In her book Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs explores the likelihood of a coming dark age. Not all collapses lead to ‘dark ages’, Sometimes empires collapse and something new is born. This blog post is just about Dark Ages.

Jacobs starts off by pointing out that cultural dark ages are not rare.
Historically we tend to think of The Dark Age between as occurring between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. As she says:

So much had been forgotten in the forgetful centuries: the Romans’ use of legumes in crop rotation to restore the soil; how to mine and smelt iron and make and transport picks for miners, and hammers and anvils for smiths; how to harvest honey from hollow-tile hives doubling as garden fences. In districts where even slaves had been well clothed, most people wore filthy rags.

Many historians have pointed out there were islands of civilisation and some technological advancement during this period, it was not all cultural loss, and quite possibly humans did not realise there was much decline while they were living through it. Nevertheless this was a time of wandering in ruins, loss of skills, loss of life span, plague and famine.

Similar events have occured all over the world, all through history. Many cultures have disappeared in the face of conquest, genocide and slavery, and enforced destruction of culture – we can easily think of indigenous cultures which have disappeared, or have had to be recreated and reborn. A dark age for one culture, does not have to be a dark age for another, even if the victors are barbarous to the losers. However, there are plenty of pre-historic civilisations which just appear to have more or less vanished over a short period of time: the cave painters of Lascaux, Norte Chico, Çatalhöyük, Easter Island, the Maya, and so on.

Mass amnesia, striking as it is and seemingly weird, is the least mysterious of Dark Age phenomena. We all understand the harsh principle Use it or lose it…. People living in vigorous cultures typically treasure those cultures and resist any threat to them. How and why can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture that it becomes literally lost?

Discovering the causes of loss of ability to transmit culture is an important research topic, and we may be on the verge of facing this loss as a problem. As with the Library of Alexandria the problem may not just be fatal blows, but an ongoing decay which removes resilience and value. The causes of such decay have to be uncovered so that we may possibly avoid them.

She points out that people may be blase about this happening in our current world because information is everywhere. But there are problems.

The first is that information is irrelevant if people do not try to find it, do not value it, do not know how to use it, have too much information to detect what information is the best, get confused by conflicting information, destroy knowledge of the information through social loyalties, or have a dominant group which opposes looking after the knowledge.

The second is that use of culture depends precisely on active use and emulation. As she says

[C]ultures live through word of mouth and example. That is why we have cooking classes and cooking demonstrations, as well as cookbooks. That is why we have apprenticeships, internships, student tours, and on-the-job training as well as manuals and textbooks.

Culture also works through exemplars, and through imitation of exemplars and through ‘mentoring’. If our cultural exemplars feel no need for our cultural riches then neither will those who imitate them, or classify themselves as belonging together with them. Information, awareness, and even wisdom will decline.

Thirdly culture comes through experience. If you don’t experience the culture then you will not understand it. If you haven’t been through the initiation rituals you loose experience. If you have not had an experience of the divine in the right circumstances, then social religion will probably not make sense.

Fourthly, culture depends on context, or on other aspects of culture, and behaviour. Not having the right cultural background, will make reading Aquinas, Shakespeare, Plato, Hume, Burke, Newton, Einstein, Freud, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Vedas, or even basic textbooks, too difficult. There will not be enough connection to other knowledges for the information to be decodeable, or even interesting. Imagine trying to read an engineering textbook with no knowledge of construction in the world, or attempting to learn computer programming without a computer.

If we do not have a society in which people habitually interact, and reinforce a togetherness which builds on the past, then we lose access to information in books.

Jacobs suggests that in the US, cars and roads build disconnection, as in many places it is impossible, or difficult, to walk and build ties or recognition with people in your neighbourhood. You are all, more or less, strangers, and strangers tend to be wary of each other.

Fifthly, culture always changes. In some situations it is possible to build a new culture which is destructive of connections with the past, or with elite knowledge, with exploration, or with ‘civility’. People may try and reconstruct past cultures but, as Jacobs argue, reconstruction is never the same as the original. Sometimes the divergence can be useful, sometimes not.

One point to be distinguished here is the forgetfulness of acute trauma, which tends to be gradually overcome as people move back into normal life, and the chronic forgetfulness, or loss, which gradually becomes permanent. The gradualness possibly leads to a sense that ‘greatness’ is still here, when it is being lost. We are not aware of what we are forgetting, or don’t care. Perhaps we feel we have more urgent concerns, like survival. Perhaps we are violently displaced, without connection to our past or to people with similar backgrounds.

