Blog Archives

The Self-Destructive Trajectory of Overly Successful Empires

A recent comment by my friend and colleague Davefairtex on the Roman Empire’s self-destructive civil wars that precipitated the Western Empire’s decline and fall made me rethink what I’ve learned about the Roman Empire in the past few years of reading.

Dave’s comment (my paraphrase) described the amazement of neighboring nations that Rome would squander its strength on needless, inconclusive, self-inflicted civil conflicts over which political faction would gain control of the Imperial central state.

It was a sea change in Roman history. Before the age of endless political in-fighting, it was incomprehensible that Roman armies would be mustered to fight other Roman armies over Imperial politics. The waste of Roman strength, purpose, unity and resources was monumental. Not even Rome could sustain the enormous drain of civil wars and maintain widespread prosperity and enough military power to suppress military incursions by neighbors.

I now see a very obvious trajectory that I think applies to all empires that have been too successful, that is, empires which have defeated all rivals or have reached such dominance they have no real competitors.

Once there are no truly dangerous rivals to threaten the Imperial hegemony and prosperity, the ambitions of insiders turn from glory gained on the battlefield by defeating fearsome rivals to gaining an equivalently undisputed power over the imperial political system.

The empire’s very success in eliminating threats and rivals dissolves the primary source of political unity: with no credible external threat, insiders are free to devote their energies and resources to destroying political rivals.

It’s difficult not to see signs of this same trajectory in the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1990.

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Russian Meddling: Gagging on the Irony

The irony of the Deep State’s obsessive focus on “Russian meddling” in the precious bodily fluids of our hallowed democracy is so overwhelming that it’s gagging. The irony is a noxious confluence of putid hypocrisy and a comically abject terror at the prospect that the citizenry may be awakening to the terrible reality that America has lost its soul as well as its democracy.

The foul stench of hypocrisy arises from the long and sordid history of America’s meddling in the internal politics of virtually every nation on the planet— a deeply entrenched policy of meddling on such a vast scale that the Deep State minions tasked with projecting a wounded astonishment that some foreign power has the unmitigated gall to attempt to influence our domestic politics must have difficulty restraining their amusement.

America’s foreign policy is one of absolute entitlement to influence the domestic affairs and politics of every nation of interest, which to a truly global empire includes every nation on the planet to the degree every nation is a market and/or a potential threat to U.S. interests.

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There Is Only One Empire: Finance

There’s an entire sub-industry in journalism devoted to the idea that China is poised to replace the U.S. as the “global empire” / hegemon. This notion of global empire being something like a baton that gets passed from nation-state to nation-state is seriously misleading, in my view, for this reason:

There is only one global empire: finance. China and the U.S. both exist within the Empire of Finance. Virtually every mercantile nation with access to global markets lives, works and thrives/dies within the Empire of Finance. Every nation that allows capital to flow into its economy is subservient to the Empire of Finance. Every nation with capital and debt markets exposed to (or dependent on) global financial flows is just another fiefdom in the Empire of Finance.

China has thrived within the Empire of Finance by creating more debt and at a faster rate of expansion than any other fiefdom. 

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The Dead Giveaways of Imperial Decline

Identifying the tell-tale signs of Imperial decay and decline is a bit of a parlor game. The hubris of an increasingly incestuous and out-of-touch leadership, dismaying extremes of wealth inequality, self-serving, avaricious Elites, rising dependency of the lower classes on free Bread and Circuses provided by a government careening toward insolvency due to stagnating tax revenues and vast over-reach–these are par for the course of self-reinforcing Imperial decay.

Sir John Glubb listed a few others in his seminal essay on the end of empires The Fate of Empires, what might be called the dynamics of decadence:

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The Three Stages of Empire

Though Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century CE to the Third is not specifically on the rise and fall of empires, it does sketch out the three stages of Empire.

Here is the current context of the discussion of Imperial lifecycles: the U.S. defense budget is roughly the same size as the rest of the world’s defense spending combined:

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The More the Establishment Freaks Out Over Trump, the More Attractive He Becomes

The Establishment is freaking out about Donald Trump for one reason: they didn’t pick him. The Establishment is freaking out because the natural order of things is that we pick the presidential candidates and we run the country to serve ourselves, i.e. the financial-political elites.

Donald Trump’s candidacy upsets this neofeudal natural order, and thus he (and everyone who supports him) is anathema to the Establishment, heretics who must be silenced, cowed, marginalized, mocked and ultimately put back in their place as subservient debt-serfs.

With Trump ascendant, the serfs are selecting the noble in the castle on the hill. Outrageous! Unheard of!

You know the Establishment is freaking out when Establishment pundit mouthpieces like David Brooks and Francis Fukuyama are freaking out about Trump. David Brooks could not restrain his disdain for Trump on a recent Charlie Rose segment, in which he intoned (and I paraphrase) that Trump can’t put eight words together without referring to himself, i.e. he is not just a narcissist, but he is (take this, Trump!) a fragile narcissist— unlike people like Brooks, of course, who are solid, secure, wise, well-educated, erudite water-carriers for the status quo.

