Samo Burja: How Civilizations Collapse
The 1517 Fund is a very early stage investment fund that prioritizes working with dropouts and those working outside of tracked institutions. The fund was founded in 2015 by Danielle Strachman and Michael Gibson, both former cofounders of the Thiel Fellowship. They also host two podcasts, interviewing thinkers and founders who are disrupting the status quo.
My talk was followed by a Q&A period with the audience. We discussed how to evaluate the health of a civilization’s core institutions, what a slow collapse looks like from the inside, and how civilizational decline and collapse come about. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Read the discussion below, and watch it here!
Thank you everyone for your interest in joining us this evening. Thank you for our speaker, Samo Burja, who I will introduce in just a moment. For those of you for whom this is your first time joining us, it’s a pleasure to meet you. For those of you who aren’t familiar with us, 1517 Fund is an early stage venture capital fund that supports companies led by young founders, with a priority on supporting founders working outside of track institutions. We would like to work with dropouts, stop outs, people who are working on deep technology, in addition to the dropout and stop out categories of founders.
This is the second of our 1517 at-home conversations. We’re pleased this evening to be joined by Samo Burja. Samo is the founder of Bismarck analysis, a consulting firm that investigates the political and institutional landscape of society. He’s a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation where he studies how institutions can endure for centuries and millennia. And he’s also a senior research fellow in political science at the Foresight Institute.
Samo advises how these things can shape the future of technology. He writes and speaks on history, institutions, and strategy, with a focus on exceptional leaders that create new social and political forms. He has systematized this approach as Great Founder Theory. This evening, he’ll be speaking to us on the question: why do civilizations collapse?
We have quite a few people in the conversation this evening, so I’m going to ask you that, any questions you may have for the speaker, please drop them in the chat box. And I will then try to moderate those towards the end of our conversation, the Q&A portion of our conversation. With that all being said, please join me in welcoming Samo Burja for speaking with us on why civilizations collapse.
Thank you for that introduction, Zack. And thank you to the 1517 fund for organizing this talk and this conversation that, hopefully, will develop in a very interesting direction.
Why do civilizations collapse? Well, that’s something that’s on the mind of many people right now, as they look at a closed down economy in a world where people don’t leave their home very much. Yet the physical infrastructure of the internet persists. The idea naturally occurs that perhaps this is a systemic crisis of some kind, that we will have a multiplication of problems building up on each other. I don’t think there is evidence this is that kind of crisis. Civilizational collapse does tend to have some of these features. It is the multiplication of problems, each on their own being something that could be overcome by live players and adaptive institutions. But it proved fatal to dead players and ossified institutions.
Our society is certainly one that’s dominated by large bureaucratic entities. Large bureaucratic entities break down the tasks needed for delivery of physical goods, or for processing information via a knowledge worker on the stock market, or a factory worker putting on the doors of a car. These tasks are shorn of their meaning and full context and put in a systematized environment where the constraints that the worker has to solve are really narrow: make numbers go up, or put the car door in. It’s not that different.
Now, the holistic perspective on such systems does require design. This is a space where there’s a lot of disagreement as to whether these emergent systems just pop up, or whether they are designed in the first place. I think that, without a doubt, the large bureaucratic structures that dominate our society are designed, because often you can read the original intent of the people who set them up. It’s not that difficult to look through the documents of Hoover setting up the FBI, and making up your mind why the FBI exists. It’s not that difficult to figure out what the IRS is. It’s also not that difficult to figure out why Amazon exists.
It is harder to figure out the whole assembly. It’s not that society is a single institution. So no matter how large or small some of these institutions are, they always coexist in a symbiotic relationship with others. There is no Amazon without the United States government, and there’s no US government without at least some corners of the US economy. And each of these institutions depends on each other, in a quite intricate mesh.
Different people put the foundation of society in different places. It’s a nontrivial and difficult theoretical question. You might choose to be grounded in organized religion. This already presupposes a particular form of human nature, a nature where there’s an orientation towards the divine that expresses and drives all our actions. It’s the source of normativity. It’s the reason why people come together in the first place. In the religious perspective, people come together to worship God. In the nonreligious perspective, people worship God to come together. This is the subtle but important distinction of a view of religion that say, someone might have if they originate with a fallen angel hypothesis rather than the rising ape hypothesis of what human beings are in the first place. So all of these investigations aren’t just objective questions. A Catholic theologian might actually have a significant amount of agreement with a French secular philosopher when describing the workings of a particular institution. But they might have a very different perspective as to what’s the driving force behind institutions.
Then you might have views that emphasize protocols of exchange, might focus on currency, or might focus on law, rather than any individual institution. Rather than the bones or the muscles of society, it would be the connective tissue of society that defines the space of parameters. You might view companies as secondary effects, primarily formed by the market. Or on the other hand, you might view companies as the primary object and markets as secondary things, with companies creating their own market, and sometimes even creating their own regulatory environment. If you extended this all the way to government, you would end up with a view where the companies themselves are shaping their own regulatory environment and government is primarily a consequence of the large economic structures of society.
These very different schools of thought sound familiar because we invoke them every day in normal conversations. Whenever we make an ethical, moral, scientific, social, political, religious statement, we’re invoking one or another theory of human existence. Even if we’re not making it explicit, we’re operating on one or another theory of what human nature is. Is it an unbounded potentiality, with a drive for exploration. A kind of Nietzschean self-actualization? Is it the sort of striving for God mentioned earlier? Is it the misfiring of evolutionary processes best adapted to our life on the African Savanna plains?
These thoughts float around. The full conception of what a civilization is, is that it is very diverse. The key focus seems to be on something like that: scale and complexity. Hence the popularity of the book The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter, or Jared Diamond’s much later book, also titled Collapse. You also have interesting books on the late Bronze Age or the fall of the Roman Empire. These seem appealing, and are usually explored by people who have one or another answer in mind as to what brings on collapse. They might believe that it is primarily environmental fragility, or moral decline, or that primarily it is the overloading of complexity in the system.
I think that it’s important to acknowledge that you can’t undertake the investigation of history without picking and choosing facts. Yes, I am presupposing the relevance of history here. For obvious reasons, I don’t think we can really say anything much about it at all, without comparing the present to other societies and civilizations. There are too many variables to control. The best we can hope for is cross-comparison with the natural record of history, the natural set of experiments that occurred already. Much as in geology, we don’t build another planet to figure out plate tectonics, but rather dig for whatever rocks might be found here or there. So we must, in this macrosocial study, rely less on simple, objective ideology-driven theories and more on in-depth exploration of different examples.
I do think that exploration is still itself theory-driven. If you’re a good historian, or a good theoretician, or a good social thinker, you explicitly acknowledge the thesis that you’re working on. My thesis is, as Zack mentioned at the very start, Great Founder Theory. I propose that social technologies are not something that’s cooked up by all of us, but by a tiny subset of us. Most of us pick and choose from an admittedly large variety of existing worldviews, ways of being, social groups, economic entities, and political entities. But these are in themselves too complex to really originate as the product of collective action.
