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War and Peace and War The Rise and Fall of Empires

Tes But as empires grow the rich get richer and the poor get poorer conflict replaces cooperation and dissolution inevitably follows Elouently argued and rich with historical examples War and Peace and War offers a bold new theory about the course of world history Yet another Big History book this one really pulled out in front of the pack for me and I think it's the best one I've read so farFirst there's no better way to make me smile than with a reference to psychohistory from my favorite sci fi series of all time Turchin compares his goal of scientifying history to Asimov's famous literary conceit right there at the very beginning of the Introduction Turchin is serious about it though offering a semi mathematical framework for historical analysis he calls cliodynamics which borrows methodologically from statistical mechanics and nonlinear dynamics In English that means he models the rise and fall of empires using euations that treat people as groups and also account for chaotic behavior as well This means that there's some population genetics lurking in the background as well There is not actually any math in this book however; this was a prose exposition of the euations that are all in his earlier Historical Dynamics which I haven't read There's still plenty of rigor though as he subscribes fully to Paul Krugman's sentiment that The euations and diagrams of formal economics are often than not no than the scaffolding used to help construct an intellectual edifice Once that edifice has been built to a certain point the scaffolding can be stripped away leaving only plain English behindHe starts out by asking how empires form which he calls imperiogenesis The list of empirescountriespeoples discussed extensively include Russia America Germans Arabs England France Austria Hungary and of course the good old Roman Empire He doesn't include exhaustive histories of each one just enough to make his points and tie them back to the larger argument I would have liked detail on the non European empires like Persia China the various Indian empires or anything in the Western Hemisphere but I think those would only bolster his thesis He finds that empires typically arise on what he calls a metaethnic frontier in other words a boundary between two relatively different cultures cf the us vs them struggles in Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations Thus the medieval Rus ancestors of today's Russians found themselves assimilating other nearby tribes in a desperate effort to fend off endless raids from the Mongols and this gradual accretion of similar proto Russian co ethnics gradually built the kind of egalitarian tightly knit society that was capable of conuering the vast steppes of Siberia In essence the Rus as a society unconsciously learned the social traits trust intra group fairness self sacrifice for the group that it took to be a successful empire and other groups that didn't or couldn't develop those traits got swallowed up or annihilated This is similar to how the Romans fought off the Gauls Phoenicians etc by gradually assimilating similar tribes like that Samnites and so on He calls this level of collective solidarity asabiya after Ibn Khaldun's usage of the term in his Muaddimah his own attempt at a universal history and ties it into Alexis de Tocueville's and Robert Putnam's ideas of social capitalEvery good theory of how empires rise should also be able to explain how empires fall and his asabiya concept seems to do a decent job of explaining imperiopathosis as well Asabiya is the glue of peoples both a measure of general social capital and trust and the thing that makes your average dude it's mostly guys willing to die in some wasteland hundreds or thousands of miles away from home in order to promote the greater good He backs this up by bringing in some game theoreticgroup selectionist discussion of how societies need a critical mass of moralists and institutions to discourage free riders and cheaters which encourages solidarity Something that Turchin finds over and over again in history is that incredibly successful civilizations after having built their empires seem to be inherently unstable and prone to decay through loss of asabiya While this sounds as unscientific as élan vital it can actually be uantified in some ways Basically in a mature empire that no longer feels compelled to expand the number of elites starts to slowly increase both due to lower chances of dying in wars and due to the higher reproductive rate that being rich in an agricultural society allows for Slowly they shift from being leaders in society to being rent seekers and eventually they take so much of the pie that people aren't willing to trust in the civic institutions previous generations built Eventually a vigorous society on the border gets its act together in the case of the Romans the Germans; for the Byzantines the Arabs and displaces the decadence that might still be numerically and technologically superior but can't muster the will to resist Paraphrasing Arnold Toynbee great empires die not by murder but by suicideSo asabiya can be generated through struggles and trials that bind people to each other and it can be lost through the lack of the same unifying pressures The differing fates of north and south Italy are discussed towards the end of the book why north Italy while fairly rich still has a social capital deficit compared to countries like France or Germany while low trust south Italy is an asabiya black hole as demonstrated by the presence of groups like the Mafia This is reflected in the very interesting fact that Italy doesn't have large public companies like other first world nations The largest Italian company Fiat is still family owned The typical successful Italian company is a family owned business with perhaps a hundred employees in Milan or Bologna They occupy a variety of niches from fashion to high precision machinery and they are extremely successful at what they do But they cannot break into certain international markets because they lack the advantage of size And they cannot grow to a large size because the Italians even northern ones can cooperate only in medium sized groups Is this why northern Italians historically could not get beyond medium sized states? Religion has an interesting place in Turchin's book; while religious disputes are not necessarily meaningful in and of themselves they're another way that groups of people use to mark us from them After reading Diarmaid MacCullough's Christianity The First Three Thousand Years with its endless tales of violent disputes over completely arbitrary doctrinal issues like the filioue clause or if icons are kosher or whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or three this seems very true to meTurchin's ideas also interact pleasingly with a number of other Big History books I've read semi recently In no particular orderrhymereason He's a little dismissive of Jared Diamond's Guns Germs Steel saying that while the geographical determinism line of argument can explain trans hemispherical imperial triumphs it doesn't do a good job in the vastly common cases where neighboring tribes with similar resources attack each other like the Rus vs the Tatars or the French vs the English This is true Diamond might be able to explain the ultimate outcome but how would that explain for example the asabiya induced paralysis and chaos of the Incans after Atahualpa was captured? He doesn't engage much with Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies which is a shame because I still think that Tainter's admittedly somewhat simplistic ideas about the decreasing marginal returns on civilizational complexity are un ignorable Tainter is resource deterministic than Turchin who allows for human initiative in the way that societies can choose to lose internal cohesion by becoming inward focused but I would bet that there's still something to Tainter's idea that there's a certain optimal size for societies given the resources available to them I think Acemoglu and Robinson should have cited this book in their Why Nations Fail because there's a lot of overlap between AR's ideas about extractive vs inclusive institutions and what Turchin has to say about how institutions can shift between the two poles due to external pressures or the lack of them Republican Rome was much inclusive for the average pleb during the parts of its history where it was under threat lost inclusion for a long period during things like the Gracchi brothers' reform attempts and then became inclusive again after enough elites killed each other during the Julius Caesar drama to stabilize the empire AR don't have a good account for how dynamic movement along the inclusiveextractive scale can be and Turchin's asabiya measure seems to include that Brian Fagan's The Long Summer talked about how the migrations of primitive humans and therefore possible tribal conflicts were driven in part by climate shifts that alternately opened up new lands and closed off old ones Turchin showed that climate shifts didn't have much to do with the medieval French English wars specifically but it would be neat to see uantification and if there's a climate shift threshold over which a tribe could ascend to a higher or maybe lower level of asabiya in its need to find new lands and resources Given that per Tainter the Mayans might have succumbed to environmental changes it's reasonable to think that climate might be an input into asabiya Climate change in our own day might have significant effects on political stability as well Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature talked a lot about changes in violence I wonder if you could correlate intra society violence to asabiya shifts For example the US right after WW2 was infamously homogenous and group centered with low levels of crime This changed after th

