Sunday, March 07, 2010

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

"For centuries, historians, political theorists, anthropologists, and the public at large have tended to think about empires in such cyclical and gradual terms... Yet it is possible that this whole conceptual framework is, in fact, flawed... Great powers and empires are, I would suggest, complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components ... somewhere between order and disorder -- on 'the edge of chaos'...A very small trigger can set off a 'phase transition' from a benign equilibrium to a crisis...Not long after such crises happen, historians arrive on the scene. They are the scholars who specialize in the study of 'fat tail' events -- the low-frequency, high-impact moments that inhabit the tails of probability distributions, such as wars, revolutions, financial crashes, and imperial collapses. But historians often misunderstand complexity in decoding these events. They are trained to explain calamity in terms of long-term causes, often dating back decades. This is what Nassim Taleb rightly condemned in The Black Swan as 'the narrative fallacy': the construction of psychologically satisfying stories on the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc...Perhaps the most famous story of imperial decline is that of ancient Rome...But what if fourth-century Rome was simply functioning normally as a complex adaptive system, with political strife, barbarian migration, and imperial rivalry all just integral features of late antiquity? Through this lens, Rome's fall was sudden and dramatic -- just as one would expect when such a system goes critical...What is most striking about this history is the speed of the Roman Empire's collapse. In just five decades, the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters.

Archaeological evidence from the late fifth century -- inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer coins, smaller cattle -- shows that the benign influence of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western Europe...Other great empires have suffered comparably swift collapses...Ming China was the world's most sophisticated civilization by almost any measure...The transition from Confucian equipoise to anarchy took little more than a decade. In much the same way, the Bourbon monarchy in France passed from triumph to terror with astonishing rapidity...The sun set on the British Empire almost as suddenly...the United Kingdom's age of hegemony was effectively over less than a dozen years after its victories over Germany and Japan. The most recent and familiar example of precipitous decline is, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union...In imperial crises, it is not the material underpinnings of power that really matter but expectations about future power."

[Niall Ferguson, Foreign Affars, ATSRTWT] [LA Times excerpt]

(Nod to Kevin L, who ill NEVER fall)