Book Review of the Forgotten ‘The Law of Longer Life’ by Parkinson & Le Compte
Nov. 17, 2023
Guest perspective by William Briggs
The list of authors who have theories on how civilizations end is not small: Ibn Kaldun, Spengler, Toynbee, Strauss and Howe, Turchin, Glubb all stress that civilizations have existed but not longer do, and so it is a reasonable guess this civilization will also pass into non-existence. A good summary of major authors and their theories is at the Tree of Woe (and here).
All these men invent theories or metaphors why civilizations come and go, cyclicity being a common theme. Spengler famously treated cultures like living organisms (for good reasons he distinguished between cultures and civilizations, differences which we’ll ignore here). Civilizations begin in youthful, rash vigor, pass into an expansive strong manhood, slip into contemplation and the good life, and then senescence hits and the end comes.
Spengler drove that metaphor hard, but one pair of authors took the idea of a life cycle in a literal, even mundane, sense. And it is because of the commonness of their theory, I believe it to be correct, or at least the most likely of all such theories.
Their theory predicts we end in dictatorship.
The authors are C Northcote Parkinson and Herman Le Compte. Their 1980 book, not well named, is The Law of Longer Life. A better title might be Death By Bureaucracy, for that, in effect, is how they predict our culture will end. But only after the people ruled by the bureaucracy become sick and weak because of malnutrition. Not a metaphorical malnutrition: actual bad diets. Usually insufficient food.
Parkinson is the same of the eponymous law. He posited, and even gave a mathematical definition of, the inexorable growth of bureaucracy. What is to be admired about the development of this law is how Parkinson built it from easy-to-see premises.
Such as, “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Add to that a manager’s desire for subordinates and not rivals, and the natural rewarding of bureaucrats by how well they adhere to process, and not on the outward results of their machinations, and you have what we see before us. In Longer Life, Parkinson and Le Compte take Parkinson’s law to its logical conclusion: centralization.
The twist comes in arguing that decadence first has to exist before centralization can fully develop, and that decadence itself is ushered in only after a population is weakened by (in my simplification) bad food.
They make a case that many agrarian cultures that were conquered by barbarians were overrun because farmers overworked the soil and its peoples were thus doing so poorly they couldn’t defend themselves. “From events such as these we may come to suspect that energy must tend to dwindle with each generation further removed from the countryside.”
Decadence after a failing of body politic makes sense, because that body is made up of bodies: “It is difficult, after all, to picture a society in which the individuals are bursting with energy but all the institutions in a state of decay.”
Nobody can believe that our people are bursting with energy. The seams of their clothing are bursting, all right, but because of fat. Because, of course, bad food. And bad habits—encouraged by Experts inside the bureaucracy. Food pyramid, anybody?
We know decadence when we see it: “when men are effeminate, when women are faithless, when children are neglected, when drugs are in vogue.”
The lack of vigor and the plaintive cries for “Safety!” lead to a strengthening and centralization of the bureaucracy which promises to provide it. How many times do we have to see this before it is believed? I answer: most will never believe; most want Safety.
Centralization, as is obvious and as we see, makes things easier for the managerial class. It makes it simpler for Experts to control distant provinces, and ensure uniformity (which they call “Diversity”). This makes perfect sense, to them, because the right and proper way to do everything has been determined by Experts, thus all should be brought into line. Centralization is efficient and cheaper. They say. Even once-private businesses will be regulated into the fold. Some form of socialism, then, becomes inevitable. Which we have now.
Yet “When all roads lead to Rome…the whole administrative machine can be taken over by an infantry brigade”. Effective, because after centralization there are “no centres of authority” left.
Greater centralization leads to more taxation, and “taxation causes expenditure”, which is “an evil in itself, not merely a waste of money”. “Taxation,” they tell us, “taken to the limit and beyond, has always been a sign of decadence and a prelude to disaster.”
Decadent centralization brings much worse. See if this doesn’t sound distressingly familiar:
A tame conformity becomes the characteristic of people in banking and industry, in journalism and law. The whole society, as well as the whole organization, becomes lethargic and cumbersome, routine-ridden and tame. All have discovered the secret that mistakes are best avoided by doing nothing at all. When there is an emergency, therefore, the immediate effect is mere panic.
A key “symptom of decadence is what we call liberal opinion.”
…well-meaning people whose ideas are broadly benevolent and progressive. They have three recognisable characteristics. The first is that their views are based upon a sense of highly moral but unstated and unproven assumptions. The second is that they are savagely intolerant of any views which differ from theirs. The third is that they are always remote from the arena in which their high-minded principles are meant to apply.
This describes our ruling class perfectly. In decadent times, “We can be pilloried, ostracised, silenced and even prosecuted for upholding any view..that is not accepted as orthodox.” Yes.
Do-gooders “are moved by sentiment rather than by reason and that itself is a symptom of decay.”
The desultory effects of the burgeoning bureaucracy I assume regular readers know: “The number of steps [to the all-seeing bureaucracy] can be listed as follows: over-centralization, anonymity, lack of coordination, inflexibility, complexity and incompetence.” If you can recall, in the dim recesses of your mind, the covid panic, then nothing more need be said. Except do not forget the endless pandering to vocal Victims, which creates the very problems the pandering is supposed to solve.
