Reading Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, Part VIII

We turn now through a marathon reduction of the rest of Chapter III in this reading of the Muqaddimah.  Why you ask, am I condensing remarks 19-52 into one post when I have spent so much time parsing out longer commentaries and explanations from the previous chapters and remarks?  Partially because the rest of Chapter III is a more historical, rather than theoretical and philosophical treatise over the issues of civilization, group feeling, royal authority, and geopolitical philosophy.  Like Chapter I, these parts of Chapter III can come across as dry, Ibn Khaldun is turning to a historical explanation for why things happened the way they did in much of these sections.  Some of the commentary is fairly straightforward technical explanations of Islamic social organization, thus I am skipping over that to explore the deeper philosophical implications contained within these remarks.

Chapter III, Part IV: Remarks 19-52

The Caliphate and Royal Authority: A Necessary Transformation

Much of the middle and latter sections of Chapter III deal with the transformation of the Islamic movement into a settled and sedentary civilization – the movement from group feeling to royal authority as established and embodied in the Caliphate, slowly leading to the breakdown of primitive form of egalitarianism that Muslims experienced in its early formation.  While Ibn Khaldun goes through basic Islamic history, the most important thing to realize what he is saying is that this was necessary for Islam to survive and ultimately be the religion that it is today (e.g. in his time).  In a sense, he “secularized” the notion of history not as one of the unfolding of Divine Providence but one of phenomenological necessity.  In other words, that primitive egalitarianism had to give way to a sedentary, hierarchal, structural and structured, composition if Islam was to survive.  For no perfectly egalitarian society has ever survived because all societies need to be organized.

In Ibn Khaldun’s estimation, Islam would not have survived if it had not settled down and transformed into the Caliphate.  This is seen historically in all religions as he notes.  Judaism had to settle in the lands of Canaan and self-propagate from within.  Christianity the same: Christianity begins as a missionary (conquering) religion that rapidly spreads across the Roman Empire before absorbing the Roman Empire, in this spread-absorption-settlement, the settling epoch of Christianity centered around Rome which gave Christianity is sedentary anchor to allow it to survive and self-propagate.  All religions, including Islam, a geographically bound – yet more implicit commentary on the nature of geography and the human condition and life – and therefore lose their moment of group feeling and egalitarianism before settling into organized hierarchy and geographical sedentary civilization.

More importantly Ibn Khaldun notes about the necessity of this.  Returning to how he began Chapter I, “It should be known that history, in matter of fact, is information about human social organization, which itself is identical with the word civilization.”  Thus much of what Khaldun turns to extrapolate on is how Islam settles down and begins its transformation to social organization: the positions of Caliphate and Wazirate, of the offices and the doorkeeper, of establishing police and tax collectors, etc.  No peoples, no movement, and no religion, can survive in perpetual motion.  All things must come to a rest and begin their process of rootedness in the land which propagates the need for social organization.  Without this no religion, peoples, or movement can endure.

Thus we have the establishment of the call to prayer, the offices of the mufti (interpretative scholars), oaths of allegiance, laws of succession, and so forth.  While all of these institutionalizations of socially organized life may find their justification in the Qur’an, or collected sayings of the Prophet, the Hadith, it isn’t so much that they’re established because of Scripture, they’re established out of necessity of the reality of history: History being the principle of social organization which is what human nature aims at through its social animus.  Social structures and organizations which help to regulate and direct lives simply have greater staying power if they also find religious justification – it is the “fallback” when “it just is like this” isn’t sufficient enough an explanation (even though Ibn Khaldun believes “it just is like this” is sufficient because that is the reflection of human nature and the principles of social organization which extend from humanity’s social animus and is ultimately what history is).

One of the things to note in this lengthy bit of commentary is how “religion fails to live up to its ideals.”  We’re all familiar with how religions proclaim their essential egalitarianism in some manner, but why don’t we ever see it in the “real world”?  Ibn Khaldun simply suggests because egalitarianism isn’t real.  If a religion is to survive it must, necessarily, begin a period of transformation, establishment of order, rules, and hierarchy, in order for it to persevere.  History, after all, is all about  “human social organization,” and religions are not untied to history, so all religions will succumb to what history demands: Social organization.

This is another one of the undercurrent themes that runs through Chapter III.  Of course there is inequality.  But inequality is value neutral.  It is neither just nor unjust.  It is just a fact of nature, of history, of life.  Everywhere anyone goes one will encounter inequality.  Dreams of eradicating inequality are entertained only by those who have no bearing with reality.

The Economics of Rise and Decline

Moving away from how royal authority comes about, the most memorable sections in Chapter III are Ibn Khaldun’s reflections on economics.  He is, in some circles, considered a “father of economics” for establishing modern theories of labor, incentive economics, supply and demand, and taxation.  Perhaps his most famous insight is from the 36th remark, “It should be known that at the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments.  At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.”

