Fate of Empires
* Book: The Fate of Empires. John Bagot Glubb.
"The short version of The Fate of Empires, and probably the reason it has undergone a revival of late (along with that it’s a lot quicker read than, say, Arnold Toynbee’s somewhat similar twelve-volume A Study of History), is the internet meme: “Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.” Glubb’s method of analysis is simple. He lists the empires from which he derives his conclusions, beginning with the Assyrian (859–612 B.C., in his reckoning) and ending with Britain (1700–1950). He lists eleven (with the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire being distinct great powers). Six powers are listed in the Christian era: three non-Western (all Muslim dominated), and three Western Christian (Spain until 1750; Romanov Russia; and Britain). “India, China, and Southern America were not included, because the writer knows nothing about them.” I suppose honesty is the best policy, but if you’re purporting to disseminate knowledge synthesizing the life and death of great powers, this seems like a very major gap indeed.
But let’s see what Glubb has to say. His first, and arguably most important, conclusion is that all empires, with the exception of a few whose life span was cut short, last for approximately the same time period—250 years, or ten generations, more or less. This is true regardless of their form of governance, location, or the technologies of the time, transport, war, or other. Glubb’s is a pessimistic vision. The usual human response to the inevitable failure of empire is to analyze one’s own declining polity and offer revisions to the structures in an attempt to prolong the empire, but Glubb is very clear that what does not matter at all is the nature of the political institutions or the ideology of the state. Huge variations have existed in history—the Romans had almost nothing politically in common with the Mamluks, for example—yet regardless, every empire follows the same path. The precise nature of the ultimate fall varies, however, because it depends largely on external circumstances.
After this overview, Glubb generalizes the universal life stages of empire. First, “outburst,” the “Age of Pioneers,” an “extraordinary display of energy and courage,” where “backward races” rise up. The reason for this outburst is always obscure, but most likely, Glubb thinks, due to jealousy of the goods, material and immaterial, that empires have. He adduces the Viet Cong, who “showed more enterprise and initiative than the Americans”; today he might adduce the Taliban. The observant reader will note, however, that mere successful defense against a foreign power, not followed by expansion at the expense of that power, is hardly rising up. Nonetheless, it is no doubt true that all great powers to date began in an age of expansionist pioneers.
This first age merges into expansion, the “Age of Conquests.” Conquest is accomplished by aggression, most often by subduing existing civilizations, but also by grabbing uncivilized lands, if any are available, simply by shouldering existing populations aside, such as the United States’s “conquest of barbarian peoples.” Psychologically, the nascent empire shows “unresting enterprise in every field,” combined with “readiness to improvise and experiment.” That is, conquest is not merely military; it is full spectrum aggressive achievement.
Expansion leads to the “Age of Commerce,” which features a great increase in trade and material wealth, especially when formerly fragmented lands are brought under one umbrella. (Glubb is very concerned about small states forming “an insuperable obstacle to trade and co-operation,” for which reason he is desirous of the creation of a European super-state. He expresses no hesitation at this goal, another strike against him, given what we see the European Union has devolved into. “Great power” is a term nobody would apply to it.) In the beginning of the Age of Commerce, virtues such as “courage, patriotism and devotion to duty” are still ubiquitous, but part of the Age of Commerce is that enterprise is turned toward seeking new forms of wealth, which leads to the “Age of Affluence.” The turn to a focus on money erodes virtue; it “silences the voice of duty.” Somewhere in here is the noontime of the empire. Yet the first signs of internal decay become visible, in particular a loss of initiative as organizations of the society calcify and virtue seeps away.
Outward changes then begin, most notably a change to defensiveness, to no longer expanding but rather protecting what has been gotten. Pacifism increases and the military loses prestige, but the civilization still sees itself, increasingly falsely, as exalted and strong. The “Age of Intellect” arrives, where the ruling classes turn to education as their main focus, especially of the young, and more broadly, high culture reigns supreme, and science is privileged. This creates the false idea that “the human brain can solve the problems of the world.” Intellectualism “weakens unselfishness and human dedication to sacrifice.” Worse, it leads to the widespread belief that cleverness can substitute for sacrifice. Carl Schmitt’s “endless conversation” becomes the prime mode of political discourse (not that Glubb mentions Schmitt), and decline accelerates. Internal dissension increases, both in frequency and in the gulf between factions, and national leaders promise not to work for the nation, but to harm the opponents of their supporters. (Glubb also complains that we moderns do not learn from history, and that what little history is taught in schools is merely “contemporary politics masquerading as history.” He had seen nothing yet.)
Mass immigration is permitted, even encouraged, ending the ethnic homogeneity on which a high-trust society necessarily relies, furthering the decline. The original inhabitants admit immigrants to do the tasks they no longer want to do, whether menial or military, and seeing themselves as superior, and destined to rule forever, do not consider the long-term effect. Progress is inevitable, after all, so there is no need to work hard—rather, it is time to relax, and enjoy the fruits of empire, and to spread the wealth through creating a welfare state. Immigrants assimilate somewhat, but their loyalties to the nation are weaker, and diversity is the very opposite of our strength. It is not, Glubb is at pains to note, perhaps not wanting to be cancelled as Enoch Powell had been, that immigrants are inferior—merely that excessive immigration is fatal to an empire (though he is wrong that immigrants are “just different”; they can often be inferior, both in their nature and culture, and in that since almost always they migrate for gain, they slot directly into the ongoing decline based on excessive commercial focus).
