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Peter Turchin: War and Peace and War:
the life cycles of imperial nations
(Pi Press: 2006)

“This book focuses on empires. Why did some - initially small and insignificant - nations go on to build mighty empires, whereas other nations failed to do so? And why do the successful empire-builders invariably, given enough time, lose their empires? ...An empire is a large, multiethnic territorial state, with a complex power structure. The key variable is the size. When large enough, states invariably encompass ethnically diverse peoples...and, given the difficulties of communication in pre-industrial times, large states had to come up with a variety of ad hoc ways to bind far-flung territories to the center...usually [leading] to complicated chains of command.... [And,] although the doings of empires dominate the historical records, we should not conclude that they are the norm in human history. Prior to the nineteenth century most (and, until six thousand years ago, all) of the habitable space on Earth was divided among small-scale, stateless societies, not empires. Historical empires themselves, as often as not, were in a state of decline or even disintegration. A large stable empire, internally at peace, is a rarity in history. Looked at from this point of view, the most fundamental question requiring an explanation is not why empires collapse, but how they manage to get going in the first place. How are empires possible?”
(Turchin, pp.3-4)

Good question. In fact, an excellent question...and, what’s more, one of the comparatively rare ones in human history amenable to a straightforwardly scientific approach. Moreover, although there remains plenty of room to quibble round the edges, thanks to Peter Turchin’s sterling effort, we now have an extremely well-supported framework for understanding exactly this question. Admittedly, it does involve challenging the dominant framework in the social sciences today, and developing a more balanced view of human nature, but that should hardly be counted against it....particularly when the historical record (not to mention one of the true fathers of social science) turns out to be so strongly onside.

So, let us now begin to trace the reasoning behind the well as sketching out its major implications:

“A single person, no matter how physically impressive, cannot rule against the wishes of all of his subjects. As soon as he falls asleep, one of the people he has oppressed will end his tyranny by sticking a knife into him. In real life, tyrants could rule only because they had the support of a certain group of people - the palace guard, the aristocracy, perhaps the top bureaucrats. Only groups can oppress other groups and whole societies, and to do that the ‘oppressor’ group must be internally cohesive. In other words, oppression can only be accomplished from the basis of cooperation, paradoxical as it sounds.... [Moreover,] it is important to point out that cooperation is not all ‘sweetness and light.’ Human beings are capable both of incredible self-sacrifice and breathtaking selfishness. Cooperation in real societies, therefore, cannot be based solely on the ‘Kumbayah spirit’ (in the words of the political scientist Robert Putnam), and has to involve such unpleasantness as communal policing and punishment.... [Furthermore,] no contradiction inherently exists between cooperation and cruelty. In fact, large-scale brutality, such as genocide, could be achieved in premodern societies, and perhaps even in modern times, only by internally cohesive groups.”
(Turchin, pp.25-6)

“People usually have multiple ethic identities nested within one another. An inhabitant of Dallas can be simultaneously a Texan, an American, and a participant in Western civilization. The broadest grouping of people that unite many nations are usually called civilizations, but I prefer to call such entities metaethnic communities...[which] includes not only the usual civilizations - the Western, Islamic, and Sinic - but also such broad cultural groupings as the Celts, and the Turco-Mongolian steppe nomads. Typically, cultural difference is greatest between people belonging to different metaethnic communities. Historical dynamics can be understood as the result of competition and conflict between groups, some of which dominate others. Domination, however, is made possible only because groups are integrated at the micro level by cooperation...[and] different groups have different degrees of cooperation among their members, and therefore different degrees of cohesiveness and solidarity. Following the fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, I call this property of groups asabiya. Asabiya refers to the capacity of a group for concerted collective action...[and,] like many theoretical constructs, such as force in Newtonian physics, it cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences.”
(Turchin, pp.5-6)

