“Frannie,” he said, and turned her around so he could look into her eyes.
“Do you think… do you think people ever learn anything?”
She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, fell silent. The kerosene lamp flickered.
Her eyes seemed very blue.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. She seemed unpleased with her answer; she struggled to say something more; to illuminate her first response; and could only say it again:
I don’t know.
~~Stephen King, The Stand (uncut version, 1990)
We know the old saw: the one thing we learn from history is that no one ever learns anything from history. If true, this would be unfortunate, because history offers gold mines of learning opportunities for those willing to study it.
Most people probably haven’t heard of Sir John Bagot Glubb (1897 – 1986). He was a British soldier who rose in the ranks until he was able to create and, as General, command the Arab Legion military force in Jordan from 1939 to 1956 (it was Transjordan until 1949). He had largely assimilated into Arab culture where he was known as Glubb Pasha. His fortunes dropped along with those of his native Great Britain in 1956. Back home and knighted that year, and with two books about Arab history and culture already behind him, he turned to full-time historical research and writing, producing several more volumes on the Arab world, a world he’d found extremely interesting—and which he’d passionately cared about. He’d noticed some curious parallels between past phases of the Arab world and present phases of his native Great Britain. More study of other cultures and their trajectories led him towards original work on the nature of civilization—in particular, observing the rise and decline of empires. Among these was a Spenglerian essay, “The Fate of Empires” (1976).
It is this essay we are concerned with here. It provides very good reasons for thinking the fate of Anglo-European civilization, including the U.S., is already decided.
Glubb analysed 11 empires (he does not include either the Soviet Union or the U.S. on this list, neither of which had run its course*). These include: Assyria (859 – 612 B.C.), Persia (ancient Iran, 538 – 330 B.C.), Alexander the Great’s Macedonia (331 – 100 B.C.), the Roman Republic (260 – 27 B.C.), the Roman Empire (27 B.C. – 180 A.D.), the Arab Empire (634 – 880, the rise of Islam), the Mameluke Empire (1250 – 1517), the Ottoman Empire (1320 – 1570), Spain (1500 – 1750), Romanov Russia (1682 – 1916), and the British Empire (1700 – 1950). He notes that despite vast differences in size and level of technology, empires have one thing in common: they tend to last from 200 to 267 years. He explains this noting that they all span around ten generations, from a fairly sudden inception to final decadence. Thus—as Spengler, Quigley, and others have observed—we can speak of the life cycle of an empire just as we can a person.
According to Glubb, empires go through fairly specific (often overlapping) stages:
(1) An Age of Pioneers.
(2) An Age of Conquest.
(3) An Age of Commerce.
(4) An Age of Affluence.
(5) An Age of Intellect.
(6) An Age of Decadence.
An Age of Pioneers is characterized by a relatively sudden breakout, during which an obscure and perhaps unpromising looking people dramatically achieve independence and begin autonomous development, sometimes at the hands of a single charismatic leader. Those who follow in the leader’s wake display tremendous energy and courage, often building from very few resources. Sometimes the incipient empire will fill a vacuum being left by the ongoing collapse of a predecessor, as King Philip’s Macedon did Persia. Other Pioneers may have just won a war for independence, as did Spain following Arab domination at the end of the 15th century or the U.S. Founding Fathers did against the British in the 1770s. Glubb offers several more examples.
An Age of Conquest builds the empire into a force to be reckoned in its region, as Alexander the Great did with the Macedon he inherited from his father Philip, or which the U.S. did during the 1800s. Energy and great courage continue. During this period the new civilization expands mightily, developing its identity, organization, and discipline. It commands the unquestioned and enthusiastic loyalty of its people. This is not to say it won’t suffer major bumps in the road as Great Britain did in wars with France, and we did with our unresolved issues surrounding slavery. Overall, however, heaven help lesser peoples who are in the way of the expansion. Ask Native Americans whose indigenous societies were overrun by U.S. expansion and who were pushed unceremoniously out of the way when they weren’t simply killed.
An Age of Commerce begins within central regions of a now-tamed political unit. Land has been homesteaded; resources are developed; trade routes are laid down; patterns of exchange emerge spontaneously. By this time there is a single language, administration, and culture spanning a wide geographical area, enabling commerce to grow in an environment of relative stability. This occurred throughout Alexander’s empire; it occurred again during Imperial Rome; it occurred yet again during the golden age of Arabia; yet again in Spain and in Great Britain. The U.S. arguably entered its golden Age of Commerce following the War Between the States with the rise of industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller in oil, Andrew Carnegie in steel, Cornelius Vanderbilt in railroads, and so on.
