Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr (1976)

This is a really weird story, a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife.

The main story (pp.15-170) is narrated by the two-metre tall man, christened Wilbur Rockefeller Swain but now known as Dr Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain.

It is a morbid and depressing story. Swain is just coming up to his 101st birthday. He lives amid the ruins of New York. The rest of America has been depopulated by Albanian Flu (p.33), but New York had a special plague of its own, known as the Green Plague. Now it is almost empty, with only Swain and a handful or relatives and friends living in the overgrown ruins. To survivors on the mainland it is known only as ‘the Island of Death’.

So Slapstick is a post-apocalypse story.

As so often in fictional memoirs, two timelines run in parallel 1. The ‘present’ in which the narrator wakes up and potters round and we are introduced to the main characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world. Thus Swain starts each chapter with a bit of gossip about his current companions, his emaciated though pregnant grand-daughter Melody, and her husband Isidore, or about their best friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa who keeps a farm worked by ‘slaves’.

Before 2. returning to a conventional chronological account which begins with the birth of him and his twin sister, follows them through their early life, and on to the series of events which led up to the disaster.

Vonnegut uses Vonnegutian tricks such as:

  • The entire text is broken up into very short sections, sometimes a few paragraphs, but sometimes just a few words, all divided by three asterisks in the centre of the page, creating the sense that the whole book is made of fragments glued together, a suitable feel, maybe, for post-apocalyptic fragments.
  • And just as the catchphrase ‘So it goes’ appeared on every page of Slaughterhouse-Five and ‘And so on’ capped every anecdote in Breakfast of Champions, so almost every bit of prose which tells a significant story or anecdote in this book is capped with ‘Hi ho’. At one point the narrator says he must go back through the book and delete all the ‘Hi ho’s’. Which he follows with another Hi ho. Hi ho. I think it is safe to say this use of ironically off-hand taglines has become a mannerism.

From his birth up to the age of 15, Wilbur and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, pretend to be drooling idiots. In fact they are geniuses, especially if they physically touch their heads together. When they do this they share a joint super-intelligence. But for 15 years all they do is pretend to be retards, and are locked by their parents in their posh Boston home. (They are from a super-rich family.)

This is every bit as weird as it sounds. On their fifteenth birthdays, they overhear their parents discussing sending them to separate homes and so make the startling announcement that they are not brain damaged but the reverse – hyper-intelligent and articulate young people.

This shocks their parents even more, who promptly call in a high-powered women psychiatrist who, vindictively knowing the damage it will cause them, recommends they be separated, declaring Wilbur is the clever one and Eliza is the defect.

So Wilbur is packed off to medical school and becomes a successful pediatrician, while Eliza goes to rot in a home for the mentally defective.

Cut to about ten years later when Wilbur is confronted by Eliza, who has been sprung from the home by a money-grabbing lawyer on the news that their parents have died. She is a wreck, distraught and determined on revenge as she confronts him at his grand mansion. But the moment they actually make physical contact, the old telepathic communication is revived and they have a five-day long orgy during which they tie up all the servants.

Maybe this whole plotline is intended as satirical but it comes over as a kind of poor man’s Philip K. Dick, with its dwelling on identity and reality, and sick obsession with a dead sibling (both Dick and Vonnegut had dead sisters).

Meanwhile, in the background of the story, we learn that oil has been running low, and that American science and technology has stagnated. The sky has turned yellow because of gases released by underarm deodorants. The Chinese are making all kinds of new discoveries. The West is collapsing. Americans are becoming more lonely.

Eliza takes her cut of Swain’s estate and goes to Macchu Picchu. Why? Because it

was then becoming a haven for rich people and their parasites, people fleeing social reforms and economic declines, not just in America, but in all parts of the world. (p.93)

An absurdist theme which runs through the book is that the Chinese, as part of their transformation into top economic power in the world, undertake a programme of miniaturising human beings. There are so many of them, they can only survive if they get smaller.

Thus it is that a lot later in the book, Swain is visited by the Chinese ambassador who is only a few inches tall (the size of Wilbur’s thumb, p.101). Piling absurdity on absurdity, he is named Fu Manchu. He asks Swain to take him to the family mausoleum in which are hidden the various writings Swain and Eliza did when their heads were together and they were a super-genius. Swain doesn’t understand why, but some of these writings are of immense importance to the Chinese – now the leading scientific and technological country in the world.

