Praising Collapse

Quoted from: Scott, James C. Against the grain: A deep history of the earliest states. Yale University Press, 2017.

Why deplore “collapse,” when the situation it depicts is most often the disaggregation of a complex, fragile, and typically oppressive state into smaller, decentralized fragments? One simple and not entirely superficial reason why collapse is deplored is that it deprives all those scholars and professionals whose mission it has been to document ancient civilizations of the raw materials they require… There are splendid and instructive documentaries on archaic Greece, Old Kingdom Egypt, and mid-third millennium Uruk, but one will search in vein for a portrayal of the obscure periods that followed them: the “Dark Age” of Greece, the “First Intermediate Period” of Egypt, and the decline of Uruk under the Akkadian Empire. Yet there is a strong case to make that such “vacant” periods represented a bolt for freedom by many state subjects and an improvement in human welfare.

What I wish to challenge here is a rarely examined prejudice that sees population aggregation at the apex of state centers as triumphs of civilization on the one hand, and decentralization into smaller political units on the other, as a breakdown or failure of political order. We should, I believe, aim to “normalize” collapse and see it rather as often inaugurating a periodic and possibly even salutary reformulation of political order… The “collapse” of an ancient state center is implicitly, but often falsely, associated with a number of human tragedies, such as high death toll. To be sure, an invasion, a war or an epidemic may cause large-scale fatalities, but it is just as common for the abandonment of a state center to entail little if any loss of life.

Such cases are better considered a redistribution of population, and, in the case of a war or epidemic, it is often the case that abandoning the city for the countryside spares many lives that would otherwise have been lost… What is lost culturally when a large state center is abandoned or destroyed is thus an empirical question. Surely it is likely to have an effect on the division of labor, and scale of trade, and on monumental architecture. On the other hand, it is just as likely that the culture will survive — and be developed — in multiple smaller centers no longer in thrall to the center. One must never confound culture with state centers or the apex of a court culture with its broader foundations.

Above all, the well-being of a population must never be confounded with the power of a court or state center. It is not uncommon for the subjects of early states to leave both agriculture and urban centers to evade taxes, conscription, epidemics, and oppression. From one perspective they may be seen to have regressed to more rudimentary forms of subsistence, such as foraging or pastoralism. But from another, I believe broader, perspective, they may well have avoided labor and grain taxes, escaped an epidemic, traded an oppressive serfdom for greater freedom and physical mobility, and perhaps avoided death in combat. The abandonment of the state may, in such cases, be experienced as an emancipation.

This is emphatically not to deny that life outside the state may often be characterized by predation and violence of other kinds, but rather to assert that we have no warrant for assuming that the abandonment of an urban center is, ipso facto, a descent into brutality and chaos… Just as the meaning of collapse merits close and critical inspection, so the term “dark age” needs to be queried: “dark” for whom and in what respects? The term is often a form of propaganda by which a centralizing dynasty contrasts its achievement with what it casts as the disunity and decentralization that preceded it.