Monday, August 20, 2007

Empires can collapse

Detail of crowded market in Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica empire, as pictured by muralist Diego Rivera in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City.

For people with a standard Eurocentric education (and that's most of us) the paradigm of "empire" is Rome. You know: enterprising republic, conquered most of known world, became rich and powerful, long decline while ruled by incestuous maniac dictators, barbarians poured over walls into once great cities, civilization collapsed and we got "the Dark Ages."

Maybe if we knew some different history, we'd be able to imagine some different trajectories. I'm currently reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann. Probably at some point I'll write more about this fascinating book, but for now here are some thoughts inspired by Mann's history. When Columbus landed

the central Mexican plateau alone had a population of 25.2 million. By contrast, Spain and Portugal together had fewer than ten million inhabitants.... By 1620-25, [the native population] was 730,000, 'approximately 3 percent of its size at the time that [Europeans] landed.'

When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes entered the capital of the Mexica empire that ruled the region, was bigger than Paris, Europe's greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. ...Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens -- none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate.

Within a few years this civilization was gone, wiped out not so much by conquest according to Mann, as by vulnerability to European diseases.

Empires can collapse. They can rule their known world -- and then be gone in an eyeblink. This is a hard thought for those of us raised on Rome.

Actually, we've seen an analogous imperial collapse within the lifetimes of most of us, though fortunately not one quite so lethal. From 1945 until 1989, the Soviet Union with all its internal nationalities and external satellite states looked like an enduring reality. Today -- an empire just about forgotten, with rapidly falling population numbers in the shrunken Russian state.

Empires can collapse. Think about it.

Then, if feeling masochistic, take a look at Glenn Greenwald:

Ruling the world ... through superior military force -- starting wars even when our national security is not directly at risk -- is the definitional behavior of an empire.



Grandmère Mimi said...

Jan, this empire of ours is so going to collapse. It's not if, but when.

janinsanfran said...

Ah yes, when? Somehow I suspect the shelf life of contemporary empires is a good deal shorter than that of the historical ones from which we draw our pictures.

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