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

Collins Five Principles Of The Expansion And Collapse of Nations

As long time readers know, Randall Collins is a sociologist I admire.

One of his books is Macrohistory: Essays In Sociology of the Long Run. The second chapter is a theory of the rise and fall of empires. It’s this theory which Collins used to predict the collapse of the USSR in advance.

Principle 1: Size and resource advantage favors expansion. Expansion and resource advantage includes satrapies and alliances. So Canada’s resources are America’s and so are Europe’s and Japan’s and Australia’s and so on. Athen’s “allies” resources were Athens’, etc…

Principle 2: Geopolitical or “marchland” advantage favors expansion. This means you want to be on the edge, in the corner of the map. Think Rome, on the edge of the Greek world. Russia on the edge of Europe and, indeed, America on the edge, and having no real enemies nearby.

All seven unifiers were from marchland, the central states always lost.

The history of Europe in the 20th century was war between central powers (and the old marchland, Britain), leading to exhaustion and then conquest by the two European marchland states, dividing Europe between Russia and the US. Americans had massive garrisons and overthrew governments who tried to resist them in Europe; they were occupiers just as were the Soviets.

The advantage here is the classical one of corner positions: you don’t have enemies on every side. Russia became a great power largely by having gunpowder weapons and expanding against people who didn’t, while having to defend only one border against European nations.  America, likewise, but with very little real risk from advanced nations once the revolution was gone (Canada was too sparsely populated, and Mexico/Spain were in radical decline.)

Principle 3: Interior states tend to fragment when not conquered by marchland states. Collins gives examples, “this happened in China during several interdynastic periods, in Kievan Russia, in the Balkans after the decline of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires, and when the medieval Holy Roman Empire fragmented in the kleinstaaterei of Germany and Italy. Fragmentation occurs because interior states become militarily weakened states incapable of controlling secessions.

Basically, you’ve got potential allies and enemies on every side, and  you tend towards balance of power politics and defensive postures. Even though central states tend to be on rich land, needing to defend against so many possible enemies leads to exhaustion, and they can’t handle revolts. Alternatively, though Collins doesn’t mention it, you can have self-disarmament in a successful balance of power regime, such as happened in the EU and if someone decides to take advantage of it, it may be too late to rearm.

Principle 4: Cumulative processes bring periodic long-term simplificiations, with massive arms races and showdown wars between a few contenders.

The first three rules lead to a couple large states becoming powerful (or putting them into alliances that amount to the same thing, as with Athens and the USA), then those two powers have a showdown. Sometimes it’s two marchlands who have conquered central areas (as with the USSR and America), sometimes it’s a peripheral state versus a central state which has conquered other central states (Britain v. Germany or Britain v. France), and sometimes to it’s a marchland just conquering the center as with the Mongols and China (though the Mongols conquered the Arab/Muslim center as well.)

These periods generally have huge arms races and buildups, which may or may not go to a showdown war. The US and USSR did not have their showdown war, but Athens and Sparta did. The competition, even if it doesn’t go to war can lead to both parties essentially losing, as with Germany and Britain in the two world wars. Britain’s “victory” was the loss of their empire and almost all their power and slow long term decline from that point as a manufacturing power, winding up a financialized satrapy of the real winner, the US.

The collapse of Britain, France and Germany allowed the US and the USSR to expand into what amounted to a vacuum.

Principle 5: Overextension brings resource strain and state disintegration.

Collins writes “the further military power is projected from the home base, the higher the costs.”

It’s this that made Paul Kennedy in his “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” think that the US was due to collapse. He was right, but what he didn’t see was that the USSR was under even more resource pressure, and had a smaller resource base. Remember that Nixon going to China turned Russia’s eastern border into a real worry, and they had to move large numbers of troops there and keep them ready for a potential war. Combined with the Warsaw pact and allies having less resources and people than the US, NATO and other allies and Russia was under more resource strain than the US with its widespread bases.

The odd thing here, as Kennedy showed, that empires expand and get more resources, but the cost of getting the resources expands faster than the resources gained.

Though Collins doesn’t discuss it here I’d say there are other processes. Empires tend to ship their production to the provinces. They financialize. They have inflated real-estate and other prices which drives out real production (Spain and the treasure fleets is the extreme example, but it can clearly be seen in 20th century America and 19th century England, and I bet it was visible in Periclean Athens.)

Concluding Remarks

These are the five principles of Collins basic geopolitical model. They were used to predict the collapse of the USSR, in advance, and they backfit quite nicely onto a large number of civilizations’ history.

