Monday, September 27, 2010

The Fate of Empires - Part 1

An excerpt from The Fate of Empires, by Sir John Glubb ('Glubb Pasha'), soldier, historian and Arabist, who died in 1986. I found it here thanks to a link here, and OCR'd it into text. Published by Blackwell in 1978 (in total opposition to the then zeitgeist), it appears to be unobtainable - can't even find a copy on ABE Books.

While I'm not at all sure that the one-third of call centre employees who have degrees were motivated by the desire for academic honours (I think they probably believed the innovative market theory that you could quintuple the number of graduates with no impact on graduate salaries, and thought they'd get well-paid jobs), and I don't get a hint of Paul Kennedy's later thesis that 'while the point of becoming a great power is to be able to fight major wars, the way to remain one is not to fight them', the pattern Glubb lays out seems a fairly good fit with what we see.

Let us now, however, return to the life-story of our typical empire. We have already considered the age of outburst, when a little-regarded people suddenly bursts on to the world stage with a wild courage and energy. Let us call it the Age of the Pioneers.

Then we saw that these new conquerors acquired the sophisticated weapons of the old empires, and adopted their regular systems of military organisation and training. A great period of military expansion ensued, which we may call the Age of Conquests. The conquests resulted in the acquisition of vast territories under one government, thereby automatically giving rise to commercial prosperity. We may call this the Age of Commerce.

The Age of Conquests, of course, overlaps the Age of Commerce. The proud military traditions still hold sway and the great armies guard the frontiers, but gradually the desire to make money seems to gain hold of the public. During the military period, glory and honour were the principal objects of ambition. To the merchant, such ideas are but empty words, which add nothing to the bank balance.

The wealth which seems, almost without effort, to pour into the country, enables the commercial classes to grow immensely rich. How to spend all this money becomes a problem to the wealthy business community. Art, architecture and luxury find rich patrons. Splendid municipal buildings and wide streets lend dignity and beauty to the wealthy areas of great cities. The rich merchants build themselves palaces, and money is invested in communications, highways, bridges, railways or hotels, according to the varied patterns of the ages.

The first half of the Age of Commerce appears to be peculiarly splendid. The ancient virtues of courage, patriotism and devotion to duty are still in evidence. The nation is proud, united and full of self-confidence. Boys are still required, first of all, to be manly — to ride, to shoot straight and to tell the truth. (It is remarkable what emphasis is placed, at this stage, on the manly virtue of truthfulness, for lying is cowardice — the fear of facing up to the situation.)
Boys' schools are intentionally rough. Frugal eating, hard living, breaking the ice to have a bath and similar customs are aimed at producing a strong, hardy and fearless breed of men. Duty is the word constantly drummed into the heads of young people.

The Age of Commerce is also marked by great enterprise in the exploration for new forms of wealth. Daring initiative is shown in the search for profitable enterprises in far comers of the earth, perpetuating to some degree the adventurous courage of the Age of Conquests.

The Age of Affluence

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. The decline in courage, enterprise and a sense of duty is, however, gradual.
The first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men. Moreover, men do not normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves. Gradually, and almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the voice of duty. The object of the young and the ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash.
Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to serve their country. Parents and students alike seek the educational qualifications which will command the highest salaries. The Arab moralist, Ghazali (1058-1111), complains in these very same words of the lowering of objectives in the declining Arab world of his time. Students, he says, no longer attend college to acquire learning and virtue, but to obtain those qualifications which will enable them to grow rich. The same situation is everywhere evident among us in the West today.

High Noon

That which we may call the High Noon of the nation covers the period of transition from the Age of Conquests to the Age of Affluence: the age of Augustus in Rome, that of Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad, of Sulaiman the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire, or of Queen Victoria in Britain. Perhaps we might add the age of Woodrow Wilson in the United States. All these periods reveal the same characteristics. The immense wealth accumulated in the nation dazzles the onlookers. Enough of the ancient virtues of courage, energy and patriotism survive to enable the state successfully to defend its frontiers. But, beneath the surface, greed for money is gradually replacing duty and public service. Indeed the change might be summarised as being from service to selfishness.


