July 23, 2021

Imperial collapse and cratering trust: the former Ottoman Empire, and Italy

[Part 1]

Continuing the theme of right-wingers' static explanations of low trust, why are the people of southern Italy, the Balkans, or the Near East so low-trust? (This region is crucial since the right relies on terms and models like "Balkanization".) The right-winger will come up with something that is not dynamic — whether it's genes, cultural tradition, a subsistence mode adapted to their geography, or whatever else. And those could certainly play a role. But they're largely static.

Especially when there's a close comparison group who is not so low in trust — like northern Italy. Right-wingers must fall back on specious arguments about vast differences between northern and southern Italy based on genetics, traditions, geography, etc.

Ditto for trying to explain why Russia can accomplish so much, for an eastern European nation, compared to its cousin-neighbors among the Balkan Slavs. The Slavic expansion was so recent that most of them are practically cousins at the DNA level, not having had enough time to diverge from one another. The same goes for their languages and cultural traditions (including most of the Balkans being Orthodox rather than Catholic, Muslim, or something else).

The only major static difference is in subsistence mode, with Russia being flat and agrarian, and much of the Balkans being hilly / mountainous and pastoralist. And it's true that pastoralists are generally more tribalistic and low-trusting than agrarians, since pastoralism does not support large sedentary states and institutions that could pacify and unify a population. Pastoralists are also constantly in danger of having their livestock rustled, and tempted to do the rustling preemptively, unlike landowners or peasants whose land and cultivated crops cannot be so easily stolen and run off with (livestock move themselves, once driven, and they're herd animals, so it just takes driving one to drive them all).

But then Bulgaria is large, flat, and agrarian, just like Russia (as well as being genetic cousins, Slavic speakers, Orthodox Christians, etc.). Yet where is Bulgarian achievement that rivals Russian achievement? Their low trust and lack of large-scale cooperation cannot be blamed on them being rambunctious mountain shepherds like the Serbs.

Poland is also large, flat, and agrarian, like Russia (they're similar otherwise, except for being Catholic instead of Orthodox). And yet, where is Polish achievement today, compared to Russian achievement?

In fact, Bulgaria did use to be a center of cooperation and achievement — way back in the late first millennium, when they brought Orthodox Christianity, and amazing architectural feats shown in their churches, into the Slavic territory. It's hard to convert others if your own missionaries are not dedicated to a higher purpose, if they are not patronized by generous elites, and all working as a well-oiled machine. Their dialect was preserved as sacred in religious rites for centuries (Old Church Slavonic). And they pioneered the Cyrillic alphabet common to many Slavic languages today.

But way back then, Bulgaria was an expanding empire, marked by high asabiya. Of course they could accomplish great things. But over the course of the second millennium, they went into a hangover after their empire began contracting. And on top of that, they were quickly swallowed up by the new Ottoman Empire (within a century of its founding), whose collapse set off another hangover in cooperation.

But Russia has been an expanding empire for awhile (since the mid-2nd millennium), albeit in several re-incarnations (such as the Soviet Empire that followed the Romanov Empire). Russia was never swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire, or any other empire, since the Mongols of the Golden Horde conquered southern Russia, back in the early 2nd millennium. Indeed, lying at the meta-ethnic frontier between themselves and the Mongols is what drove Russian ethnogenesis, and later its imperial expansion, in the first place. So they still have fairly high levels of asabiya compared to their neighbors.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire accounts for the persistently low levels of trust in the eastern Mediterranean. These nations did not lie at the distant frontiers where solidarity rose among the non-Ottomans. Those would be the Russians, the Austrians or Austro-Hungarians, the Persians, the Saudis, and to a lesser extent the Moroccans (whose brief conflict with the Ottomans, in which they remained unconquered, did not last long enough to cause them to launch another empire like the Almohads or Almoravids, but who are still the most mellow, cooperative, and least prone to civil war of the Arabic-speaking nations outside of Saudi Arabia).

Those close to the Ottoman core of Anatolia were sucked into its rise in asabiya, receiving patronage from very wealthy Ottoman elites, but they also had to share in the hangover once the Ottoman heyday was over. The hostile tribalism of the Balkans, the Levant, and Egypt cannot be explained by static factors, most of which they share with related groups who were not quickly swallowed into the Ottoman Empire (or were never swallowed). Compare Egypt or Libya to Morocco (and to a lesser extent Algeria). Compare Syria to the Saudis. Compare the Armenians to the Iranians. Compare the Serbs to the Austrians, or the Bulgarians to the Russians. The largest factor is proximity to the Ottoman core, and duration of being absorbed by them (if at all).

