Sunday, March 13, 2016

Empires in the Malthusian World

Last time I talked about the Malthusian model, and how it leads us astray in our understanding of the past.

While perusing a book of ancient history, Paul Krugman had an epiphany:
You see, I have or had a pretty firm, cynical but I thought well-grounded model of pre-industrial civilization. All pre-industrial societies, I thought, were Malthusian, with the bulk of the population living at the edge of subsistence. The fruits of civilization went only to a small elite, 5 or 10 percent of the population at most, which essentially lived on resources extorted from the peasantry. For everyone else, it didn’t matter who ruled or how; politics, national or cultural concerns, whatever, were internal squabbles among the extractive classes. 
This model still seems to me to be pretty good for the Roman Empire. But at least as [Adrian] Goldsworthy describes it, the Roman Republic at the time of the Punic Wars was something very different. It beat Carthage not so much through military prowess as through social solidarity: not only had Rome managed to assimilate many peoples and turn them into citizens or very loyal allies, it seems to have inspired strong commitment from a large fraction of the population. This gave it a huge advantage over Carthage in terms of military manpower, and also the durability that allowed it to absorb terrible defeats and keep on fighting. 
Are there any other examples in history like this? And how did they do it? What was special about the Roman political and/or social system that produced this kind of solidarity? 
Of course, it didn’t last — the very conquests made possible by the virtus of the Republic eventually produced vast latifundia worked by slaves and undermined all the old values; Rome became a more or less standard preindustrial empire. But it wasn’t always. Why?
SPQR And All That (Paul Krugman)

In fact, this is timely, since a recent book also makes the case that the past was less "Malthusian" than we were led to believe. We saw in J. Lawrence Angel's chart that during Classical Greece, measures of health rose to levels nearly equal to today's, before declining again. A new book by Stanford Classics professor Josiah Ober argues that the ancient Greek economy was much more prosperous than previously thought.

What he and his students did was computerize much of the archaeological data into a form that could be quantified and visualized over time. Trying to understand economic growth rates in the past without that massive reams of statistics that we have at our fingertips is very difficult. Yet they managed to do so using archaeological data, including coin hoards. Turns out that burying coins was very popular during times of crisis, with bailouts not being available, giving us a window into relative wealth in different locations over time.

The results show that, like Paul Krugman, we've been vastly underestimating the ancient world:
...Ober says there was previously a developing and crystallizing consensus among classical scholars that there was little to no economic growth in ancient Greece – as was the case in most societies of that time. 
But instead of portraying a static, poor Greek economy, Ober's new findings have shown that from about 1000 to 300 B.C., classical Greece had impressive rates of economic growth that were unparalleled by its contemporaries in antiquity. 
Together with a team of other Stanford scholars and students, the professor of classics and of political science digitized huge amounts of archaeological, documentary and literary data. Using these new tools, the team created analyses and visualizations that map out aspects of Greek life, such as how money circulated and how many people lived in cities versus small farms. 
At a certain point, Ober explained, the team compiled "a critical amount of evidence and recognized that the old story couldn't be right." 
...The combined results of the proxy data point to a rising economy that "increased in terms of total number of people somewhere in excess of 10 times to 15 times over about a 500-year period." In that same period, he added, "the rate of per capita consumption would have about doubled." 
Ober explained that these rates are very low compared to modern standards. "But compared to other pre-modern economies, this is really spectacular growth."
Stanford scholar debunks long-held beliefs about economic growth in ancient Greece (Stanford News)
If the constructed data is [sic] correct, then not only did Greek population grow by an extraordinary amount during the Archaic Period roughly 800-500 BC, but Greek consumption per capita grew by 50-100% from 800-300 BC...this would imply a massive productivity gain of some 450-1000%, or 0.3-0.46% growth per annum. This seems quite implausible to me. Indeed, the population estimates imply that the Ancient Greek population would have been substantially larger than that of Greece in the 1890s AD, along with higher agricultural productivity! This is all the more puzzling as there appears to have been no major technological change to support so many more mouths to feed, let alone feed them better than before. *But assuming the data are correct, what would have to give?
Highway to Hellas: avoiding the Malthusian trap in Ancient Greece (Capitalism's Cradle)

Given that health measures of skeletons seem to confirm this data, it seems believable. It is fortunate that the increase in consumption also improved health measures, something not always the case. For example, consumption of goods and wages increased in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, but most people were much sicker and less healthy than their immediate ancestors (i.e. you could be afford buried in a much nicer suit and expensive coffin when you died of black lung at 25).

