Notes on the Empire

One of the big delusions that Americans operate under is that we live in a democratic republic. We don’t. We live in an empire. Republics and empires cannot coincide. While I wouldn’t say that the republican function has disappeared entirely, it’s clear that it has been steadily eroding over the years. One reason it hasn’t vanished entirely is that the U.S. is hampered by its self-image as a fighter for democracy and freedom. It prevents us from being nakedly imperial. We have to be more subtle than, say, the British were. I don’t think this is some kind of weird conspiracy theory. The people on the inside know it’s an empire. Here’s an excerpt from a magazine article written in 2004 for the New York Times by journalist Ron Susskind.

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

A remarkably hubristic statement. I think this explains in good part what happened to Obama. His supporters, myself included, thought naively that we were working to elect someone who would return the country to its democratic roots. But empires don’t give up the ghost without an immense struggle or internal collapse. They are utterly ruthless. It’s the only way to become one. In a sense, Obama had no choice other than to go along. He would have been eliminated if he hadn’t cooperated. Still, I don’t think that’s what happened exactly. Like all of them, he was dazzled by the immense power of his position and wanted to be successful in it.

All empires collapse, and I believe that’s what we’re seeing now. We live in a period of growing decadence. You can see it in the indifference toward what’s happening to the environment, the obsession with gadgetry, the fawning over celebrities, the constant wars, the desire for ever more wealth. Because this particular empire has became a global venture, the effects are going to be more far-reaching than any previous collapse.

Last weekend I rode my bike to Mill Valley, a wealthy town in wealthy Marin County, which is just north of San Francisco. I stopped to take a break and watch the scene around me. It was warm and sunny and there were a lot of people hanging out in the outdoor cafés, eating, drinking, talking on their cell phones, laughing — having a party. I remember seeing a young guy and his girlfriend cruise by in a sports car with the top down. They looked sinister to me. I loathed what I was seeing. While so much of the rest of the world suffers—the people who make their clothing, for example—these beneficiaries of the empire continue to party and, as George Bush Sr. said, “to recreate.” Meanwhile, in the background, the insanity continues to build. Those people have no idea of the storm that’s on its way. I can’t say that I do either—not exactly. But I’m convinced that we’re living in the beginning of historical times.

A note on Edward Snowden: I don’t consider him a hero. I don’t know enough about him, and, for all I know, he has issues that, in my view, would diminish him. But I have no problem whatsoever with anything that he’s done. He is not a traitor. You cannot betray an empire.


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7 Responses to “Notes on the Empire”

  1. Catherine Downing Says:

    Thank you, Mark, I believe you have hit it. I told an incredulous Dutch couple last week that I believed that Obama has had to accommodate or he would have been killed. They thought I was insane. They told me that the “people” especially here in the United States can change anything if they want through positive action and grass roots organization. Maybe that is true in Europe, I told them, but not here, not now. They are not afraid of their governments in Europe.

    You were able to articulate what I have been feeling, Thank you.

    • markbittner Says:

      The real nature of the inner circle of government is masked. Every now and then it gets unmasked and there’s a big fuss. Then things go back to the way they were. Yesterday it was revealed that the FBI is using drones for domestic surveillance. “Experts” expect the US to have something like 15,000 drones operating within the U. S. in five years. Or so I read in the AP. To those who say, “Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong…”, I don’t think the people who run this country have very good ideas of what is right and what is wrong.

  2. Kathy Says:

    I think we live in an oligarchy. Which resembles an empire!!! What disturbs me greatly is that the oligarchy is relatively secretive, and conspiracy theories aside, the propaganda we are fed supports the oligarchy.

    And the people suffer.

    I remember as a small child being taught about the propaganda of the USSR and being taught how HORRIBLE it was that propaganda existed. Unspoken Corollary: WE would never permit propaganda in OUR country. And I believed it. Then.

    • markbittner Says:

      An imperial oligarchy, then. I stress “empire” because we have more than 700 military installations spread out around the world. And those are only the ones we officially acknowledge.

      There’s a very interesting book out called “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin.” Its general thesis is that the music of the Beatles had a great deal to do with the fall of the Soviet Union—more than Ronald Reagan ever did. This is a conviction of the Russians themselves. The guy who was the Russian Defense Minister ten years ago was a big fan and risked punishment during the Soviet era by trading in their music.

    • Kathy Says:

      Haha, very fine indeed, an imperial oligarchy!!! That refines the assessment nicely, for me!! Yes, I was shocked when I found out in 2008 how many military installations we had all over the world. I got a map on the internet and looked up all of them. And those were only the official ones. Now what you are saying about empire makes MUCH more sense to me….thank you for the clarification!!!

  3. Margaret Benbow Says:

    I was surprised that Snowdon’s discoveries were met by shock and horror. Intelligence-gatherers in our government have been conducting widespread surveillance on American citizens for years? Big whoop. I’ve assumed that for most of my life, and maybe you did too.
    And Mark, personally I don’t feel that merrymaking on the part of the heedless and prosperous young is disgusting. Maybe they’re selfish, and ignorant of the suffering in the world. But their pursuit of good food, good cars, good clothes–la dolce vita?– is exactly what most poor people would be doing, if they could. It seems to be in the human genome. It’s worth remembering that Communists, no matter how well-intentioned, never got very far in most immigrant or African-American communities. There is nothing the matter with a fair share of pleasures and comforts and security as such. It’s the hog-wild and ravenous who are the problem.

  4. markbittner Says:

    The general belief is that the advisor was Karl Rove.

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