The U.S. Postal Service is a mess, drowning in debt and nearly done in like Hosni Mubarak by social media. One of its own plans to rescue itself calls for the elimination of 220,000 jobs, which is like shoving the entire population of Reno, Nevada, into a job market already overfull and desperate. Little wonder the country waits so eagerly for President Obama’s jobs plan.
Except that what ails us isn’t really the dearth of jobs.
Consider what else this postal rescue plan proposes: Eliminating Saturday service (a disaster for those on the Netflix DVD mailer plan). And shuttering post office branches in remoter areas; one North Dakotan town of only 64 could lose its only post office, its meeting-place and symbolic center. An invaluable community resource, a material sign of the strength, reliability—and relevance—of our government, would vanish. This notion of survival seems rather bleak.
Here’s how it goes: The economy strikes, and government recedes. The private sector fills in some of the gaps; religious institutions try to fill others. But ultimately, there is no real alternative. Civic society doesn’t have an opposite—it is society. We face fragmentation, inflicted on us by forces alternatingly hegemonic (corporate monoculture) and anarchic (like the Internet), producing a political and cultural anxiety we have trouble articulating.
Through history, only so many countries and empires leave their mark. Of course, the United States is one of them, for our influence on the world, our wealth and our reach, ranks us alongside the greatest powers: Rome, Britain, the Ottomans. It’s that latter power which our national listlessness has me thinking about. How an overextended empire turned to tax-farmers, yesterday’s private contractors, charter schools and out-sourcing—and still didn’t save itself.
Before Ottomans Were Furniture
Born on the Anatolian frontier around 1300, the Ottomans fast rose to become a cultural and military force on three continents, a refuge for diverse populations fleeing persecution—the Ottomans took in Spain’s Jews and Muslims, expelled in one of history’s first ethnic cleansings. Folks tend to focus on the Ottomans’ last years, twilight decades of fundamentalism, virulent nationalism, and economic crisis, but forget that this structure had by then endured for some six centuries.
When the United States was born, we were a loose confederation of states. But very quickly—around 1787—we realized that wouldn’t work. America has been increasingly bound together by institutions, practices, and ideas that make a people and a nation—and make that nation work. A friend of mine, visiting from Pakistan, remarked on this amazing American characteristic: go to the smallest town, and it’s still America. The same standardized street signs, road markers, and, yes, mail service. Historically, we’ve moved, however imperfectly, towards greater inclusion.
The Ottomans, too, started loosely. But as they expanded, they too centralized, developing more and more institutions that connected diverse territories to their capital at Constantinople (conquered from the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453); the Sultans styled themselves Roman Emperors, a claim chauvinistically denied by provincial European thinkers, convinced that originally pagan Rome could only be succeeded by a Christian power.
For Ottomans had Roman ambitions—and successes. During the 16th century, polyglot armies fought wars in Hungary and the Horn of Africa. They sent troops, weapons, and specialists as part of coordinated military activities as far afield as Indonesia and Somalia, Algeria and India. They allied with “pirate” navies in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, using proxy forces to help push the Portuguese out of much of the Indian Ocean. They planned canals at Suez in Egypt and to connect the Black and Caspian seas.
That they could do so much for so long is a testimony to a unique organizational genius; convincing very different peoples to put their talents to work for an imperial project. When the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna, their camp, which went up in days, was larger than Vienna itself. Every time they built a fleet to fight the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, they had to get timber from the Levant, drag it across Egypt, and then assemble ships in Red Sea ports, none of which were near any forest.
But the once can-do Empire struggled, just decades after its great victories, to get anything done. They were committed in too many places. They had too many obligations. And too many enemies. And with all that, the Ottomans had lost whatever it was that convinced Arabs and Turks, Slavs and Kurds, to serve in a collective enterprise. And once people stopped believing in that enterprise, they went their own way, psychologically at first, and inevitably politically as well.
As they came under increasing strain, the Ottomans decided to farm out crucial services they once directly controlled. We can call this privatization of a historic kind; like mercenaries, third parties were hired by the state, but were not the state, and worked for a fee, diluting the state’s authority and distancing it from its subjects, replacing human attachments with financial relationships. Sometimes this literally meant mercenaries.
Today we live in a culture that increasingly considers government provision of services problematic, “inefficient”, or unaffordable. (The market, which just crashed the planet, is deemed “efficient.”) But rather than eliminate those services altogether, which seems equally impossible, we’ve proposed privatizing, farming out, private contractors, and so on and so forth. This does seem like a reasonable solution considering the circumstances, but it doesn’t work in the long run.
Take what happened to the Ottomans.
While the British and the French were building up centralized institutions, which meant, say, having all taxes get collected through one institution–which gave the population something to agitate around (we formerly British Americans didn’t mind the taxes so much as our inability to weigh in on them)—the Ottomans were going in the other direction. And more and more, they were also falling behind.
By the 19th century, the Ottomans had eviscerated so much of their state, hollowing out the consensus around which their country was born and grew, that they could no longer act in the face of crisis. They were increasingly prone to outbreaks of violence, religious fanaticism, and secessionist tendencies; the state had its hand in some of the uglier episodes.
Of course, the differences between the Ottomans and America are too many to count. But it bears noting that the Ottomans were born during Europe’s dark ages, combated the Spanish and the Portuguese in the age of discovery (when Native Americans discovered imperialism), and only expired after World War I. For several hundred of those years, they were considered an almost unstoppable force.
But faced with too many obligations, the Ottomans chose to hack away at their domestic responsibilities. When they realized what they had given up on, it was too late to go back. They were outpaced by more ambitious, rising European powers, with sophisticated investment strategies and responsive politics. It was, in the end, Western Europeans who built the canal at Suez, and benefited from it, too. And other powers that claimed the Roman mantle (take a look at our capital city).
Fixing America, Sooner or Later
Having been let down by so many policies over the past few decades, it’s not surprising many Americans just want tax cuts. If government, with all its money, can’t seem to do anything to help, then it should just give people their money back. At least we can have an edge in the struggle to make ends meet—though those ends have moved farther and farther apart.
Tonight, the President will share his plan for bringing jobs back. We’re focused, for obvious reasons, on what his plan lays out for the next few years. That’s what our political cycle prioritizes. But I hope he says something a bit more profound—inspiring us to imagine the next few decades were we to only cut and gut.
The loss of faith in government does our democracy no service. In fact, it can only undermine our democracy, because it undermines that point around which all of us once agreed, and now only seem to disagree. Our President seems to have detected this bitter mood, but needs to do more than seize it for political advantage. For a mood is not a vision.
We’ll hear of tax cuts, of budget cuts, of services lost—but the things we lose, we’ll have great trouble getting back. Money is one thing. But government’s services, its very mission, its physical presence and provisioning of our lives and routines, its ability to make us come together for causes greater than ourselves, speaks to something deeper—cultural, even philosophical.
And that is the consensus at democracy’s heart: People together in a common enterprise, an energetic, vibrant, and deep agreement that, historically speaking, comes only so often. When those achievements are undone, they are not easily recovered, and we might learn, to our great regret, how rare it is for things to be just so, that a country might emerge, grow, look after its own, and thrive.
Haroon Moghul is an Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches, and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is completing his Ph.D. at Columbia University.