This correlates with his earlier statements about how the expansion of decadent life, a life concerned only with luxury, leads to outsourcing, higher expenditures, and so forth, by which taxes are increased to pay for this burgeoning debts and expenditures.  Yes, Ibn Khaldun is saying that there comes a moment where taxation hits its maximum ceiling of revenue intake.  Beyond this point tax revenue declines.  100% taxation will eventually yield no income.  0% taxation will lead to no income because you’re not taking in any income.

Ibn Khaldun is not saying that a nation needs to find that sweet medium, e.g. the Laffer-Curve principle, but that taxation follows the lifespan of nations.  When a nation is young and healthy its tax rates are relatively low but its people are extremely productive.  Thus, despite the low tax rates, the revenue in-take is large because the people are extremely productive.  As this productivity ethos slips into laziness and want to enjoy luxury rather than necessity of work, the lack of societal productivity causes a decrease in revenue in-take.  The state responds by increasing taxation.  People eventually become less and less productive due to high tax rates.

In part this is because people are atomized and out for themselves at this point in national life.  Thus they don’t feel like they should “share the burden” with others whom they don’t care for.  Also, increased taxation means I have less ability to enjoy luxury, which is what this stage of national life is all about.  As a result, despite high taxes, revenues decline.  Revenue decline when paired with high tax rates is an empirical marker of a civilization in decline from Ibn Khaldun’s perspective.

Again, contrary to “libertarians” who like to quote Khaldun, he is not saying that taxes should be kept low in order to offset this.  Everything moves in a deterministic cycle.  One cannot avoid the fact that tax rates will spike and revenues will eventually decline.  This is what happens because all things follow life cycles.  What Ibn Khaldun is saying is that one can identify the moment they exist in within a nation’s lifespan based on economic taxation and productivity.  When the state requires more and more funds to make up for its lavish expenditures one should be aware they are living in the decadent epoch of national life.

Furthermore, “Attacks on people’s property remove the incentive to acquire and gain property.”  This is from remark 41.  Here Ibn Khaldun explores the incentive theory of economics.  Going back to what sedentary civilization is about the “entrust[ing]…of their property and their lives to the governor and ruler who rules over them” (remark 5 from Chapter II).  Thus, when the state seeks to acquire more of their property through the form of taxation, people feel like the whole purpose of politics has become null and void.  People are angry.  They distrust their government.  And this furthers the breakdown of the political. This atomization and animosity, again, is the result of the collapse of group feeling.  You can read a fuller treatment of the economic theory of Ibn Khaldun here.

Lastly, I wish to comment briefly about his theory of labor and labor as the source of value.  Production, labor, is the source of value.  Labor is necessary for life.  Life aims at ease and luxury.  Labor aims to achieve this by taking its productivity to the marketplace.  Labor is the product of human effort and human effort has an intrinsic value to it.  That is, people are proud of what they have created or labored to produce.

The market is an extension of labor insofar that the market is the realm of exchange between labor and capital or other forms of compensation.  When labor is valued, that is, humans value their own productivity and creations, they will value it highly.  There is no such thing as arbitrary market prices.  The agreed upon price of exchange is what the producer is willing to accept for his labor.  The buyer has no control over this unless he takes by force.  Thus, labor really is the source and foundation of value and the acquisition of capital.

(This leads to an interesting aside as to whether the primacy of capital, and the expansion of capital, requires the degradation of labor.  That is, Ibn Khaldun is necessarily implying that labor keeps capital at bay because people value their work.  When people are reduced to commodities, and their labor degraded, they no longer take pride in their work and therefore accept whatever price the buyer is gives them.  Buyers will always seek the cheapest means of acquisition.)

Thus, the degradation of labor and the inversion of the economic system to where labor is no longer the source of value but capital dictates value, is also a sign of civilizational decline.  If you wish to read excessive Marxism into this that would be the equivalent of saying that the rise of commodity fetishism and the expansion of “capitalism” and labor exploitation are all signs of civilizational decline.  But what Ibn Khaldun suggests is rather simple and fits with his theory of life-to-death: Economic productivity, cooperation, and low rates of taxation (yielding large revenues) are signs of the vitality of a civilization, a civilization in its “growth” stage; economic stagnation, economic disunity (‘class warfare’), and higher rates of taxation (yielding smaller revenues) are signs of a civilization in decline, a civilization moving towards its death stage.

