Questing for Imperium

Man on the Road to the Mountains of the Isle of Skye, by Matthew Kalapuch

Rupert August

Man is hungry by nature. Whether it be for adventure, experience (of a sort), control, understanding, or ownership, he wishes to know what is beyond the next hill – metaphorical or literal. He wishes for growth, in himself and his holdings. He wishes to be able to answer the question with confidence; this is why you should hold me in high regard. The period where man is most desirous of these things may only be a phase in a man’s life or suppressed in a part of the population for whatever reason, or contingent on other risks, but regardless; it’s a highly confounding component of any political project. The risk is that while the first generation of any successful project can claim the triumph itself as their conquest; if the second is ‘privileged by having already been born into paradise’ and thus is expected to do nothing but continue it, they will be restless. They will either leave to make their mark elsewhere or revolt against the project – and destroy it from within so that their generation can at least feel as though they have conquered something. In recent years, this is framed as an entropic ‘youth rebellion’ which cannot be resisted indefinitely, but history suggests that this is not necessarily so, but is instead more like a force to be channelled.

Before going into any more detail; a quick definition of dominion, imperium, realm, or any of the other rough synonyms used for this concept: defined as a sphere of influence, it can be considered the extent to which a man can exert his will – the bounds of his power which can be relied on. His property, his household, privileges, and such – all contribute to and constitute this realm, held as an independent sovereign, or as a subject of some sort. Just as one man might have a wife, children, a house, and a plot of land, another might own ten thousand acres, a hundred servants, and own a legal monopoly on the trade of some good, and each may rule their realm as they see fit. The desire for the growth of these things, in some fashion at least – is intrinsic. Man, or at least European men, is on average always keen to improve his situation in some way over time (even if that must be over generations), and is often only humbled by tragedy, risk, or misfortune. In particular – due to events outside of the control of most men, they may suffer a setback due to war, natural disaster, or personal tragedy which causes their lives to be endangered. As there can be growth of a man’s imperium without first securing his and his family’s life – this will almost always (though not absolutely always) be the first priority, even if it means foregoing a generation of progress towards greater power and freedom; perhaps lost in one season of raiding by foreigners. The trajectory over the long-term remains the same even in these cases, despite the sharp misfortune; he will maintain his upward trajectory. Men of other peoples may well be different in this regard, but they are not discussed here.

A particular confounding type which is set against the man of imperium is the hedonist; and so while many of the impulses of man will guide him towards different types of gravitas – be that through socialite networking like many a young gentleman poet, through accumulation as an entrepreneur or yuppie careerist, or noteworthy adventuring and achievement like a gentleman explorer or a foreign revolutionary. In contrast to all of these is he who explores and experiences only through substances, and chases nothing but an ephemeral feeling; sacrificing his health, wealth, and standing in the process. These types almost necessarily cannot form a majority, and may either be a greater or smaller proportion depending on the social milieu in which men find themselves, as well as cultural demands and standards.

Some amount of this desire to build can be absorbed by a standard and reasonable progression paths, such as existed in Western Europe wherein one could ascend from (in the English context) a slave or vagabond with no particular legal rights or property, up through the various stages of serfdom from an unprivileged, to a more privileged villain, up to being a freeholding landed peasant or a free town/borough resident. Likewise, a man might begin in early life as an apprentice in a trade, and ascend over time to become a journeyman, and a master, eventually perhaps an influential member of guild leadership. Even family provided many men with this sort of dominion for a time – when the patriarch of the household could wield absolute authority, though this has been severely curtailed over time, and stripped men of even this minor realm. While that sort of standard of advancement into a position of prestige and minor overlordship could be partly explored over the course of one lifetime (thus absorbing the youthful expansive energy of many), intergenerational wealth could provide sons of even the lowliest with greater opportunities than the father enjoyed, thus starting them perhaps a rung higher, or even more. Once a man is at the highest standard rung that they are provided by society, and still possesses an expansive will; they must either cross over into the more restricted elite somehow (and there is almost never a standard path to do this), or seek to expand their dominion elsewhere, whether that be across a frontier, or outside of the normal confines of the society – through the underworld, innovative means left untapped, or revolution – displacement through force.

The fall of the Soviet Union is one clear example of the phenomenon in action, wherein the first generation of leaders to have been born inside the Soviet Union rather than the preceding Russian Empire – were not interested in preserving it for its own sake, but instead attempted to significantly change it, leading to the dissolution. Certainly, this cannot be said to be the only factor, far from it, but it can be seen as a defining line of disagreement between Brezhnev’s generation – the one which held up the revolution as its achievement, versus Gorbachev and many of his generation – who often seem to have believed in the ideals and goals of the Soviet Union, but believed it needed to be changed. This example is particularly extreme because there was so little in the way of alternate routes to conquest. One could not build a business empire, or easily go to a frontier to imprint home upon a new land, there were only the incumbent institutions to advance within, the underworld, or escape.

