Dominic Johnson’s and Monica Duffy Toft’s juxtaposition of a micro-level game-theoretic and evolutionary arguments from biology alongside a macro-level analysis of geopolitics is refreshing and, in general, very informative. Mammals can be highly territorial, and in the case of humans as evolved apes, we certainly have a propensity to be so. Great apes do not form stable groupings easily, but they all appear to recon their home range or community, which can be as large as ten square miles (Maryanski and Turner 1992; Turner and Maryanski 2008). Male chimpanzees will patrol the boundaries of their territory—one of the few activities in which there is concerted group activity. They will kill or drive off any males that cross these understood boundaries (while letting in all females because the communities females will, by adolescence, have left their natal community forever). But, these behavioral tendencies among our closest relative and, no doubt, our last common ancestor with the great apes are now constrained and mediated by so many levels of culture and social structures in human societies that we should be careful about reductionist arguments (note: this is why I have never fallen in love with game theory or any agent-based theory of macrostructures that dominate too much of evolutionary analysis).
The “geo” has always been a force in societal formations, even among settled hunter-gatherers that engaged in trade and, less frequently, warfare (Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014). While it is tempting to see macro-level dynamics as part of a strategy for reproductive fitness, the problem of emergence becomes evident when analyzing the evolution of complex systems like empire formations. They reveal emergent sociocultural properties and dynamics above and beyond whatever genetically driven forces might also be operating. Biological and sociocultural evolution thus require their own evolutionary theories, despite constant pressures from the human genome for certain behaviors and despite many parallels between biological and sociocultural evolutionary theories (Turner and Maryanski 2008).
Bringing the geo back into the analysis of Russian activities along the edges of its old empire is obviously very important because of the dangers of rapid escalation between the two dominant nuclear powers in the current world system. Rather than go the reductionist route, as Johnson and Toft do, I would look at the current situation in terms of a more sociological approach to geopolitics and geo-economics that, first of all, examines the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Empire (Union) in the early 1990s and, then, views the actions in Ukraine (and earlier Belarus) and, potentially in Moldova, Lithuania, and Latvia as a continuation of the evolution and de-evolution of the Soviet empire. The Soviet Union collapsed because it became too large, to spread out across space, too diverse culturally and ethnically, and too unproductive as it confronted geo-economic empire—the United States—that was far more productive, and as strong militarily, as the Soviet Union (see Collins 1986). The logistical loads and social control costs on centralized political authority that relied heavily on coercive force (or the threat thereof) and a large administrative bureaucracy engaged in social control and economic decision-making led to an empire that controlled a great deal of territory by coercion and tight administration but, at the same time, was economically in decline because of the lack of dynamic markets that spurn innovation and entrepreneurship that grow the economy and generate rising incomes and wealth. Once the United States fully engaged the Soviet Union in an arms race in the 1980s, the Soviets could keep pace but, in so doing, they depleted their economy of capital and investment in domestic production. The result was the rapid unraveling of the empire in the 1990s—without a direct shot ever having to be fired by the United States at the Soviet Union (although many shots were fired in Afghanistan and other “proxy wars”) Ironically, the limitations of the Soviet and U.S. military power were both exposed in Afghanistan.
As Max Weber (1922) emphasized, and as Skocpol (1979) sought to document, loss of prestige in the world system generally de-legitimates a political regime; and coupled with the turmoil created by the U.S.-backed effort to “jump start” capitalism in Russia, considerable domestic turmoil ensued, even as individuals and families began to enjoy many of the fruits of open markets and, for a time, seemingly political freedom. As I have tried to document from a biological perspective, humans are highly emotional, much more so than our great ape cousins; and there is a Darwinian story to be told as to why this occurred (Turner 2000). With the capacity for symbolic culture, which evolved long after hominin and then human emotionality had evolved (in subcortical neuronets in the brain), emotionally charged symbols can now have large effects on societies, particularly its politics. As Johnson and Duffy Toft emphasize, territory is more than just land; it is also a symbol of ethnicity and nationhood. Thus, to lose territory is to lose prestige and, equally important, emotionally charged ethnic identities in the world system. And this loss would set the stage for a political leader to use these emotional cards to legitimate geopolitical aggression in the name of Russian ethnic honor, promising to bring back past “glories.” This is a very risky strategy in light of the fact that it failed once before and would, if fully engaged, fail again because the Russian economy is, in the end, no match for western and Asian capitalism.