A second major idea has to do with gravity. When Swain describes life in post-apocalyptic America, he has dropped hints about there being a problem with gravity, that it varies from day to day like the weather, with some days of heavy gravity, some of light. This is, apparently, caused by scientific experiments by the Chinese, though by this stage nobody in America understands what or how or has the power to stop it.

The first time gravity changes is on the day Swain picks up a telegram at his local post office which tells him that Eliza is dead, crushed under an avalanche on Mars (p.106). Mars? Yes she had tipped off the Chinese about the secret documents hidden in the mausoleum and, as a reward, was transported to the new Chinese colony on Mars. Ill-fatedly, as it turns out.

As he walks out onto the steps outside his local post office, gravity changes – for just a minute or so it is doubled, quintupled, and Wilbur falls through the wooden steps he’s standing on, people fall through ladders, chairs, and flimsy flooring. Bridges and tall buildings collapse, elevators plummet to the ground and so on.

The Gravity Shift only lasts a minute or so but undermines the confidence of Americans even more than the failing oil supply and yellow sky.

It is against this backdrop of America’s economic, scientific and political decline, that Swain runs for president on a platform of radically reorganising society. He decides the problem with Americans is they are lonely and isolated. He comes up with a scheme whereby all Americans will be given new middle names by computer. The number of names will be calculated so that each new ‘family’ has about 10,000 members. I.e. if something happens to you there will be 9,999 other ‘family members’ you can call on.

He runs for senator, then president, on the slogan of ‘Lonesome no more’ – which is the sub-title of this book (p.112).

It is hard not to think that this plotline – the satire on American loneliness – is a separate short story or plot idea which Vonnegut has bolted onto the weird story of two twin giants who are cruelly separated. Chucking in Chinese miniaturisation, and the notion that the Earth’s gravity can be played with, as additional sweeties.

By this stage we learn that, because of the end of oil and technology, America has collapsed as a political entity. There are no more printing presses, no more radio or TV – because there is no more fuel (p.117). it has been replaced by warlords which control territories like Michigan or Dakota – hence the King of Michigan, the Great Lake pirates, and other satirical names the narrator casually mentions in passing.

(In a satirical touch, the only way to power the computer which doles out new middle names to the population of America, is by systematically burning all the paper archives in the White House and Congress.)

(In another satirical touch he throws in the fact that the new religion which the general crisis gives rise to is the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped.)

Also, by this stage, Wilbur tells us he has become addicted to some kind of tranquiliser named tri-benzo-Deportamil, which helps him to cope with all the ups and downs of his life with equanimity.

Vonnegut devotes an extensive passage to describing his happiness at visiting a lodge of his own ‘family’, the Daffodils, in Indiana, how kind and welcoming they are. And to explaining how his successful family plan meshes or overlaps with the numerous small wars which the King of Michigan and so on are fighting against each other.

In fact there is a satirical scene where Swain is summoned by the grandiose young King of Michigan who wishes him to solemnly sign a document reversing the famous Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and handing over rule of what was then the vast territory in the centre of the USA over the king. Fine, thinks Swain, and signs.

Epilogue

At this point the memoir written by Wilbur Swain comes to an abrupt end. It is succeeded by an epilogue tying up loose ends.

This takes the story from the meeting with the King of Michigan to his death.

Swain had been contacted by a woman who had discovered a way of contacting the dead. An old farmer arranged a bucket and antique pipe in just such a way atop a defunct particle accelerator (no more electricity; hadn’t worked for years) and, to his surprise, began hearing voices out of the pipe.

Swain, still nominally president although now with few if any powers over a disintegrated country, is told about this and invited to try it. He manages to get through to his sister Eliza, who tells him the afterlife is dreadful. Swain can hear a babble of people coughing, shouting and farting in the background. Eliza says the afterlife is like a badly managed Turkey Farm. She begs him to die and join her. The device for communicating with the dead is known as ‘the Hooligan’ after the name of the farmer who accidentally created it. (p.160-164)

Convinced that she needs his help, and in a hurry to die, Swain persuades the pilot of the helicopter (Captain Bernard O’Hare – sharp-eyed Vonnegut readers might remember that Bernard O’Hare plays an important role in his 1962 novel Mother Night) which flew him to the Daffodil reunion in Indiana (and is himself a member of the Daffodil family) to fly him to Manhattan, long since known as ‘the Island of Death’ because of the mysterious epidemic which wiped out almost its entire population.

