American Culture

What will America look like after the apocalypse? Not what you think.

Recently, a left-wing colleague described his vision of where America is headed over the next forty years–breakdown of government, mass starvation, roving bands of marauders, etc. It’s interesting that this is exactly the same vision shared by those on the far right who star in the new TV show Doomsday Preppers, about people who are stockpiling cases of beans in their suburban basements, while asking themselves, “What load would Jesus shoot?” Maybe the visions of both left and right are so similar because that future has been portrayed so many times in movies.

Of course, we could end up like that. But we probably won’t.

The more likely case is that as the American empire fades, our country will slide into sort of a comfortable, dozy afterglow of irrelevance, like the U.K. today. Our oxidation will be more rust than fire, gradual and subtle rather than sudden and cataclysmic. More James Stewart than James Dean. More whimper than bang.

America, post-empire, will probably be just like Europe is today—beautiful, rich from centuries of looting the rest of the world, a little worn but shabbily comfortable. Our nation will spend its declining years in a genteel buzz that feels more like a Vicodin and a glass of wine than the line-of-meth-and-shot-of-Jaeger-like existence Hollywood predicts.

That’s how empires decline. Countries that tumble into chaos do so for internal reasons, usually long festering hatred between tribal factions, like Libya, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia. The tensions build and build, then when central order breaks down they are released in horrible and sudden ways. In other words, autocracies decline because of pent-up anger.

Empires are different. They decline because of overreach fueled by hubris. Empires start reading their own press clips, and believing that they got to where they are because they somehow have some innate superiority. For the Brits, it was the idea of “The White Man’s Burden,” that running the empire was a chore they were forced to take on because of their natural superiority over the darker skinned races. For us, it’s the thin intellectual gruel of American Exceptionalism.

As a result of this self-admiration, empires take on too many wars in too many places at the same time. They spend too much of their resources on armies and navies trying to hold the whole far flung mess together. Empiring, done properly, is hard work. The rich sons and grandsons (and daughters and granddaughters) of freebooters are far more interested in fashion and socializing that tramping around gritty deserts or foot-rotting jungles chasing insurgents. Empiring is also very lucrative. So over time, imperialists start outsourcing the dirty work. Armies and navies become even more expensive as they are composed of Hessians or Gurkas or Blackwater. Public debt builds, accelerating the process of decline.

Over time, the colonies drift away from imperial command, and since they often are nasty autocracies with long-festering tribal tensions, they end up as those chaotic messes envisaged by my apocalyptic friends. Not always—there’s Canada. But when it does happen, it is the colonies, not the emperors, that fall into violent chaos. The Congo, not Belgium. Cuba, not Spain. Sierra Leone, not Britain. When America walks away from its de facto colonies, as surely we one day will, you won’t want to be in Saudi Arabia or Israel or the UAE. But Kansas will be just fine.

Even if we do come to that gruesome, albeit unlikely end, it will not be in our lifetimes. There is huge latency in the system. New empires build infrastructure, just as China is now busy building its highways and high speed rail. Declining empires don’t. We haven’t significantly contributed to them for years, but that doesn’t mean they will disappear tomorrow. Those infrastructural investments will support us comfortably, albeit modestly, in our imperial dotage.

Just look at history. The first “modern” (defined as state-based rather than personality-based) empire, the Assyrians, lasted around 300 years. The Roman Empire lasted for 500. The Spanish and the British for about 400. As an empire, we are only about 110 years old. The idea that we won’t last the full 300 years is probably valid for a variety of reasons–things happen a little quicker these days than they did in 605 B.C. But still you have to believe we have some time left.

My friend argues “this time is different.” And maybe it is. Maybe scarcity of energy or water or loose nukes will mean that history is an unreliable predictor of our future. Maybe, but my guess is it just seems that way to us. To quote Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet.” That’s probably always been the case.

A few years ago my family vacationed in Provence with two slightly upper crust English families. It was a strange and lovely vacation. What I remember most, other than the food, was that every day my American family got up at 6 a.m. so we could trudge up small mountains and drag ourselves around falling down castles, while the English families rolled out of bed around 11 or so, packed the car with smocks, easels and paints, and drove down the hill for an hour or two of painting.  Over dinner we told them about all the sites we’d ticked off our list and admired their watercolors. At the time it seemed an interesting contrast. Now it seems prescient.

I suspect that post-collapse we will not need AK-47s as much as we will need a good, reliable red sable brush.

Thanks to SS and DN for their insightful contributions to this post.

