Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Cure for a Failing Empire

If you were a druid from 180 AD and had Merlin's insight, what could you tell the emperor Marcus Aurelius about the coming collapse of the Roman Empire, and how to avoid it?  That is the question raised and answered by Ugo Bardi, a professor of chemistry at the University of Firenze (Florence, Italy).  Prof. Bardi is also an active writer on the problem of "Peak Oil" and its consequences for our civilization.  His essay on Peak Civilization, delivered first as a talk to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, was reprinted by the Financial Sense blog here.  It runs 24 pages and bears a complete reading. 
Bronze sestertius of Marcus Aurelius.
Reverse: Minerva, goddess of war and wisdom, holding her owl.
Prof. Bardi's thesis is that the Middle Ages were the cure for the collapse of the Roman empire.  He makes a good case; and it deserves investigation, because there is more behind the theory that he does not address, but which speaks to our civilization and what we can expect to be the cure for America's failing empire.

This is not new.  It is not mainstream reading, but it has been said before.  Basement Nukes the Consequences of Cheap Weapons of Mass Destruction by Erwin S. Strauss (Mason, Michigan: Loompanics Unlimited, 1980) asserted many of the same conclusions, though from different data.  Strauss earned a B.S. in physics from M.I.T. and is well-known in science fiction fandom.  His father was a diplomat; and Strauss grew up in Washington D.C.  (Wikipedia here).   For Strauss, gunpowder was the operative paradigm for the limitations of our empire.  Castle walls fell to cannonades.  The result was the nation-state which replaced the baronies and dukedoms of the Middle Ages.  In our time, according to Strauss, the inability of those nation-states to protect their people from cheap weapons of mass destruction will result in a world of gated communities, connected via telecommunication. 

In contrast and support, Ugo Bardi's thesis is that the Roman empire was at its limit in 180 AD: the emperor was camped on the frontier, fighting Germans.  The empire could not raise enough soldiers to defend the extensive borders; and so, it took on native auxiliaries.  The empire had grown by plundering gold and silver which went to pay the soldiers who extended the empire.  Once there were no more rich cities to drain, the money ran out.  Meanwhile, farmland was showing depletion.  As agriculture was contracting, the bureaucracy was growing: fewer sources of taxable income had to meet ever greater demands for taxes. 

The solution for Rome, according to Prof. Bardi?  Give up the extensive empire: disband the armies and turn them into civic militas to defend locales.  Stop cultivating old lands: plant trees; let the land recover.  Disband the bureaucracy.  Reduce taxes.  The result: the Middle Ages.  Localized communities, invested in themselves and their own defense, carried civilization forward.

The medieval cities were strong because they offered new opportunities.  "Stadtluft macht frei" - City air makes you free.  Max Weber's monograph The City (1921) describes a medieval society very familiar to Americans: a society of legally equal citizens, based on trades and crafts, where the citizen militia was armed with guns.  Whereas the manor was afiliated with a monastery, the city housed a university. 

Even after the nominal "fall" of Rome in 476 AD, Latin lived as the common language of Europe even into the 19th century.  (Carl Friedrich Gauss published Theoria residuorum biquadraticorum, Commentatio secunda in 1832.)  In the High Middle Ages of the 12th century the "Aquitaine Renaissance" brought new literary flourishes to common Latin.  The Roman Catholic Church, of course, also continued some old traditions: when Diocletian reorganized the Roman empire in 297-299, he created the diocese as an administrative unit.  And, in answer to Bardi's plea via Merlin to Marcus Aurelius, the bureaucracy was pledged at least nominally to austerity.  The Italian Renaissance of the quattrocento revived much from classical antiquity, of course, but added something wholly modern, even unique in history to that time: individualism.  

The fine art medal was invented by Antonio di Puccio Pisano in 1439.  Today, the standard catalog of Renaissance medals is called, appropriately enough, The Currency of Fame.  Not only was that attitude contrary to the Christian doctrine of humility, it would have shocked the Romans of the Republic who made crimes of both ambition and consumption.

As things continue, they change.  There is no surprise in that.

What, then, does the future hold for our empire?  Certainly, contraction.  Taxation must recede: there is no more to be looted.  Six of the 25 richest suburbs in American today are outside Washington D.C. (See Forbes magazine here.)   They have money, but they create no wealth.  Obviously, that cannot continue. 

  The new institution of the Middle Ages was the castle guarding a manor and estates.  That, too, had roots in the Roman empire.  In our future, the institution to replace the nation-state has grown past its roots: the corporation
Corporate money, good on corporate grounds.
Corporations go back to Rome; and the laws which empowered medieval universities as legally independent entities come from there, also.  But the modern corporation, the joint stock company, is a creature of modern capitalism.  Corporations can do what governments cannot: generate wealth.  Globalist corporations independent of weakening nation-states can bring stability.  Economically diversified and geographically distributed corporations are at once flexible and governable.  But the future is not so much about terran geography as it about the virtual terrain of cyberspace.

The operative resilience of such a society is that not everyone needs to be in a corporation.  Indeed, they cannot.  Historically, the independent merchant has been at the mercy of guardians who both protected and plundered: you could pay a robber baron's toll or take your chances through Robin Hood's forest.  In a new world of global enterprise, connected in cyberspace, the independent creator can trade for profit in a virtual world where the might that makes right is available to anyone with a three-digit IQ and three fingers of forehead.   Home-based technologies that we only now see outlined such as molecular manufacturing and nanotechnology will be eclipsed by intellectual crafts we cannot even predict. 

Corporate money that is transferable -
especially when cash would be awkward.
Between now and then, however, we must endure the modern equivalents of Visigoths and Huns. 

But it is not the end of the world.  It never is.  In the November 2009 issue of The Celator, I placed an article about the great fairs of medieval Champagne.  Research for that revealed to me a so-called "Dark Ages" rich with trade.  The courts of Charlemagne and English kings were in contact with the Muslim east.  Merchants carried the goods.  Trade was encumbered by risk and adversity... but when is it not?
From 1934: A B&O Railroad certificate held by Credit Suisse.
Cities existed millennia before Rome became the city that ruled an empire; and cities will continue, of course. Nation-states will continue, as well.  Global markets will continue.  Outer space will be explored and colonized, certainly orbital space.  The seabeds will be colonized.  The Arctic and Antarctic will be settled. The future will be shaped by corporations. 

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