Policy heavy-hitter Fukuyama confesses the political system in the U.S. is broken but he can’t understand why the citizenry has selected the “singularly inappropriate instrument” (his description of Trump in the pages of Foreign Affairs) of Donald Trump to express their disdain for their neofeudal lords.

Well, Mr, Fukuyama, let me explain it to you: the debt-serfs have selected Trump precisely because the neofeudal financial-political nobility you represent consider him a “singularly inappropriate instrument”.

But, the pundits rage, he’s a narcissist. He’s fragile. (Now isn’t that a classic middle-brow slam from the hopelessly middle-brow (“I only sound middle-brow due to my starring role in the mainstream media; actually I’m brilliant beyond words”) Brooks.

Policy guru Fukuyama has a much better turn of phrase, of course: “narcissist” is way too common and middle-brow a critique at his level. Thus we get “singularly inappropriate instrument” (ooh, now there’s a sharpened blade that slips easily between the ribs).

Dear Establishment pundits, flacks, hacks, sycophants, apparatchiks, toadies, lackeys, functionaries, leeches and apologists: the more you label Trump as “singularly inappropriate,” the more attractive he becomes to the 81% who’ve been left behind by the financialized-globalized-neofeudal order that has so greatly enhanced your own wealth, influence and power.

Trump is attractive because the Establishment fears and loathes him. Why? 1) They didn’t pick him and 2) he might upset the neoconservative liberal hegemonyEmpire that the Establishment elites view as their global entitlement.

The elitists like Brooks and Fukuyama admit that politics have failed. But they believe the solution is more people like us in power. You know, reasonable, well-educated elitists who won’t stoop to get our hands dirty with laundered millions (for example, the Clinton Foundation).

The utter cluelessness of the professional apologists and punditry would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic: the more you fume and rage that Trump is unqualified, narcissistic, singularly inappropriate, etc. etc. etc., the more appealing he becomes to everyone who isn’t inside the protective walls of your neofeudal castle.

The people outside the cozy walls of the protected elites don’t care if he is unqualified (by the standards of those who get to pick our presidents for us) narcissistic, singularly inappropriate, and so on–they are cheering him on because you, the multitudes of water-carriers for the Imperial elites, the teeming hordes of well-paid, I-got-mine-so-shut-the-heck-up pundits, flacks, hacks, sycophants, apparatchiks, toadies, lackeys, functionaries, leeches and apologists, are so visibly afraid that your perks, wealth, influence and power might drain away if the 80% actually get a say.

Dear pundits, flacks, hacks, sycophants, apparatchiks, toadies, lackeys, functionaries, leeches and apologists: we’re sick of you, every one of you, and the neofeudal Empire you support. We want you cashiered, pushed outside the walls with the rest of us, scraping by on well-earned and richly deserved unemployment.

My new book is #5 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition)For more, please visit the book’s website.

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The Lesson of Empires: Once Privilege Limits Social Mobility, Collapse Is Inevitable

The next few years will strip away the illusions of “growth” and reveal which dominates our society and economy: privilege or social mobility.

Among the many lessons of empires is one shared by virtually every empire:once the privileged few limit the rise of those from humble origins (i.e. social mobility), the empire is doomed to rising instability and collapse.

Just as a reminder of how wealth and income are increasingly concentrated in the top of the wealth/power pyramid:

The greater the concentration of wealth and power, the lower the social mobility; the lower the social mobility, the greater the odds that the system will collapse when faced with a crisis that it would have easily handled in more egalitarian times.

When the economy is expanding faster than the population and the tide is lifting all ships large and small, the majority of people feel their chances of getting ahead are positive (even if the actual chances remain low).

But when the economy is stagnating, and they see those at the apex of the pyramid still amassing monumental gains, the majority realizes their chances of securing a better life are declining.

The natural result is frustration, anger and a disavowal of the corrupt status quo: in other words, precisely what the U.S. is experiencing in this election cycle.

People are waking up the reality that the status quo exists to protect the privileged, period. When the serfs do all the right things–get a university degree, work hard, serve their masters well, etc.–they find that “getting ahead” has been redefined as “running in place to keep from falling behind” (i.e. the Red Queen’s Race).

One of my projects is to better understand what social, economic and cultural elements of empires enabled their rise and durability. I was especially interested in locating traits shared by virtually all empires that endured.

One key trait that all enduring empires shared was high levels of social mobility:in enduring empires, those of humble birth had multiple pathways to wealth, power and influence.

When social mobility is lost, all those denied access to the empire’s top rungs leave for greener pastures or devote their energy and ambition to bringing the empire down.

Social mobility is only possible if merit is valued more than privilege. When privilege locks up all the top rungs for cronies, the empire crumbles under the weight of incompetence, elitist squabbling, inefficiency and wasted resources, while the best and the brightest seek outlets for their ambition elsewhere–often in the ranks of the empire’s enemies.

