it is creating monetary wealth because the rest of the world is forced to buy US dollars and thus slowing the rate of devaluation of the US currency that would otherwise be occurring under any other circumstance. It's genius really, but risky as you'd think at some point there may be a tipping point when countries, individuals and corporations no longer decide to swap physical goods and energy for what is essentially paper. This is where your military steps in.

It wasn't discussed widely but Saddam Hussein had for a while been using the Euro (instead of US dollars) in Iraqs oil sales and I have often wondered whether if his government had not done so whether things would have turned out differently for him?

All speculation really, but still fascinating stuff.



Robo said...

As DeAnander notes above, human history can be seen as a series of rings or ripples; a fractal of rise and fall, ebb and flow. A pretty pattern when viewed from afar, but from up close just as savage and chaotic as an upturned anthill.

We moderns gaze at our bright screens and think we're special, but except for the fossil fuels, we're just like all the rest. Beautiful, ugly and brief.

Red Neck Girl said...

The reason we avoided using the designation of empire in this country is because we used that name as an epithet, mildly in regard to England a whole lot less so in relation to Japan and other countries. Of course we cast ourselves as 'good, honest, hard working people' who had nothing to do with such 'things' as empire. All the while conveniently ignoring completely the Manifest Destiny declaration in regard to the whole of the American continent. From the POV of an individual of some First Nations ancestry that's a tad more than hypocritical, but what else is new?

In reference to what the USA will look like in decline I think it would be best to take a look at England for the closest model to ours but its only an outline and this isn't England. Its a big country and we'll have situations resulting from the distance that would never occur in a European country. Here in the west it will become perhaps more Balkanized. As Glen said once things fall apart the mountains of Northern California and Southern Oregon will be a no man's land of near tribal inhabitants. The coast and the large inland valleys will be the most 'cosmopolitan' of the more densely inhabited parts of the states out here.

As someone else commented in a post not long ago, S. M. Sterling's Change series had much the same thing in regard to the inhabitants out here. Of course instead of an over night collapse the USA will enter a senescence lasting a hundred years or more.

In the coming decades we will come to a complete understanding of that 'Chinese' curse; May you live in "interesting" times!

Wadulisi Tsaligi

Kieran O'Neill said...

@DenAnder I tend to hold with Jared Diamond's view that regimented armies, empires, etc are a by-product of agriculture, and that once agriculture gets going, those societies that have it rapidly overwhelm those that don't.

I think the reason nomadic peoples survive in the Australian Outback, Kalahari, Arctic Circle, etc, are that those are lands too marginal for agriculture. Certainly, given the example of the Khoisan people, there is plenty of archaeological evidence that they lived all over Southern Africa until peoples with agriculture arrived about 2,000 years ago. The last cave paintings seem to have petered out about 150 years ago, around when Europeans arrive.

Interestingly, there is some cultural evidence that they assimilated into those later peoples. Zulu and Xhosa, for instance, have several click phonemes typical of Khoisan languages, and atypical of the language branch to which they belong.

I strongly suspect that the habit of foraging for wild edible greens (imifino) during seasons when the crops are poor was also acquired from the Khoisan.

Anyway, at the very least those all-consumptive empires could offer a little hope to the societies they swallow up...

DeAnander said...

You've disturbed me, JMG. The idea of human societies as primitive organisms (like yeast, or lichen rings, or bacteria) is scary, yet it rings true somehow. It rather contradicts our fundamental notions about scale -- we ourselves are complex beings with language, tools, culture, memory, agency, moral qualms etc, but we are made up of countless less complicated organisms like cells (with mitochondria living in 'em), bacteria, etc. Or, to take another tack, the behaviour of a bee or ant colony is "intelligent", yet each individual ant or bee doesn't seem to have much brain.

So I tend to think of large agglomerations of less complex organisms as the definition of more complex organisms. But what if... what if... colonies of humans are less complex in their behaviour, more deterministic, less intelligent, than individual humans? what if we each have more brain than all of us? What if we get stupider as we pass Dunbar's Number? We have traditional jokes about the intelligence of a crowd being inversely proportional to its size and so on. What if they're nearly true? Argh.

And yet it could be argued that the inside of the "civilisation" colony with its resource-rich "core" environment permits the development of ever-more complex and sophisticated behaviours (art, literature, drama, music, fashion, laws, finance, religious pomp, conspicuous consumerism) for individuals? this is often cited as a justification for urbanisation and even for empire.

Is "complex and sophisticated" the same thing as intelligent?

galacticsurfer said...

I have been reading about Locke's theories and I found it interesting that he says that revelation, such as the monk you mentioned had, could for example be had by everyone with different results and then "absolute truth" would be multiple (absurd of course), depending on who you are and this resulted in the relgious civil wars in England, due to religious sectarianism.

So the idea of liberalism= allow free opinion toleration in a parliament and tolerance of religion, was the solution to this conundrum.

So Common sense was his most important answer ot idelogical or revealed truth. Everything tha came from the mind, purely internal logical concepts or mystical revelation had to be judged against experience, which was the highest good. So here we have the birth of modern science and political liberalism and the business basis of society. Very interesting stuff. When it spread to France it got radiclized by others as it did not carry well into a despotic culture so we got the revolution.

Avery said...

Fantastic post about the meaning of empire. It can be summed up quite simply, as the historical writer "Spengler" (David Goldman) has pointed out: we speak of the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, and Pax Americana, but not of any peace of the Dark Ages, because despite the inner peace that Christianity was meant to bring to the world, the reality of that time was of power vacuums, chaos, and war.

Empire is an incredibly complex subject, but I think of those three Western empires, America will be the most sorely missed: see how the competing interests of the 20th century, who trampled so many millions, were reduced to America plus roughly three "rogue states" by 2012! See how situations in faraway countries that could have erupted into total war throughout a region, like the Palestinian intifada or the Taiwan dispute, were instead cooled down by the presence of American power! Yet like all great empires, America had its rise and will have its fall. As you've said here before, America was never perfect and is now undergoing the slow process, which began in the 1970s, of tearing apart its own economic and cultural structures.

I recommend the modern "Spengler"'s books for more thoughts on this subject, although he mostly writes on current events and not history.

jean-vivien said...


would you have any good articles to recommend on the history of the pre 1870 and/or pre WWI periods ? Like, the British empire, but also Europe, the buildup to war, etc... ?

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Here's some lines from a cheery song celebrating mighty Belgium.

Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser;
Europe took the stick and made him sore;
And if Turkey makes a stand
She'll get ghurka'd and japanned,
And it won't be Hoch the Kaiser any more.

He'll have to go to school again
And learn his geography,
He quite forgot Britannia
And the hands across the sea,
Australia and Canada,
the Russian and the Jap,
And England looked so small
He couldn't see her on the map.
Whilst Ireland seemed unsettled,
'Ah' said he 'I'll settle John',
But he didn't know the Irish
Like he knew them later on.
Though the Kaiser stirred the lion,
Please excuse him for the crime,
His lunatic attendant
Wasn't with him at the time.

The cavalry rise and join in. All sing:

For Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser;
Europe took the stick and made him sore;
We shall shout with victory's joy,
Hold your hand out, naughty boy,
You must never play at soldiers any more.

Lyrics from 'Oh What a Lovely War'

Mustard (it's a gas)

Damien Perrotin said...

It is interesting to note that, even though, France hasn’t been officially at war since 1945, our army has been quite busy in the last six decades. In fact, its army is still quite busy. French troops are fighting in Afghanistan and have been heavily involved in the Ivorian and Chadian messes. Those wars are waged by professional soldiers recruited from the lower (and more colored) tiers of the French society, however, so the average Frenchman can safely ignore them.

I suppose it is the same thing for America.

In my opinion, Empires don’t reduce violence, they export it to their periphery. In thermodynamic terms, the increased order in the core comes at the cost of an increased disorder in the periphery, disorder which can express itself as conventional warfare, insurgencies, chronic instability, corrupt governments, criminality and the like.

It certainly benefits the core (basically America, Western Europe and Japan), wether it’s globally beneficial is quite another matter.

Jason said...

Indeed I have always found Eurocentrisms like Ferguson’s laughable -- war was simply a periphery affair, the legions as ever returning laden with African gold.

I liked DeAnander’s comment. I always think of Catton and his call for a ‘clear-eyed ecological view of history’ when I read your take on empire. It’s all to do with how a certain species organises its interface with the material world.

Interesting stuff on the ‘bitter public debates’ over US imperial goals, that’s history I don’t know at all. Who are we talking about?

Thijs Goverde said...

Funny - no one I know would raise an eyebrow at the idea that the USA is an empire. Except maybe out of ennui - of course it's an empire, duh.
Nor would that be meant as a snarl-word (and really, fascist? Does anyone use that as a snarlword anymore? Other than as descriptive of actual fascists, I mean, such as the odd neo-nazi or that one Italian political party).

I think the reason 'Empire' is a snarl-word on your side of the Atlantic is mostly etymological: 'empire' is tied to the figure of the imperator, the emperor, and it wouldn't surprise me if that were the bit that's hard to swallow for many Americans.
Historically, the USA has been very proud to call itself a democracy and it may well be that pride that's dentend by the suggestion you could be in any way like a state governed by an emperor.
Aren't there conspiracy theorists who accuse the president of their choice (Bush te Younger, Obama) of secretly harbouring dynastic ambitions?
As if making the presidency hereditary were worse than (insert favourite USAian imperial atrocity here - Gitmo, PATRIOT act, any war...)!

More people should read more Vidal books. Should be a mandatory part of the high school curriculum, really - read Empire (1987) and write an essay on why that book has that particular title...

Heh. Authentication phrase: ndarkske side

Jason Heppenstall said...

I notice in the news that the French are thinking about building a Napoleon theme park.

I'm wondering if, perhaps, there might be something similar in America in, say, the late 23rd century.

Nixon Land? Raegan World?

Who knows what the future will throw up!

Jim Brewster said...

The Nile may have been the heart of the Egyptian empire, but denial is the heart of the American empire. (Sorry, puns are one of my favorite magical/rhetorical tools...)

Perhaps because the 13 colonies successfully cast out their imperial overlords, we have had a national disdain for empires. So while the European kingdoms could openly seek empire out of the simple desire to cash in, we needed to construct elaborate justifications for it. More often than not we used our well-honed rhetoric of liberty, first in our hemisphere and then beyond.

When we rose to the top after 1945 we needed the justification that the Soviet empire was at least on par with us, and if we didn't continue to beggar the periphery of our empire, the world would fall under a red cloud of Marxist tyranny.

The Cold War was really only cold to us because we were so far from the actual fighting.

I remember after the Berlin Wall fell there was a mixture of hope and dread in the fact that our empire no longer seemed so justified. Of course new justification had to be found...

Michelle said...

Re: "One striking detail, of course, sets today’s American empire apart from most of its predecessors, and that is the curious fact that very few people will publicly admit that America has an empire at all." I would amend your statement, as I don't think it's an active denial of empire. I see it rather as a complete unawareness of the US as Empire. I have been wondering of late how much of that is a result of the deliberate word choice employed by TPTB. I grew up, and indeed joined the Navy, under the belief that our presence in other countries was at THEIR invitation and to THEIR benefit - which, according to your meditation on empire, is close to antithesis of What Empire Is. I arrived at the conclusion that what we have IS empire by means of the time-honored 'if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..."

escapefromwisconsin said...

One quibble - Ferguson's book is The Ascent of Money, and your description of it rings true; one wonders how a person can read it and not think our 'system' is completely daft. David Graeber's recent book is a useful contrast - it actually asks big questions about how our financial system works, how it really came about, and who it's working for.

Twilight said...

I'm glad you're getting into this. It's kind of bizarre that what should be a matter-of-fact obvious reality is instead a point of contention. We have an empire. I suppose it just doesn't fit with the myths we tell ourselves about who we are.

I've been using the term western industrial empire, because it seems that with fossil fuel driven high speed transportation and communications the core of the empire is tied less to a nation-state and more to a class of people. Or at least the movers and shakers identify more with their class than their nation. Perhaps it's more of a descendent-from-white-European empire. Canada, Western Europe and Australia are in, Mexico, South America, Asia and Africa are out. But I suppose this has parallels in the Roman empire and others, and I expect that as the availability of fossil fuel energy decreases people will begin to emphasize their regional identity again.