Yet, Vladimir Putin currently has a number of advantages that may blind him to the fact that these can quickly turn into liabilities in geopolitics and geo-economics. First, even though the productive economy in Russian is weak (and only strong because of massive capital investments from the west and Asia), the export of oil, gas, and other resources give Russia the capital to rebuild its armed forces. Second, Europe is highly dependent on these Russian resources and, hence, not likely to act ways that cut them off. Third, European military force is quite weak compared to that which Russian can mobilize. Fourth, the U.S. is fiscally weakened and culturally exhausted by a decade of futile warfare on two fronts and, hence, limited in what it can do directly or even indirectly through NATO. Fifth, incursions into militarily weak nations like Ukraine is very low-risk strategy, while providing for a dramatic rise in legitimacy for Putin and his regime. This legitimacy will allow him to consolidate power and, perhaps, even suspend the appearance of political democracy. These favorable conditions could lead Russia to make a major miscalculation in the resolve of the west and the obligations of the United States for former Russian colonies that are now part of NATO.
These short-term strengths can become longer-term liabilities because they promise a return to empire building as a means for increasing national prestige and for legitimacy of political elites. It would appear that Russia would like to control territories with Russian ethnics, from Lithuania through Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia to central Asian nations like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Whatever shorter-term success transpires in the coming months will be counter-productive in the long run, as the west re-organizes to deal with the new Soviet threat. This is an economic and military confrontation that Russian cannot win because, while certainly more productive than the old Soviet Union, the Russian economy outside of its extraction industries is not sufficiently productive to win the economic battle. It will, once again, over-capitalize its military at the expense of the economy, especially if western capital flees Russia and economic stagnation once again settles in. If, however, the aggression soon ceases, followed by some consolidation of territory that was once part of Ukraine, Russia will avoid falling into this trap again, but the apparent desire to centralize power and control will still erode the economy of capital because social control is expensive; and the rapidly constructed infrastructure of capitalism in Russian after the fall of the Soviet Union could erode very quickly. It is a basic evolutionary principle, first articulated by Herbert Spencer (1894-96), that centralization of power eventually limits market development, innovation, and entrepreneurship. China is fast approaching this tipping point, despite what appears to be a trend for continued growth; the Soviet Union by 1962 began to see it’s per capita productivity decline, as it might again even after a decade of state-sponsored growth on the fragile infrastructure of capitalism that has been erected over the last two decades. The scenario that Randall Collins (1984) outlined for the decline of the Soviet Empire would repeat itself, with even more devastating consequences for Russia’s prestige in the world system and, hence, the legitimacy of its political leadership (see also Turner 1995, 2010).
While one can make a more biologically based argument of the underlying evolutionary processes (with respect to ethnies and bioprogrammers for controlling life-sustaining territory), these are not, I would argue, the proximate causes of the current crisis in Ukraine (perhaps they are ultimate causes but less relevant than the proximate ones, which revolve around societal and empire evolution). Empires almost always expand to the end point of their logistical capacities and to the point where they encounter another empire in a “showdown” war. Russia has pushed towards this showdown because of the perception that the west is not in a position to make decisive counter moves, and this perception is correct in the immediate present but not in the longer-term. And, if Russia annexes territory, even if done through sponsorship of revolts by ethnic Russians, it will still have expanded to the point where it is at the limits of its logistical capacity to control this territory, while at the same pushing Russian to a showdown economic and military war with the west as it must spend ever-more capital on social control functions, thereby eroding its economic power.
Chase-Dunn, C. and B. Lerro. 2014. Social Change: Globalization from The Stone Age to The Present. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.
Collins, R. 1984. “The Future Decline of the Russian Empire.” Pp. 186-209 in Weberian Sociological Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Maryanski, A. and J. H. Turner. 1992. The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Skocpol, T. 1979. States and Social Revolutions. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Turner, J. H. 1995. Macrodynamics: Toward a Theory on The Organization of Human Populations. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
__________. 2000. On the Origins of Human Emotions: A Sociological Inquiry into The Inquiry into The Evolution of Human Affect. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
__________.2010. Principles of Theoretical Sociology, volume 1 on Macrodynamics. New York: Springer
Turner, J. H. and A. Maryanski. 2008. On The Origins of Society by Natural Selection. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.
________. 2008. “The Limitations of Evolutionary Theory from Biology in Explaining Socio-Cultural Evolution.” Sociologica 3 (2008); 1-38.
Weber, M. 1922 . Economy and Society. Trans. G. Roth and C. Wittich. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.