Book review: War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, by Peter Turchin
This book describes a plausible model of how conflict between hostile cultures such as Islam versus Christianity can create the kind of large-scale cooperation (asabiya) needed to create empires, and that the absence of a nearby border with such a conflict results in the decay of that empire.
It is very hard to evaluate how accurately he analyzes the evidence for his theory without a really complete knowledge of the history of several empires.
Asabiya resembles what Fukuyama calls trust, but is stronger, and includes some willingness to risk ones life for other members of ones society. Turchin implies that this is a desirable quality (although I can’t recall anything explicitly saying that). I wonder whether the wars it contributes to outweigh the benefits. The answer might depend on the extend to which it is possible to have trust without much asabiya (Turchin’s analysis suggests a pessimistic answer).
Much of the book contains standard style histories, mostly of times and places that haven’t received much attention. I often found these parts annoying because I couldn’t figure out which parts contained evidence for Turchin’s model, and most of them didn’t seem important enough for me to remember.
He suggests that inequality within an empire reduces its stability. Most of this isn’t very original nor backed up by much evidence. One idea that I hadn’t heard before involves the upper class intentionally reducing the asabiya of lower classes, especially with extreme forms of inequality such as slavery. It seems quite likely that the upper classes sometimes attempt this. But the other parts of the book suggest that this may backfire – conflict normally increases asabiya. Turchin writes as if geographic separation between the conflicting cultures is needed for this effect, but it isn’t obvious to me why.
The book is in some ways gloomy, suggesting that it would take an alien attack to create a big increase in worldwide cooperation. But he does leave some hope that recent technological changes may have made his model obsolete.