Another outward change which invariably marks the transition from the Age of Conquests to the Age of Affluence is the spread of defensiveness. The nation, immensely rich, is no longer interested in glory or duty, but is only anxious to retain its wealth and its luxury. It is a period of defensiveness, from the Great Wall of China, to Hadrian's Wall on the Scottish Border, to the Maginot Line in France in 1939. Money being in better supply than courage, subsidies instead of weapons are employed to buy off enemies. To justify this departure the mind easily devises its own justification. Military readiness, or aggressiveness, is denounced as primitive and immoral. Civilised peoples are too proud to fight. The conquest of one nation by another is declared to be immoral. Empires are wicked. This intellectual device enables us to suppress our feeling of inferiority, when we read of the heroism of our ancestors, and then ruefully contemplate our position today. 'It is not that we are afraid to fight,' we say, ' but we should consider it immoral.' This even enables us to assume an attitude of moral superiority.

The weakness of pacifism is that there are still many peoples in the world who are aggressive. Nations who proclaim themselves unwilling to fight are liable to be conquered by peoples in the stage of militarism—perhaps even to see themselves incorporated into some new empire, with the status of mere provinces or colonies.
When to be prepared to use force and when to give way is a perpetual human problem, which can only be solved, as best we can, in each successive situation as it arises. In fact, however, history seems to indicate that great nations do not normally disarm from motives of conscience, but owing to the weakening of a sense of duty in the citizens, and the increase in selfishness and the desire for wealth and case.

The Age of Intellect

We have now, perhaps arbitrarily, divided the life-story of our great nation into four ages. The Age of the Pioneers (or the Outburst), the Age of Conquests, the Age of Commerce, and the Age of Affluence. The great wealth of the nation is no longer needed to supply the mere necessities, or even the luxuries of life. Ample funds are available also for the pursuit of knowledge.

The merchant princes of the Age of Commerce seek fame and praise, not only by endowing works of art or patronising music and literature. They also found and endow colleges and universities. It is remarkable with what regularity this phase follows on that of wealth, in empire after empire, divided by many centuries. In the eleventh century, the former Arab Empire, then in complete political decline, was ruled by the Seljuk sultan, Malik Shah. The Arabs, no longer soldiers, were still the intellectual leaders of the world. During the reign of Malik Shah, the building of universities and colleges became a passion. Whereas a small number of universities in the great cities had sufficed the years of Arab glory, now a university sprang up in every town. In our own lifetime, we have witnessed the same phenomenon in the U.S.A. and Britain. When these nations were at the height of their glory, Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge seemed to meet their needs. Now almost every city has its university. The ambition of the young, once engaged in the pursuit of adventure and military glory, and then in the desire for the accumulation of wealth, now turns to the acquisition of academic honours.

It is useful here to take note that almost all the pursuits followed with such passion throughout the ages were in themselves good. The manly cult of hardihood, frankness and truthfulness, which characterised the Age of Conquests, produced many really splendid heroes. The opening up of natural resources, and the peaceful accumulation of wealth, which marked the age of commercialism, appeared to introduce new triumphs in civilisation, in culture and in the arts. In the same way, the vast expansion of the field of knowledge achieved by the Age of Intellect seemed to mark a new high-water mark of human progress. We cannot say that any of these changes were 'good 'or' bad '. The striking features in the pageant of empire are:

(a) the extraordinary exactitude with which these stages have followed one another, in empire after empire, over centuries or even millennia; and

(b) the fact that the successive changes seem to represent mere changes in popular fashion—new fads and fancies which sweep away public opinion without logical reason. At first, popular enthusiasm is devoted to military glory, then to the accumulation of wealth and later to the acquisition of academic fame.

Why could not all these legitimate, and indeed beneficent, activities be carried on simultaneously, each of them in due moderation? Yet this never seemed to happen.

There you have the UK round about now. What happens next in the story of Empire? Does it go on to greater heights? I think probably not ....


Anonymous said...

Laban: "I think they probably believed the innovative market theory that you could quintuple the number of graduates with no impact on graduate salaries, and thought they'd get well-paid jobs"

No, an 18 year old isn't thinking of spending 3 years knuckling down to hard study. He is thinking about meeting sexy college girls.
That what its mostly about.
Society today subsidies things that not long ago it was trying to prevent.

You can hear at a certain time of year when colleges are advertising themselves, they spend more time talking about the great 'nightlife' than study.

TDK said...

I think they probably believed the innovative market theory that you could quintuple the number of graduates with no impact on graduate salaries, and thought they'd get well-paid jobs

Why on earth is this a "market" theory?

People who believe the state can plan the economy thought that if we expanded the number of graduates we would either (a) take a step towards egalitarianism [Labour+Liberals] or (b) stimulate the economy [Labour+Liberals+Conservatives]. Either way it is a mark of planners not free marketeers. That the advocates invoked "markets" to justify their interventionism doesn't make it so.

Laban said...

