Sunday, October 13, 2013

Discussing Joseph Tainter ideas about the “Collapse of Complex Societies”

by Gary Berg-Cross

Our October meeting of the WASH MDC chapter discussed the topic of the collapse of complex societies, inspired by a book of that title by Joseph Tainter.  This wasn't quite the planned topic of "Energy and the Evolution of Culture" but anthropologist Nancie Gonzalez could not make it, so a related topic was used as a general discussion and it seemed topical with a government shutdown and a looming debt limit crisis possible.

Tainter, also an anthropologist (Head of the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University), builds on 2 key ideas reflected in the title of his book - complexity and collapse. You can see a nice summary on a youtube video

The idea of social complexity is generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. 

A society is said to have collapsed, Tainter argues, when it "displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity." This collapse then is "not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity."

Why do societies collapse?  Well in his first chapter Tainter does a swift, historical (but still academic 7 archeological) survey of 18 collapsed societies around the world, from the Harappans to the Hohokams with the Western Roman empire a more detailed example. Societies collapse, he argues, because to solve problems they invest in complexity  for such things as agriculture, government bureaucracy, militarism, monetary and market systems, infrastructure, etc.

Complexity initially provides a net benefit to society and high return on investment (ROI) means that society flourishes as shown in the diagram above. But as also shown, complex growth has problems which in turn means that ROI falls & turns negative. As returns turn negative, and problems and stresses (energy/resource limits, environmental degradation, competing societies, human competence etc.) continue or emerge, the society is no longer able to cope and eventually succumbs to a collapse - return to a "simpler" state, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterized by fewer specialized parts.

It's an appealing theory and the idea can be applied more and more it seems to the American situation.  There was a general sense by the discussion group that America is in a decline and that some notion of complexity breakdown could be applied. 

As was said in Chris Hayes' 'Twilight of the Elites':

Institutional failure across the board has landed us in modern America, where wages are falling, fraud and corruption in the banking industry are flourishing, jobs are lost, and everyone—correctly, cynically—believes the game is rigged against the little guy.

The problems of a wealth gap may be a harbinger of coming breakdown and some type of event in the protest- reform-rebellion-revolution axis.  Since the gap if growing and the bottom is sinking rather than rising, the problems are expanding.

Among the discussion points the group noted:

This idea of breakdown is reminiscent of Marx's view of conflict and tensions driving change, although Tainter does not focus on social groups.

America has had revolutions before, staring in the 18th century, but our civil war and one might view changes during the Depression as a form of radical governmental change. The idea of change during times of crisis such as discussed by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine was raised. In the past conservative movements have exploited these as opportunities to get policies in place that were not acceptable by normal democratic processes.

America has a range of problem-solving organisations, but we have a proliferation of problems such as the previously noted redistribution issues and the wealth gap, overpopulating, resource depletion etc. This fits the abstract Tainter model, but a wealth of details need to be added to make this a predictive model, although we clearly have difficulty managing the increased costs per capita of society, such as the basic for food, shelter, education and the like.

We have been unable to decide on and execute the difficult political choices to assign resources.  There are many reasons including the democratic challenge of citizen understanding of the many details of how things operate.  Good examples of this can be found in David Cay Johnston's The Fine Print

"No other modern country gives corporations the unfettered power found in America to gouge cus­tomers, shortchange workers, and erect barriers to fair play. A big reason is that so little of the news ... addresses the private, government-approved mechanisms by which price gouging is employed to redistribute income upward."

Competing ideas of fairness, greed and freedom were mentioned as well as rule by powerful elites. The role of greed in things like the housing crisis was debated.  Were greedy home owners at fault or was it largely the lenders who manipulated the system for their own gain and took advantage of people trying to achieve a reasonable version of the American Dream? The decline of the middle class and sucking up their wealth was pointed. Efforts to privatize their social security retirement was one example of where greedy efforts to tap others resources was beaten back.

The ability to fool a relatively ignorant, ill-attending populace was discussed - see my earlier blog on Misinformation, Lies and Ignorance. Some personal cases were discussed where knowing the details of tax law could be used by individuals and not just large organizations who bend law to their interests.

The ideas of meritocracy (rule by the best) vs oligarchy in America were discussed.  Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites was cited as a good discussion of the issues.

Our techno-society requires high energy use and we may be reaching its safe use limits or depletion with no tech solutions yet available. We seem to be declining in some tech area. According to 
David Cay Johnston wpay high prices for poor quality Internet speeds — speeds that are now slower than in other countries like Lithuania, Ukraine and Moldavia. 

"If you buy one of these triple-play packages that are heavily advertised — where you get Internet, telephone and cable TV together — typically you'll pay what I pay, about $160 a month including fees. The same service in France is $38 a month."

                              from Johnston's book, 
The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use "Plain English" to Rob You Blind.

That hurts the American Exceptionalism myth.

1 comment:

Bill Creasy said...

Actually, the problem with complexity in a society may not be the complexity itself. Granted, it places demands on members of the society to keep track of how to do things. But the real problems comes when conditions change. A complex society is much harder to change to adapt to new conditions. Not only do the employees who run the system have to change and develop new ways of doing things, but all the members of the society have to learn the new ways. If that all needs to happen fast, it could be like a train wreck.