The Ancients encountered this same problem quite quickly, and although the revolutionary impulse was not completely stymied there either, they succeeded in staving it off far longer. For both the Romans and many of the cities of the Greeks, the answer was to send their youthful troublemakers abroad to set up colonies – modelled on the cities they left behind. In Rome particularly this paid dividends down the line, not only in releasing the pressure at home but by creating cells of Roman culture abroad which resisted some of the degeneration felt at home. As such, they were able to continue providing worthy men for the empire long after Italy largely ceased to. Many Greeks were also given options to serve as mercenaries and traders elsewhere and were enticed into one of the many far-flung cities founded through the Hellenic era of the successor kingdoms, giving them ample opportunities to explore and sate their wanderlust. This same latter pattern was more completely explored by the Scandinavians during the Viking era, wherein the younger sons of many – but especially noble families were sent overseas to raid, found colonies, and serve as mercenaries, or lords of new lands. Like the rest, many of these were not so interested in creating something new in these new lands – rather they tended to create something much like what they had left behind, but theirs. In these cases, the impulse is used in furtherance of the nation, but this has also been conducted more directly.

In Italy during the Guelph and Ghibelline Wars particularly but also sometimes later into the Renaissance period, the fortunes of most of the elite families were tied to which faction they supported, with much of the war taking place internally within the various cities. In these scenarios, the war became as much one of territory and gang violence – as it was about politics and legitimacy; so private properties became fortresses, clients became allies, and sons became foot-soldiers and captains. In this way, all of the most vulgar passions of the sons could be channelled towards the fortunes of the family, while also giving the son his opportunity to build for himself, under the patronage of the father. The net stability effect of all this was of course negative, due to the inherently revolutionary nature of this kind of civil conflict, but there is a model to be observed here – for the youthful destructive/constructive energy to be guided by the previous generation. Indeed, during other similar conflicts, some of the same play themselves out – as it was during the Thermidorian Reaction when the Muscadins of the White Terror were able to manifest their passions with the tacit approval of both their fathers and their political patrons. But it must be said that this is, ultimately a reaction to the fail-state of revolution and civil war, not – in this case – an averting of it.

A similar macro way of averting this is, in a similar vein, to sponsor colonisation efforts; as did the Russian Emperors and the Stroganoff family earlier into Siberia, or the Restorationist Government of England. Likewise much later in England, there were plenty of opportunities in Canada, India, South Africa, and many of the other colonies for men to seek their fortune as a viable alternative to radical changes in the home country, and thus – likewise many of these colonies were constructed as copies of the mother country.

The perfection of the release valve, especially for the conservatively oriented society, can probably find its form in the Amish and Mormon communities. Both of these have rites of passage – challenging their youth to go out into the external world, and see for themselves how the rest of the world operates. In doing so, they can see first-hand what dismantling their home would yield, and many find it to be lacking by comparison, choosing to return and live within the constraints of the community – newly contented.

What could be said to be one of the stabilising qualities of republics, especially pre-modern mercantile republics – is the ability of men to build unlimited financial empires with relatively little oversight. Indeed this carries through to the Dutch Republic – constituting one of its main draws and carrying through to the modern day. The promise that the city offers to many, especially in comparison to rural life – is the possibility of an independent empire. Either in trade, industry, politics, or culture; the possibility of creating one’s own realm, and maybe even one that will outlast the life of the builder.

All of this then suggests that a reasonably stable society will need a few things discussed here (but more than just these, of course); a set trajectory for the majority of people to follow, an outlet for those who reach the highest available peak – and ideally one which will aid the nation (typically this has taken the form of a frontier, but there are other options, such as financial empires [hopefully tied to the national interest in some way, however], or innovation), and an outlet for youthful energy and empire-building which does not divorce the youth from the established. The inevitability of youth rebellion is vastly overrated, but to the extent that they are impetuous, violent, and impassioned in their pursuits – is perhaps less so. Insofar as older men need a realm, it can vary – all the way down to even a simple lawn if necessary – but something to call his. Beyond this, the simple expectation that things will remain in a broad continuity so that their dominion can be passed on as a superior starting point to the one which they themselves enjoyed; creating a dynastic upward trajectory. If this system begins to break down, then fathers might enlist the more vulgar skills of their sons, and expand into this new sphere with violence and the hard politics of mobs and gangs, supporting them as with the Muscadins compared to their monied fathers operating in the legitimate realm, but protecting them from consequences, and funding their lifestyle. Else the fathers will be more readily set against sons, while the two groups have their own distinct rather than unified realms, and the impetuousness of a wayward youth has them drifting towards wiping the slate clean through revolutionary destruction, while the father attempts to retain what he and his fathers had built. When a revolution of some kind has already happened – wiping away built-up positions, wealth, networks, achievements, and accumulated property; thus commences the struggle for accumulation anew – under whatever new conditions are set, whatever is left of the assets remaining from the old system, and the looming threat of a fresh revolution. The revolution in question is a sweeping away of old arrangements and property understandings – not necessarily entailing other things usually associated like a change in laws and constitution.

