American theocracy: the peril and politics of radical religion, oil, and borrowed money in the 21st century / Kevin Phillips (Viking, 2006). Review

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by Neil Godfrey

If the details of the arguments of this work are not always persuasive the author nevertheless achieves his stated purpose: to demolish any illusion among his fellow Americans that the US is in any way “exceptional” in its place and role in the world. Rather, he argues that it is rapidly following in the wake of the demise of past imperial powers Spain, Holland and Britain. The extraordinary rise and influence of extremist religious tendencies; the financialization and extreme indebtedness of the economy as “real wealth production” is outsourced; and the inevitable decline and gradual replacement of the economy’s main fuel resource, are the three main streams that Phillips sees as once having broken their banks over previous leading imperial powers and that are now beginning to deluge the US.

I’m not an American but do have an interest in understanding the nature of the power that is so dominant in the political and cultural life of my country (Australia), in particular with a view to better understanding how one might best address issues that I see as detrimental to our society — such as rising religious fundamentalism, the determination of many in power to follow the more extreme attitudes of the Bush administration re war, climate, human rights despite widely expressed public opinion to the contrary.

Perhaps for this reason I found first section of Phillip’s book detailing oil’s role for the US in comparison with the roles of other energy sources (coal, wind, timber) in past empires (Britian, Holland, Spain) painful with its baroque level of descriptive detail.

But I did find most absorbing his discussion of the historical roots and evolution of the Southern “character” (my term) and in particular of the Southernization of the North, or of the US as a whole. The role of the Southern Baptist Convention is especially enlightening. It helps me see the current Bush president — the less educated persona, the disdain for science and progressive values, the born again (revived) Christian, filled with sense of being besieged, responding with arrogance and aggression, imbued especially with a sense of exceptionalism, of a unique mission to play out in the world — as a fulfilment of the final rise of The South after the “divine chastening in righteousness” of the Civil War and Reconstruction period. This gives an interesting perspective to think about after having read Lieven’s America Right or Wrong (my review on this is yet to come) which analysed many such nationalistic traits and attitudes to the rest of the world from a more “whole” US perspective.

Phillips then attempts to link the rise of religious fundamentalisms as a principle motive in foreign policy decisions but I felt he did little more than reinforce the what most take as a given (albeit with much added detail from regional election statistics) — that the Bush administration has relied heavily on the religious fundamentalist vote. Although he discusses Middle East policy in the context of apocalyptic beliefs of Bush himself I remain sceptical: if Iraq were the proverbial world’s supplier of broccoli rather than oil does anyone really think Bush’s religious imagination would be so exercised in that region? Indeed, it is in this discussion that Phillips lets some of his otherwise love of detail desert him, and the reader finds in its place the old conservative biological and psychic metaphors commonly attached to “decline and fall” motifs: in place of hard supporting documentation one reads of a nation’s “hubris”, its “high-wire walks”, its “youth and early middle age”, its “animal spirits” and “vitality”, the “lesser resilience” of its “clogged arteries” (p.311).

This is a book rich in illustrations of “decline” and I personally find any hint that the US power is on such a brink both disturbing and encouraging. Disturbing because one fears the potential for more irrational and bloody responses from the superpower attempting to delay the inevitable; encouraging because one seeks the eventual end of Anglo-Saxon imperial domination and power rivalries with related European nations these past 200 years with what must be one of the most bloody and genocidal periods of human history.

One of the strongest regrets I have with American Theocracy is that while its author can see signs of “the end” of the current “empire”, he fails to see the “past greatness” with the same critical eye as he views the present. He’s yet one more victim of the nationalist view of history that, while deploring his own generation, fails to recognize that there never was a golden age when the game was any different.

that the whole exercise from the beginning was one not of “greatness” but of arrogance, greed and inhumanity.

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Neil Godfrey

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