There are seven stages that all states in the past have followed, and are still following today
If you could go back in time and relive a moment from history, what era would you pick? Maybe you’d choose to spectate a gladiator game at the Colosseum and experience Rome at its zenith, or perhaps you’d want to explore the Americas before the arrival of Europeans.
Yet, regardless of the era, not everything would be alien to you. You’d notice some semblance of government and you’d be able to understand the local laws by simply asking people around you.
You’d think that with all this knowledge evolving, we would be able to reach the pinnacle of civilisation one day right? Well, not quite.
German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770–1831) once said the following:
“What experience and history teach us is this — that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
Today, we have nation-states but you only have to see a map of the world from 100 years ago to see that many were yet to be formed.
John Glubb said that every nation in history has gone through some form of cycle. Even China and the US today are going through that same cycle.
The only question is, what will happen when these two superpowers reach their final stage?
1. Age of Outburst
A nation can only form if its people are united. Whether it’s a warlord bringing together various tribes, or revolutionaries overthrowing a government, all nations begin on a similar trajectory and are spearheaded by military or diplomatic figures.
One example would be the rise of the Nazis. Hitler became the voice for a new Germany and used diplomacy, rather than force, to turn the nation into a dictatorship.
After the Muslim conquest, Sassanid Persia (224–651 AD) went from being a Zoroastrian superpower to becoming a rump state ruled by Arab governors.
However, there is one thing that nations during this stage have in common. They’ve always revered their founding fathers and that’s because, without them, the nation wouldn’t exist.
Uzbekistan for example still has many statues of Timur, even though he wiped out 5% of the world’s population.
- The French Revolution of 1789–1799 saw its own people overthrow the monarchy, and paved the way for Napoleon to create a new empire.
- The Mongol Empire wouldn’t have started had Genghis Khan not first united the steppe tribes under one banner.
- George Washington led colonists into a revolution against the British Empire, leading to the creation of the United States of America.
2. Age of Conquest
Newly formed nations had three problems that they needed to address.
- They needed to show stability in their government.
- They needed legitimacy in the eyes of their people and their neighbours.
- They needed to keep their citizens content by creating wealth.
The best way to achieve all three goals would be through conquest. Getting it right meant war booty, prestige, and a sign that the nation would have a good future. But it was also a risky move since failing would mean there’d be no coming back, and the victor of the war would simply consume the nation.
However, it did provide an easy distraction, and when the spoils of war were bountiful, the risk of rebellion would be completely extinguished. The Roman poet Decimus Juvenalis (55–127AD) was certainly ahead of his time when he spoke these words:
“Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt”
- The kingdom of Jerusalem (1095–1102) had to rely on papal sanctioned crusades to help maintain its unstable position in the Levant.
- The Ottoman Empire (1299–1922) only became a great power after first consolidating its hold on Anatolia through conquest.
- The early United States of America was able to expand into Louisiana by simply buying the land from France, but it also gained Texas as a result of the Mexican-American war.
3. Age of Commerce
Eventually, there comes a point where there are no rich lands left to loot. Instead, those lands belong to the state and they need to be protected. For a militaristic nation, this is where their most drastic change takes place. It was once said to Genghis Khan that:
“Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”
Trade becomes essential, even with former enemies because the nation needs to shift its focus on being defensive. Building walls, and fortresses and paying soldiers to garrison them costs a huge amount, so industries start forming.
However, unless you were part of the elite, it would be difficult to climb the social ladder, as society would still favour an individual based on their cultural, ethnic, or religious identity.
There would be great wealth, but there would also be a great level of inequality.
- The ancient city of Carthage (814–146 BC) was among the richest cities of antiquity and gained this status through its huge trading network that spanned across the entire Mediterranean.
- After centuries of fighting during the warring states period, the Qin (221–206 BCE) dynasty built a great wall to protect the newly united China from the northern barbarians.
- India’s economy flourished under the Mughal Empire (1526–1761 AD). By 1600, its GDP (gross domestic product) was estimated at 22% of the world’s output, and by 1700, this rose to 24%, the highest in the world.
4. Age of Affluence
By this stage, almost all expansion through conquest would’ve ceased and instead, large infrastructure projects would be sponsored by the state.
In modern times, many would argue that China is going through its age of affluence right now. According to the Oxford Said Review:
“China spends more on economic infrastructure annually than North America and Western Europe combined. And with infrastructure spending of US$28tn predicted by 2040, there’s little sign of China’s boom running out of steam.”
However, despite growing wealth, the class division problem would still be there, although they would no longer be as limiting as previously and greater freedoms would be given to those that benefited the state, even if they were considered outcasts.
During the golden age of Baghdad (900–1200) for example, Jews were put in charge of trade, managed the treasury and even acted as governors even though many at the time considered them second class citizens.
- The Kushite kingdom of Nubia (750–542 BC) oversaw a revival of prosperity in Egypt. Pyramids were built and temples were restored across the Nile Valley.
- By 1571, Portugal was one of the richest countries in the world, and its colonial empire stretched from South America to Asia.
