Egalitarian Empires

For centuries, scholars have debated the causes of the rise and fall of empires.

The most widely held model holds that empires arise due to the unusually aggressive nature of their parent-societies which sweep over their more pacific neighbors. Such empires support themselves by large-scale pillaging which drives them ever to new wars. When they overextend themselves or run out of pillage to fuel their war engines, the empires collapse.

People evoke this model readily when seeking to criticize the war du jour of a Western nation. They always claim the nation acquired its wealth from a modern form of pillage, that it needs pillage to prosper but that the current conflict represents the fatal overextension that will bring its doom.

Yet does this model reflect the true causes that drive the life-cycle of empires, even on an abstract and simplified level?

I say no. I think empires arise when their parent-societies become significantly more internally egalitarian than their neighboring societies. This increased egalitarianism makes the nascent empire far more economically and militarily effective than its neighbors. The empire expands as long as it maintains its advantage in its degree of egalitarianism. When it loses that advantage, it lose its economic and military edge, it falls prey to neighbors who can now compete on an equal footing.

I should reinforce here that only relative, not absolute, egalitarianism counts. Comparing the egalitarianism of the empires of old to those found in contemporary (or worse, idealistic) societies doesn’t tell us anything. We can discern its significance only by comparing nascent and senescent empires to the societies immediately adjacent to them in time and space.

Why would egalitarianism alone significantly strengthen a society? I think an egalitarian society grows more militarily and economically “dense.” It marshals resources in a significantly more efficient manner, allowing it to overcome others, even if they have parity in population, technology and resources. I call this effect, “power density.”

Let’s look at two major military factors as examples:

First, egalitarianism enlarges the manpower pool. A more egalitarian society can mobilize a greater percentage of its population than can a less egalitarian society. The less egalitarian a society, the more it must worry about internal security. It must concentrate military ability in fewer hands. Most human societies throughout history could allow only a very small minority (usually < 10%) of their populations to possess real military capability. Letting military skills bleed out to the larger population led to rebellions. The more egalitarian a society, the less it must worry about giving effective military training to a larger percentage of the population. If two societies equal in all other factors save their levels of equality go to war, the more egalitarian society can field the larger, better trained army. Second, egalitarianism fosters merit promotion. The less a society cares about the origin of an individual and the more it cares about individual merit, the greater the likelihood that it will promote competent individuals to vital positions. If two equal armies meet, and one chooses commanders based on proven merit and the other based on station, the former usually wins. In the multi-battle campaigns that found empires, the merit-based military will easily dominate in the long run. Third, egalitarianism also makes it easier for a society to incorporate conquered peoples, so that its power density remains high even as it controls more and more territory. If we looked at an animated map showing in detail the evolution of political boundaries, running in fast forward mode, we would see thousands of small entities pushing constantly up against one another, some growing slightly larger and others slightly smaller but little overall change. This general stasis occurs because neighboring societies quickly reach a military equilibrium. They use the same technology, have the same social order, mobilize the same percentage of their populations etc. The continuous oscillations results almost entirely from chances factors that exert no persistent effect. Occasionally, however, a society will suddenly change its social order to something more egalitarian. Suddenly, it can field larger, more capable armies than before. It breaks the military equilibrium and its color on the map begins to spread. If a society succeeds in institutionalizing its new egalitarianism it rapidly evolves into a persistent empire that lasts centuries. If not, it fails within a generation or two. In either case, empires fall when they lose their egalitarian nature and not by overextension. No matter how successful or longstanding an empire, competitors remain. Giant empires find themselves surrounded by dozens of smaller societies, each one insignificant in itself, but collectively very significant. If an empire loses its power-density, it fights on even ground with each of its potential attackers. It loses as many fights as it wins at best. Eventually, with no distinct advantage, it gets chopped to pieces. The life-cycles of the Mongol and Roman empires demonstrate the role that gaining and losing the egalitarian edge plays. Genghis Khan welded the martially skilled but fractious Mongol tribes into history's most proficient military. Prior to Genghis, every individual lived in a deeply hierarchical society where birth dictated station. Even the clans themselves existed in hierarchies. Occasionally, a militarily successful Khan would collect an army of follower clans but those armies were poorly disciplined and tended to evaporate at the first major reverse. Genghis disrupted this system by ruthlessly promoting strictly based on merit. He even killed his best friend and oldest ally in a quarrel over the practice. Not only did this improve the quality of leadership but it secured ironclad loyalty from those whose new position in life depended entirely on the continued rule of Genghis. Later he treated non-Mongols, such a Chinese and Arabic engineers with the same evenhandedness. He conquered nearly twenty-five percent of Eurasia in his own life. Unfortunately, Genghis Khan broke his own rule when choosing his succession. He divided the empire among his sons and grandsons, many of whom could not handle the responsibility. The tradition of merit promotion disappeared and the Mongol Empire fractured and dissolved into the conquered cultures. The Roman Empire's life cycle divides neatly between the Republic and the Empire. The two labels apply not only to the form of government in each era but also the Empire's egalitarian, expansionist phase and its inegalitarian, declining phase. The Republic seems to have arisen when the monarchy lost a series of wars and the nobility turned to the plebes in desperation. The plebes demanded representation and the Republic followed rapidly. Just by looking at the map one might think that the Republic conquered far less than the Empire but, proportionally, the Republic went much further. Moreover, the Republic fought against peer societies, opponents with similar technology, knowledge and population density. The Empire, by contrast won its victories largely against primitive societies with much smaller population densities. It failed to make any headway against the Persians, who more evenly matched the Empire in terms of population density and technology. When the Republic devolved into the Empire, the Empire's power-density began its long slide. The Empire struggled to field armies one-half of the size of those of the Republic, even though it possessed a much larger population to draw on. Neither could the Empire match the training and motivation of the armies of the Republic. The armies of the Empire increasingly became composed of mercenaries with no willingness to fight the pitched battles in which the armies of the Republic regularly engaged. In the end, Roman armies could fight no better than their "barbarian" opponents. Indeed, the armies of the late empire were usually nothing but ad hoc assemblies of "barbarian" mercenaries. So does this model apply to modern empires as well? Certainly westerners subjugated the rest of the world due to their more egalitarian cultures, and they lost direct control when the subjugated peoples adopted more-egalitarian social and political structures and reduced the West's relative advantage. However, arguably the West still retains as much control over the non-western world, via indirect means, as the empires of old did with direct military force. Further, one could view the spread of western values and institutions across the world as a form of conquest by absorption. If two differing peoples grow tightly interlinked by common economic, political and social interest, how does that differ functionally from assimilation by conquest? However, internal asymmetries in power that produce an inegalitarian decision-making system still pose a threat to the "empires" of the West. The loss of Indochina in the '70s arose from the historically unprecedented concentration of media power that occurred at that time. Some have estimated that by the early-'70s fewer than 100 people determined what events the national media reported and what perspective they adopted on the events they did report. In effect, media power grew massively inegalitarian. The thousands of papers and publishers of earlier generations collapsed into 3 broadcast networks, a handful of major newspapers, a couple of wire services and a dozen major publishing houses. Most of the other decisions that made the '70s something of an economic and social trainwreck also resulted from this concentration of media power. Fortunately, the technological conditions that created the inegalitarian media did not last, media power decentralized and the country righted itself. So those who squawk that the war du jour represents our downfall operate from a fundamentally flawed model. America's radical egalitarianism, not its supposed greater aggressiveness, is what gives it its overarching dominance. As long as America remain a government and a culture of the people, it will never fall.

17 thoughts on “Egalitarian Empires”

  1. I suggest that the egalitarian societies you describe are really those which have decentralized decision making. If decisions are overly centralized many issues are never addressed because the decision maker simply has no time. When decisions are strongly decentralized there are no bottlenecks and every issue is decided locally. The same isssue may occur ten times within the empire and find ten different remedies – some which work, some which fail, and perhaps a spectacular success or failure.

