Global Cooperation

News Item: Complexity and Collapse by Niall Feguson

Guest Blog Post – Dennis Bumstead

From time-to-time, Global Cooperation will publish articles by other authors. These articles will have as their common element, an insightful commentary on the state of the world related to that described by Adi Da in his book Not-Two IS Peace
This post is particularly interesting in relation to the “systems” chapter, “Reality-Humanity”, p 213 in Not-Two Is Peace, and more generally in relation to the often asked, often doubting question ‘can radical, large-scale change ( for good or ill) actually happen?’.
Dennis is the General Manager of the Global Cooperation Project – read more at

Complexity and Collapse

Empires on the Edge of Chaos

March/April 2010
Niall Ferguson
NIALL FERGUSON is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His most recent book is The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.

There is no better illustration of the life cycle of a great power than The Course of Empire, a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole that hang in the New-York Historical Society. Cole was a founder of the Hudson River School and one of the pioneers of nineteenth-century American landscape painting; in The Course of Empire, he beautifully captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain in thrall to this day.

Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river beneath a rocky outcrop. In the first, The Savage State, a lush wilderness is populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitive existence at the break of a stormy dawn. The second picture, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, is of an agrarian idyll: the inhabitants have cleared the trees, planted fields, and built an elegant Greek temple. The third and largest of the paintings is The Consummation of Empire. Now, the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrepôt, and the contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have been replaced by a throng of opulently clad merchants, proconsuls, and citizen-consumers. It is midday in the life cycle. Then comes Destruction. The city is ablaze, its citizens fleeing an invading horde that rapes and pillages beneath a brooding evening sky. Finally, the moon rises over the fifth painting, Desolation. There is not a living soul to be seen, only a few decaying columns and colonnades overgrown by briars and ivy.

Collection of the New-York Historical Society
The Savage State, from Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire (1833-36)

Conceived in the mid-1830s, Cole’s great pentaptych has a clear message: all empires, no matter how magnificent, are condemned to decline and fall. The implicit suggestion was that the young American republic of Cole’s age would be better served by sticking to its bucolic first principles and resisting the imperial temptations of commerce, conquest, and colonization.

[The balance of the article is available on the Foreign Affairs site at


2 Comments so far
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Mix of science and speculation

Society is an evolving and rational system. It has its natural laws, which should be studied carefully instead ignored. “Debating the stages of decline may be a waste of time—it is a precipitous and unexpected fall that should most concern policymakers and citizens.” The precipitous and unexpected fall has history and reason to happen.

The complex systems “go critical” when decision-making mechanism become inadequate to the level of already achieved complexity. This is a dramatic clash between objective and subjective factor – objective laws of social evolution or self-organisation of society and decisions made by ruling elite to keep its privileged position intact. As a result system is closed; negative feedbacks are cut-off and replaced with positive feedbacks, which generate chaos. Society become less adaptive and system “go critical”. At this point collapse is inevitable. All empires including communism, fall apart due to this reason alone although decisions, which triggered even leading to domino effect are very different. Nowadays, deterioration of democracy to plutocracy and free market economy – to corporatocracy are examples of diminishing self-regulation and replacement with subjective decisions, which become increasingly inadequate to complexity of modern society. Collapse of Wall Street (redistributive) capitalism is inevitable and a matter of time. Eventually new adequate decision-making mechanism will be established. This is mechanism, which will separate power of money from decision-making process. However democracy is not possible to be restored, revitalised or unlock.

As a rule of thumb complex systems “go critical”, when “critical mass” of population are disillusioned about sustainability of society and reliability of ruling elite. At some point some insignificant event trigger chain reaction, which lead to collapse of politico-economic system and replacement of the ruling elite.

Comment by netocracy

The subject is fully clear but why does the text lack clarity? But in general your blog is great.

Comment by gualetar

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