One might wish to extend this to the current situation, evaluating China and its junior partner Russia in their conflict against the West. Who has the size and resource advantage (resources in the modern world include manufacturing capacity and tech). Which has more of a marchland advantage? (Remember, if the US feels it has to defend something, the mainland advantage only partially applies, and then there’s the question of hypersonic missiles and so on.)

I don’t see an interior state fragmentation process going on that matters, but maybe I’m missing it?

Is there an arms race going on? Will it lead to a direct war? Who will use less of their resources to maintain that arms race while remaining militarily viable?

Who is more in overextension? The US and allies or China and Russia?

I may write an article on this, but I think most readers can work thru it themselves and will find it more valuable to do so than to read me doing it.



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  1. Lex

    A lot of food for thought. I’ll say in the medium term (at least) the US is much too far overextended. And Chinese-Russian relations lessen their potential over extensions if they can survive some of those extensions snapping. The US could be in a position of never being over-extended but it sold all of that potential. While it can be rebuilt, the timeframe may be too short.

    Russia and China win the arms race because neither has built or is building a military designed for foreign conquest. The only power projection they need are enough nuclear missiles and then a capable missile arsenal. The US military is hollowed out and corrupt while being reliant on outmoded strategic doctrine and having no way out of the reliance because it must project its power globally. Vulnerable bases, aircraft carriers, etc. The biggest one being maintaining sufficient troop concentrations in multiplying near-conflict or conflict zones. It took the US months to prep a ground campaign in Iraq. The logistics of fighting Russia or China are orders of magnitude higher. (Discounting nuclear exchange)

    I see an interior state fragmentation if we consider the EU to be a single state. It doesn’t exactly fit with Collins but it rhymes.

  2. Willy

    I’ve occasionally gotten rational responses to my tendency to focus on the internal social dynamics of a collective whenever it comes to historic fails (or successes), like for example the fall of the Roman Empire. They tell me that even with the most competent leaders and inspired citizens that adverse conditions will fail the greatest of empires.

    Well, duh. But just because they’re out to get you, doesn’t mean the leaders shouldn’t inspire you to get paranoid.

    I think of a marchland without a cause, Mongolia, a place nobody cared to conquer since ponies and yak poop were pretty much the prized resources. Then Genghis came along to give them a cause and the rest is history. I wonder how Collins deals with that one. Myself, I use it to describe the power of the dark triad side, where winning is the only goal and will use every means necessary.

  3. Ian Welsh

    Genghis was certainly evil, but he wasn’t without virtues. I’m not sure he was a pyschopath, there were people he cared about, including his wife and children, but also a few friends.

    He was borderline paranoid, however and he definitely had an unbelievable drive to power.

    I think we sometimes assume pathology too much. Sane people are entirely capable of the greatest accomplishments and evils, we just don’t want to admit it.

    As for the marchland: internal factors matter and Collins deals with them in other places. And Temujin, evil or no, qualifies for a great man. The Mongols weren’t even the greatest of the tribes.

    Some nomad horsemen might have invaded China and won, it had happened before, but that it was the Mongols and that they conquered two great civilization’s heartlands, is a consequence of Temujin’s brilliance.

  4. Willy

    Yeah, I’ll admit that I could be at the far edge of temperament + experience, and thus will have a harder time understanding a less extreme person who’s having an easy time rationalizing some obvious evil they’re doing.

    Constantine was said to have been ruthlessly ambitious and used Christianity as a political tool/weapon, until imperial evil struck his own family and (at least as some historians say) he fully converted and lived out his remaining years as a milder mannered Christian. If true, then “evil” seems a spectrum thing.

    I’ll need to understand “unbelievable drive to power” better. I mean, is the Amazon Empire (so convenient yet ruinous) solely the result of Bezos’ ambition, or is he being carried along by some juggernaut he didn’t expect?

    I’ve seen more than a few Elon Musk tweets. While obviously capable, he’s also clearly capable of being far less than the all-knowing wizard he tries to be. What he seems good at is creating some kind of goal driven culture and then taking all the credit for it. His turn towards the obviously morally corrupt GOP for obviously dubious reasons is also telling.

  5. GrimJim

    The United States has always been an Empire. From the moment the Treaty of Paris was signed, the US started out as an Empire. The original 13 Colonies were the Center (especially the Boston-Baltimore corridor, which remains true to this day), and Indian Territory west of the Appalachians was the “Marchland.” This relationship between the East as Center and West as Marchland continues to this day; with the Monroe Doctrine, the Colonial Marchland was increased, effectively, to the entire Western Hemisphere.