So if the simplistic Malthusian world is wrong, how did they do it? And what are the lessons for today?

According to the article cited above, one likely explanation was the expelling of excess sons to form colonies abroad. This is similar to Colinvaux's arguments for colonization as a way to deal with population pressure and an excess of people desiring to occupy space in the broad social niches. Because the Greeks had better sailing and weapons technology, and could farm the earth more intensively than their neighbors (olives, grapes, wheat, goats, etc.), and could take land around the Mediterranean from other peoples by force and numbers. It's no coincidence that Roman gods and architecture are based on Greek models (in fact, a commenter to the post mentioned The Fates of Nations, which is where I first heard of it, bringing us full circle):
It seems that Greek poleis (city-states) had many, often brutal tricks up their sleeve to deal with excess fertility. For example, [Robin] Lane Fox notes that most communities would simply expose surplus surviving offspring, who at best might be taken as slaves elsewhere (p.32).  
Part of the reason for this was that Greek families always divided inheritances between all surviving sons, which is problematic from the point of view of breaking the link between wealth and fertility so as to reduce Malthusian burdens: after all, endowing a son with a share of the land encourages him to start a family of his own, directly resulting in less land supporting more mouths to feed.  
One way around the problem was to get male heirs to agree to share a family property rather than subdividing it. Alternatively, less fertile or infertile families sometimes adopted another family's excess sons. If all else failed, however, the excess sons were sent away to found a colony abroad. The evidence for colonisation as an Ancient Greek Malthusian safety valve seems to stack up: Firstly, the timing seems to fit with the supposed economic expansion, with colonisations beginning in earnest in the 8th Century BC.  
Secondly, there are records of the formal conscription of settlers, as well as bans on their returning home for several years. Lane Fox notes that in one case guards were even posted on the shore to sling stones at any who tried to make a break for home (p.34). The settlers also rarely seem to have had commerce in mind as a reason for expansion, usually fighting off local populations. Last of all, the settlers were almost exclusively male; yet another sign that they were excess sons sent away to preserve the wealth of the home polis. The implication of this is that the economic growth of the period may have been more extensive than intensive: in order to deal with increasing population, colonisation simply increased the amount of land brought under cultivation, rather than bringing existing areas under more productive and intensive cultivation.
However, Sparta used very different methods to achieve a similar result:
...we also seem to see much greater pains being taken to prevent Malthusian pressures, perhaps due to the absence of colonisation. For example, its aristocracy was restricted to eating an austere black broth: after all, one alternative to reducing the number of mouths to feed is to feed them less. Similarly, its magistrates would annually "declare war" on its serfs (conquered Messenians called helots) with a view to justifying its aristocrats in going out and killing any "troublemakers" (p.75). I would imagine these "troublemakers"would be the excess helot sons, and that this may be a rather more brutal alternative to sending citizens out to form colonies. 
Most significantly, however, Spartan property laws had the effect of greatly reducing fertility even if fecundity (the biological potential to have children) remained high. 
Firstly, much land was state-owned, thus breaking the direct link between subdivision of land and the starting of families. But of the privately-held land in Messenia, property laws had an important effect: By an important loophole, property left to a daughter could pass outside the family on the girl's marriage. Inevitably, girls with property were married off to the most propertied suitors and then, the doubly propertied young couple would try not to rear too many children between whom their newly gained economic superiority would have to be divided. Consequently, land-holdings were concentrated into fewer hands. (Lane Fox, p.76)  
Elsewhere, Lane Fox also notes that this loophole resulted in brothers sometimes having a single wife between them - yet another social norm that I suspect reduced the number of children (p.71). What's most interesting about this is that we know that it worked: the Spartiates (citizens of Sparta) shrank in number from around 9,000 in c.640 BC to less than 1,000 by c.330.
Highway to Hellas: avoiding the Malthusian trap in Ancient Greece (Capitalism's Cradle)

