This book could have been written by and ecologist because the main thrust of it suggests, without ever saying so, that it is the energy flow through systems that give them their life and when that flow is stymied or cut off then those systems die.
The modern state so says Tainter is an anomaly, throughout the several thousand years of our history the common political unit was the small, autonomous community acting independently and largely self-sufficient.
In constrast complex societies such as states have a ruling authority which monopolises sovereignty and delegates power. The ruling class tends to be professional and is largely divorced from the bonds of kinship. The elite have the power to draft labour for war or work, levy taxes and enforce law, but it must be seen to be legitimately constituted. Legitimacy is a recurrent factor in the modern study of the nature of complex societies and is pertinent to understanding their collapse.
Establishing its legitimacy is the state's on going project.
After dispatching various other theories that explain why societies collapse Tainter claims that the proper basis for understanding complex societies is an economic one. The basic premise:
1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations.
2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance.
3. Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita.
4. Investment in complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns. An example of this last point is found in modern day medicine:
The declining productivity of medicine is due to the fact that the inexpensive
diseases and ailments were conquered first (the basic research that led to
penicillin costing no more than $20,000), so that those remaining are more
difficult and costly to resolve. And as each increasingly
expensive disease is conquered, the increment to average life expectancy becomes
More worryingly he cites an example from agriculture:
To increase world food production by 34 percent (between 1951 and 1966), it took a 63% increase in money spent on tractors, a 146% increase in money spent on nitrate fertilizers, and a 300% increase in money spend on pesticides. To get another 34% would take even more money. And this is just one aspect of society this pattern says Tainter is repeated across all sections of the urban/Industrial comple.
Thus he goes onto to argue: The reasons why investment in complexity offer a declining marginal returen are a) increasing size of bureaucracies b) increasing specialisation of bureaucracies c) increasing costs of legitimising activities d) increasing taxation e)increasing costs of internal control and external defense f) the accumulative nature of organisational solutions. So basically something that many of us had guessed your basic bureaucratic nightmare.
He says of Europe that because we have been peer polities for most of our history this explains why no collapse has occurred as yet, if one country were to collapse the others would swallow it up, he says that the next collapse will be a global one as we are all interrelated now.
I would just add that the book makes very short work of what Tainter calls mystical explanations of why communities fail, terms such as `losing vigor', `loss of virtue' that some contemporaries of collapsing societies have observed are dismissed as value laden statements which need be given no credence and that I find is the only hole in the book, you cant dismiss the quality of the relationships between individuals and say this has not bearing on society because society is more than just `nuts and bolts' but social relations.