Coronavirus

COVID-19 and the Collapse of Complex Societies

Sometimes pressure causes breakdowns, but sometimes it causes breakthroughs.

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With the world experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918, many people may wonder if civilization is as secure as it might be. History offers insight into this question. Civilizational breakdown is a recurring historical process. Looking at how it has happened before can help us understand what causes it, the forms it may take, and how far away from it we may be. Civilizational crisis and collapse were given a formal scholarly definition in Joseph Tainter's 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, and Tainter's model underlies the work of later generations of scholars.

The model works this way. Since at least the advent of agriculture, people have responded to challenges and sought to improve their condition. One form this takes is through social cooperation and the division of labor, an approach that leads to more complex forms of economy, society, and politics. In the abstract, complexity means higher levels of heterogeneity, as opposed to uniformity. In concrete economic terms, it means a more elaborate division of labor, a larger number of distinct occupations, and greater specialization both geographically and among people. Socially, it means a greater number of roles and ways of living, more variety in the stages of life, increased differentiation, and more varied and changeable interpersonal relations. Politically, it means more structured political units, more elaborate administration, and higher levels of urbanization. Complexity in all of these forms brings a positive payoff in terms of more production, higher living standards, more inventiveness, and a more varied and commodious way of living. It therefore pays to move toward more complex ways of doing things and living.

But there are limits to this approach. Complexity has diminishing marginal returns: The gains from complexity become less as it increases, while the costs (such as information problems, ineffectuality, and difficulty in changing course) become greater. Eventually, increased complexity has negative returns. Moreover, as social, economic, and political orders become more complex they also become more fragile and brittle, less resilient and adaptable. They become less able to cope with unexpected shocks (or even shocks that are anticipated). As the system becomes more complex and interdependent—in ways that the people who are part of it do not fully understand—it becomes susceptible to a general breakdown caused by cascade effects. These happen when a failure in one part of the system leads to unforeseeable failures in other parts. These failures may have no obvious connection to the original problem, which in turn leads to further breakdowns elsewhere.

Underlying all of this for most (or all?) of history is the fundamental reality of limited resources. These impose constraints on the level of complexity that a given type of economic and social organization can support. These limits usually lurk in the background, but as the population, level of human activity, and complexity reach such constraints, they start to pinch in many ways. It is that pressure that brings the collapse of a complex order. For Tainter and his successors, the process is actually one of simplification, the breakdown and decomposition of complex forms of organization into simpler and less diverse ones. This has many aspects, including a decline in population and urbanization; a move from large polities to smaller, more local ones; and a decay of elaborate trade systems and divisions of labor. Sometimes the process is arrested or even reversed, and sometimes it continues until a new, simpler equilibrium is reached.

Importantly, collapse does not usually mean cataclysm: The process takes place over two or three human lifetimes rather than as a single, dramatic event. A number of indicators suggest that a society is entering such an episode: overproduction of elites, intensified social conflict, diminishing returns on investment across the whole range of assets, increasingly severe shortages of key resources and materials, conflicts over access to resources between groups and states, large-scale migration, and increasingly severe environmental degradation. One common feature is widespread epidemics. Another is famines, caused as much by interruptions to the food supply and distribution system as by natural events. All these things are both causes and components of the process of collapse.

Much of human history consequently has a cyclical quality. A society will start off relatively simple ("undeveloped," we might say) and gradually become more complex, sophisticated, and wealthy. Eventually it reaches the limits of that process and a crisis ensues. It may adapt or surmount it, but more often it does not; the society returns to a simpler, less complex form. There are several well-known examples of this, such as the collapse of the classical Mayan civilization in the eighth and ninth centuries, the breakdown of the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and the lands around the Mediterranean in the sixth century, and the disintegration of the civilizations of the late Bronze Age in the 12th century B.C. It has happened several times in Chinese history. But the process is not straightforwardly cyclical. Sometimes civilizations rebound, as the Roman Empire did after the great crisis of the third century. The simplification process can be arrested at a number of levels of complexity above that of original simplicity, depending on a number of factors.

There is a force that works against the dynamic identified by Tainter and described above. That is the process of innovation, derived from the combination of human ingenuity and the liberty that gives it expression and encourages it. The innovative process can be spurred by the challenge of reaching a natural limit, opening up ways of pushing that limit further out and so checking or reversing the breakdown.

