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The Empire State Building entrance hall. Photo courtesy Norbert Nagel The Empire State Building entrance hall. Photo courtesy Norbert Nagel

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The End of Empires
Alison Holmes looks at the mighty empires that have been blinded by their hubris

Published on January 14, 2019

Lately, I have found myself wondering what it would have been like to be an ‘average’ Roman living through the moment the world moved into what we now call the ‘Common Era’. A time of momentous change, ambitious rulers asserted their power while the spread of new religions, different worldviews and ideas of global governance produced wars and mass migration. Messengers were constantly carrying news of crises, natural and man-made, to the tribes, empires, and would-be nations of the then known world. The main headline and bottom line were the only constant; the people will continue to be dragged under the wheels of the chariots of power. This massive mudslide from hegemony was characterized by social unrest and insecurity, structural change and economic upheaval, cultural fear and suspicion, exacerbated by calculated and capricious political maneuvering between courtesans. The Romans in this timeframe, i.e. teetering at the end of their empire, seem curiously apt as 2018 rushes to the end of its course and we look back on a year of bread and circuses.

Many seek to lay blame for the current state of the United States, if not the entire world, solely at the door of the current occupant of the White House. This may be accurate in some narrow sense, but is ultimately a shortsighted and dangerous analysis. As early as 1990, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and implosion of the Soviet Empire, scholars such as Joseph Nye recognized that the real issue was not necessarily who is ‘up’ or ‘down’ in the global power stakes, but the result of a fundamental change in the nature of power itself. Nearly thirty years later, we see the outcome of his prediction as the cogs of the machinery of the economy and government grind to the point of collapse. The only surprise comes from our ability to ignore or disguise this fundamental fact so long. Unfortunately, this fugue state will only make the realization, when it comes, all the more devastating to the average Roman (American, Brit - fill in any broadly western, advanced country).

Thus, I suggest that the nationalist/ isolationist approach and policies of the Trump White House or the lack of prowess in terms of negotiating Brexit demonstrated by May’s Cabinet are but symptoms of a much deeper disease. These leaders are manifestations of the malaise of modernity now afflicting our two countries, making them both utterly unprepared to deal with the challenges of the next 10, 20 or 25 years. However, in the Left’s rush to hold some named individual ‘to account’ and their lack of empathy and often vicious attacks on those whose only crime was to seek the false security of simplistic solutions only means that the entire political spectrum stands guilty for the disaster that is still to come.

Donald Trump Donald Trump. Official White House Photo by Joyce N Boghosian

Few facets of Trump’s foreign policy or May’s Brexit dealings have not been considered and reconsidered by a panoply of commentators, but there is a looming disaster that has escaped focused attention. It is not a crisis of government policy or even leadership per se, but a danger that has been created in the space between scientific innovation and social welfare, the gap that separates economic growth and community development, and the depth of the growing breach of trust between the individual and society. This crisis is being generated by technology, operating far beyond the control of the state, but with the power to create profound change in everyday society that will strip our rules and systems bare. Technology now has the potential to complete the destruction of the already threadbare social bonds not least because politicians callously exploit the insecurity produced by those changes. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer and the forces of identity, be it race, religion, gender, or sexuality that have already been harnessed to many, often malign, causes, will only become stronger.

This may sound like the wild cries of a Luddite in the pre-industrial forest, but the statistics on the impact of technology on jobs and therefore the financial security of millions of individuals and families around the world are the crucible in which the new power of the coming age will be forged.

Technology here primarily means automation and the ability of machines to undertake the work that has, to this point, been done largely in low paying positions (often held by women). Predictions on the level of the resulting job losses have been made by experts in every conceivable field and muddle the clarity of the data, but even if we concede we have no firm numbers, we can agree the impact will be devastating. Some of the most commonly quoted statistics come from three studies. The oldest, done by Oxford scholars Carl Frey and Michael Osborne in 2013, suggested that 47 percent of US jobs are at high risk of automation in the next few decades while a more recent McKinsey report from 2017 said 400 million to 800 million jobs worldwide could be automated by 2030. Such predictions were tempered by an OECD study that suggested something like 14% of jobs in its 21 member countries are automatable (amounting to 66 million job losses), but all this could still mean approximately 13 million jobs in the US and 3.6 million jobs in the UK would disappear.

The other key factor is that these losses will be not be even, geographically or economically. Of course some sectors will see job increases, but these jobs are unlikely to overlap with losses in location (or even country) and the skills required will be entirely different – leaving those in automated sectors entirely without prospects. Something in the region of 75 to 375 million people in the global workforce will need to find new jobs – and not just a new job - they will need to get out of their sector altogether. Bluntly, and reframed from a political perspective, many of the people who currently support leaders who are ignoring the crisis or worse, making false promises about their ability to control these forces, will be the most harmed. Thus, we arrive at the current moment and the point of intersection between our daily politics and our future as income polarization continues to grow at record rates in otherwise wealthy, advanced economies and underlying disenchantment and discontent continues to surge across the headlines and onto our streets.

In the face of such a grim prospect, where is the talk about adult education, retraining, and a fundamental reconfiguration of education from kindergarten through university and well into adulthood (and even what was once known as retirement)? Who has looked into their crystal ball – or even on their tablet – and determined that the politics of nationalism and protectionism only delay the inevitable and do not serve the people who will be most harmed by the relentless tide? The politics of bread and circuses may offer the crowd a spectacle in this moment, but it will not feed them or their children in the years to come.

I wager the average Roman looked at their circumstances with a combination of horror and frustration. Horror for some at the almost casual way spectators watched as the sinews of democracy and civility were torn away from the body politic in the pit of the coliseum and frustration that there was seemingly so little that could be done. The mighty empires have been blinded by their hubris and their fall now seems inevitable; how many will be crushed under that weight - and who will rise to take their place - remains unknown.

Dr. Alison Holmes is Asst. Professor of International Studies and Politics at Humboldt State University, CA. She lived in the UK for over 20 years and worked at the BBC, ran BritishAmerican Business in London and was speechwriter to the US Ambassador. A PhD in International Relations from the LSE, she has been an Associate Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, a Churchill Memorial Trust History Fellow and the Transatlantic Studies Fellow at Yale.

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