Grand theories of history never quite go out of fashion. The impossible complexity of human society so cheerfully refutes our understanding that we have to fall back on intuitive pattern-matching to make sense of it (after a while, this becomes known as “wisdom”).
But that’s never enough for most serious thinkers. So it is that the grand theory arises: an extremely intelligent historian or social scientist ruminates on many historical examples, notices a pattern, and begins to test the pattern against other examples. Perhaps an important paper is published or a scholarly book printed.
Eventually, of course, a lay-person’s “pop history” book is written to bring the concepts to a wider market.
Into this role steps War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires by Peter Turchin (also published with the subtitle The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations). This book popularises Turchin’s own work in “cliodynamics”. And it makes for an interesting read.
Turchin core’s hypothesis is that the trajectory of an imperial nation is governed by the degree of “Asabiya”, an Arabic word he borrows from 1300s Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun. Loosely, asabiya refers to social cohesion and national unity (One of my minor peeves with this book is that he didn’t just say … “cohesion”, or one of its synonyms in English. His description of asabiya seems insufficiently different from available English words that loaning a word would be necessary. On the other hand, not being steeped in Arabic or Islamic culture, I can’t know for sure).
Empires rise, and then fall. Consequently, Turchin’s account is broken into two major halves: formation (“imperiogenesis”) and dissolution (“imperiopathosis”).
Formation of imperial states, Turchin argues, occurs at “metaethnic fault lines” (again, what was wrong with “civilisations” as an existing term is beyond me). The more unalike two neighbouring peoples are, the stronger the warring pressure between them will be. This mutual hostility creates enormous adaptive pressure on both. Peoples which develop high asabiya will eventually conquer their neighbours and, for several centuries to follow, retain enough of a stock of asabiya to continually push back their boundaries.
Turchin has an excellent eye for historical anecdotes. He stocks this part of the book with fascinating case studies in the Russian-Tartar frontier and the sharp boundary of Greco-Roman civilisation on the Rhine. He notes in both such cases, subsequent empires have arisen at those critical geocultural boundaries, and not from the “safe” centres far away from those boundaries.
Turchin’s argument for the mechanics of dissolution are more complex, involving several distinct phenomena. Firstly there is the diminishing pressure on the founding imperial nation as it progressively pushes back its frontiers. Secondly, there are population dynamics which create agricultural pressure ripe for disruptive famines and disease. Thirdly, Turchin says that inequality between and within classes is corrosive of asabiya. Finally, an explosion in the size of the ruling class means that each member of the ruling class may need to be content with less and less than their ancestors — except for some few who become fantastically wealthy.
Turchin sees declines happening in a repeating mesocycle within the larger macrocycle of decline. Each such mesocycle is governed by a fathers-and-sons dynamic. Fathers live through a time of unrest. Once normalcy is restored, they exert great efforts to see its maintenance. Their sons witness some of this, and it is impressed on them with great force how important stability is. Finally, the grandsons are born who have no firsthand knowledge of unrest and who discount the cost of radicalism. A new cycle of unrest commences.
These periodic bloodbaths trim the ruling classes, relieving some of the pressure; but eventually the steady erosion of asabiya across multiple mesocycles means that total collapse will eventuate in the third or fourth round of unrest. There is, as Adam Smith observed, a lot of ruin in a nation.
Turchin sensibly accepts imprecision of such a general model. He carefully hedges his remarks with apparent counter examples. He doesn’t claim to be able to time to rise and fall of imperial nations; rather, he points out long-running trends that create enormous social momentum towards and then away from the holding of empire.
One area where I felt the book could have been improved would be the inclusion of diagrams. Turchin’s scholarly work is, he says himself, filled with formal charts, tables and formulae. Fine and well; but a simple diagram of the cycles within cycles, or an influence diagram of different elements affecting asabiya, or some example charts of trends in population, elite contention and so on would have solidified his case.
Another weakness was the book’s eurocentricity. As a criticism of scholarship I am generally wary of “eurocentrism”, as the whiff of lefty wankery is usually not far away. However outside of Europe and the United States, only China is mentioned as a nation with Imperial qualities. In essence, Turchin’s hypothesis is only tested against European civilisation — he does not look closely at civilisations on the other side of the European boundaries, or at other frontiers. It would be interesting to see if he has accounted for the empires of South East Asia, in the subcontinent or in South America.
Turchin’s narrative style makes for easy and interesting reading. If you enjoy grand theories of history, this would make a good read. Recommended.