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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Cliodynamics for the people  

I have been reading War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations by Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut (his publications webpage is here.) He proposes to found the study of Cliodymanics, a rather Hari Seldonesque endeavor (as he himself admits). But there are some very interesting things here.

The central thesis is that societies that find themselves on what he calls meta-ethnic frontiers (cheek-by-jowl with people from a very different language family/race/culture/civilization) are forced by their precarious situation to develop an oppositional sense of nationhood; those who also develop high levels of the social cohesion and co-operation that he terms abasiya (after Ibn Khaldun) not only survive but prevail over their neighbors, and begin the path that leads to expansion and empire. They then grow, reach a natural limit, and decay through recurring cycles of decline and recovery, population rise and fall, boom and bust, civil wars and restoration.

He traces how these dynamics play out in medieval Russia, in republican Rome, in colonial America, along the desert/cropland dividing line in western China, in post-Roman Europe (especially France). Much meat here. Also some chaff, for those already familiar with game theory or the arguments against a strictly-rational economic man or the great-man theory of history. And some bits of silliness: I'm not entirely sure how Roman commanders devoting themselves to Death and Discord by plunging directly into the center of the enemy battle line is “not at all similar” to Kamikaze pilots taking dead aim at warships but rather to jihadi shahids who blow themselves up in pizza parlors or wedding receptions or funeral processions. (Is it because Shinto isn't explicitly religious in a way Westerners can easily recognize?) But these are cavils about an intended popularization.

One issue he addresses only in passing: the Palestinians, who because of their UN-supported existence in refugee camps along the meta-ethnic frontier with Israel, have developed a strong sense of a national identity that didn't exist sixty years ago. Very true. But what follows from the cliodynamic principles described is that the Two-State solution is basically just a fond fantasy, or at best an unsustainable truce state, a hudna. The eventual outcome will be – must be – either Greater Israel or Greater Palestine.

I know which outcome I, as a member and beneficiary of Western civilization, would much rather see (Turchin is more neutral, and applauds Europeans for being even-handed, or even tilting toward the Palestinians); but I also know which way to bet, given demographics. The Israelis' very refusal to engage in ethnic cleansing increases the likelihood that the Palestinians, who have no such compunctions, will.

And what will happen, when the 21st century sees Tel Aviv destroyed and the Jews driven from the Middle East, as they were from Europe in the 20th? (Discuss)

I wish Turchin had devoted more time to the dynamics of decline and recovery. France from the 9th to 18th centuries makes a wonderful case study combining economics, population, and civil unrest, but I would like to know more about how the core of an empire dissipates abasiya, so that each later restoration is driven not from the core but by outsiders who have been brought in to support (or co-opt) the system (Germanic generals of imperial Roman legions who become emperors themselves, and their descendents Napoleon the Corsican and Hitler the Austrian); and ultimately exhausts it. Some societies develop ways of including and incorporating successive waves of new members; others do not. Southern Italy has never been a cohesive society since the empire; I suspect the same will be true of Castilian Spain. And Arabia. Perhaps in the next book.

Turchin believes that the EU is a legitimate successor to the Holy Roman Empire. I don't, any more than Mussolini's Italy was a legitimate successor to Rome. Not merely from demography or feckless approaches to hard vs soft power, but because the Franco-German core has decayed. The only hope for the EU to become an actual force in the world is for its leadership to come from the former edges, from England and Poland and even from Turkey. (A smaller, chastened rump Turkey left after the establishment of an independent Kurdistan might be far more acceptable to the Austrians and other Eastern Europeans, who have historically recent memories of Turkish threats.) But if the core continues to dominate, it will only spiral further downward.

The primary question I have is how this agriculture-based model will work out in a postindustrial world. Not because the economics have changed, or the means of production, but because internal demographics have. One of the underappreciated characteristics of globalization is encapsulation, the way that all developed and developing countries now have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd world enclaves co-existing symbiotically and relatively independently within them.
What do meta-ethnic frontiers consist of when there are scattered pockets of Chicanos in Southern California and Algerian cites outside Paris and Turkish villages in Bavaria, refugees from Hong Kong in Vancouver and Iraqis in Detroit? What does abasiya mean in an aggressively multicultural society where assimilation is a dirty word? Is symbiosis enough, when each community pulls apart after the day's work is done?
And how does such a civilization resist an expansionist totalitarian ideology?

Interesting times indeed.

posted by Kelly | 2:48 PM link