So, according to this theory, Greek prosperity was achieved by either 1.) colonization, 2.) outright murder of the lower classes, 3.) "Spartan" lifestyles, and 4.) limiting fertility of the propertied classes.

Re: colonization, is it any coincidence that the Industrial Revolution occurred in England, a country that had vast colonies all over the North American continent (The Wealth of Nations, James Watt's steam engine patent, and the Declaration of Independence all ca. 1776), and hence high enough living standards to have a large population with leisure time to "tinker?" It's also worth noting that the Industrial Revolution was preceded by a British Agricultural Revolution (also late 1700's).

Krugman's question also prompted Brad DeLong to respond:
Paul asks what really are two interlinked questions: 
    1.) What preindustrial civilizations manage to live substantially above "nasty, brutish, and short" biological subsistence--which usually means having a substantial middle class? 
   2.) What preindustrial civilizations manage to then mobilize that surplus, so that their middle class-aided military aristocracy can overwhelm that of their neighbors, and then extract the fruits of plunder and empire?
Those are good questions. If everyone was living on the edge of subsistence, as economists assert, then how could the vast empires we all know from antiquity form, along with the majestic cultural artifacts which remain with us to this day from the Pyramids, to the Acropolis, to the Taj Mahal?
"Subsistence" in Malthusian theory is a term of art. It can mean populations under such intense nutritional stress that women stop ovulating and children's immune systems are so compromised that they drop like flies when bronchitis hits. But it does not have to. What it does mean is that the standard of living and social institutions are such that the average woman has two children or a hair more that survive to reproduce, and that as a result average rates of population growth are glacial. 
Now average rates of population growth were glacial. We expect a pre-artificial birth control human population that is nutritionally-unstressed to roughly double every twenty-five year generation: that appears to happen wherever and whenever farmers newly colonize an area with abundant land previously inhabited by hunter-gatherers. Yet, as best as we can judge, between 8000 BC and 1000 BC the average worldwide rate of population growth was roughly 0.05%/year--1.3%/generation. From 1000 BC to 1 it was roughly 0.1%/year--2.5%/generation. And From 1 to 1500 it was back down to 0.5%/year--again, 1.3%/generation. 
Either these populations were often near and frequently over the edge of women too skinny to ovulate and children so malnourished that their immune systems were badly compromised, or powerful sociological factors were driving a wedge between how rapidly the population could, biologically, reproduce and grow, and how rapidly it did go.
Musings on Thomas Malthus, the Hellenistic Age, the Loyal-Spirit Great Kings of Iran 550-330 BCE, and Other Topics (Brad DeLong)

Similarly, Gregory Clark writes:
The term subsistence income can lead to the incorrect notion that in a Malthusian economy people are all living on the brink of starvation, like the inmates of some particularly nasty Soviet-era gulag. In fact in almost all Malthusian economies the subsistence income considerably exceeded the income required to allow the population to feed itself from day to day. 
Differences in the location of the mortality and fertility schedules across societies also generated very different subsistence incomes. Subsistence for one society was extinction for others. Both 1400 and 1650, for example, fell within periods of population stability in England, hence periods in which by definition the income was at subsistence. But the wage of the poorest workers, unskilled agricultural laborers, was equivalent to about 9 pounds of wheat per day in 1650, compared to 18 pounds in 1400. Even the lower 1650 subsistence wage was well above the biologically determined minimum daily requirement of about 1,500 calories a day. A diet of a mere 2 pounds of wheat per day, supplying 2,400 calories per day, would keep a laborer alive and fit for work. 
Thus preindustrial societies, while they were subsistence economies, were not typically starvation economies. Indeed, with favorable conditions, they were at times wealthy, even by the standards of many modern societies.
A Farewell to Alms, p. 23

