Sunday, October 18, 2020

The militarization of the Western Empire: How the COVID pandemic accelerated the process


Donald Trump may not have been not such a warlike emperor as previous Western Emperors have been (and probably will be). But, even assuming that Trump is trying to avoid wars, he cannot oppose the militarization trends of the Western economy that was boosted by the COVID-19 epidemics. 


History repeats itself - oh, yes! And sometimes it repeats itself so fast and so ruthlessly that it leaves you out of breath. Think of what's happening right now: the COVID; the lockdowns, the face masks, the limitations to movements: all that happened in a few months, and the world of last year looks so remote that it could be seen as part of the still ongoing Middle Ages. 

And, yet, there is some logic in what has happened. History may surprise you and it usually does (the only sure thing we learn from history is that people never learn from history). But whatever happens in history has a reason to happen. And what we are seeing is not unexpected. We have seen it already, stark clear and unavoidable: it is the militarization trend of a decaying society.

Let's go back to the Roman Empire, as always the paradigmatic story of a state that went through a full cycle of growth and collapse. The Roman world was not so technologically sophisticated as ours, but the basic needs of the citizens were the same and the Roman government provided many of them. You may have heard the expression "Panem et Circenses" (bread and circus games). That described two of the services that the Roman state ensured: the shipment of  wheat from Africa to the Roman cities and the various kind of games performed in the amphitheaters. 

But there was much more than that. The state built and maintained the roads that connected the different regions of the empire. It built and maintained the aqueducts that carried water to the cities. It took care of the coinage needed for the financial system that made commerce possible. Then, the main service was security: the government provided an internal justice system that guaranteed a certain degree of social security to the free citizens. The Romans also maintained an urban police (the vigiles) that served also as firefighters. And, as we all know, the legions were the backbone of the Roman society, in war and in peace. 

Of course, the Roman state had all the defects that states often have: it tended to harass, oppress, humiliate, rob, and overtax its citizens, But the Romans normally believed that a bad government was much better than no government, so they put up with a lot of stress as long as they could. Unfortunately for them, collapse was unavoidable. As the Empire's finances declined, the government became unable to pay for the services it had been providing.

The loss of government services in the Roman state was a complicated process that went on for centuries, sometimes gradually and sometimes in bumps. Coinage declined with the decline of the silver and gold mines and, by the 3rd century, commerce started declining, too. We have evidence that the Roman roads were already decayed so much that they were unusable by the early 5th century. Many aqueducts were in ruin by that time and that probably contributed to the depopulation of large cities: nobody can live in a city without working sewers. The last gladiatorial game in the Colosseum, in Rome, is recorded in 438 CE. Wheat was still shipped to Rome from Africa up to ca. 450 AD, but no later and, most likely, the other Roman cities in Europe had lost the supply of wheat from Africa much earlier. The loss of the supply of food was the last straw that sent the Empire to the dustbin of history a few decades later. 

But note an important detail: During the declining phase, the Roman government always gave maximum priority to maintaining its military potential intact. The data show that  Roman troops kept increasing in numbers up to the end of the 3rd century. We lack data for the last phase of decadence of the Western Empire, but we know that the Romans still kept armies and were paying for the maintenance of the walls defending the empire up to the early 5th century. As decline continued, the Western Empire was reduced to a giant machine that collected taxes and produced legions. The result was that even a terribly weakened Empire could put up a decent fight up to nearly the last moment of its existence. Just think of how a ragtag Roman army still managed to defeat Attila's Huns at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD. It was at the same time the last battle and the last victory of the Empire.

Now, let's move forward of about 1,600 years and we are in our times. The modern Western Empire has many points in common with the old Roman Empire although, of course, the range of services the state provides nowadays is much larger. Just think that the Romans had nothing like our public education system, not our public healthcare service. But, like the Roman state, the modern Western states provide food, water, transportation infrastructures, security, and entertainment. And, of course, a heavy military apparatus supposed to defend citizens from external invasions. 

