The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Bill Bodri’s “Culture, Country, City, Company, Person, Purpose, Passion, World”

If I were going to advise someone to buy just one book about how societies and economies run, this would be the one.

This isn’t because it has unique or new ideas, rather the opposite. It is the most concise collection of theories about how the world, economies, cities and much more work that I have ever read. Bodri has put together, in one place, what you’d have to read literally dozens of books to learn otherwise.

This doesn’t mean everything is “correct”, though more is than not, and it doesn’t mean I endorse everything (including his commentary), but it’s all in one place.

Let’s take the society chapter as an example.

Bodri starts with Ibn Khaldun’s theory of Asabiya. Khaldun noted that desert tribes would sweep in, conquer, and 4 generations later, they’d lose power to another bunch of desert nomads. His primary principle was Asabiya, a feeling of unity and shared purpose. Tribes lived on the edge and had to cooperate, so they had high Asabiya, but when they conquered a sedentary people and suddenly had access to luxury, they would lose their unity and willingness to sacrifice for each other, along with their toughness; form factions and eventually lose the unity that allowed them to conquer and rule (think Mongols for a very high profile example.) Then a tribe with high Asabiya would sweep in and conquer them.

Bodri then moves to Gaetana Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto. The insight here is simple enough: there is always a ruling class and the ruled, and ruling class, because they can easily coordinate are more powerful than the ruled, in most cases, because of this coordination. Societies break down in this model when the ruling classes start using their power to despoil the masses, the masses, losing their economic security become a mob, and try to force redistribution (bread and circuses) and the real economic base of the society decays, while the Asabiya (though neither uses the term) of the society and the elites collapses.

Next comes Glubb Pasha’s theory of empires. He noted that empires tended to last about 250 years or 10 generations, and went thru a sequence of seven stages. Being a Brit he felt Empire was good, but his argument was that each people had its distinctive excellence: they rose, spread it around and fell, then someone else did the same.

His seven stages are:

  1. The Age of Outburst or Pioneers
  2. The Age of Conquest
  3. The Age of Commerce
  4. The Age of Affluence
  5. The Age of Intellect
  6. The Age of Decadence
  7. The Age of Decline and Collapse

A lot of this is fairly obvious, but the Age of Intellect is the “age of skeptics” as it were: it’s when intellectuals pick apart the founding myths. Think Socrates and the Sophists, for example, or German intellectuals like Nietzche.

The next theory is the “Mandate of Heaven” theory of Ancient China: each dynasty starts with a strong virtuous leader (virtue in this case doesn’t mean non-violent, obviously) and a people who have an ethic of mutual aid and community spirit. When the dynasty (which really means much more than just the Emperor and his relatives) starts over-taxing, not keeping up infrastructure, don’t protect the people and so on, the dynasty loses “the mandate of Heaven” and soon falls.

It’s clear that this is essentially the same as Mosca and Pareto’s emphasis on elites despoiling citizens and thus destroying both their own and the larger society’s Asabiya.

Bordri then goes on to use these theories to look at the rise and fall of Spain and to analyze the longevity of Chinese society.

The next chapter is on countries: the preconditions for their rise and fall, what weaker powers do and so forth. Bodri then moves on to cycles: generationa theories, Kondratieff innovation cycles and so on, and down to companies all the way to individuals.

I think I should talk about how Bodri uses the word capitalism, which seems to combine free trade and entrepreneurship. What is important is not capitalism per se (the ownership of the means of production by a few), it is that the more the mass of people are allowed to be free and prosperous and not despoiled by the elites; the more they can choose what economic activities to engage in (this includes what we now call entrepreneurship), the more prosperous the nation tends to be. This creates domestic production that is widespread and not narrow in nature.

But freedom to do what people want isn’t an absolute rule: more freedom isn’t always better. England’s rise comes from saying “no, you can’t sell raw wool overseas.” It is that decision which creates the first real industry in England but it’s not what wool producers want, since they can get more from overseas buyers: their freedom of exchange IS infringed.

Bodri understand this when  he goes on to talk about how real development works (it’s almost always protectionist if you’re larger than a city state), but elides that when he pushes free trade, which is almost always what countries do when they are hegemonic and which, over time, leads to them shipping their productive capacity overseas, and is thus, actually, part of the cycle of decline. Vigorous empires on the rise tend toward mercantalism.

