Is “The American Experiment” doomed?

I preface this brief article (by a biochemist and Brit and thus an Alien!), who has bucked the normal trend of being a leftist while young and right-wing when old to become the exact opposite while absolutely not embracing a true leftist philosophy by saying that it is a very personal viewpoint.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana, 1905.

The writers of the constitution, ratified in 1787 and amended twenty-seven times, created a wonderful document. Based heavily on the Magna Carta of the UK (1215) and heavily tweaked by a consideration of the history of ancient Rome and the city states of Ancient Greece, it was succeeded by the constitution of the French Republic (1793). The writers of the U.S. constitution created a government framework with a number of checks and balances to avoid a despotic government arising, notably the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

So far, so good. Yet the majority of governments in the history of the world have been autocratic in one form or another.  Ancient Rome went from a republic for 500 years (with three civil wars towards the end) to a rather rapid evolution into an imperium under Augustus, staggering on for another 400 years under a mixed bag of emperors. An astonishing record.

The British Empire lasted only about 250 years. The French Colonial Empire lasted a little longer. The Russian Empire a little less. The Chinese Qing empire was also in this ballpark as were the Malian and Songhai Empires of North Africa. None of these survived. All had trade as a central tenet of their existence; some might say exploitation was actually the central tenet.

The USA has never had an empire, per se, but it has exerted an enormous cultural and commercial influence over the world, particularly in the late 20th century, aided and abetted by two world wars. The relative geographical isolation of the USA, protected by two oceans, and its huge size and resources, enabled it to become an economic global powerhouse, a position it has held since. It might be considered to be an empire. Empires rely on commerce to hang together, and the USA has this in spades. Again, some might say exploitation is the central dogma.

Today, the USA is being competed with, mostly by China and India, but also by the other great experiment, the European Union. The latter is cracking at the seams; Britain left in 2020 after a close referendum in 2016 in an extraordinary act of self-sabotage. Other issues exist: the autocratic and pro-Russian Hungarian government, the rise of populist governments elsewhere, the economic disparity between Italy, Spain and Greece and the more powerful economies of France and Germany. Most recently, Russia, rising out of the wreck of the USSR, has started to threaten the EU.

In addition to the world of commerce, which is inseparable from politics in a world with borders (There are 193 member countries in the UN, out of a total of 195 countries. Non-members are the Holy See and Palestine), a new global player has arisen in the form of the internet.

Should the internet be regarded as a “global entity”? I would argue that it should.

Many readers of this essay will have grown up in a world where a telephone was a bit of a luxury. From my point of view, in the UK in the 1960’s and 70’s, all telephone calls were billed (if you had a phone). I spent my undergraduate years with little access to a phone. And anyway, who would I have called? None of my friends had phones. If you wanted to talk, you met them, typically in a pub. Things improved very marginally as a graduate student – one phone for the twenty or so people in the house I lived in and one phone for our lab of ten or so people. (In our boss’s office – one was not encouraged to use it!). Detailed communication was primarily accomplished by mail or physical visits.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., in 1973, Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, developed Ethernet and the structure of the internet was born.

I moved to the USA at the end of the 1970’s. Luxury! Local calls were free. Our lab had phones for the eight senior scientists and two more phones that went through our wonderful secretary for the rest of us (about twenty people). We had access of a sort to a central computer, fed by teletype terminals and punched tape. Over the next twenty years, computer access improved enormously leading to where we are now, carrying small computers around with us and simply typing a query into a search bar or, most recently, into an online “Artificial Intelligence” engine. As yet, there is nothing intelligent about the latter, but it is progressing rapidly.

In many ways, the internet is simply an extension of the phone system and originally ran largely on the phone system infrastructure. For private individuals, it was accessed via phone line and billed by the hour. Remember those squalling modems?

The difference today is that we now have powerful computers at the ends of the call, not just a text-based terminal. We are now able to implement actions over the internet, increasingly with little human intervention.  Furthermore, we are in a world where we can do “free” video calls with a large percentage of the world’s population and email even more people. Social media have enabled an enormous level of interaction.

This has completely changed how we interact with information and other people. Information used to have value, mostly because it cost real, tangible money to produce. Now it is, from the point of view of the end user, free. There is, of course, a cost in the form of the infrastructure, but that is essentially invisible.