Since 1300, the world has experienced two major episodes of civilizational crisis on a global scale, one in the 14th century and the other in the 17th. On both occasions, although the damage was considerable, human civilization in all parts of the world survived the challenge. Since the middle of the 18th century, the world has pushed up against natural limits several times. On each of these occasions there was a major crisis, but the outcome was not a collapse but a breakthrough to a new level of technology and organization that resolved the crisis.

It seems very likely that we are currently experiencing the fourth such crisis since the early 18th century. We certainly see many signs of a crisis of complexity. This probably explains the current popular fascination with novels, movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games centering on the breakdown of civilization, with the precipitating disasters ranging from plagues to asteroid impacts to nuclear war to zombies. Alongside all this fiction is a flourishing prepper industry and subculture This sort of apocalyptic thinking tends to lull and surge, and lately we've been experiencing the latter. I don't think that's a coincidence.

A major pandemic is one of the classic aspects of a civilizational crisis. All of our systems—social, political, and economic—are being put through what we may regard as a stress test. We will discover which are resilient and robust, which are fragile and brittle, and which are actually antifragile, thriving on the breakdown of structures. Quite apart from COVID-19, if we look at the signs of systemic stress we can observe that, once again, human ingenuity is producing technologies and ways of doing things that will enable us to overcome this time of troubles. We may be facing a rather challenging time, perhaps lasting many years. But we should be confident that global civilization will overcome this, as it has before.

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  1. With the world experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918? Ummm, maybe/maybe not.

    1. Does HIV count as a pandemic? If so that one’s worse. Otherwise, yes, this is the worst pandemic since 1918.

      1. The roughly 2 to 3 million people who died from Asian flu (about 0.1% of the world’s people at the time) would probably disagree. Not to mention the roughly same number who died from Hong Kong flu some ten years later.

      2. We won’t have an idea till this is over. Stop with the hysterics. Serious epidemiological studies are done over the course of a year with seriously large error bars. Trying to have an accurate picture of a pandemic in real time is like painting during a hurricane. It’s total lunacy.

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        1. Fuck off, karan
          This is all your fault!

    2. The world is experiencing the worst pandemonium, since hmm lets see……
      Impeachment?
      WWIII with Iran?
      Russia Russia Russia?
      Kids in cages drinking from toilets?
      Poor Hillary?

  2. He is right if you see it as the world acting as if experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918. All the stresses are there except the actual dying.

    1. To address that issue, the CDC now includes “probable” C19 deaths in the numbers. No science need apply.

  3. Trump 21st Century Misery Index = 34.7%

    (inflation is out of the Misery Index – replaced with US budget deficit as a % of GDP. So the formula is UE + deficit = Misery Index)

    For comparison the Misery Index was 10.1% in 2016.

    1. Misery index. Pffffft. Invented by Carter’s campaign as a cudgel to beat up POTUS Ford. Successfully, I might add. Four years later, Candidate Reagan used that same metric to oust POTUS Carter from office.

      The U6 unemployment rate (~10%) + current inflation (~2%) rate pretty much tells the story. No need to cherry-pick. It is bad.

    2. Oops, new jobless claims just in of 5.2 million.

      Revise the Misery Index upward!

    3. I reject the notion that deficit spending makes people miserable. The deficit doesn’t matter.

      1. Deficits are future taxes. Someone will be miserable.

        1. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization. That’s not misery. That’s modern society.

          If it makes you miserable, you’re free to find a hole in the mountains and live tax-free and fully employed as a hunter/gatherer.

          1. We pay taxes because we aren’t civilized enough to pay for what we actually use. Demanding that others pay for things I use is hardly civilized.

          2. Hunter gatherer careers are not applicable to progs – no handouts, terrible health care. They will just resent you for even suggesting such an affront. Offer them a noose instead.

          3. Civilization never existed before taxes.

          4. The IRS would disagree with your assessment that such a lifestyle lets you avoid taxes.

            1. lol right?

              Taxes are the price we pay for…well, existing

          5. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization. You. Are. Full. Of. Shit. Fuck off and die, slaver.

        2. Deficits and debt are not the same thing. And they aren’t future taxes. The federal government will never pay off the debt. It will inflate it away or default.

          1. “The federal government will”

            Since you’re so keen on things that aren’t things, predictions from a drunk aren’t reality

            “And they aren’t future taxes”

            Yes actually they are, and predictions that they will never be paid doesn’t make them “not taxes.” Leo tried the same stupid fucking misdirection yesterday and I slapped him down too.

