Ray Dalio’s 2022 book The Changing World Order talked about the various empires and nations in history – their rise and fall and what does it mean to our understanding of the current world order (led by the US) and how should we think about the future. This blog by Frederik Gieschen is on similar lines but draws on a 1976 essay by British military officer and historian Sir John Glubb.

“While empires had “almost every possible variation of political system,” Glubb believed they all passed through the same stages on their path to climax and collapse:

  • The Age of Pioneers (outburst)
  • The Age of Conquests
  • The Age of Commerce
  • The Age of Affluence
  • The Age of Intellect
  • The Age of Decadence.

An initial period of conquest is followed by an explosion in commerce and accumulation of wealth. This new affluence leads to spending on education, arts, science. “And yet,” wrote Leo Nicolletto, “Glubb noted, time and again—from Ancient Athens to the Arab Caliphate to China’s Song dynasty—an empire’s intellectual peak arrives just moments before its fall.”

Glubb saw the reason for the decline in a shift of values and attitudes across generations. “During the military period,” he wrote, “glory and honour were the principal objects of ambition.” Yet to the rising merchant class, “such ideas are but empty words, which add nothing to the bank balance.”

At first, popular enthusiasm is devoted to military glory, then to the accumulation of wealth and later to the acquisition of academic fame.

The empire becomes decadent, defensive, and anxious to protect its wealth. In the end, it is consumed by political division, pessimism, and toppled by a rising neighboring power.

Glubb noticed that empires lasted for about 250 years or ten generations. This seemed long enough to “transform the hardy and enterprising pioneer into the captious citizen of the welfare state.””

Whilst it is hard to precisely predict what stage of the decline, if at all, the US’ relative power over the rest of the world is in, the author pulls out pointers from Glubb’s essay:

“To assess an empire’s age, Glubb focused on the changes in the minds and hearts of its citizens. He pointed out a shift in attitude “from service to selfishness” due to the “spiritual disease” of decadence. Empires ended with a mood of “cynicism, pessimism and frivolity.”

The first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honor and adventure as the objective of the best young men.

Glubb viewed money as a key “agent” of decline because greed displaced the sense of duty and dedication that made the empire’s rise possible. “To the merchant,” he wrote, “values like glory and honour are but empty words, which add nothing to the bank balance.” In the late stage empire, the rich further their own interests while the poor feel no investment or obligation towards their nation.

Realizing the unfolding decline, people become desperate for distraction and entertainment (bread and circuses…). “The heroes of declining nations are always the same,” he warned, “the athlete, the singer or the actor.” It reminded me of Stefan Zweig’s account of pre-WWI Vienna, a city obsessed with the arts and asleep to the imminent fall of its empire.

Frivolity is the frequent companion of pessimism. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

Glubb also pointed at an unexpected “intensification of internal political hatreds”. When the Byzantine Empire was threatened by the Ottoman Turks, one would have expected its citizens to unite and “abandon personal interests.” Instead, “the reverse occurred.”

The Byzantines spent the last fifty years of their history fighting one another in repeated civil wars.
Glubb pointed out a kind of spreading nihilism. The empire’s citizens would “no longer make an effort to save themselves” because they were not convinced that “anything in life is worth saving.” Depressing stuff.”

The author then explains the fallacy in this comparison. Whilst concerns on a likely US debt crisis, dedollarisation, inequities, etc have been around for a while, when the whole thing unravels is anybody’s guess, even not necessarily in our lifetimes. However, he ends with how we can still make use of this knowledge and be prepared for any eventuality.

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