Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The U.S. and China: Empire, Expansion and Decline

August 5, 2008

On Saturday I promised a synthesis (of some sort) of two themes: The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin, and The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley.
Quigley posited that all civilizations pass through seven stages. Here is a quick rundown of the stages and their characteristics: The Seven Stages of Civilization (excerpts from Bart Stewart's commentary)

1. Mixture Out of the mixture of cultures has come a new culture, with the opportunity to become a civilization.

2. Gestation The incipient civilization must develop an instrument of expansion. Without such an instrument, a society cannot gain the critical mass required for its members to begin conceiving of themselves as having a unique identity--that is, as a civilization.

3. Expansion Once a civilization has a functioning instrument of expansion, it will begin to grow.

4. Age of Conflict Eventually all instruments become institutions. Once this process has occurred to a substantial degree to a civilization's instrument of expansion, the civilization enters an age of conflict.
This period is marked by four trends:
a decline in the rate of expansion an increase in class conflicts, especially in the core an increase in imperialistic wars an increase in irrationality and general pessimism
As the instrument of expansion becomes an institution in order to preserve the privileges of the elite, the civilization--particularly in the core--becomes more static, bureaucratized and legalistic. This tends to punish innovation instead of rewarding it, and progress in the accumulation of surplus is slowed as a result of the decline in inventiveness.

5. Universal Empire As previously noted, once an instrument of expansion has become an institution, one of three things will happen: it will be reformed back into a functioning instrument; it will be circumvented by the creation of a new instrument (which permits expansion while leaving the trappings of power to those who controlled the previous institution); or those with vested interests in preserving the institution of expansion will prevail, and it will become permanently entrenched.
In the former two cases, in which there is a new instrument of expansion, the civilization returns to Stage 3, the age of Expansion. Otherwise, it proceeds to Stage 5: Universal Empire.

6. Decay Once it becomes clear that the bulk of a civilization's wealth has been used up, the decline is usually mercifully swift. "Mercifully," because this is a period of great distress.
During this time, as recognition of the civilization's poverty spreads, the standard of living falls quickly. Law and order break down. Civil unrest sparks protests, some of which turn violent. Taxes cannot be collected, and other forms of public service such as military service (and military actions themselves) are resisted. Property cannot be protected except (if at all) by force. Personal violence becomes a daily occurrence. Trade fails, as fraud can no longer be punished. Town life fails; basic survival needs force people into the country where they can grow food, and the "middle class" disappears. Religious revivals sweep the land. The medical technology that sustains life becomes difficult or impossible to obtain, resulting in high rates of infant mortality and shortened lifespans.

7. Invasion Whether by military occupation or political annexation, or simply by incorporation through settlement, invasion at some point destroys what was once a civilization. The mixture of old and new cultures may produce a new culture, forming Stage 1 of what will become a new civilization, or it may not. But the old civilization is gone.

As Mr. Stewart notes, this is not a deterministic process but one of choice.

In contrast to Spengler's deterministic view, in which a civilization is doomed from the moment it comes into being, Quigley asserts that any civilization can survive indefinitely, just as long as it keeps reforming or circumventing its institutionalized instruments of expansion.

Members of civilizations, Quigley says, have a choice. If they act in one way, they return to expansion; if they voluntarily choose another way, they step onto the road that leads to empire and extinction. This non-deterministic "if-then-else" structure seems intuitive to, say, a computer programmer, but it is a remarkable insight for a historian, scientist or no, to perceive in a long-duration human organization such as a civilization.

Let's begin by observing that many see the U.S. as unequivocally in the "decay" stage and China as in the "expansion" stage. I am going to challenge those overly broad assumptions.
But first let's stipulate a few points.

A. "The West" is the civilization, the U.S. is simply the current dominant nation within that civilization/worldview/economic-legal system.

B. China did not suffer destruction as a civilization, but many in China view the collapse of the Qin Dynasty in the early 20th century and the rise of Western hegemony in China (Britain annexing Hong Kong, etc.) as a kind of decay-invasion end-point, which then set the stage for the emergence of Communist China as the mixture of Chinese elements and Marxism/Leninism.