    Logically, the same issue should be decided the same way thruough out the empire. Once logic governs there develops a bureaucracy which implements intricate rules which slows down or halts the decision making process so that the empire is unable to react swiftly.

    A quick bad decision is better than a good decision that takes five or ten years to produce. A quick bad decision can be fixed by another quick decision until a good decision is made. A good decision reached 10 years after the fact is of interest only to lawyers and bureaucrats.

    In computer terms decentralization is paralell processing. Ten million decision makers working on individual problems will always outperform a single central processor, no matter how brilliant.

    Under the Roman republic, before Gaius Julius Caesar, each consul on completing his six month term became governor of a province
    where he held the maius imperium – absolute authority to raise taxes, make war and make peace. He was expected to use his authority to make himself rich so that when his term of office was over he could throw a really big party for all the citizens of Rome.

    With ten governorships run by ten ambitious governors who personally paid for their own wars Rome could have ten wars going at once. Under the Empire after Octavian the Emperor did not trust other men with the maius imperium but kept it for themslves
    (which is why they’re called imperatur). Thus they could only fight one war at a time. This slowed, then reversed, the growth of the emnpire. Id est, Decision making became over centralized.

  2. sol vason,

    I suggest that the egalitarian societies you describe are really those which have decentralized decision making”

    I think decentralized decision making is an inherent attribute of an egalitarian society. Of course, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg type feedback loop. You can’t have decentralized decision-making without egalitarianism and you can’t have egalitarianism without decentralized decision-making (almost by definition).
    Most empires seem to arise when those at the top of a centralized society discover that they need the voluntary cooperation of elements of the society that previously they merely commanded. Since the price of such cooperation always includes greater political power, decentralization and greater equality evolve hand-in-hand.

  3. I agree. More egalitarianism equals a more Darwinian apparoach to solving problems, both social and technological. Less ossification as well, sicne established interests are constantly being challenged. Top down systems tend to work well in the short term (the early Roman Empire’s expansion is a good example of this kind of single-minded ruthless efficiency), but such sytems tend to ossify and rot from the inside out rather quickly.

  4. As a practical matter, here and now (in the USA, anyway) Sol’s point of view results in a powerful argument for a “States Rights” outlook. With large intelligent populations copycating the successful states (not guaranteed, but most would, I think, copy improvements in states that do a thing well) a gradual overall improvement occurs throughout the country.

    And this begs the question: Does, or will, this kind of improvement occur because of, or with respect to, a federal Dept. of Education?


  5. Hmmmm….a grand scale for comparing societies in which somehow the USA comes out on top, while justifying our invasion and occupation of Iraq. (I assume that’s what Shannon Love is alluding to by the “war du jour.” Rather a light-hearted way of referring to a war that consumes a large part of our military resources and has basically destroyed Iraqi society.) I don’t buy it.

  6. Outraged,

    Evaluating the validity of a historical argument based on its perceived utility in a current political debate is just plain stupid. In any case, nothing in my argument justifies any war. I just wanted to demonstrate that the basic idea that empires arise out of runaway aggression and fall from overreach is silly regardless of the era in which the claim is made. It was silly in civil war. It was silly in Spanish American war. It was silly in WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

    The idea that the war du jour represents the supposed imperial overreach has been around for centuries. It is, like the vast majority of anti-war arguments, merely mindlessly recycled from generation to generation.

  7. Outraged – in any historical theory the West, and perhaps the US, ought to come out on top, otherwise the theory is useless for explaining the current hegemony of Western Civilization and our tremendous, unprecedented contributions to the human condition. Or are you claiming that non-Western societies are equal to the West in their contributions to science, technology, and human rights despite their relative stagnation and our surge forward since the Renaissance? That is patent nonsense.