Bodri also usually uses the word socialism as a way of saying that the population is no longer capable of taking care of itself tends to try and vote itself bread and circuses, and thus socialism is always a bad thing, but  taking care of each other is something he praises at various points. The socialism Bodri despises is something that occurs when the elites have despoiled the masses, and the masses have thus lost their virtue.

Bodri’s smart and wide read, and his commentary is worth reading, but the book is most useful for his summaries of theories: sometimes very practical theories like how to trade world markets and so on.

Again, if you were to want to read only one book about how the world works, this is the one I would suggest. It isn’t a book by a genius about one or a few great ideas, it’s a book by someone who is well read about dozens of great ideas, and will serve as an excellent foundation for your own thinking and further reading.

The value of this book  is that it exposes you to so much. If you disagree or agree with some theories, what is useful is to think about WHY and to compare theories to each other: which predicts what, well, when?

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The European Union


Aspirational Versus Servant Leaders


  1. bruce wilder

    It is what very, very smart and clever people — who become intellectual specialists, often inexplicably young — very often fail to do: the easy, endless, sophomoric work of forming a genuine worldview.

    Much of the noise of political discourse originates with the committee of blind men and the elephant problem: no one appreciates there is a whole elephant.

    The vices of the persistent sophomore, though, are different: one is a tendency to homogenize, the attempt to find a general theory in common super principles that erase the rough edges (and the friction that gives them a grip on facts), combined with the curious inability to discern fundamentals that are indifferent to the moral tropes of human storytelling, the storytelling that holds together the incommensurable, hopelessly incomplete pieces that would form the picture of the elephant if the whole were ever visible to one who could see.

  2. True Free Market, true freedom, is Anarchy.

  3. A true Free Market, true Freedom, is Anarchy.

  4. A theory he apparently misses is Bas van Bavel’s – that a country (not to conflate with state) rises economically because it has introduced new efficient technologies and created markets for consumption articles, which tend to increase equality and wealth, but that it declines because this also gives rise to factor markets which invariably tend to increase inequality and make the poor poorer. He tests his hypothesis on Iraq 600-1000, Northern Italy 1100-1500, and Holland 1300-1700, and then goes on to tentatively check our present age.

    Bas van Bavel: The invisible hand? Oxford University Press 2016. Downloadable as pdf at the excellent free of charge Electronic Library, Review by Branko Milanovic,

  5. Jan Wiklund

    I should add the outstanding final of Milanovic’s review:

    “It is not only the plausibility of the mechanism of decline that gives strength to Bavel’s thesis; it is also that he lists the manifestation of the decline, observable in all six cases. Financial investments yield much more than investments in the real sector, the economy begins to resemble a casino, the political power of the financiers becomes enormous. The richest among the financiers either directly or indirectly enter politics, they become patrons of arts, sponsors of sports and education, and we witness simultaneously (1) oligarchic politics, (2) slower growth and lower level of real investments, (3) higher inequality, (4) domination of finance and (5) artistic efflorescence. What the ancient writers describe as “decadence” clearly sets it, but, as Bavel is at pains to note, it is not caused by moral defects of the ruling class but by the type of economy that is being created. Extravagant bidding for assets whose quantity is fixed (land and art) is a further manifestation of such an economy: the bidding for fixed assets reflects lack of alternative profitable investments as well as the expectation that, as inequality increases, there would be some even crazier and richer investors who would pay even more for a work of art, thus enabling the realization of a capital gain.

    The readers will not be remiss in seeing clear analogies to today’s West.”

  6. Hugh

    Looking at how Bodri defines capitalism and socialism, there seems to be more than a little libertarianism in his thinking.

    That socialism signals “the population is no longer capable of taking care of itself” is problematic to me for a couple of reasons. First, there is the highly political equation of socialism with societal failing/failure. Second, everyone is born into a society and none of them are born able to take care of themselves. Language, knowledge, all that is held at the level of the society.

    As for China, the Qin dynasty unified China. This dynasty was totalitarian to an extreme degree and lasted all of 15 years, followed by the Han. Something similar happened between the Sui and the Tang.

  7. Ian Welsh

    The Qin, being totalitarian bastards had almost no merit, and thus fell quickly. It lost the mandate of Heaven, fast.

