Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead - John Michael Greer (2016)


THE FATE OF THE POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS OF A FALLING CIVilization is governed by an unexpected dynamic. Outside the elites, which generally have a different and considerably more gruesome destiny than the other inhabitants of a falling civilization, it’s surprisingly rare for people to have to be forced to trade civilization for barbarism, either by human action or by the pressure of events. By and large, by the time that choice arrives, the great majority are more than ready to make the exchange. What’s more, they generally have very good reasons to do so.

Let’s start by reviewing some basics. The collapse of civilizations has a surprisingly simple basis: the mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources that are available to meet those costs. Capital here is meant in the broadest sense of the word and includes everything in which a civilization invests its wealth: buildings, roads, imperial expansion, urban infrastructure, information resources, trained personnel, or what have you. Capital of every kind has to be maintained, and as a civilization adds to its stock of capital, the costs of maintenance rise steadily, until the resource base available to the civilization won’t meet the maintenance costs any more.

The only way to resolve the resulting crisis is to stop maintaining some of the capital, so that its maintenance costs drop to zero and any useful resources locked up in the capital can be put to other uses. Human beings being what they are, the conversion of capital to waste generally isn’t carried out in a calm, rational manner. Instead, kingdoms fall, cities get sacked, ruling elites are torn to pieces by howling mobs, and the like. If a civilization depends on renewable resources, each round of capital destruction is followed by a return to relative stability, and the process begins all over again. The history of imperial China is a good example of how the resulting cycle works out in practice.

If a civilization depends on nonrenewable resources for essential functions, though, abandoning some of its capital yields only a brief reprieve from the crisis of maintenance costs. Once the nonrenewable resource base tips over into depletion, there’s less and less available each year thereafter to meet the remaining maintenance costs, and the result is the stairstep pattern of decline and fall so familiar from history: each crisis leads to a round of capital destruction, which leads to renewed stability, which gives way to crisis as the resource base drops further. Here again, human beings being what they are, this process isn’t carried out in a calm, rational manner. The difference here is simply that kingdoms keep falling, cities keep getting sacked, ruling elites are slaughtered one after another in ever more inventive and colorful ways, until finally contraction has proceeded far enough that the remaining capital can be supported on the available stock of renewable resources.

That’s a thumbnail sketch of the theory of catabolic collapse. I’d encourage those who have questions about the details of the theory to read the original paper, which was published as an appendix to my book The Long Descent.1What I want to do here is to go a little more deeply into the social implications of the theory.

It’s common these days to hear people insist that our society is divided into two and only two classes, an elite class that receives all the benefits of the system, and everyone else, who bears all the burdens. The reality, in ours and every other human society, is a great deal more nuanced. It’s true, of course, that the benefits move up the ladder of wealth and privilege and the burdens get shoved toward the bottom, but in most cases—ours very much included—you have to go a good long way down the ladder before you find people who receive no benefits at all.

There have admittedly been a few human societies in which most people receive only such benefits from the system as will enable them to keep working until they drop. The early days of plantation slavery in the United States and the Caribbean islands, when the average lifespan of a slave from purchase to death was under ten years, fell into that category, and so do a few others—for example, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. These are exceptional cases; they emerge when the cost of unskilled labor drops close to zero and either abundant profits or ideological considerations make the fate of the laborers a matter of complete indifference to their masters.

Under any other set of conditions, such arrangements are uneconomical. It’s more profitable to the elites, by and large, to allow the laboring classes to get enough from the system that they can survive and raise families, and use those rewards to motivate them to do more than the bare minimum that will evade the overseer’s lash. That’s what generates the standard peasant economy, for example, in which the rural poor pay the landowners in labor and a share of agricultural production for access to arable land.

There are any number of arrangements of this kind, in which the laboring classes do the work, the ruling classes allow them access to productive capital, and the results are divided between the two classes in a proportion that allows the ruling classes to get rich and the laboring classes to get by. If that sounds familiar, it should. In terms of the distribution of labor, capital, and production, the latest offerings of today’s job market are indistinguishable from the arrangements between an ancient Egyptian landowner and the peasants who planted and harvested his fields.

The more complex a society becomes, the more intricate the caste system that divides it, and the more diverse the changes that are played on this basic scheme. A relatively simple medieval society might get by with four castes—the feudal Japanese model, which divided society into warriors, farmers, craftspeople, and merchants, is as good an example as any.2 A stable society near the end of a long age of expansion, by contrast, might have hundreds or even thousands of distinct castes, each with its own niche in the social and economic ecology of that society. In every case, each caste represents a particular balance between benefits received and burdens exacted, and given a stable economy entirely dependent on renewable resources, such a system can continue intact for a very long time.

Factor in the process of catabolic collapse, though, and an otherwise stable system turns into a fount of cascading instabilities. The point that needs to be grasped here is that social hierarchies are a form of capital, in the broad sense mentioned above. Like the other forms of capital included in the catabolic collapse model, social hierarchies facilitate the production and distribution of goods and services, and they have maintenance costs that have to be met. If the maintenance costs aren’t met, as with any other form of capital, social hierarchies are converted to waste; they stop fulfilling their economic function, and they become available for salvage.

That sounds very straightforward. Here as so often, though, it’s the human factor that transforms it from a simple equation to the raw material of history. As the maintenance costs of a civilization’s capital begin to mount up toward the point of crisis, corners get cut and malign neglect becomes the order of the day. Among the various forms of capital, though, some benefit people at one point on the ladder of social hierarchy more than people at other levels. As the maintenance budget runs short, people normally try to shield the forms of capital that benefit them directly, and push the cutbacks off onto forms of capital that benefit others instead. Since the ability of any given person to influence where resources go corresponds very precisely to that person’s position in the social hierarchy, this means that the forms of capital that benefit the people at the bottom of the ladder get cut first.

