Capitalisms Last Frontier #7 The Steppe Frontier – The Genesis of Empires

The concept of the Steppe Frontier has been introduced in a highly discussed work in 2009 by Ecologist Peter Turchin called ‘A Theory for the Formation of Large Empires’. His concept of the ‘Steppe Frontier’ has two fundamental presumptions.

First, there is a steep gradient in average rainfall. The well-watered side of the ecological frontier is inhabited by settled agriculturalists, while pastoral nomads occupy the arid zone. Second, pastoralist nomads have both the incentive and ability to take agricultural products away from farmers by force.

This ecological frontier is of course the global margin of cultivation between arid and pastoral regions. Turchin, as a Russian, uses the old term Steppe Frontier which holds the same importance in Russia as the term Western Frontier in America, it is clear from his context however that Turchin is really referring to a pastorial frontier, between pastoralism and semi-arid or arid regions of several biotypes.

The theory arises from the tendency for  large empires to arise at interfaces between settled and nomadic societies.

Turchin gives as an example the recurrent state formation in East Asia: China has been unified 14 time, and on all but one occasion the unification proceeded from North (and most frequently, Northwest) towards South. Simultaneously, a series of nomadic imperial confederations arose on the steppe side of the Inner Asian nomad/settled frontier. According to his analysus over 90% of megaempires arose within or next to the Old World’s arid belt, running from the Sahara desert to the Gobi desert.

The idea of the model is that the inequality  in military power between the mounted archers and the farmers puts farming communities under selective pressure to unite to better resist the predation from the steppe. In turn, the nomads are forced to unite to be able to overcome the defenses of the emerging agrarian states. The scale of empire on both sides of the steppe frontier mutually increase.

This theory is attractive for a number of reasons. It does not rely on preconceptions of ‘oriental’ civilisations, rather focussing on the mutual dynamics of changing societies at the edge of the margin of cultivation.  These preconceptions, with their assumptions of inherent ‘despotism’ and ‘backwardness’ have hindered several centuries of historical theorising about pre-capitalist civilisations – in particular conceptions of Hydralic States in Weber, Oriental Despotism in Marx and their unification in  Wittfogels conception of Hydralic Civilisation (a future section will deal with these ideas). It also might help explain the centrality of Mesopotamia, with arid frontiers on two sides.

Peter Turchin has helped launch a new field – derived from applying ideas from population dynamics to the dynamics of history.  The field is called cliodynamics.   A deliberate play, and deliberate threat, on the field of Clionomics, the application of otrthodox ideas of neo-classical economics to history.

The expansion of turf is doubly interesting in that it was the extension of older ideas of population and subsistence into explanations of society, pioneered by the likes of Cantillon, Mathus and Ricardo, which defined the sphere of political economy.  We are now seeing a new extension but built on new and more robust mathematical foundations.

As Turchin says on his website

Are there ‘laws of history’? We do not lack hypotheses to investigate – to take just one instance, more than two hundred explanations have been proposed for why the Roman Empire fell. But we still don’t know which of these hypotheses are plausible, and which should be rejected. More importantly, there is no consensus on what general mechanisms explain the collapse of historical empires. What is needed is a systematic application of the scientific method to history: verbal theories should be translated into mathematical models, precise predictions derived, and then rigorously tested on empirical material. In short, history needs to become an analytical, predictive science.

This is audacious as this the very ground on which materialist concepts of history, especially Marxian conceptions, call their own. But in utilising the tools of systems dynamics, unavailable in the 18th or 19th centuries causation can be seen as complex and multidirectional, with processes of positive and negative feedback, hysteresis homoeostasis and non-linear relationships.

This embrace of complexity is of especial relevance when considering the relationship between state power, violence, means of social control and economic gain. It avoids the problems of the marxian base-superstructure model, which as we saw in the last section has the fatal flaw of being unable to explain the rise of capitalism and persistence of pre-capitalist ways of producing. But importantly it does not lose the focus on the physical and environmental, on subsistence and flows of actual things. A focus often lost in the many post-everything models which focus on systems of power and ideas unachored in the threat of hunger or death.

The Cliodynamics approach is clearly an outgrowth of the World Systems approach of Immanueal Wallerstein and the French Annales School. The assumptions of multiple paths of evolutionary development, the focus on trans and international relations and interfaces, and the focus on long-term processes and geo-ecological regions as unit of analysis all come from these approachs. The world systems approach has however been hesitant to describe itself as a theory.The reason surely is its origins as an outgrowth from marxian ideas. A very heterodox approach to explain what was poorly explained and what could not be explained by Marx’s ideas.

If we have a hint of a better and more universal systemic approach towards political economy and historical change then we need to press such approaches into service in helping to answer the big unaswered questions of history, of why some societies have collapsed, or thrived, and what it tells us about the future of our own society.

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