John Michael Greer: Archdruid Report Essays
XrayMike has also posted some good summaries of Greer’s earlier work in the recent “Timeline’s…….” thread. In this week’s blog, Greer turns his attention to the British empire, comparing and contrasting their overreach to that of America in a similar time frame.
It is useful to look at not only other empires, but how long and difficult it can be to create them, and how their collapse occurs in a decidedly dissimilar fashion. And what lessons can be learned about our own predicament?
Perhaps the shriveling contraction of projected power in the British empire is analogous to what the American version will resemble when peak oil intersects the end stages of Capitalism. A figurehead “ruler” gesticulating with coy, partial movement hand waves from behind the bulletproof glass of a viewing window, while practitioners of the end of days strain of radical individualism clutch their “instructive” tomes with white knuckled grip- unwitting accessories to their own armed robbery.
But I think Greer has it about right, likely none of this will happen as fast as the doomsayers predict, as it is hard to overestimate the resourcefulness and unbridled adaptability of full throated Capitalism.
Leaving aside (for now) the race against time with respect to declining petroleum resources, one of the key theoretical impediments to this notion of catastrophic American collapse of empire is put forth in a most interesting recent book by David Graeber, “Debt- The First 5000 Years”. Written by an anthropologist about matters of empire and things economic, this 500+ page piece of scholarship brings forth a heretical accounting of money, the history of debt, and the relationship of these factors to empire, specifically, the American empire.
This book has created a tsunami of accolades and criticism (in nearly equal measure) for putting forth some striking theses that rock the neo-liberal world. For starters, he posits that based on anthropological evidence, there never really was any meaningful adoption of the barter system on any persistent scale-throughout civilization. In fact, in his view, barter is largely a contrivance of the neoclassical economists, used to piece together their incomplete theories of money so they might sally forth into the more interesting domain of the political economy. In his accounting of anthropology, although there were of course instances of barter, (usually between adjacent but unrelated societies) on balance, the requirement of the double coincidence of needs enabling peer to peer exchange is too difficult to meet on any consistent basis, and therefore money must inevitably be created and used, and it was.
Which brings us back to empire.
Graeber spends much of the book recounting evidence to support this thesis, advances some 5000 years, and then goes on to drop the bombshell- that money is used as form of tribute in the maintenance of empire, specifically, the American empire.
In essence he is claiming that American imperialism is substantially directed to force foreign nations to adopt and use the US dollar, or else. And “or else” means military (or economic) action against any nation that refuses to adopt the US dollar for international transactions and debt settlement. Consider of course that as the worlds’ reserve currency, the folks in charge of printing maintain a huge economic advantage over everyone else. Not unlike the mafia boss paying a visit to retail stores demanding protection money, in this case the mafioso are also actually creating the money.
Now his evidence of this is largely circumstantial, but he makes a convincing case, although as you might expect this conclusion is highly controversial and disputed vigorously- as near as I can tell mostly by the economists who are outraged that a anthropologist has stepped into their domain.
To those who might be interested in a lively academic debate with Graeber defending his assertions (sometimes unsuccessfully), you can read some of thIs here.
But if any of this is true, an empire that is able to augment a “wealth pump” with a military mandate to use the US dollar as described, in combination with current communications and weapons technology, would have an opportunity at a sustainable and long standing hegemony, and would likely be able to avoid much of the outcome of the British empire- or at least slow down the inevitability of collapse until other contravening effects (such as running out of oil).
So the take away here is that if there is any truth at all in Graeber’s thesis, the trajectory of American empire may have advantages not present when the British tried their hand.
Being mindful to not take this thread off piste, I will comment on a veritable Easter egg of controversy in Graeber’s book, it seems that in 500 plus pages, the most offensive claim has to do with a certain Apple computer comment that put forth the notion that Apple was founded and constructed by disgruntled Capitalists who not only wanted to unseat the dominant IBM, but wanted to rethink the way surplus value was distributed at the same time, which is to say equally among the workers. This is of course false, but in placing this paragraph in his book, he has unleashed a tirade of protestation that has strangely eclipsed the entire book. Economist Brad Delong, who I read regularly and generally admire, has come unglued at this assertion, probably because as a UC Berkeley professor, Silicone Valley is his bailiwick and such Althusserian suggestions that technology companies might structure themselves to benefit the workers and not the venture Capitalists must seem like blasphemy.
The genesis of this remark is traceable to another professor of economics, a Richard Wolff (University of Mass), who I hold in great regard. He has a remarkable outlook for (technology) businesses that is framed around distributing all of the surplus value to the workers, and none of it to bankers and other non participating elites.
But if there is a way out of empire, this might well be it.
Perhaps a better opportunity to expand these points is to wait for Greer to engage another empire of no less (historical) importance that those discussed to date, an empire nearly 500 years in the making that collapsed in 10 days.
This eagerly awaited sixth installment in John Michael Greer’s story of the American empire does not disappoint. There is a lot of juicy meat to bite into – especially for military history enthusiasts.
