The dynamics of Smithian decline

À propos of nothing in particular, I can’t resist posting a link to this.

17 replies on “The dynamics of Smithian decline”

It struck me that the author told a great story but drew the wrong conclusions. He ascribed the demise of the British economy to its sophistication: division of labour producing high-tech goods made it particulalry susceptible to shocks. It strikes me that a good old-fashioned(?) monetary shock was the cause: the Romans took their gold & silver back home.

It makes one wonder what would be the impact of political and civil breakdown in Pakistan and India. Pakistan is advancing steadily down the road of disintegration and India faces some similar threats as the infrastructure of cities cannot handle the population and climate change threatens to devastate agriculture. The whole of Aisa indeed is in a perilous situation. What then for world trade, security and migration? Let’s hope it won’t make Britain’s 500 year post Roman recession look like a picnic. I like my Inversoft thank you very much.

Yes and it was irish monks expert in new forms of information technology who reintroduced technical and literacy skills after the departure of Rome from Britain.The irish whose monastery think tanks had served as incubators and conservers of learning and classical knowledge.The excesses and inherent weaknesses of globalization as centralised in Rome under the empire caused the fall of that civilization and even though the comparison is odious the similaritys between anchent Rome under Decadence and Modern liberal capitalistism wont go away.The city of Rome was a slave ocracy and the dependence on cheap labour and conquest of new markets as well as the constant invention of new technology was the blueprint for the systems of conquest and market which led to the later eras of Exploration and empire, That of Spain, Gengis Khan, The Italian merchants and eventually to the AMERICAN EMPIRE set up after the Second World War.

My understanding is that the Cistercian monastery period in Britain’s history was the next big organisation of wealth, labour and resources. I saw a very good documentary once, which described the organisation of the Cistercian orders, being very like a multi-national company today. They organised absolutely vast industry in terms of goods like wool – the archaeologists can study the landscape and understand the sheer scale of the enterprise at work in that period. Huge flocks of sheep, huge scale organised factory-type manufacture.

Although, that organisation eventually broke down. The monks were penny-less and many of their sold the timber doors of their cells in exchange for basic food – a chicken or a loaf of bread. I guess the coinage system, or whatever currency they employed collapsed and timber doors became the only substitute.

From the article:

“The Romano-British population had grown used to buying their pottery, nails, and other basic goods from specialist producers, based often many miles away, and these producers in their turn relied on widespread markets to sustain their specialised production.”

I imagine that is how the Cistercian’s worked also. Because the Catholic ‘network’ of monasteries came from the European mainland to Britain and on to parts of Ireland. I think that wool was the export commodity to mainland Europe, but I cannot recall what made the ‘balance of trade’.

The other point to note, and what the article also hints about was the increased sophistication of Britain before Roman occupation. I believe that archaeologists are starting to understand, it was the goal of the Romans to wipe out the Celtic society, which was widespread across Europe. The Celtic society and organisation had been rather sophisticated, but the Roman’s aim was to wipe it off the map.

The vulnerability of the Celtic organisation, was it was ‘brittle’, it was de-centralised. Therefore it could not amass together the great finances to fund a huge army, in the manner in which the Roman system operated – all roads leading to Rome.

So in other words, the Cistercian monastery organisation, was a kind of return to a de-centralised system, several centuries after the Celtic system had been erased.

Bringing us up to the present date – Alvin Toffler, in his most recent book ‘Revolutionary Wealth’ had a couple of interesting comments to make about the European Union. Toffler is strongly of the opinion that Europe is merely trying to build a strong, central-ised system which had already been tried and failed in the 20th century in the United States, USSR, India, China etc.

While the rest of the world is trying to break up their monolithic structures which didn’t work. Europe on the other hand, is trying to build one from scratch. Toffler couldn’t see much point to the exercise.

I made a comment here:

about ‘resource mapping’.

The point about County Clare being, we have got all of this clean natural fuel available to us on site, in Clare. Why would we want to bring fuel to the power station, as in the fossil fuel model? Why not bring the power station to the fuel?

There is a significant ‘overlap’ between what Bryan Ward-Perkins has to say about ancient civilisation, and much of the analysis work on-going in environmental think tanks in Ireland today (and elsewhere) – much of the work in ways feeds back into Green party policy suggestion.

The problem with taking a lot of this useful analysis work – and trying to bolt a political movement onto the front end of it – is that the work and analysis is just so vast, the challenge for the political party is to appear not as if they are ‘scatter-ed’.