Now, of course, this isn’t what you hear from Americans today, and it’s not what you hear from people in any society approaching catabolic collapse. When contraction sets in, as already noted, people tend to pay much more attention to whatever they’re losing than to the even greater losses suffered by others. The middle-class Americans who denounce welfare for the poor at the top of their lungs while demanding that funding for Medicare and Social Security remain intact are a classic example of the type; so, for that matter, are the other middle-class Americans who denounce the admittedly absurd excesses of the so-called one percent while carefully neglecting to note the immense differentials of wealth and privilege that separate them from those still further down the ladder.

This sort of thing is inevitable in a fight over slices of a shrinking pie.,3 Set aside the inevitable partisan rhetoric, though, and a society moving into the penumbra of catabolic collapse is a society in which more and more people are receiving less and less benefit from the existing order of society, while being expected to shoulder an ever-increasing share of the costs of a faltering system. To those who receive little or no benefits in return, the maintenance costs of social capital rapidly become an intolerable burden, and as the supply of benefits still available from a faltering system becomes more and more a perquisite of the upper reaches of the social hierarchy, that burden becomes an explosive political fact.

Every society depends for its survival on the passive acquiescence of the majority of the population and the active support of a large minority. That minority—call them the overseer class—are the people who operate the mechanisms of social hierarchy: the bureaucrats, media personnel, police, soldiers, and other functionaries who are responsible for maintaining social order. They are not drawn from the ruling elite; by and large, they come from the same classes they are expected to control, and if their share of the benefits of the existing order falters, if their share of the burdens increases too noticeably, or if they find other reasons to make common cause with those outside the overseer class against the ruling elite, then the ruling elite can expect to face the brutal choice between flight into exile and a messy death. The mismatch between maintenance costs and available resources, in turn, makes some such turn of events extremely difficult to avoid.

A ruling elite facing a crisis of this kind has at least three available options. The first, and by far the easiest, is to ignore the situation. In the short term, this is actually the most economical option, since it requires the least investment of scarce resources and doesn’t require potentially dangerous tinkering with fragile social and political systems. The only drawback is that once the short term runs out, it pretty much guarantees a horrific fate for the members of the ruling elite, and in many cases, this is a less convincing argument than one might think. It’s always easy to find an ideology that insists that things will turn out otherwise, and since members of a ruling elite are generally well insulated from the unpleasant realities of life in the society over which they preside, it’s usually just as easy for them to convince themselves of the validity of whatever ideology they happen to choose. The behavior of the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the French Revolution is worth consulting in this context.

The second option is to try to remedy the situation by increased repression. This is the most expensive option, and it’s generally even less effective than the first, but ruling elites with a taste for jackboots tend to fall into the repression trap fairly often. What makes repression a bad choice is that it does nothing to address the sources of the problems it attempts to suppress. Furthermore, it increases the maintenance costs of social hierarchy drastically—secret police, surveillance gear, prison camps, and the like don’t come cheap—and it enforces the lowest common denominator of passive obedience while doing much to discourage active engagement of people outside the elite in the project of saving the society. A survey of the fate of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe is a good antidote to the delusion that an elite with enough spies and soldiers can stay in power indefinitely.

That leaves the third option, which requires the ruling elite to sacrifice some of its privileges and perquisites so that those further down the social ladder still have good reason to support the existing order of society. That isn’t common, but it does happen. It happened in the United States as recently as the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt spearheaded changes that spared the United States the sort of fascist takeover or civil war that occurred in so many other failed democracies in the same era. Roosevelt and his allies among the very rich realized that fairly modest reforms would be enough to convince most Americans that they had more to gain from supporting the system than they would gain by overthrowing it. A few job-creation projects and debt-relief measures, a few welfare programs, and a few perp walks by the most blatant of the con artists of the preceding era of high finance were enough to stop the unraveling of the social hierarchy, and restore a sense of collective unity strong enough to see the United States through a global war in the following decade.

Of course, Roosevelt and his allies had huge advantages that any comparable project would not be able to duplicate today. In 1933, though it was hamstrung by a collapsed financial system and a steep decline in international trade, the economy of the United States still had the world’s largest and most productive industrial plant and some of the world’s richest deposits of petroleum, coal, and many other natural resources. Fifty years later, in the Reagan era, the industrial plant was abandoned in an orgy of offshoring motivated by short-term profit-seeking, and today nearly every resource the American land once offered in abundance has been mined and pumped right down to the dregs. That means that any attempt to imitate Roosevelt’s feat under current conditions will face much steeper obstacles, and it would also require the ruling elite to relinquish a much greater share of its current perquisites and privileges than they did in Roosevelt’s day.

I could be mistaken, but I don’t think it will even be tried this time around. Just at the moment, the squabbling coterie of competing power centers that constitutes the ruling elite of the United States seems committed to an approach halfway between the first two options I’ve outlined. The militarization of US domestic police forces and the rising spiral of civil rights violations carried out with equal enthusiasm by both mainstream political parties fall on the repressive side of the scale. At the same time, for all these gestures in the direction of repression, the overall attitude of American politicians and financiers seems to be that nothing really that bad can actually happen to them or to the system that provides them with their power and their wealth.

They’re wrong, and at this point it’s probably a safe bet that a great many of them will die because of that mistake. Already, a large fraction of Americans—probably a majority—accept the continuation of the existing order of society in the United States only because a viable alternative has yet to emerge. As the United States moves deeper into the penumbra of crisis, and the burden of propping up an increasingly dysfunctional status quo bears down ever more intolerably on ever more people outside the narrowing circle of wealth and privilege, the bar that any alternative has to leap will be set lower and lower. Sooner or later, something will make that leap and convince enough people that there’s a workable alternative to the status quo, and the passive acquiescence on which the system depends for its survival will no longer be something that can be taken for granted.