America: The Gasoline War (April 11, 2012)
“Grant got the glory, and earned it fairly, but Sherman may have been the 19th century’s most innovative military thinker. When he came face to face with a Confederate army, whenever the strategic situation allowed, he evaded it, slipped past it, got behind it, and threatened its lines of communication and supply, forcing it to retreat in disarray. Long before anyone else, he grasped that it’s not necessary to fight a pitched battle to win a war, and that a force that can move fast, get behind its enemy, and target the vulnerable territory behind the lines can cripple the ability of the other side to wage war at all. Most of a century later, that approach to war came to be called “blitzkrieg;” today it’s the basis of the Airland Battle Doctrine, the core of American military strategy.“
“The war that followed is usually called the Second World War, but it might more usefully be given a different name: the Gasoline War. That’s partly because the stunning initial victories of the two Axis powers that counted came from a grasp of what gasoline engines could do in war… Victory in that war went to those who were able to bring the most petroleum-based energy to bear on the battlefield. While Germany and Japan could manage that, they remained in the ascendant; once the United States and Soviet Union applied the same methods using their much more abundant oil supplies, the Axis was doomed.“
The last four paragraphs – not quoted above – present an interesting way to think of what became of Britain’s Empire. It may not appear to be so officially, but for all intensive purposes, it’s true…
It was a brilliant essay,and I say this as a Brit who had to take the smackdown at the end of it! As I said in my posting of it on Facebook ‘I knew there was a reason I hated Yank bases in Britain!’
HarryFlashman: Hey, at least you get to be our imperial ally! When we go to Iraq, you come along. When we go to Afghanistan, you come along. Our people love your royalty, and anytime we have some historical drama, we pick you Brits for the actors. It’s almost like the Romans and the Greeks!
That said, here’s the next (seventh) in the series of John Michael Greer’s story of the American empire.
America: The Price of Supremacy (April 18, 2012)
“The mythology runs more or less like this: in the aftermath of the First World War, America withdrew from the international responsibilities it had briefly taken up during that war, refusing to join the League of Nations and distancing itself from global politics. In the vacuum thus formed, the coming of the Great Depression sent the conflicts that drove the world to war in 1914 spinning out of control again. As Japan invaded China and Germany prepared for war, the United States faced a sharp political conflict between isolationists, who more or less wanted to build a wall around the country and shut the rest of the world out, and those who recognized America’s responsibility to the rest of the world. That struggle only came to an end with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; thereafter the American people united to win the war. Once it was won, in turn, they refused to repeat the mistake of 1919, and took up the burden of global leadership that America retains to this day.“
“Geopolitics is important here because its ideas seem to have had a major influence on the leaders who launched America along the final phase of its rise to empire, and still appear to govern the grand strategy of the American empire as it approaches its end. Over the weeks to come, we’ll be exploring the geopolitical side of American imperial strategy in a variety of ways, so a little attention to the paragraphs above may be useful. For now, though, what’s important is that the internationalists in American politics between the world wars saw geopolitics as a blueprint for world power,and wanted the structure raised on that blueprint to have “Made in America” written on it.“
This one seems to be more of a “setting up” piece for next week.
This week’s article is a departure from the story arc on the American empire.
Instead, a detour into interesting discussion on the methane plumes bubbling up from the Arctic Ocean as a sign of climate change.
Seascape With Methane Plumes (April 25, 2012)
“After yet another unseasonably warm Arctic winter, Russian scientists are busy studying the methane releases reported last fall, and initial reports – well, let’s understate things considerably and call them “rather troubling.” Areas of open water up to a kilometer across arefizzing with methane, a condition that one experienced Arctic researcher, Dr. Igor Semiletov, described as completely unprecedented.“
“Until the end of the 1990s, climate change was simply one more captive issue in the internal politics of industrial nations. The political role of captive issues, and the captive constituencies that correspond to them, is too rarely discussed these days. In the United States, for example, environmental protection is one of the captive issues of the Democratic Party; that party mouths slogans about the environment, and even though those slogans are rarely if ever followed up by concrete policies, environmentalists are expected to vote Democratic, since the Republicans are supposed to be so much worse, and willingly play the part of bogeyman. The Republican party, in turn, works the same good cop-bad cop routine on its own captive constituencies, such as gun owners and Christian fundamentalists, and count on the Democrats to act out the bogeyman’s role in turn. It’s an ingenious system for neutralizing potential protest, and it plays a major role in maintaining business as usual in the world’s democratic societies.“
Still, well worth reading.
My guess is it will be tied into the main theme.
Right, Tycer. The “Seascape With Methane Plumes” divergence ties in more to the “wider trajectory of industrial society’s decline and fall” but is still part of our nation’s narratives.
However, this next tangent on democracy and governing cycles really ties in well to the story of the American empire… I’m just not sure when he’ll come back around to it.
