A friend has urged me to post about the current health crisis. I’m not a medical professional or politician, but I can offer a little historical perspective. What I’ve seen in the last six decades is an empire in decline, and I think the combination of the Coronavirus pandemic and our hell-for-leather environmental destruction will give it the coup de grâce.
Empires rise and fall. They always have, without exception, despite the ideology of American exceptionalism, which has been a plank of the Republican Party since 2012. Let’s look at some of the factors that have led to societies crumbling in the past:
1) People become consumers rather than active participants in governance, and the defense of the nation is handed over to mercenaries. This was certainly true of ancient Rome. Emperors couldn’t recruit citizens as soldiers, so they hired “barbarians” who had no loyalty except to the paymaster of the moment. Many such soldiers of fortune, having received their military training in the empire’s legions, later participated in the sack of Rome.
2) The government overspends, often by overextending its military. This was true both of Rome and, more recently, Britain. Rome overspent its treasury to the point that it could no longer maintain the roads and bridges it had built to span the vast reaches of its empire. Britain’s wealth was depleted by waging campaigns in Europe, Asia, and Africa during World War II.
3) The subject nations at the periphery organize under competent leadership and overthrow the empire’s domination. Examples are too numerous to list, but would include the Maccabean revolt against Greek rule in ancient Israel, the American revolution, Gandhi’s non-violent independence movement, Kenya, Vietnam, and so on.
4) The empire is burdened with incompetent, avaricious, decadent, and sadistic rulers. Historian Barbara Tuchman observes that most people think their rulers are wise and well informed. Actually, she says, rulers often surround themselves with yes-men, and tend to know less than any intelligent citizen does outside the palace walls. From A Distant Mirror: “…government at the top in any age [is] composed of hypocrisy, flattery, lying, paying and betraying…” Consider such examples as Caligula, Louis XVI, Mohammad Reza Shah, and a horde of other torturers, profligates, and dimwits with egos the size of the Hindenburg.
5) Environmental causes, including prolonged drought and depletion of natural resources, can undermine the regime. Recent research suggests that a megadrought triggered the fall of the neo-Assyrian empire in 609 BCE. In Collapse, Jared Diamond discusses these factors as they contributed to the destruction of societies ranging from the Greenland Norse (1400-1450 CE) to Easter Island (18th-19th Century).
Now let’s take a look at how these factors are present in today’s United States:
1) U.S. citizens overwhelmingly supported our participation in World War II. The Vietnam War was so unpopular that the government abolished the draft. Since then, the U.S. has relied on a “poverty draft” and contractors—that is, mercenaries—to maintain its global empire.
2 & 3) The U.S. military budget continues to increase, year after year. 2020 is set to be the highest budget ever. Our government spent around $168 billion in Vietnam, and lost. We’ve spent $2.5 trillion in 19 years of war in Afghanistan, and we’re about to lose that one, too. We’ve destroyed Iraq but continue to occupy it, along with 800 military bases around the world.
Meanwhile our roads and bridges deteriorate. U.S. public education is mediocre at best, and even public colleges have become staggeringly expensive. City College of New York was free when I was a student in the 60s, but now costs $8,554/year for tuition, fees, books, and supplies. Health care is twice as expensive as in other developed nations, with worse outcomes.
4) We’ve had our share of incompetent leaders, but I’m not aware of any previous president who managed to combine incompetence, avarice, and sadism in a single individual. I’d call him out for decadence as well, if he had better taste. And he has done a thorough job of replacing anyone of integrity in D.C. with butt-kissers.
5) Finally, and this ties in with factor 4, we have an administration—and local governments—wholly owned by corporations that actively make war on the earth itself. In the current crisis, the onslaught has only accelerated. Three recent examples: under pressure from manufacturers, state after state has rescinded or delayed bans on single-use plastic bags, while the Plastics Industry Association is pressuring the federal government to declare that those bans threaten public health. On March 27 the Environmental Protection Administration suspended enforcement of all health and environmental regulations. Just yesterday, March 30, the Trump administration completed its rollback of auto emissions regulations.
As the nation decays, those individuals in a position to do so—the vulture capitalists and vulture politicians—are tearing off as much flesh as they can, as fast as they can. On January 24, the Senate held a closed-door briefing about the coming pandemic. Immediately afterward, five senators (four GOP, one Democrat) dumped large quantities of stock while keeping their inside information from the public.
Two months later, after considerable wrangling, Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill. $500 billion—or 25% of it—is for loans to “distressed companies.” Who will decide which companies are distressed? Boeing, we have been told, will receive $17 billion, despite killing 346 people with the defective 737 MAX. In anticipation of this, their share price soared over 24%. The government isn’t getting any equity in return. Hotel chains and other major corporations are in line for big chunks. The executive branch—that is our president—has assumed the task of overseeing the $500 billion and reporting details to Congress. However, Trump has issued a “signing statement” to the effect that he can decide what the legislature is allowed to know. That gives the vultures a lot of wiggle room. Small businesses must now give all employees two weeks of sick leave during this pandemic. Larger companies (such as Walmart and Amazon) employing 500 or more successfully lobbied to exempt themselves from paying sick leave.
On the plus side, $100 billion, or 5% of the total package, is going to hospitals. Many of us peons (125 million at most) will get one-time payments of $1200—barely enough for a month’s rent in most cities. That comes to $150 billion, or 7.5% of the total.
In these times, I think of the saying attributed to Louis XV, “Après moi, le deluge.” Or, as Bob Dylan put it, a hard rain’s gonna fall.