Wassail, traveler, and welcome to The Gable Grey -- a place of retreat, of renewal, and of resistance: a tree-shaded refuge in Dark Times. Now pass the threshold, and rest from journeys! For a cold wind is blowing; and here, if you wish, you may hear tidings of the world without...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Junk Politics, Rebellion, and TEOTWAWKI

We Stand on the Cusp of one of
Humanity's Most Dangerous Moments

Chris Hedges
We will have to resist the temptation to fold in on ourselves and to ignore the cruelty outside our door.

Aleksandr Herzen, speaking a century ago to a group of anarchists about how to overthrow the czar, reminded his listeners that it was not their job to save a dying system but to replace it: “We think we are the doctors. We are the disease.” All resistance must recognize that the body politic and global capitalism are dead. We should stop wasting energy trying to reform or appeal to it. This does not mean the end of resistance, but it does mean very different forms of resistance. It means turning our energies toward building sustainable communities to weather the coming crisis, since we will be unable to survive and resist without a cooperative effort.

These communities, if they retreat into a pure survivalist mode without linking themselves to the concentric circles of the wider community, the state and the planet, will become as morally and spiritually bankrupt as the corporate forces arrayed against us. All infrastructures we build, like the monasteries in the Middle Ages, should seek to keep alive the intellectual and artistic traditions that make a civil society, humanism and the common good possible. Access to parcels of agricultural land will be paramount. We will have to grasp, as the medieval monks did, that we cannot alter the larger culture around us, at least in the short term, but we may be able to retain the moral codes and culture for generations beyond ours. Resistance will be reduced to small, often imperceptible acts of defiance, as those who retained their integrity discovered in the long night of 20th-century fascism and communism.

We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity. The elites have successfully convinced us that we no longer have the capacity to understand the revealed truths presented before us or to fight back against the chaos caused by economic and environmental catastrophe. As long as the mass of bewildered and frightened people, fed images that permit them to perpetually hallucinate, exist in this state of barbarism, they may periodically strike out with a blind fury against increased state repression, widespread poverty and food shortages. But they will lack the ability and self-confidence to challenge in big and small ways the structures of control. The fantasy of widespread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that – a fantasy.

My analysis comes close to the analysis of many anarchists. But there is a crucial difference. The anarchists do not understand the nature of violence. They grasp the extent of the rot in our cultural and political institutions, they know they must sever the tentacles of consumerism, but they naïvely believe that it can be countered with physical forms of resistance and acts of violence. There are debates within the anarchist movement – such as those on the destruction of property – but once you start using plastic explosives, innocent people get killed. And when anarchic violence begins to disrupt the mechanisms of governance, the power elite will use these acts, however minor, as an excuse to employ disproportionate and ruthless amounts of force against real and suspected agitators, only fueling the rage of the dispossessed.

I am not a pacifist. I know there are times, and even concede that this may eventually be one of them, when human beings are forced to respond to mounting repression with violence. I was in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia. We knew precisely what the Serbian forces ringing the city would do to us if they broke through the defenses and trench system around the besieged city. We had the examples of the Drina Valley or the city of Vukovar, where about a third of the Muslim inhabitants had been killed and the rest herded into refugee or displacement camps. There are times when the only choice left is to pick up a weapon to defend your family, neighborhood and city. But those who proved most adept at defending Sarajevo invariably came from the criminal class. When they were not shooting at Serbian soldiers they were looting the apartments of ethnic Serbs in Sarajevo and often executing them, as well as terrorizing their fellow Muslims. When you ingest the poison of violence, even in a just cause, it corrupts, deforms and perverts you. Violence is a drug, indeed it is the most potent narcotic known to humankind. Those most addicted to violence are those who have access to weapons and a penchant for force. And these killers rise to the surface of any armed movement and contaminate it with the intoxicating and seductive power that comes with the ability to destroy. I have seen it in war after war. When you go down that road you end up pitting your monsters against their monsters. And the sensitive, the humane and the gentle, those who have a propensity to nurture and protect life, are marginalized and often killed. The romantic vision of war and violence is as prevalent among anarchists and the hard left as it is in the mainstream culture. Those who resist with force will not defeat the corporate state or sustain the cultural values that must be sustained if we are to have a future worth living.  From my many years as a war correspondent in El Salvador, Guatemala, Gaza and Bosnia, I have seen that armed resistance movements are always mutations of the violence that spawned them. I am not naïve enough to think I could have avoided these armed movements had I been a landless Salvadoran or Guatemalan peasant, a Palestinian in Gaza or a Muslim in Sarajevo, but this violent response to repression is and always will be tragic. It must be avoided, although not at the expense of our own survival.

Democracy, a system ideally designed to challenge the status quo, has been corrupted and tamed to slavishly serve the status quo. We have undergone, as John Ralston Saul writes, a coup d’état in slow motion. And the coup is over. They won. We lost. The abject failure of activists to push corporate, industrialized states toward serious environmental reform, to thwart imperial adventurism or to build a humane policy toward the masses of the world’s poor stems from an inability to recognize the new realities of power. The paradigm of power has irrevocably altered and so must the paradigm of resistance alter.

