A Case for Collapse Studies

Universities have courses and sometimes entire departments devoted to cultural studies, race / ethnicity studies of one form or another, and gender studies. Why not a course, or even a department, devoted to collapse studies. Such a course or department would be exceptionally relevant these days.

What would such a course or department do?

For starters, it would challenge the onward-and-upward-forever view that began with the Enlightenment. Nothing new in that. Collapse studies would just take an idea that’s been “in the air” for some time now and make it clearer and sharper. It would note that civilizations, like people, have lifespans: birth, periods of growth and maturity, followed by increasing infirmity and decline and demise, whether through conquest, implosion, or some combination of the two.

Such a course or department would survey from various perspectives the great theorists of the rise, trajectory, and decline of civilizations. These include Spengler and Toynbee, Quigley on occasion, and above all, Sir John Bagot Glubb who is surely the least well-known name on that list who deserves to be known, if only because his ideas are far easier to digest.

Among living authors, a collapse studies course would need to include Dmitry Orlov and The Saker (whom I am sure has a good reason for using that pseudonym).

I’ve discussed Glubb’s views here, here, and here. Other worthwhile discussion can be found here. (Read Glubb’s original essay here.)

According to Glubb, civilizations go through the following somewhat overlapping stages:

  • Breakout and Age of Pioneers.
  • Age of Conquest
  • Age of Commerce
  • Age of Affluence
  • Age of Intellect
  • Age of Decadence

In the first stage, an originally seemingly unremarkable society takes off like a rocket, perhaps empowered by an idea such as liberty: its Age of Pioneers. It expands rapidly, and heaven help anyone or any culture that gets in the way (ask Native Americans): its Age of Conquest. Within a few generations, it spans a continent. Trade routes are laid down, a single administrative system is in place, a single language spoken, a single currency used: its Age of Commerce. During this period, and even before, it draws people from around the world. All who were there or who come proudly identify with the civilization, or their newly adopted home, and seek to further their role in it.

But then, Glubb observes, things slowly begin to go wrong. During the Age of Commerce, fortunes begin to be made. Money starts to become a fascination and an end in itself. Gradually, founding principles and the public good are forgotten: the Age of Affluence. This does little damage at first and might even be thought to be doing great good, for those fortunes are used to endow universities, build private research centers, further public education, and fund a variety of other programs deemed significant by founders and recipients. Media of various sorts take root and distribute information with increasing efficiency as technology improves. A middle class grows out of the myriad opportunities economic freedom makes possible.

But then, the chattering begins: an Age of Intellect. A professional intellectual class develops and discourses about problems of less and less importance to the whole. They lose sight of the fact that endless discussion does not lead civilizations, leadership does, and that “analysis paralysis” can cripple leadership.

Far worse is that some professional intellectuals, ensconced in academic safe havens, further theories and ideologies spun out of their imaginations and secular value systems having little or nothing to do with the realities of the civilization otherwise all around them. Their theories send them in search of imagined problems rather than guiding them toward solutions of existing ones. Such people may gain a following that tries to implement their ideas, however. Naturally, their efforts fail, often doing a lot of damage in the process. These efforts take on lives of their own and may feather the financial nests of growing institutions filling up with career bureaucrats.

The intellectuals have forgotten — or are extremely dubious about — the fundamentals that built the civilization. Quarreling and quibbling endlessly, pessimism and cynicism set in. They may start to question the idea of truth itself. They may confuse valid criticism with censorship. They may grow paranoid and confuse the weaponization of language in the service of narratives and agendas with their own strange idea that narratives and agendas are all that we have. Truth itself becomes a tool of authority, or dominant institutions, or of a dominant group.

Is any of this sounding familiar?

When we start to see more and more of the following, An Age of Decadence has set in:

  • Deepening pessimism among intellectuals.
  • A weakening of religion / religious institutions.
  • Materialism and the loss of a moral compass, especially in centers of political and economic influence.
  • Replacement of statesmen by celebrities (actors and actresses, sports heroes, entertainers).
  • Hedonism and frivolity among the masses: an “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” sensibility.
  • Influxes of new immigrants who, unlike their predecessors who contributed to the building of the society, refuse to assimilate and instead establish colonies, especially in cities. They retain their own language and culture rather than adopting the dominant one.
  • Increasingly radical forms of feminism emerge: women move into professions previously led by men, who are slowly emasculated.
  • An increasing willingness of the many to live at the expense of a bloated, bureaucratic state.
  • An unhealthy obsession with sex — in all forms and varieties.

Did the U.S. enter its Age of Decadence long ago? You tell me. Ours probably also includes the following:

  • Irrational warmongering and military posturing, as efforts to control the flows of money and resources grow ever more desperate.
  • Irrational monetary policy characterized by financialization instead of production (offshored to third world countries), and by borrowing against the future resulting in escalating debt in all sectors.
  • A widening gulf between rich and poor, with visible redistribution of wealth upward and into the hands of a corrupt, parasitic elite. One hears more and more about “haves” versus “have nots.”
  • The middle class created during the Ages of Affluence and Intellect is now visibly struggling with downward mobility. With productive work being outsourced or replaced by technology, many must go into debt to sustain the lifestyles they are accustomed to.
  • One sees extravagant displays of wealth by the “haves.”
  • Literacy and educational levels decline; students know more about pop culture icons and celebrities than they do the important figures in their society’s history.
  • One hears increasing cynicism about “the system”; more and more people are resigned and “turn inward” to cultivate their own private gardens, as it were. Indifference to the fate of the whole becomes manifest and spreads.
  • An emotional coldness characterizes more and more human interactions especially (but not limited to) the workplace, as more and more people grow indifferent to the fate of others.
  • Mere pessimism turns nihilist; health problems including mental illness rise, as does the suicide rate.

