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Studying the demise of historic civilisations (bbc.com)
274 points by pitzahoy 50 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 346 comments

Many of these great "empires" were simply extended looting machines, once they ran out of looting opportunities they collapsed in the same way that a Ponzi collapses when it run out of new "investors". While things were good, it was all golden, glitter and glam, and many tall buildings.

Loot of course takes many forms, gold, silvers, the work of serfs, the work of slaves, monopolies on trade routes, monopolies on trades itself and of course looting of weak environments itself.

The aftermath is what is sustainable, but this difference between the glitter and the sustainable is very boring and what the historians call a dark age or dark period because its not newsworthy even thought it is actually the origin of the next age of expansion.

The bronze age civilisations of the middle east (Akkad, Hati, Egypt) didn't follow this pattern. Egypt, for example, was a Nile + delta empire for most of the three kingdoms/periods. It's only towards the end of the new Kingdom that they expanded into nearby Canaan, and fought frontier wars against hittites along the Phoenician coast (eg, the famous battle of kadesh).

Rome definitely did have an expansion imperative. Land grants and the slave trade were to legions what exits are to tech startups.

Most ancient (and into modernity) armies did self fund by looting though. Even looting fallen enemies for weapons was a substantial motivator. Even in the Roman period, owning a helmet, shield and such equated to moving up a social class.

Egyptian Civilization was sustained because of the Nile delta productivity. Literally all the nutrients gathered over 1/4 of the of the African continent are deposited nowhere else along the river route but in Nile delta, this unique phenomenon of nature meant this area is extremely resilient and can withstand any level of exploitation.

Egyptian Civilization continued for over 3000 years (what we know about) which is ridiculous.

Egyptian Civilization lasted so long only because of the Delta productivity and ended when Greek and Roman conquest resulted in Egyptian grains being wholesale shipped northward out of the country by force ending the trade southward probably causing famine, and destroying the internal economy and culture which was centered there.

The ~600 BC Egyptians claimed it was because the proximity to water protected them from periodic "great conflagrations" and the lack of rain from catastrophic flooding:

> "There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father's chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals; at such times those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the seashore. And from this calamity the Nile, who is our never-failing saviour, delivers and preserves us. When, on the other hand, the gods purge the earth with a deluge of water, the survivors in your country are herdsmen and shepherds who dwell on the mountains, but those who, like you, live in cities are carried by the rivers into the sea. Whereas in this land, neither then nor at any other time, does the water come down from above on the fields, having always a tendency to come up from below; for which reason the traditions preserved here are the most ancient." http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/timaeus.html

Amazing quote thanks for that. It's just inspiring to imagine Plato and Socrates, in a garden, discussing basically the same article we're discussing here.

That's because Egypt was to Greece what Greece was to Rome

and a bit sad to note we haven't made much progress since then

> Egyptian Civilization lasted so long only because of the Delta productivity and ended when Greek and Roman conquest resulted in Egyptian grains being wholesale shipped northward out of the country

Greek? Egypt was conquered by Persia about 100 years before Alexander.

Alexander conquered it too, but didn't have time to ship anything out because he immediately died.

The dynasty that followed him was Greek, the Ptolemies, but they didn't control any territory other than Egypt.

It's a good thing they dammed (damned?) the Nile then, to keep that rich alluvial soil away. :-)

Dammed*.though i'm pretty sure they also partly damned the river's ecosystem with millennia human presence.

Look closely at the ruling classes and then you wont be so surprised by these strategies

It won't survive modern exploitation. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has ended those deposits of nutrients.

>> the famous battle of kadesh

Great YouTube lecture\debate on the battle:

> The Battle of Kadesh: A Debate between the Egyptian and Hittite Perspectives [1]

> The Battle of Kadesh, ca. 1285 BC, is the earliest military encounter that can be analyzed in detail. This conflict between the Egyptian forces of Ramses II and the Hittite army of Muwatalli was celebrated as a personal victory by Ramses, but is often treated by modern scholars as an Egyptian defeat or as a stalemate. In any case, the battle had profound impact on international politics of the age, with unexpected results. Join us for a lively debate presented from the two sides of the ancient conflict, provided by noted Oriental Institute scholars Robert Ritner, for the Egyptian side, and Theo van den Hout, for the Hittites.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1AGe2V0qHo

I don't see how this could be true.

'Looting' is the plundering of goods from others, usually by conquest.

Many civilizations were stable for long periods without expansion. In fact, Arnold Toynbee made the argument that imperial expansion was a symptom of decline.

If by loot you mean - as you say - the use of raw materials, labour and the environment, I don't think the word has any analytic meaning whatsoever.

> If by loot you mean - as you say - the use of raw materials, labour and the environment, I don't think the word has any analytic meaning whatsoever.

By that definition, we have expanded the looting in the last century by several factors of magnitude. In that context, we should also view the global economy as a single empire.

At a very general level, there are people making that exact argument: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674006713&co...

>> Loot of course takes many forms, gold, silvers, the work of serfs, the work of slaves

Gas, oil, fresh air, ...

And cheap labour in countries with lower worker/human right standards

Low paying jobs in developing economies have to be considered in the context of existing alternatives. If a Vietnamese rice farmer's son previously had only daily hours of backbreaking labor to look forward to on his father's paddies for what amounts to a dollar worth of earnings per day (only paid when they can finally sell the rice after many weeks of toiling) and then one day American McShoe Factory opens in the nearest city offering 3 dollars a day paid biweekly, this is a move up in the world. He'd willingly redirect his physical capacity for the job and trade it voluntarily for the money. Is this ideal? No, and to the labor market sensibilities of people in developed countries it could be seen as "looting" of workers but in relative terms, it's a previously unavailable, voluntarily chosen improvement for the farmer's son.

Yes, human rights have to be seriously improved in many countries and many companies offering jobs in developing markets really need to clean up their worker rights standards, but on a fundamental level, we can't simply compare a given economic change to our ideal of how things should be (because ideals are not limited by any practical constraints). We have to compare it to existing and previous alternatives.

Or, as informed consumers, we can identify the obvious fact that, outside certain exceptional industries, corporations have no inherent interest in improving the standards of living of their workers and accept that we have a vital role to play in incentivizing them toward more ethical behavior, mainly be refusing to patronize them in the absence of rigorously-enforced and progressive ethical standards.

I love this kind of reply.

To me it's like that rabbit duck optical illusion[1]: when seen one way it seems reasonable, even almost inevitable, and then it suddenly flips and sounds like smarmy weasel words excusing exploitation.

Here's my suggestion, why not pay the former rice paddy worker 50$/day and improve human rights at the McShoe Vietnam factory? It's still an awesome bargain by western standards.

Oh and the money is there, just cut the seven figure salaries of all the C level executives back at McShoe headquarters.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit%E2%80%93duck_illusion

Unfortunately reality doesn't work that way, unless you don't mind destroying the local economy and you'd rather force rich countries to subsidize economically backward countries.

To put the money into perspective, $50/day, which might seem like a pittance to most people on HN, is almost 4-5 times the amount that most employees make at some of the better Indian outsourcing companies.

> Unfortunately reality doesn't work that way

Because we make sure to keep it from working that way.

Rich countries don't seem to have much trouble with destroying 'backward' countries when it suits them[1], maybe Vietnam could use a bit of this kind of economic 'destruction' you describe.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War

A lot of (rich) people confuse poverty with slavery.

They are nothing alike.

They differ by methods, but little by outcome. (And even the method is often similar. See e.g. [1] )

Poverty, to a large extent, is a deliberate construct because a weak labor force is an exploitable one. Sure, you don't whip people any more. (Well, somewhat. Ask the UAE[2]) You just make sure their life is going to be rather short if they don't work for you, at your conditions.

[1] https://www.supplychaindive.com/news/female-garment-workers-... [2] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/oct/23/m...

> They differ by methods, but little by outcome.

They differ they same way rape and regular sex does: By consent.

Sure, to an outsider watching it can look very similar. But it's not.

Our grandparents were probably just as poor as the third world laborers are today. They were allowed to work their way up and build prosperous countries. The third world is well on their way doing the same.

They don't differ by consent. You might want to read up on how workers in the third world are actually treated.

And no, our grandparents weren't close to as poor. And the reason they got to live in prosperous countries is that those prosperous countries exploited the shit out of poorer countries. (For an example: Britain extracted ~$45 trillion from India during colonial rule)

Third world labor exploitation is continuation of colonialism by other means, free market apologists notwithstanding.

A slave and a poor free man working equally hard look exactly the same, and differ only by consent. The difference is hard to tell for rich people, but poor people are very clear on it.

I strongly disagree with your history telling!

Before industrialism, the whole world was poorer than the third world is today. Britain didn't get rich from plundering India or anywhere else, in part because there wasn't much to take. Every country was dirt poor by current standards.

In the last ~250 years industrialism and capitalism created wealth through inventions, industrialization and hard work. Now more than half the world is rich. China is already a medium income country, after having been desperately poor only 30 years ago. India isn't far behind.

Some pockets of real poverty remain, but the world will run out of poor people a few decades, unless trends take a serious turn for the worst. None of this depends on exploiting poor countries. Quite the opposite. The more advanced countries there are to trade with, the better off everyone is.

You're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

Starting wage in the US, 1931: $820/year[1]. Even without inflation adjustment, there are currently 21 countries with less than that as gross national income[2] (which is higher than starting wages)

On the $45 trillion, the original research is in book form, but try [3][4]

For the US stealing from South America, try reading up on the "Banana Wars"[5]. Far from the only thing, but it's well documented and somewhat more widely known.

As for running out of poverty, go for climate refugees - there's a good chance there'll be 1 billion of them in a few decades[6]. And, fwiw, this already plays a large part in the mediterranean migrant crisis right now.

Oh, and as for the idea that slavery doesn't exist: 35 million people, roughly[7]. And that's not accounting for wage slavery and debtors prisons that just happen to loan out workers.

Laissez-faire capitalism is far from an unmitigated good. In fact, except for the people holding the capital, it's an unmitigated disaster.

[1] https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112032654953;v... [2] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-with-the-lowes... [3] https://www.globalresearch.ca/legacy-of-colonialism-britain-... [4] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/britain-stole-45-t... [5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_Wars [6] https://reliefweb.int/report/world/climate-migrants-might-re... [7] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/12/the-horrors-of-modern...

I would say this is an attempt on their part not to put slavery in a better light, but to minimize the immorality of wage labor. Slavery requires force to capture people and to keep them from escaping. Wage labor replaces that entire system of work with one where people will volunteer, even compete, to be exploited and can be discarded at the whims of employers. Kevin Bales' _Disposable People_ [1] goes into this theme in depth.

1: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/178676.Disposable_People

I'm not confusing anything. Our current way of living is supported to the availability of labour that works for wages and in conditions that would be illegal in our countries. And there's no way this will never change

Water, lumber (formerly known as trees), open land, furs, fish ...

I think that's a bit reductionist. Highly recommend reading the Muqaddimah (one of the first sociology books) which talks of a natural cadence to power: http://www.politics.ankara.edu.tr/dergi/pdf/39/1/13_barbara_...

Nietzsche also delves into some of these ideas when he describes the rise and fall of civilizations as a by product of decadence. This decadence is not just the simplistic notion of "consumption", but rather a weak moral system that arises as a result of decadence. It is not consumption, but rather the morality of consumption: https://www.reddit.com/r/askphilosophy/comments/5avje6/what_...