Too many resistance movements continue to buy into the facade of electoral politics, parliaments, constitutions, bills of rights, lobbying and the appearance of a rational economy. The levers of power have become so contaminated that the needs and voices of citizens have become irrelevant. The election of Barack Obama was yet another triumph of propaganda over substance and a skillful manipulation and betrayal of the public by the mass media. We mistook style and ethnicity – an advertising tactic pioneered by the United Colors of Benetton and Calvin Klein – for progressive politics and genuine change. We confused how we were made to feel with knowledge. But the goal, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand for an experience. Obama, now a global celebrity, is a brand. He had almost no experience besides two years in the senate, lacked any moral core and was sold as all things to all people. The Obama campaign was named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and Zappos.com. Take it from the professionals. Brand Obama is a marketer’s dream. President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertisers want because of how they can make you feel.

We live in a culture characterized by what Benjamin DeMott called “junk politics.” Junk politics does not demand justice or the reparation of rights. It always personalizes issues rather than clarifying them. It eschews real debate for manufactured scandals, celebrity gossip and spectacles. It trumpets eternal optimism, endlessly praises our moral strength and character, and communicates in a feel-your-pain language. The result of junk politics is that nothing changes, “meaning zero interruption in the processes and practices that strengthen existing, interlocking systems of socioeconomic advantage.”

The cultural belief that we can make things happen by thinking, by visualizing, by wanting them, by tapping into our inner strength or by understanding that we are truly exceptional is magical thinking. We can always make more money, meet new quotas, consume more products and advance our career if we have enough faith. This magical thinking, preached to us across the political spectrum by Oprah, sports celebrities, Hollywood, self-help gurus and Christian demagogues, is largely responsible for our economic and environmental collapse, since any Cassandra who saw it coming was dismissed as “negative.” This belief, which allows men and women to behave and act like little children, discredits legitimate concerns and anxieties. It exacerbates despair and passivity. It fosters a state of self-delusion. The purpose, structure and goals of the corporate state are never seriously questioned. To question, to engage in criticism of the corporate collective, is to be obstructive and negative. And it has perverted the way we view ourselves, our nation and the natural world. The new paradigm of power, coupled with its bizarre ideology of limitless progress and impossible happiness, has turned whole nations, including the United States, into monsters.

We can march in Copenhagen. We can join Bill McKibben’s worldwide day of climate protests. We can compost in our backyards and hang our laundry out to dry. We can write letters to our elected officials and vote for Barack Obama, but the power elite is impervious to the charade of democratic participation. Power is in the hands of moral and intellectual trolls who are ruthlessly creating a system of neo-feudalism and killing the ecosystem that sustains the human species. And appealing to their better nature, or seeking to influence the internal levers of power, will no longer work.

We will not, especially in the United States, avoid our Götterdämmerung. Obama, like Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the other heads of the industrialized nations, has proven as craven a tool of the corporate state as George W. Bush. Our democratic system has been transformed into what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin labels inverted totalitarianism. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, a free press, parliamentary systems and constitutions while manipulating and corrupting internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens but are ruled by armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington, Ottawa or other state capitals who author the legislation and get the legislators to pass it. A corporate media controls nearly everything we read, watch or hear and imposes a bland uniformity of opinion. Mass culture, owned and disseminated by corporations, diverts us with trivia, spectacles and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. “Under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,” Wolin writes. “Economics dominates politics – and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness.”

Inverted totalitarianism wields total power without resorting to cruder forms of control such as gulags, concentration camps or mass terror. It harnesses science and technology for its dark ends. It enforces ideological uniformity by using mass communication systems to instill profligate consumption as an inner compulsion and to substitute our illusions of ourselves for reality. It does not forcibly suppress dissidents, as long as those dissidents remain ineffectual. And as it diverts us it dismantles manufacturing bases, devastates communities, unleashes waves of human misery and ships jobs to countries where fascists and communists know how to keep workers in line. It does all this while waving the flag and mouthing patriotic slogans. “The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed,” Wolin writes.

