How Do Societies Collapse?

As mentioned in a previous essay, a state must accomplish three goals in order to maintain and preserve social order in a society. For one, the state must prevent the outbreak of violence. Second, the state must enforce the honoring of agreements and contracts between individuals and groups. Also, the state must ensure the protection of people’s property and wealth. Social order collapses in a society when its civil institutions such as the bureaucracy, courts, military, and police can no longer provide the social services necessary to accomplish these three goals.

            Furthermore, when societal collapse occurs, there are three perceivable outcomes that can result from such an occurrence. For one, the society can be absorbed into a stronger society. Second, there is the possibility that the society will revert to a more primitive state. Or, the society can completely disappear, as was the case with the Indus River civilization of the past. The Ancient Greeks believed that there were safeguards to the breakdown of a society, but that also there is a certain trajectory for political change that is commonplace particularly in Western societies. As it pertains to the safeguards for the upkeep of social order, the Ancient Greeks argued that respect and shame (“aidos”) is perhaps the main safeguard against chaos and cruelty, and the loss of “aidos” in a society leads to its dissolution.

In the “Republic,” Plato outlined a common trajectory of political change in Western societies but perhaps this trajectory applies to other societies as well. Plato argued that many societies begin as an “aristocracy” where an enlightened group of leaders set the foundations for societal development. Then, an aristocracy becomes a “timocracy” where the noblemen who lead a society become a land-owning elite. After this, the land-owning elite become an “oligarchy” and the society is then ruled by a small but wealthy elite. People then demand rights and the society then becomes a “democracy.” But Plato argued that there is also a downside to democracy. With newly acquired rights, citizens in a democracy begin to overindulge in their appetites and desires, and as a result there is a lack of moral self-regulation and a disregard for discipline and laws that results from Lockean “comfortable self-preservation.” This situation then leads to chaos, which in turn leads to the rise of “tyranny” and a tyrant. In a state of tyranny, the tables turn against the citizenry in the sense that the tyrant gets to indulge while everyone else suffers. More often than not, the replacement of one tyrant leads to the rise of another.

            Aside from the political dimension, there are other dimensions or factors involved in the collapse of a society. For one, there is the issue of climate change, natural disasters, and resource depletion, which are perhaps brought on by adverse human behavior, excess, and overconsumption. Another theory of social collapse is related to the environment, or “geographical determinism,” which suggests that some environments provide better food, water, material, and a better climate for survival compared to other environments. Some observers, for example, have attributed the initial Syrian uprising in 2011 to skyrocketing food prices resulting from food shortages. This factor, namely, the environmental factor, is arguably beyond human control.

What is perhaps within the bounds of human control is the issue of political instability and war. According to Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, politics is the process by which rules and norms are set for a society’s economic and political institutions, which can be carried out either in an inclusive or exclusive manner. If the political process is carried out in an inclusive and pluralistic manner, politics will then direct a society towards peace and social harmony. But if the political process is carried out exclusively by a narrow elite, politics will lead to social turbulence and unrest, and perhaps even civil war.

            There is also the issue of demographics. In some cases, the decline in creativity and intelligence in a society is due to the depopulation of the scientific and intellectual elite due to changing sexual mores that result in low birth rates among this particular social class. The issue that is most pertinent to our day and age, however, is the issue of epidemics and pandemics. Diseases tend to be common in densely populated and sedentary societies but are less frequent in nomadic societies. In the 14th century, a pandemic stemming from China lasted three years on the Eurasian landmass which in turn led to the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. The collapse of the Byzantine Empire led to the absorption of Byzantine lands and society into the Ottoman Empire.

            As forewarned by Thomas Jefferson, it is believed by many that the most prominent factor in societal collapse is the corruption of the elites, which in turn leads to the corruption of the masses. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that the creation of “extractive” political and economic institutions are often times created by the elite class, through which this narrow elite extracts resources and wealth from the rest of society and thus only a few people prosper while others are thrown into social malaise. Arguably, the nature of American political and economic institutions in the 21st century has largely been extractive, and as a result one can argue that there is widespread social malaise in American society today. Social malaise then leads to a loss of social complexity due to an overall loss of energy resulting from social malaise, which corresponds to Arnold Toynbee’s “Theory of Decay.” But in contrast to secular thinkers, Toynbee largely attributed societal collapse to God and the divine towards the end of his life, and as a result Toynbee was largely shunned by the elite class throughout the Western world in the latter stage of his life.

