The topic of last week’s post, the likely fate of Israel in the twilight years of American empire, makes a good example of more than one common theme. As I commented in that earlier discussion, Israel is one of several American client states for whom the end of our empire will also be the end of the line. At the same time, it also highlights a major source of international tension that bids fair to bring in a bumper crop of conflict in the decades before us.
The word “irredentism” doesn’t get a lot of play in the media just now, but my readers may wish to keep it in mind; there’s every reason to think they will hear it fairly often in the future. It’s the conviction, on the part of a group of people, that they ought to regain possession of some piece of real estate that their ancestors owned at some point in the past. It’s an understandably popular notion, and its only drawback is the awkward detail that every corner of the planet, with the exception of Antarctica and a few barren island chains here and there, is subject to more than one such claim. The corner of the Middle East currently occupied by the state of Israel has a remarkable number of irredentist claims on it, but there are parts of Europe and Asia that could match it readily—and of course it only takes one such claim on someone else’s territory to set serious trouble in motion.
It’s common enough for Americans, if they think of irredentism at all, to think of it as somebody else’s problem. Airily superior articles in the New York Times and the like talk about Argentina’s claim to the Falklands or Bolivia’s demand for its long-lost corridor to the sea, for example, as though nothing of the sort could possibly spill out of other countries to touch the lives of Americans. I can’t think of a better example of this country’s selective blindness to its own history, because the great-grandmother of irredentist crises is taking shape right here in North America, and there’s every reason to think it will blow sky-high in the not too distant future.
That’s the third and last of the hot button topics I want to discuss as we close in on the end of the current sequence of posts on the end of American empire, and yes, I’m talking about the southern border of the United States.
Many Americans barely remember that the southwestern quarter of the United States used to be the northern half of Mexico. Most of them never learned that the Mexican War, the conflict that made that happen, was a straightforward act of piracy. (As far as I know, nobody pretended otherwise at the time—the United States in those days had not yet fallen into the habit of dressing up its acts of realpolitik in moralizing cant.) North of the Rio Grande, if the Mexican War comes to mind at all, it’s usually brushed aside with bland insouciance: we won, you lost, get over it. South of the Rio Grande? Every man, woman and child knows all the details of that war, and they have not gotten over it.
That might not matter much on this side of the border, except for two things. The first, which I’ve discussed here several times, is the dominant fact of 21st century North American geopolitics, the failure of US settlement in the dryland West. In the heyday of American expansion, flush with ample wealth from undepleted resources and unexhausted topsoil, the United States flung a pattern of human ecology nurtured on the well-watered soils of the Ohio and upper Mississippi valleys straight across the continent, dotting the Great Plains and the dry lands between the mountains with farms and farm towns. The dream was that these would follow the same trajectory as their predecessors further east, and turn into a permanently settled agricultural hinterland feeding wealth into newborn cities.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the first sign that this grand fantasy was not going to be fulfilled. Behind the catastrophic impact of farming techniques poorly suited to the fragile western soils was a deeper, natural cycle of drought, one that the native peoples of the West knew well but white settlers were by and large too arrogant to learn. Since then, as the vulnerability of agriculture on the southern Plains to cyclical drought and other ecological challenges has become more and more clear, the usual response—throw more money and technology at it—has solved problems in the near term by turning them into insoluble predicaments in the longer term. Thus, for example, farmers faced with drought turned to irrigation using water from underground aquifers that date from the Ice Age and haven’t been replenished since then, gaining temporary prosperity at the cost of permanent ruin later on.
The details vary from region to region but the effect is the same. Across the dryland West, from the Great Plains to the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges, a new kind of ghost town is emerging alongside the old breed from the days of the gold and silver rushes. Homes, churches, schools, city halls sit empty as tumbleweeds roll down the streets; with the decline of the old agricultural economy, all the townsfolk, or all but a few stubborn retirees, have gone elsewhere. There are county-sized areas in several of the Plains states these days that once again fit the old definition of frontier: fewer than two non-Native American people per square mile. In response, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest nation that has enough spare people and cultural vitality for the job.
I encourage those of my readers who doubt this claim to book a long bus trip through any of the major agricultural regions of the United States west of the Mississippi valley. You’ll want the run that stops at every other two-bit farm town along the way, because that’s where you’re going to see a significant part of America’s future: the towns that are Mexican by every standard except for a few lines on a map. It’s not just that the signs are all in Spanish; the movie posters in the video shop windows are for Mexican movies, the snacks in the gas stations are Mexican brands, the radio announcers are talking excitedly about Mexican sports teams and the people on the street are wearing Mexican fashions. Such towns aren’t limited these days to the quarter of the United States that used to be half of Mexico; they can be found in most of the country’s agricultural regions, and increasingly beyond them as well.
