I want to start this post with a confession: I bought my first books from Amazon around September 2002 (actually, that was my second purchase at the then budding site, as I had previously attempted to buy a book by William Burroughs which ended up being a cassette recording of him reading Cities of the red night, and which I think I never got myself to listening). My first order included a nice, hardback copy in three volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, cloth binding and all. Back then, I did with my Amazon orders what I was well accustomed to doing with my brick-and-mortar book purchases: I kept on indulging in them well before I had finished reading the haul from the latest one (or with the ones previous to that), so there were always books that sat in my nightstand unread for years, as I always found some newer, glitzier (or for some reason just more urgent) ones to turn my attention to. Also, I used to read multiple books in parallel back then, so finishing something or other always seemed more pressing than going back to the ones that, inadvertently, had been bought long ago. Be it as it may, the thing is that the imposing boxed set containing the first half of Gibbon’s masterwork had been sitting for 16 years in a corner of my library (the “history important books” corner, alongside the much revised, commented and dog-eared editions of Toynbee’s Study of History, Spengler’s Decadence of the West and Collingwood’s The Idea of History).
Since then, my reading habits have noticeably changed, as long ago I started reading a single book at a time, and not opening a new one until I had finished the one I was currently engaged with (no matter how boring or disappointing… indeed finishing boring and disappointing books has turned out to be a most rewarding endeavor, and a superb training method for attention and intelligence in general, see my posts Why reading boring books is good for you and Maybe even better ). I also reined my obsessive-compulsive buying behavior, not ordering (or buying in a physical store) anything until I had cracked open the last exemplar hauled in the previous order. During those years of subtle but persistent change, whilst occasionally I remembered with regret the mountains of unread books I had accumulated in wilder, less disciplined times, I was still too attracted by the allure of new volumes to pay much attention to the former. And thus the Decline and Fall languished in a corner both of my physical library and of my mind, very occasionally giving a gentle tug to my attention, reminding me it was still there, unfinished business from the past. Long story short, a couple weeks ago I finally gave it a go, as it fitted neatly within my overall intent of understanding better how civilizations have collapsed in the past, to better be able to judge how our own may develop, when its particular collapse seems more evident by the day.
A few words about Gibbon’s work, then, before I turn my attention towards what we may learn from it. I (like every other half-cultured rube) was already familiar with the basic shape of the argument: the empire fell because of its internal contradictions, exemplified by the loss of civic virtue of its elites, with a little help of that obnoxious and most irrational heresy (Christianity) that was carelessly elevated to the role of official religion by Constantine. Such sketchy outline has been rehashed by so many later historians and thinkers (it very much permeates the Essay on the History of Civil Society by Adam Ferguson, and we can still find the basic idea of elites losing their ability to respond to external challenges because of the adoption of a universal religion better suited to proletarians underlying most of Toynbee’s understanding of social dynamics) that it has become a commonplace, and it’s difficult to evade or to challenge its main tenets. I had already high hopes for the writing style, as it is generally acknowledged to be a high mark of XVIII century English prose. Maybe I harbored unrealistic expectations, but I found the prose a bit flat and unenticing. Not abysmal, mind you, but stilted and clichéd at some points, and with some quirks certainly grating for modern sensibilities (Gibbon almost never encounters anything coming from Asia, be it a custom, a ruler, or a cultural artifact like a building, a painting, a vase or a statue, which he doesn’t automatically qualify as “effeminate”). Interestingly, it is a style that I’ve come to associate with German philosophical writings of the following century (the same standard turns of phrase being used and abused, the same highfaluting appeals to national character and the same understanding of a certain kind of exalted, highly emotional spiritual contemplation as the highest good, described in very similar and a bit conceited terms), which may be explained by the influence that Gibbon exerted on them (I may need to get to a contemporary translation to confirm that hunch, though). Not entirely my cup of tea, although competently executed.
However, I also felt it a bit lacking in the elaboration of a consistent theory of why things happened as they did, where the particular events narrated (colorful and amusing as they undoubtedly are) are weaved as different strands of causal ingredients that serve to highlight a common thread, making us believe that things were as they were for a reason. There is, of course, the underlying narrative I sketched before (the Senate just went soft and corrupted, let unworthy rabble become emperors, and in the end they couldn’t even defend themselves), but that barebones narrative leaves too many questions unanswered: did the whole senatorial class slumped wholesale into stupor and irrelevance? Doesn’t seem likely, as with few exceptions it kept producing some very redoubtable emperors; why did some noble families slid into irrelevance (other than by being exterminated by political enemies, which at some points seemed like all too common) while others kept on producing imperial scions for centuries? How did the development of latifundia and the disappearance of tenant farmers affect the civic spirit of both classes? (not that we should expect Gibbon to provide a class-struggle based analysis that would only appear in the intellectual scenario with Marx almost a century later); Why weren’t there any significant technological developments in almost a millennium? Was that a cause or a consequence of a society where more and more of the production was being carried out by slaves, lacking thus the incentive to economize in manpower?
