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The Thesis here is that the American Empire is in Decline
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The Thesis here is that the American Empire is in Decline by
Josh Fattal

The thesis here is that the American Empire is in decline, and it has been declining roughly since the oil shocks of 1973. There is an imbedded understanding that the USA is an empire. This assumption is based upon recognizing that the US has military bases all over the world, and its economic, ideological, and political power are being exercised in imperial regions of US influence. Moreover, the assumption of the USA as an empire is validated in a slew a literature on the subject particularly by academics, right wing think tanks and politicians.

      The article sets to argue that the empire is in decline by citing ecological, economic, military, political, and ideological fissures in American hegemony. In brief, the domestic ecological base that supported the growth of the US empire is dwindling rapidly. Water, oil, topsoil, and timber are all fast disappearing from US lands. Economic insecurity is on the rise for increasing number of workers, the dollar is losing international strength, personal debt is rising, and national debt is astronomical. The economic bubble is blown up by military and prison expenditure and real estate speculation. The means to realize the government’s goal of forging an empire has shifted over the decades to increasingly depend on military power. The monopoly of nuclear power is long gone which weakens the US military position, several military operations have ended in withdrawals and outright failures. September 11th shook the invincibility mentality of Americans by proving that a small group of non-state, well-financed activists could wreak havoc on US soil. Politically, the soft power of diplomacy is eroding. US clout in the WTO is eroding. The UN refuses to be a complete puppet of US power. The US economic strategy of neoliberalism is increasingly being challenged and rejected around the world. Global protests in 1968 shook the ideological hegemony of the US. Voter participation has never returned to 1960s levels. The 1989 collapse of the USSR dissolved the remaining justification for empire expansion, but the 1990s were a decade of supposed peacetime with increased military spending, and continued Cold War policies. The War on Drugs and the War on Crime were makeshift ideological justifications to continue the society’s militarism. The War on Terror is largely unpopular internationally as US resentment is spreading worldwide. Moreover, the executive and legislative branches are willingly breaching the domestic constitution and international law. Regional powers and people’s movements in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America are arising that are increasingly challenging US dominance in their regions.

      Some theorists trace various empires’ decline to their ecological relationships. They draw the link between the failing irrigation system of Sumerians and Peublo Indians and the Roman destruction of cropland and the demise of these empires. Looking at the ecological base of the USA, it was the abundance of natural resources at the disposal of the elites that fueled economic growth. Timber for boats and beaver furs for hats were sold in New England to the English colonist. The rich Midwestern topsoil and poor farming practices encouraged western expansion. The abundance of land available to the ruling elites upon decimation of Indian nations enabled the elites to literally give away land to white frontier families (and speculators) with the Homestead Act as a way to stimulate the empire’s growth. Steel in Pittsburgh, coal in Kentucky, oil in Oklahoma, gold in California, whales and old growth trees in the Pacific Northwest, and other local, natural resources fueled market-oriented production and the development of US imperial capitalism.

      Nevertheless, the ecological conditions are no longer as favorable to capitalist production. Global climate change is increasing the weather’s unpredictability, fossil aquifers are drying, topsoil is eroding, forests are shrinking, and oil is gasifying. The Union of Concerned Scientists warned governments and the public of the danger of global climate change. The prediction ranges up to an average of an 11 degree average global increase in temperature over this century. Reports conclude that artic ice is melting. Under the glaciers is trapped methane gases which will be released upon glacial melt. The methane will contribute to further global climate change while the melted water will raise sea level. Global ocean patterns are being unpredictably affected. There has been a rise in intense hurricanes in the past 30 years. A one degree increase in sea-surface temperature could instigate more hurricanes in certain regions. The weather’s predictability has been increasingly unstable in recent years. The world’s people (particularly the poor) depend on predictable weather patterns for land-based production. With unpredictability comes the inability to control, and an empire’s goal is control. 

      The Ogallala aquifer is a tremendous reservoir of water under eight states, ranging from the Dakotas to Texas. It is underneath 200,000 square miles of land. Five trillion gallons are pumped each year, about 14 billion gallons per day. 95% of it is used for irrigation; it provides 30% of the nation’s irrigation water. The water level is dropping 13 feet per year and it recharges at less that one inch per year—making it a de facto non-renewable resource. It took 25,000 years to develop the “fossil aquifer” and it will be dry in 20-30 years if current trends continue.