Selfishness and idleness hack at the roots of the nation. The fruit is decadence. “Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power, producing cynicism, decline of religion, pessimism and frivolity. The citizens of such a nation will no longer make an effort to save themselves, because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving.” Total lack of initiative appears; there are no new enterprises, no risk-taking, no heroic achievement. All that remains is to squabble over the wealth remaining—which, no surprise, diminishes rapidly.
As decline begins to bite, “universal pessimism” takes hold, as everyone sees the contrast to earlier, more glorious, self-confident times. Frivolity, in the form of sportsball and other entertainment, grows greatly. “The heroes of declining nations are always the same—the athlete, the singer, or the actor.” Most of all, women, formerly entirely absent from public and political life, become openly influential in both spheres. Given that women are usually highly influential in private life, and thereby in most societies (mostly invisibly) influence politics at all stages of a civilization, and exercise even more influence through the raising of children, it is not clear whether Glubb sees this newly public role for women as cause or effect of decline, though he is very clear that feminism, supposed liberation of women, is the direct opposite of the health of the state; it appears often at the same stage as feminization of men and an increase in homosexuality, both dire signals of the approaching end. Regardless, Glubb could not even have conceived of today’s gynocracy that rules almost the entire West, in which the female virtues, and the female vices, are both exalted as the only possible basis for governance, public and private, while masculinity is demonized and prevented from fulfilling its crucial civilizational functions. Unsurprisingly, this is like throwing gasoline on the fire of collapse, something I have earlier noted as being on shining display in our response to the Wuhan Plague, but which will soon enough offer far more dramatic examples.
Glubb’s analysis all fits together neatly with basic facts every educated person knows about fallen empires. That said, few of his conclusions are buttressed with specific historical examples; this book is very short, as I say, and offers only brief synthesis and summary. The examples Glubb does offer are almost always from England or from what he calls the Arab Empire, which he dates from A.D. 634–880. Perhaps someone expert in Assyria or the Persia of Cyrus could offer confirmation or objections to the analysis. That’s not me, but I am frankly dubious, for example, if one can slot the empire of Spain, or Romanov Russia, very easily into the specifics of Glubb’s claimed pattern. Russia, for example, had many problems, but immigrants and sportsball were not in evidence, nor were women political decisionmakers. Thus, my snap judgment on Glubb’s book is that it’s interesting, but not much more, without a lot more detail being provided and supportively slotted into his overall argument.
Glubb was perfectly well aware that more study would helpful. “If the present writer were a millionaire, he would try to establish in some university or other a department dedicated solely to the study of the rhythm of the rise and fall of powerful nations throughout the world.” This is, in fact, what Peter Turchin, the originator of cliodynamics, which purports to scientifically study exactly this, has done. I don’t know if he’s come up with any suggested answers on what to do, but certainly his prediction in Ages of Discord that the 2020s would be a time of chaos in the West are looking pretty good right now.
I think we can conclude no more than that Glubb was generically somewhat correct. For example, it is no doubt true that the single greatest cause of ultimate failure of any great power is wealth. It seems evident that no society can maintain high levels of wealth for very long without rotting from the inside out, a problem for which I have not yet been able to see any solution. Glubb, for this reason, attacks modern industrial society, sometimes seeming like he is channeling the future manifesto of Theodore Kaczynski. But industrial society has a life of its own; it cannot be dialed back except, maybe, by a strictly virtuous society (both ruling class and the masses), and when industrial society offers wealth, its mere existence seems to make virtue impossible, thus capping the apogee of the civilization far below what it might otherwise have achieved. I am a techno-optimist, but I have not solved this problem, and doing so is essential for any future civilization.
Glubb, trying not to grasp the nettle of the obvious conclusion from his own reasoning, ends his first article with an open-ended question, whether any of this cycle can be avoided by an empire. He’s quite explicit it’s too late for England, whose empire was already long over in 1976. The only question for Glubb was whether Britain “will remain strong, united and free, or become a nation of underlings and mendicants.” In his second article, no doubt stung by negative reaction, he calls for “a revival of our spirit” that will “transform our situation and guarantee our future.” Good luck with that. We can answer his question now, and it’s underlings and mendicants for the British, six days a week and twice on Sunday. England is now a place where deracinated Eloi, descendants of Alfred and Edward the Confessor who mock their great ancestors, if they are even aware of them, prostrate themselves to Islam, vomit in the streets after binge eating and drinking, and hide quivering in their pods when a very modestly-dangerous respiratory virus sweeps the land. There is no way back for England, and Glubb would have been the first to admit that, were he granted a vision of 2022."
"he 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. And so, I want to consider ways in which the predicted collapse of Western hegemony might be averted. It’s another question whether or not such a collapse ought to be avoided. Glubb—as a man of his time and class—had imperialist tendencies, though his immersion in foreign cultures gave him an open-mindedness that is generally lacking in the present-day imperialists of Western conservative parties. At any rate, as we go along, I’ll suggest that if the West is to avoid the fate of past empires, it needs to stop acting like a typical empire. And to do that, it needs to move as far as possible from modern conservative policy—and its emphasis on corporate profit and economic growth—as it can.
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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."