“The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival”, or – why do empires rise and fall?

John Bagot Glubb, aka Glubb Pasha, was a British solider turned military adventurer. He is most famous for the twenty-six years he spent organising and commanding the Jordan Arab Legion, which became Jordan’s army.

Glubb has had an Internet renaissance thanks to his short work The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival (1976). As far as I can tell, Glubb is popular mainly among people who fret over the “decline of the West”, for his work traces the development and fall of empires.

We want to be at the high point of our civilization; it would be a terrible let down to be born at a low point, a moment when our civilization was about to start working its way up.

What a lot of work to do! How much more pleasant to be entering a nice, gentle decline!

The decline might be ugly and violent — of course — but that makes it both less strenuous and more entertaining than progress.

No, we much prefer the fantasy that how the world is at this particular moment is a “golden age” that we are about to lose, or that the really good stuff happened only thirty or forty years ago.

This, for me, explains why decline theories are popular at all times and in all places. There’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in imagining that everything is about to go to hell, and that one’s childhood was a golden age for mankind (turns out everyone’s childhood was a golden age — regardless of politics).

In this article I’m going to summarise Glubb’s theory of empires, and provide my own comments on what he says.

For Glubb civilizations and empires are best understood as being analogous to human beings. And like human beings empires can learn over a lifetime through mistakes and folly.

History has been recorded for 4,000 years — surely, says Gubb, we can learn lessons from what has been put down on clay tablets, parchments and paper.

As with a human being who must be born, learn self-care, find food, have sex, have children and die so empires follow patterns that repeat again, and again.

But Glubb thinks historians fall short in this respect. A historian should be providing useful tips to break patterns rather than stuffing a child’s head with information about the Great Depression or the October Revolution.

For Glubb history teaching in the UK was far too parochial. And far too obsessed with exams.

I remember once visiting a school for mentally handicapped children. “Our children do not have to take examinations,” the headmaster told me,” and so we are able to teach them things which will be really useful to them in life.” The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival (1976), Introduction.

That we never learn from history is a truism. But why is this so?

Glubb suggests three reasons:

  1. We only examine small periods of history relevant ot our own country;
  2. within these periods we vainly preen and celebrate our country;
  3. and when we do look at world history we look at short, unconnected periods.
Source: The Fate of Empires (1976)

To move beyond these limitations Glubb takes the empires of history and arranges them in the table above. Glubb uses the term ‘empire’ liberally to mean any great power rather than simply a home country with colonial possessions.

His dates are quite arbitrary, as empires do not ‘start’ and ‘end’ on specific calendar dates. Glubb uses these dates to draw lessons about the cyclical nature of history that can be generalised — although as with all human matters the dates cannot be exact.

Glubb notes that his division of empires actually demotes technology and geography as factors. Despite the differences in technology and geography influencing each empire the duration of empires is remarkably similar.

The life of an empire is like the average life span of a human being — not all human beings reach the average life span, and some will exceed it. So it is with empires.

Glubb wrote before the Soviet Union fell.

That was an example of an empire that lasted almost eighty years — so much shorter than the average imperial life, and possibly this occurred because the Soviet Union was such an unnatural institution.

A further significant omission are the two attempts by Germany in the twentieth century to become an empire, a pattern which fits with Glubb’s ‘break out and expansion’ model for imperial development.

§

The average life span of an empire coincides with ten generations, if a generation is taken as twenty-five years.

Empires begin when a small people burst upon the world scene. The pattern is repeated from Alexander to Great to Mohammed to the Mongols to the British.

During the outburst period the new empire displays courage and great energy. Thus the Arabs conquered Spain in 711 with only 12,000 men. Their ships were burnt behind them for added encouragement. There was no way back, only forward to conquest.

Glubb sees the outburst as aided by its poverty and lack of traditions. With nothing to bind the new imperial people by way of customs they are free to quickly adopt new innovations.

These are bloody, but providential episodes — the imperial outburst spreads new customs, habits and modes of thought to the conquered people.

The new empire also has the advantage of binding large geographical areas together to allow trade — but without arising national jealousies. Glubb points out that the then European Economic Community is attempting to do what empires achieve through economic unity, but it cannot do so because the nations involved are rivals rather than vassals yoked together by an empire.

This success in empire leads to an age of commerce, which in turn continues the tradition of exploration. Education remains tough, and encourages resilience and forcefulness in the young.

What follows is a replacement of the pursuit of adventure with the adventure of pursuing money. Education ceases to inculcate martial, adventurous values and aims at producing qualified bureaucrats and technicians to maintain the status quo.

This is the high point for an empire. There is immense wealth, other nations are impressed and tremble at the empire’s prowess — and just about enough martial courage and adventurousness remains to keep the empire strong.

It’s all down hill from here.

Material luxury and comfort breeds a defensive disposition in the empire. People with something to lose are wary of risking too much in an adventure. The empire becomes pacific — the people forget their predatory past, and forget there are predatory peoples at the gates of the empire.

Duty is abandoned and selfishness prevails.

But great developments are made in science and the intellect. Science and technology do not, however, protect the empire from military decline.

In the ninth century, for example, in the age of Mamun, the Arabs measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy. Seven centuries were to pass before Western Europe discovered that the world was not flat. Less than fifty years after the amazing scientific discoveries under Mamun, the Arab Empire collapsed. Wonderful and beneficent as was the progress of science, it did not save the empire from chaos. (p. 11)

Intellectualism does not help matters because people become increasingly lost in elaborate discussions, which they excel at because of their education.

But the survival of the empire depends on decisive action not on wise discussion.

And in fact the empire’s politics become even more fractious as different political factions form within it, and place their factional interest over the empire’s survival.

As civility within the empire’s political institutions increase, so political hostility spills out on to the streets.