These differences show up big-time in the Arab Spring color revolutions, which severely rocked the core of the former Ottoman Empire, while having lesser effects in the western part of North Africa, farthest from Anatolia. Morocco emerged from the Arab Spring untouched, and Algeria was relatively unscathed (that country was added by the Ottomans in the early 1500s but won de facto independence by the early 1700s, and were later occupied by France for awhile but also won independence). The Arab Spring did not destabilize the states of Saudi Arabia or Iran, both of which were unconquered by the Ottomans. And of course the core of the Ottomans, Turkey, has been racked by coups every few decades since their empire fell, all the way up to the present with the attempted coup of 2016.

The Ottoman Empire only bit the dust 100 years ago, so on the time-scale of imperial rise and fall, which lasts for centuries in one direction, the current asabiya hangover affecting its core regions can easily persist for centuries longer. Once it gets back to a neutral resting state, then one of their nations may rise again if pressured by an expanding group from outside. But that is all way too far into the future to speculate on in detail, just worth noting what general conditions would be needed for there to be another Golden Age of arts and sciences in Baghdad.

And to briefly tie up the story about northern vs. southern Italy, that traces back at least to the collapse of the Roman Empire, which left the whole of the Italian peninsula in a black hole of asabiya, allowing invaders like the Germanic tribes to easily take them over. The Renaissance was highly localized, not an Italy-wide phenomenon, and it did not involve unification.

Italian unification only took place after centuries of lying at the meta-ethnic frontier with several large expansionist empires — Spain, France, and Austria, all of whom primarily pressured Italy from the north. This caused rising asabiya in northern Italy, compared to fairly flat levels in southern Italy, and it was the north who led the unification of the peninsula. To this day, they are more cooperative and accomplished than the south.

Not due to genetics, traditions, or subsistence mode, but due to the north recently being pressured by multiple empires for centuries. The south has hardly been pressured in that way since the fall of the Roman Empire (and even back then, Southerners were not the unifiers, but those around Rome itself, who bore the brunt of Celtic and Carthaginian expansion).

The Spanish pressure on northern Italy alleviated during the collapse of the Spanish Empire during the 19th C. And the French and Austrian Empires both collapsed following WWI. The only empires nearby since then have been the Americans and Soviets. The Soviets never got close to pressuring Italy, and the Americans amicably invited Italy into NATO rather than forcibly conquer it over the course of centuries (we only fought them in WWII). So the pressure to cohere has been easing up on northern Italy as well, which explains why that nation never grew into a newly expanding empire — just one that unified an amalgam of formerly hostile city-states.


  1. Saudi Arabia was not a frontier independent of & hostile to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans actually conquered Mecca & Medina. And the first time a Saudi state sprang up, the Ottomans smashed it. That does make it comparable to Russia under the Mongols, but not Iran. Speaking of which, Kemalist Turkey seems much closer to Iran in being a functional nationalist state than Saudi Arabia, which just has a lot of oil money. You don't hear of Saudi nuclear scientists being assassinated... because there are no Saudi nuclear scientists. Guest workers do all the actual work in the Gulf States, and they won't be doing anything in S.A. when the oil money runs out.

    "Italian unification only took place after centuries of lying at the meta-ethnic frontier with several large expansionist empires — Spain, France, and Austria"
    That doesn't qualify as a "meta-ethnic frontier". Italian isn't that different a language from fellow Romance languages Spanish & French, and those are all Catholic countries.

    Shouldn't the southern Italian experience under Islamic rule have primed them for better things, a la Spanish reconquista?

  2. This fool thinks the Saudis came from the Hejaz and not the Najd! xD

    Take a look at the maps of the expanding Saudi state since the late 1700s, when the Arabian desert tribes had become encircled by the Ottomans on all sides (the Fertile Crescent, the eastern Arabian peninsula on the Persian Gulf, and yes, down into the Hejaz).

    The Saudis were so instrumental in destroying the Ottoman Empire, before and during WWI, that the other Arabic-speaking nations adopted the "Arab" identity. They were following the lead of the Arabians, after seeing them whoop the Ottomans and set the other Arabic / Semitic speakers free.

    That's why they all have / had names like the Arab Republic of Syria -- their own national identity, plus a tribute to their (Saudi) Arabian leaders against the Ottoman Empire.

    The Saudis have obviously run out of asabiya by this point, and are about as decadent and moribund as we Americans are. They enjoyed over 200 years of expansion, though -- pretty good for desert tribesmen.

    And therefore the other Arabic speakers are less and less likely to emphasize their "Arab" identity. They're Syrian or Iraqi, not "Syrian Arabs" or "Iraqi Arabs". Saudis are not leaders anymore, so nobody wants to follow them or pay them tribute.

    Only diaspora members of those nations still use the term Arab -- but it's not as a tribute to the Saudis (in their mutual rebellion against the Ottomans). It's just a catch-all ethnic term in their adoptive countries.


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