Longtime readers know that some of the things I commonly write about are the topics of demographic-structural theory (DST) and the collapse of complex societies. Especially in recent years, these are perennially relevant subjects for discussion due to our currently being in the collapse phase of our present secular cycle. Indeed, the entire planet is essentially in that same position. Thus, I feel that it’s wise to study up on the subject so that we might have an inkling of what to expect moving forward.
With this in mind, I’d like to take the opportunity to do something which I haven’t done on my blogs for quite a while, which is to write a (multi-part) book review – or more appropriately, a chapter review of the introductory chapter of a book that discusses the collapse and regeneration of complex historical social systems. This book is After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies, edited by Glenn Schwartz (who also wrote the introduction), which I read about a year and a half ago.
The book itself essentially consists of a number of academic conference presentations which were adapted to book format. Personally, I like this type of layout though I realise that it may not be everybody’s cup of tea. So I read it for you all so that you don’t have to (you’re welcome). Because each of the succeeding chapters are essentially cultural-regional specific applications of the principles discussed in the introductory chapter, I’m limiting the review to this first chapter so as not to be overly repetitive. This work takes a cross-cultural approach to collapse and regeneration, – the various chapters deal with societies from across the ancient Near East, Europe, the far East, and ancient Mesoamerica – which drives home the point that these phenomena are universal in their application. Of course, each society had their own peculiar manifestations of these collapses and regenerations, but these are merely variations within a theme. It appears to be a universal of human civilisation that once a certain level of complexity is reached, these cycles of decay and rebirth come into play.
So let’s begin by laying out some fundamental premises. Right out of the gate, Schwartz starts by essentially describing processual archaeology, which was a paradigm within archaeology that originated in the late 1950s with the work of Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips,
This approach replaced the earlier “Indiana Jones” methodology which emphasised finding artifacts and uncovering ancient cities, but rarely tried to fit ancient societies into a coherent evolutionary order. Processual archaeology sought to remedy this by trying to turn archaeology into anthropology, moving the focus from the physical manifestations of ancient societies to their sociopolitical development. You may be familiar with the standard “troop —> tribe —> chiefdom —> state” formula that regularly appears in the literature. Now as it turns out, this sort of progressive evolutionary assumption is a gross oversimplification, but like many oversimplifications it seems plausible at first glance. Overturning it, however, is one of the raisons d’etre for this book.
I was first exposed to the processual archaeological paradigm while reading some of Elman R. Service’s works (Primitive Social Organisation, Origins of the State and Civilisation). At the time, as I said, the progressive “ever moving upward” assumption seemed plausible. But like other beliefs that essentially rest on left-wing cultural assumptions (and we should always understand that these infect everything they touch, not merely the strictly political realm), it is ultimately unrealistic. It’s not surprising to find out that Elman Service fought on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, which jibes with the progressive underpinnings of his later approach to archaeology/anthropology.
The “new approach” explored in this book is a needed correction for the erroneous assumptions made by processual archaeology. It’s not surprising that this new approach began to appear right around the time that broad-based multidisciplinary investigations into chaotic/complex phenomena started to take off, centered around think tanks like the Santa Fe Institute.
As it turns out, the rise and fall of complex societies is itself a complex phenomenon. Thus, it simply makes sense to approach the study of them through the lenses of feedback mechanisms, fragility, and resilience. And just as much as societies rise and increase in complexity, for various particularly unpredictable yet generally self-similar reasons (implying that there are some strange attractors involved in all of this), they also fall and decrease in complexity. There is so much to learn about society, human civilisation, and allied topics by examining how and why they collapse just as much as how they originate and grow.
As I will be observing at various points throughout this series, the cyclical understanding of civilisational rise and fall meshes quite well with the demographic-structural theory presented by Jack Goldstone, Peter Turchin, and others.
At the risk of sounding like a Turchin fanboi, this book was published in 2006, which was right around the time that Turchin started shifting into his cyclical theory mode. This likely explains the lack of reference to his work (which didn’t yet exist) on demographic-structural theory.
As such, applying DST as an “interpretive lens” for the discussion of collapse and regeneration through the rest of this chapter and this series seems to me to make sense. Coupled with the use of complexity theory, we have a powerful tool for approaching these questions in a more serious way than evolutionary, processual approaches offered.
In doing so, let’s not forget that collapse is not the only part of this cycle, though it tends to be the part that gets all the attention.
This is an eminently sensible and indeed fundamentally necessary approach. As any student of history knows, societies, polities, empires which fall don’t simply disappear into the aether. Something always takes their place – and the study of what that something is forms the purpose of this work. Let’s not forget – this isn’t merely theoretical. As we see the United States (and indeed, the world) approaching the endpoint of the current secular cycle, the question of “What will take the place of the present American state?” becomes one with a great deal of relevance. After all, only in extremely rare cases do complex societies truly disappear without some kind of regeneration taking place afterward, unless interrupted by some kind of outside context problem.
So ultimately, we can be almost assured that there will be a collapse of the present order, though what this particularly will look like may not be as predictable. It will most likely involve decentralisation, though with uniquely American flavour. However, knowing some of the general tendencies of previous cycles will help us to not only understand what is going on, but also might give us some ideas as to how to engineer the regeneration into directions our side might prefer.
Having laid the conceptual groundwork given above, our next installment in this series will discuss what exactly collapse is and what exactly regeneration is, and how these are affected by social elites and their sociopolitical policies.