Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Joseph A. Tainter:
The Collapse of Complex Societies [1988]

      Our group gave this book an average rating of 5.2 on a scale of 0 to 10. It would have been higher except for the zero rating by one renegade (info below!).

      Barbara and Rosie both missed the meeting because of illnesses, but both generally liked it. Barbara summed it up as a “good historic book”. Rosie briefly remarked in an email:

      I did read the book. It was very textbooky ... but I actually enjoyed it. Given that geography and history are my weakest subjects ... I have no way to evaluate his history and facts — especially the very early Chinese examples ... but, for what it’s worth, I buy his theory and think it is a helpful way to look at and analyze politics and history. I am really curious what the rest of you thought....

      Kevin said the book’s goal of finding a common cause for all the examples of social collapse throughout history was an interesting one. He felt that the most interesting parts of the book were the discussions of collapse itself, and was intrigued by Tainter’s “diminishing returns on complexity” theory to account for social collapse. Kevin felt that Tainter was close to the right answer, but still didn’t quite buy his theory. But he did like the book, and gave it rating of 8.

      Rich, however, said he didn’t like the book and only gave it a 3. He hated the textbook writing style, and contrasted this book quite unfavorably overall to Jared Diamond’s book Collapse which our group read a couple years ago. Not only was the Tainter book hard to read, it also was quite redundant, repeating many points several times over.

      Ron agreed with Rich’s comments, and also gave it a 3. Ron felt that the first 91 pages could have easily been summarized in 5 pages or so. He also thought that Tainter really didn’t do a very good job of summarizing the history of the specific societies that he talked about, or the story about how each had actually collapsed. Ron said that Tainter’s overall theory of collapse is interesting, and mentioned that according to Tainter modern society won’t collapse because it is not really in the same situation as all the past societies he examined. And yet the complexity of society has never in the past approached the level it is today. As far as the writing goes, Ron felt the book read like a really bad textbook.

      Forrest did the most extensive job in commenting on the book, and rated it as a 6. He agreed with both the positive and negative comments of those who spoke before him. He pointed out that the diagrams in the book are poor (some even missing an axis). He viewed it as an ambitious book, and good overall, but in the end Tainter did not convince him of his central thesis.

      Forrest said one problem with Tainter’s theory is that it is very abstract, and gave this analogy to show what he meant: Suppose a doctor says that “the patient died because of the gradual increase in entropy in his bodily system”. That will likely be quite true, but the problem is that it is too abstract; it is indeed probably a fact about all deaths, but we actually want to know the more specific reasons for the “increased entropy” that led to the death (such as lung cancer, a car crash, or a bullet to the brain).

      Forrest also pointed out that some key aspects of what Tainter meant by “collapse” were not brought out until the last chapter, and one result of this was that some wrong examples of what Tainter really meant came to mind earlier while reading the book. For example, Tainter only made it clear towards the end of the book that he was not talking about a complex society and its government being replaced by a different sort of government and society with its own somewhat different form of complexity (such as perhaps things like the rising bourgeoisie overthrowing the nobility in the French Revolution).

      Forrest found occasional errors in the book and a number of statements that really cannot be accepted. He felt that Tainter’s explicit denial that bad management can lead to the collapse of a society was rather dubious. Forrest grants that some claims of this sort may have had somewhat more plausibility in older forms of society, however. He also thought it strange that Tainter did not even mention the Industrial Revolution!

      With regard to the waste and destruction of wealth in various societies (though wars, people’s foolishness, etc.), Forrest pointed out that modern (capitalist) society—which is capable of so much greater production—is not at the same risk of collapse through such waste as earlier societies were, living as they did so close to the edge. These sorts of societal differences are frequently unrecognized by Tainter.

      Concerning the origin and continued existence of the state, Forrest largely agreed with Tainter’s emphasis on the “resolution of social conflict” theory. But he looks at the U.S. government as much closer to the integrative notion of the state, though he also views the government as sort of a referee within society. While he appreciates Tainter’s notion that the state is a “problem solving system”, he would also add that it is a survival system for the population. Forrest said that Tainter is frequently sloppy about economics, and for example, didn’t seem to distinguish between the economy and the government.

      Forrest agreed that the writing style of the book was not very good, but liked the book anyway because the subject matter includes a lot of topics that he likes to think about. Regarding Tainter’s central theory that collapse is due to diminishing returns in complexity in any society, Forrest views this as a very interesting problem. But he points out that this theory makes it something of a major puzzle that this doesn’t seem to be that big of a problem in contemporary society, despite its unprecedented levels of ever-growing complexity.

