Sunday, November 20, 2011

Borders Are Just Lines On a Map

Ages ago, the Italian peninsula was heavily forested. Then the forests were chopped down, and the countryside became comprised of small Italian farming villages which were centered around the concept of gens, or family line. Eventually, the city of Rome was founded in about 768 B.C., and the Romans came to dominate the Italian peninsula, forming the heart of what would become the Roman Empire. Many Roman surnames derived from various crops and rural occupations. The paternal heads of the family lines were called patricians; citizens who formed the ruling class of Roman culture. All wealth flowed from land ownership. Landless Romans were termed plebeians. Eventually, Rome's kings were overthrown, and the patricians ruled Rome as a republic, with two consuls making decisions and advised by a senate. A constitution was drawn up, with a set of checks and balances to make sure no single group was able to dominate Roman politics.

Roman society became heavily militarized. Martial values were celebrated, and hardy Roman farmers formed the backbone of one of history's first professional standing armies. Rome expanded rapidly across the Mediterranean through military conquests and alliances. Plunder and tribute flowed from the periphery into the heart of the Empire, making the patrician class very wealthy. Eventually, the plebeian class grew and the patrician class shrank, as Rome changed from a largely agricultural to a military society dependent on trade and tribute. Rules against plebeians holding office were eliminated, and many rose into the ranks of the upper classes, gaining wealth and land. Silver mines were captured in Spain, fertile farmland across North Africa, and heavily forested and resource-rich land in Northern Europe.

As Rome expanded, gradually the countryside cleared out and became depopulated, The reasons are complex, but basically Rome's traditional farmers were undermined by erosion, drought, soil exhaustion, and cheaper imports from abroad. Small family farms threw in the towel, and Roman agriculture became consolidated in vast absentee-owned estates called latifudia, which were worked by slaves brought in to Italy from Rome's vast military conquests. Urban areas became populated with deracinated Italian farmers. Other farmers and their sons joined the military. The Annona grain dole, originally instituted to gain support for the state by feeding needy widows, orphans and elderly, now fed citizens who were no longer able to earn an income from working the land. These urban indigents were prone to rioting, so to placate them the Empire put on games in elaborate arenas built all across the empire. Urban residents were packed into multi-story wooden tenements that were prone to outbreaks of disease and fire, and plagues and fires broke out frequently, often causing entire cities to burn. The city of Rome itself reached a million people at its height.

Slaves allowed vast estates to form, as no longer were you constrained to what you could farm by the size of your family. They were the combine harvesters of their time. Plantation owners were typically members of the upper class who were not dependent upon agriculture as their sole means of income. Although politicians were technically not allowed to profit from their estates, many did by means of various loopholes (like using middlemen). Slaves were overseen by wage laborers, and since no one who actually worked the land owned it, there was no incentive for proper husbandry or soil conservation*. This situation only accelerated the decline of Roman agriculture. Industry moved north of the Alps where raw materials, particularly wood, was still plentiful (since the forests had not yet been cleared), and agriculture moved to the provinces where the land was still fertile and productive. The Italian peninsula which formed the heart of the empire and was the most heavily populated region became entirely dependent on imports from abroad. Grain ships arriving from North Africa were greeted with jubilation by a hungry populace. If the grain barges were late, it meant mass rioting in the cities, and to interfere with their arrival in any way meant death. Erosion from depleted farm fields became so severe that the Roman port of Ostia eventually became clogged and unusable, necessitating a new port to be built for the ships' arrival. Meanwhile the rich continued to buy up vast tracts of land; one Roman writer stated that half of North Africa was owned by just six people. Attempts at land reform, such as that by the populist Gracchi brothers, were squelched by wealthy Roman patricians who benefited from the status quo.

