The Terror of Empire’s Death Spiral

It is true what Chris Hedges recently wrote for Truthdig regarding the reported death of Osama bin Laden; that al-Qaida is a terrifying force. This group is terrifying for many reasons… the main reason being that their shock and awe tactics that are employed to create a message does just that: it sends a message of terrifying proportions. It works. But the terror this group evinces can be described as so terrifying namely because it was created by the most terrifying culture ever to exist, a culture that wholeheartedly, without question, believes in the fantasy that it can continue to live on a finite planet while practicing a way of life predicated on the assumption of infinite growth; a culture that will do anything within its means to reinforce this fantasy—such as, for one, destroy an entire planet through extractive industry and its waste… or, better yet, sending messages to underdeveloped communities around the globe that the resources beneath the ground of their respective communities are needed to keep this fantasy believable for those currently living it: those resources are coveted and they will be taken if they are not voluntarily handed over, so the message goes.

And so, what this has done… what it does is it creates a two-fold situation: (1) this way of living has constructed this belief-in-fantasy so rigidly, so regimented, that the fantasy has inserted itself inviolably into the collective psyche so to predetermine the behavior of the very culture. The fantasy is so ensconced in the daily activity of the dominant culture that it cannot even be recognized as a fantasy, but as, what Jean Baudrillard implied with his theory of the precession of simulacra, a consensus reality. (And stand outside this fantasy, point to its insanity, point to the realities [read, atrocities] that exist so to maintain the fantasy of infinite growth, and notice how the culture will respond to you, alienate you.) And (2) to continue living the fantasy of infinite growth as an assumed reality requires the routine importation of resources, and this, as is apparent as it ever has been, requires a military… the most efficient and effective instrument of terror to have ever exist. What the culture is essentially doing here, and has been doing, is deploying terror around the globe to send a message, but that message is also an education, and this creates what Hedges calls a “death spiral.”

The events of 9/11, as is widely understood now, came about because of a certain anti-American (thus anti-Western) sentiment engendered by particular extremist groups.1 It is without question that these particular extremist groups were, at least in their formative stages, assembled with the guidance, finances, and weaponry of US forces so to keep the Soviets out of Afghanistan. When US victory was achieved in Afghanistan in the late Eighties, it set in motion a series of events that would allow for the West, primarily America, to set up military base after military base throughout the oil-rich regions of the Middle East and its surrounding oil exporting regions over the ensuing decades. It’s important to note that ongoing resource wars have been needed to maintain the fantasy that the dominant culture can continue living the hyper-consumptive lifestyle it has been conditioned to perceive as normal; that we can continue consuming the resources needed to maintain this hyper-consumptive lifestyle forever, despite the fact that the requisite resources needed to do so are finite, are running out, and, will run out; that we can continue living as if we can grow forever on a finite planet, by any means necessary. And for decades we have reinforced this belief through, what Stanley Diamond described as, “brutal conquest abroad and repression at home.” The latter statement immediately unravels the reality of the atrocities committed around the globe, albeit under the guise of a multitude of varying motives. But at the crux of it all is this essential predicament: Empire needs energy and resources not only to grow, but to maintain itself as well. As an empire grows, its demand for energy and resources needed to maintain its complexity exceeds what the immediate landbase has to offer. So begins the colonization of other lands in order to funnel resources back to centers of growth. But as empires expand, resources shrink, and landbases become infecund. And eventually, an entire way of life that has been predicated on the expansion of empire cannot sustain itself. It becomes severely vulnerable, weak. And then it implodes.

And so when an empire attempts to send a message to other communities… a message that says—We need what you have and we will take it if you do not hand it over—well, the message better be pretty convincing. The message better ensure success; after all, the existence of an entire empire is at stake. And that is why terror works. It is traumatic. It gets the message across. But what it also does is it leaves an impression on those it hurts. And some people who are deeply hurt indeed reach a point of rage; and to foment rage, and, to show those who are left with nothing but these feelings of enmity and vengeance, how to terrify others, creates a “death spiral.” It is nationalism against nationalism… Fanaticism versus fanaticism… A way of life versus another’s way of life… all dancing the same dance: a pas de deux of terror. And this reciprocal terror dance doesn’t necessarily make our culture become, as Nietzsche understood it, “the monster that we are attempting to fight,” but merely reveals that this culture has always been that monster we are attempting to fight.

However, what terrifies me more than anything… more than al-Qaida… more than this seemingly self-perpetual terror dance, is the day resources become too unaffordable to continue allowing militaries to convey this culture’s messages around the globe. And if all this culture can identify with is consumption, if all it can turn to in an era of ecological devastation, resource scarcity and global conflict, rising food costs and unemployment… if all it can turn to in the wake of all this is commerce and entertainment that only reflects to the consumer culture the very fantasy it is living… if all this culture can turn to in the wake of damaging earthquakes and unprecedented damaging weather patterns is the Royal Wedding and disputes over the president’s birth certificate—if this culture views the reported killing of Osama bin Laden as confirmation of its delusive fantasy’s promise of infinite growth and consumption and not as merely another act of violence in an endless salvo of terror, if this culture cannot for the life of itself see the physical reality of the planet’s limits and the human lives inextricably dictated by these very limits beyond the fantasy of construction and synthetic ephemeral value, I fear not only the strange appetite, nor the perceptual misguidance of such a strange appetite this fantasy has brought into being, but I truly fear the message it will try to convey when that appetite has no where to go but inward.

  1. And I want to make clear that I am only using these terms “anti-American”, “anti-Western” and “extremist groups” in the sense that mainstream media does. The overall message of this essay, for the reader to take away, is to understand that the real extremist group is the one that is rapaciously plundering the planet for resources to keep a particular way of life, one that is destructive and unsustainable in all respects, going. As for “anti-American” and/or “anti-Western” sentiment, we are dealing with a very intricate and convoluted mixture of behaviors and aspirations that pull in different directions. All in all, the essence of “anti-Americanism” and/or “anti-Westernism” encompasses an opposition to draconian regimes morally and financially backed by Western powers, an opposition to US military bases on native land, and the opposition to the theft of endemic resources. []

Frank Smecker is a writer and social-worker from VT. He can be reached at: frank.smecker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Frank, or visit Frank's website.