Great civilisations are not murdered

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety explains how peaceful, stable societies came about:

As war created large states, empires, and nation-states, societies evolved measures to suppress internal conflict and violence. Reduced internal violence is the obverse of increased cooperation. Surprising as it may seem, the trend towards greater peace was already noticeable during the Ancient and Medieval historical eras, long before the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Of course, wars between empires dwarfed intertribal conflicts in scale. Huge armies fought increasingly bloody battles, and the numbers of casualties mounted. But the key point is that these wars moved away from imperial centers, towards the frontiers. More and more people — those living far from frontiers where battles were fought — never experienced conflict, and could enjoy relative prosperity.

There is no contradiction between larger armies and larger butcher’s bills from warfare, on the one hand, and on the other, a greater part of the population enjoying peace. What is important from the point of view of quality of life is not how many people, in total, are killed, but what the chances are that I (or you, or someone you care about) will be killed. In other words, the important statistic is the risk of violent death for each person.

War serves to weed out societies that go bad:

When discipline, imposed by the need to survive conflict, gets relaxed, societies lose their ability to cooperate. A reactionary catchphrase of the 1970s used to go, “what this generation needs is a war,” a deplorable sentiment but one that in terms of cultural evolution might sometimes have a germ of cold logic.

At any rate, there is a pattern that we see recurring throughout history, when a successful empire expands its borders so far that it becomes the biggest kid on the block. When survival is no longer at stake, selfish elites and other special interest groups capture the political agenda. The spirit that “we are all in the same boat” disappears and is replaced by a “winner take all” mentality. As the elites enrich themselves, the rest of the population is increasingly impoverished. Rampant inequality of wealth further corrodes cooperation.

Beyond a certain point a formerly great empire becomes so dysfunctional that smaller, more cohesive neighbors begin tearing it apart. Eventually the capacity for cooperation declines to such a low level that barbarians can strike at the very heart of the empire without encountering significant resistance. But barbarians at the gate are not the real cause of imperial collapse. They are a consequence of the failure to sustain social cooperation. As the British historian Arnold Toynbee said, great civilisations are not murdered — they die by suicide.


  1. Ross says:

    So undue diversity in groups & goals supports State failure but not “barbarians at the gate”.

    Right, got it.

  2. Graham says:

    I am a little surprised by Turchin calling that sentiment ‘deplorable’. At the macrohistorical level of analysis Turchin deals in, it is not deplorable at all, as he clearly actually acknowledges.

    I had not previously known him to deal in throwaway sentiments. A particularly tawdry example of virtue signalling.

  3. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Hitler made a similar observation in Mein Kampf. His perspective was if citizens are not willing to fight for the nation then you really don’t have a nation.

  4. Sam J. says:

    “…Beyond a certain point a formerly great empire becomes so dysfunctional that smaller, more cohesive neighbors begin tearing it apart…”

    Beyond a certain point a formerly great empire becomes so dysfunctional that smaller, more cohesive “races” begin tearing it apart.

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