- The roaring 1920s allowed the average American to be able to buy products that weren’t accessible before, like fridges, vacuum cleaners and televisions.
5. Age of Intellect
The age of intellect would’ve been an exciting time for anyone to live through. It’s when a nation made huge strides in science and technological innovation would take off.
‘Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts — the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.’ — John Ruskin
During the 1960s, the NASA budget peaked at 4% of all federal spending. This was partly to compete with the USSR, but it was also during this time of innovation that we saw commercial satellites, computer chips and LED lighting being invented.
Education acts as a focal point and literacy rates would improve, making knowledge more accessible. It’s finally at this point that the power of the upper classes would be curbed. The elite would still be at the top of society, but they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the same privileges that they once had.
However, the state would have to be concerned about a potential clash between the old elite and the newly educated, particularly if the clash involved questioning the state’s policies and traditions. The most evident example of this was the culmination of the Russian Revolution (1917–1923) which completely removed the old system.
- Socrates (469–399 BCE) was known as the father of philosophy, though we should be aware that at the time, Athens was at the height of its power and acted as the intellectual centre of the Greek world.
- India under the Gupta Empire (320–650 AD) had dozens of universities and schools. One of the figures that emerged was Aryabhata who invented the number zero.
- The Islamic Golden Age (900–1200 AD) produced hundreds of mathematicians and scientists including Ibn al-Haytham who was known as the father of optics.
6. Age of Decadence
Decadance used to be associated with rulers who never experienced hardship as their ancestors did. While Marcus Aurelius (161–180 AD) was known as the last good emperor of Pax Romana, his son Commodus (161–192 AD) indulged in luxury and even had the Senate declare him as a god.
But it’s not just individuals who grow decadent. Societies can also become over time.
“The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Almost all states going through this period of their life cycle had one thing in common: debt.
By 60 BC, although the Roman Republic was a superpower with a large standing army, its coffers were empty with most of its debt being held by Persia, a rival superpower.
Seems eerily similar to America and China’s relationship today, right?
So how did Rome get out of the situation? Well, it restarted the cycle. Julius Caesar became a dictator for life, and through his conquests of Gaul, Rome not only solved its debt crisis but suddenly gained a surplus that today, would be the equivalent of several trillion dollars.
Hopefully, that won’t be a future prediction for how the US deals with its debt problem.
- By 1875, the Ottoman Empire was spending over half its revenue on debt repayments each year. Government salaries could only be paid by debasing the currency, and this led to widespread corruption.
- Constant warfare led to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867–1918 AD) becoming so overburdened with debt that a large proportion of its income was used just for interest payments.
- A modern example of a declining nation would be Japan. Not only does its debt exceed its GDP, but with an ageing population and a shrinking birth rate, it doesn’t have the manpower to increase its revenue.
7. Age of Collapse
The ‘death’ of a nation often comes about in one of two ways:
- Internally via a coup or revolution.
- Externally via conquest by another nation.
Historically, this happened when the state could no longer afford to maintain a standing army, or when the ideologies of a government were no longer supported by its own people.
In most cases, a subset of the population, or rival power would topple the declining nation and establish a new order.
We might think this doesn’t apply to modern times, but we only have to look at Iraq, Libya, or even Venezuela to see that it’s very much possible for a country to collapse, even today.
- The Ghaznavid Empire (977–1186 AD) lost all their lands in Iran following the battle of Dandanaqan. In their place rose the Seljuks, who formed their own Turkic empire.
- The Russian Empire (1721–1917) collapsed after Tsar Nicholas II lost support amid an economic crisis.
- The Republic of China (1912–1949 AD) didn’t fare well in the war against Japan, but its final blow came from within when the communists overthrew the mainland government and established the People’s Republic of China.
The life cycle of a nation isn’t just a historical anomaly. The key difference between then and now is that now we have institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and United Nations (UN) that protect modern countries from collapsing.
Still, is there anything these countries can do to protect themselves from falling into decline or collapsing outright?
Not going into debt and having a trade surplus would be one approach, but unfortunately, the political system that many states follow doesn’t enable that to happen. Parties want to win votes, and the best way to do that is to promise lower taxes and higher spending.
In reality, the party system is no different from an oligarchy. Bribes are disguised as donations, and political blackmailing is covered up by the term lobbying. Just as people rebelled against the corruption of oligarchy, so too will they rebel against democracy.
‘In the natural, spontaneous course of events, the first [political] system to arise is monarchy, and this is followed by kingship, but it takes the deliberate correction of the defects of monarchy for it to develop into kingship. Kingship changes into its congenital vice — that is, into tyranny — and then it is the turn of aristocracy, after the dissolution of tyranny, Aristocracy necessarily degenerates into oligarchy, and when the general populace gets impassioned enough to seek redress for the crimes committed by their leaders, democracy is born. And in due course of time, once democracy turns to violating and breaking the law, mob-rule arises and completes the series.’― Polybius
History always finds a way of repeating itself. Perhaps Polybius was teaching us a lesson with his words, or perhaps he was warning us for what’s to come.