    The American Empire reached its maximum final extent with the Spanish-American War, though there were a few minor additions after World War II, and of course, many quasi-colonies in the Marchland in Europe, Africa, and East Asia. Effectively, with the dollarization of many currencies and the development of the petrodollar, the entire world became the American Marchland.

    And note, that really, everything outside of the Bos-Wash Corridor is considered Colonial Marchland.

    The problem with Empires is they only last as long as they can continue to loot the Colonial Marchland. Rome fell when they ran out of neighbors to loot. The British Empire fell when they ran out of continents to loot. Whether on the gold standard, silver standard, fiat currency, petrodollar… doesn’t matter. Eventually, the Empire needs more loot than it can get, and then the whole house of cards falls.

    The American Empire lasted a couple generations longer than it should have because, with the end of WWII, it inherited the old British territories and had the only remaining industrial base left on the planet. It started crumbling when everyone else caught up, and all the looting slowed down on the Outer Rim of the Colonial Marchland. This was in the early ’80s; to make up for it, the Masters of the Universe decided to eat their own seed corn, which has ended up with the collapse of industry in the Imperial Core and the strengthening of a potential opponent (China) on the Fringe.

    Regarding the Interior State Fragmentation: unlike most previous Empires, the American Imperial Core and Hither Marchland is not divided geographically, so much as philosophically. It is really divided not so much along state lines as on Urban and Rural lines and Ethnic/Color lines and Religious lines. Much like the former Yugoslavia; Serbia was never properly the core of a “Yugoslavian” state; the Serbs merely had dominance in the macro-state due to historical inertia.

    In the American Empire, the “Power Core” or “Heartland” was in the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant Patriarchy. Today the attempt for that “Heartland” to maintain control is seen in Corporatism, Christofascism, and White Supremacy. They still hold on to the reigns of power… for now. But they are seeing their power wane, and know the writing is on the wall, for a multitude of reasons. Trumpism wraps all of that in one vast deplorable stew of madness.

    The American Empire will not, initially, disintegrate into discrete territories, as did the Roman Empire. Its collapse will look more like the gang warfare in Rome or Constantinople, as each faction vies to control the levers of power. The Trumpists are poised to take back Congress in November and, barring some mishap, the Presidency in 2024 (they already have SCOTUS in their back pocket).

    Collapse thereafter depends on how hard and fast Trump and his followers push their maniacal programs. Trump will, of course, immediately walk into the White House daggers out, ready to go for the jugular of anyone who he feels crossed him. He will gladly give Congress (the Corporatist, Christofascist, and White Supremacy factions) anything they desire in order to be given carte blanche to literally murder his enemies.

    I expect the Presidential Selection of 2024 to be the last such event, barring a military coup. Either marks the end of the American Empire proper, as either will set of a series of political, financial, and economic disasters that will cause the whole system to spin apart…

  6. Dan Lynch

    I don’t see an interior state fragmentation process going on that matters, but maybe I’m missing it?

    Well, in the Rocky Mountain West there’s the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Bundy Nutters, the Libertarian backlash against covid mandates, Northern California wants to secede, and Eastern Oregon wants to secede. So far the Bundy Nutter rebellions have been relatively small and could have been squashed by authorities at any time if the politicians had the will to do so — but they do not have the will, and that worries me.

    One reason the USSR fell is because no one was willing to fight to defend it — people had stopped believing in it. And that’s the way it feels now in the interior U.S.. It’s not that the Bundy Nutters are a majority, or even a plurality, but no one has been willing to stand up to them.

    Perhaps in response to the Waco and Ruby Ridge fiascoes, governments have since treated white conservative rebels with kid gloves. No one wants the Feds to massacre women and children, but is it asking too much to remove Bundy’s cows from public land?

  7. Trinity

    “As long time readers know, Randall Collins a sociologist I admire.”

    Should be *is a sociologist.

    “Principle 4: Cumulative processes bring periodic long-term simplificiations”

    should be simplifications (extra i).

  8. bruce wilder

    Paul Kennedy and his “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” revealed to me not much about history I did not already know, but it did illustrate to me something I had failed to understand: how people can be carried along irrationally by the zeitgeist. Kennedy’s thesis, which was nothing if not perfectly timed, was basically (as I read it) that the U.S. leadership would be wise to actually be exceptional and choose to pull back at the moment of global triumph. Just relax into a New World Order, taking a bow and a huge peace dividend, consolidating and conserving.

