I’ve been working on my dissertation and re-reading lots of the research I’ve done on socio-political collapse, particularly Joseph Tainter’s classic anthropological study, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter did a deep historical and cross-cultural study of societies in collapse around the globe, beginning from the Roman Empire and Mayan civilizations to the present. What he concluded from his study was illuminating:
1 Societies usually collapse from the top-down, and from the center to the periphery; collapse begins as socio-political collapse, then economic collapse, and finally, ecological collapse.
2 Collapse is not failure; in many cases it is a necessary adaptation to extreme social distress that allows the human species to continue to survive and evolve;
3 Like social ecologist Howard T. Odum, Tainter also found that, historically, collapse from a very complex society to a simpler society is periodic and essential to continue civilization and evolution; Odum called this ‘pulsing’ collapse, and found that it happens across species and ecosystems; it is a regular feature of evolving ecosystems;
4 Societies collapse to a less complex state of organization, and then rebuild towards a more advanced kind of social and technological complexity; absolute collapse is rare; partial collapse to a lower level of complexity is more common;
5 Though it is sometimes necessary and inevitable, collapse is not without crisis and cost; whole populations suffer a decreased quality of life; however, it does not need to entail ‘die-off’ of populations, which is an extremely rare situation (so don’t let the ‘die-off websites scare you needlessly).
6 Precipitating collapse, ‘Elites’ (e.g. Donald Trump, Goldman Sachs) control and consume ever more of the available resources, placing greater stress, lower quality of life, increasing risk to ‘support populations’ (that’s us);
7 Support populations withdraw their support from elites to save themselves, and the system begins to collapse from the top-down;
8 At first, collapse is an advantage: By throwing off elites, support populations reap an ‘energy advantage’, gain more access to resources, and a freedom to reorganize their lives in new ways, towards new goals. Society simplifies to a lower level of complexity, but it does not collapse absolutely;
9 If society can reorganize itself at the lower level of complexity, it can rebuild a complexity that is commensurate with changed eco-social conditions;
So here’s how I would apply this to the current situation with Donald Trump and the sudden appearance of authoritarian regimes around the world. Authoritarianism is the last ditch effort of elites to hold on to power and resources, to stave off collapse, their own primarily. It is what Gunderson and Holling called in Panarchy the ‘K’ phase, based on their studies of adaptive cycles in evolving ecosystems. The ‘K’ phase is where the controllers (elites) in a system centralize and tighten up control of resources. This ‘tightening’ also creates rigidities in the system, making it more ‘brittle’ or prone to collapse.
What we see in authoritarian forms of government looks like a loosening of controls, at the top, because what they are doing is loosening distributive regulation of resources that provide benefits and support to the population. Loosening these distributive rules and regulations allows elites to capture and control ever more of these resources. Resources are then under the control of a smaller, more powerful and more violent elite, who deprive support populations of resources necessary for survival at that level of complexity. This is part of the K ‘rigidity’ phase of the adaptive cycle.
But this situation can’t last; elites get caught in wars of competition with each other, and without support populations, they can’t cary out exploitation of those resources. When elites begin to fail, complexity collapses from the top-down. At first, this is an advantage. Support populations can reorganize their communities at a lower level of complexity, throw off exploitative elites, and gain access to the resources they need.
We always see elites make the power-grab just after an initial stage of collapse: Hitler after the World War I; Putin and the Russian Oligarchs after the collapse of the Soviet Union; Donald Trump after the US/world economic collapse of 2008. My theory is that the rise of authoritarian governments around the world, from Russia to Europe to China, to many smaller authoritarian states e.g. Syria (Assad), Turkey (Erdogan), the Philippines (Duterte), that are instituting authoritarian regimes, robbing nations of their wealth and provoking civil wars, are the continuing effects of the world-wide economic collapse of 2008.
What we’re witnessing in the US is the next phase of a collapse scenario, as Umair Haque so rightly describes it. The utter failure of the Trump regime, his administration’s circus-like antics of distraction and dysfunction, its criminality and disregard for democratic norms, and its attempts to capture resources and tighten control from the top should be a warning to us: collapse is immanent. Again, not total collapse, but collapse to a lower level of complexity than we’re used to.
