Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Fate of Empires

(Click picture for video)

John Bagot Glubb, a British officer in the first and second world war, and British Commander of the Arab Legion during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, wrote a number of books including The Fate of Empires, which examines regularities in the rise and fall of 11 empires over 3000 years. The empires Glubb studied had a lifespan of about ten human generations, or two hundred and fifty years, despite changing factors such as technology. Glubb describes a pattern of growth and decline, with six stages: the Ages of Pioneers, Conquest, Commerce, Affluence, Intellect and Decadence. He pointedly avoided writing about India or China, focusing rather on middle and western eurasia, stating that his knowledge was inadequate to the task.

Note that six stages in 10 generations means that significant change can occur over one or two generations -- a nation can pass from one age to the next, as I believe we have in America during my lifetime.
The Fate of Empires

... There does not appear to be any doubt that money is the agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and self-confident people. The decline in courage, enterprise and a sense of duty is, however, gradual. The first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men. Moreover, men do not normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves. Gradually, and almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the voice of duty. The object of the young and the ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash. Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to serve their country. [ Or to discover great things for all mankind! ] Parents and students alike seek the educational qualifications which will command the highest salaries.

The inadequacy of intellect

Perhaps the most dangerous by-product of the Age of Intellect is the unconscious growth of the idea that the human brain can solve the problems of the world. Even on the low level of practical affairs this is patently untrue. Any small human activity, the local bowling club or the ladies’ luncheon club, requires for its survival a measure of self-sacrifice and service on the part of the members. In a wider national sphere, the survival of the nation depends basically on the loyalty and self-sacrifice of the citizens. The impression that the situation can be saved by mental cleverness, without unselfishness or human self-dedication, can only lead to collapse.

Thus we see that the cultivation of the human intellect seems to be a magnificent ideal, but only on condition that it does not weaken unselfishness and human dedication to service. Yet this, judging by historical precedent, seems to be exactly what it does do. Perhaps it is not the intellectualism which destroys the spirit of self-sacrifice—the least we can say is that the two, intellectualism and the loss of a sense of duty, appear simultaneously in the life-story of the nation.  [  Correlation != Causation  :-)  The point is that the ages of intellectualism and decadence occur at a similar stage of development. ]

Indeed it often appears in individuals, that the head and the heart are natural rivals. The brilliant but cynical intellectual appears at the opposite end of the spectrum from the emotional self-sacrifice of the hero or the martyr. Yet there are times when the perhaps unsophisticated self-dedication of the hero is more essential than the sarcasms of the clever.

... Neither is decadence physical. The citizens of nations in decline are sometimes described as too physically emasculated to be able to bear hardship or make great efforts. This does not seem to be a true picture. Citizens of great nations in decadence are normally physically larger and stronger than those of their barbarian invaders ...
See also Duty, Honor, Country:
The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.
The 21st century American reality (the Age of Decadence):
"Yeah, I calculated the NPV, and, you know, it's just not worth it for me. I really believe in your project, though. And, I share your passion. Good luck."


Hacienda said...

America is different. It's the empire that is not an empire. I'm not being facetious.

Richard Seiter said...

Thanks for the link. That looks like a good read (enqueued). I was surprised not to be able to find any reference (well, except for citations in other books) on US Amazon (searching either by title/author or ISBN). There is a page on Amazon UK: The review there refers to a problem with presence on the internet.

For intellectualism/decadence I would hypothesize that intellectualism leads us to believe previous limits do not apply therefore previous restrictions do not apply as well. This leads to decadence.

David Brahm said...

Thanks for the interesting link. Sir Glubb seems to be saying that empires begin with Optimism of the Will, and end with Pessimism of the Intellect.

M. Möhling said...

Any idea whom MacArthur meant by "some others of an entirely different character"? A google search gave no clues, is there a commented version of that speech?

Jim Schombert said...

Given that this article was written 40 years ago, it is amazingly on target for the political/social climate in the U.S. today.

steve hsu said...