The practice and psychology of advertising, the rule of “market forces” in many arenas other than markets, the continuous technological advances that encourage elaborate fantasies (computer games, virtual avatars, space travel), the saturation by mass media and propaganda of every household and the takeover of the universities have rendered most of us hostages. The rot of imperialism, which is always incompatible with democracy, has seen the military and arms manufacturers monopolize $1 trillion a year in defense-related spending in the United States even as the nation faces economic collapse. Imperialism always militarizes domestic politics. And this militarization, as Wolin notes, combines with the cultural fantasies of hero worship and tales of individual prowess, eternal youthfulness, beauty through surgery, action measured in nanoseconds and a dream-laden culture of ever-expanding control and possibility to sever huge segments of the population from reality. Those who control the images control us. And while we have been entranced by the celluloid shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, these corporate forces, extolling the benefits of privatization, have effectively dismantled the institutions of social democracy (Social Security, unions, welfare, public health services and public housing) and rolled back the social and political ideals of the New Deal. The proponents of globalization and unregulated capitalism do not waste time analyzing other ideologies. They have an ideology, or rather a plan of action that is defended by an ideology, and slavishly follow it. We on the left have dozens of analyses of competing ideologies without any coherent plan of our own. This has left us floundering while corporate forces ruthlessly dismantle civil society.
We are living through one of civilization’s great seismic reversals. The ideology of globalization, like all “inevitable” utopian visions, is being exposed as a fraud. The power elite, perplexed and confused, clings to the disastrous principles of globalization and its outdated language to mask the looming political and economic vacuum. The absurd idea that the marketplace alone should determine economic and political constructs led industrial nations to sacrifice other areas of human importance – from working conditions, to taxation, to child labor, to hunger, to health and pollution – on the altar of free trade. It left the world’s poor worse off and the United States with the largest deficits – which can never be repaid – in human history. The massive bailouts, stimulus packages, giveaways and short-term debt, along with imperial wars we can no longer afford, will leave the United States struggling to finance nearly $5 trillion in debt this year. This will require Washington to auction off about $96 billion in debt a week. Once China and the oil-rich states walk away from our debt, which one day has to happen, the Federal Reserve will become the buyer of last resort. The Fed has printed perhaps as much as two trillion new dollars in the last two years, and buying this much new debt will see it, in effect, print trillions more. This is when inflation, and most likely hyperinflation, will turn the dollar into junk. And at that point the entire system breaks down.

All traditional standards and beliefs are shattered in a severe economic crisis. The moral order is turned upside down. The honest and industrious are wiped out while the gangsters, profiteers and speculators walk away with millions. The elite will retreat, as Naomi Klein has written in The Shock Doctrine, into gated communities where they will have access to services, food, amenities and security denied to the rest of us. We will begin a period in human history when there will be only masters and serfs. The corporate forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the rage at the ruling elites and the specter of left-wing dissent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to ruthlessly extinguish opposition movements. And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order and clutching the Christian cross. Totalitarianism, George Orwell pointed out, is not so much an age of faith but an age of schizophrenia. “A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial,” Orwell wrote. “That is when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud.” Our elites have used fraud. Force is all they have left.

Our mediocre and bankrupt elite is desperately trying to save a system that cannot be saved. More importantly, they are trying to save themselves. All attempts to work within this decayed system and this class of power brokers will prove useless. And resistance must respond to the harsh new reality of a global, capitalist order that will cling to power through ever-mounting forms of brutal and overt repression. Once credit dries up for the average citizen, once massive joblessness creates a permanent and enraged underclass and the cheap manufactured goods that are the opiates of our commodity culture vanish, we will probably evolve into a system that more closely resembles classical totalitarianism. Cruder, more violent forms of repression will have to be employed as the softer mechanisms of control favored by inverted totalitarianism break down.

It is not accidental that the economic crisis will converge with the environmental crisis. In his book The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi laid out the devastating consequences – the depressions, wars and totalitarianism – that grow out of a so-called self-regulated free market. He grasped that “fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function.” He warned that a financial system always devolves, without heavy government control, into a Mafia capitalism – and a Mafia political system – which is a good description of our financial and political structure. A self-regulating market, Polanyi wrote, turns human beings and the natural environment into commodities, a situation that ensures the destruction of both society and the natural environment. The free market’s assumption that nature and human beings are objects whose worth is determined by the market allows each to be exploited for profit until exhaustion or collapse. A society that no longer recognizes that nature and human life have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic value beyond monetary value, commits collective suicide. Such societies cannibalize themselves until they die. This is what we are undergoing.

If we build self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can weather the coming collapse. This task will be accomplished through the existence of small, physical enclaves that have access to sustainable agriculture, are able to sever themselves as much as possible from commercial culture and can be largely self-sufficient. These communities will have to build walls against electronic propaganda and fear that will be pumped out over the airwaves. Canada will probably be a more hospitable place to do this than the United States, given America’s strong undercurrent of violence. But in any country, those who survive will need isolated areas of land as well as distance from urban areas, which will see the food deserts in the inner cities, as well as savage violence, leach out across the urban landscape as produce and goods become prohibitively expensive and state repression becomes harsher and harsher.

The increasingly overt uses of force by the elites to maintain control should not end acts of resistance. Acts of resistance are moral acts. They begin because people of conscience understand the moral imperative to challenge systems of abuse and despotism. They should be carried out not because they are effective but because they are right. Those who begin these acts are always few in number and dismissed by those who hide their cowardice behind their cynicism. But resistance, however marginal, continues to affirm life in a world awash in death. It is the supreme act of faith, the highest form of spirituality and alone makes hope possible. Those who carried out great acts of resistance often sacrificed their security and comfort, often spent time in jail and in some cases were killed. They understood that to live in the fullest sense of the word, to exist as free and independent human beings, even under the darkest night of state repression, meant to defy injustice.

When the dissident Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken from his cell in a Nazi prison to the gallows, his last words were: “This is for me the end, but also the beginning.” Bonhoeffer knew that most of the citizens in his nation were complicit through their silence in a vast enterprise of death. But however hopeless it appeared in the moment, he affirmed what we all must affirm. He did not avoid death. He did not, as a distinct individual, survive. But he understood that his resistance and even his death were acts of love. He fought and died for the sanctity of life. He gave, even to those who did not join him, another narrative, and his defiance ultimately condemned his executioners.

