John Michael Greer: Archdruid Report Essays
You’re right, Tycer. This is shaping up to be a good series.
And John Michael Greer writes in such an interesting way, it’s like reading a serialized novel in a newspaper.
Here’s this week’s post:
The Trajectory of Empires (February 29, 2012)
“…The production of wealth in any society depends on a feedback loop in which a portion of each year’s production becomes part of the capital needed to produce wealth in future years, and another portion of each year’s production – a substantial one – goes to meet the maintenance costs of existing productive capital. In theory, an empire could keep its exactions at a level which would leave this feedback loop unimpaired. In practice, no empire ever does so, which is one of the two primary reasons why the subject nations of an empire become more impoverished over time. (Plain old-fashioned looting of subject nations by their imperial rulers is the other.) As the subject nation’s ability to produce and maintain productive capital decreases, so does its capacity to produce wealth, and that cuts into the ability of the empire to make its subject nations cover its own maintenance costs. A wealth pump is great, in other words, until it pumps the reservoir dry.“
“Rome’s approach to pumping wealth out of subject nations was straightforward. Once a nation was conquered by Rome, it was systematically looted of movable wealth by the conquerors, while local elites were allowed to buy their survival by serving as collection agents for tribute; next, the land was confiscated a chunk at a time so it could be handed out as retirement bonuses to legionaries who had served their twenty years; then some pretext was found for exterminating the local elites and installing a Roman governor; thereafter, the heirs of the legionaries were forced out or bought out, and the land sold to investors in Rome, who turned it into vast corporate farms worked by slaves.“
“Consider England’s rule over India, once the jewel in the crown of the British empire. In the last years of British India, it was a common complaint in the English media that India no longer “paid her own way.” Until a few decades earlier, India had paid a great deal more than her own way; income to the British government from Queen Victoria’s Indian possessions had covered a sizable fraction of the costs of the entire British empire… It took the British Empire, all in all, less than two centuries to run India’s economy into the ground and turn what had been one of the world’s richest and most productive countries into one of its poorest.“
Can’t wait til next week when Greer starts writing about the history of the American empire.
Can’t wait til next week when Greer starts writing about the history of the American empire.
you don’t have to wait … from what I have seen, you have more vision than you give yourself credit for.
Thanks. But I doubt I have anywhere near as sweeping a grasp of history nor as elegant a hand at prose as John Michael Greer does…
Here’s his eagerly awaited words on the United States…
America: Origins of an Empire (March 7, 2012)
“West of Chesapeake Bay lay the Potomac valley, one of the few easy routes into the mountains, and it’s likely that somewhere up that way – by the nature of the thing, nobody will ever know when or where – German and Scots-Irish traditions blended with scraps of a dozen other ethnic heritages to create the first draft of American frontier culture. Think log cabins and long rifles, homespun cloth and home-brewed liquor, a fierce habit of local independence and an equally fierce disdain for the cultures of the coast, and all the rest: that’s where it came from, and it spread westward along a wide front from the Great Lakes to the middle South.“
The next eagerly-awaited installment in John Michael Greer’s great story arc on the American empire…
America: Modes of Expansion (March 14, 2012)
“The three settlement patterns that emerged in the American colonies in the century or so before independence – New England’s attempt to copy its namesake across the Atlantic, the Tidewater economy of plantations feeding cash crops to Old World markets, and the fusion of immigrant traditions that was giving birth to American frontier society – were anything but fixed. By the time they had finished taking shape, they were already blurring into one another at the edges, and responding in various ways to the new influences brought by further waves of immigration. Still, the patterns are worth watching, because they played a significant role in shaping the modes of expansion that would define its age of empire in a later century.“
The third installment in John Michael Greer’s story arc on the American empire…
America: Crossing the Line (March 21, 2012)
“Had the South kept the dominant position it originally held in American national politics, and arranged the nation’s trade policy to its own satisfaction… North’s newborn industrial system would have been flattened by competition from Britain’s far more lavishly capitalized factories and mercantile firms. The products of America’s farms, mines, and logging camps would have had to be traded for hard currency to pay for manufactured products from overseas. That would have locked the United States into the same state of economic dependency as the nations of Latin America…“
“Many of my readers, to begin with, will have heard pundits insist that economic crises happen because modern currencies aren’t based on a gold standard, or because central bankers always mismanage the economy, or both. That’s a popular belief just now, but it’s nonsense, and it only takes a glance at American economic history between the Civil War and the founding of the Federal Reserve in 1912 to prove once and for all that it’s nonsense. The Panic of 1873, the Long Depression, the Panic of 1893, the Depression of 1900-1904, the Panic of 1907, and several lesser economic disasters all happened in an era when the US dollar was on the strictest of gold standards and the United States didn’t have a central bank…“
Certainly a different lens with which to view the sweep of American history… Would love to get your input!
“Many of my readers, to begin with, will have heard pundits insist that economic crises happen because modern currencies aren’t based on a gold standard, or because central bankers always mismanage the economy, or both. That’s a popular belief just now, but it’s nonsense, and it only takes a glance at American economic history between the Civil War and the founding of the Federal Reserve in 1912 to prove once and for all that it’s nonsense.
