Empires rise, and empires fall. This fact of history—so obvious looking backwards—is all but inconceivable to those living through an empire’s peak. Human life is so short in the scheme of civilisations that we tend to overemphasise the importance and length of our own era, while past ages blur together. We live closer in time to Cleopatra than she did to the builders of the pyramids, but Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome all blend in the popular imagination into a shadowy and distant past.
Culture biases us as much as our sense of time. The Arabic-speaking Moors ruled large parts of what is now Spain for nearly eight centuries—that is, for a third as long again as the 600 years that have passed since they (or at least, their leaders) were driven out by the newly-united Catholic monarchs of Aragon and Castile. Yet through contemporary European eyes, Moorish rule is typically viewed as an “interlude” in the history of the Spanish nation—a nation that, in reality, didn’t come into political being until the late 15th century. And—as many Basques, Catalonians, and Galicians would argue—a nation that has perhaps never truly existed culturally.
Nevertheless, the relative stability of political hegemony lets us overlook many cultural differences and tensions. Today’s Catalan and Basque independence movements may threaten the Spanish state, but they don’t challenge the “empire”—that is, the North Atlantic order, centred on the United States, the European Union, and institutions like the UN, NATO, and the WTO. Similarly, during the golden age of the Emirate of Córdoba, the tensions and rebellions of the Latin-speaking, post-Visigothic kingdoms to the north might have threatened various aspects of the Iberian state, but had little bearing on the sense of hegemonic stability that pervaded the Caliphate, which stretched across the Maghreb through the Middle East to India.
But the Caliphate did fall. And sooner or later, the present North Atlantic empire will lose its hegemony too. Indeed, if there is any truth to the theories of Sir John “Pasha” Glubb, we are already witnessing the final stages of Western dominance, and experiencing a transfer of power (back) towards the East.
Glubb was an English army officer who spent the best part of his career serving the newly-independent governments of Iraq and Jordan. An avid—if amateur—historian, he developed a theory on hegemonic orders that he called the “Fate of Empires.” Comparing a series of ancient and modern empires, he concluded that their average lifespan was 10 generations—about 250 years—and that, despite great geographic, technological, religious, and cultural differences, all empires follow a general pattern as they expand, develop, and finally decline and collapse. Although Glubb himself was the first to acknowledge the risks of over-simplification in his generalised model, his observations aptly describe, in broad-brushstrokes, not only the fate of past empires, but the contemporary situation in global politics today, particularly regarding the West and China.
Glubb was agnostic on whether the “laws” of history he claimed to uncover were at all deterministic, but hoped that, by understanding how empires decline and collapse, modern citizens stood a chance of avoiding their typical fate. And so, I want to consider ways in which the predicted collapse of Western hegemony might be averted. It’s another question whether or not such a collapse ought to be avoided. Glubb—as a man of his time and class—had imperialist tendencies, though his immersion in foreign cultures gave him an open-mindedness that is generally lacking in the present-day imperialists of Western conservative parties. At any rate, as we go along, I’ll suggest that if the West is to avoid the fate of past empires, it needs to stop acting like a typical empire. And to do that, it needs to move as far as possible from modern conservative policy—and its emphasis on corporate profit and economic growth—as it can.
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Glubb noted that empires tend to begin with a “breakout” phase, in which an insignificant nation on the margins of an established power—say, the Macedonians before Alexander, the Arabs before Muhammed, or the Mongols before Genghis Khan—suddenly overwhelms its neighbours. This “Age of Pioneers” becomes an “Age of Conquests” when, encouraged by early successes, the rising nation takes over the power structures of its conquered neighbour and continues to expand. Glubb noted that successful new empires are not motivated simply by loot and plunder. With an emphasis on “noble” virtues—adventurousness, courage, strength, and, importantly, honesty—rising empires don’t want simply to subdue the established power; they want to become as they perceive them to be: advanced, technological hegemons. The Arabs took over Greek and Persian institutions—as the Mongols would take over Chinese and Islamic institutions—to become masters of a revitalised and expanded civilisation.
A rising empire, argued Glubb, has at its advantage an optimistic sense of initiative, and a spirit of improvisation, that contrasts with the defensive deference to tradition found in more established powers, who have too much to lose by experimentation. The rising power, he claimed, is also typically marked by a racial homogeneity, and its members consequently feel a strong sense of duty and loyalty to their tribe. This frequently evolves into a sort of “ruling caste,” as the conquerors situate themselves at the head of the pre-existing societal order of the conquered, as happened in India, first with the Mughals, and later with the British.
