Collapse won’t re-set Society, Part Two

Trade Key” by Got Credit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Part One is here.

If bureaucracy is resilient, then trade is eternal. Far from being a recent development of modern technology, archeological evidence shows global trade predating the Iron Age. In the 3rd millennium B.C., tin mined in Cornwall was traded throughout central Europe, the Mediterranean, & further into Mesopotamia & the Indus. Weights of measurement appear to have met similar standards from Britain to the Middle East, & stayed remarkably stable for over 2000 years. In the long run, there is no disaster in human history that has permanently ended trade between regions & continents. What makes our society unique isn’t global trade per se, but the level to which the average person is tied into highly complex markets spanning the entire world. The collapse scenarios for this system range from a supply chain meltdown to the end of cheap energy.

These scenarios could undermine trade as we know it. But just as shipping containers and oil did not spark the modern era of global trade, they are unlikely to end it. The historical shipping empires such as those of the Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese rose and fell without a drop of petroleum. They were powered by wood, canvas, and our insatiable desire for global commodities like sugar, coffee, and spices. The seas were often lawless — merchantmen fitted cannons for a reason. But the insecurity of long mercantile journeys was a risk many found worth taking long before global sea powers like Britain and America could guarantee safety on the journey.

Indeed, pre-industrial technologies persisted until relatively late in the modern economy. Great sailing ships conducted profitable world trade in bulk commodities, notably Australian wheat and wool. The famous “Cutty Sark,” one of the last merchant sailing vessels, primarily shipped wool from Australia to the mills of Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. The “Grain Races” – informal contests between sailing vessels – continued into the late 1940s and involved shipping bulk wheat by sail into Britain. In the event of any civilisation-threatening energy crisis, it wouldn’t take long for the age of sail to return. In some market niches like the wine industry, sailboats are used for shipment even today.

Particular trading partners rise and fall, but trade endures throughout history. Partially, this is because trade is good at absorbing local disasters. The destruction of one territory, like Roman Judea in the first century or Iraq in the twenty-first, sends out waves of refugees that offer their labour elsewhere. The event usually entails the rise of new markets for opportunists. Expansions like those of the Mongols, Islamic armies, and European colonialists were responsible for such destruction, but also created massive new territories within which trade could take place.

Even during active wars, trade goes on. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is one of the most recent examples. The amount of Russian natural gas flowing through Ukrainian pipelines actually increased in the weeks following the invasion, with Russia paying transit fees to Ukraine in full even as it rained missiles on the country. While conventional state-on-state warfare has reducing large parts of cities such as Mariupol to rubble, Ukrainian and Russian bureaucrats are evidently working together, and are clearing payments. These fee payments may even being used to purchase military equipment to use in the “Forever War”.

However, despite this overall continuity, serious disruptions in global trade can create downward spirals for huge swathes of society. At a minimum, basic goods become inaccessible as prices stay high. In worse scenarios, societies might have to reorient themselves in major ways to access new markets. But often, these scenarios only reinforce existing institutions. Following the Soviet collapse, both Cuba and North Korea underwent major food shortages, with the latter seeing between 1-2% of its population succumb to starvation. In both cases, both power structures and daily life stayed remarkably continuous. Cubans continued to work in the fields in order to survive, despite no formal jobs existing. In North Korea, food has become a political tool used to reinforce state loyalty. Instead of heralding a new economic order, the historical examples of trade collapse show that they usually enforce the existing one. Rather than liberating alienated workers from their jobs, its effects usually drive them down to subsistence-level life. The most cataclysmic scenarios for trade are events on the scale of the Bronze Age Collapse, a period of several decades in which the collective trade networks of the entire eastern Mediterranean all melted down due to invasion, war, and new technologies. This collective disaster prevented the ability of regions to absorb shortfall or displace each other. It left entire regions of cities depopulated. The worst-hit areas, like Greece, entered nearly four centuries of stagnation, while empires like Egypt and Assyria were forced into retreat to facilitate survival. Events like the Bronze Age Collapse are the closest we have to extensive civilisational resets. For those who survived the invasions, the disaster entailed a contraction of daily life, enduring a harsh & brutal existence as local rulers fought to maintain themselves, and migration to other cities where life as most had known it still endured. Later generations did not view the collapse as a liberatory moment, but rather as the end of a golden age. Generations later, the Mediterranean is once again a network of cities, ships, and markets. Trade has survived the collapse of civilisation before, and we can expect it to do so again.

