by Charles Hugh Smith
with battle scene
between Roman soldiers and Germans.
Nothing is as permanent as we imagine... especially super-complex,
super-costly, super-asymmetric and super-debt-dependent systems.
Check which signs of
Imperial decline you see around you:
the hubris of an
increasingly incestuous and out-of-touch leadership
extremes of wealth inequality
of the lower classes on free Bread and Circuses provided by
a government careening toward insolvency due to stagnating
tax revenues and vast over-reach...
Let's stop there to catch
our breath... Check, check, check and check...
Sir John Glubb listed a few others in his seminal essay on
the end of empires
The Fate of Empires, what might be
called the dynamics of decadence:
A growing love of
money as an end in itself: Check.
A lengthy period
of wealth and ease, which makes people complacent. They lose
their edge; they forget the traits (confidence, energy, hard
work) that built their civilization: Check.
Loss of any sense
of duty to the common good: Check.
Glubb included the
following in his list of the characteristics of decadence:
an increase in
frivolity, hedonism, materialism and the worship of
unproductive celebrity (paging any Kardashians in the
a loss of social
willingness of an
increasing number to live at the expense of a bloated
Turchin, whom I have often excerpted here, listed three
disintegrative forces that gnaw away the fibers of an Imperial
economy and social order:
wages due to oversupply of labor
central state finances
War and Peace and War - The Rise and
Fall of Empires
To these lists I would
add a few more that are especially visible in the current
Global Empire of Debt that
encircles the globe and encompasses nations of all sizes and
heightened sense of refinement as the wealth of
the top 5% has risen so
mightily as a direct result of financialization and
globalization that the top
0.1% has been forced to seek ever more extreme refinements
to differentiate the Elite class (financial-political
royalty) from financial nobility (top 0.5% or so):
technocrat class (top 5%)
aspirant class (next 15%)
below (the bottom 80%)
Now that just
about any technocrat/member of the lower reaches of the
financial nobility can afford a low-interest loan on a
luxury auto, wealthy aspirants must own super-cars costing
$250,000 and up.
A mere yacht no longer differentiates financial royalty from
lower-caste financial Nobles, so super-yachts are de
rigueur, along with extremes such as private islands,
private jets in the $80 million-each range, and so on.
Even mere technocrat aspirants routinely spend $150 per
plate for refined dining out and take extreme vacations to
ever more remote locales to advance their social status.
Examples abound of this hyper-inflation of refinement
as the wealth of the top 5% has skyrocketed.
The belief in the
permanence of the status quo has reached quasi-religious
levels of faith.
that the entire financialized, politicized circus of
extremes might actually be nothing more than a sand castle
that's dissolving in the rising tides of history is not just
heresy - it doesn't enter the minds of those reveling in
refinement or those demanding more
Bread and Circuses
(Universal Basic Income, etc.)
service, defines the financial-political Elites.
pointed out in his book on the decline of empires, in the
expansionist, integrative eras of empires, Elites based
their status on service to the Common Good and the defense
(or expansion) of the Empire.
While there are still a few shreds of noblesse oblige in the
tattered banners of the financial elites, the vast majority
of the Elites classes are focused on scooping up as much
wealth and power as they can in the shortest possible time,
with the goal being not to serve society or the Common
Good but to enter the status competition game with
enough wealth to afford the refined dining, luxury travel to
remote locales, second and third homes in exotic but safe
hideaways, and so on.
faith in the unlimited power of the State and Central Bank.
The idea that the
mightiest governments and central banks might not be able to
print their way of our harm's way, that is, create as much
money and credit as is needed to paper over any spot of
bother, is unthinkable for the vast majority of the
populace, Elites and debt-serfs alike.
That all this newly issued currency and credit is nothing
but claims on future production of goods and services and
rising productivity never enters the minds of the believers
in unlimited state/bank powers.
We have been
inculcated with the financial equivalent of the 'Divine'
Powers of the Emperor:
government and central bank possess essentially divine
powers to overcome any problem, any crisis and any
conflict simply by creating more money, in whatever
quantities are deemed necessary.
If $1 trillion in
fresh currency will do the trick - no problem! $10 trillion?
No problem! $100 trillion? No problem!
There is no upper
limit on how much new currency/credit the government and
central bank can create. That there might be limits on the
efficacy of this money-creation never enters the minds of
currency-credit creation above the limits of efficacy might
actually trigger the unraveling of the state-central bank's
vaunted powers never occurs to believers in the unlimited
reach of central states/banks.
The possibility that the central state/bank's powers are
actually quite limited is blasphemy in an era in which the
majority of the Elites and commoners alike depend on the
"free money" machinery of the central state/bank for their
wealth and livelihoods.
It is instructive to
ponder the excesses of private wealth and political dysfunction of
the late Roman Empire with the present-day excesses of
private wealth and political dysfunction.
As Turchin and others
have documented, where the average wealth of a Roman patrician in
the Republic (the empire's expansionist, integrative phase) was
perhaps 10-20 times the free-citizen commoner's wealth, by the
disintegrative, decadent phase of imperial decay, the Elites held
wealth on the scale of 10,000 times the wealth of the typical
Elite villas were more
like small villages centered around the excesses of luxury than mere
homes for the wealthy and their household servants.
Here is a commentary
drawn from Turchin's work:
"An average Roman
noble of senatorial class had property valued in the
neighborhood of 20,000 Roman pounds of gold.
There was no 'middle
class' comparable to the small landholders of the third century
B.C.; the huge majority of the population was made up of
landless peasants working land that belonged to nobles.
These peasants had
hardly any property at all, but if we estimate it (very
generously) at one tenth of a pound of gold, the wealth
differential would be 200,000...!
Inequality grew both
as a result of the rich getting richer (late imperial senators
were 100 times wealthier than their Republican predecessors) and
those of the middling wealth becoming poor."
Following in Ancient Rome's Footsteps:
Moral Decay, Rising Wealth Inequality
September 30, 2015
We can be quite confident that these powerful elites reckoned the
Empire was permanent and its power to secure their wealth and power
was effectively unlimited.
But alas, their fantastic
wealth vanished along with the rest of the centralized,
over-extended, complex and costly Imperial structures.
There is a peculiarly widespread belief that Elites are so smart
and powerful that they always manage to evade the collapse of
the empires that created and protected their wealth. But there is
essentially no evidence for this belief when eras truly change.
Yes, Elites have proven to be adept at shifting with the political
winds; thus the guestbooks of French chateaux were filled with the
names of Nazi dignitaries during the German occupation of France,
and with the names of Allied bigwigs after the war ended the
But the complete collapse of the financial system and centralized
power is not a war or financial crisis - these are storm waters
which the Elites have the wherewithal to survive.
But when a tsunami
disintegrates the entire structure and carries it out to a nameless
sea as flotsam and jetsam, there is no transfer of wealth
from the Old to the New.
The Roman Elites did not become Barbarian elites who
just so happened to own the same villas and vast estates they did
when they wore togas and dined on super-refined delicacies. They
were pushed aside along with everything that supported their wealth
Nothing is quite as permanent as we imagine... especially,