There are two issues which have long fascinated me that seem more salient with each passing day. Our struggle to conceptualise long term social change from within (particularly the possibility of civilisational collapse) and the transition away from democratic government. Cinematic spectacle dominates the imaginary through we conceive of either, whether this is our imagery of what a collapsed social order would look like or our bleak authoritarian dystopias. As Thomas Pepinsky observes in this excellent article:

The mental image that most Americans harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (free men throwing off the yoke of British tyranny), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.

Our images of collapse are perhaps no more veridical. We imagine post-apocalyptic scenarios where we entirely descend into chaos while stuck on an earth we have ruined. Or finding salvation through technology in an escape to space. But as Peter Frase argues in Four Futures, the substantive questions posed by crises of this severity are much more complex. From loc 1103:

The real question is not whether human civilization can survive ecological crises, but whether all of us can survive it together, in some reasonably egalitarian way. Although the extinction of humanity as a result of climate change is possible, it is highly unlikely. Only somewhat more plausible is the collapse of society and a return to some kind of premodern new Dark Ages. Maintaining a complex, technologically advanced society no doubt requires a large number of people. But it does not necessarily require all 7 billion of us, and the premise of this book is that the number of people required is on the decline because of the technical developments outlined in Chapter 1 .

Our social imaginaries of crisis and collapse are depoliticising. They obscure questions of distribution, interest and power. They embody what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: a putatively gritty look at the ‘reality’ of a situation, real or imagined, which in actual fact mythologises the system within which this representation is constructed. This is perhaps not surprising because much of the explosion of social representation has taken place roughly alongside the onset of post-democracy. We’re now seeing a deepening of the post-democratic tendency at a time of social crisis. This is why it’s crucial that we begin to think more deeply about how we represent crisis and the implications this has for our politics.

One way of doing this is to look at examples of systemic change that are presently taking place. Owen Jones has an excellent (in a depressing way) report from time he’s spent in Turkey recently:

Turkey’s regime is fast degenerating into outright dictatorship, emboldened by the imminent ascent of Donald Trump to the most powerful position on Earth. I spent last week with Turkey’s beleaguered opposition parties, newspapers and activists. Their courage is inspiring, their plight distressing.

Last July an attempted military coup failed to dislodge the autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The backlash was swift. As Human Rights Watch reported, the regime took advantage of the moment “to crack down on human rights and dismantle basic democratic safeguards”. More than 120,000 Turks have been sacked, nearly 90,000 detained, and more than 40,000 have been arrested, 144 of them journalists. Turkey is a world leader in jailing media workers, with some 160 outlets closed.

The human rights situation is appalling. Those journalists and opposition activists not arrested are harassed en masse. The opposition is accused of terrorist links and subject to furious marginalisation. It’s becoming a crime to ‘insult’ the President. And something akin to an enabling act is on its way. As Jones goes on to argue, there are obvious affinities to other national contexts:

The west is largely silent. And Erdoğan is triumphalist. Last July Trump praised Erdoğan for “turning it around” after the attempted coup. And Erdoğan cheered Trump’s car-crash press conference last week: Trump, who told a CNN reporter that the organisation he worked for produced fake news, had – according to Erdoğan – put the reporter “in his place” because media organisations such as CNN “undermine national unity”.

Turkey’s fragile democracy is being bled to death. It is dusk for democracy in Poland and Hungary too, as populist rightwing governments keep the superficial trappings of democracy for appearance’s sake but hollow it out in practice. Now that the demagogue Trump is about to become the world’s most powerful man, the authoritarians believe history is on their side.

Turkey is a warning: democracy is precious but fragile. It underlines how rights and freedoms are often won at great cost and sacrifice but can be stripped away by regimes exploiting national crises. The danger is that Turkey won’t be an exception, but a template of how to rid countries of democracy. That is reason enough to stand by Turkey. Who knows which country could be next?

