Book Review: Peter Turchin – War and Peace and War

Then you might get something like Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War, which I’ve finally read on the recommendations of Kolya and TG. Ranging from Ermak’s subjugation of the Sibir Khanate to the rise of Rome, Turchin makes the case that the rise and fall of empires is reducible to three basic concepts: 1) Asabiya – social cohesiveness and capacity for collective action, 2) Malthusian dynamics – the tendency for population to outgrow the carrying capacity, and 3) the “Matthew Principle” – the tendency for inequality and social stratification to increase over time. The interplay between these three forces produces the historical patterns of imperial rise and fall, of war and peace and war, that were summarized by Thomas Fenne in 1590 thus:

Warre bringeth ruine, ruine bringeth poverty, poverty procureth peace, and peace in time increaseth riches, riches causeth statelinesse, statelinesse increaseth envie, envie in the end procureth deadly malice, mortall malice proclaimeth open warre and bataille, and from warre again as before is rehearsed.

Turchin, PeterWar and Peace and War (2006)
Category: history, cliodynamics, war; Rating: 4/5
Summary: Amazon reviews

Ibn Khaldun, Malthus, and Saint Matthew meet up for coffee

1) According to the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, empires only form when a tribe, nation, or religious sect attains a high degree of asabiya, – the ability of a group’s members to cooperate with each other, to maintain their identity and discipline in the face of adversity, and to impose their beliefs, values, and control over other groups. Other similar expressions are social cohesion or “social capital”. As Ibn Khaldun wrote, “royal authority and dynastic power are attained only through a group and asabiya. This is because aggressive and defensive strength is obtained only through… mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other”. (To put this in context, this is similar to Lev Gumilev’s theories of “passionarity” / пассионарность (willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s values) or my own ideas on the sobornost’-poshlost’ / rationalism-mysticism belief matrix, in which a state of sobornost’, of course, refers to a high level of asabiya).

This is not surprising – military cooperation and morale is an important factor in military success. See the stunning successes of the early Islamic armies spreading the revelations of Mohammed, or of Nazi Germany. Later in the book, Turchin references the work of Trevor Dupuy, who showed that the Germans had a “combat efficiency” of 1.45, compared to the British 1.0 and American 1.1, in the battles on the western front of 1944 – in other words, excluding equipment and terrain, each Germany soldier was militarily “worth” 20% more than an Anglo-Saxon one.

Now why do some societies have higher asabiya than others? Ibn Khaldun’s analysis covered the dynamics of the desert / settled boundary in the North African Maghreb. Amongst the desert Bedouin tribes, constant inter-tribal warfare exerts group selective pressure favoring the emergence of tribes high in asabiya. These selective pressures are much weaker in settled civilizations with rule of law. Now these defects are more than made up for civilizations’ greater population density and better technologies, which can normally yield much bigger, better-equipped armies than anything the barbarians can muster. However, should civilization fall into a state of internal strife and social dissolution, it becomes “vulnerable to conquest from the desert” by a coalition of Bedouin tribes organized around one group with a particularly high asabiya. However, as soon as the barbarians become ensconced within their new domains, they gradually assimilate into the urban civilization, the high asabiya of the core group dissipates, and the cycle begins anew.

Turchin extends Ibn Khaldun’s beyond the Maghreb into a general theory of the rise of empires, almost all of which arise along “meta-ethnic frontiers” featuring bloody conflicts between starkly alien peoples. The constant military pressure and hatred for the Other binds the borderlanders together, fostering the relative economic equality, social solidarity, and discipline that will in time build an empire. Examples of this include the conflict of the Roman farmer-warriors against the Celtic barbarians of the Po Valley that melded the Latin peoples into the Roman Empire, the centuries-long struggle against the raiding, slave-taking steppe Hordes that incubated Muscovy’s rise, and the violent frontier wars against the Native Americans that formed the “melting pot” identity of the United States. The entire history of Europe from the Roman Empire to Poland-Lithuania has been characterized by the millennial, north-eastern drift of the meta-ethnic frontier between Rome/Christianity and tribal pagans, a frontier which repeatedly spawned new states and empires (Rome itself, the Caroliangian Empire, and the myriad Germanic and Slavic states.

