A substack has written a three-part study of societal collapse. I summarize and link the three parts and also emphasize some links that might be overlooked by a hurried reader who only skims the pages.
>[The book *After Collapse*, edited by Schwartz,] takes a cross-cultural approach to collapse and regeneration, - the various chapters deal with societies from across the ancient Near East, Europe, the far East, and ancient Mesoamerica - which drives home the point that these phenomena are universal in their application.
>[Pre-1960s archaeology focused on origins of cities, but] rarely tried to fit ancient societies into a coherent evolutionary order. Processual archaeology sought to remedy this by trying to turn archaeology into anthropology, moving the focus from the physical manifestations of ancient societies to their sociopolitical development. You may be familiar with the standard “troop —> tribe —> chiefdom —> state” formula that regularly appears in the literature. Now as it turns out, this sort of progressive evolutionary assumption is a gross oversimplification, but like many oversimplifications it seems plausible at first glance. Overturning it, however, is one of the raisons d’etre for this book.
> the rise and fall of complex societies is itself a complex phenomenon. Thus, it simply makes sense to approach the study of them through the lenses of feedback mechanisms, fragility, and resilience. And just as much as societies rise and increase in complexity, for various particularly unpredictable yet generally self-similar reasons (implying that there are some strange attractors involved in all of this), they also fall and decrease in complexity. There is so much to learn about society, human civilisation, and allied topics by examining how and why they collapse just as much as how they originate and grow.
>As I will be observing at various points throughout this series, the cyclical understanding of civilisational rise and fall meshes quite well with the demographic-structural theory presented by Jack Goldstone, Peter Turchin, and others.
Linked within the text:
>For every golden age, there is a day of darkness that comes. Nobody has yet figured out how to make the good times last and they never will because the sociological forces that drive these demographic-structural cycles at the macroscale level are tied to the very nature of man himself. In a very real sense, “hard times create strong men —> strong men create good times —> good times create weak men —> weak men create hard times…” is hardwired into the nature of humanity. But this hardwiring leads me to my second preliminary point, which is that the reality of collapse (as well as regeneration) is universal.
>let’s talk about what exactly is meant by “collapse.” The use of this term may seem a bit misleading ... because when many people hear it, the tendency is to think of a descent into some kind of hellish, Mad Max-style anarchy. Yet, while this makes for fascinating fiction, this is nearly always not the case with historical collapses, and indeed is not what scholars in the relevant fields generally mean by it. Instead, the single most salient factor in collapse is the concept of simplification - political decentralisation and social decomplexification being the primary routes that work out over time. As such, “collapse” is a phase in the cycle, one which can stretch out over decades before the “Seneca point” finally snaps and creates a cascade effect that brings the current order down.
>...ongoing corruption and incompetence is an effect, not a cause of collapse. In one sense, systems can simply become so complex that the actors involved “lose the plot” and can no longer stay on top of things. Yet, simple complexity itself can’t be the sum of the problem since there was obviously a point in an earlier era where they were able to do so. Accompanying the turn from growth to collapse must be a moral or ideological reason.
>I tend to suspect that this chain of causality reflects the realities of demographic-structural theory (DST) and that the “moral or ideological” reason mentioned above derives from intraelite competition in which a society’s elite, having exhausted its growth potential, falls into an increasingly envenomed factional struggle to centralise the remaining wealth of that society into the hands of the various factions. This often expresses itself under ideological colours, such as left-wing progressives who loot the middle class to enrich themselves and their clients. As a society enters into its stagnation and collapse phases, intraelite competition creates ever-increasing rapacity, which in turn destroys the claims to legitimacy that a governing system may make. Corruption and incompetence go hand-in-hand with this as each level tries to get its piece of the pie, disregarding the common good, and institutions increasingly fail to do what they were originally created to accomplish.
>The situation we’ve seen in America (as well as many other places, both east and west) since the late 1960s demonstrates this DST-predicted intraelite competition. Elite interest groups (including those on the “libertarian” Right) have been packing as many immigrants into the country as possible, trying to build beholden client networks. ...
>...all of this occurs as these elites seek to centralise all power and wealth into their own hands. It is this centralisation that drives the sort of social complexification that eventually collapses. During the earlier growth phases, this complexification finds constructive outlets, such as building businesses, economic expansion, scientific research that leads to genuinely new technologies, and so forth. With the turn to collapse, complexification degenerates into things like the creation of ever more intricate legal systems designed to loot the common folk, and basically any other way in which competition from below can be muzzled, no matter how intrinsically destructive these might be. Intraelite competition is tolerated, but not from incipient rising elites from outside the current power structure. There’s a DST reason for why the current US political establishment hates Trump and wants to destroy MAGA, just to provide one salient example.
>When traditionalists warn about the assault on the family, they are not being puritanical humbugs. Societies which have strong family and kinship ties are difficult for centralising elites to coopt and the claims of these elites are harder to enforce. This is, of course, why the transnational elites have sought to undermine the traditional American family, destroy paternal and parental authority, and disconnect children from their larger kinship ties. Social atomisation is always the tyrant’s friend because it removed natural human bonds and centralises them into dependence upon the elites. As such, drag queen story hour and no-fault divorce are as much symptoms and drivers of collapse as are the current looting and ideological rigidification.
> Multiethnic empires can be surprising stable, from a DST perspective, provided they follow this “a place for everybody” model in which the imperial nation acts as an “aristoclade” toward the subordinate groups (something also seen with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empires, for example).
>["Limes" refers to border defenses in ancient Rome.] ... any prosperous and advanced society is going to have what other people want. Many times, those other people are going to try to move en masse to take the things that they want. And that’s what happened to Rome. The limes were able to hold off barbarians all around the Empire, from the Rhine to the Danube to the Atlas Mountains, for centuries. But the steadily increasing pressure over time, as entire tribes and people-groups began to enter the Empire in massive amounts, overwhelmed the ability of the integrative system to handle the flood of people who weren’t really interested in being coopted. Coupled with other DST collapse tendencies that acted synergistically with this flow (or more properly, created the weaknesses that allowed the flow to get going in earnest), the stability of the system finally reached its terminal “Seneca point.”
>Ultimately, even in Rome diversity was not actually their strength.
> “Immigrants” who refuse to integrate, or who come in large enough numbers as to be unintegratable ... create an especially dangerous kind of diversity problem that nearly always destabilises sociopolitical systems.
>So from a DST perspective, collapse phases in secular cycles seem to be mitigated when efforts are made to regulate immigration of foreign elements into a polity (or to regulate interactions between extant “foreign” populations and the imperial government in multiethnic empires). Conversely, when mass immigration is tolerated and assimilation not actively pursued, the decentralising effects of collapse are worsened and/or made more permanent. Immigration, itself, doesn’t seem to “drive” the overall secular cycling (which is dependent upon numerous complex, non-linear phenomena), but can act to gear it up or down.
>Now I’d like to discuss the other external factor that can influence a polity’s secular cycles of collapse and regeneration – trade. Once again I’ll refer to the western Roman and post-Roman situations as examples