            There is also a theory which suggests that some cultures foster economic and social development while others do not. It has been argued that there are some cultures like the United States, China, Japan, and South Korea who seek the overall benefits of modernity, whereas other cultures such as Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia place an emphasis on culture and tradition rather than modernity. Economics also plays a major role in social order, but more so in modern societies than in traditional societies in the sense that corporate social responsibility must offset the adverse effects of job migration towards cheaper labor in foreign countries. Also, technological diffusion throughout the world has led to a net loss for modern societies and a net gain for the developing world.

            In turn, there are certain individuals who benefit from globalization, and there are many others who are left behind. As Pankaj Mishra has written in a book titled “Age of Anger”: “[Globalization], while promoting integration among shrewd elites, incited political and cultural sectarianism everywhere else, especially among people forced against their will into universal competition.” As a result, societal collapse can then be ascertained as an outcome of a class struggle between the cosmopolitan and “globalist” elite on one hand, and the agrarian or “nativist” masses on the other hand, all while the middle class is either shrinking or becoming non-existent. The historian Odd Arne Westad has argued that the politics of the post-Cold War era will be based on the friction between the “haves and the have-nots.”

            Arnold Toynbee also argued that societies rise when responding constructively to a challenging situation while being led by a “creative minority” that is concerned with the welfare of the entire society. But when a creative minority fails to respond to a challenging situation constructively, the society collapses due to dark forces such as nationalism, militarism, and a “despotic minority.” Thus, the collapse of a society is often self-inflicted. There are other reasons for why the collapse of a society is self-inflicted. As the historian Jared Diamond has suggested, societies initially fail to anticipate crises before they arrive. Then, once a crisis has arrived, the society usually fails to perceive that a crisis has actually arrived. But once the society perceives that a crisis has arrived, it may fail in even trying to solve it. Finally, the society may end up trying to solve the crisis, but ends up failing. Thus, the twin causes of societal collapse are basically human fallibility and myopia. It then follows that if a society lacks an enlightened leader or a group of enlightened leaders who can guide a society towards long-term order and prosperity, it is more than likely that the society will collapse.

            But to put it simply, one can argue that human beings are flawed creatures inclined towards corruption and thus are in need of guidance. Due to their flawed nature, human beings often prompt flawed outcomes in an economic, political, and social sense. But it often takes a crisis for a society to change, and change requires the same ingredients for a society as it does for an individual, namely, character and resilience. In the end, however, all of the aforementioned factors, including factors that are not mentioned, should be taken into account when explaining the collapse of a society, given that an explanation for societal collapse can never be “monocausal.” In the end, there are no simple answers for anything. Quite simply, any explanation for societal collapse will have to take into account a confluence of factors.

            Throughout history, societies that have managed to acquire a certain level of economic and social advancement as well as intellectual sophistication have at times evolved into a “civilization” with cross-cultural influence. There is no precise definition for the term “civilization,” but one particular definition that has been put forth is simply that “civilization” is the opposite of “barbarism.” All civilizations, arguably, undergo periods of generation and corruption before either stabilizing or collapsing into a state of primitivity. Based on certain estimates, the average lifespan for a civilization is approximately 336 years.

            Despite its relative decline vis-à-vis China, the primacy of Anglo-America and Europe is still evident simply by virtue of being magnets for immigration. If given a choice, approximately 700 million people from Africa and the Middle East would leave their countries for Anglo-America and Europe, according to Edward Luce. Moreover, every civilization has a proselytizing dimension and seeks to acquire adherents to its basic ideals, principles, and values. Thus, the four major civilizations of the world, namely, Anglo-America, Continental Europe, Islam, and Asia are either in a healthy or unhealthy competition for adherents. This competition, or game, is being played primarily by the elites in each civilization who are well-off financially and are seeking more in life than simply self-preservation and survival. There is the example of Cecil Rhodes, a wealthy British businessman and statesman in the late 19th century, who bequeathed a large portion of his wealth to the administering of “Rhodes Scholarships” that would allow students from around the English-speaking world to come to Oxford and educate themselves about the ideals and values of British civilization. Rhodes also had a broader goal for his promotion of British values, which was to extend British imperial power throughout the globe. Rhodes outlined the ultimate purpose of his philanthropic efforts in a will, which states:

“The extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom and of colonization by British subjects of all lands wherein the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour, and enterprise…the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of a British Empire, the consolidation of the whole Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial Representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed members of the Empire, and finally the foundation of so great a power as to hereafter render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity.”

