Moving Beyond Empire, Building the Future in Place

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In a career during which he published a dozen books over 38 years, significantly revolutionizing understanding of U.S. history, William Appleman Williams chose to conclude his final work with a tale about shoplifting, his own.

Williams last book, published in 1980, was  Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts About an Alternative.  In it he summarized his life’s work illuminating the growth of the United States as an empire. Williams was regarded as the dean of the Wisconsin school, named for the university where he taught most of his career.  It was also known as the revisionist school. For Williams and his students revised the understanding of U.S history, underscoring how the U.S., far from being exceptional, behaved much as any empire, serving its own interests, seeking its own gains at the expense of others.

That’s where the shoplifting came in. Williams related how as a youth in the depression following World War I in 1921, his family was not starving. “But we did miss much of the so-called American way of life . . . And so I stole a very fine and expensive knife from the best hardware store in town.” Confronted by his maternal grandmother, she asked, “did you steal the knife. Yes, I stole the knife. Why? Because I wanted it, because I liked it, because I can use it.“ She demanded he return it.

“And so I walked back along those long and lonely blocks to the store. And in through the door. And up, face to face with the member of the community who owned the store. And I said: I stole this knife and I am sorry and I am bringing it back.

“And he said: Thank you. The knife is not very important, but you coming down here and saying that to me is very important.

“Remembering all that, I know why I do not want the empire. There are better ways to live and there are better ways to die.”

In this, Williams was making his fundamental point. Empire is a thief. It steals from people, including its own. It steals from the future. It steals from life itself.

Williams was very clear, even in 1980, that empire was leading the U.S. to a dead end. He feared the inevitable conflicts caused by the pursuit of empire would eventuate in nuclear extermination. The nuclear threat, which seemed to recede in the 1990s, has returned with a vengeance in the intensification of great power competition.

Hungry for oil

In 1980, the knowledge of that other critical threat to the future, climate disruption, was only beginning to emerge into public view. Williams did not address it. But in the wake of the second oil shock of the prior decade, and the Iranian revolution that spurred it, he was certainly focused on a fundamental element of the climate crisis that was to emerge, the central role of oil in the empire. In 1953, a U.S.-backed coup overthrew a democratically elected Iranian government seeking control of the country’s own oil resources, which had been monopolized by Anglo-American interests. (UPDATE: It later came to my attention that the publication date for this piece is the 70th anniversary of the coup!) Now with the 1979 Islamic revolution the U.S. was experiencing the blowback.

Wrote Williams, “The world knows that we are imperialists dedicated to controlling all the oil that we can funnel into our bellies . . . (Oil) is the slickest way we now lie to ourselves about the nature of empire.” Its own resources insufficient to meet its increasing oil thirst, the U.S. overcame oil supply concerns by gaining control of Middle East oil. “No better example ever of the rewards of empire as a way of life . . . The imperial way of life was disrupted by OPEC in 1973-74 (when Arab countries embargoed the U.S. over its support of Israel) . . . (But) it could not talk about the problem in a realistic way simply because it had never come to terms with its imperial way of life.”

“  . . . the black messy guck is in truth the clean magic that brings ever more goodies and greater freedom. Embrace the greasy frog, so to speak, and the world is yours in pristine beauty. Get the oil and you got it made . . . All in all, oil enabled Americans to go on running away from reality. Nobody could ask for more.”

And so U.S. of Americans have gone on running for over four more decades. Talk of an era of limits to growth broached in the 1970s was washed away by Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” in the 1980s, with its bold denial of limits. Sprawling suburbs that by their very spread demanded their residents get around in cars increasingly devoured farm and forest lands surrounding cities. By the end of the decade nearly half of the population lived in suburbs. SUVs and pickup trucks came to represent more of the vehicle fleet. By July 2023 they accounted for 79% of new auto sales.

