History

COVID-19 and the Collapse of Complex Societies

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With the world experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918, people may be wondering whether our way of life is secure. Looking at how civilizational breakdown has happened before can help us understand what causes it, the forms it may take, and whether it's in our future.

Civilizational crisis and collapse were given a formal scholarly definition in Joseph A. Tainter's 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. 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, 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 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 more varied and commodious lifestyles. In other words, it pays to move toward more complex ways of doing things.

But there are limits to this approach. Complexity has diminishing marginal returns: The gains from complexity decrease as complexity increases, while the costs (such as information problems and difficulty 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 have a harder time coping with unexpected shocks (or even shocks that are anticipated). As the system becomes more 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," which 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, and they in turn lead to further breakdowns elsewhere.

Underlying all of this is the fundamental reality of limited resources, which imposes constraints on the level of complexity that a given type of economic and social organization can support. The limits usually lurk in the background, but as levels of population, 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 of civilizational breakdown is actually one of 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.

Yet the process is not straightforwardly cyclical. Sometimes civilizations rebound, as the Roman Empire did after the great crisis of the third century. Between 235 and 284 A.D. there were over 50 recognized emperors or claimants to that title; the empire was riven by civil wars, barbarian invasions, massive epidemics, currency debasement, and peasant rebellions. Toward the end, it had effectively split into three states. But a series of soldier-emperors restored and stabilized Roman civilization, and it went on to flourish for another two centuries. The simplification process can also be arrested at a level of complexity above that of original simplicity.

There is a force that works against the dynamic identified by Tainter: the process of innovation, derived from a combination of human ingenuity and the liberty that gives it expression and encourages it. The innovative process, spurred by the challenges that arise when society reaches a natural limit, may open 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. In the 14th century, the Black Death killed around 40 percent of the population of Eurasia, urban life went into decline in many places, there was a dramatic slump in long-distance trade, and the level of political unrest and war rose dramatically all over the Old World. In the 17th century, the Little Ice Age helped produce popular rebellions from the Atlantic to the Pacific, culminating in violent revolutions in 1648–49 in almost every part of Europe—and sometimes beyond. Again, there was a severe economic slowdown and a global decline of long-distance trade. But on both occasions, although the damage was considerable, human civilization survived in all parts of the world.

Since the middle of the 18th century, the world has pushed up against natural limits several times. It happened in the period from the 1770s through the first decade of the 1800s, it happened in the period from the later 1840s through the 1860s, and it happened at the turn of the 20th century. These were all times when an existing level of technology began to reach the limit of complexity it could sustain, leading to economic and political breakdowns. On each of these occasions there was a major crisis, marked by the classic signs of systemic stress and collapse, but the outcome was not a collapse. In the modern world, unlike most pre-modern eras, each crisis has led to a breakthrough to a higher level of complexity, as the resource limit is pushed back.

It seems very likely that we are experiencing another instance of this phenomenon. 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 markers of a civilizational crisis. All of our systems are being put through 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. Fortunately, by looking at the signs of systemic stress, we can observe that human ingenuity is producing technologies and ways of doing things that will very likely enable us to overcome this time of troubles. We may be facing challenges, perhaps lasting many years. But we should be confident that global civilization will overcome this, as it has before.

NEXT: Brickbat: Bowing to Their Masters

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  1. No, the problem begins and ends with government overreach.

    1. Politically, it [complexity] means more structured political units, more elaborate administration, and higher levels of urbanization.

      This [civilization breakdown] 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.

      Government overreach is one of the features he points to as an indicator. Europe appears to meet all the prerequisites, the US not far behind.

      But a series of soldier-emperors restored and stabilized Roman civilization, and it went on to flourish for another two centuries.

      Trump? Xi? Putin? People run to a strongman in difficult times.

      1. A number of historians have wondered what the outcome would have been had Hitler and Nazis been content to confine themselves to the German-speaking countries.

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    2. The current crisis certainly has more to do with government overreach than natural forces.

      1. Self-inflicted. No question.

        But even an over-reaction will have unintended consequences.

