Ailing Empire Blues
Decline is a fact; declinism is a problem. American decline is happening, slowly but inevitably. It is a structural and material process. Declinism is a problem of rhetoric or belief. It is the way that media elites predict the future of an aging superpower for its educated public. Stretching audiences between false alarm and false hope, declinism sells a fallacy: the idea that America can stay atop the global system indefinitely. But as the British ruling classes learned after 1900, there is no reversing history. Number one will always become number two someday.
The United States stands now where Britain once stood, at the threshold of a dramatic reckoning. The signs are everywhere. The 2020s culture war is a history war, and it turns on the meaning of national decline and lost hegemony. As the new history wars unfold, the British precedent sheds light on several facets of American decline and division.
The struggle to redefine national culture after empire has been underway for generations in the UK. To gather insights from it, we can revisit an extraordinary body of work in cultural history produced in the 1960s and 1970s by the British New Left. I think of the UK historians of that time—especially Stuart Hall, Tom Nairn, Perry Anderson, Raphael Samuel, Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams—as intellectual “first responders” to the contraction of British power. They developed a genuine theory of national decline. Their synthesis of politics and culture gives us the most integrated way of approaching both actual decline and superpower nostalgia (declinism) in the contemporary United States.
The achievements of the British New Left were catalyzed by an urgent and collective sense of mission. They wanted to make sense of the UK’s rightward political drift, to understand the aftereffects of Britain’s industrial, imperial past, and to map out the conditions for a more democratic, equitable, and secure future. For those of us working now in U.S. media and institutions, the same urgent mission has announced itself. Cultural analysis and the history wars matter in the civic and political life of the United States, which is now facing its own “Autumn of the System” moment.
Here is Stuart Hall on UK culture after empire:
The culture of an old empire is an imperialist culture, but that is not all it is, and these are not necessarily the only ideas in which to invent a future for British people. Imperialism lives on—but it is not printed in an English gene. In the struggle for ideas . . . bad ideas can only be displaced by better, more appropriate ones.
What was needed, Hall wrote, was for “modern thoughts” to displace imperialist nostalgia. But to dismantle the old jingoist appeal of British greatness, those modern thoughts, those better ideas, would have to “grip the popular imagination, bite into the real experience of the people.” In other words, the struggle over history matters, and good ideas can dispel morbid superpower nostalgia. Perhaps the most important thing that the New Left has to say to Americans of the 2020s is that the politics of national greatness are not natural or permanent. They required an organized effort to produce and are therefore subject to change. “Ideological transformations,” Hall wrote, “do not take place by magic.”
Hall himself observed how successfully Britain sold its imperial project to the working class and to the lower-middle classes in the late Victorian period. Jingoist elites using the new media of the time pulled popular desire toward ruling-class concepts of British destiny. They siphoned class antagonism into emotional, patriotic support for crown, empire, and army. The heroic languages of imperial romance and adventure habituated elites and non-elites alike to the glories of British greatness. The rise of this brand of nationalism facilitated what Tom Nairn calls the “political baptism” of the working class. It worked across class and regional lines, even after the two world wars and the imperial twilight. Many Brexit voters have never stopped conjuring the lost ideal of a Greater Britain.
In the United States, the political baptism of the non-elites to the hegemonic mission happened in the years between 1920 and 1960. Mass culture in those crucial years paved the way for a patriotic politics built around U.S. military prowess, massive expansion of literacy and lifestyle, the phobias of the Red Scare and Jim Crow, and commercial success across the globe. By the midcentury, anti-communism produced a coordinated ideological effort at cohesion. Elites recruited the political aspirations of working-class and middle-class voters into the cause of American supremacy, framing the export of American consumer capitalism as the triple gift of sacred freedom, true democracy, and general prosperity. The Hollywood studio system picked up the plots of late-Victorian adventure genres, adapting them to the worldview of U.S. supremacy and global centrality.
Of course, many Americans never bought that version of national greatness. Many never felt included in the Cold War version of manifest destiny. But enough did. And many still believe in an exceptional greatness for America, over and above all other nations. A consequential majority, I think, have been trained to accept the orthodox vision of boundless growth and evergreen supremacy for America. But Hall’s history reminds us that gut patriotisms, however deeply held, have been changed in the past. They can be changed in the future.