      Kirby liked the book a lot and gave it an 8. He wasn’t even bothered by the textbook aspect of it. He liked the presentation of the various theories about the collapse of societies (especially those of Toynbee, Albert Schweitzer, etc., discussed on p. 80 of the book). But Kirby didn’t accept Tainter’s main theory about “diminishing returns on complexity” being the basic explanation for societal collapse.

      Kirby thought Tainter tended to veer into topics he doesn’t seem to know much about, including the supposed diminishing returns in education, R&D, and so forth. He pointed out that the data points in Tainter’s charts only included statistics from the last 150 years even though Tainter then goes on to apply the conclusions generally for all societies. Kirby also thought that Tainter had made a lot of errors in the book. Nevertheless, despite such shortcomings and the fact he was not convinced by the book’s central argument, Kirby really liked this book very much because it made him think. He found it fascinating, and views Tainter as a deep thinker.

      And now we come to Scott, our Marxist curmudgeon when it comes to books like this. He points out, first of all, that while this book is published in a series of studies in archeology, in reality it is a book of political “science” and bourgeois sociology (which only makes some references to archeological findings in an attempt to prove its sociological theories). According to Scott, neither of these subjects (as pursued today) can be considered in any way as scientific or branches of science. They are instead merely the confused and incoherent attempts by the defenders of capitalism to form an ideological alternative to revolutionary Marxism. (This, indeed, was the conscious motivation for their very creation in the last half of the 19th century.) As such, Scott sees nothing whatsover of any value in this book, and gives it a rating of zero. (He would like to go into negative numbers, if that were allowed in our rating system!)

      This unqualified rejection of the book surprised some of the other book club members. One person even said that he became a bit more sympathetic to the Marxist view of the importance of conflict (class struggle) in society as a result of reading this book!

      It is true that Tainter’s theory of the origin and continued existence of the state does agree that conflict has been part of the story, though he also argues that this by itself is one-sided and inadequate. He argues that in addition we must also accept the “integrationist” theory of the state, that the state also serves the public interest, and that “the differential benefits accruing to those who fulfill society-wide administrative roles are seen as compensation for performing the socially most important functions”. [p. 36] I.e., the rich and powerful supposedly “earn” and deserve their wealth and power. The other members of the book club thought Scott would approve of the “conflict” aspect of Tainter’s theory of the state, while of course not being surprised that he disagrees with the “integrationist” aspects of Tainter’s theory.

      However, Scott argues that every writer has to recognize to some degree that there are conflicts within society, major differences in wealth and power, and so forth, if they are to have any contact with reality at all. The difference is not between those who acknowledge this and those who don’t, but rather between those who only partly acknowledge this and try to downplay it, on the one hand, and those who really take this class conflict theory seriously and emphasize it, on the other hand. In other words, even in order to distort the truth it is necessary to first grant some partial aspects of the truth; but the central thrust can still be to distort rather than to uphold the full truth. That is what Scott is condemning here.

      Scott thinks that Tainter’s central theory about diminishing returns causing the collapse of complexity (and hence societies) is ridiculous. Scott strongly agrees with Forrest’s view that this theory is too abstract to be of much use—even if the theory were correct, which Scott doesn’t think it is. The same, incidentally, could be said of any purely “conflict” theory of collapse (which indeed is correct in the abstract). The basic problem here is what is known in Marxist philosophy as the “particularity of contradiction”. To truly and deeply understand any phenomenon or process you have to dig into the specifics of what the conflicts or opposing forces are and how they develop, and not simply assume that because you understand one situation or process you automatically understand a different one. But Scott very much likes the analogy that Forrest came up with about the physician “explaining” the cause of death in terms of “increasing entropy”. Scott may use that very analogy to help explicate what the “particularity of contradiction” means in the future!

      Except in the most abstract terms (“conflict leads to collapse”) there is in fact no good reason to think that all societal collapses in history can be correctly explained in the same way. It is mere dogma to simply assume that this must be possible, in the way that Tainter does.

      Tainter seems to have become absurdly infatuated with the notion of “diminishing returns”, and tries to generalize it into an all-explaining principle. That’s nutty too. Scott asks: “If this principle is universally valid, is it valid with regard to the advance of human knowledge too?” Actually, it is well-known that it is not. Human knowledge has over the decades and centuries been expanding at an ever-increasing pace overall (despite some earlier periods of temporary setbacks, such as religious dark ages). Scott argues that there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that any “law” of “diminishing returns” applies always and everywhere.

