How Do You Know If You’re Living Through the Death of an Empire? – Mother Jones

The reality is far less exciting. Any political unit sound enough to project its power over a large geographic area for centuries has deep structural roots. Those roots can’t be pulled up in a day or even a year. If an empire seems to topple overnight, it’s certain that the conditions that produced the outcome had been present for a long time—suppurating wounds that finally turned septic enough for the patient to succumb to a sudden trauma.

That’s why the banalities matter. When the real issues come up, healthy states, the ones capable of handling and minimizing everyday dysfunction, have a great deal more capacity to respond than those happily waltzing toward their end. But by the time the obvious, glaring crisis arrives and the true scale of the problem becomes clear, it’s far too late. The disaster—a major crisis of political legitimacy, a coronavirus pandemic, a climate catastrophe—doesn’t so much break the system as show just how broken the system already was.

The fall of an empire—the end of a polity, a socioeconomic order, a dominant culture, or the intertwined whole—looks more like a cascading series of minor, individually unimportant failures than a dramatic ending that appears out of the blue. Carts full of olive oil failing to arrive at some nameless fort because of a dysfunctional military bureaucracy, a corrupt official deciding to cook the books and claim taxes were collected when they really weren’t, a greedy aristocrat bribing that official instead of paying his bill, an aqueduct falling to pieces and nobody willing to front the funds to repair it.

How Do You Know If You’re Living Through the Death of an Empire? – Mother Jones