19 replies »

  1. I agree that the American collapse will not be the stuff of Doomsday Preppers, though America’s culture of animosity and violence is a variable that may spin things out of control.

    However, i’m not entirely sure that the British are a good comparison. The Brits gave up their empire somewhat willingly after WWII when it became clear that they couldn’t afford it; they also had a well-tutored friend reaching the height of its power to transition much of the empire to for safe keeping.

    The example of the USSR is probably a better analogy for what decline and collapse America looks like than more historical empires. A moribund central bureaucracy intent on its own preservation and completely out of touch with what its subjects think and deal with on a day-to-day basis. A military-security complex wielding out-sized political power and concerned with its own institutional survival above all else. And a few other similar symptoms that may not look similar initially, but reveal themselves as such if we look past the ideologies that aren’t much more than window dressing on actual behavior.

    From 30,000 feet it looks like chaos. From the individual’s perspective it very much is chaos and obscene levels of economic privation for people who had become accustomed to a certain standard. But life keeps moving, albeit a bit more brutal and a lot more ugly.

    Some caveats…Russians didn’t have to worry about getting kicked out of their homes or having the electricity turned off in the way that Americans will, though it’s hard to say if those economic systems will weather collapse. Russians were better prepared, as they were accustomed to wretched dysfunction and having to fend for themselves. More importantly, for all the “I don’t trust the government” polling, America is still filled with believers in its economic and political system. We may not have the requisite level of cynicism to handle our actual failures laid bare.

    As is and will always be the case, some places will be worse than others. Countrysides slog along better, accustomed as they are to higher unemployment, lack of social and economic mobility, and fending for themselves to some degree. Cities become ugly places. The grit that underlies big city glamor and gives a certain, attractive edge is likely to become more pronounced. Cities take massive amounts of input to keep running and pretty. Take it away and you’re left with Detroit, and while it’s too late to use Detroit as a cautionary tale, it still serves as a likely glimpse into the future of more American cities in a collapse scenario.

    It’s probably too late to save America. The decision of seeing the empire through to its bitter end or preserving the Republic needed to be made already, and there is not the political courage to undertake the necessary changes (see also, true believers). Remember how Gorbachev tried to adjust the system to keep it functioning, failed, and then collapse came? Yeah, we don’t even have a Gorbachev on the horizon.

    We won’t see the abrupt apocalypse. The necessary thought exercise is to examine your life and imagine it without most everything that you take for granted … especially if you’re used to receiving some government benefit on a regular basis.

  2. I wish I were so optimistic. Given that I’ve only got another 30ish years to spend on this rock, I think the odds are good that what I see in my lifetime will give the appearance that your optimism pans out.

    Lex hit on part of my pessimism with the Detroit comparison. I think the prognosis of more pronounced urban grit is accurate. However, without the kind of economy to which we’re accustomed, I think we’ll be trading in some known evils for some unknown ones. Will we still have the same dysfunctional social engines of white flight, urban sprawl, and gentrification? Or will there be a new class of social evils on the rise to rival those?

    The other part of my pessimism stems from the post-Katrina experience, one I was lucky enough to miss out on first-hand but that still gnaws viciously at me. That was home. I watched and read the news on the aftermath voraciously. I kept up with folks back home, those who lost everything and those who didn’t. It was a world where, according to the news, blacks looted and whites were lucky survivors who found things. It was a kicked and bleeding abandoned body on the side of the road that not only attracted Good Samaritans but also pickpockets and bum-rollers. Many drove into town with trucks laden with goods and goodwill. Others drove into town with empty trucks only to leave with ones full of salvageable and valuable architectural artifacts like gingerbread. There was definitely a breakdown in the social order, evidenced in more ways than can be easily recounted, but all-too-aptly illustrated with the horrors of emergency sheltering at the Superdome and the Convention Center.

    It’s as informal a litmus test as I can come up with, my own narrow second-hand experience of those relative few I personally know from there, but it certainly seems that those who fared best were either relatively wealthy and could get away temporarily (surprise!) or who lived in the burbs.

    Over a year after Katrina I finally got a chance to visit home and traveled widely around the city, in part with the aid of a friend with special access to restricted areas. It’s a strange thing to see your childhood stomping grounds altered, but not quite beyond recognition. Those were all suburban and on the way to some kind of recovery. It’s another thing to scratch adult-life neighborhoods off the list, one after the other, as destroyed, uninhabitable. Then there were the hardest-hit areas, roamed, even at that late date, only by the occasional official vehicle or military patrol. The word from my own personal “anonymous source”/guide was that the military still occasionally shot looters, read: anyone without a damned good reason for being out there, i.e., not military or having the appropriate hang-tag on the rearview mirror. There were no police out that way. The police force was already stretched too thin patrolling in-city.

