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The Decline and Fall of Empires

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 The Decline and Fall of Empires2004-02-17 22:16
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Johan Galtung is a professor of peace studies and a very studied man. He's written many big picture papers with lots of historic analysis about peace and war and the decline and fall of empires. Of most current interest might be "On the Coming Decline and
Fall of the US Empire
". Or, for a more historical comparison, read "The Decline and Fall of Empires", written for the United Nations Research Institute on Development in 1996, where he analyses and compares the decline and fall of 9 past empires, and, again, the United States, the only current empire. They all fail sooner or later, but not all for the same reasons, even though there seems to be some common factors. For most empires their decline generally come about from a lack of balance, a foundation of endless expansion and exploitation, pissing off a lot of people in the periphery, who are the ones being exploited, and a certain laziness that develops in the materially nonproductive elite in the center, where it becomes easier to buy or steal things from somebody else somewhere else than to bother to produce it oneself. And a falling apart of infrastructure, because it wasn't designed to be sustainable, and because those who designed the parts that worked no longer cared, or no longer were around. Anyway, here's a bit of a moral and a somewhat positive twist in the form of a metaphor of rats and ships:
"These are ten stories of sinking ships, and ships usually harbor rats known to leave sinking ships. But who are the rats, and what do they do after leaving the sinking ship? They probably do not leave to drown, but possibly to find a new ship and a new life?

The immediate answer would be to find a new ship, although some rats may prefer dignified suicide to a life in the ruins of their own creation. There are exceptions like the captain of the sinking ship, the last one to leave even at the risk of joining the ship on its way down. Like ship captain, like captain of the state ship, the head of state. In principle. But in fact he often prefers escape and ends up as a monarch in exile, unable to find new ships. Better a life in faded splendor than death or suicide.

But we are thinking of more dynamic rats, not of aristoc-rats or bureauc-rats, but of creative clergy and intellectual ratss, and indeed entrepreneurial merchant rats. Each imperial decline creates its exodus and its diaspora. The question is, what kind of talent left, and where did they go? Regardless of the answer, this is clearly an illustration of Buddhist rebirth rather than Hindu reincarnation, let alone Christian eternal life.

The system does not reincarnate with many of its original features intact. By dying the system liberates creative energy, in the form of a diaspora which then starts working somewhere else. The obvious prognosis would be [1] given reasonable conditions they will probably succeed, [2] if or when there is no success they will probably leave the new sinking ship. Once a rat always a rat.

A major importer of rats leaving European sinking ships has been the USA. But the USA may also one day become a net exporter if the decline in mini-study 10 broadens and deepens further.

What people can do, countries may also do. Societies are to a large extent center-periphery systems with the center defining the problems and how to solve them, and the periphery doing the menial tasks of implementing the decisions. In the same vein, the World is to a large extent a Center-Periphery system, with the Center deciding what to do, giving minor roles to the Periphery countries, e.g., as defined by Ricardo's comparative advantages "theory", or ideology rather, of international trade.

But what happens if the center of society, or the Center of the world, declines? The social periphery may decide to leave, and vast caravans, trains of people, migrants in search of work and more promising conditions elsewhere will accompany the decline. The center minority may try to keep the migration within bonds, by sheer force or by the Toynbee formula, responding creatively to the crisis challenge by initiating new departures to convince the majority that they are still in command of the situation. Maybe they have three chances. After that, the periphery leaves, if not physically by migrating, then spiritually through lost allegiance.

Satellite client countries in the Periphery may do the same. They watch for the signs, and may decide to turn from a former Center to a new Center, like Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union to the EU and the USA. Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand, parts of the UK Center-Periphery system may look to Japan for new roles. Norway changed her allegiance from the USA (before that the UK, before that Sweden, before that Denmark) to the European Union. The latter seem better at practicing Toynbee. One Center elite may not be able to convince its Periphery, but by pooling together they may come up with a more attractive formula, like the Yaoundé-Lomé system for the African-Caribbean-Pacific countries.

Looking at the list of cases it is obvious that there are some genealogies at work. A major function of a dying system is to leave the scene, providing a niche of new economic opportunities to others. Brutal, but "such is life". "Decline and fall" is only one half of the story. The other half are the new ships, boarded or not by old, partly recycled, rats.

And thus it was that West Rome yielded to Franks and Gauls, and in the longer run to the Carolingians. Two centuries after the fall the Umayyad Arab empire of Damascus, defeated by the Abassids of Baghdad, changed the gap in Spain into the Caliphate of Córdoba (712). A dying Byzants had to yield to the triumphant Ottomans, and Spain to the Italian (and Low Countries) city-states and to the UK. The Ottomans had to yield to Russia, and to the Habsburgs and UK/France. And UK and Russia's successor, the Soviet Empire, had to yield to the USA. And to whom will ultimately the USA be yielding? To an expanded EU, to an East Asian Community, or both?

China has her own logic. The Ch'ing dynasty did not yield to any other country (except, for a short while to UK/France and some others), but to the Kuomintang dynasty, which in turn had to yield to the Communist dynasty; in both cases for much more than economic reasons narrowly defined. Precisely for this reason China has to be conceived of as a diachronic chain of dynasties rather than as a synchronic system of competitors, struggling over the same space.

This serves to relativize the concepts of decline and fall. A human being falls ill and dies, the family or somebody else fills the space. Societies also have families, inside their territory, or outside. None has a claim on eternal life. The death cause is interesting among other reasons to know whether euthanasia and midwifery would be the solution."
Or maybe you can freeze the old empire cryogenically and thaw it up and look at it once in a while. Anyway, a key point is that the creative, positive life forces move on. Nothing oppressive can last forever, because it usually doesn't work very well. If the oppressed get bored with the game and refuse to play along, the picture sometimes transforms really quickly. But most empires leave some kind of positive legacy behind, of culture and ideals that might survive for a long time, even if the reality might have been brutal and unsustainable.


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2 comments

30 Apr 2009 @ 20:27 by bored @75.42.182.182 : the boredems
this is dumb.so is sheriefff :) I h8 history :[  


30 Apr 2009 @ 20:28 by emilia[[keep it outta yer mouth]] @75.42.182.182 : hahaha [:
EMiLiA wasss here D+E=love  


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