Free read War and Peace and War The Rise and Fall of Empires

Y’s capacity for collective action He demonstrates that high levels of cooperation are found where people have to band together to fight off a common enemy and that this kind of cooperation led to the formation of the Roman and Russian empires and the United Sta Very interesting but as frustrating as it is challengingThe title of this book is a bit misleading it does indeed regularly deal with war and peace and with the rise and fall of imperia but actually Turchin covers a much larger field and presents two theories on the entire world history His first theory states that large empires or states have always developed in places that where near a border with another group or a state that was perceived as fundamentally different and threatening Turchin makes no secret that this view is very similar to that of Samuel Huntington and his Clash of civilizations He prefers to use the term of 'metaethic frontier' It is always close to such a border that new states emerge that gradually develop into large empires; it never starts in a center far away from such a border and thus less challenged and threatenedHis second theory is inspired by the 13th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldoen namely that the power of a society a state or an empire rests primarily on its internal cohesion its ‘asabiya’ as Khaldoen describes it Turchin illustrates this with numerous examples and is reasonably convincing on this finding support with other social scientist like Robert Putnam and his ‘Social Capital’ conceptThe emergence of empires imperiogenesis and their fall imperiopathosis are connected with those two concepts of metaetnic frontier and asabiya a realm arises when it is at such a boundary and can develop an intense form of internal cohesion in response to the threat by a fundamentally different enemy and it goes under if that border shifts and the threat thus falls away and or if the cohesion crumbles mostly due to growing ineuality as a result of Malthusian cycles In most cases according to Turchin this process takes about a millennium On top of that Turchin distinguishes other cycles within that very large time frame secular cycles covering 2 to 4 centuries much shorter cycles of 60 to 80 years and finally ultra short cycles of several generations He himself uses the image of wheels in wheels in wheels with which he wants to indicate that the historical reality is never simple and there are lot of feedback loops that interfere with each other Most of these cycles are related to the eual or uneual distribution of wealth and the fierceness of wars be it external or civil wars This all sounds very interesting and Turchin illustrates it with many examples from world history that – in general – sound rather convincing But as you might suspect there are some comments to make In the first place it is striking that almost all of his examples and models relate to agrarian premodern societies and hardly if at all to recent industrial ones Turchin is also aware of this himself and tries to counter that in his final chapter by uickly bringing up some reflections on the empire of the United States the European Union very strange to define this as an imperium China and even Russia His arguments in this section are not convincing the modern world is uite different from the premodern one and it seems that the elements of metaethnic frontier and asabiya play a much less important role in our globalized world where boundaries are much less defined Turchin in this section focuses rather strongly on the meta ethnic frontier that Islam has created in recent decades but with that he simply repeats the weaknesses of Samuel Huntington's arguments because up until now there’s no asabiya to discern in the Islamic world He also often illustrates his theories with extensive uotations from primary sources and especially chronicles of Roman European Medieval Arab or early Russian origin from which he deduces all sorts of things that have to prove his theories Of course tish is tricky because these chronicles are very place time and person related and offer only perspective For this use of chronicles Turchin was as predicted very heavily attacked by classical historiansIn this book Turchin also repeatedly pleads for the use of theoretical models also in history and specifically of Cliodynamics his own pet child which deals with history mainly through uantitative statistical approaches I must concede that his arguments for this are nuanced he offers a nonlinear and nondeterministic approach to reality in the sense that he also allows deviations and exceptions and a certain role of individuals with free will and that is to his benefit And he is aware that these uantitative approaches are tricky Turchin is modest enough to indicate that Cliodynamics is still in its infancy A lot work needs to be done in the history of scientific maturity that was enjoyed by classical mechanics in the 18th and 19th centuries But at the same time he maintains that with the enormous influx of uantitative data in recent decades much larger steps can be taken And that may be true to some extent but I think we are better remain critical The fact that in his closing chapter for example he alludes to the possible resurrection of a great Cossack empire in southern Russia leaves one to thinkTurchin in this book builds up his theories step by step and takes a lot of effort to illustrate elaborate and nuance his points of view but at times it gives a rather inconsistent impression and it doesn't have thet compelling logic that you can find for instance with Jared Diamond which for him is partly a model but which he also renounces In that context one striking thing Turchin is zoologist by training and with that he is the umpteenth non historian who approaches history with the rough brush Jared Diamond Samuel Huntington Steven Pinker are other examples Now I'm not saying this can't be illuminating on the contrary I was wowed by Pinker but it's high time that also trained historians take their stand in this matter because they are better than anyone else euipped with knowledge of the past and a sense for nuance and contingency of the human agency There are some promising developments of this in the field of WorldGlobalInterconnected History but there's still a long way to go All this does not detract from the fact that the central concepts of Turchin the metaethnic frontier and the asabiya factor are absolutely relevant and valuable keys to dealing with history They should be given serious thought but they are certainly not the only ones and it remains important to be very careful with them because reality even that of the past remains a chaotic and slippery thing 3 stars

