FATE OF EMPIRES
May 17, 2014
Search for Survival
Sir John Bagot Glubb’s “The Fate of Empires” aroused interest and comment. What I hadn’t located yet (it proved very difficult to find) was his follow-up, a response to comments he had received, entitled “Search for Survival.” The two were published in Great Britain as a single slim volume which is long out of print and almost unobtainable. It might be useful to test Glubb’s thesis against questions as well as alternative views, and see how well it holds up.
To review, Glubb’s thesis was that empires go through six stages from inception to collapse:
(1) An Age of Pioneers.
(2) An Age of Conquest.
(3) An Age of Commerce.
(4) An Age of Affluence.
(5) An Age of Intellect.
(6) An Age of Decadence.
An empire undergoes a meteoric rise during phases (1) through (3); things begin to go awry during its high noon period beginning in (3), but more so in (4) and (5). Problems come to a head in (6). What goes wrong is traceable to four interrelated problems.
(a) A growing love of money as an end in itself.
(b) A lengthy period of wealth and ease, which makes people complacent. They lose their edge; they forget the traits (confidence, energy, hard work) that built their civilization.
(c) Selfishness and self-absorption.
(d) Loss of any sense of duty to the common good.
Decadence is then marked by most or all of the following:
(a) Increasing pessimism among intellectuals.
(b) A weakening of religion.
(c) Materialism and the loss of a moral compass.
(d) Frivolity; hedonism; an “eat, drink, and be merry” mindset among the masses.
(e) Cultural heroes/heroines are nonproductive entertainers (athletes, celebrities) instead of statesmen, captains of industry, or other real leaders.
(f) Influxes of immigrants who refuse to assimilate and become sources of division.
(g) Feminism: women move into professions previously dominated by men.
(h) The willingness of an increasing number to live at the expense of a bloated bureaucratic state.
(i) An obsession with sex.
I’m not sure Glubb’s list is exhaustive. One might add factors more specific to the U.S.’s Age of Decadence.
(j) Irrational warmongering and military adventuring.
(k) An irrational, short-sighted monetary policy: production is replaced by financialization.
(l) A widening gulf between rich and poor, with abundant evidence of redistribution of wealth upwards.
(m) Extravagant displays of wealth by the “haves.”
(n) A loss of social mobility—except downwards.
(o) Increased cynicism about “the system.” Some may ask, “Don’t politicians, bureaucrats, and the superrich do pretty much as they please?”
An Age of Decadence always presages collapse. Glubb offered no theory of collapse since he discerned no pattern in the results: some empires divided into parts as did the Roman Empire, some lost their overseas holdings as did Spain and Great Britain, some just faded into irrelevance.
How well does this view of empires hold up? Obviously, nations survive the collapse of empire. There’s still a Great Britain and a Spain, after all (and a Rome, for that matter). What other messages can we discern here?
Glubb was a career military man. One needs to see his views through those eyes. He commanded Arabs in Jordan, and worked with them elsewhere in the Middle East. He became a recognized authority on Arab civilization and its trajectory. Arab empires tend to fit his pattern. Several other empires at least come close. The U.S. might well come close! Yet he sees the Roman republic and the Roman Empire as separate entities. This bifurcation may seem artificial. Plus he ends the Roman Empire at 180 A.D. Clearly there were emperors after this, and Rome wasn’t “sacked” until much later. Put all this together, and Roman civilization lasted longer than Glubb’s analysis allows. Also, civilizations may go through smaller cycles. The U.S. and Europe appear to have had “ages of decadence” before. One reader asked me: what of the 1920s, which produced novels such as The Great Gatsby in the U.S. and Dadaist art in Europe? Surely we saw an “eat, drink, and be merry” mindset during those years, in the U.S. at least (Europe was still recovering from war).
It might be useful to compare Glubb’s views with that of others who have noticed the life cycles of civilizations. The idea that the West has gone through stages of maturation developed through philosophers such as Condorcet and Hegel, but crystallized most clearly for the first time in Auguste Comte’s Positivism. According to Comte, as civilization matures it goes through three stages or conditions.
1 - The first stage is the religious or mythological, characterized by faith in supernatural entities human beings can pray to or try to placate but never comprehend. Certainty comes through revelation. This stage, left to its own devices, gives rise to priesthoods and theocracies. God ordained our station in life—as interpreted by the priesthood.
2 - The second stage is the abstract and metaphysical, characterized by trust in Pure Reason as a guide to truth; philosophers postulate abstractions and build grand systems out of their imaginations. Certainty is to be had through Pure Reason. God may exist, but belief in His existence is subordinated to rational proof. This stage gave rise to such notions as natural law and natural rights. We have the rights we have because we were made in God’s image. Or possibly we have them as conditions of survival and self-improvement in the world.3 - The third stage is the scientific and positive, characterized by empirical science which is pragmatic rather than absolutist, relinquishing grand systems and abstractions in favor of what we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. It relinquishes certainty in favor of practicality. It gave rise—like it or not—to the idea that we have the rights those running the legal system says we have.
