The Future of Decline
Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits
Jed Esty


Contents and Abstracts
Preface: Lost Greatness as a Way of Life
chapter abstract

Americans have feared the eclipse of US power for generations. Since the 1970s, many prophets of national doom or cheerleaders of national destiny have tried too hard to alarm or soothe readers. This book will argue that decline is inevitable, but slow and not disastrous. By the end of the 2020s, China will be the top global economy, and America will be a second-place nation. The moment demands a new set of narratives and attitudes about post-imperial America. With that imperative in mind, the book will pursue three central goals: 1) to bring the history of British declinism to bear on the American experience; 2) to survey the main structures of feeling and guiding narratives of American declinism; and 3) to establish a working model for adaptive national life in an America freed from post-imperial melancholy.

1 Against Declinism
chapter abstract

There is now a glut of books about the End of America. Whether historic or prophetic, blithe or alarmist, these books remain mostly fixed in the groove of US-centered rather than comparative analysis. This chapter outlines and criticizes the key features of mainstream declinism. The first is the tendency to battle over metrics and statistics while ignoring the decisive storylines that shape most Americans' perception of decline. The second, just as important, is the tendency to filter decline anxieties through an elite worldview. Declinism in most of its forms overidentifies with elites and their fantasies of lost power and position, especially white male propertied elites. It under-identifies with nonwhite, nonmale, nonelite citizens. Third, the prophets and pundits of US decline too often use the specters of fallen Rome and shrunken Britain to chill rather than inform readers.

2 After Supremacy: Ten Theses
chapter abstract

The future of decline, especially with the climate crisis deepening, depends on finding prosperity and security within new existential limits. This chapter uses ten theses to surveys the cultural dimensions of national decline. It tests the rhetoric of lost greatness against the example of Great Britain, proposes that readers stop viewing post-peak America as a diminished thing American decline cannot be reversed, but its cultural aftermath can be shaped by media and academic opinion makers. Whether the US falls prey to deep superpower nostalgia — as the UK has — turns more on popular belief and national myth than on policy plays or economic benchmarks. Those who obsess over how fast we will fall and how much we will lose. They ignore the fundamental question: What does decline mean?

3 British Pasts, American Futures
chapter abstract

Rather than turn British history to alarmist purposes, this account of American decline turns on the basic facts that the end of empire was not an unmitigated disaster for the UK. In fact, for most ordinary citizens, life in the UK improved during the post-WWII decades of global retreat and imperial contraction. The US downslope will be gentler than the British one. Taking its cue from Stuart Hall and the British New Left — the first critical responders to UK imperial decline, the book seeks to analyze rightwing populism in the US as a symptom of decline. It uses the cultural and political insights of the British New Left historians to describe a future for US national culture outside the toxic legacies of "lost greatness" or post-hegemonic melancholia.

4 American Culture in the Age of Limits
chapter abstract

To come to terms with the slow fade of global power without replicating post-imperial melancholy requires a new historical literacy. It means exploring both the facts and the narratives attached to US power and its loss. This chapter describes the new stories emerging in US culture as the myths of endless growth and supremacy receded. Americans of all stripes and types have a deep habit of believing that America's destiny lies in the ruthless pursuit of global supremacy. But cultural habits can change. Historians and humanists, along with media and policy elites, can fight the myths of US supremacy and American exceptionalism with new stories about a functional and decent society. They can dedicate their energies to banishing the toxic legacy of lost greatness.