Niall Ferguson; Jay-Z

Ferguson’s piece in the new Foreign Affairs, “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos,” considers the question of how history moves, and whether the conventional assumptions concerning, as it were, the Rhythm of Empires, are dead wrong. His elegant overturning of received wisdom is not exactly Gladwellian in that the end result might be mild terror, rather than revelation. He even quotes Jay-Z.

Ferguson writes:


“What if history is not cyclical and slow moving but arrhythmic—at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?”

What if: exactly. What if history moves more in line with Thomas Cole’s famous pentaptych, The Course of Empire, images from which illustrate Ferguson’s piece. Cole’s work, on first look, reflects what we think of when we think about the rise and decline of empires: they rise, they flourish, they corrupt, they decline. Ferguson references the paintings to push our analysis one step further, and to suggest that empires not only move through these stages, but move through them as swiftly—or with potentially similar swiftness—as our eyes moving from one canvas to the next. This is his thief in the night, or sports car. We might maintain the former metaphor for its fear factor, even as the latter feels more in line with the American Empire, circa 2010. No place in the world that can compare/put your lighters in the air, Etc.

Ultimately, Ferguson comes back to where America is now, and specifically to our most celebrated current foreign conflict. He writes:

“Defeat in the mountains of the Hindu Kush or on the plains of Mesopotamia has long been a harbinger of imperial fall. It is no coincidence that the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in the annus mirabilis of 1989. What happened 20 years ago, like the events of the distant fifth century, is a reminder that empires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline and fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of imperial dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple overdetermining causes. Rather, empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium fro some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse. To return to the terminology of Thomas Cole, the painter of The Course of Empire, the shift from consummation to destruction and then to desolation is not cyclical. It is sudden.”

The Jay-Z reference comes via a sub-title in Ferguson’s piece, “Empire State of Mind.” But more specific than the consideration of empire is the consideration of time, and “the collective addiction to cyclical theories of history.” There are lessons to be learned, and similarities, between Cole, Ferguson and Jay-Z (“these streets will make you feel brand new/Big lights will inspire you”). Without taking the parallel too far, suffice it to say this: tempus fugit; errant hic. Consider the complexity of systems.

NB: The CFR has a cool, new video starring Angelina Jolie.

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