    But that’s not been the way of it. The corruption of elites drunk on the power and wealth derived from financialization and globalization under the hegemon’s umbrella of destructive military power drove politics in the direction it did, step by evil step. Innocent that I was, I was constantly predicting a reversal in the first decade of the 21st century as disaster piled onto catastrophe under obviously corrupt and incompetent political leadership determined to do the wrong thing in every domain, economic, financial, legal and military. Torture, sure. War on false pretences, why not? George W. Bush let slip the other day that he was himself just like Putin in advancing unjustified invasions, but it was hardly noticed by the pundit coyotes braying for more war.

    At least since Kennedy’s book (1987), I have been observing the political elites and their media pundit cheerleaders talking themselves into doing exactly what Kennedy so convincingly warned against. It has required a degree of collective delusion and hypocrisy I would scarcely have imagined possible in my young and innocent youth.

    Realist voices have been having their say, but without much effect on the political direction the country takes. Corrupt numbskulls like Senator Ted Cruz seem to have power and people who talk sense are marginalized in the extreme. The corruption of the Republicans, the party of business (and the white protestant ascendancy when that was a thing) is familiar political furniture. The present conflict with Russia has been driven forward by an unexpected (by me) alliance of the Democrats and the intelligence/security services. I thought Russiagate was b.s. from the moment I scanned the pee tape dossier — just absurd, but lots and lots of people ran with it and are still running with it.

    It is the crazy in all this that impresses me. I cannot even fantasize having any influence over the course of events, so I don’t think of protest or argument — I just marvel at the inexplicable way people (elite pundits especially because they are so visible and noisy, but also people of my own acquaintance) “reason” and react and narrate. I know I have commented repeatedly about reading the New York Times’ coverage of the war in Ukraine, marveling at their uncritical but determined narrative of the course of the war, as if events could be corralled so easily by mere wishful story-telling. It doesn’t matter what happens, Russia is failing and will lose real soon now — when Russia raised interest rates sky high a few weeks ago, it portended economic collapse; more recently, when the Russians were lowering interest rates, that also was a sign of Russian economic weakness, according to the Times’ correspondent.

    I don’t know if anyone here caught Simon Tisdall jumping the shark at the Guardian last week. His narrative blaming Trump for Putin and wistfully wondering if Biden can save us, all while touting yet more neocon military adventures is just a wonder to behold. This in a paper that once published Wikileaks revelations about U.S. war crimes, like good little liberal rags used to do — those were the days, does anyone remember?

  9. Ché Pasa

    The US was formed as an imperial construct in conscious emulation of Ancient Rome as it was understood in the late 18th Century. It was formed out of the newly independent British American colonies — not including what became Canada. Britain itself had to 1) curb the power and influence of Mad King George and the “Germans” that ran the country and managed to lose the initial Empire; and 2) reconstitute the Empire as a global enterprise centered on India; 3) brush off then control the yapping ankle biters of Europe and exploit then strangle, to the extent possible, the rise of the Russian Empire and the Chinese Empire. The sudden and unexpected emergence of the Japanese Empire toward the end of the 19th Century threw everything into disarray… which led eventually to the disintegration of the vaunted everlasting British Empire and the triumph of the American one, but oh well…

    Oh well, oh well.

    I think GrimJim’s brief analysis is pretty much on point, and Dan Lynch’s observations about the fragmentation impetus in the Mountain West are certainly valid.

    Autonomy is likely for the more resistant regions of the US, already in practice in Texas and much of the Mountain West as well as the entire Pacific Coast and Florida. In other words, the US domestic empire is fragmenting into distinct regional demi-states, not quite along the lines I anticipated decades ago, but the process is nevertheless obvious and probably unstoppable.

    The center cannot hold. From the outside looking in, it appears the center does not want to hold in any case. Financialization and globalization do not require a stable Imperial center, do they?

    In fact, they seem to thrive on precipitating chaos, quite independent of location.

    They don’t need the presence and participation of more than a few of today’s global population, either.

    The fewer, the better from their point of view. The best laid plans, though…

    From their point of view, everyone who is not part of their club is “rabble.” Troublesome and in the way. For the most part, unneeded.

    What does power depend on today? Apparently not on control of land or people; apparently not on anything tangible at all. Perhaps power today is little more than an illusion in a simulation.

    Dan Lynch pointed out that the Soviet Union fell when no one would defend it. Actually, some tried and failed. Has the US empire reached that point? Or has it passed it?