While Rome remained nominally a republic, it became a de facto dictatorship ruled by a hereditary emperor and controlled by a small wealthy oligarchy. Because Rome was dependent on imports to feed its massive population, it had to spend ever more money paying the army to secure its far-flung borders and keep trade routes open across the Mediterranean. Massive sums were also spent on the bread dole and the gladiatorial games to keep the population complacent. As the empire expanded, its rulers became more and more corrupt and incompetent. Rulers were dependent on the favor of the military, and sometimes emperors literally purchased the throne. A revolving door of hapless emperors, and even multiple emperors at the same time characterized the dysfunctional politics of the late empire. Other writers took note of empty countrysides, gullied and overgrazed fields, and massive deforestation.

The Roman connection to the land was lost, the concept of gens entirely disappeared as the empire swelled with outsiders, and Romans became addicted to games and sensual pleasures, particularly the upper classes. One could leave the Roman city and find nothing in the countryside for miles but abandoned farm villages and large estates worked by slaves, who were usually of foreign origin. In addition, the army became more and more dependent on foreign mercenaries. Many politicians and intellectuals mourned the loss of the yeoman farming class and fretted that the Romans were getting soft, with the values that led to the creation of the empire fading away. They wrung their hands that the once self-sufficient Romans were now urban layabouts, dependent on the power of the state to bring in imports from more productive parts of the empire for their welfare. They were equally concerned about the sybaritic excesses of the idle rich. Wealth became concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. What productive citizens remained were heavily taxed to pay for the lavish lifestyles of the emperor and well-connected insiders. The military and the civil service essentially ran Rome, while the emperor served as little more than a figurehead. The empire was on auto-pilot.

These enormous expenses caused the Romans to debase their currency, gradually decreasing the amount of precious silver in the coinage**. Roman coinage became increasingly worthless, and taxes were increasingly collected in kind rather than in currency. Large latifundia estates were typically owned by politically connected insiders, and thus were able to avoid taxation. What few independent farmers remained were able to escape taxation by "renting" land from the politically connected plantation owners. Barter became more common. Eventually, the productive provinces bristled with paying onerous taxes to a Roman state whose benefits seemed increasingly tenuous. They began to wonder if smaller-scale local solutions might be more appropriate than relying on a corrupt and decaying Roman state.

The Crisis of the Third Century brought this political dysfunction to a head. The countryside became further depopulated by the Antonine plague and the plague of Cyprian (probably both smallpox). It is at this point that the empire became infiltrated with the massive immigration of peoples, mainly from Northern Europe. Whether this massive immigration into the empty areas of the Roman empire accelerated Rome's collapse, or was caused by it is a matter of heated debate. In any case, the final centuries of Rome were characterized by the Migration Period, a time where borders meant nothing, and entire ethnic groups moved in creating new societies seemingly overnight. The Romans termed these people "barbarians", which is simply the derivation of a Greek word referring to peoples from outside Greco-Roman culture. Such people, known to us variously as Vandals, Lombards, Franks, Ostagoths, Visigoths, etc. were an inexorable tide that a crumbling empire could no longer hold back. As they moved in, the Roman empire became something else entirely. Author John Michael Greer describes it vividly:

...Outside of Scandinavia, Scotland, and Ireland, practically none of the peoples of Europe stayed put. Before Rome fell, for example, the ancestors of the English lived in Denmark, the ancestors of the French and the northern Italians lived in Germany, the ancestors of the Spanish lived north of the Black Sea, and the ancestors of the Hungarians lived not far from the Gobi Desert. It took most of a thousand years for the rubble to stop bouncing and the new nations of Europe to take shape, and when that finally happened, those nations and cultures had only the most distant connections to what had been there before Rome fell.

German historians of the 19th century coined a useful word for the age of migrations that followed the fall of Rome: V√∂lkerwanderung, “the wandering of peoples.” Drawn by the vacuum left by the implosion of Roman power, and pushed by peoples from the steppes further east driven westward by climate change, whole nations packed their belongings and took to the road. The same thing has happened many other times in the past, though not always on the same vast scale. What makes it important for our present discussion is that we are likely to see a repeat of the phenomenon on an even larger scale in the fairly near future.


