The decline of civilization – sudden or gradual?

Thomas Cole The Course of Empire 1836: Consummation
'empires are complex systems'

Quick, quick, slow – the dance steps of collapse

What kinds of stories are we telling one another these days about the fall of civilizations? The idea that the decline of a civilization is without narrative causality is itself a narrative. This is the unacknowledged ideology of historian Niall Ferguson’s recent piece for Foreign Affairs. Here Ferguson abandons the typical causality of historians and opts for a different account, based on complex systems theory.

He takes issue with the dominant cyclical view of history, in which civilizations rise and fall over long time periods, and sides instead with the complexity view, in which large scale social changes are sudden phase transitions. These shifts are major, rapid and seemingly without cause, but can be attributed to small, sometimes imperceptible movements from one phase space to another. Of the end of China’s Ming Dynasty’s, Ferguson writes: ‘The transition from Confucian equipoise to anarchy took little more than a decade.’ He claims:

‘empires are complex systems that sooner or later succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions, rather than cycling sedately from Arcadia to Apogee to Armageddon’.

Armed with this hypothesis Ferguson argues that ‘debating the stages of decline may be a waste of time — it is a precipitous and unexpected fall that should most concern policymakers and citizens.’ This kind of fall he has in mind for the United States is one precipitated by a loss of public confidence precipitated by a fiscal crisis which calls into question the sustainability of military-spending-dominated US foreign policy.

There are a number of questions raised by this very interesting and well-constructed argument, which illuminate the situation rather well.

Delaying the inevitable?

Question number one is the matter of what we’re going to do about it. If the decline to watch out for is not gradual but sudden, how can we best respond? Ferguson’s assumption here is as follows:

‘the attempt [to study international relations as a complex system] is worthwhile, because an understanding of how complex systems function is an essential part of any strategy to anticipate and delay their failure.’

Certainly the desire to delay the failure of the complex system called American civilization appears to be a reasonable piece of common-sense, but that doesn’t mean it actually is. A key here is the argumentation of the Individualist right regarding the US financial crash of 2008. All sensible people, including Ferguson, put this down to something like

‘a bunch of Americans started to default on their subprime mortgages, thereby blowing huge holes in the business models of thousands of highly leveraged financial institutions’.

However, the Individualists see this explanation as seriously wrongheaded. The real reason the system failed, they say (I’m thinking of Senate hopeful Peter Schiff here), was that it was too highly regulated. The normal series of small dips that the unfettered free market regularly produces, was artificially hindered by overbearing governance, which resulted in one large, out of control crash, as the dam propped up by regulation finally burst. The solution, of course, is not greater regulation after the event, but a tremendous roll-back of constraints, to allow the market to function properly, which means freely: ‘allowing free market vibrancy to unshackle an economy burdened by big government’ (Schiff). Now this Individualist explanation for the financial crisis may be entirely ridiculous, but that’s not the point. The point is that some fairly powerful people believe in it. They have quite easily constructed an alternative vision of reality which answers (to their satisfaction at least) all objections, and which can be used to reorganise society, starting with financial institutions. And the argument can be scaled up to the civilizational level. If civilizations are going to fail, as Ferguson claims, why would we try artificially to ‘delay their failure’? Surely the best thing to do is to ride the changes, become leaner, more efficient and more competitive, so that whatever happens next, US business ends up on top. This may well require total transformation, but in any conceivable future there will be winners and losers. It is surely better that the winners are Americans, no? The polemical alternative is stark: ‘rugged individualism will be supplanted by the nanny state. In short, Latin America may extend north to the Canadian border’ (Schiff). This way, as civilization collapses (in a decade, perhaps, if we believe Ferguson), civilization triumphs. The king is dead, as they used to say, long live the king.

Thomas Cole The Course of Empire 1936 - Destruction
If it isn't hurting it isn't working

…or nudging the inevitable?

This is the mild version of the Individualist approach to civilizational decline. The more radical version is that outlined by Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine. Why wait around for collapse? Why not actively create better business opportunities by starting it? In critiquing Klein, Tom Redburn in the New York Times could not have put the Individualist argument better:

‘what she is most blind to is the necessary role of entrepreneurial capitalism in overcoming the inherent tendency of any established social system to lapse into stagnation’.

Quite. In the Individualist vision of creative destruction (Schumpeter), civilization is by very definition the weeds that rapidly overtake the cracked ruins of the ancien regime.

Thomas Cole the Course of Empire 1836 - Desolation
'the weeds that rapidly overtake the cracked ruins'

The irony of Fate

The fact that there is more than one vision of what to do about collapse, should alert us to the possibility that there may indeed be several. There is also the Fatalist approach, in which we really can’t predict the future or what it will do to us, so we may as well just keep our heads down, ride out the storm and hope for good fortune. This view sees both approaches – ‘delay collapse’ and ‘thrive on collapse’ –  as ‘narrative fallicies’, since they both assume someone (the Government) or something (the invisible hand of the market) is in control and will save us. For Fatalism, these are alternative punchlines of the same ironic joke. Shakespeare’s Gloucester got it right:

‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.’ (King Lear IV.i).