Arguably, Glubb observes, it is during an Age of Commerce that the first signs of trouble appear for any who happen to be looking. For the first time, a few children of the Pioneers are able to make large sums of money. They begin to like it. Their allegiance—or that of their children—shifts from the good of the nation to money, and their goals from furthering its best interests to their own interests. Ideally, as Adam Smith would have it, these are one and the same if his “invisible hand” is operating; but a closer reading of his Wealth of Nations reveals that he wasn’t a friend to business and believed it needed to operate within a larger regulatory structure to prevent the wealthy from conspiring against the public interest. (Typically, this aspect of his work goes unnoticed.)
As the standard of living rises, an Age of Commerce gives rise to an Age of Affluence; for a time, a rising tide really does lift most of the boats (except for those of previously subjugated peoples such as, in the U.S., former slaves and Native Americans on reservations). Those at the core of the commercial classes, as Glubb called them, grow immensely rich, as did Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and other “captains of industry.” They can create and endow universities, or establish tax-exempt foundations in which to sink their wealth to protect it from the tax man. Thus does wealth begin to be used for a variety of extra-market purposes which may or may not further the best interests of the nation.
Ages of Commerce and Affluence obviously overlap. As Glubb describes matters, empires which reach this state of affairs are at their High Noon moment of confidence: Augustus in Rome, Sulaiman the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire, Queen Victoria in Great Britain, the early twentieth century in a U.S. eager to “make the world safe for democracy.” We should note Glubb’s description of this moment: “The immense wealth accumulated in the nation dazzles the onlookers. Enough of the ancient virtues of courage, energy and patriotism survive to enable the state successfully to defend its frontiers. But, beneath the surface, greed for money is gradually replacing duty and public service.”
Stated in terms of basic worldviews—this is the period during which materialism replaced Christianity as the guiding public ethos in the U.S., and public education was hijacked.
As universities are endowed and media begin to grow, an Age of Affluence gives rise to an Age of Intellect. Intellectuals thrive because most citizens’ basic needs are now satisfied, and within a leisured middle class, they have time to think and speak and write. The U.S., with its growing technological edge, saw a proliferation of books and magazines, and eventually the emergence of radio and television. Some of the wealthy became patrons of the arts: museums were built and flourished; symphonies were sponsored. With ample funds available for the pursuit of knowledge, universities developed curricula; scientific research was excitedly pursued in every area and became increasingly exacting; the number of advanced degrees skyrocketed.
It’s happened before. Both Egyptians and Arabs measured the Earth’s circumference with surprising accuracy. The ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy flourish in the post-Alexandrian world, and were used to develop sophisticated means of navigating around the globe. Glubb observes that the Arab empire had its Age of Intellect, during the reign of the Seljuk sultan Malik Shah who oversaw the creation of what we would today call universities.
“It is remarkable,” writes Glubb, “with what regularity this phase follows on that of wealth, in empire after empire, divided by many centuries.”
Gradually, among those so endowed, the desire for wealth is replaced by a desire for honors, whether scientific and academic, or artistic and literary.
But as an Age of Intellect progresses, its weaknesses become apparent. Egyptian and Arab knowledge disappeared. Unfortunately, few members of the intellectual class can support themselves through productive activity. Most end up working under the thumb of those supporting universities: government and corporations. Those with the purse strings typically have agendas of their own. The search for truth is replaced by a search for what will be subsidized, and few are willing to bite the hand that is feeding them. Overall, therefore, an intellectual culture enters a period of unease and self-doubt. This is eventually noticed and commented on. It is part of how “postmodernism” came about in the West.
We’ve often made the assumption that rational “proofs” can be given for everything, be it God’s existence or how the universe began naturalistically. The rationalist intellectual has no patience with genuine mystery. But neither science nor philosophy can answer every question we can ask. There is no “philosopher’s stone” or even a single “scientific method” guaranteed to supply truth by following a pre-set book of rules. The assumption persists, however.
Thus when intellectuals are able to talk and write, they do so interminably. Even the most intelligent people are “wired” differently; some, for whatever reason, hold unshakably to the necessity of belief in a God or Supreme Creator as a condition for a moral view of the universe. Others see this as just a deception of a powerful priestly caste and resist its authority, becoming atheists even if this means embracing the idea that as moral agents we are on our own. Intellectuals thus divide into camps and argue with one another, resulting in endless debate and a confused public.
In U.S. universities, moreover, disputes among academics were increasingly over minutia as the 20th century progressed: inevitably channeled into and confined within a safety zone not threatening to those signing their paychecks or endowing or accrediting their institutions. Thus a lot of important problems are verboten. Among Athenians, assemblies were filled with talk and more talk; nothing was accomplished; finally they were conquered. American academics (with rare exceptions) resist talking about how leviathan banks actually operate, and how the Anglo-European world has become a corporatist plutocracy. Some will publish rants against “capitalism” because this is relatively safe. Most professional intellectuals resist the idea that the U.S. federal government is capable of, e.g., an Operation Northwoods despite the documentary evidence; or detailed reasons for rejecting the official 9/11 narrative including its physical impossibility. Arguably the U.S. empire has fallen under domination by a plutocracy centered in investment banks with no loyalty to truth, none to liberty, none to morality, and none to the good of the common people.