We know that without the depths of culture and connection to the past and others, people can sink into meaninglessness. They ‘disappear’, they can sink into despair and hopelessness – the world makes no sense, their fragments of understanding make no sense. Life seems fragmented and pointless. People can try to move on and embrace another culture which does not accept them, and does not gel with their past. People don’t, or become unable to, support each other – perhaps they don’t know those who they are with?

In this kind of situation conservers of tradition, or makers of innovation get lost. The culture radically simplifies, gets stripped back, and all previously valued technical skills start to decline.

Authorities may try to fix this problem by decrees, by force, by taking administration away from the locals, compelling forms of behaviour – saying that the people are barbarous or uneducated, but all this makes the situation worse. The ‘natural’ culturally evolved controls and interactions of their previous functional society, get weakened further, the control, or education, is remote from their life. It is rare for top down organisation to work, unless it aims at eradication (it is much easier to destroy than to build), or the leaders have a direct connection with people’s lives, or the reform removes some true obstacle from people’s lives like crippling disease.

The historical stories people tell may devolve to them being losers, or sinners, or somehow deficient. Resentment or lack of care may become the governing culture, leading to more fragmentation.

Encounters with more militarily succesful cultures is not the only cause of decay. As Toynbee recognised years ago, all cultures face new challenges as the world changes, and the societies themselves change. Sometimes the societies fail these challenges internally. The dominant groups are unable to respond, or they are so ingrained in their response they cannot do something new as that could threaten their culture, their world view, or the power they exert, or the habits they have gained.

People can have the most favourable conditions for life and destroy them. Jacobs examples the ‘fertile crescent’ which was the fount of world civilisation, yet lost it’s lead completely, and is now no longer fertile. They appear to have cut down their forests faster than they could regenerate, domesticated goats which ate new growth, and soil was lost, salt accumulated, water flowed through too quickly, drought got worse. The problems compounded and the ecology changed for good. This has happened to many cultures. Not being in a relatively harmonious relationship with their ecology, is probably a primary cause of collapse.

Leaders of cultures can retreat from the world, to try and preserve themselves from challenge, rather than face the challenge, this only leads to deadening. China had vast fleets exploring the world, but gave it all up and destroyed or diminished the knowledge they had of the non-Chinese world, as they had the supreme culture. The culture retreated and ossified, and was forcibly incapable of dealing with problems, such as the Europeans, when they arrived. They deliberately knew little about what they were facing.

Losers are confronted with such radical jolts in circumstances that their institutions cannot adapt adequately, become irrelevant and are dropped.

This is what is happening today. We can see it throughout the world. Climate change and ecological destruction are ignored, or denied (maintaining the economy and corporate power is more important), or enmeshed in fantasy solutions. The serious problems are not faced, or are to be faced at some time in a relatively distant future. The Coronavirus is dismissed, people deny it is serious, people assert the economy is more important, and that all will be ok, quite magically. In the US, people on either side of politics cannot discuss things, they just abuse each other and fear each other. A growing Republican meme asserts that if Joe Biden wins he will kill them all. This meme is possibly reinforced by attempts to ignore the pandemic.

Education is often divorced from life and tradition, people cannot see the importance of the past or, if they do, refuse to accept that anything modern and critical of that past, can be of value. Education is nowadays about providing credentials for jobs and being ‘job relevant’, not about wisdom or meaning. Even at university people are pressured into teaching for work, not for discovery or life proficiency. Indeed, this is what many students seem to want. They have no time for ‘high culture.’ Culture and the learning of the past is jettisoned to continue corporate profit and wage labour. Sometimes this arises because the past of science and technology is seen as irrelevant to the current day. As one conservative blog, which is kind of reviewing Jacobs, remarks:

Many middle-class or wealthy people don’t consider themselves barbarians at all. But if they see the passing on of wisdom and knowledge of higher culture not as the heart of education, but rather as a useless appendage, then they are barbarians, no matter how nice their lawn looks.

American Conservative

Commercialisation of culture may also be a problem. This may encourage cultural production, but it also can lead to a loss of the past, because it is not referenced, or it is not successfully profit generating. Much of this new art is to be consumed and thrown away, rather than act as places of reflection. Or it may select the lives of the wealthy, the vulgar, or sports people, as being the lives to emulate – the supposedly ‘self made.’