Yes, well the silence is deafening. The notion that the events of recent import and leading up to it, are caused by a failure of Capitalism rather then the scapegoat du juor (The Fed) is unthinkable in the current political context. Far easier to blame the Federal Reserve and government intervention in general than to be forced to take a hard look at history and have the facts of causality laid forth in the cold light of reality.
In my view, JMG is spot on with his comments, he’s right, and further, he has an almost soothing way of distributing the information that is decidedly non confrontational while still providing an accurate and unsettling explanation for why we are here, how we got here, and where it’s inevitably going to go.
Greer’s essay reveals a number of important perspectives, firstly, the tendency for current pundits to reference a parallel and alternate universe that starts in 1913, and attempts to reconstruct history of Capitalism as if the first signs of trouble were coincident with this date. Typically, this is then coupled with some gratuitous inductive reasoning to intersect points between 1913, the Great Depression, and the 2008 collapse, and then, voila, we have a thesis that all the worlds ails are the direct (and avoidable!) result of government intervention. The problem comes in- as Greer accurately points out- when some bright person asks why the Austrian/goldbug timeline starts at 1913, and dates previous are considered terra incognito.
But actually, before these dates, there was no income tax, no Federal Reserve, little regulation (until the Robber Baron era at the turn of the 20th century), and perhaps most importantly the US Government in the late 18th century and until the Civil War was not large enough to really do much at all in the way of regulating commerce and keeping a lid on the emerging financial industry, driven largely by the explosive intersection of the Industrial revolution with US Capitalism in the early and mid 19th century. Despite these facts, the referenced period has far more incidences of catastrophic crises of capitalism than the period after 1913- on average about every 7-10 years starting from the day the ink was dry on the US Constitution and continuing uninterrupted to 1913.
So the take away is that none of this squares with the notion that government intervention was (and is) responsible for the various crises of capitalism, of which the 2008 crash was but one more example- it is in fact a direct contradiction to the historical record- which Greer points out.
Another perspective that Greer introduces, again in the theme of historical record- is in the works of Karl Marx by way of describing the contradictions of Capitalism, which contrary to the Austrian view, are captured in a full spectrum explanation with no need to truncate the timeline to make the theory fit.
I’m not sure I would have chosen the topic of overproduction to demonstrate the explanation as Greer does, but nevertheless, it is valid. Other more meaningful topics of explanation might include the coercive laws of competition, the invalidation of Say’s Law (supply creates it’s own demand), the inexorable tendency for capital to push down labor wages to the point of labor extinction, then search out other sources for even cheaper labor, and perhaps most interestingly, the inherent contradictions in Locke’s view of property rights, the very basis of 19th century Manifest Destiny (and it’s modern day counterpart American Exceptionalism).
Lastly, his (Greer’s) association of imperialism with the struggle for capital to find new markets, and of course, the militarization of these expansionary efforts lays the groundwork for a vastly different explanation of events current and past. The message here is that a careful reading and awareness of our own countries’ history can provide the very best lessons as what theories and explanations really make sense.
I used to read his blog quite regularly, but lost interest a year or so ago when he started focusing on ‘70’s recycling methods and other related topics. Glad to see he’s back with more meaty and relevant subjects, and he appears unafraid to dive in to uncover some truth. I’ll be following closely.
Thanks for highlighting his work.
Thank you. Very nice summary of JMGs current work. I would welcome your perspective of his essay each week. I like your angle very much. Thanks again.
This is the fourth installment of John Michael Greer’s fascinating story arc on the American empire…
America: The Two Empires (March 29, 2012)
“The dawn of American empire had impacts reaching well beyond the handful of territories the United States seized and held in McKinley’s day. The same Congress that declared war against Spain had passed a resolution forbidding the annexation of Cuba – this was partly to win support for the war from the anti-empire faction in Congress, partly a bit of pork-barrel protectionism for the American sugar and tobacco industries – and that limit forced the proponents of empire to take a hard look at other options. The system that resulted was one that remains standard throughout the American empire to this day. Cuba got a new constitution and an officially independent government, but the United States reserved the right to interfere in Cuban affairs at will, got a permanent lease on a naval base at Guantánamo Bay, and turned the Cuban economy into a wholly owned subsidiary of American commercial interests. The result fed the wealth pump of empire, but cost the United States much less than an ordinary colonial government would have done.“
“What very few people noticed, because the intellectual tools needed to make sense of it hadn’t been developed yet, was that the United States was developing what amounted to a second empire, parallel to the one just described, during these same years. Where the imperial expansion we’ve just examined established an empire across space, this second empire was an empire across time. Like the move to global empire, this empire of time built on an earlier but more limited method of feeding the wealth pump, and turned a large but otherwise ordinary nation into a world power.
“This ’empire of time,’ of course, consisted of the American fossil fuel industries. Where an empire extracts wealth from other countries for the benefit of an imperial nation, fossil fuel exploitation extracts wealth in the form of very cheap thermal energy from the distant past for the benefit of one or more nations in the present.“
Food for thought. That the exploitation isn’t just across space, but also across time… In both cases, the wealth pumps are fed, and fed well, for a long time. Until they aren’t.
