The Sociology of Civilizational Collapse

How do we envisage our future? To ask this question usually invites reflections upon personal biography. More rarely does it address ‘our’ in a civilizational sense – I use the term loosely here to refer to the totality of organised human social life which, in contemporary circumstances I would take to be unitary (in the sense of global capitalism rather than an underlying species bond) but would not assume this has always been true. In this sense, speaking of ‘civilizational collapse’ does not entail the extinction of the human species (though neither does it rule this out) but rather the unravelling of the existing social order: not a change in its state but the collapse of its capacity to change states. I’m using a processual term because in the absence of a discrete event bringing about the extinction of the species this collapse would inevitably be a process and potentially an extremely slow one. I’m very interested in the constraints upon our capacity to envisage such a collapse and suggested a few points in a blog post earlier this year:

  • We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  • We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  • We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  • We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  • Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

Reading Tony Benn’s diaries I was intrigued to find that he was plagued by thoughts of impending collapse towards the end of his life. As he records on the 2nd November 2011:

I happened to see a television programme, when I was having my meal in the evening, about the Maya culture in Mexico. I had absolutely no idea that the temples they built were bigger than the pyramids; 1,500 years ago there was the most tremendously civilised society in Latin America, which simply disappeared, went under the jungle, and it does make you wonder whether ours might not do the same. There’s no absolute law to say that our civilisation will survive for ever.

That final line is a very succinct statement of what I was trying to get at with the notion of ‘the epistemology of civilizational collapse’: there’s nothing certain about the sustained survival of a civilisation and yet we assume that there is. A few years from his death (20th November 2008) Tony Benn described the nightmares that plagued him:

I have nightmares every morning. I am overwhelmed by the feeling that the world – Britain and the world – is going to collapse through shortage of oil. I visualise circumstances where people at the top of tower blocks would find that the lift couldn’t be run because there was no energy; doctors couldn’t climb twenty-four flights to stairs to look after them if they were ill; and the whole of society comes to an end.

There’s something interesting about a state of affairs where these ideas are largely confined to nightmares or to fiction. I’m sure there are people studying this (I’d be fascinated to find that there aren’t) but its relative absence from public discourse is surely susceptible to both sociological and psychoanalytical explanation. To clarify, I don’t think that much of the discourse surrounding climate change reaches the level of ‘collapse discourse’ of the sort I’m proposing: it’s technocratic on the one hand and individualised on the other.

I’m interested in exploring cultural representations of collapse as a means to understand the epistemology and sociology of collapse. I think that cultural representations of collapse are often post-hoc, elaborating a vision of the rebuilding of human society after a collapse has taken place. Whereas I’m fascinated by what the process itself would be like and how it would be understood by those within the collapsing social order. In spite of its many flaws, this was what I loved about the film Interstellar:

In fact I would have much preferred this film if it hadn’t had any of the science fiction and had just explored the transformed social order in which a “caretaker generation” seek to sustain the viability of an ever more inhospitable earth: I was gripped by the representations of a social order in which ascriptive identity had returned, agriculture dominated the American economy and the intellectual horizons of the society were narrowing into survival. I’m currently gripped by The Massive – a sociologically rich exploration of life post-collapse:

the massive

Perhaps when I talk about ‘collapse’ what I really mean are the conditions leading to dystopias? In a post earlier this year, Dan Hirschman put forward the idea for a course on real dystopias as a grim parallel to Erik Olin Wright’s work on real utopias. He suggested that “Each week or sub-unit would cover a different real dystopia, ideally with a guest lecturer who could speak to the underlying science or politics of the particular kind of dystopia.” These are the topics he suggested:

  1. Antibiotic resistant infections
  2. Widespread droughts and massive disruptions of the food supply connected to climate change
  3. The dominance of the patrimonial super-rich
  4. The Player Piano dystopia (“a relatively small clique of engineers built and maintained the machines, while a large class of unemployed workers lived lives of aimless poverty”)
  5. The Surveillance state dystopia

However I think it’s important to distinguish between states of collapse and dystopias. Representations of dystopias often presuppose the ecological viability of the underlying context, projecting it forward so as to conceive the future as a product of solely social processes. Representations of ecologically induced collapse often have a converse absence of substantive social content:

Whereas I’m interested in the relationship between the two. Ecological decline doesn’t necessitate collapse in the sense in which I’m using the concept but it does make it ever more likely. I’m wondering if some general philosophical propositions (the epistemology of civilizational collapse) could be explored through an analysis of fictional representations (the representation of civilizational collapse) to shed more light on the character of social processes (the sociology of civilizational collapse)?

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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4 replies »

  1. A very interesting article on a topic close to my heart!

    Isn’t it odd how we seem pathologically incapable of imagining a collapse in our own civilisation? In spite of seeing the collapse of the Soviet Union in our own lifetime, it just never seems feasible that it could happen to us. In fact, even something as seemingly-all pervasive as global capitalism is precarious. I speculate here that we have less than 100 years left in our current system:

    I happened upon this article from 2001 about globalisation and it could have been written yesterday: .

    We take it for granted that we live in a hyper-Globalised world, when in reality, it is mostly just financial institutions which are globalised. The lived reality of everyday existence is, for most people on the planet, very local. For example, only 10% of people in the UK are foreign-born. It could be the fact that the gatekeepers of knowledge live in large metropolitan centres – and the fact that global capitalism is our economic system – that makes us believe we live in a globalised society. That’s just one example, I guess, of our tendency to skew towards cosmopolitan, urban visions of reality.

    Many of the most likely distopian/future scenarios for us in the UK would actually involve movement away from cities (and rivers) towards the uplands. A starting point for imagining the new society would be somewhere as humdrum as Huddersfield or Barnsley, I would conjecture. The rule of law is deeply ingrained in the British psyche and the silent majority are white, lower middle-class suburbanites.

    Also, it’s worth looking at Ethnographies of gypsies, travellers, ravers, or perhaps middle-class caravaners to see how ad-hoc societies are created and perpetuated. And perhaps remembering that those most unfashionable of institutions – the family and the village – might well make a come-back.

    • really interesting, thanks!

    • That’s very interesting – I think you’re underestimating mobility in the UK (and elsewhere) but I agree there’s a corresponding tendency to over-estimate it and assume that the situation of some groups can be generalised to the population at large. I think there’s a dsytopian novel waiting to be written about residual human life post-collapse in Huddersfield… many more thoughts, look forward to hopefully talking on Tuesday.

  2. See also Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy

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