Thursday, 5 February 2015

Theorising the Mortality of Advanced Societies

Yesterday we talked about a specific example of catastrophe. Today I want to discuss something else, so open the Book of Revelations and settle down to some heavy doom: we're talking what Mark Carrigan calls the sociology of civilisational collapse. For Mark, what is absent from political discourse and social commentary is a sense of our collective mortality. We are imbued with a sense of our biological finitude (despite the best efforts of some), but "officially" society expects to live forever. Governments and institutions plan for decades in advance. Even the quaint habit of sinking time capsules into the foundations of buildings betray a sense that someone will be around to open them in centuries to come.

Sociological readings of apocalyptic scenarios abound (here's me on zombies. And again), but as Mark notes popular cultural texts, and even less sociology, deal with the descent into decay itself. Books/films/TV like The Stand and Outbreak see the evisceration of humanity by plague. In the former it's what plays out after that matters whereas the latter has Uncle Sam's lab-coated finest saving the day. In The Terminator series human societies disappear under CGI mushroom clouds. Breakdown scenarios, of society sliding into formlessness are around, such as the original Mad Max and the upcoming Walking Dead spin-off set during the emergence of our brain eatin', flesh rottin' friends, but all too often social dislocation and disintegration is identified with outright criminality and lawlessness. It's always the return of the Hobbesian repressed, of the nasty and the brutish.

What Mark contends then is "if some general philosophical propositions (the epistemology of civilizational collapse) could be explored through an analysis of fictional representations (the representation of civilizational collapse) to shed more light on the character of social processes (the sociology of civilizational collapse)?"

There are a huge load of questions that must preface a venture into speculative sociology, however. What, for instance, constitutes a civilisational collapse? Nazi Germany on the one hand was the collapse of civilisation considered in Enlightenment terms, and yet there were plenty of social continuities with what went before and after. Did the demise of the Soviet Union constitute a collapse, despite (especially) the continuity of elites between the old system and the restoration of capitalism? Wherever individual freedom is tightly circumscribed at present and in the future, is an excess of authoritarian collectivism, be it concentrated in the state as per 1984 or dispersed as per The Borg congruent with collapse? Or does a civilisational collapse require the physical liquidation of social relations via the deaths of large numbers of people? Even then, that in itself is no guarantee. Consider the awful 2012 for instance: billions die but civilisation persists thanks to mega arks stuffed full of the super rich and their hangers on. Or how, in societies that have suffered catastrophe, such as the collapse of the state in Somalia, the Rwandan genocide, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the collapse of institutional order doesn't necessarily mean the collapse of social order.

Therefore theorising about collapse has to take into consideration is the durability of social relations. At certain levels of abstraction, sociology assumes the durability of social relationships because they have proven to be just that. There is social change, but the - on paper - precariously balanced division of labour with its innumerable interdependencies has not just survived, but has thrived economic shocks and world wars, and has spread itself across the globe. The social substance is elastic and tough, I'd wager, because on the one hand capitalist societies are constituted in their production and reproduction by irreducibly antagonistic relationships, and on the other human beings cannot be anything but social, meaning-making beings in the Goffman mode who, in turn, constitute/reproduce social structures as per Giddens and Bourdieu. It's also worth noting that crisis tendencies are organic to capitalism, that each of its myriad points of tension are pregnant with destruction and creation, of enculturation and barbarism. In other words, while there are precedents from history of civilisations coming and going, none have attained the level of social complexity and productive prowess as our own. Fundamentally speaking, the Romans, the Mayans, the Hittites, and the Babylonians were static societies. The advanced capitalist, industrial societies of today are dynamic and fluidic. They have momentum that might carry them through a huge disaster, or allow them to adapt to real and imagined threats posed by climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence, and so on.