Anyway, by refusing to see the reality of the empire and what its purpose is, people leave themselves open to misunderstanding what is driving the use of military force around the world, why we are where we are and what is likely to happen next. They believe instead that touchstone singular events (such as 9/11) shape our actions, rather than these actions being the typical machinations of an empire trying to keep itself going (and past the point on negative marginal returns).

Nano said...

Culture is for bacteria! ;)

I have heard from several folks that the American empire will never truly go away, but its power will be diminished and shared with other rising countries; of course China, India and Brazil, see to come up often in the discussion. It seems to me that it is the global corporations with no ties to any country, that will end up making all the policy, much like they currently seem to be doing. What do you all think?

On that note, could it be possible, or even worth it to demand change in the corporations, that depend on us, to keep it alive?

Orange Sky said...

Interesting how my recent reading dovetails with this new topic of empire. I just finished reading "King Leopold's Ghost" (Adam Hochschild) and then "Banana" (Dan Koeppel). Both books explore the use of power to extract wealth and exposed me to some 19th & early 20th century history of which I was rather ignorant. The history of the Congo overwhelms me (not to mention explains a lot of the current problems there) and I will never look at a banana the same way again. Power and greed - the combination brings so much misery.

h0neanias said...

Why Americans are so reticent to acknowledge their own empire seems similar to why Romans were so blind to the fact their precious republic turned into an autocracy, that is the prevalent narrative that forms one's cultural identity, a principle lucidly discussed on these pages as well. If one's orgin myth rests on the struggle against an empire, turning into one must bring a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance, which is most conveniently resolved by closing one's eyes, shutting one's ears and going la-la-la -- especially if one starts imagining his nation as a God's proxy in the world, that is essentially a servant of the absolute Good. Those, to my scarcely educated mind at least, seem to be two roots of the aforementioned reticence.

Mister Roboto said...

This is a highly useful definition as empire, seeing as how a lot of people think of empire in terms of what they remember from public-school history classes. For such people, empire means territorial annexation and direct administrative subjugation, usually be military means. It is because of this very narrow definition of empire that many misinformed people insist that the USA doesn't have an empire and never would have such a thing.

Hypnos said...

European empires had devastating effects on their subject territories, and the ridiculous notion that they were a "force for good" should be laid to rest in the dustbin of history where it belongs.

However I find myself in disagreement over the definition of empire - or at least its application to the 19th century scramble for Africa.

A good author in this regard is economic historian Paul Bairoch. He trudged through a lot of 19th century European economic data and showed that the raw materials that powered the industrial revolution - coal, iron, minerals - came overwhelmingly from Europe itself. The UK was the Saudi Arabia of coal for example. And trade flows were similarly oriented - France, Germany, the Netherlands and the USA made up over 80% of British trade in 1870 by value.

So there might be more to empire than simple resource extraction. And as we know the US was the Saudi Arabia of oil before Saudi Arabia came along. The staggering amount of resources available to the relatively small American population within their own territory is what set the US apart.

I am not sure what the implication of this would be for the history of contemporary empires, but it's sure worth exploring.

And we might be returning to a more classical, resource oriented form of empire, looking at current Chinese operations in Africa.

Tyler August said...

It's interesting that "Peace in Europe" largely means "few dead Tommies"-- Napoleon the Third(large-E), who saw a million men lost from 1850-1872 in the Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars might disagree. No, the losses aren't on the same scale as the apocalypses in 1914 and 1939, but I feel like they make a bit of a dent in the Pax Britannia argument. It seems like English-language histories often gloss over these conflicts--especially when you consider where the seeds of the entire 20th century were planted (the Cold War in the ruins of Sevastopol*, and the World Wars by a Prussian boot heel at Versailles).

Messy thing, history. Still, I don't blame you for complicating your narrative at this point with French, Russian and German empires (good, honest capital-E Empires), since they just confuse the Anglo-American angle.

*Admittedly, if you want the roots of the Cold War you can go back to the Pope and Patriarch excommunicating each-other, but I suspect even Russians have a hard time holding much heat in a grudge after 900 years.

I. M. Nobody said...

Original sin had nothing to do with a garden and an apple; it occurred the first time one of
our hominid ancestors used a nonrenewable natural resource.
-- Chris Clugston

It may be that superiority in metal working is not essential to empire, but it sure does seem that way.

Glenn in Maine said...

Hi, I'm in the middle of Steven Pinker's new book 'The Better Angels Of Our Nature' and am revising my predisposition against the colonial era. He outlines the surprising fact that violence has declined for the past 800 years, which is a result of Enlightenment Humanism. In the process he shows how Hume was right, the concept of the ‘noble savage’ is wrong, and rehabilitates the Civilizing Process that trade has (made possible and expressed by empire). Not done with it, but it’s certainly challenged my automatic assumptions of the evils of empire. He’s been described as Chomsky’s heir, and is clearly no establishment apologist. Thought you might be interested.

Bill Pulliam said...

I may be jumping the gun on you a bit on this one...

Each empire reaches the turning point where the resources it takes to maintain it outstrips the flow of resources that the imperial structures bring in. Cue catabolic collapse. What I am wondering is this:

Do empires ever de-imperialize consciously? And if so, can this actually increase (or at least slow the rate of decline in) the overall wealth and resource availability for the imperial citizens?

More specifically, considering the point in our nascent decline at which we find ourselves in America. At this moment, if we were to voluntarily scale back our military-industrial global empire, would this improve the lot of we who live here at home? Or would our loss of control over the "global marketplace" more than offset the savings from a huge military rollback? I ask this purely from a resource point of view, not from any political perspective or even with any ethical considerations.

JP said...

"his The Rise of Money, by contrast, is little more than an exercise in cheerleading for the same misguided economic notions that are setting the stage right now for an explosion that may well rival the one that followed Sarajevo, and the same divergence can be traced straight through his work."

Which economic notions are these? I only ask because I've never read him and it's always nice to know the underlying principles of a work by someone who has already done the hard work of determining the underlying principles before one reads a book.

subunit said...

I'm a little surprised that you've gone to Ferguson for analysis of this issue rather than, say, Immanuel Wallerstein or Giovanni Arrighi, whose contributions to world-systems theory both neatly sidestep the problems with 'snarl words' and are also far more useful in terms of broad-scope analysis of the trajectories of empire. Probably worth looking at in the future.

JP said...

Isn't part of the reason that WWII happened in the manner in which it happened that the U.S. *didn't* act as "world leader" (really Western naval trade imperial power) so we got the repeat war with the same actors, after which the U.S. *did* fill this role?

John Michael Greer said...

Hadashi, glad you're enjoying it!

Steve, the equivalent of the Soviet empire when Britannia ruled the waves (and everything else she could get her grubby hands on) was, of course, France -- Britain's great rival all through the 18th century, and still a jealous also-ran in the 19th, with the world's second largest overseas empire. It took the rise of Germany to force England and France into an uneasy alliance in the first years of the 20th century. As for Hardt and Negri, I haven't read their book so can't comment meaningfully.

Cherokee, corporations are part of the structure of 21st century empire just as they were essential to the 19th century equivalent. As for the mechanisms of the current wealth pump, yes, the hegemony of the dollar is part of that, though only part -- there's been a lot of ingenuity put into working out ways to extract wealth from subject nations over the years.

Robo, not a bad metaphor.

Girl, we'll be talking about all those points in quite some length over the months ahead. The decline of British empire was made a lot less brutal than it might have been by the deal Britain cut with the rising power of the US, and a similar deal might be in America's future -- but it's not likely.

DeAnander, again, it's mostly the behaviors of individuals that become complex and sophisticated. Human societies as meta-organisms remain very primitive in their relations to one another and their environment, possibly because they haven't been around for that long in evolutionary terms.

Surfer, excellent! Yes, that's one of the foundations of democratic society -- the recognition that since nobody has privileged access to absolute truth, tolerance and diversity are the best policies. I wish more people read Locke. I'll be talking about that at quite a bit of length down the road a bit.

Avery, sure, but the flip side of the equation is that outside the imperial core, the peace of empire comes with poverty and repression, and within the core, empire is a self-terminating phenomenon with a nasty hangover. We'll get into that further on.

Jean-Vivien, Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower is a useful introduction to the world just before the First World War, and Adam Hochschild's harrowing King Leopold's Ghost, on the Belgian empire in the Congo, is well worth reading as a sample of European imperial praxis. Beyond that -- well, I'm waiting for a bunch of library reserve requests to come in; I'll be in a position to offer a more detailed reading list once I've had a chance to survey the results.

Mustard, funny. I notice, though, that they weren't singing about the Belgian slave labor camps in the Congo, where the natives who didn't meet their daily quotas had their hands cut off. Just sayin'.

Damien, exactly. In the US, most soldiers come from the poorer classes of all colors, and they've been fighting somewhere in the world most of the time since 1945, so it's much the same thing.

Richard Clyde said...

Galactic Surfer-- We should be cautious about turning to Locke too enthusiastically. John Gray, in Two Faces of Liberalism, makes a good case that Locke's sort of liberalism is blinkered by its presumption that there is an absolute truth in the first place for us to disagree about. Toleration, on this model, is a matter partly of forgiving each other's ignorance of the truth, and partly of enabling a 'marketplace of ideas' in which the play of reasonable disagreement will help us arrive at the truth or a better picture of it.

This latter is the trouble. Gray's point is that it's a dangerous business to operate with the idea that there's any truth we can ever arrive at. In extremis the notion provides constant temptation to Jacobins of one stripe or another. But even in more temperate hands, a toleration of varied means doesn't make the spectre of a common social end go away, and that spectre is what produces apocalyptic political faiths like Leninism or the free market.

What Gray proposes we emphasise instead owes more to Hobbes than to Locke: liberal tolerance as a modus vivendi, a minimal way of compromise among many overlapping institutions and lifeways that aims to maintain peace without hoping to improve the general state.

Zach said...


I don't really have anything to add this week, but I do want to say that your refusal to use snarl words and your attention to definition and meaning are one of the things that make your writing a pleasure to read. Please keep up the good work.


I can assure you that here in the United States, "fascist" is regularly hurled as a snarl word, with little more content than "authoritarian," or perhaps "those other bad people who want laws I don't like."


okieinbabylon said...

It's interesting that the word empire was thrown about quite liberally (and enthusiastically) here in the USA between the Civil War and WWI. Place names like the Inland Empire of California live on as a testament to attitudes at the time. A currently operating Amtrak line from Chicago to the West Coast is called the "Empire Builder".

The same time period gave rise to the beginnings of our overseas empire, when Cuba and the Philippines were seized from Spain. The war against the Filipinos was a brutal and protracted affair reminiscent of the "small wars" being waged by the European empires at the same time.

It seems to me that Americans at that time were quite happy to have an empire. I suspect our current denial of imperial status has more to do with recognition of the immorality of domination and associated practices, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the benefits that we Americans still receive from them.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I haven't read Korten's book, but it sounds like another example of what I call the "Oh, Ain't It Awful" genre of writing. I've noticed this form in a lot of different books and Dvds on a lot of different subjects.

Not a lot of solutions, just a lot of horror stories. I'm trying to avoid this kind of thing, as they're basically time wasters.

Richard Larson said...

As fast as an empire can build up a nations wealth, just as fast, and in all directions, will empire suck the wealth dry.

Of course, the teacher would be mindful of the word fast - which is subjective.

AA said...

I'll wait until JMG has immersed himself more in the literature of empire. Authors like Ferguson and Tuchmann are both amateurs in my opinion. Off the top of my head, Paul Kennedy's "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" and Wallerstein's 4-volume "The Modern World System" should be required reading. Add Varoufakis' recent "The Global Minotaur" for insight into how American policymakers like Kennan shaped the US imperial structure after WW2. The US imperial structure differs markedly from its European predecessors. Before I forget, Engdahl's "A Century of War" for insight in how the American imperium and its military structure depend critically on oil (unlike the British empire, which was fueled by coal).

