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An orderly empire allows for well organised resource extraction [...]

Others have a strong internal need for new wars [...]

... contrast the US empire with the Soviet empire...

John Michael Greer has an almost thermodynamic view of an empire:

An empire is an arrangement among nations, backed and usually imposed by military force, that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core. Put more simply, an empire is a wealth pump, a device to enrich one nation at the expense of others. The mechanism of the pump varies from empire to empire and from age to age; the straightforward exaction of tribute that did the job for ancient Egypt, and had another vogue in the time of imperial Spain, has been replaced in most of the more recent empires by somewhat less blatant though equally effective systems of unbalanced exchange. While the mechanism varies, though, the underlying principle does not.
Or other iteration:
an empire is a wealth pump, an arrangement backed by military force that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core
I find this view generally right, with the implied addition that an empire is able to lure subjects by fractions of wealth flows in its growth phase. When the expansion hits diminishing or negative returns, civilization joys for periphery become more of propaganda. The Roman empire was quite a hurricane of wealth circulation that had to abate nevertheless.

The Soviet empire is quite an exeption though, despite Greer talking about "looting of eastern Europe for Russian benefit". Economically and materially, the Soviets were actually supporting the periphery (particularly Central Asia, vassals like Cuba, North Korea) with cheap oil, gas, fertilizers, while "looting" is not the right word for what they were imposing. Looking form this angle, the strange collapse of USSR is less mysterious.

by das monde on Wed May 8th, 2013 at 09:57:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"...collapse of USSR... "

I am so tired of this propaganda cliché... "Collapse" imply sudden, spontaneous, and more or less disorderly fall/ slump. In contrast the USSR, and most of the Eastern Block was dismantled voluntarily, peacefully, in a planned orderly fashion from the top down; and this is well documented. In fact, to the best of my knowledge it is the only socio-economic system in history that ceased to exist in such a manner.

Of course one might argue that the USSR lost the Cold War and the armaments race, and that was what tore the system down, but this will be digging more into the reasons of why the lights were turned off. By the end of the 1980s the USSR still had enough retaliatory military power to continue to dwindle for decades ahead.

by Ivo on Thu May 9th, 2013 at 05:20:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Indeed, the USSR is not an example of a system that tried to stay alive and kicking for as long a possible.
by das monde on Thu May 9th, 2013 at 05:24:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
dismantled voluntarily, peacefully, in a planned orderly fashion from the top down

Hm, in the case of the Soviet Union, a failed coup followed by independence declarations of the republics, ending with a semi-coup of the leaders of three republics against Gorbachev (the Belavezha Accords) is not exactly planned or orderly, even if the final act was another accord that also regulated legal inheritance.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu May 9th, 2013 at 07:37:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The gradual dismantling process was set in motion in the mid 1980s; doubtless there must had been some preceding work behind the scenes at the very top; and the whole colossal transformation relied entirely on the state's administrative apparatus for the execution. If that is not "planned" and "orderly" I don't know what is it.
by Ivo on Thu May 9th, 2013 at 09:09:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The gradual dismantling process was not set in motion with a plan of dismantlement. That was an unplanned outcome. I'm not sure what you mean by "relied entirely on the state's administrative apparatus for the execution". Inaction or insufficient action in the face of separatism is mostly down to the top, rather than the apparatus (although, again, there was a coup attempt); and at least a significant part of the apparatus going along with the formation of new separate state administrations is nothing strange, either (what else would they have done?). At this point, my question is: what is your minimum standard for the collapse of an empire, then? (As in, example of the least dramatic dissolution you still count as a collapse.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu May 9th, 2013 at 09:16:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My impression was that Gorbachev, Shevardnadze and others had come to the conclusion that the command control centralized state had become massively sub-optimal and undertook a process of restructuring and openness in an attempt to transform the nature of the Soviet Union into one that would provide a better version of socialism. But the process got out of their control. Given the centralized nature of the state it was an orderly process until they had dismantled enough of the state that opponents could challenge them. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze underestimated the malignancy of the worms in the cans they opened and over estimated their ability to continue to control events. But had they not started glasnost and perestroika and tried to create a less oppressive state the dissolution of the Soviet Union might not have even happened yet.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 10:31:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
until they had dismantled enough of the state that opponents could challenge them
Which opponents and challenges do you have in mind? When were they visible?
by das monde on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 03:14:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Operating from memory based largely on LA Times coverage at the time - up to a quarter century ago - there was no shortage of hard line elites who liked things the way they were and they had the support of lots of Soviet citizens who became increasingly nostalgic for Stalin, the old Russian preference for order above all else. The ones who were problematic for Gorbachev were those in authority - mayors of large cities and leaders of states and regions, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Belorussia, Ukraine, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tadzhikistan, etc. along with some military leaders and internal security officials. Wiki reminds me of the collapse of world oil prices which left the Soviets short of foreign currency and led to shortages. Then there was the ongoing problem in Poland which led to the election in August of '89, almost coincident with the putsch in Moscow.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 11:53:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No shortage of hard line elites?! Their attention was highly dysfunctional then. Nostalgia for Stalin and order? Without Gorbachev bringing that up, who would have bothered highly?

