Wednesday, April 04, 2012

America: The Eagle and the Lion

I’ve commented more than once in these essays on the way that so many people on the leftward end of today’s American politics act as though America’s current empire is unique in the history of the world, either in scale, malevolence, or some combination of the two. In any form, this notion is impressively absurd, and it presupposes an equally impressive ignorance of history; still, I’ve come to think that there may be an unexpected factor behind that bit of historical blindness.

The factor? The complete inability of most Americans today to take Britain seriously.

Americans these days, by and large, think of Britain in much the same terms that the British think of Luxembourg: a darling little country, quaint and colorful, and of interest mostly as a destination for touristm—oh, and they’re stuck in a strategic position, poor dears, so we had to send the troops over there a few times, didn’t we? If the technology existed to project the average American’s notions about Britain onto a screen, you’d get to see a giddy collage of Big Ben, Befeaters, half-timbered houses, ivy-covered castles inhabited by ivy-covered aristocrats, Her Majesty the Queen imitating everybody’s grandmama as she waves to the crowd, and a mishmash of misremembered history in which King Arthur, Robin Hood, the other Queen Elizabeth, Lord Peter Wimsey, Jeeves, and maybe a blushing war bride or two, all jostle one another against the backdrop of a green, pleasant, and very small land.

Mind you, America functions as the same sort of projection screen for fantasies in the British imagination. Most of a decade ago, while visiting England, my wife and I stopped at a supermarket in St. Albans to pick up travel food. Out in front was one of those rides for small children that give parents something to use as a bribe for good behavior inside the store, the sort that rumble and lurch around without actually going anywhere; the vehicle that did the rumbling and lurching was a little plastic convertible with the roof down, and in front of it, to fuel the riders’ imaginations, was a flat panel with a landscape meant to represent America: on one side, a desert fitted out with some badly rendered saguaro cactus and a cow skull; on the other, a city consisting entirely of skyscrapers; straight ahead, a sweep of cowboy-infested plain with mountains in the distance, and a long straight road that vanished into infinity. It was a fascinating glimpse at the other side of a complex cultural relationship.

No doubt it doesn’t help Britons understand America much to have images of that latter kind stuck in memory. I’m guessing this because of the corrosive effects of the corresponding American imagery of Britain, not merely Americans’ understanding of Britain, but on their understanding of the last three centuries of world history, not to mention the nature of modern empire. As long as my American readers think of Britain as a cute little country, all this is out of reach.

It’s out of reach because until quite recently, as history goes, Britain was not a cute little country. It was an arrogant, ruthless, rapacious global hyperpower with the world’s largest and most technically sophisticated military machine and the largest empire in human history. Around a quarter of the world’s land surface, and roughly the same fraction of the human race, was ruled outright from London, and anyone in that empire who objected to this state of affairs too loudly could expect to have their attitude adjusted by the business end of a Maxim machine gun. The world’s maritime transportation routes—then as now, the primary arteries of global trade—existed subject to the whim of the Royal Navy; when patriotic Britons belted out “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves,” they were stating the single most important fact of 19th and early 20th century economics and geopolitics.

It’s become fashionable in recent years, among a certain faction of historians, to paint the British Empire as a global force for good and a model for all the things to which more recent empires—yes, the United States is the usual target for these exercises—ought to aspire. In reality, though, the British Empire exercised its power with a breathtaking amorality. Consider the Opium Wars, in 1839-42 and 1856-60. Britain bombarded civilian targets along the Chinese coasts and followed this up with a full-scale invasion, not once but twice, to force the Chinese government to reverse its decision to ban the import of opium and try to control what was then a pervasive and hugely destructive drug problem in China. To the British, the fact that British merchants could make plenty of money at China’s expense by selling opium to Chinese addicts was enough to justify what, even by today’s loose standards, was an unusually blatant abuse of power. That’s not a part of British history you’ll find discussed much these days; nor, for that matter, is it usually remembered that concentration camps were invented by the British, and used with great enthusiasm (and a substantial death toll), during the Boer War of 1899-1902.

Now of course it’s only fair to say that this is the way all the European empires of the 19th century behaved; Britain may have had far and away the biggest empire, but it was no worse than most and significantly better than some. It’s equally fair to note that as the age of European empire peaked and began its decline, and the first two non-European nations began to establish significant empires—those were the United States and Japan, for those who weren’t paying attention—they didn’t behave any better. Empire is a brutal business, and the notion that moral considerations ought to guide the behavior of the great powers is usually a talking point wielded by declining empires, which no longer have the resources to conquer other countries, to criticize the rising powers that will eventually supplant them. Still, this last point is getting well ahead of our story.

When the United States began taking its first uneasy steps down the road to empire in the last decade of the 19th century, modern notions of cute little England were nowhere to be found in the American consciousness. To a great many Americans, in fact, Britain was almost by definition the national enemy. The American national anthem, remember, commemorates the defense of an American fort against a British invasion force; the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 played a much larger role in the nation’s collective imagination than they do today, when the bicentennial of the latter war is slipping past almost completely unnoticed; on a more immediately pragmatic level, a great many Americans worried about their nation’s northern border, and the possibility that the hostile superpower that ruled the other side of that border might someday decide to send an invasion force south to reclaim its former colonies. As late as the 1930s, in fact, the standard scenario for the US Army’s annual exercises each summer was defense against a British invasion from Canada.

I don’t know that meaningful polls were ever done, but these Anglophobe attitudes were probably shared by a majority of Americans in the 1890s. There was also an Anglophile minority. America’s enduring cultural divide between the poor, patriotic, and Christian hinterlands and the wealthy, internationalist, and skeptical coastal cities had, during those years, attitudes toward Britain as a core litmus test; one side celebrated the Fourth of July with a noticeable animus toward the redcoats and their Union Jack, and talked earnestly about the evils of free trade and the plight of the Irish, while the other kept up with the latest British literary and intellectual news, copied London fashions, and faked an English accent when they thought they could get away with it.

Behind these vagaries lay a serious question. As the United States took control of its first handful of overseas colonies, naval bases, and treaty ports, it was venturing into a world that was dominated by British fleets and, more broadly, by British political and economic power. By the 1890s, the major powers had already begun to sort themselves out loosely into pro- and anti-British factions, though it was by no means certain who would end up on which side; until the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, informed opinion considered France as likely to end up as Britain’s enemy as her ally. The question that faced America’s people and politicians in the years between 1890 and 1917 was whether to ally with Britain or with the younger powers, notably Germany, that were pretty clearly headed toward a confrontation with the British Empire.

It really could have gone either way. In 1895, Britain and America very nearly ended up at war over the border between British Guiana and Venezuela. The Venezuelan government, at that time an ally of the United States, appealed to President Grover Cleveland to pressure Britain into arbitration; the Cleveland administration did exactly that, in belligerent language; British prime minister Lord Salisbury responded dismissively; public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic yelled for war. It took the sudden outbreak of a new crisis in South Africa—the Jameson Raid, one of the foreshocks of the Boer War—to provide enough of a distraction for passions to moderate and cooler heads to prevail.

Still, it’s significant that Cleveland, who was ready to challenge Britain even at the cost of war, was also the last effective opponent of American empire to be elected President. McKinley, elected in 1896, personally opposed imperial expansion but lacked the strength to counter the rising popularity of the pro-empire faction, and his assassination in 1901 handed the presidency to Theodore Roosevelt, a passionate imperialist and an equally passionate Anglophile, as well as a personal friend and disciple of naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. From 1901 until 1912, the presidency was in the hands of enthusiastic imperialists, and until 1920, of Anglophiles; during this same period, America and Britain settled their remaining differences and moved gradually into an informal alliance that the First World War would make official.

A significant number of people in both countries, for that matter, envisioned something considerably closer than alliance. In a Sherlock Holmes story published in 1892, “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” Arthur Conan Doyle had his famous detective say, “I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a Minister in far gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.” Doyle was far from the only intellectual on either side of the Atlantic to raise that prospect. Americans on the Anglophile end of the national spectrum, as often as not, felt they had more in common with the British upper classes than with the culture of the Anglophobe end.

Britons, for their part, had good reason to want the United States on Britain’s side. Those in Britain who dismissed the United States as an irrelevance in international politics received a series of abrupt awakenings in the half century following 1860, as the Civil War demonstrated America’s ability to fight an extended land war on a continental scale, the explosive growth of US industry and technology put Britain’s industrial dominance at risk, and the remarkably swift production of a world-class navy after 1890 gave notice that the United States was rapidly approaching the same ability to project force worldwide that the British Navy considered its private property. British politicians thus made conciliating the United States a central element of policy from 1890 onward, a decision that almost certainly saved Britain from defeat once war came.

What very few people grasped in the years before the First World War, in fact, was just how brittle the British Empire had become, and how badly it would turn out to need help from across the Atlantic. The root of the trouble was that perennial bane of empires, the long-term impact of the wealth pump on the subject nations that were being fed into its intake. The torrent of wealth that Britain extracted from its global empire left its subject nations starved of capital, and this put a limit on how long the torrent would keep on flowing. At the same time, the rise of Germany had forced Britain into a horrifically expensive arms race, especially at sea, where rapid advances in naval technology gave each generation of warships a shelf life of not much more than a decade before it had to be replaced, at steadily increasing cost. Thus Britain was being squeezed at both ends; income from its imperial possessions was faltering, while the cost of defending those possessions and countering potential rivals was soaring.

