Chapter Review – After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies (Part 3)

Part 1 Part 2

In the previous installment of this series, I covered some of the concepts associated with collapse as they relate to demographic-structural theory (DST), as well as what might be expected after collapse. In this article I’d like to discuss the effect of several external factors as they impinge upon the process of secular cycles and collapse. These factors include migration, invasion, and trade networks – all things that involve “outsiders” or “the other” as they relate to a polity or civilisation.

The western Roman Empire is the prototypical example of collapse and regeneration, to be sure. It is probably the single most well-documented ancient collapse, and the psychological impact that it had on those who followed it was profound.

After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies, Ed. G.M. Schwartz, p. 7

It is also one of the best examples of the various types of “diversity” and how they can affect the course of a secular cycle, on both the collapse and regeneration sides. How does the introduction of different ethnies, in many cases some which are radically different from the host society, influence the complex, non-linear responses that characterise collapse and regeneration.

But when we talk about the Roman Empire at any point in its imperial phase with respect to “Romans” versus “foreigners,” we need to understand that there are several different contexts that come into play. Even though Rome is the “ur example,” much of what I’ll say below applies to other large historical empires as well. With Rome, you saw elite cooptation, mass incorporation via conquest, and mass migration by outside ethnies.

First, there is the type of diversity that occurs when an empire coopts provincial and migrant elites. Elite Roman society actually did a marvelous job of integrating these types of elites into their system of Romanitas. Keep in mind that much of Rome’s imperial history involved the incorporation of alien peoples into its ever-growing zone of political control (as is, obviously, the case for most historical empires). Early on, the Romans had developed various political and social techniques for turning foreign elites into provincial Roman elites – people who were not only tied to Rome in a mercenary financial sense, but who were genuinely acculturated to elite Roman society. Hierarchical Roman society provided the sort of social permeability that allowed upwardly-mobile provincial elites to integrate into the larger cultural complex.

Coupled to this was how Rome dealt with the second type of diversity in their empire, which would be the great masses of provincial non-elites that were incorporated by force into the Empire. Rome dealt with this by (largely) taking a hands-off approach to conquered peoples at the local level. As long as you paid your taxes and obeyed the Emperor, you were probably going to be alright. There was a strong tendency towards allowing provincial non-elites to continue their own modes of society where those did not directly conflict with Roman control. It was only in a relatively few cases (e.g. the Jews, the southern druidic Britons, etc.) where an intractable provincial population required more “robust” measures to be taken. Multiethnic empires can be surprising stable, from a DST perspective, provided they follow this “a place for everybody” model in which the imperial nation acts as an “aristoclade” toward the subordinate groups (something also seen with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empires, for example).

The third type of diversity, of course, is the most destructive. It’s natural, of course, that any prosperous and advanced society is going to have what other people want. Many times, those other people are going to try to move en masse to take the things that they want. And that’s what happened to Rome. The limes were able to hold off barbarians all around the Empire, from the Rhine to the Danube to the Atlas Mountains, for centuries. But the steadily increasing pressure over time, as entire tribes and people-groups began to enter the Empire in massive amounts, overwhelmed the ability of the integrative system to handle the flood of people who weren’t really interested in being coopted. Coupled with other DST collapse tendencies that acted synergistically with this flow (or more properly, created the weaknesses that allowed the flow to get going in earnest), the stability of the system finally reached its terminal “Seneca point.”

Ultimately, even in Rome diversity was not actually their strength.

Of these three things, the first two are not necessarily socially degradative, and in some instances can even be stabilising. Giving different ethnic groups their own space reduces friction and bringing in local elites gives their commons populations a greater sense that they have a stake in the overarching system (hey, we’ve got representation!). However, when those principles are abandoned, as they increasingly were during the collapse phases of the last two Roman secular cycles (say, from ~190-280 AD and ~375-500 AD, respectively), then the opposite happens. During collapse, coopting foreign ethnic elites stops being about bringing these people into the larger overall system in such a way as to acculturate them to it and instead becomes about using these elites to swing their client peoples into one factional direction or another, which simply contributes to destabilising tendencies already found with increased intraelite competition.

