We have to evaluate the perceptions that mint facts and theory, not merely peruse the body of theories handed down to us.
Why do civilizations collapse? This question bears not only on safeguarding our society’s future but also makes sense of our present. The answer relies on some of the same technē that humanity needed to build civilization in the first place: we have to evaluate the perceptions that mint facts and theory, not merely peruse the body of theories handed down to us.
Institutional failure comes as a surprise because organizations try to hide their shortcomings. They lean on other, more functional organizations in order to keep up appearances. During civilizational collapse, no organization can properly hide its own inadequacy, since the whole interdependent ecosystem of institutions is caving in on itself. States, religions, material technologies, and ways of life that once seemed self-sustaining turn out to have been dependent on the invisible subsidy of just a few key institutions. The environment of societal collapse reveals much of the otherwise obscured inner workings of crucial social technologies. After all, to analyze something is to break it apart!
Despite being an excellent epistemic opportunity, civilizational collapse seldom inspires introspection among thinkers living through it. Mayan or Roman thinkers don’t seem to have reflected on their ongoing collapse. As institutions turn to cannibalizing each other, there is little patronage or emotional energy going towards accurately describing the wider process. The notable exception that proves the rule of civilizational delusion is the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China. It is an encouraging example, since it shows a societal failure arrested and reversed by an intellectual golden age called the Hundred Schools of Thought. Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism could only come into being with this kind of epistemic opportunity.
In the West today, we operate under the influence of our own key philosophy, which we can call scientism: the tendency to rely on scientific claims to describe the functioning of society, even when there is no empirical reason to assume that they apply. We act as if we are already living in a scientifically-planned society, immune to collapse on a time scale that any of us have to worry about. This is very far from the truth. We are certainly living in socially-engineered societies, but they are not scientifically planned in any straightforward way. Our organs of economic management do not secretly know how the economy really works. Our systems of political regulation are operating on the fumes of their institutional inheritance from two or three generations ago—the last spurt of institutional growth in Western societies happened roughly during the 1970s. At this time in the United States, new federal bodies such as the Department of Energy and Education were created and organizations such as NASA reached their modern form. Concurrently, the United Kingdom dispensed with organized labor as a political force in favor of an expanded administrative apparatus, and France saw the resignation of Charles de Gaulle, the architect of the Fifth Republic; neither country’s political economy has evolved much since.
Civilizational collapse always looms on the horizon. Though we usually think of collapse as a slow process, it can in fact happen very quickly, as was the case with the Late Bronze Age collapse. The old dictum “gradually, then suddenly” is cliché, but accurate. To ascertain whether or not we are headed for collapse, we must first analyze the functionality of our own society and pinpoint where things go wrong.