“All a great power has to do to destroy itself is persist in trying to do the impossible.”
In his 1976 essay The Fate of Empires, General Sir John Glubb analyzed the life cycles of civilizations. He found remarkable similarities between them all. Most have lasted around 250 years, ten generations or so, and each has passed through clearly identifiable stages. Glubb calls these the six ages of empire.
Every new empire begins with the age of the pioneers, courageous individuals with passion and vision who conquer new territories, perhaps taking over the remnants of an earlier collapsed civilization. The new empire then enters an age of commerce. Great wealth is created through enterprise and trade, making use of the best cultural traits and technological achievements of the vanquished empire. Next comes the age of affluence, a critical juncture in the life cycle of an empire and the time when things begin to go wrong. In the age of affluence, Glubb says, “there does not appear to be any doubt that money is the agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and self-confident people.” Decline occurs slowly, however, for next comes the age of intellect, when affluence is sufficient to allow some people to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge. Glubb argues that an excessive focus on intellect indicates an empire already in serious trouble. This may feel counter-intuitive, but evidence suggests that our own age of intellect has done little to prevent a headlong descent into the final age: the age of decadence.
In the age of decadence many people choose to behave in ways that are unsustainable, apparently unaware of the consequences. They indulge in excessive, often conspicuous, consumption. An absurdly wealthy elite emerges, but instead of repelling the masses it is admired and celebrated. Those outside the elite aspire to similar levels of consumption, and are encouraged by the availability of cheap credit. People become convinced that increased consumption is the key to happiness, but in its pursuit they become measurably less happy. As David Morgan says, “you can never get enough of what you don’t need.”
At this point in the life cycle of an empire frivolity, as Glubb calls it, comes to the fore. In order to distract people from what’s really going on, the economy creates diversions. Voyeurism becomes central to culture: the gladiatorial spectacles in decadent Rome are mirrored in today’s ‘reality’ television. People become fixated on celebrity as the genuinely noteworthty become understandably camera shy. These invented celebrities are ‘famous’ just for being famous. In every era the obsession with celebrity glorifies many of the same professions. During the final decades of their own empires, the Romans, the Ottomans and the Spanish all made celebrities of their chefs. Sound familiar? And voyeurism takes on a more sinister aspect as people become desensitized to graphic images of extreme violence. The BBC treats us to the last desperate moments of Colonel Gaddafi’s life, broadcast live in close-up detail. Elsewhere, there is mock outrage from the tabloid press when we learn that hundreds of people paid to watch a cage fight between two eight-year-old boys.
Debauchery is another recurring theme at the end of empire. Society develops a strangely immature obsession with sex. People drink themselves to the point of unconsciousness and shamelessly collapse in the street. In Roman times, binge drinkers were left to their fate. Today’s debauchery is supervised by the police; its ‘victims’ are taken care of by hard-pressed health care professionals, placing further pressure on the public purse. And, all the while, supermarkets and corporations make a killing selling discounted booze to people barely old enough to buy it. This is our modern-day bread and circuses, with obese citizens literally becoming a burden on the state.
But the small can never satisfy the large. Cheap pleasures fail to compensate for the absence of meaning in so many people’s lives. A hankering for something greater remains. At the fag end of empire, growing numbers are denied access to work; they can find no meaningful involvement in their community, so their potential goes unfulfilled. When people are prevented from fulfilling their potential, they often self-destruct. As Camila Batmangeilidgh says, “Human beings are fundamentally organized around the need for meaning. Having meaning for why you live your life, and having a sense that your life has a destination or a purpose, is an important organizer of individuals’ lives and also communities’ lives.”
Other symptoms common to empires in decline include massive disparities between rich and poor, an undisciplined and over-extended military, and a severe financial and economic crisis linked to a debasement of the currency. Great empire wealth dazzles, but beneath the surface the unbridled desire for money, power and material possessions means that principles of duty and public service are corrupted by leaders and citizens who scramble for the meagre spoils of an economic system which prioritizes the wrong things — and all at a time when human industry and ingenuity have been needlessly repressed.
Originally published at renegadeinc.com