Recognizing the unique signs of a possible civilizational collapse, rather than being blindsided by it, requires a bold thesis as to what the core engine of our civilization is. Without a clear and correct theory of what makes our civilization function, signs of decay will go unnoticed or rationalized, rather than recognized.
Every civilization rests on a core stack of social technology that coordinates and sustains its vital institutions. Social technologies—intentionally designed ways for the people in a society to operate—form the basis of the varied systems of material production and material technology that we see in every society. These social technology cores decay with time as they obsolete their own foundations, and as errors and parasitism build up. This decay can be circumvented, and the decaying core social technologies can be swapped for new ones, but this is a process of immense historical difficulty. What, then, is the core engine of our own civilization, and in what way might it decay? While we lack an incontrovertible answer, the Industrial Revolution appears to be a leading candidate.
Such a thesis would have been very current during the 19th century and most of the 20th, but today sounds increasingly antiquated. We often define our 21st-century civilization, in opposition to the Industrial Revolution, as “post-industrial.” When the world’s most influential economist borrows the name to argue for a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he does not characterize it by yet more advanced and productive manufacturing. Instead, he distinguishes it by computer networking, artificial intelligence, and other “emerging technologies.” The seemingly basic association of industry with the mass production of material goods has been severed; factories are treated as evidence of backwardness rather than progress. Simultaneously, we lament the rising power of China, a power substantially if not totally built on old-fashioned industrial strength.
These contradictory attitudes betray the claims about our next stage of societal progress as more wish-fulfillment than impartial certainty. Yet at the same time, despite the popularity of apocalyptic visions of the future, we are certainly not regressing to the kind of agricultural or even tribal societies that characterized the pre-industrial era. A truly “fourth” Industrial Revolution would imply the sudden emergence of a whole new stack of social technologies, unlike any we have seen before. These would form the new core engine of our civilization. Does the “internet of things” really pass this bar? The question answers itself.
Post-industrial society is neither the next vaunted stage of human progress, nor the prelude to a catastrophic reversion to pre-industrial ways of life. Our social technologies have not been upgraded in the wake of the Industrial Revolution’s conclusion; they have been exhausted before we even finished industrializing.
Industrial Mobilization Makes Cities the Center of Material Production
Early modern Europe, while sharing many features typical of agricultural civilizations, also developed social technologies that lent themselves to an explosion of material production. One example was an ideological commitment to truth in speech among some aristocratic circles, exemplified by Britain’s Royal Society, whose Latin motto translates roughly to “take nobody’s word for it.” This commitment enabled advances in basic science by assigning high status to verifiable mathematics, empiricism, and experimentation. It further lent itself to honesty about the process of production. Another key social technology was the Protestant conception of friendship as expressed through the community of willing believers. Strangers could be trusted by default within this community, and thereby coordinate closely to form and run companies. Material factors like roads, canal networks, or good climate contribute to industrialization, but they don’t tell us about the social machinery that took advantage of them.
With a handshake and a reputation at stake, you could sail to the other end of the world, spending years out of contact with your business partners, yet secure in knowing they would honor their word. This trust at a distance provided the conditions for ocean-based commodity markets to beat regional commodity markets. After this material transformation, the plantations in the New World and workshops in India became logistically closer to a city than shepherds living in geographically nearby hills. Before this point, city-based labor markets had the highest impact on society, while the role of markets in exchanging the raw resources of the countryside for the finished products of the city was minor and easily replaced by customary trade. With the social technologies of long-distance commerce, the labor market of a city became connected to a commodity market that could match its pace, opening massive potential to make the city a center of material production.
Creating those markets involved mass dislocation. Armies rip people from their homes and turn them into soldiers; this was well understood in antiquity. During industrialization, the shock of dislocation from previous social ties combined with a newly institutionalized environment to produce distress not too dissimilar from the shock of incarceration or hazing. Cities already functioned as labor markets before the coming of industry. But if one can marry a labor market with the organizational methods of factory production, like rote work on an assembly line, the result is an army of production. Such productive armies started out as more literal than metaphorical. The early British industrialist Matthew Boulton was not just a boss with an economic relationship to his employees; he was also a charismatic and personal leader. In 1791, he armed his workers as a makeshift militia to defend his factory from rioters—a feat which today is only managed by small businesses bound by family ties or ethnic divisions.