We can also see organised politicisation of knowledge. ‘Science’ is identified with a particular politics and then dismissed, irrespective of the evidence. People can come to see knowledgeable people as part of their oppression, part of what holds them back from success, and thus to be overthrown – and sometimes they can be correct, as with neoliberal economics, but it is in the interests of the leaders to only encourage certain ‘ directed skepticisms‘ [1] which correspond with retreat from disruptive problems, and thus lowers the chance of solving them. Once a ruling elite gets separated from the people, say by massive divergence of wealth, they will have no hesitation in going for the ‘noble lie’ and attempting to dismiss and suppress the most knowledgeable people around. They may well declare them enemies of the state or enemies of the people. This way knowledge gets lost in fantasy, or in people attempting to avoid being denounced.

Politics itself is now an elite occupation with people largely not drawn from those who experience people’s daily lives. They seem largely committed to maintaining the destruction of their culture. Taxes tend to be used to subsidise the wealthy, or stripped away from productive areas. Infrastructure, important for daily life (such as roads, bridges, rail, sewage), is allowed to decay, increasing the expense of operating and leading to technical failures. Supervision of the powerful is stripped back, or allowed to decline, so they get away with fraud and deceit, and social trust decays. People may come to think there is nothing professionals can teach that is worth learning, or moral to learn. Neoliberal politicians tend to argue that wealth is the primary virtue and that if something cannot make a profit, it should die, unless it is a wealthy influential business which should be bailed out by taxpayers. Neoliberalism easily becomes rapacious and ready to sacrifice everything to money.

In the US, President Trump seems committed not just to maintaining the destruction, but to increasing it, putting tools of the dominant elites in all important positions, increasing elite power and wealth, increasing ecological destruction and poisoning, stacking or ignoring courts, decreasing supervision of the corporate sector, and increasing the fractures between his supporters and everyone else, even to the point of civil war, or furthering distrust of the whole US system. Trump is a personified vector of collapse.

There is possibly a sense that Trump could only be defended by people who fundamentally had lost touch with their guiding culture, or a sense of responsibility. In this world, interference with justice, suppression of evidence, corruption, pandering to enemies, and so on, are simply said to be something everyone does. Consequently, there are only immoral exemplars or extremely good liars.

There is often an easy optimism that the pendulum will swing the other way, but that only happens in a functional culture. In a dysfunctional culture this rebalance may not occur. This seems especially so, when the dominant groups seem to see their solutions in terms of preventing a rebalance, or engage in pretending that the pendulum is actually swinging the other way from which it is, so as to keep it swinging in their direction.

[P]owerful persons or groups… have many ways of thwarting self-organising stabilisers – through deliberately contrived subsidies and monopolies for example. Or circumstances may have allowed cultural destruction to drift to the point where the jolts of correction, seem more menacing than the downwards drift.

Different factions attempting to secure their own sense of wellbeing may sabotage the well being of others, or even themselves. They can prevent the ending of ecological destruction for example. In the Fertile Crescent, there would have been those who opposed tree conservation because of needs for fuel, others could have opposed limits on the use of goats. China quickly lost the knowledge of ship building, the ways of financing the fleet, and ceased to allow the expression of curiosity about the rest of the world.

So dark ages come about, in part, because:

  • The ruling groups fail the challenges the culture is faced with.
  • Powerful interest groups demand that destructive behaviour continues.
  • Rulers withdraw from interacting with the world into self-obsession, obsession with religious, or cultural, purity, or military expansion against their neighbours.
  • The culture and people are displaced by massively superior and indifferent force.
  • Continuing environmental destruction, no matter how good the reason
  • Change happens too quickly to adapt to in meaningful ways.
  • Local community interaction and integration declines, so there is no community resilience, bounceback or mutual support. People do not know their neighbours.
  • Education moves away from life, moving away from the contemporary to the past, or focuses too intently on a particular domain of life, excluding all others, including tradition.
  • Government’s cease to spend on the people, or protect the people, and only work for the power elites. Taxes are not spent on public goods, or keeping roads, bridges, sewers, cables, knowledge, etc functioning, but on protecting those dominant elites who are the supposed source of general wealth.
  • People who are models for emulation appear overtly corrupt, immoral or deceitful.
  • Acceptable knowledge becomes dependent on profit, or on sticking to the religious or party line.
  • People, previously of the same culture, are separated into mutually non-communicating, and likely warring, factions
  • Loss of knowledge and culture, and loss of the supports of knowledge and culture.
  • Increasing gaps between the elites and the people. In power, wealth, military proficiency, education etc. which in turn increases the power, wealth etc of a smaller and smaller number of people.