Saturday, March 29, 2014

"The Collapse of Complex Societies" (Part 2)

      This is a continuation of my review and commentary of Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge Press, 1988). Here are the links to Part 1,  Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

File:Framework complexity of the Pater Noster lighthouse.jpg
Complexity (Source)
      In Part 1, I covered the first chapter of Tainter's book, which provided an overview and explanation of what constitutes "collapse." But, briefly, Tainter uses the term to describe a sudden decline in the socio-political complexity of a society. In his second chapter, titled "The Nature of Complex Societies," Tainter delves into characteristics and features of complex societies (i.e., states) versus those of simpler societies (i.e., chiefdoms, tribes, and bands), and explores contending hypotheses of why and how complex societies form.

      Tainter initially describes two prime concepts necessary to understand complexity within a society: inequality and heterogeneity. Tainter defines "inequality" as "vertical differentiation, ranking, or unequal access to material and social resources." (p. 23). "Heterogeneity" "refers to the number of distinctive parts or components to a society, and at the same time to the ways in which a population is distributed among these parts." (p. 23). A society with large or high levels of heterogeneity is complex; one with a low level is not. Tainter compares, for instance, between a hunter-gatherer society with only a few dozen distinct social roles, versus the tens of thousands of unique occupational roles in a modern society, with a concomitant number of distinct social roles numbering in the millions. Tainter maintains, however, that there is no direct correlation between inequality and heterogeneity. That is, a primitive society with low heterogeneity may have a high level of inequality. However, complex societies tend toward high levels of inequality.

      Tainter also notes (and I assume this will become more important as we progress into the book), that complex societies tend to be "nearly decomposable systems"--that is, "they are at least partly built up of social units that are themselves potentially stable and independent, and indeed at one time may have been so." (p. 23). Thus, "[t]o the extent that these states, ethnic groups, or villages retain the potential for independence and stability, the collapse process may result in reversion (decomposition) to these 'building blocks' of complexity." (pp. 23-24).

     There are numerous features that distinguish a simpler (and necessarily, smaller) society from a complex society. Probably the most significant of these features is that at the tribal, and even chiefdom level, the society is organized on a kinship basis. While a tribe or chiefdom may occupy a territory, the territory is not the focus of the societal structure. Conversely, states are organized and, to a large extent, defined by their territory.  "States tend to be overwhelmingly concerned with maintaining their territorial integrity. This is, indeed, one of their primary characteristics." (p. 27). Membership in a state does not depend on kinship, but whether one lives within the territory governed by the state.

      Another principle difference is leadership. Tainter observes that leadership in the simplest societies tends to be minimal: "Hierarchical control is not institutionalized, but is limited to definite spheres of activity at specific times, and rests substantially on persuasion." (p. 24). Moreover, "[l]eaders, where they exist, are constrained from exercising authority, amassing wealth, or acquiring excessive prestige. Where there are differences in control of economic resources these must be exercised generously." (p. 24). Thus, political power, such as it exists, requires the accumulation of a surplus of resources (e.g., food or other goods), "and to distribute these in such a way that one establishes prestige in the community, and creates a following and a faction." (p. 25). In observing more complex societies, such as chiefdoms, the authority of the leader is still restrained. "The ruler is limited in his or her actions by the moorings of kinship, and by possessing, not a monopoly of force, but only a marginal advantage." (p. 25). Similar to the tribal society, "Chiefly generosity is the basis of politics and economics: downward distribution of amassed resources ensures loyalty." (p. 25).

    Conversely, in states:
... a ruling authority monopolizes sovereignty and delegates all power. The ruling class tends to be professional, and is largely divorced from the bonds of kinship. This ruling class supplies the personnel for government, which is a specialized decision-making organization with a monopoly of force, and with the power to draft for war or work, levy and collect taxes, and decree and enforce laws. The government is legitimately constituted, which is to say that a common, society-wide ideology exists that serves in part to validate the political organization of society. And states, of course, are in general larger and more populous than tribal societies, so that social categorization, stratification, and specialization are both possible and necessary.
(p. 26) (citations omitted).

      In short, "[t]he features that set states apart ... are: territorial organization, differentiation by class and occupation rather than by kinship, monopoly of force, authority to mobilize resources and personnel, and legal jurisdiction." (p. 29).

