There are advantages to learning about history. One of the big ones is that patterns repeat themselves across historical time, and if you know what happened just before other societies went through the important inflection points in their life cycle, you can tolerably often figure out when one of those is about to happen in the place and time where you happen to be living. I was reminded of this last week when news dispatches from Afghanistan started showing up in the news aggregator sites I watch.
Afghanistan, in case any of my readers spent the last twenty years living under a rock, was invaded and mostly conquered by the United States in late 2001. Officially, this was in retaliation for the terrorist attacks that year; in the world of unmentionable facts, it was one of two beachheads established as part of the Bush II administration’s monumentally stupid attempt to conquer and pacify the Middle East—the other was of course Iraq. A puppet Afghani government was duly installed and propped up by a steadily increasing expenditure of American dollars, munitions, and lives, while the US military went through the usual pantomime of nation-building and the corporate media took turns alternating between fawning over the latest imperial project and pretending to disapprove of it.
By 2016, however, the great majority of Americans were sick of this and other “forever wars” pursued by our elite classes. Revulsion against Hillary Clinton’s enthusiastic cheerleading for a new war in Syria was thus one of the factors that gave Donald Trump his narrow win in that year’s election. I predicted in early 2021, once it became clear that Joe Biden had scraped out an equally narrow win in the 2020 election, that his administration would quietly copy as many of Trump’s policies as Biden’s handlers thought they could get away with. That turned out to be true, of course, and one of the policies they adopted was the withdrawal from Afghanistan that Trump tried to carry out.
US ground troops were duly withdrawn, and the puppet government we put in place promptly imploded without further ado. When I started writing this post last week, flacks from the US intelligence (sic) community were earnestly warning that the Taliban might be ready to advance on the capital at Kabul within ninety days; before I finished writing it, just a few days later, the Afghan National Army we spent trillions of dollars arming and training had deserted en masse, Kabul had fallen without any significant resistance, and desperate US embassy staff were trying to claw their way onto planes at the Kabul airport. Meanwhile US secretary of state Blinken angrily insisted at a press conference that it was unfair to compare the fall of Kabul to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Of course he was quite correct, in one wry sense: the US puppet government in South Vietnam was able to cling to power for three years after the US pulled its troops out, while its equivalent in Afghanistan didn’t manage much more than three weeks.
Perhaps the loudest result so far has been an orgy of fingerpointing. Our European client states are especially shrill about this, which is funny in a way. If they really want to change the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, after all, they can always send their own armies, air forces, and bureaucrats to replace ours, and commit to pouring Euros down the rathole that swallowed so many dollars. Of course they’re not willing to do anything of the kind—as usual, they’re begging us to do it for them. Meanwhile the political classes here in the United States have been blaming the consequences of their own abject stupidity on poor vacant-eyed Joe Biden, and wringing their hands about the end of this latest imperial adventure without ever quite suggesting that anyone should do something about it. Since more than two thirds of American voters are sick enough of the endless, pointless wars in the Middle East to vote people out of office for supporting them, there’s really not much more they can do.
In all the fuss, an important lesson is in danger of being missed: it’s one thing to go through the motions of building a nation and quite another to accomplish that difficult task. In particular, if nation-building is done with the distinctive mix of arrogance, incompetence, and venality for which American officials have become so deservedly famous in recent decades, you don’t get a nation. Instead, you get what people of an earlier generation used to call a Potemkin village.
There’s a story behind that useful phrase. Back in the eighteenth century, when Catherine the Great was on the throne of the Russian Empire, she decided to tour some southern provinces that had just been wrested from the Ottoman Empire. Those provinces had been devastated by decades of war and weren’t especially enthusiastic about becoming part of Russia, but the Empress didn’t want to hear that—nor, more importantly, did she want to see that. So her chief minister Grigori Potemkin sent his staff ahead to set up fake villages along Her Majesty’s route, where they pretended to be loyal peasants cheering the Empress. Once she was out of sight, they folded up the temporary hovels and hauled them to their next scheduled position.
Some historians these days doubt that this actually took place. It doesn’t greatly matter whether the original Potemkin villages are a detail of Russia’s long and colorful history or an unusually funny urban legend, because the same kind of pretense has happened over and over again in history. It’s inevitable, in fact, whenever political power becomes too concentrated. There’s a reason for this. That reason was memorably summed up by the late Robert Anton Wilson as Hagbard’s Law: communication is only possible between equals.
