Why Civilizations Collapse

by | August 19, 2020

From my article in The Side View.

Why do civilizations collapse? This question bears not only on safeguarding our society’s future but also makes sense of our present. The answer relies on some of the same technē that humanity needed to build civilization in the first place: we have to evaluate the perceptions that mint facts and theory, not merely peruse the body of theories handed down to us.

Institutional failure comes as a surprise because organizations try to hide their shortcomings. They lean on other, more functional organizations in order to keep up appearances. During civilizational collapse, no organization can properly hide its own inadequacy, since the whole interdependent ecosystem of institutions is caving in on itself. States, religions, material technologies, and ways of life that once seemed self-sustaining turn out to have been dependent on the invisible subsidy of just a few key institutions. The environment of societal collapse reveals much of the otherwise obscured inner workings of crucial social technologies. After all, to analyze something is to break it apart!

Despite being an excellent epistemic opportunity, civilizational collapse seldom inspires introspection among thinkers living through it. Mayan or Roman thinkers don’t seem to have reflected on their ongoing collapse. As institutions turn to cannibalizing each other, there is little patronage or emotional energy going towards accurately describing the wider process. The notable exception that proves the rule of civilizational delusion is the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China. It is an encouraging example, since it shows a societal failure arrested and reversed by an intellectual golden age called the Hundred Schools of Thought. Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism could only come into being with this kind of epistemic opportunity.

In the West today, we operate under the influence of our own key philosophy, which we can call scientism: the tendency to rely on scientific claims to describe the functioning of society, even when there is no empirical reason to assume that they apply. We act as if we are already living in a scientifically-planned society, immune to collapse on a time scale that any of us have to worry about. This is very far from the truth. We are certainly living in socially-engineered societies, but they are not scientifically planned in any straightforward way. Our organs of economic management do not secretly know how the economy really works. Our systems of political regulation are operating on the fumes of their institutional inheritance from two or three generations ago—the last spurt of institutional growth in Western societies happened roughly during the 1970s. At this time in the United States, new federal bodies such as the Department of Energy and Education were created and organizations such as NASA reached their modern form. Concurrently, the United Kingdom dispensed with organized labor as a political force in favor of an expanded administrative apparatus, and France saw the resignation of Charles de Gaulle, the architect of the Fifth Republic; neither country’s political economy has evolved much since.
Civilizational collapse always looms on the horizon. Though we usually think of collapse as a slow process, it can in fact happen very quickly, as was the case with the Late Bronze Age collapse. The old dictum “gradually, then suddenly” is cliché, but accurate. To ascertain whether or not we are headed for collapse, we must first analyze the functionality of our own society and pinpoint where things go wrong.

Mechanisms of Collapse

Our society is dominated by large bureaucracies. These bureaucracies break down the processing of physical goods and information into discrete tasks, such as how a factory worker puts doors on a car, or a stock trader buys futures contracts. These tasks are shorn of their context and executed in a systematized environment whose constraints are quite narrow: put the car door in, increase the portfolio value. Our society is thoroughly compartmentalized. This compartmentalization isn’t driven by the division of labor, but rather by the need to make use of misaligned talent without empowering it. By radically limiting employees’ scope of action, you make office politics more predictable. By fragmenting available knowledge, you can leverage information asymmetries to the intellectual or material advantage of the center. Some of this is necessary for scaling organizations beyond what socially connected networks can manage—but move too far towards compartmentalization, and it becomes impossible to accomplish the original mission of the organization.

Such large bureaucratic systems do not emerge organically; they require design and implementation. Empirically, we can know this simply by examining the intent of the original founders of these systems. If you want to know, say, why the FBI exists, you can find the answer in the documents of its founder, J. Edgar Hoover.  You could do the same for the IRS, or for Amazon, or for any other number of institutions.

It is very difficult, though, to apply this analysis to the construction of society. No matter how large or how small, institutions always coexist in a symbiotic relationship with other institutions. There is no Amazon without the United States government, no U.S. government without—at least—some parts of the U.S. economy. Each of these institutions depends on the others in an intricate mesh. Society is not a single institution, after all, but an ecosystem of interdependent institutions.

In addition to this complexity, non-functional institutions are the rule. Our institutions today rarely function in accordance with their stated purpose. Individuals within a given society are often very bad at judging institutional functionality. Some people spend their entire lives ruthlessly profiting from the misery of others, or greatly contributing to the prosperity of others, without even knowing that they are doing so. People who try to effect change are most often frustrated. Countless people spend their lives wrestling with a societal problem, slaving over papers for publication in academia or the nonprofit world. They act as if there is some sort of metaphorical wall which they throw their papers over, with some responsible person on the other side taking the output of their disinterested scientific study and translating it into policy, medical practice, or industrial production.

More often than not, there is nobody on the other side of that wall. Since society is so deeply compartmentalized, it rarely functions as a whole with a single purpose. Note that dysfunctionality is not a normative distinction; it often boils down to the simple reality of whether or not anyone ever follows up on key actions within the institution. It is also a question of whether or not there is a multiplier—be it individual, bureaucratic, oligarchic—behind that metaphorical wall.

Institutions often become non-functional due to the loss of key knowledge at critical junctures. Take, for example, the recent failure of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to reproduce a niche classified material known as FOGBANK that is necessary for manufacturing nuclear weapons. It took the NNSA ten years and millions of dollars to re-engineer a material that their staff in the 1980s knew how to make. That knowledge never should have been lost in the first place, but in a dysfunctional society, such loss of knowledge becomes the rule. Attempts at reverse engineering do not always succeed, if they are even made.


Read the rest here.