It’s not necessary for such an alternative to be more democratic or more humane than the order that it attempts to replace. It can be considerably less so, so long as it imposes fewer costs on the majority of people and distributes benefits more widely than the existing order does. That’s why, in the last years of Rome, so many people of the collapsing empire readily accepted the rule of barbarian warlords in place of the imperial government. That government had become hopelessly dysfunctional by the time of the barbarian invasions, centralizing authority in distant bureaucratic centers out of touch with current realities, and imposing tax burdens on the poor so crushing that many people were forced to sell themselves into slavery or flee to depopulated regions of the countryside to take up the uncertain life of Bacaudae, half guerrilla and half bandit, hunted by imperial troops whenever those latter had time to spare from the defense of the frontiers.

By contrast, the local barbarian warlord might be brutal and capricious, but he was there on the scene, and thus unlikely to exhibit the serene detachment from reality so common in centralized bureaucratic states at the end of their lives. What’s more, the warlord had good pragmatic reasons to protect the peasants who put bread and meat on his table, and the cost of supporting him and his retinue in the relatively modest style of barbarian kingship was considerably less expensive than the immense economic burden of helping to prop up the baroque complexities of the late Roman imperial bureaucracy. That’s why the peasants and agricultural slaves of the late Roman world acquiesced so calmly in the implosion of Rome and its replacement by a patchwork of petty kingdoms. It wasn’t just that it was merely a change of masters—it was that in a great many cases, the new masters were considerably less burdensome than the old ones had been.

We can expect much the same process to unfold in North America as the United States passes through its own trajectory of decline and fall. Before tracing the ways that process might work out, though, it’s going to be necessary to sort through some common misconceptions, and that requires us to examine the ways that ruling elites destroy themselves.


One of the persistent tropes in current speculations on the future of our civilization revolves around the notion that the current holders of wealth and influence will entrench themselves even more firmly in their positions as things fall apart. Thus it’s worth discussing what tends to happen to elite classes in the decline and fall of a civilization, and seeing what that has to say about the fate of the industrial world’s elite class as our civilization follows the familiar path.

It’s probably necessary to say up-front that we’re not talking about the evil space lizards that haunt David Icke’s paranoid delusions,4 or for that matter the faux-Nietzschean supermen who play a parallel role in Ayn Rand’s dreary novels and pseudophilosophical rants. What we’re talking about, rather, is something far simpler, which all of my readers will have experienced in their own lives. Every group of social primates has an inner core of members who have more access to the resources controlled by the group, and more influence over the decisions made by the group, than other members. How individuals enter that core and maintain themselves there against their rivals varies from one set of social primates to another—baboons settle such matters with threat displays backed up with violence, church ladies do the same thing with social maneuvering and gossip, and so on—but the effect is the same: a few enter the inner core, the rest are excluded from it. That process, many times amplified, gives rise to the ruling elite of a civilization.

I don’t happen to know much about the changing patterns of leadership in baboon troops, but among human beings, there’s a predictable shift over time in the way that individuals gain access to the elite. When institutions are new and relatively fragile, it’s fairly easy for a gifted and ambitious outsider to bluff and bully his way into the elite. As any given institution becomes older and more firmly settled in its role, that possibility fades. What happens instead in a mature institution is that the existing members of the elite group select, from the pool of available candidates, those individuals who will be allowed to advance into the elite. The church ladies just mentioned are a good example of this process in action. If any of my readers are doctoral candidates in sociology looking for a dissertation topic, I encourage them to consider joining a local church and tracking the way the elderly women who run most of its social functions groom their own replacements and exclude those they consider unfit for that role.

That process is a miniature version of the way the ruling elite of the world’s industrial nations select new additions to their number. There, as among church ladies, there are basically two routes in. You can be born into the family of a member of the inner circle, and if you don’t run off the rails too drastically, you can count on a place in the inner circle yourself in due time. Alternatively, you can work your way in from outside by being suitably deferential and supportive to the inner circle, meeting all of its expectations and conforming to its opinions and decisions, until the senior members of the elite start treating you as a junior member and the junior members have to deal with you as an equal. You can watch that at work, as already mentioned, in your local church—and you can also watch it at work in the innermost circles of power and privilege in American life.

Here in America, the top universities are the places where the latter version of the process stands out in all its dubious splendor. To these universities, every autumn, come the children of rich and influential families to begin the traditional four-year rite of passage. It would require something close to a superhuman effort on their part to fail. If they don’t fancy attending lectures, they can hire impecunious classmates as “note takers” to do that for them. If they don’t wish to write papers, the same principle applies, and those same impecunious classmates are more than ready to help out, since that can be the first step to a career as an executive assistant, speechwriter, or the like. The other requirements of college life can be met in the same manner as needed, and the university inevitably looks the other way, knowing that they can count on a generous donation from the parents as a reward for putting up with Junior’s antics.

Those of my readers who’ve read the novels of Thomas Mann, and recall the satiric portrait of central European minor royalty in Royal Highness, already know their way around the sort of life I’m discussing here. Those who don’t may want to recall everything they learned about the education and business career of George W. Bush. All the formal requirements are met, every gracious gesture is in place—the diploma, the prestigious positions in business or politics or the stateside military, maybe a book written by one of those impecunious classmates turned ghostwriter and published to bland and favorable reviews in the newspapers of record—it’s all there, and the only detail that nobody sees fit to mention is that the whole thing could be done just as well by a well-trained cockatiel, and much of it is well within the capacities of a department store mannequin—provided, of course, that one of those impecunious classmates stands close by, pulling the strings that make the hand wave and the head nod.

The impecunious classmates, for their part, are aspirants to the second category mentioned above, those who work their way into the elite from outside. They also come to the same top universities every autumn, but they don’t get there because of who their parents happen to be. They get there by devoting every spare second to that goal from elementary school on. They take the right classes, get the right grades, play the right sports, pursue the right extracurricular activities, and rehearse for their entrance interviews by the hour. They are bright, earnest, amusing, pleasant, because they know that that’s what they need to be in order to get where they want to go. Scratch that glossy surface, and you’ll find an anxious conformist terrified of failing to measure up to expectations, and it’s a reasonable terror—most of them will in fact fail to do that, and never know how or why.

