Rise of Empire

by , August 19, 2004

Amid the plethora of recent books on the rise of an American empire, and the veritable flood of magazine and newspaper articles on this topic, the Caxton Press, of Caldwell, Idaho, has done us all a great service by republishing the very best critique of the imperial impulse: Ex America, by Garet Garrett.

First published in 1953, as The People’s Pottage, Ex America is a collection of three essays: the first, "The Revolution Was," is the story of how the New Deal pulled off a "revolution within the form," overthrew the Constitution, and initiated a revolutionary expansion of government power that sees its endpoint, or pretty near to it, in the so-called PATRIOT Act. As ostensible "conservatives" rationalize the greatest expansion of federal power ever, Garrett’s "Old Right" analysis of how and why we got to this point is resonant with elegiac sadness:

"There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom."

Yes, the revolution was already behind us in 1938, when those words were written – but Garrett’s account of how and why it happened is just as relevant today as when the author conceived of it.

As a mortal enemy of the New Deal and the leviathan state it created, Garrett saw himself as holding the last redoubt of an America about to vanish. Oh, the outward form of the Old Republic would endure, if only for the sake of appearances. But by the time FDR had set up a series of provocations, both covert and overt, and gotten us into another world war, the new Caesars had already abolished the stern republican virtues and set America on the road to empire.

"Regime change" is a phrase with which we are all too familiar: Garrett, in this slim volume, tells the story of how regime change was effected in the America of the 1930s. The economic elites, in alliance with the "left," i.e. the Communist party and its fellow travelers, launched a Popular Front against the traditional American idea of strictly limited, constitutional government. The collectivist intellectuals, and their Commie allies, couldn’t do it on their own: "When the opportunity came," Garrett wrote, "a Gracchus would be needed. The elite could produce one," and did in the person of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The liberals and lefties in my audience will start to grow impatient, at this point, but I hasten to assure them. While Garrett’s analysis of the Rooseveltian revolution is surely rooted in his Old Right libertarian opposition to redistributionism and support for laissez-faire, his insight into how the New Deal centralized, and, ultimately, militarized the economy, and much of American life, speaks to our present predicament with a certain eerie prescience.

FDR’s relentless campaign to subordinate all rival centers of authority to the power and glory of the Imperial Presidency – isn’t that a familiar story? Under the rubric of the economic emergency – the biggest financial collapse in the history of American capitalism – the ordinary rules and constitutional restraints on the power of government were relaxed and eventually suspended, as opportunists moved quickly to exploit the shocked and vulnerable populace. A propaganda of fear was utilized to engineer the overthrow of "the old order" – "We cannot go back to the old order," FDR often intoned, without naming which order, and the casualties of the Great Depression could only nod their heads numbly.

There is a timeless modernity about Garrett’s style as well as his subject matter:

"Revolution in the modern case is no longer an uncouth business. The ancient demagogic art, like every other art, has, as we say, advanced. It has become in fact a science – the science of political dynamics. And your scientific revolutionary in spectacles regards force in a cold, impartial manner. It may or may not be necessary. If not, so much the better: to employ it wantonly, or for the love of it when it is not necessary, is vulgar, unintelligent and wasteful. Destruction is not the aim. The more you destroy the less there is to take over. Always the single end in view is a transfer of power."

In Garrett’s day, the revolutionaries in spectacles wanted to bring about regime change in the U.S.: their descendants have their sights set on the Middle East, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union. It’s true, the ancient demagogic art has advanced since the era of FDR, but the basic methodology – a campaign of lies circulated with the complicity of the major media, funded and relentlessly promoted by foreign lobbyists and their American supporters – seems pretty much unchanged.

As for the method of financing this "revolution within the form," FDR’s disdainful reply to those who objected to the explosion in the public debt, "We will owe it to ourselves," which seemed revolutionary yesterday, is today the conventional wisdom. Congress routinely ups the debt into the trillions, and shovels American wealth into the U.S. Treasury faster than we can produce it. Much of it is funneled overseas, which brings us to the second essay, "Ex America," specifically to the opening paragraph:

"The winds that blow our billions away return burdened with themes of scorn and dispraise. There is a little brat wind that keeps saying: ‘But you are absurd, you Americans, like the rich, fat boy from the big house who is tolerated while he spends his money at the drugstore and then gets chased home with mud on his shoes. He is bewildered and hurt, and yet he wants so much to be liked that he does it again the next day. But this is parable, and you are probably too stupid to get it. If you do, you won’t believe it, and so no harm is done. You will come again tomorrow.’"