An Age of Decadence always precedes collapse. Around 15 years ago, Dmitry Orlov, author of Reinventing Collapse (2008) and other books, offered his Five Stages of Collapse thesis (updated recently): his five stages are:

  • Financial collapse, during which faith in “business as usual” is lost.
  • Commercial collapse, during which faith in the idea that “the market will provide” is lost.
  • Political collapse, during which faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost.
  • Social collapse, during which faith that “your own will take care of you” is lost.
  • Cultural collapse, during which faith in “the goodness of humanity” is lost.

I am not sure Orlov thought these would necessarily happen in this order. All seem to me to overlap with others. I am unsure why he does not mention education, which began to collapse long ago. He observes that commercial collapse must occur when more and more people are dead broke, especially in a market-driven society where your value as a person is determined by what’s in your pocket, bank account, investments, etc. That said, there are still plenty of people who believe the financial system will offer them huge profits if they can just make the right investments, or that the government will bail them out when all else fails.

Another author / blogger worth studying is Charles Hugh Smith, who doesn’t lay out a set of general stages or steps but rather just emphasizes, in great detail, how the various interactions between irrational financialization and borrowing, easy credit, the longstanding blowing of asset bubbles, increasing fragility, how the system generates increasing self-deception about its ability to face and solve its problems, and how all this sets up a domino effect so that disruption and dysfunction spread from system to system.

Works worth studying in any comprehensive course in collapse studies would have to include Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1990) and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed (2004). The former envisions collapse as a systemically forced reduction in complexity resulting from citizens’ refusal to participate in institutions they no longer see as beneficial. They stop cooperating en masse, and this renders those systems dysfunctional. They adjust down to greater simplicity.

Diamond believes societies collapse when their expansion, coupled with poor political choices, gradually undermines features of their environment on which they depend for their survival, e.g., crucial natural resources.

There are doubtless others I’ve not thought of — the subject grades into criticisms that global capitalism as it presently exists isn’t sustainable and must evolve into something less colonial, less elitist, and more humane, or it will invite increasing waves of revolt of the sort that began with movements like Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring — although arguably, moneyed interests have never had more wealth and power than they do at present and will likely respond to waves of revolt with increasingly totalitarian measures.

Is collapse inevitable? Glubb’s outline certainly suggests so. And according to Orlov, U.S. collapse is not only unavoidable but proceeding apace.

No one should miss, finally, The Saker’s timely examination of current events beginning with the murder-by-cop of George Floyd, who has now been turned from a human being killed by a psychopathic cop into a cultural and racial icon. The Saker exposes the myths that have taken root around Identity Politics which have contributed massively to the collapse of higher education. Around 30 years ago, I began investigating and then criticizing affirmative action programs and the radical feminists who had already become their primary beneficiaries. While doing so badly damaged my academic career, such as it was, I was not chased from my classroom by an angry mob, nor did I receive death threats. I doubt I would get off so easy in today’s far more hostile environment, or that I could hold black and white students to the same standards, on the same schedule, given an event like the George Floyd murder. (This.)

Collapse studies will emphasize, finally, that collapse is not a singular event or even a set of events although it will include such. It is a process. Analysis in terms of steps or stages surely suggests this. Thinking of collapse as a sudden, catastrophic event is Hollywood stuff. Such events occur, but they rarely bring down entire civilizations. Rome did not collapse in a day even when it was sacked, any more than (as the adage goes) it was built in a day.

Collapse being a process, we can look at the states of affairs listed above and answer for ourselves whether the U.S. — and much of Europe, for that matter — are collapsing.

This being a philosophy blog, does this have something to do with philosophy?

I think so. Kant and Hegel began to turn philosophers’ attention to history, and theorizing collapse surely follows in those footsteps even if not in a way they could have foreseen. Others, such as Condorcet and Comte theorized stages through which Western civilization has passed.

Does history have a goal? Comte thought so: culminating in his Third Stage, and idea I believe is now solidly refuted. It does not seem to have occurred to him that a civilization having achieved its Third Stage of “positive science” could gradually go into a tailspin.

Does history unwind in a linear fashion, or does it move in cycles. What evidence we have seems to favor a cyclical theory, even if ours has achieved technological heights no one in earlier cycles could have imagined, and even if a Christian worldview is superimposed over the worldly evidence, so that history ends with Christ’s return.

Is collapse, in that case, a necessary fate of civilizations built by fallible, mortal men — just like physical death in this world is our inevitable fate as persons?

I don’t know.

I’ve envisioned transcending Comte’s Stages theory further, so that if civilization is going into a tailspin during its Fourth Stage, a Fifth Stage may be possible to turn things around if the right people in the right institutions create the right technologies at the right time, and if their actions are replicated elsewhere in a growing network across the globe.

But there are no guarantees that this will happen. All we can do is put our ideas out there. The future will determine not whether or not collapse is inevitable but whether we avoided collapse in our particular case. At the moment, the prognosis is not looking good.

(Image courtesy of collapseofindustrialcivilization.com)

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About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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