Now, it might seem to you that the best way to design complex things is collective action, or intermittent individualized approaches, perhaps similar to the open software approach. I’m going to point out that unowned commons tend to be raided, and that visions differ massively. If we combine the vision of a car, an airplane and a submarine, well, it might be a brilliant leap forward. Arguably, the smartphone, at least when originally conceived, was exactly this: a phone, a tablet, and a camera. Today, it’s almost hard to remember that those things once seemed very different. But for the most part, you just get something that’s not a very good car, not a very good plane and not a very good submarine. The jumps in complexity are much too fast. You end up seeing completely new organizations and social forms arise in a single generation. This is the equivalent of a hurricane going through a junkyard and assembling a 747, or perhaps a Tesla Cybertruck.
This argument, of course, is sometimes used in biology. But in biology, we have a long history of a measurable eons of adaptation and mutation and a clear mechanism of natural selection. There is no clear mechanism of natural selection for organizations. There are far too few of them to really explain this. If we count all the companies in the world right now, it’s just a few million, and these few million companies have, at most, a few million more ancestors. If we look at the number of governments in the world—no matter how generous we are, even if we disregard official UN statistics, and count all the statelets and pseudo-state entities such as Transnistria, or another semi-recognized states such as Kosovo—you can’t really go above 500. And if you look at the number of their predecessors that are recognizably a modern, centralized, bureaucratic state, it’s just a few hundred more. Half of the US economy is essentially everything related to the US federal government, which has radically outgrown the states that initially came together to form it. This doesn’t just include the public sector, but the many nominally private industries which grew up downstream of federal patronage, like communications and digital technology.
This means that we’re, in fact, not that determined in terms of social evolution. There seems to be a lot of change over just a few thousand or tens of thousands of years. There seems to be little competition between organizations that are actually in the same reference class. It’s usually organizations that are trying to do completely different things that compete with each other, where one aspect of one organization results in its subsuming and integrating the other one. In fact, if there’s a biological analogy, I would probably point to the cell, not to multi-cell organisms. In our cell exist the mitochondria; mitochondria were probably originally an independent organism, but now they’re part of us, playing an important role in processing energy.
In a very similar way, if you were looking at something like a mystical movement—like the Franciscans—in 300 BC, you might describe them as the cult of a new God. But if you look at them in 1400 AD and their context, it’s a religious movement within the Catholic Church. If you see the formation of a new legislative body in the modern US government, you might not call it a legislative body. You might not use terms such as a new branch of government, because the ideological statements that surround it proposed that laws are still made in Congress. As far as I can tell Congress is a significantly vestigial organ today. Laws are mostly made by the Supreme Court, or the civil service when it implements things. Occasionally, the President can also make laws through executive decisions.
People would object. They would say that this, of course, doesn’t quite fit our own definition of law. And they’re right. I’m not using America’s 2020 definition of law. I’m using law in the sense that you would use it to describe the practices of medieval Iceland, or the Twelve Tablets in ancient Rome, or Spartan law, or customary law in Somalia. It is just this set of behaviors and regulations. So in theory, something called a legislative body exists. But if you will find the actual legislative organ, you always have to look anew. In theory, the Franciscans are just good Catholics. But of course, in the Middle Ages, you can believe in any heresy as long as you declare your loyalty to the Pope.
Now, these kinds of political contexts mean that society is not effectively self documenting. So in addition to the jumps in complexity, we also have mimicry. Mimicry is, perhaps again, a phenomenon where I could lean on biology. Many insects try as best as they can to look like twigs, so as to distract predators and have predators assume that this is just a twig rather than a tasty morsel. The evolutionary analogies don’t work quite as well there. So perhaps the best one to consider is some context of competition and warfare, and some context of borrowing. It’s not merely the case that you try to hide from your political opponents, and try to hide your political power, or your economic advantage. It’s also the case that you might wish to borrow the prestige of other organizations. The Nobel Prize in Economics was created decades after the other Nobel prizes, specifically to be a font of honor to be distributed to economists. By arranging that such a prize as given to them, economists have raised their status to that of a natural science, or to supreme humanitarianism, which is what the Nobel Prize Nobel Peace Prize was supposed to be promoting and supposed to be advancing.
Of course, the only reason there is a Nobel Peace Prize is because Alfred Nobel felt relatively guilty about the main application of dynamite being war. He was slandered, or perhaps rightly accused, of being a contributor to human misery in newspapers at his time. Sponsoring a prominent Peace Prize certainly cleans that up. But the service the Nobel Prize makes to society is actually one of legibly demonstrating status and expertise that are inherently rather opaque.
So, the first topic that I proposed is that these organizations are designed. Secondly, they’re not always honest about themselves. Third, individuals actually have an extremely difficult time judging expertise and knowledge, or understanding organizations that they’re not closely affiliated with. So from the societal perspective, from the functional perspective, we step aside from the question of what human beings are, and look at where the French philosopher and the Cardinal and the evolutionary biologist might agree: the functional parts. These are the wheels, the cogs as they turn and fit into each other, and have various effects, and where people disagree as to what the goal and the purpose is, and what the cause is, and what the effect is. If you look at those, it’s very clear that people are bad at judging them. You can, in fact, have a false understanding of what you’re doing in society. It’s in fact possible to be ruthlessly profiting off of the misery of others without ever seeing the misery of others, or contributing greatly to the prosperity of others without ever seeing the prosperity of others.
You might spend your entire life studying and thinking very deeply about a topic. You are publishing papers. You imagine some strange sort of wall where you write your paper, you throw your paper over the wall, and somewhere, somehow, some intelligent, thoughtful and responsible person takes the output of your scientific, disinterested exploration into account.Then it is somehow made into policy, or somehow translated into medical practice, or somehow implemented in a factory, thereby increasing production. Well, often there’s no one on the other side of the wall.
This is where we come to dysfunctionality, because society is so deeply compartmentalized. You might analyze society from a perspective where you look at the whole thing and compare parts of it to their equivalents in different societies. Let’s try to identify those analogues. Let’s try to find that legislature. Let’s try to find that knowledge organ. Let’s try to find the military capacity and cross-compare them. You will note that some of them will work better or worse, in the sense of whether something is followed up. So I’m not making a strong normative claim that these are better societies or worse societies. I’m merely asking, is there a multiplier right after you chuck the paper over the wall? Is there a bureaucratic structure, or an individual-driven structure—perhaps oligarchic in nature, perhaps something else—picking that paper up and acting on its consequences?
And does that oligarchic structure or bureaucratic structure have any good reason to trust your papers in the first place? Do they only trust you because you received the Nobel Prize? And how do you know that the Nobel Prize is awarded on merit? I don’t know about you, but I’ve only read something like five or six papers written by Nobel Prize winners, quite outside my domains of expertise—mostly in economics, one or two in physics. I can look at it and say that it’s very clearly systemic thought. And it’s very clearly meticulously presented. And it’s very clearly something that has interesting premises. But it would take me a career to study it through. So, the range of pure intellectual authority, of inherent recognition of the truth, is limited. Yet clearly it exists. At the end of the day, I can still go somewhere and buy a car. And this car’s door, bolted on by a worker I never met, still seems to work, and when I open the door, it doesn’t fall off. I wonder whether the same can be said of stock portfolios.