Diogenes said...

this guy does know that the roman empire lasted from 49 bc to 1453
ad, right. and in a non-trivial sense it sill lives today. its emperor
is named francis.

"The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a
flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every
hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an
entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the
extent of mockery and ridicule."

macarthur is proof that it's possible to finish at the top of your west point
class and be a moron. there was this little event called the great war
or the weltkrieg macdaddy. ANYONE who's a patriot after that IS a

another idiot said, "...that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

this guy totally misses that empires will always fail because they are empires and not nations.

in the us class is obscured by race and geography. white bostonians
couldn't care less about whites in e kentucky or blacks in mississippi. why should they care?

Economics Institute said...

America in decline or the next Rome? Hardly.

Diogenes said...

today patriotism is a disease exclusive to white trash and london young.

dxie48 said...

Tytler Cycle of democracy,

Chinese dynastic cycle,

SethTS said...


Have you read Peter Turchin's "War and Peace and War"? ( ) Similar theme with interesting hypothesis that imperial cultures develop out of long-running border conflicts which select for growth of 'asabiya' -- a term for social cohesion taken from 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun. There have been a lot of descriptive "theories" of historical cycles, but not too many plausible causal mechanisms proposed. Marx's "class struggle" comes to mind, but doesn't stand up to much empirical scrutiny. Why are peasants so often royalists, for example, if class interests somehow account for behavior? Turchin's approach seems like a more promising way to think about historical dynamics. Class interests certainly create tension within societies, but nationalism and tribal hostility toward a common enemy exert much greater *force*.

DK said...

A full copy of the book as originally published that includes Search For Survival:
Not as interesting but still worth reading.

Diogenes said...

no, no , no. you misread marx, but almost everyone does. the theory is that the mode of production determines the order of society AND its ideas or superstructure (all non-economic aspects of society)---"the ruling ideas of every age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class".

the history of the world is determined by the history of technology. the capitalist revolution is simply an historical FACT. the duke of westminster is still of the richest men in britain but the british establishment is now finance capital not landed gentry. property IS power. the bourgeoisie took power from the aristocracy by proclaiming democracy and freedom and other bullshit, but the US is no more democratic than 17th c britain. the largest class for a long time in the west has been those who work for wages. YET their interests are NOT represented. what is best for the owners is best for all, supply side/voodoo economics. why is it that the cap gains tax is so low? why is it that there is a carried interest loophole? why are these even taken seriously? because since the end of ww ii there has been a counterrevolution.

almost everything people think they know about marx is a lie.

stevesailer said...

I would guess that Pasha Glubb, who converted to Islam to serve the King of Transjordan -- by the way, Glubb defeated the Israelis to take East Jersualem, the principal Arab military accomplishment of 1947-48 -- also had read Ibn Khaldun.

SethTS said...

You're right that my one line "refutation" of Marx doesn't do him justice, but your post proves my point. However much energy is bound up in class tension, it is not readily unleashed. The Russian Revolution proved frustratingly (to Lenin et al!) NON-contagious. Perhaps the aristocratic revolution of Lafayette and Mirabeau was escalated into the Terror in part by this class energy, but where did it lead? Bonapartism was fueled by tribalism with a superficial rhetoric of revolutionary values. Tribal "energy" much more readily is released into large scale violence and political change -- often definitely not "progressive" change either -- than is class tension.

Good point too that technological changes in the means of production are highly influential. But the "capitalist revolution" -- I don't think people take a sufficiently critical view of this very notion, but yeah there are a bunch of real changes which have long gotten this label -- has not really altered the class structure of society. So much for class struggle as the *driver* of history. Class struggle is more like heat dissipated by the engine of tribal forces.

5371 said...

Glubb didn't convert.

LondonYoung said...

On the Pessimism of the Intellect thing, let me be intellectually pessimistic: it seems to me that money as the downfall of empire borders on the tautological - absent a very advanced social/legal system currencies like USD are valueless paper (or are just useless bits in a computer). Even a bag of gold coins is separated from its owner at the point of a weapon rather handily. Property "ownership"? Hah. One might say that the ability to achieve a money based economy is the test of whether a civilization (or empire) ever existed at all.

jeffhsu3 said...

