Among the thinkers who work within the broad school of cyclical history, many fall into one of two major camps: those who intuit or infer patterns in existing histories or narratives, and those who model the ebbing and flowing from a statistical viewpoint. The latter can more robustly verify the perspective (at least according to modern standards and sensibilities), but in turn, they often rely on them to lay the groundwork and give a frame to then measure. At times, the idea of a fall is not self-evident or at least can be contested, and many do – even contesting some of the more famous ‘falls’ like that of Western Rome. To subdivide this grouping of thinkers even more; many would have their own particular emphasis or contribution to the wider picture (at least when they’re not contradicting one another), but of these – three, in particular, can be built into a relatively cohesive picture of state-breakdown in the area of elite disposition.
Sir John Bagot Glubb lays some of the groundwork for the modern popularity of cyclical history, despite its long history, by popularising the works of Ibn Khaldun, and bringing him to the attention of the English-speaking world. Having read both the Western and Islamic histories, he noted patterns that took place across both cultures among numerous individual empires, especially in their waning days. On this basis, he extrapolates general civilisational trends and a general trajectory which proceeds from one stage of development to another, largely on the basis of the whims of the elites of their day through successive generations. Perhaps the prime motivating factor here, and one which represents one of his more unique contributions – is that of elite differentiation. In the early days, almost necessarily they are the foremost conquering warriors, but once this momentum is passed – either through exhaustion or overwhelming success, they switch over to more civil pursuits like art, statesmanship, and commerce. At least in part, this is because the army is wreathed in glory, and so the plebs flock to grab their share, so the elite move on to be apart from them, so as not to be associated too closely. The plebs eventually follow them into industry, and civil life, and so the elite then retreat into intellectualism and pursuits almost purely of the mind. When the plebs once again follow them and swell the universities beyond all proportion, the civilisation tends to have already become too withdrawn from the real matters of the day and will be overrun by those who have not been so corrupted. We might imagine that if no such threat is forthcoming, then the elites would continue to try to find ways to differentiate themselves by incurring ever more steep costs through the actions – which the plebs would struggle to match. As in previous times when the barrier to entry was too high for plebs to be involved in academia for example, new methods would be found to live in such a way that only the elite can do so. One avenue might be simple destruction; to destroy as much around them as possible, but not have to feel the consequences due to being sufficiently insulated by a combination of wealth, status, and position. The potential horrors that could be unleashed by such conduct must only be wondered at… the best and brightest setting their minds only to destroying their inheritance – just to not be seen as low-status, it doesn’t bear thinking about…
Though he did far more, Tainter in some ways built on this idea. He introduces more of the connective tissue which can establish a chain of causation that would allow for a collapse. He was hitherto unsatisfied with the explanations given, and so endeavours to prove an actual chain of causality. He settles largely on a form of path dependency wherein the primary advantage and tool of the society or empire yields diminishing returns over time, but those at the top find themselves either unable or unwilling to shift course. Within the context of our frame, what is most interesting is the reasoning given for this path dependency, in that there isn’t one. A few options are presented, but there is never one single point settled upon. Either the structure itself has a momentum which cannot be stopped, the current elites find their legitimacy too closely tied up in the current operation of the system and so cannot change course without invalidating themselves and their position, or they lack the will or imagination to do anything else. In the end, the result is the same. Building on Glubb, we may suggest that some combination of the latter two explanations is at fault, in that the necessity for an elite to set itself apart from the wider population causes it to struggle with true control. Or perhaps, the separation of the elite from immediate material concerns creates a certain ‘runaway train’ feature of the system, because all administrative competence and interest in operation is diverted elsewhere. The culminating point of all this is that what had previously been the driving force of empire, and its primary advantage – becomes first stagnant, and finally a detriment, with little to no possibility of changing course. Outputs shrink below the inputs required to generate them, and even simple maintenance of the original structure becomes increasingly onerous. To refer back to Glubb, this is of little concern because the sophistication and withdrawal of the elite raise them above such petty concerns.
Finally, then, we arrive at Turchin, who posits that the production of potential elite members is an additional destabilising factor which can push the whole structure over the edge. Qualified candidates for elite membership do not find their hopes realised, and so begin to look for other ways to improve their lot – typically by working against the current power structures in some way, so as to displace the current elite in favour of themselves. Thus, with a withdrawn and inflexible elite, beset by rivals; day-to-day administration becomes ever more difficult and costly. At the peripheries, frontier peoples who either maintained more worldly virtues while enjoying some of the material benefits of civilisation are given a golden opportunity to swoop in and stabilise the situation with themselves at the helm, often to great general acclaim. Alternatively but just as likely – an exterior people who engaged in trade and information exchange were able to smooth enough of the gulf between the two powers that a downturn in fortunes by the empire is enough for the invader to enjoy an advantage – perhaps even finding willing allies within. In either case, thanks to their inflexibility due to path dependency combined with diminishing yields in their most competitive area, and atop that; elite withdrawal, inflexibility, and dissension – the elite is replaced and reformulated. The damage done in the process varies, along with the extent to which a major shift will take place, but usually this will be evident over time – when political considerations fade, and/or the new elite feels empowered or free enough to impose more of their will on the state and country. In the frame of Glubb, Tainter, and Turchin: this is where the cycle begins anew. The generation of conquerors sets up later generations; new advantages and efficiencies can be developed – at first with maximum return and efficiency, and the quantity of elites is kept in check, as well as the border peoples – now that the ethics of frontier conquerors meets the raw material might of the imperial heartland.
This fire, once reignited, will sustain the empire for another few generations – until the fading gradually sets in again.
This is just a brief exploration, focusing on the elites, and drawing a throughline between all three thinkers who individually and taken on their own merit have much more to offer. I highly recommend that they also be read in their own words.