        Not only that, the pandemic now collided with a ‘black swan’ with the Floyd incident thus further stressing American society.

        I know one thing. This pandemic showed we have shitty leaders. But we all knew that.

    3. Where “government” means all the forces trying to impose stasis on society, to preserve the status quo.

      Societies can cope with all but the asteroids, if they are allowed to adjust and adapt. Society did cope with previous pandemics, even the bubonic plagues, except for governments trying to stop the tides of changes. During the black deaths, for instance, workers held the upper hand as so much land was ownerless and up for grabs; the natural reaction was for labor to charge more and to migrate to where there was land and people willing to pay more for labor; kings sought to stop that, and largely bollixed things up.

      Same thing with covid-19: society would have adapted a whole lot better,and was already adapting in many ways, but then government almighty stepped in to fuck things up, and now there are ruined economies which will take years to recover their balance, and debt which will probably only be paid off by bankruptcy and inflation.

    4. I think it’s safe to assume that government overreach is one of the causes of complexity that eventually leads to breakdown and collapse.

    5. Government overreach, or bureaucratism, is an example of complexity. Tainter investigates the Royal Navy over the centuries and notes a long term decline of the number of ships and a long term increase in the number of shore bound staff officers.

      Innovation is at best a short term solution. Technical advances will always be subject to diminishing marginal returns.

  2. I think the problem begins and ends with government overreach.

    https://careerfinder4you.blogspot.com/

    Right

  3. Rather than C19, the problem stems from the uneducated and irresponsible and unconstitutional (in the USA) reaction of political leaders to C19, aided and abetted by raging left wing ‘social media’.

  4. With the world experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918

    If COVID kills 100K Jan.-June and then ‘goes away’ or is eradicated but influenza kills 20-60K per year for 3 decades and continues right on doing so which is the worse pandemic?

    1. HIV has only killed 450K people. That’s like, almost not even a pandemic. Why take even the most trivial of passive and/or social precautions to avoid contracting AIDS when COVID is going to kill you whether you take precautions or not? It’s the deadliest pandemic we’ve faced!

      1. I don’t think pandemics are defined by deadiness, but rather by distribution.
        Which is another thing that news sources utterly fail to tell people. “Pandemic” doesn’t mean we’re all going to die. It just means there is a new-ish disease that has spread around the world.

        1. I don’t think pandemics are defined by deadiness, but rather by distribution.

          That’s the fact I learned ages ago. Right around the time I learned that you don’t use such superlatives like that in earnest unless you want to mark yourself as a liar.

        2. An epidemic is just a disease that is spreading rapidly in a population. A pandemic is an epidemic spreading through the world. Neither term implies a high case fatality rate (CFR).

          Naegleriasis has a CFR near 100% but there are only a few cases per year. Tuberculosis infections are high in many parts of the world with about 1.5 million deaths each year. Neither are pandemics or epidemics because the percentage of the population infected is stable.

    2. The ’68 flu was a worse pandemic than Covid-19. Smallpox averaged 5 million dead per year in its last hundred years of existence. Calling this the worst pandemic since 1918 is demonstrably false.

  5. Complexity comes from working together to make things better, over-complexity comes from not leaving good enough alone. It takes a bureaucracy to lose sight of the purpose in attempting to perfect the process. They keep adding more and more marginal “improvements” to stuff until the stuff stops working. Keep it simple, stupid.

    I don’t need an electronic hammer, I don’t need my washing machine to be able to communicate with my refrigerator, it’s just more shit that costs more to buy, costs more to maintain, provides more ways for shit to break down and cost me an arm and a leg to pay somebody to repair because it’s too damn complicated for me to figure out how to fix it myself. If you make systems and processes too complicated, you need an “expert” to run stuff, and you run into the problem that the “expert” knows how to operate stuff, but he’s lost sight of what the purpose of operating the stuff is for. Look at the CDC, utterly failed at its job because its “experts” lost sight of its purpose.

    1. Damn. You got it exactly right.

    2. Google glass!

    3. It takes a bureaucracy to lose sight of the purpose in attempting to perfect the process perpetuate its own existence.

