The downfall of Rome and its possible implications for free market capitalism
Copyright © by email@example.com and Erik Moeller (Eloquence) 1996
May be freely distributed on the Internet.
Version 1.01, Oct 18 1996
Version 1.1 for Everything2, July 16 2000
Summary: The causes for the downfall of Rome and its historical consequences,
the possible implications for a more and more liberated economy
- The downfall of Rome
- The Middle Ages
- Consequences for the future
1. The downfall of Rome
Should our economic system collapse one day, there would be many possible
consequences. As an historical example, one can look at the downfall of the
Roman empire. The records are incomplete, but an increasing impoverishment of
provinces becomes clear, first cities, then complete regions. This was an
effect of typical accumulation of capital. In the long run, money goes where
The state failed then. It would have had to move money from the rich to the
poor. Only this way, the economic circulation could have been preserved.
Instead the state demanded the same taxes like before from the poor regions
in order to preserve its structures. In these regions, criminality increased,
armed gangs made up of impoverished, destitute farmers and citizens wandered
around. Local uprisings occurred more and more often.
Fighting criminality and those uprisings required increased spendings of the
state in actually economically useless organs like army and police. Thereby
the economic process was burdened further. When wild Germanics crossed the
borders for plundering again, it was too much. The local population preferred
to keep their area under Germanic rule. The taxes to the empire had become a
burden for them, as they did not receive an adequate return service anymore.
This decision was mainly made by the poor masses. In the cities there were
still people in leading positions not impoverished who still profited from the
order of the empire. (The historical foundation of the legend of King Arthur
comes from this time, after the breakdown of the empire. Arthus and his
knights represented the richer, more civilized Christian citizens, the
oligarchy -- while the country population allied with the invading vikings and
maintained a heathen culture again.)
2. The Middle Ages
As the masses of the population were not willing to fight for Rome anymore,
the empire split up into independent provinces, dukedoms, counties. The
feudal structure of the Midle Ages formed. The resulting standard of living
for large parts of the population was better than in the last years of the
empire (300 to 400 AD).
Totally, though, the standard of living was considerably lower than in the
empire during its best time (about 100 to 200 AD). The feudal states had
together higher spendings for military and police than the empire before.
Besides the medieval aristocracy hardly invested in municipal or overregional
infrastructure. Instead it spent the surplus for its own welfare and
protection. Wars between the feudal lords and among the knights were the rule,
not the exception.
The foreign trade declined to a minimum as all nobles demanded customs for
their areas. The work-sharing that once existed in the empire, from the
granary of Egypt to the copper mines of England, vanished completely. The
prices for those products changed drastically without foreign trade, many
production places had to end their work and shut down.
The consequences were worst for the culture of mind. The rate of
illiteracy rose, as the standard of living declined. The only institution that
still taught reading and writing was the church. It remained as the central
intellectual organization of the Roman empire. It formed the overregional
communication and message system. The church was the mass medium of the
Middle Ages. In order to control thinking from the Vatican to the single
bistumes and church communities, exchange of letters was necessary.
This way the monasteries in the Middle Ages were what academies,
universities and public libraries had been at other times. They became the
basis for the intellectual development of Europe to the darkness of the
Midd7le Ages. The longer the Middle Ages lasted, the more impressive and
wonderful seemed the Roman Empire and the ancient thinkers to those who still
knew of it. Finally, in the Renaissance, books from the Roman Empire were
spread again, more than 1000 years after its downfall.
3. Present time
If uprises would break out in industrial states today, they probably could
still be suppressed through the martial law, with the military. Thereby the
state could ensure its survival. But waht if the state itself is considered
as a menace by the majority of the population? Then it could be that the
military is not ready to defend it and it is replaced by autonomus
The size of these administrative regions is determined by the size of the
militia/police/army that can still control them. The parallel to the regional
structures of the Middle Ages is obvious. A building up of power strucutures
according to the feudal structures of the Middle Ages would also be possible.
The role of the church could be taken over by overregional TV networks.
It is decisive, however, if overregional economic structures remain. Should
the overregional trade and transport be seriously hindered, by way customs
or unrests, the consequences could be unimaginable! The Roman Empire was an
agricultural state, its regions could necessarily feed themselves. But today
agriculture is industrialized and mechanized.
Without this industrialized agriculture, the harvests could be so small
that only about 10 per cent of today's world population could survive.
This applies especially to the population of the industrialized countries.
For preserving the agriculture there, overregional transport and trade are
absolutely necessary. Fertilizer, oil for the motors, spare parts and raw
material for machine building must be provided and distributed.
All these things are only existing centralized at very few places and cannot
be decentralized (theoretically, but small factories and power plants have
a much lower grade of efficiency and would have to be built first -- certainly
no solution). The functionality of an overregional economy is therefore
absolutely necessary for the survival of the population.
When the USSR broke down, it could be watched how sensitive an overregionally
organized economy is. Since the 80s, there was a lack of machines and spare
parts for the agriculture. The harvests declined. The situation got worse
when after 1991, after the end of the union, new regional administrations and
customs formed. Therefore, the links of overregional trade slowly (!) started
disintegrating, with more and more serious consequences for the remaining
states. According to official statistics, Russia's GNP decreased by 18 % from
1991 to 1992 and by 12 % from 1992 to 1993.
The danger of a breakdown of an overregional economy thereby not only lays
in the obvious consequences of uprisings, battles and unrests. Even if these
don't appear, or only in a neglectable amount, a number of suddenly appearing
trade hemmings can also lead to a collapse. For a regional ruler, the effects
of customs or other encroachments in transport and trade are not recognizable.
He will see his advantage in it, but not the overregional consequences.
In a time of unrest, decisions would be made by many of such local rulers,
which would be necessary for their survival and power preservation, but
which could lead to the collapse of a whole continent. Not the missing will
is the problem, but the sensitivity and the complexity of an industrialized