What Umair Haque has been describing is the socio-political collapse that is already underway: we turn on each other. Desperate populations, sensing the disconnect and failure of the political system, the decreasing standard of living and economic stress, resort to violent competition for resources between population segments (racial divisions) and civil war; this what Tainter predicts as socio-political collapse.
In fact, we need to understand that the constant churn, dysfunction and chaos at the top of the Trump administration is a deliberate strategy to break down the democratic power of the Federal government, to render it non-functional or only functional for protecting the interests of elites. Donald Trump looks dumb, but he knows exactly what he’s doing, because he’s learned how to set up a criminal oligarchy from his great mentor and model, Vladimir Putin and Russia.
What we in the US have been trying to do for the last 18 months of the Trump administration is desperately return the system to a state of ‘normal’, to its prior homeostasis. But this is probably not possible. It is a necessary strategy that we, yes, elect as many Democrats as we can in the 2018 election cycle, in the hopes that, yes, we can impeach Donald Trump. But that will not stave off collapse. The system will not go back to ‘normal.’ These strategies are what Joanna Macy calls ‘holding actions’, they prevent further harm and damage. The attempt to elect Democrats and impeach Trump will only buy us some time and preserve some of our resources as we enter the next phase of collapse, what Gunderson and Holling call the Omega Ω phase, the actual collapse to a lower level of complexity.
This week Congress is passing a bill to deregulate the banks and high finance, repealing the Frank-Dodd Act, which will return the financial sector to the same crap shoot of chaos and casino gambling that it enjoyed prior to the financial collapse in 2008. This has nothing to do with Trump, who seems more involved in hiring new White House staff from Fox and Friends. More tax cuts are coming, more financial deregulation, which will fire up the US economy to the point of nuclear meltdown. And contrary to Trump’s myopic views, it doesn’t stay in America First—it will send economies around the globe into another spasm of economic collapse, this time worse than 2008.
At this stage, as we become more aware of collapse, we should be focusing our efforts more at the bottom of the social strata than at the top. We may not be able to stave off socio-political collapse from the top-down. We may not be able to unseat Trump and his criminal administration; we may not be able to stop the dismantling of the Federal government. But we can begin to rebuild governance from the ground up, at the municipal level, up to the State level. Cities and States can take over and replace some of the functions of a collapsing federal government. And that may be the only real option we have from this point forward.
We need to rebuild trust and good will in our communities; first, by setting up non-violent conflict resolution to reverse the trend toward social unrest and civil war. We need to get control of resources at the local level before they become unaffordable and unobtainable. Trump’s trade wars will not return manufacturing to the US or revive dying industries like coal. It will only make the convenience and status goods that we have come to rely on more expensive, lowering our quality of life. Health care and health insurance will become more expensive and in some cases unobtainable for sick populations. Food, water and fuel will become more expensive, as will many other necessary commodities. These essentials will not become scarce, but everything will get more expensive. We saw this happen in Tunisia and Egypt before the ‘Arab Spring,’ and we see this happening now in Venezuela.
The model we should be following is the Podemos Party revolution in Spain, which came out of the Indignados movement in Barcelona and Madrid. These movements began to recentralize democratic power in the Cities, where people can have, by democratic assembly, direct democratic control over the regulations and resources that support their lives. It is time for the Radical Municipal movement, beyond Transition Towns, toward making Cities the center of our economic and political lives. States can be used as legal boundaries that fend off assaults from an aggressive and rapacious federal government, such as when California declared itself a ‘sanctuary state’ for immigrants and refugees and refused to cooperate with Trump’s deportation regime. Likewise, the region of Catalan brokered independence from Spain, so that it could continue it’s city-focused Podemos movement. This is not a collapse to a peasant or barbarous state, but a decrease in complexity to a lower hierarchy and simpler political structure, the City, where a decent quality of life can be produced and secured.