Further, in both cases Roman officials cut off many avenues of advancement for local notables while also engaging in heavy-handed taxation and recruitment practices that accelerated provincial discontent by, among other things, undermining local ethnic autonomy (something which, ironically, Caracalla’s extension of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire in 212 AD helped to accelerate – it just put everyone on the hook for more taxation and conscription). Couple this with the ethnocultural differences that already existed and we can see why these periods were characterised by secular-driven attempts at decentralisation (Gallic breakaways, Odenathus/Zenobia creating the short-lived Palmyrene empire, etc.) and heterodox religious and social movements usually spearheaded by non-Greco-Roman ethnicities (Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, etc.).

The Empire managed to survive the first of these collapse phases (that of the Principate) with its territory and governing system largely intact and underwent its next period of regeneration beginning with Diocletian’s reign. The second collapse, of the Dominate, saw the much more permanent damage to the Empire of which every student of western European history is aware. It was into this latter mix of civil unrest and civil wars between elite aspirants that the third kind of diversity, that of large-scale “immigration” (which becomes “invasion” especially when dealing with very culturally different ethnies). Large scale migration (often armed incursions) into the western Empire, mostly by various Germanic groups, applied additional stress (which wasn’t present in the Principate’s collapse phase) that led to a much more destructive terminal collapse. “Immigrants” who refuse to integrate, or who come in large enough numbers as to be unintegratable, are a whole different ballgame and create an especially dangerous kind of diversity problem that nearly always destabilises sociopolitical systems.

This is, of course, exactly what we’re seeing in the USA and other western countries today. Post-1965 mass immigration has not been socially invigourating at all (neither has it really been economically, but that’s a different argument for another day). There are a number of reasons for this which, incidentally, also invalidate efforts to compare it to pre-1924 mass immigration. 19th century immigration included a much greater proportion of immigrants from culturally more similar European countries who were more easily assimilated. In the 19th century the USA also still had a large open frontier which could absorb greater numbers of immigrants and provide them opportunities without distorting the already existing social patterns. Just as important, however, was the expectation that pre-1924 immigrants would assimilate, and indeed were actively assimilated via patronage networks of various types.

Post-1964 immigration, on the other hand, is much more culturally different, intrudes into a stagnant, crystallised socioeconomic system that can’t make room for them without displacing the natives, and includes an element of social fragmentation and self-interested ethnic elites who actively contribute to social dysfunction. Further, this immigration is increasingly taking on the appearance of genuine armed incursions, due to the crime, violence, and cartelisation taking place in areas with large numbers of immigrants.

So from a DST perspective, collapse phases in secular cycles seem to be mitigated when efforts are made to regulate immigration of foreign elements into a polity (or to regulate interactions between extant “foreign” populations and the imperial government in multiethnic empires). Conversely, when mass immigration is tolerated and assimilation not actively pursued, the decentralising effects of collapse are worsened and/or made more permanent. Immigration, itself, doesn’t seem to “drive” the overall secular cycling (which is dependent upon numerous complex, non-linear phenomena), but can act to gear it up or down.

Now I’d like to discuss the other external factor that can influence a polity’s secular cycles of collapse and regeneration – trade. Once again I’ll refer to the western Roman and post-Roman situations as examples that apply more broadly to any large polity or civilisational unit. Henri Pirenne introduced a thesis that was, for its time, very controversial in which he tied the disappearance (and subsequent reappearance) of long-distance trade networks in western Europe to the collapse and regeneration of complexified, centralised societies in this region,

After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies, Ed. G.M. Schwartz, p. 7

I believe there is a good deal of merit in Pirenne’s theories, at least on the regeneration side of the coin. Obviously, the initial collapse of the western Empire in the 5th century AD was due to the multiple armed incursions made by various Germanic groups. But there really was a surprising amount of regeneration that took place during the rise and floruit of the Merovingian Frankish empire in the 6th-7th centuries AD. It is also not coincidental that collapse came to this dynasty not long after the end of widespread Mediterranean trade networks caused by the Muslim conquests in North Africa and Spain.

Further, the rise of both the Carolingian dynastic empire and then that of Wessex to unify England took place concurrently with this revival of trade in western Europe. Certainly, both of those states rose primarily due to the unifying effects of metaethnic fault lines which saw them facing off with very different, and hostile, foreign peoples (Muslims in Spain for the Carolingians, Vikings in the Danelaw for the Anglo-Saxons). Yet, trade networks acted to strengthen and expand these revivals beyond what they might perhaps have looked like otherwise. As we saw with immigration above, while this access or lack thereof to trade doesn’t drive the cycles of collapse and regeneration, there seems to be an exacerbating effect.