This whirlwind tour of Roman history brings us at last to today's topic. One would have to be blind not to see the parallels between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the collapse of America. For this post, however, we're dealing with only two similar elements: the depopulation of the countryside and the migration of peoples. Just like ancient Rome, the countryside of America is massively depopulated, filled with dying towns thanks to massive land consolidation in the hands of the wealthy few. in America, there are more prisoners than farmers:

Today the typical farmer in both the UK and US is likely to be over the age of 55, with UK farmers leaving the industry at a rate of around a dozen a week. These trends are being repeated across the developed world. In developing countries small farmers are abandoning rural life to take their chances in the city because they can no longer make their living from the land.

Which brings us at last to this article in The New York Times:

As Small Towns Wither on the Plains, Hispanics Come to The Rescue (New York Times)

For generations, the story of the small rural town of the Great Plains, including the dusty tabletop landscape of western Kansas, has been one of exodus — of businesses closing, classrooms shrinking and, year after year, communities withering as fewer people arrive than leave and as fewer are born than are buried. That flight continues, but another demographic trend has breathed new life into the region.

Hispanics are arriving in numbers large enough to offset or even exceed the decline in the white population in many places. In the process, these new residents are reopening shuttered storefronts with Mexican groceries, filling the schools with children whose first language is Spanish and, for now at least, extending the lives of communities that seemed to be staggering toward the grave.

That demographic shift, seen in the findings of the 2010 census, has not been uniformly welcomed in places where steadiness and tradition are seen as central charms of rural life. Some longtime residents of Ulysses, where the population of 6,161 is now about half Hispanic, grumble over the cultural differences and say they feel like strangers in their hometown. But the alternative, community leaders warn, is unacceptable.

“We’re either going to change or we’re going to die,” said Thadd Kistler, a lifelong resident who recently stepped down as mayor. “This is Ulysses now, this is the United States now, this immigration is happening and the communities that are extending a hand are going to survive.”


Catch the similarities yet? John Michael Greer agrees:

The first ripples of this future flood can be seen by anyone who travels by bus through any rural region west of the Mississippi River, as I did a few days ago. Stray very far from the freeways and the tourist towns, and in a great many places you’ll discover that culturally speaking, you’re in Mexico, not the United States. The billboards and window signs are in Spanish, advertising Mexican products, music, and sports teams, and the people on the streets speak Spanish and wear Mexican fashions. It’s popular among Anglophone Americans to think of this sort of thing as purely a phenomenon of the Southwest, but the bus trip I’ve mentioned was in northwestern Oregon. There are some 30 million people of Mexican descent in the US legally, and some very large number – no one seems to agree on what the number is, but 8 million is the lowest figure I’ve heard anyone talking about – who are here illegally. As the migration continues, a very large portion of what is now the United States is becoming something else.

There’s been a great deal of angry rhetoric from all sides of the current debate about immigration from Mexico, of course, but very little of it deals with one of the primary driving forces behind it – the failure of the American settlement of the West. The strategies that changed the eastern third of the country from frontier to the heartland of the United States didn’t work anything like as well west of the Mississippi. Today the cities, towns, and farms that once spread across the Great Plains in an unbroken carpet are falling apart as their economic basis crumbles and their residents move away, while most of the mountain and basin regions further west survive on tourist dollars, retirement income, or specialized cash crops for distant markets – none of them viable economic bases once cheap energy becomes a thing of the past. Like the Mongol conquest of Russia or the Arab conquest of Spain, the American conquest of the West is proving to be a temporary phenomenon, and as the wave of American settlement recedes, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest society with the population and cultural vitality to take its place.

This isn’t an issue unique to America. The same thing is happening right now in Siberia, where Chinese immigrants are streaming across a long and inadequately guarded border and making the Russian settlement of northern Asia look more and more like a passing historical phase. It’s a very common phenomenon when the reach of a powerful nation turns out to exceed its grasp. In a showdown between military power and demography, demography generally wins.