“Groups with high asabiya arise on metaethnic frontiers...where intergroup competition is very intense. [Moreover,] expansionist empires exert enormous military pressure on the peoples beyond their boundaries. However, the frontier populations are also attracted to the imperial wealth, which they attempt to obtain by trading or raiding. Both the external threat and the prospect of gain  are powerful integrative forces that nurture asabiya, [while] in the pressure cooker of a metaethnic frontier, poorly integrated groups crumble and disappear, whereas groups based on strong cooperation thrive and incorporating other groups.... [This] is made easier by the presence of a very different ‘other’ - the metaethnic community on the other side. The huge cultural gap across the frontier dwarfs the relatively minor differences between ethic groups on the same side. Empirical evidence shows that large, aggressive empires do not arise in areas where political boundaries separate culturally similar peoples.”
(Turchin, p.6)

So far, so good - there’s actually little here (until the end) which would provoke a historian’s ire...albeit that last generalization’s rather strong. Still, the range of examples he draws upon is very broad and - very like Jared Diamond - he has a scientist’s eye for the natural “experiments” which the historical record occasionally throws up...allowing for more rigorous hypothesis testing than would otherwise be possible. So, before we go on, here’s one test of that last claim:

“Europe and the Mediterranean during the first millennium A.D. is a good place to begin testing the frontier theory, because at the start of the period this part of the world was completely dominated by a single large state: the Roman Empire.... Therefore, we only have one set of relatively stationary imperial frontiers to consider.... If the generalization proposed [earlier] proves correct, all large states inhabiting the post-Roman landscape should have been established by peoples originating from the Roman frontier...[and] neither the inhabitants of the core area of the old empire, nor those living in the non-imperial ‘hinterland’ far away from the frontiers, should succeed in founding large states.”
(Turchin, p.57)

And the historical record supports the argument, with - however - one (partial) anomaly...the existence of Byzantium and its empire. However, Turchin makes very real sense when he flatly refuses to see this as any genuine “continuation” of Rome...

“The intrusion of the Gauls into Italy, and the establishment of a metaethnic frontier running along the Apennines was the decisive factor in the rise of Rome. The first immediate consequence was the sack of Rome, which shocked both the aristocracy and the commons, and convinced them they must cooperate...[eventually resulting] in a highly consolidated and aggressive society, geared for territorial expansion.... Roman values were part of religiones - literally, bonds that held the community together...[and,] in general, Roman religion extolled the virtues of hard work, discipline, duty, loyalty, and courage.... One cannot overemphasize the importance of these personal qualities of the early Romans to their subsequent rise as an imperial nation...[as] Romans held no physical or technological advantage over the people they conquered.... [Moreover,] the Romans were pretty lousy at winning battles. The typical sequence of any war between the Romans and their numerous opponents was to lose battles early...but then, nevertheless, win the war.... Two factors explain the rise of the Roman Empire: the high degree of internal cohesiveness of the Roman people, or asabiya, which reached a peak c. 200B.C.; and the remarkable openness of the Romans to the incorporation of other peoples, often recent enemies.... [For] without the ability to truly incorporate conquered people, an imperial nation cannot grow.”
(Turchin, pp.152-163)

“It does not make sense to ask why one part of the Roman Empire lingered on for more than a millennium after the heartland collapsed. Instead, we should ask why a new imperial nation was born in the Balkans-Anatolia when the old one collapsed...[for,] apart from the name, the Romans and the nation we now call the Byzantines had almost nothing in common. They spoke different languages (Latin versus Greek), practised different religions (paganism versus Christianity), and their core areas were in different parts of Europe.... [Moreover,] while the substance of power might not have changed a lot, its external trappings and the ideological basis did.... The Byzantines and the Romans even dressed differently...[and] the collective psyche of the two nations also could not be more different. The Romans were a worldly and eminently practical people, whereas the Byzantine culture had very strong otherworldly and deeply mystical elements.... In short, it seems incontrovertible that the Byzantines were an entirely new people.”
(Turchin, pp.78-9)