Hovering over the empty, overgrown avenues, Swain climbs down a rope ladder and onto the balcony of the Empire State Building, whose staircase he proceeds to walk down. But instead of quickly dying, in the ruined lobby of the building Swain is kidnapped by some ‘Raspberries’ a really primitive clan of humans who live by eating nuts, and berries and whatever they can forage.

As it happens these people have unwittingly stumbled on an antidote to the Green Death, namely fish from the rivers either side of Manhattan which are so polluted that some of the rare chemicals in them act as antidotes.

Now the narrator now tells us that the flu which killed everyone was caused by an invasion of microscopic Martians, whose invasion was repelled by antibodies in the systems of the survivors (p.163). While the Green Death was caused by microscopic Chinese floating through the air who were peace-loving but were invariably fatal to normal-sized human who inhaled or ingested them (p.164).

Swain proceeds to live on derelict Manhattan for a very, very long time. Back around the time when he used the Hooligan and sold Louisiana to the King of Michigan, his last few pills of tri-benzo-Deportamil ran out and he went mental. He had to be tied down for five days in the farmhouse, but managed – in the impossible way characteristic of this narrative – to have sex and impregnate the wife of the old farmer.

She had a son.

He had a daughter, who was packed off to join the seraglio of the King of Michigan who was, by this time, a disgusting old man.  She managed to escape and set off East towards New York to try and track down the mythical grandfather her dad had told her about. Her name is Melody Oriole-2. She was helped along the odyssey by strangers who gave her a baby pram, a candlestick, a compass and an umbrella. And one who rowed her across to the Island of Death.

And that’s how Swain was reunited with his grand-daughter and came to be chatting about her at the start of the book’s 49 chapters. He has his drunken 102nd birthday, organised for him by his old friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, and drops dead.

Thoughts

It’s a short book (170 pages) but with enough ideas in it to blow anyone’s mind.

Whether any of them – plausible, fantastical, surreal, satirical – are any good, was hard to tell. I was so dazed by the relentless nonsensicality of much of the narrative that it was difficult to take a view. Is it a farrago of rubbish, which a summary of the plot might lead you to think? Or, as a friend of mine who’s a Vonnegut fan thinks, one of his best books?

I couldn’t work out if the four or five hours it took me to read it were time well spent or not.

I think it feels to me like a last hurrah of the absurdist approach, and typographical experimentation, which took off in Slaughterhouse-Five. But then Cat’s Cradle also has an end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic setting. In fact, both books consist of the memoir of one of the few people who survived the end of the world.

And when I saw how his next novel, Jailbird, reverts to a much more conventional layout and prose style, and realistic subject matter, this adds to the sense that Slapstick is like the fagged-out hangover of the absurdist approach which characterised its three predecessors.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson (2004)

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 as a result of the 9/11 attacks. It invaded Iraq in March 2003 in response to the alleged threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

These acts prompted an unprecedented flood of articles in newspapers and magazines, TV documentaries, conferences, seminars, papers and hundreds of books speculating whether America was now, finally, at last revealed to be an ’empire’ with nakedly ‘imperial’ ambitions.

British economic historian Niall Ferguson entered the debate with a Channel 4 TV series and book on the subject – which also neatly complemented the C4 TV series and book he had published in 2003 about the British Empire.

When I bought it I thought, from its subtitle (‘The rise and fall of the American empire’), that it would be a history, maybe a chronological account of the growth of American power.

But it isn’t. Even more so than the British Empire book, this book is really an extended argument with historical examples. It is a polemical interpretation of history, written with a very strong point of view, which starts in the present day – the Preface, written in 2005 is full of references to contemporary events in Iraq, to ongoing debates in the media, policy statements by the Administration, learned articles etc – and, no matter what incidents from the past it describes, Ferguson is always emphasising their relevance to the present situation.

However, time has a way of advancing at a steady pace: it is now 12 years since the book (11 years since the preface) were published, and we have the usual benefit of hindsight, both on America’s strategic decisions, and on Ferguson’s interpretation of them.

