In his latest essay for TruthDig, Chris Hedges explores the decline of the American Empire.
When a society laments the past and dreads the future, when it senses the looming presence of death, it falls down a rabbit hole. And as in the case of Alice—who “went on saying to herself, in a dreamy sort of way, ‘Do cats eat bats? Do cats eat bats?’ and sometimes, ‘Do bats eat cats?’ for, you see, as she couldn’t answer either question, it didn’t much matter which way she put it”—language becomes unmoored from experience. Daily discourse, especially public discourse, is, as our presidential campaign illustrates, reduced to childish gibberish.
Jobs are gone. Schools are closed. Neighborhoods and cities are in ruin. Despair and poverty dominate lives. Civil liberties are abolished. War is endless. The society self-medicates. Democracy is a fiction. “Austerity” decisions by government such as the latest slashing of the federal food stamp program, a move that could remove a million people from the rolls, bring more jolts. Shocks like these, as Alvin Toffler wrote, eventually trigger emotional overload; they are “the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” And, finally, reality is too much to bear and is banished.
Climate change and the looming financial crisis will transform these emotional short circuits into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” Crisis cults serve up illusions of recovered grandeur and empowerment during times of collapse, anxiety and disempowerment. A mythologized past will magically return. The old social hierarchies and rules will again apply. Prescribed rituals and behaviors, including acts of violence to cleanse the society of evil, will vanquish malevolent forces. These crisis cults—they have arisen in most societies that faced destruction, from Easter Island to Native Americans at the time of the 1890 Ghost Dance—create hermetically sealed tribes. We are already far down this road.
Death Watch for a Failing Society
The insidious forms of institutional racism that define America explode as societal death approaches. They express themselves in displays of racial violence. White vigilante groups, desperate to prevent further change, engage in the same use of indiscriminant lethal force practiced by police against unarmed people of color. The continued failure by government to reintegrate the working class back into the economy, to give people hope, dooms us all.
Plato begins “The Republic” by having Socrates go to the port at Piraeus, the most decadent spot in ancient Athens. It was filled with taverns and brothels. It was home to thieves, prostitutes, soldiers and armed gangs. Egyptian, Median, Germanic, Phoenician and Carthaginian sailors and other foreigners—Athenians lumped them together as barbarians—congregated along the seafront.
The port was also where the Athenian war fleet, made up of black trireme ships with bronze-sheathed rams on the prow, was stationed in rows of military boathouses. These warships helped turn Athens from a democratic city-state into an empire in the 5th century BC. And, as Plato and his pupil Aristotle understood, the building of empire, any empire, extinguishes democracy.
The Greek polis, or city-state, soon to be swallowed up by the Macedonian empire, was the nucleus that—like early New England town halls in the United States—made it possible for an individual to be a political being, to have agency and a voice. Empire requires a centralized, authoritarian government that has no use for the demos. Greek democracy, always a patriarchy, was with the rise of empire extinguished. Corruption and a lust for power defined the new ruling elites. The citizen, as in our system of “inverted totalitarianism,” became irrelevant. As the Athenian general Thucydides noted, the tyranny that Athens imposed on the outer reaches of empire, it eventually imposed on itself. Athens, like the United States centuries later, was hollowed out from the inside by the corrosive force of empire. The brutal tools of control used initially in distant parts of the empire—in our case militarized police, drones, suspension of civil liberties, wholesale surveillance and mass incarceration—migrated back to the homeland. This is how most empires die. They commit suicide.
This time, collapse will be planetwide. There will be no new lands to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate, no new natural resources to plunder and exploit. Climate change will teach us a brutal lessen about hubris.
The wages of sin, as Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, is death—first moral and intellectual death and then physical death. The first, we already are experiencing. It would be reassuring to believe we could as a species avoid the second. But if human history is any guide, we are in for it. And the worse it gets, the more we seek to thwart change through magical thinking, the more our eventual extinction as a species is assured.