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Like Jared Diamond in Guns Germs and Steel Peter Turchin in War and Peace and War uses his expertise in evolutionary biology to make a highly original argument about the rise and fall of empires Turchin argues that the key to the formation of an empire is a societ This is a compelling read on world history with some interesting views Turchin develops his own theories on the rise and fall of empires especially in the pre modern period empires always developed in places near a border with another group or a state that was perceived as fundamentally different and threatening and their strength corresponded with their internal social cohesion This are not completely original views as he concedes but he intertwines them and elaborates on them in his own way Finally he also very much pleads for the use of theoretical models in the study of history along his own 'Cliodynamic' approach that is founded on uantitative data Very interesting and very worthwile but also tricky if you ask me See my elaborate review on this book in my Sense of History account on Goodreads


10 thoughts on “War and Peace and War The Rise and Fall of Empires

  1. says:

    I'm a bit skeptical of Big History books primarily because the world we live in today is so radically different from the cyclical political orders that existed in the past Humans are the same but modern technology is a social variable that we are still desperately trying to wrap our heads around This is a book that tries to apply predictive logic to the rise and collapse of imperial systems reviving Ibn Khaldun's concept of asabiyya or group cohesion and applying it to the contemporary world Although the world we live in today is very different from the past I do think there is some truth to the fact that the strength of societies is tied to levels of inter group trust and cooperation When those things fray collective action becomes impossible and decay of some sort inevitableTo put it another way the things that drive down social trust and reduce cohesion end up weakening society as a whole Ethnic diversity is the popular one people like to accuse today but in fact the most successful empires in history have had no problem integrating new ethnicities into the fold and often took great pride in this for example the Roman Islamic and in a limited sense American empires Some things that do reduce cohesion are exploding wealth ineuality that sets different classes against one another and the over production of elites who become heavily invested in waging bitter political conflicts with one another over the necessarily limited number of elite positions in society The poor and lower middle classes inevitably become pawns and victims of these status seekersOne of the things that increases social cohesion is the presence of outsider threats that galvanize society usually on some kind of threatening physical frontier Empires have often emerged along civilization borderlines where people marked by some type of significant divide come face to face with one another and come to understand both their shared identities and the need for inter group cooperation vividly The effectiveness of a country like Israel is less due to some sort of mystical characteristics of its people than the Darwinian social cohesion effect of living on a borderline and being under constant threat The same goes with Palestinians who despite being the weaker party due to their lack of a superpower patron have coalesced into one people rather than a disparate group of tribes living under Ottoman rule Throughout history imperial peoples have been formed in crucibles of threat and external pressure Religion also plays an important role as a metaphysical social cement that leads people to trust cooperate and sacrifice for one another as a collectiveCan we predict the rise and fall of societies based on uantitative inputs? This is the contention of the nascent field of cliodynamics that the book makes an argument for I'm not saying its impossible but we are some ways off from that To his credit Turchin acknowledges that such a prospect is not immediately on the horizon although this book sort of tests the waters for some future such analysis He is an interesting thinker and has given something to contemplate here The United States is one society that seems to be fraying under many of the fissiparous pressures that this book identifies with declining social trust huge wealth gaps and the decaying appeal of the core metaphysical ideology of the nation making the prospect of cohesion for any common purpose look and remote I expect that if the real fraying comes people will ignore all these structural factors and point the fingers at whoever looks different from them


  2. says:

    This is a compelling read on world history with some interesting views Turchin develops his own theories on the rise and fall of empires especially in the pre modern period empires always developed in places near a border with another group or a state that was perceived as fundamentally different and threatening and their strength corresponded with their internal social cohesion This are not completely original views as he concedes but he intertwines them and elaborates on them in his own way Finally he also very much pleads for the use of theoretical models in the study of history along his own 'Cliodynamic' approach that is founded on uantitative data Very interesting and very worthwile but also tricky if you ask me See my elaborate review on this book in my Sense of History account on Goodreads


  3. says:

    Subtitle The Rise and Fall of EmpiresSo as you may have heard me say before the books I read can mostly be divided into two types Big Idea books and Many Small Ideas books This one is a Big Idea book One might say ridiculously bigThe author born in Russia moved to the US at age 20 his father a dissident was exiled and eventually got his PhD in zoology He studied population dynamics for a time the kind of ecology based biology that looks at a species' role vis a vis its prey and predators and competitors in its niche This involved finding mathematical models and descriptions of the cycles of boom and bust which happen in populations in the natural world Far from the delicate balance of popular belief the natural worlds' populations have cycles not uite regular usually but far from random and in the last few decades a robust field of scientific inuiry has grown up around efforts to better understand how this worksThen Turchin took an abrupt turn and moved into the study of history Well almost; he actually moved into a field of mathematical sociobiology that he helped name as well as create cliodynamics Clio the muse of history combined with dynamics the study of changing systems Turchin's objective is nothing less than an updated real life Hari Seldon of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series But given what we know now of nonlinear systems the objective is to find the strange attractors of historical dynamics Given that absolute prediction of precise events far into the future is made impossible by the nonlinearity chaos of the actions of humans in large groups what CAN we say and test empirically?This book is Turchin's first public swipe at the task and he has gone further with it in his blog and new science journal Cliodynamics since the book was published This book is a beginning albeit an audacious one and it begins with a theory on where empires come from and why they decline and fallEssentially Turchin holds that empires rise due to asabiya the ability to take action cooperatively in a coordinated fashion As an example he cites records from the early days of the Mongols in which armies of 100000 could execute complex military manuevers just based on flag signals without the many horns drums pipes and bellowing sergeants necessary to get western Europeans to do the same at that time Facing invasion some cities Italians in the face of Hannibal for example were able to act together to repel the invaders while others Italians in the face of late Roman Empire Germanic invasions for example were not Why and how could the same genetic stock the same culture broadly speaking sometimes have asabiya and sometimes not? The same issue of acting collectively in a less dramatic sense can be seen in whether or not to work together to make canals long distance roads or other public infrastructureTurchin identifies and provides copious historical examples and counter examples for several factors1 threats from the other For slavic Russians this was Turkic and central Asian nomadic peoples; for colonial Americans this was Native Americans and as Tecumseh demonstrated this worked both ways; for early Romans this was the barbarians of Gaul who were far alien to them than the Etruscans or other Italian or Greek civilized peoples Turchin shows evidence that empires tend to begin on the edges between peoples nomads and farmers for example who have enough differences in culture and way of life that the differences between separate villages or tribes on one side of the divide seem small by comparison2 modest levels of ineuality Whereas his stress on the importance of defining one's identity in opposition to another culture may alienate the conventional Left here Turchin alienates the conventional Right by showing copious examples ancient Rome vs Imperial Rome different centuries of medieval France wherein an accumulation of wealth at the top is corrosive to the society's asabiya The 99% in any society will know that the 1% is better off than they are How great the disparity however will impact how much they are willing to support that society In a clash between two armies one of which fights for the good of the society and the other of which fights if it cannot safely evade fighting the former will win3 the ratio of elite to non elite In any society some portion of the population is part of the most favored class this includes Communist and modern American societies no less than any other The growth rate of the elite however is not necessarily well correlated to the growth rate of the overall society If the food supply in an agricultural society is running out the elite will not starve but the general populace may well or at least may have fewer children This can make an already strained society even top heavy and eventually this will result in internal division in many historical cases resulting in intra elite civil war such as the English War of the Roses4 war begets peace begets war People who lived through war as children are less enad of it as a solution to their problems as adults especially if it was a civil war rather than a war fought on another nation's territory This leads to a freuent alternation of war and peace generations through many periods and cultures; Turchin uses the term fathers and sons cycles for theseWhenever we look at attempts to find patterns in the chaos of history it is eually easy to be either easily impressed by the new theory than is warranted or to be skeptical There have been many attempts before In some sense there is a fathers and sons pattern here as well where about every half century scientists look again at whether they can bring order to the riot of human history only to throw up their hands in despair after a decade or two and abjure the attempt for another generation Perhaps this will be the latest failed attemptThere is no uestion however that we have data available to historians not only the written chronicles of old but also archaeological climatalogical etc We also have vastly computing power to see if we can find patterns amidst the data Perhaps like predicting the weather past a one or two week window we will not yet be able to find the way to wrap our minds around our own social selves But then even meteorologists have made progress in recent decades and if we are changeable as the weather perhaps we are also not wholly beyond the reach of human understanding It is good to know that minds as innovative and simultaneously disciplined as Turchin are suaring their shoulders and charging once unto the breach


  4. says:

    Very interesting but as frustrating as it is challengingThe title of this book is a bit misleading it does indeed regularly deal with war and peace and with the rise and fall of imperia but actually Turchin covers a much larger field and presents two theories on the entire world history His first theory states that large empires or states have always developed in places that where near a border with another group or a state that was perceived as fundamentally different and threatening Turchin makes no secret that this view is very similar to that of Samuel Huntington and his Clash of civilizations He prefers to use the term of 'metaethic frontier' It is always close to such a border that new states emerge that gradually develop into large empires; it never starts in a center far away from such a border and thus less challenged and threatenedHis second theory is inspired by the 13th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldoen namely that the power of a society a state or an empire rests primarily on its internal cohesion its ‘asabiya’ as Khaldoen describes it Turchin illustrates this with numerous examples and is reasonably convincing on this finding support with other social scientist like Robert Putnam and his ‘Social Capital’ conceptThe emergence of empires imperiogenesis and their fall imperiopathosis are connected with those two concepts of metaetnic frontier and asabiya a realm arises when it is at such a boundary and can develop an intense form of internal cohesion in response to the threat by a fundamentally different enemy and it goes under if that border shifts and the threat thus falls away and or if the cohesion crumbles mostly due to growing ineuality as a result of Malthusian cycles In most cases according to Turchin this process takes about a millennium On top of that Turchin distinguishes other cycles within that very large time frame secular cycles covering 2 to 4 centuries much shorter cycles of 60 to 80 years and finally ultra short cycles of several generations He himself uses the image of wheels in wheels in wheels with which he wants to indicate that the historical reality is never simple and there are lot of feedback loops that interfere with each other Most of these cycles are related to the eual or uneual distribution of wealth and the fierceness of wars be it external or civil wars This all sounds very interesting and Turchin illustrates it with many examples from world history that – in general – sound rather convincing But as you might suspect there are some comments to make In the first place it is striking that almost all of his examples and models relate to agrarian premodern societies and hardly if at all to recent industrial ones Turchin is also aware of this himself and tries to counter that in his final chapter by uickly bringing up some reflections on the empire of the United States the European Union very strange to define this as an imperium China and even Russia His arguments in this section are not convincing the modern world is uite different from the premodern one and it seems that the elements of metaethnic frontier and asabiya play a much less important role in our globalized world where boundaries are much less defined Turchin in this section focuses rather strongly on the meta ethnic frontier that Islam has created in recent decades but with that he simply repeats the weaknesses of Samuel Huntington's arguments because up until now there’s no asabiya to discern in the Islamic world He also often illustrates his theories with extensive uotations from primary sources and especially chronicles of Roman European Medieval Arab or early Russian origin from which he deduces all sorts of things that have to prove his theories Of course tish is tricky because these chronicles are very place time and person related and offer only perspective For this use of chronicles Turchin was as predicted very heavily attacked by classical historiansIn this book Turchin also repeatedly pleads for the use of theoretical models also in history and specifically of Cliodynamics his own pet child which deals with history mainly through uantitative statistical approaches I must concede that his arguments for this are nuanced he offers a nonlinear and nondeterministic approach to reality in the sense that he also allows deviations and exceptions and a certain role of individuals with free will and that is to his benefit And he is aware that these uantitative approaches are tricky Turchin is modest enough to indicate that Cliodynamics is still in its infancy A lot work needs to be done in the history of scientific maturity that was enjoyed by classical mechanics in the 18th and 19th centuries But at the same time he maintains that with the enormous influx of uantitative data in recent decades much larger steps can be taken And that may be true to some extent but I think we are better remain critical The fact that in his closing chapter for example he alludes to the possible resurrection of a great Cossack empire in southern Russia leaves one to thinkTurchin in this book builds up his theories step by step and takes a lot of effort to illustrate elaborate and nuance his points of view but at times it gives a rather inconsistent impression and it doesn't have thet compelling logic that you can find for instance with Jared Diamond which for him is partly a model but which he also renounces In that context one striking thing Turchin is zoologist by training and with that he is the umpteenth non historian who approaches history with the rough brush Jared Diamond Samuel Huntington Steven Pinker are other examples Now I'm not saying this can't be illuminating on the contrary I was wowed by Pinker but it's high time that also trained historians take their stand in this matter because they are better than anyone else euipped with knowledge of the past and a sense for nuance and contingency of the human agency There are some promising developments of this in the field of WorldGlobalInterconnected History but there's still a long way to go All this does not detract from the fact that the central concepts of Turchin the metaethnic frontier and the asabiya factor are absolutely relevant and valuable keys to dealing with history They should be given serious thought but they are certainly not the only ones and it remains important to be very careful with them because reality even that of the past remains a chaotic and slippery thing 3 stars