In the United States, this isn’t something you talk about. There’s plenty of rhetoric about immigration from Mexico, to be sure, but nearly all of it focuses on the modest fraction of those immigrants who cross into the US illegally. Behind that focus is another thing people in the United States don’t talk about, which is the bitter class warfare between America’s middle class and its working class. Illegal immigration is good for the middle class, because illegal immigrants—who have effectively no rights and thus can be paid starvation wages for unskilled and semiskilled labor—drive down the cost of labor, and thus decrease the prices of goods and services that middle class people want. By the same token, illegal immigration is bad for the working class, because the same process leaves working class Americans with shrinking paychecks and fewer job opportunities.
Nobody in the middle class wants to admit that it’s in their economic interest to consign the American working class to misery and impoverishment; nobody in the working class wants to use the language of class warfare, for fear of handing rhetorical weapons to the next class down; so both sides bicker about a convenient side issue, which in this case happens to be illegal immigration, and they bicker about it in the shrill moral language that afflicts discussions of most issues in today’s America, so that the straightforward political and economic issues don’t come up. Meanwhile, the demographic shift continues, and redefines the future history and cultural landscape of the North American continent.
Students of history will recognize in the failure of US settlement in the dryland West a familiar pattern, one that is also under way on the other side of the Pacific—the Russian settlement of Siberia is turning into a dead end of the same kind, and immigrants from China and other Asian countries are flooding northwards there, quite probably laying the foundations for a Greater China that may someday extend west to the Urals and north to the Arctic Ocean. Still, there’s another pattern at work in North America. To make sense of it, a glance at one of the core sources of inspiration for this blog—the writings of Arnold Toynbee—will be helpful.
Central to Toynbee’s project, and to the sprawling 12-volume work A Study of History that came out of it, was the idea of putting corresponding stages in the rise and fall of civilizations side by side, and seeing what common factors could be drawn from the comparison. Simple in theory, that proved to be a gargantuan undertaking in practice, which is why nearly all of Toynbee’s career as a writer of history was devoted to that one project. The result is a core resource for the kind of work I’m trying to do in this blog: the attempt to gauge the shape of our future by paying attention to the ways similar patterns have worked out in the historic past.
One pattern that has plenty of examples on offer is the evolution of borderland regions caught between an imperial power and a much poorer and less technologically complex society. Imperial China and central Asia, the Roman world and the Germanic barbarians, the Toltecs of ancient Mexico and their Chichimec neighbors to the north—well, the list goes on. It’s a very common feature of history, and it unfolds in a remarkably precise and stereotyped way.
The first phase of that unfoldment begins with the rise and successful expansion of the imperial power. That expansion quite often involves the conquest of lands previously owned by less wealthy and powerful nations next door. For some time thereafter, neighboring societies that are not absorbed in this way are drawn into the imperial power’s orbit and copy its political and cultural habits—German tribal chieftains mint their own pseudo-Roman coins and drape themselves in togas, people very far from America copy the institutions of representative democracy and don blue jeans, and so on. A successful empire has a charisma that inspires imitation, and while it retains its ascendancy, that charisma makes the continued domination of its borderlands easy to maintain.
It’s when the ascendancy fails and the charisma crumbles that things start to get difficult. Toynbee uses a neat if untranslatable Latin pun to denote the difference: the charisma of a successful imperial power makes its borderlands a limen or doorway, while the weakening of its power and the collapse of its charisma compels it to replace the limen with a limes, a defensive wall. Very often, in fact, it’s when a physical wall goes up along the border that the imperial power, in effect, serves notice to its historians that its days are numbered.
Once the wall goes up, literally or figuratively, the focus shifts to the lands immediately outside it, and those lands go through a series of utterly predictable stages. As economic and political stresses mount along the boundary, social order collapses and institutions disintegrate, leaving power in the hands of a distinctive social form, the warband—a body of mostly young men whose sole trade is violence, and who are bound by personal loyalties to a charismatic warlord. At first, nascent warbands strive mostly with one another and with the crumbling institutions of their own countries, but before long their attention turns to the much richer pickings to be found on the other side of the wall. Raids and counter-raids plunge the region into a rising spiral of violence that the warbands can afford much more easily than the imperial government.
The final stages of the process depend on the broader pattern of decline. In Toynbee’s analysis, a civilization in decline always divides into a dominant minority, which maintains its power by increasingly coercive means, and an internal proletariat—that is, the bulk of the population, who are formally part of the civilization but receive an ever smaller share of its benefits and become ever more alienated from its values and institutions. This condition applies to the imperial state and its inner circle of allies; outside that core lies the world of the external proletariat—in the terms used in earlier posts here, these are the peoples subjected to the business end of the imperial wealth pump, whose wealth flows inward to support the imperial core but who receive few benefits in exchange.
