As I watch what may be the first rumbles of collapse in that elegant and complex society known as the Albany Triumvirate (will the Steamroller ultimately prevail? Will Uncle Joe go gently into that good night?), now is a good time to read history books on collapse. Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is a good read, but having just started on Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, I find the latter a more interesting book (although it reads like a college textbook). If you haven’t read the book, I recommend this review and summary by another reader, who adds his own observations.
Just spinning off the question posed in the editorial I wrote about in my post from the other day, there is much in Tainter’s ideas which explain what is happening in the mini-society that is the State of New York. Why not think of NYS in this way? After all, it isn’t called the Empire State for nothing. We know it’s unusually complex for an American state — demographically, politically, culturally, geographically, and economically. (Upstate musings represent just one voice in the New York fugue.) And we know that the state of New York has historically invested in a complex system of state-managed public works (the Erie Canal, the Thruway), land management (the Adirondack Park), social services (the “bread” in “bread and circuses”), and bureaucracy to enforce laws, including human-rights laws.
New York State has historically led the rest of the nation in a lot of these things, both for better and for worse. The United States, in turn, leads the world (currently) in these areas (or thinks it does). So much about the American empire’s way of empire was first tried out in our state (tried out, not necessarily invented). New York is not just a delineation on a map — not just a government, either; it’s a sub-civilization of the greater American civilization, and it was an important force in its founding.
But maybe it’s not that New York has fallen behind; maybe we’re just on the next page. With the sound of NYS’ spinning wheels echoing year after weary year, one has to faintly wonder if what’s happening here in microcosm is a harbinger of wider things to come.
And not just for the United States, but for the Western world, if no one can take over the power vacuum that the U.S. may be leaving behind. Because we are a global society, like it or not; and I think Tainter is correct in guessing that the next societal collapse, be it gentle or abrupt, must be a global one. Although Tainter doesn’t think the “Fall of the Roman Empire” was necessarily all that traumatic in the long run — in the long run, people did what they had to do to survive, new leaders emerged, new peoples formed new and smaller and more manageable (and diverse, if far less ambitious) kingdoms and states, and the great civilization didn’t so much “fall” as it was sort of forgotten.
The basic premise of Tainter’s theory on social collapse is that eventually, societies which have invested in complexity at some point reach a plateau (or brick wall) where the practical returns on this investment are no longer a net gain. At some point, you can have all of the R&D that money can buy, all of the scientists and engineers that expensive college educations can buy, even all the energy that conquest can buy, all of the complex bureaucracy and law enforcement that your society requires, but you get ever decreasing practical returns on it — when it comes to feeding your citizens, making them secure, etc.
When you take a global view of the future, a lot of this is debatable or simply just too distant to consider seriously. But when you take a New York State view of the present, it’s quite difficult to really argue with most of Tainter’s points. It’s eerie how he appears to be talking about New York. New Yorkers of all regions and political persuasions seem to be in unusual agreement about the nature of the problem, even if they don’t fully comprehend all of its causes or effects (upstaters tend not to notice downstate problems and vice versa). Why shouldn’t it? New York is an aging Empire. It’s gotten to the point where the question of whether, like ancient Rome, we need to be taken over by a Caesar, a dictator (Gov. Spitzer, e.g. the Great Pumpkin), is always being debated. This is in between subtle indications that the empire has become ungovernable and needs to be at least symbolically yet officially split up – Upstate Czar, anyone? I mean, by the time you are naming czars (that’s caesars, from the Russian), that’s a sign your society is groaning under the weight of its own complexity.
Nobody in their right mind would talk about politically splitting up the state; I think most people (myself included) don’t want it; but can we at least admit that if a U.S. state fell apart sometime in the future — as merely a side effect of people reaching out for a practical solution to their problems — then New York State would be one of the most likely candidates? What is holding this state together — three men in a room?
Thoughtful people in falling civilizations are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Hm, what do we choose — Dark Ages or ever more complex and exhausting schemes that can only help people tread water for so long? It’s pretty murky. (Perhaps the Irish monks, upholding the vestiges of classical thought and learning in their abbeys, should be our new model.) But I do recommend Tainter’s book for anyone wishing more insight on the State of New York, the state of the State of New York, and current New York politics.