“The birth of a nation - ethnogenesis - is not an instantaneous event, but a process that usually takes many centuries. For the Byzantines, the beginning of the process can be traced to the first century, when the swath of the Balkans south of the lower Danube...became part of the Roman frontier. [And,] just as the pressure by the Romans molded the nations north of the frontier, the pressure from the ‘barbarians’ molded the frontier society on the ‘civilization’ side...[so that] while Italians lost the taste for army service, the hardy Danubian frontiersmen took up the slack.... The inevitable end result of this process was the leakage of power from the center toward the peripheries. During the third century, the Roman Empire went through a catastrophic phase of political decentralization...[and] with the collapse of the authority in the center, the frontier provinces were left to pick up the pieces [via]...a string of capable emperors (the so-called ‘Illyrian soldier-emperors’)...who were gradually able to bring order.... The key factor in understanding the Mediterranean world in the fourth through sixth centuries is the ‘imperiopathosis’ of the Roman nation, and its displacement by a new and yet incompletely formed imperial nation, gradually crystallizing along the Lower Danube frontier. This period is a sort of transitional phase between Rome, which really fell in the third century, and Byzantium, which fully formed only after the shock of the Arabic conquests.”
(Turchin, pp.79-82)

Now, whilst the lower Danube did function as such a frontier - at least during that period - by far the most stable of such frontiers are fundamentally geographical...something which is (curiously) understated in Turchin’s book. And, of these, the best known - and arguably most important - is that between the arable and grassland...and, hence, between farmers & pastoralists:

“Farmers and steppe nomads were divided by a deep cultural chasm. To the nomads, farmers were dirt-grubbers, doers of women’s work, clumsy riders, and weak and cowardly opponents in battle. Farmers, however, possessed many things that the nomads coveted - grain, which the nomads could not grow themselves, wealth accumulated by their aristocrats and priests, and last, but not least, their very bodies, which could be sold at...slave markets. From the farmer’s point of view, the nomads were devil horsemen, uncivilized and unlettered barbarians, murderers, slavers, and despoilers. The antagonism goes back to the very beginnings of history, as exemplified by the biblical parable about the conflict between Cain with his fields and Abel with his flocks (because the early Hebrews were herders, naturally the evil guy in the story was Cain)...[and] the frontier logic of ‘us versus them’ molded the view that divided the world into the opposing camps of good and evil.”
(Turchin, pp.31-41)

“Whereas military pressure is a ‘push’ factor, obliterating the weak and further strengthening the strong, a source of prestige goods is a ‘pull’ factor. Its effect, however, is the same: to increase the selective pressure for increased military strength...[as] only very large tribal confederations had any chance at securing a significant amount of booty [via raiding]. Trading was a peaceful way to obtain goods, but it also led to increased conflict, [as] tribes that controlled the cross-frontier trade...were resented by those who were cut off...[and] the obvious remedy was to defeat and displace the lucky intermediaries. Imperial subsidies caused conflict by the same logic.”
(Turchin, p.69)

In addition, another factor acting in such cultural pressure cookers are ideas, techniques, and other cultural influences...all of which tend to be ruthlessly sampled for their competitive advantage. Interestingly enough, however, the result is does not reduce the cultural difference between the two sides of a frontier (except in certain limited ways). Rather, when judged by cultural self-definition - the relevant measure, after all - these processes tend to polarize societies around what is seen to be the crucial marker...usually religion. The Roman/German frontier provides a particularly good example:

“During the first centuries of contact, both peoples followed polytheistic religions that were fairly tolerant of other peoples’ beliefs. However, beginning with the reign of Constantine (306-337), the Romans converted to Christianity...[while] the religion of the Germans had also evolved, and in a direction that increased the distance between them and the Romans. At the time of the contact with the Romans, the head of the German pantheon was Tiwaz, an Indo-European deity of creation, order, justice, and natural cycles - an appropriate god to worship for an agricultural population. The conditions of the frontier, with their heightened insecurity and incessant military conflict, however, favoured the rise of war leaders and their retinues...[and] subsistence tasks were left to women and slaves.... As a result, the cult of Tiwaz declined, and...between A.D. 50 and 200, Odin was transformed [from a minor wind god] into the Allfather, the king of the gods, and became the patron deity of the new warlords and their retinues.”
(Turchin, p.70)