C. China's current success is unfolding within the legal, economic and scientific system of Western Civilization, albeit with "Chinese elements" that are different from but analogous to Japan's "unique elements." The Grand Experiments in a "different way" were monumental, catastrophic failures: Marxist/Leninist collectivism and the uniquely Chinese monstrosity of the Cultural Revolution (Maoism run amok).

D. China is also unique in taking the stage as an emerging global power even as 2/3 of its population remain quite poor. For a realistic depiction of China's rural poverty, I recommend The Story of Xiao-Yan (A Unique Schooling is the Hong Kong English title). This film follows a young girl in western China as she tries to raise the few dollars needed to pay for her next year of public school. If she fails to raise the money, her education is over.

This is a beautifully rendered and acted film which garnered six awards, including several Golden Roosters (best new director, etc.)

I was surprised such a searingly honest film was allowed to be made and distributed. That alone documents just how far China has progressed in the past 20 years.

I am positing that the 2008 Olympics are China's high-water mark in the "explosive growth" stage. This is not to say growth has come to an end, only that the initial "instruments of expansion"--industrialization and the influx of foreign capital--have run their fast-growth course and new instruments of expansion must take their place.

If China fails to develop the governmental and economic structures needed to enable new instruments, then it could enter an Age of Conflict before settling back into expansion. Nothing is pre-determined in life or history.

As I have written before, the most dangerous element for both China and the U.S. is the disparity between people's inordinately high expectations for future prosperity and the realities of inequality, Peak Oil, corruption/malfeasance, etc.

In other words: being poor is tolerable until one's expectations are raised. Then what was once acceptable becomes utterly unacceptable. In the U.S., absurdly high expectations and a grandiose sense of entitlement virtually guarantee a vast disappointment/rage when unrealistic expectations for prosperity and ease crash into diminished resources/failing "instruments of expansion."

China too faces a collision between the expectations of 600 million people who want to join the 300 million who have "made it" in the past generation and the limits of financial borrowing/legerdemain, resources and the coming decline of the entire trade/labor arbitrage model which enabled China's rapid growth.

One element of American culture which is largely ignored is our propensity to flay ourselves with near religious zeal for our faults/decay. It's been my observation in both Europe and Asia alike that most people resent criticism of their country and are reluctant to really lay out their nation's faults (at least to visiting Americans).

While many such defensive Americans exist as well, it is nonetheless true that Americans have a unique ability to flagellate ourselves for falling behind. These paroxyms of self-criticism and angst have often led to massive reforms and renewal. I believe this trait can be traced back to at least the early 19th century's Great Awakening religious movements, some of which led to the moral demand to end slavery regardless of its economic impact on the South.

The 1950s were dominated by "The Red Scare" in which Americans trembled and worried over "falling behind" the Soviet Union, which had famously threatened to "bury you." And with the Sputnik launch proving Soviet invincibility, Americans fearfully rushed to "catch up." John Kennedy actually scored points in the 1960 election by claiming a frightening "missile gap" between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., another sign of "falling behind" our rival. (Yes, a Democrat was actually more hawkish than a Republican.)

In the 1970s, the decline of America was a given, and commentators bemoaned the inevitability of U.S. decline. It's over, folks, the decline is terminal. Watergate, stagflation, Vietnam, the Iranian conflict, oil spikes--all evidence of inevitable decay.

American angst/fear of permanent decline exploded in the 1980s as Japanese domination of consumer electronics proved America was doomed (again). Books declaring inevitable Japanese domination of "the 5th generation" computer technology crammed the shelves, and thrillers were packed with Japanese businessmen buying up America for a pittance.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth over the permanence of our decline was fierce: our education system was terminally horrible, our companies were flat-footed failures, our government a flailing giant incapable of stemming the decline, and so on. We were doomed to all be living in Sony Towers serving drinks to Japanese tourists who owned what was once an independent nation.

The non-American readers among you may reckon I am exaggerating. I am not. Pronouncing the "End of the American Century" is a core cultural trait, one occasionally interrupted by brief periods of triumphalism which set the stage for grand displays of hubris which quickly end in new pronouncements that America is once again (for the 4th or 5th time in 50 years) doomed to decline and decay.

