Blog Archives

The Telltale Signs of Imperial Decline

Check which signs of Imperial decline you see around you: 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–let’s stop there to catch our breath. Check, check, check and check.

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:

(a) A growing love of money as an end in itself: Check.

(b) A lengthy period of wealth and ease, which makes people complacent. They lose their edge; they forget the traits (confidence, energy, hard work) that built their civilization: Check.

(c) Selfishness and self-absorption: Check.

(d) Loss of any sense of duty to the common good: Check.

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Why We’re Fragmenting: The Status Quo Is Disintegrating

I confess to being amused by the mainstream media’s implicit view that everything would be peachy if only Trump wasn’t president. Memo to MSM: the nation is fragmenting for reasons that have nothing to do with who’s president, or indeed, which party is the majority in Congress, who sits on the Supreme Court, or any other facet of governance.

The nation is fracturing and fragmenting because the Status Quo is failing the majority of the citizenry. The protected few are reaping all the benefits of the Status Quo, at the expense of the unprotected many.

As I have outlined many times, this unsustainable asymmetry is the only possible outcome of our socio-economic system, which is dominated by these forces:

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The Divided Deep State is a Symptom, Not the Disease

I’ve been writing about the divided Deep State for a number of years, most recently in The Conflict within the Deep State Just Broke into Open Warfare. The topic appears to be one of widespread interest, as this essay drew over 300,000 views.

It’s impossible to understand the divided Deep State unless we situate it in the larger context of profound political disunity, a concept I learned from historian Michael Grant, whose slim but insightful volume The Fall of the Roman Empire I have been recommending since 2009.

As I noted in my 2009 book Survival+, this was a key feature of the Roman Empire in its final slide to collapse. The shared values and consensus which had held the Empire’s core together dissolved, leaving petty fiefdoms to war among themselves for what power and swag remained.

A funny thing happens when a nation allows itself to be ruled by Imperial kleptocrats: such rule is intrinsically destabilizing, as there is no longer any moral or political center to bind the nation together. The public sees the value system at the top is maximize my personal profit by whatever means are available, i.e. complicity, corruption, monopoly and rentier rackets, and they follow suit by pursuing whatever petty frauds and rackets are within reach: tax avoidance, cheating on entrance exams, gaming the disability system, lying on mortgage and job applications, and so on.

But the scope of the rentier rackets is so large, the bottom 95% cannot possibly keep up with the expanding wealth and income of the top .1% and their army of technocrats and enablers, so a rising sense of injustice widens the already yawning fissures in the body politic.

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A Disintegrative Winter: The Debt and Anti-Status Quo Super-Cycle Has Turned

How would you describe the social mood of the nation and world? Would anti-Establishment, anti-status quo, and anti-globalization be a good start? How about choking on fast-rising debt? Would stagnant growth, stagnant wages be a fair description? Or how about rising wealth/income inequality? Wouldn’t rising disunity and political polarization be accurate?

These are all characteristics of the long-wave social-economic cycle that is entering the disintegrative (winter) phase. Souring social mood, loss of purchasing power, stagnating wages, rising inequality, devaluing currencies, rising debt, political polarization and elite disunity are all manifestations of this phase.

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Now Is the Winter of our Discontent: Our Era of Rising Discord

Mao Zedong supposedly said, “There is great disorder under the Heavens and the situation is excellent.” For those seeking to replace the existing social and economic order, chaos is a good first step.

Those with a stake in the system decaying into disorder feel differently: for them, disorder is threatening and frightening.

Do we control the slide into disorder and the emergence of a new order? The short answer is no: the forces at work are systemic and structural, and not controllable with the usual political/economic tools.

Historian Peter Turchin explores historical cycles of social disintegration and integration in his new book Ages of Discord.

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When Did Our Elites Become Self-Serving Parasites?

When did our financial and political elites become self-serving parasites? Some will answer that elites have always been self-serving parasites; as tempting as it may be to offer a blanket denunciation of elites, this overlooks the eras in which elites rose to meet existential crises.

Following in Ancient Rome’s Footsteps: Moral Decay, Rising Wealth Inequality(September 30, 2015)

As historian Peter Turchin explained in his book War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, the value of sacrifice was a core characteristic of the early Republic’s elite:

“Unlike the selfish elites of the later periods, the aristocracy of the early Republic did not spare its blood or treasure in the service of the common interest. When 50,000 Romans, a staggering one fifth of Rome’s total manpower, perished in the battle of Cannae, as mentioned previously, the senate lost almost one third of its membership. This suggests that the senatorial aristocracy was more likely to be killed in wars than the average citizen….

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What’s Eroding the Middle Class?

I have devoted many blog posts to the erosion of the middle class, for the specific reason that when the middle class–the layers of the economy between the Power Elites and landless laborers/state dependents–erodes away, the nation/empire is destabilized and descends into crisis.

A society without a functioning middle layer of economic and social activity is not stable, though repression can mask this for a time.

As historian Peter Turchin explained in his book War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, societies that lose the cohesion needed for concerted, collective action collapse, either by failing to meet an external threat or from internal conflicts.

