John Glubb on the Lifecycle of Empires

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by Leo Nicolletto:

"the Caliphate did fall. And sooner or later, the present North Atlantic empire will lose its hegemony too. Indeed, if there is any truth to the theories of Sir John “Pasha” Glubb, we are already witnessing the final stages of Western dominance, and experiencing a transfer of power (back) towards the East.

Glubb was an English army officer who spent the best part of his career serving the newly-independent governments of Iraq and Jordan. An avid—if amateur—historian, he developed a theory on hegemonic orders that he called the “Fate of Empires.” Comparing a series of ancient and modern empires, he concluded that their average lifespan was 10 generations—about 250 years—and that, despite great geographic, technological, religious, and cultural differences, all empires follow a general pattern as they expand, develop, and finally decline and collapse. Although Glubb himself was the first to acknowledge the risks of over-simplification in his generalised model, his observations aptly describe, in broad-brushstrokes, not only the fate of past empires, but the contemporary situation in global politics today, particularly regarding the West and China.

Glubb was agnostic on whether the “laws” of history he claimed to uncover were at all deterministic, but hoped that, by understanding how empires decline and collapse, modern citizens stood a chance of avoiding their typical fate. "


The Cycles

by Leo Nicolletto:

"Glubb noted that empires tend to begin with a “breakout” phase, in which an insignificant nation on the margins of an established power—say, the Macedonians before Alexander, the Arabs before Muhammed, or the Mongols before Genghis Khan—suddenly overwhelms its neighbours. This “Age of Pioneers” becomes an “Age of Conquests” when, encouraged by early successes, the rising nation takes over the power structures of its conquered neighbour and continues to expand. Glubb noted that successful new empires are not motivated simply by loot and plunder. With an emphasis on “noble” virtues—adventurousness, courage, strength, and, importantly, honesty—rising empires don’t want simply to subdue the established power; they want to become as they perceive them to be: advanced, technological hegemons. The Arabs took over Greek and Persian institutions—as the Mongols would take over Chinese and Islamic institutions—to become masters of a revitalised and expanded civilisation.

A rising empire, argued Glubb, has at its advantage an optimistic sense of initiative, and a spirit of improvisation, that contrasts with the defensive deference to tradition found in more established powers, who have too much to lose by experimentation. The rising power, he claimed, is also typically marked by a racial homogeneity, and its members consequently feel a strong sense of duty and loyalty to their tribe. This frequently evolves into a sort of “ruling caste,” as the conquerors situate themselves at the head of the pre-existing societal order of the conquered, as happened in India, first with the Mughals, and later with the British.

Having established control over large, diverse territories, the new pax impera creates ideal conditions for trade. And so begins what Glubb called the “Age of Commerce.” The desire for honour and glory gradually becomes a desire for material riches. At first, the conquering class may participate only indirectly in such commerce. Their military success has made the roads and seas safe for merchants, whom they tax and protect, but from whom they remain aloof—indeed, it’s intriguing how low on the social scale merchants and businessmen are considered in many pre-modern cultures. But sooner or later, seeing the potential for riches, the ruling class can’t but get itself involved. However, Glubb claimed that at these still-early stages of the “Age of Commerce,” material gain is still seen in terms of national glory, an extension of political conquest. “Noble” virtues continue to be taught and idealised, above all a sense of duty to the nation.

The “Age of Commerce” thus gives way to an “Age of Affluence,” marked by great civic works and building projects, and investments in art and culture, as the rich look for ways to spend their newfound wealth. In our own day, this depiction aptly fits China. The ruling class of the Communist Party—long aloof, at least in theory, from material excess—has joined forces with the commercial classes to promote not just prosperity but fantastic wealth. All the same, many Chinese—in business as well as in engineering or research—describe their motivations just as much as a duty to the country as for their own or their family’s benefit. Success in business is a source of national pride.

