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Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America Paperback – 1 May 2014

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  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: New Society Publishers (1 May 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865717648
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865717640
  • Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 15.2 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 908,201 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Greer's work is nothing short of brilliant.---Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow, Post-Carbon Institute, and author, The Party's Over and The End of Growth When we find ourselves falling off the lofty peak of infinite progress, our civilization's mythology predisposes our imaginations to bypass reality altogether, and to roll straight for the equally profound abyss of the Apocalypse. Greer breaks this spell, and instead offers us a view on our deindustrial future that is both carefully reasoned and grounded in spirituality. --Dmitry Orlov, author, Reinventing Collapse and The Five Stages of Collapse The enormous virtue of John Michael Greer's work is that his wisdom is never conventional, but profound and imaginative.--Sharon Astyk, author, Depletion and Abundance and Independence Days John Michael Greer writes with unsurpassed clarity about the predicaments of energy and economy mankind faces. And he does it with a wonderfully kind, genial, and wise spirit. --James Howard Kunstler, author, The Long Emergency and The World Made by Hand novels The enormous virtue of John Michael Greer's work is that his wisdom is never conventional, but profound and imaginative. --Sharon Astyk, author, Depletion and Abundance and Independence Days, Greer ... offers us not only an excellent read, but tangible tools for navigating the transition. --Carolyn Baker, author, Speaking Truth to Power

About the Author

John Michael Greer is a scholar of ecological history and an internationally renowned Peak Oil theorist whose blog, The Archdruid Report, has become one of the most widely cited online resources dealing with the future of industrial society. He is the author of more than 30 books including Green Wizardry and The Wealth of Nature. He has been active in the contemporary nature spirituality movement for more than 25 years.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Ashtar Command on 6 May 2014
Format: Paperback
“Decline and Fall” is the most recent non-fiction book by writer and peak oil activist John Michael Greer. Regular followers of Greer's blog, The Archdruid Report, will find little that's new here. The general reader will be more interested and (perhaps) angered by Greer's political philosophy and pessimistic perspectives. To others, the book might come as a revelation of sorts.

Greer believes that the United States is in terminal crisis, both politically and economically, and so is the rest of modern civilization. Several chapters of the book deal with the history of the British and American empires. Greer (correctly) dates the beginning of the “external” American empire to the Spanish-American War of 1898. After World War II, the United States achieved world domination. The British Empire was faltering already during World War I, and was saved (twice!) only by American military and economic assistance. To Greer, the main factor explaining the high standard of living in the United States is that this particular nation (with 5% of the world's population) is monopolizing 25% of its resources, and beats the hell out of everyone who objects. Empire is essentially a “wealth pump” for the benefit of imperial elites, their henchmen in the dominated nations, and various special interest groups in the imperial heartland. Apart from the imperial wealth pump, the United States has two other “pumps” at its disposal. Industrialization is, in itself, a system that concentrates wealth to small elites of industrialists, bankers and (eventually) state bureaucrats. There is also an “empire of time”, by which modern civilization makes use of non-renewable fossil fuels stored in the ground by geological processes in the past.

Why do empires fail?
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Excellent insight regarding "Empires" 26 April 2014
By RedDevilMutt - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Although I’ve followed political and environmental issues for years, I’ve no expert credentials for critiquing this book. I’m offering this review simply from the perspective of an ordinary reader and how persuasive I found the author’s arguments and assertions. As this book is also political in nature, I should disclose a liberal leaning but also a fair amount of disappointment with both political parties.

At the beginning of the book, Mr. Greer explains “This book is an attempt to start a conversation ….. about the end of American empire and what will come after it.” And, at the end of the book, he writes “Thus one of the central tasks before Americans today …. is that of reinventing America: of finding new ideals ……. in an age of deindustrialization and of economic and technological decline.….. that doesn’t require promises of limitless material abundance…. that doesn’t depend on the profits of empire ……. or by stripping a continent of its irreplaceable natural resources …...”

