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. 

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