When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the late 5th century AD, no-one knew. There had been a series of catastrophes, each followed by an accommodation of the incoming barbarian hordes, until finally Roman culture had disappeared and there were Latin-speaking barbarians everywhere. A bit like the BBC, really. Although there were points which can be identified as sudden collapses (the death of the last emperor in 476AD is the conventional end date) the collapse was only perceived in hindsight by the people living in the Empire.
Where once there had been thriving cities with polyglot populations eating foodstuffs from all around the Mediterranean, by the 6th century AD there were tiny villages with illiterate serfs tilling their little vegetable patches. To me, that sounds like a vast improvement. Perhaps I’m just adapting early to our own imminent collapse.
High point civilisations, brought together through conquest by an imperial hegemon (as they always are), are vast complex networks of resource distribution. The systems move people, information, commodities, slaves (the premodern version of porn and home appliances) and products. The engine of these distributive systems is the concentration of capital. This pattern of imperial complexity holds true across space and time – New Kingdom Egypt, Han China and the 21st century Pax Americana all share its features. We mistakenly see this complexity as a result of modernity. It is not. Modern civilisation is distinguished by an increase in scale, not difference in type.
If you have not done so before, next time you are in the supermarket consider the place of origin of all the items and their components in front of you. It makes you proud to just be human that such places can exist.
If you are reading this post-collapse, do not lament. Although you may not have Japanese kewpie mayonnaise or Danish biscuits, you are much freer than we well-fed servitors of empire. True freedom is much sweeter than Jaffa cakes.
Just as few were aware in the late Roman Empire of its imminent disappearance, few in the early 21st century are aware of the looming collapse of civilisation as we now experience it. Despite the most obvious debt bubble of all time being required to support all levels of society in every country around the world, no-one is panicking (except the preppers and the small mammals that live near their bugouts). Despite universal promiscuous infertility, a precipitous decline in real wages, widespread miscegenation and a welfare-warfare state machinery so bloated it can barely function, the disorganised masses continue with their morbid amusements and obedient debt-slavery. Just as Gibbon sat wondering how the immensity of the Roman Empire could just vanish, future proto-historians will marvel at how such a relatively advanced society as ours could be comprised of such flippant idiots. Such is our eternal human nature.
While Rome collapsed gradually over time, there were signs that the times were changing. Citizens fleeing the towns due to unmanageable tax burdens then being dragged back by force, thus beginning medieval serfdom, is one example. Another is the Catholic Church taking over social welfare responsibilities as the central government’s ability to support deadweight citizens diminished. The loyalty of the nascent peasantry was thus directed toward the Church and local warlord rather than the guy on the coins residing in the capital.
These were trends that, could you visit Late Antiquity, you would identify as being harbingers of what was to come.
What then are the emerging signs in our own time of what the post-collapse future might look like? Of course there is the collapse-genre of popular culture, such as Fallout, the zombie fad and Mad Max movies. Perhaps these dystopic visions of post-collapse will define its aesthetic features once it arrives (although I doubt it).
Certainly the large-scale immigration from the Third World, especially Muslim, nations is a clear indicator of what is now becoming. Will Islamic peoples revert back to type and take advantage of Western weakness during the collapse to rape their way into power and take control of European homelands? It happened to the Persians, Egyptians and Greeks before, so it’s a definite possibility. Muslims are like herpes – spread through sex and near impossible to get rid of once they’re in your system.
Another is the rising popularity of local markets. Already we see a trend away from supermarkets and industrially-developed food to local producers and farmer’s markets. These involve much smaller systems to maintain them and allow for the wealth of communities to remain in them. As people opt out of the debt-slave paradigm and become local producers as well as consumers, this will hasten the collapse of the imperial distribution system. Without the tax revenue of the wage-slaves, things quickly come apart.
When the collapse finally comes, it is usually marked by some military defeat or urban destruction. This is toward the end. The process of collapse begins much, much earlier, when a chain reaction begins in the minds of men who realise that the deal they get from the empire isn’t worth their chains any longer. That chain reaction is well advanced in the West.