While Ibn Khaldun is now celebrated for stumbling upon much of classical economic theory, one must remember that he is more properly to be understood as an economic sociologist rather than economist theorist.  That is, his economic notes are empirical and observational.  He is not out to construct the “ideal economic system.”  He is simply reflecting on how economic operations correlate with stages of societal development and decline.  Labor may be the source of value for Ibn Khaldun, but the collapse of labor is also a determined necessity because even economics follows life stage cycles which pair perfectly with the life cycle of nations.

The Final Collapse of Nations, or Dynasties

The final sections of Chapter III deal with the final demise of nations, or dynasties.  Although Ibn Khaldun has already shown his hand to us on this issue, now he goes into greater detail discussing societal division, conflict, and political disunity.  A nation on the path to death is one in which division spreads across its land, and the most pernicious form of division is intra-political division.

The collapse of nations is the result of the collapse of royal authority, which having come from group feeling, means that the collapse of royal authority is the final eclipse of group feeling.  “Any royal authority must be built upon two foundations,” Ibn Khaldun says in remark 45.  “The first is might and group feeling…the second is money.”  The disintegration of nations and their movement to death corresponds with the collapse of strength and group feeling, and the collapse of revenue whereby nations can no longer defend themselves and provide for their people.

Ibn Khaldun links strength and group feeling with the nation’s military.  A healthy nation has a strong and high morale military.  A nation in decline has a weak military where morale is weak.  Additionally, since strength and group feeling are connected, a healthy nation is able to provide for its defense from its own population because they embody group feeling and are willing to die for others (their nation).  A nation in decline is forced to hire mercenaries and outsource its defense to non-nationals, peripheral tribes and peoples on the margin, whereby their military commitment is loyalty not to the state or the people whom they are meant to serve, but money.  Since lack of money is another sign of decline states lack the money to pay their mercenaries which makes the mercenaries angry and prone to violent reprisals against their masters.  This is a common occurrence throughout history – it is one of the historical reasons for the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.  In more modern times we can understand it as the privatization and outsourcing of war to private defense companies, contract for hire soldiers, and non-national volunteers, etc.  Blackwater anyone?

The renewal of nations occurs in two ways.  Again, renewal is possible in Ibn Khaldun, but even with renewal one cannot escape the inevitable.  Renewal he says happens in two ways – and by renewal he makes clear that a new dynasty arises in place of the senile dynasty which it overthrows and replaces: Governors exert control over the outer territories which feel existentially threatened and abandoned, whereby these political figures are seen as messiahs, or saviors, of the people.  Renewal corresponds with populism then.  These populist figures who have the backing of the people overturn the senile and decadent dynasty which had lost control of the outer territories and the territories where these people have felt betrayed by their body politic.

These governors are seen as benign fatherly figures, restoring group feeling in their rise to power and bringing meaning back to the lives of the people whom they rule over.  “Each one of them ([speaking of these outer territorial governors or political figures]) founds a new dynasty for his people and a realm to be perpetuated in his family.”  In essence, these figures bring order back to outer regions.  They revive a feeling of group feeling among the populace.  In time, they will come to challenge the royal authority of the standing dynasty which increasingly loses the faith of the people whereby they are replaced.  In being replaced the new dynasty establishes its royal authority.  Because royal authority is an extension and transfer of group feeling these new dynasties in taking on new royal authority restore a sense of group feeling, thus delaying the collapse of the nation.  (Again, you cannot avoid the inevitable but renewal can give “new life” to a nation for a short period of time.)

The second way is for internal rebellion.  This is straightforward.  A popular leader gets the backing of the people and other tribes, possessing great power in the form of group feeling – “he possesses great power and a great group feeling among his people” Ibn Khaldun says – and makes war against the ruling dynasty.  Because the ruling dynasty lacks group feeling, and the rebels have group feeling, the rebels win through perseverance.  One can easily look at modern examples like the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War for examples of this.

In the end, however, all nations die because they follow life cycles.  Which leads us to ask a few questions: Is Ibn Khaldun right that, paradoxically, the success of society leads to its demise?  What stage of the life of a nation do we find ourselves in?  Is it possible that some of us live in nations where we might experience that “renewal”?  Or are we in nations that have already expended that renewal moment some time ago in the past and we are once again witnessing the degradation of our nation as it moves to death?  Are there peoples who possess great group feeling who are “different from us” that are also moving into the national land whereby they will replace us as Ibn Khaldun says sometimes happens when nations fall a new nations take their place, establishing over the dead carcass of the prior civilization a new civilization?


This is the eighth part of a serialized explanation of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah.  You can find the first post explaining Chapter I here, and the second part explaining parts of Chapter II here, the third part explaining parts of Chapter II here, the fourth part explaining the final sections of Chapter II here, the fifth part exploring the first parts of Chapter III here, the sixth part exploring additional parts of Chapter III here, and the seventh part exploring additional parts of Chapter III here.  

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