FraterX said...

I would posit as well that the Banking industry in all forms is also a wealth extraction system on an even more pervasive scale though as simply and easily empire.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, we'll get to that in a few more posts.

Thijs, one of the advantages of living on a continent where empires and fascist states are still a part of living memory is that the words get used with more precision. Here in the US, they get thrown around very loosely indeed.

Jason, I trust you meant "throw up" in the sense of losing one's lunch!

Jim, America's distaste for the word "empire" is fairly recent, and has a lot to do with the gleeful Soviet use of the label "imperialist" for every empire but their own. Still, you're quite right that our system needs an enemy; more on this later.

Michelle, there's a remarkable amount of doublespeak in today's America. I'm old enough to remember when the American media made fun of Pravda's insistence that Soviet troops went into any country you care to name at the request of the peace-loving local people, blah blah blah. Now we're uttering the same nonsense.

Escape, thanks for the quibble; I'll get that corrected.

Twilight, right now it's an American empire; a century ago it was British; different countries claw their way to the top of the heap, teeter there for a while, and fall off. The next contender will almost certainly not be descended from white Europeans.

Nano, they said exactly the same thing about the British empire. Where is it now? As for corporations, I have major doubts about the point of view that sees them as independent actors, much less the real powers in today's world. The situation's a good deal more complex than that, as I hope to show later on.

Sky, those are worth reading.

h0neanias, those are certainly two of the important factors at work.

Mister R., there's a complicated history behind the US version of empire, which we'll be discussing in due time.

Hypnos, you're reading my definition too narrowly. Empire is a wealth pump, not purely an energy or natural resource pump; there are many ways in which unequal patterns of exchange can be used to siphon money from one country to another.

John Michael Greer said...

Tyler, no, the Pax Britannica was considerably more significant than that. Compare the number of wars in 19th century Europe from Waterloo on to the number of European wars, say, between 1714 and 1814, or between 1614 and 1714, or -- well, any other century back to the Middle Ages; the difference is pretty drastic.

Nobody, tell that to the Aztecs, who fought their wars with obsidian weapons.

Glenn, I haven't read it, but I have my doubts, to be frank.

Bill, yes, you're way ahead of the game. We'll get there.

JP, the ones I critiqued at length in The Wealth of Nature, primarily the habit of confusing money with wealth, and the increasingly dysfunctional economic actions that unfold from that habit.

Subunit, I'm familiar with Wallerstein, and could have used him, except that it's more entertaining to poke at Ferguson.

JP, it's a good deal more complex than that. Again, we'll get there further down the road.

Zach, thank you.

Okie, exactly. More on this soon.

Lewis, oh, it's more than that. It's a fairly straightforward pitch for an "enlightened" authoritarianism run by Korten, or people who agree with him. Quite a frightening book, in its way.

Richard, bingo. You get today's gold star.

AA, I've read Kennedy and Wallerstein, and found them less useful as ways of introducing the ideas I want to explore than the authors I mentioned. If I simply wanted to rehash the conventional academic wisdom, there wouldn't be much point to this series of posts! The books I'm waiting for right now, btw, are more focused studies of specific periods in history, such as the one Jean-Vivien was asking about.

Frater, that's like saying that the hammer is responsible for deciding where the nail goes in. Banks and banking systems are part of the machinery, not independent actors.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Jason inquires, "Interesting stuff on the ‘bitter public debates’ over US imperial goals, that’s history I don’t know at all. Who are we talking about?"

One part of this happened at the end of the Spanish-American War. The U.S. government cited anti-colonialism as a moral justification for a war of choice. There was already an insurgency against Spain in progress in one of its possessions, the Philippines. At the end of the war, the insurgents declared independence but the U.S. government refused to recognize them. Instead, the U.S.A. went to war against their guerrilla forces.

It was reminiscent of the Vietnam War except that the Filipinos did not have a powerful ally. They lost. The U.S. installed a puppet government and built a big naval base.

Mark Twain wrote a Swiftian satire on this titled "To the Person Sitting In Darkness." It's available online.

check words "onotesf foundering"
check on second attempt "Converter nsfunds"

Nathan said...

JMG & Bill -

It appears to me that there is an implicit correlation here that empires are super-rich and that is why they keep expanding. Maybe the truth somewhat more complicated in that empires are societies that, from the very beginning, are too broken to stop growing or experience modest declines without imploding completely.

Saying that empires are rich during their hey-day is like saying that alcoholics are charming, suave people during the early part of their disease - the outer exterior is covering up a pervasive internal sickness from the very beginning. I feel like this is why societies choose to go down the road of empire to begin with - internal dysfunction.

Michelle said...

JMG - re: your response to me, stating, "there's a remarkable amount of doublespeak in today's America" - I utterly agree, and it goes further back than the current linguistic homogenization effort presently labeled "political correctness." My interest, holding a Master's in Language and Literature, is how the linguistic shift against using 'empire' here in the US began, and who went along with it, and how explicit was the redirection. Did it evolve subtly, or was there a concerted effort to 'sanitize' our foreign relations language? If so, what agency or agenda initiated the shift? I don't know that you have those answers, as they may well reside outside of your field of interest. I just find it curious, and rather astonishing that the whitewashing has been so complete that an entire nation of 300M people has been rendered ignorant of the true state of its status in foreign policy and relations.

DeAnander said...

I'm wondering if I need to recant my suggestion that empire arises from a biotic surplus... Probably hierarchy, a leisure class, warrior aesthetic, etc. arise from surplus, but maybe empire arises from the end of surplus: Our Gang had a cushy lifestyle and did a bit of raiding and reiving, but now we've kind of wrecked our topsoil and raised our numbers and cut down our trees -- and rather than see our lifestyle decline, we'll just go next door & take someone else's food (and labour) and so on.

I'm thinking about the raider cultures -- like the Haida, the Kwakiutl, the Vikings, quite a few others, who were warlike as all git-out, hierarchical, status-oriented, complex, luxurious by local standards, violent, took slaves, stole stuff -- but never really went in for the whole annexing and administrating thang. They stuck to their home ground. Their periphery was fairly close to home and they "harvested" it in brief bursts, not continuous exploitation as in "real" empire (Rome, et al)... but maybe, if the Haida, say, had been left alone by whiteboy for a bit longer, their numbers might have increased to the point where they were driven to colonise, settle, extract.... Still thinking about the whole lichen-patch model...

It's always interesting to see the US doing stuff that "looks so Roman" -- like the wonderful recent trick of offering posthumous citizenship benefits to immigrant guys who die in combat (you may fall, comrade, but your wife and kids will get US citizenship!). So similar to the old Roman game of offering the legionaries a way out of slavery, or a bit of land in the provinces (land ownership equalled full citizenship in those days). What it makes me think -- as I also think when some nastiness somewhere reminds everyone of the Nazi regime -- is not so much "wow, they're acting like Rome," as "maybe all empires behave in certain predictable ways at certain junctures in their expansion/decline." Maybe the script is pretty standardised. If it is, then surveying historical examples really would have predictive power.

Why does everyone else get so much more interesting captchas than mine? I mean, "fetypeu regt."???

DeAnander said...

Oh one more thing -- as to TOD (oil drum) -- I have hung out there quite a bit (as RootlessAgrarian). I found it frustrating that so many of the members seemed to be techno-geeks in search of a high-tech Solution to the Problem (unable to admit that it is a Predicament). So there were many long serious discussions of orbital solar concentrators with light pipes to the earth's surface, thorium reactors, cold fusion, big nuke buildouts, hydrogen cars, etc etc.

OK, maybe I'm wrong, maybe Industry Will Save Us... but I rather doubt it, and so I found all this enthusiasm for better and smarter toys just a bit wearying. Admittedly though, the technogeekery was quite fascinating when it was the reality-based insights of oil-industry technicians and engineers! but the wishful-thinkery (space bats) stuff got tiresome after a while. imho. I find TAR more rewarding reading these days. Bouquets to Leanan though for the wonderful "world energy news surveys" published so regularly... I kinda hate to read it any more, because I don't feel like I need any more Doom in my life, but I'm glad it's there, possibly convincing more people daily that "Houston, we have a problem."

DC said...

Not sure if you want to post this, but thought is was relevant...

Civilization as Empire? Empire as Civilization? Are they interchangeable? Read this excerpt from a PCI post today--thought it was worth passing along for this blog to discuss since Tainter's work is well respected and relevant to this week's post.

"Civilizations are complex societies organized around cities; they obtain their food from agriculture (field crops), use writing and mathematics, and maintain full-time division of labor. They are centralized, with people and resources constantly flowing from the hinterlands toward urban hubs. Thousands of human cultures have flourished throughout the human past, but there have been only about 24 civilizations. And all (except our current global industrial civilization—so far) have collapsed."

"Tainter describes the growth of civilization as a process of investing societal resources in the development of ever-greater complexity in order to solve problems. For example, in village-based tribal societies an arms race between tribes can erupt, requiring each village to become more centralized and complexly organized in order to fend off attacks. But complexity costs energy. As Tainter puts it, “More complex societies are costlier to maintain than simpler ones and require higher support levels per capita.” Since available energy and resources are limited, a point therefore comes when increasing investments become too costly and yield declining marginal returns. Even the maintenance of existing levels of complexity costs too much (citizens may experience this as onerous levels of taxation), and a general simplification and decentralization of society ensues—a process colloquially referred to as collapse."

To Bill's point, resource limitations are key to the resolution on the substance and efficacy of empire. Peak civilization is what comes to mind (sorry to use "peak"--it is so overused)when I think about the material threshold to the carrying capacity of a system mired in imperial processes. It begs the question, may we find a "prosperous way down" as Odum has coined so vividly in his writing?

RainbowShadow said...

Brilliant post yet again, John Michael Greer!

...that's why I'm a little hesitant to be a bit critical this time, but something's been bothering me for a while.

Wait wait wait, hear me out. I don't mean WHAT you say, exactly. You're much older than I am and have much more experience in researching information.

Nothing you say is WRONG or INACCURATE, exactly, and I've learned a great deal from you that I didn't know before...

...but sometimes, you try to answer certain questions, and then "go no further," that is, you sometimes don't generate further questions to address further complexity, in a way you frequently complain about when your posters do the same.

The example I'm thinking of is that in this post, you were highly critical of David Korten. For good reason, by the way, I think Korten's a whack job too.

And, you were very insightful in pointing out how often the left tends to caricature the right.

Again, I completely agree.

However, you seem to "stop there," and because of that, you often portray the left as caricature, in a way that made you angry in this very post when the left does the same to the right.

You essentially picked David Korten as representative of the left, or at least that was the signal I was getting from you (please tell me if I'm wrong). David Korten is a totalitarian, so obviously that means the left is totalitarian. Do you see the problem, IF I am summarizing you accurately?

Every single time you even discuss the left (that my still-limited thinking capacities could ascertain, anyway), you always discuss leftist arguments in their "weakest form" instead of their "strongest form."

The Stalinists, the Marxists, David Korten, the sellout environmentalists who won't take public transportation instead of cars, Derrick Jensen, and so on.

But you're very complex and open-minded and capable of seeing a group's multiple sub-groups when it comes to untangling the strands of the right; you can tell the difference between a fascist and an authoritarian and a capitalist, and you can tell the difference between Ann Coulter and Edmund Burke, just for example.

Here's my question: How come (as near as I can figure when I'm reading you) when you're discussing the right, you insist that leftists not stereotype and caricature them, and you always address the right's strongest arguments (Edmund Burke, Spengler, the working-class right-wing voters, C.S. Lewis, etc.) but when you're discussing the left, you always go after the folks with the poorest arguments or most frightening arguments?

When discussing the right, you bring up Edmund Burke the wise man, but when discussing the left, you either bring up David Korten the totalitarian or Derrick Jensen the angry dualist. Have you considered the possibility that maybe the left is composed of disparate groups just as the right is, a small percentage of which might even be right about something or other?

Please tell me if I have accidentally phrased this question rudely or if I've caused you pain by leaving this comment. Like I said, I respect you immensely; this has just been bothering me for a while.