Looting machines (like companies) required skill, fearlessness, and capital to build.

I think this is a fantastic point, but it leads to the next question which is that are the current world powers any different?


> looting of weak environments itself

There's less looting these days and more making stuff.

>more making stuff...

Well, they must make stuff out of other stuff.

Those raw materials have to be extracted from Mother Earth at some point I'd imagine.

Looting for oil thanks to a powerful army, increasing inequality and oligarchy, environmental degradation, climate change.

...it rings a bell.

sounds like modern day globalization

Does it seem to anyone else that they have conflated "civilization" and "political entity" for lack of a better term?

Serious question. It just seems that a lot of entries on this list are actually part of the same civilization. In the same way that I would consider the Spanish Empire, the British Empire, and the American Empire to be really all a part of the same Western Civilization. But maybe my thinking is totally wrong and that's not what "civilization" means?

No matter how you define or name these things, your definitions will still be arbitrary. Polity. Empire. Civilization. It's like defining species, or musicals genres. There's obviously a there there, but it's not discreet.

Civilization or polity don't really have discrete meanings or beginning/end dates. Did Cyrus' civilization really end when Alexander beat the Persian imperial armies? Most of the political structures endured and then evolved under Hellenism. Did Hellenism end when Rome conquered the "world?" Well... Greek language and culture continued to dominate politically for another 1000 years.

While the physical and temporal scope of a particular empire, and the civilization it ruled over, have sometimes been co-extensive, that does not mean that the definitions are arbitrary or interchangeable. My understanding is that 'civilization' refers to a social organization in which populations, economic and political activity are concentrated in cities, and is independent of which political entity is running the show. In ancient times, civilization did come and go in various regions (e.g. the Indus valley and the Amazon basin), while in the last thousand years, empires have come and gone while the civilizations they fought over have endured.

To be clear, the world did not switch uniformly from one mode to the other. In the Nile and Yangtze valleys, for example, civilization has persisted through several millennia of political change. Cyrus' empire did end with Alexander's invasion, but the underlying civilization of the region remained.

Take turkey....

Did the Byzantine/Roman civilization end when the ottomans took over? Social organization changed, but not wholesale. social organization in which populations, Economic and political activity continued, concentrated in cities. Greek remained a major language, as did many Greek laws.

Incidentally, why was Rome/Byzantine civilization Greek speaking in anatolia? Because it had been Hellenised long before Rome conquered it. ..and language isn't everything. Before the Greeks were others, notably the hittites, a great civilization.

What I mean by arbitrary is that whether your chart shows continuity of a civilisation or not depends on how you define the term. One chart will show continuity from the bronze age to the present (or maybe until 1908). You could make that case. The cities mostly remaining occupied and the political organization probably had a lot of continuity. Another chart (like this one) will have Hittite, Hellenic, greco-roman, Byzantine, ottoman, etc. Civilisations lined up one after the other

What you are doing here is writing 'civilization' where 'empire' is the more appropriate usage. Up to that transformation, we are in agreement.

I assume the author of the second chart that you mention is doing the same thing.

Frequency of use is not the most important issue, but Google estimates 75,400 hits for "Byzantine civilization" (plus 15,400 for "Byzantine civilisation"), and 4.3 million for "Byzantine empire".

S'not me. It's the article, and the comments... and everyone.

I think you hit these sorts of problems regardless though. You could say empire, civilization, polity, society, culture... They're all fuzzy classifications.

They aren't discreet terms. A civilization doesn't begin or end at a certain date.. unless you agree to some specific formulation. But, that will not be an exact fit when you try to apply it elsewhere.

Taken totally literally, civilization just means urbanism. But obviously, that's not what we're talking about here.

I see that you have gone back to claiming an interchangeability in meaning that is not supported either by dictionaries or general usage.

The 'fuzziness' is just a consequence of your (and the article's, and some comments, but by no means everybody's) idiosyncratic usage: by treating 'Byzantine empire' and 'Byzantine civilization' as if they were interchangeable terms, then you have to explain that civilization on the Bosporus did not end with the fall of Constantinople, as you did a couple of posts ago. If, however, you stick with the usage that is preferred by a ratio of 50:1, then the fuzziness and potential confusion goes away, as then you would be using two distinct terms for two distinct concepts.

Your last paragraph is a non-sequitur, as the issue is not whether 'civilization' just means urbanism here, but whether it means the same thing as 'empire'.

>>> Does it seem to anyone else that they have conflated "civilization" and "political entity" for lack of a better term?

They even got that wrong. The Roman Republic, the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire are the same political entity.

Arguably the Ottoman Empire was as well, since the Ottomans basically left the Byzantine bureaucracy intact. The Sultan even used the title Caesar and declared himself protector of the Eastern church.

They share their origin in the same political entity, but have clearly different cultures and developed in different directions. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire had a massive impact on Western Europe.

There's also the medieval Holy Roman Empire which was officially a continuation of the Western Roman Empire, and at odds with the Byzantine Empire because they considered themselves the only legitimate Roman Empire, and these are all related but clearly different cultures.

And then there's the vikings which were clearly a different culture, arguably a different civilisation, but infused themselves in every corner of Europe, from England to Russia to Sicily and Byzantium.

Civilisations do not have clear boundaries, both geographically and temporally, and you certainly can't equate them with empires. I think civilisations rarely truly collapse (except under the impact of invasion or colonialism maybe), but they do change, and sometimes dramatically. The collapse of empires is sometimes dramatic, as in the case of the Western Roman Empire, and sometimes barely noticeable, as in the case of the Holy Roman Empire.

This reminds me of a conversation I had yesterday with one of my daughters about species, specifically Homo Sapiens, but generally as well.

She was asking who the first Homo Sapiens was. I suggested that if there was such a person, if an anthropologist had been there they wouldn’t have seen anything special happening. The way they would have categorised hominid species would depend on the populations they saw at that time.

It’s the same with civilisations. How we categorise them is temporally dependent and is in fact an artefact of language. Reality doesn’t care if our linguistic categorizations make sense, or how they are limited.

>She was asking who the first Homo Sapiens was. I suggested that if there was such a person, if an anthropologist had been there they wouldn’t have seen anything special happening.

There is no such person. Speciation isn't some quick and dramatic happening, it's a generally slow evolution (though a lot faster for things like bacteria). "Species" is just how biologists categorize things, but organisms are continually evolving to some extent, so if you grab some random humans from 1M years ago, and compare them to random humans today, you'll find some pretty significant differences most likely, even if it is possible for them all to interbreed. If you go back even farther, the differences will be greater, you might not be able to interbreed, but there's no clear delineation if you look at humans and their ancestors over the course of the last ~5M years, just a slow progression. Our modern biologists/anthropologists make up names for the beings from various select points in time, since they do differ markedly from beings at other far-removed points in time, but we don't have a clear picture anyway because all we have is fossils which don't show a clear picture, they're just select points in time where we got lucky and were able to find an artifact.

Continuity existing between separate categories doesn't mean categories are arbitrary nor artifacts of language. For example adults and children really are separate categories for many important purposes yet there is never a single day when a child becomes an adult.

That's an excellent analogy. How a society differentiates adults and children, is often more a reflection of societal norms than it is an objective biological distinction.

Similarly, analyses like these cannot help but be a reflection of the society that produced them. This article features a callout in the middle with weirdly axis-ed charts about climate change, inequality and environmental degradation, it's difficult not smirk knowing that within the context of our current society, there was no way it could be otherwise. One wonders 50 or 150 years ago what the cultural bugbears were and what the callout in the middle of the page would have featured. Overpopulation? Nuclear war? Out-of-wedlock births?

It's a decent analogy, but not a great one. Most people grow up in a fairly similar way. Every civilisation develops differently. Also, it's clear where one person ends and the next person begins. With civilisations, that's not so clear.

Categorizations can be useful definitely, but we need to bear in mind they’re not definitive or absolute. The underlying reality is primary, not the categorization, but it’s easy to get it the wrong way round.

Sure, but then the western roman empire only begins in the 3rd century with the partition of the unified roman empire (and collapsed in the 5th).

Even if you just want to look at who controls rome (understandable if we're talking about calling something the roman empire), after the reconquest by Justinian, it belonged to the eastern empire about the same amount of time as the west.

This quickly gets into a "Ship of Theseus" discussion. Arguable modern Turkey is the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, but would you say that modern Turkey is the same political entity as the Roman Republic?

The is no objective answer to such questions - it gets down to who gets to write history and what they are trying to achieve. Charlemagne, The Holy Roman Empire and Renaissance Italy derived legitimacy by considering themselves the true successor of Rome. So did the Catholic church to some extent. Therefore western historiography have traditionally sidelined the Eastern Roman Empire. Even the name "Byzantine Empire" is part of this framing.

Good point.

I was so taken by the fact that they were conflating "political entity" with "civilization" that I didn't even realize that they were even breaking up political entities and calling them different "civilization"s.

One defenition of Civilizations as per historian Arnold Toynbee (I am quoting from Wikipedia page for his work "The Study of History") is as follows:

"The 19 major civilizations, as Toynbee sees them, are: Egyptian, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indic, Hittite, Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (Russia), Far Eastern, Orthodox Christian (main body), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican, Yucatec, and Babylonic. There are four "abortive civilizations" (Abortive Far Western Christian, Abortive Far Eastern Christian, Abortive Scandinavian, Abortive Syriac) and five "arrested civilizations" (Polynesian, Eskimo, Nomadic, Ottoman, Spartan), for a total of 28."

"In the graphic below, I have compared the lifespan of various civilisations, which I define as a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilisations, but not all civilisations are empires."

Under this definition, the British Empire and the USA are totally different civilizations.

You are talking about a cultural entity for which we do not really have a word.

There has been such blocks in the past "Christianity", the "Hellenestic world" which share common values but are separated into entities that may even wage war between them.

the roman political structure was stable between the republic and empires.

and if you accept the claim that civil wars or political discontinuity are enough to split a civilization the graph is still fishy because why is the empire not split around the 160something civil war while egypt was split around ruling dynasties?

it's not much consistent, all in all determining the civilization arcs is hard, but you need some form of hard barrier if you want to use the data in such fashion as averaging or deriving any conclusion from it.

I agree. Sumerian civilization is reasonably constant from the earliest writing until the conquest by the Persians, if not longer. I'll bet Chinese scholars would agree that China is similar---the same civilization through many changes of governments.

I note the author is affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

I think its easy to be hung up on the meaning of the word, but a Civilization would start with a common governance, and sometimes that includes culture, as the proper Britons and Franks of old will have always had a different culture compared to Rome but were part of Rome. But that's just technical.

Emotionally your Civilization is where you would feel comfortable, and that might be Western Europe and North America, Australia, NZ.

Theoretically, yes. But Spanish Empire, the British Empire, and the American Empire were waging wars against one another.

"Western civilization" is not a useful concept so is falling out of use

More specifically, there is not continuity that would make it one big civilization. Later civilizations copied things like legal system from the romans and inherited language. a lot of the seeming continuity is due to renaissance copying the "classics"

It's called the "west" in opposition to the eastern block during the cold war. And yes it's a useful concept because it exists and is well defined.

No, the concept of “Western civilization” is much older than the cold War, and the West in it is more in reference to the East-West Schism (or perhaps the East/West split of the Roman Empire) than the Cold War.

There really isn't a "western civilization". It's a fairly recent geopolitical term made for political purposes.

