War and Peace and War and Australia

Scrymarch raised my attention to this book by Peter Turchin. It is definitely an interesting book, and I think the idea of multi-ethnic frontiers being the point that other imperial nations develop the cohesion to establish themselves is one very worthy of merit. Turchin also explores some other aspects of the development of imperial nations such as Asabiya and the study of cliodynamics. I also try to determine how Turchin's theories relate to Australia.
Multi-ethnic Frontiers

I covered this in some detail in the article; Edge Effects: Frontier Induced Cohesion.


Ibn Khaldun was a Tunisian from the 1300s who developed the philosophy of collective solidarity or Asabiya. This capability in a group enables it to co-operate for the benefit of the group which include defence and domination over others. In North Africa the towns would establish themselves and due to greater numbers were unified against the Bedouin raiders from the desert.

But if the state fell into disarray or degeneration it quickly became easy prey despite having fortifications and large numbers of defenders. Those conquering Bedouins then establish themselves and over several generations also lose their Asabiya until the next strong raiding band takes over their city.

Turchin chooses Asabiya over the term social capital. I think this is a good thing. Capitalism has its limits, and with the complete commodification of information transferral we are moving from scarcity to abundance; or post-capitalism. Social capital is a clunky and clumsy term to try and describe social wealth in economic terms.

For Turchin's thesis Asabiya is forged in the multi-ethnic frontier regions due to the constant pressure from other ethnic groups, and from the permanent presence of an expansive empire. For instance the Gauls and Germanic tribes spent several centuries on the Roman frontier under the threat of Rome's legions and expansionism. This created a strong Asabiya amongst the Gauls which led to the Carolingian Empire dominating western Europe for nearly five hundred years.

Asabiya is not just co-operation, but often the sacrifice of the individual to the collective goal. Turchin writes;

The capacity to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of the common good is the necessary condition for co-operation. Without it, concerted collective action is impossible ...

An extreme example of this is Palestinian suicide bombers. Another example is Roman troops cursing their foe and preparing to have themselves accepted into the underworld. It is the Roman equivalent of suicide bombing. Turchin notes the role of religion in the ethnic divide and the willingness of individuals to sacrifice themselves.

While this sort of sacrifice suggests the immense strength of Asabiya, Turchin argues that it is quickly under-cut by inequality, and in particular economic inequality. The Romans in the expansive cycles had strong equality, not only did Senators not earn much more than the yeomanry, but they fought at the head of the Roman legions. In one battle with Hannibal, one third of the Senate was killed.

Ironically when great inequality appeared it was often quickly rectified as the empire went through a down cycle. An example of this was the Frankish Empire. When the nobles got rich and began fighting over the same production of their peasants the rich went through a cycle of violence which was mainly amongst the elite and aristocracy. Duels between nobles and conflicts between city-states with the nobles doing the fighting occurred with rapid frequency. This cut the numbers of the nobles down drastically, helping to reduce the large numbers of the elite.

Another measure was the monarchs themselves who did not like challengers to their power. Queen Victoria used a type of progressive consumption tax on the rich English nobles, and would appear in their court with her retinue of several hundred. The Queen's retinue would then stay under the noble's hospitality until the noble was effectively bankrupt.


Turchin creates a new science of historical dynamics which he calls cliodynamics. This is an appended word from "clio" which is the muse of history and "dynamics" which is a study of processes which change over time. This is basically a study of "crowd history", as opposed to great individuals being the rate determining steps in decided the path of history. Instead the interdependencies and interactions of last numbers of individuals acting collectively are the determinants of history.

I can recall ten years ago being in a philosophy lecture on the subject of human rationality. The lecturer said that we know we are going through a rationality change, but no-one is quite sure what it is yet. The deterministic universe which could be known through reductionism was blown out of the water with relativity and quantum mechanics.

We are starting to see in the last ten years the recognition of complex systems as being the rate determining steps in change. From opensource software, tail economics, crowd wisdom in markets, permaculture, cliodynamics, asymmetric warfare, etc etc etc. This recognition of complex systems and collective action will have political ramifications as well. I have argued this in the past in relation to sortition, wisdom of the people and many-to-many economic systems.

Cliodynamics is another study of abundance (as opposed to scarcity by focusing on individuals in history). Information has moved to abundance, business models through many-to-many systems and the long tail are moving to abundance, social interaction has always been about abundance as well. It is inevitable that the scarcity structure of representative government and mass media will be replaced by abundance structures which funnel collective wisdom and action.

Modern World

Peter Turchin calls an empire a large multi-ethnic territorial state with a complex power structure. In the modern world he points on the finger at the US, at the EU, and China. He also looks at Russia, and its Chechen faultline as potentially guiding Russia back to Empire. In terms of the complex power structure Turchin explains it from the point of view of the US;

Although the internal arrangements of the US are reasonably simple - it directly controls the 50 states, the District of Columbia and dependent territories (such as Puerto Rico and a number of Pacific islands), its external influence reaches across the globe. It militarily occupies Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. It has a strong degree of indirect control via heavy military presence (for example South Korea) or economic subsidies (Israel). Given the economic and diplomatic help that Israel gets from the US, it is essentially an American client state.

