The Collapse of Complex Societies

  • The Collapse of Complex Societies
    Joseph A. Tainter - Cambridge University Press, 1988 - xiv + 250pp

When the engine of the world economy coughs and hesitates, as it did in the great stock-market crash eighteen months ago, the pundits wonder if the end of it all is, this time, really nigh. They look back to the last collapse, in this case the stock market crash of 1929 with which the Depression set in, and wonder. Yet 1929 was different, if only because governments today know of its consequences. They will not repeat the mistakes of the 1930s, but they may invent some new ones instead.

When and why do states, empires and civilisations collapse? When and why do they survive and prosper despite all perils? Is there a pattern in their history, even a pattern that indicates a best path for the world today? These questions, above all the great collapse of the western Roman Empire, have concerned historians since Gibbon. The value of Tainter's new comparative study is to look at the larger pattern of other collapses beyond the usual handful of examples. Many of them, documented more by archaeology than by history, are even more complete and absolute in their fall. The Mayan civilisation of southern Mexico (the only early civilisation of a tropical forest), the Harappan of the Indus valley, the Mesopotamian cities in the seventh to tenth centuries AD all vanished in a generation or two. A millennium after the Mesopotamian collapse, there is still an absolute void:

Much of the central floodplain of the ancient Euphrates now lies beyond the frontiers of cultivation, a region of empty desolation. Tangled dunes, long disused canal levees, and the rubble-strewn mounds of former settlements Contribute only low, featureless relief. Vegetation is sparse, and in many areas is almost wholly absent. Rough, wind-eroded land surfaces and periodically flooded depressions form an irregular patchwork in all directions, discouraging any but the most committed traveller. To suggest the immediate impact of human life there is only a rare tent ....

Tainter begins by defining complex societies in economic and political terms – by territorial organisation, specialised occupations, differentiation in terms of class rather than kinship, a state monopoly of force, of legal jurisdiction, and of authority to direct resources and mobilise personnel. Collapse he defines as a rapid shift to a lower level of complexity. Then he looks at the varied theories of collapse, those that look to external forces of hostile climate change, to internal contradictions of class interest or to the hints of depleted finite resources, or which appeal to mystical or animist analysis, for if a civilisation grows and flowers, must it not die in its time also? This last runs back to Vico, whose cyclical theory of history runs from First Barbaric Times to Civil Societies and then to Returned Barbaric Times.

Most of these opinions Tainter discards as providing no explanation at all: a Marxist account of collapse through class conflict fails if class conflict is reckoned a constant element of civilisations, for the point then lies not in class conflict at all, but in the reason why class conflict was fatal at one time when it had been sustaining – or even a valuable engine of development – at previous times. Almost all the theories turn out to have a moral underpinning, in which the achievement of civilisation is virile and good and its collapse a fall from grace, from formative through florescence to degeneracy.

Tainter, whose viewpoint is from comparative anthropology, has not much patience with tales of morality and redemption. He expects a rational reason to exist for collapse and finds it in economics, generally as a law of declining marginal productivity. Farming takes the best land first; as farmed area increases so it is forced on to more intractable and less productive land. Mines, which begin with thick and shallow seams, are forced down to thinner and deeper seams. The same is true of social complexity – of civilisation – itself. The apparatus of elites, with their ceremonial buildings, luxury goods, warfare and other consumptions are worth their expense so long as there is, overall, a net benefit. So is the expense of conquering neighbouring lands, and administering their people. The time comes when extra investment in more complexity and more empire generates no good at all, for the benefits are wholly swallowed up in the costs of supporting the administration, bureaucracy and other parasites that social complexity involves.

Thereafter, and worse, extra complexity does active harm, as the costs come to outweigh benefits – and it is at that point that the system becomes vulnerable to collapse. Minor climatic fluctuations, minor barbarian assaults – are sufficient to bring the end. The approach of the end announces itself in a levelling-off or decline of population and its well-being, as the gap between costs and benefits be- gins to be made up by a worsening of conditions for those on whose exploitation the civilisation is built.

Tainter works through three examples to show his general pattern, one from historical sources, two largely from archaeological. The western Roman empire failed because maintaining a far-flung empire in a hostile environment imposed excessive costs on its agricultural basis. The Maya failed because the burdens of competitive warfare, and propaganda displays in place of warfare, between the many city-states of the Maya realm could no longer be borne by a weakened population. The Chaco complex, a highly developed pueblo society of the American south-west of about nine hundred years ago, failed when communities found the costs of contributing to a regional network of redistribution not worth the benefit and withdrew from it.

The question becomes less, why do civilisations collapse? and more, why do some civilisations push themselves so far into the regions of greater cost for such small benefit? Tainter sees collapse to be made possible by isolation. A civilisation surrounded by competitors, as the eastern Roman empire was, weakens and wearies as its peripheral parts are stolen away by its neighbours; it erodes rather than falls wholesale. It is the civilisation which is on its own – as the Maya were, or as the western Roman empire was when it had swallowed up the known world to the limits of habitable land to north, west and south – that can persist with costly policies right up to that point of folly where a catastrophe may overtake it. For the rest civilisations are immensely resilient: see how their fundamental structures shake off the loss of millions – whether in natural catastrophes like the Black Death, or unnatural disasters like the impact which two world wars made this century on the population of central Europe.

Tainter's is an attractive and compelling thesis, of a genre which is nearly extinct among domestic historians. He refers to those embarrassing antiques, Spengler and Toynbee, exactly because not many historians today will address these grand issues. True to that larger ambition, Tainter ends by applying his principles of collapse to our own global society. Has it reached a point of diminishing return? Certainly, in almost every field for which statistics exist. Is it resilient? Certainly, whether to AIDS or locally catastrophic warfare. Is it susceptible to collapse? Not in the short term, for no part of the world is isolated now: there can be no great default in international loans, nor loss of a region of the Third World into local autonomy or back to an older style of society. The catastrophe, if it comes, must bring down everything. And will the world see sense, in its arms races and headlong gobbling of finite resources? No, because emulation and competition impel the whole business, and no mechanism can exist to declare a truce, to change the rules, or to settle for a quieter way of life. These are conclusions that make plenty of sense in light of the way of the world these last decades.

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