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.