Once in an Ivy League university or the equivalent, they’re pretty much guaranteed passing grades and a diploma unless they go out of their way to avoid them. Most of them, though, will be shunted off to midlevel posts in business, government, or one of the professions. Only the lucky few will catch the eye of someone with elite connections and be gently nudged out of their usual orbit into a place from which further advancement is possible. Whether the rich kid whose exam papers you ghostwrote takes a liking to you and arranges to have you hired as his executive assistant when he gets his first job out of school, or the father of a friend of a friend meets you on some social occasion, chats with you, and later on has the friend of a friend mention in passing that you might consider a job with this senator or that congressman, or what have you, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, not to mention how precisely you conform to the social and intellectual expectations of the people you know who have the power to give or withhold the prize you crave so desperately.

That’s how the elite of today’s America recruits new members. Mutatis mutandis, it’s how the governing elite of every stable, long-established society recruits new members. That procedure has significant advantages, and not just for the elites. Above all else, it provides stability. Over time, any elite self-selected in this fashion converges asymptotically on the standard model of a mature aristocracy, with an inner core of genial duffers surrounded by an outer circle of rigid conformists—the last people on the planet who are likely to disturb the settled calm of the social order. Like the lead-weighted keel of a deepwater sailboat, their inertia becomes a stabilizing force that only the harshest of tempests can overturn.

Inevitably, though, this advantage comes with certain disadvantages, two of which are of particular importance for our subject. The first is that stability and inertia are not necessarily a good thing in a time of crisis. In particular, if the society governed by an elite of the sort just described happens to depend for its survival on some unsustainable relationship with surrounding societies, the world of nature, or both, the leaden weight of a mature elite can make necessary change impossible until it’s too late for any change at all to matter. One of the most consistent results of the sort of selection process I’ve sketched out is the elimination of any tendency toward original thinking on the part of those selected. Creativity may be lauded in theory, but what counts as creativity in such a system consists solely of taking some piece of accepted conventional wisdom one very carefully measured step further than anyone else has quite gotten around to going yet.

In a time of drastic change, that sort of limitation is lethal. More deadly still is the other disadvantage I have in mind, which is the curious and consistent habit such elites have of blind faith in their own invincibility. The longer a given elite has been in power, and the more august and formal and well-aged the institutions of its power and wealth become, the easier it seems to be for members of the elite to forget that their forefathers established themselves in that position by some form of more or less blatant piracy, and that they themselves could be deprived of it by that same means. Thus elites, shall we say, “misunderestimate” exactly those crises and sources of conflict that pose an existential threat to the survival of their class and its institutions, precisely because they can’t imagine that an existential threat to these things could be posed by anything at all.

The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that the same conviction tends to become just as widespread outside elite circles as within it. The illusion of invincibility, the conviction that the existing order of things is impervious to any but the most cosmetic changes, tends to be pervasive in any mature society and remains fixed in place right up to the moment that everything changes and the existing order of things is swept away forever. The intensity of the illusion very often has nothing to do with the real condition of the social order to which it applies. France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, to cite two of the obvious examples, were both brittle, crumbling, jerry-rigged hulks waiting for the push that would send them tumbling into oblivion, which they each received shortly thereafter, but next to no one saw the gaping vulnerabilities at the time. In both cases, even the urban rioters that applied the push were left standing there slack-jawed when they saw how readily the whole thing came crashing down.

The illusion of invincibility is far and away the most important asset a mature ruling elite has, because it discourages deliberate attempts at regime change from within. Everyone in the society, in the elite or outside it, assumes that the existing order is so firmly bolted into place that only the most apocalyptic events would be able to shake its grip. In such a context, most activists either beg for scraps from the tables of the rich or content themselves with futile gestures of hostility at a system they don’t seriously expect to be able to harm, while the members of the elite go their genial way, stumbling from one preventable disaster to another, convinced of the inevitability of their positions, and blissfully unconcerned with the possibility—which normally becomes a reality sooner or later—that their own actions might be sawing away at the old and brittle branch on which they’re seated.

If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you definitely need to get out more. The behavior of the holders of wealth and power in contemporary America, as already suggested, is a textbook example of the way that a mature elite turns senile. Each round of freewheeling financial fraud, each preventable economic slump, increases the odds that an already brittle, crumbling, and jerry-rigged system will crack under the strain, opening a window of opportunity that hostile foreign powers and domestic demagogues alike will not be slow to exploit.

Do such considerations move the supposed defenders of the status quo to rein in the manufacture of worthless financial paper? Surely you jest. Secure in their sense of their own invulnerability, they amble down the familiar road that led so many of their equivalents in past societies to dispossession or annihilation.


The senility that afflicts ruling elites in their last years is far from the only factor leading the rich and influential members of a failing civilization to their eventual destiny as lamppost decorations or some-close equivalent. Another factor, at least as important, is a lethal mismatch between the realities of power in an age of decline and the institutional frameworks inherited from a previous age of ascent.

That sounds very abstract, and appropriately so. Power in a mature civilization is very abstract, and the further you ascend the social ladder, the more abstract it becomes. Conspiracy theorists of a certain stripe have invested vast amounts of time and effort in quarrels over which specific group of people it is that runs everything in today’s America. All of it was wasted, because the nature of power in a mature civilization precludes the emergence of any one center of power that dominates all others.

Look at the world through the eyes of an elite class and it’s easy to see how this works. Members of an elite class compete against one another to increase their own wealth and influence and form alliances to pool resources and counter the depredations of their rivals. The result, in every human society complex enough to have an elite class in the first place, is an elite composed of squabbling factions that jealously resist any attempt at further centralization of power. In times of crisis, at least before senility sets in, that resistance can be overcome, but in less troubled times, any attempt by an individual or faction to seize control of the whole system faces the united opposition of the rest of the elite class.

