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I've written before about energy depletion guru John Michael Greer, one of the presenters I saw at ASPO's conference in DC last year. I ran across his dystopian blog novel, Star's Reach, well over a year ago, and have thought about reading it from time to time, but never quite got around to it. But I read the first chapter this morning:
One wet day as we walked north toward Sisnaddi, old Plummer told me that all stories are scraps of one story, one great and nameless tale that winds from world’s beginning to world’s end and catches up everything worth telling on the way. Everybody touches that tale one way or another, or so he said, if only by watching smoke from a distant battle or lending an ear to some rumor in the night. Other folk stray into the one story and then right back out of it again, after carrying a message or a load of firewood on which the fate of kings and dreams will presently depend. Now and then, though, someone no different from these others stumbles into the deep places of the story, and gets swept up and spun around like a leaf in a flood until finally the waters drown him or toss him up gasping and alive on the bank.
He said all this between one mouthful of cheap whiskey and the next, as we waited out a fall rainstorm under the crumbling gray overhang of an old ruin, and I rolled my eyes and thought he was drunk. Now, though, I am less sure. Yesterday, after I arrived at the one place on Earth I least expected ever to come, and nearly died in the process, the thought has occurred to me more than once that this journey of mine is part of something a good deal bigger than the travels of one stray ruinman from Shanuga, bigger than Shanuga or Meriga itself. That something bigger might be Plummer’s one story, for all I know, and if that is the way of it, I know to the day when it caught me up and set me on the road to Star’s Reach.
It was the morning of the sixth of Semba in the thirty-seventh year of Sheren’s time, four hundred twenty-two years after the old world ended and ours began to struggle to life. That was the day I turned twenty and became a ruinman, and nearly got myself reborn in the process.
I was in the Shanuga ruins that morning, down in the underplaces of a big building that must have soared well above its neighbors before storms and the work of scavengers brought it down. Now most of it lay sprawled over two blocks of lesser ruins, blocking one of the old streets in between. Rust streaked the broken masses of concrete and showed where rain liked to pool and flow in the wet season, but there was good metal there as well, and the hope that valuables might have been left in the buildings buried by the old tower’s fall.
I guessed 'Meriga' was America, and 'Chanuga' was Chattanooga. Greer verified those in the comments, but I feel slow not getting that 'Sisnaddi' was Cincinnatti.
In his Archdruid blog, starting with The Nature of Empire, Greer has been posting a series of lectures about
Meriga's America's growth into a dominating, and now declining, empire. My formal study of any sort of political history ended in high school, and having read Lies My Teacher Told Me, a few years ago, I regard much of what I was taught with skepticism. I try to be skeptical of what Greer claims, as well, since I know his agenda, but so far it seems internally consistent.
One striking detail, of course, sets today’s American empire apart from most of its predecessors, and that is the curious fact that very few people will publicly admit that America has an empire at all. ...
It’s considered distinctly impolite to suggest that the real reason behind the disparity is related to the fact that the United States has over 500 military bases on other nations’ territory, and spends on its armed forces every year roughly the same amount as the military budgets of every other nation on Earth put together. Here again, though, the obvious explanation is the correct one. Between 1945 and 2008, the United States was the world’s dominant imperial power, filling the same role in the global political system that Britain filled during its own age of empire, and while that imperial arrangement had plenty of benefits, by and large, they flowed in one direction only.
In The Structure of Empires, Greer goes into more detail about the 'Wealth Pump' arrangement whereby under the guise of free trade, empires receive a flow of wealth from peoples that they dominate, in return for the "blessings of civilization."
In America: Origins of an Empire, and America: Modes of Expansion, he describes America's three geographic cultures, New England, Tidewater Southern and Frontier Western, so culturally and politically distinct—and the conflict between the plantation system and frontier society.
In America: Crossing the Line, Greer lays the foundation for the nation looking outside her borders for wealth. I found this pertinent:
... you won’t hear much discussion of the Long Depression [1873 -1896] in today’s troubled economic time. ...