But how seriously do we take that possibility? We need to be careful of what Cory Robin describes as the ‘politics of fear’ reaching the left: “a politics that is grounded on fear, that takes inspiration and meaning from fear, that sees in fear a wealth of experience and a layer of profundity that cannot be found in other experience”. Such a politics of fear denies agency as well. The point is not that these changes are inexorable but that the window of opportunity, given the prevailing balance of forces, might be contracting precipitously as darkness looms on the horizon. If we conflate non-democracy with totalitarianism, we’re liable to entrench this lack of sensitivity to the possibilities now ahead of us. The reality of Democracy’s death would be banal for the majority, at least most of the time:

The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family. There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.

Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered, as Anna Politkovskaya was in Russia; they are going to be frustrated. Most not-very-vocal critics will live their lives completely unmolested by the security forces. They will enjoy it when the trains run on time, blame the government when they do not, gripe about their taxes, and save for vacation. Elections, when they happen, will serve the “anesthetic function” that Philippe Schmitter attributed — in the greatly underappreciated 1978 volume Elections without Choice to elections in Portugal under Salazar.

The point is that, as Pepinsky puts it, “Life under authoritarian rule in such situations looks a lot like life in a democracy”. The sooner we realise that, the easier it is to acknowledge that people can tolerate non-democracy because democratic governance can become a low priority. This has important implications for our political orientation to the apparent fragility of democratic structures, as Pepinsky argues in the culmination of his essay:

It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang.

It is more likely that democracy ends with a whimper, when the case for supporting it — the case, that is, for everyday democracy — is no longer compelling.

In various posts over the last few years, I’ve written about my fascination with images of civilisational collapse. Reading Riots and Political Protest, by Steve Hall, Simon Winlow, Daniel Briggs and James Treadwell, I find myself wondering if this fascination is in large part because of how ‘civilisational collapse’ and the ‘end of capitalism’ tend to be conflated under our present circumstances. As they write on pg 18,

The dominant images of the end of capitalism in Western culture are those of absolute economic devastation and crushing hardship, a return to Dark Age repression and poverty. In the popular imagination, capitalism is lively and vivacious, and all alternatives to it are dull, grey and monotonous.

Images of civilisational collapse are so emotive under current conditions because of our much remarked upon inability to imagine a world beyond capitalism. For this reason I think sociological engagements with how these dystopias are represented could provide rewarding. By identifying their questionable assumptions, highlighting what is untenable in accounts of collapse and what might turn out differently in reality, could we open up the space in which to think about a beyond rather than merely an end?

From To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov. For a talk about dystopias I’m doing next month, I’m trying to consider the implications of this technology at the level of social ontology. What does it mean to see sinister possibilities inherent in ‘innovations’ like this? Is there anything we can say in the abstract about how likely these possibilities are to be realised? It strikes me that this is necessary, at least if we are to avoid an empiricist attitude of ‘wait and see’ on the one hand or the systematic suppression of technological change on the other.

Or consider a prototype teapot built by British designer- cum- activist Chris Adams . The teapot comes with a small orb that can either glow green (making tea is okay) or red (perhaps you should wait). What determines the coloring? Well, the orb, with the help of some easily available open- source hardware and software, is connected to a site called Can I Turn It On? ( ), which, every minute or so, queries Britain’s national grid for aggregate power- usage statistics. If the frequency figure returned by the site is higher than the baseline of 50 hertz, the orb glows green; if lower, red. The goal here is to provide additional information for responsible teapot use. But it’s easy to imagine how such logic can be extended much, much further, BinCam style. Why, for example, not reward people with virtual, Facebook- compatible points for not using the teapot in the times of high electricity usage? Or why not punish those who disregard the teapot’s warnings about high usage by publicizing their irresponsibility among their Facebook friends? Social engineers have never had so many options at their disposal.

Who could object to a project that seeks to stop killer robots? The UK government apparently:

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an alliance of human rights groups and concerned scientists, is calling for an international prohibition on fully autonomous weapons.