Thus intellectuals have fallen into endless pointless quarrels over trivia, doubt about their own capacities to reach humanly important truth, and sometimes self-deception over whose interests they are serving. Many of their dominant ideas actually weaken the nation: an arrogant and cynical irreligiosity, increasing cultural and moral relativism, doubts about their nation’s own founding principles, and a cosmopolitanism allowing them to see themselves as “citizens of the world.” This last leads to calls for open borders for immigrants under the absurd notion that “all cultures are equal.” The wealthy, equally cynical, don’t care about “multiculturalism”; to them, immigrants are cheap labor. To the political class, they are potential votes. Rudderless, the ship of empire drifts from its Age of Intellect into its Age of Decadence.
An Age of Decadence is characterized by many or all of the following: growing pessimism and withdrawal into one’s own private affairs; increased frivolity among masses whose heroes are no longer statesmen or even captains of industry but athletes and celebrities who contribute little or nothing to the actual public good (think of the Roman Empire’s gladiatorial contests; then, think of our Super Bowl). One sees a deepening materialism and pursuit of things, as mindless as it is frantic (think of Black Friday!). One sees, finally, a gradual across-the-board lowering of moral standards and a growing obsession with sex.
Via the relativism of its intellectuals and the cynicism of its political-corporate class, an Age of Decadence sees an influx of foreigners who settle in and around cities. They refuse to assimilate. The cleverer of them can employ relativists’ own arguments against any such need, or even a need to learn the dominant language. We currently see this in all the advanced nations of the Anglo-European world. An Age of Decadence sees a desire by more and more to live at the expense of an increasingly bloated and bureaucratic welfare state. It sees irrational foreign expansionism and an overextended military (the Roman Empire overextended its borders; the U.S. starts a pointless war in Iraq, and its present “leaders” currently threaten Russia). An Age of Decadence witnesses conspicuous and cynical displays of wealth amidst massive and rising disparities between rich and poor. It suffers from endless dishonest rationalizing as its chatterers struggle to hide the fundamental brokenness of its systems.
The only thing Glubb’s analysis misses—probably because he was writing in the 1970s when the problem in the West was still relatively mild—is the systemic debasement of the currency apt to take place under empires as they near the end. Rome destroyed the value of its currency. The U.S. turned investment banks loose. Arguably we set ourselves on course for the present wage gap through nothing more than the severing of all remaining ties between the dollar and gold that took place on August 15, 1971, and began to pursue prosperity not through production but financialization, an ultimately unsustainable process supported by a bought-and-paid-for economics establishment. One could, of course, look to December 23, 1913 as an earlier pivotal date: the creation of the Federal Reserve System, another entity of which few professional intellectuals are willing to speak. During the hundred years this system has been in place, the dollar has lost 98% of its purchasing power. Much of this loss has occurred since 1971.
The fall of empires is diverse, as Glubb notes. Some are dismembered by conquest (as was the late Alexander’s empire) or decline following major military losses (as did Spain, which also lost its colonies). Some divide into sections which continue for a while, as did Rome. All, however, fall from within prior to such events. With this in mind, we can ponder the fate of the U.S., its universities hopelessly corrupted, its major media corporatized and controlled, its political class having convinced itself that the money well available for federal spending is bottomless. Its leading “conservatives” have become a controlled loyal opposition with no idea what they want to conserve. There is a general shunning of ideas derided as “conspiracy theories.” These often come down to anything questioning an official government story, although no one with functioning brain cells really believes wealthy and powerful people have never gotten together and conspired against the public interest.
The point is, if Glubb is right and this trajectory of “the fate of empires” is irreversible, then Patriots who are “trying to take back the republic” or however they describe it are—sadly!—on fools’ missions. Even those of us who write about freedom and liberty have to face the possibility—nay, likelihood—that we are working out a potential foundation of ideas for a people yet unborn, those who will build a civilization able to rise from the ashes of a fallen U.S. following the crisis of legitimacy its central government will doubtless face in the near future, however it comes about.
I believe we nevertheless have a responsibility to do our best. Perhaps we can increase whatever small hope exists that our descendents will do better than we did. That they will have learned from our mistakes. Whatever our doubts that anyone ever really learns anything from history.
* Some might point to the Soviet Union as a counter-example to Glubb’s analysis. The Soviets, however, driven by the hostility towards free enterprise built into their interpretation of classical Marxism, never allowed an Age of Commerce to develop. Hence they thwarted the normal lifecycle of an empire and caused it to go into a tailspin much more quickly than it otherwise would have. For part two click below.
© 2014 Steven Yates – All Rights Reserved
Steven Yates has a doctorate in philosophy and currently lives in Santiago, Chile. He is the author of Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (Brush Fire Press International, 2011). He also owns an editing business, Final Draft Editing Service.