      Fixed

      1. In the mind of a civil servant, I think it’s the same thing.

    4. What is the CDC’s job supposed to be? I thought the CDC was just another law enforcement agency based on how much they harass the local goat and dairy farmers in my area.

    5. I came to the same conclusion a few years ago watching a janitor mop a floor on an electric mopping cart, when you can’t even mop a floor without technology then you’re on the way out. So much of what I encounter now, from parking meters to even being able to get around since Corona/Wuhan hit requires a person to own a smart phone and have it with them at all times. They make a big fuss when people are asked to have a little card with their picture on it to vote but nary a word about forcing you to own and carry a smart phone everywhere you go.

  6. “overproduction of elites”
    we needz moar serfs

    1. I read “elites” to mean people who spend more time pursuing hobbies than pursuing work. So the “elites” include bureaucrats, politicians, compliance officers, and anyone on welfare / permanent disability / mooching off their family, among others.

      1. Subsidized vs Productive

  7. Collapse is in the eye of the beholder. The hyper-elite close to the centers of byzantine power, focused on abstract constructs and imaginary visions, will be threatened by any hint of disruption. The rubes out in the sticks will not even notice.

    1. The rubes will think things are improving and wonder what all the hollering on CNN is about.

    2. If Rome split in two, then does it stand to reason America could conceivably split? Or in a more ‘macro-civilizational’ way, Canada and the USA?

      Seems to me there’s an ideological divide so stark at the moment, I don’t see it ever moderating. Something will have to give.

      1. I agree. I also wonder if we can effectively divide into “nations” that share common geography. Let everyone declare allegiance to whatever tribe, party, brand, thing they want to join, and beyond some very basic universal laws, they can go as nuts as they please–and leave others out of it.

        1. Nope.
          Progressivism is totalitarian and cannot tolerate anything outside it

        2. Isn’t that pretty much what the United States was/is supposed to be?

  8. Fortunately, by looking at the signs of systemic stress, we can observe that human ingenuity is producing technologies and ways of doing things that will very likely enable us to overcome this time of troubles. We may be facing challenges, perhaps lasting many years. But we should be confident that global civilization will overcome this, as it has before.

    I tend to be more pessimistic so some examples of “human ingenuity … producing technologies and ways of doing things that will very likely enable us to overcome this time of troubles” would have been nice. I don’t see a lot of reasons for optimism, at least not in the short term. Long term perhaps, but not in the near future. I just have a feeling that things will get a lot worse before getting better, but hopefully that’s just my pessimism speaking.

    1. Optimism comes from observing the past, and that human ingenuity has a 100% success rate. If you know of times when the human race has gone extinct, be sure to update Wikipedia.

      1. Steven Pinker is my go-to source for why everyone should be an optimist. Things are just about always getting better, just about everywhere and on just about every time scale.

        1. Human history also demonstrates that during every era, most people were pessimists, with a loud contingent convinced that the end was near. The lesson should be that pessimists were wrong then and are wrong now, so STFU.

  9. everything will be fine.

  10. “global civilization”

    WTF is that?

  11. Increased energy inputs is what you are missing. That seems to be the easiest and most measurable stand in for something rather vague like complexity.

  12. Is it really “the worst pandemic since 1918” ?

    1. No, it’s not.

      H2N2
      H3N2
      AIDS
      Typhus

      I’ve been around for the Hong Kong Flu, AIDS, and the Wuhan Virus.

    2. “Is it really “the worst pandemic since 1918” ?”

      When has America been in a weaker, more fragmented state? You have to go back to the civil war, before 1918. Cities are on fire, unemployment at depression levels, a clown in the whitehouse, Russia and China emboldened. In 1918 the US was full of optimism, and the roaring 20s, the jazz age was just around the corner. My advice is prepare a plan to escape. Get a passport, learn a foreign language and find a niche somewhere you can ride out the storm in comfort and safety.

      1. No. In the early 70s, there were multiple bombings per week across the US. For a few months, Manhattan alone experienced several bombings per week. Things now aren’t (yet) as bad as they were then.

        Also, Kent State.

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