This is an exercise in radical skepticism. Before we can even agree what a collapse is, and to study what a civilization is, you have to ask yourself: what is the actual basis of knowledge, what’s the epistemic justification for knowing anything about society at all? And then whatever survives this acid test, you kind of have to build out from there. The argument about ignorance that I apply to the difficulty of judging expertise applies itself very strongly, with this almost distressing reality, when you try to look at the historical occurrence of something as trivial as a battle. You realize it’s mostly looking at accounts of material artifacts other people found and reading things that people long dead have written about it. Can you imagine trying to pour through Obama’s emails to figure out what his key agenda was during an administration? In fact, can you even imagine poring through your own emails from one year ago to establish what the key aspects of your personal administration are? Well, it’s very difficult, right? It’s very, very difficult. And of course, stories are told both by you and Obama and by FDR, and by Julius Caesar. And these are somewhat accurate and somewhat self-interested. That’s all that history is. It’s actually ludicrously hard to come to consensus on these things.
There are a few methods that, for various reasons, I think are trustworthy, that I think are indicative or reliable. For the fall of the Roman Empire, I consider a few things indicative. I think there are a few thinkers who you can just judge as excellent thinkers, who spent a lot of time sifting through Roman letters, and looking at the political reality before and after the fall of the Roman Empire and then came to their conclusions. Also, there’s material evidence: a lot of large cities that were depopulated over the course of the third, fourth and fifth century. Also, there is indirect evidence that doesn’t rely on the honesty of archaeologists. The ice samples from Greenlandic ice are a snapshot of many centuries, like the tree lines you might find if you chop down a tree, where the thicker lines or the narrow lines show lean years or years with a lot of water. Much in the same way in the Greenlandic ice, there are tiny, tiny air bubbles, some of them trapped for centuries or thousands of years. And these are essentially air samples from the era and we can measure lead pollution because of the way the Atlantic winds work. And because of dissipation in the atmosphere, we can pretty clearly map lead in the atmosphere to Roman mining activity. So at least you have, under the assumption that Roman mining activity is related to economic production, a good indicator of their economic activity.
The interesting question here is, well, if you were a Roman, and someone could tell you this information, how would you process it? Today, if you saw drop in lead pollution, your first assumption might be cleaner and greener technology. But a statement of victory—that is something everyone proposes out of self-interest. It’s not that the ancients could do things we could not possibly do; it’s that the ancients were foolish or extravagant, or that this wasn’t built by people at all, it was built by a race of cyclops or giants. So, in a way, we have nothing to feel bad about. And that last example, that’s how the classical Greeks saw Mycenaean ruins, the Myceneans being the society in the Greek islands from about 1600 to 1100 BC. And the later Greeks made up these stories that these huge rocks couldn’t possibly be moved by people, they must have been built by cyclops. And because of that, I’m also not very partial to the theories of aliens building the pyramids and so on. I think it just means that, no, we actually don’t understand ancient economic systems. We very well know how to put lots and lots of rocks together in the right place, just using muscle power. But we have a difficult time grasping an economic and political system that can make this very easy.
There are other things we don’t understand about the ancient world. But for the most part, I think our civilization has massively better technology than ancient Rome. I’m more skeptical about our social technology than material technology. Material and social technologies always coexist. The most interesting thing that happened in the last 500 years was the Industrial Revolution. I think the current assumption is that the Industrial Revolution is still ongoing. Well, if the industrial revolution is over, what would we see? Much as we see a drop in atmospheric lead after the decline of the Western Mediterranean economies of the Roman Empire, we now see drops in Western pollution, and we see outsourcing. The usual explanation is that this is because the Chinese have undercut prices and it just makes sense, and it’s just gains from trade, and so on. Another explanation is, perhaps the American manager and the American worker have actually lost the social technology over time that enabled them to effectively work as a team, in the context of an assembly line. It’s that the fault tolerances are getting worse and worse, and that the reason we are outsourcing isn’t so much greed, but inability. This is a hypothesis that’s strikingly hard to defeat.
We need to seriously consider the possibility that we are a post-industrial society—not in a positive sense, but in the sense that the Industrial Revolution has stopped. Civilizational collapse in conditions of very advanced technology might very much look like something we have right now, where what was once the product of advanced rational systems, or at least self-catalyzing systems of production, has reverted to a more customary system. Where are things still run as they were 20 years ago, or 50 years ago? We still have the same bureaucratic and economic institutions, with only very marginal changes in a single domain of progress: CPUs, which very few of which are made in California.
A little provocative, no? People in a society tend to not acknowledge its collapse or decline. This, by the way, is true of the Roman Empire, which is the most popular example in our culture. You only find letters of people complaining that the roads are awfully unsafe this year, but mostly not thinking that some sort of fundamental change is apace. The collapse of the Roman Empire is much less about the burning cities and much more about GDP shrinking 1% a year, which means that on the books it looks pretty much the same. Right now, the market seems to be about the same or even better than it was a few months ago, yet common sense tells us production has fallen massively. Okay, so if such a huge change can be papered over with government intervention or with intervention of other private actor players, what about slower moving changes? How would we even know if GDP per capita had in fact been declining 1% a year for the last 20 years?
This has been more of an epistemic exercise and somewhat provocative so far. Let’s try to answer the question.
I think civilizational collapse looks relatively slow over the course of 20 to about 100 years. Let’s assume that we’re not touching really on what human beings are and what they’re for. From the perspective of Christianity, the dissolution of the Roman Empire was perhaps a great thing; it certainly coincided with the spread of Christianity. But if we drop this assumption, if we look at it through the lens of functionality rather than normativity, then I think we can define a civilizational collapse: it’s where most of the recognizable or large-scale institutions of a society vanish. There’s usually a drop in material wealth. And there’s usually a drop in the material complexity of artifacts and the complexity of social forms. There’s further usually a loss of knowledge or a thinning of which proportion of the population has the knowledge. Classic examples would be writing disappearing after the late Bronze Age collapse around 1000 BC, because they only had a tiny literate class.
As you have a collapse of society, usually the traditional elite class goes away with the collapse of that society—meaning that, with the elite class only having access to writing, being the only class that had any use for writing and reading, those systems of writing and reading vanished. When writing reappears in the eastern Mediterranean after the recovery from this collapse a few centuries later, it’s based on the Phoenician alphabet. It’s no longer hieroglyphic in nature, similar to the Linear A and B writing that you see among the Minoans or the Assyrian cuneiform. So, there’s a completely different system in place when the new society develops. You might lose types of knowledge like that. And you know, today we might lose COBOL programmers. The state of New Jersey was desperately asking for one, I think about a month ago, because it had been relying on legacy systems that hadn’t ever been rebuilt, or at least hadn’t been rebuilt in decades, and have been patched over.