There is greco or more expansively greco-roman civilization that we adopted, but that doesn't make us part of the greco-roman civilization or a "western civilization". No more than japan adopting bits of chinese civilization makes japan "chinese civilization".

If you think western civilization exists, then there must be an eastern civilization? There is no such thing, other than for convenient geopolitical purposes. There is the chinese civilization, the indian civilization, the myriad of middle eastern, northern african civilizations, etc. But no such thing as an eastern civilation.

Were the chinese, persian, mongol, ottoman, etc empires part of an "eastern civilization"? Of course not.

The idea of a western civilization is a geopolitical concept we invented for political purposes and of course to claim "civilization" for ourselves. To claim we are a part of the greco-roman civilization when we are not part of it. We are adoptees of it. "Western civilization" is ultimately a sneaky way of claiming civilization status for ourselves.

Having said that, I may be a bit biased, but given the cultural, societal, global, linguistic, financial, systematic, military, etc impact we've had, I think the US has moved from an empire to an actual civilization. But ultimately, history confers the status of civilization, not the living. So maybe in a few hundred years, historians will say the US is an actual civilization. But for certain, 500 years, nobody is going to talk of anything called a "western civilization". It simply doesn't exist just like an "eastern civilization doesn't exist.

Is it true to say that China is the longest surviving civilization? They seem to think that Shang and Zhou are different civilisations? Instead of a continuity as they like to call it in China. There are good reasons why they should be considered continuations because they shared a similiar script for writing.

The script has changed considerably over time between different dynasties, and different areas have had mutually unintelligible languages, even if sharing similar script.

For example: Japan shares many characters with Chinese, and Korean and Vietnamese both used to use Chinese characters, but they are all separate languages. Similarly, numerous "dialects" in China are less mutually intelligible than many different Western languages. Compare Portuguese and Spanish to Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese (Hokkien), Fuzhounese, Shanghainese, etc. Not to mention languages like Mongolian (see the Yuan dynasty). And that doesn't even begin to get into even more ethnically diverse regions like Tibet and western China.

Then there's also the "warring states period" when, for over 250 years, no fewer than 14 different independently governed states made up what is today eastern China.

Claims that China has always been one civilization are politically expedient versions of history that glaze over an enormous quantity of inconvenient facts.

Did you know that after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed viewed himself as the successor of the Roman Empire and declared himself "Caesar of Rome"?

China today is as much a continuation of those previous states as Turkey is of the Roman Empire.

> Did you know that after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed viewed himself as the successor of the Roman Empire and declared himself "Caesar of Rome"?

I was previously curious how many countries declared themselves to be the heirs of the Roman empire, and I found there is something of a wikipedia list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Rome

putting the EU in that list is fishy and a reminder that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, especially for evaluating contemporary information.

I'm sure everyone will be shocked to hear such things of an article that begins with a highlighted "The neutrality of this article is disputed.".

people are literally linking it as source but ok.


Not to forget that the current Chinese government is trying to work hard to erase the diversity of the entirety of China, trying to get everyone to use the same spoken and written language - iirc they already use the same written language, it's just that people will speak the same characters differently depending on region.

The French did something similar in France, changed a rather diversity country into a monoculture, in a period of around 100 years.

That's a component of modernization most Western European countries went through during the 1800s.

The Caesar of Rome title isn't because the sultans actually viewed themselves as a descendant of the Roman empire but rather the inheritors of their legitimacy to rule and is actually part of the prophecies of Islam. Thus for the Sultan to be legitimate, he must conquer Constantinople and Rome (eventually) and thus fulfill the prophecy. (Source: Empires of the Sea)

The comparison between China and Turkey as descendants of the Roman Empire is a bit of a stretch. China at least uses the same language (old Chinese poems written in the Tang dynasty and even Han dynasty can still rhyme correctly and make sense if read in Cantonese), holidays, culture, etc. Turkey doesn't use a romance language or Greek.

>For example: Japan shares many characters with Chinese

Japanese explicitly borrowed Chinese characters, it doesn't "share" them. It's just like modern English and Latin: English uses Latin characters, but it's not at all the same (or even a similar) language. Lots of languages use the Latin character set, and even Japanese is adopting more and more "Romaji". The characters a written language adopts has little to do with its relation with other languages from a linguistic point-of-view. Latin characters can be used for any language.

I mostly agree with you, but I have one, albeit a nebulous one, problem. China, as an idea, has been around for ~6000 years. I agree that China, as a distinct political entity, hasn't existed for that time period. The Egyption civilization went through at least 5 significant changes of a political nature, but most would agree that it was still a contiguous civilization.

My guess is that civilization is too nebulous of a term for good discussion, but thats just my 2p.

honestly this is just not?true.

the Chinese script have evolved, but one can still look at inscriptions from thousands of years ago and understand it.

it might be hard for people to understand different dialects in China but they all use the same writing system, standardized in the Qin dynasty.

Same with the borrowed Chinese characters in Japanese and Korean. A native Chinese speaker would have little problem reading those, although the pronounciations might be a little different

That's no different than saying the English alphabet is just a modified version of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc runic alphabet, and that with a dictionary and a bit of training you could use that too.

'ȝ' becomes 'g', 'Ð' becomes 'D', and we still use 'æ' today, which is also a rune, and they even used 'W'!

Also, the number of characters in Chinese has also drastically changed over time. So while many characters have a 1:1 lineage, far more characters simply did not exist 1 or 2 thousand years ago.

The only commonality is that they are based on pictographs and have a traceable etymology, although that's true for all languages.

the difference is a single runic symbol does not convey any meaning while the Chinese characters does. which is why it's not hard for the average Chinese speaker to figure out what an ancient Chinese inscription is talking about

>Same with the borrowed Chinese characters in Japanese and Korean. A native Chinese speaker would have little problem reading those, although the pronounciations might be a little different

The Japanese pronunciation of Chinese characters is absolutely nothing like the Chinese pronunciation of them, and the meaning is sometimes different too. (The Kanji for "letter" (as in a piece of paper you write a letter on) means "toilet paper" in Chinese.)


sure there are edge cases but at least I know it's paper, and i'd be able to figure its actually letter from context in the rest of the sentence

For many, yes, but you were still absolutely wrong about pronunciation. They're not even remotely the same, as the two languages are not in any way similar and don't share any kind of common root.

Are you seriously claiming that you can understand seal script inscriptions?

Are you Indiana Jones?

Yes for me. Of course I don't know every single character by heart but with a little bit practice and the help of a dictionary you can read a lot. You can even download some seal script fonts and make all the Chinese websites shown in seal script.

Some additional thoughts.

With some training, people can read seal script inscriptions because the structure is already fairly close to regular script which is what people use today.

The radicals are written in slightly different styles from today. It actually makes sense. Seal script is a very artistic form of calligraphy, so people use it for their seals hence the name.

An example of the "drum" character: http://www.guoxuedashi.com/zixing/yanbian/11208mb/ The horizontal arrow is the time line, starting from oracle bone script. The 4th one of the first row is seal script and the last regular script.

The idea depicted here is hitting a decorated drum on a rack with a drum stick holding in the hand.

Not sure if you know Chinese or not but seal script will look rather familiar to anyone who knows Chinese:


If you look at the picture on the upper right, you can make out "tian xia" and "wang" -- all under heaven (i.e. the world) and king (the character for emperor isn't invented yet)

> the character for emperor isn't invented yet

Hmm it's right there。 The 4th “皇” and 5th “帝”。 And the combined form “皇帝” - a title invented by the First Emperor himself。

Good catch. But that just adds more to my point: modern Chinese can understand seal script to a large extend because seal script is the ancestor of the modern (non-simplified) Chinese. My guess is that neither you nor I are "Indiana Jones".

your language requires Indiana jones, but don't assume that's the case for everyone

No. People have been living on the same land in China for a long time and aspects of it’s culture survived, but that’s about it.

Rome lasted ~1500 years as a continuous political entity. Zhou dynasty comes is about half that at ~790 years. Though, you can make various arguments around those numbers.

As some have said, the Roman Empire is considered the longest running empire. I think it is worth noting that governments will use stuff like 'oldest civilization' or 'oldest democracy' as a way to propel nationalism.

Is it true to say that China is the longest surviving civilization?

More of a metastable meta-civilization. Over thousands of years, they keep collapsing and re-forming the same country.

I had a similar reaction more generally: how meaningful is this without a precise definition of what constitutes a civilization? Still interesting though, even if only as a statistic about the units that historians have decided to split history up into.

Zhou defeated Shang, but the culture is inherited like the Chinese Characters.

Dynasty usually in China doesn't category as one civilization, it is just a episode in the Chinese history. And this is not a modern invention either, China has the great tradition of 修史, literaly meaning the making of history, which means the later dynasty is responsible of recording the official history of previous dynasty, and by doing so it is treated as a testament to the current dynasty's legimacy.

Interestingly, even PRC is somewhat inherited this tradition, where an official account of Qing's history is set to publish this year, which is almost 30 million characters long.

I note that the author groups the 25-odd Egyptian dynasties into the three traditional empires.

Greeks don't count, then? They have the oldest recorded living language. Give me a metric of how China is a civilization that doesn't make Greece also a civilization. Really they're just land masses with specific ethnic groups and traditions. Greek traditions have probably changed a lot more than Chinese traditions over 3,000 years, but much change determines a civilization?

much change determines a civilization?

Change happens faster in the centers of civilization. So change is as much an indicator of the degree of civilization.

> Is it true to say that China is the longest surviving civilization?

Not really. The Chinese tend to emphasize viewing their history through a lens of continuity and a single notional empire whereas the Western history tends to view their history as discontinuous and fractured empires. But when you start comparing the actual effects of these empires and their rises and falls, they are actually much more similar.

For example, after the Crisis of the Third Century, the Roman Empire was effectively partitioned into a Western and Eastern Empire. The Western Empire proceeded to decentralize itself out of existence over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries, but it recoalesced under the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties into the Holy Roman Empire by 800 (before splitting up into effectively a Frankish kingdom and the Germanic kingdom of the HRE). The Eastern Roman Empire lasted until around 1200, when the Fourth Crusade conquered it instead (a conquest which didn't last, but the Byzantines never recovered and the Ottomans finally put them out of their misery 250 years later). It's worth noting that pretty much all of the people I've cited considered themselves the true heirs of the Roman Empire.

Meanwhile in China, the Han dynasty crashed hard in the early 200s, with three major successor states cropping up. One of these managed to conquer the others, so the successive dynasty was the Jin dynasty. Of course, the Jin last control of most of their territory, which fragmented into the Sixteen Kingdoms, but the entire era is still called the Jin dynasty. After the final collapse of the Jin, the north/south dichotomy continued with the Northern and Southern dynasties, which is again a successive series of powers vying for control eventually coalescing into the Sui dynasty after one wins out, which quickly transitions to the Tang dynasty, the first truly unified China since the fall of the Han dynasty. After about 300 years, the Tang dynasty collapses into a major period of disunity, the next truly unified China again taking 300 years to crop up again.

There's a lot of similarity. The major difference is that Western Europe never reunified into a single unitary state (unless you want to count the extremely short lived Napoleonic Empire and Third Reich). But Western Europe did have a successor state that directly retained the traditions from the Roman Empire (namely, the Byzantines) and could plausibly claim to have no break in continuity (the Byzantines never called themselves anything other than the Roman Empire), and all of the major successor states directly drew inspiration and customs from the Roman Empire, rather like China. The writing system, the state religion, the bureaucratic apparatus, the legal system--all of these are derived from the Roman Empire in Western Europe, just as much as they are derived from the Qin and Han dynasties in China.

