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Things fall apart, or not
Twitter, the Russian army in Ukraine, and the Western Roman Empire
Early this month, Russia claimed there was an assassination attempt on Putin. It likely wasn’t actually an assassination attempt, but I still wonder: what would happen if Putin did die suddenly? Would the Russian war on Ukraine suddenly end, or would the Russian oligarchy march on?
What happens when things fall apart, or don’t?
In 2001, Enron was named America’s Most Innovative Company by Fortune magazine, for the sixth year in a row. Enron had transformed itself from a natural gas company, into a broader energy and electric company, and then into an energy trading company. It used innovative accounting and trading techniques adapted to deregulated energy markets. It stopped laying oil pipelines and started laying fiber optic cable. Enron even struck an innovative deal to build a video-on-demand streaming service.
As it turns out, the praiseworthy innovation in accounting practices had morphed into a tool for claiming profits and hiding revenues. The fiber optic cable play had never been profitable. The video-on-demand partner company was Blockbuster. The dot-com bubble was bursting.
A short seller had started digging, Wall Street analysts started digging, and it rather suddenly became clear that no one knew how Enron was making money. By late 2000, Enron’s stock price had fallen from nearly $90 per share to something like 25¢.
In December 1989, the Romanian communist dictator Ceaușescu violently suppressed anti-regime demonstrations in Timișoara, one of the larger cities in Romania. Riots erupted in the capital, Bucharest. A few days later, Ceaușescu started giving a highly-choreographed speech in Bucharest. The speech was broadcast on national television and was designed to demonstrate that Ceaușescu was in complete control of the country. The crowd, however, didn’t follow the script. They started chanting “Timișoara!” to demand justice.
Before the chants of “Timișoara,” most Romanians lived in fear of Ceaușescu’s power. They particularly feared the Romanian secret police, who had an enormous number of informants and were incredibly brutal. But once people heard their neighbors chanting “Timișoara,” everyone suddenly saw how much everyone else hated the situation.
There followed a night of brave protest met by violence. Ceaușescu ordered security forces to fire on protesters and crush them with tanks. But then, his power evaporated. The next morning, the army switched sides and began supporting the protesters. Ceaușescu barely escaped Bucharest; an angry mob just yards away from him when the helicopter he was on lifted off. When the helicopter landed outside the city, his vast power base was reduced to just two loyal retainers, who started flagging passing cars. The once-mighty dictator was not a hitchhiker. Ceaușescu was arrested the next morning.
Today, I wonder about the state of Twitter and of the Russian army. Here are two organizations that have been impaired in drastic ways. Twitter’s staff has been cut by about 80%, but the lights have stayed on, in a sense. Access to the public API has been see-sawing. Maybe outages have become more frequent. My guess is that there are enough people to keep the lights on, but there won’t be enough to fix core systems when a major problem hits.
According to the Discord leak documents, US intelligence has a fairly pessimistic view of Ukraine’s ability to launch a truly successful spring counteroffensive. But the Russian army is degraded in ways that we might not fully appreciate or be able to measure. Today, wars aren’t won by walls of bodies; they’re won by coordinated activity. Russia’s army has suffered from leadership changes and is generally depleted of experienced soldiers.
The news I crave is something like the abrupt collapse of Enron or of Romanian communism, but for Twitter or the Russian army. I’m not proud of this craving. I don’t want hard-working people at Twitter to lose their jobs; I don’t want to watch hoodwinked Russian boys get thrown into a meat grinder in an attempt to rewrite history. But I still crave that kind of satisfying story.
I have to remind myself: many collapses aren’t so dramatic. Even the “fall” of Rome was a long and drawn-out affair. The Roman Empire hit its peak size around 100 AD, but it took until 476 AD for the Western Roman Empire to fall. (The Eastern Roman Empire continued on for another 1,000 years.) By the 400s, many barbarian groups had been allowed to settle inside the boundaries of the Empire. Rather than conquering and assimilating, the Empire had begun to strike deals. The city of Rome had already been sacked twice already when the end came.
And even the “end” of Rome wasn’t so dramatic. Odoacer, a general who led multiple Germanic tribes, defeated the last Roman soldiers defending the city of Rome. Though Rome had “fallen,” the line between Roman and barbarian had already blurred so much that many people expected Odoacer to become acting emperor himself:
Royalty was familiar to the Barbarians, and the submissive people of Italy was prepared to obey, without a murmur, the authority which [Odoacer] should condescend to exercise as the vicegerent of the emperor of the West. But Odoacer had resolved to abolish that useless and expensive office [...] (Gibbon, Chapter XXXVI, Part 5)
Odoacer didn’t want to rise to the imperial throne, so instead he told the Romans to abolish the throne itself:
The unfortunate Augustulus [the last Western Roman emperor] was made the instrument of his own disgrace: he signified his resignation to the senate; and that assembly, in their last act of obedience to a Roman prince, still affected the spirit of freedom, and the forms of the constitution. An epistle was addressed, by their unanimous decree, to the [Eastern Roman] emperor Zeno [...]. They solemnly “disclaim the necessity, or even the wish, of continuing any longer the Imperial succession in Italy; since, in their opinion, the majesty of a sole monarch is sufficient to pervade and protect, at the same time, both the East and the West. In their own name, and in the name of the people, they consent that the seat of universal empire shall be transferred from Rome to Constantinople; and they basely renounce the right of choosing their master, the only vestige that yet remained of the authority which had given laws to the world. The republic (they repeat that name without a blush) might safely confide in the civil and military virtues of Odoacer; and they humbly request, that the emperor would invest him with the title of Patrician, and the administration of the diocese of Italy.”
The list of dramatic collapses that weren’t could go on. The Bronze Age Collapse appears dramatic to us, and it certainly was dramatic to people who suffered a drought, or a hurricane, or an invasion. But where we see the fall of civilizations, the individuals who survived the particular calamities might have merely thought that they would need to leave the city for a little while, and go live in a village for a while, until things got back to normal. When things didn’t get back to normal, maybe a few generations had passed, and people started to forget that earlier, urban life.
During Covid-19, public messaging talked about hospitals being “overwhelmed,” and I think that language might have led some people to believe that, if you put too many people in a hospital, it would collapse like a metaphorical Jenga tower.
The reality is more subtle. “Overwhelmed” is a matter of degree, and the result is usually not the complete absence of care, but rather degradation of care. I remember hearing a story from a parent about how their child’s arm was broken, and they drove around their large city for a few days, trying to find a hospital that wasn’t so full of Covid patients that they would set the kid’s broken bone. This is a dramatic story, and one full of pain, but no one died.
By contrast, there are plenty of people who would have lived if their care had been a little better. If they had had a bit more attention, or if they had gotten a key drug a little sooner, they would have lived, but instead they died. These marginal cases aren’t as impressive on their own, but they are when looking at the whole population.
When things fall apart, I crave a TV-worthy story, like Jenga or Enron. But many collapses are less dramatic. Twitter might “fall,” but I expect it will be more like Rome, where the remains get carved up, and the overall force of the culture remains strong. Even if Putin were killed, it seems unlikely that democracy would sweep Russia. I expect there would be confusion and then more oligarchy.