2) The author notes that Ibn Khaldun’s blaming of “luxury” and “senility” for the degeneration of civilizations is an inadequate explanation, being nothing more than a biological metaphor with questionable applicability. Instead, Turchin lays out the theory of cliodynamics, the “mathematized history” that attempts to provide a comprehensive explanation of the “secular cycles” of imperial rise and fall by modeling Malthusian dynamics, i.e., when a great empire arises the resulting stability and prosperity produce overpopulation, which results in dearth, rising inequality (i.e. the old middle-class shrinks, while oligarchs and the landless indigent veer into prominence), and an intensified struggle for scarce resources that undermines social solidarity. Eventually, a severe shock such as a disastrous harvest, peasant uprisings, civil war, or foreign invasion provokes a full-fledged Malthusian crisis that triggers the collapse of the empire. I’ve already written about cliodynamics in detail here.

(Incidentally, I’ve also connected the decline of asabiya (or in my terminology, the transition from sobornost’ to poshlost’) to the socio-demographic cycles of cliodynamics. The theme of The Ages of Man, in which the bounteous Golden Age of the first dynasties (imperial rise) degenerates into the “immorality” and dearth of the Iron Age (social atomization, Malthusian stress, decline), – finally followed by an apocalyptic “cleansing” and start again (Malthusian collapse, barbarian invasions, Dark Ages, etc), is common to all civilizational traditions. See my Musings on the decline and fall of civilizations and explanation of the Malthusian Loop.)

3) Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”. In other words, there is a natural tendency for wealth to become concentrated in the hands of the few, called the Matthew Principle. In other words, if a pre-industrial civilization enjoys socio-political stability, has ineffective redistributive mechanisms, no free land / overpopulation, and a social mentality that accepts (or even glorifies – see “conspicuous consumption”) big levels of wealth inequality, within several generatons it will develop prodigal levels of social stratification. Wealth inequality tends to reach a maximum just before a collapse of the entire system: for instance, the Roman Empire fell for the last time just decades after reaching “peak inequality” in 400AD. Similar things can be said about the end of republican Rome, the decline of medieval France, and even Russia 1917 or Iran 1979.

Why does the Matthew Principle operate so strongly in Malthusian settings? In agrarian societies, private property is the normal way of storing inherited wealth. If a family has lots of children, each one will inherit ever smaller plots. To make ends meet, they will be eventually forced to borrow loans; if they can’t, their land is taken over by their creditors, and they now have to hire themselves out as agricultural laborers or drift into the cities where they can try to join a trade (hence the reason why cities expand so much in times of subsistence stress). Meanwhile, those who have land can 1) rent it out at exorbitant rates (since the demand for it is so high in an overpopulated country) or 2) they can sell the grain their tenants or serfs produce at high prices (again because there are more mouths to feed). The resulting accumulation of drifting unemployed are matchwood for social unrest (e.g. see the role of the sans-culottes in the French Revolution).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the social spectrum, the elites or nobility grow at a faster rate than the commoners because they have better access to food and can afford more children, and die less quickly. Those with land benefit from cheaper labor and the rise in rent prices, while manufactures become easier to afford thanks to the increase in trade and urban artisans. However, intra-elite inequality also increases, and there is increasing tension as some poor nobles see peasant arrivistes rising above them in social status. Because the king depends on the nobles for governing his kingdom, state institutions must be expanded to “feed” all those nobles who are left out of inheritances, fostering corruption, aristocratic intrigues, and social stratification. Those at the very top of the social pyramid engage in the most extravagant conspicuous consumption, provoking envy amongst the have-nots. All these widening social chasms reduce the society’s asabiya.

The plagues, wars, and internal violence unleashed by Malthusian collapse tends to kill off most of the top and bottom of the social period. The landless indigent starve to death, or their weakened immune systems succumb to disease, or they get carried away as the cannon fodder in the uprisings that wrack the failed state. The nobles also die fast, thanks to their status as a military caste. Generational cycles of violence and wars and political purges carry many of them off. After the collapse, land becomes cheaper and labor becomes more expensive. Subsistence stress largely subsides and society becomes much more egalitarian. The cycle begins anew.

Criticisms and Consequences

I think Turchin’s book is a good introductory text to the new science of cliodynamics, one he himself did much to found (along with Nefedov and Korotayev). However, though readable – mostly, I suspect, because I am interested in the subject – it is not well-written. The text was too thick, there were too many awkward grammatical constructions, and the quotes are far, far too long.

