Empires Fall

June 29, 2021
politics

This is a series about how the United States will fracture in the next 20 years

Series intro: The Fracture of the United States: An Introduction

Part 1: Empires Fall (this post)

Part 2: Citizenship and the Internet

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Empires Fall

The great United States will run its course in the next 20 years. It won’t come to a close with a bang. No bloody civil war, no obvious revolution. Instead it will fracture into smaller pieces over time. The US will succumb to various forces, with the rise of the internet speeding up the process.

Don’t fret. The future is not bleak, nor is it filled with war. There’s a new era of human history coming and we will all be alive to watch it happen. 

In this series I’m exploring the fall of the United States through fracture. I’m examining why, how, when, and how you can prepare yourself.

They all fall

All empires fail. The Incan, Greek, Roman, Spanish, British empires all failed, and soon all remaining empires will too. Though the world has changed since the fall of those empires, the US shares many similarities with the failed empires.

What is an empire? 

An empire is a large political unit of disparate peoples ruled by a central sovereignty. 

Is the United States an empire? 

The United States has behaved like an empire, and exerts control over other countries in the same way an imperial power would: the annexation of Hawaii (a sovereign nation) or the control of Puerto Rico (a US territory). Furthermore, the United States maintains active military bases all around the world. The United States isn't an empire like the British were, but the United States is an empire. Therefore it’s worthwhile to understand why empires fall and the parallels to the United States.

is this not an empire?

How do empires get started?

Empires begin when one territory becomes wealthy and powerful, conquering surrounding territories. If the empire is (a) efficient, (b) able to collect taxes, (c) able to unify conquered peoples, and (d) has a run of luck, then the empire grows larger and stronger.  

Why do empires fall?

Empires fall for the flip side of why they start and grow. When each empire throughout history is examined there are a myriad of reasons why they fall, but most of them share 4 commonalities: 

  1. Financial problems
  2. Corruption
  3. Lack of cohesion
  4. Outside forces

Let’s look at each one to see how they apply to the US.

Financial problems

To the surprise of no one, maintaining empires is expensive. There's the military, infrastructure, the government itself and all its employees. How does a government pay for all these things?

Taxes. 95% of the US federal government's revenue comes from taxes - 50% is personal income tax (taxpolicycenter.org). The government must tax its citizens and corporations to function. There are other options like debt and printing money (which leads to inflation - a hidden tax), but those aren’t long term solutions.

You can see where this is going.

If everyone pays taxes, then it all works out. If people or companies avoid taxes, well, then the state won’t have enough money to cover its needs. When some citizens of the empire - usually wealthy - avoid paying taxes, the empire's revenues are reduced and problems begin. This was common towards the end of the Roman empire. Wealthy land owners began to devise clever ways to avoid taxes, such as setting up independent territories that they would defend. This is like wealthy people in the US storing money in off-shore accounts to avoid taxes. 

The recent ProPublica "leak" made it obvious that the wealthy in the US don't pay the same percentage as you or I do. In most cases they don’t avoid taxes illegally, they have loopholes and tricks unavailable to the middle and lower classes - some of those loopholes are kept open through corruption, uncoincidentally the next failure reason we’ll discuss. 

The US operates at a deficit almost every year - costs exceed tax revenues brought in. We borrow more money to pay the debt every year. As long as the world is confident the US can pay back the debt at some point in the future, then it works. At some point it may reach a breaking point as it inevitably has for all empires before. 

“The future of America is not an entitlement. We have been given a treasure chest of gifts and opportunities, but some people are being left behind, and success is not sustainable unless it is shared.” - Howard Schultz

Corruption

Power corrupts. As empires grow ,the government payrolls grow, and there are more people within the system willing to subvert the rules. The more rulebreaking that happens the more it happens, a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Wealthy individuals and companies funnel money to their own benefits, often through government officials who are complicit in the corruption - beneficiaries.

It's a function of the system - inevitable. Let’s look at a few recent examples. 

During the height of the Covid crisis, the federal government issued PPP loans to small businesses to help keep them afloat, but story after story broke of large companies - well- connected to political figures - receiving millions in funding while small businesses went belly-up (bloomberg news).

Then there are the acts that aren’t technically illegal, but corrupt nonetheless, like former President Trump’s business dealings during his presidency. It’s not just the former president’s dealings, consider this quote from Matthew Stephenson in Harvard Law Today, “certain practices related to lobbying and campaign finance that other countries would consider corrupt are, in the U.S., not only permitted but constitutionally protected” (Harvard Law Today).

In loose terms you could look at the entirety of the financial crisis of ‘08 as a massive case of corruption within the system. The wealthy and the politicians made out just fine, the common man was the one affected. 

When the wealthy have extra tricks to grow their wealth with little or no taxes, income inequality grows at an alarming rate. When they funnel money to their own benefits, political corruption grows, trust in the government declines. When the gap gets too wide, revolution is at the door.

not a great trend

Cohesion

Cohesion is an important characteristic of an empire. Territories within an empire stay through only a few reasons: loyalty, prosperity, or violence. Prosperity and safety lead to cohesion, the opposite to fracture. Even if prosperous, the territories on the fringes are most likely to have distinct values, goals, and needs from the core empire - these fringe territories aren’t loyal and are the first to fracture.

The high-water mark for cohesion in the United States was the post World War Two era. No one looks back on World War II with disdain, it was a noble war to save the world. Boys from the North, South, East, and Western US bonded at war, fighting against an obvious villain.