            As it pertains to Asia, there is a steady development in the notion of “Pan-Asianism” that is predicated upon collectivism and communalism, and it is being promoted largely by China. The European Union, with its unique set of romantic ideals, also seeks its adherents, as does Anglo-America and Islam. In regards to Islam in particular, there is perhaps a collective consciousness of sorts developing in the Islamic world, with different leaders from different Islamic countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates vying for leadership over the entire Islamic community as it is projected that Islam will become the world’s largest religion in the coming decades after a protracted period of civilizational decline and stagnation.

            Arguably, each major civilization has or once had a singular guiding principle as to how society should be organized in the way of maintaining order and making the attainment of prosperity easy for as many people as possible. For Anglo-American civilization, the basic principle or value is individual freedom. For Continental Europe, it is liberal socialism. For Islam, the basic principle is interconnection and interdependence of humanity. And for Asian civilization, the basic principle is collectivism and communitarianism. Civilizations do not necessarily pertain to the people in charge. Rather, civilizations pertain more to the principles or the singular guiding principle that underpins them. In theory, all of the aforementioned principles are great. But the application of these principles has not always been thorough due to human error and stumbling blocks.

            Coincidentally, Asia is now on the rise, whereas Anglo-America is experiencing “relative decline” vis-à-vis Asia and China in particular. Harvard professor Joseph Nye has shown in a book titled “Is the American Century Over?” that the United States is still approximately fifty years ahead of its nearest competitor, China, in terms of military and economic capabilities. In fact, as the geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan has argued, once weak states begin to fail throughout Afro-Eurasia and as the economic and social fallout of failed and weak states spreads throughout the Eurasian landmass, America stands to benefit from its relative isolation from the rest of the world given that the United States is largely a self-sufficient country unlike other countries. For the most part, the effects of the fallout stemming from the collapse of weak states as well as failed states in Afro-Eurasia will ultimately be absorbed by the European Union unless there is a burden-sharing scheme set up in coordination between all Western nations.

There is, however, a question that emerges, which is: how does one fix a failed or weak state in a country that has already undergone societal collapse such as Afghanistan or Somalia? As the economist Paul Collier has argued, the “bottom billion” of the world’s population that is situated in perpetual conflict and poverty have one thing in common, which is that their societies have experienced civil war sometime after the year 1980. Collier uses the year 1980 as a marker because the countries that continue to have failed or weak states are coincidentally the ones who have experienced civil war after this particular year.

Also, as researchers from Stanford University as well as other researchers have recently shown, there is a 50/50 chance that a society which has recently gone through civil war will relapse into another civil war. Perhaps the best short-run outcome for a society that has experienced civil war and societal collapse over the previous four decades is a political settlement between the various warring factions and the creation of a coalition government that is inclusive of all the factions, as well as a prayer that the political settlement sticks. Aside from this, there is virtually no other solution, given that throwing money at the problem over the last few decades has obviously not remedied the underlying problem that stems from conflict and poverty.

            While America enjoys an advantage over all other countries in terms of military and economic capabilities, that advantage is to a certain extent in jeopardy due to the coronavirus pandemic. In a sense, the coronavirus pandemic is a test of America’s national character and it is perhaps a stress test for the organizing principles of all the major civilizations. An ideal outcome of the competition between the different civilizations for global preeminence would be equilibrium as well as mutual understanding in the way of establishing global order, social harmony, and stability on a global scale amidst the chaos and the plethora of transnational challenges that have emerged over the last few decades. The late Samuel Huntington, in the conclusion of his most famous work titled “The Clash of Civilizations,” suggested that the key to establishing global order and avoiding social strife on a global level in the 21st century would be for the different civilizations to focus on internal development while fostering mutual respect and understanding between one another. Equilibrium is perhaps likely in the long run, given that power is now dispersed due to globalization and technology.

As the economist Jeffrey Sachs has recently written in a book titled “The Ages of Globalization,” the world is transitioning away from the “Industrial Age” of globalization led by Britain and the United States towards the “Digital Age” in which technology and the internet is now dispersed throughout the world. However, each transition from one age of globalization to another is marred with conflict and social strife. Thus, the transition from the “Industrial Age” to the “Digital Age” includes the potential for conflict between the two major powers of our time, namely, the United States and China. But through an inevitable balance and equilibrium in the international system, there is perhaps a chance for the establishment of global order and peace once there is an appreciation for our common humanity as well as the immense cultural and civilizational diversity found within the international community.

By nature, the world is diverse and heterogeneous in terms of cultures and civilizations, not homogeneous and uniform, and an acknowledgment of that fact should prompt the fostering of mutual respect and social harmony rather than conflict and social strife. Although the establishment of global order based on an appreciation for diversity is a highly idealistic notion, it is perhaps the only realistic means of attaining such a vital need.

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