DeLong continues:
...four sociological factors can drive a wedge between the post-pillage or organized extortion (by thugs-with-spears and thugs-with-scrolls) living standards of the bulk of the population and bare biological subsistence:
These four are:
  1.     female infanticide,
  2.     prolonged female virginity,
  3.     substantial female celibacy, and
  4.     a large artisan class devoted to making goods and providing services to make life comfortable and even luxurious--but making goods and providing services that do not directly enhance reproductive fitness. 
Thus Greek and Roman-like female infanticide--even of girls born to full-citizen wives. Greek and Roman-like large-scale slavery: unlike the post-1807 slave population in the U.S. South, Greek and Roman slave populations did not reproduce in sufficient numbers to sustain their levels via natural increase. Western-European marriage patterns--as her father, I say you cannot marry my daughter and take her out of my house until you have inherited or established a farm of your own. Chinese lineage households--as your elder brother, I say you cannot bring a wife into this household until we get more resources.
And there are other, less patriarchal ways: Phoenician and Greek Mediterranean trading networks allowing for greater variety of diet and cross-regional pooling of scarce non-food resources like tin, amber, spices, wood, and so on without substantially impacting reproductive fitness. Imperial Roman artisan productivity taking advantage of economies of scale and distribution. All of these keep "subsistence" in Malthusian theory from exactly meaning "subsistence" on the ground. 
They aren't the greatest thing since sliced bread. But it is not a society of eight average pregnancies leading to five live births, three children surviving to age five, of whom two grow up to reproduce. It is a society of six average pregnancies leading to four live births, of whom two grow up to reproduce. Most of these "preventative check" mechanisms exert draconian control over female sexuality, freedom, and autonomy. But they allow a population in balance with resources and material comfort much higher than that of the "positive check".
So, we know that humans are able to limit their fertility without the "positive checks" of starvation, pestilence, famine, disease, war and murder. We have large brains. We are not bacteria in a Petri dish.
And the amount of people that civilizations in the past could support was much lower than today due to the fact that they were limited to the energy inputs from photosynthesis alone (EROEI of 2:1 or so).

In fact, birth control was enthusiastically practiced in ancient times:
In classical times, there was a plant called silphium that grew in a narrow coastal strip of Cyrenaica, modern-day Libya. Its resin was used as a contraceptive and abortifacient. The resin appears to have been very effective, preventing pregnancy with a once-a-month pea-sized dose. Silphium eventually became too popular for its own good. Never domesticated, it was overharvested as demand grew. As it became scarcer, the price rose until it was worth its weight in silver, which drove further overharvesting and eventually led to one of the first human-caused extinctions in recorded history. However, during the centuries in which it was routinely used by the Greco-Roman upper classes, it must have noticeably depressed fertility, unless they were throwing money out the window.
Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion, p. 109

