The End of the American Empire

A long topic of consideration for me, but also inspired by a recent article:

I’ve no idea how long the American Experiment continues to last at this point. The flames of division are just being stoked by social media lately, and that never ends well.

My guess is that the US will eventually end up more along the line of regional nation-states, probably similar to lines drawn by Woodard in American Nations.

But I don’t know what the process between here and there is. States are increasingly thumbing their nose at federal power (see the various firearm/silencer rulings in states and the far more visible marijuana legalization). There’s a useful place for a federal government, but I keep thinking it should be limited to that which it’s actually given power by the Constitution, not (IMO) abusing interstate commerce to claim power over literally everything, even what you grow for your own use (Wickard v. Filburn - Wikipedia) if you’re not familiar with that argument.

We certainly live in interesting times…

I was reading in certain unfashionable corners of the interwebs that a certain astrological phenomenon called a “Grand Mutation” is also predicting a breakup of the US, with strong indications that it will happen in less than 20 years from now, and likely be able to be done without a civil war. Along which lines, though, well Woodard may be right in terms of the underlying ideologies. Still, people move around a great deal too, and so I wouldn’t be surprised to see heavily divided states such as Oregon split, but I would equally think it’s possible that, say, Portland just gets shoved out and those who don’t jive with the rest of the state self-select to move elsewhere. No civil war doesn’t mean no great unrest and localized troubles…

Under 20 years is certainly more possible than I would have guessed 5 years ago.

People move around, but The Big Sort by Bishop argues that the movements are increasingly to further consolidate with similar thinking people. Basically, when people move, they more often move to somewhere with similar political beliefs.

Even if it’s not done deliberately, at this point, people with different political beliefs tend to have different ideas of what’s a good place to live. An example (I think from this book): Someone who thinks living in near-downtown row homes with a small dog is unlikely to consider moving to a few acres on the outskirts of town, around neighbors with pickups and large dogs.

Absolutely there are different values for people who live in cities versus not, and different states versus not, and different neighbourhoods, etc. The US also splits very strongly along religious lines of fundamentalism, so that’s another aspect. My general concern about that, though, is that the less-deliberate forms of sorting come more from the ordinary reasons people relocate, not from major stressors - although major stressors are likely to force a lot of it in the future, as I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere. And that’s where I’m not so sure, when the breakup happens, if people will really be fully sorted or not - and I suspect not, since many major cities (but by no means all - perhaps 50% or so of the biggest ones?) are islands among a near-opposite population. So the question will be how THAT gets sorted out (pun intended, sort of… er, heh, another pun also intended) when push turns to shove.

Cities depend, absolutely, on their surroundings for supply, food, and other things cities don’t provide. They’re excellent concentrators of idea and society, and clearly humans being the social primates we are there will always be value in that. But not all of us obviously feel the same way about the level of scale and concentration, and even in a post-collapse world one can see an urban/rural divide just being a natural state of humanity. So the question becomes - what will happen to the cities and rural areas where the city is extremely opposite the rural folk politically / identity-wise?

Some might say you can’t have one without the other. Much of history has people living in walled cities/villages to sleep and trade, and work the fields by day. This would be partly by choice and ease of access to trade/markets. Maybe more by necessity to have protection from whatever roving barbarians dwell in the woods around your continent.

Nowadays I think I’d agree with the thoughts of William Bryan:
“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

If the divide between city and rural dwellers gets bad enough that it comes to literal blows, we’ve got a couple examples of how that turns out. The communist revolution in China for one, and what’s been happening in South Africa most recently. Several populist uprisings happened in medieval Europe too, and they’ve all gone about the same way.

  • Oppressed underclass decides to rise up against the landowners they deem (right, wrong or otherwise) ‘too rich’.
  • Chase off/kill said landowners. Takeover town hall and burn property ownership records.
  • Redistribute land.
  • Discover that farming is actually quite hard, and everybody that knew how to do it is either dead or fled.
  • Famine ensues.

I think the founding fathers knew this pretty well, and is why they only gave voting rights to landowners. Otherwise the pattern of history is the mass of tenants seize and redistribute property from landowners, eventually; and it never ends well for either group.

Even today most residents of eastern Washington wish they could split the state down the middle of the cascades, since the coastal/King county areas have such a large voting block they can override the desires and needs of citizens on the other side of the state pretty much every time.

This is I think the most ‘worst case scenario’ that I naturally hope and pray never happens; to us or anyone. On the other hand, the patterns of history have rarely been kind to my hopes or dreams for humanity.

A good point @canem. There’s that strong divide across the Cascades pretty much entirely up and down them (look at Portland versus the rest of Oregon for another clear-as-day example).

