Threats, propaganda and the Orwellian dissolution of social trust cannot stop a withdrawal from the status quo.
Longtime readers know I’ve had an active interest in what differentiates empires/nations that survive crises and those that collapse. There is a lively academic literature on this topic, and it boils down to three general views:
1. Collapse is typically triggered by an external crisis that overwhelms the empire’s ability to handle it. Absent the external shock, the empire could have continued on for decades or even centuries.
2. Crises that could have been handled in the “Spring” of rapid expansion are fatal in “Winter” when the costs of maintaining complex systems exceeds the empire’s resources.
3. Civilization is cyclical and as population and consumption outstrip resources, the empire becomes increasingly vulnerable to external shocks.
External shocks include prolonged severe drought, pandemics and invasion. In many cases, the empire is beset by all three: some change in weather that reduces grain harvests, a pandemic introduced by trade or military adventure and/or invasion by forces from far-off lands with novel diseases and/or military technologies and tactics.
More controversial are claims that political structures become sclerotic and top-heavy after long periods of success, and these bloated, brittle hierarchies lose the flexibility and boldness needed to deal with multiple novel challenges hitting at the same time.
We lack internal-political records for most empires that have collapsed, but those records that have survived for the Western and Eastern Roman Empires suggest that eras of stability breed political sclerosis which manifests as a bloated, parasitic bureaucracy or as ruthless competition between elites that were once united in the expansive “Spring” phase.
By the “Winter” phase, the elite hierarchy is willing to sacrifice the unity needed to survive for its own short-term advantage.
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