One result of the constant defensive stance of elite factions against each other is that as a society matures, power tends to pass from individuals to institutions.5 Bureaucratic systems take over more and more of the management of political, economic, and cultural affairs, and the policies that guide the bureaucrats in their work slowly harden until they are no more subject to change than the law of gravity. Among its other benefits to the existing order of society, this habit—we may as well call it policy mummification—limits the likelihood that an ambitious individual can parlay control over a single bureaucracy into a weapon against his rivals.

Our civilization is no exception to any of this. In the modern industrial world, some bureaucracies are overtly part of the political sphere. Others—we call them corporations—are supposedly apart from government, and still others like to call themselves “non-governmental organizations” as a form of protective camouflage. They are all part of the institutional structure of power, and thus function in practice as arms of government. They have more in common than this. Most of them have the same hierarchical structure and organizational culture, and those that are large enough to matter have executives who went to the same schools, share the same values, and crave the same handouts from higher up the ladder. No matter how revolutionary their rhetoric, for that matter, upsetting the system that provides them with their status and its substantial benefits is the last thing any of them want to do.

All these arrangements make for a great deal of stability, which the elite classes of mature civilizations generally crave. The downside is that it’s not easy for a society that’s proceeded more than a short distance along this path to change its ways to respond to new circumstances. Getting an entrenched bureaucracy to set aside its mummified policies in the face of changing conditions is generally so difficult that it’s often easier to leave the old system in place while redirecting all its important functions to another, newly founded bureaucracy oriented toward the new policies. If conditions change again, the same procedure repeats, producing a layer cake of bureaucratic organizations that all supposedly exist to do the same thing.

Consider, as one example out of many, the shifting of responsibility for US foreign policy over the years. Officially, the State Department has charge of foreign affairs. In practice, direct power over foreign policy passed many decades ago to the staff of the National Security Council, and more recently has shifted again to coteries of advisers assigned to the office of the President. In each case, what drove the shift was the attachment of the older institution to a set of policies and procedures that stopped being relevant to the world of foreign policy—in the case of the State Department, the customary notions of old-fashioned diplomacy, and in the case of the National Security Council, the bipolar power politics of the Cold War era—but could not be dislodged from the bureaucracy in question due to the immense inertia of policy mummification in institutional frameworks.

The layered systems that result are not without their practical advantages to the existing order. Having many bureaucracies provides even more stability than a single bureaucracy, since it’s often necessary for the people who actually have day-to-day responsibility for this or that government function to get formal approval from the top officials of the agency or agencies that used to have that responsibility. Even when those officials no longer have any formal way to block a policy they don’t like, the personal and contextual nature of elite politics means that informal options usually exist. Furthermore, since the titular headship of some formerly important body such as the US State Department confers prestige but not power, it makes a good consolation prize to be handed out to also-rans in major political contests, a place to park well-connected incompetents, or what have you.

One problem with this layering process comes from points already made in this chapter: the maintenance bill for so baroque a form of capital is not small. In a mature civilization, a large fraction of available resources and economic production ends up being consumed by institutions that no longer have any real function beyond perpetuating their own existence and the salaries and prestige of their upper-level functionaries. It’s not unusual for the maintenance costs of unproductive capital of this kind to become so great a burden on society that the burden in itself forces a crisis—that was one of the major forces that brought about the French Revolution, for instance. Still, I’d like to focus for a moment on a different issue, which is the effect that the institutionalization of power and the multiplication of bureaucracy has on the elites who allegedly run the system from which they so richly benefit.

France in the years leading up to the Revolution makes a superb example, one that John Kenneth Galbraith discussed with his trademark sardonic humor in his useful book The Culture of Contentment. The role of ruling elite in pre-1789 France was occupied by close equivalents of the people who fill that same position in America today: the “nobility of the sword,” the old feudal aristocracy who had roughly the same role as the holders of inherited wealth in today’s America, and the “nobility of the robe,” who owed their position to education, political office, and a talent for social climbing, and thus had roughly the same role as successful Ivy League graduates do here and now. These two elite classes sparred constantly against each other, and just as constantly competed against their own peers for wealth, influence, and position.

One of the most notable features of both sides of the French elite in those days was just how little either group actually had to do with the management of public affairs, or for that matter the management of their own considerable wealth. The great aristocratic estates of the time were bureaucratic societies in miniature, ruled by hierarchies of feudal servitors and middle-class managers, while the hot new financial innovation of the time, the stock market, allowed those who wanted their wealth in a less tradition-infested form to neglect every part of business ownership but the profits. Those members of the upper classes who held offices in government, the Church, and the other venues of power thus presided decorously over institutions that were perfectly capable of functioning without them.

The elite classes of mature civilizations almost always seek to establish arrangements of this sort, and understandably so. It’s easy to recognize the attractiveness of a state of affairs in which the holders of wealth and influence get all the advantages of their positions and have to put up with as few as possible of the inconveniences thereof. That said, this attraction is also a death wish, because it rarely takes the people who actually do the work long to figure out that a ruling class in this situation has become entirely parasitic and that society would continue to function perfectly well were something suitably terminal to happen to the titular holders of power.

This is why most of the revolutions in modern history have taken place in nations in which the ruling elite has followed its predilections and handed over all its duties to subordinates. In the case of the American Revolution, the English nobility had been directly involved in colonial affairs in the first century or so after Jamestown. Once it left the colonists to manage their own affairs, the latter needed very little time to realize that the only thing they had to lose by seeking independence was the steady hemorrhage of wealth from the colonies to England. In the case of the French and Russian Revolutions, much the same thing happened without the benefit of an ocean in the way: the middle classes who actually ran both societies recognized that the monarchy and aristocracy had become disposable, and promptly disposed of them once a crisis made it possible to do so.

