Monday, September 04, 2023

A Long Slow Plunge

One of the interesting things about the last 3 years - or really almost the last 25 years prior to this - is watching a long, slow decline.    It is interesting because it is the sort of thing one reads about in history books happening to other societies at other times, but one never really considers that it will happen in one's own life.

Part of that is, for lack of a better phrase, dumb luck: someone that lived in late 4rd to early 5th Century A.D. Britain did not see much change at all; someone born in the early to mid 5th Century saw an entire way of life, if not completely disappearing, at well on its way to vanishing over the horizon.

In some ways historians have a leg up on examining these sorts of things:  having seen one societal decline, one knows what to look for in others.  In some cases, as in Sherlock Holmes, the historian sees not only what is going on but what is not going on - noticing the the dog that did not bark and what that is indicative of.

I suspect - were one to look for such things - that those in power at all times and in all places, try to slow the decline as much as they can.  After all, they are the ones that are in the position to benefit the least when the structures that give their lives power, wealth, and meaning get swept away.  At the same time, it is fair to say that those agitating for A Brave New World are not always the winners either:  as multiple revolutions attest to, human nature and circumstances are fickle things and leaders of revolutions are just as likely to get swept away as anyone else.

The argument against the general decline of the West - at least here and now - is made somewhat complicated by the fact that we are - seemingly - at the pinnacle of human experience.  We are moving slowly out into space again, repeatedly.  We have every sort of technology imaginable to meet not only our needs, but our wants and desires.  We get the world delivered to our home and can see the world from our home.  How, in the midst of such obvious comfort, material wealth, and technological advancement, can we be talking about any sort of decline in the vein of the Western or Eastern Roman Empire, Edo Japan, or Tsarist Russia?

I eschew pointing to specific events in general, as 1) Events and trends are subject to the interpretation of the individual and thus present points of disagreement instead of discussion; and 2) Specific events may or may not be indicative of future outcomes - sometimes things that I would think would accelerate any sort of downturn are ripples in the pond while others which are seemingly minor have great impact.  The novel thing about history of course:  you can only really understand it looking back even as it is lived forward.

I suppose where I would point to is a sense of the future.

What, in the world of analysis and media and punditry, is the vision of the future which is being offered?  If this - the current timeframe - is the pinnacle of 3,000 years of human advancement and history, what do we have to look forward to?  The reality is that, at least for myself, I have heard no-one propose the sort of future that sounds anything like where we would want to live.

Yes, of course, space travel is always "the option", and maybe we will get there someday (for those that are interested in such things, The Silicon Graybeard has a daily and weekly round up of such things).  But it will not be like the books and movies; both expense and physics are against us.

The visions that are being provided by multiple groups does not sound enchanting:  smaller everything, less everything, packed tighter and tighter into larger and larger cities which are more dependent than ever on resources from everywhere, a giant maw devouring food, energy, consumer goods, water - and returning only waste to the surrounding areas.

Were this an industrial plant in a pristine environment, we would rightly call "foul" on such a plan and actions.  Because it meets various agendas and beliefs, we call it "acceptable".

(Note 1: To be clear, all sides in the current sociopolitical milieu, or at least 89% of them, are to blame.  There is no "Red' or "Blue" here, to use the American version.  Either they have some vision of the above, or simply no vision at all other than "the opposite", without having any real definition of what the opposite is. At best, it is "more of the same" - the same, of course, being ill defined.)

(Note 2:  It does make wonder if this lack of vision has contributed to the overall rising of the gaming industry, which has now outstripped the movie industry in terms of popularity.  I wonder if, given the fact that no vision is offered for this world and its future, people are quite willing to go find other worlds and places to explore, adventure in, and live in.  It has the benefit of at least being entertaining.)

Societies and civilizations exist and survive because ultimately the individual somehow benefits from them, although arguably not all equally.  Remove that benefit - give individuals nothing but the mere traces of benefit and no ability to invest in their own future or better themselves - and the individual's reason for investing in the society and civilization disappears.  

