Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Fate of Empires - Part 2

More from Glubb Pasha :

The inadequacy of intellect

Perhaps the most dangerous byproduct of the Age of Intellect is the unconscious growth of the idea that the human brain can solve the problems of the world. Even on the low level of practical affairs this is patently untrue. Any small human activity, the local bowls club or the ladies' luncheon club, requires for its survival a measure of self-sacrifice and service on the part of the members. In a wider national sphere, the survival of the nation depends basically on the loyalty and self-sacrifice of the citizens. The impression that the situation can be saved by mental cleverness, without unselfishness or human self-dedication, can only lead to collapse.

Thus we see that the cultivation of the human intellect seems to be a magnificent ideal, but only on condition that it does not weaken unselfishness and human dedication to service. Yet this, judging by historical precedent, seems to be exactly what it does do. Perhaps it is not the intellectualism which destroys the spirit of self-sacrifice—the least we can say is that the two, intellectualism and the loss of a sense of duty, appear simultaneously in The life-story of the nation.

Civil dissensions

Another remarkable and unexpected symptom of national decline is the intensification of internal political hatreds. One would have expected that, when the survival of the nation became precarious, political factions would drop their rivalry and stand shoulder-to-shoulder to save their country.

In the fourteenth century, the weakening empire of Byzantium was threatened, and indeed dominated, by the Ottoman Turks. The situation was so serious that one would have expected every subject of Byzantium to abandon his personal interests and to stand with his compatriots in a last desperate attempt to save the country. The reverse occurred. The Byzantines spent the last fifty years of their history in fighting one another in repeated civil wars, until the Ottomans moved in and administered the coup de grace.

Britain has been governed by an elected parliament for many centuries. In former years, however, the rival parties observed many unwritten laws. Neither party wished to eliminate the other. All the members referred to one another as honourable gentlemen. But such courtesies have now lapsed. Booing, shouting and loud noises have undermined the dignity of the House, and angry exchanges are more frequent. We arc fortunate if these rivalries are fought out in Parliament, but sometimes such hatreds are carried into the streets, or into industry in the form of strikes, demonstrations, boycotts and similar activities. True to the normal course followed by nations in decline, internal differences are not reconciled in an attempt to save the nation. On the contrary, internal rivalries become more acute, as the nation becomes weaker.

At this point I feel constrained to point out that "this time it really is different". In times past, if there was a crisis, at least the competing factions could agree that the crisis existed, even if they were at loggerheads as to what to do about it. But in the UK, while many British people think there's a crisis of national decline, our rulers - of all parties - disagree. Indeed, many of the phenomena evinced as symptoms of decline are celebrated by them. "We are comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead" is a typical comment.

Which brings us on to :

The influx of foreigners

One of the oft-repeated phenomena of great empires is the influx of foreigners to the capital city. Roman historians often complain of the number of Asians and Africans in Rome. Baghdad, in its prime in the ninth century, was international in its population—Persians, Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Egyptians, Africans and Greeks mingled in its streets.

In London today (written in 1978 - LT) , Cypriots, Greeks, Italians, Russians, Africans, Germans and Indians jostle one another on the buses and in the underground, so that it sometimes seems difficult to find any British. The same applies to New York, perhaps even more so. This problem does not consist in any inferiority of one race as compared with another, but simply in the differences between them.

In the age of the first outburst and the subsequent Age of Conquests, the race is normally ethnically more or less homogeneous. This state of affairs facilitates a feeling of solidarity and comradeship. But in the Ages of Commerce and Affluence, every type of foreigner floods into the great city, the streets of which are reputed to be paved with gold. As, in most cases, this great city is also the capital of the empire, the cosmopolitan crowd at the seat of empire exercises a political influence greatly in excess of its relative numbers.

Second- or third-generation foreign immigrants may appear outwardly to be entirely assimilated, but they often constitute a weakness in two directions. First, their basic human nature often differs from that of the original imperial stock. If the earlier imperial race was stubborn and slow-moving, the immigrants might come from more emotional races, thereby introducing cracks and schisms into the national policies, even if all were equally loyal. Second, while the nation is still affluent, all the diverse races may appear equally loyal. But in an acute emergency, the immigrants will often be less willing to sacrifice their lives and their property than will be the original descendants of the founder race.
Third, the immigrants are liable to form communities of their own, protecting primarily their own interests, and only in the second degree that of the nation as a whole. Fourth, many of the foreign immigrants will probably belong to races originally conquered by and absorbed into the empire. While the empire is enjoying its High Noon of prosperity, all these people are proud and glad to be imperial citizens. But when decline sets in, it is extraordinary how the memory of ancient wars, perhaps centuries before, is suddenly revived, and local or provincial movements appear demanding secession or independence. Some day this phenomenon will doubtless appear in the now apparently monolithic and authoritarian Soviet empire. It is amazing for how long such provincial sentiments can survive.

