Can we choose to descend to a less intensive, simpler level of technology and organisation? Have we done it before?

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.


  • December 14, 2011 - 11:54 am | Permalink

    There’s so many dimensions to this type of debate, economic, political, social and so on.

    I sometimes wonder about ‘the simpler life’ and the knock-on impacts on free-time and so forth but there’s so many dynamics from commerce, entrepreneurship and ultimately from military force that attempt to fill the gaps left by anyone that goes less intensive.

    I was in the Aegean/Cycladian island of Delos during the Spring and that’s a great example of what you describe above. Central free trade zone, oversubscribed and then wiped out by marauders (quite some time ago max pop was 30,000 nowadays its 12).

    I’m also not sure that some of the tools and techniques we all use have really reached that state of ‘quietness’ to be effective? There’s still too many things that go wrong with (e.g.) most IT based elements. ‘Simpler’ may need to equate to ‘quieter’ rather than refuting its use.

    Seasonal greetings.

  • December 17, 2011 - 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Seasons greetings to you Rashbre – lovely to see you hanging in here despite long periods of silence!

    I think the gaps being filled is a problem – that’s why whole societies doing this is more interesting than individuals or small groups like communes.

    Does it have to be global? Given we’re in a globalised orld maybe it does, but given the magnitude of that task maybe we can start with the nation state…

  • December 30, 2011 - 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi,I have long been wondering what female feminists are about in the West.Few of you are still able to recall the agenda,or perhaps few of you knew in the first place.The issue of complexity in society depends on some factors.This in the context of survival of the entity in question.i.e.,the Western European tradition/Caucasian mainly democratic nation-states.Is (increasing)complexity essential for (our)survival?Is it necessary to reduce complexity in order to ensure our survival?Most,if not all answers to basis questions are reduced to a paradox-which can be reduced again at a higher level of total integral perspective.So the answer is:Both.Complexity has a tendency to reduce constraint on free creative input at some stage.Like bureaucracy,power-over,lesser/greater monopolies,it tends to a free-for-all which results in a fairly sudden and exponential choking off of free input by those inputs which gain the upper hand.Hence the growing dominance of the Western based(sofar)supra-national corporate clique of giant entities.Hence,the increase of faux democracy/political representation/open debate,etc.,and a decrease in democracy according to the best Western European(Christian)tradition.If one leaves it to the natural logical conclusion,the West will reduce to corporate neo-feudalism.The alternative is for the European bloc,at least,to get a handle on this increasing complexity before we lose control of our own affairs.We need not shun complexity.We need to learn to deal with it.This means moving our perspective and level of reasoning to a higher level of understanding how it works,ie:Manifestation,nature,human nature,politics,psychology,and so on-Getting your/our priorities right.There is an awful lot of inane/knitting circle blather going on amongst people who kid themselves that they are politically aware and socio/politically pro-active.

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  • September 9, 2016 - 2:38 am | Permalink

    Highly energetic article, I loved that bit. Will there be a part 2?

  • September 9, 2016 - 4:49 pm | Permalink

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