Then war came, and Britain found out the hard way that it had invested far too much of its military budget in the wrong things. The mighty British battleship fleet spent most of the war sitting in port, waiting for the smaller German fleet to come out and fight; the German fleet finally did so in 1916, the inconclusive Battle of Jutland followed, and then both fleets returned to port and basically sat out the rest of the war. Meanwhile, British naval forces had to improvise ways to counter the depredations of German submarines, while the land war turned into a nightmare of trench warfare for which the British army was utterly unprepared.

Very nearly the only thing that kept the Allies going through the First World War was American aid. Until 1917, that came under a flag of neutrality—public opinion in America was forcefully opposed to involvement in the bloodbath in Europe—but US President Woodrow Wilson, a passionate Anglophile, arranged for Britain, France, and Russia to borrow immense sums of money from American banks to pay for food and munitions, while shutting out Germany and its allies. When the war reached crisis in 1917—Germany succeeded in that year in knocking Russia out of the war, and was preparing to turn its whole military force against the Western Front—American neutrality went out the window.

Wilson won reelection in 1916 under the slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War,” but with Britain on the ropes, he did a 180° spin of a kind familiar to more recent observers of American politics. He got a declaration of war from Congress, sent the first of what would eventually be 1.2 million American soldiers into the meatgrinder of the Western Front, and backed up that force with a sharply accelerated program of financial and military aid for the remaining Allies. Those steps provided the edge that allowed the battered Allied armies to stand their ground against Germany’s final offensive, then turned the tide and ramped up the pressure until Germany was forced to sue for peace.

In the wake of the Allied victory, Wilson launched an ambitious program to create a new world order centered on a permanent Anglo-American alliance and locked into place by a new international organization, the League of Nations. Wilson’s rush to war and his attempt to weave the United States into a global system of entangling alliances, though, alienated far too many people back home; Congress decisively rejected US involvement in the League of Nations, and the 1920 presidential election was an overwhelming victory for the Anglophobe majority. For the next twenty years, the United States did its level best to stay out of transatlantic politics, and concentrated instead on establishing its control over Latin America. We’ll talk about the consequences of that move, and America’s final embrace of global empire, in next week’s post.

Some of The Archdruid Report’s readers may be interested to hear about a new book of mine that’s just out from Weiser Books, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology. It’s on a subject I don’t usually discuss in this blog, my own spiritual and, to use an unpopular term, religious beliefs; that is to say, it applies seven essential concepts of ecology—wholeness, flow, balance, limits, cause and effect, distinct modes of being, and evolution—to those basic questions of human life that spiritual and religious teachings are meant to address. Yes, it’s as unusual as it sounds, but a bridge between spirituality and ecology, it seems to me, is one of the great needs of the present, and that’s what this book tries to provide, at least in outline.

Thanks to the folks at Weiser, readers of this blog get a 30% discount off the price of the book when ordering it off the Weiser Books website. The code to use at checkout, to get the discount, is MYST.

End of the World of the Week #16

It’s always a challenge to take ideas from one culture and import them into a very different culture, without reducing them to nonsense. Promoters of the current belief that the Mayan calendar’s rollover in 2012 predicts the end of the world, a great transformation in consciousness, or any other of the modern pop culture notions applied to it might want to keep this in mind. One good example of the sort of thing that can happen when the difficulties of translation aren’t recognized may be found in the career of Hong Xiuquan.

Hong was a farmer’s son in Guangdong province in southern China, one of countless upwardly mobile young men in the middle years of the 19th century who aspired to an official position through the traditional Chinese process of competitive examination in the Confucian classics. Despite repeated attempts, though, he failed to get a sufficiently high score. It was after his first failure that he met a Christian missionary and got from him an assortment of religious pamphlets and Chinese translations of parts of the Bible.

After his final failure in the examinations, the ideas he absorbed from the missionary literature began to shape his thinking in strange ways, as he reinterpreted Christian concepts in terms drawn from Chinese folk religion. By 1837 he was preaching his own unique version of Christianity to a growing audience. Eventually he came to see himself as the younger brother of Jesus, God’s second son, who had been sent to Earth to purify China of the worship of demons. His proclamation of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace did not prevent him from organizing armed bands of followers, and when the Chinese imperial government took exception to this, Hong responded by proclaiming himself Heavenly King and going to war.

Twelve years and more than twenty million casualties later, Hong’s Heavenly Kingdom was finally defeated by government forces backed by European "technical advisors," to use a slightly later euphemism. Hong’s decomposed body was found by government troops in his palace in Nanjing; the sources differ as to whether he committed suicide by drinking poison or fell victim to an illness. His religion does not seem to have survived him.

—story from Apocalypse Not


flute said...

Some nitpicking about concentration camps. Wikipedia says:
"Polish historian Władysław Konopczyński has suggested the first concentration camps were created in Poland in the 18th century, during the Bar Confederation rebellion, when the Russian Empire established three concentration camps for Polish rebel captives awaiting deportation to Siberia.[5]

The earliest of these camps may have been those set up in the United States for Cherokee and other Native Americans in the 1830s; however, the term originated in the reconcentrados (reconcentration camps) set up by the Spanish military in Cuba during the Ten Years' War (1868–1878) and by the United States during the Philippine–American War (1899–1902).[6]

The English term "concentration camp" grew in prominence during the Second Boer War (1899–1902), when they were operated by the British in South Africa."

So it seems the Russians were the first, then Spain and USA. The Spanish coined a term, which did gain prominence during the Boer war, so yes the term "concentration camp" has its origins there, but there had been earlier examples.

russell1200 said...

The 1902-03 Blockade of Venezuela by both the British and Germans (and Italians) was also critical to changes in attitude. It went a long way toward making Roosevelt anti-German.

Both Britain and Germany were present, but the Germans blundering around, and often "standing on principal" got all the blame.

The Germans continued to make covetous noises toward the Caribbean and South America, and U.S. Plan Black (analogous to Plan Orange for the Pacific-Japan) was developed, and redeveloped over the years.

What is critical to understand is that even though the German Navy had not built up to its latter extent, both the German and U.S. Naval officers felt that it was the better of the two fleets. So both sides thought the German threat was real.

So with Germany and the U.S. being the two expansionary economic powers of the 19th century, the Germans manage to seriously annoy one power (the U.S.) who they really should not have had much issue with.

The weakness of Germany's far flung colonies was amply demonstrated by WW1. So Germany managed to completely isolate itself (they had been an allie of Russia at one time as well) from all the Great Powers for smallish colonies that it could not hold onto.

The way that Bush and (seperately) Putin, manage(d) to antagonize so many people with their demeoner, is how I imagine people felt about the Kaiser and Germany at the time.

I played in a strategic navel game set in 1904 (I was "Turkey" but with Dutch and U.S. allies) and when I did research was stunned at how much even the European-Mediterrainian situation had changed between 1904 to 1914.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

It is interesting that you mentioned the costs versus technological advances of the British navy and it's foes. Thanks for the history lesson too! In return, I'll give you a history lesson.

In 1934, Australia purchased the battle cruiser HMAS Sydney (previously known as the HMS Phaeton) from Britain. As a side note, HMAS stands for Her/His Majesty's Australian Ship - no attempt at deception there!

Anyway, the pride of the Australian navy was sunk by a German auxiliary cruiser (a modified merchant ship to boot) the Kormoran during WWII losing all 645 hands on board. The German ship was also sunk in the battle, but all their hands survived and were captured as POWs.

The sinking of the HMAS Sydney was very controversial - even today - but it highlights the technical and tactical advances of other nations with sea power during this period.

As a side note, both wrecks were found in 2008.

A wikipedia article on the subject can be found here:

HMAS Sydney

Over here if you look at war memorials, they quite clearly say things such as, "In remembrance of those that died in the Great War 1914-1918. For King and Empire".

There just doesn't seem to be the double talk about the empire subject matter here.



Hypnos said...

One for the Apocalypse Not list (unless you know about it already). The 1854 Xhosa cattle killing movement.

In 1854 the Xhosa of South Africa had been on the receiving end of British imperial greatness for quite a while, and had been driven to utter despair. To add to the misery, a disease started spreading among their cattle herds, probably introduced by imported European cows.

One chief Sarhili came to believe that the disease was a sign from the ancestors. The Xhosa were meant to kill all their cattle and burn all their grain. Once the deed was completed, the cattle and grain would magically spring back from the earth, more bountiful than ever, together with the spirits of the dead, and the whites would be expelled from the land.

Incredibly, the belief took hold. More than 400,000 cattle were slaughtered. And then, obviously, nothing happened. Tens of thousands of Xhosa starved to death, accelerating the process of assimilation into the expanding British Cape Colony.

On the other hand, sometimes the Apocalypse does come, at least if you believe in the omens that the Triple Alliance's high priesthood (popularly known as the Aztecs) received right before the coming of Cortes and the wiping out of 95% of Mexico's indigenous population by smallpox epidemics.

Jim Brewster said...

More Peak Oil in the news! Yesterday, Richard Heinberg did an hour-long daytime interview with journalist Dan Rodricks on the Baltimore NPR affiliate WYPR. Info and podcast available here.