This makes sense. Trade – to be useful to ancient rulers – needed to be taxed, and to be taxed it needed to be centralised into conveniently located places where this could take place and be controlled in a standardised way, an early example of the “tyranny of technical society.” Taxation carries with it all sort of regularising functions of government which help the regeneration/centralisation phase along. Trade also provides access to luxury and other trade items that increase elite credibility and the living standards of the commons, both of which contribute to greater social stability. This definitely worked in the Carolingians’ favour. Indeed, the Carolingians were so successful that they essentially took the place of Rome as the “revered precursor” to which western Europe looked for centuries afterward.

Hodges and Whitehouse likewise noted that the decline in population and urbanisation following the fall of the western Roman Empire was not causally connected to trade networks,

After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies, Ed. G.M. Schwartz, p. 8

Of course. Losing entire provinces to masses of armed barbarians who were unable to sustain the former level of material civilisation in the West was a devastating distortion compared to which the ongoing effects of trade networking further south was going to be minor. Yet, Pirenne’s thesis – when measured in the later absence of literally civilisation-ending catastrophe – does indeed seem to be correct about the role of trade in regeneration.

But we should understand that the effects of trade on collapse and regeneration cannot be taken in isolation. So I was glad to see the inclusion of world systems theory at this point,

After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies, Ed. G.M. Schwartz, p. 8

This is an important point and will continue to be moving forward. Including a world systems perspective rightly observes that sociopolitical systems do not exist or evolve in isolation. Every polity, every empire, every civilisation is affected and influenced by a multitude of factors introduced not only by neighbouring states, but even by long-distance trading partners (whom the polities in question may not have even realised were their trading partners at the time). Further, trade acts to bring together larger and larger units of partners, whether directly through things like exploration or indirectly through the passing on of trade goods. Trade is a huge part of demographic-structural evolution. Rome shed billions of denarii of gold to the East, which contributed to the economic problems that played a role in the collapse of the Principate. Certainly, diseases that spread along trade routes have historically had…substantial…impact on the collapse of many states. Overarching it all, however, is the fact that the expansion of trade contributes to the rise of “money power” commercial elites who, even more than purely militarised aristocratic elites, play an outsized role on the directions which collapse and regeneration can take.

As suggested by the “world” in world system theory, trade networking also serves to “sync up” the fortunes of the polities tied together in a world system. Thus, the collapse/regeneration cycles of states that are part of these networks tend to become more coincident over time, as the ties that bind increase. We’ve seen this in previous world systems. The Bronze Age collapse in the first half of the 12th century BC is one such case that saw collapse come to practically every society all along the Mesopotamia-Mediterranean-Baltic trade corridor. Assyria, Egypt, Anatolia, Syria-Palestine, Greece, the Balkans, the Baltic Bronze Age societies – all suffered severe social degradation and collapse in quick succession (the rampages of the Sea Peoples likely started as a result, not the cause, of this collapse series). Another good example would be the collapse phase of the 17th century AD, which occurred all along the Eurasian trade axis, from China to England.

When trade is involved, the factors contributing to collapse in one state seem to be “transmitted” to others on down the trade routes. We can see this today. The current DST collapse trends we see in the United States – increasing intraelite competition, widening income inequality, greater restiveness and moves toward decentralisation in the “provinces,” financial weakness and currency devaluation, and much more – are not confined to the USA. They’re apparent all over the industrialised world in Europe, Japan, the Anglosphere, India, Latin America, China. All of it linked by a vast global trade network. This is one reason why I am not bullish about the “coming Chinese century.” China has its own demographic-structural problems that complement our own – they’re just better at keeping the lid on their media.

Well, this article is running a bit longer than I’d expected or intended, so I’ll stop at this point. In the next installment, we’ll take a look at the role of resources (social, natural, etc.) and the ability on the part of social elites to access these resources on collapse and regeneration.


3 thoughts on “Chapter Review – After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies (Part 3)

  1. Note the rise of Germanic Military Aristocracies along with the First among Equals known as Kings that set the stage for a long time to come:

    The Imperial Monarchy on par with China arose under the pressure of War and the growth of Bureaucracy on part with China.

    Before the Military Aristocracies were dispensed with starting with the French Revolution and destroyed in the World Wars.

    In China the native Military Aristocracy met their demise earlier especially since the Song Dynasty


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