The partial quotes above greatly appealed to me as I’ve long been uncomfortable with the idea that the USA has 5% of the global population and yet consumes 25% of global resources. The notion of “American Exceptionalism” as justification for this imbalance strikes me as simple arrogance. Also, as I’m convinced that our rate of natural resource depletion is unsustainable, I welcome a book that offers analysis, insights and predictions related to these issues.

In his prologue, Mr. Greer explains the nature and historical origins of “Empires” and demonstrates how an empire’s “Wealth Pump” operates. I thought this was an excellent introduction to his book.

Part one of the book, The Course of Empire, has three Chapters that I found to be very informative and the best part of the book – so, to elaborate a bit:

In chapter 1, The Origins of American Empire, the author provides a good review of America before and after colonization. He talks about the expansion of the US to its current borders, why we quit expanding beyond those borders and the geographic divisions he labels “New England, Tidewater, and Frontier Cultures”.

In chapter 2, The Struggle Over Empire, deals with the civil war, its aftermath, and other events into the early 1900s that shaped the basic features of both a “Global Empire” and an “Empire of Time” which is about the fossil fuels industry. He discusses popular political theories of the era that propelled and justified the building of an empire.

In chapter 3, the author gets into a fair bit of military history – especially related to the rise and fall of the British Empire. He explains the role of geopolitical theory in the World Wars and how the US embraced this theory to strategically position military forces around the globe. He believes the pursuit of this theory has now brought the US to a turning point in its history.

Part Two, The Widening Gyre has four chapters: The Failure of Politics, The Economic Unraveling, The Specter of Defeat and The Consequences of Collapse. In these chapters, Mr. Greer puts forth a theory of repeating political patterns that lead to collapse and he feels that the US Government is now adhering to these historical patterns and is facing a crisis of legitimacy. He suspects the US Government might either default on its nation debt or hyper inflate the debt out of existence. He discusses the evolution of military technology and why he feels the US dependence upon “gasoline warfare” could be an Achilles Heel. The author thinks that issues surrounding nuclear deterrence, US client states, and our southern border will be significantly impacted by the decline of US global power.

Part Three, A Republic, If You Can Keep It, has 3 chapters dealing with the future of the US after the decline of the American Empire. There is also an Afterword: A Choice of Tomorrows. I found part three and the afterword to be both challenging and disappointing. Challenging because the author caused me to think deeply about many of my core beliefs for dealing with our problems and disappointing because I felt this part of the book expressed much more opinion and bias than good research and analysis. Given one’s political predisposition, some readers might be quite comfortable with Mr. Greer’s assertions.

In my experience (I’m older than dirt), I find that most people won’t set ambitious goals and attempt difficult solutions unless they really understand what problem they’re trying to solve or opportunity to exploit. In the author’s view, we a have a huge problem with potentially monumental consequences, about which most people are clueless. And yet, we do still have an opportunity to navigate a better path for the future. I think Mr. Greer is one of those rare people who can really think independently and provide significant insights into the central issues facing humanity and the planet. I give him great credit for that; but wish he would focus more on the history-nature of the problem and less on the solutions he favors – austerity, small government, a certain brand of localism, his educational systems reforms, etc. Near the end of the book the author talks about the value of exploring a variety of options as we search for effective solutions. I think that’s a great idea that shouldn’t be thwarted in advance with any particular agenda.

I recommend reading the book because I think that Mr. Greer has an important message that is seldom explained with such clarity. However, I also suggest separating the chaff from the wheat. The central thesis of his book is that the American Empire is totally dependent upon relatively cheap and abundant energy from fossil fuels and can’t maintain its superiority once these fuels become more expensive and scarce. He suggests that there is still time to avoid the usual historical pain suffered by most empires as they collapsed - if we can learn from those historical lessons and start now to rationally change our national behavior. He recognizes the enormity of this transition and suggests we may very well still suffer the usual consequences.