Bryan Ward-Perkins said:

“Our economy is, of course, in a different league of complexity to that of Roman Britain. Our pottery and metal goods are likely to have been made, not many miles away, but on the other side of the globe, while our main medium of exchange is electronic, and sometimes based on smoke and mirrors. If our economy ever truly collapses, the consequences will make fifth-century Britain seem like a picnic.”

I linked to a Bob Kahn interview here yesterday:

Kahn is one of the architects of the de-centralised internet infrastructure that scans around the globe these days. Kahn was recently called back into to service to learn ways in which that old infrastructure, which is now starting to run into limitations, can be re-invented.

What better way to re-invent than to draft the original inventor back into service for a couple of sessions.

Thanks for the link Kevin. I strongly recommend Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” for a series of case studies exploring how increasing socio-political and economic complexity leading eventually to negative marginal returns, can be understood as the driving force of the collapse of societies as diverse as the Mayans, Romans, Minoans and Hittites.

On my Christmas reading list is an attempt to expand on this thesis and apply it to the “End of the Industrial Age” by John Michael Greer, The Long Descent. Interestingly one of Greer’s quibbles with Tainter is the speed with which collapse happens; for him it happens far more gradually than Tainter suggests and Ward Perkins implies in the case of 5th century Britain. Greer’s overarching “collapsitarian” point is that we are already in the midst of the kind of drawn out societal collapse that has happened in the past. I’m a skeptic but its an interesting line of thought to play with.

I encountered Bryan Ward-Perkins as an architectural student years ago, when I stumbled across one of his wonderful little publications on towns of ancient Greece and Rome. I had a real keen interest in urban design at that stage. Perhaps if I had applied myself better I could have made a good career as an urban design consultant in Ireland. That would have pleased me greatly.

But I am also fascinated by this extra layer, to do with lifestyle, economic trade and livelihood of these people from long ago. Thanks to Kevin O’Rourke for pointing out the FT article and opening the discussion here.

@ Mick Costigan,

Does Stewart over there in your neck of the woods still do research/lectures on the subject of cities? His lecture on the 21st century medieval city is an excellent attempt to bring it all together. The southern hemisphere cities of the future and the northern hemisphere cities, which have seen their time I guess.

@Chris: of such comments are academic debates made! In fact, your monetarist position doesn’t need to rely on a reallocation of specie, since from the Greenland ice cores we have evidence that copper production (which was linked to coinage) fell off after the collapse of Rome:

(OK: production is a flow, and the money supply is a stock, but there is a natural attrition of coinage so the world money supply surely fell.)

Of course, the counter-argument is that with less trade, there was less demand for money.

@zhou: the 21st century will indeed be interesting, which, as an ancient saying in your country points out, is not a good thing.

@mick: wasn’t there some article in the financial press this past year making a point along these lines? Can’t remember where I saw it..

I think thast the effect of natural catastrophes has been neglected simply because they were impossible to measure in their effects. The warm periods in earths history are times of plenty, whereas wheb the ice comes over the Thames etc., the crops fail and wars ensue.

As we are entering a cooling period which at its normal worst may last 70 years, things do look gloomier than they might otherwise. While a fair amount has been written about the past, based upon contemporaneous and subsequent records, this does not mean that all that is written is true! The dark ages are so called by historians as the Roman church destroyed so many intellectuals and their writings. Some consider Hitler to have been the first or the worst in that respect! Not so. it has taken many centuries to rein iecclesiastical Roman power. It has arguably surpassed Roman Imperial power.

Even so called modern science is not free from calls of heresy. Climategate was foreseeable. As always, a contrarian stance will help to arrive at amore balanced and perhaps accurate view.Hence the need for liberty. There is always an overshoot aspect to human affairs as the tail takes longer to respond than those at the head. There is also a reprehensible tendency to make money out of the tail, that should be tamed!

The development of a new approach by those who survived tha changes of society is a source of consolation to those who think in terms of species rather than the Jones’?


This page has a link to a recent talk by Stewart Brand at TED@State as well as earlier talks specifically focused on the cities:

The Ted@State talk in particular, draws heavily on his new book, Whole Earth Disciple: An Eco-Pragmatists manifesto:

I feel like your right about an article picking up on Tainter appearing in the press in the last year. In general, the “collapsitarian” meme is very strong right now, with people like Dimitry Orlov, John Robb, the transition towns movement etc. Here’s Kevin Kelly on it in February:

@ Mick,

Thanks for the information, very useful. I think I linked to David Korowicz’s lecture before here at IE. I have found this web page, which shows his slides and lecture notes together.

Things Fall Apart: Complexity, Supply Chains, Infrastructure & Collapse

Korowicz delivered this talk in Dublin last summer. It was my introduction to the ‘collapsitarian’ meme. Dimitry Orlov spoke at the same conference.

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