By this point, I suspect most informed readers not automatically dismissive of the possibility of historical social science will be rather impressed by Turchin’s arguments. It’s not that they are particularly new - as he freely acknowledges, Ibn Khaldun was clearly there first - however, in marshalling the full range of evidence available, and making the argument (particularly re the pattern of decline) much more rigorous/defensible, he has done us all a major service. In particular, I see this work as almost perfectly complementing the biogeographical half of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and that, together, they sketch in much of the basic framework upon which macrohistory has been played out. Moreover, just as Diamond (necessarily) had to confront “scientific” racism, Turchin in turn tackles the impoverished version of human nature still dominant (albeit embattled) in the social sciences...homo oeconomicus:

“During the 1990s, several economists, most notably Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich and his colleagues, decided to test the assumptions of rational choice theory experimentally...[and] what these experiments, and many others like them, reveal is that society consists of several types of people. Some of them - perhaps a quarter in experiments with American college students - are self-interested, rational agents - ‘the knaves’. These will never contribute to the common good, and will choose free-riding unless forced to [contribute] by fines imposed upon them. The opposite type, also about a quarter, are the unconditional cooperators, or ‘the saints’. The saints continue to contribute to the common pool and lose money, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed (although most of them reduce the amount of their contribution). The largest group (40 to 60 percent in most experiments) are the conditional cooperators, or ‘the moralists’. The preference of the moralists is to contribute to the pot, so that everyone would be better off. However, in the absence of the mechanism to punish noncontributors, free-riding proliferates, the moralists become disgusted by this opportunistic behavior, and withdraw their cooperation. On the other hand, when the punishment option is available, they use it to fine the knaves [even though imposing a fine comes at a cost to them...and] the group [eventually] achieves the cooperative equilibrium at which, paradoxically, the moralists do almost as well as the knaves, because they now rarely (if ever) need to spend money on fining the free-riders.”
(Turchin, pp.117-119)

This general result is extremely robust, having since been tested in a very wide variety of societies. However, its also important to note that the three types of roles are hardly “hard-wired”. Education - excepting only education in neo-classical economics - tends to make people more cooperative, whilst poverty drives behaviour in the counter direction. Moreover, once we move outside the developed West, some very clear differences emerge w/regard to what kind of “moralists” are appropriate in various types of societies. For example, poorly networked societies - in which the household is the main productive unit - understandably show much lower levels of cooperation, whilst meat-sharing hunter gatherers better the West on this measure...and one highly cooperative herder society tested paralleled the consensual progressive “taxation” they use in their collaborative projects, with the wealthier invariably contributing more to the pot.

Thus, although we may be able see three types of positions here, these are formed in the crucible of culture, and it is doubtful if anything more than the basic inclinations can be marked down to human nature. Still, that - in itself - is a major advance, in that while the roots of the “moralist” role are evident in our closest relatives - Frans de Waal & Christophe Boesch are the relevant authorities here - there has clearly been a major evolutionary change potentiating the fully-formed version somewhere in human evolution. For, as Turchin explains, the “moralists” are crucial...

“The  experiments also point to the key role of the moralists.... Self-righteous moralists are not necessarily nice people, and their motivation for the ‘moralistic punishment’ is not necessarily prosocial in intent. They might not be trying to get everyone to cooperate. Instead, they get mad at people who violate social norms. They retaliate against the norm breakers, and feel a kind of grim satisfaction from depriving them of their ill-gotten gains. It’s emotional, and it’s not pretty, but it does ensure group cooperation.... [Moreover,] that capacity for trust and moralistic punishment are wired into our brains. At some level, they are as basic as our abilities for finding food, or finding mates. It does not mean all humans will always behave in a cooperative manner. People are different...[and] societies differ in their ability to sustain collective action. But the capacity for cooperation (even if it is never exercised by many people) is part of what makes us human....[In addition,] as a result of our ability to use symbols, the idea of a social group (‘us’) has a peculiar grip on human imagination. Because of our psychological makeup, we tend to think of social groups, such as nations, as more ‘real’ than they are ‘in reality.’ And, because people treat nations as real, they behave accordingly and, paradoxically, make them real.”
(Turchin, p.122-133)