Where then has this exercise got us? Declinism, disorder, and threat are dialectically inseparable from their opposite. We are a society that lives among its ruins while throwing up the new. It's nigh-on impossible to isolate trends toward a collapse when, at anyone time, they stretch in all directions and are constantly rewritten, overwritten, strengthened/weakened/abolished/renewed. Existential threats present themselves not as portents of doom but profit-making opportunities as cultural leitmotifs to be exploited, and technical challenges to be met.

None of this is to say that a sociology of civilisational collapse is a waste of time. Why should the forecasting of social trends be left to science fiction, conspiracy-types, and apocalypse junkies? Yet our thinking must always be prefaced with the durability of relations, the fact they always carry the seeds of crisis within them, and the irreducibly social character of human beings as a species.


Speedy said...

Well said. The Dark Ages were actually not so dark - there were many social structures in place. On the other hand, some supposedly peaceful societies today - in Africa for example, or tribal areas - may not seem so different to what we imagine as collapsed - no amenities, no law, etc - yet they develop their own customs and rub along, in a fashion.

Only total nuclear war or a pandemic on "survivors" scale or, of course, a zombie outbreak is likely to lead to real collapse - not just because of capitalism, but because human beings are by nature cooperative. It is this cooperation - even if competing for resources and turning to violence - that will prevent collapse, as ultimately violence is a last resort.

Dave K said...

We still make value judgements based on cr*p like the size of a civilisations army or their buildings. Look at Rome. The more I look into it the more I am convinced the so called Collapse of the Western Roman Empire was actually a great revolution.

The Goths were oppressed refugees treated terribly by the Romans who eventually rebelled sparking the final crisis of the Western Roman state. The Goths and other Barbarians were often welcomed by every but the roman elite. For instance slaves opened the gates of Rome to Alaric's Goths in 410. When in the city they burnt and desecrated the tombs of the emperors and the imperial palaces and put the senitorial class to the sword. However they left the churches intact, didnt touch the Plebians and freed the slaves.

The "Barbarians" sped the demise of a economy based on chattal slavery and plunder and replaced it with proto feudalism. They overthrew a society built on horrific brutality as entertainment and a decadent and sadistic ruling class of unimaginable wealth. Life for the majority relatively egalitarian village was probably better then as a slave or indentured worker on a roman nobles estate.

Even culturally the philosphical and artistic output of Frankish, Celtic and Visigothic monasticism surpassed much of the culture of late antiquity.

Roger McCarthy said...

Dave K,

Don't think I've ever read so much utter bollocks about the fall of the Roman Empire compressed into quite so few words.

Firstly the Roman economy was never based on 'chattal' (and if you can't spell it - or for that matter 'senitiorial' - you probably shouldn't be pontificating about it) slavery.

Other than in specialised niches slavery was never viable in Roman agriculture because there were no cash crops like cotton, sugar or tobacco which were peculiarly suited to slave cultivation.

Rather Roman society was already evolving towards what can I suppose be called a form of proto-feudalism with a peasantry largely (but not universally) reduced to serfdom but with an increasingly absentee landlord class of senatorial plutocrats rather than anything resembling the hierarchical layers of medieval feudal barons and gentry.

The culture of the games was ended not by barbarians but by the Christian emperors who while they continued to sentence their subjects to horribly cruel deaths prudishly banned gladiatorial combat and sadistic spectacles as pagan excesses.

And if there is any general consensus amongst professional historians of late antiquity it is that the demise of Rome was somewhat exaggerated and that there was huge continuity between the empire and the barbarian kingdoms.

(FWIW I myself am of a rather more catastrophist view but am up-to-date enough on literature and have attended enough seminars and conferences to know this is a minority position).

'Relatively egalitarian villages' again you clearly know nothing about the society of the post-Roman West which was only relatively more egalitarian in that all classes were (eventually) radically impoverished.

The landlords name and language (at least in Britain and Northern Gaul) might well have changed but the fundamental relationship of lord and peasant generally did not - a skin-clad Frankish or Saxon landlord was no less a parasitic extractor of surplus value than his toga'd Roman predecessor had been.