    A successful historical theory does not, however, have to predict that the West will stay on top. One of the factors that drove innovation in Europe was the lack of a strong central authority, so heretics in religion or science or anything else could always find a place to hide. If their ideas were successful they and the people who sheltered them, flourished. There was just enough of a unifying force in the Church and the Holy Roman Empire to keep things from degenerating too badly – in most cases, and over the long haul. There certainly have been blips of outright craziness.

    But a certain amount of decentralization of decision making is key to creating a Darwinian, self-correcting system, which is the only one that works in the long run. It can be taken too far, though. With too much decentralization of authority, you get Poland just before the partition, with too little, you get the USSR. Neither works. The struggle between States Rights and the Feds has to be carefully balanced, it was carefully balanced by the Founders. It’s too far out of whack towards the Feds, now. That may be our downfall, and it would be predicted by a formalization of Shannon’s ideas into a theory.

    I think there’s an even better example close at hand, though – the EU is doing much worse damage much quicker to Europe, even in the non-member states.

  8. Interesting — but on the Republic-Empire distinction, I think there’s a slight problem. As far as I can remember from the various histories I’ve read, the Empire was, in fact, vastly more egalitarian than the Republic. It was under the Emperors that the subject populations in the various colonies were at last granted Roman citizenship, that the old Patrician ranks were expanded to incorporate just about anyone of prominence or wealth, and — from the meritocratic perspective — that you had people from exceedingly humble origins rising to the top of the command chain, and even to the throne itself. Diocletian, for example, is supposed to have been the son of a freed slave, yet he worked his way up through the ranks to command Roman armies, and then to become Emperor. In the final decades of the Western Empire, even people of semi-barbarian origins, like Stilicho, occupied high office under the Emperors, and did so (at least in Stilicho’s case) with an allegiance that seems to have run to Rome, rather than to whatever barbarian tribe they descended from.

    These are things that as far as I can see, simply wouldn’t have taken place in the stratified Rome of the middle and late republic, where the lines between Roman citizen and subject population were sharply drawn, and where, within Rome proper, the patrician and plebian classes, and the equestrian and senatorial orders were all quite distinct. All the great military commanders of the Republic appear to have been toffs. Cincinnatus was a patrician, and (wikipedia tells me) fiercely opposed to granting plebians equal status under the law. Sulla was a patrician. So was Caesar. The only exception, I think, is Pompey, who was not from one of the illustrious old gentes, and he only appears on the scene when the Republic is well on the way to the Empire.

  9. A mere quibble:

    “Unfortunately, Genghis Khan broke his own rule when choosing his succession. He divided the empire among his sons and grandsons, many of whom could not handle the responsibility”

    Ghengis remained and appointed a successor Khagan ( Great Khan or Emperor). It was Mongol tradition that the eldest son would take the outlier territories furthest from his father as the inheritence, thus spurring the Horde to new conquests. It was the subdivisions of the Horde in China ( who conquered the Sung dynasty) and the in far west who ravaged Russia, Iran and Mesopotamia, who were the most aggressive in carrying out Ghengis’ legacy.

  10. Paul Kennedy’s dry-as-dust “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” is relevant here. While he lacked Gibbon’s style, he certainly makes the case for Shawn’s statement. He provides detailed–too detailed–descriptions of military expenditures and national debt in the Spanish, French, British, German and Russian cases. In his view, imperial collapse has little to do with ideology and a lot to do with material constraints. “Egalitarianism” won’t prevent an empire up to its neck in debt and engaged in fruitless military adventures from collapsing.

    It’s interesting that Kennedy was writing in the 80s, clearly alluding to the arms race with the USSR under Reagan. Kennedy stresses over and over again that it is not absolute might, but relative might that counts. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a bonus for us, who were able to cut back on our military budget in the 90s and have a decade of strong economy and balanced budgets. Things have changed since then. I have no idea if the US will collapse like every empire before it, but up and coming Asian countries and even the EU you all loathe so much look better on many indicators than we do. The question is what to do about it.

