Dateline: TUESDAY, APRIL 16, 2019
Dmitry Orlov wrote “The Five Stages of Collapse” as an article in 2008 and as a book in 2013. It was an original idea for that time that of comparing the fall of the Soviet Union with that of the United States. Being an American citizen born in Russia, Orlov could compare the two Empires in detail and note the many similarities that led both to follow the same trajectory, even though the cycle of the American Empire is not over, yet.
To strengthen Orlov’s analysis I thought I could apply the same five stages to an older Empire, the Roman one. And, yes, the five stages apply well also to that ancient case. So, here is my take on this subject.
To start, a list of the five Stages of Collapse according to Orlov.
- Stage 1: Financial collapse.
- Stage 2: Commercial collapse.
- Stage 3: Political collapse.
- Stage 4: Social collapse.
- Stage 5: Cultural collapse.
Now, let’s see how these five stages played out during the fall of the Roman Empire.
Stage 1 – Financial Collapse (3rd century AD). The Roman Empire’s financial system was not as sophisticated as ours, but, just like our civilization, the Empire was based on money. Money was the tool that kept together the state: it was used to pay the legions and the bureaucrats and to make the commercial system supply the cities with food. The Roman money was a physical commodity: it was based on silver and gold, and these metals needed to be mined. It was the Roman control over the rich gold mines of Northern Spain that had created the Empire, but these mines couldn’t last forever. Starting with the 1st century, the cost of mining from depleted veins became an increasingly heavy burden. By the 3rd century, the burden was too heavy for the Empire to carry. It was the financial collapse from which the Empire never could fully recover.
Stage 2 – Commercial Collapse (5th century AD). The Roman Empire had never really been a commercial empire nor a manufacturing society. It was specialized in military conquest and it preferred to import luxury items from abroad, some, such as silk, all the way from the other side of Eurasia, from China. In addition to legions, the Empire produced only two commodities in large amounts: grain and gold. Of these, only gold could be exported to long distances and it soon disappeared to China to pay for the expensive imports the Romans were used to buy. The other product, grain, couldn’t be exported and continued to be traded within the Empire’s border for some time – the supply of grain from the African and Near Eastern granaries was what kept the Roman cities alive, Rome in particular. After the financial collapse, the supply lines remained open because the grain producers had no other market than the Roman cities. But, by mid-5th-century, things got so bad that Rome was sacked first by the Visigoths in 410, and then by the Vandals in 450, It recovered from the 1st sack, but the second was terminal. The Romans had no more money left to pay for the grain they needed, the commercial sea lanes broke down completely, and the Romans starved. It was the end of the Roman commercial system.
Stage 3 – Political Collapse (late 5th century AD). The political collapse went in parallel with the commercial collapse. Already in the late 4th century, the Emperors had become unable to defend Rome from the Barbarian armies marching across the empire and they had retired to the safety of the fortified city of Ravenna. When Rome was sacked, the Emperors didn’t even try to do something to help. The last emperors disappeared by the late 5th century but, already decades before, most people in Europe had stopped caring about whether or not there was some pompous person in Ravenna who wore purple clothes and claimed to be a divine Emperor.
Stage 4 – Social Collapse (5th century AD). The social collapse of the Western Empire went in parallel with the disgregation of the political and commercial structures. Already during the early 5th century, we have evidence that the Roman Elites had gone in “escape mode” – it was not just the emperor who had fled Rome to take refuge in Ravenna, patricians and warlords were on the move with troops, money, and followers to establish feudal domains for themselves where they could. And they were leaving the commoners to fend off by themselves. By the 6th century, the Roman State was gone and most of Europe was in the hands of Germanic warlords.
Stage 5 – Cultural collapse (starting in the 6th century AD). It was very slow. The advent of Christianity, during the 3rd century, had not weakened the Empire’s cultural structure, it had been an evolution rather than a break with the past. The collapse of the Empire as a political and military entity didn’t change things so much and for centuries people in Europe still considered themselves as Romans, not unlike the Japanese soldiers stranded in remote islands after the end of the second world war .(in Greece, people would still define themselves as “Romans” well into the 19th century). Latin, the imperial language, disappeared as a vernacular language but it was kept alive by the Catholic clergy and it became an indispensable tool that kept Europe culturally united. Latin kept a certain cultural continuity with the ancient empire that was only very gradually lost. It was only with the 18th – 19th centuries that Latin disappeared as the language of the cultural elite, to be replaced by English nowadays.
As you see, Orlov’s list has a certain logic although it needs to be adapted a little to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The 5 stages didn’t come one after the other, There was more than a century lapse between the 3rd-century financial collapse (stage 1) and the three subsequent stages arriving together: commercial, political, and social collapse. The 5th stage, the cultural collapse, was a drawn-out story that came later and that lasted for centuries.