Historical examples of this phenomenon are scarcely needed. The idle and captious Roman mob, with its endless appetite for free distributions of food—bread and games—is notorious, and utterly different from that stern Roman spirit which we associate with the wars of the early republic. In Baghdad, in the golden days of Harun al-Rashid, Arabs were a minority in the imperial capital. Istanbul, in the great days of Ottoman rule, was peopled by inhabitants remarkably few of whom were descendants of Turkish conquerors. In New York, descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers arc few and far between. This interesting phenomenon is largely limited to great cities. The original conquering race is often to be found in relative purity in rural districts and on far frontiers. It is the wealth of the great cities which draws the immigrants. As, with the growth of industry, cities nowadays achieve an ever greater preponderance over the countryside, so will the influence of foreigners increasingly dominate old empires. Once more it may be emphasised that I do not wish to convey the impression that immigrants are inferior to older stocks. They are just different, and they thus tend to introduce cracks and divisions.


As the nation declines in power and wealth, a universal pessimism gradually pervades the people, and itself hastens the decline. There is nothing succeeds like success, and, in the Ages of Conquest and Commerce, the nation was carried triumphantly onwards on the wave of its own self-confidence. Republican Rome was repeatedly on the verge of extinction—in 390 B.C. when the Gauls sacked the city and in 216 B.C. after the Battle of Cannae. But no disasters could shake the resolution of the early Romans. Yet, in the later stages of Roman decline, the whole empire was deeply pessimistic, thereby sapping its own resolution. 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.
Food for thought, eh? And this was thirty years before X Factor. Next instalment - Glubb Pasha looks at 10th century Baghdad, then, would you believe, the Swinging London of the Muslim world.


Sgt Troy said...

Well hats off to Glubb, laban -we can agree on what he says.

But where do we go from the analysis of the desperate problem?

It is perhaps worth noting that unlike the latter Roman Empire our armed forces, and particularly the combat units, remain very largely indigenous; of course there are Commonwalth soldiers - but very few Muslims.

This is the only positive out of Blair's wars, but it is a by no means insignificant one.

The surface area of our land that is dominated by foreigners remains very small

Sgt Troy said...

Your blog does remind me of the Beatles song laban

"She took me half the way there. She's a big teaser. She took me half the way there, now."

Martin said...


Sounds like good read, if in much the same vein as Gibbon and Carpopino.

Laban said...

I don't agree with everything Glubb says by any means. But the general patterns he draws are a reasonable fit with what we see. I thought it was interesting and worth bringing attention to.

Please disabuse yourself of the idea that what I quote necessarily = 'my view at that time'.

Foxy Brown said...

I can't wait for part three. Brilliant stuff.

Anonymous said...

Sgt Troy said...

"Please disabuse yourself of the idea that what I quote necessarily = 'my view at that time'."

A commendable detachment

I invariably use quotes to support an argument I am making.

But then I am a xenophobic, racist, fascist blah blah

otoh - I did drive through Sparkbrook, Small Heath today and observed the ever-growing legion of black tents, the Al-Aqsa "100% non-stun" halal meat shop, the "In Allah we trust" Somali emporium at the top of the Stratford Rd - rather taking the piss that as they might have confined the message to their usual squiggle; the massive green domed mosques.

Rather looked like colonisation, but then what do I know?

Distance always adds liberality to the view

Northern Monkey said...

Very interesting Laban - I shall read the full extracts at the link.

Although my wife is due to give birth to our first child in the next few days and this is all very depressing!

Laban said...

Sgt - please don't make assumptions about what I think of you, either.

I too know Sparkbrook and Sparkhill, although I knew it a lot better 25 years back. It was still an Irish area in the 70s.

Vale-Onslow's is still with us, I see, although Len is no more. What changes that guy must have seen in 103 years.

icr said...

It is perhaps worth noting that unlike the latter Roman Empire our armed forces, and particularly the combat units, remain very largely indigenous; of course there are Commonwalth soldiers - but very few Muslims.

But Britain has been part of the American Empire for quite a few years now.

Anonymous said...

Russians in London in 1978?