One potential side effect of cognitive genetics research is that intelligence may be somewhat devalued form its current stratospheric importance. Self-sacrifice might yet make a comeback!

5371 said...

What is the only country that ever had money and then, temporarily, lost it? England.

Diogenes said...

i agree in part. i think an aufhebung of the national socialist, bayreuth circle, theory of history and marx's is long overdue.

"has not really altered the class structure of society". it's not that the distribution of income and wealth has changed (though it very much has in germany and scandinavia and other non-shitty countries), it's that the source of wealth has changed. bill gates is not the duke of westminster. the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, is not the same as the feudal class, even though its position is the same.

David Coughlin said...

I think it is more nuanced than that. We have had money for 2500 years [or so the wiki tells me so]. When a society arrives at the point of affluence where the pursuit of status [for which money becomes a proxy] is a societal goal, then it turns in on itself, and tears itself apart from the inside out. That is the border of the tautology, no?

steve hsu said...

It's really about values. In the earlier stages people are more likely to value their contribution to society. In the later stages they have become cynical and self-interested.

"Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men."

Glubb's ideas about stages of empire are not very novel -- similar observations have been made elsewhere, since Roman times. What I like is the way he describes the changes in values during the late stages -- something he probably experienced in his own lifetime in the British empire.

LondonYoung said...

I dunno - I kinda think status is always a goal, after all, chimps seek it. In pre-Roman Britain status might have meant controlling a hill fort and the surrounding land - this meant commanding the loyalty of the local warriors, a task whose difficulty extends far beyond what "g" measures. But a fat Roman patrician, secure by the gold in his treasury and the ability of the emperor to enforce the law recognizing his ownership of it - well, that is a different skill. But the latter case requires a much higher level of societal organization. So maybe we are both saying that when money = status, then the end is nigh.

steve hsu said...

Yes, it's always about status (that which is honored by society). At the beginning doing things that are good for the group bring high status, but in the decadent era money=status and it's every chimp for himself!

oregonlocal said...

"almost everything people think they know about marx is a lie."

Wrong as usual. Marx's central insight is that mans social relations are determined by his economic relations. 'Twas ever thus.

oregonlocal said...

Nonsense. Our being the world's policeman and keeping the sea lanes open results in our being able to maintain the dollar as the world's reserve currency and let us borrow far, far, beyond our means. All those nuclear aircraft battle groups keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing actually does keep down US interest rates as the smallest international kerfluffle sees a flurry of buying of US Treasury securities. It seemingly can't go on forever but yet it does (so far.)

oregonlocal said...

I dunno. You could say that about a lot of European countries. Germany for example.

oregonlocal said...

"white bostonians couldn't care less about whites in e kentucky or blacks in mississippi. why should they care?"

They cared enough in 1861 to invade Mississippi (they enjoyed force majeure in Kentucky) and they still hate white Kentuckians (and those elsewhere) for "bitterly clinging" to God and guns.

oregonlocal said...

"this guy does know that the roman empire lasted from 49 bc to 1453 ad, right."

They were an empire (with an oligarchic Republic government) from at least the 3rd Century BC. Also by 1453 Constantinople was merely a city-state and had been for centuries.

Hacienda said...

Nonsense? Don't be glib.

That's the empire part. The non-empire part is 40% of American households don't pay income taxes.
Police enforcement is SELECTIVE to say the least, the legal system is porous like a spongeHa. This
despite the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world. USA is No. 1. That huge country- Seychelles-
is no. 2. How do you explain that? That there is no mass uprising given this situation? My explanation is the prison system is like a hotel. Just a couple stars below Motel 6.

The power of the US is its cosmic liquidity. But, liquidity is not power, per se. Power requires mass, not just energy.

5371 said...

No, I mean money, not a particular currency - in Anglo-Saxon times.