Leo said...

if empire acts as a wealth pump, normally energy and material goods but now money and the access to energy and goods it controles, would one of its limits be that as the centre is enriched while the periphal is impoverished, the gradient of wealth increases, it becomes harder to keep wealth flowing in and stop wealth flowing out?
does this also work for the peace and order empires normally impose on the centre at the expense of the surrounding civilisations?
after all the barbarians at some point break the gates of rome.

Yupped said...

JMG, are you aware of examples of empires collapsing because the people doing the mid level and low level grunt work just stopped supporting it, withdrawing their consent? I'm thinking mostly, empires seem to collapse because of bigger picture systemic pressures and crashes.

I grew up in a family that had long ties to the British Empire, with several generations working in China and India in various middle manager or junior officer roles. I also knew a few “retired colonels” when I was growing up: ex-military men who would prop up the bars of country pubs and tell of how the world was so much better when they were running various parts of it. On a systemic level, we all know that empire is about shoveling out the resources and sending them home, in various obvious and not so obvious ways. But on a personal level I don’t remember a single individual British person who was actually involved in managing the Empire ever referring to this directly. It just wasn’t mentioned. I’ve tried tackling my Dad on the subject. He’s a mild-mannered and reasonable man, but he still tends to see the British Empire as a net good for those under its control. “But we brought them the railways, dear boy” is one of his more memorable lines. Funny. Maybe the discussion at the time was more direct, and maybe ex-managers of empire just see things more rosily in the rear-view.

My guess is, though, that we get put into situations we don’t understand, and then reach for the myths and stories to make ourselves feel better once we start to realize what’s really happening. Few of my US friends are prepared to talk about this topic and most subscribe to some version of the we’re-more innovative-enterprising-optimistic-etc story when asked to account for our relative wealth.

Thomas Daulton said...

I must confess to a habit of using words like fascism and Empire as snarl words... I'd like to think I do so less today than I did a few years ago, as my understanding of the Left's role in empire progresses. I look forward to having my gut political reactions deconstructed and objectified by JMG, he's been very helpful to date.

(Must make a note to myself, on the other hand, not to adopt "thaumaturgy" as another snarl word... it's an attractive one!)

In answer to Thijs and others who wonder whether USAians do or do not accept the use of the word "empire" to apply to themselves... it depends a lot on your polling sample.

Those who would call themselves the enlightened Left do accept it, in my experience, but only as a statement of situation, not as principle. In other words, they say the Right during the 1980s transformed America from a mythical golden age (which probably never existed) where America was an independent, self-reliant nation promoted Freedom, Prosperity and Democracy across the world; into an Empire, over the objections of the Left.

Meanwhile, those on the Right and in the dwindling center, still find themselves nonplussed and offended at the use of the word empire to describe the United States. It just doesn't fit their ontology, their worldview; they don't conceive of the United States in that way. Partly it's because they believe the mythos that the United States is always on the side of Democracy and self-determination.

But besides Democracy, the hidden assumption is that the success and expansion of the American style of industrial and high-finance Capitalism (by its own methods of measure, I must point out) is proof that people everywhere around the world envy, want, and aspire to join that system of commerce. Both sides buy into the Capitalistic propaganda which says that all business transactions are by definition voluntary and nobody could ever be co-erced into such a thing. So, if you take it as a given that the world's participation in the American economy proves how popular we and our system of government and commerce together are, it lets you sleep at night and disregard the evidence that the system is maintained at a great cost in blood.

I have read numerous examples of this tacit concurrence in the New York Times lately, but I dismissed them as pabulum so I'm having trouble citing one; here's an example which says: "...the United States... made no significant attempts after 1920 to shape political-military developments on the Continent. It chose this self-effacing path, historians have variously argued, because the nation's long-standing tradition of peacetime isolationism reasserted itself... United States's failure to assume Britain's role as global economic hegemon left an absence of managerial authority... Americans were reluctant to assume world responsibilities in the absence of clear and present danger..."

Man, quite a load of dingo's kidneys! This guy is supposedly the Godfather of Cold War historians. He might want to check with people in, say, Cuba, Chile or Iran about whether Americans were ever reluctant to assume world responsibilities. But clearly those places "don't count" as meddling in world responsibilities, because, ummmmm, because, ummmm, because Western Europe is the only place that matters.

FraterX said...

Well now, I guess first I should recognize the main thrust of your point as I see it especially with regards to your feedback to Richard as a meter. I agree it is a good tact to de-fang the terms we use with regards to the topics discussed but none the less I must support my albeit slightly facetious even ironic comment. I don't really see a distinction with your hammer definition between empire and banking-by your def. empire is also a tool is it not? Anyway, I merely make an observation with all due respect! ;) consider me one of those who wagged their finger early on concerning bankers when no one would listen and now remain vigilant in my cry of foul not just hoping on a convenient band wagon!...but great post JMG!

John Michael Greer said...

Deborah, yes, that's the one. There were a lot of complex debates leading up to that, and the disagreement was as much about styles of empire as anything else; we'll get to that.

Nathan, the problem there is that most nations, at some point in their history, either have an empire or try to get one. Which comes first, the dysfunction or the empire? A challenging question.

Michelle, I don't have those answers, but it would be an interesting subject for research -- since it's in your bailiwick, perhaps you might consider looking into that as a project?

DeAnander, I think it's more common that empire arises, not from a biotic surplus, but from an imbalance of military power -- and that has any number of sources, ranging along a spectrum from material to social factors. As for Oil Drum, it's a very good place to keep track of how the numbers are moving, less so for responses to the larger picture. The Drumbeat columns tend to be very good snapshots of peak oil news.

DC, exactly what counts as a civilization is a complex and nuanced issue, and it's a bit unfair to say that all civilizations but ours have collapsed, when in a great many cases what happens is that ours moved in and destroyed rival civilizations that had lasted for a very long time. Still, I've discussed the fall of civilizations at great length in previous posts; we're on to a different topic now.

Shadow, yes, I figured that at least one of my leftward readers would pitch a fit over my comments in this week's post. If you'll glance back over past posts with a little less animus, you'll find that I lampoon the idiots of the right just as often as I do those of the left. I don't cite a lot of left-wing thinkers because I don't often find their work useful to the specific purposes of this blog; when they are useful -- for example, the work of Paul Blumberg, who's decidedly left of center -- I cite them in detail. Still, when it comes down to it, if you don't like the sources I use, you know, there are plenty of other blogs out there.

Leo, excellent! Excellent! I'm going to break my usual rule and award two gold stars today. Yes, that's exactly the issue, and we'll be talking about it in detail in a bit.

Yupped, I've never heard of an empire collapsing due to a lack of support from its work force, no. Quite the contrary -- attitudes like your father's are standard issue in every empire I've ever heard of.

Thomas, good. (Among other things, "dingo's kidneys" is an exquisite bit of invective.) You've touched on the big argument in American politics in the early 20th century, which wasn't about whether we'd have an empire -- that was settled by then -- but whether the empire would get tangled up in the politics of the Old World. More on this in a few weeks.

Thomas Daulton said...

Thanks for the compliment, JMG! It's up to you whether you post this citation or not, but I must confess I shamelessly stole the phrase "dingo's kidneys" as an invective from the late great Douglas Adams. I have no doubt whatsoever that somebody else will point that out in short order.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

The comments this week are outstanding.

DeAnander writes, "maybe all empires behave in certain predictable ways at certain junctures in their expansion/decline." That's what the teacher of my survey course in Cultural Anthropology said in 1967.

Yupped, although I agree with JMG's reply to your question, I think social support is worth examining. Some writers have said that a contributing factor to revolutionary conditions is loss of confidence or support for the existing order among elites. The French Revolution had ideological and practical support from a number of aristocrats early on; most of them were beheaded later.

My donkey said...

"...the curious fact that very few people will publicly admit that America has an empire at all."

Maybe that's due more to ignorance than denial.

The United States is typically presented by mainstream US media as a sort of global Superman -- a brave and kind-hearted hero (by fighting terror and injustice while providing disaster aid) who shows a strong sense of morality and fairness (by embracing Christian values and promoting democracy).

And I think most Americans believe that this "benevolent do-gooder" view of their country is reasonable and accurate. Relatively few citizens are aware of the large number of US military interventions around the world in recent history. See the map at
and the extensive list at:

On the other hand, lots of people will readily admit that America is a superpower. The word has a positive ring to it and is perhaps something to be proud of, whereas "empire" has a negative connotation and is perhaps more worthy of shame.

But could it be a distinction without a difference? Regardless of whether you're called a superpower or an imperial power, you don't earn that label by habitually giving people gifts and treating them kindly. You earn it by repeatedly exploiting and killing people and forcefully taking what isn't originally yours. Nobody is strong enough to stop you.

Some people will be proud of the outcome, and some people will be ashamed of it.

Cathy McGuire said...

Interesting comments about empire; I confess I don’t think about it all that often (except that I am working to not buy cheap, work-slave products). I remember being amazed at how many people became livid after 9/11 at any suggestion that any county in the world had been badly-handled by the US! That “all or nothing” attitude sure makes it hard to have a conversation! So, I will look forward to more, interesting conversations about empire in the weeks to come.

Meanwhile, in another small sign of catabolic collapse: our local highly-touted recycling system is in fact sending glass bottles to the dump! And why? Because it costs too much to drive it to the recycling plant! Peak oil, anyone?

Last year Washington's recycling rate reached a record: 49 percent. Oregon reached its long time goal of 50 percent…But KATU News discovered that some of the glass people put out at their curbside for recycling may be dumped in a surprising place: a landfill…This is happening in Corvallis, for instance. Glass is picked up curbside the first week of every month by Allied Waste Services.


In 2007, the garbage company was granted a permit by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to take the glass collected curbside to the landfill. The permit was granted because it is heavy and it is too expensive for Allied Waste to haul to a Portland recycling plant

@Michelle…the whitewashing has been so complete that an entire nation of 300M people has been rendered ignorant of the true state of its status in foreign policy and relations.
It’s certainly not all the people (these commenters are aware) and if you think about what the average American knows (or cares) about foreign policy, you might not be so surprised. Most people I talk to have no clue, and hate the idea of “studying” anything – another bad consequence of lousy schools?

capta: success bloact?

Jeff Z said...

Well- I recall Bush the lesser declaring near the beginning of his first term (I paraphrase) "We are an empire- we make our own rules now." He wasn't coy about it at all. And he certainly was on the rightward side of the political spectrum.

Denial is a big part of American culture, not just about empire. We like to believe that our living arrangements are simply the way things should be, and we should drive large trucks long distances every day to our jobs as the good lord intended. We see suburbia as being natural as a forest.

When the unnaturalness of this arrangement is pointed out, we're defensive. It's hard not to be. I was critical of an ad attempting to spur a new wave of suburban home building (and buying!) this week and was surprised at the response. Criticism of the suburbs is apparently unAmerican. At the same time, I have a passionately right-wing friend at work, from the outer suburbs, who insists that people who throw glitter at political candidates should be charged with assault.

How then, can average people in the US be expected to see the empire that is all around them, when blind to other, more obvious constructions of empire?

I won't post the link, but I have posted the offending homebuilder ad and commentary at eighth acre farm on blogspot.

Nathan said...


Well, most people eventually have to work through bouts of their own internal dysfunction in life. I guess it is somewhat cliche to use an individual as a metaphor for a civilization or country - but if you look at the definition of empire as a energy pump, then individual people often create structures in their lives that function the same way - from chemical stimulants to exploiting other family members to pillaging your surroundings for short-term gain.

John Michael Greer said...

Frater X, to my mind, blaming the banks is a bit like blaming the carburetor of the car that ran over a bunch of pedestrians. Still, dissensus applies here as elsewhere.

Thomas, it's still a good line.

Donkey, one of the reasons I'm putting the effort into defining my terms is precisely to make it clear that "empire" isn't an insult, but a description of a particular form of international relationships. Doing that, I've found, makes communication a good deal easier.

