A Case of Imperial Decline: Comparing Spain and the United States

Recently, I finished reading Imperial Spain: 1469-1716 by John Elliot.  It is one of the definitive books on Spain during the Habsburg dynasty, and gives an excellent overview of the rise and the beginning of the decline of the Spanish Empire.  While reading it, I noticed many parallels between Spain in the early 1600s and the current United States.  These similarities are not just in one specific area, but in geopolitics, economic and social factors, and both powers’ internal political circumstances.

The most striking similarity between 17th century Spain and the turn of the 21st century United States was the role of educational institutions and the general view of different job sectors.  In Spain, the universities at Salamanca and Valladolid were the highest centers of learning in the Spanish empire and some of the most venerable educational institutions in Europe at the time.  However, by the later decades of the Habsburg reign, these universities had been accepting ever more students and graduates, leading to a large overabundance of educated and skilled workers.  Because the university was one of the most reliable ways to get into the royal court, many Spaniards idealized a university education as a path to a rise in social status.

In this same manner, the education bubble has afflicted the United States.  After a generation of baby boomers going to university, it has beecome an expectation for the millennial generation that after high school they will go to college and get a degree.  Meanwhile, the number of jobs traditionally requiring a degree such as doctors and lawyers has not kept pace with the number of people graduating with such degress entering the job market.  The result has been the overabunance of unemployed university graduates and the devaluation of a bachelor’s degree.  Even more recent booming fields such as computer science and IT are experiencing this devaluation as it is seen as the tech boom in the 1990s is settling down and as countries such as China and India become more competitive in the technology industry.

This davluation of a university education has been accompanied by another curious change in both Habsburg Spain and present-day America.  That change is a growing disdain for more manual labour among the younger population.  Today, with so many young people getting a university degree, they feel above minimum wage service jobs or entry level positions at companies, and feel that the degree entitles them to start out at a higher position.  Similarly in 16th and 17th century Spain, there was a general feeling that agricultural and even more urban mercentile work was beneath a family that had aspirations to nobility.  A common phrase of the era, “iglesia, mar, or casa real”, implied that the only methods for advancement of one’s position was through the church, through the sea trade, or through the imperial bureaucracy, and by the 17th century, even the sea trade had been removed from the phrase for being too menial a job for aspiring Spaniards.

Another commonality was a case of widespread xenophobia and a feeling of a loss of the nation’s cultural identity.  In today’s America examples abound, from the heated debates over immigration policy to a nostalgic yearning for an idealized version of the 1950s.  While in the United States, the target of the xenophobia is Latin American immigrants, the perceived group destroying the cultural identity of Habsburg Spain was the Moriscos.  The Moriscos were the descendants of Moors after the Reconquista who rather than leaving for North Africa or the Ottoman Empire as many did, converted to Christianity.  The Moriscos, because they converted to Christianity, were for a while welcomed within the rising Spanish Empire.  Much like the Latin American immigrants to the United States today, many Moriscos were employed in agricultural work, mostly along the Ebro River in Granada and Valencia.  But after the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588 and signs that the empire was starting to stagnate and decline, the Spanish monarchy and many in the nobility started using the Moriscos as a blame for Spain’s problems.  During the late 16th century and into the 17th century, Moorish customs that had survived such as women wearing veils were slowly banned.  The belief that the remaining Islamic influence was hindering the country was especially prevalent in staunchly Catholic Spain, and gained more ground around this time because of the spread of Protestantism in the rest of Europe.  In 1609, king Phillip III finally issued an edict for the expulsion of all Moriscos, who numbered approximately 300,000.  The expulsion was for the most part completed by 1614, though in the kingdoms of Aragon and Valencia where the Moriscos were engaged in farming on land owned by local nobles, the process took longer as the nobility there realized the value of the Moriscos.

As a result of these policies and circumstances, many parts of Spain underwent a drastic economic decline during the 1600s.  The disdain toward sea commerce led to a decline in the portion of international shipping that was controlled by Spain.  Along with the coasts, the Castilian government neglected the infrastructure of the agriculturally productive interior of the country.  Irrigation projects in central Castile were not restored because the Spanish monarchy was busy fighting wars with the Ottomans, the Dutch, the English, and the French.  The neglect of the prosperous Castilian interior caused a movement of the population of Castile to the coastal cities such as Barcelona, Valencia, and Seville, or too the imperial court in Madrid.  To this day, Spain’s population remains concentrated on the coasts and in Madrid, while the interior is less densely populated.

Is this starting to sound familiar yet?  The decline in productivity of the Castilian interior is analagous to the decline of the Rust Belt in the Midwest in the past 40 years.  Cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Saint Louis have experienced massive declines in population over the past decades.  In 1960, four of the largest ten cities in the United States – Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Saint Louis – were in the Midwest.  As of the 2010 census, Chicago is the only Midwestern city in the top ten.  This has been accompanied by a neglect for the country’s infrastructure as much of the interstate highways and road bridges are in poor condition.

The reasons the Spanish monarchy claimed for the decline of the Castilian interior are also similar to some of the claims being put forth today for the decline of the American economy.  Much as many politicians place the blame for the sluggish economy on high taxes and too much regulation of businesses, the Council of Castile blamed the depopulation of the Castilian interior on “excessive taxes and tributes”, rather than investigating the true reasoning behind it.

So what do these comparisons mean for the United States?  These circumstances in 17th century Spain signified the beginning of the decline of the Spanish and Habsburg empires.  Spain was soon eclipsed in naval dominance by England and Great Britain, while the Spanish Empire suffered a wave of revolts in the 1640s that led to Portugal regaining its independence.  In 1700, the Habsburgs had lost their supremacy over Europe and Spain passed to the French Bourbon dynasty.  While violent revolutions and turmoil is not looming in the future for the United States, it could be a sign that the days of the American empire are coming to an end.  China and soon other Asian powerhouses may rise to challenge the United States as the global economic and military hegemon, and the United States could go into an irrecoverable decline.  If we want to remain a superpower, the United States would do well to look at the course of historical empires such as Habsburg Spain and do what they can to prevent creating the same circumstances of decline that other powers experienced.

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