For abundantly sound reasons, the hue and cry of permanent decline is once again pervasive. Yes, our financial system and energy complex are doomed to decline/ failure, along with our suburban model of growth, our waste of topsoil, our sclerotic medical system, our wretched educational system, our crumbling infrastructure, our decrepit failed political system and several dozen other fundamental crises. And all of them are true failings and true sources of decay/decline.

The real enemy of renewal is complacency. As with individuals, the capacity for self-criticism is absolutely essential to growth/renewal/adaptation. Although I cannot offer a rigorous defense of this idea, I suspect that a key factor which deepened and lengthened The Great Depression in the U.S. was denial and complacency that anything structurally was wrong with U.S. institutions and instruments of expansion. All the "make work" programs of the New Deal were essentially that--"make-work" wallpaper glued over a failed, deeply flawed system. Is it any wonder they failed to end the Depression?

Thus I welcome the strident calls for "the end of days" and the "inevitability" of U.S. decline. The harder we whip ourselves, the deeper the angst, the starker the decay, the sooner people will rouse themselves. The more that the Mainstream media and our elected politicos claim that all is well and sound, the longer and more damaging the decline will be.

If we as a people choose "bread and circus" (lapel-pin American flags, mercenary armies, American Idol(try), etc.) then the decay will be terminal.

Correspondent Michael S. took up my challenge to synthesize the topics; here are his cogent comments:

"Can these apparently disparate topics be wound together constructively? Stay tuned."
For the first book, The End of Work, I'd say that the traditional corporate culture is becoming outdated and cannot compete with the worldwide collaboration that happens over the internet since it is: a) diverse; b) priceless; c) talented; d) parallelized; e) motivated; f) etc...
Examples are: "Open Source," Linux, Firefox, "free patents online," etc...

While I haven't read the book, I do believe that the world will ALWAYS need workers but not the traditional office building (as they are now) or the traditional corporate structure. I'm hoping that worldwide medical collaboration, for example, will improve hospital care tremendously.
In general, I like the idea of "affinity groups" (virtual communities, based on meritocracy) that come together to solve a particular problem; from a business standpoint, investors would invest in these "affinity groups" based on preceived return.

The second book "Evolution of Civilizations" seems to rehash "old problems" (based on the description) since "resource fights" have been around since man was around.
Einsten, in particular, said that: "You can't solve a problem with the same mind that created it" and, thus, dominant cultures probably peak and then become weak.

Globalization, I think, is a gutsy gamble at trying to diversify our culture to the point where we're seeing outside of our box again.

My hope is that our communities evolve to the point where people simply settle in where they fit best. And I think that "trickle down economics" will work and, thus, I have faith that the best and brightest will build a world in which I can survive!

Thank you, Michael, for making a number of fascinating points.

Having not yet addressed "the end of work," I hurry to make this distinction: there is always plenty of work. It's simply unpaid work. If you see the film The Story of Xiao Yan mentioned above, you will see people busy all day long. There is plenty to do. It's just that almost no one is receiving a salary or paycheck save the school teacher, and his pay is apparently meager.

Life doesn't end when there's no paid work. People gather crops, raise pigs, tend children, barter/trade for goods, gamble for pennies, and so on. There is a government presence, albeit a small one, but people get along. There isn't streetfighting warfare as per videogames, nor are there warring gangs out to control the goat herd or what have you. There is no need for martial law. People walk a lot to get places, they get married, they flirt, they suffer disappointments and gain small victories, and so on.

So before we proclaim the coming decline in paying jobs necessitates the Apocalypse, maybe we should shed some of the grandiose sense of entitlement which underpins that expectation of Collapse. Maybe instead of Collapse with a Capital C, Americans will make do like the hundreds of millions of Chinese who currently get along without SUVs, McMansions, big salaries, credit cards, and all the other supposedly "essential elements of survival."

Short of a major nuclear exchange or a scourge of deadly Avian flu, life goes on, people adapt and try to better their situation however they can; renewal is possible. Shedding denial and embracing self-criticism is the first step to avoiding collapse, and perhaps we're making some small progress in that regard.

Thank you, Jon T. ($10), for your much-appreciated generous donation to this site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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