Saturday, March 19, 2011

Book Review: The Collapse of Complex Societies

Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies. New York; Cambridge University Press, 1989.


This book had a rather ironic impact on me. I agreed with his thesis before I read the book, and, having read it, I no longer agree. He unpersuaded me.

Through the book, I was perpetually confused, because he himself did not clearly differentiate between complexity as a cause and complexity as a consequence. It was that logical leap, which he didn't seem to know he was making, that doomed the theory for me.

In the final chapter, he dismissed the "failure to adapt" theory as easily subsumable under his complexity theory, but he actually detailed one, albeit incomplete, failure to adapt.

He argues throughout that societies grow more complex, more specialized, as they place greater demands on the available resources. Eventually, further specialization cannot produce sufficient returns, and society crumbles. The problem with this line of reasoning is that complexity is not the cause. The cause is insufficient resources to meet the demands placed on a society.

The real explanation of collapse, therefore, is why societies cannot, as it were, live within their means. Why, after a crisis passes, can a society not revert, or at least hold its growth below the growth of its resources? Why do you build a Pentagon to manage a World War, and find it insufficient to your needs a few years later? What is the cause of this inertia? If he could explain that, he would have gotten to the heart of the matter.


And, to go off on a few tangents, here are some interesting tidbits:

He gives a description of the Ik people of Uganda early in the book. His description of it read like 1960's sociology, in which a lone scientist studies a culture, makes all of these grandiose claims, and then someone else comes around a few years later and quietly debunks them. When you look them up on Wikipedia, it makes reference to Tainter's own work. Hasn't anyone done anything worthwhile since the 70's?

In the literature review, which is always tedious, I discovered that Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is by no means an idea original to him. The tedium may have a purpose.

Also in the literature review, he refutes two climatic theories with each other: one that challenging climates create capable people that have the ability to foster civilization, and the other that moderate climates grant people the extra time to create civilization. I would argue that a middle ground is more appropriate. Civilization prospers best in climates that are neither too harsh nor too easy.

I liked his refutation of C. Northcote Parkinson: that the growth in personnel happens in all organizations, not just bureaucracies, so there has to be some cause beyond the nature of bureaucracy that makes it so.

He had a very interesting point about the impact of climate on culture. Cultures for within climatic bands--they face similar problems, after all, and it's easier to copy your neighbor's solution than to invent your own alternative. Thus culture bands are formed by people facing similar problems in similar ways. That part is well established.

His unique observation is that alliances form across climatic bands. When you're having a bad time, the people in the neighboring climate probably aren't. Since you're weakest in the bad times, competing with those who are in their good times isn't a viable strategy, so you tend to form reciprocal bonds with them. With your cultural peers, however, you hit bad times together, so direct competition is a viable strategy. Thus a great irony: you're more likely to go to war with your peers.

His analysis of the decline of the Roman empire confused me a great deal, because he was arguing against the received wisdom. He argued that a persistent labor shortage in the late empire was why the Romans couldn't achieve levels of innovation sufficient to break themselves out of their stagnating economy. This is exactly opposite of the theory concerning the Industrial Revolution. In that telling, the labor shortage in Europe was a necessary factor, since capital investment was comparatively cheap.

I realized that his argument was correct, but he failed to differentiate between an actual and artificial labor shortage. In Europe, just prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was an actual labor shortage as a result of the Black death. In the late Roman empire, there was an artificial labor shortage caused by tax policy. Since Roman taxes were only placed on productive activities, any increase in taxes made marginal activities unprofitable. Those marginal activities then ceased, which caused a still greater burden to be placed on the remaining production, leading to a spiral of reduced productivity and increased taxation. There was a labor shortage, but since the remaining productivity was siphoned off to support the empire, an accumulation of capital was impossible.

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