Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Kevin Phillips:
American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion,
Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century

      Our group generally liked this book and our average rating was 7.3 on a scale of 0 to 10. Unusual for us, with our normally very wide range of views, nobody gave it a rating lower than 5.

      Kirby said that in general he had nothing bad to say about the book, though he did raise a question about some of the statistics quoted. Specifically, Phillips ascribes views to what he calls “secular voters” that seem somewhat bizarre—such as on p. 365 where he says that 13% of secular voters think that “following religious principles” should be a top priority for U.S. foreign policy. Others in our group said that this must mean that Phillips is using the term “secular” very loosely to include many who are actually religious to some degree, but whose politics are not closely aligned with their religion. Kirby and several others also commented that they didn’t fully understand everything in the section of the book devoted to the massive debt problem.

      Emily read the book about a year before, so it was not entirely fresh in her mind. But she thought that Phillips made a very powerful case, and that each of the three sections (peak oil, Republican theocracy, and the debt problem) stands on its own very well. However, she didn’t feel that Phillips made the case “that religion is bringing down the country”. On the other hand she felt that he makes the point powerfully that every empire eventually declines, and noted the tone of alarm in the book.

      Rich remarked that it is a really good book—an education, even—with so much information in it. John, too, said it deluges you with facts and appears to be very “fact based”. Rosie commented that Phillips is an articulate writer and that it is a pleasure to read things that are not just unsubstantiated opinion. She added that she thoroughly enjoyed the book.

      John said Phillips’ view that we are still in a 100-year oil war makes a lot of sense. John commented that he hopes this doesn’t proceed to develop into a greater world oil war. Barbara was also impressed by Phillips’ description of the past century as a 100-year oil war. Kevin felt, however, that the material about peak oil was not new, and noted that Phillips doesn’t talk about the drastic changes that are likely and necessary because of end of cheap oil.

      Ron agreed that Phillips made his three main points very well, and especially that religion is a major force driving down American society. But he felt that a real weakness of the book is that Phillips makes few suggestions or proposals for ways out of the major predicaments facing the U.S. at present.

      Kevin said he was resentful of the author’s past role in promoting the Republican majority that he helped engineer back in the Nixon Administration! It was noted that he seems to be a much more liberal guy now. But Scott thinks Phillips is still bourgeois to the core. He seems to genuinely fear and lament the probable coming collapse of the American empire. Our group had a discussion on this topic and many people seemed to think it might well be for the best! (Scott of course is sure of that! What gives the U.S. the right to control and exploit the world?!)

      Scott thought the overall concept of the book was weak, and that actually it was three separate small books more or less incongruously mashed into one. He appreciated the statistics, not only in the first part on peak oil, but even more so in the final section on the runaway debt problem in the U.S. But he felt the large middle section on theocratic politics was rather tedious (though he agrees with the importance of this very negative trend). He considered there to be a great excess of detail about matters like the political and religious leanings of different states, and even specific counties, that are really only of much interest to political consultants and those who think it is somehow critically important whether the Democrats or Republicans run the country for the capitalists.

      Scott was most interested in Phillips’ remarks about the growing economic dangers and problems for the U.S. and the real possibility of the collapse of the American empire over the next few decades. But he thought Phillips’ basic approach of arguing from historical analogy (with the previous Roman, Spanish, Dutch and British empires) was flawed and superficial in many respects. Kevin pointed out one particularly glaring flaw in this approach, Phillips’ claim that most empires failed and were succeeded by another because they didn’t have the sense and ability to switch to the rising new form of energy. (The Dutch stuck with windmills, the British with coal, while the U.S. jumped most forcefully into oil.) But for that analogy to make any sense for the decline of the U.S., there must be some major new source of energy that the U.S. is neglecting while its successor empire is not. Phillips provides no good reason to believe any of this, however.

      Arguing from history is at best a supplement to arguing on the basis of scientific analysis, claims Scott. And following the American tradition of ingrained pragmatism, Phillips does little or nothing in the way of deep analysis. With regard to the runaway growth of debt in American society, he gives no explanation as to why this has been happening (other than his very dubious implication that it must eventually happen to every society). The basic problem in a capitalist society is simple: constantly growing debt is necessary to keep the economy going. The underlying reason for this is that the workers, the people who actually produce goods and services, are not paid enough to buy back what they produce. (They can’t possibly be paid enough, since then there would be no profits and the system would immediately collapse.) So, for a while things are kept going by loaning more and more money to consumers (mostly the working class). And, in addition to this (especially when consumer debt starts to reach its final limits—as it now has in the U.S.), the government itself borrows and buys things (especially military equipment) to keep the economy going. But these Keynesian deficits also must increase at a generally growing rate and eventually reach their limits too. So either way, the exponential growth of more debt is required to keep the economy going. Until, that is, this whole house of cards collapses in a major and prolonged economic crisis in which all that debt and excess capital is wiped out so that things can start over again (as happened after World War II). That is close to where we stand today, and why.

      The housing and financial bubbles that Phillips laments are actually necessary to the health of any capitalist economy, and if there were no bubbles there would only be permanent low-level stagnation. Because Phillips does not understand this basic economic fact he is unable to do more than simply and belatedly recognize (along with many others) that the situation is getting desperate, and blame the impending economic crisis on the missteps of George W. Bush, Alan Greenspan, and others. While those people have made plenty of errors in their management of the economy, they have also been the ones who most strongly promoted debt bubbles and thus kept the U.S. economy going for a while longer. It is a capitalist myth that the fundamental cause of economic problems is the incompetence of those who manage the economy, rather than the inherent laws of capitalism itself. So, at least, says Scott!

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