Friday, July 10, 2020

Honorius and the Slowness of Decline

“The system collapse of the US society has begun!”

That – along with a bunch of similarly alarmist statements – is what I read in the headlines or comments sections of scads of declinist-minded blogs all throughout June, when the George Floyd Riots were in full swing. Now that it’s been 46 days since the fracas began, I think a lot of people are realizing that, love it or hate it, “the US society” isn’t quite dead yet.

Now, in the second week of July, with the peak of the rioting several weeks in the past, most people are turning their attention to other things, like the election in November, or the challenges of reopening the schools in August.

 This is as it should be. Our country has not fallen off of some sort of precipice; rather, like I have described here and here, it is undergoing a long descent into the coming dark age. Predicting a short descent is more telegenic, and hence more popular, but short descents have a rather irritating habit of not showing up on schedule.

Meanwhile, people who want to know what a ‘long descent’ style of collapse looks like have a ready-made historical analogue in the form of imperial Rome. Rome is far from the only empire to suffer a slow decline and fall – Mogul India makes an equally good case study – but it’s the example that I’m going to use, because I expect that the broad outline of its history is fairly well-known to my audience.

The painting at the top of this post, of a man feeding chickens while seated in a throne, is entitled “The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius.” Honorius inherited the throne at the age of eight in AD 393 and reigned over the western half of the Roman empire until his death 30 years later.

Honorius ruled from his capital in Ravenna in the northeast of Italy. This was the western empire’s third capital; the government had been moved from Rome to Milan way back in AD 286, so that the emperors could more closely supervise the battles on the frontier. Early in Honorius’ reign, he decided that Milan had become too dangerous, and rebased his court in the more remote town of Ravenna.

I will return to Honorius later in my post. For now, it’s enough to say that Rome was obviously in steep decline during both the Milan and Ravenna periods. Nevertheless, it took 190 years – 116 with the capital at Milan, and another 74 in Ravenna – before the western empire was finished off by the barbarians. Keep that in mind as I summarize the current state of affairs in the US.

To understand what is going on, it is best to start by acknowledging the following unpleasant and easily-overlooked fact: All throughout the last six weeks of seeming chaos, the authorities in America never really lost control of the situation.

Oh, it often looked like they did, to the casual observer. When the police in Minneapolis allowed their station to be burned by a mob, it might have seemed like law and order were a distant memory. But the station went up in flames because the police decided that its loss was an acceptable price to pay to avoid having to shoot anyone. They knew that when the storm blew over, they would get to return to work in a new station, paid for by someone else’s money.

Likewise, when the authorities in Seattle tolerated the existence of the CHAZ – a six-block police-free zone, choc full of protesters and separated from the rest of the city by barricades – it wasn’t because they were incapable of dispersing it. In fact, they did disperse it after 22 days, when the CHAZ’s own security force shot a black boy dead while trying to recover a stolen jeep, and the mayor of Seattle decided that enough was enough.

Although most people don’t know it, at about the same time the CHAZ was taking shape in Seattle, protesters in Portland attempted to create a similar autonomous zone. Only instead of doing the sensible thing and choosing a site in a poor neighbourhood, they tried to block off a set of wealthy condominiums in which the mayor lived. The ‘unlawful assembly’ began around midnight, and by 5:00 AM it had been completely cleared.

So what we have, then, isn’t a case of rioters reigning supreme; rather, we’re looking at a case of selective control. If you are wealthy and live among other wealthy people, your home is not in danger. Likewise, if you decide to commit murder in a city where the authorities have only decided to tolerate trespassing and petty theft, then you’re out of luck.

The authorities haven’t gone AWOL. In fact, they are still totally in control of the things they want to be in control of. If you doubt that, just think about what would have happened if last month’s unrest had culminated, not with statue topplings, but with right-wing mobs going about the country and burning Planned Parenthoods. Everyone knows that the case law protecting the latter enjoys a much higher status within our system than the mere anti-vandalism statutes which the BLM protesters can violate with impunity.

