The Folly of Empire
by Chris Hedges
The last days of empire are carnivals of folly. We are in the midst of our own, plunging forward as our leaders court willful economic and environmental self-destruction. Sumer and Rome went down like this. So did the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Men and women of stunning mediocrity and depravity led the monarchies of Europe and Russia on the eve of World War I. And America has, in its own decline, offered up its share of weaklings, dolts and morons to steer it to destruction.
This is an eloquent diatribe but, as I have frequently pointed out for critics of ’empire’, it seems like a misdiagnosis in action. The comparison with the last days of the Roman Empire exposes the problem. The US is not an empire in that sense, still has its republican format, and does not even conquer or colonize its victims. It was Marx who introduced us to the real answer in the insidious new invention of history in the abstractions of capital and state power. The emergence of capitalism and its effect on the state is the real issue. To compare anything to the last centuries of the Roman Empire is almost by definition a false analogy. You can do better to look at the imperialism of Athens, and/or the much earlier breakdown of the Roman Republic, not the Caesar version, but the first erosions of its ‘freedoms’, such as they were, already evident during the era of the Punic Wars.
The rise of the modern has produced a series of imperialisms, rather than empires, in the Roman sense, some formal empires by terminological category but in reality imperialistic ventures based on capitalist exploitation, and in many cases, of course, based on colonial occupations. But the American system is the clearest case of an imperialistic system based on a home system that is republican still, in name only perhaps, and by and large a non-colonial system of semi-fascist militarism and capitalist capital abstraction.
The distinction is important because I doubt the US will fall apart like the Roman Empire at its end, although the climate crisis may produce the near equivalent in terms of chaos.
The Roman Empire came at the end of an age, while the American imperialism comes a mere two centuries after its founding at the dawn of a new age. If it is in so much trouble it is due to the effect of laissez-faire capitalism becoming the defacto ‘Leviathan’ or sovereign, an incoherent premise with a more than real formal muddle of governmental and economic powers. Comparison with Athens is more apt, and unnerving: the development of Athenian imperialism was the result, as with America, of being the victims of their own supercharged success as a democratic experiment going into a kind of takeoff followed swiftly with two generations into the intoxication of imperial domination of its trading sphere. Sounds eerily familiar to the American case. The distinction is useful because the diagnosis is different. In fact the elements of the ‘diagnosis’ emerged in the wake of the French Revolution, and codified in one way by Marx/Engels. Even if we reject their formulation their point is clear: a democratic system of Lockean property rights became both the victim of its own success, home and abroad, and an increasing usurpation of the republican axioms by economic elites. The Roman Empire was a genuinely totalitarian system, while an American-style imperialism is a strangely schizophrenic double of imperialistic overstretch, and exterior power, parallel to the globalization effect of economic powers, that render the core system impotent on its own home base. So the issue isn’t so much the ‘American empire’ as the impotence of the whole core at home.
Anyway, the Roman Empire after a millennium of the Roman legacy fell into a unique state of decentralizing chaos, replaced by theocracy. The analogous point of the US system is closer to the beginning corruption of government underway as early as the Punic Wars.
The point here is that the US can recover its vitality in a second if it can come to control the capitalist fascism that has engulfed the powers of the state and bring an end to the imperialism of militarism and parallel capital formations that make up its nullity of governance.