BY BRIAN MAHER
SEPTEMBER 20, 2023
The U.S. Isn’t Becoming Rome
The United States — and its purported diminishment — is often likened to the Roman Empire.
As the Roman Empire succumbed to debauchery, degeneracy and profligacy… the United States is succumbing to debauchery, degeneracy and profligacy.
As Rome had its bread and its circuses, the United States has its bread and its circuses.
They differ merely in form. Not in substance.
In brief: The Roman destiny will be the American destiny. That destiny is of course ruin.
So runs the theory.
Yet does another wrecked empire offer a truer mirror of American decline than Rome’s?
What former empire might this be? Answer shortly.
Let us first look in on another scene of debauchery, degeneracy and profligacy — Wall Street.
Today the Federal Reserve elected to sit upon its hands. It held interest rates even.
The stock market’s initial response was… mixed.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average was encouraged while the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite were discouraged.
By closing whistle all three were discouraged.
The Dow Jones concluded trading down 76 points.
The S&P retreated 41 points while the Nasdaq was most discouraged of the three — down a dispirited 209.
Wall Street was disappointed, profoundly, that Mr. Powell and mates dangled before it the threat of additional rate increases.
“We have to do more with rates,” intoned the chairman today.
This Is the Empire America Most Resembles
Yet to revisit today’s central question: Does another formerly grand empire offer a superior mirror of American decline — than Rome itself?
Today we stand before the jury… and argue the case that one such empire exists. What empire is this?
The Spanish Empire.
That is correct — the Spanish Empire.
In this telling the American destiny is not Rome’s destiny. It is Spain’s destiny.
A certain R. Taggart Murphy professes international political economy at a Japanese university. From whom:
Those contemplating the possible demise of American global hegemony most often turn for lessons to Rome… but the parallels between America and Spain are striking.
Striking? You have seized our attention. Please, sir, elaborate.
Spain was the first global superpower. Obviously, there had been other great powers — Rome, the China of the Tang and Ming dynasties, the vast Mongol domains — but none had spanned oceans and continents the way the Spanish Empire did at its height.
In the first half of the 16th century, Charles V reigned over vast swathes of Europe; his son Philip II controlled most of the Western Hemisphere as well as a sizable chunk of Asia (the Philippines were named after him).
Imperial Spain’s maximum territorial reach would only be surpassed by the British Empire in the 19th century, and in the 20th by the informal American imperium, with its 750 overseas bases and network of global alliances.
We must agree. The Spanish reach was vast — as the American reach is vast.
Money and Empire
And as the American empire bosses the world with its dollar… the Spanish Empire bossed the world with its gold and silver specie:
The most revealing parallels relate to a different expansionary dynamic — that of money. The key to so much else that happened to both countries was the appearance of what seemed like unlimited wealth but was actually access to unlimited quantities of a universal medium of exchange, craved and accepted everywhere.
In the late 16th century, the Spanish elite could buy whatever it wanted wherever it wanted with the gold and silver that was pouring into Spain from the mines of Peru and Mexico. Today, the American ruling class can do the same with U.S. dollars created at will…
That Midas-like power permitted elites in both countries to confuse money with what it could buy, and led to financialization, politically dangerous levels of inequality and the wasting of wealth on endless wars aimed at remaking the world in the image, respectively, of Iberian Catholicism and American democracy.
We believe this Murphy fellow has struck bull’s-eye.
He sketches a parallel very nearly perfect — in our estimation at least.
Mr. Murphy proceeds to inform us that Spain was the most debt-sunken nation of Europe… despite its infinities of gold and silver.
We might remind you that the United States national debt presently exceeds $33 trillion. And that its debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 120%.
This, despite its infinity of dollars.
Spain Blows It
What, Mr. Murphy, befell Spain and its American-mirrored empire?
Spain blew it. Already by the middle of the 17th century, under the crisis-ridden rule of Philip IV, the Iberian kingdom “had been left behind by the rest of Europe,” as John A. Crow wrote in his classic study Spain: The Root and the Flower.
The next question is the natural question: Will the United States steer an identical course?
Over the past several decades, dollar hegemony has landed the United States in the same position that Spain enjoyed after the conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires. Like Habsburg monarchs of an earlier age, those who manage the American economy are able to run “deficits without tears”…
But if Spanish history is any guide… all that money tempts you to do what less well-positioned countries would hesitate to consider — because they can’t afford it: namely, wage endless wars.
The United States has embarked upon many of these wars.
It presently wages one of proxy in the nation of Ukraine.
If the gods are kind it will remain a war of proxy — again — if the gods are kind.
Mr. Murphy cites an additional Spanish-American parallel: ideology.
The ideologies are opposites yet they are the same.
They are both crusading faiths.
Spain was hot to fan the Catholic faith worldwide. The United States is hot to fan the democratic faith worldwide.
Spain had its infamous Inquisition, yes.
Yet the United States runs its own Inquisition of sorts — an Inquisition not religious in nature but secular in nature:
The parallels extend from the material substrate to the cultural and ideological realm… Washington [has established] an updated Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition…
The institutional and technical apparatus that this newly reincarnated Holy Office has constructed to impose orthodoxy and eliminate error would earn the envy and admiration of its Spanish forebears.
It starts with the ubiquitous diversity, equity and inclusion offices in practically every corporation, university, government agency and civil-society organization…
It has new names, the “Global Engagement Center” in the State Department being one of the most noteworthy, but the aims remain the same: ferreting out heresy or, as they now call it, “disinformation.”
Once again there is juice here. The American imperium recently bears a very powerful ideological impress.
You may, if you wish, label it “woke.”
“The Most Formidable Tool of the New Holy Office”
What is “the most formidable tool of the new Holy Office”?
The most formidable tool of the new Holy Office is its control of the internet. Here we find echoes of the draconian response of the Catholic hierarchy to translations of the Bible into the vernacular and their wide dissemination made possible by the newly invented printing press…
[All of this] tempts countries — or at least the ruling classes of such countries — into global imperial projects, driven by the fantasy that they are the vehicles of universal salvation…
Spain’s example suggests that tears may indeed await countries whose elites convince themselves that they have been chosen by God to spread his faith throughout the world — or, to update the language, that theirs is the world’s “indispensable nation,” ordained by history to bring it to an end…
The historical boneyard is strewn with many such “indispensable nations.”
Spain was one. The United States will likely end in the identical burial ground… on some distant tomorrow at least.
We do not believe it is imminent.
Yet if you seek to divine the American future, look less to Rome.
Look more to Spain.