Once again, though, such changes shift into overdrive when civilizations break down. In an age of disintegration, when the political and military power that backs up America’s borders will most likely come unraveled in short order and climate shifts could all too easily hand tens of millions of people in Latin America a choice between migration or starvation, v√∂lkerwanderung once again becomes probable. Map the Roman model onto the present and it’s quite conceivable that by the year 2500 or so, the people living in the area of today’s Iowa and Wisconsin might trace their origins to a migration from Brazil, while west of the Mississippi, languages descended from English might only be spoken in a few enclaves in the Pacific Northwest.


I live in Wisconsin, a state which practically borders Canada. Yet if I take a short ten-minute walk from my house, I will essentially be in Mexico (yes, I've been there). It's not uncommon to go into a store around where I live and be the only English speaker. Whenever I take money out of the ATM, I am asked whether I want to conduct the transaction in English or Spanish. All the signs in my local Home Depot are in both languages. America, like Rome, is changing.

Imagine being a Roman in the Italian countryside in the fourth century. Almost overnight in villages that nurtured the ancestors of Roman senators, sandy-haired foreigners are speaking something that sounds like German, eating unusual foods, dressing funny and engaging in unusual customs. Eventually the barbarians picked up a rough version of the native Latin, giving birth to modern Italian. Villages started their own systems of governance, and taxes were no longer paid to the corrupt central bureaucracy. Maybe a few residents did a hitch in the miltary, sending home their increasingly worthless silver coins to their families to reactivate old farms and bakeries. Abandoned Roman farming villages came alive again, with large estate holders bootstrapping their own civil order to fill the vacuum left by the wholesale abandonment of the empire's governance. Thus, the Roman Empire disappeared gradually and Late Antiquity was born.

In our time, these mass migrations are driven as much by economics as anything else. NAFTA was the driving force, flooding he Mexican market with heavily subsidized GMO corn and putting Mexican farmers out of business. The farmers and those dependent on them headed to cities to find work, and finding none took to the well-established underground migrant routes to the United States, which was experiencing an economic boom (illusory though it was).

These teeming millions of hardy Latin American peasants streaming across the border became to us what the slave class was to the ancient Romans - people who did the jobs that Romans -er, Americans- didn't want to do. While Americans busied themselves with flipping houses and moving money around in air conditioned office towers, Hispanics cooked our food, cleaned our offices, landscaped our lawns and cared for our children. They were the cheap labor that made the boom possible. They moved into the old parts of cities we abandoned for our far-flung suburban villas. And unlike us, they had kids, LOTS of them. Names like Angel and Jesus stand alongside Taylor and Logan as the most popular baby names in the U.S. Our economy is just as dependent upon these modern-day slaves as Rome's was. Just as Roman agriculture was dependent on slaves to do the manual labor, so is American agriculture entirely dependent on Latino migrant labor. When Georgia recently passed a tough new immigration law, it's harvests went unpicked for lack of workers. Although immigration is slowing due to the bad economy, it is not stopping by a long shot: In Pictures, Migrants Gather at Mexico Shelter (BBC).

As the Times article shows, small-town America will most likely be entirely Hispanic ethnically and culturally in the near future, or, more likely, a fusion of Hispanic and American cultures. By 2030, America will be a "majority minority" country. How will that change things? Borders are just imaginary lines on the map, and humans have always been nomadic, moving in search of exploitable opportunities. It's how we populated every continent. The Romans saw the barbarian invasions as the end of their culture - the very word has come down to us from them as meaning lack of civilization or culture***. Of course, it was just the beginning of something new, something neither Roman nor barbarian. The world has changed much since then, but the underlying principles are still the same.

Over the next few months, we'll explore in more detail the astounding similarities between our own time and the Dark Ages. Here at the Hipcrime Vocab, we believe this period offers us much in the way of instruction about where human civilization, particulrly the United States, is going.

* The Romans knew the beneficial effects of terracing and manure fertilization as described in Columella; they just didn't do it.

** According to John Perlin, extensive deforestation of the Iberian Peninsula meant there was not enough fuel to process silver from the mines for currency.

*** They had a sophisticated culture, of course, but they had no written language, only verbal traditions, and no monumental stone architecture, preferring wood construction instead. They also had no cities. To Mediterranean eyes, that made them uncultured.

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