History Politics

The Ironies of Empire and Imperial Decadence

It is no secret that the United States is an empire. It is also no secret that the American Empire is decaying, America is an empire in decline. The contraction of the American Empire is a cause of alarm for the liberal establishment, though it professes to be against “empire” in the public airwaves. But the ongoing turmoil of the United States as it enters the stage of imperial decadence is not unprecedented.

I wish to compare the imperial decadence of the United States—itself brought on by the hubris of the Forever Wars launched in the aftermath of September 11 reminiscent of Alistair Horne’s excellent book Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century—with that of Rome, Britain, and the Soviet Union. There are important lessons to be drawn from the downfall of all three of these imperial polities, but there are also deep parallels to be aware of. No doubt some authors will dismiss those similarities and parallels, but the gentle and honest reader should not be blinded by ideological dismissiveness common from the soc-called educated intelligentsia.

Civilizations rise and fall as any other organic lifeform. The birth, mature, reach apogee, stagnant, decline, and die. No civilization is immune from these simple facts. The rise and fall of empires are no different. Though empires may die the civilizations that constitute them may endure for some time or metamorphosize in its aftermath.

In the Discourses on Livy Machiavelli identified two realities to societies: they are either built from a native population or built from a foreign population that wrestled the land away from the smaller native population. Empires fall from external pressure, mass migration, barbarians moving into foreign lands in mass numbers and overwhelming the existing native population. Empires also fall from within. Civil war, political corruption and impotence, cultural fragmentation and disintegration. Sometimes empires fall from external and internal fires simultaneously. Other times empires fall from either/or.

It should be noted that the decline of empires is often associated with mass migrations. Non-imperial entities tend not to suffer from this problem. Empires, as they collapse, are always suffering from mass migration—whether internally or externally. Non-empires tend to be immune from this problem.

The fact that the United States is suffering from a crisis of cultural fragmentation brought on by mass migration shouldn’t be shocking. Precedence abounds for this reality.

The nadir of Roman Empire in Western Europe was marked by mass migrations—when the so-called “barbarians” of Central and Eastern Europe, the Gothic and Germanic tribes in particular, pushed across the Roman frontier. The prejudices of Dark Age historians and Whigs has clouded the public understanding of this problem. Most of the Germanic and Gothic peoples were not invading as an enemy, they were fleeing the violence and instability in their own homelands. Political maneuvering, murders, and the invasion of the Huns drove many of these tribes to seek the supposed security and wealth that the Roman Empire offered. Yet their mass movement into the Roman Empire brought catastrophe and collapse; the Roman political system couldn’t sustain the weight of the tribes pushing into the frontier borders and the Roman betrayal of using various tribes as warriors brought forth retribution (Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 started because he and his men weren’t paid for their military services).

The same is true during the final days of the British Empire. The Suez Crisis marked the end of Britain (and France) as major world powers. Eisenhower’s intervention against the British and the quick retraction of the British Empire in Africa and India undeniably marks the end of the British Empire. As the British Empire “collapsed” through retreat, it ironically was beset by the beginnings of mass immigration the same way Rome was. Indians, Pakistanis, and various African tribal groups, all fleeing dictatorial persecution, civil war, and economic hardship turned their eyes to the former Crown Master to seek asylum and a new life in the late 1950s and 1960s during the decades of turmoil and civil conflict wrought be decolonization. So they came, and not long after Enoch Powell gave his famous “Rivers of Blood” Speech quoting Virgil—an epic, incidentally, that dealt with mass migration, war, and empire.

While Americans like to think Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and St. John Paul II were instrumental in confronting the Soviet Union and that this new confrontational approach decisively led to the breakup of the Communist Bloc, mass migration—driven by debt and economic destruction wrought by socialist policies—was another one of the principal factors of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc (this, for various reasons, is often never brought up). Hundreds of thousands, then millions, of Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, and other disposed peoples of the Soviet Satellite states migrated north to Czechoslovakia for jobs. They found none. The Czechs sent them further north.