  10. bruce wilder

    Barring a foreign invasion and occupation, I do not see fragmentation of N.A. USA as likely in the next 50 years or so. The sudden decline of physical mobility (already started but not far along) of the population followed by the emergence of strong dialectical differentiation would be precursors.

    Isolated geographically and with a passable population to resources ratio, the U.S. circa 2035 has a good chance of realizing a post-Imperial, fall-of-civilization Plan B that might work for several decades.

    Historians like to rationalize historical politics as somehow adapting to reality, but mostly, fashion and passion dominate in real time and in most periods people rally around schemes to recapture misunderstood past glories. Not many have grasped the wisdom of the former Archdruid to crash now and avoid the rush. Still the U.S. is undergoing a prolonged political realignment that has lodged all good sense in an unlikely faction of the Republican Party, while we wait for the Democratic leadership to literally die.

    It is taking even longer for people to give up on economic growth and fossil fuels as the keys to a good future. (There can be no good future.)

  11. Willy

    Still the U.S. is undergoing a prolonged political realignment that has lodged all good sense in an unlikely faction of the Republican Party, while we wait for the Democratic leadership to literally die.

    Where, the Lincoln Project folks? The moderate “RINO” pundits seen on MSNBC? What about the powerless, though sometimes vocal, “marxists” which the conservative echo chamber is always panicking about?

  12. Ian Welsh

    On a little bit of thought, I think Britain is about to undergo fragmentation. Hasn’t yet, but I fully expect them to lose Scotland and Northern Ireland.

  13. Astrid

    I would caution reading too much into the Mongols (and the Arab invasion) into future history. It is very much an artifact of the Eurasian Steppes that there is this wasteland full of horse borne warriors. Even then, the great civilizations of China, NEA, and Silk Road cities were often able to buy off the raiding hordes for centuries, rather cheaply, until they hit the jackpot of a Mohammed or Tenmujin. Even in a resource scarce future, a larger central state will likely be able to muster military resources undreamt of by our ancestors. A dynamic similar to Qing conquest of Ming China (during an Han v. Han civil war) might be closer to the dynamic going forward.

    Assuming there is a future for any of us, I think we should consider the impact of billions of bodies moving to escape intolerable local conditions. People from high reproducing global South may render the populations in lands of Russia, Europe, China, and even North America very differently in 100 years. It won’t necessarily be a story of empire, but hard scrabbled aftermath of another Bronze Age Collapse.

    Or maybe Long Covid and monkey pox will eventually kill 95% of everybody but the Chinese. I honestly don’t know if I want to live in that world.

  14. bruce wilder

    Willy: “Where . . . ?”

    None of the above listed by you, but I expect you knew that.

    I reiterate that I am fascinated by the way political parties and whole societies seem to go on auto-pilot as they approach the cliff’s edge at speed, even though moderately well-educated and informed persons of good will warn like Cassandra against the folly. It seems to be a near universal experience in our time.

    Ian, our Everyman with a moral compass, makes Cassandra prophesies look easy. Mostly they are not so easy for me, but I work at not succumbing to hypnosis by propaganda nevertheless. And when I come to consciousness, I see how drenched in tendentious b.s. we always are.

    The reaction to the emergence of the Ukraine war into the general news cycle is a case in point. Most centrists cannot admit the role of the U.S. in provoking the conflict or the craziness of expanding NATO because expanding NATO caused a war! Oliver Twist asks for more gruel!

    The U.S. cannot afford its financial hegemony or military dominance, and when this is pointed out, there is no reaction or the reaction borders on insane. (see Simon Tisdall)

    AOC, beaten on BBB, happily waves thru $40 billion for war. Who objects? Rand Paul! Tucker Carlson! That’s what I meant by unlikely factions voicing sanity. Not the people I would expect to talk sense. I do not trust them, of course. But I know now better than to trust Hillary the Corrupt Liar who gave us Russiagate,( mind-rotting prep for our pending apocalypse?)

  15. Willy

    Personally, I’d be more clear. AOC can’t build back better because it’s still more popular for both parties senior DC reps to want to fight the bad guy. And Putin is by most accounts, quite the bad guy. Worse even than “the left”. So she at least gets to build weapons back better. Maybe better than nothing. But I don’t know what her thinking actually was.

    As for Tucker’s thinking, being buddies with Victor Orban diminishes his freedom patriot street cred somewhat. Makes his actual motives seem suspect.

    I did get a kick out of Dubya’s gaffe though.

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