Update: commenters have pointed out some issues with the research of Colin Turnbull, who studied the Ik in the 1960s after a famine. Criticism of his work is summarised here.
For what seems like obvious reasons, my thoughts have turned towards civilizational collapse recently. As a result, I picked up a copy of a book entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter. It’s in the same vein, although slightly more academic, than Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
As a self-identified left-libertarian, I’m sympathetic towards anarchist philosophy and the right of people to be free from state interference. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, so I’ll not get into it in too much depth now, but suffice to say that it makes this book an interesting read!
In the first chapter of the book, Tainter gives numerous examples of societal collapse, which he defines as happening when a society “displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity”. As such, it encompasses not only the Roman and Mayan empires, which we’ve all heard of, but also many that we (or at least I) have not.
I wanted to share one example in full, because it blew my mind that people could live in this way, without the normal social bonds. What I find particularly interesting are the hints that things have not always been this way, due to clan names and the choice to live in villages.
The Ik are a people of northern Uganda who live at what must surely be the extreme of deprivation and disaster. A largely hunting and gathering people who have in recent times practiced some crop planting, the Ik are not classifiable as a complex society in the sense of Chapter 2. They are, nonetheless, a morbidly fascinating case of collapse in which a former, low level of social complexity has essentially disappeared.
Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be considered societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don’t form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident.
Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.
Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.
Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns. They possess clan names, although today these have no structural significance. They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning. The traditional authority structure of family, lineage, and clan leaders has been progressively weakened. It appears that a Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns. They possess clan names, although today these have no structural significance. They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning. The traditional authority structure of family, lineage, and clan leaders has been progressively weakened. It appears that a former level of organization has simply been abandoned by the Ik as unprofitable and unsuitable in their present distress (Turnbull 1978).Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies
One of my reasons for sharing this is that what’s portrayed here is often how ‘anarchy’ is painted by those who have a vested in the status quo; as the utter breakdown in political, economic, and social relations.
I don’t think this is the case, and in fact I have a feeling that Tainter is likely to argue that one of the reasons for societal collapse is over-centralisation. After all, decentralisation is always more resilient. We’ll see.