Let’s take a moment to unpack this. Imagine two people in an unequal relationship, such that person A gets to tell person B what to do and can punish person B at will, while person B is obliged to follow orders and put up with abuse: that is to say, the normal relationship between the privileged classes in American society and their underlings. Is person B going to tell person A the truth under all circumstances? Of course not. Person B is going to tell person A what he thinks person A wants to hear, in order to avoid punishment.
Now imagine that person A has beliefs about the world that don’t correspond to what’s actually happening, and person B has access to the facts on the ground. In this situation Hagbard’s Law kicks into overdrive. Most of the time, as we’ve all seen, person A will insist that the facts on the ground must be doing what they’re told, and if person B dissents, he’s lying and deserves to be punished. Like Grigori Potemkin, person B in this situation is stuck trying to cater to the fantasies of person A no matter how delusional those get. So Person A blunders serenely along, convinced that all is right with the world, while the plans he orders person B to carry out cause one disaster after another.
Consider along these lines what would have happened if a senior staff member in the National Security Council had tried to tell George W. Bush’s inner circle of lackeys that their crackbrained daydream of turning the Middle East into a collection of happy little democratic nations under the thumb of the US empire was guaranteed to end badly, as of course it always was. That senior staffer would have been a former senior staffer in short order. Since the US political class at that time was largely united behind that gargantuan folly, in turn, the staffer’s chance of getting any job that didn’t involve asking “Would you like fries with that?” would have been fairly low. So the staffers did what subordinates in that position nearly always do: they told their superiors what the superiors wanted to hear, and hoped for the best.
This is how we got twenty years of total failure in Afghanistan. Ours is a profoundly caste-ridden society, in which members of the privileged classes fondly pretend that they alone know what’s really going on in the world and can ignore any contradictory data that might filter up from below. Meanwhile the people who have to live with the consequences of the resulting policies face a torrent of abuse if they mention that the facts on the ground are not behaving according to plan. Nor was this effect limited to one overseas war. Keep in mind that the same elites who were responsible for those twenty years of total failure in Afghanistan are also responsible for the current state of affairs here at home, and a great deal suddenly makes sense.
If you want a specific example, look at the infrastructure bill currently lurching its way through Congress. If it passes, it commits the federal government to spend more than a trillion dollars it doesn’t have to repair the crumbling infrastructure of the United States. If you’ve been paying attention, dear reader, you know that this is only the latest and largest of a long series of bills that were supposed to deal with said crumbling infrastructure. None of these bills has actually done anything to repair our infrastructure, of course, and the current bill will do nothing more.
That’s because this bill, like its predecessors, is pure Potemkin policy. If the bill passes, more that a trillion dollars will be conjured out of thin air by the simple expedient of having the US government buy even more of its own bonds. That notional wealth will then be “spent on infrastructure.” That is to say, the great majority of it will go to pay for bureaucratic makework, inflated salaries and consulting fees, planning conferences at posh resort hotels, lavish corporate handouts, good old-fashioned graft, and an assortment of vanity projects pushed by state and federal officials. All of these, in turn, will accomplish about as much to fix our nation’s dilapidated infrastructure as all those dollars we spent on the Afghan National Army did to defend Kabul.
Doubtless a few dollars here and there will actually go into repairing a bridge or a highway somewhere, but that’s incidental. What matters is that Congresscritters and Joe Biden will get to claim that they are “doing something about infrastructure,” federal and state bureaucrats will expand their fiefdoms, the professional-managerial food chains that depend on government handouts will batten on another more than ample feeding, and corporate slush funds will swell like Thanksgiving parade balloons. The only ones who will lose out will be the American people, who will go on having to deal with a built enviroment that resembles the Third World more and more with every year that passes.
Another example? Consider the ongoing charade concerning carbon emissions and global warming. Every year scientists show up on the media to warn us all in glum tones that this is the last chance we’ve got to keep a climate catastrophe from happening. Every year politicians and celebrities make appropriate noises about the climate, and climb aboard their private jets to belch carbon into the atmosphere so they can go someplace fashionable and tell us that we all have to burn less carbon. Meanwhile carbon emissions keep on climbing steadily. It’s all Potemkin policy, as Joe Biden demonstrated last week: after making the usual pious noises about using less carbon, he told OPEC to hurry up and produce more oil and gas so we can use more carbon.
