[This is an elaboration of some of my comments on the previous article, arguing that economic imperatives supporting change may not be enough]

This blog was extensively rewritten in November 2019

Introduction: The Cycle

When I was arguing that Trump may well seek to ‘over-rule’ apparent economic realities and help produce climate disaster, I was guided by a theory which I will call the ‘Toynbee Cycle’ after the historian Arnold Toynbee. The basic proposition is that Civilisations or societies, if they are to succeed and survive, have to adapt to, or solve, problems in their environment (which includes various ecologies and other societies).

If people succeed in ‘solving the problems’ the society continues (or splits), until it faces the next set of problems, or generates a new set of problems. The cycle represents the alternation of solutions and problems, or the social failure to solve problems. It also points us to the insight that societies are both problem solving, and problem generating, devices.

This cycle is tied in with power relations, as in many cases, social learning and problem solving may involve a challenge to the dominant people, or an alteration of the dominant people and/or the ideologies they embrace, as established dominance tends to be wedded to the old order, which builds hierarchies, ways of knowing, ways of living and so on. The established dominant groups can be supported in this order by other groups as well.

These groups may be economically based classes, but they do not have to be. Their position can be decided by other sources of power: religious, organisational hierarchy, military violence, control of communication, position in the technological system and so on.

Dominant groups may not even know there is a problem, as the groups who deal with the problem directly may be different to them, separated from them, and the problem may not fit with the world views of the dominant groups; it could be declared impossible. For example, they may assume the seas cannot rise significantly, small amounts of CO2 cannot make a huge difference to the weather, God controls everything, humans are passive reactants to the forces of nature, nature is harmonious, or society cannot function without coal.

In short, societies face challenges which the society either overcomes, adapts to, or fails. Facing social problems can become social struggle between different groups, and change society.

A failure, does not necessarily mean the society collapses. For a fortunate society, a failure can be a learning experience and produce better adaptation later on, especially if the previous dominant groups’ hold on the society weakens, or changes its basis, or new people with new understandings and techniques rise up the hierarchy. It is a mistake to think the dominant groups are always unified; some can recognise the problems, and there can be a struggle within the dominant groups, but those with useful solutions may find it difficult to win.

Toynbee’s oft repeated point is that societies which have been successful, do not fail so much as commit suicide. This suicide is usually promoted by the dominant groups not wanting to risk loss of dominance, or not being able to see the world in terms other than those of the tools (conceptual and technological) they use.

In my terms, the order the rulers seek can create the very disorder they fear, especially if the environment/ecology is changing, because then reality may no longer appear to work the way the dominant faction want it to, or demand that it should. Unintended consequences pile up, and social functioning gets more and more difficult.

Problems of success and new classes

Sometimes, and unfortunately, challenges can arise out of the very factors that have helped to generate the society’s success. Something important to the society’s success generates problems, as when fossil fuels as energy sources produce destruction of fertile areas, displace people, poison the environment, and produce rapid climate change which threatens social stability. Problems generated by success seem particularly hard to address, because the hierarchies, ways of living and so on, are ingrained with that success and heavily defended against challenge. People in those groups may not know how to act differently, and may face massive uncertainty, and even loss of power, if they deal with the problem.

For example, imagine a society in which extreme military proficiency has expanded its landholdings and conquered peoples until the point where the costs, financial and social, of maintaining that success and dominance depletes the ruling society of resources and the capacity to respond to new challenges; either military or otherwise. Not all problems can be solved equally well with violence. Change may be demanded, and yet non-military people may have been suppressed, or they may not have the investigative skills required. Challenge to the military order may most forcibly come from people who don’t have the necessary problem solving skills either, perhaps the dominant people in the main organized religion.

Similarly, problems may arise when a fixed group of people has been able to commandeer the use and propagation of the cosmologies, economics, or technologies etc. of a society, and that group restricts membership and does not allow newcomers. Such a group is likely to resist innovation and change, even if it kills them, because they have little competence or experience in anything other than preservation and conventional problems. Other people may not have the ability to use the technologies or cosmologies effectively as they have been kept ignorant.

Letting in new groups of people, provided they appear talented or qualified is always a good strategy to generate new ideas. There is no guarantee these ideas will be useful, which is one reason the dominant groups may be reluctant to admit new people, or share power. However, restricting entry to kin, and existing group members, is usually harmful and stultifying. [This latter point comes from Pareto’s idea of the ‘cycle of elites’]

Resistance to Change

Some standard ways of dealing with challenge, which seem likely to ensure social collapse, are:

  1. Trying to impose the required and familiar order more rigorously.
  2. Pretending that the signs of disorder are illusionary, irrelevant or passing.
  3. Pretending to be solving the problem, often with a knowing wink to those who benefitted from the old solutions, but to carry on as before.
  4. Attacking those who might be trying to solve the problems (usually as traitors, or radicals).
  5. Emphasising the problems in transition and playing down the problems of staying inert.
  6. Oversimplifying the problems to make them seem manageable.
  7. Stirring up distractions to get people’s attention focused elsewhere, especially if that problem seems solvable by the current order, or
  8. Locating a scapegoat to blame for the problems and arguing everything will be well when that scapegoat is purged.
  9. Punishing people for objecting to the established order and the problems it generates.

In the West, and throughout the world, we largely seem to have a society dominated by corporations. Corporate cosmologies, forms of organisation and economic power seem to be embraced almost everywhere. This mode of ordering has relatively intense control over most social functions, and it has been extended even where it may not be appropriate (as with universities or churches). This kind of ordering, which has intensified over the last 40 years, is most readily known as neoliberalism. It usually involves State talk of free markets, protection of the corporate class, and state hostility towards those of other groups, who might object to the order (workers, artists, dissident intellectuals, scientists, religions focused on the poor and dispossessed etc). This neoliberal order has consequences for social survival. In terms of the Toynbee cycle: it could be the case that not all problems can be solved by talking about free markets, protecting established business, and attacking its opposition. Likewise, established business may be ‘unintendedly’ generating the problems the society faces.

