The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon


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Farmers freely exchange their corn and cattle for the manufactures of the town; gold and silver are used for the making of chamber pots. Published during the middle years of the Age of Discovery, the book established a form of adventurous romance popular among freebooting ship captains embarked on voyages to Virginia, El Dorado, and Brazil.

The literary device was soon adopted by philosophers searching for passages into new worlds of political thought. The philosophers reposition the lines of latitude and longitude in accordance with their theories of a social contract, and in Philadelphia in the virtual reality that More in had placed somewhere off the coast of the newly discovered Americas emerges from the play of mind that is the Declaration of Independence.

B y the turn of the twentieth century, it comes to be further understood that the power to establish a government accommodating to the perfectibility of man is also the power at rest in every item stocked on the shelves of the American dream.


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Adjusted to the terrain of a commercial consumer society, the envisionings of a utopian future dwell on the perfections of the self, its agents and apostles entrusting the projections of a better world to the mail-order catalogs and the department stores. Happy birthday at every point of sale. Buy the bicycle or the truck, wrap up the handbag and the dress, take possession of the deck chair or the parrot, and you begin the world all over again.

The future as pork belly and campaign promise, as credit card, share price, diet drink, lottery ticket, golf club, eyebrow pencil, and travel destination. Who can leave home without it? The market fluctuates.

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By the middle of the century that America was proud to claim as its own, the dystopian views of the future had become as supportive of the ambitions of the state as the utopian views of the future were supportive of the economy. How else was the Pentagon to fund its Cold War arsenal of apocalyptic weapons unless with the sighting of a future appropriate to their use? Over the last fifty years, the picture of the future has changed often enough to become recognizable as a fashion statement.

Subjects of Nostalgia: Selling the Past

Toffler populated an American garden of technological Eden with kindly computers in California, as well-meaning as J. The Right Stuff forged the American hero as titanium tubing impervious to reentry speeds and the heat of the sun, American power likened to a Promethean pillar of fire lifting its disciples out of the well of death. Roosevelt was watching over its soul. The loss of the utopian romance that had once supported both the ambition of the state and the strength of the economy was terrible to behold.

So terrible that it has been replaced by an apparition—Gorgon-headed and dragon-winged—that reduces its beholders to paralyzed stone.

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Lost because, to wage the war, the Bush administration was obliged to manufacture, distribute, and magnify the reflection of its own ignorance and fear. The rest of the world was bound to catch up, in blood if it had to, and British industry would rapidly find itself outclassed. Dependency has fateful consequences. The rest of the world can no longer be allowed to go its own way. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the millennium, America enjoyed an inchoate preponderance, or hegemony.

The Clinton years witnessed the build-up of the almost parasitic dependence Todd describes, accompanied by striking symptoms of moral disarray and social disaggregation at home. Nor were such warning signs confined to the White House. Persisting black-white antagonisms were aggravated by Hispanic and other immigrations, and by gnawing disquiet about elites, privatisation, and the loss of class and other communities. The weird non-election of ended by placing a question mark over the greatest constitution on earth, even if officialdom closed ranks against admitting any crisis.

If any way of the world was implicit in those circumstances, it should have been growing multilateralism: a fussy old think-tank term, yet everyone knows its sense. After Cold War confinement, the liberating side of globalisation should have been freedom for peoples, not just for investors, companies, entrepreneurs and bottom lines. If capitalism was generalised, it had to become various, assorted and embodied in new social and political forms, possibly dissonant, or at odds with one another. Alternatives were bound to arise, with differing polarities and directions.

Just as it had been folly to imagine Soviet guidance of the former socialist imperium, so it was hopeless to think that the US could now continue let alone develop what was an essentially defunct leadership status. At the very moment when the world is discovering democracy and learning to get along politically without the United States, the United States is beginning to lose its democratic characteristics and is discovering that it cannot get along without the rest of the world.

The last precondition is of course ideological: the terrorist axis of evil, eternal and malevolent, that has replaced Communism. Many critics have shown the conceptual absurdity of this; but it has two big advantages. It accords with the religious revivalism provoked by the success of neoliberal expansion since the s: a heartless world has had to solicit new opiates for the heart. Also, a paranoid belief-system is by definition relatively termite-proof: it counts on perpetual mobilisation, and will resist settling down into institutional decay.

Yet all these are makeshift manoeuvres, for more profound reasons that Todd signals. An information revolution counterpointed the expansion of transnational capitalism in the last third of the 20th century, and acquired its own momentum and consequences. Microsoft helped to establish this; but it would be absurd to identify its wider historical import with a single enterprise or nation, however ambitious or ruthless. However, while Hamlet stands roundly condemned by both authors, the Prince of Denmark remains puzzlingly absent. He is half-glimpsed in mirrors, or disappearing behind an arras, as if not quite at home amid these bracing sermons.

Something vital is missing from both arguments. These authors provide persuasive portraits of certain necessary conditions of the great turning of Yet the sufficient condition, the precipitating factor or force, eludes them. Thus a liberal concept of human nature is saved, albeit by a curious exaltation of indeterminacy. But there is a non-rigorous, indeed positively old-fashioned, absentee from the arguments in both treatises: the nation.

While it is important not to overstate such a tendency, for movements that have typically emphasised the local and the global as appropriate locations for action, the importance of the national did not seem far below the surface in many debates. Soros falls back on the nation, too, when there is no alternative. The whole nation had been irresolute and all at odds, not merely its half-accidental president. Now suddenly the odd hangover of Clintonism and the anti-climactic semi-triumph of were gone. But Soros finds the least appropriate formulation for the phenomenon, constantly repeating that Social Darwinism inspires the neo-imperialists.

This is wildly inaccurate. Social Darwinism was a late 19th-century delusion, indispensable to the New Imperialist ambitions of that period, but utterly defeated in Then from the s onwards, genetic science rendered it completely irrecoverable as a philosophical justification. That fragments of it still survive among nostalgic right-wing sects is unimportant: so do Nostradamus and the Number of the Beast.

Out of the Past

But the instinctive reactions of the public are another matter. On a recent visit to Los Angeles I was surprised to encounter something quite similar. After a talk suggesting the end of the world was not nigh, a Jewish Angeleno came up, took me to one side, and burst into a confession of how fearful he felt about Armageddon.

Though born in the US, and with no direct link to old Vienna, he was unmoved by the high-profile alliance between US and Israeli foreign policy — was this not an inherently fragile accord, liable to burst along with the rest of the bubble, and bring aggravated anti-semitism in its wake? Such trends underlie the contemporary checkerboard of national states, and can be used to account for phenomena such as Nazism and Communism. This theory brought howls of protest from social scientists including from many fellow anthropologists.

In the preface he explicitly compares his approach to that of Freud.

The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon
The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon
The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon
The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon
The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon
The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon The Last Empire: Americas Nostalgia for Armageddon

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