As in part one of this series, I’m thinking about an idea that seems very possible, extremely interesting and well accepted, but which has little going for it in terms of observed evidence.
The idea today is societal collapse. The premise is simple. Human societies are very complex entities which rely on innumerable interdependencies between people, resources, institutions etc. The resulting structure is subsequently both strong and fragile; like an archway it will stand forever, except if a single stone is removed, whereupon the whole thing will fall instantaneously. Following this collapse people fall into a world solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Precipitating events can be the loss of a resource, the severing of links or population loss through conflict or disease, or exogenous shocks.
I should stress that I am not talking about declines, or gradual change due to long term processes. That’s not the interesting part of this idea. This is about collapse, where a complex system can be brought down rapidly by a few factors and can only be succeeded by something that is not recognisably the same.
This idea has a long prevalence in 20th century popular culture. It’s the basis of the zombie film genre, especially through the celebrated Romero films. The walking corpses are used as a narrative device to make people descend into barbarism, the antagonists are always human and a semblance of society can only be restored by Dennis Hopper’s Leviathan. In this light it makes sense recognise works like The Day of the Triffids, or The Shape of Things to Come as zombie films without zombies. Cormac McCarthy made the premise respectable as Respectable Literature recently and the Mad Max films were premised on a society fractured and ruined by the oil shock – an idea also explored as early as 1930 in Last and First Men.
In the last two cases, the stone removed from the arch is a natural resource. This is why the idea is important in contemporary debates.
But can we actually find a collapsed society?
As we do in many circumstances, we find ourselves in the shadow of Rome. The Fall of the Roman Empire has been a Thing for a long time. I suspect that a great deal of our concept of societal collapse is built on this notion, and ideas of a loss of central authority, marauding bands, depopulation of cities, a retreat to fortified holds in the hinterland in service to specialists in violence. At any given time in the past few hundreds of years there are men  fretting, nay convinced, that contemporary events and trends foreshadowed a repeating of history ; colonial empires, industrialisation, the great depression, pop music, Vietnam and Iraq have all been fitted into a framework created by The Fall of Rome, even if the concept had become worthy of parody even by a mind as unhinged as Phillip K. Dick. On the upside, it did lead to other great books in the collapse genre.
Yet it is not a notion popular amongst ancient historians, at least not anymore. The idea of a fall is vanished paradigm. These historians (of late antiquity) are more likely the point out the continuities are long trends (the long term depopulation of cities, disuse of trade routes to the West, military dominance), the continuation of late Roman life through the church, local government and society and the greater affinity between Diocletian had with the “barbarian” kings than the he had with the emperors of the principate. The Roman Emperor fell, but Roman society had changed, and would continue to change….slowly.
The Fall is thus considered an invention of the enlightenment, by Edward Gibbon in particular. Gibbon was in a shadow of his own however. English thought at the time was predisposed to conflate the state with society. I have made reference to Hobbes a few times already, and this is no mistake. Hobbes deemed humanity in the state of nature, i.e without government, as “solitary” – an assertion that does not survive even a cursory knowledge of anthropology. Yet under his shadow, it is no wonder that Gibbon was prone to conflate the markets, the playhouses, the cities and the books of Rome with the figure of emperor, casting his own shadow on future generations in the process [fn3].
So if the paradigmatic example is no longer hip, where else do we look for possible examples?
Most easily, Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Best selling authors are the first stop for ideas-that-seem-clever-so-long-as-you-don’t-think-about-them-after-the-plane-lands. Diamond did service in part one, he’ll do so in part two.
His paradigmatic example is Easter Island, and asserts a story about deforestation leading to chaos and violence, and the disappearance of the civilisation, along with tales of pits of shattered bones. When others contend that none of this is supported by existing evidence or research, he appeals to unnamed authorities, and reasserts without providing supporting evidence. A case without evidence is not too instructive.
With more depth he talks about the Norse in Greenland. However this doesn’t quite fit into the collapse hypothesis as defined in this post. It is a story of long term decline. That said, I can’t resist commenting on one hand waving exercise. At one point Diamond notes the lack of fish bones in middens, and proceeds to speculate at length about social norms preventing the eating of fish, and thus on the importance of norms in ensuring resilience. When reading once about archeology elsewhere (in the near east) I noted an author casually pointing out that fish bones are rarely, if ever, discovered in middens; they decay far more rapidly than animal bones. But it is the art of a bestseller to weave shimmering cloaks from sparse threads of evidence.
There are two other possible cases from antiquity. The Bronze Age Collapse, and the Harappan Civilization. I am less well versed in these, but we have great reasons to be skeptical. Archeology is necessarily a task of forming an image with only a few pieces of the jigsaw. This is hard enough, but we have already seen how the shadow of Gibbon can shape a researcher’s thinking and frame what evidence he has. A cursory look at the debates indicates that every evidence interpreted as collapse (as defined above) has been interpreted differently and benignly by someone else. These are possible, but there is not enough evidence to make the concept useful.
The most plausible case in my mind is the Mississippian culture. Here the hypothesised social collapse was precipitated by rapid population decline as the Spanish introduced new diseases. Lower populations were less able to support the social structures, and so they collapsed into something else. Unfortunately the society was not literate, and the Spaniards were uninterested, so we have little observed evidence, and the archaeological evidence is a sketchy as ever.
I conclude for now that the concept is not useful… but for fiction.
In part one I also concluded that non-optimal technological path dependence was likewise not useful, since all examples were either flawed or fundamentally unknowable. But in this case I’ve begun to dislike the concept, and not just because of the shoddiness of the approach in the paradigmatic examples.
For an exercise, without being biased by what we know were the outcomes, think about scenarios where a collapse should have occurred under the hypothesis. As in the Mississippi example, I think a population decline scenario is the most plausible – positive externalities of agglomeration is a basic fact of economic geography, and they apply to society broadly [fn4]. With that in mind, I can easily think of the Black Death, the An Lushan Rebellion, the Thirty Years War, the Mongol Conquests, the Taiping Rebellion, and late 19th century Paraguay as examples where collapse would be likely. Yet although all of these examples brought change, none brought collapse – even when coupled with other possible precipitating events such as war. In the Thirty Years War we have a trinity of population decline, war and climate change, but society remained uncollapsed.
Societies are complex, but they are resilient buggers. They change with relative ease, and mutate rather than die. Their innumerable interdependencies are in a web, so there are redundancies throughout the system. The idea that they would collapse like a house of cards doesn’t seem likely when applied to societies as we observe them. Romanists got out of the shadow of Gibbon, so should we.
[fn1] It does seem to be a gender specific delusion
[fn2] Despite their overlapping convictions, and equally sparse predictive success, they find little common cause with those who see the impending apocalypse in the same events. Perhaps they can bond over Yeats.
[fn3] Bertrand Russell once said all progress in science began with overthrowing some part of Aristotle. The same seems true of Roman history, with Gibbon in his place, whether the study of late antiquity, or the revival of Byzantine studies in earlier decades.