    That illustration is what gives me the gravest concern for a none-too-gentle slide into oblivion. Maybe I’m wrong. I certainly hope I am. But I fear that without a sufficient economic engine to drive a post-Katrina-styled recovery, the outcome of an event similar in scope in the future wouldn’t be even that appealing. It could very well be that a post-empire America would just be waiting for the right straw that breaks the camel’s back.

  3. Dang, I was hoping for sodden drunken debauchery and moral decay for decades before the Mad Max scenario, but I guess I’ll just have to take a mild hazy afterglow instead.

    Heck, if it is much like France, that would be great with me! Maybe all those jerks who don’t understand fiat money or macro-economics are right we well become Greece, just not in the way they mean.

  4. Well, I am sure the English have drunken debauchery. But it’s very polite debauchery. “Excuse me, I say, could you move your foot? Oh, not your foot? Quite so. Carry on.”

  5. Well, if we can’t stay top, a gentle glide path would be better than crashing and burning. I’ll look forward to the leisurely mornings and the red sable brushes. I do hope, however, that we won’t have to win the equivalent of WWI and WWII to earn the right to fade gracefully.

  6. America began, not as an empire, but as an experiment in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Limited government and all that is something I am all in favor of. Let’s forgo empire and, as TJ said, ‘be friends of liberty everywhere, but custodians only of our own’.

    • This is as shiny, happy, and I’m sorry to say delusional a theory about the origins of the nation as I’ve seen. Leave off slavery and the fact that only rich white men could vote for a second, the real goal was, drawing on Locke, life, liberty and the pursuit of property. It had very little to do with noble power-to-the-peoplism and everything to do with the “right” of the rich to keep their wealth.

      Now, if you want to argue that was then and this is now, and NOW we’re pursuing “liberty,” well, that’s a great goal. Sadly, precious few of our leaders are as interested in it as you are.

  7. Actually, whether or not history supports John’s point, I have a great deal of sympathy for libertarianism. And I wrote in a post a few months ago, I think the arguments for libertarianism, isolationism, and for the free market are intriguing. The problem is I dont think any one will ever put anything close to a libertarian government into place. For proof, I compared the govt expenditures to GDP ratio for every OECD country (a measure of role of government in the country’s life) and found that they are all roughly the same. I just dont think people have it in them not to choose leaders and form a government, and once you have a government I dont think it is in them to leave people alone. The left and right want to meddle in economics, the right wants to meddle in personal privacy. The right likes the libertarian argument about less government because they think it means less taxes and less money to blacks, not realizing that most income redistribution actually goes to whites. But there’s no way they will buy into the libertarian ideas about no foreign wars, etc.

  8. The US has historically been an isolationist nation, focusing our gaze internally and thinking about our manifest destiny.

    We are not an empire, nor do I think we will ever be one (although, to be fair, the jury is still out on this) — see this article from 2003

    I agree that the probability of a “catastrophic collapse” in the US is quite low — but (to be fair), most of the movies depict such a collapse as part of a global disaster, not one specific to a country.

    Unfortunately, we have many opportunities for such a disaster, and the world is only getting more dangerous (see today’s news about the IAEA concern that Iran has tested a nuclear detonation trigger and Vladimir Putin’s piece in Foreign Policy about why Russia rearming is a good thing).

    I do love the discourse on this site — it really makes me think!

    • I don’t get what you mean by “isolationist.” We’ve had a relentlessly aggressive foreign policy aimed at projecting our interests into every corner of the world (via diplomacy, economic arm-twisting and, if necessary, military power) since WW2.

  9. Notwithstanding what our governments have done, we were “aggressively isolationist” until WW 2, and the graph at the attached URL (Gallup & Pew) show we are returning. The combination of the Cold War and 9/11 certainly changed our views, but I think we are heading back to our historical perspectives (there may be data going back further; didn’t have time to look).

    The problem is that policies put into place take years to change or unwind; we probably wouldn’t have gone into Afghanistan without 9/11; it took us this long to get out.

    In any event, the Soviet Union taught us the modern cost of empire — and the Russians, too, for that matter — I think the hegemon description is more apt. The question is what does the loss of hegemony look like (as opposed to the loss of empire)?