Turchin also mentions NATO, as well as its program of installing friendly governments in Latin America, and even former-communist Russia, such as Georgia and Ukraine. I would prefer to think Georgia, Ukraine and Indonesia were from internal demands for responsive government and that the US is no longer interfering directly in Latin America as it did in the 1970s. However Turchin didn't mention the IMF or World Bank which are both heavily bankrolled and influenced by the US.

According to Turchin the imperial nation-state relies on "us and them" to solidify its internal support for the nation. The most extreme examples of this are Ann Coulter's trolling in the mass media that all the Arab nations should be invaded and converted to christianity. Despite the often shrill nature of the media and intellectuals this does not mirror the day to day feeling of the American people. They are far more compassionate, tolerant and good willed than would appear if someone was building an impression of the US from the mass media alone.

The modern multi-ethnic frontier is the Middle East. In World War I there was no Palestine as we know it today, but due to spending fifty years with Israel on their border, it has created a strong feeling of being Palestinian. Strong enough that people will blow themselves up in suicide attacks for Palestine. It also appears that Palestine will become a full blown nation-state with the backing of the US.

The difference between the Roman-Gaul border and the Middle East today is communications. Now a muslim in Britain, through the media both broadcast and narrow cast, may feel a strong enough affinity for the muslims in the multi-ethnic faultline to give themselves to the cause in a similar manner to those in the faultline. We saw this recently with the train bombings in London.

Australia and Turchin's Theory

The smaller multi-ethnic faultline near Australia is not the Australian-Indonesia border, but instead Bali. According to Turchin's theory this should be where many ethnic cultures meet. This is true, western culture (predominantly Australians) come to Bali for holidays; the Balinese are largely Hindu (having been established as a Hindu colony in the 1300s); Indonesia is predominantly a muslim nation, while Buddhism also exists on Bali.

Indonesia is also a strongly multi-ethnic nation, party because of the remnants of the Dutch East Indies, but also because of the expansionist policies and military campaigns of Sukarno and Suharto. These are the correct conditions for a group like Jemaah Islamiah to arise and focus on Bali.

But what of Australia itself? For many years Australia defined itself as a nation apart and denied its geographic reality of being amongst Asian nations. Australia sought to establish itself as British, and held on to that identity far longer than any other dominion nation other than New Zealand. Today, both Australia and New Zealand fly defaced Blue Ensigns with Union Jacks on them.

Australia also maintained a White Australia policy which was established to discriminate against the Chinese and Kanakas. The Aboriginal people were less of a concern as the frontier tensions had been dominated by the sense that the Aboriginal people were dying out as a race. The lack of a Bill of Rights in the Australian Constitution was explicitly so the Chinese could be discriminated against. It is hard not to look through Australian history and seeing the xenophobic fear of the "yellow peril" as an "us and them" value which led to strong abisaya and a national policy of discrimination.

Australia did maintain aspirations of being the British Empire in the Pacific. In the 1880s Queensland prepared militia to invade German New Guinea. Britain was horrified, concerned that it would precipitate war in Europe between Britain and Germany. Australia got its chance in 1914 and invaded New Guinea once war was declared, it was not until the 1970s that Australia gave it up as a territory.

It is hard to see Australia as being positioned as an Imperial nation any longer, its foreign policy has made it pretty much a client state of the US in that respect. We are uncritical supporters of the US in defence and foreign policy. American global objectives are Australian global objectives because Australia makes it so. By that definition Australia is part of the US Empire; possibly as a protectorate.

I do not think I would like to see an Imperial Australia, but feedback mechanisms invert on themselves and leave an actor no choice sometimes. I think a Greater Australia is a noble goal, but I would prefer, rather than pursuit of empire, Australia instead went the path of Europe's 16thC most impoverished state; Scotland. They gave the world the Enlightenment. This served as the basis for western rational thought through to the information revolution. Creating a twenty first rationality should be the goal of Australians.

cam 2005-10-12 12:39:21.0
cam : More on Bali as the multi-ethnic fault line: I wrote this comment after the Bali attacks in March 2004;
[To Australia]... it wont matter, they have claimed the attack as Australia's September 11th. Australians suffered the greatest human loss from the attack. I wouldnt be surprised that Bali was high domestically on the list of targets, it is open to the world as a major tourist place, it is awash in Australian and other world currencies.

Australians are also well known for having their hedonistic holidays there of alcohol, sex and flesh exposing bathing. If American imperialism is the World Bank and USMC, Australian imperialism is hedonistic and bacchanalian holidays in regional paradises like Bali. That would offend local fundamentalist groups. Bali is more liberal than fundamentalists would like, it is more cosmopolitan than fundamentalists would like and it also supports Australian imperialism.

I reckon it is a fair statement, without any parochial vanity, that the attack was largely aimed at Australia. That isnt to assume that destabilising Bali and scaring off new tourists wasnt a goal. It is also not to assume that Americans and other Westerners were not a target as well.
I am pretty much arguing back then that Bali was the most visible reach of Australian (and Western) Empire into Indonesia. This is where the west meets the multi-ethnic and multi-religious fault line; hence the location of most tension.Heh, unknowingly; I was probably partially arguing for Turchin's hypothesis back then.cam