Lately I’ve been rereading some of the tales of H.P. Lovecraft. He’s nearly unique among the writers of American horror stories, in that his sense of the terrible was founded squarely on the worldview of modern science. He was a steadfast atheist and materialist, but unlike so many believers in that creed, his attitude toward the cosmos revealed by science was not smug satisfaction but shuddering horror. The first paragraph of his most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is typical:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
It’s entirely possible that this insight of Lovecraft’s will turn out to be prophetic, and that a passionate popular revolt against the implications—and even more, the applications—of contemporary science will be one of the forces that propel us into the dark age ahead. Still, that’s a subject for a later post in this series. The point I want to make here is that Lovecraft’s image of people eagerly seeking such peace and safety as a dark age may provide them is not as ironic as it sounds. Outside the elites, which have a different and considerably more gruesome destiny than the other inhabitants of a falling civilization, it’s surprisingly rare for people to have to be forced to trade civilization for barbarism, either by human action or by the pressure of events. By and large, by the time that choice arrives, the great majority are more than ready to make the exchange, and for good reason.
Let’s start by reviewing some basics. As I pointed out in a paper published online back in 2005—a PDF is available here—the process that drives the collapse of civilizations has a surprisingly simple basis: the mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources that are available to meet those costs. Capital here is meant in the broadest sense of the word, and includes everything in which a civilizations invests its wealth: buildings, roads, imperial expansion, urban infrastructure, information resources, trained personnel, or what have you. Capital of every kind has to be maintained, and as a civilization adds to its stock of capital, the costs of maintenance rise steadily, until the burden they place on the civilization’s available resources can’t be supported any longer.
The only way to resolve that conflict is to allow some of the capital to be converted to waste, so that its maintenance costs drop to zero and any useful resources locked up in the capital can be put to other uses. Human beings being what they are, the conversion of capital to waste generally isn’t carried out in a calm, rational manner; instead, kingdoms fall, cities get sacked, ruling elites are torn to pieces by howling mobs, and the like. If a civilization depends on renewable resources, each round of capital destruction is followed by a return to relative stability and the cycle begins all over again; the history of imperial China is a good example of how that works out in practice.
If a civilization depends on nonrenewable resources for essential functions, though, destroying some of its capital yields only a brief reprieve from the crisis of maintenance costs. Once the nonrenewable resource base tips over into depletion, there’s less and less available each year thereafter to meet the remaining maintenance costs, and the result is the stairstep pattern of decline and fall so familiar from history: each crisis leads to a round of capital destruction, which leads to renewed stability, which gives way to crisis as the resource base drops further. Here again, human beings being what they are, this process isn’t carried out in a calm, rational manner; the difference here is simply that kingdoms keep falling, cities keep getting sacked, ruling elites are slaughtered one after another in ever more inventive and colorful ways, until finally contraction has proceeded far enough that the remaining capital can be supported on the available stock of renewable resources.
That’s a thumbnail sketch of the theory of catabolic collapse, the basic model of the decline and fall of civilizations that underlies the overall project of this blog. I’d encourage those who have questions about the details of the theory to go ahead and read the published version linked above; down the road a ways, I hope to publish a much more thoroughly developed version of the theory, but that project is still in the earliest stages just now. What I want to do here is to go a little more deeply into the social implications of the theory.
It’s common these days to hear people insist that our society is divided into two and only two classes, an elite class that receives all the benefits of the system, and everyone else, who bears all the burdens. The reality, in ours as in every other human society, is a great deal more nuanced. It’s true, of course, that the benefits move toward the top of the ladder of wealth and privilege and the burdens get shoved toward the bottom, but in most cases—ours very much included—you have to go a good long way down the ladder before you find people who receive no benefits at all.
There have admittedly been a few human societies in which most people receive only such benefits from the system as will enable them to keep working until they drop. The early days of plantation slavery in the United States and the Caribbean islands, when the average lifespan of a slave from purchase to death was under ten years, fell into that category, and so do a few others—for example, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. These are exceptional cases; they emerge when the cost of unskilled labor drops close to zero and either abundant profits or ideological considerations make the fate of the laborers a matter of complete indifference to their masters.
Under any other set of conditions, such arrangements are uneconomical. It’s more profitable, by and large, to allow such additional benefits to the laboring class as will permit them to survive and raise families, and to motivate them to do more than the bare minimum that will evade the overseer’s lash. That’s what generates the standard peasant economy, for example, in which the rural poor pay landowners in labor and a share of agricultural production for access to arable land.
There are any number of similar arrangements, in which the laboring classes do the work, the ruling classes allow them access to productive capital, and the results are divided between the two classes in a proportion that allows the ruling classes to get rich and the laboring classes to get by. If that sounds familiar, it should. In terms of the distribution of labor, capital, and production, the latest offerings of today’s job market are indistinguishable from the arrangements between an ancient Egyptian landowner and the peasants who planted and harvested his fields.