We must continue to resist, but do so now with the discomforting realization that significant change will probably never occur in our lifetime. This makes resistance harder. It shifts resistance from the tangible and the immediate to the amorphous and the indeterminate. But to give up acts of resistance is spiritual and intellectual death. It is to surrender to the dehumanizing ideology of totalitarian capitalism. Acts of resistance keep alive another narrative, sustain our integrity and empower others, who we may never meet, to stand up and carry the flame we pass to them. No act of resistance is useless, whether it is refusing to pay taxes, fighting for a Tobin tax, working to shift the neoclassical economics paradigm, revoking a corporate charter, holding global internet votes or using Twitter to catalyze a chain reaction of refusal against the neoliberal order. But we will have to resist and then find the faith that resistance is worthwhile, for we will not immediately alter the awful configuration of power. And in this long, long war a community to sustain us, emotionally and materially, will be the key to a life of defiance.

The philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote that the exclusive preoccupation with personal concerns and indifference to the suffering of others beyond the self-identified group is what ultimately made fascism and the Holocaust possible: “The inability to identify with others was unquestionably the most important psychological condition for the fact that something like Auschwitz could have occurred in the midst of more or less civilized and innocent people.”
The indifference to the plight of others and the supreme elevation of the self is what the corporate state seeks to instill in us. It uses fear, as well as hedonism, to thwart human compassion. We will have to continue to battle the mechanisms of the dominant culture, if for no other reason than to preserve through small, even tiny acts, our common humanity. We will have to resist the temptation to fold in on ourselves and to ignore the cruelty outside our door. Hope endures in these often imperceptible acts of defiance. This defiance, this capacity to say no, is what the psychopathic forces in control of our power systems seek to eradicate. As long as we are willing to defy these forces we have a chance, if not for ourselves, then at least for those who follow. As long as we defy these forces we remain alive. And for now this is the only victory possible.

Chris Hedges, a staff member of the New York Times since 1990, has been a foreign correspondent for fifteen years. An adjunct professor of journalism at New York University, he is the author of Losing Moses on the Freeway and What Every Person Should Know About War. Chris was a member of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the New York Times's coverage of global terrorism. A senior fellow at the Nation Institute, he lives in New Jersey. He writes a regular column for TruthDig every Monday. His latest book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spring... my pretty lady!

They hastened up the last slope, and stood breathless beside her.  They bowed, but with a wave of her arm she bade them look round; and they looked out from the hill-top over lands under the morning.  It was now as clear and far-seen as it had been veiled and misty when they stood upon the knoll in the Forest, which could now be seen rising pale and green out of the dark trees in the West.  In that direction the land rose in wooded ridges, green, yellow, russet under the sun, beyond which lay hidden the valley of the Brandywine.  To the South, over the line of the Withywindle, there was a distant glint like pale glass where the Brandywine River made a great loop in the lowlands and flowed away out of the knowledge of the hobbits.  Northward beyond the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colours, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance.  Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess:  it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.

--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter VIII: Fog on the Barrow-downs

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

To those who have taken ship this year, and left these shores...

"Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost.  And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water.  And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise."

And now, a word from Marcus

"If you set up as good or evil any of the things beyond your control, it necessarily follows that in the occurrence of that evil or the frustration of that good you blame the gods and hate the men who are the real or suspected causes of that occurrence or that frustration:  and indeed we do much injustice through our concern for such things.  But if we determine that only what lies in our own power is good or evil, there is no reason left us either to charge a god or to take a hostile stance to a man."  -- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Monday, March 1, 2010

Complexity and Collapse

Empires on the Edge of Chaos

By Niall Ferguson

Summary: - Imperial collapse may come much more suddenly than many historians imagine. A combination of fiscal deficits and military overstretch suggests that the United States may be the next empire on the precipice.

February 26, 2010 "Foreign Affairs" - March/April 2010 Edition -- There is no better illustration of the life cycle of a great power than The Course of Empire, a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole that hang in the New-York Historical Society. Cole was a founder of the Hudson River School and one of the pioneers of nineteenth-century American landscape painting; in The Course of Empire, he beautifully captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain in thrall to this day.

Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river beneath a rocky outcrop. In the first, The Savage State, a lush wilderness is populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitive existence at the break of a stormy dawn. The second picture, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, is of an agrarian idyll: the inhabitants have cleared the trees, planted fields, and built an elegant Greek temple. The third and largest of the paintings is The Consummation of Empire. Now, the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrepôt, and the contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have been replaced by a throng of opulently clad merchants, proconsuls, and citizen-consumers. It is midday in the life cycle. Then comes Destruction. The city is ablaze, its citizens fleeing an invading horde that rapes and pillages beneath a brooding evening sky. Finally, the moon rises over the fifth painting, Desolation. There is not a living soul to be seen, only a few decaying columns and colonnades overgrown by briars and ivy.

Conceived in the mid-1830s, Cole's great pentaptych has a clear message: all empires, no matter how magnificent, are condemned to decline and fall. The implicit suggestion was that the young American republic of Cole's age would be better served by sticking to its bucolic first principles and resisting the imperial temptations of commerce, conquest, and colonization.