    By the way, the full Pew Research article is quite interesting:

    • Beep:

      the Soviet Union taught us the modern cost of empire

      At the risk of sounding a bit snarky, what evidence would you offer in support of the proposition that we have learned that lesson? To my way of thinking, diving into Afghanistan, whether justified of not, suggests that we have very specifically NOT learned that lesson.

  10. I’d say we were an empire at least since the Louisiana Purchase, maybe even since the Revolution after which we controlled large territories with little to no consent from the residents. Then there was the Monroe Doctrine, manifest destiny, and the taking by force of Mexico’s northern territories. It was only after we secured this “interior” empire that we began expanding into a major global empire.

    As for becoming more like Europe, Europe is now a favored part of the American empire. Who will hold the USA in that kind of favor? Maybe China…

    And how will we be able to maintain our accustomed life-styles when our military and financial wealth pumps are no longer reaching around the world? Free trade agreements no longer backed up by bombs and debt? No, I think we should all learn to sharpen our hoes and shovels and dig up our beautiful suburban lawns. It’s potato-planting season.

    For more perspective check out . The current topic is empire!


  11. Great thread. I’m still catching up. Meanwhile, Frank wrote:

    Maybe scarcity of energy or water or loose nukes will mean that history is an unreliable predictor of our future.

    Those, along with climate change, exactly.

  12. From the outside, it seems that currently American society is becoming more polarized. However, after WWII British society became less polarized and many of the old class barriers broke down. In addition, in the UK people continued to become more affluent with time, even if at a lower pace than in some other places. With mounting global problems with water and fuel supply, overpopulation and climate change, there is a real possibility that the average American will become less affluent. I think these two factors might result in a major difference in the fate of the two nations.

  13. Empire is actually a very good comparison point between the US and Russia, both large geographical nations with relatively small controlling populations. Both empires expanded “internally” (by their own definitions, but you might get different definitions from the native populations) for quite some time. So much so that they were able to not necessarily call what they had an empire … though the Russians didn’t mind using the term.

    They both dabbled in their near abroad for quite a while, again, the Russians a bit more openly than the Americans but any close look at American foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere and as far away as the Philippines looks like (soft) empire no matter what Americans called it. Americans think they sat out the age of empires that led to WWI, but again…Western Hemisphere.

    We’re apt to assume everything changed with the Soviet Union, but really only the leadership class changed. And while badly bruised from WWII, more so than the US, the USSR came out of the war relatively strong compared to its previous position in the world. As might be expected, the last two nations standing squared off and played the game of empire against each other. With the nuclear threat hanging over it, it never blossomed into all-out war but it was two empires jockeying for control, mostly played out in the developing world.

    When the USSR gave up (not wholly for the standard reasons assumed by Americans), the US overshot the mark. Note that this period got us all sorts of talk about the end of history and global hegemony. But it’s worth noting that what a Russian general i can’t remember said after the fall of the USSR, roughly, “And what will you do without us?” He was hinting at the overextension and hubris that we have seen in the last two decades. Had the roles been reversed, it’s likely that the USSR would have done the same thing.

    Which leads us to the USA today. It is an empire. (The Romans, for example, did not occupy territory with military might; they gained political and economic control backed by the threat of their military. They only brought full military occupation when the imperial subject refused to behave.) There are only two ways that empires end: voluntary withdrawal and collapse. Examples of the former, though tinged with military setbacks are the Dutch and the English. Examples of the latter abound. Military defeat is generally a single symptom. Rome had far worse problems than the barbarians; in fact, the barbarians were successful where they hadn’t been before because of Rome’s other problems. Same can be said for the USSR in Afghanistan. The Soviets were actually doing better than the US is in Afghanistan – don’t believe the Reagan myths. The withdrawal was part of the collapse, but not the cause of it. Just as overspending on defense was a part of the collapse but not main cause of it.

    The major difference between the two ways empires end is that one sees the writing on the wall and adjusts the national path. The other refuses reality in favor of its own myths and bureaucratic momentum.

    Our choice was twenty years ago and we chose unwisely. It’s done. The best we can hope for now is damage control, but that’s unlikely.

  14. When America walks away from its de facto colonies, as surely we one day will, you won’t want to be in Saudi Arabia or Israel or the UAE. But Kansas will be just fine.

    Would you also include Baltic states, Poland, Georgia into the list of US’s colonies? What else in Europe? Being from Lithuania, which is now in EU/NATO, I’m really curious to ask.

    Interesting and accurate post overall.