And this impoverishment almost certainly included the dying off of millions of peasants and workers as the highly advanced empire-wide division of labour that had allowed not just cities but villages to flourish and where even the luckless coloni of the villa-estates got to eat their meals off industrially produced fineware rather than whatever handthrown pots and rudely hacked wooden platters they could produce in their own hovels.

As for the philosophical and artistic output of Frankish, Celtic and Visigothic monasticism surpassing the culture of late antiquity you've clearly never actually read the works of a Gregory of Tours, a Gildas or an Isidore of Seville or you would not for a moment compare them with the works of Ammianus Marcellinus, Julian, Boethius, Procopius, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jerome etc (because yes, the great Church Fathers of 4th to 6th centuries are also part of the culture of late antiquity).

And whereas the empire had mass literacy (at least in the cities and towns) and even the poor could absorb high culture through public performances of classic works, in the dark ages of which you seem so enamored literacy became a privileged monopoly of the monastic orders and the secular clergy.

Anyway don't take my word for it - go away and read some actual books.

Speedy said...

"And this impoverishment almost certainly included the dying off of millions of peasants and workers..."

I read somewhere that it wasn't until Elizabethan England that Britain again reached the population density of Roman times.

Slowy said...

speedy talks like he lived in the dark ages and spends the week among the tribes in Africa.

Seriously speedy is a classic example of all that is wrong with so called civilisation. I can't wait for it's inevitable demise. We can do so much better!

Roger McCarthy said...

"Fundamentally speaking, the Romans, the Mayans, the Hittites, and the Babylonians were static societies".

You've fallen into the trap of massively over-generalising.

Mayans and Hittites are particularly problematic cases in that we have very partial and sometimes contradictory sources which dry up at precisely the point where we most need them to explain the collapse.

It's also a particular bugbear of mine that popular 'whatever happened to' accounts deliberately ignore that neither Mayans or Hittites actually disappeared:

There were still flourishing Mayan cities when the Spanish arrived - just different cities to the ones where Classic era Maya lived.

And while the Hittite heartland in Anatolia did fall wealthy and powerful 'Neo-Hittite' kingdoms survived another half millennium in Syria (thus the presence of Hittites in Old Testament stories set 250 years after the fall of Hattusas).

Babylon static? That's not how I see it all - a culture that can be conquered and re-emerge over and over again and in a sense maintained itself until the Arab Conquest can hardly have been lacking in flexibility and dynamism.

As for Rome the consensus view tends to suggest that its 'fall' (in the West) was the product of its internal dynamism rather than the result of a decadent static society being overwhelmed by virile barbarians.

(a view which moreover has political implications - embodying successively renaissance going on into enlightenment contempt for the merely Gothic barbarians, racist and social darwinist theories and more recently liberal and neo-liberal caricatures of Rome as a decadent proto-welfare state addicted to price controls and overtaxation).

And of course the Roman Empire did not truly fall at all but survived until 1453 in the East - undergoing massive changes in the process - which again suggests dynamism rather than stasis.

Nevertheless questions of civilisational collapse are much on my mind lately - and hardly likely to go away....

Dave K said...

@roger I read a book once but it was so full of pompus gits showing off.
"Estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary. Estimates of the percentage of the population of Italy who were slaves range from 30 to 40 percent in the 1st century BC, upwards of two to three million slaves in Italy by the end of the 1st century BCE, about 35% to 40% of Italy's population.[31][32][33] For the Empire as a whole, the slave population has been estimated at just under five million, representing 10 - 15% of the total population. An estimated 49% of all slaves were owned by the elite, who made up less than 1.5% of the Empire's population. About half of all slaves worked in the countryside, the remainder in towns and cities.[34]"

Augustus's tax on slave sales suggest 250,000 a year. That shows slavery was a vast commercial enterprise. Slavery was no doubt was declining after the Roman empire stopped expanding. However there is no denying that slavery was the centre of the roman economy. Slavery was the reason why Roman urbanism could exist in the way it did.

