Sunday, March 13, 2011

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.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Anderson, what portion of Mesoamerica did that work focus on? While I am somewhat familiar with the Incas and Mayans, I have studied the Aztec Empire in-depth. The Aztecs always defended their hegemonic regions, but also expanded aggressively from roughly 1458 until the arrival the Spanish in 1519. As for the Incas and the Mayans, my limited understanding was that they were fairly dominant in their respective regions until the arrival of the Spanish as well. I assume that is incorrect based on your post.