As Professor Watrall has mentioned several times, the study of the rise of ancient states is incomplete without equal attention paid to the collapse of those states. As a class we agreed with social theorists who say collapse is inevitable. We also agreed that studying ancient states is important to us primarily because we are a “state”. What, I wonder, constitutes a state in the 21st century?
If archeologists of the future were to examine the remains of 21st century societies, what would they classify as complex societies? Nation states like the United States, India, or Japan? Or would the increasing interconnectedness of global governance, economies, and culture complicate matters? This phenomenon of globalization is sometimes debated, but I think its quite clearly a legitimate trend. Economist Thomas Friedman describes globalization as relations between people and states that are “farther, faster, cheaper, and deeper”.
Just watch the first minute for his definition:
Granted we have no concrete international body of governance and one of the factors anthropologists use to classify complex societies, or ancient states, is a high degree of centralized political power. “States are assumed to have centralized governments composed of political and religious elites who exercise economic and political control. . . . The state codifies and enforces laws, drafts soldiers, levies taxes, and exacts tribute.” (Wenke and Olszewski 289)
It is true, though, that most European nation-states are highly connected through the European Union; they share a currency and are quite dependent on one another’s stability – Greece, for example has received multiple bailouts from Germany. Germany’s willingness to help Greece shows their commitment to the system of European central governance. What suprastate governments might the future hold elsewhere in the world?
Even if all states aren’t all one giant complex society, if one falls, what is the likely hood that many others will fall too, at least other industrialized nations? Consider the impact the Great Depression had on international economies during a time when the world was much less interconnected than it is today.
If “states” ever merge to the extent that there is one government above all state governments and that all people become cosmopolitans and shed their nationalism, what will the collapse look like? (For those of you who are familiar with his work, this is the type of society that Immanuel Kant imagines could lead to perpetual peace. Such a society would begin with trade, lots of trade. Eventually people’s differences will appear less important in the setting of the marketplace and finally they will disappear altogether (not people’s differences, but their perception that those differences matter). Thomas Friedman would say that it is technology driving this process.)
Back to the question of collapse: Professor Watrall told us that collapse is not entirely apocalyptic. It’s maybe more like really crazy anarchy. It does not “involve collapse and mass extinction of people and adaptation, sometimes in the form of a process . . . of decentralization and localization, in which the political authorities lose their ability to control people and economies” (291.) Should states continue to become less differentiated, what impact might that have on their collapse? First of all, might we expect it speed up? That seems very likely even as far as carrying capacity goes. The amount of resources that the large society has as a whole though will increase and innovative solutions might therefore last longer. Again, though, the larger population that these resources must support may not offset the gains. Additionally, the collapse of a suprastate might simply result in a lot of little states (aka the nation-states of today). That means that all of the progress we pride ourselves on today will one day be characteristic of a collapsed state.
If globalization should result in global governess and total interconnectedness, and subsequently collapse, can it rebuild? Will we be stuck in a cycle of suprastate to nation-state to suprastate transformation? Or is there a chance that such a society will not recover after collapse, having used resources on a global level? Will there be anything left for them to rebuild?
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