The interesting case here is that a lot of knowledge is obscure. This is a straightforward consequence of my thesis that it’s very difficult to tell apart Nobel Prize winning work from crackpottery if you’re a typical man in the street, or even if you’re rather intelligent. It’s probably not as hard if you’re extremely intelligent. You usually rely on institutional signposts. You rely on the big gold medal, however indirectly. The kilogram—This is a more salient analogy in continental Europe than it is here—is a unit that’s defined not by any universal principle of physics, but was until recently defined with a very particular weight stored in the Institute of Measures in Paris. Every year or so they took this weight out, carefully cleaned it, and compared it to national kilogram standards, which are replicas of this original weight. If you had somehow changed the mass of that kilogram, you would basically screw up a lot of measurements all over the world. People could probably approximate the original weight of the kilogram quite closely, but not enough for extremely fine scientific applications.
Similarly, if the Nobel Prize started to be awarded in relatively screwy ways, it would take a while for anyone to notice. And for everyday use, it wouldn’t matter. People would still know who’s a physicist, who’s an engineer and who’s a psychologist. But the very subtle system of intellectual regulation and status distribution, and the agreed upon stories of economic production would decay. I don’t think we actually understand economic production at all. I think our society claims to understand economic production, but there’s no particular reason to believe this claim. So, if someone were to alter a story of economic production, it would actually take a while for anyone to notice. The long-term consequences might be the loss of particular capabilities. There is the example recently of the US government’s failure to produce a classified material—I think Fogbank is the codename—which is necessary for the creation of nuclear weapons. It took many millions of dollars and something like a 5-10 year effort to re-engineer material that people knew how to make in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was such a niche field of knowledge, so far away from common use.
So, what does a civilizational collapse look like? I think it looks like the loss of several of these capacities. I think that society that’s undergoing an intellectual dark age doesn’t realize it’s undergoing an intellectual dark age. All the people who would notice are long gone, or miseducated, or are essentially LARPing the forms of the previous elite class. And the archaeological evidence for decline is best measured as in things like population decline—decline of various kinds of industrial output, travel distance, in things like safety, and in the presence or absence of material artefacts. So, in a way we’re always examining collapse from the outside. But when we’re examining it from the outside, we’re relying on the accounts from the inside, and any material evidence they left behind. If we compare across the around 12 identifiable dark ages, I find that almost all of the material technology is not self-perpetuating. It rests on social technological foundations. I’m thinking of collapses in the Eurasian continent here; I’m not going to be talking about the New World, about the Aztecs, or the Mayans. Just the late Bronze Age collapse or the end of the Mohenjo-Daro civilization in the Indus Valley, or the collapse of Han China during the Yellow Turban, rebellion, or the end of the Roman Empire. In these collapses, the social technological foundations are not understood explicitly by all parts of society. Rather, the knowledge is highly compartmentalized.
This means that well-intentioned and successful reform is extremely rare, though it does happen. For example, Augustus deserves a lot of credit in saving a Roman Republic that was tearing itself to shreds and in completely unsustainable wars, and rebooting it into an imperial system. That system eventually also tore itself into shreds through warfare and through lack of economic and intellectual productivity, but only did so 300 years later. So, revivals and reforms do happen. But this extreme difficulty of social engineering on the macro scale, plus the accumulation of errors—what’s essentially a kind of social or cultural technical debt—would be my best guess for why civilizations collapse, on the basis of all of these assumptions that I’ve sketched out, and all these methodological considerations that I’ve sketched out.
I think there is a belief right now that’s very ingrained in Western thinking, which is that we are already living in scientifically planned societies. I think we’re certainly living in socially engineered societies. But I don’t think they’re scientifically planned in a straightforward way. I don’t think our organs of economic management secretly know how the economy works. I also don’t think most of our systems of political regulation are that clear minded right now. They’ve mostly inherited stuff from, say, two or three generations ago, sometimes one generation ago. I would put the last spurt of institutional growth and in Western societies in about the 1960s.
This kind of collapse, therefore, is downstream of the lack of very subtle regulation, for solving the succession problem. The succession problem is the problem of how you transition organizations. Given one Nobel Prize Committee chairman, how can the next Nobel Prize Committee chairman have similar qualities of judgment to the original? Or in an intuitive case, in ancient Egypt it might go like this: does the son of the Pharaoh know how to interact with all the powerful people in Egypt so as to prevent civil war, achieve victory abroad, prevent famine through storage of grain, and accurate measurements of the Nile River? Measurements of the level of the Nile River among the state secrets of Egypt. I found that very interesting because it’s a nice example of state secrets being related to environmental factors. So, even if we were undergoing climate collapse —which I don’t think we are, though we’re certainly undertaking some climatic change—it’s not clear this would be made apparent to a typical member of society.
It’s very difficult to keep secrets across generations. Often the problem is that the kids don’t get the joke. So, if you create an organization on a false mimicking premise, the people you hire into it might never get the joke. And they will act straightforwardly on the stories that were propaganda for you, but for them are the actual history of how the organization was formed. This is why I don’t believe in multi-generational conspiracies. Although yes, if you’re actually methodologically open minded, you should consider those, and you should think about those. You shouldn’t just accept the consensus of your particular society. You should try to view it through the lens of many different societies. Some of them did think that the world was run by multi-generational secret societies. So, I’m proposing there is a failure of succession there, stemming from knowledge succession.
You might also have power succession, where the son of the Pharaoh might be just as skilled, but the Assyrians coming in are even more skilled, so in that case there’s a failure to transmit relative power. There’s also a failure of succession in niche social engineering parts of society, and sometimes more philosophical or scientific areas of society. Imagine there was an Institute of Pottery, and they lost the ability to make good pots. Would they declare that they have lost the ability to make good pots? Well no, they never would do that. That’s self-abolishing. So, how would you even know how profound a scientific crisis your society was in? The answer tends to be that a small number of people actually have good judgment and understand the intellectual generation behind the facts, rather than merely trusting the integrity of the recorded body of facts, theories, and observations. People who can verify, and have independent checks, are extremely rare. And there has to be an associated economic niche for them. If something like a technique exists, a skill of managing society and managing institutions and culture, it exists in these very, very narrow corners of society. And, you know, it is a difficult social engineering challenge to have that be self-perpetuating. There are all sorts of mechanisms that might go into it, but that will be the bottom line.
So okay, this was a very broad theoretical discussion. And now I think it’s time for questions.
We’ve got lots of questions that I will roll through. Got a few more rolling in as we’re sitting here, but we’ll start with one that Sid submitted at the very beginning. If you’re speaking to a senior in college about to graduate, and approach the chaos of the economy for the next 12-18 months, do you have any broader advice for how they might think about that?