For centuries, historians, political theorists, anthropologists, and the public at large have tended to think about empires in such cyclical and gradual terms. "The best instituted governments," the British political philosopher Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, wrote in 1738, "carry in them the seeds of their destruction: and, though they grow and improve for a time, they will soon tend visibly to their dissolution. Every hour they live is an hour the less that they have to live."

Idealists and materialists alike have shared that assumption. In his book Scienza nuova, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico describes all civilizations as passing through three phases: the divine, the heroic, and the human, finally dissolving into what Vico called "the barbarism of reflection." For Hegel and Marx, it was the dialectic that gave history its unmistakable beat. History was seasonal for Oswald Spengler, the German historian, who wrote in his 1918-22 book, The Decline of the West, that the nineteenth century had been "the winter of the West, the victory of materialism and skepticism, of socialism, parliamentarianism, and money." The British historian Arnold Toynbee's universal theory of civilization proposed a cycle of challenge, response, and suicide. Each of these models is different, but all share the idea that history has rhythm.

Although hardly anyone reads Spengler or Toynbee today, similar strains of thought are visible in contemporary bestsellers. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is another work of cyclical history -- despite its profusion of statistical tables, which at first sight make it seem the very antithesis of Spenglerian grand theory. In Kennedy's model, great powers rise and fall according to the growth rates of their industrial bases and the costs of their imperial commitments relative to their GDPs. Just as in Cole's The Course of Empire, imperial expansion carries the seeds of future decline. As Kennedy writes, "If a state overextends itself strategically . . . it runs the risk that the potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the great expense of it all." This phenomenon of "imperial overstretch," Kennedy argues, is common to all great powers. In 1987, when Kennedy's book was published, the United States worried that it might be succumbing to this disease. Just because the Soviet Union fell first did not necessarily invalidate the hypothesis.

More recently, it is Jared Diamond, an anthropologist, who has captured the public imagination with a grand theory of rise and fall. His 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, is cyclical history for the so-called Green Age: tales of past societies, from seventeenth-century Easter Island to twenty-first-century China, that risked, or now risk, destroying themselves by abusing their natural environments. Diamond quotes John Lloyd Stevens, the American explorer and amateur archaeologist who discovered the eerily dead Mayan cities of Mexico: "Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations, reached their golden age, and perished." According to Diamond, the Maya fell into a classic Malthusian trap as their population grew larger than their fragile and inefficient agricultural system could support. More people meant more cultivation, but more cultivation meant deforestation, erosion, drought, and soil exhaustion. The result was civil war over dwindling resources and, finally, collapse.

Diamond's warning is that today's world could go the way of the Maya. This is an important message, no doubt. But in reviving the cyclical theory of history, Collapse reproduces an old conceptual defect. Diamond makes the mistake of focusing on what historians of the French Annales school called la longue durée, the long term. No matter whether civilizations commit suicide culturally, economically, or ecologically, the downfall is very protracted. Just as it takes centuries for imperial overstretch to undermine a great power, so, too, does it take centuries to wreck an ecosystem. As Diamond points out, political leaders in almost any society -- primitive or sophisticated -- have little incentive to address problems that are unlikely to manifest themselves for a hundred years or more.

Did the proconsuls in Cole's The Consummation of Empire really care if the fate of their great-great-grandchildren was destruction? No. Would they have accepted a tax increase that would have financed a preemptive strike against the next millennium's barbarian horde? Again, no. As the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December made clear, rhetorical pleas to save the planet for future generations are insufficient to overcome the conflicts over economic distribution between rich and poor countries that exist in the here and now.

The current economic challenges facing the United States are also often represented as long-term threats. It is the slow march of demographics -- which is driving up the ratio of retirees to workers -- and not current policy, that condemns the public finances of the United States to sink deeper into the red. According to the Congressional Budget Office's "alternative fiscal scenario," which takes into account likely changes in government policy, public debt could rise from 44 percent before the financial crisis to a staggering 716 percent by 2080. In its "extended-baseline scenario," which assumes current policies will remain the same, the figure is closer to 280 percent. It hardly seems to matter which number is correct. Is there a single member of Congress who is willing to cut entitlements or increase taxes in order to avert a crisis that will culminate only when today's babies are retirees?

Similarly, when it comes to the global economy, the wheel of history seems to revolve slowly, like an old water mill in high summer. Some projections suggest that China's GDP will overtake the United States' GDP in 2027; others say that this will not happen until 2040. By 2050, India's economy will supposedly catch up with that of the United States, too. But to many, these great changes in the balance of economic power seem very remote compared with the timeframe for the deployment of U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan and then their withdrawal, for which the unit of account is months, not years, much less decades.

Yet it is possible that this whole conceptual framework is, in fact, flawed. Perhaps Cole's artistic representation of imperial birth, growth, and eventual death is a misrepresentation of the historical process. What if history is not cyclical and slow moving but arrhythmic -- at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?


Great powers and empires are, I would suggest, complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder -- on "the edge of chaos," in the phrase of the computer scientist Christopher Langton. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems "go critical." A very small trigger can set off a "phase transition" from a benign equilibrium to a crisis -- a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse, or a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and brings about a hurricane in southeastern England.