  8. Ian Welsh

    Each view is simply a way of looking at things. It has advantages and disadvantages, works for some things and doesn’t work for others. The mature intellectual understands this, what each view is good for and bad for and switches between them as necessary, rather than trying to shoe-horn everything into one view.

    What often looks like a fixation on one view in a mature intellectual is usually because each era has its own typically diseases of thinking, feeling and ideology, and requires specific antidotes. Since people are very slow to change, the intellectual has to hammer on specific themes and seems more attached to them than they are.

    If a society then take that antidote too far once it starts being applied, it creates another disease.

  9. Ten Bears

    I read that book too, Ian, somewhere along The Way.

    Might have better luck if \”socialism\” were branded as the agrarian societies of yore, perhaps something out of a JRR Tolkien novel. What we have is of course the result of the authoritarians, the totalitarians controlling the narrative. Painting the picture. One ingrained since the Second World War, if not the American War of Treason In Defense of Slavery.

    Or do a better job of painting \”Capitalism\” in a more accurately dystopian light.

    Capture the Mad Max, Blaserunner narrative, as it is.

  10. borderdenizen

    Thanks, Ian, this looks interesting.

  11. Jan Wiklund

    “Socialism” is a chameleon. Politicians like Mao Zedong, Clement Attlee, Adolf Hitler, Jawaharlal Nehru, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Aristide Briand have all called themselves Socialists. They have almost nothing in common – except perhaps some vague notion that the government has a responsibility for the welfare of the country. But using that definition one must include Kong Fuzi as well as the notion is at the core of Confucianism.

    Much of 20th century socialism was simply a label for industrialization of the South, which implied a lot of government involvement – as it was implied when Germany and the US industrialized in the 19th century. Only that industrialization a hundred years later was such a bigger step to take.

  12. Plague Species

    Societies, of course, are a subset of civilization but if you think about it, civilization is following the very same path, it’s just that unlike the many past and present societies it’s contained during its tenure, it’s traversing of this Bodri’s Wheel of Fortune is much longer than that of its constituent societies. As it is below it is above and vice versa. I think it’s fair and logical and sane to say civilization, let alone the societies that now comprise it, is in decline and collapse, meaning there will be no new societies to follow. Heretofore, historically, new societies could form in a bubble of plenty since seemingly there were unlimited resources. That’s no longer the case. There’s no more plenty. The gig is up. The plague species has devoured and despoiled the living planet that birthed it. Soon the plague species will be no more and with it, civilization of course.

  13. Willy

    The common theme is that human society is a continuous tug of war between integrous and sociopathic movements. Integrity prefers what’s been proven to work, while sociopathy leverages its socially ruinous position by using the covert science of “whatever it takes”, to make what it’s actually doing less obvious.

    I’m still unconvinced that it’s more about the quality of the system, than it is the quality of the leadership. Theoretically, there’s a system that can guarantee quality leadership. But when has that ever happened, for long?

  14. S Brennan

    As Mr Wilder summarized;

    Trying to write “a theory of everything [human]” is more than a daunting task, it’s a bit sophomoric but…often useful as a rhetorical segue…

    “In 1976, General John Glubb, the retired British commander of Jordan’s Arab Legion, wrote a little booklet titled The Fate of Empires. Glubb observed how each of the world’s empires evolved through six stages, which he called: the Age of Pioneers; the Age of Conquests; the Age of Commerce; the Age of Affluence; the Age of Intellect; and the Age of Decadence and Decline. Despite enormous differences in technology, politics and culture between empires and eras, from the Assyrians (859-612 B.C.) to the British (1700-1950 C.E.), the whole process in each and every case took about 250 years.

    Americans can count the years from 1776, and few of us would deny that the American empire is in its Age of Decadence and Decline, riven by the very traits that Glubb identified for this stage, including systemic, normalized corruption, internal political hatreds, and a fascination with celebrity for its own sake.

    The decline of an empire is rarely peaceful, but it does not always involve the invasion, destruction or collapse of the imperial heartland, as long as its leaders eventually face up to reality and manage the transition wisely. So it is tragic that the 2020 presidential election offers us a choice between two major party candidates uniquely unqualified to manage America’s post-imperial transition, both making vain promises to restore mythical versions of America’s past, instead of drawing up serious plans for a peaceful, sustainable and broadly prosperous post-imperial future.”