The crisis just mentioned is a significant factor in the process. Under normal conditions, a society with a purely decorative ruling elite can keep on stumbling along indefinitely on sheer momentum. It usually takes a crisis—Britain’s military response to colonial protests in 1775, the effective bankruptcy of the French government in 1789, the total military failure of the Russian government in 1917, or what have you—to convince the people who actually handle the levers of power that their best interests no longer lie with their erstwhile masters. Once the crisis hits, the unraveling of the institutional structures of authority can happen with blinding speed, and the former ruling elite is rarely in a position to do anything about it. All they have ever had to do, and all they know how to do, is issue orders to deferential subordinates. When there are none of these latter to be found, or (as more often happens) when the people to whom the deferential subordinates are supposed to pass the orders are no longer interested in listening, the elite has no options left.

The key point to be grasped here is that power is always contextual. A powerful person is a person able to exert particular kinds of power, using particular means, on some particular group of other people, and someone thus can be immensely powerful in one setting and completely powerless in another. What renders the elite classes of a mature society vulnerable to a total collapse of power is that they almost always lose track of this unwelcome fact. Hereditary elites are particularly prone to falling into the trap of thinking of their position in society as an accurate measure of their own personal qualifications to rule, but it’s also quite common for those who are brought into the elite from the classes immediately below to think of their elevation as proof of their innate superiority. That kind of thinking is natural for elites, but once they embrace it, they’re doomed.

It’s dangerous enough for elites to lose track of the contextual and contingent nature of their power when the mechanisms through which power is enforced can be expected to remain in place—as it was in the American colonies in 1776, France in 1789, and Russia in 1917. It’s far more dangerous if the mechanisms of power themselves are in flux. That can happen for any number of reasons, but the one that’s of central importance to the theme of this book is the catabolic collapse of a declining civilization, in which the existing mechanisms of power come apart because their maintenance costs can no longer be met.

That poses at least two challenges to the ruling elite, one obvious and the other less so. The obvious one is that any deterioration in the mechanisms of power limits the ability of the elite to keep the remaining mechanisms of power funded, since a great deal of power is always expended in paying the maintenance costs of power. Thus in the declining years of Rome, for example, the crucial problem the empire faced was precisely that the sprawling system of imperial political and military administration cost more than the imperial revenues could support, but the weakening of that system made it even harder to collect the revenues on which the rest of the system depended, and forced more of what money there was to go for crisis management.6 Year after year, as a result, roads, fortresses, and the rest of the infrastructure of Roman power sank under a burden of deferred maintenance and malign neglect, and the consequences of each collapse became more and more severe because there was less and less in the treasury to pay for rebuilding when the crisis was over.

That’s the obvious issue. More subtle is the change in the nature of power that accompanies the decay in the mechanisms by which it’s traditionally been used. Power in a mature civilization, as already noted, is very abstract, and the people who are responsible for administering it at the top of the social ladder rise to those positions precisely because of their ability to manage abstract power through the complex machinery that a mature civilization provides them. As the mechanisms collapse, though, power suddenly stops being abstract, and the skills that allow the manipulation of abstract power have almost nothing in common with the skills that allow concrete power to be wielded.

Late imperial Rome, again, is a fine example. There, as in other mature civilizations, the ruling elite had a firm grip on the intricate mechanisms of social control at their uppermost and least tangible end. The inner circle of each imperial administration—which sometimes included the emperor himself and sometimes treated him as a sock puppet—could rely on sprawling, many-layered civil and military bureaucracies to put their orders into effect. They were by and large subtle, ruthless, well-educated men, schooled in the intricacies of imperial administration, oriented toward the big picture, and completely dependent for their power, and indeed their survival, on the obedience of their underlings and the permanence of the Roman system itself.

The people who replaced them, as the empire came apart, shared none of these characteristics except the ruthlessness. The barbarian warlords who carved up the corpse of Roman power had a completely different set of skills and characteristics: raw physical courage, a high degree of competence in the warrior’s trade, and the kind of charisma that attracts cooperation and obedience from those who have many other options. Their power was concrete, personal, and astonishingly independent of institutional forms. That’s why Odoacer, whose remarkable career was mentioned earlier, could turn up alone in a border province, patch together an army out of a random mix of barbarian warriors, and promptly lead them to the conquest of Italy.

There were a very few members of the late Roman elite who could exercise power in the same way as Odoacer and his equivalents, and they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. The greatest of them, Flavius Aetius, spent many years in youth as a hostage in the royal courts of the Visigoths and the Huns and got his practical education there, rather than in Roman schools. He was, for all practical purposes, a barbarian warlord who happened to be Roman by birth, and played the game as well as any of the other warlords of his age. His vulnerabilities were all on the Roman side of the frontier, where the institutions of Roman society still retained a fingernail grip on power, and so—having defeated the Visigoths, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the massed armies of Attila the Hun, all for the sake of Rome’s survival—he was assassinated by the emperor he served.

Fast forward close to two thousand years and it’s easy to see how the same pattern of elite extinction through the collapse of political complexity will likely work out here in North America. The ruling elites of our society, like those of the late Roman Empire, are superbly skilled at manipulating and parasitizing a fantastically elaborate bureaucratic machine that includes governments, business firms, universities, and many other institutions among its components. That’s what they do; that’s what they know how to do; and that’s what all their training and experience has prepared them to do. Thus their position is exactly equivalent to that of French aristocrats before 1789, but they’re facing the added difficulty that the vast mechanism on which their power depends has maintenance costs that their civilization can no longer meet. As the machine fails, so does their power.

Nor are they particularly well prepared to make the transition to a radically different way of exercising power. Imagine for a moment that one of the current US elite—an executive from a too-big-to-fail investment bank, a top bureaucrat from inside the DC beltway, a trust-fund multimillionaire with a pro forma job at the family corporation, or what have you—were to turn up in some chaotic failed state on the fringes of the industrial world, with no money, no resources, no help from abroad, and no ticket home. What’s the likelihood that, without anything other than whatever courage, charisma, and bare-knuckle fighting skills he might happen to have, some such person could equal Odoacer’s feat, win the loyalty and obedience of thousands of gang members and unemployed mercenaries, and lead them in a successful invasion of a neighboring country?