  11. One should not overlook the impact climate change has had on the rise and fall of empires. The last mini-ice age which reached its coldest around the end of the 1500’s sent people out of Europe around the world looking for warmer climates in Africa, India, Australia and the Caribbean. In the warm period that followed England, Spain, Portugal and even France created empires on which the sun never set bringing modern weapons to people still fighting with sticks and stones.

    The previous ice age at the end of the first millennium sent people heading south to the Holy Land. The Vikings came down from the north leaving blond children as far south as Sicily. The medieval warming period led to the massive building and population surge of the 1200s and the Black Death of the 1300s. By the mid 1200s the heat was too much and many Europeans left the Holy Land and went North. However Siberia had thawed enough so that Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde could chase the sunset across Asia into Europe. When Siberia refroze the Mongol empire ended.

    The ice age of the 400s led to the fall of the Roman Empire as Vandals (the inventors of vandalism), Ostrogoths, Visgoths, Picts, Celts, and Attila the Hun all headed south to sunny Italy and Northern Africa. It is in this period that the medieval chroniclers note that the March Field is being held in May. In the late 700s thru the early 900s people started wars in the proper month creating the Carolingian Empire in Europe.

    The ice age centered on 80 B.C. saw large numbers of Gauls heading south into the lands around the Mediterranean. Amazingly enough the weather was so cool in North Africa that Egypt, Numidea and Sicily were major grain exporters. Spain was a wealthy province known for its agriculture. In the warm period that followed in 100-300 AD there was a major building boom in France and England of roads and cities.

    Warming periods come and go, Empire rise and fall in Europe, the Far East and the Americas. A major problem of Empires is communications over large distances. Distant places were ruled by governors with their own armies. If the central authority worked to keep the governors weak they were overrun by the barbarians at the gate. If the central authority allowed the governors too much power they set up their own countries.

  12. The idea that we are facing imperial overstretch in 2007 is not sustainable. In 1968 we had one person in 200 in the military. Now we have one person in 700 in the military. Look at graph 1. We are nowhere near Cold War levels of defense spending. Iraq is like the Boer War, a frontier skirmish that got out of hand, not some true threat to the imperium.

    The danger on the budget side is our transfer payments. Look at these pie charts. That is where we are potentially going to choke ourselves.

    As to Kennedy, he is a very good historian. His Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery is excellent, and his essay “Why the British Empire Lasted so Long” is a classic. But he is not a good futurist. He was predicting that Japan was going to displace us as the next superpower. I remember seeing him speak at the U of C in 1987, and he talked about how the Japanese were going to build aircraft carriers and challenge us for control of the Pacific.

  13. Taeyoung,

    As far as I can remember from the various histories I’ve read, the Empire was, in fact, vastly more egalitarian than the Republic.

    No, the Empire merely granted titles while stripping real power. No matter how you look at it, the Republic had a far greater degree of power diffusion than did the empire. In the Republic, for example, the Tribunes, representatives of the common people, could and did stop wars. No such institutional office existed in Imperial times.

    Common Romans of the Republic had real input into the decision making process of of the government. In Imperial times, not even the richest and most nobel did. Being a Senator meant nothing unless one also had a loyal legion to back ones claims. The Republic had a true rule of law that restrained even the most powerful. In the Empire, the emperor stood absolute.

  14. “Lex, I’d say Kennedy is on par with Lester Thurow.”

    Based on _The Rise of Fall of Great Powers_? I don’t think that’s justified. Reading over his terminal chapter about the prospect fo the various candidates, I can’t fault his treatment of the United States as the preeminent power though one facing serious problems. Europe’s lack of cohesion, Japan’s unidimensional power, China’s poverty, and, above all else, the vast array of issues facing the increasingly outclassed Soviet Union all loomed larger in Kennedy’s tale.

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