The more complex a society becomes, the more intricate the caste system that divides it, and the more diverse the changes that are played on this basic scheme. A relatively simple medieval society might get by with four castes—the feudal Japanese model, which divided society into aristocrats, warriors, farmers, and a catchall category of traders, craftspeople, entertainers, and the like, is as good an example as any. A stable society near the end of a long age of expansion, by contrast, might have hundreds or even thousands of distinct castes, each with its own niche in the social and economic ecology of that society. In every case, each caste represents a particular balance between benefits received and burdens exacted, and given a stable economy entirely dependent on renewable resources, such a system can continue intact for a very long time.
Factor in the process of catabolic collapse, though, and an otherwise stable system turns into a fount of cascading instabilities. The point that needs to be grasped here is that social hierarchies are a form of capital, in the broad sense mentioned above. Like the other forms of capital included in the catabolic collapse model, social hierarchies facilitate the production and distribution of goods and services, and they have maintenance costs that have to be met. If the maintenance costs aren’t met, as with any other form of capital, social hierarchies are converted to waste; they stop fulfilling their economic function, and become available for salvage.
That sounds very straightforward. Here as so often, though, it’s the human factor that transforms it from a simple equation to the raw material of history. As the maintenance costs of a civilization’s capital begin to mount up toward the point of crisis, corners get cut and malign neglect becomes the order of the day. Among the various forms of capital, though, some benefit people at one point on the ladder of social hierarchy more than people at other levels. As the maintenance budget runs short, people normally try to shield the forms of capital that benefit them directly, and push the cutbacks off onto forms of capital that benefit others instead. Since the ability of any given person to influence where resources go corresponds very precisely to that person’s position in the social hierarchy, this means that the forms of capital that benefit the people at the bottom of the ladder get cut first.
Now of course this isn’t what you hear from Americans today, and it’s not what you hear from people in any society approaching catabolic collapse. When contraction sets in, as I noted here in a post two weeks ago, people tend to pay much more attention to whatever they’re losing than to the even greater losses suffered by others. The middle-class Americans who denounce welfare for the poor at the top of their lungs while demanding that funding for Medicare and Social Security remain intact are par for the course; so, for that matter, are the other middle-class Americans who denounce the admittedly absurd excesses of the so-called 1% while carefully neglecting to note the immense differentials of wealth and privilege that separate them from those still further down the ladder.
This sort of thing is inevitable in a fight over slices of a shrinking pie. Set aside the inevitable partisan rhetoric, though, and a society moving into the penumbra of catabolic collapse is a society in which more and more people are receiving less and less benefit from the existing order of society, while being expected to shoulder an ever-increasing share of the costs of a faltering system. To those who receive little or no benefits in return, the maintenance costs of social capital rapidly become an intolerable burden, and as the supply of benefits still available from a faltering system becomes more and more a perquisite of the upper reaches of the social hierarchy, that burden becomes an explosive political fact.
Every society depends for its survival on the passive acquiescence of the majority of the population and the active support of a large minority. That minority—call them the overseer class—are the people who operate the mechanisms of social hierarchy: the bureaucrats, media personnel, police, soldiers, and other functionaries who are responsible for maintaining social order. They are not drawn from the ruling elite; by and large, they come from the same classes they are expected to control; and if their share of the benefits of the existing order falters, if their share of the burdens increases too noticeably, or if they find other reasons to make common cause with those outside the overseer class against the ruling elite, then the ruling elite can expect to face the brutal choice between flight into exile and a messy death. The mismatch between maintenance costs and available resources, in turn, makes some such turn of events extremely difficult to avoid.
A ruling elite facing a crisis of this kind has at least three available options. The first, and by far the easiest, is to ignore the situation. In the short term, this is actually the most economical option; it requires the least investment of scarce resources and doesn’t require potentially dangerous tinkering with fragile social and political systems. The only drawback is that once the short term runs out, it pretty much guarantees a horrific fate for the members of the ruling elite, and in many cases, this is a less convincing argument than one might think. It’s always easy to find an ideology that insists that things will turn out otherwise, and since members of a ruling elite are generally well insulated from the unpleasant realities of life in the society over which they preside, it’s usually just as easy for them to convince themselves of the validity of whatever ideology they happen to choose. The behavior of the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the French Revolution is worth consulting in this context.
