Sometimes – indeed, most of the time – our self-education requires we learn about much more than the self. Indeed, fellas, the Booby suggests that understanding the world from a “big picture” perspective is integrally important you, and to your ability to best navigate the modern world.
Today’s Booby Book teaches us about that big picture – that is to say, the really big picture. The book is War and Peace and War, by Peter Turchin. It addresses the rise and fall of empires and civilizations, a topic as old as civilization itself. The substance of the book is not particularly new, if you’re familiar with classic authors, like Plato, Gibbon, or Nietzsche. What’s unusual about Turchin’s work is that it brings a modern twist to many of the topics and themes previously discussed by the giants of old.
In an age where we are taught to reject, ignore, or hate the works of dead white men this is itself a refreshing departure.
Of course, Turchin’s work channels the knowledge of a great many dead non-white men, too. Still, there is no denying that great swaths of his book will sound familiar to those versed in the Western historical tradition.
What the author best provides is a detailed, believable explanation regarding the role of both war and peace in the rise, decline, and ultimate collapse of empires. Turchin uses a lot of very academic-sounding terms (and understandably so) in his work, like “imperiogenesis”, “imperiopathosis” and the “Matthew Principle” but don’t let these terms turn you off or intimidate you.
The most important term Turchin uses, and the one the Booby will briefly explain here, is what he calls “asabiya”, based on an Arabic word referring to a group’s (usually ethnic) possessing self-awareness as a cohesive whole, and the ability to act aggressively as a cohesive whole.
How a people attains this state of asabiya and converts that power into empire is complicated. Turchin attributes it to a combination of the aforesaid inner cohesion, coupled with the unifying existence of a common enemy (or enemies) along its frontiers. Ideally, budding proto-empires are in near proximity to a decaying empire. This excites desire and envy, leading younger, tougher, and hungrier neighbours to try to obtain for themselves the luxuries and wealth of the dying empire by whatever means. Historically, the neighbour most endowed with asabiya will devour the old empire like a pack of wolves, and eventually create a new empire of its own.
None of this should really be controversial. Historians and observers (even those evil dead white ones) have been telling a similar tale for centuries, even millennia. Turchin’s work, as the Booby said, is not so much new in many respects, but merely resuscitates older ideas that have fallen out of fashion in modern academia.
As for the decline and fall of empires, Turchin presents it as the accumulation of several factors, some of which he lists, and some of which he only alludes to. The author points to Rome as just one of many examples, and admits that countless specialized theories have emerged for its decline and fall, and rightly cautions that any “grand theory that explains its collapse is easy, but ultimately unsatisfying”. There is no one singular cause, in other words.
Indeed, the Booby will take it a step further and suggest that such “grand theories” tell us more about the theorist and his times than about actual history. In the 1970s, for example, when environmentalism was emerging as perhaps the most dominant post-Christianity religion, it became fashionable to assume Rome’s fall was due to such factors as pollution, like lead poisoning. Indeed, before long we shall doubtless be presented with grand theories declaring that Rome’s fall was due to a lack of trans-gendered washrooms… but the Booby digresses.
The book being discussed here deserves to taken far more seriously. Turchin lists a number of reasons for imperial decline, and eventual collapse. He astutely observes that the “very stability and internal peace that strong empires impose contain within them the seeds of future chaos”. Again, this is nothing new. Previous scholars and historians would have referred to aspects of this phenomenon as “decadence”; Turchin himself seems unwilling use that term (too bad).
One of the most telling of these themes, as the author reminds us, is the obsession with luxury and conspicuous consumption, especially among the elites. Turchin writes:
A turning point was thus crossed during the second century B.C. Whereas the Roman aristocrats of the early Republic competed in who could die for patria in the most glorious way, in the late Republic they competed in who could throw the most sumptuous banquet.
Of course, the author lists other reasons for imperial Roman decline, including overpopulation, which contributed to growing inequality; increased use of slaves, the most extreme manifestation of inequality (the decadent certainly don’t do their own work); factional infighting for power among the elites, which weakened solidarity; and the ultimate defeat of Carthage, which robbed Romans of their unifying common enemy.
