Saturday, April 5, 2014

"The Collapse of Complex Societies" -- Part 3

high rise building, imploding
      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 1Part 2Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.

      In his third chapter, Tainter evaluates eleven (11) major themes of societal (i.e., state) collapse discussed in past literature, being:

1 . Depletion or cessation of a vital resource or resources on which the society depends.

2. The establishment of a new resource base.

3. The occurrence of some insurmountable catastrophe.

4. Insufficient response to circumstances.

5 . Other complex societies.

6. Intruders .

7. Class conflict, societal contradictions, elite mismanagement or misbehavior.

8. Social dysfunction.

9. Mystical factors.

10. Chance concatenation of events.

11. Economic factors.

      Tainter's stated reason is not to make factual determinations of whether a particular theme was the collapse of particular society, but to evaluate the logic of the theme--that is, could the postulate of a given theme actually cause a societal collapse. After reading the chapter, however, I wonder if the argument is really one of "proximate cause" versus "underlying cause" of a collapse, which dichotomy may raise conceptual issues of its own. However, I can also understand Tainter's dissatisfaction with the various themes because, for the most part, they are descriptive of events related to a cause, rather than advancing a universal model as Tainter seeks.

      Tainter also discusses his reasoning for using the term complex society rather than civilization. As I had suggested in my past article, part of the reasoning is that specific polities can rise and fall within a civilization, while the civilization remains intact. He also notes that since a "civilization" is the cultural system of a complex society,  it arises with and declines with the complexity of the society. Thus, it is unnecessary to discuss the decline of civilization separate from the complexity of a given society. Finally, Tainter was concerned with avoiding the value judgments that accompany the use of the term "civilization."

      Without any further ado, the eleven themes:

1.  Resource Depletion.

      Tainter includes in this category not only depletion by mismanagement (e.g., a decline in agricultural production by overworking the soil) but "depletion" due to climatic changes. Tainter spends quiet a few pages summarizing various depletion theories as applied to particular cultures, which I won't bother to address. It is sufficient to note that this explanation has been applied to almost every collapse, great or small, that has been the subject of study. What is significant is that Tainter finds the hypotheses unsatisfactory because managing fluctuations and deficiencies in resources is where complex societies excel. Thus, resource depletion, as a cause, begs the question of why such societies (or their elites) were unable to adapt or manage the change in resources. Specifically, he writes:
Resource depletion arguments, to judge from the number advanced, are perpetually attractive. There is something to such arguments, for no society can maintain complexity when its resource base is depleted beyond a certain point. Yet long before the point is reached a whole range of responses may be undertaken. Here is the first of several problems which make one uneasy at the resource depletion theory. 
... One supposition of this view must be that these societies sit by and watch the encroaching weakness without taking corrective actions. Here is a major difficulty. Complex societies are characterized by centralized decision making, high information flow, great coordination of parts, formal channels of command, and pooling of resources. Much of this structure seems to have the capability, if not the designed purpose, of countering fluctuations and deficiencies in productivity. With their administrative structure, and capacity to allocate both labor and resources, dealing with adverse environmental conditions may be one of the things that complex societies do best. ... It is curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions they are equipped to circumvent. 
... If a society cannot deal with resource depletion (which all societies are to some degree designed to do) then the truly interesting questions revolve around the society, not the resource. What structural, political, ideological, or economic factors in a society prevented an appropriate response?
(p. 50).

2.  New Resources.

      This theory postulates that a society is presented with a new resource (horses, large herds of prey animals) that make it easier and more advantageous to abandon a fixed (and relatively more complex culture) based around agriculture to pursue a nomadic hunting/gatherer society. As such, however, this hypothesis is unsuitable to explain the collapse of complex societies. 

3.  Catastrophes.

      Tainter notes that single-event catastrophes are another favorite explanation for societal collapse. He includes in this not only natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, but also major disease epidemics. Again, Tainter finds the explanation incomplete, writing:
As obvious and favored as catastrophe scenarios are, they are among the weakest explanations of collapse . The fundamental problem is that complex societies routinely withstand catastrophes without collapsing . Thus, catastrophe arguments present an incomplete causal chain: the basic assumption, rarely explicated, must be that the catastrophes in question somehow exceeded the abilities of the societies to absorb and recover from disaster. At this point some of the criticisms raised in regard to the resource depletion argument become pertinent: if the assumption is correct, then the interesting factor is no longer the catastrophe but the society. 
(p. 53).

