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Tainted Themes

In “The Collapse of Complex Societies“, Joseph Tainter defines “complexity” as:

Complexity is generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. – Joseph Tainter.

Joseph then defines “collapse” as:

A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. Collapse then is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity. – Joseph Tainter

Mr. Tainter then surveys the landscape of historic, archaeological, and anthropological literature explaining the collapse of societies like the western Roman empire, the Mayans, the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, etc. He groups the theories of collapse into 11 “tainted” themes:

Tainter Themes

Joseph then skillfully makes a case that all these specialized themes can be subsumed under his simple and universal theory of collapse:

Tainter Collapse

His theory goes something like this. As a society grows, it necessarily becomes more complex. Exceedingly more and more investment in complexity (infrastructure, basic services, defense, food production control, public tributes to the elite to maintain their legitimacy in the minds of the non-elites) is then required to hold the society together. However, as the graphic below shows, at some point in time, the marginal return on the investments in complexity reaches a tipping point at which the society becomes vulnerable to collapse from one or more of the subsumed themes.

ROC Curve

To illustrate further, BD00 presents the dorky growth-to-collapse scenario below:

growth to collapse

As shown, societal growth begets a larger and more internally diverse production subsystem. That same growth requires investment in more and varied control (Ashby’s law of requisite variety) over production so that “the center can hold” and the society can “retain its identity as a whole“. In this runaway positive feedback system, the growing army of controller layers siphons off more and more of the production outputs for itself – starving the production subsystem in the process.

To prevent the production subsystem from dispersing (or revolting) and keep the whole system growing, more and more investment is poured into production control (compliance and efficiency) in an attempt to increase output and keep both the production and control subsystems viable. However, as the control subsystem growth outpaces production subsystem growth and a caste system emerges, the control subsystem requires a larger and larger share of the production subsystem outputs for itself – which further weakens and constrains and alienates the production subsystem. Hence, the “declining marginal return on investment in complexity” machine is kicked into overdrive and the vulnerability to collapse appears on the horizon. D’oh!

In your growing “society“, is the controller subsystem growing faster than the production subsystem? Are more specialized controller/administration layers being added faster than producers? Is the caste system becoming more stratified and prejudiced? Are more and more processes/rules/policies being imposed on the production subsystem for increased compliance and efficiency? Is the army of growing controllers siphoning off more and more of the production system outputs for themselves? If so, then maybe your society is vulnerable to sudden collapse. But then again, it may not. Tainter’s thesis is simply a bland and drama-less, economically based theory. It might be tainted itself.

Say it taint so, shoeless Joe! – unknown kid

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