       Deep, healthy topsoil is the basis of good agriculture. 75% of the topsoil in the USA has been lost since pre-European times (as of 1989).Topsoil develops at the rate of one inch every 1000 years. It is said that 35 pounds of topsoil are lost to make one pound of steak. The wind and rain take the soil off agricultural land; this erosion process is due to deforestation, monocrop (agribusiness) agriculture, pasturing livestock, industrialization, and development.

      The forest has provided regions with booming economies for short periods of time. New England, Georgia, Michigan, and the Pacific Northwest have all had notable economic growth due to large timber extractions. In Oregon, the timber boom peaked in the early 50s. Most old growth trees are gone in this country. Loggers are cutting smaller trees upon second and third rotation. In the 1980s and 90s, timber mills have retooled the equipment so that they can handle the smaller trees in the Pacific Northwest.

      Many claim that the US is currently towards the end of its domestic production peak of oil. If Alaska were opened up for drilling, than only six additional months of oil consumption could be provided for. The US Energy Information Administration predicts a rise in US demand for oil from 76 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2001 to 112 million bpd by 2020. While the US was importing only one third of its oil in 1973 during the first oil crisis, it is importing 60% of its oil by 2002 costing 233$ million per day. Depending on foreign producers for the “power” in the American economy, leaves the US vulnerable to the whims of the empire’s satellite regions—particularly the Middle East and Latin America. Just about every consumable item in the USA contains an amount of embedded petroleum. Plastics and agricultural chemicals are largely petroleum. The ingredients of the average dinner plate have travel 1500 miles to get to your table via a transportation system based in petroleum burning. Moreover, global production of oil is set to peak this decade and the global demand is rising rapidly, thus inflating the price of oil on the market. Higher prices for oil will make all production and therefore consumption more expensive.

      Economically, the American-supported ideology of neoliberalism has dominated the US agenda since Reagan came to Presidential office. Neoliberalism is the idea that the government should be limited to “core” function of repressive activities: incarceration, militarism, and policing, but the government should not fund education, health, and income security. This has not only been the trend and dominant ideology within the US, but it has been exported around the world via the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) structural adjustment policies that come as a stipulation to a loan given to foreign countries to bail them out of their international debt. The US has disproportionate power in the IMF and WB. The third world, Africa, Asia, Latin America and parts of Europe have all had to deal with the imposition of neoliberalism in the past could decades.

      Neoliberalism used to have the nickname “the Washington Consensus” because everyone in DC had agreed on this program. But by the end of the Clinton administration, the Washington Consensus has been shattered. The emerging dissenters arise as increasing evidence surfaces that the neoliberal economic program does not achieve its stated goals and is socially unpopular and morally dubious. Joseph Stiglitz has come out critical of the agenda, and politicians accountable to labor organizations are questioning the “free trade / neoliberalism” agenda. In 1985, New Zealand became the first, first world country to experiment with neoliberalism, and they did it without any coercion from the US. The book, The New Zealand Experiment, details in rigorous detail the failure of such policies. Standard of living and quality of life have had a negative correlation with these neoliberal economic policies.

      Bolivia, Ghana, Venezuela, and others are now purposefully rejecting IMF suggestions for neoliberal policies. Popular protest in Bolivia in 1999-2000 that stopped the privatization of the water utility to SF corporation Betchel was the first major defeat for neoliberalism. Popular protest is arising the world over to fight neoliberalism. Protesters are conscious of the connection to the USA and are conscious of the neoliberal agenda. Among other powerful protesters internationally, the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico continues to galvanize opposition to neoliberalism which they equate to modern day colonialism.

      Economic insecurity is rising for ever larger numbers of the population. The middle class is being gutted in the US. Reports are surfacing quantifying the fact that fewer families can afford to purchase their house. Real wages (adjusted for inflation) have declined in the past few decades. Over the past few decades, on average, workers are getting paid less, having to work more, seeing less benefits, and have less security in their job. This is blurring the line between working and lower class. The lower classes have seen less government assistance in recent decades and remain neglected. Even to the passive observer, hurricane Katrina made clear the governmental and economic neglect of the vast underclass and its racialized nature. The rural economy has been decimated as fertile land and skilled labor are being replaced by influxes of capital in the form of agricultural technology. Rural to urban migration is leaving the innards of the country relatively desolate, depressed, on drugs, and on religion.  