Democracy’s Arc (May 2, 2012)
“…In every dictatorship, an inner circle of officials and generals emerges. This inner circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the dictator or, more often, simply waits until he dies and then distributes power so that no one figure has total control; thus a junta is formed. In every country run by a junta, in turn, a wider circle of officials, officers, and influential people emerges; this wider circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the junta, and when this happens, in ancient Greece and the modern world alike, the standard gambit is to install a democratic constitution to win popular support and outflank remaining allies of the deposed junta…“
“The example I have in mind is the United States of America, which has been around the cycle three times since its founding; the one difference, and it’s crucial, is that all three stages have taken place repeatedly under the same constitution.“
I’m not so sure about George Washington being a dictator-type. What do you guys think?
I don’t know if this is an official installment John Michael Greer’s story arc of the American empire, but it could be considered one, as he circles back…
The Descent Into Stasis (May 9, 2012)
“The power exerted by each of these groups is by and large a veto power. They may not be able to get new policies through the jungle of competing interests in Washington, a task that is increasingly hard for anyone to manage at all, but they can prevent policies that are not in their interest from being enacted, and they can defend any policy already in place that benefits them or furthers their ability to loot the system. They have that veto power, in turn, because no one in contemporary America has the power to get anything done without assembling a temporary coalition of competing power centers, each of which has its own agenda and each of which constantly has its hand out for the biggest possible share of the take.“
“How the endgame plays out is a matter of more than academic interest. In 1860 and 1932, a political system frozen in gridlock and incapable of anything like a constructive response to crisis finally hit a crisis that could not be evaded any longer, and the system shattered. In the chaos that resulted, a long-shot candidate with a radical following was able to pull together enough support from the remaining power centers and the people in general to win the White House and force through changes that redefined the political landscape for decades to come. That’s a possibility this time around, too, but a possibility is not a certainty, and nowhere is it written in stone that a crisis of the sort we’re discussing has to have a happy ending.
“The range and scale of the crises facing the United States as it finishes the third lap around the track of anacyclosis, to begin with, pose a far more substantial challenge than the ones that punctuated the cycle in those earlier years.“
Again, the American empire of power built on military might that is not self-financing, and an “empire of time” that is running out of the stored energy of millions of years, these two factors are making this next crisis that we are currently in, that much more difficult and uncertain.
The process seems inevitable. Like nothing can be done. The moderates of both political parties are out. Compromisers are ridiculed for “caving in”.
Another side trip worth thinking about. Why protests and the arguments of environmentalists about “sustainability” don’t work.
And of course, coming back to the end-state of the fall of the American empire…
The Twilight Of Protest (May 16, 2012)
“Whoever ends up more or less in charge of what’s left of the United States of America when the flames die down and the rubble stops bouncing, though, will have to face a predicament far more difficult than the ones encountered by the winners in 1932, or 1860, or for that matter 1776. All three of these past crises happened when the United States was still a rising power, with vast and largely untapped natural resources, and social and economic systems not yet burdened with the aftermath of a failed empire; the winning side could safely assume that once the immediate crisis was resolved, the nation would return to relative prosperity, pay off its debts, and proceed from there.
“That won’t be happening this time around. When the crisis is over, whatever form it takes, the United States – or whatever assortment of successor nations end up dividing its territory between them—will be a shattered, bankrupt, resource-poor Third World failed state (or collection of failed states) that will likely have to struggle hard even to regain basic levels of political and economic stability. That struggle will be pursued in a world in which energy and other resources are getting scarcer each year…“
Grim portents indeed.
A look at self-fulfilling curses… the curse that will befall most of humanity. And the choice you must make early on to walk away.
Night Thoughts in Hagsgate (May 23, 2012)
“Back in the late 1990s, when the first peak oil researchers began to exchange data and forecasts, several leading figures in the newborn movement made very straightforward predictions about what was going to happen. They predicted that global production of crude oil would peak in the near future, and decline thereafter; they predicted that this would cause the price of oil and petroleum products to skyrocket, imposing severe costs on the global economy and triggering economic contraction; some, though this was controversial, predicted that attempts to replace petroleum with alternative energy sources would fail because of net energy and other noneconomic factors.“
“It’s very easy to stay behind. Early on, when walking away is an easy thing, the threat of the curse is so far off that it’s seductive to think you can stay in Hagsgate for just a little while longer and still escape. Later on, you’ve come to enjoy the practical benefits that being a citizen of Hagsgate has to offer; you’ve got personal and financial ties to the place, and so you come up with ornate theories packed with dubious logic and cherrypicked data to convince yourself that the curse isn’t real or that it will only affect other people. As the curse begins to work, in turn, you start making excuses, insisting that you did everything you could reasonably be expected to do, and it’s all somebody else’s fault anyway. Finally, when the full reality of your fate stares you in the face and your last chance of escape is almost gone, comes the terrible temptation to treat the price you’re about to pay as a measure of the value of what you’ve gotten by staying in Hagsgate, and you cling to it ever more frantically as it drags you down.“