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MECHANICS  OF  HISTORY  -  laws to understand the histtory

Laws for History

Here I present only the very basic laws. More detailed concepts and models (with historical examples) will be presented in The World History Rewritten section (list of topics).

In times of growth people tend to cooperate, in times of crisis people tend to fight with each other

It is a trivial observation but its consequences are not always obvious for historians and economists.
When we have period of economic growth, people are eager to cooperate, conflicts are rare, and problems are solved in peaceful ways. People looks like they were good, and rational-acting beings.
When we have economic crisis, economy, and politics is a “zero-sum game” (or niegative-sum game), so there are much more conflicts, which are solved with more brutal methods. We can expect strikes, revolutions, wars, and “irrational” ideologies. People looks like they were bad, and irrational-acting beings.

When we are analyzing history (or economy) of “good times”, we can use scientific tools that assume the people are good, and will tend to cooperate. Good example of that kind of tools is the liberal economy, especially free-market theories.
When we are analyzing history (or economy) of “bad times” we should use scientific tools that assume the people are bad, unhonest and the history is driven by conflicts. Examples of such theories could be: game theory, Marxism (with its “class struggle”), or the monopoly theory, and other economic theories that describe flaws of free market.

If we forget this basic truth, we could repeat the mistake of Nicolo Machiavelli, who believed that only unhonest (“dirty”) strategies are effective in politics. Or opposite, we could repeat the mistake of young Winston Churchill, who had prophesied (as a young journalist at the beginning of XXth century) that democracy and liberal economy soon dominate the whole World. 

This rule is a consequence of very simple economic mechanism: When the economy is in the phase of growth, the middle-income citizens (for simplicity middle class) grow in number and wealth and thus in political strength. When the economy is in the crisis phase, the group of middle-income citiziens shrinks, and opposite GPIs from the left wing and right wing of political scene (conflicted with each other) grow in strength. Economic mechanism responsible for destroying the group of middle-income citizens is very similar as in polarization effect, which destroys the economic prosperity of middle-income countries (described in more detail on the economics tools page, when I will write about flaws of the comparative advantage theory).

Now you can see, why the observation that was made by Alexis de Tocqueville:
Revolution usually happens when the crisis comes after the phase of growth is true.
When the country ruled by a privileged GPI (group of political interests) is in the phase of growth, the middle-income citizens (which have no political rights at all or have very limited political rights) grow in strength. When the crisis comes, the dominant GPI usually tries to increase the rate of exploitation of other citizens. In a self-defense middle-income citizens can (if they are strong enough) made an alliance with low-income citizens group and made a successful revolution.

Of course, if the crisis not come (or middle-class is strong like in democratic system), the changes in political system will be gradual (system will be developing in an evolutionary way).

The Law of Connected Vessels

It is the law formulated by polish historian Pawel Jasienica.
When a country with higher-developed political institutions conquers (or unites with) a country that have less-developed political institutions, institutions in the first country starts to degenerate ad institutions in the less-developed country start to develop until “political levels” in both countries will become almost equal.
The reasons are economic and will be explained in more detail later.

Expansion and fall cycle in states before the industrial revolution

Every feudal state goes (sometimes many times) through specific life-cycle:

  1. Expansion, and a phase economic growth,
  2. Decline, because of diffusion processes launched by conquered lands.
  3. Final fall - country breaks into a few smaller countries or is completely conquered by barbarians or some other country, or civil war changes the ruling GPI.
  4. Eventual rebirth. After the crisis a new phase of economic growth begins, country unites, and the cycle starts from the beginning. (Technology level are little higher than at the beginning of previous cycle).

Here a short description of social mechanics that stands behind this cycle:

There are basically tree most important GPIs in feudal states:

There are basically tree most important GPIs in feudal states:

  • Soldiers faction. Nobles who want to increase their wealth using military ways, by conquering or plundering some other country.
  • Priests faction. Nobles who wants to increase their wealth by increasing the rate of exploitation of local peasant (or introduce new, more effective methods of production).
  • Planters faction. Nobles who want to increase their wealth by selling their products abroad (usually to some richer country).
  • Plus there are merchants. They are usually have no political rights, but sometimes could be an important ally for factions mentioned above.

Depending on situation, one of these faction is the strongest, and dictates the policy of the country. When planters are on the top, we can see so-called “noble democracy” - a feudal state (only nobles have political rights) with some elements of parliamentarism (ex. England, Hungary, Poland) - but it is a very rare case. When priests are on the top, we can see a religion driven state, often with great religious buildings (like cathedrals or pyramids). When soldiers are on the top, the feudal country is expansionistic, and tries to conquer its neighbours.