The family and age dynamic is one which is broadly fractal, however, so what sons are to fathers – notables and nobles are to kings, and indeed what subjects are to lords, employees to managers or owners, and apprentices to masters. It will often lack the clear-cut biological averages of the cautious father to the energetic son, but the desire to advance into something like that same position will remain, albeit with the added difficulty that not all positions can be passed on as such. The conflict between nobles and the king is one such scenario where nobles must be given other realms because the natural central track of progression is often impossible. The nobles cannot replace the king because the crown passes to his own son – so they must be given other things.

If this sounds like Marxist elite overproduction theory – that’s because it is quite similar, but without the total emphasis on material conditions, which here is only a part. Imperium is a very particular kind of authority in its initial Roman conception; covering mainly political or convertible-to-political forms of power, but expanding the definition to cover soft power and influence, it’s possible to account for other huge legacies such as that of Tolkien – whose great intellectual and fictional achievements loom large over even modern culture, despite not truly being paralleled by wealth, but even more so the many academics over time who accumulate their own legacies neither fully transferable into political influence – nor wealth, but often providing much of the same satisfaction for the growth of a kind of empire. Many of the Greek cults and schools fell into this category – the Epicureans, the Pythagoreans, and the Orphic mystery cults all existed in what might be considered a contradiction to most normal aims – eschewing potential political power and oftentimes wealth in the pursuit of their higher goals. But still, there is growth and a kind of imperium among the leaders.

These dynamics of change, in themselves, have great political influence, even if they solve an immediate problem by acting as a pressure valve. The great land estates in the irrelevant frontier of Brandenburg came back to dominate the Swabian and Rhineland heartlands later as the Prussian Kingdom, and the mercantile empires of the merchant company men and industrialists eventually unseated the traditional power of land ownership in England through their money-power. Meanwhile – Byzantium’s fixation on the throne and titles saw them give away both money, and land, even when there was almost nothing left to give. So too sometimes a prohibition, like that of drugs or alcohol – which gives outcasts an opportunity to create an imperium outside of the normal bound of society – beyond the legal frontier, and escape many of the constraints of established powers. As such it has often been a means of translating youthful energies into conventional imperium, through influence networks, asset ownership, and outright wealth. But there will usually be those established elites who call this corruption.

Tying back to a previous essay, there is also a consideration of general demographic trends, as an environment where the standard pleb-to-elite track is already at capacity, and there is insufficient opportunity elsewhere will yield revolutionary or underground pressures, but if there is still slack in these areas due to a shrinking population, then this pressure will not exist – because there is plenty of opportunity to build within the existing system. The downsides of this far outweigh its surface-level appeal of stability, however, as amply demonstrated by Sparta, which was ever more unable to field sufficient troops to fill out their prestigious royal guard units, and eventually, they were not even numerous enough to field much beyond a single phalanx. Albeit for most of their history, they never did succumb to revolutionary pressures.

The history of late Imperial China perhaps illustrates the very worst-case scenario – where demographic pressures, enforced insularity, no frontiers, hamstrung innovation, and fairly rigid social mobility – all combined to drench the realm in oil; ready for any spark. That spark happened to be a mad student who was convinced that he was the brother of Jesus Christ, but it mattered little – all that mattered was that he was an alternative to Qing Manchu rule. Meanwhile, Japan at roughly the same time was only forced open by exterior forces; otherwise, there seems to be little reason to think that they couldn’t have continued their Sakoku isolation for another century. By my reading, this can only be attributed to the emphasis on non-rival pursuits among the samurai class particularly, who otherwise posed the greatest danger, because of the trend over time towards artistic and cerebral pursuits rather than war and conquest. Much the same as how today – one might build up a sizeable online following without meaningfully threatening the livelihoods of incumbent authorities in the same way that accumulation of land might. It is not even as threatening as corporate brands, which at least maintain momentum past the stuff that manages it – influencer brands are almost entirely contingent on the individuals and show little sign of extending beyond them. It is perhaps, an infinitely suppliable source of imperium, or perhaps pseudo-imperium, which is near endlessly replicable, and totally transient. The consequences of other types of imperium on the shifting balance of power and source of such – have been both magnificent and terrible, but the result is never perpetual stability and peace. Perhaps this will be different, or perhaps it is just the foreshadowing of a new order, not yet fully grasped or understood.

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