Monday, March 7, 2011

A passage so good I'm typing it out in full

"The citizens of modern complex societies usually do not realize that we are an anomaly of history. Throughout the several million years that recognizable humans are known to have lived, the common political unit was the small, autonomous community, acting independently, and largely self-sufficient. Robert Carneiro has estimated that 99.8 percent of human history has been dominated by these autonomous local communities (1978:219). It has only been within the last 6000 years that something unusual has emerged: the hierarchical, organized, interdependent states that are the major reference for our contemporary political experience. Complex societies, once established, tend to expand and dominate, so that today they control most of the earth's lands and people, and are perpetually vexed by those still beyond their reach. A dilemma arises from this: we today are familiar mainly with political forms that are an oddity of history, we think of these as normal, and we view as alien the majority of the human experience. It is little surprise that collapse is viewed so fearfully."
From Joseph Tainter's fascinating book "The Collapse of Complex Societies", which I'm halfway through. Thoroughly recommended.


  1. Great point -- and I think it should make anyone think twice before disparaging the "tribal mentality" that seems to thwart all attempts to make Western-style development take root in various parts of the world. Western democracies (soi-disant) are particularly ready to trash tribalism in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and generally in the Middle East when it works contrary to Western interests, but another view of it might be that, if it ain't broken, don't fix it.

  2. The tribal mentality may not be pretty for westerners to watch, but it certainly is a quite stable and functional way to solve a class of social organization problems.

    Tainter himself is very careful not to make value judgment statements about the differences in societies, but does usefully point out that social complexity is an important way of distinguishing between them. And while he doesn't dwell on it at length, social complexity tends to be correlated with things that I would be willing to make value judgments on - namely GDP per capita, reliability of food supply, life expectancy, fraction of the population killed in wars or violence, etc. I personally would favor civil liberties as well, but the earlier list is fairly universal in its appeal - no society, regardless of its views on civil rights, wishes to be poorer, live for less time, etc.

    To the extent that western society has been able to produce these things, and tribalism endangers them, I tend to think that the former makes for better societies than the latter.

    But what is interesting is that Tainter describes a lot of societies that increased complexity (and thus GDP etc.) relative to their predecessors and successors, and yet had views on rights that you and I would find horrifying - highly centralised, rigid social castes, human sacrifices etc. And yet they were able to sustain many more people in much higher living standards than the tribal societies before them. That certainly presents a challenge to the standard western worldview that rights are important for development, and makes it hard for most western people to know what to feel about those societies overall.