The Collapse of Civilization, Part 5
Decline and Fall
Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America.
Cullen Murphy. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Are we Rome? Will the United States fall, just as Rome fell, and just
as (more recently) the Soviet Union fell? Cullen Murphy sets out to
address this question, and gives us a lot of interesting history, but in
the end doesnít provide us with a good answer to the question.
There are plenty of analogies here, and Murphy examines the capitals, the military, the relationship
between public and private enterprise, the relationship between the
empire and the rest of the world, and the problem of dealing with the
borders. So if you want to go digging for these historical analogies, or
just want a good historical read, Murphyís book is a nice place to
But what if you want to know the actual answer to the question
"Are we Rome?" The parallels which Murphy discovers are all basically political. All
empires, ancient or modern, have capitals, borders, armies, and
bureaucracies. They also have certain element of myopia and
corruption. What exactly does this prove? Does having capitals,
borders, armies, and bureaucracies mean that the empire will fall? Even
if it will eventually fall, how do we know where on the trajectory we
are? Whatís underlying the politics of empire here?
Murphy suggests that corruption in
government and ignorance of the outside world are significant factors we
can avoid, but I seriously doubt that either of these was fundamental in
Rome's fall. There is no indication
that ignorance in any absolute sense was less in earlier Rome during its
America) than in later Rome (or present-day America). Societies in their
decline often produce some of their greatest thinkers -- think of
Socrates, Plato, and the decline of Athens, for example, or Porphyry,
Tertullian, and Augustine during the decline of Rome.
"Corruption" is an even vaguer category. Corruption arises
because there is a divide between private interest and public duty, and
that the former dominates the latter. But if times are good, private
interest and public duty typically coincide anyway. That's what it means
to say that "times are good": you don't have to deal
constantly with any heart-wrenching decisions and make any noble
sacrifices and constantly repeat the Horatio-at-the-bridge thing.
That's because your society is not in a perpetual state of crisis.
If your society is in a perpetual state of crisis, eventually someone is
going to give in to temptation.
So that corruption became a
problem in Rome (or America) is just another way of saying that
"times were bad," which is saying nothing. Moreover, what
replaced the Roman Empire? Nothing. The Roman Empire was not "taken
over" by the barbarians; it simply disappeared, and nothing really
analogous to Rome was really attempted for over a thousand years, with
the possible exception of Justinian, who bankrupted his empire trying to
recapture Rome's legacy.
If a corrupt emperor (or two or three) had caused Rome's fall, some
barbarian would surely have eventually figured out how to do the same
thing right. Thus we have the "myth of Rome": that all
it would have taken would have been a strong-willed, competent, and
honest emperor (or a series of such emperors) to set things right. Rome had a number of
strong-willed, competent, and honest emperors, including Marcus Aurelius
and Diocletian. They were not able to save the empire, because
they were unable to deal with the underlying problem. Murphy seems
determined to invent a similar "myth of America," that a
strong-willed, competent, and honest President or group of Americans could set America right
Now, Mrs. Laycock in my high school world history class, as well as
in Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies, offered
an obvious explanation: Rome fell for economic reasons, Rome had no
industry. Nothing that the Romans or their subjects did that was
fundamentally and notably
better than what the barbarians did, it therefore lacked any economic
reason for existence. This sort of industrial or trade base is the sort of thing which only happened much
later, with the rise of modern Europe.
Given this lack of an economy, the real problem is not explaining
Romeís fall, but explaining its rise. And here the explanation is -- military
might. Rome became great not because it was an efficient producer or
trader of things which made life better, but because it was a great
military power and could confiscate the things which made life
better. Rome became rich by looting and pillaging.
However, looting and pillaging has limited economic utility. You can
do it once, but eventually youíre going to run out of nations to loot
and pillage, or they are going to become increasingly distant and
difficult to subdue (Judea, Parthia). You can then raise taxes, but this
too soon reaches a point of diminishing returns. You can rest on your
laurels for a while -- in Romeís case, for several hundred years --
but you wonít be able to continue raking money into the treasury at
anything approaching the rate you did as you founded your empire. You
can economize, maneuver, and delay but you canít get around this basic
fact in the long run.
Well, the United States doesnít go around looting and pillaging
other countries to get its wealth, does it? Isnít there a fundamental
dissimilarity here? Iraq and Vietnam are sometimes held out as examples
of our empire-building attempts. Maybe, but so far Iraq has not been
particularly profitable, thereís less oil produced now than under
Saddam, and there wasnít anything strategic in Vietnam to begin with.
So doesnít this analogy break down?
But thereís another angle here: while we havenít looted and
pillaged other countries so much (well, not very effectively, and thatís
certainly not how we became great), we have been looting and pillaging nature.
And like Romeís adventure in empire, our industrial empire will soon
hit the law of diminishing returns, because thereís only so much
fossil fuel to pillage. Think: American society is built on the
exploitation of natural resources generally and fossil fuels in
particular. Think: this is non-renewable or unsustainable or both.
Think: this is happening on a vast and previously unimaginable scale.
Cullen Murphy could have written a great book if he had focused on
the fundamental reasons that Rome fell, and then tried to argue the pros
and cons of whether these reasons apply to the United States. Instead he
has written a book that focuses on more superficial similarities and ignores
the underlying problems. Too
Someone else may get a shot at writing such a history, but weíre running out
of time. Crude oil production peaked in May 2005 and while we might,
just might, see a slight uptick sometime later, itís only a matter of
time before the whole basis of modern industrial society enters a period
of decline. Itís entirely possible that the United States will
be deep in crisis, or worst case actually disappear, before some historian manages
to point out the obvious and get it published.
November 24, 2007
Related articles on "The Collapse of
Part 1: Collapse -- Coming Soon
to a Civilization Near You!
A review of books by Jared Diamond, J. R. McNeill, and Joseph
Tainter, on the collapse of civilizations and the current state of our
Part 2: Reviews of Better
Off and The Long Emergency
Reviews of two books by James Kunstler and Eric Brende which
offer alternative visions of possible futures.
Part 3: Is
Peak Oil Here?, reviews of books by Ken Deffeys and Matt Simmons on
Part 4: Five
More Good Books on the Collapse of Civilization! Reviews of
books by Jeremy Legget, Lindsey Grant, Ronald Wright, John Howe, and
Part 5: Decline
and Fall, a review of Are We Rome?
Part 6: Peak
Oil at the Movies, a review of A Crude Awakening, Crude Impact,
and What a Way to Go.