Comte called this the Law of Three Stages. He isn’t talking about individual empires which came and went, but the trajectory of Western civilization generally, which had its days and nights but advanced if conditions were right. Intellectuals had locked themselves into Stage Two thought inherited from the Greeks for centuries, but graduated to Stage Three with the scientific revolution. Another way of describing Comte’s view is that the first stage is civilization’s childhood; the second, its adolescence; and the third, its adulthood. It may have had good days and encountered bumps in the road, but overall—Comte would have argued—the steady progress of science, technology and commerce in Anglo-European civilization could not be intelligently questioned—nor their capacity to make the world better morally.
Comte’s view is clearly inadequate. A product of his time, the optimistic mid-1800s (industrial revolution well underway; social meliorism and utilitarianism had appeared in ethics; evolution was on the horizon in biology), Comte could hardly foresee that by the time another hundred years had elapsed, much of the optimism would be gone. Except perhaps from the hard sciences and the economy (which roared ahead, oblivious), the Western intellect had fallen into an abyss of post-war anxiety and uncertainty. This perhaps began on continental Europe with Nietzsche and in Great Britain with Bertrand Russell’s essay “A Free Man’s Worship” (orig. 1903).
One could say (I discuss this at length elsewhere) that Comte’s view is updated with at least one more stage:
4 - The fourth stage is postmodern and negative, a product of the failure of Stage Three to deliver a New Atlantis (a scientific/rationalist utopia): characterized by cynicism towards truth claims as masking assertions of dominance, skepticism towards knowledge claims more broadly, and a deep and growing pessimism about human progress—especially in the face of continued wars, claims of coming environmental devastation which are believed, and very credible claims of financial chicanery and eventual meltdown.
Spengler’s Decline of the West (orig. 1918, 1922) is, of course, the classic theory that civilizations undergo life cycles as do individuals. Spengler’s views are more difficult than Comte’s. Very roughly, he distinguished culture from civilization. During periods of culture, a people is alive with creative energy and their nation experiences dramatic growth. Civilization involves acclimation to comfort with a resulting weakening of moral fiber and the appearance of what he regarded as the decadence of academic conformity and a commercial culture which worships things. An eclipse of greatness is inevitable.
Carroll Quigley, in a book entitled The Evolution of Civilizations (1961) tried to answer Spengler in a way many readers will find revealing: he believed that we needed to trust in the fundamental benevolence of the intellectual and financial elites who rise to the top in an advanced civilization, and whose activities he would describe more fully in Tragedy and Hope: a History of the World in Our Time (1966). Only a superelite has the combination of insight, know-how, and resources necessary to turn a civilization back from its Spenglerian brink.
A theory of the “cycles of history” that could explain briefer periods of confident expansion punctuated by losses of focus and periods of crisis is that of William Strauss and Neil Howe, presented in their The Fourth Turning: An American Prophesy (1997). According to Strauss and Howe, the history of civilization can be divided into long cycles, each lasting around 70 years, each divided into four shorter periods called turnings. The first turning in any cycle is a High; the second, an Awakening; the third, an Unraveling; the fourth, a Crisis. Following the resolution of a Crisis, the civilization will have redefined itself, and a new High begins. In our case, the period 1947 until 1963 was a High; that from 1964 until around 1982 was an Awakening; from 1982 until 2001, an Unraveling; and we are presently in a Crisis which began with the 9/11 attacks (however we explain them). Generations grow up differently depending on the turning in which they come of age.
Those born during an Awakening tend to become nomads during the ensuing Unraveling, for example (think of “Generation X”); those born during an Unraveling become crusaders for the Zeitgeist of the time whether for good or for ill (think of the generation that fought and won World War II; then think of the Millennials who never knew a world without political correctness).
This perspective could explain the seeming “ages of decadence” we’ve seen in ages past: the earlier Unraveling began in 1914 and ended in 1929; the ensuing Crisis began with the stock market crash that fall, and did not end until 1946. It would be clear very shortly that the British empire was fading—Fabian socialism had done in both its domestic and foreign policy—but the U.S. was in ascendancy. At the conclusion of its High of 1946 – 1963, it had by far the world’s largest and strongest economy, and its only military competitor was the Soviet Union. For part three click below.
© 2014 Steven Yates - All Rights Reserved
Steven Yates has a doctorate in philosophy and currently lives in Santiago, Chile. He is the author of Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (Brush Fire Press International, 2011). He also owns an editing business, Final Draft Editing Service.