Greer’s blog is taking a most interesting story direction as he introduces the theme of petroleum in the context of an empire of time. It’s hard to read his work without marveling at how dense and satisfying his explanations are, and how these explanations are available to any who seek to ask what history can provide.
If only they taught this way in grade school, we’d have a very different society today. It is but one in 100 that understand the disastrous pending collision between empire and petroleum. What I find remarkable about his recounting is in reflecting as to how important education is toward understanding our predicament, and how what most are operating on is training- which is decidedly not the same thing.
The introduction of the role of fossil fuels as a participant in the pursuit of empire would seem to set the stage for some challenging pairings of causality, and hopefully he’ll introduce something describing the effects of overdetermination, from which can spring forth some truly exciting conclusions.
In a most interesting parallel story arc also expanding on causality, we can re-highlight some of his emphasis to look at labor, and specifically, labor shortages. A very important parallel perspective is to consider this period of American history to be defined by a massive, and continuing shortage of labor. The coincident occurrence of East/West geographic expansion spanning thousands of miles, with the logarithmic explosion of the Industrial Revolution meant one thing- not enough workers, and not enough laborers. The homesteading-fueled expansion West resulted primarily in the need for agrarian labor, usually satisfied by family members not subject to competitive labor forces. These efforts though did consume participants in the labor pool, and made them largely unavailable to the industrial capitalists who would consume armies of people necessary to quench the newfound discretization dictated by the emerging commoditization and division of labor theologies which the large factories demanded.
The blossoming population of America at the time was simply inadequate to satisfy these concentric, expansionary forces, which bode well for the worker in a simple demonstration of supply and demand. Enticing immigrants from the Old World meant promising higher salaries than available in the home country to provide recompense for the traumatic and daunting move across an ocean, which drove up domestic wages. This meant rising wages for most if not all, and this trend continued uninterrupted for more than 200 years, ending abruptly in the late 1970’s-1980’s with the advent of globalized labor-setting off a labor glut from which we still suffer today. A steady and measurable rise in the standard of living occurred during this period, excepting of course the requisite boom/bust cycles of capitalist endeavor.
In a course sense, the country was roughly bifurcated by agrarian labor (dominant until just after the Civil War) and industrial labor which was coming into its own as industry expanded West into the Great Lakes region and exploded into an area of dense industrial capitalism, later to become the ground zero of automotive production. But these two types of labor had very different characteristics, the agrarian construct relied on family members and strong collectivism for small scale farmers, and slavery for the large scale farm operations of the South (and later Midwest). The industrial component had no such luxuries, and further had the advent of labor unions to contend with, making fulfilling these challenges for a steady supply of labor particularly difficult. All of the methods describe means to manage and control labor during a period of chronic shortages, although they have very different ramifications.
It is interesting to note the collectivist approach of the small farmer, a subject Greer has spent some time describing in previous posts. These farmers tended towards smaller operations, a size that could be managed by a large family (and often the size of the family was deliberately scaled to match the land mass) and competed against larger operations by sharing equipment, pooling resources, and developing and maintaining collectives that aggregated knowledge, surplus labor resources for harvest, and perhaps most importantly, provided a system of elders that monitored closely the concerns of the community, and provided governance. These communities advanced people upward to hold higher office, whilst maintaining social ties to the goals of the communities from which they came. In this fashion, politics was managed, and captured very accurately the community needs.
The industrial capitalists had a very different set of priorities, starting with a feverish inability to abide by any type of collectivist activity for two reasons: 1.) This thinking was inclined to manifest as the dreaded organization of labor, and 2.) The capitalists knew that atomizing the populace was preferable as it widened their customer base, e.g. people who consume as individuals buy more stuff than communities that consume collectively. And this would not do.
In the 19th century agrarian world, a world of community barn raisings, close ties and cooperation between neighbors and farms, a farmer who bought a piece of equipment that could be used only during the two weeks per season of harvest was considered a fool, of course you would either pool money with other farms and share the necessary equipment, time phasing your crop needs with your neighbors, but with the capitalists, you would be encouraged to not only buy your own equipment (even at ludicrously low utilization rates) but in the 20th century, you would be encouraged to compete with your neighbors in accumulating consumerist excess.
I think we know who won this one, as the capitalists then had to simply convert money capital accumulated at the massive scale of the robber barons, to social power giving them access to legislature, the courts, the seats of governance, and regulatory bodies.
And the rest as they say, is history.
Next, the fifth installment of John Michael Greer’s engrossing story arc on the American empire…
America: The Eagle and the Lion (April 4, 2012)
“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…. 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.“
“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.“
Darbikrash, I’ve enjoyed reading your commentaries. I would like to get your views on this most recent installment, particularly on Greer’s description of this unique Anglo-American relationship, and on what Greer calls the tension between Anglophobe and Anglophiles, empire-adverse and pro-empire.
On a side note: I think it’s safe to say that Presidential candidate Ron Paul’s family heritage and the area he is from, reflect his anti-empire views. He’s of German and Irish descent, born in Pittsburgh (northern part of the Appalachia). And of course he’s a longtime Texas resident.