Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why Civilizations Fail

The current world turmoil, economic, political, and religious, is unsettling to anyone with a sense of history and its lessons regarding the human tendency to ruin that which is good. We find ourselves, at the same time, wavering between a sense of pessimism and the “head in the sand” notion that everything is all right. Of course it’s tempting to become a doomsday predictor and turn the sum of what’s wrong into catastrophe – to throw our hands up and join the pessimists.

But this kind of emotional pessimism is a mistake because we have to be rationalists, put reason behind our thoughts, and dispense with the emotion. Let the emoters cry wolf at every turn like they always do.

I have recently become acquainted with the work of Elman Service, one of our great cultural anthropologists. In his book Origins of the State and Civilization, Service speculates about the subject of this post. He presents six civilizations, including China, Egypt, Peru, and Mesoamerica, delving into the reasons for their collapse.

All came to and end due to a failure of bureaucratic governance. That is all failed in their reason for being – protection of the society from external and internal threats to its integrity. Throughout generations of historical analysis, many theories have emerged to explain the collapse of civilizations including failures of leaders due to arrogance or complacency, a natural cycle of things (rise/fall, growth/decay), and growth beyond the capability to control. Service sees all these as partial explanations, not fully describing the real world.

He believes collapse is the result of expansion and a resulting conservatism that makes a civilization less flexible. When a civilization expands, it encounters its neighbors and adapts to that new interface. Success in adaptation eventually breeds conservatism and makes the dominant power less flexible. Meanwhile the dominated cultures seek to overcome domination through their greater flexibility for innovation and experimentation. As Trotsky said, “the dominated suffer from the privilege of backwardness.” In this condition, they can borrow the latest techniques from advanced civilizations AND skip developmental steps that take time, resulting in the ability to create in themselves an enormous revolutionary potential. That power eventually becomes competitive with the dominant civilization allowing them to free themselves or become dominant over their complacent neighbor.

How does this model relate to the United States? In our world today the expanding boundaries interface is economic rather than military. Our dominance in business is under attack by the rest of the world who seek to break off shares of our success.

Smaller countries or groups of countries can be more agile than us, particularly where low cost labor and natural resources give them an advantage. It remains for us to regain the agility required to protect our position.

It also feels to me that in this post-modern world we have started to decay internally from a culture of relativism. Perhaps this derives from the fact that the major influence on government action is lobbying. Since lobbyists represent groups, you have to be in group to be represented. You just can’t be an American. African-Americans, Hispanics, union workers, feminists, and teachers all have specific agendas which they bring forward, so government never acts on the whole body of Americans, only the sub-groups.

Take our current health care bill for example. It attempts to satisfy all constituencies but in the end satisfies none. The reason a majority of Americans oppose the bill is because they are happy with their health care and oppose a change to the unknown. But the whole has no lobbyists – only the parts do.

If our government fails the whole, it abdicates its reason for being – protecting its people from internal threats to its integrity. When a civilization is not integrated, it disintegrates.


Monkeyface said...

It always seems to me that the apparatus of government (in it's American form) is so vast there is no reason to waste time trying knocking on it's door with suggestions about how it should be run. I think maybe I'm of the head stuck in the sand ilk. I wonder given our obvious signs of deterioration, has there ever been a civilization that was able to stop the downward spiral once it began? I can't think of one.

And again doesn't it seem that cultures/civilizations in ascendency have a much clearer sense of nationhood than those in decline? For instance, I have no sense anymore of a national ethos. America is what exactly? What does it mean? I will bet you a citizen of China, or Vietnam, or Saudi Arabia could answer this more easily than your average US citizen. And when you don't know who you are how do you keep from losing unity? Yada yada... just wondering... great post as per usual... This is becoming my fave blog. Thanks

Mike Anderson said...


I agree with your comments. Even if a society knows its on the decline, it will not be able to reverse the process because to do so would be trying to reverse the interia of human behavior. Human beings as a whole are not rational enough and unselfish enough to pull this off.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that your named interest groups are all ones associated with liberal groups. Why not name the business groups that are the best organized and most deeply funded?

If you read the Federalist Papers, the diversity of competing groups was considered an essential mechanism for achieving balanced government and insuring that neither a well connected minority would dominant nor that a single majority group would dominant at the expense of the minority.

Mike Anderson said...


My emphasis on liberal groups was unintentional. You are right that the most well funded are business-related and those pose a greater threat.

Henry said...
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