Be ready to pivot a lot. And don’t underestimate how much large institutions can externalize difficulties. In other words, if you expect a big institution to break, usually this kind of intuition is false. You have to look at all the ways the large institution can offload its problem to smaller institutions or organizations, or onto the population at large. I also think that no matter what happens to the economy, we will experience a drop in living standards, I think that’s just unavoidable. How big a drop, I’m unsure. A lot of the expenditures that essentially were surplus are no longer available. I perhaps focus on relatively fundamental approaches—on doing the basics better, and doing the basics better in a way that does not rely on a big institution breaking, because they usually don’t. They can usually pass the buck.
In fact, you know, I have an online document called Great Founder Theory. In it, I have a topology of empires: centralized or decentralized, and expanding or declining. In a centralized declining empire, the central institutions of society preserve themselves by cannibalizing the outer supporting structures. This happens over and over again, until it’s no longer sustainable. But it’s sort of like this kind of slowly shrinking, imploding object, right? A good example of this might be the late Western Roman Empire.
Patrick asks: as the most significant force of historical changes is novel technologies, and the institutions they make possible, to what extent does this degrade the usefulness of a historical case study method of analysis?
Well, the only technologies I’ve seen to be robust over the 12 collapses of society in Eurasian history—within the Middle East, India, China, Europe—have been small-scale agriculture and metallurgy. So, I do think those are the macro secular trends. Almost everything else you might think of as locked in forever can still vanish, including the very art of writing and things like indoor plumbing—that’s certainly very precarious technology.
While human potential realities are significantly altered by technology, technology still rests on a social stack. Ultimately, the difference between Europe and China wasn’t the invention of the printing press. They both did it. The difference was what was the role of the written word in that society. If you change the economics of the written word to make it much cheaper in China, the main result is that civil service exams are less expensive to print. In Europe, the difference is that a cranky blogger, protected by a German prince, can issue theological invectives at the Pope and start to claim that he’s an alternate power center. That right there is 90% social technology, 10% physical technology.
I do agree that physical technology cannot be skipped. I think that the technology can be analyzed as is, because we can easily run experiments on it. You can try to make an atomic bomb, but presumably it’s very difficult to do in your basement. But you know, almost everyone can make a pipe bomb, which is why there were a lot of problems with domestic terrorism in the US in the ‘60s and ‘70s before the control mechanisms were tightened. Today, people just don’t know enough chemistry to build pipe bombs. Still, in theory, most experiments underwriting practical, everyday science could be done by an individual or a small team. I think it’s possible to very rapidly reverse engineer almost any piece of physical technology, because you can wreck it very easily. It’s much harder, or at least riskier, to reverse-engineer society, because we live in it. It carries all the risks of living in a house that you built yourself, despite not being a very good architect or a very good judge of material, especially if it’s precarious and several stories high.
So, I think that the historical comparisons are deeply informative about social technology as such. You can make generalizations on theories of social technology. You build up your theoretical knowledge of social tech from comparing societies in the same way you might build up your theories of physics by comparing results of different experiments. Or you might engage in thought experiments, like Einstein did, or a mix of philosophy and mathematics, as early physics did. In addition to the experiments, you might develop a body of knowledge. Of course, no one today would run almost the exact same experiments as, say, Galileo would have, but the laws discoverable by Galileo, or Newton, or Einstein—those can be applied to novel circumstances. So that’s what I would say: I don’t expect the same outcomes. I expect parts of the institutional landscape to be less affected by technological change, allowing us to figure them out, allowing us to figure out social theory, and allowing us ultimately to enter the variable of technology.
What would social theory predict happens in such an environment? An interesting example of this might be a book by the American historian Carroll Quigley, titled Weapon Systems and Political Stability, where he lays out a general theory for how technical changes to weapons systems impact which social structures are viable. And you can just as easily, in his theories, plug in the atomic bomb, as you might a bow and arrow, or as you might disperse mass drone warfare. Now, of course, the theory might be wrong, but there certainly is a matter of fact of how societies work.
I have a quick question from Henry: who are excellent thinkers on the fall of the Roman Empire?
That’s a difficult question. I feel like the Roman Empire is so charismatic in Western awareness. It’s almost a trauma. I think that in order to understand where these ideas of the Roman Empire come from, these ideas you might not even know that you hold, I would just recommend reading Gibbon. Edward Gibbon wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and he wrote this in the late 18th century. It’s very clear he’s writing it in order to try to make the British Empire different. You know, whenever you have a historian or social thinker talking about society, you have to ask what they are trying to do differently. If they’re doing their job, it’s not very disinterested, right? It’s very much interested. I think Gibbon is someone you just can’t skip. And after Gibbon, I think the thing to do is essentially read some of the more recent papers on Roman cities. These are unfortunately not books, but they’re very good archaeological papers on the scope of Roman cities. I’d read those, because so much of Roman history is urban history. And that’s the one thing where I think Gibbon is quite wrong.
We have another question from Nicholas: what do you think about Fukuyama’s thesis on the end of history? Will future institutions largely resemble those currently? Will we ever see the institutional diversity that occurred prior to the end of history? For example, before the end of the Cold War.
I feel like 1991 is almost as ancient as 1945 or 1918. At this point, a few years of history have happened in the last few months. I think we are not at the end of history. I do think we have a history deficit. So less has happened in the last 30 years than one might have expected, and we should probably be quite grateful for that. A lot of history is things going very badly, such as wars and disasters and so on. I think that, for a definition of ‘end of history’, the ancient Egyptians achieved the end of history in Fukuyama’s sense. Thousands of years of Bronze Age society existed with relatively stagnant cultural forms. That is a fact about our civilization. That is not a fact about the future of humanity. If the end of history has arrived, I think it might last for a very long time, but only as long as Western hegemony lasts. So, I disbelieve the end of history, basically. I think we have a particular packet of social technologies that fit snugly together, but I don’t think we’ve discovered the true human nature and re-derived the true political order out of it. And even Fukuyama himself wrote some books on biotechnology, where he acknowledges biotechnology throws all his assumptions out
We have strong interest from the community on the Egyptian civilization. Here’s one question from John: was the Bronze Age collapse preventable if Egypt and other major powers had acted differently in the decades before? Or was it practically inevitable?
I think it’s always avoidable, in principle. Now the problem is always that counterfactuals are difficult. And for Egypt, they weather it better than the Hittites or the Mycenaeans or the Minoans. They have some continuity of culture. But they stopped monumental construction and a lot of their cultural vitality goes away. In other words, they don’t build many new institutions. I think what happens in Egypt when it goes through the late Bronze Age collapse is rebellions, famines, and lots of stuff destroyed. But the central institutions of society kind of cannibalize some of the middle of society to sustain themselves. And once the crisis is over, you’re left with a relatively stagnant society. So, I think it was much more dynamic prior to the late Bronze Age collapse. They’re definitely affected by it deeply. They’re less affected by it than most.