It’s true that coastal cities have VERY different interests, sources of income/food, and by necessity, economic structures from inland dwellers (as much a fact of the geography and natural resources as anything), and while I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict there, I can certainly see that as soon as there’s a natural boundary such as the Cascades which physically separate more or less all connected concerns (they’re a watershed, too, so really there’s very little on one side that affects the other) there’s not much reason to tie the concerns back together artificially.

In terms of oppressed underclasses rising up - you may be right (I haven’t studied enough history to know if this is really a near-universal pattern) but what I do remember is that most of the time things went they way you relate, it wasn’t the farmers rising up themselves. In my concern, in the US, that’s more or less what would happen. Remember, in most cases those with farming knowledge were NOT also the landowners, and that’s been majority true in nearly all of the arrangements post-medieval era in the Western world, except for that brief period of time in the US’s founding history during the westward expansion. Even today, precious few farmers in the US actually own their land and farm anymore - it’s bank owned or even conglomerate owned, in debt and contract if not outright title.

Correct, it was usually the rest of the underclass that came against the farmers, like many Afrikaans farmers being driven off their land in South Africa in recent years. You’re also correct about the farmers often not owning their land. We know that; the ‘revolutionaries’ of the time did not. Mao pushed the cleansing of the ‘intellegencia’ quite hard, including book burnings and the killing of many who wore glasses. ‘Some guy’ with glasses likely just as oppressed and uneducated as the rest of the city. Doesn’t matter, the mob killed him anyway.

So the impoverished people of China didn’t rise up against the group actually responsible for their condition (Mao himself, and his government), but whomever they could be manipulated into believing was the cause of their poverty. Behold the power of propaganda.

As George Carlin once quipped: “So you get the poor people fighting with the middle-class people, meanwhile the rich people are running away with all the 'effing money.”

Right, this part is all by design. When it all falls apart though, and people decide the US as it sits doesn’t work anymore, there will be support for farmers, from a large subset of their region, and some cities are likely to continue to support them too (I’m thinking especially of the red, blue-collar manufacturing towns and those not strongly connected to the information industries). There will be far less conflict there. The other cities, though, I don’t think are so stupid as to revolt against the farmers, they’ll either have to cut a deal or the farmers will just incorporate a country and exclude the city. I don’t think numbers and votes are going to be as important here because the farmers and their rural compatriots tend to be willing to be rowdy and city folks who only know the basic rowdiness of protests and destruction won’t be particularly efficient against that sort of thing. So if push came to shove, as it were, I’d expect the farmers to get a lot more support from the folks with the ability to use force effectively than the city would, in a majority of cases. For massive cities like LA, I expect them to turn on themselves in exactly the ways you describe, or likely fragment themselves into ghettos. For others, such as Atlanta, it’s harder to say. I expect the rich suburbs to have a tough time of it - either through outright invasion or through sudden and swift neglect and effective isolation of supply. The poorer ones will probably be fine, and the inner city will either militarize and isolate, if they have the wherwithal to fly necessary goods in and out still or transport them via armored convy, or it may very well cut a deal with the urban suppliers (I can see this happening easily) in a form of capitulation. For places like SF, Portland, Seattle, it’s harder to see that happening and they’re very isolated in the middle of large swaths of highly productive and vital rural farmland, but at least they have good access to the coast so that may mitigate their position somewhat.

The problem is that if the US were to separate and let’s say Washington splits on the Cascades and Portland goes with it, they’ll have a strong economic advantage over the more agricultural communities on the other side of the mountains. The question is: do those communities begin trading or do they take their longstanding grievances, cut off the country of Cascadia, and start to deal exclusively with the rest of the western plains? Do they go to war to take Cascadia back for port access or do they drop it? Does having their own representation cause them to become expansionist and evangelical, or does it give them what they want to settle down and start to become less boisterous? And perhaps more importantly, given that the evangelicals and fundamentalists share at least the unity and role of the US as a country in the end times as a core belief and essential principle, what would happen to the role of faith and their belief in “the US” as a uniting entity at this point - and which of the fragmented countries gets to claim the title “The Real US™”?

Man, that right there has been the cause of civil wars all by itself. See China during it’s ‘warring states’ period or fudal Japan during and after the ‘Kamakura’ period ~1200ad. The breakdown of central/imperial control inspires a bunch of Shoguns and Daimyo to try their luck and taking over all the fiefdoms around them and uniting Japan under a new [their] imperial rule.

I think of it as the diplomatic model of “We will have peace just as soon as you all shut up and do as I command you!”

It’s fun to speculate how things might play out and there are stacks of good ideas. At this point however I think the future is still to murky to predict much. There are just too many unknowable factors involved.