Today, the West is in a situation similar to that of the Roman Empire at the start of its declining phase. With the economy tethering on the edge because of the gradual depletion of natural resources, there are many things that the Western governments can't afford anymore. You don't have to think that the imperial elites are especially smart, but they understand perfectly well the situation: the Western Empire can survive only as long as it can have access to exploit the resources it needs. And most of these resources are located in faraway places that are hugely expensive to control. Crude oil in the Middle East is a good example. In the competition for the world's resources, the West faces a giant and growing power: the Eurasian block, much better placed in terms of still available resources within its local sphere of influence. 

Right now, the West is still in an aggressive posture in military terms, but the leaders may decide to settle into a defensive position and hold on as long as possible. In either case, the Empire needs enormous amounts of resources to keep alive its overblown and inefficient military system. Because of this, some Western leaders may well be reckless enough to try something desperate, such as attacking Russia (preferably in winter, as it has been fashionable in the past). More easily, these resources can be found by taking them from other sectors of the Western economy. If you like to see the empire as a beast of prey, it is starting to eat itself.

Curiously, it has been the coronavirus crisis that pushed the process to accelerate at an unexpected speed. In less than one year, we saw the collapse or the rapid decline of several infrastructures that we were taking for granted up to now. Note that I am not saying that the virus was engineered on purpose in some military lab -- that's extremely improbable, to say the least. I just mean that the elites of the Western world are an opportunistic predator: they jump on whatever opportunities they can find. And there is no doubt that they exploited the coronavirus crisis to their own maximum advantage.

The first and the most illustrious victim of the virus scare was international mass tourism. The collapse  will probably be irreversible: read any description of what is today to visit Disneyland while wearing masks and keeping distances and you'll understand why. Mass tourism was unsustainable anyway, but the speed of its fall has been amazing.

Also, the collapse of the civilian airlines is well advanced and of much of the industry that produces private cars. They were all very expensive infrastructures that consumed a lot of resources for little purpose. Their collapses are taking with them the fossil fuel industry, but that's not a problem for the military. The remaining production can now be re-directed to military uses. 

Then, we have the rapid decline of the public education system. It had been already declining for a long time, but the pandemic showed how fragile is a system that costs a lot of money to the state and produces little that's useful. Do we really need to teach ordinary people how to read and write? They don't need that to play on TikTok and most of them are too fat to be useful as soldiers. All that we need is highly specialized technologists able to design and build weapons and top-level managers to handle the levers of the government machine. And that's where the remaining resources will be concentrated. 

How about the healthcare system? That, too, was badly hit and turned out to be terribly ineffective in stemming the first wave of the pandemic. One possible reaction would have been to strengthen the system with a badly needed injection of capital and a re-organization for better efficiency. But it was not done. Here, propaganda played its usual role in convincing people that what's bad for them is good for them. Have you ever heard a slogan like "fewer tanks and more hospitals?" Can you imagine one of the presidential candidates stating something like that? Of course not. 

Propaganda has been able to convince people that, if the healthcare system was unable to manage a problem that never was really overwhelming, it was not because the system was badly mismanaged and turned into a profit-making operation for a few fat cats at the top. No, it was the fault of the people who didn't wear their face masks or didn't wear them right. The pen is mightier than the sword when it is used to write propaganda.

And there we are: suddenly we find ourselves rapidly moving along a road that we hadn't realized we had taken. The system is moving to a condition that will eventually turn it into a mirror of what once was the Roman empire: a giant machine that collects taxes and produces legions.

And then what? Of course, the Empire will crumble. All empires do. They bankrupt themselves with excessive military expenses, they are like the fat man of the restaurant scene of the Monty Python (if you haven't seen it, it is here). And in our case, things will go even faster than in the past because we face not only resource depletion but also the collapse of the ecosystem. 

But history goes in cycles: there is no collapse that's not followed by a rebound. We don't know exactly what the world after the crash will be like, but after the great binge of fossil fuels is over, and with it the toxic dreams of dominance, we might be able to build a gentler and better world. And may the Goddess help us in this difficult task.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)