Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Decadence Modeled

[Update: At long last continued here]

Perhaps the longest lasting explanation for the rise and decline of nations is the theory of the organic nature of the state and its senescence and eventual collapse due to decadence.  This is quite common throughout classical literature, since I read it most recently I'll give Ibn Khaldun's version of it as an example:

1. Overthrow of old regime, beginning of new, group feeling means ruler is a model for the people and excludes them from nothing -->
2. Ruler seeks to consolidate power and reserves glory to himself -->
3. Leisure and tranquility leads to focus on government and winning support of followers through money and positions -->
4. Contentment and peacefulness, lives at peace and imitates predecessors -->
5. Waste and squandering, ruler ruins the foundations of his state leading to eventual destruction of the state

The classical formation is of course no longer used and I have no desire to revive it.  However, I do think there is something to the concept of decadence, I just don't think the formulation of some sort of pure past and corrupt present is what is actually going on.  Rather I suggest this:

1. Coalition of new elites overthrows old elites, institutes series of agreed upon reforms leading to initial prosperity -->

2. After the initial reform period, the coalition of elites begin to struggle amongst themselves for dominance.  This occurs primarily at the policy level and leads to a great deal of growth and innovation, the people at large prosper but are upset at the pace of change and the level of social chaos.  -->

3.  Eventually one of the competing groups wins out.  This ushers in a period of consolidation and social peace, however there is less innovation and change during this period.  The winning elite is credited with the current peace and prosperity and its rise to power is recognized as how a society must operate to be successful.  Society valorizes the actions and qualities of the reigning elite and begins to condemn other values. -->

4. Socio-economic changes threaten the ascendancy of the dominant elite.  If the process of valorization has progressed enough, these challenges are met by measures that increase the dominance of the elite, if valorization has been weak, a period of social disruption and reform ensues that brings us back to an earlier phase. --> back to 1 or 2, alternately -->

5.  The power that the elite holds over hearts and minds means that order is maintained in the short term.  However, the failure of society to adapt to a changing socio-economic reality means that relative decline sets in and society becomes infused with a reactionary, golden age rhetoric.  Changing realities mean that the old elite cannot prevent the rise of new elites, which may at this stage manage to rise to centralized power. --> back to 1 or 2 if new elites succeed, otherwise -->

6.  Revolution and revolt.  The grip of the old elites falters and new elites overthrow the old regime.  While this need not be violent, it often is.  --> back to 1 if new elites succeed, or state failure.

This framework is meant for societies strong enough to warrant the term hegemonic, it is not meant for states small enough to enjoy the externally corrective forces of the international system.  For examples, I'll apply it to a few cases.

Soviet Union
1. Alliance of liberals and socialists overthrow Tsarist government and make initial institutional reforms.  Further conflict between Bolsheviks and other factions results in the Soviet State.  While war communism led to initial failures, the emergence of the NEP led to relative prosperity.

2.  Struggles among various factions within the Bolshevik party lead to the end of the NEP and more centralization of the economy.   Given the low levels of [prior] investment growth was quite remarkable.  With the constraints facing the Soviet Union, and in particular the pressures of war, the Soviet Union made quite impressive progress.  Of course, due to the relatively short history of the Soviet Union and WWII this stage is quite compressed.

3.  Communism's success is valorized by its success in war and remarkable industrialization.  In the short term, successes such as the rapid development of nuclear weapons and the launch of Sputnik confirm the Soviet economic model and lend it legitimacy.  Soviet style Communism becomes ever more firmly entrenched and beliefs in this system reinforced.

4.  The limits of the Soviet model begin to be reached.  Major problems with goods shortages emerge and the difficulties of a central planning model to spur the innovation needed by a post-industrial economy become ever more apparent.  Despite this, more government edicts get passed and ever more centralization occurs, with various sectors of society being blamed for under-performance.

5. New elites begin to emerge and to significantly challenge the hold of the party.  Elite party rhetoric maintains its grip on important institutions in society, such as the military.  Weaknesses become so undeniable that reform oriented elites begin to initiate reforms under Gorbachev.

6. An attempted reactionary coup halts the process of elite peaceful reform, leading to new elites seizing control over the state.

There's a bit more I want to do with this framework before abandoning it.  I'll take up some more related topics tomorrow.

[Edited for clarity, also update has been delayed due to my easily distracted nature, will be picked up by the end of the weekend.]

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