In the later Western Roman Empire (3rd Century), the provinces of Gaul were wracked by internal civil conflict.  The Bacaudae, a combination of "local free peasants, runaway slaves, and deserters from the legions, who were trying to resist the ruthless labor exploitation of the late Roman proto-feudal colonius manorial systems and military systems, and all manner of punitive laws and levies in the marginal corners of the empire." (Source).  They were initially crushed, but continued to re-appear the next two hundred years in various corners of the Empire.  

Give people enough reason to not invest in the society or civilization and it will simply disappear to become only a memory and reminder of past greatness, buried in books for the future historians to read and marvel at.


  1. "Societies and civilizations exist and survive because ultimately the individual somehow benefits from them, although arguably not all equally."

    While I want to believe that statement I believe there is sufficient evidence that it is only partially true.

    Some societies and civilizations exist because a few people command enough power to coerce others into conformance even though the society does not benefit them. An example would be slave plantations and the cobalt and diamond mines of Africa.

    1. ERJ - Thanks for the feedback. I been pondering this for the last two hours.

      I debated going back and inserting "should exist..", but then decided my writing should stand as it is and the criticisms be adequately addressed.

      You make a strong point, and history is full of dictators and those in power that coerce others into conformance - although those also tend to come apart if only measured by centuries (and certainly not at all pleasant for those living through them). And when the finally come apart, it can be rather quickly (thinking of the collapse of the Spartan Hegemony and loss of Messenia or the fall of Constantinople, when in the end it was said "Better the Turk's turban than the bishop's miter).

      To Michael's point below, I am rather naively guilty of approaching everything through the lens of a rational human being and thinking the best more often than not of circumstances and people. I acknowledge this does not reflect reality a great deal of the time and is probably aspirational,

      I also acknowledge that more often that not, this leads to people like me being the first to go when things go badly.

  2. "Societies and civilizations exist and survive because ultimately the individual somehow benefits from them, although arguably not all equally."

    Assumes that man is fully rational. Plenty of Societies and Civilizations that were or became dysfunctional exist. The current EV craze allows children to be used as slaves for cobalt mining and "CLEAN Auto's powered by COAL Fired Electric Plants and such.

    Not functional in my opinion but it's OVER THERE and out of sight.

    History books were written by men of intellect and leisure time to write them. To be sold to people that would want to read them. So, the entertainment value of grand movements and such sold.

    A LOT of the grim details (the devil in in the details, eh? SEE Joes "Malicious Compliance" story as an example) were either left out as not interesting to the reader OR were fully described towards the "Bad Guys" in the current Millenium (See Bayou Rennaissance Man's "Saturday Snippet: Crime in the Punjab after the Indian Mutiny" as an excellent example).

    Your example of the "In the later Western Roman Empire (3rd Century), the provinces of Gaul were wracked by internal civil conflict. The Bacaudae" is an excellent example of something written long after the event.

    And frankly could be a foreshadowing of our current repeat of history.

    However, for the Gaul's involved it was chaos, hunger, anger, despair, death and attempts to rebuild and build other systems as chaos continued to destroy the warp and woof of society.

    It's easy to destroy, a single blue haired, tackle box faced teenager with a head full of propaganda and a lighter can set eco-terrorist fires across Canada as recent events show.

    A TB infested anarchist with a faulty pistol can jump up on a car's running boards to shoot up an Archduke and family.

    Or more currently a small group of Neocons determined to "WIN" at any cost to the world. Nothing new as Sun Tzu spoke of it: An evil Leader will burn down his own country to rule over the ashes.

    The current retreat into belly button self-absorption where the great ME is serviced bodes poorly for solutions wither grand scale of society or personal family solutions.

    But back to the Gauls, did they understand they were going to have history books written about them? Do their descendants even care about those books?

    Off to pick apples from my trees planted years ago. The efforts to improve life for myself and my children. That's history for me and mine.