If using less fossil fuel is a way to ease this transition, it would have been helpful to see a brief analysis of the three major ways in which the US consumes these fuels and what could extend these resources – roughly a third each: transportation, heating-cooling buildings, and industry-agriculture. As a thought experiment for conserving these fuels, we might consider some behaviors that could actually help avoid the collapse of human civilization as-we-know-it and save the environment from devastation. Such ideas as eliminating war as a means of dispute resolution; abolish environmentally damaging recreational activities such as NASCAR racing; establish a governor-controlled, mandatory national speed limit of 35 mph for all motor vehicles to encourage mass transit and NEV-HPV for local needs; mandate Passive-House standards for all buildings; ban a wide range of environmentally damaging practices in industry and agriculture; provide free birth control and abortion services to everyone to humanely reduce global population; offer free universal education-health services to defuse unrest due to inequality and help raise environmental awareness. Whether one agrees with this sort of agenda or something radically different, if we take the author’s thesis seriously it’s clear that Business As Usual won’t cut it: "it’s a safe bet that [the final crisis] will mark the end of what, for the last sixty years or so, has counted as business as usual here in the United States.". His personal vision for an alternative to Business As Usual seems focused on Libertarian ideals of austerity and small government. A word search of the book shows that “largess”, as in government largess, and “trough”, as in feeding trough, are used a dozen times. “Inequality” doesn’t show up. Also, his focus on the amount of government debt as an impediment for government action seems excessive as it doesn’t take a lot of money to build fewer weapons systems, have fewer babies, drive slower and ride a bicycle more, eat less meat, have a vegetable garden, or turn down the thermostat.

There is no shortage of proposed solutions for our global problems – Mr. Greer’s or otherwise. I think the primary issue is how to convince a critical mass of humanity that there’s a real problem that requires drastic solutions. Given sufficient motivation, people can generally be counted upon to set goals and test solutions. What’s lacking now is the motivation part - and it seems to me that Mr. Greer does a very good job of helping to engender this motivation – particularly in regard to understanding how the “Empire” issues contribute to the real problems facing humanity and the planet. However, instead of grumbling about “feeding troughs”, I’d find it much more useful to read an analysis of why it’s so hard for most people to understand the issues he raises. For example, what role does early childhood indoctrination of religious, political and economic ideologies play in this inability to see reality? Are greed, power lust, and aggression insurmountable human traits? What else is blinding us from seeing the obvious and preventing us from agreeing to cooperate to avoid some very nasty consequences over the coming decades? What are the roots of our delusions about our role in the world?

I’m not saying that Mr. Greer’s opinions about the merits of small government and such are categorically wrong (maybe he’ll even be proven right) – he just didn’t convince me. Otherwise, I found the book to be informative and thought provoking. His final words are “Those of us who see the potential, and hope to help fill it, have to get a move on.” I agree.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
The decline and fall of the American Empire 30 April 2014
By Ashtar Command - Published on
Format: Paperback
“Decline and Fall” is the most recent non-fiction book by writer and peak oil activist John Michael Greer. Regular followers of Greer's blog, The Archdruid Report, will find little that's new here. The general reader will be more interested and (perhaps) angered by Greer's political philosophy and pessimistic perspectives. To others, the book might come as a revelation of sorts.

Greer believes that the United States is in terminal crisis, both politically and economically, and so is the rest of modern civilization. Several chapters of the book deal with the history of the British and American empires. Greer (correctly) dates the beginning of the “external” American empire to the Spanish-American War of 1898. After World War II, the United States achieved world domination. The British Empire was faltering already during World War I, and was saved (twice!) only by American military and economic assistance. To Greer, the main factor explaining the high standard of living in the United States is that this particular nation (with 5% of the world's population) is monopolizing 25% of its resources, and beats the hell out of everyone who objects. Empire is essentially a “wealth pump” for the benefit of imperial elites, their henchmen in the dominated nations, and various special interest groups in the imperial heartland. Apart from the imperial wealth pump, the United States has two other “pumps” at its disposal. Industrialization is, in itself, a system that concentrates wealth to small elites of industrialists, bankers and (eventually) state bureaucrats. There is also an “empire of time”, by which modern civilization makes use of non-renewable fossil fuels stored in the ground by geological processes in the past.

