by Peter Turchin
September 8th, 2008
One of the most enjoyable pasttimes among historians is to muse over the grand cycles of history. Why do some nations wax powerful and then later wane? The stage of history has seen a series of mighty actors stride across it, to later fade into obscurity. Persia, Alexander, Rome, Charlemagne, Spain, Britain, the USA... why is it that every one of these nations had its moment of glory and then lost whatever it was that made it great?
Peter Turchin attempts to answer this question in this book, and he answers in a single word: asabiya. This is an Arabic word meaning something like "cooperation", but it's not quite the same. Turchin uses it to describe that special national characteristic that leads people to make sacrifices for the common good. He presents a number of case histories of nations that waxed powerful because they had lots of asabiya, and then decayed because they lost that asabiya. Sadly, he missed the very best example of asabiya in history: the (probably apocryphal) story of Mucius Scaevola. Mucius was a Roman citizen in its earliest years. Rome was besieged by Porsenna, the Etruscan king. Mucius snuck into the Etruscan camp bent upon assassinating Porsenna, but blew his chance and killed the wrong man. When he was brought before Porsenna for condemnation, he declared, "I am Gaius Mucius, a citizen of Rome. I came here as an enemy to kill my enemy, and I am as ready to die as I am to kill. We Romans act bravely and, when adversity strikes, we suffer bravely." He then lied in telling Porsenna that he was the first of 300 Romans who had pledged to assassinate him or die trying. Porsenna ordered him thrown into the fire, and Mucius showed his contempt for death by thrusting his right hand into a nearby brazier, never flinching. Porsenna was impressed; he released Mucius and raised the siege.
It's this spirit of dedication to the community that makes nations strong, Turchin maintains. And how do nations develop asabiya? His answer is that nations on the fault lines between civilizations are forced by their precarious positions to develop asabiya. He cites the Russians expanding in Siberia in the 16th century, the Germanic peoples expanding into Rome in the third century, the Spanish nation in its struggle against the Moors in the 15th century, and the American nation at the junction with the AmerIndian peoples.
These examples are pretty good, but there are other examples that contradict his case. The Romans weren't on any fault line; Turchin bravely assembles the case that the occasional Celtic invasions put Rome in what was effectively a civilizational fault line. I don't buy it.
Were the early Mesopotamian civilizations on a fault line? I don't think so, yet they built big empires. Same thing goes for Egypt and the British Empire.
I think that the better case is that societies on the edge of rich civilizations develop asabiya because of the harsh conditions under which they live, and are motivated by the vast wealth of the neighboring civilization to assemble the power necessary to conquer that civilization. This concept is not original to me -- far from it! It's been kicked around by historians for at least a century. It explains Alexander's conquests, the Mongols under Ghengis Khan, and the Germanic tribes that attacked Rome. It doesn't explain all the historical developments, nor does it attempt to.
Here, I think, is the fundamental weakness of Turchin's thesis: it attempts too much. Reducing the sweep of history to a single concept like asabiya is too simplistic. Napoleon's armies weren't at all like the Germanic peoples who overwhelmed Rome. Ghengis Khan's cavalry was nothing at all like Hitler's panzers. Each was driven by different forces. Trying to reduce it all to one equation just doesn't do justice to the complexity of the human condition.