    1. Michael - I do tend to assume rationality. As noted above in my response to ERJ, this is either a trait or a fault of mine. I will vote for trait, but certainly can acknowledge it being seen as a vulnerable fault.

      I would agree that texts, especially the ancient ones, were written largely by men who had the time and income to write them. I do think, however, I would disagree a bit that they were written purely to sell them to those who would read them. In some cases (Procopius comes specifically to mind) they were done for that very reason but not always. I cannot imagine Boethius, in prison, deciding writing The Consolation of Philosophy was a money-maker for him.

      Did those authors cover all of the struggles and unpleasantness of the times? No, although probably a combination of technology and tools of the time (we take endless paper and easy writing as given; it was not always so) and a lack of reach in that most could only know what was happening either directly around them or what they could glean from rumors or correspondences). I would vigorously argue that, where we have it, the suffering of the time at a macro level is portrayed (Arguably, perhaps overly so. Easier to ascribe bad things to those darn barbarians and pagans than take responsibility for poor rule.).

      I had completely forgotten the Sun Tzu quote (but should have remembered it; I have certainly read it enough times). Which perhaps explains some of my own naiveite as well; I have never been someone that particularly sought power and thus do not understand why people would be willing to maintain it at any cost.

      Agreed that the great retreat into "self-realization" does not bode well for any sort of long term resolution, other than "others should figure it out".

  3. Nylon128:27 AM

    Wonder how many with children are willing to burn everything down?Meanwhile, the hollowing out of the middle class continues uninterrupted. It took much laboring to read today's post TB.

    1. Nylon12 - Apologies if it was unclear (e.g., much laboring). These are difficult thoughts for me as well, but I need to go through the practice of learning to organize my thoughts on such things and write them down. Thanks for persevering.

      How many people are willing to burn everything down? I think that in many cases individuals are not conscious they are burning things down. They lack the longer view of history and society and can only, ever, see the now.

      The hollowing out of the middle class: In years past the middle class served as a general reservoir of stability and some level of tax revenue. The taxes have been taken over by the very rich, who pay a rather large proportion of them - thus economically, the impact (at least to the government, who is concerned with revenue) seems minimal. When it will become real is when, mysteriously, that major source of income suddenly decides it likes its chances better elsewhere. At that point society and the government will rush to the middle class only to find that they, too, are gone.

  4. Anonymous8:43 AM

    The change comes slowly enough most never realize it but it happens. There are few people out there that can describe changes of even a few years with any accuracy and the vast majority don't survive a change anyway to be able to report on it.

    1. Good point. And often what complicates things is that people fall into the trap of assuming that things are fine because nothing serious has happened when in fact underlying structures and systems which support the society or civilization have slowly been eroding away the whole time.

  5. You see decline. I see change and adaptation, some good and some bad depending on perspective. I’m not worried about a total collapse in my lifetime. - resident optimist

    1. Sadly Ed, although I see change and possible some adaptation, I do not really see things trending in a positive direction. At least from where I sit, there is a lack of a meaningful positive vision of the future, just varying degrees of authoritarianism, totalitarianism and increasing government oversight. Not the stuff to fire the soul.

    2. Ed, to be a "glass half full" kind of guy requires you to ignore the fact that the glass was yours and the water was yours, half the water's gone, and you're not the one who drank it. This falls in line with the whole "You'll own nothing and be happy" thing. That requires you to ignore the fact that SOMEONE will own EVERYTHING. It just WON'T be YOU... I'm not getting on that bus without a fight... Adapt I will... "They" might want to take cover...

    3. I guess I see some of the positives. Poverty has been nearly halved and average incomes doubled in the last 20 years. Renewable energy has increased 80% in ten years and now generate more energy than coal and nuclear. Life expectancy has increased 20 years in the last 60 years. More diseases than I could probably count are now treatable. I have access to things and services that my grandparents could only dream about. We are worried about a little political bickering between parties and yet tens of thousands are slaughtered by their respective dictators every year. Just the fact that I can write this for all the world to see nor be executed or thrown in the gulag for it, is more than many countries can say. I feel there is a lot right going on if one looks for it and doesn't focus on the negatives forced upon us by main stream media.

