On the downward slope of empire


This will not be pretty. I mean our national decline, and yes, it’s going to happen, sooner or later, one way or another. We can stave it off for a while, especially if we manage to get our heads screwed on a little straighter about a number of things—like immigration, which has always been the source of our renewal, or clean technologies, which might provide another burst of economic growth. China could stumble, as it seems to be doing right now, and in any case there’s still a lot of kick left in the old mare. But empires fall as surely as they rise, and mostly for the reasons that we’re seeing now: they overextend themselves; their systems grow sclerotic; their elites become complacent and corrupt. There’s almost something metaphysical at work. The national sap dries up; the historical clock runs out.

In America’s case, the end is likely to involve a lot more bang than whimper. The last imperial decline will surely be misleading as a model. Great Britain found itself in the unique historical position of passing the torch to a nation with a kindred culture, one that was both ally and descendent—factors that softened the psychological and strategic blows. There was something filial about it, or at the very least, familial. (Literally, in many cases. The two elites were interbreeding from the late 19th century, so much so that Britain’s last imperial avatar, Winston Churchill, was the son of an American mother.) Besides, the British famously acquired their empire “in a fit of absent-mindedness”—a characterization that is hardly to be taken at face value, but that indicates a certain psychic distance from the fact. And then there is the legendary English stoicism: the stiff upper lip, the love of muddling through, the low skies and lowered expectations. They haven’t been happy about their decline, but they haven’t lost their minds about it, either.

How very different it will be for us. We most assuredly did not acquire our empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. We acquired it as the logical termination of the sequence that began at Jamestown. Like capitalism itself, America has always been predicated on continuous expansion. It is our national identity, our economic model, the principle that gives our history its shape. It’s also the way we’ve always solved our problems. Our freedom, our Constitution, our democratic spirit, our sense of common history and destiny, all the things that supposedly bind and define us—all have been made possible by endless growth, and all are at risk of disappearing along with it. We crossed an ocean, conquered a continent, and kept right on going. (No wonder we fantasize about colonizing the stars.) But now we’re hitting a wall, and we haven’t got the slightest notion what to do about it.

Here is what we usually do: shoot the people who stand in our way. That isn’t going to work with China. Let’s hope that this time we don’t turn our guns on one another. Chekhov said a rifle placed onstage in one act has to go off in the next, so what about 300 million of them? Civil wars and revolutions are not uncommon scenarios for waning powers, and violence is as much a part of our national DNA as is expansion.

But assuming that we don’t completely fall apart (admittedly a big assumption), there is a circumstance of our decline that might surprise us. I have a feeling that—like Greece during Hellenism, Italy during the Renaissance, France during the 19th and much of the 20th centuries—we’re going to remain the leading cultural power for a long time after we cease to be the leading one in other respects. Our language, our music, our television and movies, our higher education—these may well continue to set the standard for consumption, emulation, and envy long after our banks and corporations have been swallowed, and our armies defeated, by their foreign rivals. (And yes, I say this, as a writer, with full frontal schadenfreude.) America as the new France: I like the irony of that.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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