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The decline metaphor

January 3rd, 2015 · No Comments

The previous two posts deal with the issue of ‘decline’. We have discussed many times the potential uses and fallacies of the decline metaphor, especially in relation to the classic decline of the Roman Empire. It is perfectly OK to speak of the decline of the American ’empire’ in quotation marks, but the comparison to Rome is misleading.
I often recommend looking at the general periodization of the so-called ‘macro model’ which looks at world history in terms of its obvious progression of epochs: the first being the Egypt/Sumer demarcation at about 3000BCE, the Axial Age marker, set as 900 to 600BCE, and the modern 1500 to 1800BCE…Why do it this way? It is not hard to show that this periodization is a crucial key to seeing the real dynamism in world history. In any case the era starting with the Axial Age shows the Roman Republic to be directly correlated with the start, with Athenian democracy in parallel. From there we see the disappearance of the Athenian democracy and the onset of empires (e.g. the Hellenistic), with the Roman Empire coming six hundred years later. If you wish to compare this to the modern case, you have to ask why there should be a recurrence, and the answer is that empire becomes increasingly probable in the ‘middle eras’ of the model. In any case, the comparison, even if we assumed their could be one, would distinguish a ‘democracy in a phase of imperialism’ and an ’empire with an emperor and an external territorial spread’. This distinction is important but is slurred in much discussion. Thus the US is not yet an empire in the true sense and the periodization of empire would put the start of the empire, not its decline, in the year 2400!
This model may be open to objection, but without some such scheme no comparison is possible at all.
What we are seeing now is something different and highly reminiscent of the Athenian ‘imperialism’ in the fifth century, bringing about the downfall of Athens itself.
The grounds for these comparisons is highly debatable, but actually quite apt, if one is careful.

Thus even if one’s leftist views point to the American imperialism it is important to see that this is a capitalist domination scheme, not a classic ’empire’ like that of Rome. To be sure, the usage is not fixed here, so we can’t really enforce definitions. And, remarkably, the Athenian case prefigures this distinction: their economic domination of Aegean was a proto-capitalist scheme. To be sure the later empires are direct economic exploitations, but these distinctions are important because usage can suggest that American civilization is exhausted and about to become a senile ’empire in decline’, but this in the Roman case was many centuries after the initial six centuries of the decline of the Republic, viz. after 400AD plus. The analog would be 2800 AD.

We can see these analogies then are misleading. We can be critical of the American system, but it is a long way from terminal decline: it is suffering something very similar to the hubristic imperialism of the Athenians. This is not terminal decline but a situation that can be corrected by dealing with economic corruption created by capitalism, perhaps, the issue of climate change being a wild card game changer: new theories needed. In any case the model indicated makes no hard predictions, and is simply an overall perspective. There is no absolute determinism behind decline, and the decline of the Roman Empire is a complex unknown, although our model shows clearly that the ultimate dynamics is the relationship of beginning points, very fresh and vigorous, and the slow but steady onset of (evidently) some kind of entropic process. And here, as with Gibbon, the issue of Xtianity enters. We can save that for another discussion.

But the US is not in terminal decline as with the Roman Empire. Its democracy has suffered the fate of entering quotation marks, ‘democracy’, but the formal structure is still there. The global capitalist imperialism is an emerging catastrophe, but its resolution is dealing with ‘imperialism’ as economic domination, rather than ’empire’ as territorial conquest.

In general the periodization of the macro model in WHEE can be misleading: it shows a clear ‘linearization’ of a wildly non-linear whole of world civilizations. We can see that there is nonetheless an apt set of comparisons possible, but we should be clear that in this model there is no deterministic ‘law’ of decline. We can always try to create a new future ‘less probable’ that decline with a ‘technology of civilizations’, which is something we don’t have, to put it mildly.

In any case the issues raised by Gibbon assume his admiration for all things Roman, but a revolutionary perspective might suggest that Xtianity, blamed for decline perhaps, was in fact a chase plane phenomenon trying to use medieval decline to refound civilization without slavery…Whatever the case the state of the Roman system was pretty dreadful and we must take into account the genuine advances of modernity rather than ply ideological axes-to-grind with rote comparisons of past and future situations.

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