The United States now stands at a switch point of history as the UK once did. Perry Anderson’s overview of postwar UK society probably sounds familiar:
Today Britain appears an archaic society, trapped in past successes, now for the first time aware of its lassitude, but as yet unable to overcome it. These symptoms of decline have been catalogued too frequently to need much repetition here: stagnant industries, starved schools, run-down cities, demoralized rulers, parochial outlooks. All these sores of the present have their origins in advantages of the past.
The UK became trapped in its own myths of greatness, its own mystified concepts of free trade and liberal hegemony, its own ossifying social institutions and traditionalist manners. The United States has been sleepwalking into this British trap for the last forty years, circling back to mid-twentieth-century ideas that “made America great” rather than generating, piloting, testing, and adapting new ones.
Not everything that is wrong with the United States at present can be explained by relative economic decline or the pall of superpower nostalgia. For example, authoritarian populism has mushroomed all over the world in the last ten years, from India to Eastern Europe to the United States. But the British precedent illuminates certain aspects of right populism and white nationalism that are particular to the Anglo ex-superpowers. In the 1960s and 1970s, British New Left thinkers wanted to make sense of UK culture and society after empire. They decoded the icons of Britishness: crown, empire, the City, finance, fair play, class hierarchy, empiricism, laissez-faire and, of course, traditionalism itself. They rethought the motor forces of British life from the ground up, seeking to assay the often pernicious legacies of lost greatness. Baffled at the tenacity of old Victorian hierarchies in a mass democracy, they wondered whether a full modernization of British politics would ever take place.
One core platform of New Left thinking, the so-called Nairn-Anderson theses, held that Britain’s ideological horizons were set by an early revolution, early industrialization, and a successful tradition of class compromise between the aristocracy and the middle class. Class compromise produced social stability but extended the influence of the ruling classes well past their time in history. Even in the urbanizing, industrial decades of the nineteenth century, aristocratic values fed, and were fed by, the growing role of overseas empire. In fact, the Victorian empire was a kind of historical deep freeze for UK class relations. Anderson again: the empire gave “its characteristic style to [British] society, consecrating and fossilizing to this day its interior space, its ideological horizons, its intimate sensibility.”
British dominance in the global economy (1820–1920) extended the life-lease of the ancien régime: “The late Victorian era and the high noon of imperialism welded aristocracy and bourgeoisie together into a single social bloc,” as Anderson writes. But when UK military and economic power started to wane, so evidently did the bedrock logic of class compromise. What Martin Wiener calls the “decline of the English industrial spirit” drove a wedge between the aristocrats and the capitalists, especially in the decades from 1880 on. The general strike of 1926 marked a further class divide, this time between labor and management.
Yet the elite vision of British society—and many aspects of the old class system—have survived decades of decline and division in the twentieth century. Here was the real mystery—the one the New Left has been trying to unravel for decades. Decline exacerbated rather than mitigated the hierarchies of the Victorian age. It reinforced rather than loosened the conservative grip on the popular imagination. And here is where the New Left model—in both its blindness and its insight—becomes fascinating for readers in the contemporary United States.
The New Left urgently wanted to find a unified field theory of UK political history. Why was there no transformative labor movement? Why was social antagonism splitting along lines of race, region, religion, and ideology rather than class? Why devolution (of Scotland, for example) and not revolution? What made Thatcherism tick? Nairn, Anderson, and their colleagues sought a historical explanation for the success of the right wing at speaking to the legitimate fears of middle- and working-class citizens in a stagnant economy.
When they moved beneath elections and institutions, into the cultural roots of modern political alignments, the answers began to gel. Their research pointed to deep matters of attitude, belief, and identity—many of them associated with old habits of national superiority and the conservative hangover of empire. For example, Nairn observed: “The continuity of England’s incredible myth consciousness, and her political decay, are the products of a material history—the shrinking material basis of an imperialist order still trapped in its own historical contradictions.” Britain’s growth made England a rich but hollow center.