To my mind, this sheer speed of information movement is the root cause of the alarming rise of populist governments. And the root cause of the short-termism that ensues. Populism, by its nature, is fed by sound bites, tweets and data-less postings on social media. It is not intended to be exposed to critical thinking.

This might be considered to be a negative view of where we are at present. But in fact, I am cautiously optimistic. Just as politicians cannot survive without voters, the world of commerce cannot survive without customers – its “voters”. And without commerce, the world would fall apart. Nowhere is self-sufficient. Disruption of supply chains is dangerous to commerce; corporations are unlikely to support politicians who cause disruption. In the US this is an important aspect of the political system.  I would argue that wealthy donors who support candidates (30-50% of the total personal donation level) are actually part of the commercial sector. While individuals provide 60-70% of political funding, only about 30-40% is from grass roots, the non-corporate aligned voters.

The corporate world typically has a longer-term view compared to most politicians, who, with some notable exceptions, are primarily concerned with the next election cycle. Corporations indulge in various shenanigans to elevate their stock price, but this is short term noise. For the most part, publicly traded companies are honest in the long term due to, again, the freely available information about their corporate financials that is picked over by analysts. This is not to say they are not exploitive, and in this regard the “empire of the internet” is similar to empires of the past.

Perhaps I am being a Pollyanna, but I feel that unconstrained commerce is a good thing, as it needs a more-or-less peaceful world. It is obvious that this doesn’t work on a small scale, as we can see from the briefest perusal of the news. But on the scale of humanity in total, I think we will be OK. The chances of a larger conflagration are rather small, in spite of the human tragedies occurring constantly.

The exploitive nature of commerce has had obvious effects on the environment. The “American Experiment” may not last, and history would suggest it will not, but the resilience of human societies and individuals in particular do not paint a picture of disaster, rather cautious optimism. My thesis that commerce needs customers does not suggest that exploitation can continue unfettered, but rather that it will adapt to ensure that customers are available, and that we are helped more than we are hindered by rapid communication.

Biological systems – and the surface of the planet is a biological system – change with time. Short term swings may be unpleasant, but that is the nature of life.

With many thanks to Junia Ancaya for editorial critique.

Retired Biochemist, USF Instructor, and mountain climber, Peter Neame, grew up in Great Britain, got his degree at Liverpool University, and moved to the U.S. in the 1970’s.  His wide range of interests have led him to take numerous OLLI classes. If you enjoyed this essay, you may want to read one of his earlier publications “


10 Replies to “Is “The American Experiment” doomed?”

  1. I’ve been feeling rather pessimistic about the future of our “great experiment”. However, your placement of the “great experiment” within a wider context helped me to feel more optimistic about the future of my grandchildren. Thank you!

  2. A fascinating read. As an alien also (Canadian), I know firsthand the effects of USA colonialism: social, cultural, economic. If one of the key features of empire is domination, then certainly the US has those hallmarks.
    And the original constitution, for all its important innovations on the world scene, did not provide for justice for the majority of its residents (women and all slaves).
    Meanwhile, unconstrained commerce has led to Citizens United, to obscene discrepancies in income, to the disastrous effects of climate change.
    Where does that leave us now? As an educator, I want desperately to believe that with education, comes critical thinking and the ability to contextualize, analyze, and so on.
    For example, history begs us to understand the role of the US government and the CIA, United Fruit, etc, in creating conditions that lead so many to escape hellish conditions south of the border.
    The more we know, the better we can adapt and work for change.

  3. Peter, your thoughts are so deep, I’d have to take classes in global economy and world political systems to capture your dissertation! Bravo! Keep on writing; your style is smooth, your philosophy is positive, and your debate so familiar, rather than Alien. . .

  4. Thanks everyone – it’s very gratifying that people liked something so far outside my skillset.
    Junia: You know more than I ever will!
    Marilyn: There have always been obscene discrepancies and cultural exploitation – I think the big difference now is that we know more about them and so can, in a small individual way, do something about them.

  5. Peter, I appreciate your perspective…I agree that individuals are critical to bring about necessary change ..but, alas, not sufficient; we also need to understand the context of institutions and their tipping points.

    1. Ah, but institutions are just bundles of individuals. But I agree totally a bunch of people does not behave like the average or median of the individuals in the group. Mob rule 😬

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