Though he seems a little more optimistic about the prospects for civilization, his analysis and advice is fairly in line with the Archdruid's. Re-localization, low-energy skills (green wizardry though he doesn't use the term), and voluntary poverty are his primary prescriptions, though he did add that some will need specialized training to steer the economic and political systems toward steady state.

With yesterday's broadcast, the message was heard loud and clear inside the Capital Beltway, and if some of the syndicated NPR shows pick up the ball it could reach a much bigger, and relatively influential, audience.

I suspect Rodricks would be receptive to covering the Age of Limits event.

RainbowShadow said...

"I’ve commented more than once in these essays on the way that so many people on the leftward end of today’s American politics act as though America’s current empire is unique in the history of the world, either in scale, malevolence, or some combination of the two."

Ignorance about Britain is part of it, I admit. But, speaking as a leftist myself, I'd like to add that part of what you're seeing is sheer FRUSTRATION.

In our daily lives, some of us have the Herculean task of attempting to explain some unpleasant facts about the U.S. to people who are so convinced America is "the greatest country in the world" and "has entered into a convanent with God because WE'RE SO SPECIAL!!!" that there seems to literally be no way to get them to think about peak oil, or our decline in the arts and basic literacy, etc.

Most of them seem convinced that America is "God's chosen country," and attempting to explain to them historical facts such as the one you explained in your last post about our unprovoked land grab of part of Mexico is completely fruitless.

We devolve into one extreme because in our daily lives we have to deal with people who occupy the other extreme ("America is the greatest country in the world!"), are completely impervious to facts that might put America in a bad light (like our unprovoked Mexican land grab you talked about in your last post, or the fact that we imprison more of our population than any other country), and in general know very little about events outside their own country compared to citizens in countries like Israel or Costa Rica.

Robin Datta said...

The post was quite evocative.
Both my parents were commissioned officers in the Royal Indian Army during the second world war, products of the British policy promoting the creation of a class of "brown Englishmen" who would be fluent in the language and loyal to the culture of the British while simultaneously being fully conversant with their native languages and cultures. I was born four days past a year and a half after the end of the British Raj, and since the language common between my parents was English, it is my "mother tongue" (although not my mother's or father's mother tongue). I also am a native speaker of Urdu, the lingua franca of the region. I was too late to reap the benefits of being a brown Englishman, particularly so since that part of the subcontinent has a jaundiced view of a religious identity associated with me.

I arrived in America when its downward tragectories from its petroleum Hubbert's peak and empire had already commenced, but still benefited enormously from what prosperity remained. It now is a matter of how to negotiate The Long Descent. 

Thijs Goverde said...

Instructive and well written, as always - thank you!
Minor quibble: I'm not sure I agree that Germany knocked Russia out of WWI. I doubt they could have managed it without the help of the, er, Russians.
Of course, the Russian Bolsheviks might not have managed their coup if the war hadn't been going on at the time.
Same sort of thing was attempted in Ireland in 1916, of course - 'No one's looking! Hurry, hurry, time for the revolution!

Jim R said...

Amazingly, you captured my view of the UK perfectly. Ivy-covered aristocrats, and grandmama QEII. And here in Texas, I drive by cow skulls on my way to work every day. Well, OK, no I don't.

GHung said...

I read this week about the US Navy going green; testing its ships and aircraft to operate on biofuels. The plan is to demonstrate the US' capacity to project its power beyond the age of petroleum, I guess, and assemble a fleet to cruise the Pacific Rim in 2016.

Ha!, "Don't tread on me; I have corn..."

I wonder if they'll paint the ships green.

Degringolade said...

You have been busy lately. Thanks for the posts. I have been working on some projects under a similar vein and relish your input.

I will be interested in reading your new book, I have been re-evaluating my own spirituality and have not been pleased at what I have been coming up with.

All the best.


Maria said...

JMG, you are cracking me up lately in your posts and your responses to comments. However, you forgot Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, which is an important part of any description of Britain as a "darling little country." Please address this oversight in future essays.

In all seriousness, though, I recently had the opportunity to see the truth of your statement that "Americans on the Anglophile end of the national spectrum, as often as not, felt they had more in common with the British upper classes than with the culture of the Anglophobe end" in the wild, as it were. The countries in question were different, but I couldn't help observing that wealthy folks of completely different cultures seem to have more in common with each other than with the less privileged in their own culture. At the time I had a hunch about how that factor would play into America's slide down the global food chain. My reaction, edited for printability, was "Uh oh."

Matt and Jess said...

I don't have much to add but I just can't help thinking of my favorite 90's British transvestite comedian's sketch on this. I'll give the link but with the warning that there is profanity in the video. (Hope that is ok?)

Also, I am having a lot of difficulty finding a map of pre-auto American settlement! I'm very interested in this after last week's discussion. For some reason I keep pulling up Oregon trail and California gold rush routes. Has anyone had success in this?

Twilight said...

ntaingiWhen I've seen the architecture of official buildings from the British empire, both in the UK and here, I've been impressed by how physically imposing they often are. They are statements of power, and I can only imagine the effect they had on the subjugated at the time.

The British managed a rare soft landing for their empire by choosing, even if reluctantly, subservience to the rising power of a people they had much in common with in the recent past. Perhaps it was a consequence of how fast the US power rose. They could withdraw to a compact and fairly homogeneous home area and join forces with the new empire, made up of people from a similar background and culture. Once they couldn't make it on their own any more they moved in with the kids.

Most empires have had more difficult and messy ends, and I don't see any similar opportunities in the offing for the US empire. Our home area is large and underneath the homogeneous corporate culture there are some large cultural differences that are remnants from the past you've described. The rising powers will probably not be ones from similar cultural roots. Therefore I expect the US empire to experience a dismemberment of at least part of it's home territory and much more conflict on the way down.

Cathy McGuire said...

This series is coming along very interestingly. I’m glad someone has the time and inclination to think through the background and the complexities of our current predicament. Fewer and fewer will have that, as things seem to be speeding up – as you’ve said before, one has to unplug from the culture (at least the trivial parts) so as to have sufficient time and focus. Even though I have, I’m continually fighting against situations that pop up and need to be resolved at lightening speed… but I’m still reading every week.

It’s out of reach because until quite recently, as history goes, Britain was not a cute little country. It was an arrogant, ruthless, rapacious global hyperpower…

It’s like meeting someone’s grandfather and not being able to really imagine him as a war hero (or war criminal) because now he’s kind of dottering and definitely small and frail. However, a piece of that is the current culture’s overall lack of imagination – it’s being chipped away by passive amusements. To be able to picture other times and places is an active imaginative act.

I don’t know that meaningful polls were ever done,
weren’t polls a 20th century curse, er, invention?

a horrifically expensive arms race, especially at sea, where rapid advances in naval technology gave each generation of warships a shelf life of not much more than a decade,
That sounds soooo familiar…. warheads, anyone? I’m guessing the British weren’t daft enough to sell their older stuff to the up-and-coming nations and tribes…

William Zeitler said...

It's clear how an Empire uses its wealth pumps to extract wealth from the non-Empire. But it's also interesting to consider how the elite in the Empire also use wealth pumps to extract wealth from their fellow citizens: see the military/industrial/bankster/pharma/etc. complex. Of course the wealth eventually runs dry there too--I'm thinking all those permanently employed folks aren't in much of a position to pay taxes or buy corporate crap. Oh, and so much for effectively 'taxing the rich and the big corporations'--as if they're going to turn their wealth pumps on themselves any time soon!

SLClaire said...

What very few people grasped in the years before the First World War, in fact, was just how brittle the British Empire had become, and how badly it would turn out to need help from across the Atlantic. The root of the trouble was that perennial bane of empires, the long-term impact of the wealth pump on the subject nations that were being fed into its intake. The torrent of wealth that Britain extracted from its global empire left its subject nations starved of capital, and this put a limit on how long the torrent would keep on flowing. At the same time, the rise of Germany had forced Britain into a horrifically expensive arms race, especially at sea, where rapid advances in naval technology gave each generation of warships a shelf life of not much more than a decade before it had to be replaced, at steadily increasing cost. Thus Britain was being squeezed at both ends; income from its imperial possessions was faltering, while the cost of defending those possessions and countering potential rivals was soaring.

Well, what applied to the British Empire then clearly applies to the U.S. Empire now, at least that's how I read things. So do you think the powers that be in the U.S. may seek the same sort of agreement of mutual defense from another nation as the British Empire sought from us back then? Would any nation be interested in granting it if we were to seek it? We have trading partners, to be certain, but it doesn't seem to me that any of them have Americanophiles, to coin a word, in their structures of power. Even if there are such, the current political conditions in the U.S. might not be conducive to electing politicians who would be open to making this sort of deal with another country. In fact, it seems our politicians still think we can pursue empire for many more years. If so, the policies they will pursue will bring the empire's end sooner than it might otherwise have. Then we'll fall fast and not have anything to cushion the fall.

Doctor Lenny said...

I am enjoying the history lesson and figure that all of Britain cannot be figured out from Dr. Who's Tardis vantage point. I will have to connive a means of acquiring your eco-book, as i no longer use the monetary system and have no electronic payment identity.

The concept of change may require different institutions - a total divorce from the history of economic and political systems that have brought us to the brink of disaster. Empire, once shattered, does not mean a choice between the flintstones and the jetsons.