Last week Human Rights Watch released a report urging the creation of a new protocol specifically aimed at outlawing Laws. Blinding laser weapons were pre-emptively outlawed in 1995 and combatant nations since 2008 have been required to remove unexploded cluster bombs.

Some states already deploy defence systems – such as Israel’s Iron Dome and the US Phalanx and C-Ram – that are programmed to respond automatically to threats from incoming munitions. Work is also progressing on what is known as “automatic target recognition”.

The Foreign Office told the Guardian: “At present, we do not see the need for a prohibition on the use of Laws, as international humanitarian law already provides sufficient regulation for this area.

“The United Kingdom is not developing lethal autonomous weapons systems, and the operation of weapons systems by the UK armed forces will always be under human oversight and control. As an indication of our commitment to this, we are focusing development efforts on remotely piloted systems rather than highly automated systems.”

While the idea of autonomous weapons systems immediately summons up the prospect of something akin to a flash crash that does much more than destroy fictitious capital, it seems far from obvious to me that the prohibition of as yet unrealised technologies is necessarily the best way to ameliorate a putative future problem.

We’ve recently seen an emerging discourse of the ‘second machine age’ considering the potential implications of advances in robots and computational technologies for employment. In a recent London Review of Books essay, John Lanchester offers an insightful overview of this issue:

What if that’s where we are, and – to use the shorthand phrase relished by economists and futurists – ‘robots are going to eat all the jobs’? A thorough, considered and disconcerting study of that possibility was undertaken by two Oxford economists, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, in a paper from 2013 called ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?’​4 They came up with some new mathematical and statistical techniques to calculate the likely impact of technological change on a sweeping range of 702 occupations, from podiatrists to tour guides, animal trainers to personal finance advisers and floor sanders. It ranks them, from 1 (you’ll be fine) to 702 (best start shining up the CV). In case you’re wondering, here are the top five occupations:

1. Recreational Therapists
2. First-Line Supervisors of Mechanics, Installers and Repairers
3. Emergency Management Directors
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
5. Audiologists

And here are the bottom five:

698. Insurance Underwriters
699. Mathematical Technicians
700. Sewers, Hand
701. Title Examiners, Abstractors and Searchers
702. Telemarketers

The theme is clear: human-to-human interaction and judgment is in demand, routine tasks are not. Some of the judgments seem odd: is it really the case that choreographers come in at 13, ahead of physicians and surgeons at 15, and a long way ahead of, say, anthropologists and archaeologists at 39, not to mention writers at 123 and editors at 140? Nonetheless, the paper’s methodology is sober and it makes clear just how far-ranging the impact of technological change is in white as well as blue-collar work.

Leaving aside any specific problems we can identify with the methodology here, it nonetheless raises important questions about the future of capitalism. What makes Lanchester’s article so commendable is his insistence that this tendency is not inexorable and he calls for what might be described as a repoliticisation of an issue that has been (self-interestedly?) rendered as narrowly technical. The hyper-capitalist dystopia of vast unemployment predicated upon robotics is something which has haunted popular culture, coming to be represented in everything from 2000AD to the more recent films of Neill Blomkamp:

What Lanchester suggests is that we need to move beyond dsytopic imagery in order to flesh out our heretofore entirely speculative understanding of what might happen if 47% of jobs are lost in two decades. We also need to recover the latent promise that robotics and computation might prove emancipatory, creating new possibilities for human flourishing in a world liberated from mental and physical drudgery:

A great deal of modern economic discourse takes it as axiomatic that economic forces are the only ones that matter. This idea has bled into politics too, at least in the Western world: economic forces have been awarded the status of inexorable truths. The idea that a wave of economic change is so disruptive to the social order that a society might rebel against it – that has, it seems, disappeared from the realms of the possible. But the disappearance of 47 per cent of jobs in two decades (as per Frey and Osborne) must be right on the edge of what a society can bear, not so much because of that 47 per cent, as because of the timeframe. Jobs do go away; it’s happened many times. For jobs to go away with that speed, however, is a new thing, and the search for historical precedents, for examples from which we can learn, won’t take us far. How would this speed of job disappearance, combined with extensive deflation, play out? The truth is nobody knows. In the absence of any template or precedent, the idea that the economic process will just roll ahead like a juggernaut, unopposed by any social or political counter-forces, is a stretch. The robots will only eat all the jobs if we decide to let them.