How about our civilization? The 1st stage, financial collapse is clearly ongoing, although it is masked by various accounting tricks. The 2nd stage, commercial collapse, instead, hasn’t started yet, nor the political collapse: the Empire still maintains a giant and threatening military force, even though its actual efficiency may be doubted. Maybe we are already seeing signs of the 3rd stage, social collapse but, if the Roman case is a guide, these three stages will arrive together.
Then, how about the last stage, cultural collapse? That’s a question for a relatively far future. For a while, English will surely remain the universal language, just as Latin used to be after the fall of Rome, while people may keep thinking they still live in a globalized world (maybe it is already an illusion). With English fading, anything may happen and when (and if) a new Empire will rise on the ashes of the American Empire it will be something completely different. We can only say that the universe goes in cycles and that’s, evidently, the way things have to be.
A rather significant event occurred on May 11, 330 AD. On that day, Old Rome (the one in Italy) stopped being the capital of the Roman Empire. On that day, Emperor Constantine I moved the capital to New Rome (Νέα Ῥώμη), previously known as Byzantium and informally called Constantinople until 1930, when it was officially renamed İstanbul. It was the largest and most prosperous city in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and remains the largest city in Europe today (the second-largest is Moscow, which is sometimes called the Third Rome). From 330 AD to April 13, 1204 AD—a span of 974 years—it was the capital of the Roman Empire, which split into Eastern and Western in 395 AD. Then, just 81 years later, in 476 AD, the Western Roman Empire winked out of existence, making the appellation “Eastern” rather superfluous. Indeed, the inhabitants of New Rome always referred to themselves simply as Romans. In 1204 AD it was ransacked and burned by the knights of the Fourth Crusade (a barbarian onslaught, you might call it) and it is a very interesting question why the Romans offered no resistance to them. We will save it for another time. Constantine didn’t just move the capital to an existing city; he substantially rebuilt ancient Byzantium (a Greek colony from 657 BC).
There were many reasons for Constantine’s decision to move the capital. The new location was simply better: easier to defend, surrounded by economically developed provinces, closer to the centers of learning and culture and strategically located at an intersection of various trade routes. Constantine moved a great deal of wealth out of Old Rome in order to found his New Rome, then left Old Rome to languish in a substantially weakened state, and it never recovered. But there was another reason for the move: Constantine was riding a wave of newfound passion that had to do with the spread of Christianity, and it took him to Eastern Mediterranean where Christianity first took root. It was a conscious decision to leave the old pagan Rome behind and to construct a new, Christian Rome. Although both Christian and pagan ceremonies were performed there at first, the pagan ones were soon abandoned.
New Rome became the center of Christian learning, where the Bible and other Christian writings were translated into many languages, including Slavonic, this being an essential step in the spread of Christianity throughout Eurasia—except for Western Europe, which lapsed into a Dark Age. There, Latin-based learning was kept barely alive by monks who toiled in scriptoria, who were barely alive themselves from cold, hunger and ennui. The Catholic priesthood, which coalesced into an authoritarian structure—the Papacy—was eager to keep the population ignorant because this made it easier to control and exploit. Instead of translating the Bible into the vernaculars and teaching parishioners to read, they resorted to teaching Christian doctrine by means of idolatrous sentimentalist dioramas. The reaction to this repression of learning, when it came, was the Protestant Reformation. It resulted in a great deal of mindless slaughter and led to the development of yet another abomination: literalist interpretations of the Bible by Protestant sects and apocalyptic cults. Thus, Constantine’s decision to leave Old Rome to languish turned out to be a very positive one, giving us a millennium of cultural development in the east, and a very negative one, giving us the Dark Age and the Thirty Years’ War which caused devastation and population loss throughout Western Europe.
What does this have to do with the Five Stages of Collapse? It shows that collapses are local phenomena. Elsewhere, life goes on, sometimes better than before. Collapses can have internal causes (resources run out) or they can be externally triggered (the world moves on). But the collapse sequence remains the same: those in control are loath to admit what is happening, and pretend that it isn’t happening. Next, they get defunded (financial collapse). Next, they lose the ability to import stuff (commercial collapse). Next, their public institutions stop functioning (political collapse). Then society breaks down. And only then, after all that, do people finally realize that the problem was inside their heads all along (cultural collapse). Quickly adopting a better, more right-thinking culture is, of course, a good idea. An alternative is to go through a Dark Age followed by an extended period of mindless slaughter.
What does this have to do with today’s world? Well, if you notice, there is a particular country in the world that has a major problem: it consumes a lot more than it produces. Also, it consumes a lot of products but most of what it produces are services—for itself, which tend to be overpriced and are of very little use to anyone else, but it proudly counts this expensive mutual back-scratching as part of its Gross Domestic Product. It papers over the giant gap between its (real, physical) production and its (real, physical) consumption using accounting tricks, and it thinks that it can go on doing this forever. The rest of the world disagrees, and makes its displeasure known by gradually defunding this country. It could abandon its culture of mindless overconsumption and of spreading “freedom and democracy” by military means before circumstances force it to, but it refuses to do so, running the risk of being abandoned just like Old Rome was.
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