America is an Old Country
The Old World’s conceit towards America obscures the remarkable endurance of its constitutional order - an order threatened by its longevity.
Originally published on February 14, 2022.
The Old World’s Conceit
There is still an Old World conceit in our approach to America. Its name is a byword for infantilism. Its leaders are seen as nothing but salesmen and actors providing entertainment in return for votes. Its culture is purely fabricated by big corporations seeking to sell products and its jingoist foreign policy ruins nations just to flex American power. There is a certain artificiality to America that can’t be denied; partly, its ‘creative destruction’ is a powerful catalyst for American innovation.
Beyond these accusations (some true, others debatable), the resilience of America’s constitutional order should give us cause to re-evaluate misconceptions around time and political order.
From the perspective of the recorded history of nations, America is a blip on the radar. As an independent nation, its cultural heritage barely stretches back two centuries. Countries like China and India proudly trumpet their millennia-old heritage to remind the world - and particularly America - of their longevity and cultural cache.
However, from the perspective of the life cycles of political orders, America is remarkably resilient and long-lived. Few countries can boast of a stable order stretching back nearly three centuries with one or no civil wars. The American constitution, the foundational document of the American constitutional order - while permitting amendments - is otherwise largely the document it was when written around the turn of the 18th century.
England’s historical memory reaches back to the time of the Romans and perhaps even beyond, but the constitutional order of what we recognise today as the United Kingdom can be dated to the 17th century, with the events of the Civil Wars, the Glorious Revolution, and the Acts of Union. America’s own history was being seeded in this time as many of the early American settlers were leaving Britain for religious and commercial purposes. American settlement and the development of New England’s political institutions were partly a continuation of British politics. Since then, Britain has been stable in an order consisting of an unwritten constitution and the common law, the Westminster Parliament, and a castrated Monarchy.
Mainland Europe has an even worse track record. Between the French Revolution in 1789 to the modern day, France has gone through five Republics, often driven by civil conflict and foreign wars. Germany hasn’t been able to keep a constitutional order for more than fifty years at a time, with a possible exception for the reunification of West and East Germany in 1990. We need not discuss Russia, China, or the Middle East. These are self-evident.
Many of these nations harbour deep fears about the ephemerality of their political orders in their conceited approach to the New World. It is also somewhat driven by envy towards America’s potential. Agriculturally well-endowed, seemingly endless sources of energy and other commodities, and largely unburdened by the politics of geography responsible for unceasing warfare in the Old World.
Amidst the madness of America and its New World fury is a steadiness afforded to it by geographical providence. The Old World has repeatedly exhausted its agricultural blessings for millennia, while America’s vast interior has only been cultivated for a few centuries. America is far from being exhausted and it doesn’t have many neighbours to concern itself with sharing. On the contrary; America’s relative ‘virginity’ gives it the carrying potential for a far greater population across a longer time period than exhausted lands like the Indus and Mesopotamia.
My contention is simple: America’s political order is fairly stable and old compared to that of most countries, and even should this order fail, its bountiful land and geographical blessings are likely to give rise to new, great powers.
Americans are very lucky. They are bordered to the north and south by weak neighbours, and to the east and west by fish. — Otto Von Bismarck
Techno-Optimists Should Read Ibn Khaldun
Comprehending America’s longevity helps to identify its existing problems - and potential solutions. It requires having both a correct theory of history and an understanding of the nature of political systems.
Americans today believe - almost as a unifying faith - in the linear progression of history driven by economic and technological progress. History has an arrow, and it points ardently forward. Morals lie downstream of technology: what technology permits is by default not just morally permissible but encouraged. It is one of the most fundamental tenets of western civilisation. It is also a rallying banner for Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and technologists, who have taken an increasing interest in issues relating to governance, public policy, and cultural affairs.
Neither Americans nor Old Worlders understand and appreciate the intellectual heritage that the American Founders placed at the centre of their nation-building. The Founders saw themselves as direct heirs of antiquity and Christianity (in its Protestantised form), and the Republic as the perfection of government on God’s Earth. The Founders sought to understand the reasons for the failure of governments throughout recorded history and to create an arrangement in which the failures of men would be mitigated through a complex system of checks and balances backed by democracy.
America was not intended as a clean break from the historical record. Ideologies like techno-optimism emerged as a post-facto, secular explanation for the industrial success of America. While sometimes convincing and often self-aggrandizing, it is simply incorrect to believe in a linear progression of history driven by technology.
The concept of progress became dominant in the eighteenth century. In an age of humanitarian-moral belief, progress meant above all progress in culture, self-determination, and education: moral perfection. In an age of economic or technical thinking, it is self-evident that progress is economic or technical progress. To the extent that anyone is still interested in humanitarian-moral progress, it appears as a byproduct of economic progress.
― Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political
The linear narrative belies the truth of recorded history: history is not linear but cyclical. Ibn Khaldun laid this out explicitly in The Muqadimmah. The lifecycle of a dynasty - roughly corresponding to political orders - generally follows a number of stages. They rise, they enjoy an apex of power and glory, and then they decline. This simplified process has space for periods of reform and renaissance, but the lifecycle cannot be extended indefinitely. At some point, they die out and are replaced by new civilisations.
