I grew up in a tiny town of less than 1500 people in western Montana. It is a land of breathtaking natural beauty, and for 18 years I lived in the same house in a form of bucolic perfection. We prided ourselves on living 100 miles from the nearest stoplight. I smile to imagine that many young villagers from all over the planet share a form of kinship enforced by the laws of small communities and big mountains.
It was my home and they were my people, but after traveling, education and 13 years of living elsewhere, I can see what a strange accident of history small town America actually is, a residue left by a frontier that has moved on and twisted inward. This is a report from a correspondent embedded for 18 years and a hundred miles behind the front lines of the American frontier.
I was enabled to see it clearly by the fact that almost half of the buildings on the one main street are the originals from when the town was slapped together in the 1890s. One century later the layout and social structure were unchanged. I remember vividly the moment it struck: my parents and I were crossing the main street to dine at a Chinese restaurant. (Of course!) A glance to the right revealed where the street lamps petered out, a look over the left shoulder saw the other end of town. The mountains brooded over us, dark except for the scattered isolated houses here and there like embers from a dying fire. I stopped in the middle of the empty road and gasped: “This is still a frontier town!” That epiphany shattered the insular perfection of my home, and I have been struggling with it ever since.
It is painful to see the frontier scrawled across the personalities and culture of individuals and a town I love dearly, but now that I am an outsider it is obvious. Their little fenced estates in the woods are their half of the quid pro quo their ancestors fulfilled: tame the wilderness and your private claims will be protected. Their desires are clear and simple: they want taxes to be low, infrastructure to be mediocre (certainly not good enough to help the poorest) and fuel to be cheap. They love their trucks and jet skis and four-wheelers and cars and dirt bikes and speedboats and snowmobiles and motorcycles and SUVs and brush cutters and chainsaws and log splitters and lawn mowers and backhoes and shotguns and semitrailers and rifles and pistols and guns. They hate the government and complain that it doesn’t do enough for them.
They are profoundly ignorant of the vast human diversity and history around them and serenely contemptuous of the few snippets of knowledge they have collected. Put 500 of them in a room together and there probably won’t be a single classic poem or plotline of a work of world literature memorized between them, and if there is it will be in the head of a lone weirdo. There are only about three dates anybody appears to be aware of: 1492, 1776, 1945, and, by the time I was a senior in high school, 9/11, 2001. Most of them at some point complete the pilgrimage to the great holy city in the south, the place in the desert that god itself has touched, made sacred, made itself physically manifest in the world. They return from Las Vegas renewed, uplifted, their faith in financial manipulation restored, and full of hope that if they are pure enough, the god Mammon just might bless their own lives, someday.
So even though they are poor, in debt, and only able to move in a tiny world, mentally they are all little aristocrats. Therein lays the genius and opportunity of a frontier. If in the early 1800s you were a plantation owner in Virginia or a financial tycoon in New York, how do you simultaneously gain access to all those resources west of Appalachia, reduce pressure for social reform and of course not do any of the work yourself? The social architecture of the frontier answers all three questions elegantly, but it concomitantly makes a hollow society, a government without a nation underneath.
I took my epiphany and outsider status with me when I attended university on the outskirts of Tacoma, Washington. There was no physical relic of the frontier to observe, but after wandering around the local suburbs at night and especially after visiting the homelands of ancient nations in Peru and Guatemala on study-abroad trips it gradually dawned on me that the frontier was everywhere in the United States. Its peculiar dynamics have been so deeply ingrained that they define Americans better than any other interpretive framework, long after the physical circumstances of the frontier have ceased to exist.
What took me years to see in the suburbs of Tacoma is that the frontier has been turned on its side. Not inverted; an inverted frontier would resemble Brazilian farmers retreating hundreds of kilometers back from the edge of the Amazon rainforest and coming together to build beautiful sustainable cities. No, what I see is an internalization of that terrible frontier interface.
Fast food makes the most vivid case: how does one create money from otherwise worthless agricultural products, reduce social pressure for reform by fattening and stupefying the commoners, and of course not do any of the work oneself? Economically fast food joints are not restaurants at all—they are commodity dumps. They are a means to inflate massive profits out of otherwise inaccessible resources. If the dreck they served in place of food were sustainably farmed, if the workers were paid living wages and if the American people would defend their health, fast food chains would vanish. The exact same dynamic applies to the suburbs: overpriced cardboard boxes filled with cheesy appliances that would not be worth constructing if the Earth were taken into account. Whatever field of endeavor you care to examine, be it medicine or education, science or art, the frontier interface prevents it from serving human needs and demands that it serve one purpose only: that of converting resources into profits.
The American people are not building society. They are still doing the work of conversion for those same financial interests that opened the frontier in the first place. The same impulse that carried their ancestors across the Atlantic and maintained them through the crushing labor of deforestation and sod busting is now directed into mowing lawns, cleaning gutters, washing the car and, of course, shopping. Stand on any busy street and watch the frontier at work. Single out the delivery truck drivers, the look on their faces. They will hunt down and liquidate (financialize) every last pocket of natural resources left on the planet if they can.
I believe the lens of the frontier clarifies the otherwise bizarre suicide of the American empire. We must remember that settling the American west was swift and easy. Technological superiority, diseases and overwhelming numbers allowed civilians to do most of the ethnic cleansing while there was an actual boundary between the natives and European colonists.