4.  Insufficient Response to Circumstances.

     "The basic factor that unites the rather disparate arguments under this theme is the notion that fundamental limitations of social, political, and economic systems prevent an appropriate response to circumstances, and this makes collapse inevitable." (p. 54). Again, Tainter summarizes a number of specific hypothesis intended to explain particular collapses which I can't (or won't) repeat here. Suffice it to say that the general concept is that a society reaches a resource limit, whether imposed by the environment or the structure itself, beyond which the society cannot react or has insufficient resources to react. Tainter identifies three basic models that describe this category:
  • The Dinosaur model ... is coincident with the Law of Evolutionary Potential, as well as with derivative and similar theories. The argument of  this 'Law' is that all societies, complex or otherwise, run the risk of adapting so well to existing circumstances that change becomes impossible. Among complex societies this tendency becomes fatal when newer societies acquire capabilities that the lumbering colossus is incapable of adopting. (p. 59).
  • The Runaway Train model may be a variant of the Dinosaur model, but it has its own characteristics. A complex society is seen as impelled along a path of increasing complexity, unable to switch directions, regress, or remain static. When obstacles impinge, it can continue in only the direction it is headed, so that catastrophe ultimately results. [Various theories] assume that some factor in these societies made it impossible to deviate from their catastrophic paths. (pp. 59-60). 
  • The House of Cards model differs from the previous two. It suggests that complex societies, either as a rule or in certain kinds of environments, are inherently fragile, operating on low margins of reserve, so that their collapse is inevitable. (p. 60).
Tainter's identifies a fundamental flaw with such theories, however, which is "our knowledge of complex societies will not support the assumptions such studies make, Complex societies are not simply intractable fossils. Where they do appear incapable of change, that is a matter to be explained. By itself it explains nothing." (p. 60).

5.  Other Complex Societies.

      Although Tainter does not delve into the various theories or hypothesis advanced in this category, the general sense is that for a myriad of reasons, a particular complex society is unable to survive its contact with another complex society. Tainter notes, however, "[a]t this point it will suffice to say that conflict between empires more often leads to expansion of the victor than to the collapse of both. Major instances of collapse, such as that of Rome, cannot be explained by this principle." (p. 61).

6.  Intruders.

      These models are based on invasion or migration by "barbarians" (i.e., a culture at a lower level of complexity) into a complex society. Typical examples are Rome and China, and their respective barbarian invasions. 

      Nevertheless, Tainter believed that such theories were unsatisfactory. "But the fundamental problem with intruder theories is that they do not clarify much. The overthrow of a dominant state by a weaker, tribally-organized people is an event greatly in need of explanation. It is, standing alone an acceptable explanation of nothing." (p. 64). 

7.  Conflict/Contradictions/Mismanagement.
Judging by the number of authors whose work falls under this theme, it may be the most popular approach to understand collapse. There is some variety in the approaches lumped herein--class conflict, Marxian contradictions, and elite misbehavior or mismanagement--but the common underlying theme is antagonism and conflicting goals between social classes. Collapse is thought to result from such conflicts through withdrawal of support and outright revolt by peasant populations, and by elite self-serving and political mismanagement.
(pp. 64-65).

     Again, I won't go into his summary of specific hypothesis or proofs offered by various authors and scholars. Rather, jumping directly to Tainter's assessment:
Class conflict theories must at some point make the argument that complex societies come ultimately to violate one of the tenets of their existence . One consequence of the administrative capacity to control labor and allocate resources is the ability to deal with natural and social adversities . Since both the population and the administrators of a complex society benefit from this capability, it must achieve some recognition in both integration and conflict theory . Conflict theorists, in particular, will have to acknowledge that any rational dominant class, however oppressive, must make some provision for the welfare of the populace on which they rely. Any suggestion that complex societies fail because of a characteristic - control of labor and resources - that is both intrinsic to their nature and crucial to their survival , simply leaves too many questions unanswered. Not the least of these is why some complex societies fail as a result of overtaxing their populations, and some don't. 
Since elementary self-interest will dictate that a dominant elite look after their support population (as they would any vital resource), the few instances where this may not have happened (later Roman Empire, later phases of Chinese dynastic cycles) urgently require explanation . Failure to resolve this matter when citing elite misbehavior as a cause of collapse ultimately reduces the explanation to a dichotomous psychological variable: some clites behave rationally and some don't. It need hardly be pointed out that this dichotomy is not illuminating. Until some theory is developed concerning the expression of elite rationality vs. collective suicide, we may confidently dismiss the elite mismanagement argument as unproductive .
... Greed and self-aggrandizement are symptoms and contributors, but not final causes. ... 
 (pp. 71-72).