Once peeled apart from its empire, England became both core and remnant. New Left analysis linked the cultural aftermath of empire to the conservative capture of working-class political energy. They began to study the social effects and expressions of the diminishment felt by (white) UK citizens after empire. Lost greatness drove authoritarian populism in the run-up to Thatcher. Stuart Hall captured this political math: “The anxieties of the many are orchestrated with the need for control of the few.” The phrase rings out with contemporary American resonances. When even economically secure citizens feel that “traditional loyalties to street, family, work, locality” are eroding, conservative elites can recruit non-elites by channeling a shared but often unnamable sense of loss.
In the early days of Thatcher’s campaign to “Make Britain Great Again,” Hall wrote: “Entities of power are dangerous when they are ascending and when they are declining and it is a moot point whether they are more dangerous in the second or the first moment.” In Policing the Crisis, he and his cowriters addressed the sensational media coverage of UK muggings during the 1970s. They argued that the shrinking contours of Britain served as one crucial predicate for a moral panic around urban street crime. That in turn served as the predicate for a new wave of law-and-order thinking and, eventually, for Thatcherism. The media stoked the crisis by framing young Black men as a social threat, converting them into “Folk Devils.”
These were some of the racial ABCs of right populism forty years ago, and they were linked by Hall and his team to the rise of paranoid thinking. Conspiracy theories teem and simmer in a country on the downslope. After decades of imperial expansion, ordinary UK voters learned to view dissent or dissonance within the UK as “a conspiracy against ‘the British way of life.’” Where the targets are vague and sinister, and a sense of loss prevails, conspiracy thinking quickly becomes racism. No wonder Englishness was prone to curdle into nativism of the kind advanced by Enoch Powell. With the imperial mission of growth, greatness, and overseas rule evaporating, national sentiment in England had nowhere to go.
The American story picks up from the English one here.
As we move on the diagonal, across the Atlantic, from 1970 to 2020, the trails marked by the New Left historians lead to a more synthetic understanding of the complex life of an aging superpower on the downslope. The cardinal features of decline culture identified by the New Left have all become unignorable aspects of U.S. culture and politics: repetitive cultural scripts and stale thinking in media, academic, and political institutions; a deregulated and heavily financialized economy; ossified class relations featuring a holdover alliance that keeps non-elites voting against their economic self-interest; melancholic attachments to lost power that result in a morbidly conservative politics; popular and populist anxiety about the national future; contagious political myths predicated on the imaginary betrayal of the nation’s true essence; authoritarianism; white nationalism; white moral panic; the rise of control society and the carceral state; and widespread paranoia and conspiracy-theory thinking.
All of these problems plague the contemporary United States as the downslope steepens. Taken together, they point to the cultural malaise and political vacuum produced by economic decline. Declinist ideas fill that vacuum because without the cause of American supremacy—growth and greatness as ends in themselves—the language of national solidarity and national purpose has evaporated. America has its own version of the imperial deep freeze—stuck in a history of past success and present inertia.
The expansive success of the military-industrial complex of the 1950s with its corporate-managerial norms is now a frozen technocratic legacy blocking the historical imagination. Americans still measure themselves by the standards and values of the Greatest Generation and their boomer offspring. They measure economic and political success against an anomalous apex point of U.S. power and prosperity, the 1950–1970 period. These acts of obedient traditionalism impart to “future-oriented” American culture a deadening conservative backwardness. The norms and expectations of midcentury U.S. society have left two or three generations of younger America with a bland and belated dedication to replicating ways of life and myths of greatness whose economic base has been transformed by the last fifty years.
Just as Victorian ruling-class values long held sway over UK culture and politics, now a reverential view of American greatness cuts across classes and regions, locked in the amber of an Eisenhower-Kennedy era version of technical triumph over economic limits. The UK ruling-class ethos and the U.S. managerial ethos are not identical. But they are both distillates of elite control, each stamped by their respective superpower template. Victorian imperialism, as Perry Anderson observes, “created a powerful ‘national’ framework which in normal periods insensibly mitigated social contradictions and at moments of crisis transcended them altogether.” Class compromise, a cardinal point of the Nairn-Anderson theses, takes a different shape in U.S. mass society than it did in the Victorian Age. But the high noon of American hegemony and Cold War consent culture welded U.S. elites to well-paid labor and the middle class. In addition, as C. Wright Mills influentially argued in his account of the U.S. “power elites,” the business class and the professionals had common cause at midcentury, forming a block that Barbara and John Ehrenreich dubbed the “professional-managerial class.” As Bernard Porter correctly notes, U.S. corporate technocrats were quite unlike British aristocrats in mores and style. But they occupied similar positions in a historical structure that emerged at a similar point in what Giovanni Arrighi calls the U.S.-led cycle of accumulation.