There are people in North America who could probably carry off a feat of that kind, but you won’t find them in the current ruling elite. That in itself defines part of the path to dark age America: the replacement of a ruling class that specializes in managing abstract power through institutions with a ruling class that specializes in expressing power up close and in person, using the business end of the nearest available weapon. The process by which the new elite emerges and elbows its predecessors out of the way, in turn, is among the most reliable dimensions of decline and fall.


To make sense of that process, it’s going to be necessary to take a step back and revisit some of the points made earlier, when I discussed the way that the complex social hierarchies common to mature civilizations break down into larger and less stable masses in which new loyalties and hatreds more easily build to explosive intensity. America is as good an example of that as any. A century ago, as already noted, racists in this country were at great pains to distinguish various classes of whiteness, with people of Anglo-Saxon ancestry at the pinnacle of whiteness and everybody else fitting into an intricate scheme of less-white categories below. Over the course of the twentieth century, those categories collapsed into a handful of abstract ethnicities—white, black, Hispanic, Asian—and can be counted on to collapse further as we proceed, until there are just two categories left, which are not determined by ethnicity but purely by access to the machinery of power.

Arnold Toynbee called those two the dominant minority and the internal proletariat.7 The dominant minority is the governing elite of a civilization in its last phases, a group of people united not by ethnic, cultural, religious, or ideological ties, but purely by their success in either clawing their way up the social ladder to a position of power, or hanging on to a position inherited from their forebears. Toynbee draws a sharp division between a dominant minority and the governing elite of a civilization that hasn’t yet begun to decline, which he calls a creative minority. The difference is that a creative minority hasn’t yet gone through the descent into senility that afflicts elites, and it still recalls its dependence on the loyalty of those further down the social ladder. A dominant minority or, in my terms, a senile elite has lost track of that dependence, and has to demand and enforce obedience because it can no longer inspire respect.

Everyone else in a declining civilization belongs to the second category, the internal proletariat. Like the dominant minority, the internal proletariat has nothing to unite it but its relationship to political power: it consists of all those people who have none. In the face of that fact, other social divisions gradually evaporate. Social hierarchies are a form of capital, and like any form of capital, they have maintenance costs, which are paid out in the form of influence and wealth. The higher someone stands in the social hierarchy, the more access to influence and wealth they have; that’s their payoff for cooperating with the system and enforcing its norms on those further down.

As resources run short and a civilization in decline has to start cutting its maintenance costs, though, the payoffs get cut. For obvious reasons, the higher someone is on the ladder to begin with, the more influence they have over whose payoffs get cut, and that reliably works out to “not mine.” The further down you go, by contrast, the more likely people are to get the short end of the stick. That said, until the civilization actually comes apart, there’s normally a floor to the process, somewhere around the minimum necessary to actually sustain life. An unlucky few get pushed below this, but normally it’s easier to maintain social order when the very poor get just enough to survive. Thus social hierarchies disintegrate from the bottom up, as more and more people on the lower rungs of the latter are pushed down to the bottom, erasing the social distinctions that once differentiated them from the lowest rung.

That happens in society as a whole, and it also happens in each of the broad divisions of the caste system—in the United States, those would be the major ethnic divisions. The many shades of relative whiteness that used to divide white Americans into an intricate array of castes, for instance, have almost entirely gone by the board. You have to go pretty far up the ladder to find white Americans who differentiate themselves from other white Americans on the basis of whose descendants they are. Further down the ladder, Americans of Italian, Irish, and Polish descent—once strictly defined castes with their own churches, neighborhoods, and institutions—now as often as not think of themselves as white without further qualification.

The same process has gotten under way to one extent or another in the other major ethnic divisions of American society, and it’s also started to dissolve even those divisions among the growing masses of the very poor. I have something of a front-row seat on that last process, as I live on the edge of the low-rent district in an old mill town in the north central Appalachians, and shopping and other errands take me through the neighborhood on foot quite often. I walk past couples pushing baby carriages, kids playing in backyards or vacant lots, neighbors hanging out together on porches, and more often as not these days, the people in these groups don’t all have the same skin color. Head into the expensive part of town, and you won’t see that; the dissolution of the caste system hasn’t extended that far up the ladder—yet.

This is business as usual in a collapsing civilization. Sooner or later, no matter how intricate the caste system you start with, you end up with a society divided along the lines sketched out by Toynbee, with a dominant minority defined solely by its access to power and wealth, and an internal proletariat defined solely by its exclusion from these things. We’re not there yet in today’s North America. There is still an assortment of intermediate castes between the two final divisions of society, but as Bob Dylan sang a long time ago, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

The political implications of this shift are worth watching. Ruling elites in mature civilizations don’t actually exercise power themselves; rather, they issue general directives to their immediate subordinates, who hand them further down the pyramid. Along the way the general directives are turned into specific orders, which finally go to the ordinary working Joes and Janes who actually do the work of maintaining the status quo against potential rivals, rebels, and dissidents. A governing elite that hasn’t yet gone senile knows that it has to keep the members of its overseer class happy, and it provides them with appropriate perks and privileges toward this end. As the caste system starts to disintegrate due to a shortage of resources to meet maintenance costs, though, the salaries and benefits at the bottom of the overseer class get cut, and more and more of the work of maintaining the system is assigned to poorly paid, poorly trained, and poorly motivated temp workers whose loyalties don’t necessarily lie with their putative masters.

You might think that even an elite gone senile would have enough basic common sense left to notice that losing the loyalty of the people who keep the elite in power is a fatal error. In practice, though, the disconnection between the world of the dominant elite and the world of the internal proletariat quickly becomes total, and the former can be completely convinced that everything is fine when the latter know otherwise. So the gap that opens up between the dominant minority and the internal proletariat is much easier to see from below than from above. Left to itself, that gap would probably keep widening until the dominant minority toppled into it. It’s an interesting regularity of history, though, that this process is almost never left to run its full length. Instead, another series of events generally overtakes it, with the same harsh consequences for the dominant minority.

