ARE we doomed? Is America (and for that matter, all of Western culture) pouring itself inexorably down history’s drainpipe? Are we condemned to a future of decadence, shallow self-absorption, ignorance, perpetual war, plutocracy, oligarchy, and a nihilistic something-for-nothing attitude? And will all this inevitably result in tyranny, chaos, and civilization’s fall? Do we possibly even face a new Dark Age?
Well, yes. Probably. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be all bad.
Things right now aren’t looking so good. The “recovery” we keep hearing about is a joke to most of us from the middle to the bottom ranks of society. Debt piles so high that the word “trillions” has lost its awe.
Our formerly republican form of government has been replaced by legions of unaccountable bureaucrats, unfathomable laws and regulations, an executive with “a pen and a phone,” and a network of hyper-suspicious “security” agencies whose functions and budgets We the People aren’t even allowed to know.
Meanwhile the bread and circuses so reminiscent of empire’s end keep the potentially discontent masses marginally well fed (to the point of obesity and chronic illness) and endlessly entertained. Bread arrives in the form of food stamps (now used by record millions). There are now more Americans on means-tested government handouts than there are with full-time jobs.
And the entertainment comes so easy! It’s not just TV and sports extravaganzas any more. A whole generation of little narcissists is obsessed with posting “selfies” to social media sites. All the entertainment they need is in their pockets and their mirrors.
Nobody knows history. Nobody understands philosophy. Nobody grasps the concept of rights. Or responsibility. Why be responsible when you’ll get so much more attention by being a victim? While fundamental rights fade away, pleasures, privileges and perks are increasingly encouraged.
Yes, it’s looking bad for a country that, just a few short centuries ago, was built on some of the most shining hopes and noble philosophical concepts ever known to mankind. Doom looms.
And that’s without even considering potential “outliers”—events that could strike out of the blue to lay waste to our fragile civilization. A biowar attack. A Carrington Event that staggers modern technology. A nuclear disaster. Unfortunately none of these are all that outlandish to consider. Unlikely, perhaps. Unforeseeable, certainly. But not some science-fictional fantasy.
Those of us who have managed to maintain some grasp of history look back uneasily to the fall of the Roman Empire and see dire parallels. The Empire weakened and fell gradually, but in the end, all it took were those famous Barbarians at the gates to collapse the greatest empire the world had ever known. The empire’s fall brought on a Dark Age in Europe that lasted more than 500 years. All the learning, all the civilization, all the social progress the Empire had wrought simply died. People lived in poverty, filth, disease, and ignorance, making no progress, leaving behind no record—just a vast Stygian blackness.
Except that’s not what happened. Not even close. Those alleged Dark Ages were actually a decent time, all things considered. For many people, they were a healthier, happier, more egalitarian time than the best days of the empire.
Here are a few of the developments the “darkness” produced: the birth of universities teaching the arts, medicine, and law; the Carolingian Renaissance, which gave us both the foundations of modern music and the beginnings of scholarship in languages other than Latin; a decrease in slavery; a decrease in the scale of wars (the Romans had loved both slavery and war); an agricultural boom with better tools and new methods of land management; fairer law codes; lovely new architecture; new highs in charity and philanthropy; and the spread of primary education.
Overall, the average person was probably healthier, more prosperous, happier, and better educated during the “Dark Ages” than under the Roman Empire. And this all happened because the weight of empire—with its centralization, corruption, rigidity, and mass wars—no longer lay on the shoulders of the people.
But that was a thousand or more years ago. Why should it matter to us?
Well, just as our limping civilization parallels Rome, the aftermath can in many ways parallel what happened once the empire ceased to control vast portions of the populace—chaotic at first, but in the long run peaceful and productive.
Don’t get me wrong—I wouldn’t choose to go back to live in those times, and neither would you if you’re sensible. Compared to today, life was short and brutish. Feudalism (the localized system that grew to replace the centrally controlled empire) was hardly an ideal of freedom. But compare that with Rome!
The Roman Empire was built on the labor of slaves. The smaller, more localized economies of the Dark Ages (or to give them a better name, the Early Middle Ages) had no support for slavery. Peasants had at least some control over the land they farmed, and they had specified rights and duties under law.
Rome waged war on a scale never before seen. The empire could throw away literally hundreds of thousands of human beings at a time, overwhelming opponents by sheer numbers and willingness to sacrifice individuals. Feudal lords of the Early Middle Ages also sent their vassals to war, but the scale was much, much smaller. They had fewer people at their disposal and, if they foolishly allowed them to be slaughtered, their own mini-kingdoms might starve for want of people to work the land.
Rome’s enormous standing armies had to be constantly kept busy, fed, and placated lest they turn on their own government and their own countrymen. Eventually the empire’s currency had to be debased—and debased and debased—to maintain military might. But with no standing armies, the economies of the Dark Ages were healthier. Resources could be put to more productive uses, such as building those universities, developing better tools, and filling workers’ bellies with food.
Without as much centralized control, people of the Early Middle Ages were freer to trade with one another. Without the might and scale of empire enabling intercontinental trade, more trade became local, which strengthened communities. In Rome, a small elite jealously held political power. After the fall, power was spread more broadly among regions, municipalities and individuals.
It’s true that the Early Middle Ages in Europe produced very little in the way of literature or written history, but literacy moved from being a status symbol of the elite to a practical skill for the educated. And that lack of written history? Well, what inspires people to write history? War and chaos, for the most part. Relatively peaceful, prosperous eras are boring. They don’t get written about much. For Joe Average, who has to live through history rather than read it, boring is good.
Now look at us.
Today we have the vast standing army that our founders feared and, like the Romans, we have to keep it busy. Government is increasingly composed of secretive, unaccountable, corrupt elites and controlled by oligarchs. Our money has lost 95 to 97% of its value in just over a century. Working people are less prosperous and more powerless every day. We are surrounded by decadence and dependence—oh, those good old bread and circuses!
Yes, we’re headed the way of the Roman Empire. A fall is inevitable. When? There is no answer. But what might life look like on the other side? That, too, is unknowable. A lot depends, for instance, on whether we keep strong communications technology or lose it. Nevertheless, getting rid of a vast, centralized, corrupt, decadent empire opens up a world of opportunity.
When bureaucrats can no longer enforce endless regulations, individual initiative and entrepreneurship are free to rise. When everyone finally accepts that paper and “full faith” do not equal real money, alternatives (from primitive barter to sophisticated electronic systems) make the world a richer place.
When exhausted taxpayers can no longer support armies of government workers or government dependents, the working classes keep more of their own money and the former dependents have more opportunity to do something useful in the marketplace. When large, government-supported institutions crumble, smaller, more localized, and potentially more creative institutions gradually replace them. Things cost less without layers of taxes and regulations.
Communities and neighborhoods strengthen because they have more need to rely on each other—and more freedom to do so. Everywhere, innovation thrives. You could almost look forward to a Dark Age like that.
Life won’t always be pretty. But then, it’s not pretty now. What life will be is full of opportunity. So let doom— and empires—fall. It may not be a cheery thought. You probably wouldn’t want to be around during the transition period. But better things await on the other side.