It was Judeo-Christian religions which declared (and still do), that couples should maximize the absolute number of children they have at all costs to themselves and wider society (i.e. "Be fruitful and multiply," the "Culture of life," "Quiverful," etc.).
There still remains question 2--how do you mobilize that middle class for collective purpose, so that your middle class-aided military aristocracy and polity can overwhelm the military aristocracy of your neighbors? 
Think about this, and you will recognize that an aristocracy faces the same Malthusian pressures and dilemmas as does the population as a whole. The population, the demos, lives off the limited resources provided by the land. The aristocracy, the aristoi, live off the wedge between what the demos produce and what they consume. If the aristoi do not find social mechanisms to constrain their numbers, their standard of living will also tend to settle at a point so low that their numbers no longer grow at all rapidly. And the social mechanisms to keep the population growth rate of the aristoi down are the same--and the patriarchal mechanisms of female infanticide, prolonged female virginity, and substantial permanent female celibacy, plus in the case of the aristoi excess male deaths in war, in the duel, or in the hunt. The alternative is to wind up with a very large "upper class" indeed, one made up of huge numbers of princes--but princes who live little better than peasants, a la Armenia or La Mancha.
This also ties in to the concept of "elite overproduction" that plays such a central role in Secular Cycles theory. In Turchin's analysis, where the elites kept their numbers in check, societies were more stable and less prone to political disintegration and social conflict. Where they reproduced faster, this led to the emergence of  "counter elites" jockeying for power, and hence political and social breakdown, civil wars, and stagnation. In polygamous societies such as the Middle East, elite overproduction was even more acute, leading to faster cycles. European elites limited their overproduction by having one single monogamous "official" wife to produce heirs, and numerous mistresses whose children, if they had any, did not inherit and power or titles, hence enhancing elite reproductive fitness but not affecting the political structure, since bastards were not "officially" recognized.
But there is an additional constraint on the aristoi. A single faction of aristoi controlling an agrarian territory also faces an interesting Laffer curve problem--perhaps the only real-life Laffer curve problem. Tax rates too low leave them with too few resources vis-a-vis neighboring aristocracies. Tax rates too high leave them with too-low a population base. If extent of territory is too small they get absorbed. If extend of territory is too large they suffer rebellion and fraction.  
Interestingly, the so-called "Laffer Curve," before it was used as a fig leaf to justify looting by America's wealthy elites under Ronald Reagan, was first described by Ibn Khaldun, whom we have encountered before.
Moreover, the tax collectors have to be efficient enough and the soldiers competent enough that the phalanx or whatever is large enough and skilled enough on the battlefield--which means that the upper classes live not in attractive luxury but, rather, "return with your shield or on it", and there is a premium on figuring out how to attach the middle class to the aristoi to fill out the battle line--to acquire and maintain what Ibn Khaldun called assibiyah, which is difficult because the middle class's share of the benefits from rule by the current dominant group is not all that large.  
Add in balance-of-power considerations and the natural diffusion of technology and organization thus lead us to expect to see an agrarian world dominated by ruling classes that lead dangerous warrior lives, mistreat women, and govern moderately-sized principalities in semi-stable military-political equilibrium with each other. True "empires" should be rare, and evanascent. Think Timur-i-Leng, Ashoka, or even Charlemagne. 
Against this backdrop of "normal" agrarian civilization patterns, I think can see, dimly, ten substantial anomalies in pre-industrial Eurasia plus Mediterranan Africa: 
    The Arya--the people descended from or adopting the language of and the technology of those who domesticated the uniquely meek, mild, and passive Mr. Lucky, introduced the horse and chariot into the panoply of "civilization", and spread their indo-European language group from the Ganges Delta to Norway's North Cape and Spain's Cape of Gibralter [sic]. 
    China--after the Chin unification its natural state seems to be that of an unnaturally-large, unnaturally-cohesive, and unnaturally-peaceful Han Empire. 
    The Greek/Phoenician urban-based colonization of the Mediterranean basin. 