Though perhaps not for long. As an empire grows richer, Glubb noted, wealth becomes an end in itself, and the emphasis moves from national service to personal gain. The old nobility and their sense of virtue are replaced by merchants and the values of the market. With this diminishing sense of duty comes a defensiveness, concerned with protecting affluence for a minimum of shared sacrifice. The United States crossed this line a long time ago, all but codifying it in the Reagan era. Though lip-service is still paid to the pioneer spirit of the Founding Fathers, unchecked individualism has replaced the “united-we-stand” attitude that built the early nation. By the time of the second Gulf war, the middle classes were encouraged to go shopping to support the economy, while the military—drawn largely from the poorest classes of society—made the actual sacrifices. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the defining factor of the richest class of Americans, and their political allies, is the avoidance of all shared national burdens—from healthcare to taxes and the public services that rely on them—in favour of a hyper-individualistic notion of prosperity.

(Interestingly, Glubb also noted that this period of an empire’s history is frequently marked by the building of walls. From Hadrian’s Wall to the Great Wall of China, wall-building is an inward-looking, defensive gesture aimed at hoarding and protecting wealth).

By the time this softer, comfortable, and defensive form of affluence has been achieved, Glubb wrote, the empire has already begun its decline. He called the penultimate stage of empire the “Age of Intellect.” This is often seen in the moment as an empire’s golden age. Higher education becomes widespread, and scientific and technological advances abound. And yet, Glubb noted, time and again—from Ancient Athens to the Arab Caliphate to China’s Song dynasty—an empire’s intellectual peak arrives just moments before its fall. As a result, Glubb was intensely suspicious of intellectualism, which he viewed as a product of the “softness” of the “Age of Affluence”—all talk and no action, inventing justifications for why the nation should no longer fight, and conquer, and grow rich.

Glubb was careful not to stray into anti-intellectualism—there is no reason, he wrote, that a nation’s success should be measured in terms of monetary rather than academic achievement. But he worried that a side-effect of the “Age of Intellect” is that increasing political chatter often raises internal political divisions above external threats in the public consciousness. Glubb’s example is Byzantium which, faced with the Turks’ imminent invasion, fought a series of civil wars that weakened the empire so that it was ready for collapse. In contemporary Britain, America, and Europe, internal divisions and enmity have begun to absorb almost all political and media attention, almost to the exclusion of the geopolitical challenges presented by Russia and China, to say nothing of the looming climate catastrophe.

However, worse than the misdirected political engagement of the “Age of Intellect” is the complete disengagement that marks the final “Age of Decadence.” While the chattering classes might still concern themselves with issues of state, during the final decline the nation’s collective attention becomes consumed by sport and entertainment. For Glubb, this goes hand-in-hand with the welfare state, which he argues is the other face of the decadent merchant’s reaping of the empire’s benefits without participating in the shared sacrifice it requires.

Unpalatable as this final point might be to modern liberals, Glubb offered a few historical examples to support it, and similar observations might be made of the modern West. When industries that support entire communities are sold off or shut down, workers are left with nothing but welfare as an option for survival, and with no political or economic voice, it becomes all too easy to fall into the opiates of diversion—sport and shopping, as well as more literal drugs. Similarly, while Glubb’s scepticism about immigrants (“not bad, just different”) will ring alarm bells for many with liberal tendencies—especially in today’s charged environment—he offered some interesting historical examples to support it, including an accurate prediction of the revival of nationalism in the breakdown of the USSR, which would take place 15 years after he wrote.

Glubb’s account therefore makes uneasy reading for a modern, cosmopolitan intellectual. Although we can question his generalisations and his selection of examples, his broad picture holds true not only for the periods he discusses, but also seems applicable to modern empires, such as China, which appears to be somewhere in the transition from the “Age of Commerce” to the “Age of Affluence,” and the North Atlantic liberal hegemony, which—depending on your vantage point—is in either the later stages of the “Age of Intellect” or entering the “Age of Decadence.” His questioning of intellectualism, immigration, and the welfare state is also challenging for the progressive project, casting the attainment of its goals as symptoms of its impending collapse."