Sorry, tdk - it was irony again ... but an awful lot of people who ought to (and maybe did) know better were happy to peddle the idea that the salary differentials which arose when only 5% of people went to uni were a guide to future salaries in a world where 35% went to uni.

moriarty said...

Carthage was a city of merchants, who paid men to fight for them, and whose army was dissolved as soon as the exchequer was exhausted. Rome could fight to its last man : Carthage could fight only to its last dollar.

A quote about the Punic wars I much like, from 'The martyrdom of man' by Winwood Reade. Something of a controversial book in its time, it has to be said.

Another book that might interest you Laban is by William Playfair called 'An Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations.: Designed To Shew How The Prosperity Of The British Empire May Be Prolonged' , written a couple of centuries ago. Haven't properly read it through yet, but there are some interesting passages there.

TDK said...

my bad.

Laban said...

Churchill was a big Reade fan in his military youth - The Martyrdom of Man made him an agnostic - until he experienced combat.

Anonymous said...

Paging Sgt Troy, paging Sgt Troy!

Mark said...


From the link you've given it looks as if this was the first of two magazine articles written for 'Blackwoods Magazine' in the 1970s by Sir John Bagot Glubb. You are spot on though about the article being 'in total opposition to the then zeitgeist' - the magazine itself folded in 1980. (According to Wikipedia, Blackwoods kept going in the last century because it was popular reading material with old colonial types.)

Glubb Pasha was of course one of the original 'camel corps' of British military men/administrators who (unlike Churchill) adopted a pro-Arab outlook during their time in the Mid East. His Arab Legion was also the only one of the Arab armies to have performed more than adequately in the 1948 War.So it's hardly surprising that he's now a forgotten figure, or else reviled by those to whom his name means anything. Which is sad considering the fluency of the article, and the disconcerting accuracy of its portrayal of Britain over 30 years later.

Sgt Troy said...

"Enough of the ancient virtues of courage, energy and patriotism survive to enable the state successfully to defend its frontiers. But, beneath the surface, greed for money is gradually replacing duty and public service. Indeed the change might be summarised as being from service to selfishness."

I recently read "First Light" by Geoffrey Wellum - youngest Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain with 92 Squadron; a deeply patriotic man who became a commodity broker after the war.

601 squadron who flew Hurricanes in the Battle were known as the "millionaires squadron". This also suggests to me that the virtue of high courage and patriotism can co-exist with the vice of greed for money in the same individual's life-time, and indeed perhaps at the same time.

This then suggests that the vices are by no means irremediable. What is true for individuals may be true for nations as well. How speedily have we fallen from the lofty heights of 1940 to our present despair, where national existence itself is in grave doubt so rapid is the pace of colonisation!

Of course historically deeply damaging parasitical elites will embed themselves, the crustier they get the more entrenched they will become. For instance Imperial Spain was notoriously priest ridden(which notion doesn't seem to feature in Glubb's thoughts) and this greatly hampered economic development and contributed to Spain's short transition from super-power to basket case. In own our time we have seen the final triumph of neo-liberal political economy(final one hopes for liberals) and the related social manifestations of politically correct authoritarianism.

But throughout history I have no doubt that the majority of people are basically sound. So, rather than navel gaze, the immediate job should surely be to undermine liberal "opinion formers" and their dupes in as awkward and bloody-minded fashion as possible. The country has long lost its way; in the turmoil that is inevitable in the ensuing years the opportunity may come to save something; of course it won't be pretty; and it won't be what currently passes for democratic either. The nation needs what Carlyle(I think) called "the firm stamp of an Oliver"; until something positive emerges any act resistance however small, any counter-argument to the prevailing nation-wrecking orthodoxy, must be all to the good, it certainly can't hurt.

We cannot predict the future; in the current rag-bag mess with apparently no end it seems to me quite probable that it is a small minority who will make it. Probably few bet on the Protestant sectaries in 1641. Britain is not alone, and we see a variety of resistance movements(eg Sweden) springing up in Europe.

Sgt Troy said...

It's all too ridiculous for words

In Vortigern's time Britain was assailed by the Picts, the Irish and the Saxons

Under what doubtless seemed like irresistible pressure, and for all we know was, Vortigern made a deal with the Saxons to do the jobs the Britons wouldn't do, in the current infamous phrase.

The Saxons then took over

Hengist to Vortigern

"Take my advice and you will never fear conquest by any man or people, for my people are strong. I will invite my son and his cousin, fine warriors, to fight against the Irish. Give them the lands of the North next to the Wall"

Kentish Chronicle

No such compulsion existed in post-war Britain

Modest mini said...

Looks like someone OCRed the entire book into a PDF:

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