Double Down

The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits BY Jed Esty. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 164 pages. $14.

There is a funny paradox in American culture. The nation began in revolt against British sovereignty and defined itself for generations against UK ruling-class values of crown, empire, and tradition. And yet in the Golden Age of Hollywood, on the run-up to American hegemony, the ideology of empire reentered the American bloodstream, adapted for mass society and a technocratic state. The medieval term translatio imperii, which once described the divine succession of emperors, later named the westward drift of power. It mutated into a doctrine of manifest destiny for aspirational American settlers. Back in the midcentury, Americans were able to believe that the sun set over the Pacific, casting its final golden beams on the new media capital of the twentieth century, Los Angeles. The historical bedrock of Hollywood genres has long been the rise and fall of empires, the romance of conquest, and frontier adventure. Americans learned to imagine their place in the Cold War world through a Hollywood vision that was neo-Victorian. When I hear people complain about the recycled superhero franchises and numbing sequel factories of today’s Hollywood, I am doubly surprised. First because the studio system was built on formula and repetition. And second because so many of the formulae, especially for action films, were recycled from nineteenth-century action-hero narratives. Westerns retold the frontier conflicts of British conquest across the globe. Victorian myths like Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and Treasure Island drove early Hollywood. The American media empire of the midcentury wasn’t just making sequels. It was a sequel.

Classic Hollywood extended and adapted late-Victorian Britain’s remarkable storytelling industry. Those two dream factories spoke English to the world. They codified a distinct set of narrative templates for a global audience. The economic and symbolic advantages of that export trade are still accruing. “The film is to America,” wrote an anonymous reviewer in the London Morning Post in 1926, “what the flag once was to Britain.” In the 1980s, Stuart Hall marveled: “Empires come and go. But the imagery of the British Empire seems destined to go on forever. The imperial flag has been hauled down in a hundred different corners of the globe. But it is still flying in the collective unconscious.” Still true, forty years later.

Rudyard Kipling’s infamous charge to Americans in 1899 to “take up the White Man’s burden” has long been tagged as a racist antique, but the core message of a relay from British to American supremacy remains a subtext in popular culture on both sides of the North Atlantic. Many of the virulently patriotic languages of American adventurism—both as a superpower and perhaps even more toxically as an ex-superpower—have origins in the swashbuckling language of the Victorian Great Game. The old British myths of global dominance crystallized forms of racial enmity—the Yellow Peril, the Red Scare, the Muslim Threat—that have shaped not just geopolitics but US storytelling conventions into the Cold War era and beyond. Old myths of Anglo-Saxon Christian virtue cinch British empire to American hegemony by moralizing the history of conquest, extraction, and racial capitalism. They celebrate, however tacitly, the superior capacity of Anglo-American white men to invent, to produce, to manage, and to govern both nature and other peoples.

Victorian and neo-Victorian genres have deposited habits of thought that reinforce both the luck and the virtue of history’s white victors. White supremacy and Anglo-American rule became entwined in the long schoolroom of empire and embedded in US popular culture. But those narrative formulae have an obverse side. As thrillers, they also tend to underscore the vulnerability of the Anglo-American core to invasion and degeneration. Consider Britain’s star franchises over the last century, from the archetypal vampire (Dracula) and detective (Sherlock Holmes) of the 1890s to the fantasy kingdoms (Tolkien’s trilogy) and fantasy geopolitics (Fleming’s Bond novels) of the midcentury, all the way to the magical boy-hero Harry Potter of the 1990s. These are all stories centered on archaic social forms—the blood-sucking aristocracy in Stoker, the degenerating empire in Conan Doyle, medieval allegory in Tolkien, the global derringdo of British adventure in Fleming, and the tony charms of the Victorian public school in Rowling. The threads of successful Anglo mass-cultural stories converge on themes of older social hierarchies propped up by an embattled empire, of social order threatened by corrupt villains but protected by unlikely heroes. These British myths recycle the glamor of global rule along with the fear of national degeneration.

British myths of freedom share a historical silhouette with American myths of freedom. Both were cemented in place at times when these twin hegemons presented themselves as the vanguards of modernity and the champions of human liberty. The abiding mythic core of liberal imperialism in both its Victorian British and Cold War American incarnations tells of a white, Western, or even specifically WASP proclivity for free markets and fair play, for heroic discovery and overseas rule. As Priyamvada Gopal notes, this specific Anglo-American fantasy views freedom as a gift to, from, and for the English-speaking peoples, and as a “franchise generously extended to peoples across the globe.” The core paradox—freedom imposed by force—can never quite be stabilized in theory or practice. It therefore requires mythic expression. Its contradictions keep generating new stories. It has produced an entire Anglophone popular culture centered on what we might call the triune mythology of weak states, strong markets, and free individuals. 

All popular culture may cannibalize and mash up the past, but in the UK and the US, the apex stages of national supremacy have a particularly tenacious hold on the half-buried political desires that live on in their aftermath.

Excerpted from The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture and Its Limits by Jed Esty, published by Stanford University Press, © 2022 by the author. All rights reserved.