As the Iraqis complain that they don’t have regular electricity, and the Israelis build a "Wall of Separation" with our money while disdaining the U.S. State Department’s timid objections, the contemporary reader is taken aback by how little things have changed in half a century.

The jet-propelled economy of the modern super-state, Garrett pointed out, is fueled by inflation, and by its own frenetic momentum: to stop, or even pause momentarily, would cause a crash fatal to many. Rather than face the grim specter of deflation, politicians look forward to an eternity of deficit spending. The constant ratcheting up of the public debt powered a perpetual motion machine of continuously expanding government.

By 1953, when the third essay, "Rise of Empire," was written, the "revolution within the form" was complete in all its essentials:

"We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night: the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: ‘You are now entering Imperium.’ Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: ‘Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.’ And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: ‘No U-turns.’"

Garrett was a master of the opening paragraph, and I have cited his openers in the case of all three essays in part due to their sheer readability. He announces his theme in the form of an arresting image, and then develops it throughout, and the whole trilogy develops in the same way. A decade passed between the publication of "The Revolution Was" and "Rise of Empire," yet Garrett was still entranced by the vision of an elite that had seized power, effecting a revolution within the form until the American republic was transmuted, by some clandestine alchemy, into an empire.

Yet it wasn’t a secret cabal that overthrew the Constitution in the dead of night, but an open conspiracy that "reinterpreted" the general welfare clause of the Constitution to legalize the Welfare State. As Garrett put it:

"To outsmart the Constitution and to circumvent its restraints became a popular exercise of the art of government in the Roosevelt regime."

When Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court, and spoke contemptuously of "the reactionary members of the Supreme Court" as stubborn obstacles to "reform," he became a hero to the Left. "Among the millions who at the time applauded that statement of contempt," Garrett wrote,

"There were very few, if there was indeed one, who would not have been frightened by a revelation of the logical sequel. They believed, as everyone did, that there was one thing a President could never do. There was one sentence of the Constitution that could not fall, so long as the Republic lived.

"The Constitution says: ‘The Congress shall have power to declare war.’ That, therefore, was the one thing no President could do. By his own will he could not declare war, and Congress could be trusted never to do it but by will of the people – or so they believed. No man could make it for them."

Though Roosevelt wanted war, worked for it, and was relieved when it finally came, even the man who, for a while, had aspired to make himself a dictator still felt duty bound to go to Congress for a war declaration – even after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Nine years later, Garrett points out, "a much weaker President" didn’t bother.

Reading Garrett on Truman makes one realize why he’s the neocons’ favorite president, second only to Lincoln. It was the haberdasher from Independence, Missouri, after all, who first took us to war without consulting Congress, in Korea, and openly argued, for the first time, that the constitutional clause conferring on Congress sole power to make war was "obsolete" – on account of the Cold War. In a state of perpetual war, the president’s dual role as chief executive and commander-in-chief is weighted in favor of the latter. Truman and his supporters argued that technology had changed the way wars are fought, and started, so that the president had to be able to act on a moment’s notice, presumably in order to respond to a threat of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

Yesterday, the imminence of a conflict with the Soviet Union meant that the president had to be granted the right to strike at will, and today we’re hearing a rerun of the same old Cold War rationalization. Bush has gone beyond even Truman, though, in claiming not only the right to strike at will, but openly declaring his intent to strike preemptively. Terrorism, we are told, poses a "new kind of threat," one enhanced not only by new developments in technology, but also by the peculiar vulnerabilities of an empire that can project military force halfway around the world, but can’t protect its own borders.

In spite of Russia’s essential weakness – a weakness inherent in all socialist states – and the Kremlin’s general reluctance to use its own military forces to achieve its goals, except by proxy – the fight against Communism was always presented by the adherents of the West as a defensive measure. In spite of Stalin’s stated determination to limit the Soviet project to building "socialism in one country," the commies, we were told, wanted to conquer the world. We, on the other hand, were determined that they would not. And no one, at least no one on our side, ever said or implied that we opposed the Leninist legions because we wanted the world for ourselves. In the early 1950s, when Garrett’s essay first appeared, world conquest was the preoccupation of mad scientists, and even madder ideologues. We Americans would have none of it.