The comparison of the Roman Empire and the Chinese civilization is very flawed. First of all, Rome did not unite neighboring groups in Italy as a culture, never mind Europe. The lands and tribes they conquered simply used Latin for trade and as a lingua franca. It never became the mother tongue for any of those people. In China, for thousands of years, you have people from every province celebrating many of the same festivals, educated people reading the same script and Mandarin speaking officials reporting to the Emperor. Furthermore, pretty much everyone in Northern and Western China spoke some variation of Mandarin. The other main language group was Yue in the South and Wu to the East. To add to this, the major historical events in China are much more important than any local ones. Yet, if you ask a French or Italian person about their history, they would tell you very different things.

> The lands and tribes they conquered simply used Latin for trade and as a lingua franca. It never became the mother tongue for any of those people.

And yet, there are 800 million native speakers of Romance languages ("the modern languages that evolved from Vulgar Latin between the third and eighth centuries") in the world [0].

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romance_languages

Nonsense. If what you're saying about language was true then the people of France and most of Spain would be speaking a Celtic language, Gaulish or Celto-Iberian.

Instead they speak direct descendants of the language of the common tongue of Roman citizens, 'vulgar' Latin. The pre-Roman languages of most of Roman occupied Europe were extinguished. Apart from Greek, which was kind of the second language of Rome (and later the only language, once the west collapsed) and Palestine/Syria, it's only in Britain where pre-Roman languages survived -- that is until the Anglo-Saxons wiped most of it out, excepting Wales and Cornwall.

> First of all, Rome did not unite neighboring groups in Italy as a culture

It very much did.

> never mind Europe.

It did that, too, though less tightly.

> The lands and tribes they conquered simply used Latin for trade and as a lingua franca. It never became the mother tongue for any of those people.

And where exactly did the Romance languages that are the mother tongues of much of the area that Rome used to rule come from, then?

"It never became the mother tongue for any of those people."

Italy, France, Spain, Romania, Portugal all speak a variation of 'Latin'.

by this standard, Japanese would be a variation of Chinese

Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian are all directly derived from Vulgar Latin. Japanese is a linguistic isolate, perhaps distantly related to Korean (which is also a linguistic isolate). Japanese borrowed the Chinese writing system, and a little bit of vocabulary; calling Japanese a variation of Chinese is akin to saying English and German are a variation of Latin.

It's even further remote than saying English and German are a variation of Latin, as at least the Germanic languages are in the same family of Indo-European languages. Japanese and Chinese are not related in any way we know of.

It'd be more like saying Finnish or Hungarian are a variation of Latin or German. Some small amount of shared vocabulary (and maybe phonetics) due to proximity, but no more.

Irrespective of the relation between Japanese and Chinese, the immense contribution of Latin found within modern European languages is a given as anyone armed with a dictionary can deduce for themselves.

> First of all, Rome did not unite neighboring groups in Italy as a culture

This is simply false. Please learn about the pre-Roman history of Italy.

No it is not true. What is true, is that nobody actually knows, since we have no idea when humans began, other than "some point before X", where X may be a shadily derived date based on pseudo scientific methods.

I find the fact that we have no idea quite liberating.

The problem is that "civilization" and "china" are hard to define.

What we can say is that chinese civilization came into existence a long time ago. Then a serious of dynasty ( some not even "chinese" ) like the mongols or the manchus adopted aspects of chinese civilation.

"China" itself didn't survive for thousands of years. The dynasties rose and collapsed. Conquered and got conquered.

And "china", for much of its history, didn't even speak the same language. They used the chinese writing system ( which also evolved through time ), but does a writing system entail "part of civilization". Koreans and Japanese used chinese writing system, does it mean they are part of the chinese civilization? Of course not. Much of africa uses latin alphabet, does that mean africa is part of "greco-roman" civilization? Of course not.

The chinese capital changed multiple times. There have been periods where "china" had multiple competing capitals.

But then you could argue that chinese civilization didn't die out or get supplanted like the egyptian, mayan, mesopatamian, etc civizations.

The more you think about it and the closer you look, the more blurry the situation becomes. But like most things history, I guess the best answer is "it's complicated".

The full article is here: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190218-are-we-on-the-road-...

'Interestingly' the first two listed factors are ecology related, and the biggest thread to the European civilization is not explicitly stated.

Ok, we've changed the URL to that from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190218-the-lifespans-of-an.... Thanks!

Absolutely fantastic book:- Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty


I'm quite disappointed that the aboriginal cultures of Australia are not factored into this. Bias against the idea that they might have been a civilisation?

Oldest oral traditions of any human culture. Oldest, still being worked, mining operation of any human culture. A hippocratic oath encoded in their culture while we, white Europeans, bled people to their deaths.

I think this report, while interesting - is not quite as complete a view of human civilisation as it could be. Australian aborigines throw out the whole idea - until white guys came along and genocided them, they were the oldest, longest-running civilisation of humankind, ever.

Perhaps I'm being too literal and etymological, but to me "civilisation" means towns and cities.

Towns and cities lead to economic specialisation, a legal system, civil service, taxation, and so on. Nomads and people living in villages may have a complex culture but it's rather different from city life, even a low-tech city life like in ancient Egypt, for example.

> A hippocratic oath encoded in their culture while we, white Europeans, bled people to their deaths.

But those doing the bleeding were following the hippocratic oath. They were trying to do good. The issue was stupidity (or, more charitably, lack of knowledge) rather than malice.

Ottoman empire lasted 624 years and it's not mentioned in this article. They mention 'Western Turk (70)' and I've no idea what that means.

Politically my guess is modern Turkey but 'Western turk' is legit term to distinguish, culturally, from Eastern turks such as Siberians, Kazahks, etc whom the Turkish language, spoken in Turkey, descends from

> While there is no single accepted theory for why collapses

This kind of reasoning rests on the success of disciplines like physics and chemistry where scientists have found general laws upon which they can build solid models of reality (within some extreme limits). History doesn't lend itself well to this kind of thinking IMO, and only serves to cloak the innermost nature of history: it's uniqueness. Instead we should realize the unique characteristics of our culture vs all preceding (and similarities too, by all means). It is a much more difficult exercise, but also much more rewarding since it can lead to a much better understanding of our predicament.

One thing that comes to mind is our complete interconnection and dependency on a few points of failure like no previous civilization. Our demise might not take several decades like the Roman empire, it might be over in a few days if we don't change course(s) and build better resiliency.

My take on this is that once an economic model begins to fail, the society that is based on it will inevitably also fail. Eventually wars breakout (usually resource wars), and a new dominant player emerges and their economic model gets implemented until it fails. Usually what causes the failure is that the economic model has reached it's growth or sustainability limit.

I actually think company life cycles are very analogous and can teach us much about societies and their growth and decline but on a faster timeline. Companies operate very much like mini-societies with their own culture, beliefs and ingrained practices. They have business models which are constantly evolving. Most if not all of them grow and eventually decline if they fail to adapt.

I'm of the opinion we are experiencing this now with whatever economic model we have in developed nations. It's a never ending cycle, at least until the human species evolves or is eradicated.

Ignoring the difficult task of actually deciding when a civilization starts and stops, is there some theory that suggests that duration is the right measure? Don't we need a reasonable model of how civilizations work.

It would be interesting to incorporate and merge the data from Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies with the data presented here.

These are awfully contested dates. Hun: 100? Vedic: 1000? Etc. These statistics obscure more than they explain, I think.

I can speak to the Vedic dates. Those are contested but only due to their novelty, meaning they are MUCH older than what western media gives them credit for. And the Vedic civilization exists to this day in India as Sanatana Dharma followers or as the ancient Greeks & the modern Western world calls it - Hindus.

Though most varieties of modern 'Hinduism'/Sanatana Dharma are rather different from 'Vedism'.

That's quite unreasonable to say the least. In any case, I am not familiar with the term "Vedism". Vedas are not the only concept but a very critical pillar of Sanatana Dharma.

Why do you think it's unreasonable?

In general we don't expect religious systems to be static.

Certainly -- although Vedic deities are not entirely absent from modern Hinduism/Sanatana Dharma -- the prominence of different deities is very different. The Rgveda focusses largely on Agni and Indra, and yajna rituals (as opposed to modern puja-type worship) have a central importance. Shiva, assuming he can be identified as Rudra, is not invoked, but rather (being feared) appeased. And so on and so forth. So while modern Hinduism is not unrelated to the practices/beliefs of the Vedas (which I'm referring to vaguely as 'vedism'), it largely pays only lip-service to the Vedas. People might read the Gita, Ramayan, Mahabharata, but rarely the Vedas, which really only make an appearance in special ritualised situations (e.g. marriages involve some Vedic hymns).

The Kingdom of Israel and Judah? While Wikipedia is not a credible source, it's a good summary https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Israel_(united_mona...

> In contemporary scholarship the united monarchy is generally held to be a literary construction and not a historical reality, pointing to the lack of archaeological evidence.

See The Bible Unearthed for a more authentic source. I am slightly biased because I have been to Tel Hazor after and because of reading that book. (No matter who ruled at the time but a 25 x 21 m citadel with two-meter thick walls built three thousand years ago is just jaw dropping.)

Also, Vedic Civilisation [1000]? What evidence do we have that calls for this period to be called a single civilisation...?

You know I lately think that, ok, we're mostly past the age of empires physically conquering one another, we're in the age of economic ebbs and flows of established countries.

And in this kind of age, the thing that sinks a country is not aggression by others, but indifference and lethargy as a country "gets old".

"Getting old" means the political desired and inertia of a rich, settled population get to dominate the goals and priorities of a nation, and it loses its drive to be scrappy, make sacrifices, and do the innovative things when one does when young and poor. You have generations who want to extract the gains put in by past generations. Or it costs too much to change people's behavior.

That's what I think is happening to western Europe and the US. Too many rich, old, soft people who now have settled and moneyed lives, and don't want to make the same sacrifices that the generation previously were forced to, by unfortunate circumstance. Too happy with their 2nd homes and retirement plans.

Unless you have a really conscious and socially adept mechanism to force a people to renew themselves, this sets in. Sometimes, as sad as it is to imagine, I think you need a good war to refresh a country...

I don't think we're past the age of physical conquering. It's been less than a hundred years since the last World War. That's not particularly long, historically speaking. The pattern seems to be that a new major war starts not long after the eyewitnesses of the last one have all died. If that holds true, the next few decades or so will be interesting.

Remember that the bulk of the worlds population doesn't live in the Anglosphere, or Europe. E.g. if you're from the Middle East, or Africa then you might know a thing or two about revolution, if not war itself.

Additionally, the US has now been engaged in Afghanistan longer than they were in Vietnam. There's a whole generation of Americans who know all about war. In the US, the generation who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, then lived through the Great Recession are about to go into politics.

My prediction is that if we ain't seen nuthin' yet.

Thats the thing though, generations didn't serve in Afghanistan or Iraq. Even if you counted the some ~3 million service members engaged in those wars over their duration of the ~70 million Americans between 25 and 45 as all being in that age group thats 4% of those generations participating in the wars.

The power of past major war to avert the inclination towards future major war doesn't lie just in the experiences of veterans, but in that of the people connected to them, and of the people who are informed of their experiences through media, as well as that of people who have to live through the socioeconomic fallout of past wars. There are plenty of us around.