Part of it seems to be military preparation for dealing with the Sea People invasions, which most historians now think are a consequence, rather than the cause of the collapse. As you see these collapses in Mycenaean world or the Hittite world, you have these giant movements of people, not too dissimilar from the movements of people during the so called barbarian invasions in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. Part refugee, part conqueror, they show up at your doorstep. And you know, the Egyptians proactively fought the Sea People raiders in Lebanon, and then a few years later in a naval battle near the Nile Delta. I think that without those military victories, the central institutions wouldn’t have preserved themselves. Had other societies taken those measures, they might have militarily preserved themselves.
Economically however, the best alternative might have been transition from bronze working to iron working. That was much faster, because bronze working was a fragile technology, requiring many points of contact with social technology rather than a few. It seems that iron working just requires an iron working caste. And it can be an extremely respected class or it can be a despised class—they exist as a despised class in ancient India, but there’s a privileged class in Japan. But for bronze working you also need very long-distance trade. It’s a mixture of mostly copper and tin—I think 90% copper, 10% tin. You can sometimes substitute arsenic, though that’s also toxic.
Tin was shipped to the Middle East from modern day Afghanistan and modern day Britain. These are remarkable distances, right? These are really serious trade expeditions and you’re running the whole economy on that when your key tools are made out of bronze. All your high-status objects and ritual objects are made out of it. The weapons are made out of it. So, I think their technology stack could have been simplified to be more robust. For a lot of uses, bronze is actually superior to iron, at least if you’re working it as iron rather than steel. In a way, it’s just that having less technological fragility would have been useful. Another important thing is that the knowledge structure of society could have been less fragile and less centralized. I think the requirements of political control—the so-called palace economies—made those economies very fragile.
I’m going to just say a few things about palace economies of the late Bronze Age. Basically, they were these large palatial complexes where tribute is collected. And sometimes the tribute is directly worked on. If you imagine something that’s not just the palace, but a factory, and you imagine the requirements of, you know, so many hides of sheep, so much wine, so much grain has to be brought in. It’s brought into rooms, and you visually inspect how much was brought into the rooms. You say okay, that’s fine, we’re not going to beat you up today, and here’s your pay. Then it goes from one room to another room and is reworked into a new shape. This new shape—it might be glass, it might be bronze weaponry—is then traded with ships that have arrived over the Mediterranean Sea and exchanged for goods that you don’t produce. Your palace ends up having both glass and bronze cups, and pottery, and all these other fine products, and you’re specializing in a small number of them. Political control and production control are really closely bound together.
I think the urban economies of the cities, and of city government, could have been done differently as well. This would have needed the introduction of some new social technologies though. So, creative social reform, creative technological reform, or better centralized preparation by a few of the states, rather than just Egypt, that happened to be lucky enough to receive warning of the collapses in Mycenae and the Hittite region a few years prior. They couldn’t have done much about the string of earthquakes or the drought that also coincided in this period.
Matthew asks for your thoughts on money as open software. Specifically, its debasement in empires over time, the role of reserve currencies, and any consequences of time preference.
That’s a very open-ended question. I’ll do my best to say something there. I think the debasement of currency is at least as interesting as the preservation of currency. The solidus, which was a gold coin in the late Roman Empire, was imitated and copied by numerous states for about 1000 years after the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s a standard of currency that survives the government that created it. There are also coins from the Abbasid Caliphate that were traded for 1000 years after the Abbasid Caliphate disappeared, some of them as late as the 19th century. You can also have standards that are enacted by centralized governments and don’t outlive those governments, and certainly the debasement of currency happens.
The key thing is that, as long as you have everyone in society relying on a monetary economy, you can find ways to track all financial transactions, or effectively tax by watering down the stores of value people have accumulated. The time preference aspect is that states that want a well-functioning economy and can afford to have it tend to historically prefer more pure metal currency, less debased currency. States that underwent crisis usually wanted to inflate currency. I also note that the very introduction of currency is a state action rather than a stateless action. So, I think that one of the big drivers for why you want to use coins in the first place is that when the taxman shows up, you want to pay it in gold. You don’t want to pay it in kind. It’s much harder to hide whether you have 10 sheep than to hide whether you have X or Y, or Z amount of coins. One of the big causes of peasant rebellions in Europe in the 16th century was that they demanded the return of traditional standards. The representatives of the feudal lords would go collect coins, like value in money, from the serfs. But of course, the introduction of New World silver, and to a lesser extent New World gold, reduced the value of silver and gold. This meant that in practice, they were paying less taxes. And this was reverted by the feudal lords to even older stuff, which was just a demand to be paid in kind. The peasants vigorously resisted this.
At times, you might want it to be the case that I pay my taxes in gold or silver dollars, because that’s actually a smaller tax burden than paying it in land. I think the big untold story of currency is the border between stuff that’s denominated in currency and stuff that isn’t denominated in currency. I think the effects of debasing currency on long-term thinking are often exaggerated, because people underestimate the great extent to which assets flee. Non-monetary stuff becomes more important. You start focusing on the land that you own or the buildings that you own, or the intangible sort of network of favors that you own. You stop denominating your economic transactions in money. And most economic transactions that now exist in a company could easily be handled by customary considerations rather than by accounting. The function of accounting is to make a company legible to outsiders, much more so than for internal planning. Though it’s one way to organize it, it’s not the only way to organize internal planning.
We have a question by G.T. Zhu: are there examples of people you can look to, or groups of people, who recognized collapse coming, and have rejuvenated a society or exited that society proactively? If there are, what would be common threats among those groups?
I think there’s a strong case to be made that the monastic communities of early Christianity were very much intentionally exiting city and urban life. As I said, Roman civilization was deeply urban and rested on this kind of Mediterranean market that was maintained by security architecture based on the legionary system. At its apex, it was maintained by the military dictatorship of the emperors. I think that this exit resulted in the monastics trying to make communities that were economically as self-sufficient as possible. The state of San Marino in modern day Italy claims descent from a monastic community where the founder, St. Marinus, said on his deathbed, “I leave you free from the dominion of two men.” And what this is usually interpreted to mean is the Pope and the Emperor. The idea is that this monastery was out of oversight of either of them. This is then something that the people of San Marino today are still proud of. So, those monastic communities fit the bill.
I think there’s an argument to be made that colonization waves are often the result of this trend. When we hear the term New England, we think about North America, right? We think about places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other earlier settlements. But you know, there’s a New England that used to exist in the Black Sea. After the Anglo Saxons were defeated by the Normans, a lot of them fled and settled in service to the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantine emperor would take on Anglo Saxon bodyguards, and then a lot of them settled in the northern region of the Black Sea. I’m just going to link this because this is such an interesting, obscure piece of history. They were eventually assimilated and lost. So medieval New England, there you have it.
There are lots of cases there of military defeats that cause an elite with enough of a general population to just flee a region. And this externally driven defeat, this resettlement, sometimes results in a revival of a society. I talked earlier about monastics exiting the urban society of Rome. Another example might be the Emperor Constantine, who moved the Roman capital to New Rome. New Rome, of course, is known as Constantinople. He founded a completely new city with a completely different set of noble families, rebuilt a forum, rebuilt a new economic base, and secured a better political position. That kind of move comes out of an awareness that the old regional center is dysfunctional, and that the old way of doing things doesn’t work.