It’s also worth noting what isn’t being said about this robotified future. The scenario we’re given – the one being made to feel inevitable – is of a hyper-capitalist dystopia. There’s capital, doing better than ever; the robots, doing all the work; and the great mass of humanity, doing not much, but having fun playing with its gadgets. (Though if there’s no work, there are going to be questions about who can afford to buy the gadgets.) There is a possible alternative, however, in which ownership and control of robots is disconnected from capital in its current form. The robots liberate most of humanity from work, and everybody benefits from the proceeds: we don’t have to work in factories or go down mines or clean toilets or drive long-distance lorries, but we can choreograph and weave and garden and tell stories and invent things and set about creating a new universe of wants. This would be the world of unlimited wants described by economics, but with a distinction between the wants satisfied by humans and the work done by our machines. It seems to me that the only way that world would work is with alternative forms of ownership. The reason, the only reason, for thinking this better world is possible is that the dystopian future of capitalism-plus-robots may prove just too grim to be politically viable. This alternative future would be the kind of world dreamed of by William Morris, full of humans engaged in meaningful and sanely remunerated labour. Except with added robots. It says a lot about the current moment that as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.

This all raises the question of the place of sociology in a second machine age. It seems to me that we are strongly positioned to make a unique contribution to our understanding of possible futures (e.g. what might happen if 47% of jobs are lost in two decades) as well as, alongside other social sciences, fleshing out our knowledge about the conjunction of factors which might lead to each such possible future. This will involve going beyond the traditional repertories of scholarship and communication. It might benefit from the embrace of design fiction:

Design fiction is a term first coined by Julian Bleecker and popularized by SF author Bruce Sterling, who describes it as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” and that it “attacks the status quo and suggests clear ways in which life might become different.”

Design fiction isn’t science fiction, it’s not just a telling of stories in the future or trying to make predictions of the future, instead it is a way of trying to envision and interrogate possible futures based on research data, current trends, and/or technologies. Originally, primarily used by product designers as a cheap alternative to prototyping new products, it has found traction as a critical tool allowing us to see through the fog of hype and digital evangelism.

There’s an example of the form such a future-orientated sociology might take in a recent event with Deborah Lupton and John Urry at the Hawke Research Institute in Australia. In Catastrophic Futures they addressed the question of what kind of future we can expect by 2050, as well as some of the methodological and political questions posed for sociology by such an investigation. There’s a podcast available here and it’s really worth a listen. It also suggests a need for sociological thinkers to help ‘join the dots’: linking together what we know across a range of fields into broader synthetic accounts that accurately convey conceptually opaque aspects of our present situation and highlight potential trajectories. John Urry’s recent book Offshoring is a good example of what this might look like:

It seems obvious to me that sociology could make an important contribution to the repoliticisation that John Lanchester calls for but it’s not obvious to me that it will. Not least of all because the audit driven logic of the university mitigates against forms of sociological inquiry which by their nature would both transcend specialisation and include a speculative component that resists codification in ‘internationally excellent’ journal articles.

But if the worst does happen, if we see a catastrophic slide into hyper-capitalist dystopia driven by these technological advances, what place would there be for sociology then? It occurs to me that much of sociology could probably thrive quite well in a world where, as Lanchester puts it, “human-to-human interaction and judgment is in demand”: the obvious risk is that it would be an instrumentalised sociology, robbed of any critical impulse, with sociologists reduced to technicians of human capital attendant upon the social relation of those still in employment and directed towards the problems caused by those condemned to perpetual unemployment. There might be a place for corporate ethnography but not for critique, for bounded theorising but not for expansive theory. Contrary to John Urry and Deborah Lupton in the aforementioned podcast, I think we should begin to talk about dsytopias while we still can.