Having established control over large, diverse territories, the new pax impera creates ideal conditions for trade. And so begins what Glubb called the “Age of Commerce.” The desire for honour and glory gradually becomes a desire for material riches. At first, the conquering class may participate only indirectly in such commerce. Their military success has made the roads and seas safe for merchants, whom they tax and protect, but from whom they remain aloof—indeed, it’s intriguing how low on the social scale merchants and businessmen are considered in many pre-modern cultures. But sooner or later, seeing the potential for riches, the ruling class can’t but get itself involved. However, Glubb claimed that at these still-early stages of the “Age of Commerce,” material gain is still seen in terms of national glory, an extension of political conquest. “Noble” virtues continue to be taught and idealised, above all a sense of duty to the nation.
The “Age of Commerce” thus gives way to an “Age of Affluence,” marked by great civic works and building projects, and investments in art and culture, as the rich look for ways to spend their newfound wealth. In our own day, this depiction aptly fits China. The ruling class of the Communist Party—long aloof, at least in theory, from material excess—has joined forces with the commercial classes to promote not just prosperity but fantastic wealth. All the same, many Chinese—in business as well as in engineering or research—describe their motivations just as much as a duty to the country as for their own or their family’s benefit. Success in business is a source of national pride.
Though perhaps not for long. As an empire grows richer, Glubb noted, wealth becomes an end in itself, and the emphasis moves from national service to personal gain. The old nobility and their sense of virtue are replaced by merchants and the values of the market. With this diminishing sense of duty comes a defensiveness, concerned with protecting affluence for a minimum of shared sacrifice. The United States crossed this line a long time ago, all but codifying it in the Reagan era. Though lip-service is still paid to the pioneer spirit of the Founding Fathers, unchecked individualism has replaced the “united-we-stand” attitude that built the early nation. By the time of the second Gulf war, the middle classes were encouraged to go shopping to support the economy, while the military—drawn largely from the poorest classes of society—made the actual sacrifices. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the defining factor of the richest class of Americans, and their political allies, is the avoidance of all shared national burdens—from healthcare to taxes and the public services that rely on them—in favour of a hyper-individualistic notion of prosperity.
(Interestingly, Glubb also noted that this period of an empire’s history is frequently marked by the building of walls. From Hadrian’s Wall to the Great Wall of China, wall-building is an inward-looking, defensive gesture aimed at hoarding and protecting wealth).
By the time this softer, comfortable, and defensive form of affluence has been achieved, Glubb wrote, the empire has already begun its decline. He called the penultimate stage of empire the “Age of Intellect.” This is often seen in the moment as an empire’s golden age. Higher education becomes widespread, and scientific and technological advances abound. And yet, 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. As a result, Glubb was intensely suspicious of intellectualism, which he viewed as a product of the “softness” of the “Age of Affluence”—all talk and no action, inventing justifications for why the nation should no longer fight, and conquer, and grow rich.
Glubb was careful not to stray into anti-intellectualism—there is no reason, he wrote, that a nation’s success should be measured in terms of monetary rather than academic achievement. But he worried that a side-effect of the “Age of Intellect” is that increasing political chatter often raises internal political divisions above external threats in the public consciousness. Glubb’s example is Byzantium which, faced with the Turks’ imminent invasion, fought a series of civil wars that weakened the empire so that it was ready for collapse. In contemporary Britain, America, and Europe, internal divisions and enmity have begun to absorb almost all political and media attention, almost to the exclusion of the geopolitical challenges presented by Russia and China, to say nothing of the looming climate catastrophe.
However, worse than the misdirected political engagement of the “Age of Intellect” is the complete disengagement that marks the final “Age of Decadence.” While the chattering classes might still concern themselves with issues of state, during the final decline the nation’s collective attention becomes consumed by sport and entertainment. For Glubb, this goes hand-in-hand with the welfare state, which he argues is the other face of the decadent merchant’s reaping of the empire’s benefits without participating in the shared sacrifice it requires.
