Ibn Khaldun’s ideas on the collapse of states still relevant today

In a 1981 speech, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan referred to the writing of 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun whose work still resonates today, particularly for contemporary Turkey. Reagan used Khaldun’s ideas as a source of inspiration for U.S. economic politics.

What Reagan referred to was Khaldun’s work on the rise and fall of empires: “It should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.”

Khaldun (1332-1406) – who is regarded as the founder of sociology and modern historiography – influenced several thinkers throughout history such as German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and to some extent Karl Marx. One of Khaldun’s most significant works was called Muqaddimah, which explores the rise and fall of the state and the “asabiyye”, which I define as the consciousness of identity. This critical piece of work also provided some prescriptions that were utilised to stop the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and was used as a reference point for Ahmet Cevdet Pasha (1822-1895), a prominent Ottoman scholar and statesmen.

According to Ibn Khaldun, there are five stages in the lifespan of states – the last stage of which leads to the collapse of the state. While the first period is marked with victory and establishment, the last phase is known for the domination of libertinism, salaciousness and ambition. As part of this, Khaldun said the deterioration of the state begins at two institutions: the military and the army (which represents the asabiyye) and money and property (which represents welfare). Pressure and tyranny disrupt the army, and luxury and extravagance ruin welfare.

Ibn Khaldun states that one-man rule over a state not only signals the state’s old age but also consumes the means of benefaction and welfare. During such times, extravagance increases, salaries are not enough, and state coffers run into a deficit and cannot cover their expenses. In this way, through cuts in military spending, vulnerability forms in the defence of the state and the state is not able to cover its costs. To narrow the deficit, the state implements arbitrary new taxes and increases existing tax rates. The costs of living an extravagant and luxurious lifestyle do not go down, but continue to increase. This situation continues until the state collapses.

Although the principles mentioned above were introduced by Ibn Khaldun centuries ago, they were valid during time of the Ottoman Empire and are valid today as well. Ottoman intellectuals such as scholar Katip Çelebi and historian Mustafa Naima started to use Ibn Khaldun’s ideas during the stagnation of the empire in the 17th century.

But Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah was banned during the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909). Known for ruling with an iron fist during a period of decline, Sultan Abdul Hamid II clearly banned the book as it had criticised his activities 500 years in advance.

Indeed, the extravagance, luxury, and corruption described in the book mirrored what was going on at that time. It was a period when the people lived in poverty and misery, and even when the state lost a part of its territory every day, the sultan and the statesmen did not cut back on ostentation and pomp. For instance, the sultan, who did not think existing palaces were adequate for his needs, resorted to borrowing money from abroad to build more mansions and pavilions. An Ottoman intellectual and poet named Tevfik Fikret nicely explained what was happening during that time in a poem called “Feast of Pillaging”.

Eat ye gentlemen, this appetising feast is yours

Till you are satisfied, nauseous, eat till you burst.  

History runs in circles. In other words, history often repeats itself, which I think is why Ibn Khaldun’s work has remained so relevant throughout the years.

Today, we are like witnesses or chroniclers of a new collapse but one that has been repeated several times in history. Everything is the same in modern Turkey – the palace is the same; the welfare-killing luxury, the military-weakening autocracy, the rising and inadequate taxes are the same; the foreign talent sought to replace the collapsed bureaucracy is the same, the arrogance and carelessness are the same. In the words of a poet, the following holds true: “A house in flames, and a banquet on the top floor.”

I do not know what or how I should describe it. If I point to the dragon fruit smoothies that were given to guests at a recent event at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidential palace during an economic crisis, then there would be a lawsuit from people who are upset I did not mention that the white tea drank by some there costs $700 lira a kilo. If I say it is a fleet of vehicles, then I run the risk of neglecting to mention $500-million worth of aeroplanes used by the government. If I talk about Erdoğan’s 1,000-room presidential complex, then I might leave out the president’s 300-room summer palace that required the felling of 50,000 trees in the southwestern province of Muğla. Let us lend our ear to what the great Tevrik Fikret wrote in his “Feast of Pillaging” poem:

Eat ye gentlemen, this appetising feast is yours

Till you are satisfied, nauseous, eat till you burst.

This harvest will end, seize whatever you can on your way out!

Tomorrow you might see all the crackling hearths go out!

The stomachs of today are strong, the soup of today is warm

Nibble, gobble fistfuls, and platefuls 

Eat ye gentlemen, this appetising feast is yours.

Till you are satisfied, nauseous, eat till you burst.