Many ... pundits insist that economic crises happen because modern currencies aren’t based on a gold standard, or because central bankers always mismanage the economy, or both. That’s a popular belief just now, but it’s nonsense, and it only takes a glance at American economic history between the Civil War and the founding of the Federal Reserve in 1912 to prove once and for all that it’s nonsense. The Panic of 1873, the Long Depression, the Panic of 1893, the Depression of 1900-1904, the Panic of 1907, and several lesser economic disasters all happened in an era when the US dollar was on the strictest of gold standards and the United States didn’t have a central bank. ...
Adam Smith, ... insisted that a free market economy is innately self-regulating, as though controlled by an invisible hand, and tends to maximize everybody’s prosperity so long as it’s left to its own devices. ... once you discuss the Long Depression, it becomes very hard to ignore the fact that an economy left to its own devices can dole out decades of misery to everybody.
... Overproduction is one, though only one, of the elements Marx wove into his system of economic ideas, and generations of Marxist theorists and publicists used it as a reason why capitalist economies must eventually collapse; with the inevitability of Pavlov’s drooling dogs, capitalist theorists and publicists thus automatically shy away from it; and the Long Depression makes it excruciatingly hard to shy away from it.
Greer then moves to our early military exploits in South America and the Pacific rim. My father used to take us to Mahan Hall fairly often, but I never knew that Alfred Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History was the theory behind Teddy Roosevelt's big stick.
In America: The Eagle and the Lion, Greer describes our early competition with the British Empire, and in America: The Gasoline War, he makes the provocative observation:
Imagine, then, that the twists and turns of history that brought the United States into two world wars on Britain’s side had gone the other way. ... Imagine that Germany won in 1918, and that a later German leader ... went to war in 1939 against a crippled British Empire and forced Britain to surrender. What would have happened then?
... First, the British Empire would have been dismantled, such portions of it as the conquering nation wanted would have been seized, other parts would have been allowed self-government under the overall control of the new imperial power, and a few token colonies would be left under British control where that suited the conqueror’s interests. Second, the British government would become a permanent and subordinate ally of the new imperial power. Third, Britain’s military would have been reduced to a fraction of its previous size, and the British government would be obligated to provide troops and ships to support the new imperial power when the latter decided on a military adventure. Fourth, Britain would be expected to pay a large sum of money as reparations for the costs of the war. Finally, to guarantee all these things, the British government would have been forced to accept an occupying force in Britain, and permanent military bases would be signed over to the new imperial power in Britain and its remaining colonies. That, by and large, is what happened to defeated nations in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Now compare that list to the relations between Great Britain and the United States from 1945 to the present. That’s the thing that can’t be mentioned to this day in polite company: the British empire ended in the early 1940s when the United States conquered and occupied Britain.
In America: The Price of Supremacy, Greer talks about the geopolitical theories of Mahan, Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer, about the policies that allowed the rise of an internationalist like Franklin Roosevelt, and the result of our almost global military domination:
Like every imperial system, this one has had its ups and downs. It avoided Britain’s successful but costly policy of bringing large regions under direct political control, preferring instead to install compliant local rulers who would keep the wealth pump running in exchange for a small share of the take. It faltered in the 1970s as America ... gambled everything in the next decade on a daring strategy of economic warfare. That gamble paid off spectacularly, wrecking the Soviet Union and fueling the 1990s boom by feeding the nations of eastern Europe into the business end of America’s wealth pump, stripping half a dozen nations to the bare walls under the euphemisms of economic reform and a market economy. For a few years it looked as though Russia itself might be fed into the wealth pump in the same way, before an efficient counterstroke by the Putin administration pulled that prize out of American hands.
Greer's next post promises to discuss the, "the aging, increasingly brittle, effectively bankrupt, but still immensely powerful global empire of the United States of America." Greer's is, of course, just one interpretation of history, and is only subject to the nit-picks of his readers rather than a scrupulous peer review by other historians. So, feel free to tear him down.
By the way, Greer, Carolyn Baker, Dmitry Orlov, Gail Tverberg and Tom Whipple are supposed to be participating in a series of workshops called the Age of Limits, in Pennsylvania near the border with Maryland, over Memorial Day weekend. I tried to talk my wife into going, but I'm afraid that camping and bunkbeds just doesn't compete with the bed-and-breakfast brochures she's been hurling at me.