Cathy, a lot of recycling programs these days are filling landfills, because the market for recycled raw materials has declined sharply with the global economic contraction. That's one of the reasons it's important to focus on reusing things at the household level, rather than trusting to a recycling program.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

True. Combining NINJA loans (I like that double entendre which isn't particularly naughty, but which also means No Job, No Income, No Asset) and sub prime mortgages into a complex financial derivative, giving it a triple AAA risk rating and then on selling it to say local government bodies in Australia was a nifty bit of work too. The complex financial derivatives have proved very difficult and resistant to unravelling too.

Still, there's nothing new about all this. People quickly forget their history. The South Sea Bubble was back in 1720. To remember the lessons of the past requires a fundamentally different culture than we have today.

Stories are really important to impart learning from one person to the next.



Librarian of Hillman said...

It may be a bit OT, but do you suppose the current love-affair among certain circles in the U.S. with the PBS television mini-series "Downtown Abbey" could be a kind of collective therapy? An attempt to find a comfortable way to come to terms with being citizens of the inheriting empire of some 100 years later? We have to understand and accept where we are, before we can engage with it and move forward? Wishful thinking?

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Some readers might be interested in seeing the video interview with JMG available here:

das monde said...

JMG, looking forward to see how your empire story develops. I am currently reading Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” - amusingly the opposite point of view of the whole civilization trajectory. Right now I am in the middle of his writing on cities and empires. An enjoyable parallelism.

Since you expect some leftish opposition to a part of your post, let me say this. The intellectual standards on the right are just atrocious nowadays, even compared with appalling representation of leftish ideas in the politics and the media. Just look at the GOP primaries circus... I dare to mirror you by saying that your apologetic habit of left-right equivalence looks like an emotional thing, just as the (thoughtful?) response ”go read somewhere else”. On substance, I suggest that old-school leftish judgements of what fascism is should be held in certain regard, if only because self-identified socialists and communists spilled by far most of own blood fighting fascisms, whether on the Eastern front, in Spain or Latin America. In turn, conventional fascist regimes had targeted the left most consistently. By now, serious leftish commentators are very shy to bring up fascism, fully anticipating that any rational element in a discussion would disappear then.

By the way, a quintessential old-school leftish personality, Noam Chomsky, just published
two articles on the American empire on the internet. It’s an empire week for me.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I'm only half way through the comments - much respect to you for the work that you put in to this blog and thus your books. There's this little mental image I have of all the commenters as fact checkers and idea producers! hehe!

Perhaps the concept of empire is so hard to discuss in your country because no one wants to be the bad guy? It may actually be that simple because a culture of positivism is not necessarily a culture of realism? Just chucking the idea out there...



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

In my travels I've noted that there are very few individual people that are fervently anti-American.

What a lot of people around the world don't seem to like is US foreign policy which is essentially a tool of empire.

What the people that I've met in my travels seem to want is a bigger piece of the pie (ie. resources). They envy your access to resources and energy.

I'm guessing, but I'd say that resources are at the core of most wars. Ideology is like the paint job on the rifle as it's pointing at you!

Oh yeah. Free trade agreements are another method of wealth transferral. Australia has done very badly indeed in the US-Australia free trade agreement.



Thijs Goverde said...

DeAnander, you were kidding about the Vikings, right? You do know that they were the first Europeans who tried to settle America and they had not only settlements but actual kingdoms in Iceland, England, France, Sicily, Russia and Ukraine (going there via the Mediterranean & Black seas)? That doesn't make them an empire, granted, but you can hardly call that 'sticking to your home ground'.
Also, minor quibble: the Romans didn't offer their legionaries a way out of slavery. Only full citizens could be in the Legiones. Non-citizens would join the Auxilia (such as the Cohortes or Alae) and sometimes be rewarded with citizenship. But even in the auxilia you wouldn't find slaves - only in ad hoc formations consisting of, e.g. gladiators.

@Thomas Daulton: the funny thing is that, actually, "people everywhere around the world" do "envy, want, and aspire to join that system of commerce". Or rather, they want to have the material symbols of the American way of life: coca cola, hamburgers, blue jeans, rock & roll... The military force of an Empire is only a part of the story. Propaganda always plays a very important role too (at least in the empires I know best, the Roman and the American ones).
Parts of the periphery will always be drawn to the core, because that's where the luxury is... Of course, they don't quite realise that the luxures come from the peripheries in the first place - a fact that always goes mysteriously unmentioned in the propaganda.

Unknown said...

Absolutely superb writing by both yourself and the gallery. I particularly like Leo's wealth gradient idea.

I am not sure I see the corptocracy/banksters/ transnational corporations as a mechanism. I suspect they may be more analogous to a tumour, a grouping of cells that have formed within the body of this current empire and whose presence and activity are depriving the host of nutrients and ultimately will contibute to its demise.

Jim Brewster said...

Jim, America's distaste for the word "empire" is fairly recent, and has a lot to do with the gleeful Soviet use of the label "imperialist" for every empire but their own.

True, there were always those willing to talk openly about empire, but there was also a strong anti-empire streak running through US society and politics. Wasn't the public rationale for invading Cuba to help them gain independence from Spain? Echoes were heard in 2003 when we were told the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators...

excepute reproach

phil harris said...

Loads of useful comments: nice additions to the broth.

I am an interested spectator on the sidelines: yet one more of those Brits who watched the sun go down for the last time, figuratively speaking, from a relatively comfortable seat in the suburbs (while we transitioned to the age of petroleum and sophisticated financial instruments and for UK a niche military role).

I think you, JMG, have identified the central importance of perceived military imbalance once successful expansion has turned frontiers into borders. I might add though according to some economic historians that imperial free-trade (now isn't that a nice concept?) and imperial-preference (sic), took a great deal of the edge off Britain's version of the slump in the 1930s. Only postponed things a while though - imperial costs outran benefits by a mile post-WWII.

@ Michelle. I sympathise with popular confusions about who any of us are. Brits have a very hard job recognising themselves as Europeans, which confuses the others no end. This seemed barking to my German colleagues. And there is still a conservative school of thought here in the UK that says we only got an empire by accident and then had to find sensible ways of dealing with it. Sigh ... so difficult and under-appreciated, other people can never be relied on to be sensible like us!

Thomas Daulton said...

Hi Thijs, that is an excellent point you raise, thanks for replying.

On the one hand, I was only responding to the question of whether Americans accept the use of the word empire, not foreigners.

On the other hand, I am not denying or gainsaying what you bring up. But let me tell you a little about my experiences in Mexico, where I lived for three years.

If you ask any American why Mexicans immigrate to the US illegally, almost to a man Americans will say it's because the Mexicans envy, want, and aspire to the American way of life.

But if you ask Mexicans why their countrymen immigrate illegally, you will quickly find that Mexicans, almost to a man, are extremely patriotic and have deep roots on their land. Virtually no Mexican works in the US because he would rather be here than at home.

There is a sharp divide in Mexico between the city Mexicans and the country/rural Mexicans. City Mexicans tell you that Mexico is capable of achieving everything America is. Hang out in downtown Guadalajara and Monterrey and indeed, the level of technology and luxury -- for the upper and upper middle classes -- is almost identical to the US. They have all the same gadgets and commute in the same cars to the same offices; the only difference is they're speaking Spanish. And almost none of the city-born, upper class Mexicans have spent time in America besides vacations.

Go out to the country, though, where virtually all the immigrant pool is from, and you hear a different story. These Mexicans value hearth and home and family, and their traditional way of life. But they will explain that they have no choice but to leave their loved ones against their will and go to America because there is simply not enough opportunity to earn money in the country, it's impossible to earn enough money to support their families. And the city Mexicans won't hire them. So they migrate. And quite a number of them are pretty vocal about how the US subsidizes its agriculture for export specifically in order to depress the farming industry in Mexico. Meanwhile, Americans are pampered and lazy and are willing to pay outlandish prices for simple manual labor. So, they migrate.

So I'm not denying or gainsaying what you're telling me. Nevertheless, the idea that foreigners envy Americans is a bit more complex and multilayered than that. I can't help but think that even though Gauls got educated at Roman universities, they didn't necessarily regard the whole Roman Empire system as a just system. Probably the same goes for the British versus their subject nations. Yet as Noam Chomsky famously said, there has never been an oppression which didn't feel like the most natural, proper and justified thing in the world to the people doing the oppressing.

(Blogger captcha: Shedbeh Almighty -- I realize we're polytheists around here, but that's still a little odd)

The Croatoan 117 said...

I currently live in the DC metro area. The periphery's support of the core is quite evident here. There is still plenty of construction and development here and the recession is barely visible. When I go to the small town I grew up in the recession cannot be avoided. Most of the jobs in DC are either government affiliated or support the government workers. I believe this is one reason our officials aren't dealing with the severity of the situation. If those that make policy don't leave the bubble that is the beltway, they can mentally insulate themselves from the truth of the situation.

Tracy G said...

@ Thijs re: Vikings

This doesn't negate your point, but I'm not sure the Vikings in Iceland would've approved of the word "kingdom." ;-)

If I remember the history correctly, they mostly emigrated from Norway after the king eliminated odal rights, stripping away ownership of hereditary farmland. When the settlers created the Icelandic General Assembly in 930, they established a unique government which consisted of a legislative and judicial system but which lacked a central executive or administrative branch. The Icelanders were deeply suspicious of monarchies and certainly remained so through the Sturlung Age. The sagas and novellas (þættir) of the time include examples of Icelandic characters interacting with nobility very informally, as if they were equals, which speaks volumes about their mentality.

afterthegoldrush said...

An interesting start to the series John.

I'm intrigued by DeAnander's idea of biotic surplus leading to the basic ability to achieve an imperial arrangement on one's neighbours. Or as he later follows with, that it's when that surplus starts to run dry, that the drive for imperial possession begins.

Certainly agriculture allows for the specialisation of skills which can lead to the building of armies and weapons which then help build the empire -- or 'wealth pump', as JMG so succinctly defines it.

But most interestingly this morning, before I read any comments, my mind was drawn to how similar empires are to agriculture itself. If we define agriculture as a 'resource pump', we can then look at agriculture as a system for benefiting the core (humans) whilst exploiting the periphery (the natural world), in much the same way that empires pump wealth - indeed, that wealth is first generated by agriculture/resource extraction in the imperial periphery.

Admittedly, my thinking in this is heavily influenced by Catton - I no longer look at the rolling landscape of England as a bucolic idyll of farmsteads, but rather a terra-formed landscape of confiscated ecosystems (confiscated from other species), in which farmers are desperately fighting back the forces of ecological succession so as to extract some of the energy flows for the table. The idea of this energy flow (farming) being both a necessary pre-cursor, and a consequence of imperial living arrangements is a fairly profound one - well, for me at least. And I wonder with regard to imperialism: did the drive to take from other tribes/cities/civilisations originate from our domination of the landscape itself? ie when we first began to farm.

One other thing John: I note that you are at pains to take the 'snarl' out of the word empire - and rightly so. But what do you personally feel about empires as living arrangements? Given that they inevitably involve exploitation of other people & species, it's understandable why there would be strong moral reactions against them. With your long view of history - are they inevitable?

Regards to all - Matt Southward

Jim Brewster said...

@phil harris: And there is still a conservative school of thought here in the UK that says we only got an empire by accident and then had to find sensible ways of dealing with it.

I guess that started when Henry II had to find a nice castle for his brother so he invaded Ireland... ;-)

(I probably had ancestors in all sides of that one...)

Just a little observation on blaming the banks, corporations, etc. I think it is somewhat the mirror image of the right-wing idea that corporations have the rights of personhood. As if they are some kind of natural entity outside the context of legal and economic system (i.e government) which allows them to exist.

confirm words: Palfrey, yeasinc

Kieran O'Neill said...

Well this week the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has come to town, and I'm attending at least some of the talks.

It's interesting, as AAAS is the empire's really big non-governmental science organisation, and publisher of the journal Science. Often the research they cover is very political (think defending science in the face of political attacks).