Meanwhile, the oil wars ramped up, with the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars being the most blatant. The presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to protect oil supplies was one of the major motivations for the 9-11 hijackers, most of whom were from that country. Permawars spread across the globe since then. Tensions with Iran continue, most recently with U.S. Marines poised to mount oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, while U.S. troops sit on oil reserves in eastern Syria. The U.S. military is itself the single largest institutional carbon polluter on Earth.

Williams did not want to empire, because empire makes thieves of all of us, and threatens our extinction. Most of all now, empire and the fossil fuels that drive it make us thieves from our children and the future itself. The past month of July saw the hottest temperatures in recorded history, while 2023 will almost certainly go down as the record hottest year. Lahaina on Maui was largely destroyed by wildfire, while as of this writing 20,000 are being evacuated from Yellowknife, the largest town in Canada’s Northwest territories, and more in West Kelowna, B.C., in that nation’s worst wildfire year on record. Fires have scorched large swathes from Portugal and Algeria to Greece and Siberia. The largest floods in 140 years have struck China, while Slovenia was hit by the worst in its history, and the first tropical storm to hit California since 1939 is expected to cause major flash flooding. Floods have also inundated India, Japan and Turkey and Vermont. These are only a selection of the shocking events taking place in our world.

Imagining a future of community

Those of us who are citizens of the United States might object to how other nations pursue their own course in the world, and even have good reasons for it. But that should not divert us from our own responsibilities as prime beneficiaries of the imperial ways of our own nation, fueling our own “empire as a way of life.” We are all enmeshed in empire and its thieveries, and it is up to us to do what we can about it. In reality, and it is a hard reality to absorb, the vast majority of us have little leverage over policies developed by an imperial elite largely insulated from popular opinion. We might protest, or cheer them on, but the self-reinforcing system of the national security “blob” will churn on whatever we think.

We do, however, have a deeper and longer-term option to address the roots of empire in our own society by transforming it from the ground up. Williams had some proposals in this regard, “to transform the empire into a community.” They were fairly imaginative, but that is what Williams saw as necessary to overcome, an “industrial-military-education complex that has no conception of America except as an empire.” “ . . . empire as a way of life kills the imagination,” he noted.

“It confines and progressively throttles spontaneity and imagination.”

“We, all of us, here and elsewhere, are in a transition period that offers us the opportunity to imagine and act in a way to move on beyond global imperialism to regional communities,” Williams wrote in the concluding chapter of his 1980 book. The transition he envisioned did not take place then, but now is certainly a time when the need for vast changes is on the table.

Williams did not go into detail in this book, but he extensively drew out the possibilities for reorganizing the United States as a cooperative commonwealth of regional communities in his work of 4 years before, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976. I earlier wrote a 6-part series on Williams’ regional vision. You can read it beginning here. Below I summarize the key points.

A place to take a stand

Williams envisioned political and economic decentralization based on “regional communities of a human scale governed through democratic procedures. We will require plans, but we now live (if that is the word) under plans devised by a tiny elite.” Economic organization would rely “heavily on cooperative action” as opposed to government-owned enterprises. It would provide a greater degree of self-determination for most, but less “for those who now exercise monopoly power over most aspects of life  . . .”

Such fundamental change could only be accomplished by a mass political movement. “I suggest we organize a social movement dedicated to replacing the American empire with a federation of regional communities,” Williams wrote. “No euphemisms and no talk about reform.”

These movements would need a ground upon which to struggle, a place to take a stand. Here Williams addressed the relative lack of leverage over the national government by ordinary citizens. “It is impossible to begin by organizing a continental social movement . . . The crucial arena . . . is and will remain the states. They are where social movements have to be built, and they are the units for building coalitions to deal with regional and federal issues.”

Williams agreed that state boundaries as they exist “have almost no ultimate relevance to the basic problems that have to be dealt with  . . . “ A sentiment with which bioregionalists seeking more natural demarcations would heartily agree. “Even so, I see no other place to initiate a radical strategy.”  “Some existing boundaries will need to be modified, as we create regional commonwealths, and the largest cities should become regions in their own right . . .” Williams, who ended his career teaching at Oregon State University, posed a Northwest region he called Neahkahnie which re-drew state boundaries along lines remarkably similar to what bioregionalist David McCloskey has developed in his Cascadia mappings.