The system of U.S. class compromise formed in the Cold War has shown remarkable staying power over the last forty years of relative decline. But its bonds are wearing down as the U.S. enters its terminal crisis. Decline has split the state/experts/minorities Democratic bloc from the corporation/managers/white working-class Republican bloc. One side protects the regulatory state and the other champions a freer market. The working class has also been more and more untethered from the idea of shared American success. When elite and non-elite interests separate, and the pie shrinks, the possibility for a fundamental shakeup of class relations becomes more real. But so does the entrenchment of existing hierarchies.
The picture is complex. British elites gained and maintained control of many institutions during the long downslope after 1900. As Richard Lachmann observes, that control gave the UK propertied class short-term advantages while blocking the kind of democratization that would have broadened prosperity. Brenner makes the same case about the United States since the 1970s. Financialization protected the wealth of propertied elites who sought the deregulation of U.S. markets. But it blocked the reinvestments that might have produced sustainable growth and expanded household incomes.
When class interests splinter in the age of decline, conservative visions of once and future greatness glue them back together. Culture wars pull non-elites to the right—a familiar truism of U.S. electoral politics. It is rare though for mainstream political commentary to root this truism in the baseline problem of superpower nostalgia. Panning back to look at both UK and U.S. trajectories over the last 150 years, it becomes clearer that the deteriorating consensus or lost center of American politics produced an identity crisis for citizens of all kinds. Political sentiments that once attached to America’s manifest destiny—from the western frontier to the moon landing—have nowhere to go now but backward. No wonder mythic attachments rule over rational class interests.
The British New Left developed an early and cogent response to the class and racial dynamics of imperial decline. Their integrated model of the culture of contraction is invaluable for Americans thinking about the problems and possibilities in a society shaped by fading hegemony. But the New Left had diagnostic failings worth noting. Their intellectual movement has largely remained a dissenting, minority, and academic position within a UK society still drifting right, still circling lost greatness, still Brexiting. Looking back at the New Left thinkers, it can seem as if they believed that nothing ever changes fast enough or in the right direction. That a transformative workers’ movement never arrived remained a frustrating conundrum.
In one sense their great strength—the attempt to understand one specific state and its national cultures—was also a limitation in thinking about the power of a long and global bourgeois-industrial revolution. That revolution may be a thing of the past in the UK, but it is still making its way through China and the Global South. In an integrated world system of societies and economies, capitalism continues to expand and renew itself. The socialist revolution, if it is to follow the globalization of an industrial and postindustrial middle-class, may still be a long way off. The old elites and oligarchical forms remain strong in both the UK and the United States, and indeed across the developed world.
Meanwhile, the problem that haunted the New Left was the infection of the popular/democratic with the populist/authoritarian. It was a problem they could never solve in theory or in practice. Their brilliant diagnostics of declinist conservatism and their passionate affirmations of working-class struggle—definitive for the generation of E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams—could not will into being a political transformation in the UK. The viability and vigor of bourgeois and traditional institutions seems to have caught them up short. The successful Tory union of elite leaders and non-elite voters—like the plutocratic-populist appeal of Trumpism today—is a difficult lock to pick.
The social conservatism of the economically marginalized is now more an established fact than a political surprise. The right-wing coalitions of Thatcherism then, and Trumpism now, are a familiar feature of decline politics. But they are growing more radical in contemporary America. The British example, even as a lost opportunity, is vital for that reason. It points to the need for a direct and concerted intellectual disarmament of declinism, of the superpower nostalgia that is the cultural jet fuel of right populism.
Excerpted from The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits, by Jed Esty, published by Stanford University Press, ©2022 by Jed Esty. All Rights Reserved.