Anyway, the theme of the conference is "flattening the world" (in the Thomas Friedman sense), potentially quite an anti-imperial idea. However, when people talk about the challenges of the future, the phrase that seems to come up is "maintaining a decent standard of living". (Funnily enough, I think Noam Chomsky used the same phrase in a recent article). How that is defined is left open, but looking around at the crowd last night at the opening ceremony (nobody overweight, so few members of ethnic minorities it may as well have been all white), my guess is that it means "our American middle class standard of living". And while I think there's some concern for, say, people on the periphery starving to death, this almost feels like it's more about the unrest that causes (see the Arab Spring) than for the plight of the people.

Anyway, early days yet, and it's not all bad (well apart from the session that posits that all the economic growth of the past 30 years is attributable to Moore's law). This morning there'll be a fascinating session on the use of acoustics in ritual spaces by ancient peoples, and this afternoon a serious look at the science of wood stoves.

Jim Brewster said...

oops, it was John, Henry II's son and III's brother, who was first Lord of Ireland. That's what happens when you make flippant comments about history...

DW said...

A couple thoughts in short-hand:

1) PNAC - Project for the New American Century - Bush's neo-con exceptionalism writ large. Empire with a self-proclaimed "E". see also "City on a Hill" speeches of JFK AND Ronny Ray-Guns.

2) The Dutch (16th-20th Century) - competed for Empire. Lost. For fiction lovers, check out David Mitchell's "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zeot"...historical fiction of the Dutch East India company in Edo Japan. Great stuff.

3) One useful lefty might be John Bellamy Foster out of the U of Oregon: his essays on capitalism /= environmentalism are pretty good reading. Except, like Korten, the solution seems always out of reach..

4) I also find Korten as loathesome as the many other "I dream of Greenie" cornucopists..Amory Lovins, Van Jones, the list is long.

Ho hum. As Cohen says "I've seen the future, brother: it is murder.."

Mean Mr Mustard said...

By Jingo..! Here's what Billy Bragg reckons.


Mustard (of the British Empire)

DeAnander said...

Thijs, good points, thanks for the fact-check. Were the Viking kingdoms administered from "home"? if so then they would look more like empire to me: a central core of authority and power sending out "runners" (like strawberry plant) and funnelling wealth back up the ladder. I'll have to strike the Vikings from my list of "mobile raiders," I guess, and think of them as raider/settlers.

Actually the plant analogy might be worth pursuing. Some plants reproduce via seeds which become independent plants, often far away. Others prefer to send out runners or rhizomes to colonise an ever-greater area as one organism (running bamboo, for example, and spider plants...)

Some warrior cultures throw off independent kingdoms -- individual war leaders go out and conquer themselves some territory and set up as new kings, without being bound to obey the Big Guy back home. But empires send out runners, siphoning nutrients back to the core and following the strategic directives of the core. I dunno, maybe it's a pointless distinction and expansionism is expansionism....

Good point about the Roman military too. How about foreign mercenaries? It's been too long (obviously) but don't I remember something about foreign soldiers of fortune being able to earn Roman citizenship via military service?

DeAnander said...

"Thousands of human cultures have flourished throughout the human past, but there have been only about 24 civilizations. And all (except our current global industrial civilization—so far) have collapsed."

Heinberg, paraphrasing Tainter. Great odds, eh!

DeAnander said...

"Got an empire by accident" heh heh heh... hard to picture that one! Someone put it on the bus seat beside us and got off w/o it? accidentally put on the wrong jacket in the cloakroom? postie delivered to the wrong address? good one Phil!

Mark Angelini said...

If at any point in this series you feel inclined to chew on Derrick Jensen's dreadful books it would seem entirely appropriate and I would be all ears. A lot of folks in the green scene are so enamored by the recapitulations of his abusive father as the evil Empire we must dismantle. Talk about a bad trip down thaumaturgy lane... But in many ways this post covers most of this quite thoroughly.

Cheers on the new book. I am eager to add this to the collection.

Rich_P said...

Wow, lots of great comments this week!

@Glenn in Maine: In War: The Lethal Custom, Gwynee Dyer notes that in several "primitive" tribes, such as the Mae Enga of New Guinea, 25% of men and 6% of women died as a result of warfare. So over time, deaths from "low intensity" raids and skirmishes added up. While Dyer notes that we don't have enough data to draw far-reaching conclusions about the nature of warfare in hunter-gatherer societies, he's nonetheless dismissive of the "Noble Savage" concept.

"The staggering amount of resources available to the relatively small American population within their own territory is what set the US apart."

@Hypnos: A few weeks ago I posted a few charts from old newsmagazines that show the United States' immense wealth of natural resources; they're a nice visual representation of your point. [1] [2] [3]

SophieGale said...

In the US, Howard Zinn wrote and lectured for years on American Empire. "Empire or Humanity? What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me about the American Empire" [narrated by Viggo Mortensen, art by Mike Konopacki, video editing by Eric Wold] is an excerpt from his book A People's History of American Empire:

Howard is gone now but "The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the use of Howard Zinn’s best-selling book A People’s History of the United States and other materials for teaching a people’s history in middle and high school classrooms across the country. The website offers more than 100 free, downloadable lessons and articles organized by theme, time period, and reading level. The Zinn Education Project is coordinated by two non-profit organizations, Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

"Its goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula..."

Take a gander at their material on imperialism:

LewisLucanBooks said...

Hmmm. Just spotted a new book in the library catalog that I put on hold ...

"Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations" by Norman Davies. "An evocative account of 14 European kingdoms - their rise, maturity, and eventual disappearance."

Anyone else read it?

Joel Caris said...


Consider me very excited for this lesson in empire. While I certainly am not so dense that I haven't recognized America as an empire, I must admit that I've put a limited amount of thought into the full implications of that reality. I already have the sense that you're going to give me much to chew on.

Also, having been sympathetic toward the idea of corporations having a massive amount of power, on the scale of nations, I'll be interested to read your contradictory thoughts on that matter.

Yesterday I found a copy of Toynbee's Mankind and Mother Earth at Powell's and so picked it up. You've piqued my interest in his writing and I've been considering diving into A Study of History, but that seems a bit too ambitious for this year. Mankind and Mother Earth seemed like a good compromise. I'm curious if you've read it, have any thoughts on how good a book it is, and if you think it will make a good companion to this empire series?

Of The Hands

John Michael Greer said...

Jeff, I've always felt that there's something deliberate and rather desperate about the denial that pervades American society, as though we know that it's posturing but don't dare face up to that. I wrote about that at some length back a ways, in relation to the end of the Seventies and the brittle faux-cynicism that's been so fashionable since that time.

Nathan, excellent. That's quite true, and there are other close equivalents to the wealth pump that we'll be talking about shortly.

Cherokee, getting people to remember a cautionary tale -- the South Sea Bubble makes as good an example as any -- is difficult when people have parked their dreams of unearned wealth in a fantasy that requires not remembering that cautionary tale!

Librarian, well, as I know nothing about the show, and haven't watched TV in my adult life, I'm not qualified to speculate.

Jeffrey, thank you.

Das Monde, it's always amused me to watch the left redefine fascism as a right-wing phenomenon, which it wasn't -- a point I'll be discussing in more detail later on -- and claiming the defeat of fascism as their own doing, which it was only in part. A great deal of the most sustained opposition to the Nazi regime, of course, came from the right -- and that's as much the case inside Germany (Claus von Stauffenberg comes to mind) as outside it (Churchill was hardly a leftist, just for starters). More on this down the road a bit.

Unknown, I see the banks, etc., as an integral part of the system of empire; they've become dysfunctional at this point because the empire itself has become dysfunctional, and (like the banks) is costing more than it brings in.

Jim, yes, and we'll get to that.

Phil, "free trade" is always imperial. Britain was the great proponent of free trade during the heyday of its empire, and the US maintained hefty tariffs and trade barriers, to keep its industrial economy from being flattened by Britain's massively subsidized equivalent. Now we've got the heavily subsidized economy, and it's China that's comfortably sheltering behind trade barriers and building up its economy. Plus ca change...

Croatoan, I've noticed that in trips to DC. Call it the Versailles syndrome; it's a common cause of heads of state ending up in a basket on the wrong side of a guillotine.

Goldrush, my personal opinion about empires is like my personal opinion about bloodsucking leeches -- I dislike them intensely, but I'm aware that they will continue to exist whenever conditions are suitable for them. As far as the evidence suggests, empires usually emerge whenever political organization, military methods, and transport technologies are effective enough to allow movable wealth to be pumped from one society to another by force. It's possible that at some point far in the future, changes in human social structures will make empires obsolete, but we're not there yet, nor anywhere close.

John Michael Greer said...

Kieran, I'll be interested to see what comes out of the conference.

DW, I've already discussed the so-called neoconservative movement, which was neither new nor conservative, at some length here. I'll take another look at Foster -- what I've read of him so far hasn't been promising. As for the Dutch, though, yes, we'll be discussing their empire among others.

Mustard, thanks for the link!

DeAnander, what Heinberg doesn't say is that the vast majority of those thousands of human cultures have also collapsed. It's like saying that water must be toxic, because everyone who's ever ingested it either has already died or is going to die within mere decades...

Mark, the problem with critiquing Jensen is that so much of his work is just emoting on paper. Korten at least makes coherent arguments, disingenuous as they are; Jensen is simply venting his feelings about his childhood, and that's not subject to any sort of useful discussion.

Sophie, I find Zinn useful, in that the bias in his books -- which is considerable -- is equal and opposite to the bias in the sort of cheerleading histories he criticized, and so it's possible to find a balance by contrasting the two. Still, one of the massive difficulties in the way of making sense of the US empire and its impending fall is precisely the insistence that a simplistic moral analysis of a nation's behavior is the goal of historical discussion -- and that's equally counterproductive, it seems to me, whichever way the judgment falls.

Lewis, seen it but haven't read it -- let us know what it's like!

Joel, that's a fairly late work of Toynbee's; I haven't read it yet, as A Study of History is still being digested and reread. You might try the two-colume abridgment -- it covers most of Toynbee's argument, though it misses the wealth of examples that makes his work so compelling.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Well the acoustics in ritual spaces session was fascinating, and I may email you some links to papers (one talk was specifically about the origins of henges, and even contains a suggestion for creating audible henges without the physical stones). But that's somewhat off-topic here.

The session on cooking with biomass, although quite thinly attended, was even more interesting, and I may post at the Green Wizards forum about that in more depth. Suffice it to say that appropriate technology, although they weren't using that term, is far from dead, and even has some force from your own DoE behind it.

(There's also some pretty extensive and well-supported but fairly new research on the health impacts of wood smoke that should be taken into consideration by Green Wizards thinking about post-oil fuel sources and stoves in which to burn them.)

More to follow.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Yeah. I dunno why some people can look to the past and see the future whilst others seem not to be able to plan beyond the next week. It is truly a mystery to me and I spend a fair bit of mental energy into trying to understand peoples motivations.

It's interesting that you bring up trade tariffs which are a topic that would not ordinarily be brought up around polite economists! Australia has one of the most open economies in the industrial world.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that as US and European consumer demand goes down, consumer goods are becoming anecdotally cheaper here as manufacturing exporters look to maintain their output. Interesting.

It may also be worthwhile mentioning that organic farmers in Cuba are amongst the most highly paid individuals in that society.

Hi DeAnander,

Strawberry plants - which I'm just learning about this year - move via runners because they have to. You only tend to get about 2 years worth of productive strawberries from a plant because of a build up in viruses in the soil over that period of time. This is all quite natural, but they are more like hunter gatherers moving on to avoid their own pollution. Your strawberry analogy is bigger and more interesting than you yet may realise.

PS: For your interest I get about a coffee mug per day from about 150+ plants (although truth be told I've lost count and there are field mice about which I trap and feed to the chooks). The mind boggles when you think about how much land a punnet of strawberries requires and the chemicals that farmers are fumigating the ground with so they can grow strawberries continually. Peoples fixation with carbon as the only pollution source is kind of strange.

Regards and signing out for the week.


Leo said...

of course a short term solution to an increase in the wealth gradient for the elite of an empire is to loot the lower classes of their own empire since the difference between them is less than between the elites and the periphery. the problems come in that the wealth given to the lower classes is normally used as "bread and circuses", without them dissent grows.
is this obama's healthcare and the austerity measures being placed in Europe the equivalent of this?