Be druidish and bee well

Kieran O'Neill said...

To readers unfamiliar with the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer war, this Wikipedia article goes into some detail, complete with the iconic photograph of the young girl Lizzie van Zyl starving to death.

As an interesting aside on the First World War, a book I read on it a few years ago mentioned that, by 1915, all of the great powers had exceeded their industrial capacity to supply ammunition to their armies. In fact, it was the turning of American industrial power to supplying weapons and ammunition (slightly more to the British side, but only slightly) which enabled the war to continue.

blackwingsblackheart said...

OT, but I decided to delurk in order to thank you for the work you're doing. I've been Dianic for 27 years. Now that I'm older, crabbier, and more educated on issues like peak oil and climate change, I've really gotten frustrated with a lot of the Neopagan community--certainly, there are people quietly doing good work everywhere, but there's also a large, vocal contingent with adolescent entitlement mindsets. I've gotten weary of books that brush aside the deep implications of Earth Religion in order to get to the "fun stuff" of spellcasting; rituals that end in, if not consist mostly of, gimmie-gimmie spellwork; and coveners who talk about healing while driving SUVs and living on processed foods. This is not to say that I'm anywhere within hailing distance of perfect--I'm just starting on this part of my journey--but I've clawed my way to some small awareness of the trouble we're all in, and I could wish some of that uncomfortable awareness on my fellow Earth Religionists.

Anyway, I've read "The Long Descent" twice, am halfway through "The Ecotechnic Future," and feel like I'm breathing bracing fresh air. I'd previously passed by your Druidry books, thinking they were from too different a trad, but I'm looking forward to picking up "Mystery Teachings" on my next visit to my favorite metaphysical shop, Eye of Horus in Minneapolis (if you ever come to the Upper Midwest, be sure to contact them, they're good people).

BTW, I brought your "Apocalypse Not" to some panels on apocalypse(s) that I was on at a local science-fiction convention. I did my best to pitch the book, but as I should have guessed, all anyone wanted to talk about was zombies :-( .

peacegarden said...

Mr. Greer,

I was not planning on enjoying this series half as much as I did the Green Wizards and Magic ones...but you have done it again!

Kudos, sir! I am backing away more every day from the binary traps I am so prone to jump in.

Have ordered said book and one other, and donated a few bucks to your tip jar...still saving for a solar greenhouse? We are, too.



Thomas Daulton said...

Ha! Dr. Lenny narrowly beat me to mentioning "Dr. Who" as part of the "giddy collage of Big Ben, Befeaters, half-timbered houses", etc., that JMG cites. Doctor Who is basically all we American young'uns know about British culture, now that Monty Python is fading into ancestral memory.

Besides the silliness of Dr. Who and Monty Python, I can add another more serious factor to why today's Americans don't take the notion of British Empire seriously. It's sort-of a local, political one. JMG, being a discerning consumer of media, may not be aware at all.

Ever since about the Reagan-Thatcher period, when Rupert Murdoch was building his media empire, American economic coverage of northern Europe -- mostly the Scandinavian "social democracies" but also very specifically France and Britain -- has always been pushed through the lens of demonizing those countries' "socialistic" welfare policies. Until the last couple of years, when the Eurozone breakup became the big economic story, you could hardly find an article in the mainstream press which mentioned British economics even in passing without taking the time to explain that their high unemployment rate resulted from their generous "dole queue" (welfare), nationalized health care and generous worker benefits such as longer vacations. In order to achieve the twisted logic of saying that generous worker benefits caused Britons to avoid getting jobs, the press had to paint working-class Britons (and other Europeans) as being shiftless and lazy. Whatever degree of truth one may assign to that notion, it is incompatible with the rigors of maintaining an aggressive and ruthless empire. Hence Americans don't believe that those effete lazy Brits had the steel and guts to run an empire like ours.

Here's a bit of an off-topic tangent: Back last June, JMG mentioned the inefficiency of using a bicycle to charge an electric motor when the end result you wanted was a margarita. It's more efficient to attach the bicycle to the blades of a blender. Today I ran across a real-life example: Solar-Powered Tanning Salon.
Back in the '60s, Philip Slater said words to the effect of, "Capitalism will reach its zenith when a product can be inserted in-between every itch and its scratch."

DavidEBCN said...

JMG, I have done some research about the Battle of Jutland after reading your post. Wow.

It is amazing the importance of "command of sea" (or control of air nowadays) in times of war, but also in times of peace (economic control of trade exchanges by sea). Now I understand much better your comments about Nahan's book and T. Rooswelt as a turning point in US imperialism.

The parallelism you are drawing with the British declining empire is very interesting.

How much % of GDP is the USA investing in its military industry? And China? Even if China is the next economic superpower, the US Navy can still block oil supplies to China and the flow of cargo ships...

Will China become "imperialist" in the next decade?

Thanks for your posts JMG!

Rennaissance Man said...

"The complete inability of most Americans today to take Britain seriously."
There was a memorable line in "Oxford Blues" from an eccentric professor to his young American student who was evincing exactly those attitudes, along the lines of 'do you take us for fools? We ran the greatest empire in the history of the world for 200 years before your nation came into being.'
You touch on a number of issues that come to mind.
"At the same time, the rise of Germany had forced Britain into a horrifically expensive arms race"
The British elections in 1910 were initially triggered by a budget crisis that couldn't afford the cost of pensions as well as the cost of eight new dreadnoughts. The election slogan "we want eight and we won't wait" reflected the attitude that it was necessary to maintain military power at any social or economic cost. Very similar, I think, to today concerning U.S. military spending.

"It’s become fashionable in recent years, among a certain faction of historians, to paint the British Empire as a global force for good and a model for all the things to which more recent empires—yes, the United States is the usual target for these exercises—ought to aspire.
"...Empire is a brutal business, and the notion that moral considerations ought to guide the behavior of the great powers is usually a talking point wielded by declining empires..."
I can't think of any empire wherein the attitude towards the natives in their various colonies wasn't always, one of paternalistic, racist contempt. Europeans had superior technology and the people being colonized were, therefore, backwards and of inferior. Kipling's sarcastic poem "The White Man's Burden" tries to lampoon this attitude, but wasn't obvious enough, and so got twisted around by the very jingoists he was trying to ridicule. Inferior (brown skinned) people were expected to fall to their knees (in gratitude) before the awesome (and advanced) power of the invading (white European) armies, who, being the Good Guys(TM) never, ever commit or permit any crimes. Yet even as early as 1830, some pointed out how the British East India Company was mistreating the natives. They were dismissed with distain even as they warned of the eventual rebellion of 1857. I find a similar attitude prevalent nowadays in North America -- including Canada -- towards the third world, and especially Muslim countries.
Plus ca change...

Robert Mathiesen said...

As for the British managing "a rare soft landing for their empire," the British upper crust had a classical education and knew what Horace had said about Rome and the Greeks whom they had conquered: "Captive Greece led her savage captor captive."

I suppose Britain thought it prudent to yield its empire to the one rude nation whom they could most easily captivate. Hence even the distorted American image of Britain has had its uses.

Steve said...

Any American who doubts the past power of Britain ought to spend some time in London. The concentration of wealth and artifacts from around the globe there are a serious testament to what centuries of colonialism and naval power can do for even a relatively small country. As a junior in college I visited for a few days, and the splendor of such a grand city was effective in communicating to me (then not the most observant) that this was a place of wealth and power. Granted, at the time the UK was still enjoying North Sea revenues in abundance, but the evidence of the historic wealth pump was everywhere.

The parallel position of the British Empire in the early 20th century and the US today is striking when you lay it out so plainly. The US is creaking under the weight of its past investment in suburbia, cold war weaponry, and a transportation network with no future. Meanwhile, the US wealth pump is running into obstacles around the globe - the new BRICs bank and oil barter deals threaten currency supremacy; many countries are setting up farming colonies across Africa and South America; two of our largest trading partners are suffering under crushing debt loads (the EU and Japan); and the US economy itself is being dismantled in consumption capacity and infrastructure to prop up the game of hallucinatory wealth musical chairs. This all points to the same conclusion you've been hammering on for a while now, and I appreciate how thoroughly you're setting up the lesson.

Congratulations on the new book. I just received my copy of The Blood of the Earth and am looking forward to reading it. I'll have to put this new one on a wish list, as I'm glad that you found time to write it and get it published. I'm a reader who enjoys when you write with your Archdruid hat.

Cathy McGuire said...

Unrelated to today's topic, but good news: the Story Forum at is finally set up!!

For those of you who participated in JMG's call for stories (and for those of you who wanted to) we have a forum for critique and feedback for your story drafts.

Look under Forums/Community/Story Circle. Please read the sticky note with the guidelines before jumping in - but hopefully we'll all have fun and learn something!

John Michael Greer said...

Flute, duly noted. Many thanks for the correction.

Russell, if Kaiser Wilhelm II had been born with the ability to keep his mouth shut and bide his time, we'd probably all be speaking German today. It's hard to think of anyone else who did more to help Germany lose the First World War -- a useful reminder of the contingent nature of historical events.

Cherokee, I'd heard of the Sydney and its fate. Yes, it's a useful glimpse at the state of effective preparedness of the empire's navy, among other things.