    4. Ed, every thing you list is a fact in terms of improvements is absolutely true. And many of those are positives. And indeed, we can write what we want without fear of prison or execution (however, you can get happily canceled and removed from all social media and to some extent, real life. Ask anyone that has held a contrary position in the last four years).

      Do those weigh out the fact that we seem divided, sluggish, and devoid of a national vision that is actually hopeful (and to be clear, I am not arguing for any party's national vision. Because none of them have a hopeful one)? I struggle to say yes.

    5. I would have to ask a question in return. Has there ever been a time when we have had a national vision without political divide? The only instances I can think of would be wars where we were avenging attacks on us. From what I have read throughout our nations history, we have always been divided with one part feeling doom and gloom and the other part excited at the possibilities. I think it just feels more divided because technology has been better at keeping it in front of your face all the time.

    6. Have we had a national division without a political divide (absent wars of course? I think it depends on one considers a political divide. There have been some very deep ones - there always are at the political points of inflection we call elections. At the same time, there have been at least leadership at those election times that were able to give their vision of a society. I list some below without either endorsing or agreeing that that they had the desired outcomes:

      FDR: The New Deal
      Truman: The Square Deal
      Kennedy: The Involved society (A bit invented, but based on the "Ask yourself not what your country can do" speech)
      Johnson: The Great Society
      Reagan: Morning in America
      Obama: Hope (The Hopeful Society - again, inferring)

      All of those - whether or not one agrees with the individuals or their outcomes - at least had a vision they could communicate, a vision of what they wanted society to be. I find, in contrast, the current crop of politicians sadly lacking.

      A note on technology: Technology does exacerbate the issue for sure. But I would also argue that ideology fuels policy and laws and when those laws and policies impact lives directly - especially if it is in a way that is detrimental - it becomes more than just a question of exacerbated feelings or beliefs; it becomes real.

    7. "I find, in contrast, the current crop of politicians sadly lacking."

      Sadly, I'm in complete agreement here.

    8. Sadly, we are both in agreement Ed.

  6. TB, I think the worst part about being an American today is knowing that our country's best days are behind her. The politicians on both sides keep saying :We're soaring ever higher," but one would need to be deaf not to hear that robotic "TER-RAIN. TER-RAIN. PULL-UP. PULL-UP" competing with them for air time. One would need to be blind not to see the ground looming ever closer. One would need to be in a coma not to see that the ones saying "ever higher" have parachutes when you don't.

    ...Every fiber in my being is telling me "This CAN'T end well." I'm seeing things getting sloppy in the near future...

    1. Pete, I guess that is what I am responding to. Again, from both sides, there is no meaningful response beyond "more of the same" to the challenges we are facing today - or at least on a sufficient scale to make a difference.

      Want to impress me, politicians? Put a moratorium on government spending now and present a plan for paying back the Federal Debt. That alone would prove someone actually realized the issues we were facing.

  7. At least we had somewhat accurate history to learn from?
    Now, it seems to be getting changed at a rapid pace.
    I kind of agree on the gaming thoughts. No reality to deal with. And you actually have to be responsible for your own decisions.
    You all be safe and God bless.

    1. Linda, that is why I read the original works, or historians from days past. I can get my information (relatively) unfiltered.

      To be fair, I was into gaming many, many years ago. For some of those reasons. Now, I simply do not have the time.

      That, and one learns in life that there is no instant restart button.

  8. Well said. But change takes generations. A girl born during the Revolution would have had older children by the time of the battle of Waterloo.

    1. Thanks John. Sometimes I think I am clearer than I actually am. Hopefully it makes some kind of sense.


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