Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Imperialism, it is what rulerships do

I came across (via) this very silly statement:
The very idea of empire was created in ancient Rome ...
That would be news to the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Egyptians, the House of Ur, the Gutians, the Akkadians, the ... And that is just the Middle East.

When revenue was based on control of farmers and trade, then imperialism was what all rulerships did to the limits of territory they could control and which generated a positive return. It was about optimising expropriation, both intensively (pdf) and extensively.  What else would one have expected?  It is not possible to understand the history of farming-and-trade rulerships until one understands what a natural feature of rulership imperialism was.

Of course, creating a serious empire was not easy. You had to have the organisational and military power to seize and hold significant territory. So, what you could do, what those around you could do, what the geography was, all mattered. But, within those constraints, imperialism came naturally to farming-and-trade rulerships.

May the best predator win
As river-valley rulerships arose, there tended to be a fairly Darwinian "survival of the fittest" process of expansion and elimination until one rulership dominated a river valley. It was a bit like putting a whole lot of yabbies in a fish tank and leaving them; the stronger predators eat the weaker until you are left with one uber-yabbie or, in this case, uber-rulership. (The post-Roman British Isles displayed a not dissimilar pattern, until the English Crown ruled the lot.) The process could take a long time (from the start of the Kingdom of Wessex to the union of the British Isles under one monarch, about a thousand years, although English absorption of Wales and domination of Ireland predated the full unification by centuries).

As organisational capacities improved, this domination of a river valley could expand until you dominated several river valleys or, in the case of the Roman Empire, an entire sea, their Mare Nostrum("Our Sea"). Empires tended to be river-and-coasts-based because rivers and coasts were where the fertile land was and water transport was a lot cheaper and quicker than land transport--the rough estimate is that water transport was about 15 times cheaper than land transport, so travelling 100km by land was the equivalent of travelling about 1500km by water. Hence, rivers and coasts were where the farming and the trade that rulers expropriated to fund their rulerships were and where control could be maintained.

It is not surprising that the largest (and longest surviving) Empire of the above series was the one that was spectacularly good at road building. But it was still based on a sea.

The exceptions to this coast-and-rivers pattern were the horse-archer empires of Central Eurasia. But they were based on flat plains and lots of horses. Cavalry could easily go 40km in a day, so you could send a cavalry force 1000km in 25 days and couriers much quicker. They also had the Silk Road trade system to manage and exploit.

Problems of empire
All such empires ran into what modern economics calls principal-agent problems, the difficulty of maintaining stable internal control, and organisational advantage problems--those you interacted with learn from you. So, maintaining internal coherence and external effectiveness was a difficult balancing act.

Ibn Khaldun famously set out the pattern for the rise and fall of farming-and-trade rulerships. First, a group bound by common feeling seizes power. Then the ruler separates himself from the original group to entrench his own power. The regime slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption (the ruler's agents enriching themselves in ways that undermine the ruler's expropriation) erodes social resilience and regime power. Until the regime finally collapses.

Lest one think this a relic from the past, let's match the most recent Eurasian empire to rise and fall (the Soviet Empire) against the pattern: a group bound by common feeling seizes power (Lenin 1917-1924). The ruler separates himself from the original group to entrench his own power (Stalin 1924-1953). The regime slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption erodes social resilience and regime power (Khruschev to Chernenko 1953-1985). Until the regime finally collapses (Gorbachev1985-1991).

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer or at Critical Thinking Applied.]


  1. Have you read "After Tamerlane" by John Darwin (Nuffield College, Oxford)?

    If so, what do you think of his thesis?

    1. I haven't read the book, but I would like to. From the potted summary I would agree in part and not in others. They were gunpowder empires, and the base technology largely came from Europe, for example (yes, China invented gunpowder, but cannons and muskets were European).