Societies collapse, suddenly
Fifteen years ago, I noticed that when things change, they change suddenly. One day there was Hitler and the German population strutting their stuff, but within short order you couldn’t find a Nazi in Germany anywhere. None of them had supported the Nazi party. All those pictures of hundreds of thousands of cheering Germans were but hallucinations.
We saw the same thing happen with the internet bubble – riches to rags in a few months. September 11th took us from a comfortable, silly society in which our biggest problem was summer shark attacks to the society we have today. In short order.
It turns out that this has been studied:
Don’t call me a “declinist.” I really don’t believe the United States—or Western civilization, more generally—is in some kind of gradual, inexorable decline.
But that’s not because I am one of those incorrigible optimists who agree with Winston Churchill that the United States will always do the right thing, albeit when all other possibilities have been exhausted.
In my view, civilizations don’t rise, fall, and then gently decline, as inevitably and predictably as the four seasons or the seven ages of man. History isn’t one smooth, parabolic curve after another. Its shape is more like an exponentially steepening slope that quite suddenly drops off like a cliff.
If you don’t know what I mean, pay a visit to Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. In 1530 the Incas were the masters of all they surveyed from the heights of the Peruvian Andes. Within less than a decade, foreign invaders with horses, gunpowder, and lethal diseases had smashed their empire to smithereens. Today tourists gawp at the ruins that remain.
The notion that civilizations don’t decline but collapse inspired the anthropologist Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse. But Diamond focused, fashionably, on man-made environmental disasters as the causes of collapse. As a historian, I take a broader view. My point is that when you look back on the history of past civilizations, a striking feature is the speed with which most of them collapsed, regardless of the cause.
The Roman Empire didn’t decline and fall sedately, as historians used to claim. It collapsed within a few decades in the early fifth century, tipped over the edge of chaos by barbarian invaders and internal divisions. In the space of a generation, the vast imperial metropolis of Rome fell into disrepair, the aqueducts broken, the splendid marketplaces deserted.
The Ming dynasty’s rule in China also fell apart with extraordinary speed in the mid–17th century, succumbing to internal strife and external invasion. Again, the transition from equipoise to anarchy took little more than a decade.
A more recent and familiar example of precipitous decline is, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, if you still doubt that collapse comes suddenly, just think of how the postcolonial dictatorships of North Africa and the Middle East imploded this year. Twelve months ago, Messrs. Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi seemed secure in their gaudy palaces. Here yesterday, gone today.
What all these collapsed powers have in common is that the complex social systems that underpinned them suddenly ceased to function. One minute rulers had legitimacy in the eyes of their people; the next they didn’t.
Think Occupy Movement. Do they consider The Constitution of the United States to be legitimate?
Remember that poster that used to hang in every college dorm, of a runaway steam train that has crashed through the wall of a rail station and hit the street below, nose first? The caption was: “Oh sh*t!” I believe it’s time to ask how close the United States is to the “Oh sh*t!” moment—the moment we suddenly crash downward like that train.
The West first surged ahead of the Rest after about 1500 thanks to a series of institutional innovations that I call the “killer applications”:
1. Competition. …
2. The Scientific Revolution. …
3. The Rule of Law and Representative Government….
4. Modern Medicine. …
5. The Consumer Society. …
6. The Work Ethic. …
For hundreds of years, these killer apps were essentially monopolized by Europeans and their cousins who settled in North America and Australasia. They are the best explanation for what economic historians call “the great divergence”: the astonishing gap that arose between Western standards of living and those in the rest of the world.
In 1500 the average Chinese was richer than the average North American. By the late 1970s the American was more than 20 times richer than the Chinese. Westerners not only grew richer than “Resterners.” They grew taller, healthier, and longer-lived. They also grew more powerful. By the early 20th century, just a dozen Western empires—-including the United States—controlled 58 percent of the world’s land surface and population, and a staggering 74 percent of the global economy.
Beginning with Japan, however, one non-Western society after another has worked out that these apps can be downloaded and installed in non-Western operating systems. That explains about half the catching up that we have witnessed in our lifetimes, especially since the onset of economic reforms in China in 1978.
Now, I am not one of those people filled with angst at the thought of a world in which the average American is no longer vastly richer than the average Chinese. Indeed, I welcome the escape of hundreds of millions of Asians from poverty, not to mention the improvements we are seeing in South America and parts of Africa. But there is a second, more insidious cause of the “great reconvergence,” which I do deplore—and that is the tendency of Western societies to delete their own killer apps.
Ask yourself: who’s got the work ethic now? The average South Korean works about 39 percent more hours per week than the average American. The school year in South Korea is 220 days long, compared with 180 days here. And you don’t have to spend too long at any major U.S. university to know which students really drive themselves: the Asians and Asian-Americans.
He is going over his points in the current context. I’m skipping most of them, but this is interesting:
The rule of law? For a real eye-opener, take a look at the latest World Economic Forum (WEF) Executive Opinion Survey. On no fewer than 15 of 16 different issues relating to property rights and governance, the United States fares worse than Hong Kong. Indeed, the U.S. makes the global top 20 in only one area: investor protection. On every other count, its reputation is shockingly bad. The U.S. ranks 86th in the world for the costs imposed on business by organized crime, 50th for public trust in the ethics of politicians, 42nd for various forms of bribery, and 40th for standards of auditing and financial reporting.
I mention this because I think we have a problem with corruption in our legal system, and that corruption really threatens the sturdiness of our whole society. If we can’t trust the court system to be above board, we might as well let organized crime run things.
He’s kinda glum:
If what we are risking is not decline but downright collapse, then the time frame may be even tighter than one election cycle.
Ya’ know… people are busy. Voting is an inconvenience and trying to understand these complex issues is just a waste of time. Barry will handle it.
We’ve delegated our future.