It is probably my fault that I’ve come to enjoy “big history” (the “grand theory” as described/ warned against by Quentin Skinner) and in contrast seem to enjoy less the traditional way of telling it, which I find too much “one damn thing after the other” (long chapters of Gibbon seemed to me little more than:
…so Valerian went to that city, and fought that battle and (probably, we can’t be sure because our sources are crap and most ancient historians are not really very reliable, ya’ know) lost it, so he was murdered by his soldiers, who appointed Valerianus, who in turn went to that other city, where he fought that other battle, which he won (yay!),but then lost a subsequent one, and was in turn murdered by his soldiers (or slain in battle, according to a not-very-reliable source again, lovingly quoted in Latin), who this time appointed Valerianulus, who, who would have guessed! Went in turn to a third city where he fought a battle that he either lost or won…
I get it that most of those dudes a) reigned for just a few months b) didn’t do anything remarkable or leave any perdurable trace other than minting a few coins and may be erecting some memorial column or other and c) have reached us through chronicles written some centuries after their deaths by unscrupulous hacks with an ax to grind and some spurious interest in maligning/ whitewashing them, depending on the inclination of their patrons, but the succession of their exploits sometimes makes for some winding, unfocused and boring passages. So there you have it, I have the gall to, being and absolutely shitty writer myself (and egregiously overindulging in winding, unfocused and boring passages as much as the next guy), criticize one of the universally accepted masters of the English language… in words he would have considered fitting: o tempora, o mores!
Which doesn’t mean I’m not highly recommending the book. As Hugh Trevor-Roper remarks in the introduction (an introduction that would have benefited itself from some judicious editing), Gibbon is our first “modern” historian, trying to discern longer-term trends below the hurly-burly of battles, murders, rapes, illegitimate accessions, revolts and plagues that afflicted such unhappy and tumultuous interval of our common history, and applying a discerning critique to the different sources he masterly commands, trying to adjudicate between the sometimes wildly differing reports of his predecessors with (mostly) unerring authority. Just be aware that the discipline has evolved, language itself has evolved (mostly for the worse, I’m afraid, as we use less and less words to express poorer and less structured thoughts), and the classics, worthy of attention as they undoubtedly are, keep growing more alien to us by the day, and thus their books present some difficulties that should not be underestimated.
But surely of more interest to my modern anxious readers than my (highly idiosyncratic) opinions on Gibbon’s work is what I coyly suggested in this post’s title it may teach us about our current predicament. To such juicy comparison I now turn, starting with a quick recap of the underlying causes Gibbon identifies as being the real culprits of the collapse of Greco-Roman civilization (although only the Roman half of the empire is dealt with in the first three books, whilst the Eastern part would get its own subsequent three volumes, I haven’t bought those… yet!):
1. Loss of public spirit by the elites (senatorial class), and of civic virtue, sense of decorum, and of obligation first and foremost towards the common good.
2. Extension of the benefits of Roman citizenship to all the inhabitants of the Empire, thus debasing the value of such citizenship, and the homogeneity of the social body (and thus losing the ability to easily collaborate in common projects).
3. Loss of discipline of the legions, that found there was more benefit to be had from deposing whoever happened to be emperor, and then choosing a successor (whose first decision would then be to rewards them generously in a vain attempt to ensure their loyalty) than from defending the ever more porous frontiers against continuous Barbarian incursions.
4. Loss of faith in the common narrative shared by the elites (whose external manifestation was a traditional religion whose beliefs were, in the author’s arch-famous words “considered, by the people, as equally true; by the philosophers, as equally false; and by the magistrates, as equally useful”). Needless to say, that common narrative would be substituted by a new one, Christianity, that in Toynbee’s analysis was the expression of the universal religion of the estranged proletariat that already exhausted empires always formulate in their decomposition phase
Although of course Gibbon, like any other thinker, could not avoid projecting in his understanding and interpretation of events the forms, mores and most salient features of his own age, and his Roman citizens are thinly veiled Englishmen in the eve of the Industrial Revolution, threatened by external forces (mainly France) he identified with barbarism and a lower level of civilization (a civilization he, of course, understood as linearly progressing and having reached its apex in his own society) and subjected to a loss of traditional virtues for the love of commerce and material gain (the most forceful denunciation of such “corruption” of mores being found in a contemporary of Gibbon, the already mentioned Adam Ferguson, whose Essay on the History of Civil Society was published the year after Gibbon’s first volume), the parallelisms with our own age are nothing short of amazing:
1. Whatever you consider the elites of our time (the media, politicians of every stripe, and millionaires, be them from show business, sports or industry), the confidence or admiration the public expresses in them is at an all-time low in all advanced societies. The reason is their evident selfishness, self-regard, narcissism and disregard for traditional norms of solidarity, decorum and simple common decency. Our forebears called that “loss of public spirit and civic virtue”, and it manifested itself in a perception of corruption and extended decadence not different at all from the one we have.