The origin of such assembly lines and the required discipline of workers wasn’t psychologically trivial. At times, the mechanization of life departed radically from previous methods of regulating urban life. At first, city life wasn’t damaged significantly. A single factory opening isn’t very different from a monastery setting up shop in the city center. As this process progressed, however, more and more of the workers and managers built their own social infrastructure, which grew incompatible with the city life that existed before. The social technologies that previously regulated city politics and security ceased to work.
The rural periphery started being drawn into the center—not because of material prosperity, but because the countryside was fundamentally tied to city life to begin with. The same pattern exists in urbanizing countries today: as the old agrarian city fails and the industrial city rises, the countryside which was sustained by the social and economic ties of the agrarian city is no longer viable, and people are brought into cities where they either live in squalor or work on the assembly line. This wasn’t just an unconscious change; in England between 1604 and 1914, Parliament itself passed more than 5200 acts of “enclosure” that recategorized previously “commonly held” land worked by peasants as privately held by larger estates. The old way of life was collectively outlawed in favor of the more modern, profitable way of doing things. New work was found in the cities instead.
The assembly line, however, is so effective that it produces on a truly global scale. A single factory might even supply the whole world with some specialized component. This was illustrated when, in 1993, an explosion at a Sumitomo Chemical plant in Japan removed over 90% of the world’s supply of a certain epoxy that was used to attach DRAM dies—important memory chips used in computers—to their packages. The result was multi-year worldwide shortages of the component. Distributed production before the industrial revolution gave way to ever more centralized production, with agglomeration effects becoming only more important over time. In industrial society, local social life isn’t viable, but neither is it needed to produce the tools of daily life. On net, poverty is alleviated.
As society writ large was reorganized into industrial society, the labor markets of cities facilitated the creation of proceduralized organizations such as firms, unions, political parties, and eventually administrative offices—both state and private. Ownership by hands-on entrepreneurs like Matthew Boulton was replaced with ownership by absentee magnates like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Factory owners were integrated into state systems of violence and control, and no longer needed to organize their own ad hoc forces. Instead, they could rely on local police, hired Pinkerton goons, or even the army to assert control over factories and suppress dissent.
The makeshift militia had instead become a tool of organized labor. Strikers got into frequent standoffs and scuffles, and occasional shootouts, with the well-armed defenders of capital. To circumvent this disadvantage, labor used asymmetric bombing campaigns, usually directed at property rather than people—although there were exceptions and accidents. Much as the factory militia before it, the labor militia was also eventually integrated into state systems of violence and control, supervised by government institutions like America’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Today, picket lines are no longer enforced by mob violence, but by custom and by special legal privileges—so long as the state recognizes the strike as legitimate. For the last few generations, factory life has been less violent than ever before.
The new proceduralized organizations of the 19th-century industrial city further increased demand for human capital of the industrial type. This necessitated mass schooling, which tried to proceduralize some of the same cultural and physiological shock experienced when entering an industrial city. Some of the more intangible networks of civilization before industrialization disappeared and evaporated. The cities late to industrialization, such as 19th-century Vienna, were also the cities that hit the highest cultural watermarks, as those educated in the old system were able to deploy their talents in the new. Protestant friendship and aristocratic truth-telling became replaced by their scaled-up facsimiles: modern professionalism and science by committee.
The result was instability and revolution, as seen in the old societies of Europe from the 19th to 20th century. A change in cities necessitates a change in government. The one society without upheaval seems to have been British society, where the industrial process was perhaps most co-evolved with the previous social technologies. For example, it was often the British aristocrats themselves who were the early industrialists, inventors, and investors; in 19th-century Russia, on the other hand, industrialization was led directly by the state or even by foreign investment, working in alliance with rising managerial elites against the aristocracy. Yet even in the case of Britain, the key social technologies failed after the Second World War, as the latitude afforded to aristocratic scientists and industrialists was replaced by a system of bureaucratic processes.
