By Silvio Laccetti

Could American civilization collapse? You bet! All others have, and we don't need a Mayan calendar to foreshadow a cataclysm in 2012. Signs of the dissolution of the American state are everywhere.

When we speak of states in America, we usually mean something like New Jersey. Elsewhere, however, the state is the central government (as well as provincial and local governments) - an entity or apparatus with a life of its own. And for most of the history of the world, with very few exceptions, the state in this sense has been legitimized by gods and kings; hence the declaration often attributed to Louis XIV: "I am the state."

Until the American Revolution, there was a wall of separation between governments and their people. Our American state, however, is founded on the principle of "we the people" as the source of all legitimate authority. And its operation is exemplified by Lincoln's famous characterization of it, in the Gettysburg address, as a government of, by, and for the people.

But who today believes our government still embodies these principles?

There is no longer government "of the people," because "we the people" can't afford to run for office. Political candidates must have personal fortunes or else consider selling out to special interests.

"For the people"? Only in a convoluted way. According to one economist's analysis, more than half of Americans (dependents included) draw a substantial portion of their income from government (federal, state, or local) as employees or recipients of Social Security and other forms of assistance.

Perhaps this is why the government has no fear of serving itself first. Members of Congress, for example, have their own retirement program, health benefits, and other lifelong perks. The American state also spends billions and billions on corporate and other special interests, further assuring its survival.

There is a ubiquitous belief that government doesn't serve the public good, and an overwhelming lack of confidence in Congress. Our state seems able to save itself, but not its people. It cannot solve any of the complex problems we face, including those surrounding our debt, health care, education, immigration, infrastructure, poverty, and employment.

When the general population has no faith in the current state, it faces the prospect of a demise or dramatic reshaping.

But wait: America's is still a government "by the people." We do have the power to change things.

The tea-party movement has had significant successes electing a new group of people. And Occupy Wall Street may yet provide an impetus for the emergence of new leaders or perhaps even new parties.

What we most desperately need is a different kind of leadership - servant leaders who place service above wealth, power, and fame. Such leaders prize humility and espouse a sense of community. With time, of which we may have little, leaders like this can be found and created among the people.

Now that we are on a downward slope, can we the people reverse momentum? We have done it before, and we have not yet perished from the face of the Earth.

Silvio Laccetti is a professor emeritus of history and social sciences at Stevens Technical Institute. He can be reached at slaccett@stevens.edu.