Usually the most effective (most profitable) way to increase wealth of dominating nobles is a military expansion, so feudal country tries to conquer the weakest of his neighbours. At the beginning, that kind of “government investment” is quite profitable. New conquered countries give a monarch extra lands that he could use to revard his warriors, officials and supporters, and opens new markets for local traders. Until the volume of the long-range internal trade (ie. trade between different provinces of kingdom) is high, country is united, because profits from trade makes stronger these GPIs that are interested in unity of the country. Long range trade is a glue that keeps different provinces together.

Then, after the long growth, comes the slow economic fall. There are numerous causes of such crisis. Maybe too many conquered lands consume to many military resources of the country. Maybe too intensive exploitation of natural resources makes country vulnerable to natural disasters. Maybe long-range trade becomes less profitable because differences in wealth levels between provinces became smaller. Maybe the reason is the shift of trade routes because of some external processes.

As a result the volume of the long-range internal trade loses its power to glue country together, and local feudal lords grow in power (comparing with monarch). Eventually that process disunites the country into several (or even hundreds of) pieces.

Crisis in a relatively rich country makes some economic problems to their neigbours too. If that country trades goods with some barbarian tribes (or some other country with lower income), population, wealth, and technology level of these tribes increases rapidly when the rich country is in expansion phase. When the crisis comes, rich country would try to protect its trade balance using numerous protective means: its merchants will start buy little less goods, dictate lower prices or try to find other barbarian tribes that could sell the same goods cheaper. In consequence that middle-income barbarian tribes suffers from poverty because their “export” drastically decreases (see “the polarization effect”).

In consequence, a war becomes a very good alternative for these barbarian tribes: they are well equipped, and numerous, and have no other option to protect their social status. Moreover army of the rich country is quite weak because of economic crisis. So, we can observe a great barbarian expansion and migration. Middle-income tribes attacks (and in most cases conquer) the rich country, and also some low-income barbarian tribes in their neighbourhood.

Country falls under the rule of barbarians (or some times a middle-income country), and the cycle starts from the beginning. (But barbarian lands join the civilized states.) As you can see, great nomadic empires (like Mongol or Arabian) emerge because of the weakness of conquered feudal countries.

Of course this is only one of many possible paths of this rise-and-fall cycle. Depending on GPI which rules the feudal country (warriors, priests or planters), and many other factors, the schema of growth, and fall could be little different. Actually there are probably at least a two dozens variants of this rise-and-fall cycle.

„The Peninsula Schema”

When countries exists in a relatively open geographic region, and borders with many barbarian countries, its overall development is rather slow. Feudal countries go through many cycles of expansion and fall, and size of civilized (non-barbarian) area increases rather slowly.

But when several countries are bundled together in a relatively enclosed peninsula-like region, and this region have some natural internal borders like mountains, forests, swamps, then the schema of historical evolution  is a little different. (These borders prevent any singular country from permanently conquering or dominating the whole region - because there are many equally strong sub-regions that have very different economical interests.)

In such region there are several countries with comparable strength competing with each other. Even when one country grows in power, its neighbours immediately made an alliance to bring that country down. Countries have very little place to expand, so economic falls (and thus political regressions) caused by immoderate expansion are not so deep. Costs of war increase dramatically, because there is no longer “easy prey” in close surroundings (every new military discovery is very quickly implemented by neighbours). So, the alternative ways of increasing country wealth like trade, technology development an investments become relatively more profitable (we can construct curves illustrating what is the best choice for a country: war, trade expansion, technology-intensive investments, etc. - or to be more precise: what is the best choice for GPIs that rule the country - using similar curves like in the theory of utility in economics).

For all those reasons technology development speeds up, and volume of trade grows. Technology development (especially in agriculture) helps cities to grow, and trade growth gives cities economic reason to growth (cities become important centers of trade exchange). So, we can observe appearance of first populistic city-states (like Sparta, Corinth and Athens in Ancient Greece, or Venetia, Milano anf Genoa in Medieval Italy). And their appearance makes technology, and trade development even faster.

Expansion of these city-states, and diffusion of new technologies imported by other (feudal) states on “peninsula”, eventually make all counties on peninsula populistic. And there is a chance that after some time one of populistic countries eventually become democratic - which makes technology development even faster.

We can observe the peninsula schema a few times in history: in Ancient Greece, in Medieval Italy, in Modern Europe, and in XV-XVIII centuries in India. (But before the southern parts of India subcontinent - for example Kerala - could evolve into populistic states, whole region was colonized by Europeans.)

Populistic system can also evolve in a country on an island that is located at the crossroads of important trade routes, and have limited ability to expansion (You should remember that overseas military expansion is much more costly than land expansion, because of logistic reasons, so all alternative methods of increasing the island country’s wealth are more profitable). Good examples of that kind of countries could be Ancient Minoan Crete or modern England and Japan.

Stylistic corrections, January-February 2006
Slawomir Dzieniszewski

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MECHANICS  OF  HISTORY  -  laws to understand the histtory