The Rise and Fall of Empires: The Role of Surplus Extraction

By Perkin, Harold | History Today, April 2002 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of Empires: The Role of Surplus Extraction


Perkin, Harold, History Today


GLOBAL HISTORY HAS TAKEN a boost from the current conflicts, protests and riots against corporate globalisation, and the threat of worldwide terrorism against the West. These events fit into a global pattern of the rise and fall of societies, that can be traced back to ancient times. True of all the ancient empires we know, the cycle of rise and decline appears to be accelerating. The twentieth century saw the collapse of seven great empires -- Mandarin China, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Japan, the British empire, and twice over in the case of Tsarist and Soviet Russia. Since the events of September 11th, 2001, the twenty-first century seems likely to threaten the sole remaining superpower, the United States, with nemesis.

The key to the formation, survival and decline of all historical societies is their use of surplus income and resources. Without the extraction, by an elite, of products surplus to immediate requirements -- in the form of food, arms, luxuries and other goods and services produced by farmers, craftsmen, traders and servants -- no society, beyond the most primitive, would be able to afford the protection, law and order, administration, defence, spiritual advice, personal services, cultural production and so on essential to its existence. This is so obvious that it scarcely needs expressing, yet we know little about the way it arose out of the chaos of pre-civilised experience. The rise is shaded in pre-history, since the formation of a society cannot be known until it has acquired the tools -- written language or a reliable oral tradition -- to express it.

The few traditional sources that look back to the time of state formation, are mostly so tainted by accumulated myth that they confuse more than they inform. In the eighth century BC, Homer looked back some five hundred years: but even in that epoch kings of small island and city communities already existed and the process was substantially complete. Priam's Troy was already a rich state worth plundering, with gold as well as plentiful food, equipment and weapons. Though the Greeks who attacked it were thugs and pirates, they too were `civilised' in the sense of being resourced by a home population that could provide them with the means of subsistence and warfare.

The Hebrew Testament, which was compiled over a period of more than a thousand years, tells the story of the formation of the Jewish nation from Semitic desert tribes united by the myth that they were descended from a common ancestor with a personal relation to God, and and that in the fifteenth century BC they escaped from slavery in one of the most famous civilised societies -- one which was itself already a couple of millennia old. The Hebrew account is detailed and persuasive, but it does not address the problem of how such societies arose, and indeed shrouds it in assumptions of prior state formation in both Egypt and Canaan.

It also shows how the various groups who extract surplus from the producers can compete between themselves: in this case the prophets and priests, who claimed to speak for God and demanded offerings in His name, were in competition with warrior kings whom the priests created at the people's demand and yet still, if ineffectively, controlled.

That competition illustrates two of the three main ways in which the extraction may be practised, by warriors, priests, bureaucrats or capitalist merchants, that is, via politics, professional service, or economics.

The origins of other civilised societies are so embedded in myths and miracles that it is almost impossible to guess at the underlying reality. The Chinese emperor was the Son of Heaven and essential to producing a good harvest (the main source of the extractable surplus), but we know little of how he persuaded his subjects to accept his semi-magical role and material extraction rights. The Japanese emperor was descended from the Sun God, Amaterasu, but whether he achieved his surplus income by charisma, spiritual aura, or force, we can only guess. …

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