Thijs Goverde said...

Tracy G: Thank you! I knew I was simplifying, and I knew about Iceland having the 'worlds oldest parliament', the Althing, but I didn't really know how it came about.

By the way, I think you also answered DeAnanders question about the funneling of wealth. I don't suppose the Icelanders sent back goodies to the lord they fled from!

@DeAnander: the soldiers of fortune you refer to would be serving in the auxilia, and they might indeed be rewarded with citizenship (I think that would originally have been mainly the officers, but I may be wrong).
Of course Caracalla changed the entire nature of Roman citizenship, opening it up to all provincials (His main reason being that only citizens paid taxes, so it was profitable to have more of them!)

@ Thomas Daulton: It is indeed complex: the City Mexicans you describe, who don't go or even want to go to the USA, sound like they are the americanised ones!

Robert said...

On the question of fascism it arguably grew out of the left certainly in Italy. Mussolini began as a socialist and his fascist movement had mass appeal for former socialists. Fascism can be seen as an ideology of the radical centre rather than the right since although Mussolini came to power by crushing the Italian communists he also made demands of business. I believe the trade unions were given a role in the economy under a social partnership system where organised labout had a voice. This system of corporatism worked well and fascism was immensely popular in Italy for a time. It's a cliche to say that Mussolini made the trains run on time but he did succeed in providing law and order, full employment and a successful economy which gave Italians pride in their country. Italian fascism was not anti semitic to begin with and there were Jews in the Fascist Party. Mussolini's fatal error was to be seduced by Nazi Germany into entering the war on the wrong side. Had he not done so it's most likely that his regime would have survived at least as long as Franco's did.

As for the Nazis the official name of their party was the National Socialist Workers Party and there were socialists in the party, mainly among the SA and the Strasserites who were purged by Hitler. Hitler came to power because German industrialists and the Junker aristocracy saw his mass movement as preferable to communism which to them was the greater evil. So was the right who invited Hitler to become Chancellor, not the left.

However during the Thirties it was possible to believe in good faith, and many people did, that the real monster was Stalin and his bolsheviks not the Nazis. The Holocaust didn't begin until after the outbreak of war but Stalin's Gulag and man made famines were happening in peacetime.

Both communism and arguably fascism were ideologies of the left that grew out of control.

I say this not because it gives me any pleasure - I consider myself pretty left wing - but one has to be honest about history.

DW said...


What I found interesting about the Project for a New American Century was not that it was from "evil neo-cons", but rather that it was such a bold and straightforward proclamation of where they thought America should be going and what role America should play in the world, its future, etc.

Maybe that's nothing new, but to me, when I read their manifesto ten odd years ago, it was a shock.

John Michael Greer said...

Kieran, one of the acoustics papers inspired a BBC article -- I'll have to follow up on that. I'll look forward to the Green Wizards discussion, and the rest!

Cherokee, I'll have quite a bit to say about tariffs and trade barriers further on in this sequence, and polite economists are not going to like it.

Leo, excellent. You're well ahead of the pack at this point.

Robert, to anticipate a complex argument, I see fascism as totalitarian centrism. Fascism emerges in societies in which the center has been abandoned by all major parties, leaving ideas that most of the population supports to be used as fodder by ambitious demagogues. That's why Kunstler is off base to worry about his "cornpone Hitler;" the figure we need to fear, here in America, is the plausible, charismatic figure who seizes the abandoned center and builds a movement around giving the American people the policies they want, by any means necessary.

DW said...

@ GreenWizardSkills-

I'm currently reading a book called "Early Retirement Extreme" by Jacob Fisker. He has a blog of the same name. It's basically a new version of "Your Money or Your Life", except that its written by someone who is peak-oil aware, who has a PhD in physics/engineering, and who is willing to tell people that they can/should live on roughly $7K/yr, completely eschew consumerism, sell their car, ride a bike, not depend on modern technological conveniences, etc.

It reads as though he is a student of the Archdruid and the sections on economic succession from an ecological standpoint are pretty interesting.

Anyway, I hadn't heard of it before, and I thought it could be a good book for the green wizards who are still trying to balance having one foot in the normative world while working towards a more sustainable future for themselves and their family.

It's helping me to get off my duff and make the most of what's still flowing into my bank account from my salary-man living.

Petro said...

@Bill Pulliam: "At this moment, if we were to voluntarily scale back our military-industrial global empire, would this improve the lot of we who live here at home?"

An interesting dimension to this question - brought to my attention in an interview with the late great Chalmers Johnson - is the extent to which unemployment figures would be impacted with a drawdown in military spending. Apropos our current unemployment levels - if one ignores the violence and immorality for the moment, the Military-industrial-congressional complex is one huge jobs program.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Quite an interesting post and discussion. It does seem inevitable that empires in general will continue to exist for quite some time. I do wonder if some other form of organization will eventually replace them that's as unfamiliar to us as civilizations would have been to our paleolithic ancestors. For the (relatively) shorter term, I would guess that, as fossil fuels get scarce, some areas that don't have the resources necessary for a surplus will become out of reach of empires.

Something else I've been wondering about is the intersection of empire and ecological thinking. The way I think of China is that it may have its period of dominance, but it's set itself on the same ultimately unsustainable and self destructive path as the USA. Most people now consider environmentalism and sustainability the realm of the left, although I also see an increasing number of the "rugged individualists" type of the right turning toward sustainability in order to reduce their dependence on the system.

In the early twentieth century, J. Russell Smith in the book "Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture" invoked national pride and patriotism when speaking against soil erosion, comparing the outrage that would occur if another country were to invade and destroy a tiny piece of America to the mass destruction of America by destructive agricultural practices. Few environmentalists now speak in such terms, but that may change.

I'm thinking that as some point, many of the imperialists themselves, may realize that abusing the land is also undercutting the foundations of the nation. It's too late for America to maintain its status as superpower, and I doubt China will revamp itself quickly enough to adapt to the age of decline, but some future power may see those mistakes and fuse imperialism with environmentalism.

I've mentioned this to some who say that wouldn't happen because the urge to dominate nature and to dominate people go hand in hand, and those who respect nature wouldn't subjugate people either. I disagree, because there are plenty of very religious conquerors who were dominating of humanity but submissive toward their gods. I could see a similar mindset in an empire that considers restoring the land as one of its values. This in turn could be used as an excuse to subjugate other cultures (We can maintain the land better then they can).

I'd prefer ecology without empire myself, but if empire is what we're stuck with, at least those of us in areas with enough resources, I'd imagine that eventually empires with some sorts of ecological values will prevail because the others will self-destruct. When people can't depend on their machines and technology to do so much of their work, fitness and health will matter much more again, and healthier land makes for healthier food which makes for healthier, stronger people. So, a ruthless imperialist could get into ecology purely out of self-interest.

SophieGale said...

This is a video one of my Millennial acquaintances shared today on Facebook. I'm a Boomer, so I'm always interested in what the radical youngsters are sharing with each other. I recommend you listen to it first without looking at the images, and then play it again and watch--otherwise, your brain will just get all scrambled up! (But that's the whole point, of course: scrambling brains...)

Drat it all to heck! I can't get a captcha I can actually read!

Thomas Daulton said...

Yes, Thijs, it's quite ironic -- the Mexicans who appear to envy America the most are trying to build it on their own without going here; the ones who don't envy it much at all, argue that they're forced to go here by circumstances! I suspect that this type of complex relationship between empire and province has been the rule throughout history, rather than the exception. Nevertheless, I like your original comment that propaganda makes many provincials envy the empire without realizing that its wealth comes mainly from their own shores. Wealth concentration -- now if we could somehow magically eliminate those two words from human society, things might get interesting. I'm reminded of Jim Hightower's old saying that "Money is like manure -- pile it up and it stinks. Spread it around and things grow!"

@Kieran and others discussing wood stove technology -- the problem of ailments related to frequent exposure to wood smoke is well known to various charity organizations working in the third world, e.g. the Peace Corps and USAID, etc. Lung problems, eye problems, these can be severe and gender roles in traditional societies typically mean women bear the brunt of these problems. However there are clever stove designs -- which don't require any special technology, just arranging bricks and maybe a metal pipe -- which vent the smoke outside the kitchen area. Google "Improved Chulha" or "Rocket Stove" to see some options. I will have to remember to go post that on the Green Wizards somewhere.

das monde said...

JMG: I see we will waste a few keyboards keys discussing fascism. Your two examples only illustrate how fragmented was anti-Hitler sentiment in German institutions and (initially) in the British government. It also reminds that the left was nowhere close to German power structures. All fascist regimes were outright anti-commie.

Candace said...


Is there a way to leave money in your "tip jar" by sending a check or money order?


Leo said...

that explains why empires collapse so quickly. a list a saw once had all but the roman collapse within 10-40 years (the ottamans lasted 30-40). the romans lasted 100 or so in their decline phase, but thats probably because they allowed cities to be built in regions they conquered (easier to control) and one of the reasons they existed was to provide security from barbarian raiders.
I'd say this will be a fast collapse since theres no such mechanism holding people to the US and the real wealth of the american populace has been in decline for some time so not much can be stolen from them.
of course the US could try to pump wealth from other first world countries (do they count as empire? or are they in service to an empire) but that runs in to military and logistic porblems.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@JMG: Glad to see it got out so quickly. I actually get the impression that a good fraction of the attendees are press!

Another titbit of interest was some free open source software for modelling the services provided by natural systems: . This is apparently being used by government planners in several parts of the world to compare different scenarios of land use, and I think ties in strongly with the "Wealth of Nature".

And finally, there has been a strong tendency towards fostering good "science communication", ie attempting to equip scientists to fight back in the magic wars with political and monetary interests (most notably on climate change, but on other issues as well). Of course, few at the conference would dare to call it anything like magic, but I think science may have a fighting chance over the coming years.

Jason said...


Good heavens, what a farrago that 'School sucks' video is. As you imply, so blatantly guilty of what it decries in others, namely social programming, since it offers not a jot of careful reasoning but only pushes emotional buttons in the most thaumaturgical style.

And the "message"! "Be more individual and you can keep your lifestyle" is the takeaway. No sense that all the soldiers dying abroad are doing so to maintain the Empire and with it the standard of living... in fact very little sense at all of the reality of the situation. How utterly self-serving.

Are these people 'Occupiers'?

John Michael Greer said...

DW, it was surprising, but only because so few people realized that PNAC was aping Ayn Rand. Rand was always one for grand pronouncements, after all. I hadn't head of the Fisker book either -- thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Ozark, that's a fascinating speculation.

Sophie, thanks for the link.

Das Monde, that's certainly one interpretation. Heh.

Candace, thank you! Yes, non-electronic tips can be sent to me c/o the Ancient Order of Druids in America, PO Box 996, Cumberland MD 21501.

Leo, we'll be getting to that in some detail down the road a bit.

Kieran, most interesting! I'll have to check out that software. As for scientists learning to communicate better, that's a good thing in some ways, but there's been rather a lot of misplaced dogmatism in the scientific community in recent years, and I suspect some of that's going to be rehashed with more sophisticated thaumaturical methods, too.

Unknown said...

Hypnos' comments about JMG's definition of empire not being applicable to 19th century empires (i.e. empire-as-a-raw-material-pump) fascinated me so that I needed to look up Bairoch's key findings: yes, it appears that (most) raw materials to fuel the 19th empires were from Europe itself.
It this is indeed the case, then why "imperialism"? It seems that there was no impetus to establish colonies abroad as the raw materials were more-or-less obtained from the sources available in the home country or its European trade partners. One can think of few hypothesis to solve this puzzle:

-raw materials siphoned from the periphery were turned to inexpensive industrial goods which would not sell in the domestic markets yet were sought-after in the colonies. At the same time domestic markets were often protected by tariffs against similar products from the colonies. However, this explanation concerns mostly non-strategic raw materials such as cotton which is not needed for empire building like iron ore and coal for these were obtained from domestic/continental sources as Bairoch noted. Still, this mechanism provided significant financial rewards for the empire (interestingly, by the end of the 19th century, Lancashire mills accounted for one quarter of Britain's entire export trade).

