In a post about the future of media business models, Clay Shirky offers the following rumination on an archaeological book by Joseph Tainter, “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” He says Tainter’s thesis is that complex societies of the past collapsed not in spite of being sophisticated, but because they were so sophisticated they couldn’t adapt to changed conditions. Here’s Shirky:
Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.
The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake–“[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.
It might be helpful to think of this along with what David Brooks writes today, about the inability of our political system to deal effectively with the long-term crisis of indebtedness that threatens the stability of the nation. One of my favorite observations — and I can’t remember where I read this — is that a good definition of a decadent institution is one that is capable of understanding what ails it, but is unable to summon the wherewithal to reform itself. If the Tainter thesis can help us to understand the predicatment the US is in right now, my guess is that it’s in the inability of ordinary Americans to grasp how dependent we’ve become on the bureaucratic state, and on the current economic model, in sustaining our lives. Austerity is unimaginable — so we’ll have to suffer some sort of collapse that forcibly simplifies things for us.
But maybe that’s a stretch.
I must say that I find the Tainter thesis more helpful in understanding the problem the Roman Catholic Church is dealing with now, regarding the bishops and the child abusing priests. Try to remove your emotions from this, and your theological convictions, and examine the situation in terms of bureaucratic complexity.
The Church is being raked over the coals right now because of the slowness with which the Holy Office, which was previously overseen by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, responded in the past to bishops in the hinterlands requesting that molester priests be defrocked. You read some of these cases, and it does appear scandalous. But it should be remembered that there is a reason for these Byzantine legal proceedings in church courts. No less an authority than Father Tom Doyle, the priest who has been raising hell about clerical sexual abuse for decades, told me in the wake of the 2002-03 revelations that he feared bishops, desperate to get the monkey off their own backs, would try to run accused priests out of the priesthood without due process. Before we damn the church’s laborious system of canonical trial for its priests, we should first understand why it was put into place, and how it evolved over two millenia.
This is not, I hasten to add, to defend the system today. Clearly something has gone very wrong with it, when a bishop has to allow a dangerous malefactor to run around presenting himself as a priest, while the wheels of canonical justice in Rome grind ever so slowly. To speak to Tainter’s insight, it is plainly the case that the Roman system is completely unworkable in the contemporary era. People of goodwill cannot understand a system that takes so long to administer justice, and that operates under the assumptions that the Roman system appears to. Note well, this is not a moral judgement I’m making; it’s a judgement about bureaucratic efficacy. The complexity of the Roman system is, under present conditions, a contributor to the institution’s decline.
Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, this system is the product of a much different world. It came about from a world that was far more hierarchical than our own, one that regarded the clergy quite differently, and — crucially — that moved much, much more slowly than ours does today. As Tainter writes of complex societies, “the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change.” It seems clear to me that part of the problem Rome has had in dealing with this scourge is that the Vatican is unsuited, bureaucratically and even psychologically, to deal with the modern world. Again, I am not stating that as a value judgement, only as a sociological observation.
I am fond of quoting Barbara Tuchman from “The March of Folly,” explaining why six Renaissance popes failed to arrest the corruption in the Church that eventually led to the collapse of Roman authority in northern Europe in the Reformation:
Their three outstanding attitudes — obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constitutents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status — are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.
It’s important to note here that Tuchman’s book is about how “folly” brought disaster on a variety of governments in particular historical situations. IOW, the book is an analysis of the same themes of misrule leading to disaster showing up in different places and times. The Renaissance popes she studies in her book found themselves unable, for various reasons, to respond adequately to changing conditions in society, and saw the Church suffer a terrible blow because of it. Returning to Tainter again, it was only the mini-collapse of the Reformation that finally spurred the Church to the Counter-Reformation. Now, I do not know enough Counter-Reformation history to say whether or not it was a matter of simplifying the Church, or simply a matter of reform — in other words, retaining the bureaucratic structure of the Church, but cleaning out the Augean stables within the episcopate and among the priesthood. I think it’s probably the latter. Today, though, I wonder to what extent what ails the Church in this sex abuse crisis is a matter of compelling those in charge of the complex system to make it work better, or is rather the case that the system itself is too complex to survive in its present form in modern conditions. Aside from the scandal, this is something I’ve thought about for a long time with regard to the challenge posed to Catholicism in the Third World from Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism — two rival forms of Christianity that, for better or worse, seem particularly well-suited to spread and to thrive under modern conditions.