Sudden or slow, all civilizations inevitably collapse: “One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilizations collapse,” warns Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Many “civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society’s demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power.”
Harvard’s Niall Ferguson, one of the world’s leading financial historians, echoes Diamond’s warning: “Imperial collapse may come much more suddenly than many historians imagine. A combination of fiscal deficits and military overstretch suggests that the United States may be the next empire on the precipice.” Yes, we are on the edge of collapse.
Civilizations Peak In People, Power, Wealth … Then Collapse, Fast!
Dismiss this warning? Everything you learned, everything you believe and everything driving today’s political leaders is based on a misleading, outdated theory of history. The American Empire sits at the edge of a dangerous precipice, at risk of a sudden, rapid collapse.
Ferguson is brilliant, prolific and a contrarian. His works include the recent Colossus: The Rise and Fall of The American Empire; Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World; The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World; and The War of the World, a survey of the “savagery of the 20th century” where he highlights a profound “paradox that, though the 20th century was ‘so bloody,’ it was also ‘a time of unparalleled progress.’”
Why? Throughout history imperial leaders inevitably emerge and drive their nations into wars for greater glory and “economic progress,” which inevitably leads their nation into collapse suddenly and swiftly, into a demise that “may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power.”
You’ll find Ferguson’s latest work, “Collapse and Complexity: Empires on the Edge of Chaos,” in Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank. His message negates all the happy talk you’re hearing in today’s news — about economic recovery and new bull markets, about “hope,” about a return to “American greatness” — from Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers.
5 Stages Of Rise’n’Collapse That All Empires
Keep On Repeating Throughout History
Ferguson opens with a fascinating metaphor: “There is no better illustration of the life cycle of a great power than “The Course of Empire,” a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole that hangs in the New York Historical Society. Cole was a founder of the “The Course of Empire,” and one of the pioneers of nineteenth-century American landscape painting; in The Course of Empire,’ he beautifully captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain in thrall to this day. Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river beneath a rocky outcrop.” If you’re unable to see them at the Historical Society, they were all reproduced in Foreign Affairs, underscoring Ferguson’s warnings that the “American Empire on the precipice,” near collapse.
First Stage … “The Savage Stage” Before An Empire Rises
“In the first, ‘The Savage State,’ a lush wilderness is populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitive existence at the break of a stormy dawn.” Imagine our history from Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492 on through four more centuries as we savagely expanded across the continent.
Second Stage … The “Arcadia Or Pastoral State” of An Empire
As the American Empire flourishes in “the second picture, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, is of an agrarian idyll: the inhabitants have cleared the trees, planted fields, and built an elegant Greek temple.” The temple may seem out of place. However, Cole’s paintings were done in 1833-1836, not long after Thomas Jefferson built the University of Virginia using both classical Greek and Roman revival architecture.
As Ferguson continues this tour you sense you’re actually inside the New York Historical Society, visually reminded of how history’s great cycles do indeed repeat over and over. You are also reminded of one of history’s great tragic ironies—that all nations fail to learn the lessons of history, that all nations and their leaders fall prey to their own narcissistic hubris and that all eventually collapse from within.
Stage Three … “Consummation” of the Great American Empire
“The third and largest of the paintings is ‘The Consummation of Empire.’ Now, the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrepôt, and the contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have been replaced by a throng of opulently clad merchants, proconsuls and citizen-consumers. It is midday in the life cycle.”
‘The Consummation of Empire’ focuses us on Ferguson’s core message: At the very peak of their power, affluence and glory, leaders arise, run amok with imperial visions and sabotage themselves, their people and their nation. They have it all. But more-is-never-enough as greed, arrogance and a thirst for power consume them. Back in the early days of the Iraq war, Kevin Phillips, political historian and former Nixon strategist, also captured this inevitable tendency in Wealth and Democracy:
“Most great nations, at the peak of their economic power, become arrogant and wage great world wars at great cost, wasting vast resources, taking on huge debt, and ultimately burning themselves out.” You even sense the “Consummation” of the American Empire occurred with the leadership handoff from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush.
Unfortunately that peak may be behind us. Look back at leaders of America’s last generation: Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Trump and all future American leaders are merely playing their parts in this greatest of all historical dramas, repeating but never fully grasping the lessons of history in their insatiable drive for “economic progress,” to recapture former glory … while unwittingly pushing our empire to the edge, into collapse.
Stage Four … The “Destruction” Of The Great American Empire
Then comes ‘The Destruction of Empire,’ the fourth stage in Ferguson’s grand drama about the life-cycle of all empires. In ‘Destruction’ we see “the city is ablaze, its citizens fleeing an invading horde that rapes and pillages beneath a brooding evening sky.” Elsewhere in “The War of the World,” Ferguson described the 20th century as “the bloodiest in history, one hundred years of butchery.” Today’s high-tech relentless news cycle, suggests that our 21st century world is a far bloodier return to savagery.
At this point, investors are asking themselves: How can I prepare for the destruction and collapse of the American Empire? Unfortunately there is no solution in the Cole-Ferguson scenario, only an acceptance of fate, of destiny, of history’s inevitable stages gracing the walls of the New York Historical Society.
But there may be one solution, from Wealth, War and Wisdom by hedge fund manager Barton Biggs, Morgan Stanley’s former chief global strategist who warns us of the “possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure,” urging us to buy a farm in the mountains. “Your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food … well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc. Think Swiss Family Robinson.” And when rebels come looting, fire “a few rounds over the approaching brigands’ heads.”
Stage Five … “Desolation” After The Empire Disappears
“Finally, the moon rises over Desolation” in Cole’s fifth painting. Ferguson: “There is not a living soul to be seen, only a few decaying columns and colonnades overgrown by briars and ivy.” No attacking armies. No waste-collecting robots. No rockets shuttling a new Mars colony. The good news is the Earth may naturally regenerate itself without humans. We saw that possibility in Alan Weisman’s brilliant The World Without Us, as steel buildings decayed over time. Even microbes will eventually eat indestructible plastics, and perhaps after many eons pass, a New Earth may emerge in all its glory, with new species, a new Garden of Eden.
America’s Fragile Empire … Here Today … Gone Tomorrow … So Fast!
In a Los Angeles Times column, Ferguson asks: “America, a Fragile Empire: Here today, gone tomorrow, could the United States fall that fast?” And his answer is both emphatic and disturbing: “For centuries, historians, political theorists, anthropologists and the public have tended to think about the political process in seasonal, cyclical terms … we discern a rhythm to history. Great powers, like great men, are born, rise, reign and then gradually wane. No matter whether civilizations decline culturally, economically or ecologically, their downfalls are protracted.”
We are deceiving ourselves, convinced “the challenges that face the United States are often represented as slow-burning … threats seem very remote.” But “what if history is not cyclical and slow-moving but arrhythmic?” asks Ferguson.
What if history is “at times almost stationary but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?” Yes, in one of those catastrophic events Nassim Taleb calls a “Black Swan,” an unpredictable and improbable event with “massive consequences.” Ferguson’s final message about America’s destiny comes from Foreign Affairs:
“Conceived in the mid-1830s, Cole’s great five-part painting has a clear message: all empires, no matter how magnificent, are condemned to decline and fall.” Throughout history, empires function “in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, collapse. A sleeping driver can be all it takes to go over the edge of chaos.”