      Personal debt is the norm for college students and parental consumers. Consumer debt averages to about 85,000$ per household.  The national debt is also alarming. Social security will not be able to be provided to the baby boomer generation and beyond. Alan Greenspan said, “We have already made promises to coming generations of retirees that we will be unable to fulfill.” He has made several warning about the increasing national debt, and so has the IMF. Their recent report says that, “dangerous global imbalances” are arising due to the extreme US debt. This is coming from an institution generally considered to be blindly loyal to the US government. As of 2004, the US debt was 412$ billion, which amounts to about 25,000$ per American citizen.

      Additional signs of US economic weakness are that Asia is winning the technology race, industrial sectors in the US are on the decline, and primary production based in ecological functioning are in precarious positions (as discussed above). The American dollar is the international standard for currency. Any empire standardizes its currency within its sphere of influence. But the dollar is in decline with the yen and the euro rising in recent years. Economists are predicting that some commodities will soon start to be traded on the international market with Euros. That shift from dollars to euros will be a symbolic expression of the declining US hegemony.

      According to UC Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis, the construction industry’s “most developed sector” is prison construction. Some economically depressed locales desire prison in their town to stimulate their economy with construction and institutional jobs. While businesses flee American towns and move to land with cheaper labor costs, the lower classes are simultaneously finding themselves without jobs. Lacking a thriving economy, many turn to illegal ways to make a livelihood, which leads to increasing incarceration (again, with Black and Latinos disproportionately represented). The prisons are filled with citizens unable to find meaningful employment due to a lagging American economy and corporate migration to the third world, and these prisoners are ironically contracted out to corporations as a labor force with wages comparable to third world wages, about 22 cents per hour. The prison-industrial-complex moves laborers from the “free-world” to the prison-world as construction companies and corporations seek profit, and local economies struggle for subsistence. 

      The economy is largely stimulated by government manipulation. Particularly, military, prison, and space travel are stimulating economic activity. The US is the world largest exporter of military equipment. This military industry’s market is assured by international “aid” to foreign governments (top 3: Egypt, Colombia, and Israel). The US gives “aid” to many countries with the stipulation that they must buy military equipment from US manufacturers. This is a direct subsidy for military manufacturers at the expense of the taxpayer. This is the military industrial complex.

      Immanuel Wallerstien suggests that the US strategy of military expenditure is a poor strategy to compete with global forces. Others theorists say that it is characteristic of a declining empire to clutch to military power on its way out. It is an empire’s goal to control violence. Like the Romans, America tries to carve out an area central to the empire where peace will prevail. This, Pax Americana can be achieved in different ways. John F. Kennedy insisted that Pax Americana be held through soft power (i.e. diplomacy) which is backed by the US ideological hegemony. This hope faded into oblivion, and the right wing think tanks and political memos insist that Pax Americana be enforced by fear of US military mite. Project for a New American Century (PNAC) authored in 1999 a report that stated that the government needed an event “like Pearl Harbor” to justify to the American citizens its imperial mission for preserving power via military force. Psychologists point out that, like a lunch-money bully, the American empire resorts to violence only when his power is slipping and the victim will no longer willingly pay tribute when asked.   

      Since World War II the US government has invaded dozens of countries. Many of them have not been a success, and troops have fled back to America. While no country comes close to the military strength of the US, guerrilla tactics, the economic burden, and public opinion have changed the tide of US imperial ambitions. Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Panama, Grenada, and the Philippines have all seen American troops come and go, leaving upon the explicit demand of the occupied country. The longevity and “success” of the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly in question as dead bodies, government lies, and economic carelessness are being exposed.

      Max Weber defines the State as an institution that seeks the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. This means that any government tries to spread the idea that it can use violence when it deems necessary, but other non-state actors do not have the legitimate right to use violence. For example, the government sanctioned killing via the death penalty as OK, but you cannot go out and kill someone because you thought they committed a horrible crime. Similarly, an empire tries to keep a monopoly on the legitimate use and accessibility of military arms. The US government tries to keep nuclear power out of everyone else’s hands. This has been a failure, and shows a weakness in American power. The global proliferation of nuclear power means that the US government must set limits on its military “bullying” strategy with other countries that have nuclear arms for fear of a nuclear holocaust.