The state and regional level only provide a ground for struggle. “The decentralization of the existing American empire does not provide a guarantee of democratic equity, it only offers a human scale for action and government within which a social movement can operate effectively to create that kind of community.”

We must, wrote Williams, “use our revolutionary right of self-determination to create a community in place of a marketplace, to replace the impersonal logic of possessive individualism with the morality of helping each of us cherish the other.”

Williams saw that we as individuals can fulfill ourselves “only as a member of a community.”  He called for a revival of engaged citizenship. It begins “with a commitment to community and to the best of our heritage, rather than to the mirage of a free marketplace or the narcissistic dream of self-selected and self-sufficient cadres, then it moves to acting as a citizen in one’s own neighborhood. That means, as a start, nothing more dramatic than opening oneself to know other people. First, to use their names, and to use them at every opportunity. Then to learn their concerns, and how they think and feel about dealing with those difficulties. Finally, to understand their dreams and visions and to talk with them about how to translate them into reality.”

“If it all sounds very elementary and time-consuming, and it is . . . But it has to be done if one is to be a citizen embarked upon the adventure of building a self-determined community. After that, the labor grows even more difficult. Moving out of a neighborhood . . . into the city or the state is a demanding experience . . . But it has to be done. Not by all of us all of the time, but by all of us some of the time. It cannot be left to the politicians simply because it ceases to be self-determination if we delegate it to someone else. The saving grace is that each of us has our own particular ways of moving to and from between the neighborhood and the larger society.”

Starting in neighborhood and city

Those latter quotes from Williams demonstrate he understood that regional community begins in the neighborhood. They address the fact, noted by a number of readers of the earlier series, that the U.S. suffers from profound divides within regions that work against broader regional community. Indeed, the deepest divisions in the U.S. are not between regions, but between urban and rural areas. Though the map may show “red states” and “blue states,” in reality the latter tend to be more predominantly metropolitan while the former tend to retain large rural populations. Deep divisions also exist in metropolitan areas themselves, between more affluent and less diverse exurban areas, and cities and inner ring suburbs that tend toward greater racial and income diversity.

These facts and Williams’ insight suggest where to center strategies to build more cooperative societies that are less consumptive of Earth’s resources, those cities and the inner ring. A set of creative initiatives can be forwarded at the local level. In states with strong metropolitan representation, those efforts can be leveraged up to the state level. Among prime examples of such initiatives are:

+ public banking

+ social housing

+ community energy cooperatives

+ food security networks/regenerative agriculture

+ worker cooperative development

+ circular economies that eliminate wastes

+ transportation alternatives

+ ecovillage creation

+ greenspace preservation and creation

+ public broadband

+ public safety reform.

That is what building the future in place is all about, creating an ecosystem of community institutions that meets human needs and balances our relations in the natural world, prioritizing communities and people falling through the cracks of the current system. In future posts, I will be digging into the practical details of how to make this happen, pointing out working models and the best resources. All these pieces are happening in one way or another. I will share my best thinking on how to organize movements that put them together as a coherent whole in a way that leads to transformation of localities and regions. Of course, we need to press for immediate climate action at all levels, while also working in place for transformative change that addresses the multiple crises we face – ecological, social, political – at their roots.

In his concluding chapter to Empire as a Way of Life, closing in on his shoplifting story, Williams wrote, “It is time to turn in the credit cards and stop passing the buck on to the next generation.” Viewing the threat of global war that he perceived in 1980 which has now returned to the fore, and the threat on the horizon suggested by his review of our fossil fuel addiction, the climate crisis now burning across the planet, those words have never rung more true. It is time to cut up the credit cards and stop thieving from the future. Our leverage to do this at national and global levels is limited. But the power is in our hands to begin this work by building the future in place. Let’s get at it.

This first appeared in The Raven.