BOOKREVIEW: Building an empire with religion, oil and debt

Author Kevin Phillips is back again with his “American Theocracy,” an especially informative historical, political and economic analysis of what he believes are the three major perils facing the U.S. today: “Reckless dependency on shrinking oil supplies, a milieu of radicalized (and much too influential) religion, and a reliance on borrowed money — debt in its ballooning size and multiple domestic and international deficits.”

He also compares and contrasts the effect of these factors on now-deceased empires and the American empire today.

Biblical government

Phillips devotes much of his work (over 40 percent) to the dangers of religious extremism, American and Israeli, “as well as the all-too-obvious depredations of radical Islam.” The situation has been exacerbated in the U.S. by an unholy alliance between the Republican Party and the radical religious right, transforming the GOP into “the first religious party in U. S. history.” The author refers to the radical religiosity as “theological correctness” (TC), and he warns us that this has meant that the world’s leading economic and military power has also become the “world’s leading Bible-reading crusader state, immersed in an Old Testament of stern prophets and bloody Middle-Eastern battlefields.” In addition, conservative fundamentalists have demanded government by literal biblical interpretation, and they have tried to impose the teaching of religious myths such as creationism on public schools.

Politics of oil

The author discusses the second major peril confronting the U.S., an over-dependence on oil. Oil, he writes, “has soaked deeply — in all likelihood indelibly — into the politics and power structure of the United States” and is responsible for “a culture of red, white and blue assumptions of entitlement, a foreign policy steeped in covert petroleum emphasis, and a machismo philosophy of invade-and-take-it.”

Over the past three decades, oil has gained an “unimaginable” degree of influence in the White House. Likewise, he observes that the Bushes, more than any other U.S. political family, “exemplify the interaction of oil interests, the financial sector (third major peril facing the U.S.), the military-industrial complex and the intelligence community.” Phillips asserts that all of these factors came into play when the U.S. attacked Iraq in 2003. He views Iraq as a missing piece in “three interrelated jigsaw puzzles: rebuilding of the Anglo-American oil reserves”; “transformation of Iraq into a oil protectorate cum military base”; and shoring up the hegemony of the U.S. dollar. In short, Bush attacked Iraq for oil.

Phillips explains that Iraq’s oil reserves have barely been tapped, and much of the country, especially the western desert, is unexplored. Some petroleum experts believe that Iraq may hold larger oil reserves than Saudi Arabia. Of course, when Baghdad was captured by U.S. troops, they first went to the oil ministry building because that was where the maps and seismic portraits of oil fields were stashed. Who cared about the countless historical antiquities that were looted from Iraq’s national museum?

Debt economy

The third major peril facing the U.S. is what Phillips calls our “borrowed prosperity” or debt. The related fields of finance, real estate and insurance experienced major growth during the 1980s and 1990s due to the large expansion of debt of all kinds. Facing a declining standard of living, people have taken out additional loans and mortgages, and utilized credit card offers, many at shark loan levels of interest, that have flooded the mail.

Unpaid household debt led to over 5 million bankruptcies during the first Bush administration, and harsh new bankruptcy laws were enacted which threaten to reduce debtors to modern-day indentured servants. Likewise, the U.S. has been transformed from the world’s largest creditor to the largest debtor. Hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. Treasury debt have been snapped up by banks in Asia and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, tax breaks of all kinds have been given to the wealthy, while middle-class and lower-income persons sink deeper into debt.

Phillips has written an informative and useful study of a nation sinking into an economic, social and political quagmire. In addition, the virtual theocratic takeover of a major political party has led to a national administration that is, in the words of Gary Wills (cited by Phillips), at war with science. Government agencies “now reject scientific reports on ecological, stem cell, contraceptive, and abortion issues. They sponsor not only faith-based social relief, but faith-based war, faith-based science, faith-based education, and faith-based medicine.”

Our energy policy is also controlled by fossil-fuel interests, and the very gravity and nature of our debt is so unprecedented that history provides little to guide us. Meanwhile, the ship of state, sailing under Commander in Chief George W. Bush, “the Decider,” remains on a collision course with reality.

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
By Kevin Phillips
Viking Press, 2006
Hardcover, 462 pp., $26.95