I am, of course, not a lover of upheavals. I merely want to make sure people do not forget that there are upheavals.”

-General Aritomo Yamagata, Imperial Japanese Army, 1881


It’s all part of the life-cycle of an economy.  First it’s lawless capitalism until that starts to impede growth.  Next comes regulation, law enforcement, and taxes.  After that: public benefits and entitlements.  Then, finally, over-expenditure and collapse.”

-Andy Weir, Artemis


I don’t know if anyone noticed, but - in another of my series of books - Neola would be the hero.


Think about it.  She’s fighting to preserve an empire that, for all its flaws, is far superior to the chaos that would follow its fall.  She’s fighting to protect a way of life that isn’t too bad, at least for her people; she’s fighting to protect her people from the inevitable consequences of loosening  their grip without taking steps to ensure the people they’ve abused wouldn’t be able to take revenge at some later date.  It’s easy to say, from the comfort of one’s armchair a thousand miles (or light years) from the danger zone, that someone who fights to uphold such values is evil.  It isn’t so obvious when one happens to be in the danger zone.  On one hand, an evil system should be destroyed and replaced with something else; on the other, the new regime might be extremely dangerous, perhaps fatal, to the people who didn’t create the evil system but are tainted by being its favoured children. 


Her tragedy is that the empire has fallen too far to be saved.  She might have been better off if she’d fled, leaving the empire to fall, and build a new home somewhere far away.  But that wasn’t an option for someone like her.  She had to fight to preserve it, only to lose when it became apparent that her people could no longer maintain themselves.  And so she lost to the barbarians at the gates.  Sic transit Gloria mundi.



Let me start this essay with an observation that, at first, appears to be totally unconnected to the theme.  Why did the Marvel Cinematic Universe make bank, while the DC Cinematic Universe had a string of failures - their only real success was Wonder Woman - and Disney’s Star Wars start a steady slide towards box office failure?


The answer is not ‘toxic fandom’ or ‘men skipping female-led movies’ or ‘internet trolls’ or one of a hundred excuses that have been trotted out over the past few years, when it became apparent that success had failed to materialise.  The answer is not ‘sexism’ or ‘racism’ or ‘Donald Trump.’  The answer is far simpler.  Marvel remembered what made its characters popular in the first place, while DC and Disney did not.  Marvel remembered what worked and what didn’t and built on it.  DC and Disney have control of vast amounts of intellectual property and should have been able to use it to make billions of dollars, but lost sight of why their characters became successful in the first place.  They had no respect for the past - Kathleen Kennedy recently claimed there was no source material for the Sequel Trilogy, which was a surprise to anyone who read the Expanded Universe (now Legends) - and no real concept of what worked and what didn’t.  Marvel picked and chose from both the Marvel and Ultimate comic universe to craft the MCU.  DC and Disney chose to throw out the baby with the bathwater.


It’s fair enough to say that Star Wars Legends was not a complete success.  The novels ranged from utterly brilliant (The Thrawn Trilogy) to great ideas with poor execution (Jedi Search, Darksaber) all the way to deeply problematic (The Courtship of Princess Leia) and downright weird (The Crystal Star).  I stopped reading after the brilliant Hand of Thrawn books.  But there were hundreds of ideas that could and should have been worked into the sequel trilogy.  Instead, Disney chose to make new stories out of whole cloth.  This might not have been such a problem if the writers had concentrated on writing a good story, then building up the rest around it.  Instead, they did immense damage to the Star Wars brand.


Now, it doesn’t really matter what Disney does with Star Wars, not on a global level.  It doesn’t do any real harm to anyone if Disney’s movies make so much money that we have to invent new numbers to describe it or flop so badly Disney has to pay people to watch.  We don’t have to have decent Star Wars movies to live.  We’ll always have The Thrawn Trilogy.


But what does matter is that Disney’s mistake is being repeated on a global scale.


An organisation, anything from a simple internet start-up to a full-fledged government, tends to go through three separate phases.


First, the organisation is founded.  The founders have a vision and aim to put it into practice.  They know what’s important.  There are few rules, little stratification ... a certain willingness to do something first and get permission later.  This can lead to either great success - the organisation makes a killing - or complete disaster, such as happened to Elizabeth Holmes when her ambitions outstripped her talents and/or technological limits.  For every organisation that succeeds, there are thousands of failures. 


Second, the organisation matures.  The founders don’t always remain in control.   There are a whole new range of departments as the organisation struggles to cope with opening up to the outside world.  Budgets and HR (etc) become important.  The links between the shop floor (however defined) and management tend to fray.  It’s not easy to keep the organisation focused when it’s expanding and drawing attention from outsiders (rivals, taxmen, etc).  An organisation that expands too fast may stumble at this point.  If it doesn’t, it will stabilise and - hopefully - remain relatively stable.