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.

As anyone who reads my blog regularly might have noticed, I’m a fan of Colin Crouch’s notion of post-democracy. I’ve interviewed him about it a couple of times: once in 2010 and again in 2013. Whereas he’d initially offered the notion to illuminate a potential trajectory, in the sense that we risk becoming post-democratic, we more latterly see a social order that might be said to have become post-democratic. He intends the term to function analogously to post-industrial: it is not that democracy is gone but that it has been hollowed out:

The term was indeed a direct analogy with ‘post-industrial’. A post-industrial society is not a non-industrial one. It continues to make and to use the products of industry, but the energy and innovative drive of the system have gone elsewhere. The same applies in a more complex way to post-modern, which is not the same as anti-modern or of course pre-modern. It implies a culture that uses the achievements of modernism but departs from them in its search for new possibilities. A post-democratic society therefore is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite. I did not say that we were now living in a post-democratic society, but that we were moving towards such a condition.

Crouch is far from the only theorist to have made such a claim. But I think there’s a precision to his argument which distinguishes it from the manner in which someone like, say, Bauman talks about depoliticisation. My current, slightly morbid, interest in representations of civilisational collapse has left me wondering what entrenched post-democracy would look like. Asking this question does not refer to an absence of democracy, for which endless examples are possible, but rather for a more detailed sketch of what a social order which was once democratic but is now post-democratic would look like. While everyday life might look something like that which can be seen in Singapore, ‘the city of rules’ as this Guardian article (from which the picture is taken) puts it, I think there’s more to be said than this. However we can see in Singapore a vivid account of how micro-regulation can be deployed to facilitate a city in which ‘nothing goes wrong, but nothing really happens’ as one ex-pat memorably phrases it in that article. Is it so hard to imagine efficiency and orderliness being used to secure consent, at least amongst some, for a similar level of social control in western Europe or America?

Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian
Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian

Perhaps we’d also see the exceptional justice that intruded into UK life after the 2011 riots, with courts being kept open 24/7 in order to better facilitate the restoration of social order. There’s something akin to this in mega sporting events: opaque centralised planning overwhelms democratic consultation, ‘world cup courts’ dish out ad hoc justice, the social structure contorts itself for the pleasure of an international oligopoly upon whom proceedings depend, specialised security arrangements are intensively deployed in the interests of the event’s success and we often see a form of social cleansing (destruction of whole neighbourhoods) presented as a technocratic exercise in event management. We also see pre-arrests and predictive policing deployed to these ends and only a fool would not expect to see more of this as the technological apparatus and the political pressures encouraging them grow over time.

These security arrangements point to another aspect of a post-democratic social order: the economic vibrancy of the security sector. There is a technological dimension to this, with a long term growth fuelled by the ‘war on terror’ coupled with an increasing move towards ‘disruptive policing’ that offers technical solutions at a time of fiscal retrenchment, but we shouldn’t forget the more mundane side of the security industry and its interests in privatisation of policing. This is how Securitas, one of the world’s largest security companies, describe the prospects of the security industry. Note the title of the page: taking advantage of changes.

The global security services market employs several million people and is projected to reach USD 110 billion by 2016. Security services are in demand all over the world, in all industries and in both the public and private sectors. Demand for our services is closely linked to global economic development and social and demographic trends. As the global economy grows and develops, so do we.

Historically, the security market has grown 1–2 percent faster than GDP in mature markets. In recent years, due to current market dynamics and the gradual incorporation of technology into security solutions, security markets in Europe and North America have grown at the same pace as GDP. This trend is likely to continue over the next three to five years.

Market growth is crucial to Securitas’ future profitability and growth, but capitalizing on trends and changes in demand is also important. Developing new security solutions with a higher technology content and improved cost efficiency will allow the private security industry to expand the market by assuming responsibility for work presently performed by the police or other authorities. This development will also be a challenge for operations with insourced security services and increase interest in better outsourced solutions.

