“The Collapse of Complex Societies”

by Joseph Tainter

1988 Cambridge University Press

A classic book, highly recommended for anyone becoming aware of the coming collapse of industrial capitalism, or just anyone who is interested in the origins and failings of civilization more generally.  Tainter approaches the subject as an archaeologist, and attempts to decipher a general theory behind collapse – a process he describes as declining returns on investments by the ruling class.

Tainter doesn’t view it in terms of class, so he strangely falls into the realm of historical materialism while criticizing Marxism for not being materialistic enough.  The examples given (Rome, Maya, Chaco Canyon) help elucidate the topic by showing how the majority of the population tends to benefit and welcome collapse (he mentions how the average citizen/slave of Rome welcomed the ‘Barbarians’ who freed them from brutal debt and servitude).  Despite some academic and boring language, my only major complaint is the lack of substantive mention of oil and fossil fuel depletion, which has doomed global capitalism.  But the book is 20 years old, I guess he didnt see it coming.

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