There are plenty of other examples. We’ve got welfare programs that don’t improve anyone’s welfare, except for that of the well-paid bureaucrats who administer them. We’ve got defense programs which are incapable of any military function other than carrying out devastating raids on the federal budget. I could also talk about our more than ample supply of leaders who can’t lead, or about a government that no longer seems to know how to govern, but I think the point has been made. Most programs that have come out of Washington DC over the last forty years or so have been Potemkin policy, meant to create the appearance of action without doing anything about the problems they supposedly address. They have done this because addressing those problems would require the people who profit most from our society to settle for less than everything they want. As a result we Americans live in a Potemkin nation, a land of glossy facades and false fronts covering the stark but unmentionable reality of a society in freefall.
As the current situation in Afghanistan demonstrates, however, a Potemkin village will only stay up as long as everyone involved continues to play along. If anybody had walked up to one of the portable faux-villages Grigori Potemkin put along the route of the Empress and given one of the hovels a good hard shove, the hovel would have collapsed, and so would the entire structure of pretense that depended on it. That’s what the Taliban has just done. One good hard shove was all it took to bring down the Potemkin village of “democratic Afghanistan” that was installed at gunpoint and sustained the same way for twenty miserably wasted years.
Sudden shocks along these lines, however, are not restricted to conveniently distant countries. One of the repeated lessons of history is that when Potemkin politics become standard operating procedure in a nation, no matter how powerful and stable that nation might look, it can come apart with astonishing speed once somebody provides the good hard shove just discussed. The sudden implosion of the Kingdom of France in 1789 and the equally abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 are two of the most famous examples, but there have been many others. In every case, what happened was that a government that had stopped solving its nation’s problems, and settled for trying to manage appearances instead, discovered the hard way that governments really do derive their power from the consent of the governed—and that this consent can be withdrawn very suddenly indeed.
We are much closer to such an event in the United States today than most people realize. A recent poll discovered that close to a third of Americans would like to see this country broken up into smaller regional nations. That view was shared more or less equally by Democrats, Republicans, and independents, and it was as common in liberal regions as conservative ones. Those are unprecedented numbers, and a few more fatuous blunders on the part of the political classes might be enough to push them well over the line to a workable majority.
Nor would it take scenes like those currently unfolding in Afghanistan to finish the job. As I pointed out a while back in my novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming, the thing could be done legally and peacefully, by the simple expedient of passing a constitutional amendment dissolving the Union and permitting the states to make other arrangements for the welfare of their people—something that state legislatures and a constitutional convention could do all by themselves, without the approval of Congress. Whether or not this particular process describes the shape of our future, the fact that so many people are ready to see the American experiment written off as an obvious failure is a warning sign that should not be ignored.
This doesn’t mean the apocalypse is nigh. (That’s another of the lessons of history.) It means that it’s increasingly likely that sometime in the not too distant future, some good hard shove or other will send the empty facades of our Potemkin nation toppling to the ground, and those of us in the former United States will find ourselves living in a poorer, more troubled, and more marginal society under new management. When will that happen? It’s impossible to say, though I sometimes suspect it may not be all that long. What combination of elite stupidity and blind chance will deliver the push that sends the United States of America as currently constituted down the same well-greased chute as Bourbon France and the Soviet Union? That can’t be known in advance either.
What we know is that if something is unsustainable, sooner or later it won’t be sustained, and if most of the people in a nation no longer trust their leaders or believe in the system under which they live, those leaders and that system are not long for this world. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest that those of my readers who plan on leaving the United States in the event of political upheavals probably shouldn’t delay too long; it won’t do you much good if you wait until the president has fled the country and delivered his resignation speech from a hotel in Ottawa, and 15,000 people are at your local international airport desperately trying to board the last five planes out of the country. If you’re planning on staying, as I am, it might be a good idea to make sure your cupboards are well stocked with food and other necessities, and that you’re prepared to weather periods from weeks to months in length when local stores will have a lot of bare shelves and the other details of what used to pass for ordinary life will be disrupted.
Meanwhile, of course, there are broader arcs of history in which the rise and fall of the United States is a minor detail. One of those arcs may just have passed an inflection point we were warned about half a century ago. We’ll talk about that two weeks from now.
(Quick update: Malcom Kyeyune, one of the best social critics around these days, has a typically brilliant essay on this same theme on his blog. Check it out.)