Plagues and empires

Empires, pandemics and the economic future of the West | Aeon Essays
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The miniature illustrates, right, rebels entering London in 1381; left, the slaying of Sir Robert Salle by rebels at Norwich; and, centre background, the killing of Wat Tyler, the peasants’ leader, before the king at Smithfield. From Recueil des chroniques et anchiennes istories de la Grant Bretaigne by Jean de Wavrin. Courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS français 78, f. 96r

What can the decline of the Roman Empire and the end of European feudalism tell us about COVID-19 and the future of the West?

John Rapley is a political economist at the University of Cambridge, as well as a senior fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. His latest book is Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How it all Went Wrong (2017). He lives in London and Johannesburg.

Edited bySam Haselby

Early in 2020, after a mysterious coronavirus emerged out of China and then raced across the globe, a quiet new year took a screeching turn. Stark images of ventilated patients in Italian hospital hallways soon filled our newsfeeds. Panic erupted across the West. One after another, governments that had been telling their citizens everything was fine suddenly screamed at everyone to shelter in place and avoid all human contact. It felt like the modern world had just met its Black Death.

With no living memory of such scenes, Western audiences reached for the timeless literature of apocalypse to make sense of it all. But whereas ancient traditions of end times blamed spiritual causes for the collapse of civilisations, we, being the moderns that we are, opted for what we imagined to be a ‘scientific’ discourse – the so-called genre of collapsology. Although some modern scholars, such as Edward Gibbon, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, retained essentially spiritual explanations for civilisation decline, while embedding them in empirical ground, those who would shape our interpretation of COVID-19 came from a different tradition, one that took inspiration from Thomas Malthus’s 1798 thesis about the natural consequences of human development.

Neo-Malthusians credited environmental feedback loops, not moral failings, for regime collapse. In the 1960s and ’70s, works by Paul Ehrlich and Donella Meadows et al argued that the world’s population was growing so fast it would soon outstrip resource supplies, leading to (among other things) widespread food shortages. More recently, Jared Diamond wrote of the role that environmental depletion and diseases played in the fall of civilisations, and his theory that the collapse of Easter Island resulted from overexploitation of the natural environment has enjoyed particular resonance. For its part, the COVID-19 pandemic revived old theories about the role that diseases played in regime collapse, and we were reminded that plagues had laid low the Roman Empire and destroyed European feudalism.

Except, that wasn’t what happened. At least, not quite the way supposed.

The thesis that environmental stresses cause regime collapse remains a topic of great debate. We can start just with the cases mentioned above. The alarmist warnings in the 1970s about overpopulation soon gave way not to concerns about food shortages, but about the problems caused by global overproduction of food, which was driving down food prices and accelerating the urbanisation of the developing world. Regarding Diamond’s book about Easter Island, pretty much from the get-go it faced strong criticism for its questionable evidence. For similar reasons, many historians of the Roman Empire doubt that the plague played a part in its downfall. As for the Black Death, in much of Europe it didn’t end feudalism but actually reinforced it. More generally, measured by the scale of the loss in human life as a proportion of the total population in the affected areas, 19th-century epidemics of cholera, and the flu pandemic of 1918, all took a far greater toll in the Western world than COVID-19. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find hints of regime stress in response to any of them.

Still, the scholars who make a case for the civilisational impact of epidemics might be on to something. For starters, the link between empires and disease is quite strong, with cholera, tuberculosis, syphilis, bubonic plague, smallpox and other diseases all fanning out across the trade routes of empire. Tellingly, when one contrasts the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic of, say, China and Western countries, it seems plausible that this pandemic could hasten the relative decline, if not the fall, of the West. But given that China and the West confronted the same plague, why have the outcomes differed so wildly? Fortunately, history offers some insights.

An exogenous shock must encounter a vulnerability to bring down a regime

Let’s return to the Black Death of 14th-century Europe. The thesis that the plague ended feudalism starts with the fact that Europe’s labour supply dropped suddenly and sharply. This then augmented the bargaining power of the labouring classes, altering their relations to the nobility. But as mentioned, in much of Europe, and particularly in the east, the nobility responded by then reinforcing feudal bonds. However, in other places, the legal system permitted the renegotiation of the relationship between lords and producers. For example, in England, the evolution of Common Law had created a framework that made it possible for land tenure to change from feudal to market-based relations. As a result, when the Black Death caused an agrarian crisis, English society produced new forms of tenancy, thereby accelerating the decline of feudalism. In effect, English feudalism had a vulnerability to exogenous shock that was not present in other parts of Europe…

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