“Two key adaptations enabled the evolution of [human] ultrasociality. The first one was the moralist strategy: cooperate when enough members in the group are also cooperating, and punish those who do not cooperate. A band that had enough moralists to tip its collective behavior to the cooperative equilibrium outcompeted, or even exterminated, bands that failed to cooperate. The second adaptation, the human ability to use symbolic markers to define cooperating groups, allowed the evolution of sociality to break through the limits of face-to-face interaction, [and] the scale of human societies increased in a series of leaps.”
(Turchin, p.7)

If Turchin’s approach to the rise of empires is, at base, more revision/consolidation of Ibn Khaldun’s than a substantially new account, it’s arguable that when it comes to their decline, the changes are substantial enough for us to see his as largely a new theory. Still, as his repeated quotation of one Elizabethan Englishman strongly suggests, such patterns have long been noted...not, however, with the comparative rigour and theoretical sophistication to be found in War and Peace and War:

“The very stability and internal peace that strong empires impose contain within them the seeds of future chaos. Stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and prosperity causes population increase. Demographic growth leads to overpopulation, overpopulation leads to lower wages, higher land rents, and falling per capita income for the commoners. At first, low wages and high rents bring unparalleled wealth to the upper classes, but as their numbers and appetites grow, they also begin to suffer from falling incomes, [and] declining standards of life breed discontent and strife. The elites turn to the state for employment and additional income, and drive up its expenditures at the same time that the tax revenues decline because of the growing misery of the population. When the state’s finances collapse, it loses control of the army and police. Freed from all restraints, strife among the elites escalates into civil war, while the discontent among the poor explodes into popular rebellions. The collapse of order brings in its wake the four horsemen of the apocalypse - famine, war, pestilence, and death. Population declines and wages increase, while rents decrease. As incomes of commoners recover, the fortunes of the upper classes hits bottom. Economic distress of the elites and lack of effective government feed the continuing internecine wars. However, civil wars thin the ranks of the elites. Some die in factional fighting, others succumb to feuds with neighbors, and many simply stop trying to maintain their aristocratic status, and slip quietly into the ranks of the commoners. Intra-elite competition subsides, allowing the restoration of order, stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and another cycle begins.”
(Turchin, pp.7-8)

“Peace makes plentie, plentie makes pride, pride breeds quarrel, and quarrel breeds warre: Warre brings spoile, and spoile povertie, povertie pacience, and pacience peace: So peace brings warre and warre brings peace.”
(George Puttenham in 1589, quoted in Turchin, p.208)

“The typical period of a complete cycle, which consists of a benign integrative phase and the troubled disintegrative phase, is around two or three centuries. I call these majestic oscillations in demographic, economic, and social structures of agrarian societies secular cycles.... The phase of a secular cycle affects a trend in economic and social inequality, which in turn affects the dynamics of asabiya. Incipient imperial nations are relatively egalitarian, [as] great differences in wealth among group members undermine cooperation, and such groups succumb to rivals with higher levels of asabiya. In addition, metaethnic frontiers tend to be underpopulated, so there is enough land (the main form of wealth in agrarian societies) for all who are willing to work it. The success of an imperial nation at territorial expansion, however, results in a movement far away from its core, thus removing an important force holding up the growth of inequality...[and]as the poor grow poorer, the rich grow richer - this process is called the Matthew principle.... During the disintegrative phase of the secular cycle, regional and sectarian identities acquire greater saliency than the national or empire-wide identity, and the asabiya of the imperial nation is corroded.... [However,] decline in asabiya is not linearly uniform. During the integrative phases of secular cycles, when inequality is moderate...the empire-wide identity regains its strength, for a time...[and] a life-cycle of a typical imperial nation extends over the course of two, three, or even four secular cycles. Every time the empire enters a disintegrative secular phase, the asabiya of its core nation is significantly degraded...[although] disintegrative phases are also not uniformly grim. A civil war begins like a forest fire, or an epidemic - violence leads to more violence, in an escalating spiral of murder and revenge. Eventually, however, people become fed up with the constant fighting, and a civil war ‘burns out’. Both the survivors of the civil war and their children, who had direct experience of the conflict, are...‘immunized’ against internecine violence, [but] the next generation...are not. If the social conditions leading to conflict (the main one being elite overproduction) are still operational, the grandchildren will fight another civil war. As a result, civil war tends to recur during the disintegrative phase with a period of 40 to 60 years... [These] fathers-and sons cycles are nested within secular cycles, which in turn are nested within asabiya cycles.”
(Turchin, pp.8-10)