2. Any attempt to somehow limit the public benefits to the native-born citizens of those same advanced societies where the elites are loathed and distrusted is regularly denounced by those same elites (plus most of the academic establishment tasked with ideologically justifying and perpetuating their dominion by the proper indoctrination of the young), as nationalist/ populist/ retrograde and most uncivilized and hateful drivel. The non-elite population can, with great difficulty, notice that those who so ardently preach in favor of the extension of public benefits to all are pretty zealous to preserve the enjoyment and transmission of their very private benefits for themselves and their descendants only (see my Problem with open borders ), without noticing any contradiction at all. The fact is, advanced societies (more markedly, Western ones, Asians are more circumspect in welcoming foreigners) show a clear tendency towards universalizing the benefits of citizenship, and that indeed causes tensions, fractures, and makes more difficult for them to coordinate their actions.
3. The military, in those advanced societies, has stayed loyal and disciplined so far. Although the 70s and 80s saw their share of military coups (mostly in East Asia, Africa and Latin America), a good deal of those devolved power more or less peacefully to civilian leaders in the last decades, and the threat of a “new authoritarianism” so far seems to come from the civilian part of the social body. But beware men with arms in a fragmented society slowly sliding into chaos and disorder, as ours is doing (so slowly, indeed, most commentators have not yet noticed it). I would expect armies to have a much greater role (not necessarily for the good) in the second and third decades of this century, but will have more to say about them in a moment.
4. If we resort to François Lyotard’s concept of “postmodernity”, it is precisely the loss of legitimacy of every previous “grand narrative” what is most characteristic of our own time. Traditional (Christian) religion is bleeding adherents and authority, but the “secular” (whatever that means) alternative that appeared in the XIX century to crystalize and exemplify the hopes and desires of the disenfranchised proletarians of the then-crumbling world-system is as much discredited, if not more (I’m talking of Marxism, as much a religion as the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, Mayans or Incas). Which means that the true universal religion (again, in a Toynbeean sense) that captures the imagination of the proletariat of our times (the non-elite masses that cannot share the ideological tenets of the dominant belief system any more, and are thus growingly alienated) has still to take shape, or, seen from a different perspective, is still up for grabs. May be that role can be played by a re-energized Christianity (my own and very idiosyncratic preference, although I wouldn’t bet on it), may be by a rekindled nationalism (with whatever foreboding overtones you want to paint it: neo-reaction, neo-fascism, traditionalism, populism…) if and when it somehow acquires the ability to provide credible meaning and an action plan to a society sorely lacking both. May be by something entirely new we still don’t have a grasp of.
So I would say, except for the military running amok, we are quite advanced in a process of massive social disenchantment and hopelessness and loss of faith in a common future not too dissimilar to the one that precipitated the collapse of the Roman world. There is one difference, though, and to that difference I will now turn my attention: technology, which between the II and IV centuries of our era we believe was extremely stagnant, is nowadays progressing royally, and will surely deliver us from any kind of decline, decrease of living standards, or regression. Or so they tell you, don’t they (the same people, remember, that defends openness and generosity with the public goods they don’t use or need, while at the same time guarding jealously from competition or access the private goods they have amassed in an increasingly unequal system)? Well, I’ve got some bad news for you: technology is not progressing at all in any meaningful sense, except in one area: the ability of giant corporations to trade with your attention, which should be your most precious asset and which you are squandering and giving out for free (as attested by the fact that you are reading this blog -that is, if you managed to make it this far!).
Want proof? I’ll give you three pieces of evidence: total factor productivity (the ability of the whole economy to produce more material goods -the classical four F’s we humans need to be contented: food, fiber, fuel and procreation) doesn’t rise significantly since the 70s of last century; the median salary (what half the population has to live with) has barely budged since that very same decade in almost all advanced economies, despite the average GDP per person having grown fivefold (which means most of the increase in wealth creation has been corralled by a tiny percentage of the population); and in most of those same advanced economies, the guys currently in their 20s-30s are wont to become the first generation since the Industrial Revolution that will not live better (in terms of material wealth) than their parents.
But hey, they will have Internet! Smart phones (to communicate more impoverished messages with more brainless peers)! cheap giant plasma TV screens (on which to look at utter rubbish)! That is, they will have a shitty house, shitty clothes (very much like the ones I myself wore as a teenager, for what I see), a shitty urban environment (public squalor amidst great private wealth, albeit for the majority that great wealth will be held by other people) and a shitty health, partly caused by the polluted atmosphere and partly by the shitty food they will eat, which they will pay with the shitty salary provided by a shitty, precarious job. But they won’t mind, because they will also have a thousand shiny screens so their attention will be almost continuously held by wonderful algorithms away from their shabby surroundings into wondrous realms of amazement and entertainment and fun! I doubt even the most refined virtual reality will, in the long term, prevent them from at some point revolting and overthrowing such anti-humane, meaningless system, but who am I to know?
