February 23, 2005

Why the Classics


As though the dull march of barbarism had never before destroyed, never before extinguished our bright visions of the future.

--Zbigniew Herbert

Photo credit: Robert Fisch

For some time, I have been trying to imagine what for most of us perhaps is unimaginable -- what if the Islamofascists were to win, what would that look like, how would it come about. I do not think this is a likely prospect, I do not lie awake most nights considering it anymore, although perhaps I should. It is perhaps too easy, more than three years after 9/11, to dismiss the latest rantings of an Ayman al-Zawahiri, claiming the U.S. "crusade" will collapse -- as if religious conversion is what we're after -- and promising that the West will suffer tens of thousands of casualties and economic collapse at the hands of al Qaeda. But let's recall that the entire Sept. 11 operation cost, as I recall, far less than $1 million, involved probably 30 or so fanatics (perhaps more or less, I won't quibble), and resulted in articles like the one I just plucked off of Nexis, from USAToday on Oct. 22, 2001:

Last week, the United Nations slashed its forecast for world growth this year to 1.4% from 2.4% in a report that says the attacks "inflicted a sizable shock on the world economy."

Asia is recoiling faster and further than previously thought. The USA is limping through at least a short-term downturn. And many economists have halved Europe's 2% growth estimate to 1%. The World Bank predicts the attacks will push 10 million in the Third World into poverty next year.

(The article is entitled "Attacks paralyzed BAX shipments worldwide," written by Elliot Blair Smith, and ran in the business section on page 3B, for those keeping score at home. Sorry, I couldn't find it online, so no link.)

Perhaps Mr. al-Zawahiri's bringers of death exist only in his disturbed mind; perhaps, as has always been the case, the Islamofascist killers most readily kill those closest to hand--other Muslims. Further, we may well have far more to fear from microscopic threats -- it's well worth recalling that, horrific as the First World War was (8 million dead), the subsequent Spanish Influenza killed at least 25 million people -- in a single year. In any case, while it is not difficult to imagine devastating or disruptive attacks (destroying the Arabian oil fields would probably plunge the world into a depression -- although I imagine such a course would be far more devastating to Arab economies than to the West), it is harder to imagine a sequence of events that would in fact lead to the destruction of the Western economy without also leading to far worse destruction of that economy's marginal players in the Middle East. Again, given their history, it's not hard to imagine that Islamist radicals wouldn't bat an eyelash at killing hundreds of thousands of Muslims and impoverishing hundreds of millions more in an effort to kill tens of thousands Westerners, and perhaps reducing their standard of living noticeably. I'm not sure though that that outcome is what Mr. al-Zawahiri means by economic collapse. Would he consider it an accomplishment to reintroduce the stagflation of the 1970s? To create conditions equivalent to the 1930s Depression? Or something more lasting?

ON PAGE 51 OF Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe, authors Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse tell us that Rome, a city of perhaps a million inhabitants around the time of the birth of Christ, had declined, some 450 years later, to less than half that (about 400,000) and, within 75 years of that, had fallen precipitously -- the authors do not tell us an exact figure, but they do not that the decline occurred at a time when the surrounding countryside was also losing population, evidenced by the abandoment of settlements and farmland. Figures of fewer than 100,000 have been given, but these are rough estimates.

Among the more interesting questions to ask, it seems to me, is what happened to all the people? The decline, according to Hodges and Whitehouse, was precipitous, and it can't be explained through flight to the surrounding hills.

As fascinating as the various theories of the cause (or rather causes) of the collapse are, what interests me, at least here, are the effects. The Roman Empire created a massive exchange and distribution system, in which manufactured goods, raw materials, ephemera like philosophies and religions, cereals, spices, furs, and human beings (it was a slave economy, after all) were traded over great distances and in fairly large quantities. As the Empire lost its grip, as the trade of various goods, including grain, became less reliable and then all but ceased -- well, within a few generations, an urban population of 450,000 has been pared down to a remnant.

This didn't happen all at once, of course, but one wonders how it appeared to the average Roman. One day, you're buying African red slipware -- relative to earlier pottery styles, this was functional but graceless -- for your table...


...to serve your bread on, and the next, it can't be acquired. Imagine a future in which Target or the Mikasa outlet or J.C. Penneys no longer carry ceramic tableware, and you have to find clay yourself, shape it, and bake it on the oven along with the bread you made from scratch from the wheat you grew in the backyard last summer (since your Supermarket no longer exists) -- perhaps a sign that things weren't going so well.

I occasionally read things on sites like this one which seem to suggest that self sufficient economies are somehow morally superior to ones based on international exchange; why this should be the case I'm not sure. To think that someone who enjoys Dominican cigars, Polish literature, Malaysian electronic goods (or are they? Perhaps U.S.-Japanese-Malaysian is a better description), Greek wine, textiles from an odd assortment of Latin American, Asian and Eastern European countries, is somehow morally inferior to someone who buys only goods produced by his neighbors strikes me as being a bizarre notion. (Then there are the practical considerations -- as partial as I am to my neighborhood, I have to admit that neither the soil nor the climate is ideal for growing coffee beans...).

It's remarkable how many unknown and unseen people I rely upon for a cigar, a glass of wine, this computer. I tend to think that the creation of such networks is an innate human characteristic -- while Rome proper was all but deserted, sinking deeper and deeper into the dark ages, a trading network involving the Caliphate, Vikings, Charlemagne's Franks, Indians, Chinese and others established itself (perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the network rerouted itself around the dead parts of the old Mediterranean segment). People traded goods from India to Andalusia, from Baghdad to Brittany. (I've mentioned this before here, for example.)

I don't know whether al-Zawahiri has ever paused to contemplate all this, or whether it is either simply beyond his comprehension or something he regards as evil: free men and women exchanging goods and services and ideas and labor and capital and customs and cuisines across borders. When one's utopia is totalitarian, with directives enforced from above with the barrel of the gun or, more appropriately to him, with the vanguard wielding stones, when the first photograph in this post elicits a joyous reaction rather than horror, there's little doubt that, in Herbert's words, the dull march of barbarism hasn't missed a step.

Suppose that your utopia could be achieved at the cost of, oh, say half the earth's population, and that under this utopia, average life expectancy would be 50 years. Would an al-Zawahiri even pause when asked whether it were worth it?

Posted by Ideofact at February 23, 2005 12:00 AM

I agree. I'm no economist, but the modern economy seems brittle. Or to use another analogy, the motor runs very well until you throw a little sand in the gears--and the more efficient and delicate the motor, the quicker the crunch.
We rely very heavily on trust. I trust my neighbors not to shoot randomly around the neighborhood. If I lived on some streets in Milwaukee I couldn't rely on that, and I'd have to adjust my life accordingly: spending extra time checking the streets, making sure nothing is exposed outside, and (if I could afford it) fortifying the house. The time we spend on leisure or extra production when we can trust each other has to go to defense and backup when we can't. We'd plant no garden, nor care for the lawn, or do anything that would leave us exposed or distinctive.
A case in point is the sciences. We have come to rely on easy travel, so grad students and others can come to work in the US. With new restrictions (not always well implemented) after 9-11, the hassles have become great enough that anecdotal evidence suggests quite a few students have given up and are going to other countries instead.
You're right: we can lose this war in ways that don't involve a caliphate ruling us.

Posted by: James at February 23, 2005 11:47 AM