The Telltale Signs of Imperial Decline
Nothing is as permanent as we imagine--especially super-complex, super-costly, super-asymmetric and super-debt-dependent systems.
Check which signs of Imperial decline you see around you: The hubris of an increasingly incestuous and out-of-touch leadership; dismaying extremes of wealth inequality; self-serving, avaricious Elites; rising dependency of the lower classes on free Bread and Circuses provided by a government careening toward insolvency due to stagnating tax revenues and vast over-reach--let's stop there to catch our breath. Check, check, check and check.
Sir John Glubb listed a few others in his seminal essay on the end of empiresThe Fate of Empires, what might be called the dynamics of decadence:
Glubb included the following in his list of the characteristics of decadence:
Historian Peter Turchin, whom I have often excerpted here, listed three disintegrative forces that gnaw away the fibers of an Imperial economy and social order:
To these lists I would add a few more that are especially visible in the current Global Empire of Debt that encircles the globe and encompasses nations of all sizes and political/cultural persuasions:
Now that just about any technocrat/ member of the lower reaches of the financial nobility can afford a low-interest loan on a luxury auto, wealthy aspirants must own super-cars costing $250,000 and up.
A mere yacht no longer differentiates financial royalty from lower-caste financial Nobles, so super-yachts are de riguer, along with extremes such as private islands, private jets in the $80 million-each range, and so on.
Even mere technocrat aspirants routinely spend $150 per plate for refined dining out and take extreme vacations to ever more remote locales to advance their social status.
Examples abound of this hyper-inflation of refinement as the wealth of the top 5% has skyrocketed.
While there are still a few shreds of noblesse oblige in the tattered banners of the financial elites, the vast majority of the Elites classes are focused on scooping up as much wealth and power as they can in the shortest possible time, with the goal being not to serve society or the Common Good but to enter the status competition game with enough wealth to afford the refined dining, luxury travel to remote locales, second and third homes in exotic but safe hideaways, and so on.
That all this newly issued currency and credit is nothing but claims on future production of goods and services and rising productivity never enters the minds of the believers in unlimited state/bank powers. We have been inculcated with the financial equivalent of the Divine Powers of the Emperor: the government and central bank possess essentially divine powers to overcome any problem, any crisis and any conflict simply by creating more money, in whatever quantities are deemed necessary.
If $1 trillion in fresh currency will do the trick--no problem! $10 trillion? No problem! $100 trillion? No problem! there is no upper limit on how much new currency/credit the government and central bank can create.
That there might be limits on the efficacy of this money-creation never enters the minds of the faithful. That pushing currency-credit creation above the limits of efficacy might actually trigger the unraveling of the state-central bank's vaunted powers never occurs to believers in the unlimited reach of central states/banks.
The possibility that the central state/bank's powers are actually quite limited is blasphemy in an era in which the majority of the Elites and commoners alike depend on the "free money" machinery of the central state/bank for their wealth and livelihoods.
It is instructive to ponder the excesses of private wealth and political dysfunction of the late Roman Empire with the present-day excesses of private wealth and political dysfunction. As Turchin and others have documented, where the average wealth of a Roman patrician in the Republic (the empire's expansionist, integrative phase) was perhaps 10-20 times the free-citizen commoner's wealth, by the disintegrative, decadent phase of imperial decay, the Elites held wealth on the scale of 10,000 times the wealth of the typical commoner. Elite villas were more like small villages centered around the excesses of luxury than mere homes for the wealthy and their household servants. Here is a commentary drawn from Turchin's work:
Following in Ancient Rome's Footsteps: Moral Decay, Rising Wealth Inequality(September 30, 2015)
We can be quite confident that these powerful elites reckoned the Empire was permanent and its power to secure their wealth and power was effectively unlimited. But alas, their fantastic wealth vanished along with the rest of the centralized, over-extended, complex and costly Imperial structures.
There is a peculiarly widespread belief that Elites are so smart and powerful that they always manage to evade the collapse of the empires that created and protected their wealth. But there is essentially no evidence for this belief when eras truly change.
Yes, Elites have proven to be adept at shifting with the political winds; thus the guestbooks of French chateaux were filled with the names of Nazi dignitaries during the German occupation of France, and with the names of Allied bigwigs after the war ended the 1,000-year Reich.
But the complete collapse of the financial system and centralized power is not a war or financial crisis--these are storm waters which the Elites have the wherewithal to survive. But when a tsunami disintegrates the entire structure and carries it out to a nameless sea as flotsam and jetsam, there is no transfer of wealth from the Old to the New.
The Roman Elites did not become Barbarian elites who just so happened to own the same villas and vast estates they did when they wore togas and dined on super-refined delicacies. They were pushed aside along with everything that supported their wealth and power.
Nothing is quite as permanent as we imagine--especially super-complex, super-costly, super-asymmetric and super-debt-dependent state/financial systems.
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