The Trajectory of Empires

The structure of empire anatomized in last week’s post is a source of considerable strength for any imperial nation that manages to get it in place, and a source of even more considerable difficulty for anyone who opposes the resulting empire and hopes to bring it down. Nonetheless, empires do fall; every empire in history has fallen, with one present day exception, and for all its global reach and gargantuan military budgets, the American empire shows no signs of breaking that long losing streak. Thus it’s important to understand how empires fall, and why.

It sometimes happens that the fall of the last major empire in any given civilization is also the fall of that civilization, and a certain amount of confusion has come about because of this. The fall of Rome, for example, was the end of an empire, but it was also the end of a civilization that was already flourishing before the city of Rome was even founded—a civilization that had seen plenty of empires come and go by the time Rome rose past regional-power status to dominate the Mediterranean world. The example of Rome’s decline and fall, though, became so central to later attempts to understand the cycles of history that most such attempts in the modern Western world equated empire and civilization, and the fall of the one with that of the other.

That’s the principal blind spot in the writings of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, the two great theorists of historical cycles the modern Western world has produced. Both Spengler and Toynbee argued that the natural endpoint of what Spengler called a culture and Toynbee a civilization was a single sprawling empire—a Universal State, in Toynbee’s phrase—in which every previous movement of the culture or civilization that preceded it reached its completion, fossilization, and death. A barely concealed political subtext guided both authors; Spengler, formulating his theory before and during the First World War, believed that the German Empire would become the nucleus around which Faustian (that is, Western) culture would coalesce into the rigor mortis of civilization; Toynbee, who began his A Study of History in the 1920s and saw its last volumes in print in 1954, believed that an Anglo-American alliance would become that nucleus. In each case, national aspirations pretty clearly undergirded scholarly predictions.

Yet it bears remembering that a Universal State along Roman lines is only one of the options. Plenty of successful civilizations—the ancient Mayans are one example of many—never came under the rule of a single imperial power at all. Others—the civilization of ancient Mesopotamia is an example here—had empires succeeding one another every century or two all through the latter part of its history, so that no one empire put its stamp on the civilization the way that Rome did on the ancient Mediterranean world. Other civilizations had their own ways of dealing with the phenomenon of empire, and so a distinction needs to be made between the fall of empires and that of civilizations.

I’ve argued at length here and elsewhere that the fall of civilizations takes place through a process that I’ve termed catabolic collapse. This unfolds from the inevitable mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital—that is, how much economic activity has to be put into maintaining all the stuff that civilizations create and collect as their history proceeds—and the resource base needed to meet the maintenance costs of capital. Since capital tends to increase steadily over time, but resources are always subject to natural limits, every civilization sooner or later finds itself with more capital than it can maintain, and that tips it into a maintenance crisis: basically, a loss of capital, usually made worse by conflict over who gets to keep how much of their existing shares. If the civilization relies on renewable resources, it simply has to shed enough capital to get down below the level that it can maintain with the resource flows it has available; this is what drives the sort of repeated collapse and recovery rhythm that can be seen, for example, in the history of China.

If the civilization relies on nonrenewable resources, though, the depletion of those resources triggers a downward spiral—catabolic collapse—in which each round of crisis is followed, not by recovery, but by a brief reprieve before the declining resource base forces another maintenance crisis. Rinse and repeat, and pretty soon the capital you can’t afford to maintain any longer amounts to everything that’s left. That’s the extreme form of catabolic collapse, and there’s good reason to think that we’re already seeing the early stages of it in modern industrial civilization.

Empires suffer from the ordinary form of catabolic collapse, just like any other form of human social organization complex enough to accumulate capital. Still, they have their own far more specific version of the phenomenon, and it’s generally this specific form that brings them crashing down. To understand how empires collapse, two things have to be kept in mind. The first is the core concept of catabolic collapse just mentioned—the mismatch between maintenance costs and available resources, and the distinction between renewable and nonrenewable resources that determines the outcome of the mismatch. The second is the definition of empire introduced two weeks ago—that an empire is a wealth pump, an arrangement backed by military force that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core.