There’s a long history of relatively farsighted rulers choosing to build a new city in order to escape people, in order to foster a completely different kind of elite. St. Petersburg in Russia today exists because Peter the Great wanted Russia to be a more European society, rather than an Asiatic Society. And he hired Italian architects, and Dutch ship makers, and German bureaucrats, and asked them to settle in a city built on a drain swamp, leaving the old boyars and the old Russian elites in Moscow, where they became increasingly irrelevant.
So, there’s an exit of the monastics, and there’s an exit of refugees fleeing, who sometimes conquer or create a new territory. Arguably the failure of reformation in America partially makes the pilgrims this type of semi-refugee civilization, or at least a subculture. You didn’t have centralized efforts to control it comparable to Peter the Great or Constantine, or to the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs such as Ramses III.
I think that farsightedness also exists among philosophers. Philosophers sometimes create philosophy cults that try to escape their society. Socrates is pretty much this. Pythagoras is another example. Confucius is an example. The Taoists are an example. The general contention of the Hundred Schools, if you go read Chinese history, is that the Late Zhao dynasty is in terminal decline. It’s broken up into many states, they’re fighting wars, the only thing the philosophers can do is radically rethink society. And then a number of these groups pop up, each with their own vision of what the world should be like. You have the Mohists, who are semi-monotheistic, but atheistic in practice. They espouse these utilitarian views that we should stop spending so much on funerary rites because the dead don’t really care. They’re pacifists, but their practical pacifists because they study siege engines. Their logic is that if siege engines are good enough, then wars will be over quickly. Eventually there’ll be a winner. That’s a very technology driven strategy. I’m surprised more people don’t read or know about the Mohists in modern Silicon Valley. Then there were the Confucians, who believed that the cultivation of personal virtue was very important. What had to happen was a re-grounding of the psychology of rulers. And once rulers had this state of mind and state of peace, and the scholars who assisted them also had it, it would trickle down into cultural change.
An interesting point, by the way, is that almost all societies are ultimately converted top-down when it comes to religious change. You usually need participation, or at least acquiescence, from the most powerful members of the society to reform it. So yeah, I think those would be the best examples: monastics, refugees, centralized reform, and then this sort of intellectual-philosophical cult, where the idea is that it provides a total explanation of society and the cosmos, and re-grounds the perceptions of people. Something that’s not tied to legacy institutions.
This can be also matched with religious reform. I disagree with Gibbon—I don’t think Christianity is the cause of Roman decline. I think it’s an adaptation to Roman decline. I think Christian cities were probably much more livable than late Roman pagan cities were, because the social life of the city was probably better regulated. But it’s an open question whether they were better regulated than say, the urban life of Athens. I think it’s important to remember that the Eleusinian Mysteries were in a way the Burning Man of their era, where almost all the Athenians would attend them. What’s the psychological effect of something like that? It seems pretty significant, and I bet it changes behavior through the course of the year. I don’t really have time to go into the details of that. But I think the philosophical-spiritual approach is surprisingly powerful, because different states of mind lend themselves to different human behaviors. And these different human behaviors have different scaling properties.
Patrick asks: your work often mentions the problem of succession. Adverse selection is a major problem in any mechanism of succession. The classic solution to adverse selection is sortition, which has the side effect of almost guaranteeing mediocrity. What would you think of a combination of sortition and standardized testing, where a partition is applied to the poor who scored in the 99th percentile, for example?
I think Goodhart’s law kills most systems of standardized testing. Goodhart’s law proposes that whenever a social measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a very good measure. I think the best way to look at this is the Chinese dynastic cycle, where the dynasties last about 200-300 years. There’s some exceptions like the Zhao, who last 500-600 years depending on how you count it.
Initially the new civil service exam is very good at selecting excellent people. And then 100 or 150 years later, the civil service exam hasn’t really changed. But all the people taking the civil service exam have changed. They’ve gamed it, right? They’ve learned very well how to pass the test and they study to the test, and their entire culture has shifted so as to study to the test. I note that for example, in your mention of the 99th percentile the assumption was something like IQ. I think the Flynn effect is usually interpreted as a genuine rise in human intelligence. In reality, the Flynn effect is the observed rise in IQ over the course of the 20th century in societies where you regularly measure people’s intelligence. It’s generally attributed to better nutrition. I have a more cynical explanation: perhaps it’s a graph of how over the course of the 20th century, the IQ test started off as a decent measure of intelligence but became a worse and worse measure of intelligence, because the culture as a whole shifted to an improved ability to take tests and do abstract disembodied reasoning rather than embodied practical situational reasoning. So perhaps the psychological malaise where we know how to discuss everything, but we have an immense difficulty in doing anything—and we seem to need cocaine and Adderall and coffee and alcohol to do anything at all—well, perhaps that’s coming out of the same pot that’s causing us to be very good at IQ tests.
So, the standardized testing part is something I’m relatively skeptical of. I think it can be a marvelous tool. But I think you basically have to just throw out all your assumptions about standardized testing every 80 or 100 years, no matter how well-designed it is. It’s always measuring correlates, not the thing itself. You know, it’s a fact of the human being that if you try to carry out a psychological experiment, and the participants know it’s a psychological experiment, then the results will be very different from if they had not known. If you put people into the most advanced combat simulation you can imagine versus actual combat, they will behave differently if they’re aware it’s a simulation. And the same goes for intellectual productivity under different circumstances and character and so on.
I think sortition has some very interesting features. I think that testing plus an element of sortition would have been a great thing to implement in say 1970, at a lower stage of cultural or bureaucratic decay. But I think that the overall intellectual focus of people today is too narrow to have sortition function well. Sortition works very well in a space where people have varied interests and varied competencies instead of very narrow competencies. And right now, we’re very much built into narrow competencies. I hope that answers the question. One of my favorite mechanisms, by the way, is succession by adoption. I wrote an article on how Roman Emperors handled the succession problem. The five good Emperors hand-picked their own successors.
Bonnie asks: do you believe that the United States is in a process of civilizational collapse right now, and what can be done to help people stop that collapse?
No, I think collapse is in the eye of the beholder. I certainly find it very likely that the US has some equivalent of 1% decline per year. And the compounding gains can be absolutely brutal. But you know, whatever graph you choose to pick, it’s always like a very squiggly line. So there could be a reform of some basics. That would include rebooting academia and city government, and a restructuring of key federal bureaucracies, and integration of social media in a non-toxic way.
Basically, this kind of more advanced approach to education, that focuses on the sort of most outlier groups you can find—and we realized that bigger is not always better when it comes to knowledge—if we handle all of those things, I think the US could easily have another period of explosive growth of economic and social and cultural creativity in the 21st century. I usually think that it’s an open question whether the biggest economy in the world in 2060 will be China or if it will be the United States again. However, I think that in 2030 or 2040 the biggest economy in the world will be China. So the US is enduring some absolute decline, and it is also enduring relative decline. And the way to resolve either of those is to undertake some fixes in those areas. I’m not very attached to what the fixes are. If you look at my public body of work, I like looking at it through the lens of functionality. I don’t really have strong preconceptions of what will fix things. I’m just saying that these areas have to be fixed.