Hypnos, good! Yes, I knew about it, but it's a good example.

Jim, that's good to hear.

Rainbow, the frustration's understandable, but going to the opposite extreme is simply making it harder for anybody to hear your message.

Robin, thanks for the personal reflection!

Thijs, the collapse of one of the belligerent governments and its replacement by a revolutionary government that sues for peace is one of the standard ways that wars end -- Germany in 1918 is another good example. Military defeat by the Germans -- not to mention the fact that Germany invested a lot of money in bringing about a Russian revolution, and finished off the job by sending Lenin to St. Petersburg in a sealed train -- was the main reason the 1917 revolution (a) happened and (b) succeeded.

Jim, depending on how that drought goes, the cow skulls may not be that far off...

Ghung, it's useful to compare the attitudes of politicians and military officers to peak oil. The politicians are insisting at the top of their lungs that there ain't no such thing; the officers are systematically getting ready for it. The US is only one of many militaries scrambling around to find alternative fuel sources; we'll be discussing that in detail down the road a bit.

Degringolade, good luck with your projects. I hope you like the book!

Maria, yes, and as several other posters mentioned, I also left out Doctor Who! As for your serious point, though, Toynbee talks about the schism between dominant minority and internal proletariat, and you'll be interested to know that in most cases, the "uh oh" ought to be uttered by the rich. They're the ones who routinely find themselves lined up against a wall when things fall apart.

Jess, it's fine as long as it's labeled. As for settlement patterns, the 1900 and 1910 census figures might be a place to start looking.

John Michael Greer said...

Twilight, the end of the British empire was a little more complex than that -- we'll be covering it next week. You're right, though, that the US has done a very poor job of preparing an equivalent situation for itself, and will almost certainly face a much harsher aftermath as its empire winds down.

Cathy, excellent! It should sound familiar; recent history is nothing new, really.

William, that's the sign of an empire in disarray. I'd also point out, though, that however bad you think you have it, plenty of people in the parts of the world most heavily stripped of wealth by the US empire would consider you to be very well off indeed.

SLClaire, excellent. You get today's gold star. No, there's no rising power these days with any reason to like the US; we haven't copied Britain's sensible strategy and worked at conciliating and building links with one of the rising powers, as we could have done -- and at this point it's almost certainly too late.

Doctor Lenny, the whole "Flintstone vs. Jetson" dichotomy is one of the main delusions keeping people from facing the hard but livable future ahead. Still, good luck with making a clean break; the end of US empire is not the end of empire, and it's fairly clear who the main contenders for next global empire are likely to be. More about that in later posts.

Kieran, rather more to the British side, if I understand correctly; British command of the seas made it more than a little difficult for "contraband of war" -- that is, munitions -- to get to Germany and its allies.

Blackwings, I've taught a workshop at Eye of Horus and expect to teach more down the road -- say hi to Jane and Thraicie next time you're there! You might try The Druidry Handbook if you're feeling adventurous sometime; yes, it's a different tradition, but a fair amount of the material is more broadly applicable.

Gail, many thanks! Yes, the solar greenhouse is still on the shopping list -- we've got cold frames and one of those little micro-greenhouse things for starting tomatoes, peppers, etc. from seed, but a good sized greenhouse on the pad for the old carport in back would nearly double our home food production. Once that's in place, the solar water heating system is next...

Thomas, you're quite right, I'd missed that. It makes sense, though -- given the way that the American working class has been screwed, something had to be done to keep them from pointing out that the world's other industrial nations can afford more. It's interesting to note that when Britain had the world's largest military machine, it also left its working class twisting in the wind -- the social benefits available in Britain before the First World War were pathetic when compared to those to be had in imperial Germany, for example.

David, we'll get to that. If you have the chance to read Mahan's book, and compare his rules for building naval power with the recent behavior of China, you may come to some intriguing conclusions!

John Michael Greer said...

Renaissance Man, true enough. It's pretty much part of the definition of empire that the people of the imperial nation despise the people they conquer.

Robert, that's a fascinating parallel. The Romans brought home statues; we brought home the Beatles...

Richard Larson said...

I received Blood of the Earth #71. So far I like it.

Guess what, I Was an Anglophile supporter, however, I didn't even know it... Informative post as it is.


Since the USA doubled its land mass under George Polk, I now wonder what his role was in this type of character.


Which country will the next empire emanate and what will be of the people inhabiting the North American lands? So much future to consider.

LewisLucanBooks said...

From Bill Bryson's "At Home; A Short History of Private Life. 2010. Pg. 20.

Speaking of the year 1851 "...Britain also had its decennial census, which put the national population at a confidently precise 20,959,477. This was just 1.6 percent of the world total, but it is safe to say that nowhere was there a more rich and productive fraction. The 1.6 percent of people who were British produced half the world's coal and iron, controlled nearly two-thirds of its shipping, and engaged in one-third of all trade. Virtually all the finished cotton in the world was produced in British mills on machines invented and built in Britain. London's banks had more money on deposit than all the other financial centers of the world combined.

London was at the heart of a huge and growing empire that would at its peak cover 11.5 million square miles and make "God Save the Queen" the national anthem for a quarter of the world's people."

Empire, indeed.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

You are very well read.

I've been thinking about an implicit assumption in a lot of comments over the past few weeks. It is that at some point in the future, rural areas will become very poor due to the operation of the wealth pump.

This seems to me an unlikely outcome because of a couple of reasons:

- The necessary transport infrastructure won't be available to operate the wealth pump. Indeed, the transport options will be greater in rural areas (think horses and bullock drays);

- Some of the most arable land in and around major cities has been stupidly used for residential, industrial and other uses such as golf courses;

- There is a distinct lack of knowledge regarding the production of food stuffs in major cities;

- Alternative fuels such as coal and timber are now located too far from the easy and cheap options of train transport due to over extraction; and

- Peoples general level of fitness and health is such that they won't be able to easily transition to a low energy environment.

So, I don't necessarily think that rural areas will be such a bad place, especially compared to cities. Poverty will be across the board, but some people in some places will be better fed than others. The poverty in cities in the 18th and 19th centuries was pretty appalling. The powers that be weren't transporting excess population over here as convicts for their health!



Leo said...

on the subject of misplaced military funds 'Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice by Wayne p. hughs" talked about american ships being built for nuclear wars at the expense of conventional capability and an overreliance on missiles and thought around them when shells have been proven to still be quite relavent. if conventional naval war does breakout the US navy is ill-equipped to fight it for these reasons.

Mister Roboto said...

The understanding of WWI I learned in high school said that the Allied victory in that war was mainly due to the succesful blockade of Germany and Austria-Hungary by the British Royal Navy. So I take it that you're telling us that this isn't entirely accurate?

Zanshin said...

Dear John Michael,

My copy of your book 'The Blood of the Earth' arrived on Monday, and has kept me up late each night. It's excellent. Congratulations, and let's hope it gets the wide audience it deserves. The significance of Physical Culture, in particular, is intriguing. I've long been drawn to magic, lifting weights, and to martial arts, and recently started training with kettlebells.

Also in the post this week, TIME magazine, the cover proclaiming 'THE TRUTH ABOUT OIL' - a timely illustration of thaumaturgy in action.

Regarding occultism, do you have any comment on Paul Foster Case's teachings, which I'm currently reading?

Best wishes,

escapefromwisconsin said...

@ Hypnos Re: The Xhosa Cattle Killing Movement. From Wikipedia:

At length, the spirits commanded that not an animal of all their herds was to remain alive, and every grain of corn was to be destroyed. If that were done, on a given date, myriads of cattle more beautiful than those destroyed would issue from the earth, while great fields of corn, ripe and ready for harvest, would instantly appear. The dead would rise, trouble and sickness vanish, and youth and beauty come to all alike. Unbelievers and the hated white man would on that day perish.

I couldn't help but note that this seems to be exactly the philosophy behind the "austerity" movement in Greece and other parts of Europe.

beneaththesurface said...

Thanks again for another thought-provoking post. I appreciate reading perspectives on history I rarely was exposed to during my years of formal schooling.

Last month, my mom's cousin and her family were visiting and we briefly became involved in a discussion about the end of the American empire. Her husband is British, and lived most his life in England. He concluded very matter-of-factly, that if we wanted to get an idea of what the American future might be like after the end of its global empire, just look at Britain after the end of its empire. I felt this answer fell short of a likely picture of future USA because it ignored crucial differences between the two during the times of their empires ending. While it is important to look at certain commonalities among empires in general to understand some tendencies, I have reason to believe that the end of the American empire will be different (and more harsh) than that of the British Empire.

First, as some here have mentioned, I don't see the USA making serious and friendly links with any of the rising powers. Politicians by and large deny that our empire is in decline, and project a fantasy of it continuing long into the future.

But more than that, is the difference in the energy situation in the early 1900's vs. now. When the British Empire was ending, the world still had abundant amounts of fossil fuels. As the American empire ends, it is in the context of easily extractable fossil fuels having been largely depleted, and the impossibility of growing (or even steady) fossil fuel "production" (which more accurately should be called "extraction"). Hence, I predict a much harsher future here than in the case of the end of the British empire a century ago. Somehow the energy factor was completely ignored in my British relative's future projections of USA post-end of empire. I suppose you'll be discussing this in more detail in future posts...