Though ancient societies were by and large anti-egalitarian–slavery was an accepted norm–the enduring empires maintained very porous boundaries between classes. The Roman Empire, for example, accepted people of many ethnicities and origins as Roman citizens. A free citizen of a distant Roman province was as fully a citizen of Rome as a free resident of Rome.

In the Republic of Venice, the system was carefully designed to enable new blood to enter the higher levels of power. Commoners could rise to power (and take their families with them if their wealth outlasted the founding generation) via commercial success or military service.

The Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) offered multiple pathways to wealth and influence to the humbly born: the clergy, the army, trading, and service in the Imperial bureaucracy. (For women, the path to wealth and power was generally marriage into an influential aristocratic family. Many women gained great political power in the Byzantine Empire.)

After suffering the many indignities of the poor (and often warring) tribespeople of Mongolia as a young man, Genghis Khan instituted a highly regimented, merit-based system of rule in his sprawling empire. Success was more important than privilege.

The question, not just for the U.S. but for every nation, is whether the ladder of social mobility is real or if it is largely propaganda. Is merit and success more important than privilege? Or does society give lip-service to social mobility while heaping wealth and power on the privileged few?

The test is always economic crisis. When the pie starts shrinking, who’s piece gets trimmed to a sliver, and who’s slice gets bigger? I think we’re on the cusp of a crisis that started in 2000 but was short-circuited by central banks in 2000-2003 and and again in 2009-2016.

The next few years will strip away the illusions of “growth” and reveal which dominates our society and economy: privilege (sludgy toxic oil) or social mobility (clean refreshing water).

I recommend these books to anyone interested in the history of empires, not just their decline and fall, but their rise to dominance:

The Fall of the Roman Empire (Michael Grant)

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (Adrian Goldsworthy)

War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (Peter Turchin)

The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire (Anthony Everitt)

428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (Giusto Traina)

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Jack Weatherford)

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Judith Herrin)

Venice: A New History (Thomas F. Madden)

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (Thomas Homer-Dixon)

 

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Why the Fed Has to Raise Rates

A great many insightful commentators have made the case for why the Fed shouldn’t raise rates this month–or indeed, any other month. The basic idea is that the Fed blew it by waiting until the economy is weakening to raise rates. More specifically, former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke–self-hailed as a “hero that saved the global economy”–blew it by keeping rates at zero and overfeeding the stock market bubble baby with quantitative easing (QE).

Now that the Fed isn’t feeding the baby QE, it’s throwing a tantrum.

On the other side of the ledger is the argument that the Fed must raise rates to maintain its rapidly thinning credibility. I have made both of these arguments: that the Bernanke Fed blew it big-time, and that the Fed has to raise rates lest its credibility as the caretaker not just of the stock market but of the real economy implodes.

But there is another even more persuasive reason why the Fed must raise rates.

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Untangling America from the American Empire

The Status Quo would have us believe that America and its Empire are one entity. This is handy for those with Imperial designs but it is false: America could be untangled from its Empire, and many of us believe it is essential that America untangles itself from its Imperial structures and ideologies.

What I call The Imperial Project was cobbled together in the aftermath of World War II, when the Soviet Union and America posed an existential threat to each other’s ideologies and systems. It may be hard to believe, but the U.S. did not have a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or other espionage/intelligence gathering agency prior to World War II.

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When the Aristocracy Leaves the Commoners in the Dust, The Empire Is Doomed

Historian Peter Turchin identified “the degree of solidarity felt between the commons and aristocracy” as a key ingredient of the Republic of Rome’s enormous success. Turchin calls this attribute of social structure vertical integration, a term that usually refers to a corporation owning its supply chain.

In Turchin’s meaning, it refers to the sense of purpose and identity shared by the top, middle and bottom of the wealth/power pyramid. One measure of this vertical integration is the degree of equality/inequality between the commoners (shall we call this the lower 90% of American households by income?) and the Power Elite aristocracy (top .5%, or perhaps top .1%).

The vertical integration of the Roman Republic’s social strata is striking. In his book War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, Turchin tells this anecdote:

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You Can’t Separate Empire, the State, Financialization and Crony Capitalism: It’s One Indivisible System

Disagreement is part of discourse, and pursuing differing views of the best way forward is the heart of democracy. Disagreement is abundant, democracy is scarce, despite claims to the contrary.

If you think you can surgically extract Empire from the American System, force the State to serve the working/middle classes, end the stripmining of financialization, limit crony capitalism/regulatory capture and get Big Money out of politics–go ahead and do so. I’m not standing in your way–go for it.

But while you pursue your good governance, populist, Left/ Right /Socialist/ Libertarian, etc. reforms, please understand the system is indivisible:

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China, the Hollow Dragon

It is widely assumed that manufacturing (a.k.a. the world’s workshop) is the source of China’s wealth. But how can this be true, given that manufacturing profit margins are razor-thin in China, and have been since the early 2000s?

Given that as little as $10 of the value of every iPhone or iPad actually ends up in the Chinese economy, how can anyone claim manufacturing has generated enormous profits?

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