The book can therefore be read and enjoyed on at least three levels:

  1. As a snapshot of contemporary thinking about US policy in Afghanistan/Iraq in 2003/4
  2. As an extended argument about the role of the US in global affairs, with which to agree or disagree
  3. For the illustrations of that argument which include a succession of fascinating accounts of episodes from US history which shed light on the empire thesis (and other things too)

An empire in denial

Ferguson’s thesis can be stated very simply: the US is an empire; despite all protests to the contrary, it always has been an empire; in fact it would be a good thing for the world as a whole if the leaders of America just accepted the fact and began to act more like an empire; instead of which America’s rulers have a long tradition of intervening for short periods in foreign countries, then withdrawing in a hurry and letting them revert to chaos/civil war/instability. Ferguson’s thesis is that Americans should stay in the countries they invade, and be prepared to pay the cost.

The way he puts it is that America is an ’empire in denial’. In reach and power, in its conviction of being a torch bearer of civilised values – freedom, democracy, free market capitalism etc – in the sheer fact that its armed forces outnumber the next ten or so nations’ armies put together, and that it has military bases in half the nations of the earth – America is an Empire in everything but name.

The book is – maybe intentionally – comic in the way it lines up quotes from US presidents and senators and commentators from the late 19th century onwards, all saying the US is not an empire and carrying on vowing it does not have imperial ambitions etc, through the Second World War – notably the fiercely anti-imperial Franklin Roosevelt, who played a large role in undermining the British Empire – and right up to the present day, asserting, ‘No empire, no way!’

Then follows all these denials with an account of

a) how America was created ie by killing Indians, seizing territory, fighting neighbouring countries, buying land
b) once the continental boundaries were settled, reaching out to acquire colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean, by sometimes pretty underhand dealing
c) the growing chorus of commentators who, especially after WW2, simply recognise US behaviour for what it’s been – stepping in to fill the power vacuum left by the bankruptcy of the British Empire and feeling free to intervene in conflicts anywhere in the world to influence them in the ‘right’ direction. The American direction. Korea, Suez, Iran, Vietnam, Iraq.

Not new

That America is an empire is not a new thought, in fact it is a cliché of our times. You only have to Google ‘American empire’ to be appalled at the amount of learned ink and journalistic hype which has been spilt debating the point back and forth for the past 15 years. Ferguson claims that what makes him stand out from this vast sea of discourse is that he thinks an American Empire would be a good thing, and that the Americans, alas, don’t go far enough. For Ferguson the Americans have, like it or not, become the world’s main guarantor of peace, liberty, democracy, capitalism and free trade – but are continually shooting themselves in the foot by not doing it properly.

For my money what makes Ferguson stand out from the scrum of people in this arena is that 1. very few of the political commentators have the breadth and depth of knowledge he brings to bear as a professional economic historian – and 2. not many of his fellow historians have a taste for writing such partisan and polemical pieces with such verve and confidence.

Structure

In the introduction Ferguson outlines the structure of the book in eight chapters:

  1. The imperial origins of the USA ie the way the Founding Fathers themselves (surprisingly) used the term ’empire’, and the way the young nation bought, fought and conquered its way across the continent and beyond.
  2. A fascinating account of America’s successes (Hawaii and Puerto Rico) and failures (the rest of central America and the Caribbean): drawing the conclusion that it has been most successful where it directly and permanently intervenes and governs, and repeatedly failed when it intervenes to overthrow a dictator and quickly withdraws (Panama, Nicaragua), leaving the fundamental problems of poor governance unchanged.
  3. Showing how 9/11 represented a culmination of decades of mismanagement of the Middle East and of growing Islamic terrorist organisations which the US did little to tackle.
  4. How the failure of the UN in the Yugoslav civil wars and the Rwanda genocide showed the US it could and should go it alone, proving that all decisive action in the post-Cold War world requires is a ‘coalition of the willing’; and how the disasters of small-scale US intervention in Somalia and Lebanon suggested that the US should only intervene in situations with a clear end-goal and then only with overwhelming force.
  5. Assesses the costs and benefits of America establishing a true empire, ie permanently occupying failed states.
  6. This is a detailed essay which could easily stand alone, assessing whether the US has the capacity, know-how or staying power to remain in Iraq long enough to build a viable nation state, cheekily comparing its quick-fix approach to the history of Britain’s long stay in Egypt. The British officially stated no fewer than 66 times that they would clear out of Egypt, starting within weeks of their unofficial ‘conquest’ in 1882; whereas they ended up staying for 72 years, Ferguson controversially argues, much to Egypt’s economic and legal benefit. Another element in America’s weakness is the reluctance of Americans to serve abroad. Most get postings to the Middle East for a year and are soon back home among the hamburgers and soccer moms. This makes you appreciate rather more the selflessness of lots of British administrators who devoted their entire lives to ‘serving’ in often very remote parts of the world, with little thanks at home or from the native peoples, stiffened by the ethos of service and self-sacrifice which had been drummed into them in Britain’s public schools. There is simply no equivalent in American culture.
  7. This chapter also feels like a stand-alone essay on the simple question: Is the European Union a viable new ’empire’ capable of asserting western values through unified force in a way which can challenge the United States? Well, No. Ferguson very thoroughly demolishes the idea and confirms one’s sense that the EU is a ramshackle bureaucracy dedicated to guaranteeing its employees a fabulous lifestyle and protecting French farmers, while completely failing to act decisively in any kind of emergency, from the Yugoslav civil wars to the the current Refugee Crisis via its wise and fair treatment of the defaulting Greeks.
  8. Many critics and commentators predict the American Empire will be brought low by what Paul Kennedy called ‘imperial overstretch’ and go bankrupt like the great empires before it. Ferguson brings his grasp of historical economics to bear to argue that the real threats to the US economy are in fact internal. The largest elements in the US budget are not military but the vast obligations of Social Security (pensions) and Medicare. Politically, the threat is not of over-stretch but of over-hasty withdrawal of forces form trouble zones, under pressure from domestic public opinion and ever-recurrent US isolationism. Once again, leaving the job half-done.

