It was definitely the sort of week that could benefit from a little comic relief. The Ebola epidemic marked another week of rising death tolls and inadequate international response . Bombs rained down ineffectually on various corners of Iraq and Syria as the United States and an assortment of putative allies launched air strikes at the Islamic State insurgents; since air strikes by themselves don’t win wars, and none of the combatants except Islamic State and the people they’re attacking have shown any inclination to put boots on the ground, that high-tech tantrum also counts in every practical sense as an admission of defeat, a point which is doubtless not lost on Islamic State. Meanwhile stock markets worldwide plunged on an assortment of ghastly economic news, with most indexes giving up their 2014 gains and then some, and oil prices dropped on weakening demand, reaching levels that put a good many fracking firms in imminent danger of bankruptcy.
In the teeth of all this bad news, I’m pleased to say, Paul Krugman rose to the occasion and gave all of us in the peak oil scene something to laugh about. My regular readers will recall that Krugman assailed Post Carbon Institute a couple of weeks ago for having the temerity to point out that transitioning away from fossil fuels was, ahem, actually going to cost money. His piece was rebutted at once by Post Carbon’s Richard Heinberg and others, who challenged Krugman’s crackpot optimism and pointed out that the laws of physics and geology really do trump those of economics.
Krugman’s response—it really is a comic masterpiece, better than anything I’ve seen since the heyday of Francis Fukuyama—involved, among other non sequiturs and dubious claims, assailing mere scientists for thinking that they know more than economists. Er, let’s see: which of these two groups of people is expected to test their predictions against hard facts and discard a theory that produces inaccurate predictions? That’s what scientists do every working day, while economists apparently have something else to occupy their time. This may be why, when it comes to predicting macroeconomic conditions, economists these days are rarely as accurate as a tossed coin: consider the IMF’s continued advocacy of austerity programs as the road to prosperity when no country that has ever implemented them has ever achieved prosperity thereby, or for that matter the huge majority of economists who insisted the housing bubble wasn’t a bubble and wouldn’t crash, right up until the bottom dropped out.
Like so much great comedy, though, Krugman’s jest has its serious side. He sees a permanent condition of economic growth as the normal, indeed the inevitable state of affairs; it has doubtless never occurred to him that it might merely be a temporary anomaly, made possible only by the reckless extraction and consumption of half a billion years of fossil sunlight in a few short centuries. That the needle on the world’s fossil fuel gauge is swinging inexorably over toward E, to him, thus can only mean that some other source of cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy will have to be found to keep the engines of economic growth roaring on at full throttle. That there may be no such replacement for fossil fuels ready and waiting in Nature’s cookie jar, and that economic growth can thus give way to an economic contraction extending over decades and centuries to come, has never entered his darkest dream.
That is to say, Krugman is still thinking the thoughts of a bygone era when the assumptions guiding those thoughts are long past their pull date and a very different era is taking shape around him. That’s a common source of confusion in times of rapid change, and never more so than in the decline and fall of civilizations—the theme of the current series of posts here. One specific form of that confusion very often becomes the mechanism by which the governing elite of a society in decline removes itself from power, and that mechanism is what I want to discuss this week.
To make sense of that process, it’s going to be necessary to take a step back and revisit some of the points made in an earlier post in this series. I discussed there the way that the complex social hierarchies common to mature civilizations break down into larger and less stable masses in which new loyalties and hatreds more easily build to explosive intensity. America’s as good an example of that as any. A century ago, for example, racists in this country were at great pains to distinguish various classes of whiteness, with people of Anglo-Saxon ancestry at the pinnacle of whiteness and everybody else fitted into an intricate scheme of less-white categories below. Over the course of the twentieth century, those categories collapsed into a handful of abstract ethnicities—white, black, Hispanic, Asian—and can be counted on to collapse further as we proceed, until there are just two categories left, which are not determined by ethnicity but purely by access to the machinery of power.
Arnold Toynbee, whose immensely detailed exploration of this process remains the best account for our purposes, called those two the dominant minority and the internal proletariat. The dominant minority is the governing elite of a civilization in its last phases, a group of people united not by ethnic, cultural, religious, or ideological ties, but purely by their success in either clawing their way up the social ladder to a position of power, or hanging on to a position inherited from their forebears. Toynbee draws a sharp division between a dominant minority and the governing elite of a civilization that hasn’t yet begun to decline, which he calls a creative minority. The difference is that a creative minority hasn’t yet gone through the descent into senility that afflicts elites, and still recalls its dependence on the loyalty of those further down the social ladder; a dominant minority or, in my terms, a senile elite has lost track of that, and has to demand and enforce obedience because it can no longer inspire respect.
Everyone else in a declining civilization belongs to the second category, the internal proletariat. Like the dominant minority, the internal proletariat has nothing to unite it but its relationship to political power: it consists of all those people who have none. In the face of that fact, other social divisions gradually evaporate. Social hierarchies are a form of capital, and like any form of capital, they have maintenance costs, which are paid out in the form of influence and wealth. The higher someone stands in the social hierarchy, the more access to influence and wealth they have; that’s their payoff for cooperating with the system and enforcing its norms on those further down.