The United States never had to demand sacrifices of its citizens or seriously negotiate with the natives. After all the territory in North America was settled, a series of historical accidents bumped the U.S. into a brief period of hegemony. Industrialization exploded just as the frontier ended. The same settlers who walked from St. Louis to Oregon Territory took trains back east a few decades later. Then the old imperial powers of Eurasia destroyed themselves in two world wars and voilà, the U.S. found itself the one intact industrial power! This is not the stuff of long-lasting empires. The upper classes have never stared defeat in the eye or had to restrain themselves and ask the common people for massive collective effort.
This explains why the government cannot repair national infrastructure or implement sound industrial policy. The internalized frontier is why the military cannot administer conquered territory and the ethnic minorities in the homeland cannot receive equal treatment under the law. The regime in Washington D.C. is not there to create a vast polyglot imperial structure (like the Achaemenid empire) nor to represent the collective will of a single nation (like Switzerland, or many others.) It exists to divvy up resources and then defend those aristocratic interests at all costs. It was set up in that form from the very beginning.
This explains why September 11 was used as another date that granted legitimacy to aristocratic claims, right in line with 1776 and 1945. Instead of leading a worldwide effort to bring criminals to justice and rooting out actual causes, the regime set about trying to create new frontier zones in places like Iraq and many others, hunting grounds for certain corporations and government agencies. Those efforts roused the ire of two of the oldest, most puissant imperial systems in the world, and were subsequently checked.
Nobody in D.C. seems to have read the memo that they are no longer allowed to set up frontiers for their cronies (or masters, depending on what side of the revolving door between corporations and government they are on.) They do not realize that China and Russia will never ever grant favorable terms to Western interests, and that the absurd commitment to “free markets” is actually a back door into the heart of what is left of the American economy.
Of course, such knowledge cannot exist inside such a regime, and anyway, it would make no difference. The U.S. government cannot ask the common people to make the kind of colossal sacrifice necessary to take on China and Russia at the same time. It cannot even shut down or control the mechanism of the frontier. It must keep talking about “free markets” because that is the main linguistic shield for aristocratic freedom of action from democratic controls. It certainly cannot tax the rich at progressive levels or shut down offshore havens.
So if its mercenary armies keep getting defeated overseas and efforts to control resources and markets in places like the Middle East keep getting thwarted, those same incompetent people still have to make ridiculous sums of money from nothing without doing the work, and the frontier takes another turn in upon itself. The government begins shedding excess population and militarizing civilian governance and privatizing the national patrimony and binding the poor with debt and austerity and meaninglessly spying on everything and on and on. After all, if they can’t run roughshod all over Central Asia and the Middle East, there’s no place like home!
There will be no coherent national uprising against this final suicide. There cannot be, because there is no American nation. Real nations have wrenching, defining events like the Dreyfus Affair, the Tupac Amaru rebellion, Tahrir Square, the taking of the Winter Palace, the storming of the Bastille, the trial of the Gang of Four, the Polish Deluge. The agony and ecstasy of being a nation, of being a people, evolving through time regardless of the specifics of where the capital city is or what dynasty sits on the throne has not yet happened to the mess of immigrants and descendants of immigrants in North America.
The process is beginning. Alaskan or Southern Californian or Cascadian or Texan are embryonic nationalities. If Washington D.C. actually tried to win the fight against Russia (let alone China) and keep its tottering financial empire intact, the effort itself would exacerbate the nascent breakup along those already visible lines. Why would an Alaskan fisherman obey a bureaucrat in D.C. when his livelihood depends on selling seafood to China? What possible situation or political figure could align the interests of a Texan and a Cascadian? The inevitable breakup of North American economic and political unity is clear to anyone with a sense of how and why nations evolve on this planet. It will be messy, lubricated by rivers of blood, and in most areas accompanied by a long dark age, but the rest of the world will breathe a sigh of relief.
For individuals like myself, born inside the frontier and soaked in its propaganda, the U.S. seems like A Very Important Thing. For minds still trapped, the breakup of the U.S. feels like The End Of The World, which is a way of simplifying events to the point of not thinking about them at all. I would like to end this report by exploring a perspective about the next few decades not often seen, which does not involve Nuclear War or Utter Collapse or The End of the US Dollar.
North America was almost inevitably going to be treated as a single huge frontier the moment any old world explorer, with all his weapons, diseases, domesticated animals and crops stepped ashore. Present-day old world nations and empires understand this and no longer envy or fear what amounts to a historical blip. They also observe that the deep social foundations necessary for a government to play with the big boys in the arena of culture are missing. But a vast, distant frontier is just as useful at converting worthless commodities into money for them as it has proven for our own aristocrats.
Keeping this in mind, I suspect that far from decisive military engagements or outright economic warfare, we might eventually observe China and Russia (among others) carefully managing the U.S. decline, expending small efforts to keep the regime in D.C. afloat as long as they keep getting a positive return on investment. After all, powerhouses like them will from time to time need to dump commodities like pork snouts or almost worthless forestry byproducts. As long as the frontier exists in the hearts and minds of Americans, they won’t lack for people willing to do the work of conversion for them.