Thursday, March 27, 2014

Blogging "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (Part 1)


      I am currently reading Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge Press, 1988). This book, together with a handful of other scholarly works, such as War Before Civilization, are often included as recommended reading for survivalists and preppers, but not often discussed. I hope to rectify that, at least among the audience of this humble blog. I do not currently have any plan or idea as to how many parts this analysis will be, but I will provide and update links as the series progresses.

      Tainter confides at the beginning of his book that he is not going to present his thesis up front, but gradually build to it during the course of the book. However, from reading what others have written about the book, I understand his thesis to be that societies form to solve certain problems; and if they continue to grow, they will over time add additional layers of complexity to deal with other problems, until finally the society is overtaken by the law of diminishing marginal utility. That is, the cost of each added layer of complexity provides less and less benefit, until the cost of an additional layer actually costs more than benefits it provides. At some point, the society will be faced with a problem it cannot solve, and, perhaps quite suddenly, "collapse." Of course, at this point in the book, I cannot determine if this is a correct summary of Tainter's theory, but it is what other sources indicate. It does match Tainter's initial statements in the book that one cannot understand what causes societal collapse unless one understands what causes the creation of complex societies.

      Like some of the other works I've discussed in other posts, Tainter assigns certain specific meanings to terms. The primary one, in this case, is "collapse." Tainter uses the word to describe a sudden decline in the society, as opposed to a gradual decline. Tainter views collapse as a political process, although it may impact economy, arts and sciences, technology, demographics, or other measures of society. Thus, Tainter states: "A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity." (p. 4). He therefore requires that a society have reached or been developing toward a level of complexity for two or more generations; and the collapse must be rapid--no more than a few decades--"and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure."

      Although Tainter provides a time frame (not more than a few decades) to differentiate between collapse and decline, his examples, at least to me, make the difference ambiguous. For instance, he describes the British Empire's retreat and consolidation as "retrenchment," but the end of the Western Roman Empire, the Hittites, the First Dynasty in Egypt, the Maya, the Minoan, the Indus Valley, and several other examples, as a "collapse" even though many of those nations or civilizations were in decline for decades or centuries before their "collapse." (See pp. 5-18). For instance, Minoan civilization went into decline after the explosion of Thera, but lasted another couple of centuries.

     The use of the term "complex society" also requires some comment. Tainter does not assigns it a particular meaning, but seems to treat it synonymously with "state" or "nation state", but it is not clear, at least at this point, if he intends it to include "civilization." Obviously, a civilization may be larger than a state--and may survive a collapse of a state that belongs to that civilization. For instance, we would probably all agree that there is something that can be termed "Western civilization" that encompasses at least the nations of Western Europe and, although I think this is somewhat debatable, the United States. Yet, obviously, nations states have appeared, and disappeared or been reorganized within a civilization. Similarly, we speak of Classical Civilization (meaning, primarily, the Greeks), although there were numerous Greek city-states.

      Tainter notes:
Collapse is manifest in such things as:
a lower degree of stratification and social differentiation; 
less economic and occupational specialization, of individuals, groups, and terri­tories; 
less centralized control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse econo­mic and political groups by elites; 
less behavioral control and regimentation; 
less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity, those elements that define the concept of 'civilization': monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements, and the like;
less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic
groups, and between a center and its periphery;
less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources; 
less overall coordination and organization of individuals and groups; 
a smaller territory integrated within a single political unit.
(p. 4). However, he also acknowledges that not all collapses will demonstrate all of these features, and some will have other features.

      He also observes:
Based on the sketches of the preceding pages, and an excellent summary by Colin Renfrew ( 1979: 482-5 ), the characteristics of societies after collapse may be summarized as follows.
There is, first and foremost, a breakdown of authority and central control. Prior to collapse, revolts and provincial breakaways signal the weakening of the center. Revenues to the government often decline. Foreign challengers become increasingly successful . With lower revenues the military may become ineffective . The populace becomes more and more disaffected as the hierarchy seeks to mobilize resources to meet the challenge. 
With disintegration, central direction is no longer possible. The former political center undergoes a significant loss of prominence and power. It is often ransacked and may ultimately be abandoned. Small, petty states emerge in the formerly unified territory, of which the previous capital may be one . Quite often these contend for domination, so that a period of perpetual conflict ensues. 
The umbrella of law and protection erected over the populace is eliminated. Lawlessness may prevail for a time, as in the Egyptian First Intermediate Period, but order will ultimately be restored. Monumental construction and publicly-supported art largely cease to exist. Literacy may be lost entirely, and otherwise declines so dramatically that a dark age follows.
What populations remain in urban or other political centers reuse existing architecture in a characteristic manner. There is little new construction, and that which is attempted concentrates on adapting existing buildings. Great rooms will be subdivided, flimsy facades are built, and public space will be converted to private .
While some attempt may be made to carry on an attenuated version of previous ceremonialism, the former monuments are allowed to fall into decay. People may reside in upper-story rooms as lower ones deteriorate . Monuments are often mined as easy sources of building materials . When a building begins to collapse, the residents
simply move to another.
Palaces and central storage facilities may be abandoned, along with centralized redistribution of goods and foodstuffs, or market exchange. Both long distance and local trade may be markedly reduced, and craft specialization end or decline. Subsistence and material needs come to be met largely on the basis of local self-sufficiency. Declining regional interaction leads to the establishment of local styles in items such as pottery that formerly had been widely circulated. Both portable and fixed techno­logy (e .g. , hydraulic engineering systems) revert to simpler forms that can be developed and maintained at the local level, without the assistance of a bureaucracy that no longer exists.
Whether as cause or as consequence, there is typically a marked, rapid reduction in population size and density. Not only do urban populations substantially decline, but so also do the support populations of the countryside . Many settlements are concurrently abandoned. The level of population and settlement may decline to that of centuries or even millennia previously.
... In a complex society that has collapsed, it would thus appear, the overarching structure that provides support services to the population loses capability or dis­appears entirely. No longer can the populace rely upon external defense and internal order, maintenance of public works, or delivery of food and material goods. Organization reduces to the lowest level that is economically sustainable, so that a variety of contending polities exist where there had been peace and unity. Remaining popula­tions must become locally self-sufficient to a degree not seen for several generations.Groups that had formerly been economic and political partners now become stran­gers, even threatening competitors. The world as seen from any locality perceptibly shrinks, and over the horizon lies the unknown .
(pp. 19-20).

