Peter Turchin
War And Peace And War

A shoe maker in the city who spends hours every day hunched over his work will make a lousy warrior—weak, clumsy, and nearsighted. Therefore, any Bedouin is a better warrior than your average city slicker. When you add to this individual superiority the high group solidarity of the desert dwellers, their military advantage becomes overwhelming.

The civilization zone is divided into states and empires, which are, in any case, normally quite good at defending themselves against nonstate societies. For one thing, the civilization supports much greater population densities than the desert, so the civilized armies tend to be larger than the 'barbarian' ones. Civilizations also have technological advantages, such as fortifications, catapults, better arms, and armour. As long as the state keeps its internal cohesion, it is capable of defending itself against the nomads. (There are exceptions—nobody could stand against the Mongols of Chinggis Khan.) When the state loses its unity and falls into civil strife, it immediately becomes easy prey for Bedouins.

Ibn Khaldun noticed that the political dynamics of the Maghreb tend to move in cycles. When a state in the civilization zone falls into internal strife, it becomes vulnerable to conquest from the desert. Sooner or later, a coalition of Bedouin tribes is organized around one group with a particularly high asabiya. When this coalition conquers the civilization zone, it founds a new state there. The leading group establishes the new ruling dynasty, while other Bedouins become the ruling class—the new aristocracy.

The members of the conquering generation and even their children preserve their desert ways. They keep their military skills honed, and, most importantly, their group solidarity high. As generations succeed generations, however, the conditions of the civilized life begin to erode the high asabiya of the former Bedouins. Generally speaking, by the fourth generation the descendants of the founders become indistinguishable from their city-dweller subjects. At this point, the dynasty goes into permanent decline. It can persist in the 'degenerate' state for a few more generations, but sooner or later another Bedouin coalition arises in the desert, and the cycle repeats itself. The members of the degenerated dynasty are dispossessed of their wealth, some killed, and others driven into exile.

An important element of Ibn Khaldun's theory is the corrosive effect of 'luxury' on group solidarity. He argues that as the former tribesmen forget the rude ways of the desert, and become accustomed to the new luxurious life, they somehow become 'enervated.' This aspect is actually the weakest component of the theory. It is not clear at all why 'luxury' should be detrimental to the military effectiveness of a group. Such 'luxurious' habits as good food, sound shelter from the elements, and bathing should promote good health, and thus have a positive effect on military prowess. Even obvious 'excesses,' such as immoderate drinking and feasting, did not seem to impair the military effectiveness of, for example, barbarian Franks or the later Vikings. On the contrary, collective feasting creates the feeling of camaraderie that strengthens group cohesion. Ancient writers frequently inveighed against the supposedly enervating effect of luxury. But it does not seem to be good sociology. Interestingly, Ibn Khaldun, who also devotes a lot of space to this theme, nevertheless hedges his message. He says, 'luxury will at first give additional strength to a dynasty. The reason for this is that a tribe that acquired royal authority and luxury is prolific and produces many children, so the community grows. Thus, the group grows. Furthermore, a great number of clients and followers is acquired. The new generation grows up in a climate of prosperity and luxury.' Luxury begins to play a negative role only 'when the first and second generations are gone, and the dynasty begins to become senile.' Ibn Khaldun's explanation of how the ruling dynasty loses its asabiya is weak because he relies too much on inappropriate biological analogies: 'Dynasties have a natural life span like individuals.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.