Why do empires fail? The concrete reasons wary, of course, but Greer sees two recurring themes throughout world history. Ironically, both can be seen as an example of “too much success”. The success of the imperial heartland to exploit its colonies eventually bleeds them dry, leaving nothing more to extract. This creates a crisis in the heartland, where both the elites and its clients have grown accustomed to a privileged lifestyle at the expense of the colonial subjects. The other reason is that empires, for various reasons, tend to become militarily conservative. They can therefore be successfully challenged and defeated by would be empires with better military technology, or even by “barbarians” with *less* sophisticated technology cleverly applied to exploit the weaknesses of the stagnant imperial military. Greer's book discusses military history at some length. I admit these chapters are pretty fascinating.

Thus, the international power of the United States would probably have declined, sooner or later, even without additional factors in the balance. But, of course, there is one additional factor: peak oil. The energy crisis makes economic recovery and sustained growth impossible in the long run. Greer points out that the quasi-Keynesian economics of the Obama administration aren't working. Despite all the cheap credit on the market, nobody seems interested in investing the money. Meanwhile, the political system is stalemated as special interest groups on both sides of the partisan divide fight for the rapidly diminishing resources from the “wealth pumps”. The slowly sinking Empire is challenged both by its usual competitors (Russia and China), and by various “external proletariats”, such as Third World Muslims fighting a never-ending asymmetrical warfare with the imperial troops. Indeed, Greer believes that the tipping point might very well come as a result of a stunning military defeat for the United States. On his blog, he has speculated about a future war with China in Africa.

Eventually, the peak oil crisis will hit America's competitors, too, but for a while Russia and China can keep abreast by a combination of clever protectionism, state regulations and (perhaps) military innovations. Greer doesn't believe in free trade or government bail-outs of unregulated banks! How the whole thing will end is anybody's guess, but Greer doesn't think it will be pretty: authoritarian strong man rule, Jacobin insurgency, the loss of the Southwest to Mexico, the collapse of the State of Israel (which Greer doesn't seem to fancy anyway), the eventual breakdown of the United States into several competing nations…it seems all options are on the table. It's scary to think that just 10 or 20 years ago, I and many others would have rejected such future perspectives for the United States as bizarre fantasies of the militia movement. Today, they don't sound as far fetched any more, especially not if we think several decades ahead… While Greer doesn't usually believe in conspiracy theory, he ventures the guess that some foreign power is aiding and abetting discontent in the United States heartland itself, perhaps with hidden financing. (Judging by a cryptic comment on his blog, he means China. The idea of China fomenting a “colour revolution” in America is intriguing, to be sure.)

However, Greer is too moderate and pragmatic to end on this semi-apocalyptic note. He therefore devotes several chapters to concrete proposals on how to rejuvenate American democracy. After the bad news in the rest of “Decline and Fall”, this part of the book might struck some readers as somewhat naïve, while others might find it reassuring. Greer calls for grassroots organizing and re-localization: local government and communities should take back the power currently in the hands of the federal administration and the states (Greer believes that state governments are too dependent on the federal power to be useful agents of change). He also calls for other reforms of a “constitutionalist” bent: senators should be appointed by the states rather than elected by the people, local school boards should get their effective power back, candidates in elections should be selected by traditional caucuses rather than by primary elections, etc. Greer admits that a decentralized system of this kind might strengthen Southern conservatives, but is willing to take the risk. Since the welfare states will crumble in the post-peak oil world, ordinary citizens will have to organize voluntary fraternal societies, such as the Odd Fellows or the Freemasons (the author is a Mason). To a European (or Swedish) observer, used to sharp ideological identifications and delineations, Greer's philosophy sounds strangely eclectic, as if a particularly crude 70's Marxist would have collided with back-to-the-land hippies and Old Right Republicans. But then, one of Greer's points is that no way is *the* right way: re-localization makes it possible to experiment with local solutions, perhaps “exporting” those that eventually seem to work best.