A further aspect to empires in this stage is an influx of foreign workers. The newcomers are not, Glubb notes, inferior — but they are different to the original imperial race, and so constitute a weakness to the empire in four regards: first, they have a different nature to the original imperial race; second, they are loyal only in times of stability; third, they form their own communities that protect their particular interests rather than those of the nation as a whole; and fourth, the new races arrive at a period of imperial strength and so are proud to be in the empire, but when the empire falters they will resurrect old grievances.

Glubb predicted this phenomenon will emerge in the Soviet empire, and he was correct as we have seen with the bloody wars in Chechnya and Caucasia.

Frivolity takes over the empire, a mould on over sweet pastry.

Frivolity is the frequent companion of pessimism. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The resemblance between various declining nations in this respect is truly surprising. The Roman mob, we have seen, demanded free meals and public games. Gladiatorial shows, chariot races and athletic events were their passion. In the Byzantine Empire the rivalries of the Greens and the Blues in the hippodrome attained the importance of a major crisis.
Judging by the time and space allotted to them in the Press and television, football and baseball are the activities which today chiefly interest the public in Britain and the United States respectively.
The heroes of declining nations are always the same — the athlete, the singer or the actor. The word ‘celebrity’ today is used to designate a comedian or a football player, not a statesman, a general, or a literary genius. (p.14)

As an Arabist Glubb looks to Middle Eastern history for examples of declining empires. He speaks of Baghdad in 861, when it was the wealthiest and most prestigious city in the world. This was when the empire fell apart amid mercenary squabbling, with contemporary historians bemoaning materialism and lax sexual morals among Baghdadis.

Popular singers were particularly damned for their influence on the young — especially lute players, and the rise of obscene language.

The increase in importance of women also coincides with a decline in empire. And it’s a pattern Glubb sees in the Arab Empire as much as Ancient Rome.

‘What,’ wrote the contemporary historian, Ibn Bessam, ‘have the professions of clerk, tax-collector or preacher to do with women? These occupations have always been limited to men alone.’ (p.15)

Islamic feminism saw women appointed as university professors, and practising law — though they never served as judges.

Glubb goes on to note that quite soon after this wave of feminism public order in the empire collapsed.

When I first read these contemporary descriptions of tenth-century Baghdad, I could scarcely believe my eyes. I told myself that this must be a joke! The descriptions might have been taken out of The Times today. The resemblance of all the details was especially breathtaking — the break-up of the empire, the abandonment of sexual morality, the ‘pop’ singers with their guitars, the entry of women into the professions, the five-day week. I would not venture to attempt an explanation! There are so many mysteries about human life which are far beyond our comprehension. (p.15)

Indeed, as one reads Glubb’s account there is a temptation to think that the entire piece is a satire, or a satirical admonition to his countrymen.

This was written when the UK was in a profound economic crisis, trade unionism and political factionalism had divided the country. The empire was gone, and Northern Ireland was falling apart. Mass immigration was under way, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s had changed relations between men and women profoundly. Feminism had crowbarred more women into the professions, and the world of work more generally.

And there were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, too — as bad as those awful Baghdadi lute players!

Woe, woe to the nation and former empire! So Glubb cries through historical allusion.

Glubb does not seek a reason for everything. He merely seeks to describe. He rejects ideology, and racial theories as explanations for why empires rise and fall. The ideas and institutions seem to have no affect on how long empires last, and every imperial race believes itself superior — until its conceitedness contributes to its downfall.

What Glubb is prepared to admit makes a difference is economics, i.e. the amount of luxury available, and virtue. When a people lose its virtue it becomes lost, and wealth corrupts virtue.

Paradoxically an imperial race that feels superior may become generous to the poor in its own group, and other races at large. It is only because it feels superior that it can afford to indulge in this noblesse oblige. So today US and Western pop stars fawn over the poor in undeveloped countries — their help secretly resented for it is given in a condescending spirit.

This is not confined to the contemporary Western welfare state, and celebritocracy.

The Arab Empire of Baghdad was equally, perhaps even more, generous. During the Age of Conquests, pure-bred Arabs had constituted a ruling class, but in the ninth century the empire was completely cosmopolitan. State assistance to the young and the poor was equally generous. University students received government grants to cover their expenses while they were receiving higher education. The State likewise offered free medical treatment to the poor. The first free public hospital was opened in Baghdad in the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786–809), and under his son, Mamun, free public hospitals sprang up all over the Arab world from Spain to what is now Pakistan. (17–18)

Religion, a force that requires selflessness, also declines in this period. And the new coming imperial race will often feel filled with a religious desire to cleanse the decadent.

When the more vital nomad races arrive they mix and intermarry the decadent races, so Glubb’s schema is one of death and renewal. Often the name of a people does not change, even though there has been intermarriage and a change in the composition of the race that constitutes it. Glubb uses racial terminology, but he is not a race purist. On the contrary, he sees the mixing of races as part of a long-established cycle of destruction and renewal.

His approach is systematic — the problem is not that individual members in a community love luxury and have become decadent, for such people will exist in all societies. The difficult is the framework they live within, and thus moving to a new civilization may change an individual considerable.

Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power, producing cynicism, decline of religion, pessimism and frivolity. The citizens of such a nation will no longer make an effort to save themselves, because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving. (p.20)

Another word for what Glubb describes is nihilism, the nihilism Nietzsche saw scratching at the West.

Glubb ends by considering whether it would be possible to widely grasp his ideas about the rise and fall of empires and arrest future imperial decline. On this point he is inconclusive, for the very condition of a successful empire makes its citizens far too arrogant to heed these warnings.

Perhaps the rise and fall of empires is divinely inspired, he speculates.

It is like the lemmings on their annual migration — a bloodbath, but a necessary bloodbath that is repeated every year.

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