We pass to the coming dictatorship, an end so frequent to cultures that it was obvious even to Aristotle thousands of years ago. Parkinson and Le Compte acknowledge the influence of Luttwak’s Coup d’Étate: A Practical Handbook (reviewed with a mind on practicality here). The recipe for the rise of a Tyrant is almost foolproof.
The first step towards self-destruction…involves setting up a bureaucracy which tends to prevent communication between the government and the people…
Following on the general policy of centralisation, all police must be made subordinates of the central government, it being plainly absurd that police activities should be hampered by a network of internal boundaries.
We read now of the FBI purging white ex-military members. Can’t be trusted, you see.
The second self-destructive act is, as we saw, centralization of everything, of government and business. The third is inflation. Yes, inflation.
Each political party gains office by offering the electorate what it is supposed to want…To gain and keep the approval of the majority, the ministers must provide free hospitals, free schools, free universities, free meals, free entertainment and generous pensions [which causes spiraling inflation]…
The lesson, which socialists never learn, is that a government’s position must be unstable if it rests on the active hostility of people who have been cheated out of their savings [by inflation].
Debt now is—the cliched word is soaring. Here’s a picture. Soaring isn’t apt. Something closer to reaming is better.
Do recall, the authors say, that almost all of the officer corps of the military is comprised, especially today, of those from the middle class. The very middle class squeezed from both sides. And those men in the military who are unhappy will be well poised to use the muscle at their command.
Add to this that “governments of the left are shrill in their ideology and loud in their condemnation of other countries which deviate from the true faith.” Still, rulers can’t help themselves and use the weakened military—and recall our recruitment woes—to punish its enemies.
Here you have to wonder how our authors were able to see headlines from 2023:
We have finally the despatch of troops sent to intervene between warring tribes and religious groups…The usual result is to antagonise both sides in the conflict and leave your men to be pelted with stones from two directions and forbidden, of course, to open fire. Here is an infallible method of creating discontent among one’s own forces. After a few years of this official blundering they will be fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.
Finally we have the “last step of all, the one which leads to actual destruction.” Read closely.
A massive bureaucracy has been placed between the government and the people. The system of administration has been centralised to the point of lunacy. A failure to balance the accounts has inaugurated a period of roaring inflation, ruining the middle class in the process…[O]ne must realise…that ministers who control a well-meaning, liberal, socialist, mildly corrupt and democratically elected government are people with the loftiest ideals. They are not merely wise and confronted by opponents who are mistaken…[but are] confronted by opponents who are evil…
It is this conscious rectitude which drives them, sooner or later, into violence….[W]hen there is the possibility that they may be out-voted, the are driven to conclude that innocent people have been deliberately and wickedly deceived. For a strictly limited period the whole democratic process must be suspended….No one could suppose for a moment that [rulers] want power for its own sake. It is clear, however, that their more vocal opponents must be arrested. ..The arrests are made and the idealists have now placed themselves on a level with the seediest crooks who have ever opposed them. The moment has arrived for the coup d’état.
Which will come from the military—how could it not? Since they follow Luttwak here, and we reviewed his book earlier, and because most coups follow along fairly predictable lines, we’ll leave that here.
We cannot quit, though, without answering two pressing questions: What can we do to stop this?, and, if we cannot, When does the end come?
I say we cannot stop it. But Parkinson and Le Compte had some hope of arresting decline. Through, if you can believe, better eating, vitamins, and exercise. Well, the idea is not insane. And it is indeed what our side advocates as utterly necessary to save yourself and loved ones. But I have the idea that Le Compte, who was a physician who had great success with cures by eschewing drugs, let enthusiasm get the better of him. There is even in a brief Appendix in the book, with illustrations, which show how to do simple movement exercises.
Even though we can agree with Le Compte that his way of practicing medicine is ideal, we never see how a decadent population could drag itself away from screens and scarfing pre-prepared slop to overcome themselves, let alone a corrupt ruling class.
So the end will come, I think. But when?
Here’s it’s anyone’s guess. I made this one before: they elevate Gruesome Newsom and he turns tyrant, causing the over-centralization. He has, one must acknowledge, been performing beautifully lately. And there is no chance Biden is allowed any length of office next election. They may let him win and then disappear him right after, but I don’t give this much weight.
Gruesome Newsom may only be the false prophet who heralds the arrival of something far worse. He will not lead a coup, for instance, but he, or someone, will suspend elections or announce unfavorable ones are null and void. The military will almost be ill used by the Regime. And may even be employed, selectively, against election “deniers”. That’s when the real coup happens.
The end may not be as close as it appears. Decadence, after all, is rarely a linear, straight drop. Instead, it’s like a ski hill with moguls. Lots of little upward swings embedded in a slippery slope. The small rises give false hope that things will get better eventually. They will not.
Still, if Parkinson and Le Compte are right, it would seem we need a bit more stewing before we’re done. We have not yet reached full centralization, for instance, but there is nothing stopping it, either. Plus, the American empire is big, which makes predicting how it will fall hideously difficult.
I welcome all your ideas.
Parkinson wrote another book on the subject, The Evolution of Political Thought, in which he fleshes out the shape of the tyrannies take given their starting points. More or less a disquisition on Aristotle’s theory of how democracies birth tyrants so easily. I reviewed it here.