The slow passing of a global hegemon, the Empire of all empires, made me ponder how it will pass to the pages of history books. Apparently, its ruling elite has chosen a strategy called spite: knowingly (or unknowingly) hurting their own self interest, hoping that their enemies will be hurt more. Sanctions come to mind here as a prime example, but spending more than half of one’s discretionary budget on militarism could be seen as an even more spectacular way of running down services, infrastructure, security and resilience at home, while overcommitting oneself abroad — all at the same time. One way or the other, absent of a decisive victory rewarded with a renewed flow of cheap resources, both of these strategies will lead to increasing isolation and deprivation in the coming decades, then… well, something comparable to the fall of Rome. But let’s just not get ahead of ourselves yet.
First let’s define what is an empire. According to Britannica, it is “a group of countries or regions that are controlled by one ruler or one government”. Simple as that. In order to control a territory or state however, obviously you would need to apply some sort of force, be it economic, financial or military in nature, to ‘convince’ your ‘allies and partners’ that it is in their best interest to comply with your will. (Why, how else would you ask a sovereign country to commit economic suicide for your sole benefit…?) According to the late Anthony Stafford Beer, a British theorist, consultant and professor at the Manchester Business School:
“The purpose of a system is what it does. There is after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it constantly fails to do.”
Following his line of thought, if what the system does is encircling its opponents with military bases, sanction, bribe or coup governments (i.e. uses force) to make them follow its bidding, than that system by definition is a world spanning empire with a sole purpose of maintaining its global hegemony. The system is what it does.
If, on the other hand, it constantly fails to achieve its stated goals of ‘defending freedom and democracy’, which it demonstrably does (just ask anyone from Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan), then the system is simply not what it calls itself. This why all its three letter agencies and bureaus are busy making phone calls and sending e-mails kindly asking ‘the independent press’ and social media platforms to suppress, demote, shadow ban or cancel voices that question, let alone go against, the accepted narrative. This is why you see zero dissent from the accepted party line when it comes to foreign policy. This is why you see ‘anonymous intelligence sources’ and ‘government officials’ in the media telling you all the time what you should think about the world. Again, the system is what it does.
Why is that so? Why does the ruling elite feels so compelled to impose its power on all of us?
Human societies, empires, kingdoms, autocracies — even democracies — are problem solving organizations for the elite and by the elite — not for society as a whole. These problems include, but far from being limited to: providing defense, housing, means of earning a living, etc. — all in order to prevent mass hunger, uprisings, or using a more recent terminology: losing public support. The common theme in every hierarchical society thus remains the same: securing the ruling caste’s privileges. Making sure that the elites stay on top, while others stay down and pay their taxes, or sacrifice their lives for the elite when needed. Whether you elect them democratically or not, doesn’t matter.
‘Then what’s in it for me?’ — any inquiring citizen might ask. Well, the public buys into this rather lopsided scheme, because they receive protection from crime (thieves, marauders), foreign invasions (rape, murder, pillaging) and hunger — among many other services provided by governments. At least while things run just fine.
Once the system encounters a problem however — or a civilizational challenge it cannot solve — then the story takes a rather ‘interesting’ turn. Suddenly the elite ’forgets’ to meet the needs of its subjugated citizens. It no longer cares to defend them from crime, hunger, or homelessness. The system also cuts back on healthcare, education or jobs that pay enough to stay alive. Meanwhile democratic institutions are allowed to degrade, and political violence runs increasingly rampant as an increasingly fierce battle is fought over power and whatever privileges are left to hold on to in the ever shrinking top echelons of society. In other words:
the system increasingly starts to look like a failed state, a third world country, if you like.
Western civilization has just entered this phase, the final chapter of its lifecycle. After hitting diminishing returns on imperialist expansion, and as it slowly starts to lose control over its primary source of energy (fossil fuels), the system meets its civilizational challenge it cannot solve.
During its long descent, the Empire turns against itself in a desperate fight against its own inevitable decline. First by shutting down dissent, and being proud of the fact that it has achieved unity in a topic which is at minimum highly questionable, if not outright against the best interest of its constituents, then by forcing its protectorates to give up on their industries and high energy lifestyles. As time moves on, I’m afraid, we will see more of the same — until even this rather destructive and undemocratic approach too reaches diminishing returns.
The predicament faced by all empires, and especially this one, is that they always end up in overdoing things. Overexpanding. Overcommitting. Overexploiting — both people and natural resources. In one word: ending up in overshoot.
Today’s challenges have escaped the boundaries of the Empire though and now weigh on all denizens of Earth. The core of the predicament, overshoot, has went global as all countries wanted to mimic the success of Empire and left sustainability behind. Overshoot comes with various symptom predicaments including but not limited to climate disasters, resource depletion, or limits to growth — hitting hard boundaries to both political and material expansion of human civilization. All at once.
As the late physicist Albert A. Bartlett once famously quipped:
“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
Such is the nature of exponential growth: it lurks in the shadows for decades and centuries, then the all of a sudden the last doubling smashes through the roof. Like water lilies in a pond, doubling in size every day. Over the course of the first twenty-nine days barely anything happens, then, on the last day when the pond still looks half empty, the last doubling suddenly covers it all. This is where we are at the moment.
Despite the many lessons of history, empires from ancient Rome to modern days, consistently fall for the lure of exponential growth: they think they can always keep on grabbing new resources and pristine land, doubling their consumption every so often. The particular problem of this latest iteration of Empire is that it happened to found itself on a round planet with a finite surface area. There are no more lands to subjugate or conquer. No more resources to grab. No more places left to pollute.
Nations managing to escape its power so far have developed nuclear weapons, and an industrial base able to sustain wars of attrition longer than the Empire can. They have developed their own financial system, trade routes and security organizations. They have become immune, and thus a threat, to the Empire.
What is left for the Empire to do? Since all such entities must grow or die (i.e.: torn apart from within or be conquered), it has no other choice left than to double down on what has already hit diminishing returns. Things, which didn’t work the last time either, but now cost more than ever to uphold: like sanctions, increasingly over-complicated military hardware, or arming radicalized proxies to the teeth then using them to launch or provoke an attack.
Yet, the Empire keeps preparing for its big war against China with increasing ferocity, one which very well might be its final battle. It knows this instinctively. If it fails to maintain its global hegemony, and thus its power to impose its will on others, it risks collapse. Perhaps not an immediate one, but who knows?
It has long lost the bulk of its real productive economy to deindustrialization and resource depletion (the loss of cheap, easily accessible mineral resources, top soil and water reserves), and let its skilled workforce to vanish. Apart from a major influx of cheap highly skilled labor and resources, there is no real hope for revitalizing its economy. Too bad that all of these are becoming scarce globally as humanity hits limits to growth…
The Empire’s economy is thus increasingly relies upon dubious services (overpriced healthcare, lawyers, economists, financiers, brokers, prison complexes etc) and overinflated assets (company stocks, housing) — things which are adding no real value to the economy, apart from enriching a select few. Should then the Empire be forced to leave its old ways behind and trade on equal terms, it would run a real risk of letting its economy and overstated GDP to be revealed as an illusion, with its trade deficit becoming harder and harder to uphold.
The unfolding massive military defeat in Eastern Europe should thus come as a last, dire warning to stop. Stop overdoing things and focus on preserving inner stability. Slow the decline at least somewhat, before it gets completely out of hand.
Until next time,