“Decline and Fall” isn't a flawless book, not by any means. As another reviewer pointed out, Greer is weirdly oblivious to social struggles and their impact on historical development. He discusses the Civil War almost without mentioning slavery, says very little about the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, leaves out the democratic struggles in the Soviet bloc (which to Greer fell simply due to U.S. economic sabotage!), and writes off the “internal proletariat” as yet another graft-prone special interest group. Instead, he sees history as a series of near-identical cycles, constantly repeating themselves. Thus, the United States has gone through three cycles of “dictatorship”-oligarchy-democracy, and we are apparently near the end of the third democratic phase, and hence close to a new dictatorship. (The “dictators” are Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt.) This is apparently based on Polybius' notion of “anacyclosis”, but with strong nods to Oswald Spengler. Yet another problem with this particular author is his cock sure writing style, which masks the fact that his erudition (although considerable) does falter occasionally (one example: he calls Gaddafi's Libya “a Soviet client”).

Still, “Decline and Fall” is interesting, hard-hitting and – above all – timely. When Greer published his magnum opus, “The Long Descent”, the general audience probably wasn't ready yet. Today, they should be. Who knows, sales of this book might turn out to be a virtual growth industry!
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
The Good, the Bad & the Contradictory 16 Jun 2014
By Ntropee - Published on
Format: Paperback
This was a disappointing book. The substance and value of Greer's books seem to be declining & falling with the American Empire & the planet's oil supply. Don't get me wrong, there's some interesting ideas inside. So here's what I consider the good, the bad & the contradictory:

THE GOOD: The first half of the book was far more interesting than the last. The early pages have some insightful things to say about the ups and downs of empires, ancient and modern. Greer's discussion of the contending geo-economic interests that shaped America's rise to global empire is, by far, the best part of this book. Unfortunately, world systems theorists and historians like Chalmers Johnson and William Appleman Williams covered this same ground more thoroughly years ago. Still Greer does add some interesting insights about the role of fossil fuels, peak oil and geopolitical military strategy to the story of American empire.

THE BAD: By chapter four things begin to go awry when Greer introduces readers to his pet theory of anacyclosis--a perspective borrowed from the Greek historian Polybius. In Greer's updated version of this theory, polities (both ancient and modern) move through a cyclical sequence of stages from monarchy, to aristocracy, to democracy and back to monarchy again.

Greer spends several pages contorting history in order to jam one political system after another--from Russia and China to the US--into his circular theoretical mold. Unfortunately, cutting up square pegs to wedge them into round holes ends up looking like the hatchet job it is.

Greer's attempt to impose this ancient theory on American history makes for some painfully awkward reading. According to Greer, we're now in the democratic phase of the anacyclosis sequence. Supposedly, American politics is immobilized by a period of gridlock characterized by a "maximum diffusion of power" in the aftermath of the "complex social convulsions of the 1960s." The problem, says Greer, is that there are just too many contending interests clogging the body politic with their conflicting demands.

Greer admits that his interpretation "flies in the face of the standard narrative." But his pet theory doesn't just fly in the face of mainstream narratives, it flies in the face of the facts. Only someone deeply devoted to making history conform to his mental mold would draw these conclusions. Sure, there's gridlock in Washington, but not because America is suffering from hyper-democracy and a "maximum diffusion of power." To anyone unencumbered by theoretical blinders, it's clearly just the opposite.

Greer's theory turns reality upside down. The gridlock infecting the American political system is not the result of too much democracy diffusing power into a messy free-for-all. Gridlock is imposed from above by a change-resistant corporate elite who block meaningful reform by bankrolling politicians from both political parties. Politicians ignore popular demands for economic and political reform to please their corporate sponsors. They compete for votes in increasingly meaningless elections over a narrow range of acceptable issues that don't threaten the highly concentrated power at the top.

THE CONTRADICTORY: Greer provides not a shred of evidence that political and economic power has become more diffuse instead of more concentrated--because he can't. And, by chapter eight, he seems to unwittingly contradict and abandon his own theory.

He tells his readers that, "These days, both parties have been so thoroughly corrupted into instruments of top-down manipulation on the part of major power centers and veto groups that trying to return them to useful condition is almost certainly a waste of time." He goes on to say that, "What was once one of the world's liveliest and most robust democratic systems has lapsed into a sham democracy uncomfortably reminiscent of the old Eastern Bloc states, where everyone had the right to vote for a preselected list of candidates who all support the same things."