  5. says:

    In this book Turchin attempts a familiar task trying to discern laws of history In this particular case Turchin generalizes about the formation rise and fall of empiresAlisdair MacIntyre it seems to me proved that social science in the sense of prediction is impossible in principleThat doesn't mean we can't discern cycles and causative factors in human history but only that we must be very cautious about how complete and accurate our conclusions are Turchin supplies some disclaimersHis basic notions are that empires arise on one side or the other of a metaethnic frontier say that between the Romans and first the Celts and then the German and Hunnish barbarians to their northeast The need to resist contributes to an increase in asabiya a concept gleaned from the Maghrebi scholar Ibn Khaldun social solidarity or lessAs ineuality increases and élites become too bloated asabiya declines and crime and civil war increase leading to war epidemic and anarchy The élite's size shrinks and the reduced population of peons and proles improves their market position and standard of living thus increasing asabiyaTurchin supports this theory with examples from historyThe book is uite readable and the hypotheses plausible if not entirely new see eg the work of Spengler Pitirim Sorokin etc


  6. says:

    A fascinating group selectionist take on the dynamics of the rise and fall of empires in history


  7. says:

    Yet another Big History book this one really pulled out in front of the pack for me and I think it's the best one I've read so farFirst there's no better way to make me smile than with a reference to psychohistory from my favorite sci fi series of all time Turchin compares his goal of scientifying history to Asimov's famous literary conceit right there at the very beginning of the Introduction Turchin is serious about it though offering a semi mathematical framework for historical analysis he calls cliodynamics which borrows methodologically from statistical mechanics and nonlinear dynamics In English that means he models the rise and fall of empires using euations that treat people as groups and also account for chaotic behavior as well This means that there's some population genetics lurking in the background as well There is not actually any math in this book however; this was a prose exposition of the euations that are all in his earlier Historical Dynamics which I haven't read There's still plenty of rigor though as he subscribes fully to Paul Krugman's sentiment that The euations and diagrams of formal economics are often than not no than the scaffolding used to help construct an intellectual edifice Once that edifice has been built to a certain point the scaffolding can be stripped away leaving only plain English behindHe starts out by asking how empires form which he calls imperiogenesis The list of empirescountriespeoples discussed extensively include Russia America Germans Arabs England France Austria Hungary and of course the good old Roman Empire He doesn't include exhaustive histories of each one just enough to make his points and tie them back to the larger argument I would have liked detail on the non European empires like Persia China the various Indian empires or anything in the Western Hemisphere but I think those would only bolster his thesis He finds that empires typically arise on what he calls a metaethnic frontier in other words a boundary between two relatively different cultures cf the us vs them struggles in Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations Thus the medieval Rus ancestors of today's Russians found themselves assimilating other nearby tribes in a desperate effort to fend off endless raids from the Mongols and this gradual accretion of similar proto Russian co ethnics gradually built the kind of egalitarian tightly knit society that was capable of conuering the vast steppes of Siberia In essence the Rus as a society unconsciously learned the social traits trust intra group fairness self sacrifice for the group that it took to be a successful empire and other groups that didn't or couldn't develop those traits got swallowed up or annihilated This is similar to how the Romans fought off the Gauls Phoenicians etc by gradually assimilating similar tribes like that Samnites and so on He calls this level of collective solidarity asabiya after Ibn Khaldun's usage of the term in his Muaddimah his own attempt at a universal history and ties it into Alexis de Tocueville's and Robert Putnam's ideas of social capitalEvery good theory of how empires rise should also be able to explain how empires fall and his asabiya concept seems to do a decent job of explaining imperiopathosis as well Asabiya is the glue of peoples both a measure of general social capital and trust and the thing that makes your average dude it's mostly guys willing to die in some wasteland hundreds or thousands of miles away from home in order to promote the greater good He backs this up by bringing in some game theoreticgroup selectionist discussion of how societies need a critical mass of moralists and institutions to discourage free riders and cheaters which encourages solidarity Something that Turchin finds over and over again in history is that incredibly successful civilizations after having built their empires seem to be inherently unstable and prone to decay through loss of asabiya While this sounds as unscientific as élan vital it can actually be uantified in some ways Basically in a mature empire that no longer feels compelled to expand the number of elites starts to slowly increase both due to lower chances of dying in wars and due to the higher reproductive rate that being rich in an agricultural society allows for Slowly they shift from being leaders in society to being rent seekers and eventually they take so much of the pie that people aren't willing to trust in the civic institutions previous generations built Eventually a vigorous society on the border gets its act together in the case of the Romans the Germans; for the Byzantines the Arabs and displaces the decadence that might still be numerically and technologically superior but can't muster the will to resist Paraphrasing Arnold Toynbee great empires die not by murder but by suicideSo asabiya can be generated through struggles and trials that bind people to each other and it can be lost through the lack of the same unifying pressures The differing fates of north and south Italy are discussed towards the end of the book why north Italy while fairly rich still has a social capital deficit compared to countries like France or Germany while low trust south Italy is an asabiya black hole as demonstrated by the presence of groups like the Mafia This is reflected in the very interesting fact that Italy doesn't have large public companies