Third, the organisation starts to die.  The founders are gone.  Management no longer talks to the shop floor.  Beancounters, compliance officers, diversity enforcers (etc) take control.  Corners get cut.  The bottom line - pleasing the stockholders - becomes more important than doing a good job.  The better employees start looking for jobs elsewhere, where they’re valued, once they realise that good work and bonuses are no longer linked and there’s no path to higher management.  Depending on the size of the organisation, it may take some time to realise that it’s in serious trouble.  (People outside the organisation will notice sooner, then start taking their business elsewhere.)  Even if it does, it can be difficult - if not impossible - to fire the useless employees (i.e. everyone who isn’t involved with the organisation’s core business) and reboot the company.  But if the organisation cannot arrest its fall, it will collapse or be destroyed by its more powerful (and younger) competitors.


This is a cycle that repeats itself through history, time and time again.  An empire will rise, try to stabilise itself and - eventually - be brought down through a combination of internal problems and outside threats.  This tends to happen because the empire’s rulers either forgot what was important or were simply unable to maintain the factors that allowed their empire’s rise to power.  The Romans, for example, faced no peer power ... but internal decay weakened their defences to the point barbarians were able to overwhelm them.  The French and Germans built their various empires on military force and, when they lost the ability to impose themselves, they lost their empires.  The British built their empire on naval power and trading and, when they lost command of the seas, lost their empire.  The French, Germans and British understood very well what maintained their power, but were economically unable to pay for their ships and troops.


Indeed, the British Empire’s experience provides a foretaste of what America might expect in the coming decades.  On paper, the British Empire was the clear winner of the First World War.  The British controlled, directly or indirectly, a quarter of the planet’s surface.  The British army and navy were the most advanced fighting forces in the world.  It all looked very impressive, if one didn’t look too closely. 


The appearance of strength masked a far less stable reality.  The British Empire was simply unable to maintain its power, relative to the rest of the world.  Maintaining the empire - and the military force that held it - was a colossal drain on British resources.  The British invented concepts like aircraft carriers and tanks, but were unable to develop them further; other powers took the concepts and ran with them, developing carriers and tanks that were better than anything the British produced.  Britain was, on paper, the strongest power on the planet, but she couldn’t concentrate enough force to win a war against a major power without weakening herself fatally elsewhere.  And, worst of all, the British public was no longer willing to make the sacrifices required to maintain the empire.


At base, empires - and corporations and suchlike - cannot afford to rest on their laurels.  They must continue to develop, to explore newer and better ways of doing things.  They must imagine themselves farmers, farmers wise enough to understand the danger of eating their seed corn (thus feeding themselves at the cost of being unable to eat the following year).  They must be open to new ideas, ready to allow fresh blood into high places and - at the same time - remove senior figures who are too ossified in their thinking.  Done properly, this allows for a steady evolution that combines older ideas and reasoning with newer and better concepts.


Organisations that lose track of the need to evolve start running into problems fairly quickly, as - metaphorically speaking - their arteries start to clog.  Bureaucrats cut costs without any real concept of what is actually important, ensuring that quality starts to slip and - when purchasers notice - sales start to fall.  HR representatives enforce codes of conduct and hiring that are based on abstract notions, not a clear understanding of what the organisation wants and needs.  Marketing departments start making promises the organisation can’t keep or, worse, get the company entangled in political and social justice issues that cannot help alienating large swathes of the customer base.  And, worst of all, the combined effect of all these is to sow distrust and contempt for management.  A manager who is widely disliked can still be respected for doing a good job, but a manager who is held in contempt will be roundly mocked and ignored as much as possible.


The first signs of looming disaster are easy to see, if you bother to look.  On a corporate scale, sales will start to fall. Honest review sites will be filled with acidic comments about your products.  Your best employees will start to look elsewhere for better jobs.  Your primary departments will start to shrink, while your support departments will begin to grow bigger and more and more intrusive.  Your customer base will also shrink, even if you bring out a new product.  You’ve acquired a bad reputation and most of your attempts to fix it are misaimed.  And pulling out of a collapsing spiral isn’t easy.


On a national scale, there are more significant signs of trouble.  The government can no longer afford to maintain its military and police forces.  The military and police forces are in trouble because the people promoted to lead are not experienced in actual military and police work.  The economy is stumbling, a sizable percentage of the working population is unemployed or underemployed, expenditure on maintaining what one has is so high that money cannot be spared for R&D ... once this starts happening, you can rest assured that there will be trouble in the future.  And yet, dealing with it is difficult.  In some ways, the people who are charged with dealing with the problem are the ones causing the problem. They do not, of course, want to give up their power.


If you do not learn from history, you are condemned to repeat it.  And if you forget what’s important - and how you became powerful in the first place - you are condemned to steadily lose power until you either collapse or get invaded by your more powerful neighbours. 


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2019