As resources run short and a civilization in decline has to start cutting its maintenance costs, though, the payoffs get cut. For obvious reasons, the higher someone is on the ladder to begin with, the more influence they have over whose payoffs get cut, and that reliably works out to “not mine.” The further down you go, by contrast, the more likely people are to get the short end of the stick. That said, until the civilization actually comes apart, there’s normally a floor to the process, somewhere around the minimum necessary to actually sustain life; an unlucky few get pushed below this, but normally it’s easier to maintain social order when the very poor get just enough to survive. Thus social hierarchies disintegrate from the bottom up, as more and more people on the lower rungs of the latter are pushed down to the bottom, erasing the social distinctions that once differentiated them from the lowest rung.
That happens in society as a whole; it also happens in each of the broad divisions of the caste system—in the United States, those would be the major ethnic divisions. The many shades of relative whiteness that used to divide white Americans into an intricate array of castes, for instance, have almost entirely gone by the boards; you have to go pretty far up the ladder to find white Americans who differentiate themselves from other white Americans on the basis of whose descendants they are. Further down the ladder, Americans of Italian, Irish, and Polish descent—once strictly defined castes with their own churches, neighborhoods, and institutions—now as often as not think of themselves as white without further qualification.
The same process has gotten under way to one extent or another in the other major ethnic divisions of American society, and it’s also started to dissolve even those divisions among the growing masses of the very poor. I have something of a front-row seat on that last process; I live on the edge of the low-rent district in an old mill town in the Appalachians, and shopping and other errands take me through the neighborhood on foot quite often. I walk past couples pushing baby carriages, kids playing in backyards or vacant lots, neighbors hanging out together on porches, and as often as not these days the people in these groups don’t all have the same skin color. Head into the expensive part of town and you won’t see that; the dissolution of the caste system hasn’t extended that far up the ladder—yet.
This is business as usual in a collapsing civilization. Sooner or later, no matter how intricate the caste system you start with, you end up with a society divided along the lines sketched out by Toynbee, with a dominant minority defined solely by its access to power and wealth and an internal proletariat defined solely by its exclusion from these things. We’re not there yet, not in the United States; there are still an assortment of intermediate castes between the two final divisions of society—but as Bob Dylan said a long time ago, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.
The political implications of this shift are worth watching. As I’ve noted here more than once, ruling elites in mature civilizations don’t actually exercise power themselves; they issue general directives to their immediate subordinates, who hand them further down the pyramid; along the way the general directives are turned into specific orders, which finally go to the ordinary working Joes and Janes who actually do the work of maintaining the status quo against potential rivals, rebels, and dissidents. A governing elite that hasn’t yet gone senile knows that it has to keep the members of its overseer class happy, and provides them with appropriate perks and privileges toward this end. As the caste system starts to disintegrate due to a shortage of resources to meet maintenance costs, though, the salaries and benefits at the bottom of the overseer class get cut, and more and more of the work of maintaining the system is assigned to poorly paid, poorly trained, and poorly motivated temp workers whose loyalties don’t necessarily lie with their putative masters.
You might think that even an elite gone senile would have enough basic common sense left to notice that losing the loyalty of the people who keep the elite in power is a fatal error. In practice, though, the disconnection between the world of the dominant elite and the world of the internal proletariat quickly becomes total, and the former can be completely convinced that everything is fine when the latter know otherwise. As I write this, there’s a timely example unfolding at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, where hospital administrators have been insisting at the top of their lungs that every possible precaution was taken when the late Thomas Duncan was being treated there for Ebola. According to the nursing staff—two of whom have now come down with the disease—“every possible precaution” amounted to no training, inadequate protective gear, and work schedules that had nurses who treated Duncan go on to tend other patients immediately thereafter.
A few weeks ago, the US media was full of confident bluster about how our high-tech medical industry would swing into action and stop the disease in its tracks; the gap between those easy assurances and the Keystone Kops response currently under way in Dallas is the same, mutatis mutandis, as the gap between the august edicts proclaimed in the capital during the last years of every civilization and the chaos in the streets and on the borders. You can see the same gap at work every time the US government trots out the latest round of heavily massaged economic statistics claiming that prosperity is just around the corner, or—well, I could go on listing examples for any number of pages.
So the gap that opens up between the dominant minority and the internal proletariat is much easier to see from below than from above. Left to itself, that gap would probably keep widening until the dominant minority toppled into it. It’s an interesting regularity of history, though, that this process is almost never left to run its full length. Instead, another series of events overtakes it, with the same harsh consequences for the dominant minority.