So which version of reality are we to take seriously? In chapter four Greer tells us America suffers from too much democracy, but by chapter eight he says, "we have a severe and growing democracy shortage here in America." Does he realize this diagnosis is the opposite of the "maximum diffusion of power" he identified as the problem back in chapter four? He doesn't seem to.

Throughout his book, Greer's primary blind spot emerges again and again. He refuses to recognize the power corporate America wields over society. He thinks we can improve our political system by decentralizing and localizing it. But he never stops to ask himself whether this would be a fatal mistake if the economic system remains in the hands of a small handful of profit-hungry corporations.

Greer's desire to blame big government while letting corporate power off-the-hook is highlighted when he asserts that sewage districts should get off the federal dole so local governments can reassert their control over this vital infrastructure. Greer thinks the central problem is a distant, intrusive federal bureaucracy. But without federal assistance, many towns would never have been able to afford sewage systems in the first place. In addition, Greer doesn't seem to realize that federal assistance and environmental oversight over local sewage districts has been declining for decades. Today, waning federal support and lax environmental regulations are exacerbating a much more dangerous problem than big government--big industry.

Industries regularly dump toxic chemicals down the sewer where they contaminate the treated biological wastes that could be marketed as excellent fertilizer. Since sewage treatment can't remove industrial chemicals, the result is toxic sludge. This forces cash strapped municipal treatment facilities to pay to dispose of their sludge as hazardous waste instead of selling it as beneficial fertilizer.

Far from being over-intrusive, the EPA refuses to punish this criminal behavior & requires local sewage officials to enforce the law. But municipalities lack the funds and the will to investigate and punish industrial dumpers. In fact, they are even more economically and politically beholden to the powerful industrial polluters in their region than their state and federal counterparts. Thus, Greer is way off base when he defines the problem as "big government." The problem is the inability of local, state or federal authorities to protect the public interest from powerful polluters.

Greer's solution--putting elected local officials in control of sewage districts without federal assistance or interference--completely ignores the fact that local elections are even more easily corrupted by big polluters than state and federal elections.

Greer doesn't seem to understand that his misdiagnosed example of intrusive big government is actually an example of government weakness. In fact, his example demonstrates government's inability to do the only thing Greer insists government should be doing--policing and preserving the public commons. He tells his readers that, "A strong case can be made...for jettisoning the notion of government as a national sugar daddy and returning to the older notion of government as a guarantor of the national commons."

What a great idea! But if Greer thinks this will be a less expensive, less intrusive, more manageable role for government to play in an era when the wealth pump of empire runs dry, he has another think coming. Nothing could be further from the truth!

It's clear that Greer has not bothered to think this through. Unless the public commons includes our nation's economy, he is saddling government with an impossibly expensive task. As long as our economic system is in private hands and driven to maximize profit by externalizing its costs onto the public and the planet, protecting the atmosphere, biodiversity, public lands and resources, oceans, waterways and the vast public infrastructure that constitutes our commonwealth will be an impossibly expensive proposition. What makes Greer believe that policing, maintaining, and protecting the commons from constant corporate abuse can possibly be sustainable or affordable? Yet Greer seems oblivious to the overwhelming costs of what he's advocating and he carefully avoids any discussion of de-privatizing the economy by making it part of the public commons.

In the end there are so many contradictory propositions and superficial assumptions in this book that you wonder if John Michael Greer hasn't become captured by the need to crank out another book even though his intellectual resources seem to have peaked.
32 of 41 people found the following review helpful
Good on Empire But Weak on Democracy 13 April 2014
By Richard H. Burkhart - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a frustrating book. Sometimes Greer hits its right on the head, like when he analyses empire by tracing the flows of wealth from the periphery to the imperial core, citing the Roman empire. Yet he fails to apply this same trenchant "follow the money" analysis to the current empire confronting imperial overreach - the United States - as the ruling elites switch to enriching themselves by exploiting their own countrymen like they would imperial subjects. In fact I found it painful, even embarrassing, to see Greer glibly spouting myths and propaganda on domestic issues when he clearly has a good grasp of the dynamics of limits to growth, peak oil, geopolitics, and debt. Greer simply hasn't done his homework on his own society, despite his broad historical readings. It's not just that his overly confident guru-style pronouncements sometimes come across as crude caricatures - they can be just plain wrong, and with this his entire enterprise loses credibility.