“It is important to stress that the purely materialistic calculation - ‘I lack sufficient funds to support the lifestyle to which I am entitled by birth, and I will obtain this money by force if necessary’ - is just one possible motive driving violence, and not necessarily the most powerful. The ‘knaves’ might act on this calculation, especially if they deem that they are likely to get away with it. But for many other kinds of people, such as the moralists, the purely materialistic motive could only be a part, and a small one at that, of what drives them to become troublemakers. When an aristocratic faction...monopolizes all largesse flowing from the state, they offend not only against the pocketbooks of those excluded, but also against their moral feeling. It is not fair, it is not right that a small clique is rolling in luxury, while everybody else suffers, [and] the moralistic impulse is to punish.... When presented with glaring injustice, moralists also self-organize in action groups. Such faction formation is the usual stage before the full-blown revolution.... Rampant inequality feeds into the perception of the extant social order as unjust and illegitimate...[and] cooperation between social classes is undermined. But the same process is also working within each class.”
(Turchin, pp.277-81)

“[But] there is no exact periodicity in any of these processes. Human societies are highly complex systems, much more complex than solar systems. External factors, such as gradual changes of the global climate, can speed up or slow down any of the key processes that drive historical dynamics. Even more importantly, nonlinear interactions between various processes can produce internally driven irregular behavior - mathematical chaos.... Finally, neighboring societies interact with each other, and this is another source of irregularity.... So, when I say ‘cycle’, I do not mean something that is strictly periodic, like an hour arm sweeping a clock face, but a rise-and-fall dynamic, which has a characteristic time scale, a period that vary within certain bounds.”
(Turchin, p.286)

And, whilst we’re on the subject of qualifications necessary to all (sensible) theories in the Humanities, Turchin is also very careful to state that the specific cultural mechanisms which go to produce asabiya vary extremely widely - so there’s no sense in which they are determined independent of the specific culture concerned - as fault-line frontiers have a strong influence on certain aspects of societies, whilst leaving the others indeterminate. However, this certainly doesn’t mean the theory can’t be useful...simply, that it has definite limits - and little predictive power, as should be expected of anything realistic here. On the other hand, when faced by one of the great riddles of macrohistory - the divergence between East and West Eurasia of the last millennium, in my opinion it comes through w/flying colours...

“Why did Europe stay disunited in the post-Carolingian period? A current answer to this question, offered by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, is that European geography was not conducive to imperial unification...but, this explanation cannot be correct. Seas are not always moats; they can also unite...[while] people are divided by mountain chains, not by internal seas and narrow straights. China has more mountainous terrain than Europe.... By contrast, Europe has a broad plain running all the way from Aquitaine through Germany, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, to Russia...[which] offers no significant barriers to expansion, [and] history shows that life there was always precarious. [So] there must be some other reason than geography that would explain why these conquests never took, why the North European plain was never unified since the days of Charlemagne. In fact, it is not Europe that is exceptional, it is China. No other region in the world has had such a long history of imperial rule. Perversely enough, the reason, ultimately, is geographical or, more precisely, ecological. The distribution of rainfall in East Asia creates a sharp ecological boundary between the drier steppe and wetter agricultural regions. Ever since humans learned predatory nomadism...under pressure from the steppe, Chinese agriculturalists built one empire after another. On the steppe side, the nomads united in one imperial confederation after another. The Chinese made forays into the nomad territory, but never could make it their own, because they could not grow crops there. Nomads repeatedly conquered China, but in the process assimilated and merged into the Chinese. The fault line...was anchored by the geography.”
(Turchin, pp.199-200)