Not so today, as neoconservative intellectuals openly proclaim the glories of the American Empire and celebrate the coming of a "benevolent world hegemony." Garrett foresaw the emergence of Imperial America in all its aspects – and he named and numbered them, the six signs of empire:

The dominance of the executive branch, the subordination of domestic policy to foreign policy, the ascendancy of the military mind, "a system of satellite nations," "an emotional complex of vaunting and fear," and the tyranny of imagined necessity:

"That is to say, a time comes when Empire finds itself
– A prisoner of history."

To envision what that means, listen to all the reasons "responsible" people and pundits in both parties give for not withdrawing from Iraq. Garrett, as usual, says it best:

"A Republic may change its course, or reverse it, and that will be its own business. But the history of Empire is a world history and belongs to many people. A Republic is not obliged to act upon the world, either to change it or instruct it. Empire, on the other hand, must put forth its power."

As we put forth our hand in the Middle East, and cover our heads here at home, this fiftieth anniversary edition of Garrett’s book could not have been more auspicious. I do believe Garrett’s power of foresight takes on near supernatural proportions as he explains the fifth sign of empire:

"Fear may be understood. But a curious and characteristic emotional weakness of Empire is: A complex of vaunting and fear.

"The vaunting is from what may be called that Titanic feeling. Many on the doomed Titanic would not believe that a ship so big and grand could sink. So long as it was above water her listing deck seemed safer than a lifeboat on the open sea. So with the people of Empire. They are mighty. They have performed prodigious works, even many that seemed beyond their powers. Reverses they have known but never defeat. That which has hitherto been immeasurable, how shall it be measured? So those must have felt who lived out the grandeur that was Rome. So the British felt while they ruled the world. So the Americans feel."

That might’ve been written yesterday, or, for that matter, the day after tomorrow. But wait, there’s more:

"… Conversely, the fear. Fear of the barbarian. Fear of standing alone. Fear of world opinion, since we must have it on our side. The fear that is inseparable from the fact – that security is no longer in our own hands."

The rise of Empire meant the end of security: that realization is slowly dawning on the American public. As our great "victory" in Iraq is touted by the War Party, we get ready to vote in the shadow of an "orange alert," i.e., just below panic, and government officials talk openly of canceling the election. The price of Empire – are we willing to pay it, not only in dollars but in human lives, not to mention the cost to our own souls?

Garrett – and the Old Right he, in many ways, epitomized – would answer with an emphatic no. In Ex America there is plenty of pessimism, expressed with a kind of bittersweet sadness, but the author points the way forward to a future in which it is possible to recapture "the lost terrain." I could quote Garrett infinitely, but let me leave you with this final citation:

"Between government in the republican meaning, that is, Constitutional, representative, limited government, on the one hand, and Empire on the other hand, there is mortal enmity. Either one must forbid the other or one will destroy the other. That we know. Yet never has the choice been put to a vote of the people."

We face an election year in which the burning question of our age – will we return to our republican roots, or "progress" to the decadence of Empire? – is not being debated, where both "major" candidates agree that, yes, we are and should be an Empire. Once again, Garrett’s prescience, tinged as it is with bitterness, seems downright spooky.

With an informative as well as empathetic introduction by Bruce Ramsay, an editorial columnist for the Seattle Times, and a very attractive cover design and typography, Ex America is a great buy – $16.95 for a quality hardbound book. This is the third, and in my opinion, the best in the series of Garrett’s works so far released by the Caxton Press, and it couldn’t have been timelier. One minor quibble: the copyediting could have used a second going over. I found two typos. But then these bother me more than they would practically anyone else on earth, and not just out of regard for the author.

At any rate, if you want to understand how we got to where we are, and how we might get out, then buy this book, read it, and give it to your friends. Turning Ex America into a bestseller would do more to build the cause of liberty, peace, and a non-interventionist foreign policy than all the election campaigns ever conducted. Thank you, Bruce Ramsay and Caxton Press!

Read more by Justin Raimondo