The supposed utopia of East Germany became their destination. The East Germans, however—unsurprisingly—had been lying about their paradise. Just as hundreds of thousands of their fellow “comrades” entered East Germany, the East German government defaulted on its debts. West Germany ran out of patience. The East Germany economy buckled and collapsed. It was compounded by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of starving and angry migrants. Discontent led to rage and rage to desperation. It wasn’t “freedom” that the Eastern Europeans were suddenly hungry for in 1988 and 1989 but the hunger to survive brought on by real hunger that forced them into the arms of Western Europe. Then the collapse occurred. Rather spectacularly. And the neo-Whig propagandists chalked up the victory to the usual suspects—thus the eternal march of freedom and justice, rather than migration and economic collapse, became the guiding stars of how the Cold War was won.

Economic stagnation is another leg to the collapse of the great empires mentioned above. Unlike the eastern portion of the Roman Empire where trade and mass agriculture flourished, the western half of the empire was largely based on subsistence agriculture and welfare. To feed its disposed millions, Rome had to import grain from Egypt and North Africa. As the Visigoths raided and made their way into North Africa, besieging the city of Hippo as the great saint Augustine made his final pilgrimage to the Lord, the North African grain supply was cut. Egypt couldn’t provide enough for the west and itself (and the eastern provinces). Debt had also skyrocketed. Hungry masses joined the vandalizing barbarians as a means of survival. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Second World War also crippled Britain beyond recovery. The First World War had already taken tremendous financial tolls on the British Empire. Another and far more savage world war made the British economic and financial state untenable. The British may have passed the torch on to Washington D.C., but the economic depression of the British Empire—crippled by debt and large military revenues—equally forced its hand in “decolonization.” The Empire couldn’t operate any longer. While the British were able to transition from global empire back to a splendid little nation dreaming of a New Jerusalem on its shores, it wasn’t long until the retraction of the British Empire was met by the beginning of the mass exodus of former subjects mentioned above.

The Soviet Union was suffering the same. Bankruptcy. Economic decline. Defaulting on loans and debt. The Satellite states suffering from all the same problems. Internal migration and displacement. The environment in the Communist Bloc was a recipe for disaster. And disaster erupted—at least from their perspective. Euphoria erupted in the West. “The End of History” was nigh.

Empires inevitably die. There are no eternal empires. Though the maniacal dreaming of egoistical men conceives otherwise.

As empires die, however, we see a regular pattern: economic stagnation and mass migrations are the routinely occurring events of imperial decadence. Yet the sudden and violent demise of empires is a product of being an empire. The irony of empire is that it makes one the prime place where people ironically want to flee too. The Germanic and Gothic tribes sought Rome despite all her problems. Indian, Pakistani, and African refugees sought Britain. So too we see people, despite all the accusations of systematic oppression and racism, seeking the United States. The various peoples of Eastern Europe were looking internally to their own empire of paradise before turning to the West as their last hope for escape.

One of the ironies of empire is that people seek to migrate into it only after the empire has stopped its expansion. Only in the stages of decline and destruction do neighbors, for whatever reason, seek to enter the promised land.

America is an empire in decline. America is place where economic stagnation is already here (and been here long before COVID-19) and debt continues to skyrocket even when anti-debt Republicans had their majority in Congress and the Presidency. And, of course, we see America suffering from mass migration, illegal immigration, and internal division indicative of imperial decadence.

But not all civilizations go extinct from the vicissitudes of history and imperial collapse. The American Empire may well be finished. For many, this may be a welcome moment. Though cheer lightly, for the reality of imperial collapse is almost always marked by chaos and war. The task, then, is civilization inheritance and perseverance despite imperial destruction.

As most historians of Late Antiquity now maintain, much to the chagrin of that bloated bigot Edward Gibbon, Roman civilization did, in fact, survive imperial collapse. Roman civilization endured, mostly because of the nascent Christian religion in the West inherited and augmented aspects of Roman culture, law, and civilization which passed on to the German tribes who settled what became Western Europe. That seed of Roman civilization that was preserved as the flower died spawned into something new and, arguably, superior to Rome itself.

While America, then, is an empire in decline there is little reason to be concerned with outright civilizational collapse. Instead, we are likely living through a period of civilizational metamorphosis. Something new is going to emerge over the horizon. It will retain aspects of the past, the old, the inherited. But it will be something new because of the pains and declinations we are currently living through.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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