            1. You’re right. Debt that is not paid is indeed future taxes, because you need people to pay taxes in order for the government no not pay the debt that it defaults on.

              1. “You’re right”

                I know. The idea that something stops being future tax revenue because it is unlikely to be collected was moronic and you never should have tried it.

                1. Dude, you make my head hurt.

                  1. You mean I get to make you look stupid by correcting your errors AND it causes you physical doscomfort?!?!?!?

                    #winning

    4. “Misery Index”

      AHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAAHAHAHA
      AHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHHAHAHAHAAHAHA

      AHAHAHAAHAHHHAHAAHAHAA

      AHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAAHAHAHA
      AHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHHAHAHAHAAHAHA

      AHAHAHAAHAHHHAHAAHAHAA
      AHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAAHAHAHA
      AHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHHAHAHAHAAHAHA

      AHAHAHAAHAHHHAHAAHAHAA
      AHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAAHAHAHA
      AHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHHAHAHAHAAHAHA

      AHAHAHAAHAHHHAHAAHAHAA

      1. yeah this ^^.

  4. How many of these societies collapsed because the government parasite killed the host?

    1. All! Government’s origin was as the best way to steal from individuals and it can never escape its origin.

  5. Who knew that an ample supply of toilet paper would determine a society’s civility as we know it?

    1. It’s how we won the cold war.

      1. Operation Tamarisk?

      2. Yup…If the enemy had had toilet paper, we might have been in the crapper.

  6. Complexity is only a crisis when people with power try to manage systems they cannot possibly comprehend. What Hayek called the “Knowledge Problem.” Command and Control has failed repeatedly throughout history. Why do people expect it will suddenly work in times of crisis?

    1. Why do people expect it will suddenly work in times of crisis?

      Because tribal instinct kicks in. Although the power guy comes on the Teevee every day to command something he doesn’t understand his tribe members rally around him.

      1. “Complexity is only a crisis when people with power try to manage systems they cannot possibly comprehend. What Hayek called the “Knowledge Problem.”…” Yes. The virus is not the problem here, the governments’ actions are.

  7. I question the premise of Mr. Davies: The Wuhan coronavirus poses a civilization crisis. This is premature.

    WWII was a civilization crisis. The fall of Rome was a civilization crisis. The Reformation was a civilization ‘crisis’. The defeat of Muslim forces in Vienna in 1683 was arguably a civilization crisis. The Wuhan coronavirus is a major event in history, but it is not yet a civilization altering event (it could become one, though).

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I see a more positive picture. It has been said that humans are at their very best when things are at their very worst. Our highest aspirational ideals are expressed in action in response to crises. And we see this happening right in front of us, every day. I am inspired and so proud of my country when I consider these examples:

    – The healthcare professionals who come to work every day, risking their life, because their calling to help others is more important than their life itself. This is the best of humanity.
    – The scientists and engineers who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to develop rapidly deployable diagnostic testing for the Wuhan coronavirus. This was an astounding feat, achieved in less than 60 days, and then deployed in less than a week. This is the best of innovation under pressure.
    – The US will have revolutionized rapid conversion manufacturing retooling with ventilator production. From a standing start, we produced ventilators in less than a month. We are now pumping them out by the thousands. This was a monumental accomplishment by American industry, and a testament to our ingenuity.

    I have given three examples. There are so many more. The Wuhan coronavirus has definitely tested our Republic. No question about that. But I would submit that far from exposing our weaknesses, the Wuhan coronavirus gave Americans the opportunity to be strong and resilient and showcased our strengths as a people. And we have delivered magnificently as a country.

    Collapse of our complex American society? Not a chance.

    1. You are an eternal optimist. I’ll give you that.

      I just hope that the millions of people living paycheck to paycheck who aren’t getting a paycheck don’t get hungry. Historically that’s when things get violent.

      1. This will pass, sarcasmic. Aside from death and taxes, the other thing I know for certain our Republic will endure.

        1. I’m pretty sure that this country has the oldest government in the world. Every other country’s government has changed since this one was founded. But nothing lasts forever.

    2. As a global catastrophe, WWII was worse in most ways. One distinguishing factor is that some societies were left relatively untouched so there was a base from which to rebuild.

    3. You’re in denial. We will not be able to flip a switch and turn the economy back on when our Lord Governors declare it’s safe to leave the bunker. We’re headed into a deadly depression.