So there you have it, fellas. A taste of what you can expect if you manage to slug your way through War and Peace and War. It’s not an easy read, but nothing worthwhile is easy. Besides, you can, if you wish, shorten the experience by skipping the unfortunate final section on “cliodynamics”.
Most importantly, how do these lessons apply to your own situation?
No, you yourself do not constitute an empire, obviously. However, you live in one. The United States is currently the globes’s dominant empire, sole superpower, and if you live in Western Europe, North America, the Middle East, or large parts of East Asia then you live under its umbrella, and largely in accordance to its will. The fact that the empire has provided its citizens and vassals with a fair measure of peace and prosperity since World War II should not be dismissed, or escape consideration.
So, then, how does your empire look today? Has the relative stability and prosperity of the last 70 or so years midwifed chaos as Peter Turchin’s analysis should predict?
Well, it’s not a secret that in today’s empire a mere one percent of the world’s population owns over half the world’s wealth (see here), and unlike Imperial Rome the modern West doesn’t even require an exploding population to make such iniquity possible. Spectacular inequality? Check.
Meanwhile, ostentatiousness has become pandemic. Entire countries have destroyed their banking systems because huge segments of the population bought homes they couldn’t afford with money they didn’t have. Consumers in general, meanwhile, have never been so in debt, nor have they ever lived in such luxury. Conspicuous consumption? Check.
Like the late days of the Roman Republic, our elites no longer serve their country honourably. George H. W. Bush was the last president who truly served in wartime, but the same can be said of most Western elites, not just US presidents. This is curious, given the ample opportunities the political class has had to serve in US-led wars – one would almost think they’re content to let the rubes (that means you, fellas) fight the wars, while they busy themselves with starting the wars and profiting from them. This is something people eventually notice, and often acrid emotions are the result (see here). Pampered, cowardly elites? Check.
As for slavery, well Westerners seem increasingly dependant on aliens – legal or otherwise – to take jobs their own children don’t want. Said differently, consumers are averse to paying the retail price needed to pay the kind of wages that might compel their children to take those jobs. Simply consider the countless American women utilizing Mexican nannies – at wages that would be illegal in the real economy – to perform the one job they’re only moderately interested in: being mothers. Those who don’t have access to Mexican quasi-slave labour simply shuffle the little ones off to minimum wage-paying day cares. Slavery (or quasi-slavery) necessitated by decadence? Check.
Since the end of the Cold War, the West has had absolutely no military, economic, or cultural challenges to its dominance. And yet the West has never been so internally divided. For example, divisive-by-design identity politics. These germinated, ironically, among Western academics and intellectuals when weakening the West’s cohesion during the Cold War was in style. Since the Cold War, however, they seem to have exploded into near civil war, dividing elites, families, and social support networks. Infighting due to the absence of a unifying enemy? Check.
Of course, we all know good modern scholars don’t use the word “decadence” anymore, apparently.
Give Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War a shot anyway. It will at least offer a new way of looking at some very old ideas. Have no illusions, fellas, the big picture affects even us little people.
You ultimately have to decide for yourselves what role – if any – you wish to play within your empire. For example, do you want to fight and possibly die in a foreign war for the exclusive benefit of a political class that hates you, and regards you with contempt (see here and here)? Then maybe it’s time to reconsider military service, fellas. Do you want to enter into a marriage contract that is legally stacked against you from the get-go? If not, fellas, then perhaps traditional marriage and family are no longer realistic options for you in this modern age.
Unfortunately, the decline of empire is too large for you to affect. You can only take measures to protect yourself and live the best life you can in the midst of decay. You don’t owe anyone a goddamn thing. A slow, careful, reading of War and Peace and War should show you that nothing you’re experiencing is new.
Just remember, reading Turchin’s book (and the Booby recommends you do) may give some the impression that the rise and fall of empires or civilizations is a purely academic matter, of no consequence to individuals. Fortunately, being a self-educated fella, you know better.