Some have explained these historical episodes of collapse as due to a predictable internal tendency of societies to overshoot ecological capacity (Diamond, 2005), or to create top-heavy social structures (Tainter, 1988). Other analysis, however, suggests that most known ancient collapses were initiated by external climate change (Weiss & Bradley, 2001; deMenocal, 2001). The magnitude of the social impact, however, often seems out of proportion to the external disturbance. Similarly in recent years relatively minor external problems often translate into much larger reductions in economic growth (Rodrik, 1999). This disproportionate response is of great concern; what causes it?
…A great deal of social coordination and cooperation is possible today because the future looms large. We forgo direct personal benefits now for fear that others might learn later of such actions and avoid us as associates. For most of us, the short term benefits of “defection” seem small compared to the long term benefits of continued social “cooperation.”
…But in the context of a severe crisis, the current benefits of defection can loom larger. So not only should there be more personal grabs, but the expectation of such grabs should reduce social coordination…
Such multiplier effects of social collapse can induce social elites to try to deceive the rest about the magnitude of any given disruption. But the rest of society will anticipate such deception, making it hard for social elites to accurately communicate the magnitude of any given disruption. This will force individuals to attend more to their private clues, and lead to less social coordination in dealing with disruptions.
What Mr. Hanson is arguing is that regardless of the mechanism for collapse, at the point where people begin to feel that the game is not going to be continued forward, there is a lot less incentive to keep playing by established rules that work to an individual’s immediate disadvantage.
A classic, temporary, manifestation would be the urban looting that occurs along with some destabilizing event. Why would people loot when the lights go out? If a group of people have no, or very limited interest in the status quo, they are not likely to be interested in the well being of that status quo going forward when the rules are temporarily suspended. What Mr. Hanson is postulating is this effect on a more global scale.
Because the urban city centers are not viewed as required core functional areas within our current societal paradigm, it is sufficient to keep a certain amount of orderliness versus actual cooperative effort. But because we are in a nominally democratic-elective form of government, the greater swath of the working class, and middle class are viewed as being more fundamental to our current system. Within the system you could call them the supporting group. It is worthwhile to the elite to lie to the supporting groups.
At the time of severe distress, it is very important to the elites that they are able to project forward a continuity of society. Just as the Germans who conquered Rome would adopt Roman titles to help continue forward their rule of their new territories, the societal elites will work very hard to keep sufficient security and structure in place to protect their position. To the extent that they have to change the system to maintain their power, they will continue using the old forms and protocols to lower resistance to changes. Augustus kept the form of the Senate in place, at the same time as he gutted the institution.
All of which points to “Collapses” being more unpredictable, and if a society is already very near a danger point, it can be much quicker than would otherwise be the case. Societal groups are very vulnerable to information cascades: a fancy way of saying that people take their cues on how to act from others. Just as the support needed to maintain a real estate bubble can vanish rapidly, so can the support for a governing system.