Not long after such crises happen, historians arrive on the scene. They are the scholars who specialize in the study of "fat tail" events -- the low-frequency, high-impact moments that inhabit the tails of probability distributions, such as wars, revolutions, financial crashes, and imperial collapses. But historians often misunderstand complexity in decoding these events. They are trained to explain calamity in terms of long-term causes, often dating back decades. This is what Nassim Taleb rightly condemned in The Black Swan as "the narrative fallacy": the construction of psychologically satisfying stories on the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Drawing casual inferences about causation is an age-old habit. Take World War I. A huge war breaks out in the summer of 1914, to the great surprise of nearly everyone. Before long, historians have devised a story line commensurate with the disaster: a treaty governing the neutrality of Belgium that was signed in 1839, the waning of Ottoman power in the Balkans dating back to the 1870s, and malevolent Germans and the navy they began building in 1897. A contemporary version of this fallacy traces the 9/11 attacks back to the Egyptian government's 1966 execution of Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist writer who inspired the Muslim Brotherhood. Most recently, the financial crisis that began in 2007 has been attributed to measures of financial deregulation taken in the United States in the 1980s.

In reality, the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess. Thus, World War I was actually caused by a series of diplomatic miscalculations in the summer of 1914, the real origins of 9/11 lie in the politics of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and the financial crisis was principally due to errors in monetary policy by the U.S. Federal Reserve and to China's rapid accumulation of dollar reserves after 2001. Most of the fat-tail phenomena that historians study are not the climaxes of prolonged and deterministic story lines; instead, they represent perturbations, and sometimes the complete breakdowns, of complex systems.

To understand complexity, it is helpful to examine how natural scientists use the concept. Think of the spontaneous organization of half a million ants or termites, which allows them to construct complex hills and nests, or the fractal geometry of water molecules as they form intricate snowflakes. Human intelligence itself is a complex system, a product of the interaction of billions of neurons in the central nervous system, or what Charles Sherrington, the pioneering neuroscientist, called "an enchanted loom."

The political and economic structures made by humans share many of the features of complex adaptive systems. Heterodox economists such as W. Brian Arthur have been arguing along these lines for decades. To Arthur, a complex economy is characterized by the interaction of dispersed agents, a lack of central control, multiple levels of organization, continual adaptation, incessant creation of new market niches, and the absence of general equilibrium. This conception of economics goes beyond both Adam Smith's hallowed idea that an "invisible hand" causes markets to work through the interactions of profit-maximizing individuals and Friedrich von Hayek's critique of economic planning and demand management. In contradiction to the classic economic prediction that competition causes diminishing returns, a complex economy makes increasing returns possible. In this version of economics, Silicon Valley is a complex adaptive system; so is the Internet itself.

Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit center devoted to the study of complex systems, are currently looking at how such insights can be applied to other aspects of collective human activity, including international relations. This effort may recall the futile struggle of Edward Casaubon to find "the key to all mythologies" in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch. But the attempt is worthwhile, because an understanding of how complex systems function is an essential part of any strategy to anticipate and delay their failure.

Whether the canopy of a rain forest or the trading floor of Wall Street, complex systems share certain characteristics. A small input to such a system can produce huge, often unanticipated changes -- what scientists call "the amplifier effect." A vaccine, for example, stimulates the immune system to become resistant to, say, measles or mumps. But administer too large a dose, and the patient dies. Meanwhile, causal relationships are often nonlinear, which means that traditional methods of generalizing through observation (such as trend analysis and sampling) are of little use. Some theorists of complexity would go so far as to say that complex systems are wholly nondeterministic, meaning that it is impossible to make predictions about their future behavior based on existing data.

When things go wrong in a complex system, the scale of disruption is nearly impossible to anticipate. There is no such thing as a typical or average forest fire, for example. To use the jargon of modern physics, a forest before a fire is in a state of "self-organized criticality": it is teetering on the verge of a breakdown, but the size of the breakdown is unknown. Will there be a small fire or a huge one? It is very hard to say: a forest fire twice as large as last year's is roughly four or six or eight times less likely to happen this year. This kind of pattern -- known as a "power-law distribution" -- is remarkably common in the natural world. It can be seen not just in forest fires but also in earthquakes and epidemics. Some researchers claim that conflicts follow a similar pattern, ranging from local skirmishes to full-scale world wars.

What matters most is that in such systems a relatively minor shock can cause a disproportionate -- and sometimes fatal -- disruption. As Taleb has argued, by 2007, the global economy had grown to resemble an over-optimized electrical grid. Defaults on subprime mortgages produced a relatively small surge in the United States that tipped the entire world economy into a financial blackout, which, for a moment, threatened to bring about a complete collapse of international trade. But blaming such a crash on a policy of deregulation under U.S. President Ronald Reagan is about as plausible as blaming World War I on the buildup of the German navy under Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz.