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Matt & Jess - Check around your library (or, any library) for "Historic Atlas of...." . I've worked in a lot of library branches, and they tend to end up in odd places, due to their size or odd dimensions. Sometimes they are in an atlas rack, or, in an "oversize" section. They are often thin, and easy to overlook.

A quick look at Amazon yielded a "Historical Atlas of Washington and Oregon," "Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest," "Historical Atlas of Early Oregon" and even a "Historical Atlas of Marion & Linn Counties Oregon (1878.)

On your toes, all you garage salers. That last one is listed on Amazon for $2,475. But, your local library branch may have one tucked away. Or, there's probably a copy at the Oregon Historical Society Museum. Directly across the Park Blocks from the Portland Art Museum.

Matt and Jess said...

I've tracked down a map. It was too easy, and I feel silly now. Whatever. The first one I found looked startlingly familiar, I was amazed for a few minutes at the similarities in population with today until I realized I was actually looking at the 2010 census map.

As far as your current location goes, I wonder how well thought through it was! You mentioned the attacks on China's coast by Britain and I wonder if your moving close, but not too close, to the eastern coast was planned out that way.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Great post, as always.

Just wanted to come in and point out the War Nerd to people who might not know of it. He's basically a columnist at the Exiled magazine, and he writes about military history. Let me just get out and say, though, that he's a bit "colorful" with his language and some of the stuff he says can't be taken very seriously, but I find him insightful a lot of time:

Basically, he says the title for world's best imperialists is basically a tie between the romans, the british and the mongols. And, yes, he goes on to some lenght in several of his columns about the bloodthirsty-ness of the british empire.

Oh, btw, look for his columns about what he thinks about american carrier groups (not highly) and the role of demographics in Middle East conflicts (Israel is doomed long term). He does write a good rant :)

BTW, whomever posted that Izzar clip, you sir or madam, deserves a thank you for making a random stranger laugh!

John Michael Greer said...

Steve, I had exactly the same reaction the last time I visited London. It reeks of imperial wealth and power, or rather of what's left when imperial wealth and power fades out without ending in total collapse.

Cathy, excellent news! Thank you.

Richard, we'll get to that in good time.

Cherokee, my working guess is that a lot of rural areas are going to be very poor, at least by the standards of the contemporary industrial world, but it won't be because of the operations of anybody's wealth pump. It'll be because rural subsistence agriculture usually supports a very modest standard of living at best, and that's what most rural areas will have in the postpetroleum era: basically, Third World lifestyles. People in large cities will have a good deal worse on average; people in small cities and large towns in agricultural regions, once the transition period is over, may be able to manage something a little better, as their towns become centers of local manufacturing and exchange. That's my take, at least.

Leo, thanks for the reference! I'll check that out.

Mister R., the blockade certainly hurt Germany and its allies, but it was far from decisive. After the war, nobody wanted to talk about how close the Allies came to defeat, or how completely dependent they were on American aid.

Zanshin, I may just have to write a book about the magical dimensions of physical culture one of these days. As for Case, well, that's getting very far off topic, and it's not something to be discussed briefly; if you'd like to drop me an email via info (at) aoda (dot) org, we can talk.

Beneath, precisely. Compare Britain to other post-imperial nation ands it's very quickly apparent how lucky the British were. We'll be discussing the reasons for that next week.

Jess, there were a lot of factors involved in our decision to move to western Maryland, but there were several reasons why a location close to the sea was never on the agenda.

Guilherme, so that's where the War Nerd went! I read some of his posts when he had his own blog, lost track of him, and never followed up. My sense is that he's right about carrier groups and Israel; it'll be interesting to see if his reasons are the same as mine.

Dwig said...

On the British view of America: one of my long-time favorite books is "The Flying Yorkshireman" by Eric Knight, a chronicler of Yorkshire culture. In particular, the story "All Yankees are Liars" (which you can read at thanks to the Gutenberg project) is an amusing example of the kind of misapprehension mentioned in the post.

On "Britannia rule the waves": the next line of the refrain is "Britons never will be slaves" -- acknowledging, while spiritedly denying, the possibility of Britain ever being on the other side of the wealth pump.

Jason Heppenstall said...

JMG, thanks for this post. You have created a somewhat incongruous image in my head of an arch druid standing in a supermarket in little old St Albans, shopping bags in hand, and gazing slack-jawed at the '10p a go' children's car ride!

Anyway, casting that thought aside, it's interesting to hear about the cliches that various nations are boiled down to. I remember when I was travelling in the US I was asked by more than one person if I personally knew the queen.

Growing up in England my overwhelming idea how America looked like was shaped by adverts for Disneyland and footage from Cape Canaveral I saw on TV. I'm sorry to report that for a good few years I assumed that every street in the US had giant mice walking down it and that normal people lived in pink castles. Later, when I was more sophisticated, it became the setting for the Dukes of Hazzard and the A Team - a place where you can drive like a maniac and spray people with machine gun fire but miraculously nobody ever gets hurt.

But seriously, I don't think many people in modern Britain have any illusion that our old empire was a good thing - it was just regarded as 'better than what the Spanish/French/Portuguese' would have achieved. As Niall Ferguson put it (with respect to what we did to China) we were the world's most successful narco-nation. Not exactly something to be proud of - but I'm sure you can still find people who will excuse that kind of thing on the basis of some abstract idea or other.

BTW: Your new book looks very interesting but I notice that it is highly expensive to mail to someone living outside of North America. Any ideas how one might be able to obtain a copy otherwise? I'd even consider buying it as an e-book (which would be my first - now there's an irony). Thanks.

Leo said...

for looking at the future of naval warfare and potentially civilian ships(due to pirates and merchantmen)
is probably a better place to start since the future ones will have to contend with old problems (sail is cheaper, metal is heavy and hard to manufacture etc) while contending with modern ones e.g how easy it is to take away command of the sea (subs) and that fatc that wooden ships can't take shell (explosive) fire.
for these reason i don't think we'll see another global empire like britian's, spain's or america's that requires in some form mastery of the seas. that dosen't rule out multiple empires on the continental scale where land forces that don't rely on sea transport can still function.

John R said...

I recently learned of another turning point in US-British relations. First some background: Britannia’s rule over the waves was enabled by its control over strategic ‘choke points’, such as Gibraltar (Atlantic-Mediterranean), Malta (East and West Mediterranean), the Suez Canal (Mediterranean-Indian Ocean), and Singapore (Indian Ocean-South China Sea). It was clear for a long time that if a canal were to be built through the Panama Isthmus then it would become another critical choke point, and in 1850 the US and Britain concluded the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which guaranteed the “neutralization” of any canal that might be built. But 51 years later – just as it was starting to look like a canal might actually be built – the US was able to replace this agreement with the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty which forced Great Britain to recognize the United States’ right to construct, control and defend a canal by itself. Partly this is explained by Britain wanting to use the US as a counterweight to German ambitions in South America, but it is also indicative of how much the geopolitical balance of power had shifted in half a century.
JMG points out the common historical pattern of “the collapse of one of the belligerent governments and its replacement by a revolutionary government that sues for peace”. Another common pattern is for the decision-making elites to engineer the handover of power to an outside force in an attempt to secure significant roles for themselves in the new regime, often in the face of a threat from their internal proletariat of the kind just discussed. Three examples spring to mind: the way that eunuch bureaucratic elites of the Ming Dynasty opened the doors to the Manchurians rather than be overthrown by uprisings (which were partly the result of a monetary crisis involving neither central banks nor fiat currencies), the way that the Japanese aristocratic elites engineered a surrender to the US in preference to being overthrown by internal uprisings with a communist bent and not much sympathy for the emperor and the system of aristocratic and economic privileges that accompanied him, and the way that Britain handed over much of its empire to the US, which I’m sure we’ll get to.
I realize that talking about elites can be problematic, as it invites all kinds of fodder for conspiracy theories and demonizing, but in societies were a small fraction of the population control a very large fraction of the resources and make decisions with wide repercussions then I think “elite” can be a valuable concept if used carefully (such as recognizing that “elites” are rarely homogenous, and usually have plenty of internal conflicts and divisions). My reason for bringing this up is to echo one of Jared Diamond’s most under-appreciated insights: the ways in which a collapse unfolds (or is averted/mitigated) is closely tied to the extent to which the decisions made by the elites rebound on the elites themselves, or – more precisely – the extent to which the elites perceive themselves as being subject to the consequences of their decisions. That is, if the elites are able to convince themselves that they are immune from the negative consequences of the system that they perpetuate, then they are less likely to change the system to avoid these consequences. (For example, “It doesn’t matter that the factory I own is polluting the water supply, because I drink bottled water from France.”) Ultimately, this perception of immunity is a delusion, but it is a powerful delusion if you also stand to benefit enormously from the current arrangements.

Wistful said...

It seems to me that the British were so much better prepared for their end of empire than we Americans will be for the end of ours in part because countries they'd founded, like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, provided locations to which Britons down on their luck could emigrate. Such far-flung outposts of British culture also kept alive an affinity for the mother country. The US has no such deep-rooted cultural allies. The superficial worldwide interest in American popular culture and mass-market entertainment products is not an equivalent.