You are right that in some places names of the elites changed and not much else. Elsewhere like in Saxon villages different social structures emerged.

Due to the cold period from 300AD to 700AD and the backwardness of agricultural production demographic decline was inevitable, however the move to fuedalism was a way to deal with this.

Yes trends in the late western empire - social, economic and artistic show continuity. However that was often due to the dynamic influence of "barbarian" culture. This is shown in the visual arts.

Plus on Art Rome had nothing to compare to the illuminated manuscripts of Celtic Christianity.

Speedy said...

"An estimated 49% of all slaves were owned by the elite, who made up less than 1.5% of the Empire's population."

Some things never change do they.

Roger McCarthy said...

Dave K,

Your figures while a welcome change from unsupported assertion are taken from the first century BC and not the 4th-6th C AD which we were actually talking about...

And that period generally was considered the very high point of slavery in the Roman era - after which it significantly declined due to the simple operation of supply and demand - as the wars of the Empire were far less productive of suitable slaves than those of the later Republic, the price rose to a point where it was no longer economic to staff a latifundium with them and agriculture gradually returned to a tenant-landlord system, which in the later empire increasingly hardened into a form of aerfdom.

And even at that height slaves were never a majority of the population even in an Italy which was continually flooded with relatively cheap captives by the conquering armies of Marius, Sulla, Lucullus, Pompeius, Caesar etc.

Unfortunately as Marxists we are lumbered with the notion that classical Greece and Rome were slave societies because that is how the 18th and 19th century historians who taught Marx and Engels saw them.

And so we have to create very dubious meta-narratives of transition from antiquity to feudalism and of class struggle in the ancient world which do not at all match the much richer picture painstakingly built up by more modern historians and archaeologists.

This sadly is why Marxists are now vanishingly rare amongst ancient and late antique/early medieval historians.

As for the airy way you dismiss the premature deaths of millions or quite probably tens of millions as mere 'demographic decline' - oh what's the use...

'Dynamic influence of barbarian culture' - again actual modern historians emphasise not the differences but the similarities - Goths, Franks, Vandals etc had all been extensively Romanised before they even crossed the frontier, just as Rome had happily incorporated many barbarian features (above all military) into their own culture.

'Rome had nothing to compare to the illuminated manuscripts of Celtic Christianity'.

That is because Rome being a culture with mass literacy (even if a majority of the rural population were probably illiterate) did not need to turn every text into a work of art and a Tacitus would have found the very concept of wasting countless man hours on producing one manuscript to be treated as a sacred object by a tiny group of deluded religious fanatics rather than producing many plain text copies to be distributed amongst public and private libraries utterly bizarre.

And much as I love the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels I'd happily trade those in for the countless lost texts of Aeschylus, Euripides, Livy, Tacitus, Ammianus etc that the monkls were far too busy doing their lovely little cartoons in every fucking margin to bother copying.

Plus Roman art was not just monks doodling in margins but monumental and practical architecture on a massive scale - it was aqueducts and roads and walls and theatres and basilicas and temples and forums.

It was factory produced fineware that could even be found in peasant homes in remote provinces, it was popular entertainment that encompassed bawdy farces and epic tragedies as well as gladiators and chariot racing, it was the presence of olive oil and baths and wine in windy forts on Hadrian's Wall. It was cotton and woolen and silk garments produced by specialist artisans rather than crude homespun. It was a richness of realistic representative painting to be found in every even modestly affluent household, of which only the barest fragments survive on the walls of Pompeii and the Fayyum sarcophagi.

In short, for all its vast inequalities and injustices it was a true civilisation able through a complex division of labour to sustain many millions more people than any barbarian society could - and with all its oppression able to provide those tens of millions with a far greater degree of personal security than could be given by competing warchiefs.