     Tainter cites one characteristic that is shared between simple societies and complex societies--the need for the governing authority to to establish and constantly reinforce legitimacy. By "legitimacy," Tainter means "the belief of the populace and the elites that rule is proper and valid, that the political world is as it should be." (p. 27). He writes:
It pertains to individual rulers , to decisions, to broad policies, to parties , and to entire forms of government. The support that members are willing to extend to a political system is essential for its survival. Decline in support will not necessarily lead to the fall of a regime, for to a certain extent coercion can replace commitment to ensure compliance. Coercion, though , is a costly, ineffective strategy which can never be completely or permanently successful. Even with coercion, decline in popular support below some critical minimum leads infallibly to political failure. Establishing moral validity is a less costly and more effective approach .
(p. 27) (citations omitted; underline added). He also notes that coercion does not require the positive application of force, but by the threat of withholding goods or other benefits. (p. 36).

      When reading Spengler's Decline of the West, there is the constant reference to culture--those principles, philosophies, religious beliefs and outlooks, that provide a foundation for a civilization. Tainter does not ignore that, but suggests that one of the principle methods of reinforcing legitimacy is to reinforce this basic culture. He writes:
Complex societies are focused on a center, which may not be located physically where it is literally implied, but which is the symbolic source of the framework of society . It is not only the location of legal and governmental institutions, but is the source of order, and the symbol of moral authority and social continuity . The center partakes of the nature of the sacred. In this sense, every complex society has an official religion. The moral authority and sacred aura of the center not only are essential in maintaining complex societies, but were crucial in their emergence. One critical impediment to the development of complexity in stateless societies was the need to integrate many localized, autonomous units, which would each have their own peculiar interests, feuds, and jealousies. A ruler drawn from any one of these units is automatically suspect by the others, who rightly fear favoritism toward his/her natal group and locality, particularly in dispute resolution. This problem has crippled many modern African nations. 
The solution to this structural limitation was to explicitly link leadership in early complex societies to the supernatural. When a leader is imbued with an aura of sacred neutrality, his identification with natal group and territory can be superseded by ritually sanctioned authority which rises above purely local concerns. An early complex society is likely to have an avowedly sacred basis of legitimacy, in which disparate, formerly independent groups are united by an over arching level of shared ideology, symbols, and cosmology. 
... Sacred legitimization provides a binding framework until real vehicles of power have been consolidated. Once this has been achieved the need for religious integration declines, and indeed conflict between secular and sacred authorities may thereafter ensue. Yet as noted, the sacred aura of the center never disappears, not even in contemporary secular governments. Astute politicians have always exploited this fact. It is a critical element in the maintenance of legitimacy. 
Despite the undoubted power of supernatural legitimization, support for leadership must also have a genuine material basis. Easton suggests that legitimacy declines mainly under conditions of what he calls 'output failure'. Output failure occurs where authorities are unable to meet the demands of the support population, or do not take anticipatory actions to counter adversities. Outputs can be political or material. Output expectations are continuous, and impose on leadership a never-ending need to mobilize resources to maintain support. The attainment and perpetuation of legitimacy thus require more than the manipulation of ideological symbols. They require the assessment and commitment of real resources, at satisfactory levels, and are a genuine cost that any complex society must bear. Legitimacy is a recurrent factor in the modern study of the nature of complex societies , and is pertinent to understanding their collapse.
(pp. 27-28) (citations omitted).

      Tainter does not discuss (at least at this point) what constitutes the "sacred" in Western Civilization generally, or the United States in particular. However, if we are to apply Tainter's work to our own civilization or state, it is important to understand what underpins "legitimate" government, and what constitutes the "center." It would be easy to point to Christianity as the "sacred" "center", and it is true that many (or most) European countries have an official state religion. However, it is a more difficult argument to make in regard to the United States because the United States has never had an official religion.