Imperial rhetoric down through the centuries normally includes the claim that the imperial power only takes a modest fraction of the annual production of wealth from its subject nations, and provides services such as peace, good government, and trade relations that more than make up for the cost. This is hogwash—popular hogwash, at least among those who profit from empire, but hogwash nonetheless. Historically speaking, the longer an empire lasts, the poorer its subject nations normally get, and the harder the empire’s tame intellectuals have to work to invent explanations for that impoverishment that don’t include the reasons that matter. Consider the vast amount of rhetorical energy expended by English intellectuals in the 19th century, for example, to find reasons for Ireland’s grinding poverty other than England’s systematic expropriation of every scrap of Irish wealth that wasn’t too firmly nailed down.

This sort of arrangement has predictable effects on capital and maintenance costs. The buildup of capital in the imperial center goes into overdrive, churning out the monumental architecture, the collections of art and antiquities, the extravagant lifestyles, and the soaring costs of living that have been constant features of life in an imperial capital since imperial capitals were invented. The costs of building and maintaining all this accumulation, not to mention the considerable maintenance costs of empire itself—the infrastructure of an empire counts as capital, and generally very expensive capital at that—are exported to the subject nations by whatever set of mechanisms the empire uses to pump wealth inward to the center. Over the short to middle term, this is an extremely profitable system, since it allows the imperial center to wallow in wealth while all the costs of that wealth are borne elsewhere.

It’s over the middle to long term that the problems with this neat arrangement show up. The most important of these difficulties is that the production of wealth in any society depends on a feedback loop in which a portion of each year’s production becomes part of the capital needed to produce wealth in future years, and another portion of each year’s production—a substantial one—goes to meet the maintenance costs of existing productive capital. In theory, an empire could keep its exactions at a level which would leave this feedback loop unimpaired. In practice, no empire ever does so, which is one of the two primary reasons why the subject nations of an empire become more impoverished over time. (Plain old-fashioned looting of subject nations by their imperial rulers is the other.) As the subject nation’s ability to produce and maintain productive capital decreases, so does its capacity to produce wealth, and that cuts into the ability of the empire to make its subject nations cover its own maintenance costs. A wealth pump is great, in other words, until it pumps the reservoir dry.

The wealth of subject nations, in other words, is a nonrenewable resource for empires, and empires thus face the same sort of declining returns on investment as any other industry dependent on nonrenewable resources. It’s thus predictable that the most frequent response to declining returns is an exact analogue of the "drill, baby, drill" mentality so common in today’s petroleum-dependent nations. The drive to expand at all costs that dominates the foreign policy of so many empires is thus neither accidental nor a symptom of the limitless moral evil with which empires are so often credited by their foes. For an empire that’s already drained its subject nations to the point that the wealth pump is sputtering, a policy of "invade, baby, invade" is a matter of economic necessity, and often of national survival.

The difficulty faced by such a policy, of course, is the same one that always ends up clobbering extractive economies dependent on nonrenewable resources: the simple and immovable fact that the world is finite. That’s what did in the Roman empire, for example. Since it rose and fell in an age less addicted to euphemisms than ours, Rome’s approach to pumping wealth out of subject nations was straightforward. Once a nation was conquered by Rome, it was systematically looted of movable wealth by the conquerors, while local elites were allowed to buy their survival by serving as collection agents for tribute; next, the land was confiscated a chunk at a time so it could be handed out as retirement bonuses to legionaries who had served their twenty years; then some pretext was found for exterminating the local elites and installing a Roman governor; thereafter, the heirs of the legionaries were forced out or bought out, and the land sold to investors in Rome, who turned it into vast corporate farms worked by slaves.

Each of those transformations brought a pulse of wealth back home to Rome, but the income from conquered provinces tended to decline over time, and once it reached the final stage, the end was in sight—hand over your farmland to absentee investors who treat it purely as a source of short term profit, and whether you live in ancient Rome or modern America, the results you’re going to get include inadequate long-term investment, declining soil fertility, and eventual abandonment. To keep the wealth pump running, the empire had to grow, and grow it did, until finally it included every nation that belonged to the ancient Mediterranean economic and cultural sphere, from the tin mines of Britain to the rich farms of the upper Nile.

That’s when things began to go wrong, because the drive to expand was still there but the opportunities for expansion were not. Attempts to expand northward into Scotland, Germany, and the Balkans ran headlong into two awkward facts: first, the locals didn’t have enough wealth to make an invasion pay for itself, and second, the locals were the kind of tribal societies that fostered Darwinian selection among their young men via incessant warfare, and quickly found that a nice brisk game of "Raid the Romans" made a pleasant addition to the ordinary round of cattle raids and blood feuds. Expansion to the south was closed off by the Sahara Desert, while to the east, the Parthian Empire had an awkward habit of annihilating Roman armies sent to conquer it. Thus Roman imperial expansion broke down; attempts to keep the wealth pump running anyway stripped the provinces of their productive capital and pushed the Roman economic system into a death spiral; the imperial government stumbled from one fiscal and military crisis to another, until finally the Dark Ages closed in.