They came back bonded with their fellow Americans. From Ohio to Florida, California, or Montana, they came back as American heroes. 

The stakes were so high, the villain so obvious, that every young man wanted to fight. All able bodied men went. Women, who were not allowed to serve, participated in any way they could, like manufacturing tanks. Given the strict war time situation, the federal government took vast control over the economy and daily life. This control over the economy and life created an even playing-field, further fostering cohesion. 

Paul Graham wrote about World War II, “Economically, it decreased variation in income. Like all modern armed forces, America’s were socialist economically. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. More or less. Higher ranking members of the military got more (as higher ranking members of socialist societies always do), but what they got was fixed according to their rank. And the flattening effect wasn’t limited to those under arms, because the US economy was conscripted too. Between 1942 and 1945 all wages were set by the National War Labor Board. Like the military, they defaulted to flatness.” 

Everyone worked together towards winning the war. When the boys came home, there was immense social cohesion developed by the defeat of a common enemy.

The post World War Two era was a prosperous time of unity for America. Income was near-homogeneous, due to government control. It was also one of the time periods with the highest tax rates for the rich.

It was when people across all parts of the American empire felt like they were Americans first.

For white conservatives in the South this was their best moment, economically relative to the rest of the US, and culturally when they were most connected to the whole US. 

Every decade since the 50s that cohesion within the US fostered by the wartime camaraderie has degraded. You see it in the growing divide of red and blue America. You even see it in the declining rate of cross-state migration - now at 50% the rate in the 90s and approaching  ⅓ the rate of the 50s (Kaplan and Schulhofer-Wohl)

Fracture first happens at the fringes of the empire. 

What do you see here? 


Do US fringe states have a different culture than the heartland? 

Let’s look at one example. The State of California is very different from the rest of the states. It has the most racial diversity, unique geography, and a distinct spirit. California is different from the other states.

Many Californians don't travel to other states, preferring international travel. California's connection to America is faltering - indicated by California secession initiatives picking up steam in recent decades. 

Though California is only one example, it’s a clear example of a territory on the fringe of an empire that has begun to crack. 

There are many other regions within the United States that are culturally unique, and could be their own fringe territory. Author Colin Woodward in his book “American Nations” argues there are 11 distinct nations in the United States

11 different cultural nations of the United States as per Colin Woodward

Here we can plainly see more regions at the fringe, especially the Deep South - which similar to California is geographically at the fringe, and culturally distinct from the United States. Any one of these fringe territories could be the start of the fracture.

Outside Forces

Outside forces acting on an empire are usually weather, other empires, or a new technology. Over time an empire's luck runs out and they experience any number of outside forces acting on them:

  • an extended drought
  • invading barbarian forces
  • the advent of a new religion
  • new technology
  • disease

Something outside the empire acts upon it that weakens it.

In some cases the outside force may be enough to destroy the empire. For most empires a combination of outside forces and other variables weaken the empire and cause a fall.

This is where it starts to get interesting. Through history, one of the most significant outside forces to act upon an empire was drought. Here in the US, climate change is acting upon the United States. What's interesting is that it's not the actual climate change that's relevant, but the response that most shows pending schism. Some states are rushing towards green energy, others embrace fossil fuels -- the gap between them widens. 

China is another outside force. It’s a trade competitor and ideological alternative to the US. China is flexing its muscles and embracing a more prominent position in the world, from trade to military, gathering soft power, to space. China is another force that applies pressure to the US. It's not probable that China alone would cause the fall of the US, and China is experiencing its own set of these forces on it, but China nonetheless adds more pressure to a volatile US situation.

Climate change and China pale in comparison to the number one force acting upon the United States today - the internet. The internet has a globalizing, flattening effect. It brings together people from all over the world. It brings together right wing conspiracy theorists and it helps antifa organize. It connects me to people in my writing groups from all over the world. The internet is a very powerful force that we’re only beginning to understand. The internet even plays a fundamental role in all revolutions now - look at Syria and Egypt for example.

The internet is the single most revolutionary technology we’ve invented. It is altering the very foundations of modern life. Our current social, political, and economic institutions have just not caught up yet. They will, and it will happen fast. The internet is such an important factor in the pending fracture of the United States that I’ll explore it in depth in a later post in this series. 

The parallels 

Empires fall from any combination of the variables elaborated here. When we look at the US and examine the parallels it becomes obvious. If the trends outlined here maintain or speed up, then we’re facing the inevitable fracture of the US. 

Often a new empire takes over, but this time it won't be a new empire, we're experiencing the fracture of all empires. The same forces are acting upon the EU and member states within it as many European readers can attest. Also from the EU, Brexit confirms it's always the fringes that fracture first.  

The US has growing debt, division, polarization, and outside forces. It's unlikely the United States is the exception to the rule that these variables overwhelm an empire and cause it's downfall. 

Do not fear. There will be temporary chaos as the US and other empires come to a close. 

But we're at the dawn of a new era - our best yet.

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Special thanks to all those that have contributed to this series and the editing of this post:

Elizabeth Mendes
Florian Maganza
John Lanza
Adam Cotterill
Rob Hardy
Amanda Natividad
Stew Fortier
Jonathan Barshop
Dani Trusca
Jordan Jones
Juliette Chevalier
Joel Christiansen

Top photo by Caleb Miller on Unsplash

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