And this concern does seem to have been justified. As the Wikipedia article on the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq makes clear, President Bush held out against a Congress and public opinion calling for the troops to come home from 2007 onwards, signing an agreement that the last ones would leave in December 2011. Since that time the main development in the region has of course been the popular uprising in neighbouring Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, which led to a civil war, which, along with a power vacuum in northern Iraq, led to the swift emergence of a new force, Islamic State.

Whether the rise of ISIL could have been prevented by maintaining US forces in Iraq is something historians will debate forever. How many forces, exactly? And for how long?

Insights and stories

As with Empire, a lot of the basic story is familiar, especially the recaps of the disasters of the 1990s (Yugoslavia, Rwanda) and the detailed account of the diplomatic pussy-footing to get the UN resolutions and allies needed to invade Iraq. I feel like I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on the subject.

By contrast, his chapters on the early history of the American republic, and then its interventions in Latin America, the Philippines, Hawaii etc, were mostly new to me. Certainly the way they are interpreted in light of Ferguson’s thesis – ie from its earliest days the US has been imperial in ambition, and that its best interventions have been the most complete and overt ones – were new and thought-provoking.

  • The Louisiana Purchase (1803)
  • War of 1812 I hadn’t quite realised the States started this war simply to grab land, nor that the small British forces fought back so effectively that they pushed the Yanks back to Washington where – in the war’s most famous incident – they burned down the White House. Nor that the war helped create a sense of Canadian nationhood among the people that pushed back the Americans.
  • Mexican-American War (1846-48) resulting from the US annexation of Texas and leading to the acquisition of more land ie southern California and New Mexico.
  • Overthrow of Hawaii’s rulers I didn’t know how completely imperial the seizure of Hawaii was, with the overthrow of the native royal family by a small group of white businessmen. The reluctance of the authorities back in Washington to back the obvious greed and illegality of the men on the spot is like many episodes in the British Empire, where the central government was in fact more protective of native rights than the self-interested businessmen who behaved so high-handedly.
  • Spanish-American War (1898) On a trumped-up pretext the US invaded and annexed Cuba from Spain.
  • Philippine–American War (1899-1902) As part of the Spanish-American war, the US seized the Philippine Islands from Spain, on the other side of the world. Military victory was straightforward but followed by a prolonged counter-insurgency which the Americans tried to solve by driving the general population into concentration camps and shooting everyone found outside the camps without identification. Guerrilla war phase
  • Panama In the early 1900s the US supported Panama independence from Colombia so that it could instantly sign a treaty with the new ‘country’ to build, own and run the Panama Canal in perpetuity.
  • Puerto Rico is currently ‘an unincorporated US territory’. Reading the Wikipedia article about its ‘acquisition’ by the USA gives powerful evidence of the imperialist mind-set and language used by American leaders at the turn of the century.