Henry asks the flip side of that question: what are the key pillars of a society like the American society? What are the primary things that keep it from collapsing?
Well, there’s corrective systems, and there’s pillars. Since the Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War, the federal government has become immensely symbolically important to Americans. So, while there is a deep tradition of limited government, I think the very pageantry of the White House, and the importance of the capital, or something like Congress or the Supreme Court is immensely, immensely important. WWII is clearly an example of something that’s won by the federal government. Perhaps it was not existential for the US, but it was certainly existential for Europe.
Another important thing is that the US is very good at integrating refugees from failed societies. By refugees, I mean something like intellectual refugees. Again, WWII is a good example, or the collapse of the Soviet Union and the massive amount of technical talent that flew from the former Soviet space to the United States, often right here to San Francisco in California. And before that, there was the failed revolution of 1848 in Central Europe. A lot of those activists and cultural workers and creatives left the German space and settled in North America. So, I think the US is extremely good at integrating high achievers and exceptional individuals into society. I think that’s another pillar, actually.
I have to emphasize that it’s different from say, Ellis Island, though it’s related. Ellis Island is mass immigration of workers that are very useful to run an industrial economy. It’s not that dissimilar from say, immigration from Italy into France in the 19th century. Today, I think, in modern France nearly 10% of people are descended from Italian immigrants into France, who are completely assimilated. So, I think America’s migration pillar is actually on the exceptional end of immigration. It’s the ability of Einstein to be remembered more as an American rather than a German. That’s a very strong advantage. So, I think that actually is a pillar. I think the US is better at utilizing exceptional talent and fostering it. It can foster some, certainly, but it just does okay. It’s not clear it does better per capita than say, Sweden. Though certainly it utilizes all the talent it has much better than Sweden does, or much better than Britain does. A lot of the pillars of American society are very similar to the general generic pillars of Western society. They’re also somewhat similar to pillars of all modern societies but come in a greater variety. So that’s not only Western societies, but places like Japan.
I think that the industrial process is very important. From about 1900 to 1950, the US was best known for Fordism: this ability to build massive, wonderful manufacturing facilities that integrated all aspects of production into a single optimized system. Everyone was impressed. Everyone tried to copy it. A lot of Soviet espionage was focused less on exceptionally charismatic things such as the nuclear weapons. Often the spying just amounted to the labor plan in GM or the factory layout in a plant. I think that capacity still exists. I think it’s a little bit in trouble, so possibly there needs to be something done to revive it.
I think another great advantage is that Americans, relative to previous military powers, are both very good at being missionaries and very good at being salesmen. I think these are connected. And I think the pedagogical role of the salesman is often underestimated because the salesman is often teaching someone in a very short amount of time how to interact with an object that they’ve never seen. So, a lot of American cultural change in activity is actually introduced through marketing. Ironically, marketing has now received a negative connotation. But consider that the idyllic life in 1950s America, rather than stemming from deep traditional values, actually stems from a Sears catalog, and the images of the Sears catalog. The fact that it worked so well, at least according to many measures, is a testament to the Sears catalog. So that’s another one.
And I think relatively high religiosity means that the default social fabric that people are working with is relatively thick. The lack of a unified religion means that the official ideology and religion of American society is rather amorphous, which at its best lends itself to a deep pragmatism. And at its worst, it lends itself to an anti-systematizing nature—something that’s not too predisposed for rigorous questioning or synthesis. At worst it leads to inconsistency and sloppiness; at best it leads to pragmatism, because the civic ideology of society has to be a compromise of the current composition.
I think America straightforwardly represents a big civilizational advance over Europe in the following way: it solved the wars of religion problem without needing to be politically fragmented. In Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Catholics and all the different types of Protestants were killing each other very vigorously. And the Thirteen Colonies were not killing each other very vigorously. Europe solved this by a Westphalian system where the different countries are actually completely independent. But this still leaves a war of states, even though it eliminates wars of religion. North America is geopolitically unified, despite some religious diversity. So that sort of ability for the coexistence of different religions is fascinating and very important. Certainly it’s not the only society to have achieved something like that. You had religiously diverse societies, like the Romans we talked about. The Romans mostly achieved this by pretending that all the local gods are just different names for Roman gods. And I think, perhaps that’s the way to interpret the idea that the rest of the world is like America, it’s just trying to do things differently. It’s a little bit delusional on the side of the Romans to think all the local gods are just aspects of Roman gods, and it’s a little bit arrogant, but it works super well. And I think it’s a little bit delusional and a little bit arrogant to say everyone around the world aspires to live the American way. But it’s very effective to believe that and it’s also partially true. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Well, we are at time for this evening. Samo, are there any last words you’d like to say on this topic before we move into some final housekeeping notes?
Well, great questions. It’s very difficult to answer such broad questions. I focused a lot on how hard it is to know things because I wanted to preface and bound what I was willing to say, what I feel confident in saying. I’ve been studying this question of how and why civilizations collapse, and how they revive themselves for 10 years. I suspect I’ll study it for another 40 years, through whatever institutional framework makes sense, through whatever organizations. I think that it is less useful to prepare for a collapse personally, or as a society, than it is to actively and vigorously pursue the things that make a society dynamic and adaptive. If you vigorously pursue the things that make a society adaptive and dynamic, then not only will you survive, you’ll thrive, and thriving is a much better way of surviving.
I understand that pessimism is very easy to center on. The collapse side of it feels almost like a release. But note that the end of a particular mood, or way of being, or culture—this kind of collapse or apocalypse of the social system—does not need to be tied to the collapse or end of a physical system. A society might change and give way to something better or something different without that many people dying, and without that much material stuff going away. A lot of the fascination with collapse comes out of a deep and genuine and often well-justified need and desire for change. So, whenever I see a society that does entertain apocalyptic fantasies about itself, it’s not actually usually on the edge of collapse. It’s often on the edge of a radical social change. And since human beings don’t live directly in nature, we live in a social world, there’s a social layer between us and nature. We’re not like a sea turtle that hatches and, without any instruction from parents or a community, we swim out into the ocean. I think we rely on this world. So intuitively, the change of the social world feels like the end of the world, but it isn’t. It’s just the end of the social world as we knew it.
I think what I would encourage is, well, if we are all interested in collapse, let’s investigate what change of the social world we’re seeking. Let’s try to build that next iteration of it—the whole stack, straight up from small communities, to economic production, to political governance. Let’s think about it. And let’s use the best of American pragmatism to figure out what the next 50 years of America looks like. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Samo. We have a ton of questions we were unable to get to this evening. Thank you so much. Thank you, everyone.
Thank you very much for organizing this.
Great evening everyone. Stay safe.