Consider this against a background of terrorism, as the spectacular narrative of the ‘war on terror’ comes to be replaced by a prospect of state of alert without end. We’ve not seen the end of the ‘war on terror’, we’ve seen a spectacular narrative become a taken for granted part of everyday life. It doesn’t need to be narrativised any more because it’s here to stay. Against this backdrop, we’re likely see an authoritarian slide in political culture, supplementing the institutional arrangements already in place, in which ‘responsibility’ becomes the key virtue in the exercise of freedoms – as I heard someone say on the radio yesterday, “it’s irresponsible to say democracy is the only thing that matters when we face a threat like this” (or words to that effect).

Crucially, I don’t think this process is inexorable and it’s certainly not the unfolding of an historical logic. It’s enacted by people at every level – including those who reinforce the slide at the micro level of everyday social interaction. The intractability of the problem comes because the process itself involves a hollowing out of processes of contestation at the highest level, such that the corporate agents pursuing this changing social order are also benefiting from it by potential sources of resistance being increasingly absent or at least passive on the macro level.  This is how Wolfgang Streeck describes this institutional project, as inflected through management of the financial crisis:

The utopian ideal of present day crisis management is to complete, with political means, the already far-advanced depoliticization of the economy; anchored in recognised nation-stated under the control of internal governmental and financial diplomacy insulated from democratic participation, with a population that would have learned, over years of hegemonic re-education, to regard the distributional outcomes of free markets as fair, or at least as without alternative.

Buying Time, pg 46

How do we envisage our future? To ask this question usually invites reflections upon personal biography. More rarely does it address ‘our’ in a civilizational sense – I use the term loosely here to refer to the totality of organised human social life which, in contemporary circumstances I would take to be unitary (in the sense of global capitalism rather than an underlying species bond) but would not assume this has always been true. In this sense, speaking of ‘civilizational collapse’ does not entail the extinction of the human species (though neither does it rule this out) but rather the unravelling of the existing social order: not a change in its state but the collapse of its capacity to change states. I’m using a processual term because in the absence of a discrete event bringing about the extinction of the species this collapse would inevitably be a process and potentially an extremely slow one. I’m very interested in the constraints upon our capacity to envisage such a collapse and suggested a few points in a blog post earlier this year:

  • We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  • We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  • We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  • We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  • Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

Reading Tony Benn’s diaries I was intrigued to find that he was plagued by thoughts of impending collapse towards the end of his life. As he records on the 2nd November 2011:

I happened to see a television programme, when I was having my meal in the evening, about the Maya culture in Mexico. I had absolutely no idea that the temples they built were bigger than the pyramids; 1,500 years ago there was the most tremendously civilised society in Latin America, which simply disappeared, went under the jungle, and it does make you wonder whether ours might not do the same. There’s no absolute law to say that our civilisation will survive for ever.

That final line is a very succinct statement of what I was trying to get at with the notion of ‘the epistemology of civilizational collapse’: there’s nothing certain about the sustained survival of a civilisation and yet we assume that there is. A few years from his death (20th November 2008) Tony Benn described the nightmares that plagued him:

I have nightmares every morning. I am overwhelmed by the feeling that the world – Britain and the world – is going to collapse through shortage of oil. I visualise circumstances where people at the top of tower blocks would find that the lift couldn’t be run because there was no energy; doctors couldn’t climb twenty-four flights to stairs to look after them if they were ill; and the whole of society comes to an end.

There’s something interesting about a state of affairs where these ideas are largely confined to nightmares or to fiction. I’m sure there are people studying this (I’d be fascinated to find that there aren’t) but its relative absence from public discourse is surely susceptible to both sociological and psychoanalytical explanation. To clarify, I don’t think that much of the discourse surrounding climate change reaches the level of ‘collapse discourse’ of the sort I’m proposing: it’s technocratic on the one hand and individualised on the other.

