Thursday, April 5, 2012

Collapse and Civil Wars

Adrian Goldsworthy is a noted British historian who specializes in Ancient Roman History. As every specialist in Roman history does sooner or later, he confronted the great question that is to historians what Everest is mountaineers or the Bonneville Speedway is to racers: what caused the Roman Empire to collapse? Of course as anyone knows, the reasons are many and varied, and Goldsworthy’s exploration in his book Why Rome Fell takes that into account. But one contribution Goldsworthy makes is to place special emphasis on the civil wars that wracked the late empire to determine who ruled it. Here’s Wikipedia:
In The Complete Roman Army (2003) Adrian Goldsworthy, a British military historian, sees the causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire not in any 'decadence' in the make-up of the Roman legions, but in a combination of endless civil wars between factions of the Roman Army fighting for control of the Empire. This inevitably weakened the army and the society upon which it depended, making it less able to defend itself against the growing of numbers of Rome's enemies.
And I wonder if there’s an analogy to made to our own “civil wars” of succession. The thought came to me as I unfortunately caught of a glimpse of a campaign ad on Tuesday (the day of the Republican primary in Wisconsin). Of course, Romney and Santorum (et alia) were running the requisite advertisements. Little was seen from Obama, of course, because he’s running essentially unopposed in the Democratic primary. In essence, Obama is keeping his powder dry, biding his time and using his resources judiciously for the real campaign ahead where monetary advantage is the equivalent of putting more soldiers on the field of battle. And I realized that there’s not much of a real distinction between military civil wars and political civil wars. I think there may be an analogy to be drawn between the two.

Of course, our civil wars are not literally military battles of armies and tanks and planes (or cavalry, siege engines and soldiers in Rome’s case). But candidates speak of marshaling resources and war chests. Political campaigns have complex strategies and “political strategist” is actually a real job title for a sadly large number of individuals. Campaigns deploy resources of money and people in an almost exact analogy to a general trying to win a war. Talk to any political “scientist” and they’ll usually speak of a political campaign using the exact same terms generals use to describe fighting a military campaign. In other words, modern political campaigning is simply war by other means.

And take a look at the destructiveness of it. A year ago already I was hearing about the fact that this would be the first “billion-dollar election.” Imagine what else that billion dollars could accomplish in a nation reeling from unemployment. And it’s mainly money spent by various elites playing little more than a chess game (see this). How many resources are we wasting in these destructive campaigns? And for what? So the people’s voices can be heard? Preposterous. If the goal was truly to let the people’s voice be heard, there would be no need to spend billions of dollars to determine what that voice should say. Look at the way they are pitting neighbor against neighbor, American against American. Look at how these campaigns are dividing America and pushing it into separate camps – rural against urban, middle-class against poor, union against non-union, white against minority, Christians against, well, everybody else. All of this just to find out who will wield power in the imperial capital. These campaigns become ever-more vitriolic. Much as legion against legion confiscated the wealth of the lower classes and turned to scorched earth campaigns to win victory against their opponent at all costs and thereby hollowed out the very thing they were fighting over at a time when they could least afford it (due to declining agricultural yields thanks to dry spells and soil exhaustion along with barbarian incursions), so too are we hollowing out our country fighting amongst ourselves at a time when we can least afford to do so (for reasons which I’m sure are familiar to most of you). Each faction speaks to its base, and each withdraws into separate tribes who are kept in an information bubble by a media which prefers to dish out only what people want to hear and confirms their preconditioned biases.

In 2011 House Republican leader Mitch McConnell famously declared the number one goal of the Republican party to make sure that Obama was a one-term president. Many commentators have speculated that Republicans would undermine any efforts at helping the economy to make the Democratic administration appear ineffective. Whether this is the case or not largely depends on your political perspective, but this is irrelevant- the fact that such a statement was made illustrates the problem. How can a nation survive when it's highest level of leadership are engaged in scorched-earth warfare against one another to make sure their party (and hence their money backers) get to wield power, rather than actually tackling the mounting and ever-increasing problems at hand? The consequences are perverse - one party actually gains by not cooperating and making sure the American people suffer as much as possible. Problems aren't solved because incessant political warfare makes it impossible to address them. Instead the problems mount and metastasize while the politicians squabble amongst themselves in between being wined and dined by their benefactors whose bottom line is also enhanced by the suffering of Americans (low wages, outsourcing, etc.).

Thus the one percent are spending more and more of society’s money (for it is society’s money) to gain absolute control over a nation where the roads and bridges are crumbling and half of the people are barely surviving. And of course like Rome, they use their new-found power not to benefit or restore the society that they now rule over, but to enhance their own standing, wealth, power and prestige, thereby undermining the ultimate source of all of the above. As in Rome, these “civil wars’ give little real benefit to the average person, since essentially all of the fundamental issues have been predetermined by the elites well in advance of the actual campaigns. The average citizen just gets poorer and poorer, eventually throwing in the towel and queuing up for the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, leaving the heartland of the empire and its ultimate source of wealth a vast wasteland ready for its next inhabitants (see this).

Are our “civil wars” hollowing us out from the inside a la Adrian Goldsworthy? And is this a neglected factor in America’s collapse too? Maybe loss of internal cohesion is as much as a cause for collapse as decreasing marginal returns to complexity a la Joseph Tainter. It bears some thought.

Review of Adrian Goldsworthy's How Rome Fell (

Decay as a Reason for the Fall of Rome (

1 comment:

  1. Adrian is on track comparing Rome to USA. USA is headed toward destruction by the 1% who are too blind to see that society is what places them where they are.


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