      The implications of September 11th are still being played out historically. Nevertheless, it did prove that a relatively small group of loosely organized and decently financed non-state actors could pull off both a stunningly symbolic and deathly real destructive act on American soil. It is typical of empires to experience military activity closer to the imperial centers as its declining. When the imperial city of Rome was sacked in the early fifth century, many considered it the defining end to an empire in decline for centuries. September 11th was by no means a “sacking” of Washington DC or NYC, but it increased the proximity of the imperial battles.

      The US government’s political power slides away as ideological hegemony fades. The US has the lowest voter turnout of all industrialized nations. While the 2004 election brought many new voters to the polls, it still did not approach 60% turnout that was typical in the 1960s. In 1996, the voter turnout was 49%. This voter apathy signals a decline in the constituency’s belief in the legitimacy of voting and thus the legitimacy of government’s power.

      After a decade of existence, the balance of power in the World Trade Organization (WTO) has shifted away from the US government. The WTO was created in 1995 with the initiative from the Clinton administration. Its purpose is to lower “barriers to trade” and encourage international markets. The US government holds disproportionate power in the WTO. In fact, ruling after ruling supported the US government when facing another government in the WTO courts. The WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 was derailed by protesters surrounding the building and occupying the streets. Last year, the meeting in Cancun, Mexico broke down with protesters outside and third world governments insisting that the US, Europe, and Japan lower their agricultural subsidies and loosen the laws on generic prescription drugs. The WTO has been forced to start ruling against the US government on some major issues to gain legitimacy as a young institution. On Wednesday, September 28th, 2005 at midnight the deadline for the US to reduce its subsidies to American cotton farmers will have expired. Brazil, the country that led this defeat over the US in the WTO court will be legally permitted to retaliate by setting quotas against US products tomorrow.

      Trade wars continue daily. It is becoming an undeniable fact that regional powers such as Brazil, Venezuela, South Africa, China, Japan, and the EU challenge the US political hegemony over establishing the terms of international trade. Additionally, seventy-seven third world countries established the “G77” voting bloc to oppose the interests of the richer countries. Each of the regional power above has been carving out their own sphere of influence, sometimes with the explicit rhetoric of opposing US government interests (see Hugo Chavez’s speech). Latin America is sweeping leftward. Colombia is the only US stronghold in South America anymore. Mexico is even threatening to elect a left-wing candidate in 2006 who is explicitly critical of US government policies. This is a major defeat considering that the US has valued its power in the western hemisphere since the Monroe Doctrine in the early 19th century.

      The growth in democratically elected regional powers hostile or skeptical of the US government is a manifestation of the decline of US ideological hegemony. After the 60s generations shattered the bubble of 1950s American culture with the world revolt of 1968, both superpowers came to be questioned. But the Cold War continued to be the popular rationale for the US empire. Throughout the Cold War, the US could point to the USSR and say, “look how bad they are; we are the only legitimate superpower.” In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the ideological grounds for the US empires grew ever more shaky. Disregard for international law (Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Kyoto Protocol, Anti-ballistic treaty), a unilateral attitude towards conflict resolution (disregarding the UN), religious intolerance (desecrating the Koran) has tainted the American image abroad. Domestically, the courts have ruled that federal government’s original Patriot Act undermines the constitution in which the country is based. Here we see further signs of an eroding empire, and the eroding ideology in which empire is viewed.

      In an international survey, sentiment opposing the policies of the US government is on the rise. Some findings include, 20% of consumers in Europe and Canada avoid buying US products, particularly brands that are closely related to “Americana” such as McDonalds. The discrimination against American products is due to American foreign policy, according to the survey. Two thirds of Canada and Europe say US foreign policy is for empire building. Nevertheless, while 79% of those surveyed distrust the US government, only 39% distrust the American public.

      While the USA still commands lots of power around the world, there are some major cracks in the armor that seem to be growing. Every empire declines, but how will America fall from grace? clutching to military strength? or refinancing a socially ethical, sustainable world? 

"Take it easy, but take it"
-Woody Guthrie