  15. Willy

    Just because there seems to be an insurmountable number of multidimensional variables, doesn’t mean they can’t all be collected, spilled onto the floor, and then patterns seen when the eyes are crossed. Or maybe one can use spreadsheets and formulae to tidy up the pattern matching. Hell, program an advanced version of one of the Civilization-style video games and make some money while you’re at it.

    I worked for organizations where the destruction of “asabiya” was the second goal for the newly arrived sociopathic player, with the first being reconnaissance of actual (not official) political structures. Covertly manipulate the peers, associates and competitors into wasting their time and energy bickering with each other so the player can make full use of whatever bad situation develops with their adaptive and inherent talents at Machiavellianism. For them, it sure beats having to try to advance by slogging it out doing things they aren’t as nearly well suited for, such as doing actual work.

    But empires are a whole lot bigger than companies. You gotta change entire cultures for that shit to fall. Romans have gotta let the Visigoths in without raising a fuss.

    Why wouldn’t groups of wealthy whatevers want to use their excess cash to ‘influence’ politicians? Why wouldn’t a CEO want to agitprop his way out of potential legal trouble, at least until he flew away on his golden parachute? Why wouldn’t once honest politicians rationalize their new ‘popularity’ with money, after their public service was completed? Or friends want to scratch friends backs? Or allies? Or “enemies of my enemies”? Why wouldn’t daddies want to give job security to their unqualified kids?

    Why wouldn’t any of that trickle down into the common culture, weakening this “asabiya” of which we speak?

  16. Dan

    What the ancient writers describe as “decadence” clearly sets it, but, as Bavel is at pains to note, it is not caused by moral defects of the ruling class but by the type of economy that is being created.

    So no one’s really to blame. Excellent work Bavel. Your place is secure.

    I mean, who is creating said economy? Elites, or people working in their interests. Certainly there’s room for moral condemnation. Or just skip the condemnation and go directly to the firing squad.

    A morally deficient economy is being created by people who shall remain nameless and without agency. Maybe the homeless schizophrenic guy on the corner is behind everything.

  17. Jan Wiklund

    Dan: The media world loves to set up the world as a struggle between Good Guys and Bad Guys. To some extent it is, otherwise the pretention would be impossible to sustain. But it is much more than that. It is about the people, or the electorate if you like, being intelligent enough to guide society to a state where it makes life better for most people.

    As Marx, or was it Engels, had it: most ruthless capitalists are perfectly nice people to their friends and families, but if they are not ruthless to the public and to their employees they would not stay in the market. It is up to us to tilt the rules of the game. If we fail, if we are not persistent enough, we will end up worse than we started. And it is our own fault, we can’t blame any Bad Guys.

  18. NRG

    Technology, with its centralizing tendency, may make 90% of this historical analysis increasingly irrelevant, very quickly. Ask Uyghurs how it works, if you could contact any that would ever be free to speak again.

  19. StewartM

    Bodri also usually uses the word socialism as a way of saying that the population is no longer capable of taking care of itself tends to try and vote itself bread and circuses, and thus socialism is always a bad thing

    Which is a misuse of the term. What Bodri should call it is ‘welfare state-ism’, where the elites toss the paupers a few crumbs but don’t change meaningfully the social order nor who makes the decisions. “Socialism” should not be understood as ‘handouts’ but should involve society’s true creators–those who work–having the power to make the meaningful decisions of an economy.

  20. StewartM

    Bruce and S Brennan

    What you’re seeming to argue for is what Marvin Harris called “eclecticism”—picking and choosing an explanation of cause based on the local observations. The problem with eclecticism is that it has no predictive power and thus becomes a ‘just-so’ explanation. Harris wanted anthropology to be a true social science, to have predictive power, and thus it behooves one to come up with theory to explain everything. One has to have some axioms to start, and the more parsimonious the better; Harris starts with just four).

    From a multivariate modeling perspective (which I have done) that’s like building a calibration/correlation based upon too few, too similar, data. Yeah, it’s far simpler to throw out all the data points save a handful from a given sample set and draw a straight line from just that, but doing that doesn’t predict the other points nor is really a satisfactory explanation. And guys, you have it backwards, doing such modeling doesn’t throw out or gloss over valid data, but tries to incorporate and explain them.

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