      Tainter acknowledges that the collapse will often lead, at least temporarily, to a Hobbesian type world where only the strong survive, and there is a conflict. He, in fact, notes specific incidents of this in Britain, following the withdrawal of Roman control, and the situation in 1918 Istanbul after the collapse of Turkish control. However, I find more significant a matter he mentions only in passing, which are the Minoan, Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations. Although the Minoan civilization had been replaced nearly 200 years earlier (as evidenced by changes to language and other cultural artifacts), the centers of that civilization continued until approximately 1200 B.C. At that time, the Minoan, Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations all collapsed. Writing about the Mycenaeans, Tainter recounts:
After about 1200 B . C . disaster struck. Palace after palace was destroyed. There followed a period of more than 100 years of unstable conditions, repeated catastrophes afflicting many centers, and movement of population. The uniform Mycenaean style of pottery gave way to local styles that were less well executed. Metalwork became simpler. Writing disappeared. The craftsmen and artisans seem to have everywhere vanished. Fortifications were built across the Isthmus of Corinth and at other places. At Mycenae, Tiryns, and Athens water sources were developed within the citadel, cut through solid rock at great labor. The rock-cut well at Athens, at least, seems to date to the time of the troubles. Trade dropped off, and one author has suggested that the subsequent preference for iron implements was due to a sharp decline in copper and
tin trade .
The number of occupied settlements dropped precipitously, from 320 in the thirteenth century B.C. , to 130 in the twelfth, and 40 in the eleventh . In some areas, such as the southwest Peloponnese, settlement increased at this time, and it seems that some of the people of the devastated regions may have migrated to less troubled areas. Yet only a small part of the population loss can be accounted for in this way. Estimates of the magnitude of overall population decline range from 75 to 90 percent. Even areas that escaped devastation, such as Athens, suffered ultimate political collapse . By 1050 B.C. Mycenaean Civilization, despite brief local resurgences, was everywhere gone, and the Greek Dark Ages had begun (Stubbings 1 975a, 1975b; Hooker 1 976 ; Chadwick 1976; Desborough 1 972, 1 975; Betancourt 1976; Snodgrass 197 1 ; Mylonas 1966; Taylour 1964).
This is reflected throughout the Mediterranean littoral. Based on other sources, I understand this to have been the not yet understood collapse of a Canaanite civilization or empire.

     As long time readers of this blog know, part of my purpose is to discuss eschatological aspects of prepping. Accordingly, I would note some interesting points from modern-day prophecy. I've posted before about a vision had by John Taylor about the last days. Among other things, in his vision, he saw Washington D.C. abandoned, which seems to coincide with Tainter's characterization of the loss of central authority, and abandonment of capitals. It has to be remembered that, like some of the cities created by the kings and emperors in several Middle-Eastern empires, Washington D.C. was intended to be an administrative center. It has no independent existence, such as a center of trade or production, that other cities like New York or London have. Thus, if central government authority were to collapse, Washington D.C. would cease to function and be abandoned.

    I've also written extensively about the prophecies and predictions (or a non-religious nature) of a coming civil war in the United States. (See here and here, for example).

See also: Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; and Part 6.


  1. I know you are just starting the book, but does Tainter discuss the idea of "cultural suicide" where the society allows itself to be overwhelmed by immigrants hostile to the society, while at the same time practicing disdain for the cultural elements that made the society successful and ostracizing members of the society who act to try to prevent the destruction of their society?

    1. Not so far. But since he makes the distinction between "collapse" and "decline," he may not get into that. Certainly part of the decline of the Roman Empire's decline was unregulated immigration by the Franks and other Germanic tribes, and he uses the Roman Empire as an example later, so it may come up. If he discusses the matter, I will be sure to relate that in this series.


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