To understand this it’s necessary to include another aspect of Toynbee’s analysis, and look at what’s going on just outside the borders of a civilization in decline. Civilizations prosper by preying on their neighbors; the mechanism may be invasion and outright pillage, demands for tribute backed up by the threat of armed force, unbalanced systems of exchange that concentrate wealth in an imperial center at the expense of the periphery, or what have you, but the process is the same in every case, and so are the results. One way or another, the heartland of every civilization ends up surrounded by an impoverished borderland, scaled according to the transport technologies of the era. In the case of the ancient Maya, the borderland extended only a modest distance in any direction; in the case of ancient Rome, it extended north to the Baltic Sea and east up to the borders of Parthia; in the case of modern industrial society, the borderland includes the entire Third World.
However large the borderland may be, its inhabitants fill a distinctive role in the decline and fall of a civilization. Toynbee calls them the external proletariat; as a civilization matures, their labor provides a steadily increasing share of the wealth that keeps the civilization and its dominant elite afloat, but they receive essentially nothing in return, and they’re keenly aware of this. Civilizations in their prime keep their external proletariats under control by finding and funding compliant despots to rule over the borderlands and, not incidentally, distract the rage of the external proletariat to some target more expendable than the civilization’s dominant minority. Here again, though, maintenance costs are the critical issue. When a dominant minority can no longer afford the subsidies and regular military expeditions needed to keep their puppet despots on their thrones, and try to maintain peace along the borders on teh cheap, they invariably catalyze the birth of the social form that brings them down.
Historians call it the warband: a group of young men whose sole trade is violence, gathered around a charismatic leader. Warbands spring up in the borderlands of a civilization as the dominant minority or its pet despots lose their grip, and go through a brutally Darwinian process of evolution thereafter in constant struggle with each other and with every other present or potential rival in range. Once they start forming, there seems to be little that a declining civilization can do to derail that evolutionary process; warbands are born of chaos, their activities add to the chaos, and every attempt to pacify the borderlands by force simply adds to the chaos that feeds them. In their early days, warbands cover their expenses by whatever form of violent activity will pay the bills, from armed robbery to smuggling to mercenary service; as they grow, raids across the border are the next step; as the civilization falls apart and the age of migrations begins, warbands are the cutting edge of the process that shreds nations and scatters their people across the map.
The process of warband formation itself can quite readily bring a civilization down. Very often, though, the dominant minority of the declining civilization gives the process a good hard shove. As the chasm between the dominant minority and the internal proletariat becomes wider, remember, the overseer class that used to take care of crowd control and the like for the dominant minority becomes less and less reliable, as their morale and effectiveness are hammered by ongoing budget cuts, and the social barriers that once divided them from the people they are supposed to control will have begun to dissolve if they haven’t entirely given way yet. What’s the obvious option for a dominant minority that is worried about its ability to control the internal proletariat, can no longer rely on its own overseer class, and also has a desperate need to find something to distract the warbands on its borders?
They hire the warbands, of course.
That’s what inspired the Roman-British despot Vortigern to hire the Saxon warlord Hengist and three shiploads of his heavily armed friends to help keep the peace in Britannia after the legions departed. That’s what led the Fujiwara family, the uncrowned rulers of Japan, to hire uncouth samurai from the distant, half-barbarous Kanto plain to maintain peace in the twilight years of the Heian period. That’s why scores of other ruling elites have made the obvious, logical, and lethal choice to hire their own replacements and hand over the actual administration of power to them.
That latter is the moment toward which all the political trends examined in the last four posts in this sequence converge. The disintegration of social hierarchies, the senility of ruling elites, and the fossilization of institutions all lead to the hour of the knife, the point at those who think they still rule a civilization discover the hard way—sometimes the very hard way—that effective power has transferred to new and more muscular hands. Those of the elites that attempt to resist this transfer rarely survive the experience. Those who accommodate themselves to the new state of affairs may be able to prosper for a time, but only so long as their ability to manipulate what’s left of the old system makes them useful to its new overlords. As what was once a complex society governed by bureaucratic institutions dissolves into a much simpler society governed by the personal rule of warlords, that skill set does not necessarily wear well.
In some cases—Hengist is an example—the warlords allow the old institutions to fall to pieces all at once, and the transition from an urban civilization to a protofeudal rural society takes place in a few generations at most. In others—the samurai of the Minamoto clan, who came out on top in the furious struggles that surrounded the end of the Heian period, are an example here—the warlords try to maintain the existing order of society as best they can, and get dragged down by the same catabolic trap that overwhelmed their predecessors. In an unusually complex case—for example, post-Roman Italy—one warlord after another can seize what’s left of the institutional structure of a dead empire, try to run it for a while, and then get replaced by someone else with the same agenda, each change driving one more step down the long stair that turned the Forum into a sheep pasture.
In other news, I'm pleased to announce that my latest book from New Society Publications, After Progress: Reason, Religion, and the End of the Industrial Age is now available for preorder, with a 20% discount off the cover price as an additional temptation. Those readers who enjoyed last year's series of posts on religion and the end of progress will find this very much to their taste.