Regardless of whether it is a dictatorship or a democracy, any large-scale political unit is a complex system. Most great empires have a nominal central authority -- either a hereditary emperor or an elected president -- but in practice the power of any individual ruler is a function of the network of economic, social, and political relations over which he or she presides. As such, empires exhibit many of the characteristics of other complex adaptive systems -- including the tendency to move from stability to instability quite suddenly. But this fact is rarely recognized because of the collective addiction to cyclical theories of history.

Perhaps the most famous story of imperial decline is that of ancient Rome. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, Edward Gibbon covered more than 1,400 years of history, from 180 to 1590. This was history over the very long run, in which the causes of decline ranged from the personality disorders of individual emperors to the power of the Praetorian Guard and the rise of monotheism. After the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, civil war became a recurring problem, as aspiring emperors competed for the spoils of supreme power. By the fourth century, barbarian invasions or migrations were well under way and only intensified as the Huns moved west. Meanwhile, the challenge posed by Sassanid Persia to the Eastern Roman Empire was steadily growing.

But what if fourth-century Rome was simply functioning normally as a complex adaptive system, with political strife, barbarian migration, and imperial rivalry all just integral features of late antiquity? Through this lens, Rome's fall was sudden and dramatic -- just as one would expect when such a system goes critical. As the Oxford historians Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins have argued, the final breakdown in the Western Roman Empire began in 406, when Germanic invaders poured across the Rhine into Gaul and then Italy. Rome itself was sacked by the Goths in 410. Co-opted by an enfeebled emperor, the Goths then fought the Vandals for control of Spain, but this merely shifted the problem south. Between 429 and 439, Genseric led the Vandals to victory after victory in North Africa, culminating in the fall of Carthage. Rome lost its southern Mediterranean breadbasket and, along with it, a huge source of tax revenue. Roman soldiers were just barely able to defeat Attila's Huns as they swept west from the Balkans. By 452, the Western Roman Empire had lost all of Britain, most of Spain, the richest provinces of North Africa, and southwestern and southeastern Gaul. Not much was left besides Italy. Basiliscus, brother-in-law of Emperor Leo I, tried and failed to recapture Carthage in 468. Byzantium lived on, but the Western Roman Empire was dead. By 476, Rome was the fiefdom of Odoacer, king of the Goths.

What is most striking about this history is the speed of the Roman Empire's collapse. In just five decades, the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters. Archaeological evidence from the late fifth century -- inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer coins, smaller cattle -- shows that the benign influence of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western Europe. What Ward-Perkins calls "the end of civilization" came within the span of a single generation.

Other great empires have suffered comparably swift collapses. The Ming dynasty in China began in 1368, when the warlord Zhu Yuanzhang renamed himself Emperor Hongwu, the word hongwu meaning "vast military power." For most of the next three centuries, Ming China was the world's most sophisticated civilization by almost any measure. Then, in the mid-seventeenth century, political factionalism, fiscal crisis, famine, and epidemic disease opened the door to rebellion within and incursions from without. In 1636, the Manchu leader Huang Taiji proclaimed the advent of the Qing dynasty. Just eight years later, Beijing, the magnificent Ming capital, fell to the rebel leader Li Zicheng, and the last Ming emperor hanged himself out of shame. The transition from Confucian equipoise to anarchy took little more than a decade.

In much the same way, the Bourbon monarchy in France passed from triumph to terror with astonishing rapidity. French intervention on the side of the colonial rebels against British rule in North America in the 1770s seemed like a good idea at the time -- a chance for revenge after Great Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War a decade earlier -- but it served to tip French finances into a critical state. In May 1789, the summoning of the Estates-General, France's long-dormant representative assembly, unleashed a political chain reaction that led to a swift collapse of royal legitimacy in France. Only four years later, in January 1793, Louis XVI was decapitated by guillotine.

Although several narrative fallacies suggest that the Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov empires were doomed for decades before World War I, the disintegration of the dynastic land empires of eastern Europe came with equal swiftness. What was impressive, in fact, was how well these ancient empires were able to withstand the test of total war. Their collapse only began with the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. A mere five years later, Mehmed VI, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, departed Constantinople aboard a British warship. With that, all three dynasties were defunct.

The sun set on the British Empire almost as suddenly. In February 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was at Yalta, dividing up the world with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. As World War II was ending, he was swept from office in the July 1945 general election. Within a decade, the United Kingdom had conceded independence to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Madagascar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The Suez crisis in 1956 proved that the United Kingdom could not act in defiance of the United States in the Middle East, setting the seal on the end of empire. Although it took until the 1960s for independence to reach sub-Saharan Africa and the remnants of colonial rule east of the Suez, the United Kingdom's age of hegemony was effectively over less than a dozen years after its victories over Germany and Japan.

The most recent and familiar example of precipitous decline is, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the benefit of hindsight, historians have traced all kinds of rot within the Soviet system back to the Brezhnev era and beyond. Perhaps, as the historian and political scientist Stephen Kotkin has argued, it was only the high oil prices of the 1970s that "averted Armageddon." But this did not seem to be the case at the time. In March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, the CIA estimated the Soviet economy to be approximately 60 percent the size of the U.S. economy. This estimate is now known to have been wrong, but the Soviet nuclear arsenal was genuinely larger than the U.S. stockpile. And governments in what was then called the Third World, from Vietnam to Nicaragua, had been tilting in the Soviets' favor for most of the previous 20 years. Yet less than five years after Gorbachev took power, the Soviet imperium in central and Eastern Europe had fallen apart, followed by the Soviet Union itself in 1991. If ever an empire fell off a cliff -- rather than gently declining -- it was the one founded by Lenin.


