Imperial Overstretch

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The European Union was born in 1957, Peter Turchin reminds us, when the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community was signed by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany:

If you trace the signing countries together on the map, they will closely match the extent of the Carolingian Empire. Why is this important?

Carolingian Empire

Large-scale societies are not simply huge sloshing bags of people. Instead, they’re groups of groups of groups. Unlike ants, humans cooperate in societies that are organized hierarchically. Cooperation is important at all levels: we cooperate in families, we cooperate in towns, we cooperate on a regional level, in nation-states, and supranational organizations, like the European Union or the United Nations. At each level you need an identity. Who is that “us” who is cooperating? Most people have multiple nested identities, for example, one can be an Ingoldstadter, Bavarian, German, and European.

Here I am interested in cooperation at the level above the nation-state. So where do supranational identities come from?

In my cultural evolutionary view, such identities come from very deep history. Often, they are “ghosts” of powerful and prestigious empires that are long gone — “charter polities”, to use a term proposed by the historian Victor Lieberman in Strange Parallels. For the European Union such a charter polity is the Carolingian Empire (eighth and ninth centuries AD).

After the Carolingian Empire broke apart it left behind the idea of Europeanness that still survives today, although naturally it underwent a lot of evolution in the last thousand years. Initially the idea of Europe was known as Latin Christendom (note that excludes Orthodox Christian areas as well as Islam). Latin Christendom had two important unifying institutions, Empire and Papacy. Of course, the French and Germans fought each other all the time, but when they were faced with outsiders (for example, during the Crusades), they actively cooperated with each other.

There were internal tensions within the precursor of the EU, the European Economic Community, but these problems were resolved in cooperative manner. But then, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the EU started acting as a typical expansionary empire, gobbling up more and more states. This is a typical imperial disease, known in historical sociology as “imperial overstretch.” The problems mounted, willingness to cooperate waned, and the integrative trend reversed itself. In addition to the spread of neoliberalism, which, as I stated above, is an ideology corrosive of cooperation, different EU members found it difficult to cooperate with each other, because they did not share a well-defined common identity. Additionally, different groups evolve different institutions that promote cooperation. This is why, as the political scientist Robert Putnam found, ethnically diverse groups find it more difficult to cooperate. It’s a coordination problem.

Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder recently expressed this idea as follows: “In southern Europe, there are notions of solidarity that differ from ours.”

Identities are not fixed in stone; they evolve. The idea of Europeanness has evolved quite a lot since the day of Charlemagne. But evolution takes time. You cannot build an identity and a common set of institutions in one fell swoop. The rapid expansion of the European Union far beyond the area where Europeanness was born (the Carolingian Empire) was, in my opinion, a big mistake. Positive social change is gradual and slow; breaking apart, on the other hand, can occur quite rapidly.


  1. Jeff R. says:

    Peter Turchin’s good people. I didn’t realize he had a blog, so thanks for the link.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    Pretty pathetic text.

    “In addition to the spread of neoliberalism, which, as I stated above, is an ideology corrosive of cooperation”

    There is nothing more favorable to cooperation than Neoliberalism.

    “…but when they were faced with outsiders (for example, during the Crusades), they actively cooperated with each other.”

    Wrong. At the time of the Ottoman siege of Vienna, the French were allied with Turks.

    What about the troubles to get the Lepanto Battle to occur and the subsequent debacles?

  3. Rollory says:

    I don’t know anything about a Franco-Ottoman alliance at that specific time — certainly there were such alliances at other times — but the croissant originated as a celebration of the Christian victory at Vienna, so even if there was a political alliance the popular sentiment was otherwise. Also when discussing “the Crusades” that usually means the expeditions to North Africa and the Holy Land, and Franco-German cooperation was absolutely a major factor then. So his statement is not wrong at all.

    As for Lepanto, Charles IX was dealing with the leadup to an extremely bloody religious civil war at the time, foreign adventure was one thing France absolutely couldn’t deal with right then.

    I will add that in the present day, I’m aware of quite a lot of Franco-German ties on business, family, romantic, and other similar levels. The French don’t mind the Germans, and I get the feeling it’s mutual; the dispute over Alsace has been settled (and in all seriousness it was settled from the start; when Louis XIV annexed it he was met with cheering throngs in every city), the Napoleonic dream is over and done, and there’s nothing else to quibble over. The English, however — there’s a thousand years of conflict there, with the 20th century alliance being one of a few exceptions. Brexit has been met with comments like “they should never have joined in the first place”.

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