LondonYoung said...

Well then, the problem of empire is to make sure that money flows to those who act to strengthen the empire. Does it strengthen the American Empire more that its best theoretical physicists build superconducting supercolliders or that they arbitrage out the price of one pet food producer vs. a basket of pet food producers? Those physicists were pretty darn handy when they built the first atomic bombs, but it was also pretty handy that joint stock companies making tanks could draw funds from investors because the investors could assume that most investments were fairly valued.

The implicit assumption of the invisible hand is that "every chimp (or homo economicus) for himself" is best for the tribe - but that just isn't true. On the other hand, a vanguard of intellectuals with absolute power gets it wrong as well. And, I will add, even societies where all are willing to make great sacrifice for the society still often fail.

Diogenes said...

thank you for honoring infoproc's readers with your expert insight.

"All those nuclear aircraft battle groups keeping Persian Gulf oil
flowing actually does keep down US interest rates as the smallest
international kerfluffle sees a flurry of buying of US Treasury
securities." do know that buying treasuries lowers rates don't you? and what is a "nuclear aircraft"?

Diogenes said...

talk about making it up as you go along or were you being facetious this time.

us prisons are hell holes especially compared to those in other developed countries. and the foremost reason for the high incarceration rate is much longer sentences. it's part of the uniquely satanic american ideology: govt can do nothing about social problems so the solution is just lock them up and throw away the key. if you're a poor black guy is it better to sell drugs or join the military?

David Coughlin said...

I didn't articulate that clearly. What I meant by 'pursuit of status is a societal goal' was that the people of a society pursue status as an end, not a means to some other end. [I'm painting with a broad brush here], but I read the age of affluence and thought that was when [enough|too many] people had the luxury to chase relative position. Status among chimps has a material consequence [eat the best food, bang the best chicks]. When does status in human society saturate in a material sense [and the dual question, can you ever saturate your bank account]?

David Coughlin said...

The implicit assumption of the invisible hand is that "every chimp (or homo economicus) for himself" is best for the tribe - but that just isn't true. On the other hand, a vanguard of intellectuals with absolute power gets it wrong as well. And, I will add, even societies where all are willing to make great sacrifice for the society still often fail.

That's what makes it a fascinating system to me. Success of an empire needs internal and external pressures.

botti said...

In the case of Rome, Peter Frost makes the case that changing values due to both Christianity and genetic pacification lead to its collapse as it wasn't able/interested in defending against the northern barbarians :)

"All State societies are prone to collapse because their existence depends on the

State’s ability to repress individual and communal violence. Such repression permits a

higher level of economic output and ultimately a larger population. It also alters the mix of

behavioral genotypes by selecting out aggressiveness and selecting in submissiveness. If,

however, the State falters, there will be a resurgence of both individual and communal

violence. On the one hand, the State can no longer hold down the potential for violence that

still exists among its citizenry. On the other, it can no longer keep out unpacified

populations that lie beyond its borders. This new social environment reduces economic

output, thus worsening the initial instability and causing a downward spiral that may spin

out of control.

Nonetheless, when Rome faltered in the fifth century it did so as never before.

Earlier, the third century had seen a similar crisis: civil war, foreign invasion, return of

brigandage, and steep economic decline. Yet Rome fought its way back and reasserted its

authority. There was no such response in the fifth century. Instead, the crisis was met with

a strange mixture of complacency and willful naiveté."

The Roman State and Genetic Pacification 2010. 8(3): 376-389

Diogenes said...

"but it was also pretty handy that joint stock companies making tanks
could draw funds from investors because the investors could assume that
most investments were fairly valued"

the secret of ly's success: he is truly gifted at rationalizing the patently absurd. if the just world phenomenon were in the dsm he'd be in a straitjacket. lying to oneself is adaptive.

LondonYoung said...

On the DMS standard - if I were straitjacket eligible, I probably would have claimed that every chimp for himself is best for the whole tribe. So maybe I am only in need of very serious medication, perhaps a cocktail of Dimon-ezpam and Marx-icillin ;-)

Hacienda said...

