This is how civilisations collapse


Last week, in an attempt to explain away the supply chain woes that are increasingly leading to goods shortages in America, President Biden cited a popular neoliberal fable. He observed that to make a pencil, wood and graphite must be sourced from the other ends of the world before the finished product can end up in American hands. “It sounds silly, but that’s exactly how it happens,” Biden mused, “that’s just the nature of the modern economy.” But the result, he added, is that “when global disruptions hit… it can hit supply chains particularly hard”.

For neoliberal ideologues such as Milton Friedman, who used the pencil fable to argue for opaque world-spanning supply chains, the beauty of such complex systems is not only that the consumer obtains his product at the lowest price possible, and that the producer can maximise his profits, “but even more to foster harmony and peace among the peoples of the world”. As the historian Quinn Slobodian noted in Globalists, his recent study of the first neoliberal theorists, such idealistic motivations were evident from the very start. Ignoring the fact that the globalised world of the late 19th century failed to prevent World War One, they believed that creating a giant interconnected market would make a repeat of such a cataclysm impossible.

They were wrong. Instead, the restructuring of the global economy into a large web vastly increases the risk of a total system collapse. Instead of one economy failing, a shock in one corner of the world can place great and sudden stress on economic and political systems thousands of miles away. A war in distant Taiwan can mean you’re no longer able to buy a new car; a drought on the other end of the world means empty shelves at home.

As archaeologists and historians have increasingly begun to stress, our globalised world has seen two antecedents in the past: in the interconnected, hyper-specialised trading systems of the Bronze Age, and those of the Roman Empire at its height. When both buckled under a wave of unexpected shocks, the result was not decline or recession but total collapse, a process defined by the great theorist Joseph Tainter as “fundamentally a sudden, pronounced loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity”.

This is, as Tainter observes, “a suddenly smaller, simpler, less stratified, and less socially differentiated” society, where “the flow of information drops, people trade and interact less” and “specialization decreases and there is less centralized control”.  This is not a Spenglerian moral fable of societal decline, but an inexorable process whereby growing complexity and sophistication bring with them a growing fragility: when a combination of shocks arrive, the entire society is suddenly forced to reorganise itself. It is not an extinction event or the end of the world: life goes on, just in a poorer, simpler fashion.

The great trading civilisations of the Bronze Age Mediterranean present just such an example. As the archaeologist Eric H. Cline notes in his recently reissued book 1177 BC, for more than two thousand years the great civilisations of Egypt, Western Asia and the Aegean had formed a single interconnected trading system, dependent on complex trading networks that “were open to instability the minute there was a change in one of the integral parts”.

When crisis struck, shortly after 1200 BC, it took down all the civilisations of the Bronze Age Mediterranean simultaneously. As Cline notes, “perhaps the inhabitants could have survived one disaster, such as an earthquake or a drought, but they could not survive the combined effects of earthquake, drought, and invaders all occurring in rapid succession”. A “domino effect” followed, in which, thanks to the globalised nature of their world,  “the disintegration of one civilisation led to the fall of the others”.

The collapse of Roman civilisation, a product of an overextended, underfinanced empire weakened by internal feuding among its political elites, presents another apposite example. As the archaeologist Bryan Ward-Perkins emphasised in his 2005 book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation, the most remarkable aspect of Roman civilisation, archaeologically speaking, was the ability of even the poorest members of society to afford cheap and high-quality consumer goods, enabled by immense specialisation in production and an interconnected trading network that spanned the entire empire. 

Yet after Rome collapsed, such goods were only available for the very richest members of society. In the production of ceramics, the use of coinage and the construction of stone buildings, the Western half of the empire suddenly sank back to a level of societal complexity lower than in Iron Age prehistory, not returning to a Roman level of sophistication until the later Middle Ages. And indeed, as Ward-Perkins warns, the Roman economy’s complexity was the precise reason its collapse was so total: “economic complexity made mass-produced goods available, but it also made people dependent on specialists or semi-specialists — sometimes working hundreds of miles away — for many of their material needs.” While this worked well in times of stability, it precipitated collapse when trade routes were disrupted.

Like Friedman, or Biden, Ward-Perkins observes that today “we are wholly dependent for our needs on thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, of other people spread around the globe, each doing their own little thing”. Yet he draws a very different conclusion about the desirability of this situation, noting that now “we would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency”.

Yet of course, even as they were living through its early stages, the Romans were unaware their society was collapsing. Yes, goods were harder to come by, infrastructure was increasingly degraded, urban life was increasingly unsettled, economic growth was only a memory, and new religions boomed as people tried to make sense of their declining prospects. But even still, the military failures on the empire’s eastern fringes barely impacted life in the imperial centre. For some people, great profits could still be made: for most, things went on much as before, though with a lower standard of living with each passing year. No doubt, things will improve soon, Romans told themselves: this is only a temporary blip.

The theorist of collapse John Michael Greer dates the beginning of the collapse of our own society in the economic crisis of the mid-1970s, which drove deindustrialisation in both the United States and Britain and initiated the erosion of state capacity in search of ever-harder to accumulate profits, hoarded by oligarchs even as it destroyed the tax base. This is the process of what Greer terms “catabolic collapse” — “the stairstep sequence of decline” where decades of crisis are followed by decades of seeming improvement, though the underlying society is left weaker and less resilient before the next crisis hits: “rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.”

This gloomy view accords well with the Marxist theorist Wolfgang Streeck’s 2016 analysis that the post-1970s crisis of capitalism, accelerated by the 2008 financial crash, has led us into a period of civilisational entropy and decay. For him, we experience “life in the shadow of uncertainty, always at risk of being upset by surprise events and unpredictable disturbances and dependent on individuals’ resourcefulness, skillful improvisation, and good luck”. It is a period where the state can no longer guarantee its citizens order or security, where “deep changes will occur” in an unpredictable fashion, and where every last effort to squeeze profit out of a collapsing system further undermines the social structure.

For Streeck, this interregnum is a time when personal wealth dwindles and financial insecurity becomes the norm. Indeed, as Streeck observes, it is a period where “as growth declines and risks increase, the struggle for survival will become more intense”. It offers “rich opportunities to oligarchs and warlords while imposing uncertainty and insecurity on all others, in some ways like the long interregnum that began in the fifth century CE and is now called the Dark Age”. It is not a vision of hell, or of the kind of apocalypse fantasised by Hollywood, but simply of a degraded version of the present: a world closer to the modern Global South than our recent past. It is not necessarily a sudden cataclysm, but a process that will take decades, perhaps even centuries, to fully reveal itself.

Neither Rome nor the civilisations of the Bronze Age Mediterranean were brought down by one single cause. It took the combination of climate change, elite rivalry, military disaster and migratory pressures, combined with the extreme fragility engendered by economic specialisation and tightly-knit international trading networks, to ensure that when collapse came, it was total. As Ward-Perkins warns, Rome’s system of complex supply chains “worked very well in stable times, but it rendered consumers extremely vulnerable if for any reason the networks of production and distribution were disrupted”.

The belated efforts of governments across the world to secure fragile supply chains and enhance food security are the refutation, in action, of the fable of the pencil. As Tainter notes, “the whole concern with collapse and self-sufficiency may itself be a significant social indicator” of decline. A focused effort on domestic resilience is, after all, in itself evidence of reduced civilisational complexity: as trade routes wither and consumption begins to drop, we should strive to ensure that we are heading towards a controlled descent and not a sudden, cataclysmic crash. The imperial centre may not hold, but our lives must go on.