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The Self-Destructive Trajectory of Overly Successful Empires

Charles Hugh Smith
June 12th, 2019
Of Two Minds Blog
Comments (13)

This article was originally published by Charles Hugh Smith at Of Two Minds Blog.

It’s difficult not to see signs of this same trajectory in the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1990.

A recent comment by my friend and colleague Davefairtex on the Roman Empire’s self-destructive civil wars that precipitated the Western Empire’s decline and fall made me rethink what I’ve learned about the Roman Empire in the past few years of reading.

Dave’s comment (my paraphrase) described the amazement of neighboring nations that Rome would squander its strength on needless, inconclusive, self-inflicted civil conflicts over which political faction would gain control of the Imperial central state.

It was a sea change in Roman history. Before the age of endless political in-fighting, it was incomprehensible that Roman armies would be mustered to fight other Roman armies over Imperial politics. The waste of Roman strength, purpose, unity and resources was monumental. Not even Rome could sustain the enormous drain of civil wars and maintain widespread prosperity and enough military power to suppress military incursions by neighbors.

I now see a very obvious trajectory that I think applies to all empires that have been too successful, that is, empires which have defeated all rivals or have reached such dominance they have no real competitors.

Once there are no truly dangerous rivals to threaten the Imperial hegemony and prosperity, the ambitions of insiders turn from glory gained on the battlefield by defeating fearsome rivals to gaining an equivalently undisputed power over the imperial political system.

The empire’s very success in eliminating threats and rivals dissolves the primary source of political unity: with no credible external threat, insiders are free to devote their energies and resources to destroying political rivals.

It’s difficult not to see signs of this same trajectory in the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1990.

With the primary source of national unity gone, politics became more divisive. After 9/11, new wars of choice were pursued, but the claims of a mortal threat to the nation never really caught on. As a result, the unity that followed 9/11 quickly dissipated.

I have long held that America’s Deep State–the permanent, un-elected government and its many proxies and public-private partnerships–is riven by warring elites. There is no purpose in making the conflict public, so the battles are waged in private, behind closed doors.

Competing nations must be just as amazed as Rome’s neighbors at America’s seemingly unquenchable drive to self-destruct via the in-fighting of entrenched elites and the battle for supremacy between various parasitic elites who hold the power and privilege to squander the nation’s resources on needless self-destructive wars of choice and on domestic in-fighting.

I suspect this trajectory of great success leading to self-destructive waste of resources is scale-invariant, meaning it works the same on individuals, families, communities, enterprises, cities, states, nations and empires.

It reminds me of former Intel CEO Andy Grove’s famous summary of this dynamic: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”

An empire weakened by self-inflicted internal conflicts may appear mighty, but it becomes increasingly vulnerable to an external shock. The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) may well have collapsed from the devastating effects of the extreme weather circa 535 AD and the great plague of Justinian in 541 AD had it been weakened by internal in-fighting. But despite the staggering losses caused by these external catastrophes, the Byzantine Empire survived.

Rome, on the other hand, burned while self-absorbed factions jockeyed for power.

*Charles Hugh Smith is the author of several books, including Money and Work Unchained.  This book details the horrifying future we face thanks to the advancements in artificial intelligence. “The current conventional-wisdom view of our soon-to-be future is rose-tinted: automation will free millions of people from the drudgery of work, then by taxing the robots doing all the work, we can pay everyone Universal Basic Income (UBI), enabling a life of leisure and artistic pursuit for all. The result: A future of Universal Happiness.

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Author: Charles Hugh Smith
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Date: June 12th, 2019
Website: https://www.oftwominds.com/blogjune19/self-destructive-empires6-19.html

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13 Comments...

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  1. Capt Barty says:

    Cornelius Tacitus, “The Annals” (of Imperial Rome) could just as well have been written today, the names changed to shelter the guilty. It’s all in there. Laws upon laws, many contradictory, refusals to enforce, new ones concocted by Dictators (as in Executive Orders).

    It’s all been done before; no-one learns. Power is hungry. Some plebs are sheep, others make their own decisions.

  2. In our universe it is not possible to create an ordered system that does something and which will maintain itself in the same form forever. If something has to eat it will also have to produce waste. Consumables in its immediate vicinity will sooner or later be used up and thus no longer be available, and this requires that it venture into other locations in order to live. The question in our case is whether this expansion has reached its ultimate condition, and the answer must be that it hasn’t, for many nations and their populations still remain which we have not consumed. However, we may indeed have developed, by various means, some of the origins of which are inherently nefarious, ideologies contradictory to this potential, in which case our life as an entity will cease or be drastically abridged. Most of our people have not yet recognized the most destructive sources of these inherently nefarious origins, and those who have recognized them tend to fear them and so remain silent. One of the most damaging ideologies is extremely popular due to the pleasantness of its lying promises and is very dangerous to question or deal with publicly, much less effectively attack. You can figure it out if you try. Most adherents never do. And there are other, very harmful ideas that circulate among us, which have deleterious effects and which almost nobody openly questions. These contribute to our ruin. Morals have nothing to do with this. It is only about whether an organism wants to go on living.