The second option is to try to remedy the situation by increased repression. This is the most expensive option, and it’s generally even less effective than the first, but ruling elites with a taste for jackboots tend to fall into the repression trap fairly often. What makes repression a bad choice is that it does nothing to address the sources of the problems it attempts to suppress. Furthermore, it increases the maintenance costs of social hierarchy drastically—secret police, surveillance gear, prison camps, and the like don’t come cheap—and it enforces the lowest common denominator of passive obedience while doing much to discourage active engagement of people outside the elite in the project of saving the society. A survey of the fate of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe is a good antidote to the delusion that an elite with enough spies and soldiers can stay in power indefinitely.
That leaves the third option, which requires the ruling elite to sacrifice some of its privileges and perquisites so that those further down the social ladder still have good reason to support the existing order of society. That isn’t common, but it does happen; it happened in the United States as recently as the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt spearheaded changes that spared the United States the sort of fascist takeover or civil war that occurred in so many other failed democracies in the same era. Roosevelt and his allies among the very rich realized that fairly modest reforms would be enough to comvince most Americans that they had more to gain from supporting the system than they would gain by overthrowing it. A few job-creation projects and debt-relief measures, a few welfare programs, and a few perp walks by the most blatant of the con artists of the preceding era of high finance, were enough to stop the unraveling of the social hierarchy, and restore a sense of collective unity strong enough to see the United States through a global war in the following decade.
Now of course Roosevelt and his allies had huge advantages that any comparable project would not be able to duplicate today. In 1933, though it was hamstrung by a collapsed financial system and a steep decline in international trade, the economy of the United States still had the world’s largest and most productive industrial plant and some of the world’s richest deposits of petroleum, coal, and many other natural resources. Eighty years later, the industrial plant was abandoned decades ago in an orgy of offshoring motivated by short-term profit-seeking, and nearly every resource the American land once offered in abundance has been mined and pumped right down to the dregs. That means that an attempt to imitate Roosevelt’s feat under current conditions would face much steeper obstacles, and it would also require the ruling elite to relinquish a much greater share of its current perquisites and privileges than they did in Roosevelt’s day.
I could be mistaken, but I don’t think it will even be tried this time around. Just at the moment, the squabbling coterie of competing power centers that constitutes the ruling elite of the United States seems committed to an approach halfway between the first two options I’ve outlined. The militarization of US domestic police forces and the rising spiral of civil rights violations carried out with equal enthusiasm by both mainstream political parties fall on the repressive side of the scale. At the same time, for all these gestures in the direction of repression, the overall attitude of American politicians and financiers seems to be that nothing really that bad can actually happen to them or the system that provides them with their power and their wealth.
They’re wrong, and at this point it’s probably a safe bet that a great many of them will die because of that mistake. Already, a large fraction of Americans—probably a majority—accept the continuation of the existing order of society in the United States only because a viable alternative has yet to emerge. As the United States moves closer to catabolic collapse, and the burden of propping up an increasingly dysfunctional status quo bears down ever more intolerably on more and more people outside the narrowing circle of wealth and privilege, the bar that any alternative has to leap will be set lower and lower. Sooner or later, something will make that leap and convince enough people that there’s a workable alternative to the status quo, and the passive acquiescence on which the system depends for its survival will no longer be something that can be taken for granted.
It’s not necessary for such an alternative to be more democratic or more humane than the order that it attempts to replace. It can be considerably less so, so long as it imposes fewer costs on the majority of people and distributes benefits more widely than the existing order does. That’s why, in the last years of Rome, so many people of the collapsing empire so readily accepted the rule of barbarian warlords in place of the imperial government. That government had become hopelessly dysfunctional by the time of the barbarian invasions, centralizing authority in distant bureaucratic centers out of touch with current realities and imposing tax burdens on the poor so crushing that many people were forced to sell themselves into slavery or flee to depopulated regions of the countryside to take up the uncertain life of Bacaudae, half guerrilla and half bandit, hunted by imperial troops whenever those had time to spare from the defense of the frontiers.
By contrast, the local barbarian warlord might be brutal and capricious, but he was there on the scene, and thus unlikely to exhibit the serene detachment from reality so common in centralized bureaucratic states at the end of their lives. What’s more, the warlord had good reason to protect the peasants who put bread and meat on his table, and the cost of supporting him and his retinue in the relatively modest style of barbarian kingship was considerably less expensive than the burden of helping to prop up the baroque complexities of the late Roman imperial bureaucracy. That’s why the peasants and agricultural slaves of the late Roman world acquiesced so calmly in the implosion of Rome and its replacement by a patchwork of petty kingdoms. It wasn’t just that it was merely a change of masters; it was that in a great many cases, the new masters were considerably less of a burden than the old ones had been.
We can expect much the same process to unfold in North America as the United States passes through its own trajectory of decline and fall. Before tracing the ways that process might work out, though, it’s going to be necessary to sort through some common misconceptions, and that requires us to examine the ways that ruling elites destroy themselves. We’ll cover that next week.