And so on…

Is it or isn’t it?

So is America an empire? The obvious answer is, Who cares?

Well, who does care is the thousands of analysts, pundits, professors and think tank geeks, military experts and geopolitical strategists, who are paid to write and debate this kind of question ad nauseam. For them it means publication, reputation, careers to be made debating the finer points of the matter, creating subtler and subtler definitions of empire, making more and more ornate comparisons with previous empires, publishing sophisticated and thought-provoking prognostications, most of which turn out to be wildly wrong (eg Paul Kennedy’s predictions that the American Empire would soon collapse in his popular best-seller The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers of 1987).

A slightly more engaged answer would be: Since I have just read the views on the matter of some 50 people, from various Founding Fathers, through politicians and commentators in the 19th century, the Great War, the Second World War and right up to the present day, who themselves disagree wildly as to what an empire is and whether America is or isn’t one – how can I reasonably be expected to decide?

From the evidence in this book, the United States both is and isn’t an empire: it is by virtue of its military power and reach and it has a track record of annexing land (in the 19th century) and military intervention in other countries (in the 20th). BUT, as Ferguson points out, it rarely stays. It is obviously NOT in the business of seizing new colonies and permanently inhabiting them, as the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, British, Germans, Belgians or Russians did with their empires. Hence: the US is and isn’t an ’empire’.

Whether any of this ocean of interpretation makes a blind bit of difference to the actual course of events, to the working out of US geopolitical strategy, seems unlikely. American politicians are trapped in the tight cycle of elections to the Senate, Congress and Presidency, which tend to prevent any long-term thinking and favour melodramatic gestures and simple-minded sound-bites (eg Donald Trump). From one point of view it was a triumph that President George W Bush managed to keep US troops in Iraq for so long, before giving in to domestic pressure, bringing them home, and letting the country collapse into fragments and then fall prey to a murderous new movement, ISIS.

Thirty years ago I attended a seminar which featured Ian Jack of the Observer and other foreign correspondents and experts debating whether Imperialism should be revived, whether the West should intervene – mainly in Africa – to overthrow brutal dictators or help collapsing states, and run them properly. Everyone there – white, middle-class intellectuals all – agreed it was obviously the best solution for a number of pitifully poor countries. But also agreed it was impossible in practice – because of the fierce opposition there’d be from the populations of the recolonised countries, from the UN and international community, from the surrounding nations and related bodies like the Organisation of African Unity, and from the Western countries’ own populations. Faced with opposition on all fronts, the idea of recolonisation was a non-starter: the West would have to resign itself to working through the various UN agencies, the IMF or World Bank, and its armies of NGOs and aid charities to make the best of a bad job. Direct intervention to ‘save’ collapsing or dictator-led countries could never again be a long-term possibility. Failed and chaotic states are on their own and can never again expect to be taken over and helped to rebuild.

Nothing I read in Ferguson’s book contradicts those conclusions.

Criticism

The most obvious criticism of this book, as of its predecessor, Empire, is that it gives little or no place for human experience, for the psychology of colonisation and oppression. An imperial colony’s legal system may be updated, its tax regime overhauled and its GDP improved by imperial control – and Ferguson gives plenty of examples of this in a wide range of countries, run by the British or Americans – but he takes hardly any account of people’s feelings, or of the cultural impact of being ruled over – and more or less overtly patronised by – an alien elite. For this absence of feeling, of compassion maybe, Ferguson has been criticised, especially by writers who come from former colonies and who have experienced the humiliations of empire.

My view would be that this high-level, heartless approach is hardly unique to Ferguson: all economists are like that. While Britain’s state industries were shut down, while the mining communities were thrown on the scrapheap during the Thatcher years, generations of culture were trashed, alcoholism and suicide rates soared among unemployed men, the Financial Times and its ilk were full of reports by economists discussing theories of money supply, the finer aspects of ‘Monetarism’, and the balance of payments deficit as if there was no connection between the graphs and pie charts and ruined lives. Or read how the plight of Greece was described in the Financial Times.

Economics isn’t called ‘the dismal science’ for nothing. Its fundamental strategy is to drain the humanity and life out of any situation and to reduce it to bone-dry, bloodless and – quite often, it turns out, laughably unreliable – numbers.

At least, unlike most other economic historians’, Ferguson’s books are thought-provoking, crisply written and hugely entertaining.

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

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