At their peak, the United States and the Soviet Union both showed the full strength of industrial civilization. To a very significant degree, they were stabilized by the military and security needs of competition with each other. The USSR’s system began to creak first. The overall talent pool of founders was smaller, as was the size of its extended empire. Unlike the United States, it never truly managed to outsource crucial industries to be handled by its client states, thereby extending the block’s viable industrial phase. The industrial cooperative body that the Soviet Union created—the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON)—never succeeded in coordinating economic plans as effectively as the U.S.-led international community did, with organizations such as the OECD, IMF, and World Bank, and initiatives like the Marshall plan.
By the early 20th century, the United States had perfected an advanced social technology that ultimately gave it a second important advantage over the Soviets: marketing. Originally developed to help missionary efforts, it can quickly adapt and train consumers in how to use new products, technologies, and lifestyles. The great 20th-century architects of life and desire built a whole replacement culture and provided just-in-time replacements for gaps that the typical institutionalized factory worker experienced throughout the course of their life. For a time, life was good, as shown by the post-war baby boom. Optimistic American thinkers believed they had found a way to make an industrial society technologically dynamic, yet politically stable and socially sustainable.
The marketers were eventually replaced by people who grew up on marketing. Beware, social engineer, of obsoleting your own origins! Yet, they did so in field after field. Not only marketers, but scientists, statesmen, industrialists, politicians, philosophers, and writers shaped ersatz social technology to fill the gaps, but completely failed to guarantee knowledge succession of the generative core of knowledge. The strange spiritual practices, scientific exploration of human psychology, and at times outright ideological cults of the founding cohort gave way to a more shallow type of knowledge. This was a knowledge of levers and buttons, rather than the first principles which built those levers and buttons.
When times change—and you don’t need or can’t sustain the full pace of industrialization anymore—the vast masses of the industrial population prove themselves difficult to demobilize from their war of production. They can’t be returned to the social fabric of agricultural society, since the urban environment that enabled the agricultural hinterland to function no longer exists. The countryside has become an industrial resource base, rather than the setting for a pre-industrial way of life. The solution of overproducing white-collar jobs is at first natural and then dysfunctional. Bureaucracies decay in a way that is much less visible than the decay of factories. The real upward mobility of dysfunctional agriculturalists to functional industrial workers is replaced by the on-paper upward mobility of functional industrial workers to dysfunctional knowledge economy workers. Despite these measures, the real downward mobility is eventually made apparent.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed East Asia to be the best place to put key elements of the supply chain. East Asian societies remain industrial societies and can adopt factory-derived values to force compliance with public health measures. Public health policy can also be set in ways that respond to evidence, since their professionalization is young and hasn’t yet consumed its own epistemic foundation. Importantly, authorities see it as vital to enable the gathering of many people together in crowded spaces. Without this impetus, industrial manufacturing is impossible. The working factories are a political asset, since the production of steel and other fundamentals strengthens their states. Because of this, you cannot simply send everyone home forever.
Europe and the United States are the worst places to put key elements of the supply chain. They cannot produce compliance with public health measures. On paper, they have the best scientists and administrators, but massive white-collar overproduction means the victory of sharp elbows over sharp minds. Factory values, if reimplemented, directly challenge their existing power centers and partially undo the political pacification project that is the “knowledge” economy. In such a society, sending everyone home doesn’t impede production; in fact, it solves several social and political problems.
Post-industrial society finds itself having exhausted the organizational and social-technological capital of pre-industrial society, having replaced it with the control system optimized for containing the militant potential of demobilized worker units.
Factories might persist in post-industrial society, but primarily as local traditions. The self-catalytic process that birthed them is long over. They become strange sociological remnants, as out of place in 21st-century society as monasteries were in 19th-century society. Arguably, this industrial traditionalism is the main mode of production in modern Germany and, to a lesser extent, Japan. After the political instability of the first half of the 20th century, Europe converged on social democracy, which vigorously protects the arrangements and interests of the existing ecosystem of factories and firms. Social democracy further preserves class hierarchies, through taxes on the high-earning nouveau riche coupled with rigorous credentialing and regulation to prevent new power centers from arising. A good demonstration of this is that over half of European billionaires inherited their wealth, while merely a third of those in the U.S. did. Such a political economy, however, makes it very difficult to commercialize new technologies, build new factories, and for new firms to rise. A flash-frozen industrial revolution.
