What are the signs of an empire in decline?
February 21, 2008 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Are there generalized signs of an empire in decline -- things that show up in different cultures and different points in history?
posted by dugnorth to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Collapse by Jared Diamond, great book about exactly this subject.
posted by Grither at 8:57 AM on February 21, 2008

2nding Collapse. It's the precise book you want to read.
posted by Zarkonnen at 8:59 AM on February 21, 2008

Ideological rigidity, imperial over-stretch, inability to reform.
A good starting point on this topic in general would Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.

But, if you're looking for a more contemporary angle, the criticism of a Chalmers Jonhson has a sound to it that rings true. I borrowed the quote above from him.
posted by ijsbrand at 9:19 AM on February 21, 2008

Oswald Spengler's magnum opus Decline of the West deals in excruciating detail with this question, as does Giambattista Vico's New Science, and in much greater detail than Diamond's book.
posted by mr. remy at 9:31 AM on February 21, 2008

It's been some years since I've read Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, but I'll second it for the comprehensive historical survey, but suggest that you keep in mind that it's a book written at a particular point in time, the mid-1980s. If I recall, Kennedy missed the fall of the Soviet Union (which would happen a couple of years after the book's publication), and also predicted the decline of the United States (and its replacement by Japan in terms of pre-eminent power). He obviously fell into the popular perception that Japan was buying up the United States, etc., and missed the bursting of Japan's economic bubble in 1990 or so.

I suppose the collapse of empires can be something utterly unexpected and sudden, and we think of perceptible decline mainly because of the long decline of the Roman empires (eastern and western), but imperial collapse in the relatively recent history has tended to be quick, e.g., the cataclysm of World War One and the suicide of Europe in that event. The journey of the British Empire from hegemony to second rate power happened within the living memory of its citizens: ask a June 1914 citizen of the Empire (or anyone else) about its prospects in 1945, and his answer will be far different from how things turned out.
posted by chengjih at 9:57 AM on February 21, 2008

Another excellent book is Dark Age Ahead by the inestimable Jane Jacobs. She identifies key components of civilization and talks about how they are declining, what the impact would be, and provides some insight into what we should be doing to maintain them. Her book is a very good companion piece to Collapse, and may leave you wondering just why Diamond doesn't give her more credit for her ideas.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:33 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Generalized signs? A steadily increasing ratio of lawyers to engineers. With apologies to the lawyers out there, engineers feed growth while lawyers prevent it.
posted by Doohickie at 12:09 PM on February 21, 2008

Elites stop believing in the empire.
posted by atrazine at 12:59 PM on February 21, 2008

There's also the recent Are We Rome? which considers the parallels between the Roman Empire and the U.S.
posted by exphysicist345 at 2:59 PM on February 21, 2008

Ibn Khaldun
posted by atchafalaya at 3:01 PM on February 21, 2008

My weak knowledge of history shows me that there are more differences than similarities between declining civilization/empire/societies.

Or did you mean declining governments?
posted by gjc at 5:19 PM on February 21, 2008

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