Well, before being labelled a loony pessimist and total nut (not that I would care), I’ll point my hypothetical readers’ attention to an additional parallelism, as shocking as the previous three (remember, the one about undisciplined armies is still the only element missing from a full-decadence scenario, and we may not be as far from that as we like to believe). Do you, dear reader, know which are the two only ages of recorded history of “voluntary population contraction”? that is, of decreasing population in the absence of major wars or epidemics, just by the sheer lack of belief in the common future, by sheer lack of commitment with the continuation of one’s own system of beliefs, by sheer abandonment of the participation in a shared narrative that gives meaning to one’s life, and makes one want it to continue in his descendants. A hint: one of those ages is precisely II-IV century Europe, which saw Rome go from a million inhabitants to maybe a quarter of that, and saw the surrounding fields and villages, all over the continent, being depopulated and left uninhabited. And it was not a catastrophic event, but the result of millions of individual choices, of individual couples deciding that, in the end, life itself was not worth living (a question that was already dangerously close to the balance for their Greek cultural forebears), and if life was not worth living, it was not surely worth creating or passing to the next generation. The barbarians kept crashing at the gates until, when the gates finally went down, they came inside a mostly empty territory, with nary a functioning army to stop them. The other only age that has seen a similar phenomenon? Our own, our very current enlightened and hyper-prosperous day. So prosperous indeed, that we have collectively decided to enjoy ourselves so much that we don’t have enough time or energy to do things as little enjoyable as raising the next cohort of enjoyers…
Don’t give me, then, sophistic answers about the greatness of the technological revolution we are supposedly in the midst of. About how the awe-inspiring creativity of the unchained human intelligence, free of the bounds of superstition, held firmly by the wings of sacred Science, and soon to be complemented by that of the machines we are creating, will soon overcome every and all limitations and create a post-scarcity society where we will all be rich as Croesus, healthy as a fit teenager, and live happy forever in the land of plenty. We are a decadent, wasted, spent bunch of pathetic and deluded hairless apes that have forsaken the traditions and rituals that gave their short lives meaning. And, alas! Meaning is in the end more precious, and more difficult to obtain, than material wealth, than bodily comforts. At some point in the next three or four decades we will realize we are not a iota closer to “defeating death” as the Egyptians priests were. Not a iota closer to developing a real general-purpose artificial intelligence as Leibniz was. Not a iota closer to a society of unlimited material riches freely available for everybody as the slave societies of Greece and Rome.
Which brings me back to this post’s title. Who are those “we”, exactly, bound to decline and fall? Because decline is a relative concept, and for “us” to decline (relatively) somebody has to be (relatively) rising. If we are to fall, it has to be at the feet of somebody else who is apt to benefit from our falling. Some would say the Chinese are the ones better positioned to succeed “the West” as Earth’s foremost society. Bollocks. I hereby enunciate what I will call the “Vintage Rocker Rule” (VRR): “no society has ever become hegemonic with a fertility rate below 2.5”. How many babies are Chinese women having these days? A quick look at the CIA World Factbook tells us it is a whooping 1.6. No wonder they have ended their one-child policy, but so far everything indicates it’s too late, and the reversal is having almost no effect. Since decades ago it was not the fear of punishment what kept Chinese couples from having more than one little boy (and man! Did they prefer it to be a male! As shown by one of the most skewed male-to-female ratios at birth ever recorded), but the pressure of pursuing a competitive career in the crazy environment of keeping-up-with-the Joneses-dialed-to-eleven of contemporary Chinese society. So good luck dictating to the rest of the world how to behave and what values to acquire when 50% of your population is 65 years old or older, as theirs will be in a couple decades (when the USA finally crashes, if they continue in their current course)…
The fact of the matter is, there are no barbarians with the demographic oomph to seriously challenge the Western model, with its accompanying dominant reason. Islam? Fuggedaboud it. In the heart of Ayatollah-land (Teheran) devout ladies are having 1.4 babies on average. Immigrant populations in the social democracies of Europe are freaking out conservatives and nationalists of their host countries keeping a fertility significantly above that of the natives, but they can’t escape the pull of the times, and in 2-3 generations they revert to the mean (as Mexicans are doing in the USA). The only geographically significant place substantially resisting the trend towards sub-replacement fertility is Sub-Saharan Africa, which doesn’t offer much, at this moment, of an example of social organization one could think is required to present a semi-credible bid for world domination. But, is demography is destiny, just give them time…