Now let’s return to ancient Rome. The Emperor Honorius, as it turned out, was a weak and indecisive ruler, not just during his childhood, but throughout his reign. As he grew up, rather than taking on the responsibilities of leadership and acting decisively against the constant revolts and barbarian invasions that imperiled the empire, Honorius left it to his underlings to cobble together a response to each crisis as it appeared.

During Honorius’ early years, a half-Vandal general named Stilicho did most of the governing. Meanwhile, the Emperor himself devoted most of his time to feeding and doting on his pet chickens, several of which, it seemed, were named after major cities in his empire.

Stilicho died in August of the year 408. In August of 410, a eunuch appeared before the Emperor at Ravenna and announced: “Rome has perished.” Honorius was shocked and deeply troubled, for “Rome” was one of his favorite chickens. When the eunuch explained that what he actually meant was that the city of Rome had fallen to Alaric the Visigoth, Honorius’ mood lightened up a great deal.

This wasn’t the end for the western empire – the Visigoths left Rome after three days of looting and went looking for other places to raid, and while many of Rome’s inhabitants were sold into slavery, the wealthy citizens, for the most part, got ransomed. Over in Ravenna, it would be another 66 years before the last emperor was dethroned.

Even after the sack of Rome, Honorius was still in commanded of a power worth fearing.  And all throughout the crisis, despite his lack of competence in handling the Visigoths, he was still in control of what he really wanted to be in control of: his chickens.

So it is with the decline and fall of the American empire. If most of the terrain in our big cities has been overrun by crime and looting, it’s because the ruling class has retreated to neighborhoods which are still well-protected, like the one that the Portlanders failed to turn into a second CHAZ. This isn’t all that different from wealthy Romans’ retreat to country villas during the evening years of their empire.

Likewise, if statues are falling, it’s because the ruling class doesn’t care much for statues. And if police stations are burning, it’s because the ruling class knows that they can be rebuilt with someone else’s money.

Just like in Honorius’ Rome, this state of affairs can’t last forever. And just like in Honorius’ Rome, things are going to get wretched for the common people a long time before they get wretched for the upper classes.

But if history is a reliable guide, then that “long time” is shaping up to be a lot longer than most people would guess. 


  1. I'll have to start this comment with my signature statement: no one knows the future. Many people are conservatives because of a belief, or just an instinct, that human society, considered as a dynamic system, is too complex to radically reshape along the lines of some well-intentioned theory, especially when that theory has been generated by someone with little experience of real people. (Why are so many academics far Leftists? A favorite theory of the Left is that it's because they're so smart. But actually, Right wing theories are harder to understand. Left wing ideas let your ideas match your emotions.)

    Looking at history, we see, as you rightly state, many examples of what we can call 'decline'. Gibbon was inspired to write his famous history as he "sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter."

    Although there have been many theories about what causes 'decline' -- I believe that there are about 250 for Rome alone -- I have never come across one which has seemed compelling to me -- although I should say I've not made a systematic study of them. The one which seems to have some merit is John Glubb's observation about the fate of empires. [ For a short explication of it, and an interesting left-liberal take on it, look here:]

    However, even if the US is beginning to undergo whatever process(es) brought down previous empires, the question remains: can something be salvaged from the ruins? It is true that half the country is led, intellectually and politically, by a ruling elite whose youth have begun to despise their own country, and who will initiate measures that speed up its own national suicide. But half the country is not. Can something be done with the latter?

    Here is why we should try. If you study the declines of previous empires -- and by 'empire' we really mean geographically-extended high civilizations -- we could get the impression that decline is inevitable, just as death is inevitable for living things. But for living things, we think we have a pretty good clue about why they change their appearance as they age, and then die: genetic replication is not perfect, and errors accumulate. Where is the equivalent for 'civilization decline'? While Glubb makes a good guess, I personally am not convinced that this factor, even if it's true, is one that can override all other factors.

    Continued in next comment....


  2. .... Continued from previous comment.