To understand this, it’s necessary to include another aspect of Toynbee’s analysis and look at what’s going on just outside the borders of a civilization in decline. Civilizations prosper by preying on their neighbors.8 The mechanism may be invasion and outright pillage, demands for tribute backed up by the threat of armed force, unbalanced systems of exchange that concentrate wealth in an imperial center at the expense of the periphery, or what have you, but the process is the same in every case, and so are the results. One way or another, the heartland of every civilization ends up surrounded by an impoverished borderland, scaled according to the transport technologies of the era. In the case of the ancient Maya, the borderland extended only a modest distance in any direction; in the case of ancient Rome, it extended north to the Baltic Sea and east up to the borders of Parthia; in the case of modern industrial society, the borderland includes the entire Third World.

However large the borderland may be, its inhabitants fill a distinctive role in the decline and fall of a civilization. Toynbee calls them the external proletariat.9 As a civilization matures, their labor provides a steadily increasing share of the wealth that keeps the civilization and its dominant elite afloat, but they receive essentially nothing in return, and they’re keenly aware of this. Civilizations in their prime keep their external proletariats under control by finding and funding compliant despots to rule over the borderlands and, not incidentally, distract the rage of the external proletariat to some target more expendable than the civilization’s dominant minority. Here again, though, maintenance costs are the critical issue. When a dominant minority can no longer afford the subsidies and regular military expeditions needed to keep their puppet despots on their thrones, and try to maintain peace along the borders on the cheap, they invariably catalyze the birth of the social form that brings them down.

Historians call it the warband: a group of young men whose sole trade is violence, gathered around a charismatic leader. War-bands spring up in the borderlands of a civilization as the dominant minority or its pet despots lose their grip, and they go through a brutally Darwinian process of evolution thereafter in constant struggle with each other and with every other present or potential rival in range. Once they start forming, there seems to be little that a declining civilization can do to derail that evolutionary process.10

Warbands are born of chaos; their activities add to the chaos; and every attempt to pacify the borderlands by force simply adds to the chaos that feeds them. In their early days, warbands cover their expenses by whatever form of violent activity will pay the bills, from armed robbery to smuggling to mercenary service. As they grow, raids across the border are the next step, and as the civilization falls apart and the age of migrations begins, warbands are the cutting edge of the process that shreds nations and scatters their people across the map.

The process of warband formation itself can quite readily bring a civilization down. Very often, though, the dominant minority of the declining civilization gives the process a good hard shove in the same direction. As the chasm between the dominant minority and the internal proletariat becomes wider, remember, the overseer class that used to take care of crowd control and the like for the dominant minority becomes less and less reliable, as their morale and effectiveness are hammered by ongoing budget cuts, and the social barriers that once divided them from the people they are supposed to control will have begun to dissolve if they haven’t entirely given way yet. What’s the obvious option for a dominant minority that is worried about its ability to control the internal proletariat, can no longer rely on its own overseer class, and also has a desperate need to find something to distract the warbands on its borders?

They hire the warbands, of course.

That’s what inspired the Roman-British despot Vortigern to hire the Saxon warlord Hengist and three shiploads of his heavily armed friends to help keep the peace in Britannia after the legions departed.11 That’s what led the Fujiwara family, the uncrowned rulers of Japan, to hire uncouth samurai from the distant, half-barbarous Kanto plain to maintain peace in the twilight years of the Heian period.12 That’s why scores of other ruling elites have made the obvious, logical, and lethal choice to hire their own replacements and hand over the actual administration of power to them.

That latter is the moment toward which all the political trends examined in this chapter converge. The disintegration of social hierarchies, the senility of ruling elites, and the fossilization of institutions all lead to the hour of the knife, the point at which those who think they still rule a civilization discover the hard way—sometimes the very hard way—that effective power has transferred to new and more muscular hands. Those of the elites who attempt to resist this transfer rarely survive the experience. Those who promptly accommodate themselves to the new state of affairs may be able to prosper for a time, but only so long as their ability to manipulate what’s left of the old system makes them useful to its new overlords. As what was once a complex society governed by bureaucratic institutions dissolves into a much simpler society governed by the personal rule of warlords, that skill set does not necessarily wear well.

In some cases—Hengist is an example—the warlords allow the old institutions to fall to pieces all at once, and the transition from an urban civilization to a protofeudal rural society takes place in a few generations at most. In others—the samurai of the Minamoto clan, who came out on top in the furious struggles that surrounded the end of the Heian period, are an example here—the warlords try to maintain the existing order of society as best they can, and they get dragged down by the same catabolic trap that overwhelmed their predecessors. In an unusually complex case—for example, post-Roman Italy—one warlord after another can seize what’s left of the institutional structure of a dead empire, try to run it for a while, and then get replaced by someone else with the same agenda, each change driving one more step down the long stair that turned the Forum into a sheep pasture.

One way or another, though, that process will eventually come to an end. Just as the survivors of the era of mass migration finally settle down in the places they’ve ended up, those warlords who survive the brutal Darwinian environment of dark age politics and warfare sooner or later become political as well as military figures, and some of the territories they control develop enough political and economic cohesion to endure as units after the death of the warlords who seized them. This is the way that new nations begin to form.

By the time the political unraveling of industrial North America ends, as a result of these processes, the parts of the continent capable of supporting agriculture will be divided into hundreds of statelets, some of which will owe a nominal allegiance to some wider polity, and some of which will be entirely independent. Outside the agricultural regions, where human habitation is possible at all, patterns much more tribal in nature will emerge, as they have done over and over again in the past. Thereafter, the long process of consolidation will begin, as the deindustrial dark age passes and successor societies begin to build on the ruins of the industrial age.