    The Haxamanishya Persian Empire of Kurush and his successors. 
    The LBO of the Haxamanid Empire by Alexander of Macedon, and then the maintenance of his conquests by his--feuding--marshals and their descendents [sic]. 
    First, the bare survival of the Roman Republic; subsequently, its transformation into the Roman Empire. 
    The Arab conquests under the banners of Islam, and the integrity of the empire under the Abbasid Caliphate. 
    The Vikings--from the Shetland Islands to Iceland and Vinland to Normandy, Sicily and Tunisia, Antioch, Mickelgrad, and Kiev and Novgorod the Great. 
    The Mongols of Chingiz Khan and his descendants. 
    The British Empire from Cromwell to Churchill (which ends as something very different from an unusually large and unusually durable agrarian empire, but starts out as an agrarian thalassocracy). 
And at this point I lose my ability to generalize. Everything seems very different from everything else...
I'm not really sure what definition of "empire" he's using here. Indo-European peoples were never in any sense, a unified "empire," and some, like the Ottomans, are conspicuously absent. There is some interesting discussion of the Greek conquest of the eastern Mediterranean:
They started in Thrace with about 50,000 trained Macedonian soldiers. They moved into Asia. They then added, over the next two generations, perhaps 300,000 Greek-speaking colonists. With that base, they controlled the bulk of what has been the Persian Empire for more than two centuries. They ruled over 40 millions of subjects speaking different languages while retaining their Hellenic identity. And they did so while spending most of their military energies fighting one another. 
How did they manage it? 
The Hellenic speakers appear to moved in with plenty of what Ibn Khaldun called assibiyah: they had their disagreements, but the one thing they agreed on was that they were Greek (or Macedonian) and the rest were barbarians. Centuries of hoplite warfare and the snake pit was Classical Greece appear to have produced an expectation of military discipline in the phalanx that others found it very hard to match--and also a substantial degree of technological superiority both in building and then in taking walled cities. It is not for nothing that people seeking to praise Demetrios of Macedon, the first Antigonid king, named him Demetrios the Besieger. Hellenic-populated fortified cities spread throughout the fertile crescent, with walls built by Hellenic engineers and masons, irritated by dams and canals designed by more Hellenic engineers, and populated by Hellenic colonists were something with little if any precedent in previous Eurasian history. Alexandria-in-Egypt. Al-Fayyum. The (surprise) ten cities of the Dekapolis. Seleukia-on-Tigris, Seleukia-in-Peria, Antiokh on the Orontes, and many, many more. Urbanization, irrigation, and colonization led to domination.
Thus we see that, following Colinvaux, the superior military technique is key.  As DeLong speculates about the key elements in creating the vast Persian Empire:
My suspicion is that Parsa was close enough to southern Mesopotamia and also close enough to Iranian pastures. They were thus able to figure out how to tax that densely-populated irrigated-farming population of southern Mesopotamia. And at the same time they were able to figure out how to use the horse-mounted herders of the Iranian pasture. Add in the growing size of then-modern larger horse. And they had an advantage in communications, in mobility, in the use of the bow, and in the use of the rider for combat. They thus brought the age of iron and horse to the fertile crescent, and did so in a way that had not been possible in the age of bronze and chariot, or even iron and chariot. But I do not know, I do not claim to know, and I have not found anybody who does know. Nor do we know why the empire held together, save that it repeatedly almost did not.
Any great empire can be thought of as primarily a political-legal construct, since all of the great empires were not bound by ethnic ties (except the ruling class), but instead ruled over a diverse collection of peoples from many different ethnic backgrounds and speaking many different languages (think of the varied peoples ruled over by the Greeks, or the Romans). That's the difference between state and nation that we see today. Occasionally they are the same (a nation-state), but sometimes they are not. This very diversity may be their downfall. Eventually, as corruption and mismanagement riddles the top tiers due to rapacious elites, the various ethnic groups decide they're better off ruling themselves, and abandon the empire for something else, as seen in the dissolution of Rome. Is it any surprise we're seeing a resurgence of independence movements in Europe (Scotland, Catalonia, etc.)?

