I had 35 minutes in my conversation with Patrick Wyman when he scared me.
I called Wyman – a European historian focused on the end of the Roman Empire and the world he left behind – to discuss his article in Mother Jones on how societies hold together or collapse. But as every conversation seems these days, the conversation has quickly turned into plagues and pandemics. Wyman spoke of the bubonic plague of the mid-1330s which essentially halved the European population. This is what Wyman looked like, Europe on the eve of the “black plague”.
After a long period of economic expansion and population growth, wages were low and the serfs struggled to cope. Inequality had soared as a small group of wealthy elites spent a lot on luxury. The climate, after a long and stable period, was entering a volatile change. Oh yes, and in the decade before the pandemic, a group of historically massive societies had overexposed themselves and gone bankrupt, triggering an economic crisis.
We sat for a minute with what he just said, both aware of the parallels and neither of us particularly comfortable with them. But then he laughed. I did it too. It’s dark. I am terrified. But what else can you really do?
It is easy to feel helpless right now. We are stuck inside, watching the confirmed number of coronavirus cases climb and waiting to find out if one of our “social distances” can work or if we are already too late. And I started to wonder if we are all somehow stuck in the wheel of history, believing that we are shaping the fate of our society, but more simply as drawn into an inevitable cycle. Maybe we have to accept that these people who thought they had built a good and stable society were really just stupid luck recipients – born in a place and at a time when the wheel is going up, rather than during its downfall inevitable?
Fortunately, Wyman – who, unlike me, has a deep knowledge of history – had a different approach, which is both more overwhelming to know where we are at the moment but, ultimately, more optimistic on the path to to follow.
We discussed these hopes, from his article “How do you know if you are living the death of an empire?”, How pandemics changed societies in the past and how the Romans managed (or failed) to manage coronavirus of their era.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
A recurring theme in your work on the Roman Empire is, basically, what you learned in high school is wrong: As shocking as they were both then and now, the famous barbarian invasions that ransacked Rome did not end the empire. – they showed how it had already deteriorated. In your essay, you apply this thought to our modern United States. How does this apply here with COVID-19?
Crises like these – whether it’s a crisis of political legitimacy, or a pandemic that demands a response, or some sort of major external warfare that arises out of nowhere – chances are good that anything that breaks out under pressure of this crisis is probably already tense. , was probably barely hanging around. There is a kind of deep problem that a crisis is going to expose, highlight, and then break down very dramatically so that everyone can see it.
We see the crisis and we see the break – and we match the two. We are narrative creatures. This is how we understand the world. We understand things as a story with a story with a climax, and the break must be the climax. It is very difficult for us to turn a more analytical eye and see the collection of very small things that lead to a systemic breakdown. It’s just difficult. But these disasters do not create these trends as much as they reinforce them.
What types of ruptures, systemic failures and supercharged trends do you see with our response to COVID? Your point of view on the breakdown of systems that were already very close reminded me of these reports that somewhere between 90 and 98% of the intensive care beds in our country are used all the time.
That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. When you have a company that has optimized itself for an ideal of efficiency or shareholder value, as opposed to redundancy or resilience, this is the kind of result you get. From my point of view, this amounts to a break. Something like a repeated reduction in the capacity of intensive care in order to generate more profit for the shareholders, which looks like a faulty system, or at least a system in which the incentives are not necessarily aligned with the public welfare.
On a slightly different scale, if you have an economy that is configured in such a way that having to cut consumer spending in order to preserve public health puts enormous pressure on it, there is probably something underlying that is unhealthy for this whole system. If your political economy is not healthy enough to withstand or respond to a shock like this, something is wrong. If we end up with 20 or 25 percent unemployment, if we end up with a lot of people who can’t eat, who will pay thousands and thousands of dollars in medical bills if and when they get sick… what are systemic crises that arose from problems that existed before the coronavirus.
Sticking to this theme “crises do not break societies, they reveal what is already broken”, how does this relate to other historical events that change the world?
Take the “black death”, a bubonic plague in the mid-1300s that killed between 40 and 60% of the population. To someone who lives there, it seemed like a massive breakdown. But if you look at the conditions in Europe as the plague approaches, you will see that the pandemic has supercharged many of the trends that were already underway.
Black death therefore came at the end of a long period of economic contraction which had started in the late 1200s. Before that, there had been this long period of economic bloom in medieval Upper Europe of “the commercial revolution Where long distance trade was spreading rapidly, much more money was in circulation, the economy was growing. But it was built on population growth; some populations have doubled or even tripled in much of Europe.
And that meant that by the end of the 13th century (1200), almost all of the arable land was under cultivation. Even a lot of marginal, muddy, hilly and swampy land was used. But the effect of having all these people was that the wages were extremely low. There were many people who lived on the edge of their subsistence without their own land. These were the material conditions that underpinned the heyday of the serfdom system, a work arrangement in which people owed unpaid service to the lord in exchange for the use of his land.
There is also a climatic element. Part of the reason for this long economic bloom was that it was a really good, warm and stable period of time. It is less important to farmers that the weather be nice than predictable, because what you need to know is when to sew your crops and when to harvest them. But in the end (1200s) and in (1300s), time got worse. It’s much less predictable – it’s wetter, colder. And this reaches a particularly bad point in what is called the “great famine”, which peaks between around 1315 and 1322. Many people have died: hundreds of thousands or millions of people have died of hunger in Western Europe. So it’s a sign that there is something wrong with the system. And this continued until the black plague.