      1. Vernon, the task is great. Never before have we ever seen a planet just ‘socially distance and shut down’. It has been mind blowing. We (America) now have to lead the way and figure out how to get the whole shebang re-started. One thing I know: The American people are equal to this huge task.

        1. I think you’re daft.

  8. Looking at the collapse of great civilizations might be tempered by re-examining the definition of great civilizations. If you’re looking at empires, you’re looking at extensive and complicated government – administrators and regulators and central planners. An army of government officials is no less a drain on society than an army of soldiers. You need a certain amount of rules and a certain amount of rules enforcement to further the ends of regular production, but at some point the making of rules and the enforcement of rules become an end in themselves rather than a means to an end and then the whole thing starts collapsing. The Roman legions and the British Navy contributed to the wealth of their empires as long as they were used as tools to expand and keep open the trade that benefited the average citizen, once they began to be used to expand the wealth and power of the government of the empire, it was all downhill from there.

    1. Empires must continuously grow.
      Once they stop expanding, the turn to cannibalism is inevitable

  9. STOP THE HYSTERIA!

    America will be just fine as this is a fictional emergency. You can see the Propagandists in the media losing control of the Narrative.

    Traffic around Atlanta and Georgians doing regular activities on Easter weekend. Hundreds of protesters in Lansing, Michigan protesting the tyranny of their governor….

    1. On one hand I agree. On the other, it is pretty obvious what “they” are doing. Whether it’s a terrible virus or a dud, the economy seems to be the focus. They are imploding it with the help of the media.

      This isn’t your everyday media sensationalism either. Everyone sees it – it’s unprecedented. All of this shit show is by design.

      Idk if the China virus is really a natural event that they stumbled into by sheer luck, or if it’s a depopulation scheme, or if it’s simply a psyop to provide a reason for economic collapse that won’t see us with pitchforks calling for elite heads to roll.

      It doesn’t really matter – for whatever reason, it appears that the leaders have decided now is the time for collapse, and in order for their chosen segments to stay relevant, the whole world goes down at the same time.

      If there are food shortages, we are fucked. So, hopefully the reset will be gentle.

      1. +1000

    2. The “pandemic” is a fictional emergency. The economic and societal collapse is very real. We’re fucked.

  10. This entire article is BULLSHIT.

    The author repeatedly inserts banal platitudes as evidence, and personal experience for evidence.

    Civilizations collapse when they cannot adapt to external pressure. The author’s assertion is that as society becomes more complex, people are unable to respond to changes, leading to cascade failures in the society, and eventual collapse. However, the author gives ZERO evidence of this.

    Perhaps you look back at the Roman empire or the Byzantine empire, and say “Hey those are complex civilizations that collapsed!” But the problem is we don’t know if the collapse was DUE to complexity or due to something else. While we can all find an example of a giant empire that succumbed, they are DWARFED by thousands and thousands of civilizations that were relatively simpler and crushed by environmental problems, or more likely, other humans bashing their skulls in. (Relative) Simplicity didn’t save the Aztecs from the Conquistador. (Relative) Simplicity didn’t save the North American Indians from Measles and Small Pox.

    Indeed what we find is that complexity makes societies more adaptable to outside pressures, just as steel alloy makes carbon steel less brittle and more able to flex under great shocks. Sure, there are times in history when a major pandemic, climate change, invasion or other major stressor broke civilizations, but that was in spite of their resilience, not because of it.

    I could spend hours dissecting how off base this article is, but look no further than this line:

    “A number of indicators suggest that a society is entering such an episode…increasingly severe shortages of key resources and materials, conflicts over access to resources between groups and states…”

    How can anyone who writes for Reason type those words with a straight face? The author should go spend a couple hours with Mr Bailey. Despite the wailing of thousands of Malthusian Groupies, we have never had greater access to resources than we do today. And that is almost entirely because our civilization allows levels of specialization that allow us to untap MORE resources, and get more out of each resource. We farm better, we mine better, we extract oil better, we refine better. All these things happen because people can spend their entire life solving complex problems rather than hunting and gathering.

    The author thinks that because they cannot understand some link in the chain of complexity, it must be unknowable and therefor must be a risk. But consider that we are still eating today despite a massive shock to our supply chains. The worst thing is that some people were worried about toilet paper. This is because complexity stopped a major shock from being a shattering event- it is more like a rip in fabric that is contained. Go to third world countries or look to simpler times and see what an epidemic does. Pestilence begets famine, begets war. But no one is going to war right now. We still have food on the table.

