How will the United States die?
Have I told you often enough how great The Browser is? Today its Five Books series features a discussion with historian Norman Davies, who talks about what we can learn from states that have disappeared from history’s map. It’s well worth reading, and thinking about. As some have pointed out in the recent discussion of the Vatican’s one-world government document, the Roman church has been around since the Roman empire; in the long view, the rise of the nation-state happened just last week.
Rise and fall. These are biographies, life stories, of states. There’s always a birth, a struggle for existence. Some candidates fall by the wayside before they really establish themselves, some flourish, some go on for millennia. But they all come to an end.
The classic book on all this, which isn’t on my list, is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall ofthe Roman Empire. This was the guidebook, if you like, to long-term history – that there are these enormously powerful, extensive empires which exude an air of immortality and yet which all, sooner or later, come to an end. At the end of the Roman Empire, in the Byzantine period, the empire shrinks and shrinks until it consists of one city, Constantinople, and the Ottoman Turks can encircle it. There’s a final siege and the Turks go over the wall. The last emperor – number 156 or whatever – disappears in the fray, is killed, and that’s the end of the empire. This is, if you like, the guidebook to this story, to exactly what Rousseau is saying. No matter how powerful they may look, the time will come, as in the lives of men and women, when they die. It’s not a topic that people are eagerly looking at.
Davies goes on to talk about specific nations that disappeared from the map, and why. It makes one realize how fragile these constructs are against the deeper currents of history. It is very hard for us to imagine the circumstances under which the United States would cease to exist as a nation, even though this happened in 1861, with Secession. It’s hard to imagine today because the Civil War solved that question definitively. Nobody in living memory has seriously thought about the dissolution of the union, except as a thought experiment.
But it could happen. As Davies says, all states come to an end, sooner or later. With that in mind, let’s have a speculative thread in which we talk about how the United States could cease to exist as a distinct nation. If that were to happen, obviously the American people and our culture, or cultures, would continue, only not together, under the same government. It is very difficult for me to imagine how this could happen, simply because the power of the central government, especially the military, is so overwhelming. Then again, a second-century Roman might have said the same thing. As we know, Roman power slowly declined from a combination of military overstretch, economic decline, political corruption, and social decay — all of which made the Roman state vulnerable to outside pressures from barbarian tribes.
Could it happen to us? Of course. From where I sit, a global economic catastrophe would be the blow that started the dominoes falling. The inability of the government in Washington to pay its bills, especially for the military, could cause a rapid breakdown in the system. It is unthinkable that the US would face a military challenge from its neighbors, but an inability to guard its borders, which we’re living through now with Mexico, would allow for a peaceful invasion from outside tribes, so to speak (well, a bigger one than we’re now experiencing). And the weakness of society — the fraying of communal bonds, the decline of the family, the loss of personal discipline and the forgetting of skills necessary to self-reliance — would compound the chaos. As the Oxford historian Bryan Ward-Perkins, a specialist in the Late Roman period, told me, we are especially vulnerable because of the extreme complexity of our system. Ward-Perkins points out that when the Romans withdrew from Britain, the level of material culture and knowledge there collapsed spectacularly, and didn’t recover for centuries. Given our technological capabilities, it seems impossible for a similar fate to befall us — I mean, people in the erstwhile Roman Britain, and in other regions once ruled by Rome, not only forgot what they knew, but forgot that they had forgotten. Could that happen to us? I don’t see it. But then, nobody ever sees this coming.
In her final book Dark Age Ahead, the urbanist Jane Jacobs (who was a political and cultural liberal, note well) identified five areas that she feared was leading our culture to a collapse:
Community and Family: People are increasingly choosing consumerism over family welfare, that is: consumption over fertility; debt over family budget discipline; fiscal advantage to oneself at the expense of community welfare.
Higher Education: Universities are more interested in credentials than providing high quality education.
Bad Science: Elevation of economics as the main “science” to consider in making major political decisions.
Bad Government: Governments are more interested in deep-pocket interest groups than the welfare of the population.
Bad Culture: A culture that prevents people from understanding/realizing the deterioration of fundamental physical resources which the entire community depends on.
Notice that none of these are particularly ideological. In the book, Jacobs argues that our very success contains within it the seed of failure, which is hubris. We forget how to adapt to new realities, and that rigidity brings us down. I remember from reading it a point she made about how much more difficult it is to survive great adversity in the absence of strong communal bonds. The ethic of individualism which has made many Americans wealthy by making us highly mobile is also impoverishing us in terms of social capital — and that’s a more valuable form of capital than cash if the economy were to collapse.
So: how do you think it could happen to the United States. And what do you think would be the successor nation, or nations? Would we break up into something like Joel Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America? Would it be a peaceable confederation? Or would it be something wilder and more tribal, like the kingdoms in the brilliant post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz?
What do you think? Make a case. We all know that the United States will one day expire. We must hope that, and we must work for, that day coming far, far into the future. But come it will. How will it arrive? When will it arrive? Tell us what you think.