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American Parallels

Clio in the Allegory of Painting by Vermeer

Clio in the Allegory of Painting by Vermeer

History, they say, does not repeat – but it does echo. Looking back at other situations, other republics and empires, one is tempted to draw parallels between then and now. The parallel drawn most often is the decline of the British Empire.

American world dominance, as with British, was based on a military dominance that came out of economic dominance. From about 1890 on America had the world’s most powerful economy, outproducing Britain industrially, and backed moreover by a continental resource base. At the end of World War II the US was producing about half the world’s goods. Since then there has been a gradual decline, and the rise of larger powers – China and India, whose populations are significantly larger than that of the US. As in the decline of Britain, capital is fleeing the old empire, heading for the rising powers. As in the decline of Britain, the new powers flout intellectual property laws, refusing to pay rent to the old power. As in the 1890’s – the rising power has now, on a pricing parity scale, an economy equal to the old empire. As in the case of Britain military overstretch is straining the dominant power. Financialization, the curse of late stage empires, has hit the US as it hit Britain, with rent-seeking the predominant method of making money, and actual production of goods ignored. American capital flows to other countries seeking returns, and builds factories there. American ex-pats teach other nations how to compete, even as Scottish engineers did during the decline of the UK. As with Britain, America, breathless with greed, is teaching others how to defeat it.

But another parallel is Spain. Even as Britain was declining, its overseas assets were performing gangbusters, and money flooded back into London. Balance of payments was not a British problem till after the end of Empire. Spain, however, followed another route. The flood of easy money into Spain destroyed its native middle and artisan classes, dividing the country into the wealthy, who had “incomes” and the poor, who had almost nothing. Neither could be taxed – the poor because they had no money, the rich because they were exempt from taxes. The government, to run its own affairs, had to borrow from Italian bankers, who demanded exhorbitant returns. The contents of entire treasure fleets barely touched Spanish hands towards the end of empire, instead rushing to Italy and Holland. In the US today, the middle class shrinks and taxation rests increasingly on the stressed middle class and the working class. But comparatively speaking, year after year, for the last three decades, the share of wealth and income of these classes has declined. The rich, meanwhile, have arranged that their income, their investment returns and the money they use to control capital either be taxed less than earned income, or not be taxed at all. And so the US has become a poor state, unable to intervene overseas without begging from other nations. The first Gulf War was financed by other nations as a gift. The second Iraq War was financed by China and Japan – as heavy, heavy debt, even as the rich were demanding and receiving tax breaks and an end to estate taxes. The American aristocracy has demanded that it be allowed to pass its wealth on to future generations, and it has been given what it demanded.

A third parallel is Rome at the end of the Republic. The forms are maintained – there is still a Senate, for example, and still independent courts. But the Senate has lost its ability to control warmaking, to advise and consent, to subpoena information from the executive. Those with imperium (presidents today, proconsuls in Roman times) use it as they see fit, giving only a hat tip of acknowledgement to the Senate. The military, once loyal to the Republic and made up of citizen soldiers called up for the duration of wars and no longer, has become a professional force with a significant mercenary contingent. It is politicized and prefers specific political factions, and is seen as a role model for the rest of society. The wealthy use the military and the senate alike to enrich themselves; the free farmers who were once the backbone of the society no longer exist, but have been replaced by large corporate farms. The rich grow richer, and the poor grow poorer.

A fourth parallel, and very applicable to the current time yet rarely mentioned, is that of Athens. Athens was a shining democracy for its time. Athens believed that democracy was the best form of government. And Athens was willing to go to war to make other city-states become democracies. And if bad things happened while you were being turned into a democracy – well, the weak suffer what they must and since Athens was good, whatever they did must be justified. In the end even many of their own allies turned on Athens and their meddling, allying with a much less enlightened Sparta, who while internally repressive, did not seem to think they had the right to tell other nations how to run their own affairs. The parallels between Athens and America; and Sparta and China – should be obvious.

In the end America will follow its own unique path. All Republics end, and so do all Empires. There is, in human history, a series of cycles of renewal, decay and renewal. Each one ends in a crisis period, and each crisis must be overcome. It is never inevitable that you’ll fail – but it’s never guaranteed you’ll succeed either. It is this generation’s task to renew the tree of liberty and keep the American experiment going – to remain true to the ideals that made America and have driven it since 1776. It is my profoundest wish, as we come up on the New Year and look both back and forward, that you are successful in doing so, and that America once again becomes the beacon of liberty and hope that its founders wanted it to be.

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at