> Additionally, the US has now been engaged in Afghanistan longer than they were in Vietnam. There's a whole generation of Americans who know all about war.

During the Vietnam war, the US still had the draft. The numbers deployed to Afghanistan are insignificant compared to Vietnam. There's a tiny fraction of a generation in the US who know all about war.

> There's a whole generation of Americans who know all about war. In the US, the generation who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, then lived through the Great Recession are about to go into politics.

And a whole nation, in Afghanistan, who grew up and lives in war. Eih, so easy to overlook when it just some news headline.

also, right at the border of continental Europe we had that "russia just annexed a part of ucraine" a couple years ago.

Have people already forgotten that?

That felt to me like the US neocons thought their cunning plan[1] would separate Russia from the Sevastopol Naval Base. That backfired bigly. Me I can't think is any Russian Government that would tolerate that.

[1] With the utterly incompetent Sen Clinton running the State Department no less.

Conquest is anachronistic.

The decline of agriculture as a proportion of the economy of advanced nations means that territory no longer has the value that it once did. Population is not as important as it used to be for military power. Physical capital (factories, labour, land) is now less valuable, certainly in the developed world, than human capital (education, skills, networks). This means the gains of conquest have reduced drastically.

Meanwhile, the costs of war have increased markedly. Only a small group of states can afford to build technologically competitive militaries. Nuclear war has made the cost of great power war mutual annihalation. Modern low intensity warfare, on the other hand, makes it extremely difficult for great powers to permanently occupy even small powers (e.g. the US in Vietnam, USSR in Afghanistan). This means that the costs far outweigh the benefits in almost all circumstances. Add to this that in the counterfactual, states can gain most of the economic benefits of war through peaceful means, i.e. trade, at a far lower cost. There's also simply a greater spread of uncertainty in war: it's a dictum of war studies that war is inherently unpredictable.

If international war breaks out in the near future, it will be a fight over global hegemony (US-China), regional hegemony (Iran-Saudi Arabia), revanchism (Russia, Taiwan), or most likely - by accident.

There are at least three major territorial conflicts ongoing for control of land at the moment. All east of Istanbul.


That was not war. No single bullet fired there.

It's the population of one part of one country democratically deciding on a referendum they don't want to live in a country that is violating their basic human rights and threatening their existence, and decided to join a country that can guarantee peace and their well-being.

As a sarcasm that's a good summary. If you actually mean it, that's another story...

> Sometimes, as sad as it is to imagine, I think you need a good war to refresh a country...

Please think about this in concrete terms. Not just the abstract concept 'war', but the specific instances of brutal violence, intense prolonged suffering, anguish and grief that happen thousands upon thousands of times in any war. What do you hope to gain that would make this worthwhile? Even accepting all of your dubious premises, is national renewal worth that price?

This. I'm gonna cut to the chase: that line is probably the most fascist thing I'm going to read all day, and excepting you, Hacker News has failed to call it out. This idea that war can somehow mythically rejuvenate the ethos or spirit of a country isn't unique to fascism though. It was also common in the jingoist imperial western european powers, and partly used as justification for aggression against neighbors and abroad.

This is disgusting to see at the top of the comment thread. Anyone who upvoted that comment needs to engage in some serious introspection.

This tactic, of identifying a problem that may have some real validity, but then making logical leaps into absurdity, is typical of postmodern types like Bannon. How exactly does war solve the problem identified? Who are we to watch against?

It's not always about the words that are said. There's a subtext or more than one. The given justification isn't always the real justification, it just has to be plausible enough to get the real message out, seen in that last line. The overton window opens, and those on the sidelines who might have kept similar thoughts to themselves can now be drawn in and engaged. And that last sentence creeps closer to becoming real.

Oppose these ideas and these tactics, HN.

I think you're straw manning a bit there. It's not illogical to say that severe national challenges help rejuvenate society in the long run. You can even see it locally when the power goes out for a few days in a hurricane, and all of a sudden neighbors who barely knew each other for 10 years are pooling resources and talking.

War is horrific in the short term, but everyone on this site has benefited from it in some form. Much of the internet came out of military research, as did flight, as did satellites, as did many nautical advances, the list goes on.

Whether those benefits are worth it and on what scale could be the subject of a dissertation, but we don't want to become the Eloi any more than we want to be the Morlocks.

Just because the concept can be twisted into pointless war mongering by fascists doesn't make it less true. For my part I think climate change alone is going to provide enough national challenges.

> War is horrific in the short term, but everyone on this site has benefited from it in some form.

That's because nobody on this site has died from it.

So people who die in war don't benefit from the war... and?

My point was that war is not always entirely negative if you zoom out far enough. It can be entirely negative or partially positive, just like many other things. Would you rather the British to have surrendered to Hitler and the Americans refuse to fight in WWII?

> So people who die in war don't benefit from the war... and?

And therefore your claim that everyone here has benefited from it suffers from significant survivor bias.

> It can be entirely negative or partially positive, just like many other things.

Sure. But we've seen way too many examples of people selling how wonderful a war would be (and you're flirting dangerously close to that). War's not wonderful. It's horrible. Only fight it when the alternative is even more horrible (which is not never).

Strange, because in this thread the closest thing to calling war "wonderful" I've seen is "Sometimes, as sad as it is to imagine, I think you need a good war to refresh a country..."

Things that are wonderful aren't sad to imagine. Nor am I saying anything resembling calling a war "wonderful". I hear a lot of accusations and assumptions of intent with few real arguments other than "war bad".

From where I sit the conversation appears to go like:

  Person 1: War bad.
  Person 2: War sometimes good in certain contexts...
Shockingly I remain unmoved.

military research is not the same as war. Flight was developed by the commercial sector.

the people blabbering about war as a means of national rejuvenation are usually the ones not planning on bleeding out in a muddy ditch. 30 million people died in WWI and not much was rejuvenated

Can't speak for everyone, but your second point is an easy one for me. If I were drafted, in any remotely realistic circumstance I would go.

And military research is a result of war or potential war. And if you want to deny the lack of the military's influence in human flight, I'm not even sure what to say to that. Aircraft were adopted by militaries around the world as soon as they were viable. And military observation balloons go back to the 18th century. The military may not have invented human flight, but they funded a crap ton of it.

> the most fascist thing I'm going to read all day ... Hacker News has failed to call it out

Yes, and the same happens in other posts on HN. This says a lot about HN's Overton window.

Or it could simply be that no one is paying attention. HN comments are not exactly the most important thing to which a person can devote their time and attention.

>Even accepting all of your dubious premises, is national renewal worth that price?

Depends on two things:

1) One's priorities. Some might view the aggregate (the country) as bigger thing than individual people. Under this view, the importance of the lives (or worse, the importance of having comfortable lives) for a present generation can be deemed worth it to the freedom, prosperity, etc. of generations to come (and to the continuance of the country itself and its state and way of life etc., which in some cases might be totally obliterated by decline, e.g. Rome).

2) The question presupposes that avoiding war would avoid "brutal violence, intense prolonged suffering, anguish and grief" later. In many cases, that's not the case. Instead, the decline can bring with it violence, intense prolonged suffering, anguish and grief -- only without anybody doing anything before to resist those things.

> The question presupposes that avoiding war would avoid "brutal violence, intense prolonged suffering, anguish and grief" later. In many cases, that's not the case. Instead, the decline can bring with it violence, intense prolonged suffering, anguish and grief -- only without anybody doing anything before to resist those things.

Sure; if you can convince me that any given war will avert more harm than it causes, I'll (intellectually at least) agree that it's justified. But at large temporal and geographical scales, with insanely complicated and only vaguely understood systems at work, you need an extremely strong argument to justify an action that will definitely lead to terrible consequences in the near term.

The comment we're discussing falls far short of such an argument. In fact it doesn't even seem to aim at making one -- and not just in the sense that it's (understandably) very abstract and lacking any kind of detail. As far as I can tell it is motivated by nationalism, and certainly not by any desire to prevent greater suffering. Its idea of failure sounds more like a (relatively) peaceful transition:

> You know I lately think that, ok, we're mostly past the age of empires physically conquering one another, we're in the age of economic ebbs and flows of established countries.

> And in this kind of age, the thing that sinks a country is not aggression by others, but indifference and lethargy as a country "gets old".

You ignore the line: "Sometimes, as sad as it is to imagine, I think you need a good war to refresh a country..."

Emphasis on "as sad as it is to imagine". That doesn't sound all that nationalistic to me in the traditional sense. More like admitting that terrible sacrifices are sometimes necessary to preserve a country's strength. You may see a technically "peaceful" (without open war) transition as preferable, but it's an equally coherent opinion that in such a transition the violence simply takes different forms and in aggregate is no less destructive, and perhaps even more damaging.

Essentially it's the age-old argument of what's worse? Negative/unjust peace or war? Automatically calling arguments for the latter "nationalist" sounds like an attempt at dismissive guilt-by-association, depending on how specifically you define the word.

It's a natural assumption, I think in the aftermath of the excesses of 20th century warfare Western society (assuming you live in the west) at large overcompensated with an "all physical violence is bad, anyone who suggests using it is wrong" message permeating everything, particularly the educational systems, which has produced a broad cultural bias that should be accounted for in discussions like this.

Suffering is largely a constant. The difference between "war" and "peace" is only in who is suffering, and how much everyone else does or doesn't care.

Really? Suferring during, say, World War II was just as bad as immediately before or after?

> You know I lately think that, ok, we're mostly past the age of empires physically conquering one another, we're in the age of economic ebbs and flows of established countries.

Not sure.

First, the US did invade a lot of places in the last decades, and while they didn't officially turned the countries into US colonies, they still do have massive political and economical influence there, and benefit from the local resources.

But even if you discard this, it's assuming the future will be the same as today, which is unlikely. In the entire human history we never had a single day without a war somewhere on earth. The possibility that our countries will __never__ be at war again on their on soil is slim: we have many tomorrows to create situations where it can happen.

We massively consume limited resources in a close system. We destroy systems that regerate resources we need, a destabilize the balance our organisms a based on, and we have hugely powerful weapons. Conquerying one another is still a tempting solution to many problems.

E.G: India has more than 1 billion people, almost no water, extremly strong social tensions, hot borders, pollution in mass and the nuclear bomb. Anything triggering here can easily creep on to the entire world.

Get rid of multi generational transfers of wealth. Make each generation start from scratch. I know it's easier said than done as not all assets are fungible or distributable (social networks, geography etc) but it would make a difference. I read recently that the same families that controlled most the wealth in Florence in the 1600 still control most the wealth now, that's probably not good for scrappy innovation.

>...it would make a difference.

It sure would.

If I wanted to design a system to throw society into abject chaos, basically permanently, I can’t think of a better way than a rule of “make it impossible to build something for your children”.

That idea is anti-family, it’s anti-civil-society, and it’s anti-civilization.

"My family won't receive huge amounts of my net worth. That doesn't mean they'll get nothing. My children have already received some money from me and Susie and will receive more. I still believe in the philosophy ... that a very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing."

- Warren Buffett

I think progressive wealth transfer taxes are a perfectly good middle ground.

I’m sure you’re a reasonable person and could come up with a reasonable tax rate on generational wealth, but I have zero faith that we will elect reasonable people to make these sorts of decisions.

