Ailing Empires: The Rhetoric of Decline in Britain and the USRoundup
tags: far right, imperialism, neoliberalism, British history, MAGA, reactionary politics, Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall
Jed Esty, the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of A Shrinking Island and Unseasonable Youth. He is working on a new project entitled Cold War Victorians: The Genre System of the Angloworld.
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.”
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