    Fuck, even this pestilence is not catastrophic. For every 90 people dying of this disease, there are 999,900 people living!

    1. You’ve convinced me. The hypothesis that too much complexity makes a society vulnerable is superficially plausible until you think about how many resources we can call upon because of the complexity of our society. Chances are that we will have a vaccine in under two years.

    2. “As the system becomes more complex and interdependent—in ways that the people who are part of it do not fully understand—it becomes susceptible to a general breakdown caused by cascade effects.”

      This isn’t just unsupported, it’s counter-intuitive if you think markets work.

    3. “How can anyone who writes for Reason type those words with a straight face? The author should go spend a couple hours with Mr Bailey.[…] All these things happen because people can spend their entire life solving complex problems rather than hunting and gathering.” Yes. As opposed to the unsupported claim: ” Complexity has diminishing marginal returns: The gains from complexity become less as it increases, while the costs (such as information problems, ineffectuality, and difficulty in changing course) become greater.” It’s possible there’s a level of complexity delivering diminishing returns, but if so, it’s on the far side of the peak of the curve; so far, all returns have been positive and growing.

      1. I see reason has fucked the formatting. Great job, Welsh!

  11. Calvert County Maryland asks residents to limit shopping to specific days based on your last name.

    1. When Zeller or Zelinski starves to death it will be chalked up to WuFlu.

      1. It could be ironic. My family usually gets groceries 1/week. Under the proposal we would likely go every 5 days instead of stretching to every 10.

    2. Like Stein or Goldberg?

  12. >>With the world experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918

    really just New York

    1. And Detroit.

  13. Before the current Covid-19 crisis, government had failed to put money in the hands of the poor to stimulate demand and help the flagging economy to pick up. It had preferred to focus budgetary and fiscal resources and attention on big industry and to rescue NPA-diseased banks with public money. This pre-existing economic situation intensifies the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on very large numbers of people and the economy. There is a dire need for permanent economic and financial policy to shift toward being people-oriented instead of big-business oriented, regardless of how long the Covid-19 threat lasts or when it may re-emerge.
    https://worldabcnews.com/u-s-grapples-with-how-to-drastically-ramp-up-covid-19-contact-tracing/

    1. “…There is a dire need for permanent economic and financial policy to shift toward being people-oriented instead of big-business oriented, regardless of how long the Covid-19 threat lasts or when it may re-emerge.” You. Are. Full. Of. Shit. Fuck off and die, slaver.

  14. “A major pandemic is one of the classic aspects of a civilizational crisis. All of our systems—social, political, and economic—are being put through what we may regard as a stress test. We will discover which are resilient and robust, which are fragile and brittle, and which are actually antifragile, thriving on the breakdown of structures. Quite apart from COVID-19, if we look at the signs of systemic stress we can observe that, once again, human ingenuity is producing technologies and ways of doing things that will enable us to overcome this time of troubles.” Except that our government(s) are, idiotically, sabotaging the stress test and impeding the ingenuity with every tool of redistribution to and political defense of the the old fragile and brittle systems from and against the new resilient, robust, and antifragile. Every effort to pad the fall of or prop-up the status-quo or force its return is in reality exacerbating the collapse and delaying or preventing the new cycle up. Government can not create or protect. Government can only redistribute or destroy. Government redistribution entails much destruction, and government destruction entails much redistribution.

  15. Yeah I doubt society is going to collapse. But it’s clear Americans have forgotten their history. Don’t listen to anyone in government, assume they are trying to fuck you, and that especially anyone left of center is a whiny bitch who is not worthy of your time or respect. It has made me realize that the next time I hear some left winger mouth off, I may just decide that nasty oxygen habit they have is the cause of all my problems.

  16. “We will discover which are resilient and robust, which are fragile and brittle, and which are actually antifragile, thriving on the breakdown of structures.” Yes, tyranny is resilent and robust and the Constitution is fragile and brittle. Tyranny wins. If you think otherwise, you aren’t being realistic. Government hasn’t been about the American people for decades.

  17. Kinda. The issue is less civilization collapse than the collapse or reorganization of existing power structures (which is essentially destruction of the world for those in power). I forget the specifics, but there was a list of like 11 items that foretold whether a civilization (i.e.- government) would fold, and the bit that struck me then was that most democracies soldier on with 3 or 4 in play. The question now is whether there will be change and what form it will take. Could be a worldwide defaulting on debit. Could be heads on pikes. Wait and see.

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