End of Empires, PEZ, and Decadence

“We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.  And even if this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” – Dunkirk

DSC01388

A marker of the change from Conquest to Commerce.  Hey, we have Porto Rico!

Sir John Glubb had the unfortunate luck to be born with a name that is most frequently associated with near-drowning experiences, but from his title of “Sir” it looks like he did okay.  He first was commissioned as an officer in the British Army in World War I (World War I was the one without the Japanese).  After that, like the United States, he spent the next 30 years meddling in the affairs of the Middle East.  He first went to Iraq, then was in charge of the fighting force of Jordan.

No, not Michael Jordan’s personal army of ninja warriors – they’re called the JNB, or Jordan Ninja Brigade, but something called the “Arab Legion” of Jordan (the country) that was considered for a time the most effective army in the region.

Eventually Sir Glubb and King Hussein of Jordan came to an agreement – Sir John would stop coming to work and the King would stop paying him.  Glubb retired to England where he did a LOT of writing.  What brought Sir Glubb to my attention was one essay, called “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival.”  You can download the .pdf here (LINK).  It’s pretty straightforward.  I’d first read this several years ago, but was more recently reintroduced by a link from The Patrick Henry Society (LINK).

As we’ve discussed before, there are others that predict history on a cyclical basis (Fourth Turning – LINK), and there are various ways to look at a significant societal change, from the articles on the Roman Empire (LINK), how Collapse Happens – Seneca’s Cliff (LINK), to a general theory of the Collapse of Complex Societies (LINK).  These are interesting stories – life goes on day after day in a continual sameness until . . . everything changes.

Now, that’s not to say that everything changes all at once.  We study the French Revolution in school (or at least I did) and went from the:

  • French Revolution to the
  • Terror to the
  • Rise of Napoleon to the
  • Fall of Napoleon to
  • Friday the 13th Part II Rise of Napoleon to
  • Napoleon III, Final Chapter

It takes (at most) a week to go through that period of history.  And it’s pretty exciting stuff, if presented well.  An entire stable society is tossed into an upheaval that results in massive change.  And when confined to a school desk it seems that if you lived in France, that all of this change was happening at warp speed!

But the Bastille was stormed in 1789, and Napoleon died in exile in 1821.  The events we covered in a week played out over 32 years, which is more than a generation.  If you were born in 1789, you could have fought at Waterloo with Napoleon.  This change would have seemed natural to you if you were in France, and the only way you can observe it (beyond freshman world history class) would be to take time to look at the events of the world in a bigger-picture way.

So, Glubb, being fired and all, spent his time in study of the rise and fall of the world’s empires.  (All quotes that follow, except where noted, are from Glubb’s essay.)

However this may be, the thesis which I wish to propound is that priceless lessons could be learned if the history of the past four thousand years could be thoroughly and impartially studied.

-Glubb

Glubb then pulls out a table and points to start and end dates for several empires and makes the assertion that empires have a maximum lifespan of about 250 years.

Empire Span
Assyria 859-612 B.C. 247
Persia 538-330 B.C. 208
Greece 331-100 B.C. 231
Roman Republic 260-27 B.C. 233
Roman Empire 27 B.C.-A.D. 180 207
Arab Empire A.D. 634-880 246
Mameluke Empire 1250-1517 267
Ottoman Empire 1320-1570 250
Spain 1500-1750 250
Romanov Russia 1682-1916 234
Britain 1700-1950 250

Okay, my criticisms first.

  • He’s cherrypicking Western Civilization and the Middle East. What about Japan?  China? The Disney® Empire?
  • How did he pick the dates? There is a degree of subjectivity there.
  • He totally had to make up something to explain Rome. Rome doesn’t really follow his 250 year model.

That being said, you could make an argument that his dates are sorta right.  And he produces anecdotal evidence to back up his assertions in his text.

Likewise, Glubb notes that these durations appear to be roughly tied not to technology (it varied) communication speed (varied widely for the world-spanning British Empire and the Greek Empire), or contiguous nature of the empire (see Britain again).

I can even (sort of) support his dates on the cases I’m familiar with.  Everyone would agree that the British Empire was gone by 1970.  1960?  Probably most?  1950 might be a bit early.

DSC02988

Possibly, this statue knows (nose?) that he doesn’t help Glubb’s thesis. 

So, if this 250 maximum life (*Rome Not Included) isn’t related to technology or geography, Glubb reasoned it was related to human longevity, and his theory was that it represented 10 human generations.  Differing generations of people in the empires reacted in different ways based upon their experiences in the progression of empire.  He even broke down the empire’s phases:

  • The Age of Pioneers/Outburst – In the US, Glubb argues, the age of the Pioneers was spent conquering the continent. Other places, a dominant culture takes over the nation.  This is the era of television shows involving guns and bears.
  • The Age of Conquests – Immediately after the energy of the Outburst, the nation forms a military that leads to conquest. Television?  Guns, no bears.
  • The Age of Commerce – On the newly conquered land, per Sir John, every factor is in place for massive expansion of commerce as new systems are established and older trade barriers fall. “The proud military traditions still hold sway and the great armies guard the frontiers, but gradually the desire to make money seems to gain hold of the public.” Television? Not much.  It’s like an accounting show.  Some railroad robber baron shows.

“The ancient virtues of courage, patriotism and devotion to duty are still in evidence. The nation is proud, united and full of self-confidence. Boys are still required, first of all, to be manly—to ride, to shoot straight and to tell the truth. (It is remarkable what emphasis is placed, at this stage, on the manly virtue of truthfulness, for lying is cowardice—the fear of facing up to the situation.)”