So what you're saying is that the cure will be worse than disease? If that's so, then I guess we agree there's a somewhat concavey-looking function of "limiting generational wealth transfer" -> "sustainable benefit to civilization". Which shifts the problem from "whether to do it at all" to "how to move towards maximum without screwing up". It's a harder problem, but civilization is essentially built of attempts to solve such problem. Here's to hope that maybe our descendants will learn how to do it right.

>It's a harder problem, but civilization is essentially built of attempts to solve such problem.

I fundamentally, emphatically disagree with this. I think it's a weird rewriting of history to think that "Civilization was built by trying to stop wealth transfers within powerful families".

Do I think a lot of wealth is trapped within a few families, and that might be a problem? Sure. Do I think that the ability to destroy generational wealth transfers is what made Civilization? No, and I think it's absolutely crazy to think so. It ignores every great family in history that did everything from win wars to build railroads.

I think their argument was that civilization iterates on solutions to many social problems by adjusting policy over time so that human coordinated behavior is effective. The argument above isn’t focused on wealth transfer in particular.

Civilization experiments with policy. At the extreme, there is a push towards consolidation and monopolies and this is counterbalanced by the rule of a unhappy mob. This causes policy to shift over time.

> I think progressive wealth transfer taxes are a perfectly good middle ground.

Wealth transfer is income, so progressive income tax without exempting wealth transfer from income tax would seem the most direct solution.

Civilization has been a long struggle to prevent powerful people from passing on their wealth and power to their children. I mean, most of the history of civilization has indeed functioned the way you describe, but many of the achievements of the past few hundred years has been thanks to the monumental effort to strengthen meritocracy, rule of law and democracy in order to limit the transfer of power hereditarily.

Interesting point. One thing that speaks for the relative harmlessness of hereditary wealth is, what happens when it gets passed on to an insane/idiotic/psychopathic heir. In these cases, it normally gets rapidly redistributed, as the heir wastes their fortune. In the case of normal 'power', it doesn't get really redistributed, so everybody has to deal with Emperor Caligula.

>Interesting point. One thing that speaks for the relative harmlessness of hereditary wealth is, what happens when it gets passed on to an insane/idiotic/psychopathic heir. In these cases, it normally gets rapidly redistributed, as the heir wastes their fortune.

We are past that now. Now we have advisors, funds, elite accountants, and all kinds of dead easy ways to invest and keep huge wealth long term, for even the most inane person. Plus those people are not accountable to anyone. It's not like a hated heir of a royal who has to tread lightly anymore, lest the senate or the people take them down...

In fact, inane people can even make a great fortune from scratch in this era, what with the various famous-for-being-famous celebrities...

Wrong. Keeping wealth long term is difficult.

1. Advisors and accountants do not own the wealth - you set the goals. If you want to spend it or mismanage it, they are not going to stop you.

2. The wealthier you are, the more difficult it is to maintain the real value of your wealth, in general.

3. If you have 3 children, they have 3 children and so on, and you split your wealth equally among your children, even a billion turns into only 5 million within 5 generations - and that is if they manage to maintain its real value over time.

And if they do manage it cleverly and get to keep the real value of the wealth? Great! Society is better off, because that means they allocated capital productively within our society, making the economy more efficient.

While this was quite common (money being squandered after several generations), it's not necessarily as common today among the ultra-rich. Among the upper middle class, yes, it's common to happen.

E.g. maintaining the "real value" is not as much of problem for people having tens of billions (as we increasingly see today). Even if the value drops, they're still multi-billionaires. And diversification strategies today span the globe.

And the "3 children inheritance diffusion" problem is easy to solve: rich people have less kids today than historically.

There's also that:


1. If a family that gets wealthy, stays wealthy, that's great - the number of wealthy families can only go up, so over time there will be more and more wealthy families.

2. If, on the other hand, there is some survivorship bias going on there and wealth rotates a lot, and some members of wealthy families keep their wealth, that is not as good an outcome but it is still not so bad, as it suggests that as a family's culture degrades their wealth will likely degrade as well.

"Civilization has been a long struggle to prevent powerful people from passing on their wealth and power to their children. "

The opposite. Civilization invented laws so people could pass their wealth and power to their children, to the point that the absolute head of the state was determined by birth and not by skills.

In precivilized tribal cultures there was inheritance of weapons, tools, tents etc. to childrens and of course it played a role beeing born the chieftains son, but no ruler was born that way. They had to directly earn the respect of the tribe, by proving they are good leaders, before they were accepted. Direct democracy, long before the greek "invented" the concept.

The exact opposite of this is true. Great leaps forward in Civilization have come from things like Empire, explicitly run by hereditary ruling classes, and technological advances. In today’s world the latter now eclipses the former. There’s no reason, in my mind, to think that that ratio will (or should) remain.

"To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp, they call empire; and where they make a desert they call peace."

and yet the largest improvements in life quality have occurred in the last century, when most of the great empires have fallen.

And you attribute this fact entirely - as in 100% - to the fall of Empires, and not the technological advancements that happened in parallel?

I find it strikingly hard to believe that democracy, which is what I assume you’re referring to, is the actual imperative that caused this. If we had managed to avoid WWI it’s really difficult to imagine that we’d still be using a horse drawn buggy and a typewriter.

Eh? Does the sun ever set on American military bases?

Inequality fueled the French revolution. Getting rid of aristocracy led to modern democracies.

Most European countries have steep inheritance taxes to prevent going back to oligarchy.

"Most European countries have steep inheritance taxes to prevent going back to oligarchy."

Which has the problem of course, that the really rich have ways of not beeing affected by those laws too much. Which is not too hard, when the tax-laws are ridiciously complicated with many exceptions for good connected lawyers and many countries on this planet who welcome any people and money as long as they get a small share.

That's unfortunately true, but doesn't mean we should just give up and let society slide back to aristocracy & serfs. It's perfectly possible to elect representatives that deal with various tax avoidance schemes (be it corporate or personal).

False. There are numerous examples of very high estate tax societies that didn’t descend in to chaos. Are you also for a landed gentry with inherited titles? If not why? Why is one type of property ok to pass down and not the other.

The notion of the “idle rich” spoiled offspring exists for a reason. Nothing kills ambition more than unearned wealth. Obviously there are many counter examples with many wealthy heirs contributing significantly to society. But I would argue that they would behave the same if they inherited less.

As Aristotle roughly said, the mean between extremes is often the right answer. You could completely eliminate any transfer of wealth without social collapse; just like you could have essentially unlimited transfer of wealth with out social collapse: you would just end up with an aristocratic system. The question is what do you want to create.

That's not the full story, though. The legitimacy of our social structures is based in large part on claims of meritocracy and (imperfectly, but relatively) equal opportunity. Vast inequalities in hereditary wealth make this a very obvious fiction.

People might be happy to overlook this when things are going well for them personally, or when they feel hopeful about the future. When that is no longer the case for a majority, though, the status quo could be just as 'anti-civilization' as extreme redistribution.

>That idea is anti-family, it’s anti-civil-society, and it’s anti-civilization.

As if family is not about loving and preparing your kids for life (and being good citizens etc), but padding their bank accounts so they don't have to work...

If you do the latter, your family will not be wealthy within a few generations, just by dividing the wealth among your children.

It might be anti your family while being pro 10, 100, or even 10,000 other families, depending on the wealth amassed. That sounds incredibly pro-civilization and pro-society.

Forbidding people from passing on wealth (or anything else) to their children seems inhumane - and wealthy people are still people with emotions and feelings.

Personally, I would sooner accept 90% tax to the rich&living, than 100% tax upon death.

Both are theoretical of course - there is no way to enforce them really without hurting overall society. There is also no need I think. A better solution is to make sure that wealth doesn't give too much unfair privilege, and that basic living conditions are guaranteed to everyone - we are getting closer to this every decade.

I could even see a tax system where you get the choice: pipe your money through the income tax function or leave it in the "tax free now, taxed to oblivion upon death" account, your choice. The "tax free now" account can be used for expenses that would otherwise be deductible, paperwork avoided.

To be practical, I would allow some transfer of wealth actually but put a marginal tax rate of 100% over say 5 to 10 million, gradually increasing from say 0% at 250k. That seems like a fair compromise. Sure, guaranteeing basic living conditions would be nice, but as we can clearly see right now, there isn't much support for it. This tax would provide plenty of money to get to that goal, however.

Really bad idea. That would encourage people to consume wealth over 5 to 10 million during their lifetimes, i.e. destroy real wealth, instead of investing it in productive enterprises, i.e. building real wealth.

You want a situation where wealthy people build a lot more wealth than they consume. The last thing you want is for them to consume their wealth, making themselves better off but the society overall much, much poorer.

Lots of rich people madly spending their wealth would be great for GDP. The luxury industries would prosper, and those who work in those industries would also accumulate wealth to spend madly. Those who truly have a vision for improving the world would still get to do that.

Or, maybe... if there were less of an advantage to accumulating wealth, we wouldn't destroy ourselves and the environment quite so madly while doing so. Great fortunes would not be generated, because what would the point be?

ISTM that a rich person who doesn't want her estate to be confiscated upon her death could just divide it among many heirs? If the progressive tax is not levied on the heir rather than the estate, then maybe it should be. Intentional division would destroy dynastic family wealth without wasting it on the frivolous spending of the state.

1. GDP is not a great measure. If a rich person consumes capital by buying a yacht and then burning it, the world is now poorer - resources (human and material) went into building the yacht, and now they are gone. Wealth has been consumed, yet GDP showed an increase.

2. If the world is poorer, it will be able to afford to protect the environment less, not more. The wealthier a nation, or a neighbourhood is, the more it cares about protecting its local environment. For example, as China gets wealthier, it cares more about having cleaner air.

3. Wealth concentration in the right hands is not necessarily a bad thing. Increasing taxation is just concentrating more wealth in the hands of parliaments/governments, which they are unlikely to spend too effectively given that they are spending someone else's money, but yet which still results in some great outcomes (scientific advancements, until recently space flight etc.). Wealth concentration means that great leaps forward can happen in areas that at first are going to be very expensive (medical/longevity research, grand projects like SpaceX, even originally mobile phones etc.)

If you want to tax anything, it is probably better to tax (frivolous) consumption, i.e. wealth destruction, instead of wealth creation.

If you want to tax anything, it is probably better to tax (frivolous) consumption, i.e. wealth destruction, instead of wealth creation.

Sure, I agree, but we're talking about estate tax ITT.

It's nice to imagine that switching from income taxes to VAT (with appropriate progressive adjustments for the poor) would allow the merely hardworking rather than just the lucky and unscrupulous to accumulate wealth, but it's not clear that would be the case.

> That would encourage people to consume wealth over 5 to 10 million during their lifetimes,

No, it would encourage people to conceal wealth transfers as consumptive spending. (Just like existing dedicated wealth transfer taxes—gift and estate taxes—do, but more strongly, and we've seen what people dedicated to transferring wealth, like Fred Trump, already do.)

Of course - people will try to avoid the tax. I was talking about what would happen if the tax functioned as intended.

legacy is indeed primordial, that said I get the above idea, maybe make it an indirect asset to unlock after some threshold..

A death/inheritance tax seems an absolute no-brainer to me - and I consider myself fairly conservative.

That doesn't mean increasing the overall tax burden, either - it could be introduced to offset income tax reductions. It seems much "fairer" to me.

An inheritance tax exists here in France, you'll get taxed like 25% of the value of an illiquid asset like an appartement. And it's in addition to all the taxes paid on the appartment paid during your life.