More importantly, 1) the theory is not internally well-integrated and 2) there isn’t enough emphasis on the fundamental differences separating agrarian from industrial societies. For instance, Turchin makes a lot of the idea that the Italians’ low level of asabiya (“amoral familism”) was responsible for it’s only becoming politically unified in the late 19th century. But why then was it the same for Germany, the bloody frontline for the religious wars of the 17th century? And why was France able to build a huge empire under Napoleon, when it had lost all its “meta-ethnic frontiers” / marches by 1000 AD? For answers to these questions about the genesis of the modern nation-state, one would be much better off by looking at more conventional explanations by the likes of Benedict Anderson, Charles Tilly, or Gabriel Ardant.

Nowadays, modern political technologies – the history textbook, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, the radio and Internet – have long displaced the meta-ethnic frontier as the main drivers behind the formation of asabiya. Which is certainly not to say that meta-ethnic frontiers are unimportant – they are, especially in the case of Dar al-Islam, which feels itself to be under siege on multiple fronts (the “bloody borders” of clash-of-civilizations-speak), which according to Turchin’s theory should promote a stronger Islamic identity. But their intrinsic importance has been diluted by the influence of modern media.

Turchin has an interesting discussion of the future of the US, China, Russia, and the European Union based on the conclusions of War and Peace and War. In particular, one very relevant point he made is that to become a true empire, the EU requires 1) the development of a European-wide loyalty towards it, willing to shed blood for it, and 2) its core state, Germany, must continue to underwrite it financially. None of these conditions, I think it is safe to say, will be met. Germany is most emphatically not prepared to sacrifice its national interests in favor of a European project over which it does not have direct control; the Germans have their own problems, foremost among them the demographic aging of the population. Furthermore, only 37% of Germans are today prepared to fight for their own country, according to the findings of the World Values Survey*; if that is the case, then how many Germans would fight (and risk death) for the Brussels bureaucracy? 5% would probably be generous. Quite simply the EU does not have any foundations for an imperial future, nor the will to create one; it is very fragile and will start unraveling at the smallest shocks.

Another major problem with the book that makes it incomplete is that although Turchin touches and speculates about the modern world and the future – in particular, he notes that the rising inequality, crime rates, slower growth, etc, of the post-1960’s industrialized world is similar to the traditional symptoms of an emerging Malthusian crisis – he does not connect the dots with the Limits to Growth, the theory that explicitly states that we are being swept into a Malthusian crisis due to global overpopulation and resource depletion. This is a far more important development than the techno-hype he devotes much of the last chapter to.

In the end I gave a 4/5 for this book, although it could have potentially gotten 5*/5. Turchin did valuable work in emphasizing how the material (e.g. the Malthusian) interacts with the spiritual (asabiya) in history, whereas many lesser theorists regard the latter as a “mystical” factor unworthy of serious attention. However, the book suffered from 1) poor writing, 2) too many marginal details that should have been edited out, and 3) unsuccessful application of the theory to the current, post-agrarian era. He should either have left it out entirely, or spent a lot more time doing it better.

* From the latest “wave” of the World Values Survey, “Of course, we all hope that there will not be another war, but if it were to come to that, would you be willing to fight for your country?” I think this question is an excellent way of gauging asabiya in a nation, since it directly addresses the issue of life, death, and self-sacrifice. The results are very interesting.

The Scandinavian countries – limp-wristed feminist socialists that they are 😉 – all say a resounding “yes” (Sweden 86%, Norway 88%, Finland 84%). Similarly, for all the problems of the post-Communist transition, Eastern European nations also retain high levels of asabiya (Poland 75%, Russia 83%, Georgia 70%), though Serbia 61% is lower (maybe because they’ve already fought) and so is Ukraine 69% (its Russophones aren’t as loyal as West or Central Ukrainians). Most of the Muslim countries say “yes” (Iran 81%, Egypt 80%, Morocco 77%), including a whopping 97% in Turkey. Iraq 37% is the sole outlier. Similarly, the Asian nations also have high levels of patriotism (China 87%, India 81%, South Korea 73%).

The United States 63% isn’t as high as one might think, and curiously close to France 61%, Great Britain 62%, and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world. The nations of Latin America tend to have similar figures. The Mediterranean countries, the old countries, and the countries defeated in World War Two are the last willing to put their lives on the line for their nation (Italy 43%, Spain 45%, Japan 25%, Germany 37%).