      It is true that within certain social formations there can be forms of diminishing returns that develop. For example, in hunter-gatherer society as the population in any region grows too large and useful animals and plants grow scarce, there may well develop diminishing returns with regard to hunting and gathering. This just means there are socioeconomic limits to that form of society, and not that those same limits apply to other forms of society. In fact, Marx’s theory of historical materialism has the premise that society has developed overall, and with the advance of technology, in order to overcome the limits of earlier forms of social production. (At present, we see the need for another social leap, to socialism/communism, because of the inability of capitalism to actually produce enough goods and services for all the people of the world, even though it has the technical capacity to do so.)

      Scott recognizes the obligation to briefly respond to Tainter’s absurd critique of Marxism. Tainter claims that Marxism is “crippled” by “psychological reductionism”. [p. 36] What does he mean by that? Well, on the previous page he says that all “conflict theory”, including Marxism,

suffers from a problem of psychological reductionism. That is, the emergence of the state is explained by reference to the wishes, intentions, needs, and/or desires of a small, privileged segment of society. How this segment comes to hold these needs and desires is not specified, but presumably arises from some universal human tendency toward ambition and self-aggrandizement.

      This is a mind-boggling distortion of Marxism, and shows that Tainter doesn’t have the vaguest idea what it is all about. In reality, Marxism does analyze class society in terms of class interests. But a tiny bit of sophistication has to come into play here to comprehend what the word ‘interests’ means in this context. There are actually two major senses of the word, the psychological sense (as in “He is interested in physics”) and the objective sense (as in “Flood control projects are in the interests of the people who live along the river”). In the second sense it is not a matter of people’s psychology at all, but rather an issue of what materially, and objectively benefits them. Wishes, intentions, and desires, are matters of psychology. But beneficial interests and needs are objective things (whether or not anybody is psychologically aware of them). [For further discussion of this concept see section 2.9 in chapter 2 of my book The MLM Class Interest Theory of Ethics at]

      Marxism is a materialist theory, and just the opposite of how Tainter conceives of it. Only the most ignorant person could imagine that it is based on psychological factors, rather than on material production and which groups of people objectively benefit from that production. Scott could go further in criticizing Tainter’s bizarre conception of Marxism, but that conception is so off base that it is hardly worth the effort.

      Scott would like to go on about some of the many other shortcomings of Tainter’s book. But this review is getting quite long, so we’ll only allow him to briefly comment on one background question: Just why is it that this topic of social collapse and its causes have entered so much into the consciousness of people over the past century, and within the past few decades in particular?

      The answer is simply that the capitalist-imperialist socioeconomic order has been having more and more extremely serious difficulties. There have been two major world wars over the past century, with millions of deaths. And we came very close to a 3rd world war, a thermonuclear holocaust, between the U.S. and the state-capitalist U.S.S.R. In addition there have been an almost continuous and endless series of imperialist wars by the U.S. against Third World Countries. Moreover, we suffered through one major depression and there are now very serious signs that another is on the way. More than one billion people on the planet now regularly suffer from hunger and malnutrician.

      On top of all this and many other serious problems, American capitalism is now rather obviously in serious decline, while some other countries (especially China) are expanding their economies at a rapid pace. In other words, there are objective reasons to believe that some sort of collapse, at least for the U.S., is already underway. Even within sections of the ruling class, there is starting to be something approaching panic about all this. And also, alarmingly, new laws and trends in the direction of fascism are being implemented to try to keep a lid on the situation.

In the United States, the scent of decline is in the air. Imperial overreach, political polarization, and a costly financial crisis are weighing on the economy. Some pundits now worry that America is about to succumb to the “British disease.” Doomed to slow growth, the U.S. of today, like the exhausted Britain that emerged from World War II, will be forced to curtail its international commitments. The most convincing explanation for British decline [is that] the country failed to develop a coherent policy response to the financial crisis of the 1930s. The country turned inward. Its politics grew fractious, its policies erratic, and its finances increasingly unstable. In short, Britain was a political, not an economic failure. And that history, unfortunately, is all too pertinent to America’s fate. —Barry Eichengreen, a well-known bourgeois economist, in Project Syndicate [quoted again in The Week, Nov. 26, 2010, p. 50.]

      Scott notes that there are varying perspectives on the nature, causes, and ultimate seriousness of this U.S. decline or possible collapse, but there is little doubt that it is occurring and still developing.

Return to our complete list of books.

Return to our Science Group home page.