There have also been a whole series of bankruptcies of very large companies – unprecedented companies which, in historiography, are called “super-companies” – which have been invested throughout Europe. They went bankrupt in the mid-1340s, before the Black Death. They failed for many reasons, but one of them was due to their overexposure and the weak economy.
So you have tight money. You have a high population, low wages, high land costs … this is the recipe for a very bad set of results.
Hmm, you hear how that sounds, right? (Long silence, followed by laughter)
Yeah, when you say it schematically, it looks bad, huh? What is interesting is that, although of course you suffer an economic contraction following the death of many people, in the long term, black death has improved living conditions in Western Europe, especially for peasants . The land was cheaper and you were more likely to acquire your own, you had to eat better, more nutritious food and a wider variety of food, your wages were higher…
But it was very expensive. You don’t want to have to “Thanos” tear off half the population from life to get to a point where the peasants are doing better.
To be honest, there is something depressing and deterministic about it. If you are a peasant born in 1330, you will grow up poor and, probably, die of bubonic plague before being 25 years old. If you were born in 1360, you have a much brighter set of possible outcomes. Are we all spinning on the wheel? Never worry, we will tell our grandchildren how good life was, and they will look at us in disbelief.
The end of the Roman Empire did not make everyone’s life worse, and I think that is an important point. Life doesn’t to have get worse due to the end of a large-scale political entity. There is a desperate inequality in the Roman Empire. Many groups of people are systematically treated terribly in the Roman system. For most people, there is no basic assumption that their life has real value. So the standard of living probably increased for many people in the post-Roman world, the health of the population was probably better, and diets were probably better in large parts of the world.
That said, life often can get worse because of the end of a political system. There are things that large-scale states do that improve life or are very useful in many ways. There is evidence that after Rome, people lived in a more violent world. The simple fact was that people – and there were far fewer people in general – lived in much more local worlds. Their worlds were much less urbanized and less connected over long distances. I wrote my doctoral thesis on how there was much less distance communication in the post-Roman world.
For our grandchildren, I worry a lot about the climate, a time when you can’t really go outside in the summer, when you can’t grow certain crops because it’s too hot. I think we could be in a situation similar to that of post-Roman Europe, in which – if the climate continues to change – we have a more violent world and a more disorderly world. It’s not necessarily worse, but we could certainly tell them about a very different world.
But you don’t seem to see the fate of corporations as predetermined. Can you give examples of leaders who have successfully brought systems together?
Yeah! To stay in the Roman context, there are at least two. There was the end of the Roman Republic, and there was nothing to say that the struggle between Auguste and Marc Antoine which followed (the death of Julius Caesar) had to end with their world intact, but it did.
Perhaps more interesting is the crisis of the 3rd century, this series of failures in the cascade system throughout the Roman world which included a climate shock or a major drought. There have been droughts, famines and plagues. (It’s hard to know how bad they were because our sources from that time are so bad.) All of this is combined with an economic crisis, barbaric invasions – the Roman Empire could very easily have collapsed in the 3rd century AD.
But there were a few emperors who managed to put things back together. The first of these was Aurélien, followed by Diocletian, who essentially reconstructed the Roman system in something very different. The last Roman Empire is a very different beast. It was much more militarized. There was a much larger bureaucracy. It was a much more centralized state. It took massive systemic changes for the empire to survive the crisis, to keep it united. And even then, it didn’t survive more than a few centuries after that.
What lessons can we learn from Aurelian and Rome that apply today?
Aurélien’s lesson is do not that we should look for a hard emperor-soldier to keep things going well. The lesson is that what the Aurelian era demanded – if we think it’s a good idea that the empire managed to survive the crisis – is someone whose skills matched the present moment. . What the Roman Empire needed was a gifted military spirit with a ruthless streak. We obviously don’t want to recreate anything like the Roman Empire, which was in many ways a horribly oppressive society based on massive human suffering and the enslavement of goods.
But as we seek to solve our current problems, we need people with the right skills. We need people who know how to put the levers of the political system to direct the resources of the state to the glaring and massive problems we face. We need people who can see a shortage of protective equipment in hospitals and find ways to ensure that we produce and distribute it. If we are to test people for coronavirus, we need people in positions of power who can guarantee that we produce, distribute and use coronavirus test kits. This is what the situation demands.
We see who has the skills to govern – and this is particularly evident at the state level. The governors who have that, I think, will save a lot of lives. It is not hyperbole to say that in a crisis. The reverse is going to be, I think, the governor of Oklahoma. By tweeting this photo of him having dinner, he would have literally killed people who decide to go out and contract the virus. The Governor of Florida took as long as he did to close the beaches during the Spring Break – it’s really hard to overstate how bad it is. The fact that you had the ability to take steps to stop the transmission of this virus by shutting down mass gatherings and that you chose not to do so is malicious.
I cling to this last line of your article from Mother Jones: “Maybe these future historians will look at this as a crisis that has survived, an opportunity to repair what afflicts us before the tipping point is really reached. . We can see these thousands of cuts now, in all their varied depth and location. It may not be too late to stop the bleeding. ” How do we do that?
And at times like this, we have the opportunity to assess what is working and what is not, and you have the opportunity to make changes. Yes, this crisis is underway, but when the dust eventually settles, we will be able to look at the wide and wide lines and see the things that desperately need to change. And I hope we can use this as an opportunity to build more resilient systems as we progress.
It will not be the last shock. We were very lucky not to have had it for a long time. But we will have another.