  1. Dean Fantazzini says:

    Hi Anatoly, first of all let me congratulate you for the your interesting website. I found it only recently, but it has quickly become one of my favourite weekly reference. You know, I have lived in Moscow for almost three years, and together with my personal direct experience here, your comments and posts are extremely interesting in understanding the Russian society. Moreover, since I have recently started studying the works by Turchin both for personal interest and academic interest as well (I would like one day to do something about it, maybe applying some methods from econometrics and physics, properly modified), your comments about cliodynamics and historical dynamics are very useful

    As for the post , I agree with your point, but I would like also to add that the problems related to the differences separating agrarian from industrial societies in Turchin’s book, are probably due to the fact that Turchin is trying just now to develop his ideas with industrial societies, and this is far more complex than with agrarian societies. The impression that I have is that he wants to present how his ideas could be possibly applied to industrial societies, but without any particular claim since this is the topic of current research. Moreover, in his other book “Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall” (the more mathematical book), in his last chapter he clearly states that the challenge now is to develop the theory (and mathematical framework) for the industrial case.

    Finally a question about the “Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update”: do you know a place where I can retrieve the system of differential (or difference) equations used to implement the model? Thank you a lot!

    Regards, Dean

    • Thanks for the comment, Dean.

      Re-LTG. The book is accompanied by a CD, but AFAIK you have to buy it separately. However, you can download the model and experiment with it online at Other useful sites (which I haven’t explored much) are (World3 libraries) and (a free systems modeling software that can be used for World3).

      I’m interested in the exact same things as you are. One major shortcoming in both the LTG and cliodynamics (and classical economics) is, IMO, in their modeling of technology – its dependence on energy and capital for its very sustenance is rarely appreciated. Finding a more realistic way of integrating technology into these models should be a high priority, I think.

  2. I wish I had more time to read all the classics. I’d want to devour all the Marxist classics (Gramsci, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Polanyi..), the classics of political economy (Malthus, Marquis de Condorcet, Smith, Ricardo, Marx..), and all the “classical classics” (Machiavelli, Ibn Khaldun, Plato..).

    There is never the time! I am limiting myself to rather “targeted” reading of my favorite people right now. I also have a recent interest in Al Andalus and Euro-Islamic (Arabic) relations in general, including Ibn Khaldun.

    Finally, very interesting post and intersection of readings, but I might question if “cohesion” can only be measured by the willingness to go to war. It might also be measured in things like crime rates, trust in government, administration and the police, race relations, and so forth, and all the positive elements found in what we call today “social capital”.

    • Turchin referenced Putnam’s work on “social capital” in the last chapter, and stresses its importance in economic success. Personally, I’m not so sure. Having a well-functioning market economy (as opposed to a planned economy) is pretty easy even with very low levels of asabiya.

      I think the main reason Turchin stresses the military aspect is because for most of history the military aspect was the overriding raison d’être of the state. Furthermore, asabiya plays a key role in military power, since success in war depends so critically on “non-market” factors like morale and will. Of course, simply “willingness to go to war” may in many cases be empty bravado; much more important is how well military units perform, how cohesive they are, on the actual field of battle.

  3. Hmm. Was it ever likely that the European Union would become an empire–a consolidated state, right?–as opposed to a confederation/federation, a league of sorts?

    Germany’s hard bargaining re: Greece doesn’t necessarily seem to indicate the dissolution of th European Union or the Euro. If anything, it might indicate the reverse: imposing and enforcing minimum requirements on delinquent members of the monetary union is necessary for its coherence, and seems to be reasonably popular among most of the Euro’s users if not to the extent that the Germans seem to favour.

  4. I do not think it would be too hard to fit asabiya into Napolean’s rise – it was Napoleanic France that invented nationalism. So perhaps the true problem lies not with asabiya itself, but with Turchin’s failure to create a model of asabiya that includes factors other than the frontier?

    • That’s true – Turchin’s model breaks down the further you get into the modern age.

      One interesting idea for consideration is that frontiers do not necessarily have to be physical in nature. They could also be ideological or class-based. For instance, France’s revolution opened up a new rift between republicanism, and the European monarchies and domestic French counter-revolutionaries. This pressure fostered a high degree of asabiya in the French Republic, which overspilled into the rest of Europe it defeated its immediate enemies.