Unpalatable as this final point might be to modern liberals, Glubb offered a few historical examples to support it, and similar observations might be made of the modern West. When industries that support entire communities are sold off or shut down, workers are left with nothing but welfare as an option for survival, and with no political or economic voice, it becomes all too easy to fall into the opiates of diversion—sport and shopping, as well as more literal drugs. Similarly, while Glubb’s scepticism about immigrants (“not bad, just different”) will ring alarm bells for many with liberal tendencies—especially in today’s charged environment—he offered some interesting historical examples to support it, including an accurate prediction of the revival of nationalism in the breakdown of the USSR, which would take place 15 years after he wrote.
Glubb’s account therefore makes uneasy reading for a modern, cosmopolitan intellectual. Although we can question his generalisations and his selection of examples, his broad picture holds true not only for the periods he discusses, but also seems applicable to modern empires, such as China, which appears to be somewhere in the transition from the “Age of Commerce” to the “Age of Affluence,” and the North Atlantic liberal hegemony, which—depending on your vantage point—is in either the later stages of the “Age of Intellect” or entering the “Age of Decadence.” His questioning of intellectualism, immigration, and the welfare state is also challenging for the progressive project, casting the attainment of its goals as symptoms of its impending collapse.
On a superficial reading, Glubb might be caricatured as a particularly sentimental variant of Brexiteer, an imperialist who yearned for a time when men were men and Britain ruled the waves. But while unashamedly nostalgic, Glubb was philosophical enough to accept Britain’s decline, and warned against petty nationalisms as obstacles to European unity. And I believe that his work might in fact offer a clue to breaking the cycle of history, and building a united Europe and revitalised America as lynchpins of a forward-looking, moral, global order.
First of all, we should not assume—and neither did Glubb—that perpetuating an empire is a good in and of itself. He was quite agnostic on that point, and suggested that history’s different empires have allowed humanity’s diverse capacities—for art, organisation, philosophy, and so on—to be emphasised at different times, and that the collapse of one empire is simply the occasion for another’s flourishing. He saw history as cyclical, rather than a linear progression, and assumed that it was simply obvious that, as one society renounced conflict, a more aggressive rival would find openings to challenge it.
Nevertheless, there are still reasons to want to perpetuate Western hegemony. These need not be purely self-interested, either. Despite the hypocritical rhetoric of recent American imperialism, we can still uncynically argue that a world order based on liberal, European values is preferable to one centred on aggressive Russian expansionism, or on Chinese Han-centric authoritarian capitalism. While many Western radicals might welcome the decline of Western hegemony, we ought to pause for a moment to consider what its collapse would mean in practice for progressive values across the globe. Glubb noted that the later “Age of Intellect” is marked by increased equality for women and cultural minorities—rights which disappear when power is passed to a rising power in its patriarchal “Age of Pioneers” (compare, for instance, women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan as they passed from Western and Soviet hegemony into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists).
Averting the West’s collapse, therefore, needn’t be a reactionary undertaking—in fact, although it is rarely recognised as such, it is vital to the progressive project. Glubb’s language—his praise of “manly” values, his scepticism of immigration and the welfare state, his criticism of intellectualism—certainly makes him look like an ally of the populist nationalists who have arisen in the past decade in reaction to the West’s perceived decadence. The rhetoric of the Right over recent years—with its condemnation of immigrants (“Build the wall!” “Stop the boats!”), and reflexive opposition to welfare, intellectuals, elites, and expertise—might just have been taken from a superficial reading of Glubb. The central populist idea, conscious or not, seems to be that if we could just roll back the “Age of Intellect” and its “soft” values, we could recapture the golden “Age of Affluence.”
But a more careful reading of Glubb reveals that such a strategy treats only the symptoms of the decline, not its cause. Glubb was quite clear—it is greed, and the transition of a culture from “service to selfishness” that marks a nation’s tipping point into decadence and decline. The rise of intellectualism can be better understood as an early reaction to this decline. As a society’s merchants become its leaders, and material wealth its chief measure of worth, it is almost inevitable that many in the succeeding generations will question the point of accumulating for its own sake. It is pretty well-established that, beyond a certain level of comfort, greater wealth doesn’t make us happier, and it is only natural that a society that has grown up in affluence will look for something more. For that reason, it is not surprising that the values of the “intellectual” generations—creativity, exploration, spontaneity, freedom, and truthfulness—should more closely mirror those warriors of the Age of Conquest than the businessmen of the Ages of Commerce and Affluence.