The same process can be traced throughout the history of empires. Consider England’s rule over India, once the jewel in the crown of the British empire. In the last years of British India, it was a common complaint in the English media that India no longer "paid her own way." Until a few decades earlier, India had paid a great deal more than her own way; income to the British government from Queen Victoria’s Indian possessions had covered a sizable fraction of the costs of the entire British empire, and colossal private fortunes were made in India so frequently that they gave rise to an entire class of nouveaux-riches Englishmen, the so-called Nabobs.

It took the British Empire, all in all, less than two centuries to run India’s economy into the ground and turn what had been one of the world’s richest and most productive countries into one of its poorest. Attempts to expand the British empire into new territory were ongoing all through the 19th and very early 20th centuries, but ran up against difficulties like those that stymied Rome’s parallel efforts most of two millennia before: those areas that could be conquered—for example, eastern Africa—didn’t yield enough plunder to make the process sufficiently lucrative, while where conquest would have been hugely profitable—for example, China—British imperial ambitions ran up against stiff competition from other empires, and had to settle for a fraction of the take. Neither option provided enough income to keep the British empire from unraveling.

Another example? The short-lived Soviet empire in eastern Europe. In the wake of the Second World War, Russian soldiers installed Marxist puppet governments in every nation they overran, and the Soviet government proceeded to impose wildly unbalanced "trade agreements" that amounted to the wholesale looting of eastern Europe for Russian benefit. Much of the Soviet Union’s rapid recovery from wartime devastation and its rise to near-parity with the United States can be assigned to that very lucrative policy of pillage. Once the supply of plunder ran short, though, so did the Soviet economy’s capacity to function; efforts to expand into new territory—Afghanistan comes to mind—ran into the usual difficulties; and when the price of oil crashed in the mid-1980s, depriving the Soviet system of much of the hard currency that kept it afloat, collapse followed promptly.

The United States, as I hope to show in upcoming posts, is being driven by the same forces along the same trajectory toward imperial bankruptcy and collapse. Like the empires just described, and many others as well, it’s become economically and politically dependent on a set of unbalanced relationships that extract wealth from much of the world and concentrate it here at home. The specific form of those relationships unfolds from the unusually complex history of America’s empire; we’ll begin talking about that in next week’s post.

End of the World of the Week #11

Prophets of a new world about to dawn have spoken and written in many different styles, ranging from some of the world’s greatest poetry to some of the world’s least impressive gibberish. In 19th century Europe, however, it became fashionable to express such predictions in philosophical language, the more pompous and turgid the better. Two of the figures we’ve already discussed, Charles Fourier and Karl Marx, came out of that tradition, but Fourier had too colorful an imagination and Marx too readable a prose style to represent its main current.

No such handicaps burdened Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who managed to become the 19th century’s most influential philosopher by writing some of its most unreadable books. His bio is nearly a caricature of a contemporary German academic career—private lecturer at the University of Jena, editor of a literary journal at Bamberg, headmaster of a high school at Nuremberg, professor at the University of Jena, and finally chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he spent the rest of his life. His publications followed the same utterly conventional route: his doctoral dissertation studiously avoided the least suspicion of original thought; his first major work staked out a carefully chosen stance within the field of 19th century idealist philosophy, and later works applied the same stance at progressively greater length to various fashionable fields of thought.

His theory of history was part and parcel of this agenda. He argued, if it’s possible to sum up a vast amount of murky prose and convoluted reasoning in a few sentences, that history is the process by which the Absolute manifests Itself in space and time, according to a rhythm of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis by which each manifestation contends with its internal contradictions and achieves a new synthesis, which generates its own internal contradictions in turn, and the beat goes on.

Eventually, though, the Absolute will have completely manifested Itself in the world, the perfect human society will have been achieved, and history will come to a screeching halt with the appearance of a "world-historical personality" who would embody the Absolute. Hegel spent a good deal of his career waffling about when this would happen, but toward the end of his life, announced that it already had, and that Germany was the perfect human society. History, though, failed to take the hint, and just kept on going.

—story from Apocalypse Not