Basically, most people do the calculus and decide they are better off under the empire than not being under the empire. Until they aren't.

Empires seem to be driven by a combination of population explosion in a core people who possess superior military techniques, effective governance,  assibiyah, and are surrounded by weaker, disorganized neighbors.

Some enlightening comments:
This was the subject of my doctoral thesis (Vandals to Visigoths: UM Press 1992). The whole idea that anyone living in an empire is a subsistence farmer is wrong, as also the idea that their government doesn't matter to them. Roman farmers existed as part of a larger system, produced food mainly to sell rather than eat, and bought most of their own food, as our farmers do today. And it did matter to them what their government was, which we can see from the general increase in the standard of living when Spain or England was colonized by Rome, and the collapse in the standard of living that accompanied the fall of Rome. 
What you're quoting is basically Moses Finley, which was conventional wisdom in the 1970s but has since been disproved. 
 Kidipede July 23, 2015
Sir Moses I. Finley FBA, was an American-born British academic and classical scholar. His most notable work is The Ancient Economy (1973), where he argued that status and civic ideology governed the economy in antiquity rather than rational economic motivations. (Wikipedia)
My understanding is the Roman Republic really represented the height of Roman society, and the empire was mostly a long slow decline. During the republican period, Roman citizenship conferred rights on free men and even the ability to participate in a semi democratic process. During the empire, a tax exempt senatorial class was created, which concentrated all the wealth in a few hands, taxes fell increasingly on commoners. Unable to pay them, people sold themselves into slavery to escape their debts. 
In other words, the Republican era represented an era of relative, though far from perfect equality among Roman citizens, whereas empire was a dictatorship that concentrated wealth and power in few hands. The empire is talked about more because it happened later, and it's decline lasted so long, but the republic was probably a more successful society.
 Brendan Seattle, WA July 23, 2015
You have hit on a crucial question for preindustrial societies. As an archaeologist trying to answer questions like this for the city-states and empires of deep history, let me offer some ideas. First we need to look beyond Rome and Europe. Without considering historical dynamics in other world regions, models will remain superficial. Explaining differing degrees of social solidarity and prosperity, across space and time, requires looking at many variables. Productivity, demography and trade obviously influence prosperity and poverty. But these are mediated by the class system and the presence of absence of opportunities for mobility. Recent work shows that the levels of autocratic vs. collective rule often depend on the nature of taxation systems. And as urban scaling theory is extended into the distant past, we are learning that the generative power of urbanization must be taken into account in ancient societies. 
 Michael E. Smith Tempe, AZ July 23, 2015
My take on this (and similar phenomena like Alexander, the Islamic expansion, and the Mongols) is that they can occur at a certain point in history when semi-states have been created, but not yet nations with all the "patriotism" and mythology that implies. Under these circumstances, growing an empire is basically a sequence of hostile takeovers; all it requires is decapitating a few flunkies at the top and replacing them with your flunkies. It really IS the equivalent of RJR taking over Nabisco. And just like RJR taking over Nabisco, everyone but the C-suite doesn't especially care about what has happened --- like will go on as before, neither worse nor better.

Note what this suggests --- that this type of empire building is easy'ish.
Doing it earlier (before there exists a state apparatus you can take over) is much harder. Think ancient history like Ramses, Ashurbanipal, Sargon, who have to create their own states. (Or a few modern examples like the US and Russia, where the dynamics are completely different because of the power imbalances.)

Doing it later is likewise harder because the states now fight back seriously, not just the flunkies at the top, but the entire nation. Think Napoleon or Hitler.

Maynard Handley
The underlying cause of the growth rates of Classical Greece is worth mentioning:
So why was ancient Greece so prosperous compared to its contemporaries?...Ober links this unexpected prosperity to a relatively democratic, decentralized state system that allowed for innovation and cultural development.

"Basically the answer to that is politics," Ober argues. "The Greek world is distinctive in having this dispersed structure so that there are many, many independent states rather than a single empire – or rather than a few big and powerful states."

