October 21, 2006
The Lessons of History

Having borrowed Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy from libraries in California and Kentucky without finishing it, I finally just bought a copy. It’s a really fine book, but there’s so much in it that two weeks wasn’t enough.

The basic argument is that the American empire is going under. In this, Phillips agrees with Emmanuel Todd. But while Todd looks at general historical and demographic trends, Phillips is concerned with three problems that have plagued previous empires, particularly the Spanish, Dutch, and British:

  • Dependence on an energy source that, for one reason or another, becomes obsolete
  • Political enchantment with what seems to an outsider to be fundamentalist religion
  • Financialization of the economy, substituting the movement of representations of cash for the manufacturing of goods

The first item wasn’t too important to Spain, but applies to the Dutch and British. All three, obviously, apply to us in spades.

I’m currently in the third section, mainly concerned with the enormous debt burden the US has generated in the last couple of decades. All three sections are dense, and I’m not ready to characterize any of them yet. But I can’t resist some quotes.

Chapter 9, “Debt”, begins with these:

Historically, the financialization of society has always been a symbol that a nation’s economic position has entered a phase of deterioration. — William Wolman and Anne Colamosca, The Judas Economy, 1997

The lesson of history is that we don’t learn the lessons of history. — Thomas G. Donlan, Barron’s, 2005

Not that it’s much comfort, but we’re not alone in this. No one’s learned the lessons that we’re failing to learn.

A seventeenth-century Spaniard enthused: “Let London manufacture those fine fabrics, … Holland her chambrays; Florence her cloth; the Indies their beaver and vicuna; Milan her broaches; India and Flanders their linens … so long as our capital can enjoy them. The only thing it proves is that all nations train journeymen for Madrid and that Madrid is the queen of parliaments, for all the world serves her, and she serves nobody.”

I understand the attitude. Gauss called mathematics the queen of sciences because all sciences learn from math, but math learns from nothing but itself. But only a fool would imagine that such a distinction is permanent in human affairs. Unfortunately fools are drawn to power. Witness the neocons, of whom we can hope that Saul Landau’s description will soon be true: one who is new to jail.

Here’s a British version of the sentiment.

The plains of North America and Russia are our cornfields; Chicago and Odessa are our granaries; Canada and the Baltic are our timber forests, Australia contains our sheep farms, and in Argentina and on the western prairies of North America are our herds of oxen; Peru sends her silver, and the gold of South Africa and Australia flows to London; the Hindus and the Chinese grow tea for us, and our coffee, sugar and spice plantations are all in the Indies, Spain and France are our vineyards, and the Mediterranean our fruit garden.

The Romans could say similar things. How’d that work out for them?

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at October 21, 2006 08:48 PM
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I would argue item one can be "worked around" although it will be horrible. It also will affect all other countries.

As malodorous as I would find it, the country could survive as a theocracy.

However, the third item will ultimately kill the US. Manufacturing is the strength of a nation.

China had a huge population years ago and was agrarian. Now its ridiculously easy to find "Made in China" on thousands of products. And what country is everyone concerned about as becoming the next super power?

Posted by: SPIIDERWE™ on October 21, 2006 10:05 PM

It's possible that the energy thing can be worked around, but it hasn't happened before. Each empire was dependent on one energy source, and went down with that source. And it's not just running out of oil that's the problem. Britain still has shitloads of coal, but who cares?

Posted by: Chuck Dupree (Belisarius) on October 21, 2006 10:52 PM

Looking at the debt burden from a slightly different angle: Once you pass the point where the income taxes collected won't cover the interest payments servicing the debt, then you reach a point where absolutely no services get funded by the state, no services received by the masses for the taxes paid, leads to a society that thrives on avoidance of paying taxes, and on Black Market trade.

Watch and see.

Won't be long now.

Posted by: farang on October 22, 2006 2:52 AM

The Ming and Qing dynasties in China after the Mongol conquest are also examples. Historically, China had been fairly cosmopolitan and open to foreign influences. Their reaction to the shock of Mongol conquest was a fundamentalist version of Confucianism, religious repression, closing the borders, shutting down ocean navigation and refusing all change. Didn't work for them and is not going to work for the West.

Posted by: Alan on October 22, 2006 6:25 PM
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