If this is correct, then post-industrial society isn’t our name for the next stage of civilizational progress. Instead, the term is true in its most literal and pessimistic interpretation: a society after and without industrial civilization. Such a society doesn’t even have the social infrastructure of agricultural civilizations. This means it cannot even mint the preliminary social capital needed to reindustrialize. Likewise, we have lost the implicit knowledge upon which our industrial systems functioned even as recently as a few decades ago. That knowledge cannot be regained absent the people who actually built and understood those systems.
What then follows is slow decay, first of production and then of advanced technology itself. At a macro scale, this is the deep root of civilizational collapse. Civilizations first lose subtle social technologies and bases of implicit knowledge at crucial junctures; this process ratchets as elites become less adept at institutional management and design; systems downstream of and less complex than the civilizational core then begin to collapse. Eventually, the entire civilization is fatally vulnerable to outside shocks, such as war with more dynamic societies or even mere natural disasters such as pandemics.
We can imagine a possible scenario of the collapse of our own civilization. Our ability to perceive decline would be compromised early in the process. Every society calls for explanations of its failure that leave the emperor blameless. This means we would find appropriate rationalizations every step of the way. But rationalizations are only needed when an expectation is set and then not delivered. Mostly, the adjustment to decline would just be an invisible lowering of expectations. When political incentives at all layers of the government pyramid go against ascertaining the truth of a situation, the truth isn’t ascertained.
Social scientists wouldn’t see it coming, since official numbers would be about as reliable as public health messaging during a pandemic. Wealth can shrink by 1% per year for a century, while measures such as GDP can show continued growth by 2% per year. The Soviet Union’s era of stagnation had 30 years of solid growth according to their metric of NMP (Net Material Product). American economists only noticed and revised our GDP estimates for the Soviet Union after its collapse. What would a century of such compounding discrepancy mean? Image and reality would be different planets. Despite this, every step of the way, the discrepancy isn’t noticeable. Only external shocks can break the illusion.
While the great illusion persisted, we’d have more and more trouble maintaining current customary industries housed in client states such as Germany and Japan. As technologies would be retired and replaced with more expensive alternatives, this would be perceptible to the common population as a decades-long, somewhat mysterious drop in life spans, quality of goods, and convenience. The products wouldn’t vanish, but rather be replaced by dubious substitutes. This might be explained, if it is remarked on at all, as driven by environmental measures, changing consumer preferences, or the malevolent schemes of rival great powers.
If the assumptions of the scenario hold, China would also succumb to its own post-industrial problems. Western media might tout this as evidence that China is on the verge of collapse, which it wouldn’t be. Americans and Europeans may at that point be de-facto barred from visiting China by their own governments, so seeing the still-gleaming cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou up close won’t be an option. How might China respond to such social developments? A very likely possibility is that it might try offshoring production to client states that can still undergo the industrial revolution just as we did in the 1970s. Perhaps this would be touted as the next stage of economic progress in Chinese media—which it wouldn’t be either.
Societies elsewhere on the planet going through their own industrial phase might provide enough to help us maintain European, Japanese, American, and Chinese stasis until they too exhaust themselves. Suddenly our imports would become expensive, then shoddy, then finally we wouldn’t be able to find suppliers at all. At that point, technical knowledge and the ability to deploy it at scale would truly start to vanish. External shocks, wars, and natural wear would exhaust our legacy machinery, never to be replaced again. Out-of-order becomes the order of the day. I don’t think we will see a return of the sea peoples, but I can’t rule it out either. Here we start to hit the limits of what we can say about this scenario.
How far we regress technologically under this scenario depends on how dependent technologies are on our quite centralized societal infrastructure. We probably wouldn’t keep modern consumer CPUs with their highly centralized production and global supply chains. We likely would keep cars, although it’s unclear whether we would keep electric cars, specifically their advanced and industrially intensive batteries. Perhaps our smartphones would turn out to have been bad for our mental health all along and the devices would become controlled purchases as a public health measure. Civilians really shouldn’t be carrying them around!
These material symptoms are, however, just that—symptoms—and cannot be treated with mere technical innovation, nor minor variants of economic policy. Whatever solution our civilization might find to escape the post-industrial trap, it will require social technologies of production and knowledge very different from anything we’ve seen before. A good place to start would be a new basis for friendship that defeats atomization, and a truthfulness that is compatible with political loyalty.