Ober said that the "strikingly democratic" Greek system allowed for key aspects of economic prosperity, including fertile ground for innovation and incentive for people to invest in themselves... if people think a powerful individual or government is going to reach in and take all the benefits of their effort and education, it's not a recipe for high growth. "No particular reason for specialization, no particular reason for innovation – keep your head down, do what granddad did, and get on with it...."On the other hand, if you believe that the rules are fair, that the rules will protect you from bullies in your society and that the government is in a sense on your side," Ober added, then people feel it's worthwhile to invest in things like education and specialization. 
Another side of the coin is innovation. When hundreds of small states are full of people investing in themselves, the result is high levels of "competition to do things better, to develop more efficient institutions, to develop more efficient technologies and better techniques." 
Ober acknowledges that there have been cases in which highly centralized systems had periods of significant economic growth. He said other scholars "have argued that the only way to create the kind of long-term stability that allows a lot of growth" is to start with "strong forms of centralization that might eventually become more democratic – but first you've got to break some heads to get everybody on the same side." 
What Ober argues in his new research is that "the Greek world suggests that's not the case. That a world in which there is no centralized political organization, no empire running things, is perfectly capable of self-organizing into a condition of high growth." Ober said these findings about ancient Greece can help today's citizens "think about what they can do actively to sustain a social order … that they feel that they do reasonably well in or that they have reasonable hope to do well in." Or conversely, they might want to "change a political order that they think is restricting their chance to invest in themselves." 
Eventually, the Greek world fell prey to outside forces from Macedon and then Rome. "You've got growth, you've got increased consumption – what could go wrong?" Ober asked. "Well, some things can go wrong. They can suddenly go wrong. And that's the story about the fall." Ober said the story of ancient Greece is also a cautionary tale, leading readers to "recognize that the world we have is not the world that necessarily we will always have."
My suspicion is that we've been living in a bubble. Why the level of subsistence varies between society to society is ignored by Clark, even though he acknowledges it varied substantially from culture to culture and over time. Why? Certainly the rapacity of elites is one factor. Institutions would be another. But I would argue that it is primarily determined by the amount of energy capture per person. Thus, you could either maintain the amount of people, or increase the energy capture (via more intensive land use in ancient times).

Then, during the Industrial revolution, we increased our ability to harness energy by orders of magnitude essentially overnight. We could harness countless gigajoules of stored sunlight deep beneath the earth. Our EROEI suddenly went from 2:1 to 100:1 (and has since been declining).

This new energy caused a new notion of "subsistence" in the nations which could effectively harness these energy sources to become what we take for granted today. We then spent the next 150 years behaving exactly as Malthus would expect--expanding our population up to the limits of our new-found energy wealth, translating more energy into more people. It's just that the energy bonanza was so mindbogglingly huge that it took 150 years to catch up rather than one or two generations (150 years is being generous, things didn't really start to change until about 1870 or so, and started going downhill for the West circa 1970, a mere 100 years, or less than three generations if you're related to John Tyler).

And we see that this is the case. The news is not good. Energy per capita peaked in the 1970's. New countries have industrialized. Population is expected to keep climbing by demographers to 10-11 billion, even as we are fracking the earth, scraping tar sands, and drilling the bottom of the ocean and beneath the permafrost to keep the fossil fuel bonanza going. Tiny homes and tiny cars, superinsulated homes, cheap processed food, a massive labor surplus, unpayable debts, species extinction, expanding bureaucracy, and corruption are just a few of the factors indicating that the world has finally caught up to our energy limitations, and no amount of institutional fiddling or miracle technology made in a garage is going to change that. Malthusian crises in overpopulated areas, exacerbated by climate change, will cause mass migrations leading to political instability as we've already seen. A recrudescence of nationalism and violence will follow, and elites, attempting to hold onto their ill-gotten gains, will become ever more rapacious and demagogic (police states, trade deals, austerity, fascism, etc.).

We need to stop listening to the pseudoscience of economics, and start paying attention to history if we expect to have a future worth living in.


  1. First let us bow our heads in sorrow, for "The Archdruid Report" web site has gone dark. I dunno if it's ill health on the part of The Archdruid Greer, political expediency (men in black show up with guns with the order to Stop) or what, but this is just one of many "darkenings" on the interwebs...

    Pando Daily is dark, now The Archdruid Report, who knows which site will be "darkened" next, maybe

    Maybe it's time to consider going back to mimeographed newsletters, perhaps disguised as underwear catalogs?

    1. Greer did say he was taking the month of March off in his last post. He said he'd be back in early April. Secret Archdruid business, I guess.


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