“The Western part of Eurasia also saw two universal empires, that of the Romans and of the Carolingians. Both of these empires arose on metaethnic frontiers, and in that, they were similar to China. But unlike China, the Roman and Carolingian empires moved the frontiers away from their cores [and,] after centuries away from the frontier, Roman and Carolingian cores became asabiya black holes - regions where people are unable to cooperate on a scale large enough to build functioning states. After the Carolingian decline, the Frankish core went through another centralization-decentralization cycle (under the Ottonian and Salian emperors), and then disintegrated for good. This configuration, of the collapsed core ringed with outward-facing marches predetermined a ‘centrifugal’ orientation of the new centers of power. The rising powers fought over the core area constantly, but their efforts repeatedly stalemated each other. (The Mediterranean was never unified in the post-Roman times, for exactly the same reason.) Expansion proved to be much easier in the directions away from the core.... [Still,] although never united politically, the inhabitants of Latin Christendom knew that they belonged together in a certain, supranational sense.”
(Turchin, pp.200-1)

“In Pattern and Repertoire in History, Bertrand Roehner and Tony Syme suggest that human societies have memories, [and that] when presented with challenges, they tend to reach into their collective memories for a response that worked before in similar situations, and then adapt it to the new challenge.... Surely history does have insights to offer...[but,] on the other hand, there is no question that the world has changed dramatically in the past two centuries.... Pre-industrial societies had their own ‘mass media’.... Still, important landmarks were passed when political pamphlets became common in the sixteenth century, broadsheet newspapers in the nineteenth century, and the TV became ubiquitous in the twentieth.... Modern nationalism is orders of magnitude more efficient at reaching citizens than what was possible in premodern times...[for] in empires that encompassed millions or tens of millions of subjects, it was inevitable that only the elites would be able to share a common identity. Modern technology changed that, has also decoupled geographic and information/symbolic space...[albeit] the Internet is still the province of a minority of the world’s population...[and] the device that will probably have the greatest impact on social dynamics is the mobile phone.... [But,] it is important not to overestimate our understanding even of simple agrarian societies. Applying history’s lessons to the present day presents even more difficulties, because we live in a very different world from the one of the Assyrians, the Romans, and the Mongols. Abundant food and energy, rapidly developing technology and science, mass media, the World Wide Web and the mobile phone make any direct comparisons...problematic. On the other hand, modernity did not remake human nature.”
(Turchin, pp.350-6)

Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War is a major contribution to historical sociology, reviving/revising and expanding upon the foundational thought of Ibn Khaldun to great effect...and also making a highly significant contribution to current work on social capital...a field which - with the exception of the dissenting voice of Ernest Gellner - has tended to lack any deep historical dimension to date. And, in combination w/the biogeographical arguments of Jared Diamond, and the detailed demographic/economic patterns outlined by David Hackett Fischer in The Great Wave (which Turchin, interestingly, both critiques and supports), War and Peace and War affords us a much firmer grasp upon the underlying patterns which tend to make history rhyme...although, it never repeats itself exactly...

As for caveats, well...Turchin is no great prose stylist. However, he is clear - and, as the book is dominated by historical examples (which, unfortunately, must remain under-represented in a book review) it is, on balance, a fascinating and involving read, which well deserves the type of audience Diamond’s work managed to attract. For, given the prominence of arguments such as Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilizations today, it would be a sad indictment of our intellectual culture if, given the availability of a genuinely serious book on the causes of such we, simply, passed it by...

“Is it possible to design institutions that will enhance asabiya - the social capital of which Putnam has written? Or, at least, can we design societies in such a way that asabiya is not constantly being degraded. Do humans always need the threat of imminent danger from some outside enemy to cooperate effectively? [And,]...even though modern societies have solved the problem of feeding the population, they are still susceptible to the elite overproduction problem.... Can we find a middle way, between redistributive state socialism and letting the Matthew principle run amok, creating inequality and undermining cooperation? The life cycles of imperial nations...have not preordained what will happen tomorrow to the dominant empires of our time, but they do map the critical factors of their past, and guide us toward the critical choices we will have in the next generation, century, and millennium. I hope that the description I have provided of these life cycles, and the research that attends them, will make the importance of cooperation to the long-term prosperity of humanity clear. E pluribus unum.”
(Turchin, p.356)

John Henry Calvinist