Economies constructed of a supremely wealthy elite, a thin layer of independent artisans and small farmers, and a great mass of laborers with no assets has no shared sense of identity or purpose; those at the bottom have little in common with those at the top, and the thin middle that is scraping by has little affinity with either the elite above or the poverty-stricken below.

This erosion of a self-employed, independent middle class was an important pre-condition for the collapse of Rome and the French Revolution.

As I have outlined in some detail, the middle class in the U.S. is eroding: the lifestyle that was widely accessible to a broad swath of households in the 1960s is now only available to the top 10% below the wealthy (the top 5%). This includes not just possessions like a home or vehicle but productive assets that can be handed down to the next generation.

As it stands now, many households that consider themselves “middle class” have few if any productive assets, and even fewer will have any assets to pass on to the next generation as their retirement and other expenses may well consume much of whatever assets they currently own.

There are five primary drivers of this erosion in my view:

1. The shifting of pension and healthcare costs/risks from the state and employers to employees

2. The decline of scarcity value to labor in general and specifically in college degrees that were once the guaranteed ticket to middle class security

3. The inexorable rise in big-ticket costs: higher education, healthcare and housing. Even as wages stagnate, these costs continue rising. claiming an ever-larger share of household incomes, leaving less to save/invest.

4. The transition from an economy with stable returns to a financialized boom-and-bust economy that wipes out middle class wealth in the busts but does not rebuild it in the booms.

5. The regulatory and administrative barriers to self-employment in a globalized economy.

There is zero evidence that any of these drivers is going to reverse, for the reason that they are reflections of deep forces that cannot be reversed: demographics, the exhaustion of financialization, the 3rd Industrial Revolution (i.e. the digital/automation revolution) and the loss of scarcity value in the foundations of the middle class: labor and financial capital.

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Following in Ancient Rome’s Footsteps: Moral Decay, Rising Wealth Inequality

There are many reasons why Imperial Rome declined, but two primary causes that get relatively little attention are moral decay and soaring wealth inequality. The two are of course intimately connected: once the morals of the ruling Elites degrade, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine, too.

I’ve previously covered two other key characteristics of an empire in terminal decline: complacency and intellectual sclerosis, what I have termed a failure of imagination.

Michael Grant described these causes of decline in his excellent account The Fall of the Roman Empire, a short book I have been recommending since 2009:

There was no room at all, in these ways of thinking, for the novel, apocalyptic situation which had now arisen, a situation which needed solutions as radical as itself. (The Status Quo) attitude is a complacent acceptance of things as they are, without a single new idea.

This acceptance was accompanied by greatly excessive optimism about the present and future. Even when the end was only sixty years away, and the Empire was already crumbling fast, Rutilius continued to address the spirit of Rome with the same supreme assurance.

This blind adherence to the ideas of the past ranks high among the principal causes of the downfall of Rome. If you were sufficiently lulled by these traditional fictions, there was no call to take any practical first-aid measures at all.

A lengthier book by Adrian Goldsworthy How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower addresses the same issues from a slightly different perspective.

Glenn Stehle, commenting on 9/16/15 on a thread in the excellent websitepeakoilbarrel.com (operated by the estimable Ron Patterson) made a number of excellent points that I am taking the liberty of excerpting: (with thanks to correspondent Paul S.)

The set of values developed by the early Romans called mos maiorum, Peter Turchin explains in War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, was gradually replaced by one of personal greed and pursuit of self-interest.

“Probably the most important value was virtus (virtue), which derived from the word vir (man) and embodied all the qualities of a true man as a member of society,” explains Turchin.

“Virtus included the ability to distinguish between good and evil and to act in ways that promoted good, and especially the common good. Unlike Greeks, Romans did not stress individual prowess, as exhibited by Homeric heroes or Olympic champions. The ideal of hero was one whose courage, wisdom, and self-sacrifice saved his country in time of peril,” Turchin adds.

And as Turchin goes on to explain:

“Unlike the selfish elites of the later periods, the aristocracy of the early Republic did not spare its blood or treasure in the service of the common interest. When 50,000 Romans, a staggering one fifth of Rome’s total manpower, perished in the battle of Cannae, as mentioned previously, the senate lost almost one third of its membership. This suggests that the senatorial aristocracy was more likely to be killed in wars than the average citizen….

The wealthy classes were also the first to volunteer extra taxes when they were needed… A graduated scale was used in which the senators paid the most, followed by the knights, and then other citizens. In addition, officers and centurions (but not common soldiers!) served without pay, saving the state 20 percent of the legion’s payroll….

The richest 1 percent of the Romans during the early Republic was only 10 to 20 times as wealthy as an average Roman citizen.”

Now compare that to the situation in Late Antiquity when

“an average Roman noble of senatorial class had property valued in the neighborhood of 20,000 Roman pounds of gold. There was no “middle class” comparable to the small landholders of the third century B.C.; the huge majority of the population was made up of landless peasants working land that belonged to nobles. These peasants had hardly any property at all, but if we estimate it (very generously) at one tenth of a pound of gold, the wealth differential would be 200,000! Inequality grew both as a result of the rich getting richer (late imperial senators were 100 times wealthier than their Republican predecessors) and those of the middling wealth becoming poor.”

Do you see any similarities with the present-day realities depicted in these charts?

And how many congresspeople served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan?

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