     At this point, I have to comment regarding Tainter's assumptions regarding what constitutes "rational" behavior. What is "rational" depends on perception and understanding. Even crazy people act "rationally" from their perspective even if no one else share their same perception. It also helps to understand that what appears to be rational over the short term may not be rational over a longer period. For instance, in the northern part of the state where I live, farmers routinely use contour plowing to protect against soil erosion, even though the winds in the area are not particularly strong. Conversely, in the south of the state, it is rare to see farmers take any precautions to protect against wind erosion--not even bothering to plant windbreaks--even though the area experiences frequent high winds. "Elementary self-interest" would suggest that farms in windy areas would want to protect their soil. But the extra effort and cost of using contour planting or devoting space to wind-breaks seems "irrational" when compared to the short term desire for profit. In other words, some farmers do not care or think about what they will need for farming 10 or 20 years hence, and therefore take no thought for preserving the soil. Similarly, it is unreasonable to assume that a dominate elite will act for their long term self-interest over their short term advantage or profit.

     The issue of taxes should be addressed to, because the tolerance for taxes is variable and dependent on many factors. For instance, some cultures may be more tolerant of sacrificing for an elite through taxation and forced labor; higher taxes may be tolerated when they are perceived to be fair, but abhorred if not fair, or not proportionally spread out.
8.  Social Dysfunction.

     Tainter's describes this model as one whose "essence is that societies collapse due to mysterious internal processes whose nature cannot be specified"--i.e., violation of laws that are internal and specific to that particular society. (p. 73). Tainter concludes that "these studies alike offer neither sources of stress nor causal mechanisms that can be analyzed in any objective manner. They are thus unsatisfactory as explanations for collapse." (pp. 73-74).

9.  Mystical Factors.

     This is a catch-all for those hypothesis or models based upon decline and collapse due to "decadence," "loss of vigor," senility" and other factors that Tainter believes to be too subjective to be of value in building a scientific theory of collapse. Tainter also includes in this category those theories that rely on a model of development based on passing through (generally organic) phases such as infancy, childhood, adulthood, senility and old age. For instance, he notes several authors that believed that societies based in particular cycles or periods of years, following certain rise and fall patters. Under one theory, "[t]he collapse of the United States is predicted by 2040." (p. 76). Obviously, the scholars and thinkers that have espoused mystical factors includes Gibbon, who wrote on the fall of Roman Empire, Hegel, Brooks and Henry Adams, Spengler and Toynbee, among many others. Obviously, because of their influence, Tainter spends significant space to discussing Spengler and Toynbee's ideas, although both discussed the collapse of civilizations rather than particular polities. 

     In his assessment, Tainter observes:
It seems almost unsporting to treat Spengler and Toynbee so severely, but these quotations introduce most of the problems in mystical explanations. These problems are: (a) reliance on a biological growth analogy; (b) reliance on value judgements; and (c) explanation by reference to intangibles. 
The biological growth and decay analogy, as has been seen, is an ancient one (and it continues in use to this day [e,g. , Haussig 1971 : 13 , 14]). Its essence has been stated in the previous pages: complex societies mimic organisms in a path of birth, growth, decay, and death. Organisms, though, follow such a path through a scientifically knowable process that involves such things as genetic coding, biological clocks, solar cycles, and the progression of the seasons. For human societies , as most social scientists recognize, the biological analogy can identify no such controlling mechanisms. It is necessary then to fall back on arguments that are openly vitalistic ­that some mysterious, internal, dynamic force leads to the 'flowering and decay' of civilizations. Vitalistic arguments of this form are indefensible, for any such internal force is inherently unknowable, unspecifiable , unmeasurable, and unexplainable. This analogy, like so many of the explanatory themes discussed previously, does not advance the cause of understanding. It explains a mystery by reference to a mystery, and so explains nothing.
(pp. 83-84). Taintor's main criticism is that the authors (with one exception) take the growth and senescence analogy too literally (although a society does, in many ways, act like an organism). 

      He also takes issue with value judgments, contending that "[c]ultural relativity may be one of the most important contributions anthropology can make to the social and historical sciences, and to the public at large." (p. 84). This, of course, is untenable--that all cultures (and hence their values) are of equal worth and weight. While Tainter is correct that value judgments should be avoided in attempting to describe a culture, to transform that into a doctrine of withholding moral judgment is a main source of ruin of Western Civilization.

