“How do I define history? Well, it’s just one fucking thing after another,” says a character in Alan Bennett’s play ‘The History Boys.’ And so it might often appear, with the study of history seemingly restricted to the accumulation of ever more information about that ever increasing entity known as the past, much of it seemingly useless.
The original quote (with the word “damn” used instead of “fucking”) comes from the historian Arnold Toynbee, who set out to prove it wrong. As a universal historian, Arnold tried to find a general theory of the rise and fall of entire cultures, noting that “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” when they stop being creative and instead slip into nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority (hear that, Republican Party of the USA).
In his recent work, ‘Expansions,’ historian Axel Kristinsson similarly tries to find a general theory of history. Perhaps surprisingly for an Icelander, his focus is on military matters, which he says have throughout history been the supreme test of a civilization’s ability to survive. His starting point is chaos theory and the law of unintended consequences, but the idea is actually surprisingly simple when it comes down to it.
War and democracy
Axel maintains that all cultures go through two alternating stages. One is when they are led by a small warrior aristocracy, which fights its wars and monopolizes political power as a result. The other is when mass armies, made up of a large part of the adult population, are formed. The latter are more effective in war, but the downside, from the point of view of the elite, is that when you have your people fight your wars for you, you must also give them certain rights in return to keep them motivated. It is when societies go through this latter stage that they develop democratic tendencies, and also when they tend to expand.
This theory goes some way towards explaining a problem that has bothered me since I was a history student some years ago: Why is it that democratic societies (by the standards of the time) build the largest empires? After all, it was the Roman Republic that conquered most of the known world, while the emperors largely retreated to within its borders. Similarly, the British and French Empires grew as the countries became more democratic in the 19th century.
Axel’s theory is that as the aristocrats must hand over more power to the people in exchange for military service, they also need to give them land. They tend to be unwilling to give up their own, and so this comes at someone else’s expense. When there is no more land to be had, the people eventually refuse to join the army as they see little point in going to war. The expansion comes to an end and power returns to the small elite who must now do the fighting themselves.
Vikings and democracy
Rome is by no means the only example he uses. Much of the book is devoted to the barbarian invasions, where Axel maintains that the largely democratic Germanic tribes spilled over into the Roman Empire looking for land, but once they had settled down, handed over power to aristocrats who then turned themselves into perhaps the best known warrior elite of all time, the Medieval knights. After the end of the Middle Ages, militaries grew ever larger, eventually leading to the mass armies of the Napoleonic Wars and later the World Wars. At the same time, this also led to a general rise in democracy and a decline in the power of the aristocracy.
One of the interesting aspects of Axel’s book is how he places the Nordic countries, and Iceland in particular, into this general view of history. In the Viking Age, Nordic societies were largely democratic and also land hungry, leading to the Viking raids and settlements from Iceland (by way of the Normans) to Italy. Most able-bodied men at this time participated in fighting and bore arms, but after the expansion stopped, a smaller aristocracy took over. He sees Iceland itself as having gone through a similar cycle, the democracy of the Alþingi of the settlement period, when land was plentiful, turning into aristocratic rule by the thirteenth century.
War and civil rights
Unlike most macro historic accounts, Axel focuses on the Ancient and Medieval periods, while winding his narrative down in the Modern Age. His point is that after industrialization, acquiring land was no longer everyone’s primary motive, so joining the army in exchange for a farm did not make as much sense.
Still, fun can be had by wondering how this theory could apply to the present. Virtually everyone joined the army in the world wars and living standards generally increased after the wars concluded, as did human rights. Men of all colours and creeds who had served and the women who had manned the munitions factories felt that society owed them something in return. As a popular song at the end of World War I said: “How ‘ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”
Fewer wars, less democracy?
One can surmise that in the Vietnam War, people no longer saw it in their interest to fight imperial wars, since the gains were not as apparent as they had been during the World Wars. Many refused and many more protested. Since then the United States has relied on a professional army and mercenaries to fight their wars. After the end of the Cold War the same trend has become apparent in Europe, most countries now relying on smaller professional armies instead of conscription. According to Axel’s theory, this should also lead to less democratic societies. But can we see signs of this today?
The trend towards increasing equality that followed World War II came to an end in the 1970s, at the same time that elites no longer found the masses useful to fight wars. Elitization has proceeded at an ever more rapid pace in the past twenty years, after the Soviet threat disappeared and with it, the need for mass armies. When the rich no longer need the poor to fight their wars (apart from those who volunteer for the professional army), there is nothing to keep them from getting even richer at the other’s expense.
Peace and profit
But perhaps this is missing the point. After all, it is not the military but the economy that is the driving force in modern societies. Adapting the theory, one could argue that elites after industrialization no longer need the masses solely as cannon fodder, but also as workers for their factories. This may also have played its part in increasing both equality and democracy after the Industrial Revolution. As these jobs started to be outsourced to poorer countries, the general public in Western countries has become less valuable and hence proportionately less powerful than at their peak in the Post-War era, while some gains have been made in currently industrializing countries.
Of course, the masses are still needed as consumers, but as is already happening in the United States, the elites have proved more than willing to take their place, offering themselves generous tax deductions on luxury items such as private jets, all in the name of keeping people employed to manufacture their goods. Perhaps the same logic was applied in the building of the pyramids.
In any case, however one may choose to apply Axel Kristinsson’s theory of expansions, much might be gained from debating it.