Supporters of neoliberalism appear to be dedicated to all of the defensive techniques named above:

1) The economy is not working very well and most people are not progressing or meeting promised expectations – climate change and ecological destruction does not make this better. However the most promoted solutions often involve imposing more ‘free market’ neoliberal discipline on workers (as a cost cutting exercise), persecuting people on social welfare to force them off, handing more power to the corporate sector, and making sure the wealthy become even more wealthy. The governments in Australia and the US, have promised to encourage more fossil fuel burning and promote fossil fuel exports so that more people can burn them and produce more greenhouse gases. The government in the US seems to be striving to reduce the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency and to encourage people to pollute heavily. The aim seems to be, to reimpose conditions which worked in the past to bring power and prosperity, and (incidentally) benefitted wealthy people and corporations; as that seems the best way to solve problems. The problem is that this completely ignores the growing ecological problems, it also ignores the increasing alienation of people from alliances with the dominant business groups, who do not seem interested in their problems. These impositions of old order are unlikely to solve the problems generated by success.

2) Dominant groups, or their representatives, claim that the climate change generated by society’s economy and success is not a problem, is not happening, is some kind of conspiracy, or is beyond human remediation. Climate change is unreal, is a natural process unaffected by human behaviour, will return to normal, and so on.

3) Many dominant groups seem to want to embrace a ‘solution’ to climate change which supports coal burning. Not just new mines, but ‘clean coal’ (often through Carbon capture and storage, which does not seem to work) and fracking for cheap ‘clean’ gas despite the leaks and destruction of land. The Australian government claims it is meeting all commitments, even while its own figures show increasing emissions. As part of this strategy, dominant groups can do the kind of things discussed in the previous post such as, support regulations on possible solutions, offer subsidies to continue the problem causing activities, invent new problems associated with solutions (such as health issues for windmills ignoring health issues for mines), reduce restrictions on existing modes of behaviour (such as lower requirements for clean water and air) and so on. They seem to aim at inhibiting change.

4) Dominant groups encourage attacks and smears of scientists, greens and anti-coal protestors who recognise some of the problems and propose possible solutions. Climate change is called a socialist conspiracy. It is a theory dreamed up by China to weaken the West. It is said that people who recognise climate change as a problem, are elites who want to spread even greater costs onto ordinary people.

5) Governments play up the problems of renewable energies; they will not keep the lights on, they are intermittent, they are costly, they destroy the view, while they downplay they problems with fossil fuels such poisonous pollution, vulnerable to supply disruption, fall over if powerlines collapse, produce climate change, destroy the land they are taken from, and destroy the view. The coalition government frequently blames power failures on renewables, even when the coal power stations have collapsed, the storms have ripped down power cables, or the payment systems did not work as expected.

6) Living systems are complex, and multiply-interactive. It is fundamentally difficult to understand a living system completely. However, human knowledge systems often take themselves as definitive. These leads to radical simplification of problems, or even to the ignoring of fundamental parts of the problem. Thus supporters of the current system, who recognize problems, may assume they can be fixed by clean fossil fuels, or that the problem can be completely solved by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energies. Renewable energies are useful, and may solve a large number of problems, but they are not a complete solution, they do not solve the problems of over-fishing, deforestation, peak-phosphorous (and other parts of the so called ‘metabolic rift’ in which limited and essential nutrients are flushed into the sea where they are hard to recover), over-grazing and greenhouse emissions from industrial agriculture. The problem is that almost everything contemporary society engages in, in order to be productive seems irreparably destructive of ecologies.

7) Corporate media, tends to distract people by focusing on the lives of celebrities, on murders, imaginary worlds, local scandals, manufactured controversies and so on.

8) Dominant groups can actively blame the relatively powerless (refugees from wars and climate change, illegal immigrants, Muslims and ‘liberals/greenies’) for almost all problems. The Coalition and the Murdoch media blamed Greens for the bush fires, when the Greens do not have the policies claimed, do not have the power to implement them anyway, and fire clearances exceeded the targets set by the Coalition government. The suggestion is that without these people, we would have fewer problems. So they should be removed.

9) If the people protesting against refusal to face the problems can be defined as evil outsiders, then it is easy to increase penalties for protest and political action. Australian governments are criminalizing protests, increasing jail sentences and fines, trying to prohibit people who are charged from associating with other protestors, prohibiting people from boycotting companies who participate in climate change and so on. This can be seen as an attempt to force the issue into silence, where it can be left alone, and the old order proceed unchallenged and undisturbed to continue its past successes – until everything collapses.

All of these moves are attempts to keep the disordering order functional, remove challengers to it, and remove challenges to the behaviour of its supporters from consideration, while making solving the problems, or drawing attention to them, unpleasant.

Mess of information

This kind of situation encourages what I call the ‘mess of information’, because the dominant cultural trend involves an attempt to avoid reality. Official maps of reality do not work in the new situation and this cannot be admitted. Information becomes seen primarily in terms of its ability to persuade others, or force them to act. Information becomes politicised, and simultaneously, truthful but critical information can be dismissed as politics. The mess of information supports ignorant politics, which reinforces the problems, and makes them harder to deal with.

I will write about that mess later, but this is long enough for today…


Recognising the ‘Toynbee cycle’ helps us to draw attention to the importance of problems in social dynamics, and to the ways that dominant groups may attempt to sabotage those who would like to solve potentially society ending problems, because those solutions may threaten established power relations and ways of life.