I’m interested in exploring cultural representations of collapse as a means to understand the epistemology and sociology of collapse. I think that cultural representations of collapse are often post-hoc, elaborating a vision of the rebuilding of human society after a collapse has taken place. Whereas I’m fascinated by what the process itself would be like and how it would be understood by those within the collapsing social order. In spite of its many flaws, this was what I loved about the film Interstellar:

In fact I would have much preferred this film if it hadn’t had any of the science fiction and had just explored the transformed social order in which a “caretaker generation” seek to sustain the viability of an ever more inhospitable earth: I was gripped by the representations of a social order in which ascriptive identity had returned, agriculture dominated the American economy and the intellectual horizons of the society were narrowing into survival. I’m currently gripped by The Massive – a sociologically rich exploration of life post-collapse:

the massive

Perhaps when I talk about ‘collapse’ what I really mean are the conditions leading to dystopias? In a post earlier this year, Dan Hirschman put forward the idea for a course on real dystopias as a grim parallel to Erik Olin Wright’s work on real utopias. He suggested that “Each week or sub-unit would cover a different real dystopia, ideally with a guest lecturer who could speak to the underlying science or politics of the particular kind of dystopia.” These are the topics he suggested:

  1. Antibiotic resistant infections
  2. Widespread droughts and massive disruptions of the food supply connected to climate change
  3. The dominance of the patrimonial super-rich
  4. The Player Piano dystopia (“a relatively small clique of engineers built and maintained the machines, while a large class of unemployed workers lived lives of aimless poverty”)
  5. The Surveillance state dystopia

However I think it’s important to distinguish between states of collapse and dystopias. Representations of dystopias often presuppose the ecological viability of the underlying context, projecting it forward so as to conceive the future as a product of solely social processes. Representations of ecologically induced collapse often have a converse absence of substantive social content:

Whereas I’m interested in the relationship between the two. Ecological decline doesn’t necessitate collapse in the sense in which I’m using the concept but it does make it ever more likely. I’m wondering if some general philosophical propositions (the epistemology of civilizational collapse) could be explored through an analysis of fictional representations (the representation of civilizational collapse) to shed more light on the character of social processes (the sociology of civilizational collapse)?

There was an interesting report earlier this week on a Nasa-funded study modelling the dynamics of civilizational collapse. I definitely intend to look at the study when it’s released, though I’m rather cautious about this sort of modelling given that so much of the detail abstracted away from seems obviously causally relevant to the phenomena being modelled. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that this has value as a thought experiment – perhaps even more so if I could follow the maths. Here’s a description of the Handy model I found:

Handy has four differential equations describing the evolution of its state variables: Commoner population (commoners), Elite population (elite), regenerating natural resources (nature), and accumulated wealth (wealth). Human population plays a role analogous to that of predators, and nature plays the role of the resource preyed upon.

An interesting feature of Handy is that it introduces the accumulation of economic wealth, and divides the human population into rich and poor according to their unequal access to available wealth.

This new variable explains why human societies can undergo an irreversible collapse, while animal populations show cyclic changes (or reversible collapses).

Social inequality is not only explicitly considered but also plays a key role in the sustainability analyses of the model. This makes Handy the first model of its kind that studies the impacts of inequality on the fate of societies, a capability seldom found even in complex world models.

Handy establishes a useful general framework that allows carrying out “thought experiments” about societal collapse scenarios and the changes that might avoid them.

The model is a very strong simplification of the human-nature system, which results in many limitations. Despite its simplicity, such a model is easy to understand and offers a more intuitive grasp of underlying dynamical phenomena compared to more complex and less aggregated models.

However what interests me is the amount of media attention it generated. The original Guardian article seems to have been picked up widely, bringing out the most asinine impulses in the world’s web editors, with my favourite being “According To A Nasa Funded Study, We’re Pretty Much Screwed. This was a slightly facetious response to the frequency with which (third-hand*) reports were framed in terms of the allegedly postulated inevitability of this collapse.

