Empires and Human Behavior
If we are going to have empires, maybe having them be dedicated to an ideal of good management and taking care of the people with a mind for long term sustainability isn't all bad.
January 5, 2018
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I find it interesting how Americans are so obsessed with Rome, it's rise and fall, and in Greece. In trying to find parallels between us and them. Rome, being a brutally expansionist empire that couldn't hold itself together once it expanded past it's capacity to govern and stopped being able to add more slaves to the bottom of the pyramid to keep its promise to its people of always more, always better. And Greece, a bunch of fractious city states that managed a flash in the pan of prosperity and highly dubious wisdom.

I can see their value as cautionary tales, but I find the constant urge to see them as inspiration disturbing. There are plenty of other cautionary tales that we could look to along with them. But if we sought aspirational histories, I feel we'd be better looking to empires that managed to make The Turn.

See.... I see there being phases that empires go through. Empires, to become empires, are expansionist. Violently so. It's part of the nature of becoming an empire. And to be expansionist, a society is best cultivating a lot of internal competition. Creating misery at the bottom of society, but providing ways out of the misery. And promising those that succeed, promising those that serve, something better for their children then they had.

Of course, to fulfill that promise, the empire has to expand. They have to conquer more land and subjugate more people, so there's a new bottom for the old to be one social step above. This allows for an ever increasing quality of life as the base of the pyramid expands. It's a good racket, and can satisfy the rapacious greed of such a society for some time. But only so long. Every empire reaches its limits.

When this happens, one of 2 things happens: It either adapts or it starts to tear itself apart from the inside. The same societal values that made it good at expanding turn inward. The promise of more, at every level of society, stops being fulfilled. Those at the top don't stop though, they keep accumulating. Those in the middle start turning to corruption to keep their status, or fall behind. And those at the bottom become angry and start rebelling.

It's a moment I think of as The Turn. At this point, it is possible that an empire will manage to change its outlook. Move away from an ethos of Always More and toward one of Enough For Everyone. If they do, they might survive. If they don't, they will fall. Rome and Greece didn't survive the Turn, though Rome certainly tried its damndest to for centuries.

Two great empires that I am aware of really managed The Turn. There may be others, either ones we have less information of or ones I am just personally ignorant of. But Egypt and China are the ones that come to mind. Of course, eventually the same complacency that permitted their survival ended up being their undoing. China even inventing the technologies that would eventually be used to break them. But in the interim they did manage. They lasted for millenia, by creating vast, complex systems for ensuring everyone had enough. They may not have succeeded to a great degree, depending upon the century, but success was less important to continuance than the ideal and the societal ethos.

It might be a thing to consider. Shrug.

I am not by any means justifying any of it. Empires are horrific things. Just that.. Idk, the end of empires don't tend to result in a better situation. They just end up with messy, fractious failed states or the conquest by yet another empire. My preferred arrangement would be internetworked decentralization with lots of cross regional oversight, democratic control of a resource and productive commons, and a societal ethos of sustainability, equality, respect for human rights, and dedication to the search for and application of the best scientific knowledge available for the pursuit of universal human fulfillment. But, like, if we are gonna have empires, maybe having them be dedicated to an ideal of good management and taking care of the people with a mind for long term sustainability isn't all bad.

While this may seem contradictory, it is not and, weirdly, it's also not unprecedented. By all accounts, the systems of grain/rice distribution in the empires of Egypt and China, along with many other empires, resulted in a much more sustainable life all around. Especially compared to feudal states, but also compared to nomadic subsistence. Really compared to anything of a similar technological level. Droughts in one area could be bolstered by bumper crops in others. Palace Economies engaged in some of the most effective forms of wealth redistribution of any economic systems in history, reducing the predation of smallholders by larger groups. And empires that had as a core ethos the idea of Taking Care of People often actually managed this comparatively well.

No empire ever had anything like -equality-, the current US empire being no exception, but some have managed a greater degree of care for those below built into their societal ethos than others. Our information on Egypt as that is concerned is still limited. We do know though that they engaged in a Palace Economy. The emperor personally 'owned' enormous amounts of agricultural land, and taxed even more, and we have records of mass redistribution being a fairly normal activity the government engaged in. There are indications that their total economic system was closer to a command economy than to a market one, with large amounts of the agricultural activity being functionally a part of the state itself, centrally managed and distributed.

The empires of ancient China had some of the most complex and advanced systems of bureaucracy of any empire, ever. They engaged in some of the first grand scale agricultural projects, reshaping the landscape with enormous irrigation systems, some which took over 100 years to complete, utilizing enormous amounts of labor, all managed by the state. They planned for the loooong term and they planned for sustainability. There is, throughout the writings we have found, repeated references to the ideal of good governance being about making sure the people are fed and content. The Mandate of Heaven ideal never really died, and included in it a commandment -from heaven- to take care of the people.

There does seem to have been in these empires a focus on food productivity, distribution, managing resources, and handling crisis to a degree that you don't really find as a focus in Rome or Greece. Rome and Greece had some degree of grain distribution but it always seems to be a conflict point. Something that 'populist' leaders would do to win the support of the mob but that others would sneer at. You find many Roman scholars talking about those who would propose such things as engaging in vulgar pandering, rather than wise rulership.

If your entire sample set of human behavior was observing them playing the game of monopoly, you might come away with the impression that humans are irredeemably ruthless and greedy, incapable of even the most rudimentary level of compassion or charity. Humans tend to respond to the 'rules' of the system they find themselves in, following the path of least resistance. If the system actively encourages self centered individualism, humans will do that, more often than not.

A thing worth thinking about when you try to make bold, broad statements about 'human nature' is if your sample set of environmental conditions is tiny. It is, to a degree, very close to 'one'. We live now in a global system, and it is the system bequeathed to us as an amalgam primarily pieced together out of cultural elements of those societies throughout history that were most adept at conquest, subjugation, and genocide.

There's only so much individuals can do. We have to change one another. We also collectively change the system when we change ourselves.

Nyah Wynne, the author of this article, is a libertarian socialist, leaning toward Bookchin/Ocalan style municipal confederalism. She also finds Henry Georgian economics to be an interesting set of theories.

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