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USDA head Sonny Purdue sits next to Donald Trump
Seated next to Sonny Perdue, his pick to lead the USDA, Donald Trump signed the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America. This executive order sunsets Obama-era efforts to promote local foods and serve rural residents, especially children and the elderly, while introducing its own deregulatory agenda (reducing complexity, if you will). Public domain photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In previous posts, we discussed how society became more complex, and how that complexity arose because it solved the problems of a growing society. However, the benefits of complexity come with associated costs. Prosperous societies can pay the price as long as their standard of living is on the rise. Eventually, though, the resource base of a complex society can no longer sustain the production of resources needed to maintain the web of middlemen and onionlike layers of bureaucracy, and something has to give. Generally, that’s when a collapse occurs.

Other cultures have walked this path before us, and we can learn a lot from their examples. Mesopotamia, one of the places where large scale agriculture was first practiced, burned through their soil and salted the earth with irrigation, desertifying their fertile land. It still hasn’t recovered. The western Roman Empire couldn’t maintain control of far-flung outposts as their agricultural resource base disintegrated into collapse. The Chaco cliff-dwellers of the American southwest faltered and failed when the complex network of communities that served as their wealth pump decided that the benefit was not worth the cost.

A similar dynamic is playing out right here in the United States. In many ways, we have become Two Americas, each with different ideologies that provide different answers for the question of how to live in an era of diminishing returns and a decline moving towards collapse.

One side finds its answer in a leftward political shift. Fans of Bernie Sanders are looking for a new social contract, where lopsided wealth distribution is mitigated and the funds used to provide a kind of floor under which one cannot fall. By increasing the wealth of the commons instead of the plutocrats, they hope to reset the economy in service of a vision where everyone has enough. There’s still work to do, but the Left’s answer to avoiding collapse may include democratizing the workplace, providing simplified, universal healthcare, and a guaranteed basic income that allows people the freedom to become entrepreneurs, or even to support taking the low-wage jobs currently on offer.

Richard D. Wolff – When and Why will Capitalism end? – Posted by acTVism Munich

The other side, however, has their guy in the White House and their team running Congress, and for the next few years at least, their answers are the ones we’re going to live through. For now, Donald Trump’s answer seems to be to embrace the collapse. All of his hand-picked nominees for cabinet posts seem cleverly designed to dismantle the very departments they are supposed to lead.

If growth spawns complexity, a good working definition of collapse would be the rapid simplification of complexity. Sonny Perdue, Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, is looking to dump the Office of Rural Development, for example. You don’t need to develop the rural hinterlands in the midst of a collapse, even if they’re your political base. (Who are they going to vote for, the Democrat?) Similarly, Betsy DeVos is poised to put the smackdown on the educational system. All this complexity is too expensive for the tax base to maintain, and the very richest can take care of their own education no matter what happens. They’re more interested in maintaining a steady flow of low wage peasantry willing to compete with Third-Worlders for work.

While the farmers of the heartland vote against their economic interests for their ideological benefit, folks back home in Chicago and Atlanta are also making do. The collapse of our institutions means that people are going to have to find new and creative ways to get by.

As we open this Pandora’s Box and watch the problems that complexity once mitigated fly out and plague us again, though, there is still a shining bit of hope lying tucked away in the corner. For one, a decline or collapse of industrial culture should have a beneficial effect on the environment. This was true when the Soviet Union broke up, and demand destruction should have a similar effect here.

For another, the simplification of some kinds of complexity may have a salient effect on one quality Americans adore: freedom. Not in the same way that a guaranteed basic income gives people the freedom to try new approaches without as great a fear of failure, but in the reduction of intermediaries. Firing the middlemen opens up a kind of opportunity.  Like government, corporations are complex institutions subject to pressures of collapse when their customer bases dry up. If our production can’t sustain so many middlemen taking their cut, how will businesses support so many layers of management, marketers, salesmen, vice presidents, and clerks? Perhaps business will once again take place largely between individuals, or between peasants and their liege lord. Remember, medieval peasants had more days off than you do, because they didn’t support nearly the level of complexity that your toil does. Perhaps there’s a bright side to collapse after all.

Sources:

Jim Hightower: New Jobs? Sure! Better Pay? Nope.
Farm Advocates Fear USDA Is Destroying Aid To Rural America
College makes sense for the elite, but it might not for the working class
How Poor Single Moms Survive
How Failing Institutions Left an Atlanta Condo Complex Derelict and Crime-Ridden
The American Health Care Act’s Prosperity Gospel
Pre-industrial workers had a shorter workweek than today’s
Greer, John Michael. Dark Age America: climate change, cultural collapse, and the hard future ahead. Gabriola, BC: New Society Publishers, 2016. Print.
Tainter, Joseph A. The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge U Press, 2013. Print.

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