A fair tax is one that lands on someone else.

I'll assume you're being glib.

One of the most attractive features of a death tax is that it applies to everybody. After all, nobody escapes death.

Of course, that doesn't mean it'll be loved universally. Some people just hate taxes. Others don't like the idea of not being able to pass on their life's work to their children.

But most reasonable people understand the need for taxation. It's a lot easier to stomach the tax man dipping into your wallet after you're gone than before.

The problem is lack of control. The tax man (politicians, find managers) could make any number of appropriations instead of using the money for society and dead people cannot challenge him. Current living people have less of a stake to do that.

Nobody escapes death, but the wealthy can still escape an inheritance tax using a trust fund.

> I'll assume you're being glib.

The death tax doesn't apply to everybody, as hardly everybody leave behind a significant estate. Lots of people die with a negative net worth.

The death tax is also often sold as "only affecting estates worth over $xx million", so it safely doesn't apply to the vast majority of voters, it only applies to those they are envious of.

What is the point of accumulating wealth over this short life if I can’t leave anything to my children?

If you don't exist in a society with preposterously gross amounts of wealth inequality in the modern age your children won't need to roll the genetic lottery of luck to be your kids to live a life without suffering and misery.

People only value the capacity to transfer wealth inter-generationally to such a degree so long as its required to guarantee your children don't live a life of endless toil for meager subsistence wages.

What is the point of accumulating wealth over this short life?

For one, society benefits from it.

You generally get wealthy by providing goods and services to others. The more you satisfy people's wants and needs, the wealthier you get. The wealth means that these people now owe you.

If you accumulate wealth instead of consuming it, you never take them up on it. You are basically acting altruistically - instead you use their IOUs to provide even more goods and services for others (not yourself) by managing your wealth instead of consuming!

I think it is actually an amazing feature of our civilisation. Wealthy people generally don't use their wealth to build massive monuments to themselves - they tend to invest it into economically productive enterprises that make society wealthier overall.

Improving the life of your children, but not - and this is of utmost importance - improving the life of your neighbors children. Because life is a competition.

What is the point of your children accumulating wealth?

What is the point of children..?

What is the point of life..?

1. There's something fundamentally strange about this question. Suppose the answer is "there is none"; is that meant to be some sort of absurdity? Perhaps we should spend less effort "accumulating wealth". It might be healthier for us and/or for society.[1]

2. I suspect that no one in this discussion (even those whose words suggest otherwise) want it to be so that you literally can't leave anything to your children. So there's some point in accumulating whatever amount you can leave to them.

3. By and large, I think people accumulate wealth mostly in order to have it. I'd rather have $3M in the bank and know that barring really major upheavals I never have to worry about being poor, than have $0 in the bank and live precariously from one payday to the next. This would be true even if I had no children and no prospect of ever having any. It would be true even with a decent "safety net" ensuring that even if I completely ran out of my own money I'd never be, e.g., at risk of starvation or homelessness.

[EDITED to add:] Wait, there's more.

4. You might accumulate wealth in order to use it for some expensive enterprise. Consider e.g. Elon Musk, who (at least the way he tells it) got rich in order to save the environment and give us the ability to escape to Mars if we need to. I don't know what Warren Buffett's original motivation for getting rich was, but his present alleged intention is to give away almost everything he has for charitable purposes, and he explicitly says he doesn't want to give his children too much. (Though it may well be that "too much" in his sense is much more than 99% of parents could possibly give their children.) The advantage of this sort of use of wealth is that it doesn't suffer from diminishing returns as much as spending the money on yourself does. There's not much I could do with $2B that I couldn't do with $1B, but $2B will save approximately twice the number of lives that $1B will.

5. You might want to turn your wealth into power. Lots of lobbying. Carefully targetted political donations. Make yourself a household name and run for president of the US. Give funds to academics and other potential public intellectuals who happen to have views you want to be more widely heard. With a couple of billion used carefully you can have a big impact on your country, or even on the world as a whole.

[1] Or, of course, it might not; it could be, for instance, that the smooth running of a modern economy depends on a level of acquisitiveness that could never exist if people were getting money only for their own use and not their children's. (As it happens, I think that's unlikely.)

You can spend all that money improving the society they live in.

Indeed, why even have children?

If you haven't a positive answer for that then it's all to the good that perhaps you don't - have children, that is.

It’s a rhetorical question.

I'll bite; Living comfortably, safe, well-fed and long; enjoying luxuries like vacations, media consumption, knowledge accumulation, etc. Being able to give your children a safe home to grow up in, an education so they can build up their own life instead of depend on you and your own accumulated wealth.

I had all this, thankfully, even without my parents being rich. They grew up in a time and area where they could still buy a decently sized house and have children on a single income. They struggled, but they made it.

Thanks to living in a (more) socialist country, taxpayer money paid for my education, allowing me higher social mobility than my parents. Ten or so years into my career, I've paid what was invested in me by the other tax payers a few times over already.


Why not cut inequality at the root: prevent children accruing socio-economic advantages from the moment of birth

honest question when a rich person dies should we destroy all their buildings and companies too so the wealth can’t transfer?

> Make each generation start from scratch

And how do you prevent people from giving gifts? Parents giving their children a gift of money?

And trusts are a thing, so gift tax would not help as much as you would think.

I'd find it much more acceptable if you gave your children your wealth during your lifetime. At least you have to actually give up something rather than passing on all your economic power after you no longer have use for it

Then people transfer their wealth just before they die?

While there are ways to make sure that the wealth transfer happens "just before they die" (rather than them living on after giving it away), the law tends to frown upon them.

And then you'd get laws that limits the wealth that can be given to childrens, like those in France. Yeah for taxes!

Despite hiding it well, this is an extremely fascist post in ideology - the idea that the west is decadent and needs a bit more violence was very prevalent in the 30s.

The fact that Stalin believed 2+2=4 doesn't invalidate math by association with mass murder.

Do you have a reason to suspect GP is in fact maliciously trying to push fascist ideology? Because that's what your comment implies, and does not hide it well.

The post is all about the need for a decadent nation to 'refresh' itself. It toys with the idea of 'a really conscious and socially adept mechanism to force a people to renew themselves', before concluding that (sadly) mass death and destruction is the answer.

Maybe that doesn't fill a political scientist's checklist for fascism, but you don't need to look very hard to see some unsettling parallels.

I should probably have bothered to write more but was on mobile. Anyway, the core of the OP arguments are (a) "Too many rich, old, soft people who now have settled and moneyed lives", (b) "I think you need a good war to refresh a country..." and (c) "sacrifice" (twice)

(a) is not an uncommon sentiment, but usually leads either to to the "fully automated luxury communism" argument that everyone should lead lives of luxury, or that nobody should live in luxury (which is more Pol Pot Maoist). This post leaves it rather ambiguous where the luxury should go. I would accept the argument that the post is Maoist rather than fascist if it came with some elaboration.

(b) is the dead giveaway. The idea of war as stiffener of moral fiber, or renewal of the "people", is the core of Nietsche / Mein Kampf / Triumph of the Will kinds of ideological material. Someone writing that before WW1 could be naive. Someone writing it after WW2, when it became apparent what all this actually meant in practice, is effectively saying that mass murder is better than "indifference and lethargy" or "2nd homes and retirement plans". It's one thing to want to die before you get old, quite another to want to abolish retirement for everyone else through war.

(c) The word "sacrifice" appears twice in the original post, loosely linked to (b). At no point is it clear who is expected to sacrifice what, to whom, and for what purpose. This makes me suspicious that the intended (human?) sacrifice might be ... whom exactly?

(A quick scan of the OP's comment history does not reveal any other comments that look even slightly fascist, so I'm willing to assume this was simply poor taste rather than active malice)

Wow, hah, I had no idea my thoughts were so historic and grounded in fascism. Semi-serious, semi-humorous to realize.

And you know, the reason for me writing was sparked merely by yet another story about the mundane problem of America's inability to build new infrastructure, or even maintain existing infrastructure.

Maybe I shouldn't have added the last sentence, some took that too seriously.

This reasoning does not substantiate your accusation: The idea was prevalent not just in the facist countries.

Those ideas were at the core of the fascist ideology and that should be enough to allow using the word.

> Too many rich, old, soft people who now have settled and moneyed lives, and don't want to make the same sacrifices ....Too happy with their 2nd homes and retirement plans.

Really? That is at least not what I saw happens in the US, most of the old people could be impoverished by unexpected disease. What you described isn't like 5% of the whole population really...

Personal sacrifice has really fallen by the wayside especially with the already wealthy. Altruism is probably not the solution though. The most charitable people are those who can empathize with the poor, and that seems to be in real short supply.

If you've ever been poor or on the receiving end of cult of personality of bullying you really quickly realize in how short supply altruism is in the world.

The problem here? The only people who share with the poor are those who can relate. And that happens to be... the poor.


> The most charitable people are those who can empathize with the poor

I wonder. The most charitable, or most people that are charitable? According to this[1] (which references a paywalled report), middle-class Americans account for nearly two-thirds of charitable giving. That doesn't necessarily mean the rest is from upper class giving, but I think it's a fairly safe assumption (especially given some of the other points in the article). And if the rich are giving, it might be less of an empathy, and more of a sympathy (or even guilt).

Then again, perhaps you meant the most charitable as in giving the largest percentage of their income. Or maybe of their disposable income, in which case, maybe the poor would actually be the most charitable in some areas.

In any case, I think charitable giving is actually a fairly complex topic that might not be accurately summed up as easily as your comment implies.

1: https://www.philanthropy.com/article/America-s-Generosity-Di...

Given this website attracts loads of innovators and wannabe innovators I'm inclined to take this thought with a grain of salt. There is so much blind faith in the vigor of youth and new ideas that I wonder if many of you can even imagine a world that runs at any slower pace than today.

Given that we are supposedly past the age of aggression and conquering, do you think a peaceful society that keeps to itself is capable of surviving on its own, with a level of happiness that is high by their own (if not world) standards?

I'm pretty sure "getting old" has always been a big part of the collapse of civilizations.

I can think of few that were truly destroyed by unstoppable external forces (maybe the Byzantine Empire being attacked by Muslims?). Most of them seem to have rotted from the inside and were easily knocked over by opportunists (Rome). That said I'm no historian so examples would be interesting.

Also interestingly, America is 243 years old - 93 years to go! Sounds reasonable.

Unless you have a really conscious and socially adept mechanism to force a people to renew themselves, this sets in.

This is exactly the problem we need to solve as well if we ever manage to increase the human lifespan. Instead of society advancing one funeral at a time (c.f. Max Planck on science) as in the past, permanent change would have to come from every individual at a much higher rate than now.

>And in this kind of age, the thing that sinks a country is not aggression by others, but indifference and lethargy as a country "gets old". "Getting old" means the political desired and inertia of a rich, settled population get to dominate the goals and priorities of a nation, and it loses its drive to be scrappy, make sacrifices, and do the innovative things when one does when young and poor. You have generations who want to extract the gains put in by past generations.

That's the case for now, sure.

But that's also exactly what got ancient Athens and Sparta, Rome, Byzantium, and other empires of the past. Outsiders wouldn't do scratch if those empires weren't already rotting from inside for reasons such as those that you've mentioned.

In Rome and Byzantium, for example, such a decline is more or less the established historical narrative.

A good war? In this time and age you would not get a refresh, rather a complete reboot to the stone age after utter destruction. Be careful what you wish for...