You left out a third choice- sell drugs, join the military, or go to jail.

Black American culture is advanced. Not any less so than Bharat's or Korea's adaptive culture.
And in a number of key ways, ahead of white western culture. More dominant in a number of crucial areas.
-A relatively minor nuisance like the American prison system...LOL. Grow up.

oregonlocal said...

"something he probably experienced in his own lifetime in the British empire."

Hah! Between you and him we are going down fast...

Diogenes said...

"It's really about values."

no. not even close.

society is not formed from individuals who are independent of it, individuals with values of their own. it is a thing itself. its institutions have inertia. its direction is controlled by no one. adaptation to it requires not only a change in behavior but a change in thinking. those who can't or won't do this have a disability.

i have learned only with enormous pain that having values and doing what one thinks is right are luxuries and that very few people have any sense of right and wrong outside social norms and the morality of the crowd and that any significant deviation from the norm is always viewed as pathological as if they were the same thing.

Diogenes said...

this is all humbug.

watch harlan county usa. it was once much more difficult to tell someone's class. now the poor wear legible clothing, have tatoos and piercings, are obese, are infants. why should the rich give a damn about them. the point of money has become to avoid these people.

Diogenes said...


you're not a japanese korean are you?

Hacienda said...

No. Korean-American.

I'm not blowing it out my +ss.

It's from what I've learned and experienced from dealing with whites and blacks since childhood in various parts of the USA.

I don't want to iconosize black history, but they've "shrugged off" the slave trade, the prison system is child's play, no?

Diogenes said...

if you were japanese you'd have to conclude that koreans were stupid.

Hacienda said...

This is far better link.

Obviously Japan/Korea relations are far improved. I visited Japan recently. Glorious country.
Open, friendly people. Less conditional and less conditioned. I wish America was more like Japan

Diogenes said...

how did all these nanny states with such higher social mobility and lower inequality beat out your second home and second shittiest developed country?

PPP median income per equivalent adult in 2010:
United Kingdom

Diogenes said...

yes. i read somewhere that unitarians outscore jews on the sat. reading puritan sermons i was struck by how unitarian they sounded.

LondonYoung said...

Diogenes - I think PPP GDP per cap is a fine comparison metric, but you will get very different results if you regress against cultural/ethnic composition by country. So, for example, regress GDP(i) = A*percent european(i) + B*percent asian(i) etc... and then rank the countries by the residuals. Those socialist nanny-state Danes do very well, but they are culturally and ethnically homogeneous. Diversity is great and all, but it doesn't regress well vs GDP and social mobility in the western world.

As a side note, these number are probably meaningful only within, say, +/- 10 pct, so I think Canada beats the UK, but France is clearly in the noise.

LondonYoung said...

Related note: from NYC Times today

At first blush it seems that NBA players come from poorer counties. But, if you include race as a regression factor, then the richer your county the more likely it is that you make the NBA.

Diogenes said...

and rand, i imagine, never even intimated that race and culture trumps government and economic system? she was a russian jewess after all.

and OBVIOUSLY the idea of all norwegians under rand is absurd. when the poor look like the rich randianism is impossible, as it should be.

but (as i've said before) lying to oneself is adaptive and you're a past master at it ly.

Diogenes said...

and this is also true of actors and entertainers generally.

they come from two parent upper middle class homes typically.

horatio alger's america never existed yet americans still believe the lie. the power of ideology, the ultimate cause of america's decline and death. but there's no arguing with soiopaths too dumb to start their own hedge fund.

MrJones said...

Wise man.

Diogenes said...

more than that, the elite determines the direction, but the elite has already been selected for its belief in the prevailing system. is the pope catholic? when one thinks the prevailing system is basically wrong, he's much less likely to progress. the progress of an unbeliever to pope would be impossible. even if the unbeliever were a very good actor, he could never take his duties seriously. he could never work as hard as true believers. social reproduction doesn't require conspiracy theories. it's "just" a fact.

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