The modern era suffers from the unfortunate bias of presentism; it assumes that it is exempt from the historical realities that have plagued humanity since our inception. There is an ethos, particularly amongst modern academia and elite circles that progress is inevitable, that tomorrow will be better than today. This progressive history is not a new concept, but it is a deeply flawed one. History flows like the tide, ebbing and flowing as the brightest of man fashion great and noble civilizations, which, centuries later fall under the weight of their hubris. Our modern western civilization, and to a greater degree, our modern technological civilization is not exempt from this cycle.
It is crucial to note the point of origin for both wings of modern politics. Both neo-conservative industrialists and progressives root their philosophies upon a religious belief in ‘progress’. A historical perspective referred to as ‘whig history’. Whig history is an inevitable march from the savage and ignorant past to the enlightened future.
There are those who, reading this understanding of history, will nod their heads in agreement. ‘Look at history’ they will say, ‘look at the fruits of technology: tomorrow is better than today.’ To a degree, this is true, particularly in the lives of the Baby Boomers and Generation X. For those who lived through the most prosperous period in human history, it is difficult to speak of famine. Yet for Millenials (1981-1996) and Generation Z (1997~), material conditions are significantly worse than those of their parents. In this manner, we can observe declining material conditions. For the youth, tomorrow was better, not worse than today.
The belief that society will always progress is a recurring theme throughout history, even before the enlightenment. Perhaps the most salient example is Alexander the Great, whose attempt to create a one-world order summoned disaster upon him and fractured his empire following his death. This principle is apparent in scripture as well, with the biblical tale of Babel; Wherein man attempts to build a tower to Heaven and is scattered as punishment. What shines through in both of these stories is the utter disaster that followed the hubris of men living in the autumn of civilization. To this end, the Roman saying of Memento Mori or “remember that you must die” proves itself an essential tradition.
Thus, while history is rife with examples of rampant ascension and optimism, it is equally filled with examples of collapse and decline—a cycle of civilizational rise and fall. The progress-based rhetoric of Western politics is the predictable result of two hundred years of unrestrained technological innovation. So how are we to see the errors of progressive history in the modern-day? What evidence is there that the cracks are beginning to form on this long ascent to a brighter tomorrow? To quoth the Seekers, “The Carnival is over”. The fundamental reality is that infinite growth is impossible upon a finite planet.
Thus far, I have spoken of the fallacious nature of ‘whig’ history, but I have yet to demonstrate why it is wrong. To that end, I submit the argument of Joseph Tainter in his work, Collapse of Complex Societies, wherein he states that societies enter decline or experience ‘collapse’ in a multi-staged process. For the purpose of this discussion, I will adopt the definition produced by Tainter himself:
“A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity...
Collapse is manifest in such things as:
-A lower degree of stratification and social differentiation
-Less economic and occupational specialization, of individuals, groups, and territories
-Less centralized control
-Less behavioural control and regimentation
-Less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups, and between a center and its periphery”
This collapse is the result of a civilization’s infrastructure upkeep costs (resources expended on maintaining a functioning civilization, such as roads, military, police etc.) outpacing its surplus resource income (resources that can be expended at the discretion of the civilization after upkeep). This principle raises a critical question: how does upkeep outpace surplus? To resolve this query, Tainter points to the principle of diminishing returns. Historical examples of this can be seen in both the Indus River Valley civilizations and the Mayan civilizations of South America. The intensive mono-crop farming practices of both societies salinated their agricultural lands, resulting in diminishing harvests (Collapse of Complex Societies pg45). Eventually, they were incapable of sustaining their infrastructure; this phenomenon was subsequently compounded by a series of crises that drew dwindling resources away from infrastructure.
This prompted the slow decline of the afflicted society at an almost imperceptible rate until one day the roads and bridges had crumbled, bread was unaffordable, and barbarians were at the gates. The Egyptians followed a similar path, with the bronze age Egyptian civilization’s agricultural production being relatively safe as a result of the annual Nile fertilization resulting from its flooding cycle. However, its size combined with the 1177 BC invasion of the Sea peoples over-stretched its resources prompting its slow but steady decline and collapse. A similar phenomenon occurred with Rome, once Rome had reached a certain scale and was incapable of expanding into Germany; The resource demands that permanent border garrisons made upon Rome became unfeasible, prompting consistent inflation via currency debasement. Not to belabour the point but the British Empire underwent a similar phenomenon with its decline and collapse, albeit on a smaller scale.
What is perhaps unique about the British Empire is that the genuine ‘Atlanticist’ or English Speaking mercantile empire’ has yet to collapse, as America remains the world hegemon with garrisons throughout Europe and the Orient. With the collapse of the Roman state following Odoacer’s usurpation, Western civilization, learning, and technology would fall to the wayside for centuries, with the infrastructure that had then bound Europe, i.e. the Roman roads and sea routes falling into disrepair.
The modern world is entering a similar phase of decline, or rather has been in decline since the 1960s, hence the critique of modern progressive history. Wages in the west have been stagnant for decades, and the purchasing power of current generations compared to their predecessors is significantly lower; Inflation is increasing, and stocks and wealth have become altogether disconnected from the material realities they purport to represent. This material decline is on top of desertifying agricultural lands both in the west and in the east in addition to increasingly impractical oil extraction projects. The surplus-resource production of industrial society is decreasing while the infrastructure demands made on our modern techno-capitalism society continue to climb.
The resources required to meet energy demands have increased as it becomes more perilous and subsequently costly to extract energy from deep-sea wells or fracking compared to the more classic pump-jacks. This looming crisis is only exacerbated by ever-increasing infrastructure demands, forever wars and declining standards of living.
Technological optimists, those people very much invested in the idea of eternal progress will protest many of the claims I have made herein. When confronted with the evidence of declining oil stocks, they will cite promising innovations in other energy fields. The flaws in these fields aside, my intent is not to rave of doomsday from the rooftops, placing the woes of the world upon a single factor. But rather, to point out that our society has reached such a vast stage of complexity, compounded by ever more diminishing returns that Tainterian collapse is imminent; To clarify, collapse is not an event but rather a process, a long series of crises that each overburden the maintenance demands of the society, prompting reductions in complexity.
Coming to an accurate understanding of history and its underlying processes is crucial for clearing a path forwards. Once we have freed our minds from the dogmatic pronouncements of progressivism, we can see the world as it is. Our civilization is a social organism subject to the same laws of history as every previous civilization. In that sense, we are not so different from our ancestors. Behind the facade of utopian progressive propaganda lie crumbling roads, the abandoned neighbourhoods of old industrial cities, and hollowed out farm towns broken by opioids and predatory finance. This question ought not to be framed as a dispute between optimists and pessimists. It has been written long ago “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun”. But for men “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after”. The cycle of civilization will continue its inexorable course. We can either know this truth and act accordingly or close our eyes to the world.