Also, I think that the relatively small size of Britain the island nation helped hold things together, as did, as someone else suggested, the fact that the British empire came to a close at a time when fossil fuels were still abundant (not just abundant, but, if we're pegging the true imperial end as the 1950s, when they were at their gluttonous peak). And of course Britain is nicely knitted together by a functioning railway system, and a majority of its towns and cities are designed for non-automotive transport, something the US most definitely does not have.

As others have already suggested, Britain was also fortunate in that its imperial successor was an allied nation whose ruling class came from similar stock and whose people spoke the same language as Britons did. If you have to pass off your imperial crown to the next guy, you kind of want him to look like you, and you want to know that, broadly speaking at least, he has your interests at heart.

The US is not going to have any of this same luck.

beneaththesurface said...

This conference was mentioned here a few weeks ago, but I'll mention it again...

John Michael Greer, along with Gail Tverberg, Tom Whipple, Dmitry Orlov, Carolyn Baker, and others will be presenting the the Age of Limits Conference: Conversations on the Collapse of the Global Industrial Model. At Four Quarters Center, PA, about 100 miles from the DC area, May 25-28, 2012

Please spread the word to groups, listserves, and individuals who might be interested! (I've volunteered to help work on publicity for the conference, so any additional help is appreciated. I tried to post it as a story item on the Energy Bulletin website, but the editors apparently chose not to post it. I'm therefore trying harder to get the word out through other means.)

The conference is very affordable, around $85 for the weekend, plus optional meal plans available. A rideshare board will be posted soon for those car-free people wishing to attend.

"This is not intended to be a conference in the usual sense of presentations to a passive audience. We will instead foster “Weekend Community” through the creation of physical spaces that encourage attendees meeting and exchanging with each other and with our presenters... in a very natural and beautiful setting. In addition to two full days of presentations and workshops, there will be low-key Appalachian string music in our community spaces featuring a finger foods social meet and greet Friday evening, a stage performance Saturday evening and an old style barn dance Sunday evening."

Mike said...

The Irish know a different version of the old song: "Britannia waives the rules!"

Living in Vermont I am now more aware of the strategic value of Lake Champlain and the long history of fear of British invasion from Canada. Strangely, it was on September 11th, 1814 that Commodore MacDonough, against all odds, defeated the British Navy in Plattsburgh Bay.

Jim Brewster said...

If you'll pardon a little digressionback into ancient history...

If the geopolitical dynamics of Romans, Persians, and Arabs helped set the stage for today's Mid-East conflicts, certainly the dynamics of Europe since the death of Charlemagne helped set the stage for the World Wars of the 20th Century.

The Kings of Germany, fashioning themselves Holy Roman Emperor, spent more energy meddling in Vatican affairs than in consolidating power among the vassal states. Meanwhile France and England were gradually and systematically centralizing power from their capitals outward (Germany didn't even have one until 1871), and frequently clashing with each other over territory on both sides of the English Channel.

I wonder how much the Germans still regarded France and England as backwater fringes of their "empire," even as the two western kingdoms did an end-run across the Atlantic to build their own empires.

The HRE under Charles V had even held Spain and its colonies for a quarter century, but didn't make any claims to them once the Spanish and imperial thrones passed to different Habsburg branches.

Of course by this time religious wars, which both English and French national institutions would survive, were starting to make mincemeat of whatever national cohesion there was in Germany at the time.

America was a convenient relief valve for German refugees, and various German states were happy to hire out mercenaries to the British imperial cause. But until Napoleon came along, how seriously did they take this new world dynamic?

When Germany did unify into a modern nation-state in the 19th century, it gave common cause to the old rivals England and France. There is some interesting background on this informal and formal hatchet-burying process here.

phil harris said...

I will echo Jason H comment on the availability of your new book in Europe.

Err .. yes .. Britain and rest of UK is part of Europe. We are even in the European Union, if not in the Eurozone. It took 28 years after WW2, confirmed in 1974, but at least we might have a potential food supply for the majority of calories we need but cannot grow ourselves. We are roughly 4 persons for each acre of arable ground. Yes there is the world market and the Old Commonwealth but there are more customers these days. Biofuel anyone? I'm joking of course. Food is still relatively cheaper than when I was a child during & after WW2. We had relatively more military commitments in those decades as well. Still, for the time being sufficient unto the day, as they say. We are only very recently just off the apogee of industrial civilisation (that 'Second Temporal Empire' of fossil fuel) and have yet to factor that in!

Jim Brewster said...

blackwingsblackheart, I share your frustrations with the Neo-pagan scene. I was going to comment last week, in regard to JMG's critique of The Greening of America and its successors, that such thinking pervades the Pagan community to an unhealthy extent. I think it leads to escapism and isolation, and thus to unsustainable practices like traveling hundreds of miles with heavy camping gear to various festivals rather than staying home, engaging in local community, and tending the garden!

Mike said...

The Irish know a different version of the old song: "Britannia waives the rules!"

Living in Vermont I am now more aware of the strategic value of Lake Champlain and the long history of fear of British invasion from Canada. Strangely, it was on September 11th, 1814 that Commodore MacDonough, against all odds, defeated the British Navy in Plattsburgh Bay.

afterthegoldrush said...

Another thought provoking post JMG - thank you. I've been enjoying this series very much so far, and it's been interesting to let the different viewpoints simmer in my mind as I contemplate what it is (and how I came) to be British in the current time.

As I've said on here before, I grew up with an absolute internal horror of the colonial history of my country - which in itself has led to a longer-term kind of disconnection from its mores. It's just another cycle of history I guess, but what I find so intriguing about the wider cultural appreciation of history, is the sheer short-term memory of it! Indeed, we live in a time where most people seem to regard history to be over - and so our culture looks back on historical occurrence with a kind of dreamy-eyed warm fuzziness, of something interesting or quaint - not as something to be learned from. This is something that I deeply appreciate in your thinking, and that I've gained immeasurably from over the last few years of reading your work: learning from the past.

These repeating cycles of behavior and occurrence at the micro/macro level are a source of great interest, but also great frustration. Essentially the study of history is the study of human nature, and the frustrations of such study are great indeed.

I too would be very interested in your new book, with more reasonable shipping costs - it sounds like a book I've been looking for for years - is there any way we could arrange for european distribution?

As ever, regards to all,

Matt Southward

Matt and Jess said...

Regarding Chinese naval power...

phil harris said...

I don't know when it was you visited London, but the place has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. I hardly recognize it myself!
Those new glazed towers and modern developments reek of the power of electronic money. This is not Vienna just for the tourists. It may be hubris; I happen to think it is, but wealthy London did very well out of the financial and property bubble. It still does. The advertisements in the Financial Times Weekend colour supplement only do partial justice to the bling and the power and the international rich who wing in and out. Poor London on the other hand, did much less well, and is going to do a lot worse and is better represented by the images of last summer's riots.
It could be worth pointing out to your readers perhaps that Britain's prison population has doubled over about 15 years. Regional disparities have never been so obvious; many areas have never recovered from the economic collapse of the majority of industry during the recession of the early Thatcher years.
The rest of us wait the next few years with some trepidation. Where ordinary people prospered during ‘modernization’, key elements were 2 incomes per family, the car and petroleum and a persistent housing bubble. Now where did we get all that from?

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, I'll have to check that out. Thank you!

Jason, try this link at Most countries have booksellers that carry American books these days.

Leo, for every offense there is a defense, and vice versa; maritime projection of power is valuable enough that I suspect nations will be achieving it for a very long time to come. The windjammers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had steel hulls and steel masts, and might just turn out to be the forerunners of the naval vessels of the far future.

John, elites certainly exist. The point I like to make, and will be making in more detail in a later post, is that in every real society -- as opposed to the fantasy worlds of conspiracy theories -- elites consist of competing factions that have to enlist or co-opt non-elite power centers to maintain a constantly contested position of relative power and privilege. Though I'm not really a fan of Diamond's, the point of his you cite is apt; elites that close themselves off from the rest of society routinely make the kind of idiotic decisions that cause the destruction of the basis of their own power -- a process that's well advanced in today's America, for reasons we'll cover later on.

Wistful, that's true enough.

Beneath, thanks for the mention! It's going to be a good weekend; it's the first peak oil event I've had the luck to attend (and speak at) that admits up front that we're not going to prevent the decline and fall of industrial civilization, and from that basis in honest realism, sets out to talk about what can be done to make the long road down less bitter than it will otherwise be. I'd encourage any of my readers who's within range to attend; on the off chance that it's of interest, I plan on leaving plenty of time to talk informally with green wizards, Archdruid Report readers, and other pilgrims on this long strange journey.

Mike, I'd forgotten that joke until somebody on Energy Bulletin reminded me of it!

Jim, France could afford to contend with Britain for world empire as long as its eastern border was against a patchwork of squabbling petty kingdoms, and so it invested a lot of effort in keeping Germany divided against itself. Once Germany became unified, all bets were off. I more than occasionally wonder if the same thing will happen again now that Germany has once again unified...

Phil and Matt, check your favorite online bookseller or full service bookstore. It's readily available from, for example.

Jess, unfortunately WSJ is only accessible to subscribers -- still, yes, China's antiship ballistic missiles are one part of a phenomenon I'll be discussing at length in a later post.

Phil, I visited in 2003, but mostly went via Trafalgar Square to Freemason's Hall for research. If I ever get back over on that side of the pond, I'll ask you for suggestions about what to see!

phil harris said...