like other first world nations The largest Italian company Fiat is still family owned The typical successful Italian company is a family owned business with perhaps a hundred employees in Milan or Bologna They occupy a variety of niches from fashion to high precision machinery and they are extremely successful at what they do But they cannot break into certain international markets because they lack the advantage of size And they cannot grow to a large size because the Italians even northern ones can cooperate only in medium sized groups Is this why northern Italians historically could not get beyond medium sized states? Religion has an interesting place in Turchin's book; while religious disputes are not necessarily meaningful in and of themselves they're another way that groups of people use to mark us from them After reading Diarmaid MacCullough's Christianity The First Three Thousand Years with its endless tales of violent disputes over completely arbitrary doctrinal issues like the filioue clause or if icons are kosher or whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or three this seems very true to meTurchin's ideas also interact pleasingly with a number of other Big History books I've read semi recently In no particular orderrhymereason He's a little dismissive of Jared Diamond's Guns Germs Steel saying that while the geographical determinism line of argument can explain trans hemispherical imperial triumphs it doesn't do a good job in the vastly common cases where neighboring tribes with similar resources attack each other like the Rus vs the Tatars or the French vs the English This is true Diamond might be able to explain the ultimate outcome but how would that explain for example the asabiya induced paralysis and chaos of the Incans after Atahualpa was captured? He doesn't engage much with Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies which is a shame because I still think that Tainter's admittedly somewhat simplistic ideas about the decreasing marginal returns on civilizational complexity are un ignorable Tainter is resource deterministic than Turchin who allows for human initiative in the way that societies can choose to lose internal cohesion by becoming inward focused but I would bet that there's still something to Tainter's idea that there's a certain optimal size for societies given the resources available to them I think Acemoglu and Robinson should have cited this book in their Why Nations Fail because there's a lot of overlap between AR's ideas about extractive vs inclusive institutions and what Turchin has to say about how institutions can shift between the two poles due to external pressures or the lack of them Republican Rome was much inclusive for the average pleb during the parts of its history where it was under threat lost inclusion for a long period during things like the Gracchi brothers' reform attempts and then became inclusive again after enough elites killed each other during the Julius Caesar drama to stabilize the empire AR don't have a good account for how dynamic movement along the inclusiveextractive scale can be and Turchin's asabiya measure seems to include that Brian Fagan's The Long Summer talked about how the migrations of primitive humans and therefore possible tribal conflicts were driven in part by climate shifts that alternately opened up new lands and closed off old ones Turchin showed that climate shifts didn't have much to do with the medieval French English wars specifically but it would be neat to see uantification and if there's a climate shift threshold over which a tribe could ascend to a higher or maybe lower level of asabiya in its need to find new lands and resources Given that per Tainter the Mayans might have succumbed to environmental changes it's reasonable to think that climate might be an input into asabiya Climate change in our own day might have significant effects on political stability as well Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature talked a lot about changes in violence I wonder if you could correlate intra society violence to asabiya shifts For example the US right after WW2 was infamously homogenous and group centered with low levels of crime This changed after the Sixties and I don't think anyone would argue that there hasn't been a relative drop in the nebulous feeling that we're one big society of Americans Is crime a good proxy for asabiya eg the Northeast is rich and low crime relative to the South does that mean anything? and does the recent relative drop in violent crime rates mean the US is getting stronger asabiya wise? Relatedly I've read a lot of good books on ineuality recently like Timothy Noah's The Great Divergence The parallels between pre Revolutionary France or ancient Rome to the modern US in terms of the power of the wealthy are numerous and disturbing although of course only valid up to a point Still how would a conservative or a liberal for that matter apply the implications of this book to our current economic condition? Is rising ineuality destroying Americans' ability to cooperate with each other?Overall this is a really interesting book a definite Big History champion and is also full of great factoids I'll close with a fascinating uote from where he talks about how medieval societies like England tried to control elite overpopulation Lorcin found that in commoner families males outnumbered females by 13 percent This pattern is just what we expect in a pre industrial society where a substantial proportion of women died in childbirth In noble families however the pattern was reversed—there were only 85 males per 100 females In other words there were 28 percent fewer noble males than we would expect if their mortality patterns were the same as commoners The wills studied by Lorcin allowed her to calculate that during the second half of the fourteenth century and the first half of the fifteenth the proportions of noble girls becoming nuns were 40 and 30 percent respectively Only in the second half of the fifteenth century did this proportion decline to 14 percentOkay one Destruction of the great fortunes continued under the Tudors who had it in for their over rich and over mighty subjects The first two Tudors Henry VII and Henry VIII employed judicial murder with great effect systematically exterminating all potential claimants to the English throne who also happened to be among the richest landowners Elizabeth I crafted a gentler method—a kind of “progressive taxation” scheme When one of her subjects became too wealthy she invited herself to his castle along with her whole court After some weeks of dining and wining the ueen and hundreds of her followers the unfortunate host was financially ruined for many years to come and was too busy paying off his debts to contemplate rebellion


  8. says:

    I am the kind of person who is always seeking a set of abstract principles within which to contextualize my experience of events and information This characteristic has often dampened my enthusiasm for the study of history since my encounters with history books usually amount to poring over lists of occurrences with only the occasional idea or theme that ties everything together I’m also aware that my predilection for abstraction is a potential handicap when applied to history; it can be intellectually dangerous to reduce the past to a mere set of rules or lessons and this activity usually steamrolls the complexity of real life in favor of easy explanationsMy ideal historian therefore should represent the best of both worlds––a mind steeped in the rich diversity of historical events that is also capable of distilling those events into evidence based concepts that withstand serious scrutiny and hold up across time I am aware of no author who accomplishes this with greater success than Peter Turchin in War and Peace and War I consider this the single best history book I’ve read to dateTurchin is the creator of a new field of study called Cliodynamics” which he defines as “a new science of historical dynamics” 10 Cliodynamics is a cyclical interpretation of history that focuses on the relationship between three core types of historical cycles asabiya cycles this wonderful term originates from 14th century thinker Ibn Khaldoun secular cycles and fathers and sons cycles Out of respect for the richness of Turchin’s theory I will uote him at length in order to demonstrate how these cycles are distinct from as well as interactive with one anotherA general theory for the rise and decline of empires we have The crucial variable in it is the collective capacity for action the society’s asabiya Competition between societies leads to asabiya increase whereas competition within a society causes its asabiya to decline As we have seen in Part I of this book metaethnic frontiers where groups and civilizations clash are the crucibles within which high asabiya societies are forged The almost inevitable conseuence of high capacity for collective action however is territorial expansion that pushes the frontiers away from the center and removes the very forces that fostered high asabiya in the first place Thus success breeds eventual failure; the rise carries within it the seeds of the fall––peace brings war and war brings peace In the language of nonlinear dynamics rise and fall phenomena are explained by negative feedback loopsDecline of asabiya is not a linear process As we now know empires go through long––secular––cycles of alternating integrative disintegrative phases Within society competition wanes during the integrative phase and waxes during the disintegrative phase It is during disintegrative phases when the asabiya of the society takes a big hit Further one disintegrative phase is usually not enough to completely degrade the cohesion of a high asabiya society It typically takes two or three secular cycles for an imperial nation to lose its capacity for concerted actionHowever even this portrayal is an oversimplification Disintegrative phases are also not uniformly bad Because people get fed up with constant instability and insecurity civil warfare during an instability phase tends to skip a generation––the children of revolutionaries want to avoid disorder at any cost but the grandchildren of revolutionaries are ready to repeat the mistakes of their grandparents all over again As a result disintegration phases tend to go through two or three 'fathers and sons' cycles before a renaissance can take hold and the society can enter a secular integrative phaseThe dynamics of imperial rise and decline therefore are like a mechanism with wheels within wheels within wheels The waxing and waning of asabiya is the slowest process taking many centuries––often a millennium––for a complete cycle Secular cycles occur on a faster time scale A typical imperial nation goes through two or three and sometimes even four secular cycles during the course of its life Finally the disintegrative phase of each secular cycle will see two or three waves of political instability and civil warfare separated by periods of fragile peace The characteristic time scales therefore are a millennium for the asabiya cycle 2 to 3 centuries for a secular cycle and 40 to 60 years two generations for fathers and sons cycles These are just orders of magnitude; there is no exact periodicity in any of these processes 285 6While Cliodynamics has significant implications for many areas of historical study Turchin restricts War and Peace and War to an examination of empires which he defines as “large multiethnic territorial states withcomplex power structures” 3 The vision is grand but Turchin is careful to repeatedly point out the limitations of his arguments and also considers alternative explanations even when he finds them unsatisfactoryTurchin’s distinct ability to lay out an ambitious and expansive theory while remaining appropriately humble is most likely a result of his interdisciplinary approach It’s up to each reader to decide if this methodology confers special legitimacy or reveals a lack of sufficient commitment to the traditions of academic historians but I found myself suarely in the former camp In a daring feat of intellectual synthesis Turchin shores up his historical research with evidence from myriad areas of science including but not limited to evolutionary theory economics statistical mechanics nonlinear dynamics geopolitics social psychology demographics chaos theory and physics His numerous applications of modern discoveries to historical documents and datasets is engrossing and uniue compared to other historians I’ve read As he notes than a few times “History is too complex for single factor explanations” 29 War and Peace and War bears out this creed proving itself a true marriage of modern and ancient wisdomThe basics of Cliodynamics are enough to make this book a worthwhile read for anyone but there are many additional insights that Turchin manages to cram into this dense but digestible text The resurrection of Khaldoun’s concept of asabiya is invaluable Turchin acknowledges that a group’s asabiya is a “dynamic uantity” that “cannot be observed directly but it can be measured from observable conseuences” 6 This is unlikely to mollify hard nosed evolutionary biologists seeking an ironclad mathematical model to verify or deny asabiya’s existence but it does represent a beautiful articulation of a missing link in our evolutionary thinking that has only recently been revitalized by proponents of multilevel selectionThe application of asabiya to our understanding of identity and citizenship holds tremendous potential for community building on every level of human organization Turchin observes that “A nation with high collective solidarity can lose many battles and still prevail in the end” but this clearly seems to hold for human groups across the board 103 This profoundly humanist idea reminds us that while the differences between individuals and groups should never be ignored they should also never be allowed to blot out the deeper truth that all human undertakings are inherently collective with the best societies achieving solidarity over time by harnessing diversity’s upsides and declawing its downsides Getting along with others isn’t just nice––it’s essential for survivalOne critical aspect of asabiya that Turchin examines is how “ symbolic markers––language and dialect religion and ritualistic behaviors race clothing behavioral mannerisms hairstyles ornaments and tattoos” can either bring people together or keep them apart 5 emphasis his All symbolic markers play a dual role of 1 providing a space in which solidarity can be discovered or embellished and 2 signaling indifference or outright hostility to members of out groups Over time and given sufficient survival pressures certain markers can