    So ... if we look at all previous civilizations, compared to our current one -- and I'm not talking here just about the US, but about liberal democracies everywhere -- we see one -- or perhaps two, related -- big differences: science, and the market. These two together (and I'm counting 'engineering' and other applications of science in with 'science' here) have made modern society -- even authoritarian ones -- dynamic. They are always undergoing change. They are anything but static. And, everything considered, this tends to undermine authoritarianism in the long run. So although the US may be in decline -- and many things point to this -- liberal democracy elsewhere in the world, not so much. This is a different, and long, argument, so I won't go further with it here.

    Finally -- there are big trends in history, but actual history is made by human beings. And accident plays a huge role here: we lucked out with Churchill -- had he been killed by the taxi that hit him in New York in the early 30s, the British would probably have done a deal with Hitler, which would meant they would have been pushed further down on the menu, not taken off it. The US would have found itself alone in a world where Europe, Asia and Africa was controlled by the Germans and Japanese.

    Had the Kaiser not been of subnormal intelligence, a genetic accidet, and had he been smart enough to retain wise old Bismarck as his chancellor, we might well have avoided the First World War. Had Lenin been detained in Switzerland for overdue library fines, there would have been no Russian Revolution.

    So ... we don't know what America's future is. We got lucky with Churchill, and unlucky with Donald Trump. (Why, why, why couldn't we have had a patriotic billionaire who had the intelligence and self-awareness and self-control of Mr Soros? Oh well... maybe we'll get lucky in the future.)

    Thus ... the wise patriot, even as he or she rejects the idiot optimism of a certain wing of conservatism, works now to be prepared for what may be coming. At a personal level, this means some sensible 'prepping'. At a collective level, this means joining something like the Civilian Defense Force [https:\\], and becoming active in the Republican Party with the aim of defeating the Chamber-of-Commerce tendency which will try to reassert control once Mr Trump leaves the scene.

    To sum up: no one knows the future. But there is no rational reason to believe that it will be just one aggregate of disasters. Modern society has features that none of the past civilizations had. There will be countervailing trends.

    Rather, the crises which are coming will give a well-prepared movement a chance to rescue the healthy components from amidst the terminally-ill ones. A chance, not a certainty.

    1. Doug,

      I agree with you about the importance of working to save what we can from our civilization. The same thing happened with Rome, you know - the future civilizations of Christian Europe would not have been possible without Rome's heritage.

      Also, thank you for sharing the article about Sir John Glubb. I think the first part of his theory - that empires begin when a nation of hard fighters on the periphery of civilization experiences a "breakout" moment and rapidly conquers its neighbors, and that this occurs with nations that prize the virtues of courage, adventurousness, and honesty - is essentially correct. As for the rest, the specific, anatomized Age of Commerce, Age of Affluence, Age of Intellect, and Age of Decadence all seem a bit too strained to me.

      Which ties back into the point I am trying to make with essays like this one. The decline and fall of empires is inevitable, in the long term, because nobody remains Top Nation forever. (I do not, personally, see this as a tragedy. The fading of one civilization gives space for others to rise. The cycle cannot be stopped, nor should anybody want it to be stopped, any more than one would want to stop a sunset, or the seasonal rains).

      But the actual process of decline and fall is both slower, and less predictable, then a lot of people think. All the time people are pointing to unsustainable trends in American society and saying that our country is about to snuff it. They're wrong. These things play out on historic timescales. Prescient Romans living in the age of Pompey and Caesar could see that the virtues that sustained the Republic were a thing of the past. Yet the Rome still had another 500 years of history ahead of it - 1500 years if you count the East - and nobody could have foreseen how that history was going to play out.

      (For example, ask a Roman in AD 33 what his country will look like in 350 years, and it's very, very unlikely that he envisions a future in which the worship of Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, etc. is legally proscribed in favor of the worship of a man who had been crucified earlier that year for leading a supposed rebellion in Judea. Nevertheless, that's the future that Rome got.)

      So that is the idea behind my post here - historical change is slow. Decline is slow. Empires, like individual human beings, are mortal, but their affairs play out on a timescale that's too slow to cater to the whims of people who are always bored and asking: "So, what happens next?"