A good example is his ludicrous claim (p. 87) that "cities and counties all over the United States are being driven into bankruptcy by the cost of public sector salaries and benefits". In fact the Great Recession led to enormous losses of tax revenue at the local and state levels throughout most of the United States, even as elite private wealth recovered very nicely due to the Wall Street bailouts. But the ruling elites (characterized as the 1% by the Occupy Movement) saw this as a great opportunity to expand their class warfare against much of the 99% by blaming public sector unions for the costs of the Wall Street swindles. In fact this propaganda campaign promised the elites a quadruple benefit: (1) shift attention away from their swindles by blaming their victims, (2) further shrink the middle class (replacing it by cheap labor as much as possible), (3) lower taxes, and (4) less effective government (to make their swindles and corruption even easier the next time).

An equally astonishingly blunder (p. 88) is Greer's claim that the Democratic Party has seized control of environmentalists and the Republican party of gun owners. Neither the Sierra Club nor the National Rifle Association is that naïve. In fact the influence is the other way around. Environmentalist seek to influence the blue state Democratic Party because they know that they will have more clout with the Democrats while the NRA gravitates to the red state Republican Party for the same reason. And contrary to Greer's claim this does make a big difference. For example, the Republicans have managed to block sensible gun control laws in most states, despite many high profile mass killings by guns. And the Democrats have stopped the northern section of the Keystone pipeline, at least for now, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Koch brothers each election year to fund political attacks on Democrats and climate science. Both parties know that if they ignore their base, that some disaffected voters will turn to third parties or simply not vote, costing them Congressional seats in contested areas.

Strangely, despite his disdain for two-party winner-take-all politics, Greer never considers alternatives from around the world such as proportional representation or preferential ballots, which would dramatically increase voter choice, hence turnout, and which also have less potential for corruption and dirty politics and more potential for sensible compromise if properly designed. [I am a mathematician with expertise in such methods, also with decades of experience as a political activist, now supporting the Greens and the Socialist Alternative after bitter disappointment with the Obama administration.]

Greer's claim that about the "collapse of education" (p. 201) is equally spurious. The basic problem of education today, as he should know, is that in a highly complex society like ours, we expect and need far better education that was needed in the 19th century. Yet people are not any more capable. The result is that now we try educate everyone through high school, most even through some college. Yet it's long been clear that only a minority of students are good at class room learning (what I, a former school board member, call the factory model of education), and other forms of education are much more expensive unless the students are earning their way as apprentices or interns. Just go to Wikipedia: only 72% of children attended elementary school by 1910 and compulsory elementary education wasn't universal until 1918. Universal education through high school has meant much lower average scores compared to the schooling of other eras and countries, which focused first on elites and then a gradually enlarging middle class.

Today the best US schools (mostly in affluent neighborhoods) remain on par with the best worldwide. This not to say that the huge increase in economic inequality over the last two generations has not had negative consequences for education in many communities: (1) Stagnating resources for education where there are stagnating incomes and (2) Less motivation toward higher education, thus lower social mobility, when good middle class jobs are both scarcer and far more accessible to families already solidly in the middle class.

Another failure is when Greer tries to shoehorn US history into a Greek analysis of history as a political cycle of dictator, oligarchy, democracy and then back again to dictator. The problem is that the Greek cycle just doesn't fit. He likens Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt to "dictators", yet none of them had significant personal wealth or power other than their temporary power of office and the willingness of the majority and certain factions to follow their lead through a crisis. Moreover these "dictators" were not followed by oligarchy, but a democratic regime, with the oligarchy becoming oppressive only after many decades, best illustrated by the robber barons of the late 19th century and the current regime of mega corporations and billionaires. In addition, the crises that terminate the cycle are not due to the paralysis of competing factions but the stranglehold of the oligarchs and consequent impoverishment then rebellion of the people. The historical analyses of Turchin, as documented in "Secular Cycles", for example, are a much better model.