      Something similar could have been at work with the Bolsheviks. In the first couple of months there were extremely liberal – democracy in the army, abolition of the death penalty, etc. Very soon these were cancelled and harsh discipline and repression set in.

  5. So how does one get the other side all to die for their country without coming to any harm ourselves, being that they may be willing, but we may not? 😛

  6. “the EU does not have any foundations for an imperial future, nor the will to create one; it is very fragile and will start unraveling at the smallest shocks.”

    There is no logical connection between these two statements.

    The EU is sui generis. Claiming it will die because it lacks the proper imperial mindset is like claiming that birds are doomed to go extinct because they don’t produce milk to feed their young.

    “Serbia 61% is lower (maybe because they’ve already fought)”

    Most definitely because they’ve already fought. Also, that figure is probably too high — google up desertion rates during the Yugoslav wars. They were high for everyone, but highest of all for Serbia.

    One of the less-remarked upon aspects of the war was Serbia’s ultimate inability to impose its will upon any other republic, despite being the largest and most populous republic and having near-total domination of JNA’s middle and upper ranks. The reason is, Serbs from Serbia turned out to have little enthusiasm for aggressive warfare. Vukovar took so long to resolve, and was so Pyrrhic a victory, because JNA was disintegrating like wet tissue paper — something like a third of the army simply vanished during the course of the battle. From 1991 to 1995 Belgrade was full of thousands of draft dodgers, and thousands more took lengthy “vacations” abroad to avoid combat.

    The odd thing is, as late as the early 1980s, Yugoslavia still commanded tremendous loyalty. If you’d spent a year in Belgrade or Zagreb, you’d have thought you were in a society with very high “asabiya” indeed. The switch of loyalties from the nation to the individual republics was late and fast.

    Doug M.

    • Also @Randy,

      I don’t think it’s particularly illogical. The EU is a post-historical construct that only blossomed in an age of unprecedented economic growth and steady demilitarization. I’m not saying the EU will altogether vanish after the aforementioned shocks; what I do believe is very likely is that 1) further integration will come to a halt – in any case at the EU level, and 2) national interests become preeminent as they diverge ever further from those required to maintain European unity.

      • AK,

        1) How is something that’s been around since the 1950s “post-historical”?

        2) Ir really looks like you’re moving the goalposts here. “further integration will come to a halt [and] national interests [will] become preeminent” is a step back from “it is very fragile and will start unraveling at the smallest shocks”.

        In any event, I disagree. The last decade has already seen some significant shocks, from the split over the US war in Iraq to the economic crisis with Depression-level subcrises in EU members Ireland, Lithuania, Estonia and Greece. Yet the EU has become /more/ integrated over that period, not less. In fact, the last ten years have seen nothing but one milestone of integration after another, from the introduction of the Euro at the end of 2001 to the ratification of the Lisbon treaty in 2009.

        Now, it’s entirely possible that we may be at ‘peak integration’ today. Perhaps the process is going to stall out and suddenly go into reverse. FWIW, I think this is plausible; I’d say it’s about an even bet over the next, oh, thirty years or so. But I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

        The EU is not a traditional empire, nor is it the Soviet Union. And if you want to argue that it’s about to start disintegrating, then you need something stronger than “it lacks _asabiya_”. It’s never *had* asabiya. Yet it’s grown steadily, and become ever stronger and more integrated, without it. National interests will tear it apart? Sure, possible — but then you need to explain why they haven’t done so already. What has changed?

        3) Consider the possibility of a category error. ‘Without sunlight, this poor plant will die!’ when you’re looking at a mushroom.

        Doug M.

  7. solar sun says:

    Heard about this Georgia with US backing and oversight hosting a Jihadist conference in December 2009 in Tbilisi arranging with foreign embassies entry of jihadist terrorists into the North Caucasus to launch attacks against Russia.

    Apparently the US hosted a similar one in Azerbaijan in 99.

  8. “Now why do some societies have higher asabiya than others?”