      Tainter also indicates that "[t]here is no clear causal link between the morality of behavior and political fortunes." (p. 85). Yet the literature in the business field seems to establish that companies that act honestly seem to prosper over the long run better than those that do not. While "morality" may not be the exact word, there seems to be a connection between "integrity" and political fortune in international relations, and there is a definite link between corruption and decline.

     Ultimately, though, Tainter is critical of such theories because "[n]one has isolated a causal mechanism that provides any grounds for building a scientific theory." (p. 86).

10.  Chance Concatenation of Events.

    Tainter gives short shrift to this model, which, in today's language, we would describe as a society being overwhelmed because of one or more "black swan" events. Tainter rejects this model because "[c]hance concatenation arguments by definition provide no basis for generalizations, and so fail to satisfy the need for a global understanding of a recurrent process." (p. 86).

11.  Economic Explanations.
Economic explanations are the last to be considered. They occur in a variety of forms, but consistently exhibit a limited number of themes, Among these are: (a) declining advantages of complexity; (b) increasing disadvantages of complexity; or (c) increas­ing costliness of complexity.

A scenario that illustrates these points has been developed by Lewis (1958) to account for the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans in the sixteenth century reached the limits of their geographical expansion, and thereafter began to fall behind in military science, in the professional standards of their army, in administra­tion, in manpower and revenue, and in resources. With global European expansion the eastern Mediterranean quickly became a backwater. As trade routes bypassed it, the region was increasingly impoverished. When Europe was flooded with Spanish­ American gold the Ottoman economy was ruined. Used to currency shortages, the leadership dealt with abundance by the same strategies: devaluation, coin-clipping, and debasement.

Against this backdrop of economic weakness the government had to embark on a great expansion in its salaried personnel and expenditures in coin. In previous monetary crises the government had lowered the number of paid soldiers and in­ creased the proportion of cavalry. Cavalrymen were rewarded with fiefs rather than with coin. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries changes in warfare made this impossible. The greatly increased use of firearms and artillery required a larger paid army, and reduced the importance of cavalry.

The price of this was staggering. Increasing expenditures had to be based on a depreciating currency. Civil , religious, and military personnel had a harder time making ends meet, with inevitable effects on honesty, prestige, and recruitment. With the disappearance of the cavalryman the Ottoman agrarian system collapsed.
Cavalrymen had resided on or near their fiefs . Now fiefs were acquired by palace favorites and speculators. As the bureaucracy became more inefficient and venal, the effectiveness of the tax system declined. Tax farmers were employed, but these tended to intercept revenue, which added to the number of neglected estates. So the shrinking economy of the Empire had to support an increasingly costly and cumber­some superstructure. Lewis characterized the palace, bureaucracy, and religious hierarchy, the army, and the class of absentee landlords and tax farmers as more costly than any hierarchy medieval states or even the Roman Empire had tried to support, and based on an agricultural system that was no more productive. Traders, bankers, and merchants tended to be non-Moslems and so second-class citizens. Political and ideological factors thus militated against conditions favorable to commerce, or to a solid structure of banking and credit.
(pp. 86-87). Similar economic explanations have been advanced to describe the decline of the Western Roman Empire. Although Tainter touches upon it, it is notable that through a series of pogroms and other persecution against Christians and Jews, the Ottomans effectively killed off their productive class, which certainly must have had an impact on their overall economic decline. This of course, raises the issues of the importance of cultural intangibles that Tainter discounts earlier.

      Tainter seems most positive toward the economic model, although he still notes what he considers some problems with it. However, he notes that "the logical weaknesses to these explanations occur at precisely the point where the authors depart from the economic scenario." (p. 89).

     Tainter concludes:
With the exception of mystical explanations, which are without scientific merit, none of these explanatory themes fails entirely. Indeed, the economic theme comes close to success - in logic, if not in specifics - but does not go quite far enough. Except for mystical explanations , these approaches are not necessarily wrong or misguided. They are simply inadequate as presently formulated. They require assumptions that cannot be unquestioningly accepted, and fail frequently in their logic. Yet they also point to relevant variables and processes . Societies do encounter resource shortages, class interests do conflict, catastrophes do happen, and not uncommonly the response does not resolve such problems . A general explanation of collapse should be able to take what is best in thlese themes and incorporate it. It should provide a framework under which these explanatory themes can be subsumed , so that one can account for what is worthwhile in each. A general explanation should make these themes dearer in application than each would be standing alone . 
In the next chapter an explanation of collapse will be developed that follows the economic theme.
(p. 90). 

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