Ibn Khaldun believed that every society depended on asabiya, a ‘gel’ that provided group cohesion and awareness, allowing the better-coordinated to overcome the fragmented. However, generational churn breaks down that asabiya until a weak generation comes, far removed from the principles and traditions of their ancestors. This weak generation repudiates what is left of that asabiya, destroying their coordination and group feeling and allowing them to be conquered by foreign enemies. For Ibn Khaldun, this process could occur in just four generations:
It reaches its end in a single family within four successive generations. This is as follows: The builder of the glory (the first generation) knows what it cost him to do the work, and he keeps the qualities that created his glory and made it last. The (second generation) son who comes after him had personal contact with his father and thus learned those things from him. However, he is inferior in this respect to (his father), in as much as a person who learns things through study is inferior to a person who knows them from practical application. The third generation must be content with imitation and, in particular, with reliance upon tradition. This member is inferior to him of the second generation, in as much as a person who relies (blindly) upon tradition is inferior to a person who exercises independent judgment. The fourth generation, then, is inferior to the preceding ones in every respect. This member has lost the qualities that preserved the edifice of their glory. He actually despises those qualities. He sees the great respect in which he is held by the people, but he does not know how that respect originated and what the reason for it was.
While not directly applicable to modern states which mostly no longer have the concept of multi-generational rule, the general principle still applies to constitutional orders and why a culture generally drifts from its founding principles, until it reaches a stage at which it can no longer understand these principles, why they were there, and begin to despise them as mere relics and restraints. This often manifests in mockery of the ‘backward’ ways of their ancestors, and late stage societies comfort themselves with comedy.
Collapse is not the dark cloud under which every prince and pauper is aware of their impending mortality and the air is serious and sombre, but the accumulation of absurdities as late-stage societies laugh themselves to death.
The Old Republic
As America reaches the crucial sestercentennial date of 2026, it is clearly exhibiting much of the decay Ibn Khaldun had observed in his studies. For him, this is a critical period of time where civilisations either falter or successfully reform themselves. America’s infrastructure is decrepit and put to shame by rising Eurasian powers building state of the art public infrastructure for transport, medical systems, and liveable cities. American politics is increasingly partisan and gridlocked. American society is tearing itself apart at the seams, with drug overdoses breaking record highs and killing more than the coronavirus in the same period, increasing violence even among its youngest, and a collapse in marriage and fertility rates.
America has endured a brutal civil war, two world wars, multiple economic crises, and much more. However, this time something is different. After two hundred and fifty years, America’s once unceasing New World fury and ambition seems to be faltering. A tiredness creeps into the marrow of its constitutional order, and Americans are no longer absolute in their certainty that they are different from the Old World in its petty grievances and the weight of history that makes them cautious and fearful. America is being pulled into the great vortex of history, and the cycle of civilisations has declared no exemptions.
Merely being optimistic about technological development and having an ideological belief in its ability to deliver society from its human woes will yield little benefit. To identify the problem and potential solutions, America’s place in modern world history, its constitutional order, and the collapse of any identifiable asabiya that could give rise to a new elite that revitalises the empire, must all be understood. America’s would-be reformists don’t seem to be concerned with these questions.
The good news is that although America seems to be in some sort of crisis, it is in these times that genuine institutional reform is possible. Vladimir Lenin’s quip about ‘decades where nothing happens; and weeks where decades happen’ alludes to moments of crisis where live players usher in vast reforms whose practices and methods of organisation are defined by a new set of institutions. The vast opportunity of America creates the possibility for reform that could give America another several centuries of life. Its resources and culture is not yet exhausted, yet its energy is being misdirected.
Instead of grand theories driving history, we have to understand the institutional ecosystem of a particular period to understand why it developed the ‘solutions’ for the problems of their time. For example, America has undergone several sets of reforms. Its initial founding in 1776 was the 'first wave', with the next major set of reforms coming under Abraham Lincoln after the civil war, then Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and so on. Each of these developments came after some sort of crisis in which reformers provided a new set of arrangements that previously would have been unthinkable. None of it was determined or inevitable. It took immense skill, great vision, and a heavy dose of luck for these reforms to occur.
- From a previous essay on Post Apathy
Crisis can only be exploited by people possessing certain truths about history. That is to say, if you have the right theory of history, you can also have the right blueprints for action. There are all manners of suggestions around America’s many predicaments. Yet while they will offer solutions, few attempt to clarify what the actual problems are. People who don’t understand why something was put up in the first place, and how it persisted for so long, believe that it should be scrapped and that they can come up with something better. Chesterton’s Fence is a simple heuristic for this problem:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” - G.K. Chesterton (full quote)
America is now an old country with a constitutional order spanning two hundred and fifty years. In this time, countless political orders have risen and fallen, including those in nations with millennia-old cultural and political heritage. The American order is not respected enough for having survived this long, even though it is becoming exhausted.
America’s various crises today should be placed within the context of cyclical theories of history like Ibn Khaldun’s, understanding what creates nations - and what destroys them. Other narratives like techno-optimism are fundamentally flawed and cannot produce the solutions needed to save America from itself.
While this may all seem very theoretical, there is a strong case for the usefulness of ‘applied history’ in conducting institutional reform and building factions of new elites. America possesses the chaotic energy and resources to ‘force out’ reform at scale. America is too big, too unnatural, and too resourceful. It endlessly churns with people, goods, and ideas. Even if the current constitutional order collapses, new power centres would emerge around its great cities and states; Texas, California, and New England alone are international powers in their own right.
America is the first and greatest industrialised society of modern civilisation. She is also the first to de-industrialise and is beginning to feel the weight of history on her shoulders. Cultural and technical debt has built up and Americans are just beginning to learn what it means to be a nation with memory. How America navigates this predicament and successfully reforms itself for the 21st century will determine the fate of nations around the world. It’s worth trying.