I’ve been reading recently about the people of Southeast Asia who seem to have chosen a “lower” level of development – and a freer, less laborious life – with an attempt to look at a view of history from outside the nation state, and that took me on to Joseph A Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies.
Published in 1988 it is a book that sometimes shows its age (and I think its account of the Ik in northern Uganda – based on others’ research – is frankly bizarre and nonsensical; the controversy is discussed on Wikipedia).
But I found myself revisiting the thoughts of how many peoples through history might have chosen to move back to a lower level of complexity and technology, in the interests of a better life (a thought with obvious importance today).
Tainter is, as you’d expect, much interested in the fall of Rome, which he puts down to, as with other cases, to a decline on the rate of return on expansion, to the point where it starts to be negative: “the Empire had to maintain a far-flung, inflexible administrative and military structure on the basis of variable agricultural output, and in the face of an increasingly hostile political environment.” (p. 149) “During the fourth and fifth centuries .. The Empire… was suistaining itself by the consumption of its capital resources: producing lands and peasant population…. the Dominate paid for the present by undermining the future’s ability to pay taxes… reduced finances weakened military defense, while military disasters in turn meant further loss of producing lands and population.” (p. 150)
His view of the so-called Dark Ages is rather different to the classic one: “The collapse yielded at the same time both a reduction in the costs of complexity and an increase in the marginal return on its investment. The smaller, Germanic kingdoms that succeeded Roman rile in the West were more successful at resisting foreign incursions (e.g. Huns and Arabs) than had been the later Empire. They did so, morever, at lower administrative and military costs. The economic prosperity of North Africa actually rose under the Vandals, but declined again under Justinian’s reconquest when Imperial taxes were reimposed. Thus the paradoz of collapse: a drop in compexity brings ith it a corresponding rise in the marginal return on social investment.” (p. 151)
So there as, Tainter suggests, often a welcome for the “barbarians”. “Contemporary records indicate that, more than once, both rich and poor wished that the barbarians would deliver them from the burdens of Empire. While some of the civilian population resisted the barbarians (with varying degrees of earnestness), and many more were simply inert in the presence of the invaders, some actively fought for the barbarians. In 378, for example, Balkan miners went over en masse to the Visigoths. In Gaul the invaders were sometimes welcomed as liberators from the Imperial burden, and were even invited to occupy territory. … Zosimus, a writer of the second half of the fifth century AD, wrote of Thessaly and Macedonia that “as a result of this exaction of taxes city and ountryside ere full of laments and complaints and all invoked the barbarians and sought the help of the barbarians”.” (p. 147)
But why do some pressured societies collapse and others not? Tainter comes up with what he considers a preliminary conclusion. “There are significant differences in the evolutionary histories of societies that have emerged as isolated, dominant states, and those that have developed as interacting sets of what Renfrew has called ‘peer polities’ and B. Price has labelled ‘clusters’. … Peer politics aer those like the mycenaen states, the later small city-states of the Aegean and the Cyclades, or the centers of the Mayan Lolands, that ineract on an approximately equal level…. the option to collapse to a lower level of complexity is an invitation to be dominated by some other member of the cluster. To the extent that such domination is to be avoided, investment in organizational complexity must be maintained at a level comparable to one’s competiitiors, even if marginal returns become unfavourable. Complexity must be maintained regardless of cost. Such a situation seems to have characterized the aya, whose individual states developed as peer polities for centuries, and then collapsed within a few decades of each other. The post-Roman states of Europea have experienced an analogous situation, especially since the demise of the Carolingian Empire…. The costs of such a competitive system, as among the Maya, must be met by each polity, however unfavorable the marginal return. … Peasant political action in such a situation is most logically aimed at reformation rather than decomposition. Where the failure of a polity ould simply mean for peasants domination by some other, equivalent regime, withdrawal and apathy are meaningless. The political course followed by European peasants and other disaffected classes, under these constraints, as to increase participation, to expand their share of the decisionmaking process, and to secure thereby a more favorable return on organizational investment.” (p. 201)
I don’t, ultimately, find this book convincing as a whole. It seems very based on secondary research, perhaps inadequately processed or critically assessed, and a little too inclined to use evidence to suit the thesis of the moment. But I do think the ideas are interesting.