The crooked timber of an unhappy, dangerous American Empire

May 17, 2023
American flag

Sealed inside its bubble, America today is steadfastly walking the unhappy, steady and confident gait of the Soviet Union.

All happy empires are alike. Each unhappy empire is unhappy in its own way.

The happy empire believes the gods smile on its homeland. Its civilisation is uniquely endowed with gifts to see further than other peoples. Its constitution is an act of genius. Its armed forces, the greatest ever assembled. Its powers, undying. Its domination is a gift of order to the world. Its culture holds the greatest stories ever told. Its museums, the graceful custodians of the loot of the world.

But each happy empire becomes unhappy, and then the stories twist back into crooked timber. Some empires collapse fast. Some slow. Sometimes they fight back. Sometimes they throw themselves in front of trains like betrayed lovers. Sometimes we narrate the fall of empire as tragedy, sometimes as farce.

Unhappy empires twist their stories, but not in conditions of their own making. The conditions conceal each uniquely unhappy way. There are always money problems. Debt, exploitation and luxury do their work. There is often military over-extension, and generals who relive borrowed glory. There is the usual human frailty. Wayward minds. Prodigal sons. The addictions of fame, power, drugs, and ideas. Sometimes, the climate has the final say.

But, unhappy empires are dangerous. So much depends today on knowing the unique unhappy way of the American empire. American commentators like to imagine their story as the culmination of Athens, Rome and Pax Britannica. But mislead themselves with this tale of a greater Rome and a misunderstood Thucidydes’ trap. Brittania did not handover peacefully her rule of the waves. In other stories, we see fragmentary clues. Strangelove’s child? A Fourth Reich? The corruption of the military-industrial-congressional complex? An American disease? Far-right madness? The moral stain of slavery? The redemption of the American Soul? Or was this romance made in Hollywood, in a well-lit studio, in front of a green screen?

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville envisioned the American unhappiness as the vengeful, religious grandeur of the pursuit of the white whale. He wrote of America, “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. We are not a nation, so much as a world.” The tragedy was Starbuck could not disarm Ahab’s vengeance. Today, America launches its expeditions to hunt the white whales, which wounded the American dream, not from Nantucket, but from Langley, not with whaling spears, but with drones and psy-ops.

In History has Begun: the Birth of a New America, Bruno Maçães reversed the fable. He celebrated American unhappiness with reality because it was the inventive resource that would empower America to rebuild the world again “safe for America without making it look like America.” History had not ended. It had just begun. But history, alas, does not read from its lines.

However, we imagine the story of American decline, today its leaders and its people seem unable to arrest its fate. Trump can no longer be blamed. America has fled reality into a bubble of impunity that stops Americans from learning the consequences of fleeing reality. Its leaders and citizens believe consequences are for lesser nations. But the consequences of imperial impunity disorder the unhappy American nation and destabilise the world.

Impunity leads America to denounce the use of nuclear weapons, and to fail to apologise for Hiroshima. To declare on Victory Day that the US defeated Fascism in Europe. To exempt Kissinger, the Iraq War hawks and the guards of Abu Ghraib from the Hague, while arraigning defiant world leaders before a court it does not recognise.

Impunity leads America to abuse the privileges of the reserve currency system it insisted on in 1944; to play Congressional politics with the debt ceiling; to declare itself not a deadbeat nation, when it raises its credit limit, but does not pay off its debt.

Impunity leads America to the near annual government shutdown circus, with new vaudeville each season, but in which the ringmaster never tames the budget.

Impunity leads to endless misappropriation of other cultures, to the McDonaldisation of the world, the exploitation of resources, and the looting of better civilisations.

Impunity leads America to say its prayers every day after another mass shooting, but refuse to learn from any country, Australia or El Salvador, where mass murder is not a daily event.

Distracted in the echo chambers of social media, the impervious American speaks nonsense about the world, and ignores the corrections coming from outside, in the sun, where the world listens in.

Americans block their ears, stamp their feet, and march their social fabric, education institutions, justice system, business rules and political culture onto ruin. The gods have sent Americans mad, before they destroy America.

Impunity makes America mad, bad, and dangerous to ally with. It has created a mental prison for its elites as strongly barred as the Leninism that entrapped the Soviet leadership class in the 1980s. As Vladimir Putin has said, sealed inside its bubble, America today is steadfastly walking the unhappy, steady and confident gait of the Soviet Union.

The decade ahead may be very hard on America. But as yet there are few signs that the American leadership class – in politics and in culture – is prepared to learn the essential lesson.

The American century was a dream, created by the most powerful dream machine ever made. But the dream was never real.

Can the American mind wake from its fever dreams? For four years, or more, the American media convinced the world that post-truth politics was the unique disease of Donald Trump. Since January 2021, the world has learned that was not so. We should have known long ago. No one consented to the Washington Consensus. The Truman Show and Wag the Dog were released in 1998.

Can the American state pay for its dreams? The economic historian, Adam Tooze, has written that in the United States “simple liberal visions of modernisation have most conclusively come to grief [and] the disharmony between politics and economic and social development is at its most extreme and consequential.” (Shutdown, 2021)

America is not a bulletproof republic. It is the dying salesman of its own tragedy. It may have passed the point of no return. It is angrily adrift abroad in a seething multipolar world. It is beset at home by accelerating crises of climate, infrastructure, economy, society, culture, and, frankly, common decency.

Only by breaking the seal on the prison of impunity can America reverse the forces of disintegration. In early 2021, Tooze wrote, “the haunting question remains: Is the United States as a nation-state capable of responding in a coherent and long-term fashion to the challenges of the great acceleration?” After more than two years of rule by an old, mad, blind, despised and dying king, can any honest person answer, ‘Yes’?

And what of the peoples of secondary status on the periphery of the empire? Like Australia. While the unhappiness of America reveals itself to the world, this outer reach of the empire could choose its own way, like some middle powers not suborned to America. But the haunting question remains: Is Australia as a nation-state capable of responding in a coherent and long-term fashion to disarm the vengeance of an unhappy American empire?

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