The decline of a State differs with the texture of it. A democratic State will decline from a lowering of its potential, that is of its ever-ready energy to act in a crisis, to correct and to control its servants in common times, to watch them narrowly and suspect them at all times. A despotic State will decline when the despot is not in point of fact the true depository of despotic power, but some other acting in his name, of whom the people know little and cannot judge; or when the despot, though fully in view and recognized, lacks will; or when (which is rare) he is so inhuman as to miss the general sense of his subjects. An oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called, will decline principally through two agencies which are, first, illusion, and secondly, lack of civic aptitude. For an oligarchic State tends very readily to illusion, being conducted by men who live at leisure, satisfy their passions, are immune from the laws, and prefer to shield themselves from reality. Their capacity or appetite for illusion will rapidly pervade those below them, for in an aristocracy the rulers are subjected to a sort of worship from the rest of the community, and thus it comes about that aristocracies in their decline accept fantastic histories of their own past, conceive victory possible without armies, wealth to be an indication of ability, and national security to be a natural gift rather than a product of the will. Such communities further fail from the lack of civic aptitude, as was said above, which means that they deliberately elect to leave the mass of citizens incompetent and irresponsible for generations, so that, when any more strain is upon them, they look at once for some men other than themselves to relieve them, and are incapable of corporate action upon their own account.
The decline of a State differs also according to whether it be a great State or a small one, for in the first indifference, in the latter faction, are a peril, and in the first ignorance, in the latter private spite.
Then again, the decline of a State will differ according to whether its strength is rooted originally in commerce, in arms, or in production; and if in production, then whether in the production of the artisan or in that of the peasant. If arms be the basis of the State, then that the army should become professional and apart is a symptom of decline and a cause of it; if commerce, the substitution of hazards and imaginaries for the transport of real goods and the search after real demand; if production, the discontent or apathy of the producer; as with peasants an ill system in the taxation of the land or in the things necessary for its tillage, such as a misgovernment of its irrigation in a dry country; the permission of private exactions and tolls in a fertile one; the toleration of thieves and forestallers, and so forth. Artisans, upon the other hand, may well flourish, though the State be corrupt in such matters, but they must be secured in a high wage and be given a vast liberty of protest, for if they sink to be slaves in fact, they will from the nature of their toil grow both weak and foolish. Yet is not the State endangered by the artisan's throwing off a refuse of ill-paid and starving men who are either too many for the work or unskilful at it? Such an excretion would poison a peasantry, remaining in their body as it were, but artisans are purged thereby. This refuse it is for the State to decide upon. It may in an artisan State be used for soldiery (since such States commonly maintain but small armies and are commonly indifferent to military glory), or it may be set to useful labour, or again, destroyed; but this last use is repugnant to humanity, and so in the long run hurtful to the State.
In the decline of a State, of whatever nature that State be, two vices will immediately appear and grow: these are Avarice and Fear; and men will more readily accept the imputation of Avarice than of Fear, for Avarice is the less despicable of the two—yet in fact Fear will be by far the strongest passion of the time.
Avarice will show itself not indeed in a mere greed of gain (for this is common to all societies whether flourishing or failing), but rather in a sort of taking for granted and permeation of the mere love of money, so that history will be explained by it, wars judged by their booty or begun in order to enrich a few, love between men and women wholly subordinated to it, especially among the rich: wealth made a test for responsibility and great salaries invented and paid to those who serve the State. This vice will also be apparent in the easy acquaintance of all who are possessed of wealth and their segregation from the less fortunate, for avarice cleaves society flatways, keeping the scum of it quite clear of the middle, the middle of it quite clear of the dregs, and so forth. It is a further mark of avarice in its last stages that the rich are surrounded with lies in which they themselves believe. Thus, in the last phase, there are no parasites but only friends, no gifts but only loans, which are more esteemed favours than gifts once were. No one vicious but only tedious, and no one a poltroon but only slack.
Of Fear in the decline of a State it may be said that it is so much the master passion of such decline as to eat up all others. Coming by travel from a healthy State to one diseased, Fear is the first point you take. Men dare not print or say what they feel of the judges, the public governors, the action of the police, the controllers of fortunes and of news. This Fear will have about it something comic, providing infinite joy to the foreigner, and modifying with laughter the lament of the patriot. A miserable hack that never had a will of his own, but ran to do what he was told for twenty years at the bidding of his masters, being raised to the Bench will be praised for an impartial virtue more than human. A drunken fellow, the son of a drunkard, having stolen control over some half-dozen sheets, must be named under the breath or not at all. A powerful minister may be accused with sturdy courage of something which he did not do and no one would mind his doing, but under the influence of Fear, to tell the least little truth about him will put a whole assembly into a sort of blankness.
This vice has for its most laughable effect the raising of a whole host of phantoms, and when a State is so far gone that civic Fear is quite normal to the citizens, then you will find them blenching with terror at a piece of print, a whispered accusation. Bankruptcy, though they be possessed of nothing, and even the ill-will of women. Moneylenders under this influence have the greatest power, next after them, blackmailers of all kinds, and next after these eccentrics who may blurt or break out. Those who have least power in the decline of a State, are priests, soldiers, the mothers of many children, the lovers of one woman, and saints.
~Hilaire Belloc: in First and Last (1911)
|Idealised View with Roman Ruins, Sculptures, and a Port, by Bartholomeus Breenbergh. |
Oil on canvas, c. 1650; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.