      So what is the "sacred" in the United States, and what gives the government its moral legitimacy? I would suggest that the "sacred" in the United States is the concept of self-governance, rule of law, and majority rule--sometimes referred to as"liberty", "freedom," or "democracy"--which is centered in the Constitution. (Alas, for a physical "center," we must look to Washington D.C., and the various edifices that symbolize our ideals of a republic, and our monuments--i.e., temples--to those men significant to "liberty" in the United States, such as Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson). Thus, it is the perception that a leader or law or policy is in conformity with the Constitution, particularly, and the concept of liberty, in general, that give that leader, law, or policy "legitimacy." In fact, I am sure of this conclusion by the frequent, although incorrect, assertion that private conduct should be governed by the Constitution. (For instance, how often do we see examples of people criticizing the private censure of speech by arguing that everyone has "free speech"). I would argue that something similar exists in any stable republic or constitutional monarchy, such as we see in Europe--moderated by traditional edifices of "moral" authority such as the state religion or royalty, if it exists.

      In any event, Tainter continues in his analysis by examining various theories of how complex societies arise. I won't get into the merits or detractions of the theories because even Tainter finds any one of the theories to be deficient--heaping extra scorn on theories advanced by Marxists. (Marxism has been so thoroughly refuted as an economic, political or historical theory that it is hard to understand why it has any adherents outside of the uneducated, illiterate and stupid). What Tainter seems to suggests is that state formation is the result of necessity (that is, cooperation to overcome some challenge or threat), resulting in the creation of an elite, which, between further necessity and self-aggrandizement, generally solidifies power. This view, however, understates the importance of technology in my mind. A state cannot exist without a surplus of fundamental goods, and the creation or retention of a surplus relies on technology. Technology, in turn, requires an elite (be it craftsmen or administrators) to build and maintain it--and to protect it from outsiders. It appears to be a self-reinforcing mechanism. Thus, I would suggest that technology be added to the list of factors producing a complex society. 

      However, it is the "problem solving" nature of societies that Tainter believes to be significant in understanding their collapse. (p. 37). Tainter concludes:
Complex societies are problem-solving organizations, in which more parts, different kinds of parts, more social differentiation, more inequality, and more kinds of centralization and control emerge as circumstances require. Growth of complexity has involved a change from small, internally homogeneous, minimally differentiated groups characterized by equal access to resources, shifting, ephemeral leadership, and
unstable political formations, to large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all. This latter kind of society, with which we today are most familiar, is an anomaly of history, and where present requires constant legitimization and reinforcement.

The process of collapse, as discussed in the previous chapter, is a matter of rapid, substantial decline in an established level of complexity . A society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterized by fewer specialized parts ; it displays less social differentiation; and it is able to exercise less control over the behavior of its members . It is able at the same time to command
smaller surpluses, to offer fewer benefits and inducements to membership; and it is less capable of providing subsistence and defensive security for a regional population. It may decompose to some of the constituent building blocks (e . g . , states, ethnic groups, villages) out of which it was created.

The loss of complexity, like its emergence, is a continuous variable. Collapse may involve a drop between the major levels of complexity envisioned by many anthropo­logists (e. g . , state to chiefdom), or it may equally well involve a drop within a level (larger to smaller, or Transitional to Typical or Inchoate states). Collapse offers an interesting perspective for the typological approach . It is a process of major, rapid
change from one structurally stable level to another. This is the type of change that evolutionary typologies imply, but in the reverse direction.
(ppp. 37-38).

      Before leaving this chapter, there are a couple other points I would like to emphasize. Tainter makes an amusing observation, though, as to the relative importance of a ruling elite:
It seems obvious, for example, that the costs and benefits of stratification are not always as balanced as integration theory might imply. Compensation of elites does not always match their contribution to society, and throughout their history, elites have probably been overcompensated relative to performance more often than the reverse. Coercion, and authoritarian, exploitative regimes, are undeniable facts of history .
      Also, the ad-hoc nature of leadership in simpler societies is something that should also be noted, because it would provide a model of how governance would arise in post-collapse groups. As any student of American Indian culture is aware, tribal leadership was often split between two or more chiefs. Generally one person (or group of persons) would provide leadership for religious matters, another for what we would probably call civil matters, and another for warfare. Major decisions were often subject to approval by a council. A "war chief" may only be a temporary position. I would note, in this regard, that the general thesis of James George Frazer's The Golden Bough was the evidence of a split of authority in ancient Old World cultures between a hereditary queen (over civil and/or religious matters) and a temporary king (over military matters) who only served as long as he was physically able to carry out his duties of leading warriors.

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