Gorbachev was very active in replacing top functionaries, also in the republics. Funny, but his policies exactly provoked national tensions that were dormant for decades. No one else but himself installed those few "problematic" city majors, region leaders - and then gave all initiative to them in the last year, while showing no adequate concern for the fate of the USSR. In the East Europe, stubbornness of DDR and Romania leaders bothered him more than Poland.

The August putsch was in 1991. The Soviets needed quick foreign currency only for Chernobyl.

by das monde on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 12:57:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No one else but himself installed those few "problematic" city majors, region leaders - and then gave all initiative to them in the last year, while showing no adequate concern for the fate of the USSR.

A pretty good description of a top down reform that got out of hand due to serious miscalculations by Gorbachev. You seem to have lived through it first hand. What is your take on what Gorbachev intended and why his choice of new 'reformers' was so disastrous for the USSR? And, what different path might have made the transition and left the bulk of the USSR intact?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 05:14:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
By now my view is very simple. No one saw it coming, yet plausible explanations were settled very quickly. The suspected crushing forces are not convincing though, while failure of the support systems is obvious. Like in Chile, the whole plan was well prepared (including Chicago Brick economic receipes), and executed to expectations.
by das monde on Sun May 12th, 2013 at 02:40:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
i don't believe IMF involvement came until Yeltsin gained power, though under Gorbachev privately owned cooperatives were legalized for what we would call medium and small businesses and state enterprises, such as Aeroflot were encouraged to spin off subsidiaries who were encouraged to seek foreign investors.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon May 13th, 2013 at 11:41:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's incorrect. The IMF had been active for decades as a creditor to various Warsaw Pact countries.

When energy prices crashed in the 1980s, as a consequence of the development of the North Sea oil and gas deposits, they became unable to finance the imports of higher quality Western consumer goods to which the population had become accustomed during the period of high energy prices in the '70s. It went predictably downhill from there.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon May 13th, 2013 at 02:28:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
'The IMF had been active for decades' on account of western banks lending into the Warsaw Pact countries, a substantial part of which was vendor finance. But it was not until October 5, 1991, when President Mikhail Gorbachev and Managing Director Michel Camdessus entered into an agreement: Special Association Between the U.S.S.R. and the Fund - Terms and Conditions. But this agreement became null and void upon Gorbachev's resignation and the dissolution of the USSR. Seeing his plans for a federation of socialist states fail Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991. Yeltsin had already announced in October that Russia would proceed along the lines recommended by the IMF.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon May 13th, 2013 at 04:56:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The USSR putsch in Moscow was in August of 1991, two years after the Central Europe events in 1989:

by Bernard (bernard) on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 01:58:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Before all these events in 1989 the USSR elite had given clear signals not only that they will not interfere, but in fact they actively encouraged satellites' independent policy. I remember some of the reported friction between Gorbatchev on the one hand, and the most rigid leaders on the other, specifically with Honeker and Zhivkov. All the work Gorbatchev and his circle had done made the subsequent changes in 1989 possible.

Btw, as a matter of fact Chaushescu was not exactly "overthrown", but after a mock court murdered by his own security services live on TV; not as savage as the execution of Ghadaffi, but still pretty shocking back then to happen in an European country.

by Ivo on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 05:49:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, the Ceauşescu execution wasn't live (in fact, the shooting itself wasn't filmed, leading to some conspiracy theories), and it was done by soldiers not Securitate members, but sure it was a show trial. What do you mean not overthrown? Whoever does the execution, he lost power by force.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 07:03:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Frankly, I do not take that coup attempt seriously. It fits quite well into staged collapse suspicions. KGB just did a few "desperate" motions, and then embraced the new wild Russian capitalism.
by das monde on Thu May 9th, 2013 at 09:37:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But without a collapse scenario, The Blessed St. Ronnie and US brinksmanship policies don't get enough credit for making it all happen.
by rifek on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 11:14:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
an empire is a wealth pump

This strikes me as very consistent with Varoufakis' Global Minotaur thesis, with only a change of emphasis. John Michael Greer emphasizes the wealth accumulation by individuals and corporations in the core of the empire while Varoufakis emphasizes the recycling mechanism. The recycling of money keeps the system going while the wealth accumulation by a tiny elite puts increasing strains on the system.

To the elites it is the personal wealth accumulation that matters, not the fates of nation states. To that end they have systematically undermined the economic sovereignty of individual nations, starting at the core. No restrictions on our capital movement gentlemen, that will not be tolerated. That makes it easier for them to extract profits from shifting the manufacturing to China and other low wage locations while US citizens go into debt to finance consumption. The fact that the recycling mechanism has broken down indicates that either a new system will have to emerge and/or we will witness the collapse of the current system. But doing anything that interferes with the accumulation to prevent collapse, economic and/or environmental, is just not a serious proposal.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun May 12th, 2013 at 01:52:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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