leap the chasm between us and them often acuiring new powers of influence in the resolution or incitement of disputesAnother of Turchin’s fascinating findings involves the characteristics of “metaethnic frontiers”––tense borderlands that serve as make or break points for rising or declining empires Turchin shows how borderlands provide a dramatic stage on which one of two basic dynamics will prevail 1 the empire’s centralized government will bolster its most vulnerable citizens by helping them absorb or dispel “barbarians”––thereby reinforcing or expanding its capacity for asabiya––or 2 those same “barbarians” will successfully challenge the empire’s claim to fringe territory––thereby diminishing the empire’s asabiya If this latter dynamic persists long enough new bonds of identification and mutual understanding can arise between the empire’s disenchanted subjects and the “barbarians” generating a new locus of asabiya that may ultimately subvert andor rise up to destroy the empire and give birth to a new one Turchin’s granular focus on Roman history is the main arena where he illustrates this dynamic but he also pulls effective examples from the histories of the United States Russia China the Middle East and othersTurchin is keenly aware that empires do not rise and fall purely because of external factors In fact Cliodynamics argues that internal factors are often important when an empire’s fate is decided Central to this view are the tensions that arise between as well as within classes in any given empire The integrative phases of secular cycles tend to be egalitarian with relatively eual wealth distribution and higher rates of social mobility Disintegrative phases by contrast are marked by increasing ineuality and intense inter as well as intra class competition Turchin explainsWhen rich get richer and poor get poorer cooperation between social classes is undermined But the same process is operating within each class When some nobles are growing conspicuously wealthy while the majority of nobility is increasingly impoverished the elites become riven by factional conflicts Within the secular cycle as the disintegrative phase follows the integrative one ineuality rises and falls A life cycle of an imperial nation usually extends over the course of two or three or even four secular cycles Every time the empire enters a disintegrative secular phase the asabiya of its core nation is significantly degraded Eventually this process of imperiopathosis reaches its terminal phase––the imperial nation loses its ability to cooperate and the empire collapses Most empires therefore fall for internal reasons 281Fluctuations in population and economic markets the development of new technologies political revolutions and forces of nature such as climate and disease can slow down or speed up these processes but the general trends of the secular cycle tend to reliably recur over timeWhile I consider War and Peace and War to be a superb book there are a few areas where I think Turchin’s perspective is incorrect or needs augmentation Turchin fumbles badly when it comes to the matter of physical determinism and free will falling prey to the all too common conflation of randomness and freedomParticles at the subatomic level behave in a stochastic––completely erratic and unpredictable––manner and modern physics has been unable to reduce their behavior to the action of deterministic laws It is uite possible that the universe at some very basic level is not deterministic at allAt a lower level uantum physics tells us that the behavior of subatomic particles cannot be predicted; that is they have a kind of 'free will' 311 317In my view randomness denotes the limit of humanity’s ability to make precise observational predictions and not a fundamental breakdown of deterministic physical laws The randomness of uantum activity is therefore completely compatible with determinism even if it thwarts our predictive efforts Randomness is not compatible however with free will The fact that an outcome can’t be predicted from an external perspective does not mean any kind of “choice” or rupture in causality is happening––either at the subatomic level or any other So while I disagree with Turchin’s contention that people have free will I heartily agree with him that “free will in this context is a red herring Whether people have free will or nothas nothing to do with our ability to understand and predict historical dynamics” 317 This makes one wonder why Turchin bothered to include any discussion of free will in the first placeTurchin’s fortifications are also lacking on two other fronts but both are errors of omission rather than misinterpretation of facts In his final chapters Turchin invites us to consider the implications of Cliodynamics for modern empires It is an enlightening and generally well framed discussion but Turchin ignores two game changing modern developments artificial intelligenceautomation and anthropogenic climate change It is possible he sidesteps these topics because they represent unprecedented challenges that preclude credible prediction based on past events or perhaps AIautomation and climate change weren’t as front and center in the mid 2000s as they are nowAll of these faults are easily forgiven in the greater context of Turchin’s laudable contribution to the discipline of historical analysis It follows that his assessment of modernity deserves our careful consideration He claims that the era of empires is certainly not over and makes a strong case that the United States the European Union and China all ualify as contemporary empires Russia is a borderline case Turchin is forthright regarding the possible flaws in his theories that will need correction by others and eschews fatalism by remaining open to the possibility that humanity may one day escape the historical cycles that have dominated our story thus far To that end he gestures toward a host of recent developments––our move away from agrarian economies the development of the Internet and mobile phones and the invention of heterarchical nonhierarchical power structures amongst others––that may compound or subvert the patterns of CliodynamicsLike any great thinker Turchin knows he is but one tiny incarnation of humanity’s intellectual potential seeking merely to make a worthy contribution This he has certainly achieved and in doing so he has also illuminated each person’s mysterious but undeniable potential to do the sameMicro actions by most people most of the time have no effect whatsoever on the behavior of the system as a whole––they are completely dampened out at the macro level But sometimes an individual acts in a place and at a time where the macrosystem is extremely sensitive to small perturbations Then a little act of a little individual can trigger an avalanche of conseuences and result in a complete change of the course of events The childhood rhyme “For want of a nail” illustrates this idea perfectlyThis is an optimistic conclusion because it suggests that not all individual action is doomed to be futile at the macro level of social systems There is no excuse in not trying to be good because even if most of such actions would probably dissipate without any lasting effect once in a while a small action will have a large effect 319 20This review was originally published on my blog wordsdirt


  9. says:

    Turchin begins by referring to Hari Selden the mastermind of psychohistory in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy in describing his project a logical cause effect analysis of how where when why great empires are born their life cycle and finally their decline fall In a nutshell he finds it's all about social cohesiveness Turchin's style becomes somewhat turgid tedious but his thesis has merit This is worth plowing thru


  10. says:

    History is a spiral it always repeat itself but each time the loop is a bit different from the previous


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