The failure of Greer's competing factions model, both morally and practically, is even more evident when we look at current politics in the US. For example, he makes no distinction between Democrats in Congress wanting to help struggling households by maintaining funding for food stamps and unemployment benefits or expanding health care coverage, and Tea Party Republicans wanting to maintain extravagant subsidies for rich individuals and corporations and to cut short stimulus funding for needed infrastructure (and many good jobs). To Greer it's simply a "pox on both your houses". He never discusses the numbers on the escalating inequality in America (since Reagan was elected blue collar wages have stagnated while national wealth has doubled) or how that inequality has been created by the ruling elites, primarily operating through the Republican Party. He never digs into their spectacularly successful class warfare agenda of "free trade" and outsourcing, deregulation, tax shifting and corporate subsidies, privatization, attacks on unions, regulatory capture and political corruption, etc, or how such strategies constitute the internal "wealth pump" of a late stage empire feeding off its core population, since Reagan redistributing many trillions of dollars of income and wealth from ordinary people to the affluent, especially the billionaires.

Not surprisingly, despite the subtitle of the book, Greer shows little respect for democracy, regarding it as naturally corrupt (except for an idealized version of small town American from a century ago where welfare is provided by fraternal societies). This is the cynical attitude of greedy politicians and their sponsors who use it to rationalize their own corruption. But if he were to do his homework, Greer would discover that there are a great many idealistic, "good government" politicians, who keep fighting despite losing ground against an increasingly corrupt system, now even abetted by a "one dollar one vote" Supreme Court. What keeps progressives going against the overwhelming power of big money? Well, youthful rebellions like the Occupy Movement, which Greer dismisses, but which is now bearing fruit. Here in Seattle, Occupy has led directly to the strong movement for a $15 minimum wage and the astounding election of an Occupy socialist to the city council.

Greer is does much better using his historian's knowledge to illuminate changing warfare and realpolitik, harking back 3000 years to the defeat of chariot warfare by javelin warriors. He even suggests that the US empire could suffer a major military defeat before long despite overwhelming military superiority in conventional warfare. In fact that already happened in Vietnam, but there was time to recover. As Greer recognizes, when resources are into serious contraction, there may be no such recovery. Rather the next time an insurgency discovers a major weakness, it could open the flood gates to other insurgencies, leading to a rapid contraction of empire and spreading global geo-political chaos, seriously disrupting corporate globalization, signally the death knell of the wealth pump. Greer cites the warlord forces in Africa that effectively use Toyota pickups with machine guns and anti-tank and anti-aircraft launchers in back. But he could also cite the recent success of ragtag Somali pirates. And it is now common place to speculate what will happen when insurgencies learn how to use drones, as they have already learned how to make roadside bombs out fertilizer and to detonate them with cell phones. Of course, the suicide bomber is a classic case of very effective asymmetrical warfare.

Yet Greer doesn't want to face the possibility that an America newly decentralized and impoverished from imperial collapse could be ruled by local warlords, with death and destruction more common than democracy. A financial crisis ending in major governmental and private defaults would be heaven in comparison. Freed from the oppressive burden supporting luxuries for the elites, our youth would have a chance to build a more democratic, sharing, and resilient economy. Or at least they might have a better shot at long term survival.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Eye-opening! 11 April 2014
By S. Williams - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Gosh, where do I start? John Michael Greer's book is more than eye-opening. It's, well "revolutionary"! Greer presents a history of the American Empire (not too dissimilar from the Roman or British Empires) and provides a compelling argument as to why and how the Empire is in its twilight. He addresses the most important social, political and economic factors that are driving our country to its final days and can be read, by those that aren't afraid of reality, as a respectable 'call to arms' of what we should be doing and thinking about as our global rule nears its last breath. His theory is bi-partisan and isn't a muck-racking of any political party specifically. It's a good ol' intellectual analysis using Plebius and Aristotle's time-tested theory of the cyclical evolution of nations (anacyclosis). For better or worse, all good things come to an end. His book is convincing and compelling. A must read for anyone that can stomach the truth. Get ready, folks, we're coming in for a landing and it might not be so smooth!
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