If empires are complex systems that sooner or later succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions, rather than cycling sedately from Arcadia to Apogee to Armageddon, what are the implications for the United States today? First, debating the stages of decline may be a waste of time -- it is a precipitous and unexpected fall that should most concern policymakers and citizens. Second, most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises. All the above cases were marked by sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, as well as difficulties with financing public debt. Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly, indeed, as the United States contemplates a deficit for 2009 of more than $1.4 trillion -- about 11.2 percent of GDP, the biggest deficit in 60 years -- and another for 2010 that will not be much smaller. Public debt, meanwhile, is set to more than double in the coming decade, from $5.8 trillion in 2008 to $14.3 trillion in 2019. Within the same timeframe, interest payments on that debt are forecast to leap from eight percent of federal revenues to 17 percent.

These numbers are bad, but in the realm of political entities, the role of perception is just as crucial, if not more so. In imperial crises, it is not the material underpinnings of power that really matter but expectations about future power. The fiscal numbers cited above cannot erode U.S. strength on their own, but they can work to weaken a long-assumed faith in the United States' ability to weather any crisis. For now, the world still expects the United States to muddle through, eventually confronting its problems when, as Churchill famously said, all the alternatives have been exhausted. Through this lens, past alarms about the deficit seem overblown, and 2080 -- when the U.S. debt may reach staggering proportions -- seems a long way off, leaving plenty of time to plug the fiscal hole. But one day, a seemingly random piece of bad news -- perhaps a negative report by a rating agency -- will make the headlines during an otherwise quiet news cycle. Suddenly, it will be not just a few policy wonks who worry about the sustainability of U.S. fiscal policy but also the public at large, not to mention investors abroad. It is this shift that is crucial: a complex adaptive system is in big trouble when its component parts lose faith in its viability.

Over the last three years, the complex system of the global economy flipped from boom to bust -- all because a bunch of Americans started to default on their subprime mortgages, thereby blowing huge holes in the business models of thousands of highly leveraged financial institutions. The next phase of the current crisis may begin when the public begins to reassess the credibility of the monetary and fiscal measures that the Obama administration has taken in response. Neither interest rates at zero nor fiscal stimulus can achieve a sustainable recovery if people in the United States and abroad collectively decide, overnight, that such measures will lead to much higher inflation rates or outright default. As Thomas Sargent, an economist who pioneered the idea of rational expectations, demonstrated more than 20 years ago, such decisions are self-fulfilling: it is not the base supply of money that determines inflation but the velocity of its circulation, which in turn is a function of expectations. In the same way, it is not the debt-to-GDP ratio that determines government solvency but the interest rate that investors demand. Bond yields can shoot up if expectations change about future government solvency, intensifying an already bad fiscal crisis by driving up the cost of interest payments on new debt. Just ask Greece -- it happened there at the end of last year, plunging the country into fiscal and political crisis.

Finally, a shift in expectations about monetary and fiscal policy could force a reassessment of future U.S. foreign policy. There is a zero-sum game at the heart of the budgetary process: if interest payments consume a rising proportion of tax revenue, military expenditure is the item most likely to be cut because, unlike mandatory entitlements, it is discretionary. A U.S. president who says he will deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and then, in 18 months' time, start withdrawing them again already has something of a credibility problem. And what about the United States' other strategic challenges? For the United States' enemies in Iran and Iraq, it must be consoling to know that U.S. fiscal policy today is preprogrammed to reduce the resources available for all overseas military operations in the years ahead.

Defeat in the mountains of the Hindu Kush or on the plains of Mesopotamia has long been a harbinger of imperial fall. It is no coincidence that the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in the annus mirabilis of 1989. What happened 20 years ago, like the events of the distant fifth century, is a reminder that empires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline, and fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of imperial dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple overdetermining causes. Rather, empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse. To return to the terminology of Thomas Cole, the painter of The Course of Empire, the shift from consummation to destruction and then to desolation is not cyclical. It is sudden.

A more appropriate visual representation of the way complex systems collapse may be the old poster, once so popular in thousands of college dorm rooms, of a runaway steam train that has crashed through the wall of a Victorian railway terminus and hit the street below nose first. A defective brake or a sleeping driver can be all it takes to go over the edge of chaos.

NIALL FERGUSON is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His most recent book is The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.
Whiles carried o'er the iron road,
We hurry by some fair abode;
The garden bright amidst the hay,
The yellow wain upon the way,
The dining men, the wind that sweeps
Light locks from off the sun-sweet heaps --
The gable grey, the hoary roof,
Here now -- and now so far aloof.
How sorely then we long to stay
And midst its sweetness wear the day,
And 'neath its changing shadows sit,
And feel ourselves a part of it.
Such rest, such stay, I strove to win
With these same leaves that lie herein.

-- William Morris, from
"The Roots of the Mountains"