Nuclear Explosion in City” by Cristian I.S. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

There is, of course, one collapse scenario without historical precedent: large-scale nuclear exchange, with the casual assumption being that such an event would be the end of the world. Official models of a nuclear exchange, at least, suggest otherwise. U.S. government estimates predict a death toll of between 13 to 34 million people for a nuclear exchange involving 3,000 warheads, with substantial additional fatalities that would result from a lack of medical care, lack of utilities, and ensuing food shortages. But even at a final death toll of 10-20% of the total population, and infrastructure destruction similar to the situation in Germany after the Second World War, the total shock of nuclear war could likely fall within the range historically absorbed by modern economies and governments.  It is not so difficult to imagine a very “mundane” sequel to such a catastrophe. Despite the horrendous loss of life and subsequent hardship, there would likely be no post-apocalyptic release from the mundane.  Given that most of society would have survived the exchange, with perhaps entire regions untouched by direct strikes, many of the same patterns as in other historical disasters would likely emerge. The chaos unfolding as people tried to contact relatives, take control of property, or enter other regions as refugees would actually overwhelm institutions like courts and essential infrastructure rather than making them irrelevant. The largest problem faced after the nuclear strike could well be job abandonment by surviving workers on disaster “holiday”, feeling that ordinary things don’t matter anymore. More likely than a collapse of normal economic life is a scenario similar to King Edward III’s Ordinance of Labourers: a mandatory work requirement for all able-bodied persons.  In this scenario, it’s even unlikely that the phones and laptops go off for the last time in a nuclear conflict. Modern communications might come back online with strange rapidity due to the dispersed and durable nature of cellular networks — today, even extremely unstable regions like Somalia & Yemen have a cell service. Such technologies are autonomous from lower levels in the hierarchy of needs. Residents in cities that were not directly affected might well be posting on X, even as they survive on thin rations of gruel unloaded from a truck each week.  Given the enduring nature of tax and financial authorities, Britons would likely be filing self assessment forms and paying taxes within a year or two of the event. Just like the Berlin conductor — or the citizens of post-war Nagasaki and Hiroshima, both thriving cities once again — young survivors of the event may well retire years later under quite normal conditions in a rebuilt city, drawing on social security and pension accounts established before the war.

So…… what would end it all ?

It is very difficult to specify any death toll or infrastructure destruction that would, in itself, make fundamental or lasting changes to our systems of governance. Even nuclear war may not reach the threshold. There are a number of counterexamples to the persistence of mundane economic life, property rights, trade, and governance. One might ask about the fates of East German landlords. Or pre-1949 debts in China. What about farm deeds in Cuba? What about French Ancien Régime estates after 1790?   These counter-examples quite neatly answer the question of what events are actually known to radically change society. The real force that reorders society is always human action, driven by political or ideological coordination. Disaster becomes the moment for organised political actors to seize the day & upset the existing order in a given place, either by foreign conquest or by revolution. Without some human force ready to make use of disaster, neither plague nor destruction are sufficient in themselves to rewrite how society functions. Where these things occur without a strong existing revolutionary ideology, the status quo recovers with amazing speed. On the other hand, revolutions have succeeded repeatedly without requiring major physical disruptions at all, such as those of Cuba and Iran.

In this sense, the apocalyptic cults and radical militias may actually be closer to the truth than the docile pessimist who fantasises about getting to leave his office job. The former, at least, understand that collapse is only ever an opportunity for motivated actors whose power survives or even increases after a disaster. But such people are rarely found among society’s malcontents. As history invariably shows, those who benefit from societal collapse are the ones already well embedded in the upper strata…….

© DJM 2023