    For whatever reason Middle Easterners and Mediterraneans are rarely willing to risk their lives for anything larger than their extended families. By asking all Muslims to sacrifice for the umma, Islam tries to work against the Middle Eastern subset of human nature in this regard, but I don’t think it has been very successful at it. In historical times northern Europeans have always lived in nuclear, as opposed to extended families, and have usually been willing to risk their lives for larger entities than any kind of family – entities like countries, empires or Christianity. Within Europe, as early Muslim Arabs moved away from the Mediterranean, they quickly stopped being successful. History is full of successful northern European military invasions of the Mediterranean region and of the Middle East, but the opposite is unheard of. I think that most differences in national characters are genetic, so this one is probably genetic too. The fact that it has persisted for millenia, at least since the Indo-European invasions of Iran and India almost 4,000 years ago, argues for it being inborn.

    “…Turchin references the work of Trevor Dupuy, who showed that the Germans had a “combat efficiency” of 1.45, compared to the British 1.0 and American 1.1…”

    I first heard the following from Steve Sailer, and I think it’s absolutely true: during WWII on the per capita basis the Finns fought the best and the Italians the worst, with every other nation fitting at different points in between. The Finns, in spite of a huge numerical inferiority, fought a successful holding action against the war’s eventual winner. There is a north-south cline in willingness to sacrifice for entities larger than one’s family and the Finns are at one of that cline’s edges.

    “…the centuries-long struggle against the raiding, slave-taking steppe Hordes that incubated Muscovy’s rise…”

    Well, the area that we now call Ukraine was closest to the steppe and therefore suffered the worst from such raids. Kiev’s decline and Moscow’s rise are often explained by describing the region around Moscow as a densely-forested refuge from the nomads, a place that attracted refugees from southern Rus’.

    “…and the violent frontier wars against the Native Americans that formed the “melting pot” identity of the United States.”

    I don’t think those wars were very important. The Indians weren’t a serious opponent. And the melting pot didn’t really get going until after the death of the frontier. Up until the end of the 19th century a large majority of the US population came from the British Isles.

    “The theme of The Ages of Man, in which the bounteous Golden Age of the first dynasties (imperial rise) degenerates into the “immorality” and dearth of the Iron Age (social atomization, Malthusian stress, decline), – finally followed by an apocalyptic “cleansing” and start again (Malthusian collapse, barbarian invasions, Dark Ages, etc), is common to all civilizational traditions.”

    I’m pretty sure that the Golden Age idea is Greek in origin. There is a common thread in the rise and fall of the classical Greek and Roman civilizations. A high-IQ, cohesive, puritanical tribe from the harsh, underpopulated north invades a warm Mediterranean region, pushing out and partly assimilating the lower-IQ, more fractious, more hedonistic locals. After a few generations the warm climate allows for much higher population densities than were possible for this tribe up north, and eventually for cities. High mean IQ + cities = spectacular cultural explosion. As it’s happening, the culture uses its advantages over its neighbors to conquer half the known world. Slave labor from the conquered lands, most of which are warm, and most of which have lower levels of cohesion and of IQ, are brought in. A melting pot ensues. The original tribe that came down from the north in the beginning is gradually assimilated into non-existence, though its name survives it by many centuries. As the assimilation happens, the region returns to its original, Mediterranean levels of mean IQ, cohesiveness and hedonism.

    By the way, my own ancestry is Jewish, i.e. largely Middle Eastern, so I’m not saying these things out of any kind of ethnocentrism. I’m curious about what actually happened, regardless of how it makes me feel.

    “I think Turchin’s book is a good introductory text to the new science of cliodynamics, one he himself did much to found (along with Nefedov and Korotayev).”

    I haven’t read any of these guys’ stuff, so I can’t judge them specifically, however I have a general distrust of people who claim to have remade humanitarian disciplines or types of scholarship into science. 1) You can’t conduct real, clean experiments in history. There are always millions of unknowns and intuition is sometimes one’s best guide. 2) A lot of scoundrels (Marx, Freud, most modern economists) have claimed over the years to have turned inherently unscientific areas of inquiry into science. It’s like a company whose ads sound too good to be true. There is a natural tendency to suspect fraud when hearing bold claims.

    “But why then was it the same for Germany, the bloody frontline for the religious wars of the 17th century?”

    You’ve partially answered your own question. Before the age of Enlightenment decreased religion’s role in European culture, it was impossible to have a European state that was not united by a common religion. Then why didn’t 17th century Germany create two states, a Protestant one up north and a Catholic one in the south? Why was it divided into dozens of states instead? I don’t know. Oh, and I don’t think much of the idea that constant border conflict is necessary for the creation of strong states or strong cultures.