Does America finally fall due to financial collapse? or civil war? Does one cause the other? Is it purely an American collapse, or how many other systems/countries/economies does it take with it? As has been said by some about the US economy and the petro-dollar being such a big pivot point for the world economy: “When the US coughs, the whole world catches a cold…”

It just feels like such a big choose-your-own-apocalypse of possible scenarios. Is all of this compounded by a war abroad? How about a massive natural disaster?

Then there are outside influences that could mess about. I’m sure there are at least a few revolutions through out history that are purely ‘grass-roots’. The final straw comes and a bunch of oppressed serfs stand up with one voice and yell ‘We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!’

But how often does this attitude really develop from the ground up (I ask rhetorically, I really don’t know for sure)? Perhaps the embers of revolt were there, but as soon as another nation gets wind of it you can bet they had agent-provocateurs in place to fan the flames of such a revolt and direct it as it might benefit them.

It’s happened internally too, usually when somebody wants to stage a coup. The Streltsi were a semi-regular military force and sort-of political class in Russia around the 17th century. They were called upon to put down several uprisings and fight opposing political power structures several times, and at others discontentment grew great enough they themselves revolted against their government. I think it was Peter I that finally put a stop to that.

I have more thoughts but this seems to be turning into a bit of a ramble so I’ll leave it here. I guess I’m kind of thinking out loud about what sort of examples do we have of large nation-states and their empires collapsing through history, and does any of their experience reflect what we might see? We know what came out the other side of the breakup of the Prussian and Soviet empires. What similarities could we see in our own time?

This is a subject very thoroughly covered from a variety of perspectives by writers such as John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, Ian Welsh, etc. You might want to start with books like The Long Descent or Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America, both by Greer and well researched.

I’m not personally convinced there will be a single reason America collapses, as we’ve alluded to previously here it’s mostly already happened and it’s just playing out now in slow motion, as it were; so I don’t think whatever serves as the final straw really matters, personally. The hyperpolarized identity-oriented politics and social fragmentation (and complete worldview, in the majority of cases) that US residents already participate in, individually enforce, and continue to energize in conflicting directions has ensured that whatever happens will simply be an excuse, not a cause.

That depends on how many other countries have recognized this fact and taken efforts to extricate themselves from the impending issues. Europe has enough troubles of their own and they’re starting to have to sort them out without the hegemonic influence of the US to force order there, so I expect that some parts will have paid attention and built up their own spheres of independence (Germany is likely to lead this charge, if they can keep enough economic strength to force their unwilling partner nations to go along, otherwise it’s looking like whoever is willing to cozy up to either China or whatever emerges from the wreckage of the rest of the world). South America has been trying to get out from under the US for a long time, and now they might have their chance to make that complete. I expect Africa is still too heavily fought over for minerals to breathe for some time yet, and I don’t expect a major influence to come from India - they’re about to hit major crises themselves and will likely suffer regardless of whether the US affects them negatively or not.

Chine is certainly aware of the US’s weakness and whether they play their cards to help accelerate (and profit from) that fall or they mess up and get stung by it is anyone’s guess right now, and by all accounts they’ll have enough of their own home issues to deal with this year and likely this decade to be at least partially occupied by that alone.

To be honest, I think the real split goes back to the revolution and before - the rural/urban divide, north/south, etc. The cities of the northeast and their idological kin have always sought to control the rest of the sprawling nation.

See, for example, the green mountain boys and how they fought the invading new yorker forces. Or appalachia and it’s resistance to incursions. Or, yes, the lost causes and following internectice warfare. It’s nothing new, and our system is designed, in general, to handle such things by giving everyone and anyone the right to say ‘no’.

But also nothing focuses the United State’s attention like a quantifiable external threat.

I don’t know about ‘end of empire’. If we are an empire, it is a cultural one, not as much a military one. There’s a couple of possible paths - our culture fades in dominance. I see this as unlikely as long as we keep innovating. Climate change and our inability to help others in crisis. That could cause some nations to spread away.

I really don’t see internal division as an end to America. I don’t think anyone on the culturally dominant left has the stomach to send boots on the ground to enforce, well, anything. And the right? Well they’re the one waving the flag, trying to isolate the populous cities.

Well, as people literally stormed the Capitol building today, and we got the… double coon skin horn of something…


Seems 2020/2021 will be one of those big stairsteps on the way down. :confused:

I gotta admit, I did not expect to see anything like this on my 2020/21 crazy-town bingo card.

did not expect that at all…

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I didn’t expect it this year either. I figured we were still a decade out from this sort of thing, but… hey, Facebook made a ton of money “engaging” people in this sort of crap, so, all’s good, right?

I’m certainly glad to be out where we are and out of Seattle. But I probably should put some more priority on the raised bed gardens and chickens.