The rise of warband culture drives the collapse of that arrangement. As warbands rise, coalesce, and begin probing across the border, the machinery that concentrates wealth in the hands of the dominant minority begins to break apart; tax revenues plunge as wealth turns into warband plunder, and the imperial state’s capacity to enforce its will dwindles. The end comes when the internal proletariat, pushed to the breaking point by increasingly frantic demands from the dominant minority, throws its support to the external proletariat—or, more to the point, to the successful leadership of one or more of the external proletariat’s biggest warbands—and the empire begins its final collapse into a congeries of protofeudal statelets. Much more often than not, that’s how the final crisis of a civilization unfolds; it’s also one standard way that common or garden variety empires fall, even when they don’t take a civilization down with them.
As the United States faces the end of its overseas empire and the drastic contraction of an economy long inflated by imperial tribute, in other words, it faces a massive difficulty much closer to home: a proud and populous nation on its southern border, with a vibrant culture but disintegrating political institutions, emergent warbands of the classic type, a large and growing demographic presence inside US borders, and a burning sense of resentment directed squarely at the United States. This is not a recipe for a peaceful imperial decline.
Nor is there much hope that the classic pattern can be evaded: the wall has already gone up, in the most literal sense, and the usual consequences are following. The warbands? The US media calls them “drug gangs,” since their involvement in drug smuggling across the border makes good copy. They haven’t yet completed the trajectory that will make them the heirs of the Huns and Visigoths, and in particular, the rock-star charisma that surrounds great warlords in an age of imperial collapse has only just begun to flicker around the most successful leaders of the nascent Mexican warbands. Give it time; the glorification of the gangster life that pervades popular culture toward the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid these days shows that the seeds of that change have long since been planted.
Can anything be done to prevent this from proceeding all the way to its normal completion? At this stage in the game, probably not. An empire in the days of its power can sometimes stop the spiral by conquering the entire region—not merely the border area, but all the way out to the nearest major geographical barrier—and absorbing it fully into the imperial system; that’s why Gaul, which had been a source of constant raids against Roman interests early on, didn’t produce many warbands of its own in the years of decline until it was conquered and settled by Germanic tribes from points further east. Had the United States conquered all of Mexico in the 1870s, admitted its states into the Union, and integrated Mexican society fully into the American project, that might have worked, but it’s far too late in the day for that; the polarization of the borderlands is already a fact, so is the bitterness of a dispossessed people, and so is the ongoing unraveling of American power.
The other endpoint of the process—the only other endpoint of the process that can be found anywhere in recorded history—is the collapse of the imperial power. The United States has prepared plenty of other disasters for itself, by way of its unusually clueless choices in recent decades, and some of them are likely to hit well before the defense of the southern border becomes its most pressing and insoluble security problem. Still, I would encourage those of my readers who live in the dryland West, especially those within a state or so of the southern border, to keep an eye open for the first tentative raids, and perhaps to read up on what happened to those parts of the Roman Empire most directly exposed to warband incursions in the twilight years of Roman rule.
I would also like to ask any of my readers who are incensed by the above to stop, take a deep breath, and pay attention to what is and is not being said here. Again, the shrill rhetoric of moral judgment that treats every political question as an opportunity for self-righteous indignation, popular as it is, has no particular value in this context. More than a century and a half ago, American politicians decided to go to war with Mexico; over the next century or so, as a result of that decision and its cascading consequences, the social order basic to any viable society will most likely be shredded over a sizable part of what is now the United States, and stay that way for a good long time. That’s simply one of the things that can happen when an empire falls, and it’s something many of us can expect to see here in America in the years ahead.
End of the World of the Week #50
As previous entries in this series have shown, predicting the end of the world is a chancy business, and your likelihood of being proved wrong and made to eat crow is very high. There’s at least one way to avoid that awkward detail, though—make sure you don’t survive to see the failure of the prophecy—and a certain number of apocalyptic true believers have used that escape hatch.
The Order of the Solar Temple—l’Ordre du Temple Solaire, for purists—was one of those. It emerged out of the New Age scene in the late 1980s, attracting a wealthy clientele in Quebec and a variety of European countries with a free mix of New Age philosophy and rituals borrowed from a range of occult traditions. Its founders, Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro, started with a set of utopian fantasies of the usual sort, but as time passed and a New Age of peace and brotherhood unaccountably failed to dawn, they strayed further and further into the apocalyptic flip side of those fantasies. By the early 1990s the Solar Temple was preaching that the middle of that decade would see vast environmental catastrophes that would exterminate most if not all of the human race.
Most prophets of doom prefer to wait around, like Harold Camping, to see the end arrive, but Jouret, Di Mambro, and many of their followers were made of sterner stuff. That’s why they killed themselves en masse over a period of a few days late in November, 1994. The vast environmental catastrophes failed to arrive, of course, but that was no longer anything Jouret or Di Mambro had to worry about.
—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not