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4.0 out of 5 stars The decline and fall of the American Empire, 6 May 2014
This review is from: Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America (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 nave, 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!
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