  • The Age of Affluence – All the commerce leads to wealth. Television:  Soap Operas and shows involving women in bikinis.  The wealth leads to a change in values:

“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.”

  • The Age of Intellect – A few great schools are the hallmark of the early Empire. By the Age of Intellect, every Podunk town has a community college.  Television:  Community®.  And the effect isn’t good:

“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.”

  • The Age of Decadence – This passage I found striking in Sir John’s essay: “The word ‘celebrity’ today is used to designate a comedian or a football player, not a statesman, a general, or a literary genius.”  Certainly Johnny Depp would be a celebrity in any age, right?  Television here?  Men in bikinis.

The characteristics of the Age of Decadence is given particular emphasis by Glubb:

  • Defensiveness – (Here Glubb means the country doesn’t care about duty or honor, just keeping luxury and comfort.)
  • Pessimism
  • Materialism
  • Frivolity
  • An influx of foreigners
  • The welfare state
  • A weakening of religion

Decadence is due to, per Glubb:

  • Too long a period of wealth and power
  • Selfishness
  • Love of money
  • The loss of a sense of duty

I’d argue that Glubb’s “reasons for” Decadence are subject to argument, but they’re not out of the question.  I’d argue to add the increasing coddling of children so that we don’t ever let them experience true hardship, at any costs.  My parent’s playground had a merry-go-round that cut a kid’s legs off when he fell down.  My playground put planks over the spot where he fell through.  My kids?  Soft fluffy pillows are under the swings, and games like “tag” are unapproved, whereas games like “competitive sitting while quiet” are looked on with approval by the school’s cadre of lawyers.   I could take live ammo to school and once found a live tear gas grenade on school property.  Today’s kids?  Plastic knives are out of the question.

But I think that there are few who would argue that the United States isn’t (currently) the biggest empire the world has ever seen.  The United States has 800 military installations in 70 countries.  The United States has convinced the world to use the dollar as the world currency.  When Nixon took us off of gold-dollar convertibility (a “temporary” measure) it amounted to the United States being able to tax the entire world.  How?

We used to send them dollars that we printed up, in exchange for cool stuff, like iron ore, oil, and other raw materials.  They took these dollars that we just made up.  Profit margin for the government?  100%.

Nowadays, printing up those dollars is just too painful and expensive.  We now just exchange electronic information so that electronic dollars that we “create” are shipped via the Internet to other countries.  And, for whatever reason, everybody agrees that this is a good deal, and they keep sending us stuff, like cars and other finished products.  But we have our standards.  We still make our own Pez®.

pez

PEZ®, it’s what does a body good.  Like Brawndo©, which has what plants crave.

So, I’d call the United States an empire, both economically and militarily.  And while the world has benefited from the peace, the United States has benefited economically to an unprecedented degree.

And if you look at the points that denote Glubb’s “Decadent” stage of empire, I’d say that there is empirical, scientific evidence for at least six of the seven points.  Now it should be noted that Glubb noted these points in other civilizations as well.  He noted that in the Arab Empire, Arabs becoming a minority in their own capital and women studying for and being allowed in what they considered traditionally male professions, like being lawyers.

What happens on the other side of Empire?

It seems like Britain is still there.  They went through a very rough patch as the British Empire crumbled.  Economic output dropped, and children were required to wear gloves without fingers, be grubby and put soot on their ruddy cheeks.  But as it adjusts to a new role in the world.  At the start of World War II (the one with cool tanks) the Royal Navy had 1400 ships, and it was the largest navy in the world.  Now Wikipedia claims they have less than 70.  And most of those are used to haul lime, rum, and fish and chips to their sailors.  And, as of this writing, the Royal Navy has zero aircraft carriers.

And, it’s understandable – their empire, like Paula Abdul’s career, is over.

DSC01335

This is what a Royal Navy Ship of the Line looks like in 2017.

I think that, economically, Britain has gotten a temporary reprieve due to the North Sea oil reserves, plus their sales of merchandise related to Lady Di.  Otherwise, I think that their trajectory remains on a downward arc.  Recently I read a story that indicated that infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) was in pretty bad shape outside of London, which would again be indicative of the end of empire – constrained resources can no longer support the infrastructure created at the peak of empire.

What does this portend for the United States?

If the Roman model is in play, we’ll end up with a Caesar – a ruler that will follow many of the previous forms of government, but also be a more despotic ruler.  The courts and legislature will exist to support him.  A leader of this type would reinvigorate and replace the current pessimism, materialism and frivolity with a renewed focus on maintaining and expanding the power of the empire at the expense of freedom and liberty.  After a rough patch, most people will be okay with this.  Good points?  Cool buildings and triumphal arches.  Bad points?  Purges of people who believe that President for Life Carl XV isn’t tall enough.

It’s possible that we head the other way, the soft slipping into fractured irrelevance that other empires (like Britain and Spain) have undergone.  The bigger cracks would be the fall of the currency into irrelevance . . . be like how, in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Mike went bankrupt: “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”  At least we have all that cool stuff we got from China, right?

There would be big disconnects on the way down, but then long periods of uninterrupted economic and social malaise.  But the end of empire isn’t horrible.  At least we’ll send our version of The Beatles® to the new empire.  My bet is that it will be into the new world capital of our Canadian Overlords.

Greater Ottawa, anyone?

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.