-19th century industrial revolution made it possible to establish colonies on a large scale and acquire luxury raw materials on a similarly large scale. Thus the lure of luxury would have been one driving force in colonialism and imperialism that followed it. This sounds simplistic, but thinking about gold, diamonds and ivory that were associated with the colonies in the popular culture of 19th century - well, at least we have ample evidence that many contemporary minds were captivated by the idea of getting rich in the colonies.

JMG notes that the original commenter reads the definition too narrowly. Might we learn more about the Archdruid's definition of empire in the coming weeks?

void_genesis said...

I always suspect I add my comments way too late to be noticed, but my best thoughts come in the days after reading a post here while I am working in my vegetable garden.

I was pondering what the unexamined myths/narratives were beneath the scope of analysis in this community and this is what I stumbled upon.

A deep modern western narrative is that all people are basically equal in status/value and that society is better/more functional when people have more equal status/value.

I pondered this against our deeply status based hierarchical societies and wondered where the myth comes from.

It made me wonder if the irony is that modern society is so deeply skewed in status/power to a tiny ruling elite that by comparison the rest of us with relatively little absolute status/power appear relatively equal to each other. It is only through gross inequality that the illusion of local equality is produced.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown, I've already given my definition -- empire is a wealth pump. Raw materials are only one kind of wealth, and in a complex market society, there are many other kinds more useful to the power centers that build empires.

Void, to my mind that's rather simplistic, and depends on the currently fashionable fantasy of the omnipotent 1% -- which is of course a very convenient way for the American middle class to duck questions about its own privileged access to wealth and influence. I'd point out by contrast that an ideology of equality can easily be used (and is used) to justify actual inequality -- think of the Republican insistence that since everybody is equal, those who end up poor must have done something to deserve it.

Seb Ze Frog said...

Sadomasochism and Sea Slugs

Good day to all !

It all started last week, with John's statement about his comparative interest for sadomasochism and sea slugs. I cite:
"[sadomasochism] interests me about as much as the sex life of sea slugs."

After some research, and considering how fascinating Sea Slugs are, I must admit my puzzlement at what our dear Archdruid must have meant... The alternative would be that I am missing something here, but that can't possibly be, can it ?

My conclusions are summarized here:

With all my best ;-)
SebZeFrog at

Edde said...

Good morning John Michael,

Ozark Chinquapin comments about the intersection of ecology and empire.

Here is a fascinating book about the topic: Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby.

Definitely worth a read. European imperial adventurers attempt to replicate Europe in outlying realms...


Nicholas said...

John Michael Greer said...

Seb, funny! I trust, though, that neither you nor any of this blog's readers had anything, shall we say, evert while viewing those pictures of sea slug copulation -- and of course that's was what my comment was meant to communicate: while there might be something to learn by contemplating the amours of sea slugs, I don't find the thought of participating in them enticing at all.

John Michael Greer said...

Edde, many thanks -- I'll definitely check that out.

Nicholas, thanks for the links.

feral grandfather said...

supposePerhaps empire is the wind that spreads the seed of humankind about the earth to diversify the gene pool and the meme pool. Perhaps the sailing ships of empire are floating seed pods seeking habitable niches. The roads and rails and sea lanes are the roots of empire seeking nutrients and trace minerals. Rockets and satellites are antennae looking for another warm wet spot in the universe. Perhaps empire is the way that human biomass spreads to the edges of its petri dish.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Here's an interesting article I ran across. "Technologies that we've lost - and the quest to find them again."

One interesting thing about the article is that it credits Greek Fire with extending the shelf life of the Eastern Roman Empire.

But I think the article relates to some of what we are doing here. Rediscovering alt technologies from the 70s (and earlier) and spreading them around so, perhaps they won't be lost to whatever future manifests itself.

jean-vivien said...

Hello all,

@sebzefrog, I am very honoured to have triggered such an enlightening reminder of the colourfulness of sea slugs' sex life. I suggest that the motion picture titled "A dangerous method" may provide inspiration for a remake titled "A colourful method" and focused on a less dull genre of animals.

One thing, I have seen people talking here about Stonehenge and sound, I was just curious since when we visit sites with erect stones in France or Spain (Antequera...), we are usually explained that they were originally mounts supported by the stones. In that case it seems that the sites could not have been used for their acoustic properties, but as the article says, the sounds have probably been an inspiration for the design itself. Just saying...

siddrudge said...

@feral grandfather

Carl Sagan couldn't have said it better!!!


Lance Michael Foster said...

I would like to put in a request, to JMG or any of the readers here.

I have accepted we are on the decline, and that at this point, our society/empire is in denial, so it is up to the individual or community to do the best they can.

I am not familiar with the literature of empires in decay, and would love to learn what aware individuals who were part of those societies in decline had to say about their lives and how they sought meaning in the twilight.

Obviously the Roman Empire must have had aware individuals who wrote about this topic. I suspect there must be others who were part of other empires or cultures in decline who wrote about it, especially the British.

In my anthropological coursework, I have come across a couple of books relating to societal decay in Africa. One is a novel by Chinua Achebe, "Things Fall Apart." Another is an anthropological study called "The Mountain People," by Colin Turnbull.

But I know there must be some very rich material relating specifically to the personal experiences and thoughts of people living during the centuries-long Fall of Rome, and I would like to read some accounts and reflect on them.

siddrudge said...

JMG said: ". . . the curious fact that very few people will publicly admit that America has an empire at all."

The empire has no clothes! :-)


Damien Perrotin said...

JMG, for fascism, you might use Zeev Sternhel ‘s work, notably The Birth of Fascist Ideology . His thesis is that the fascist ideology emerged partly from the French revolutionary far-left, notably Georges Sorel’s Revolutionary syndicalism. It is, anyway, quite clear that fascism had a revolutionary component which made it quite unlike your average right-wing dictatorship.

As for empires, a distinction might be made between domination – the subject population is dominated by the core but keeps its individuality – and integration – the subject population is integrated to the core and loses its identity. Algeria, for instance, was subject to France but its indigenous population was never integrated into the French nation. Southern France, however, even though the majority of its inhabitant spoke a different language up to the fifties, were integrated into France proper quite early.

Zach said...

Two bits of synchronicity with this week's topic:

1) I encountered Guy McPherson ("Nature Bats Last") for the first time this weekend. Guy is very open about "living at the apex of Empire" and pursuing a Green Wizardly aproach to dropping out. (He even used the phrase "voluntary poverty.")

2) It appears Ron Paul is trying to inject "fascist" as a non-snarl word into the current political debate:

Paul says US 'slipping into a fascist system'

Whether he'll be successful or not remains to be seen.


blue sun said...

During yesterday’s evening rush hour, Newt Gingrich was interviewed on the Sean Hannity talk radio show. I have to admit I was startled when he uttered the phrase “peak oil.” It was the first time I’ve ever heard a Washington insider utter the phrase! True, he was saying something to the effect that ‘what we found in North Dakota disproves peak oil….’ but at that point I had stopped paying attention. It was almost a thrill to hear a career politician even acknowledge peak oil instead of ignore it.

Has it not been only a few months since JMG observed peak oil has gone mainstream?

At this point, since I may have just lost all credibility by admitting I was listening to cheap thaumaturgy, I do want to say ‘Thank You!’ to JMG for introducing the concept. Seriously. Listening to the news is less stressful, even physically. No longer does my blood pressure rise when I hear about the latest atrocity “the other side” has committed. It’s liberating to be able to listen to all this chanting, whether it be cheap talk radio or the sophisticated N.P.R. variety, and see it for what it is: thaumaturgy.

blue sun said...

Wow, wait a second, Newt is a shrewd politician. The more I think about it, maybe your fears for “peak oil” are founded, JMG. Newt just set it up nicely—he lobbed an easy pitch right down the middle. All it would take now is for a well-known Democrat to “defend” peak oil to knock this baby out of the park! So long! Just like Climate Change. Then we can shut down all conversation because my side believes and your side doesn’t. (Let’s hope nobody takes a swing at it.)

Eric said...


Thinking of empire I was reminded of the UN vote to use force in Iraq. I have a hypothesis about what happened that it wasn't vetoed by anybody on the executive council.

Basically there were three votes that mattered: Germany, Russia, and China.

I still can't figure out exactly what kind of armtwisting we did to Angela since she actually ran for office saying that she would veto the UN Resolution. Then, literally the day after she was reelected, she turned around and abstained. Still not sure what happened there.

Russia ended up abstaining too. Not sure exactly what happened there, but I think it had to do with not getting involved in South Ossetia and letting the Russians do there thing there...

China has always been the weird one. The Chinese said repeatedly that they would veto the resolution, but they ended up abstaining also. Here is my hypothesis.

You might recall that there was a "labor dispute" going on at the time on the West Coast. Basically the Pacific Maritime Association, which runs all the ports on the west coast, locked out the longshoremen. (Please be aware that this was NOT a strike.) The ports shut down and this went on for months. This caused all kinds of problems in the "just in time" supply lines of the US empire. Basically all the ships in the Pacific Basin were sitting off Long Beach waiting to unload there plastic toys and other stuff. There are pictures of Hong Kong with NO ships there! There were estimates that his was costing the Chinese more then $1 Billion a DAY in lost exports.

This situation resolved itself in a most curious way. Right at the time of the UN vote the Bush Administration invoked the Taft-Hartley Act and FORCED the longshoremen BACK TO WORK. (Remember, this was not a strike, but a lock out!) And China abstained from the vote on using force in Iraq.

Those are the facts. Now for my hypothesis: I think the Bush Administration went to the PMA and said, "Go ahead and lock out the longshoremen. We will take care of it for you later and it will take care of your labor issues at the same time." Then they went to China and said, "We will keep your goods out of our country until you abstain on the Iraq vote."

All in all a brilliant move imho.

I'm not sure how this fits in with your series on empire, but I've been thinking about this for years now, and, while just about everyone I mention it to agrees that it is probably what happened (including a number of people with masters degrees in international affairs from SAIS and Elliot School at GWU) I have not been able to prove it. (I think that would take Condi coming out and talking about it or something like that.)

Anyway, I'm really looking forward to your series on the "Greater American Prosperity Sphere".


Kieran O'Neill said...

You know, pondering on the attitude from (some of?) the American right of blaming the poor, it occurred to me that there might be a parallel with the British government's politicking around the Irish potato famine.

Given the generally impoverished state of African Americans, I also wonder whether there isn't a similarity in the racial component of the thinking, too.

blue sun said...

sorry to add to an already long comment list, but I'm addicted to politics, er, thaumaturgy, these days.....

@ Rainbow Shadow-

If you ponder this and similar blogs long enough, you will eventually realize that there is no Right and no Left.

Maybe one day *poof* it will just suddenly dawn on you that the Left/Right paradigm is USEFUL, but it is not "REAL." I don't really know how else to explain it. I think this is the kind of thing where you either get it or you don't.

You might be able to shortcut the process by a thought experiment: Try to place America into political categories. The only requirement is the categories be 100% accurate and 100% consistent. After refinement and further refinement you will eventually have 300 million categories! If you try that, long before you reach 300 million, it will occur to you that any category that anybody can come up with is ultimately bull compost.

True, afterwards, you'll find it hard to talk to most people about politics in any meaningful way, but eventually you'll grow used to the blank stares!

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Lance Michael Foster - So much was lost. But you might want to check out Rutilius Claudius Namatianus. He wrote "A Voyage Home to Gaul" about a trip he took from Rome to Gaul about 416 CE.

It's part of the Loeb Classics series, and is in the public domain.*.html

Wikipedia also has a pretty complete entry on him.

Alan Clarke said...

I've just been looking at an interesting paper Hubbert analysis of coal
What struck me was how British peak coal coincided so neatly with start of the end of the empire.
Now with oil the primary fuel for the US empire the picture has become more complicated, but we are still seeing coal as the source of China's growth. Interestingly, it looks possible that China will hit peak coal before USA...leaving Russia with the best set of energy cards.