JMG and all
PS I exaggerated a bit the growth in British prison population. (Also numbers relate to England & Wales and leave off Scotland and N Ireland). We nearly doubled the number of prisoners over nearly 20 years, not 15 years. I still find it scary.

On 24 June 2011, the prison population in England and Wales was 84,635. From 1992-93, the average prison population was 44,628.
England and Wales has an imprisonment rate of 154 per 100,000 of the population. France has an imprisonment rate of 96 per 100,000 and Germany has a rate of 88 per 100,000.
Despite Britain’s dramatic rise, we still lag a long way behind the USA.
According to my recent search; quote: “the U.S. has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people (2009): that’s the highest rate in the world …”
PPS It would be good to get you over here again sometime, JMG.

phil harris said...

Bingo - thanks
Found your new book available in UK
Reasonable price
Search result:

Jason said...

For Zanshin and anyone else who likes a physical culture approach to exercise -- I just found this guy on YouTube, think you will enjoy:


Tough old man with fun approach and some hefty things happening.

Unknown said...

Thought provoking essay and comments as ever.

I live in the UK so it is interesting to see our history from this perspective. We still have our remnant political and economic elite who now there isn't enough wealth to go around are busy keeping the gravy train going for themselves whilst cutting off the supply to the increasing numbers who don't have jobs, the unemployed, the old etc. But things are more livable for us than I suspect they are for a lot of folk in the US. At least you can get around on foot, by bicycle or by public transport to a lot of places; we have a system of allotments in urban areas where people can grow their own food, though there are long waiting lists for these in many areas; we still have the NHS, though facing a multi billion pound shortfall in funding over the coming years as no more money is being put in and costs are going up due to increasingly elderly population & cost of many treatments. So despite being further into the decline of our empire I'm happy I'm on this side of the pond.

On another point, a couple of posters have mentioned issues about neo-pagans not being very ecologically conscious - having been in the pagan community for 25+ years I think there is a lot of truth in this but there are many pagans around who are aware and are trying to live a lower impact lifestyle - I attend druid camps which although need fuel to get there (but much less than going on a holiday abroad) the camps themselves are very low impact, using mainly renewable sources of power (wood & portable solar & wind generation); locally grown organic vegetables etc; recycle as much waste as possible etc. Being part of the Camp community supports me in trying to move towards a lower-impact more sustainable lifestyle as it gives me a peer group who think the same way who are trying to put our spiritual principles into action.

BTW the new book and lots of other great books by JMG are available in the UK via Amazon & Amazon marketplace - new book out on 15th April, £14.99 supersaver delivery - I have ordered it.

jean-vivien said...

According to Wikipedia :

In the mid-19th century, China under the Qing Dynasty suffered a series of natural disasters, economic problems, and defeats at the hands of the Western powers, in particular, the humiliating defeat in 1842 by the United Kingdom in the First Opium War. The Qing, ethnically Manchu, were seen by much of the Chinese population, majority Han, as ineffective and corrupt foreign rulers. Anti-Manchu sentiment was strongest in the south among the laboring classes, and it was these disaffected who flocked to join the charismatic visionary Hong Xiuquan.


So it would seem that there was some historical connection between the Opium wars in mid-19th century, which you mentionned earlier, and this week's End Of the World #**

Joseph said...

Looks like America ran into the same TWO problems England did a century ago: in the Bush era our wealth pump started faltering (peak Oil in 2005) and we also had that fool lead us into two wars. The combined effect of these two things (wealth pump running dry and war) was the successful downfall of the world's most powerful nation.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I realise that you have mentioned your plans before and there is an underlying assumption in them that a local community will naturally evolve. Based on my readings of historical accounts of the depression era, this is quite a likely outcome.

Still, something doesn't quite sit right with me about how people could transition from a mindset of individual entitlement to the sort of mindset that can communicate, negotiate and plan ahead. Still, if everyone ends up poor then the previous mindset alters our of necessity. It is the adjustment phase that worries me the most because people will be very unpredictable.

PS: I purchased your new book through the publisher. There is real irony for me in commenters complaining about the cost of freight. Maybe I'm easily impressed, but it is actually quite amazing that a book can be delivered over such a vast distance for not really that much money.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

The other thing that I'm having trouble imagining is how we can move back down the technology ladder. As individuals and a society, it is very easy to climb up the technology ladder, but much harder to go the other way. It has been my experience that people will cling to their comforts and perquisites well past the time when they should have let them go.

Also, poverty is a subjective economic term. Subsistence farming does not provide much in the way of an economic surplus, but it does provide people with quite a bit more free time than they have at present working as a wage slave.

I have travelled in a bit of the Third World so there really isn't much fear for me in that sort of a future.

A town as you envision, would have to incorporate people working their own vegetable beds and fruit groves both in and outside of the township simply to be viable. Plus harsh winters won't support a large population without quickly deforesting the surrounding area which will further impact the immediate climate.

I've been recently reading accounts of various types of communities and it has been fascinating.

Please don't misunderstand me as I'm not knocking your ideas as there is some sound common sense to them, but commenters here keep coming back to the concept that rural areas have traditionally been poor areas. I tend to differ in my assessment of the future as the infrastructure, knowledge and resources won't be there to exploit them as has been the case in the past.



phil harris said...

I agree it is ridiculous to be able to buy high value but cheap goods that have travelled half way round the world. Same applies to apples in our shops in UK from New Zealand & Australia. These even need to be kept cool while they travel.
However, 30usd shipping for a discount price 12usd book was cause for hesitation. Same would apply to a bag of apples. JMG was right though about finding a UK distributor. His book at less than 10GBP delivered to my door(about 15usd) is amazing value and should leave a bit exta sometime for the Tip Jar.
Funny old world (for the time being).

JP said...


"Oh, btw, look for his columns about what he thinks about american carrier groups (not highly) and the role of demographics in Middle East conflicts (Israel is doomed long term). He does write a good rant :)"

You're missing the forest for the trees.

The fertility rate in the arab countries is collapsing (while population is currently rising). Given the psychospiritual megatrends (to butcher some phrases - I love wordball) the Islamic world is going to *follow* Iran from a demographic perspective. Iran (like China) is well below replacement rate.

You're looking at the first derivative when you need to be looking at the second derivative on your population graph.

This is why I think that demographics play some sort of crucial role in the entire Science of Empire.

Israel isn't likely to die the death of demographics.

You should look at the ultra-orthodox fertility rate and then think about what happens when the (internal) demographic tsunami hits Israel.

Iuval Clejan said...

Here is my attempt to describe some of the psychological/memetic aspect of empires. Hopefully not too much capitalization of the E in empire:

I think it is an interesting question if other meme networks besides the ones leading to empires are possible and stable.

SeaMari said...

A few personal anecdotes to share:

I live in a rural area of west-central NY, about 40 miles east of Ithaca and the Finger Lakes region that was settled mainly by veterans of the Revolutionary War, who were given land grants for their military service.

The fellow that I buy my firewood from is a local history buff. His own family history is interesting in light of the topic of this week's posting.

His family members were merchants in the New Hampshire area at the time of the outbreak of war between Britain and its American colony. They supported the British, and at the conclusion of the war, decided it best to leave NH. They came to this area of NY, and someone in the family claimed to be a veteran of the campaign on the (winning) American side. The claim was accepted and the family received a land grant, which is held to this day. However, today's landowner would consider himself more of an Anglophobe than an Anglophile, as would most of the folks in this area.

On another tangent - I just came from a workshop at a local social services center, which encourages presentations from community residents on areas of personal skills and expertise. The topic of today's workshop was home wine-making, and the presenter was a local man who has been experimenting with homemade beer and wine for a number of years. It was the best-attended workshop I have seen at the agency. Several attendees brought samples of their own home made wines, and after the informational presentation, an extremely convivial wine-tasting and sharing ensued. Left me rather optimistic about the prospects of community building in times to come.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JP,

The Iranian government introduced a policy of widely available family planning and acceptance of contraception some years back which may go a long way towards explaining their declining replacement rates.

In their craziness, they are now beginning to unravel this policy.

The real unspoken issue in the middle east is the availability of potable water (from either rainfall, aquifiers and desalination) and this will be their undoing regardless of what religion they follow.



Zach said...

Rod Dreher has a good observation today that seems relevant:

'In America, It's Always 1945'

He said that once you’re outside the American bubble, the epistemic closure of American politicians of both the left and the right is astonishing.

“For both the Republicans and the Democrats, it’s always 1945,” he said. “They really do think that America is always on top of the world, and it always will be that way — that we just have to make a few adjustments, and everything will stay this way forever. And you know, the politicians act this way because the voters would punish them if they tell them the truth.”


Eric S. said...

My favorite system of government would be one which has never existed -- Plato's rule of a Philosopher King. The unfortunate end of our American system of Democracy has resulted in a government by the 'Lowest Common Denominator', i.e.: a seemingly intentional systemic production of mass-ignorance.
Gurdjieff, no matter how one views him personally, got it right when he defined modern man's psychology as "mechanical", "unconscious", and "without a 'self'".
In this age of GMO factory farms, perpetual automobile driving, and 'reality TV', Gurdjieff's definition - "Man is a Machine" - perfectly describes Americans' attention, mechanically fixed, on the unessentials.