    • Hey-Who says:

      The U.S. will absolutely FAIL, there are no 2 ways about it…and I would say it is coming much, much sooner than later.

      • Maybe.
        But it seems to me more likely to be lost or given away than simply to fail. Of course it may fail in one sense or another in the meantime. But it’s like our people are blind frogs blindly hopping around in a landscape filled with large frog-eating birds, inevitably being gobbled up in large numbers, when in fact poisonous ideas are being fed to our innocent and excessively trusting young by various institutions few are looking at carefully. We entrust our children’s minds to institutions we think can never be infiltrated or corrupted, when in fact we ourselves are the ones ultimately responsible for what they learn.

    • Is it human nature to behave this way? Is man only behaving in ways determined by instinct to survive and procreate? I would say yes. Even in the good old days, man had to fight to survive. Everyone had a job to do. If you couldn’t rape and pillage, you had to cook, clean, or knap flint. If you weren’t able to do that, you had to at least eat weird roots, smoke strange potions and predict the future. Anything to help the tribe stay one up on the neighbors.
      Starting with the harnessing of fire, those that maintain an edge by using energy in new and sometimes deadly ways, end up number one. Eventually, these fuels will disappear from the land, then humans will go back to living locally, root hawg or die…eventually humans will disappear by disease or murder or starvation. There will be no return to the “good old days” because those skills are gone and time won’t be on humans side to relearn them. But until then, human nature rules.

  3. Clown World says:

    These empires are overly successful at micromanaging people and picking fights as their only major industries.

    Most every other outward sign of success has no explanation, short of unserviceable debt.

  4. rellik says:

    “United we stand, divided we fall”.
    I despise Democrats and they despise non-Democrats.
    USA will fall.
    Prep for the outcome.
    In the mean time practice “passive, non-participation”.
    I don’t want to see America fail, but Democrats have already ensured it. They lost the civil war battle, but they think they have won the real war, enslavement of all America.

    • The Deplorable Renegade says:

      100,000,000 gun owners will make sure the Dems and the entire system will fail, not the country itself.

      • Navy Vet says:

        @DR – Not pickin’ at ya just making a counterpoint:

        Remember the 3% rule. Of that 100M, how many have the intestinal fortitude, fitness, training and most importantly the logistics tail to carry the fight to the finish. Might be 3%, might be 10%, might be 1%, point is no one really knows and Uncle won’t be standing idly by.

        The major tells will be another “recession” similar to 2007-2010 and/or national gun confiscation. Take your pick which occurs first.

      • rellik says:

        TDR,
        Thus far we are doing a piss-poor job of taking care of business.
        I’ll stick to my passive, refusal to contribute tactic.
        I don’t see anything and I don’t say anything.

      • Clown World says:

        These stores are for deputized wards of the state, not for the independent thinkers.

        In (very, very) ordinary footage of foreign theaters, you practiced civilian disarmament against their prospective invaders. This point of logic can be learned from boring cable tv and and the dvd bargain bin.

  5. Clown World says:

    Are you considered bourgeois. Do they just relax around you, and let their tongues slip. How good is your hearing.

    They give bad reviews to the best workers and downgrade their own friends into slave status. It never rests.They keep one eye open, and do it in their sleep.

    Vulgar, depraved, and loud, but expect their untermenschen to be groomed and meek like showdog poodles, which, sometimes, they actually do.

    America usually acts like spoiled yuppies and Boomers, nicknamed the ‘ugly American’. Look at mughshots, and tell me, convincingly, that the last 2-3 generations have not made livings, based on quirky faces, virtue signals, and condemnation. Explain this to me, while they bite your back.

    We the people are the bad cop.

    Most of our industry is futile busywork.

    People try to police me, at things, which are not important to me, in the least.

    i.pinimg.com/736x/57/ce/d8/57ced8b263393bfcc559fc398afcf4a7.jpg

    Rhodes’ ilk, trying to affix a nickel of property tax to a third world savage. Anything, no matter how petty, to make merchandise out of a person.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Eustace Mullins wrote a book about why civilizations fail.

    Cicero said something about what was happening to him and to others in Rome. He talked of a dangerous and powerful antagonistic force corrupting from within. He didn’t call them out. He was afraid.

    .