Be that as it may, the political class of the West remains undeniably in the hands of the decadent generation of Affluence. The language of commerce is everywhere—politicians talk of “the UK plc” or “Australia Inc.”—and honesty is certainly not a guiding virtue. Through lobbyists and direct consultation, business leaders influence all aspects of state policy, and yet give as little as possible in return, avoiding tax and moving capital and jobs away as soon as it is in their interests to do so.
The greed spawned by affluence leads to a decline in the virtues that built the nation. The rise of intellectualism is one manifestation of an attempt to recapture those virtues, and we could say that nostalgic nationalism is another, only from a very different point of view. It’s a shame, therefore, that these two arms see themselves so often as working at cross-purposes, although both also contribute to the decline in their own ways. Intellectuals frequently adopt the individualism of the business class, acting more for their own benefit than from a sense of duty or solidarity, while nationalists are vulnerable to exploitation by populists. Citizens from all sides are also far too easily drawn into the frivolity of a decaying civilisation, and the virtues they possess are arrested as their attention is diverted towards the leisure industry.
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What lessons can we draw, then, from Glubb’s account of the Fate of Empires? Two things stand out. First, the need for a value higher than money. Second, the need for a spirit of service and self-sacrifice to a cause of which we are all a part. We need to stop thinking like businesspeople, and to stop treating the acquisition of wealth as the measure of success, both as individuals and as a society. And we need to actively replace it, with something that binds a community together and gives it meaning.
The first step is better wealth distribution. If we are all—as a nation—in it together, then we should all be sharing both the burdens and the benefits. A universal basic income would be a good place to start, but it cannot be the only answer. We also need to streamline the economy, centralising natural monopolies (like transport and utilities) and eliminating “bullshit” jobs, so that people can spend less time oiling the wheels of commerce, and more time engaged in meaningful work with their communities. The concept of meaningful work can’t be overstated. Glubb was right to be sceptical of welfare—there’s no preventing societal decay by giving people money to watch daytime tv, play video games, or argue on social media. We need to create space for people to learn and practice skills that empower them, and make their lives—and those of their communities—richer.
Communities should decide for themselves what such activities might be. But I believe that an emphasis on connection to the natural world, and self-reliance, should fall at the centre of them. A respect for the natural world is vital in these times of climate emergency, and may help us to become less materialistic and more appreciative of the simpler comforts we take for granted. An education system that teaches self-reliance through character-building would be an invaluable aid in forming citizens who could resist the frivolity that marks the decaying empire.
An extension of this would be the return of a form of National Service. This shouldn’t just mean military service (although a more equally-shared burden of defence might make governments more conscious as they deploy it). It should be broad enough in range that some form of service would be accessible to all citizens, whatever their ability, circumstances, or beliefs. Indeed, given the disastrous decisions made by American draft-dodgers over recent decades, completing a period of service should be a prerequisite for holding public office, as well as other incentives, such as being on the board of a public company since, as Glubb showed us, a spirit of service is most lacking in the business class. A form of national service—adjusted for family circumstances—might also be a condition of attaining citizenship, helping to assuage Glubb’s worry that immigrants might feel less invested in their new home.
There are countless community projects that would benefit from an investment of young workers—from national parks to urban gardens, from teaching languages to immigrants, to aid projects abroad. But even civil national service should have a communal element, and physical and mental challenges appropriate to the participants. Its dual aims should be to build a sense of community through shared achievement, and individual empowerment through overcoming one’s perceived limits and comfort zone. Such a practical, immersive combination of service and skill-learning would, I hope, build both self-reliance and greater investment in the community—and thus be of value both to a citizen’s future study or career, and their participation in democracy.
This emphasis on practical values, and community service against individual greed, might give our society the strength to persist through the Age of Intellect, reaping its benefits without falling into the decay that materialism, frivolity, and a sense of meaninglessness have brought into so many previous civilisations. Though scaling up such a sense of service to societies as diverse as Europe and the current United States will be challenging, it is perhaps our only hope against sliding into the competing, petty nationalisms that threaten to push the West back into the position it has held through much of history. We forget at our peril that it has once been—and could again become—a backwater on the fringes, and at the mercy, of a proud and united empire.
Leo Nicolletto is a poet and philosopher, based in the Italian Alps.
Image: Sir John Glubb (right) in Amman, 1950 (wikicommons)