Those ideas have a history

“War essential. It is vain rhapsodizing and sentimentality to continue to expect much (even more, to expect a very great deal) from mankind, once it has learned not to wage war."

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his 1878 book that was one of the inspirations for WW1, WW2 and all that. Not one of humanities best times. Though you could have a more positive take on war as in war on poverty and the like rather than the shooting people stuff.

Too many rich, old, soft people who now have settled and moneyed lives, and don't want to make the same sacrifices that the generation previously were forced to, by unfortunate circumstance. Too happy with their 2nd homes and retirement plans.

Also voting for politicians who pass laws that hamstring the house buying ability of the next generations.

Perhaps civilizations are born, live and die. With luck, they pass on their memes and genes to the next one.

Please read some intellectual history of the period between around 1870-1914. The modern nation state was newish, industrialization was newish, a sense that “decadence” was feminizing or draining nations of their vigor was adopted by myopic elites. There’s nothing novel in your comment here in the history of ideas.

And, what we’ve empirically learned is that that thread of ideology in an industrialized world (to say nothing of a nuclear armed world) leads to slaughter.

I realize this is HN but even so I feel it’s poor form inveighing with a well worn warmongering trope on the course of world history.

You should check out Raoul Vaneigem, he develops similar ideas, but focusing on the middle class stuck in their "everyday life" and routines. Whatever you do at work, 8 hours a day, leaves you with just enough energy to consume entertainment and wait for the next day. The cycle doesn't end until you're 65 and are allowed to retire, by the time you don't have any kind of energy (physical and/or mental), most people don't even have money to live the dream they've been forced to believe in all their life.

I don't think getting old is the cause, not in the physical sense anyway. The problem to me is that we've been delivered from the "work to survive" in the 1900s, now most people are getting out of the "work to live", which is promptly replaced by the "work to consume", and this is no place for fulfillment, happiness or will to do things bigger than ourselves.

I'll probably get blasted because a lot of HN readers see everything through the lens of software engineering, living comfortably with 2-20 times the minimum wage of their countries. Let's not forget that we're part of the lucky ones.

> Too many rich, old, soft people who now have settled and moneyed lives

Too many middle class people barely making a living and spending all their effort/time to keep up on the social ladder. They're so blinded by the repetitiveness of their life that they don't even think there could be more to it. Past generations were at least fighting for their rights, somehow it got lost somewhere in the last century, now we're left with parodies of social movements that were once making a dent (black panthers vs blm, first wave feminism vs current feminism, &c.). People are fed up just as much, but instead of acting on it they rant on twitter and feel like they did their part.


"It was as if they were in a cage whose door was wide open without their being able to escape. Nothing outside the cage had any importance, because nothing else existed any more. They stayed in the cage, estranged from everything except the cage, without even a flicker of desire for anything outside the bars. it would have been abnormal — impossible in fact — to escape into something which had neither reality nor importance. Absolutely impossible. For inside this cage, in which they had been born and in which they would die, the only tolerable framework of experience was the Real"

"The old proletariat sold its labour power in order to subsist; what little leisure time it had was passed pleasantly enough in conversations, arguments, drinking, making love, wandering, celebrating and rioting. The new proletarian sells his labour power in order to consume. When he’s not flogging himself to death to get promoted in the labour hierarchy, he’s being persuaded to buy himself objects to distinguish himself in the social hierarchy. The ideology of consumption becomes the consumption of ideology."

"No more Guernicas, no more Auschwitzes, no more Hiroshimas, no more Setifs. Hooray! But what about the impossibility of living, what about this stifling mediocrity and this absence of passion? What about the jealous fury in which the rankling of never being ourselves drives us to imagine that other people are happy? What about this feeling of never really being inside your own skin? let nobody say these are minor details or secondary points. There are no negligible irritations; gangrene can start in the slightest graze."

"While it was placing happiness and freedom on the order of the day, technological civilization was inventing the ideology of happiness and freedom. Thus it condemned itself to creating no more than the freedom of apathy, happiness in passivity. But at least this invention, perverted though it was, had denied that suffering is inherent in the human condition, that such an inhuman condition could last forever."

"People without imagination are beginning to tire of the importance attached to comfort, to culture, to leisure, to all that destroys imagination. This means that people are not really tired of comfort, culture and leisure but of the use to which they are put, which is precisely what stops us enjoying them."

"And all the while everyone wants to breathe and no-one can breathe, and many say “We will breathe later”, and most do not die, because they are already dead."

This is a clear perspective and it needed to be put out there for others to understand. I salute your well-worded post, lm28469.

More to your point, we have vilified death a bit too much.

In the past they had poems about death, sung death, created legends.

Dying in the battlefield in an honorable way was seen as a good way to leave this place and go to the next one.

The world needs to renew itself, or else there won't be enough resources to feed one another.

We are at peaceful times but one thing history can show us is our future, and in history there have been times of peace, although they only lasted for a few years.

> Dying in the battlefield in an honorable way was seen as a good way to leave this place and go to the next one.

Do you really not see that this was sick propaganda, propagated by evil dictators in need of cannon (sword?) fodder?

There's nothing honorable about war or battlefields. It's the worst of the human condition, distilled to the highest concentration. War is repugnant, evil, and unnecessary. We humans should move to rid ourselves of it, not spread fucked up fairy tales about it on the internet.

Honorable, pff. Say that again when you're slowly bleeding out in a ditch somewhere fighting someone else's battle.

> Do you really not see that this was sick propaganda, propagated by evil dictators in need of cannon (sword?) fodder?

If this is only propaganda of dictators, how do you explain the existence of these views within the ancient republics and democracies? Or within the earlier pre-settled tribes? (not sure if this was the case everywhere, but I know the attitude was quite prevalent within the tribes of europe)

I am not too narrow minded so I see war as a not good thing and a as a not bad thing. I don't like seeing anything in this world as a good or a bad thing.

War is something that comes to us by default. Its in our nature, as its in every animals nature for survival. Its not something pushed to us by dictators and what not.

Also I don't agree with your sentence of removing poems, legends and whatever from the internet. Let each person decide for himself whats to be filtered in his head or not. The internet should be free, accessible and non filtered.

About war being neither good or bad but unavoidable, I don't think we'll come to an agreement. I truly believe that we can make the world free of war through a combination of honesty about the horrors of war (so that well-fed people stop supporting it) and the technological progress which will inevitably give all humans food on their table and a roof over their heads (iff we don't fuck up the climate first).

Your argument is well formulated, however, and while I disagree with it I appreciate the way you bring it. Thanks for that.

> Also I don't agree with your sentence of removing poems, legends and whatever from the internet.

But I didn't suggest anything of the sort. You didn't cite these poems as a matter of historical fact, you referred to them in mild agreement to make a point. There's a major difference. I'm surprised that you interpret an attack on your argument as an attempt to censor history. Not every pacifist is a marxist.

In fact, I suspect that we strongly agree that ideas that people used to support but most Westerners now think of as barbarian (eg "homosexuals are evil", "black people are animals but they can harvest cotton pretty well" and IMO also "dying for your warlord is honorable") should remain accessible in history books, online and offline.

not vilified, just avoided it, as with regular struggle that makes your existence more scary but more dense and your spirit less complacent

I blame inheritance of wealth and the possibility of unlimited accumulation of richness for this.

In my opinion, property and money, which someone amassed during his lifetime, should automatically be devoted to the common good after that person's gone. In my opinion it's insane, that someone lucky can inherit a fortune by basically doing nothing. There are things which make sense to inherit, like family enterprises, but there should be a limit.

I also believe, that as an individual, there should be an upper bound to how rich you can be. Does it really make sense, that an individual person can have more than a seven-digit pool of money on his bank? Is there a way to limit the crazy strive for individual richness? If there would be a limit, we could basically invest the free money collectively into old and new enterprises which would not simply act as money printers for a few individuals, but actually profit society as a whole... Just a crazy idea...

People bitch and moan about how unfair everything is and while it is unfair the wealth the poorest individual has in the united states is light years ahead of what kings had in the middle ages.

According to all observations the most likely end to modern civilization is over exploitation and over usage of natural resources.

The amount of resources available and the amount we use point to a trend that has one conclusion.

The irony is that even with the knowledge of our impending doom we are still unable to see it despite the obviousness of it. The original poster makes a chancy prediction on how wealth inequality will take us to our ends while all trendlines and data point to the real way our civilization will end.

One day there will not be enough oil in the world for you to drive to work or fly to another state.

Technology is not our savior. The trendlines in tech are far too slow do make any meaningful difference. What you're actually observing with technology like the tesla is the trendline in hype.

People bitch and moan about how unfair everything is and while it is unfair the wealth the poorest individual has in the united states is light years ahead of what kings had in the middle ages.

Throughout history poor people were happy because they believed they were born to that life so they didn't have the stress or jealousy of believing life was unfair to them. If you read any old philosophy book it's all lessons about being happy with what you have.

Believing you can raise yourself up and improve your life is a relatively new phenomenon, and society stopping people doing that leads to unhappiness.

>Believing you can raise yourself up and improve your life is a relatively new phenomenon, and society stopping people doing that leads to unhappiness.

Such a speculative statement. You cannot predict the behavior of a group of people anymore than you can predict a stock. I would say a more realistic statement to your topic is:

People can be happy with what they have and be unhappy with what they have and throughout history many people have felt either way. It is not a new phenomenon. Whether these feelings lead to revolution in the future is impossible to determine.

You need to look at trendlines, data points and evidence.

It is not a new phenomenon.

When I said "relatively new" I meant "in the past 300 years or so". When I said "any old philosophy book" I meant "one written 1500 years ago". I didn't make my frame of reference clear; that was obviously a mistake on my part. Saying things like "new" on a tech forum has a very different meaning compared to "new" in terms of history and philosophy. 300 years ago people were born in to a strata of society and couldn't work their way out even if they wanted to. Social mobility in the middle ages didn't exist (with a few notable exceptions like demonstrating valour in warfare.)

More recently (in the past 50 years) there have been some quite extensive studies of happiness, and envy is almost always found to be a confounding factor. Why that is seems to be the case is an interesting evolutionary question - https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.0161...

Still I'm looking for quantitative data, not anecdotal. Things like energy usage measured in joules or Green house gas emissions by weight or climate change by temperature.

A philosophy book offers conjecture not evidence.

You want data about energy usage in joules from 100 years before James Joule was born? That's going to be tricky..

I want all the data we can get. Frankly a philosophy book or anecdotal musings about human behavior are not data. It's just a predictive conjecture about how a human will behave in a certain situation and is rarely accurate.

> People bitch and moan about how unfair everything is and while it is unfair the wealth the poorest individual has in the united states is light years ahead of what kings had in the middle ages.

I have better medicine, better comfort (bed, electricity, running water ..), &c. than the richest emperor of 2000 years ago. Does it invalidate any critics I can make ?

As far as I can tell capitalism didn't sell mere survival as a goal, yet we're telling an ever growing part of the population that they'll have to deal with it.

"The necessity of production is so easily proved that any hack philosopher of industrialism can fill ten books with it. Unfortunately for these neo-economist thinkers, these proofs belong to the nineteenth century, a time when the misery of the working classes made the right to work the counterpart of the right to be a slave, claimed at the dawn of time by prisoners about to be massacred. Above all it was a question of surviving, of not disappearing physically."

"The imperatives of production are the imperatives of survival; from now on, people want to live, not just to survive."

- Raoul Vaneigem

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