    “Most of the Muslim countries say “yes” (Iran 81%, Egypt 80%, Morocco 77%), including a whopping 97% in Turkey. Iraq 37% is the sole outlier.”

    I’d attribute these high numbers to braggadocio. Actions are more instructive than words. If the US targeted Morocco rather than Iraq, the result would have probably been the same – a quick military victory followed by years of guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla warfare can be conducted by small groups, some of which may well be extended families. Middle Easterners have always been willing to fight for that. Fighting for a country of millions of people – that’s always been more problematic. One can compare that to Russia’s experiences in the Caucasus, and not just against the Chechens. When Saakashvili’s regular troops saw a column of Russian tanks, they reportedly dropped their weapons and ran. However, if Putin and Medvedev were foolish enough to have tried to occupy Georgia permanently, they would have probably faced costly guerrilla warfare from family-based Georgian groups.

    • Thanks for this extensive reply, Glossy.
      I agree with some, disagree with others – I’ll get back to you. But meanwhile, please don’t worry about being accused of ethnocentrism or political incorrectness on the this blog – like you, I’m not interested in such games either.

    • Re-Med/North differences. I’m not so sure. Patriotism (at least the word) originates with Rome. The first Germanic barbarians it fought were very loosely united and fickle.

      Re-US/Indians. Agreed. Perhaps Turchin was simply trying to make the book seem more relevant to American readers.

      Re-Golden Ages. It’s Greek in origin, but the concept itself is actually universal to practically every civilization. I strongly suspect that the ancient concept of “Ages of Man” was simply their equivalent for what we today would call Malthusian cycles. The major difference is that the ancients ascribed the tendency of civilization to collapse to factors such as spiritual decline, more prostitution, lying, social vices, etc; whereas in fact it is now recognized they were simply symptoms of overpopulation and Malthusian stress.

      Re-braggadocio. The problem with your description is that the typical family, by fighting guerrilla war, will put its members and even its own existence at risk; whereas any benefits from said war (e.g. expulsion of the invaders) will be shared across society. Hence, if they do not have some higher concept tying them together, such as religion or nation, there will be no serious guerrilla warfare.

      I don’t think Georgian guerrillas would have put up any serious problem for one simply reason – it has undergone demographic transition. When you only have 1.6 children per woman (the current Georgian fertility rate, IIRC), then the death of any one son is a tragedy. Without a powerful state coercing and propagandizing them on, no rational Georgian would bother with a futile guerrilla war. (I’m obviously paraphrasing the War Nerd here).

      • “Re-Med/North differences. I’m not so sure. Patriotism (at least the word) originates with Rome. The first Germanic barbarians it fought were very loosely united and fickle.”

        Based on his examinations of ancient crania, Carlton Coon wrote the following about early Romans in his “Races of Europe” (p. 194 of my 1954 edition):

        “Their facial type is not native to the Mediterranean basin, but is more at home in the north”.

        Same chapter:

        “These collective Urnfields peoples came from central Europe, rather than from the nearer Swiss center. The Italic languages, like Keltic, were without reasonable doubt introduced by the Urnfields people.”

        It’s well known that the Italic branch if IE is closer to the Celtic branch than to any other. It is thought that the Celts spread out from the area north of the Alps, so it’s reasonable to suppose even without cranial evidence that the Italics came to Italy from the north as well. I’ve never seen anybody argue that any IE branch is native to Italy.

        I’m sure that most historical invasions led to some degree of mixture between the conquerors and the conquered, but according to Coon the northern element dominated the local Mediterranean element in the early Roman skulls he examined.

        Early imperial Rome fought Germanics to a standstill on the Rhine. Could it be because early Romans and Germanics were close to each other on the north-south gradient of willingness to fight for something larger than one’s family? I actually think that’s likely.

        Throughout the imperial period the Romans imported Middle Eastern slaves as cheap labor to Italy. I think that the resulting mixture of genes and cultures led to the adoption of a traditionally Middle Eastern form of government (the dominate), of a Middle Eastern religion, and eventually to the violent loss of about half of the empire to Germanics.

        “Without a powerful state coercing and propagandizing them on, no rational Georgian would bother with a futile guerrilla war.”

        I don’t think Afghanistan has ever had a powerful state, but its guerrilla wars go on and on.