Ferguson’s picture of complex civilizations at the edge of chaos is well suited to the high-grid, Fatalist worldview, in which we are strongly subject to external forces over which we have little or no control, and against which there is little point in organizing, beyond the minimalist advice that we divest ourselves of the illusion of agency and reorganise to optimise our exposure to luck. Indeed Ferguson cites with approval Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the current high priest of economic Fatalism, and he says:

‘causal relationships are often nonlinear, which means that traditional methods of generalizing through observation (such as trend analysis and sampling) are of little use. Some theorists of complexity would go so far as to say that complex systems are wholly nondeterministic, meaning that it is impossible to make predictions about their future behavior based on existing data.’

Rational expectations and radical disequilibrium

This discussion of fate leads to the second question: what is the relation between Ferguson’s claim that the future is (or may be) radically unpredictable, due to fundamental disequilibrium, and his appeal to Thomas Sargent’s rational expectations theory? Ferguson warns, following Sargent, that fiscal crises are particularly dangerous because populations and markets second guess the effects of government policy and do so more or less optimally, driving further crisis in spite of government intervention, which may only exacerbate the crisis, as seen recently in Greece. However, this seems to be  a red herring, since, as Sargent says,

‘The “policy ineffectiveness” result pertains only to those economic policies that have their effects solely by inducing forecast errors. Many government policies work by affecting “margins” or incentives, and the concept of rational expectations delivers no policy ineffectiveness result for such policies.’

There is a question mark of a different sort hanging over Sargent’s theory, though. One of the chief criticisms of rational expectations theory is that it adopts the dominant general equilibrium view of economics. This is clearly incompatible with the kind of radical disequilibrium that Ferguson is touting. Either people collectively can make accurate predictions about complex system states (implied by rational expectations, but for reasons other than systems theory), or they can’t (suggested by Ferguson on the basis of his reading of complex systems theory).

Shaping the future

A third question raised by Ferguson’s article is what all this means for the future and in particular for governance. One of the benefits of systems theory as applied to history is that it allows for a new and different kind of causality (phase transitions on the edge of chaos) while allowing historians to continue to avoid making falsifiable predictions of the future (unpredictability is all, you see). This is in marked contrast to the approach of a network of ecologists and systems scientists gathered in the Resilience Alliance. Their working assumption is that social and ecological systems are interlinked and that complexity theory is of practical use as a paradigm for natural resource management and the shaping of the social-ecological systems in which we live. Their claim is that the phase transitions are not quite as mysterious as Ferguson suggests. Indeed, as in the case of the collapse of the North Atlantic cod stock, we can see it coming. The task of predicting chaos is not quite so difficult as writers such as Taleb suggest. The good news is that, according to Johan Rockström of  the Stockholm Resilience Centre  there are only nine critical thresholds which we need to avoid crossing in order to maintain a safe operating space for humanity. But as in the case of the cod stocks, governance is highly, perhaps intractably problematic.

A return to the cyclical story of history?

Integral to the resilience science story of adaptive systems, cyclical processes are involved in the shift from one stable state to another. The adaptive cycle is the name given by these ecologists to a complex series of processes taking place at different speeds and at different scales. What makes causality hard to ascertain is the limited understanding we have so far of the interactions between cyclical processes of change at various scales. The resulting picture is more complicated than that of the traditional historical view of causality, but also more interesting. Cyclical causality has certainly not been banished from view. Perhaps Ferguson’s stark choice between cyclical or non-cyclical forces is not the last word on the processes that drive decline and renewal, whether of social-ecological systems or of civilizations. Debating the stages of decline, far from being ‘a waste of time’, may be just what we need to do next.

The contribution of Cultural Theory

Rokström et al. (2009, fig. 3) acknowledge that much of the discussion about risk involves normative judgements. They attempt to frame and circumscribe this normativily by distinguishing between thresholds, ‘the existence, location and nature’ of which are identified objectively by scientific analysis, and planetary boundaries which are to be determined by normative processes including political decisions and frameworks. A contribution of Cultural Theory [the main subject of this web site] to this discussion would be to treat this distinction between objective science and normative decision-making with strong skepticism and to suggest that we can be more reflexive than this by recognizing that our normative risk assessments go all the way down. There is no bedrock of bare facts that lies deep enough to be uninfluenced by our preconceptions. The four cultural biases identified by cultural theory are entirely to do with how we construct the way the world  ‘is’, not with how we think it ‘ought’ to be. The assumption in all of this is that there are shifts from desirable to undesirable states. Here we need to return to the lessons of history and spare a thought for the Goths and the Vandals. When considering the collapse of civilization the question always remains: undesirable for whom?

Now read The Decline and Fall of Declining and Falling.


Ferguson, Niall (2010) Complexity and Collapse. Empires on the Edge of Chaos. Foreign Affairs, March/April. [Online]

Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley (2009) Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. [online] URL:


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