What constitutes a civilisational collapse?

What constitutes collapse? This is the important question which Phil BC asks in response to my post on the sociology of civilisational collapse. If I mean the notion as anything other than a fleeting speculative thought* then conceptual clarification is essential. I said in the original post that I understand collapse to be the loss of an ability to change state, as opposed to any particular catastrophic change in the social order. By this I mean that the social order, as an emergent totality, ceases to possess the capacity to change its state. It’s these objective possibilities for change, known fallibly by situated actors through all manner of cultural constructions, through which collective agents seek social transformation. It’s the activation of these latent capacities for change which is what people are fighting over.

But what change ensues comes about through the unintended consequences arising from their conflictual plans rather than as the result of any grand design. But latent in any project of social transformation is a set of claims, implicit or explicit, concerning the capacity of the social order to change state. These claims may be idiotic, deluded or incoherent but they nonetheless have an objective referent. Accepting the objective capacities for change within any social order (though not necessarily our ability to know them with any reliability) allow us think about collapse in a sociological way. All manner of epistemological obstacles impede our knowledge of collapse but I don’t see this as creating any difficulties for attempting to posit it as a possibility.

If the social order is an emergent totality, collapse can be best understood as its de-emergence (if anyone could suggest a less clumsy antonym than this, I’ll be forever in your debt). The social order loses its malleability as a totality. This doesn’t mean it dissolves but it does mean it begins to crumble. It loses its susceptibility to steering. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold (etc). Most of the examples Phil cites are about dramatic social transformations and in this sense they’re not instances of collapse: it’s this very susceptibility to transformation, even if the actual changes elude the intentions of those groups fighting over them, which I’m suggesting is lost under conditions of civilisational collapse. This is not a matter of the ‘parts’ of the society (people, social relations, organisations, institutions) but rather a feature of the ‘whole’: an emergentist ontology lends itself to quite a specific understanding of civilisational collapse but this is obviously neither an argument for that ontology nor the notion of collapse itself.

The de-emergence of the social order in this sense does not mean that we see the collapse of social order as such. As Phil points out, the durability of social relations mitigates against this:

Therefore theorising about collapse has to take into consideration is the durability of social relations. At certain levels of abstraction, sociology assumes the durability of social relationships because they have proven to be just that. There is social change, but the – on paper – precariously balanced division of labour with its innumerable interdependencies has not just survived, but has thrived economic shocks and world wars, and has spread itself across the globe. The social substance is elastic and tough, I’d wager, because on the one hand capitalist societies are constituted in their production and reproduction by irreducibly antagonistic relationships, and on the other human beings cannot be anything but social, meaning-making beings in the Goffman mode who, in turn, constitute/reproduce social structures as per Giddens and Bourdieu. It’s also worth noting that crisis tendencies are organic to capitalism, that each of its myriad points of tension are pregnant with destruction and creation, of enculturation and barbarism. In other words, while there are precedents from history of civilisations coming and going, none have attained the level of social complexity and productive prowess as our own. Fundamentally speaking, the Romans, the Mayans, the Hittites, and the Babylonians were static societies. The advanced capitalist, industrial societies of today are dynamic and fluidic. They have momentum that might carry them through a huge disaster, or allow them to adapt to real and imagined threats posed by climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence, and so on.


While I’m far from clear in my own mind about these questions, it’s the characteristics of social orders as emergent totalities (for which I’m using ‘civilisation’ as a lazy shorthand) which interests me. I’m undecided whether I’m serious about the notion of the collapse or if I just see it as a thought experiment with which to consider the characteristics of social totalities with the widest possible lens. It offers an interesting way to consider what it means to talk of a social totality as ‘having momentum’ or attaining a certain level of ‘social complexity’ and ‘productive prowess’.

*I’m still far from certain that I do.

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