Decomplexifying Society – Joseph Tainter, George Monbiot, Paul Arbair, John Harris

A while back I posted some thoughts on Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies”. which, coincidentally, I finished in the week of the Brexit poll. The French writer Paul Arbair commented on my post and linked to his far, far more worked out version.

Paul’s post was picked up by George Monbiot in the Guardian:

And, as the French writer Paul Arbair notes in the most interesting essay I have read this year, beyond a certain level of complexity economies become harder to sustain. There’s a point at which further complexity delivers diminishing returns; society is then overwhelmed by its demands, and breaks down. He argues that the political crisis in western countries suggests we may have reached this point.

And, in the Guardian again, John Harris also picks up Paul’s essay 

There perhaps was a time when the idea that increasing complexity would benefit most people just about held true: the 1990s maybe spring to mind. But now? As we all know, wages are continuing to stagnate. Across the UK, Europe and the US, there are increasing worries about sluggish-to-flatlining productivity and disappointing economic growth. Automation is already disrupting millions of working lives. Therein, of course, lies huge opportunities for the insurgents now defining the political zeitgeist. Their basic approach is: a withering look at the labyrinthine realties of trade, technology, population movement, international agreements and the rest, followed by the simplest of answers: “Take back control”, “Make America great again”.

All this began to sit in my thoughts as I was putting together a radio documentary about the new populism, and reading a book by the US anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter, which brims with implied parallels between far-flung periods of history and more recent events. It may be some token of our turbulent times that it’s titled The Collapse of Complex Societies: I was alerted to it after reading a brilliant post-Brexit piece authored by French writer Paul Arbair, and I have been dipping into it ever since.

The book was published in 1988, just before the fall of communism was about to offer another case study in what it describes. One key pattern, it argues, applies to whole chunks of history: the way that increasingly complicated systems initially deliver big economic benefits, only for diminishing returns to set in, as systems of power and control become overstretched. Ever-increasing burdens are not matched by material rewards, and popular resentment kicks in.

Tainter’s text covers the demise of ancient Rome and collapse of Mayan civilization in the 9th century, the Minoans and Hittites, and the Chinese Zhou dynasty. He talks about common features of these societies’ fall: “revolts and provincial breakaways”, the end of long-distance trade, resource depletion, declining economic growth, and a point many societies have eventually crashed into: when they are “able to do little more than maintain the status quo”. Currencies become debased; “bridges and roads are not kept up”. Precipitous changes in climate often underlie what happens.

Harris contacts Tainter directly:

I got in touch with Tainter, and though he cautioned me against generalised comparisons, he agreed that complexity held the key to a lot of current developments. “The simpler past seems more attractive than today’s complex reality, and so people vote [thanks to] inchoate frustrations,” he told me. “They choose simplicity and locality over complexity; identity over internationalism. Politicians promote themselves by giving voice to this. Hence, in addition to Brexit, we have calls for Scottish independence, Catalan independence, and so forth.” If complexity and globalisation gave recognisable benefits, he said, the phenomenon would not be so widespread. Quite so, but this is the exact way in which modernity is failing.

Visions of imminent social collapse might be taking all this a bit too far. Or maybe not, for as Tainter writes: “Civilisations are fragile, impermanent things.” Are modern societies vulnerable? It’s a common belief, he says, that our technological capacity, energy resources and our knowledge of economics and history mean our civilisation should be able to survive “whatever crises ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable”.

But as a corrective, he then quotes the revered German classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s sobering take on the lessons of the Roman empire. Gin and Radiohead at the ready, then: “Civilisation can die, because it has already died once.”

Of course, one of the nuances which Tainter was thinking of when he warned Harris against “generalised comparisons” was that the collapse of the Roman Empire, was, for those who lived through it, probably experienced as a good thing rather than the apocalyptic, disastrous collapse we think of it as. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see Tainter’s influence as a prism to think about complex societies begin to gain traction – as well as the I-knew-him-before-he-was-famous factor (well, I don’t actually know him, but you get the point) which makes me glad to see Tainter’s name in print.

One would hope that perhaps there can be a movement from seeing this phenomenon of the diminishing returns of complexity in purely fatalistic terms. For these Guardian writers, the election of Trump and Brexit are expressions of inchoate, irrational forces which need explanation. (Personally, I would turn to Homer) As I noted in my prior post, Tainter has considerable sport with the civilisational-decay rhetotic  of Spengler and Toynbee, holding a passage of Spengler up to particular ridicule (although this is also one of the most stirring pieces of writing in the book), and it would be ironic if his work was simply used to buttress cultural pessimism.


Tainter’s framework is an attractive one as an explanatory model; I am increasingly wondering how it could be used to inform policy in a  creative, positive way. Basic guaranteed income, for instance, could be a way of decomplexifying the labyrinthine workings of welfare systems, as well as the other possible benefits  which were enumerated by Monbiot in a column:

A basic income (also known as a citizen’s income) gives everyone, rich and poor, without means-testing or conditions, a guaranteed sum every week. It replaces some but not all benefits (there would, for instance, be extra payments for pensioners and people with disabilities). It banishes the fear and insecurity now stalking the poorer half of the population. Economic survival becomes a right, not a privilege.

A basic income removes the stigma of benefits while also breaking open what politicians call the welfare trap. Because taking work would not reduce your entitlement to social security, there would be no disincentive to find a job – all the money you earn is extra income. The poor are not forced by desperation into the arms of unscrupulous employers: people will work if conditions are good and pay fair, but will refuse to be treated like mules. It redresses the wild imbalance in bargaining power that the current system exacerbates. It could do more than any other measure to dislodge the emotional legacy of serfdom. It would be financed by progressive taxation – in fact it meshes well with land value tax.

I am sure there is much that could be said about the basic income concept and, for the purpose of this post, I am not writing about it specifically, but as an example of how a goal of de-complexifying society could be concevied and achieved.


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