        “The problem with your description is that the typical family, by fighting guerrilla war, will put its members and even its own existence at risk; whereas any benefits from said war (e.g. expulsion of the invaders) will be shared across society.”

        Perhaps I’m wrong, but this is how I see the motivations behind some of these guerrilla conflicts:

        The average Afghan (or Sunni Iraqi or Chechen or whoever) is angry at a foreign occupation. In a country like Russia such anger is able to unite millions of people into a single fighting force. But in a place like Afghanistan or Georgia or Iraq family loyalties are much stronger than any other kind of bond. Sure, everybody’s pissed at foreigners, but they’ve also always been pissed at the guys in the neighboring village. These local rivalries and blood feuds, even if they’re less intense than the general antipathy towards the invader, work to prevent the creation of an effective unified force to repel him.

        But young men, especially in cultures famed for their bellicosity, love to fight and consider an entirely peaceful life boring. This definitely describes the Pushtuns and many Caucasus peoples. If they hate foreigners more than the guys from the neighboring valley, village or clan, which I think is quite likely, then they may temporarily focus most of their bellicose energies on fighting those foreigners, though of course without much coordination with the neighboring valley, village or clan. Sometimes without any coordination at all. This would lead to asymmetric guerrilla warfare.

  9. solar sun says:


    The point of the Georgian war was an Afghan style trap with Georgian (ie Israeli/US/British) intelligence attempting to set up terrorist cells in Inguhsetia prior to the war and MPRI forces teaching Georgian troops in sabotage techniques.

    But Russia’s hard push into Georgia caused panic and they lost control and organisation.

    The interesting thing is prior in Spain, the Baltics and Israel organisations through NGO’s were set up ready to protest Russian occupation which never materialised. So who set that up?

    Soros perhaps?

  10. Solar sun, in a way Soros is the Jacob Schiff of our times. I’m sure he did all he could to create a conflict between Russia and Georgia.

    Lately the tide has turned and Russia started winning these sorts of conflicts – the Georgian war, the election in Ukraine. I haven’t followed the Kyrgyz coup closely, but I’ve read that the new Kyrgyz government has thanked Putin for something or other within days of taking power.

    Why has the tide turned? I’m sure that Soros isn’t running out of money. Is the international economic crisis somehow related to this? Has some kind of a behind-the-scenes deal been struck?

    • One-sentence explanation for the success of Russia’s rollback of Western influence: Russia’s strength is resurging, its neighbors have been hit harder by the global recession, and US attention is focused on the Middle East.

  11. Konstantin says:

    Dear Anatoly,

    First and foremost allow me to express how impressed I am by your work and the new perspective it offers for a Californian undergraduate student stuck with the arbitrary label of a Russian and all the Russo phobic connotations it implies that tends to make even ex Russophobe like myself a proud Russophile (albeit after due research and considerate thought on the subject). As such, I wish to thank you for serving as a balancing influence to less than impartial media (mass media or respected academic magazines and blogs).

    In regard to this article and the intriguing theories it brings I have two questions:

    One, can asabiya refer to a group’s overall effectiveness rather than morale. Japanese soldiers of WWII were quite motivated yet with horrid performance and casualties rates versus a first rate army (US, British, Russian). Russian soldiers were also extremely determined but they still had 30% higher casualty rate. Enthusiasm alone does not provide results without wise direction in war or governance. Thus would asabiya for instance stand for combat effectiveness for an army (an example if you will) that is a product of morale, individual skill and tactical prowess, not to mention technological and organizational advantages, and above all strategic leadership that influence how wars are won and lost.

    Second, since you said that in modern context that nationalism is a weakening, albeit still a strong force for providing asabiya for a state, would an new ideology that can effectively mobilize people towards a goal other than family ties (large factor in insurgencies in Islamic world facing US) by uniting people beyond ethnic/nationalist ties like Islamic ideology that is quite crude and undeveloped as a mass movement, but gives reason to fear it as an alternative to status quo.
    Although I think the Islamicist movement is just the tip of the iceberg, as new ideas always emerge to replace the weaker ones. And modern liberal democracy (as ideology not a form of government) borne of Enlightenment with its “end of history” and democratic peace sounding like Christian perugia seems destined to eventually decline.
    Is ideology that transcends national and ethnic ties destined to be the strongest provider of asabiya to unite and mobilize people into new empires that will shape the future?