Why is respectable research on collapse so interesting? In part because it’s seen as a topic which tends towards unrespectability. As the Guardian article pointed out, it’s more often the domain of cranks and conspiracy theorists than applied mathematicians and computer scientists. But this just defers the question: why is the topic marginalised in this way? There are lots of interesting issues here which have been on my mind since reading the article. Here in no particular order are some things I think about the epistemology of collapse:

  • We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  • We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  • We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  • We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  • Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

This ties nicely into a forthcoming chapter by Ismael Al-Amoudi and John Latsis on the death of social formations (i.e. their extinction, as opposed to a change in their state) which has been on my mind ever since I saw them give the paper earlier this year. But whereas they are concerned primarily with the ontology of this issue, I’m concerned with its epistemology (though of course the former is connected to the latter in ways too complicated for a quick blog post). One of the many important things abstracted away from in the Handy model is the futurity of social agents i.e. the variable perception which agents have of their future contributes to shaping their action and, through reciprocal interaction, conditions the overall action environment. But how far does this orientation towards the future extend? It probably doesn’t extend to collapse and that really fascinates me. I suspect, for the reasons in bullet points above, it’s a topic that will always tend towards marginality.

One of my favourite novels of the last few years was Douglas Copeland’s Player One. It depicts the collapse of western civilisation through the real-time story of five hours in an airport cocktail bar. It is hinted at as arising from Peak Oil, an expository concession which is the one point I disliked in this otherwise fantastic novel. It explores civilizational collapse under the fog of war, as a messy and violent process, characterised by love and uncertainty but most of all by the rapidity with which the perceived durability of a social formation can come to be recognised as illusory. There’s a brusqueness to Copeland’s prose which intensifies the claustrophobic temporality of civilizational collapse:

Dr. Yamato, crabby after a three-day bipolar symposium, went on, saying, “Karen, history may well prove worthless in the ned. Individualism may prove to be only a cruel and unnecessary hoax played on billions of people for no known reason – a bad idea dreamed up by God on the Eighth day.”

Karen had laughed – laughed!

Rick takes over guard duty, and Luke and Karen escort a limping Max to the storage room, over by the recycling bins.

Karen asks, “Where were you when the explosions happened? How did you get here? Were you with your family? Where are they if you’re here? ”

Max stands in his boxer shorts and says, “We were in a rental car headed downtown.”

Luke says, “There’s no bottled water or club soda here. The best I can do is melted ice from the machine.”

“Do it.” (pg 175)

The novel ultimately steps back from the brink, as a redemptive message incipient within its ending hints at a moral to the story… what if it was all pointless though? What if it just ended? What if none of it made any difference to anyone? These are existential questions which tie civilisational collapse (an abstraction) to human relationships (through which such an abstraction would become concrete). The power of Player One comes in its exploration of this linkage but its failure to follow through arises from its subtle faith in the redemptive power of the latter. Don’t get me wrong, in spite of all the Nietzsche I’ve been reading recently, I share the ethos expressed in this. But it does seem to be a retreat nonetheless. It’s a exploration of the epistemology of civilisational collapse which fails to really confront it. This is something which I think is quite common, with the transition from 9/11 allegory Cloverfield being a film I love to one that irritates me tracking this rather effectively:

The thought that has fascinated me is how different the macro-social perspective of the Nasa-funded research is from what would be the on-the-ground epistemology of collapse. What would it be like to experience a complete civilisational collapse? It seems rather like asking what it would be like to be dead. All we can do is gesture towards the vectors through which things would unravel and speculate about what it would be like to experience this unravelling. So many of our epistemological habits mitigate our confrontation with this question, formed as they are in dependence upon social and technical systems the erosion of which would be constitutive of civilisational collapse.

Edit to add: the plot for my NaNoWriMo novel becomes clearer with each passing year. Will this be the year I actually write it?

*The paper hasn’t been released yet and lots of the articles were reporting on reports of the summary in the original Guardian article.