History has shown that societies collapse when leaders shake the social contract

The ruins of the Roman Forum, once the seat of a representative government. Credit: (c) Linda Nicholas, Field Museum

All good things must end. Societies, whether ruthless dictators or better-intentioned ones, disintegrate over time with varying degrees of violence. In a new article, anthropologists examined a broad, global example of 30 pre-modern societies. We have seen that when “good” governments that provide goods and services to the people and do not seriously concentrate wealth and power fall apart, they are more fragmented than collapsing despotic regimes. And researchers have found a common theme in the collapse of good governments: leaders who break away from upholding and upholding basic social principles, morals, and ideals.

“Pre-modern states were not so different from modern states,” he said. “Some pre-modern states had good governance and it was no different from what we see in some democracies today.” Political Science. “Well-governed states, while able to sustain themselves a little longer than autocratic governments, have tended to collapse in more detail and more seriously.”

Richard Blanton, a professor of anthropology at Purdue University and lead author of the study, said: “We have noted the potential for failure caused by an internal factor that can be managed if properly anticipated.” “We refer to the inexplicable failure of the main leadership to support the values ​​and norms that have led the actions of previous leaders for a long time, followed by the loss and collapse of civic trust in the leadership and the government.”

Great Council

An engraving depicting the Grand Council of Venice by Giambattista Brustolon. Credit: Giambattista Brustolon, described by Creative Commons

In their research, Blanton, Feinman, and colleagues looked closely at the governments of four societies: the Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty of China, the Mughal Empire of India, and the Republic of Venice. These societies flourished hundreds of years ago (or, in the case of ancient Rome, thousands of years ago) and had a more equal distribution of power and wealth than many other studies, although they did not appear to be “good government” today.

“Before modern times, there was no electoral democracy at all, so if you want to compare good governance with good governance in the past, you can’t measure it by the role of elections, which are so important in modern democracies,” he said. There are some other criteria to consider, and the key features of a good governance concept are an appropriate measure, ”says Feinman. “They did not have an election, but they had other controls and balances on the concentration of personal power and wealth by a few people,” he said. They all had the means to improve social welfare, to provide more than a small portion of goods and services, and to express the voices of ordinary people. ”

In societies that meet the academic definition of “good governance,” the government meets the needs of the people because the government depends on these people for the taxes and resources that sustain the state. “These systems depended heavily on the local population for a good portion of their resources. Even if you don’t have elections, the government should at least respond to the local population, because that’s what finances the government, ”Feinman explains. “Leaders are often checked for both strength and economic selfishness, so they can’t accumulate all the wealth.”

Well-governed societies tend to last a little longer than autocratic governments that concentrate power on one person or a small group. But the reverse side of this coin is that when a “good” government collapses, things become more difficult for citizens because they rely on the infrastructure of that government in their daily lives. “With good governance, you have the infrastructure to collect taxes, maintain services and distribute public goods for communications and bureaucracy. You have an economy that provides people together and finances the government, ”Feinman said. “Thus, social networks and institutions are connected at a high level economically, socially and politically. However, if an autocratic regime collapses, you may see a different leader or a different capital, but it does not penetrate people’s lives, because such rulers generally monopolize resources and finance their regimes in less dependent ways. local production or broad-based tax. ”

Researchers have also examined a common factor in the collapse of well-governed societies: leaders who abandon the founding principles of society and do not see themselves as moral guides for their peoples. “In a good governance society, a moral leader is someone who upholds the basic principles, meaning, and beliefs and values ​​of a common society,” Feinman says. “Most people have a kind of social contract, whether it’s written or not, and if you have a leader who violates these principles, people lose credibility, reduce their desire to pay taxes, stay away, or take other steps,” he said. financial health of policy. ”

This model of immoral leaders who destabilize societies returns – the newspaper takes the example of the Roman Empire. The Roman emperor Commodus inherited a state of economic and military instability and therefore did not rise; instead, it was more interesting to act as a gladiator and introduce himself to Hercules. Eventually, he was assassinated, and the empire fell into a period of crisis and corruption. These examples can be seen today because corrupt or inexperienced leaders threaten the basic principles and, consequently, the stability of the places they govern. Inequality, the concentration of political power, tax evasion, distancing oneself from bureaucracy, declining infrastructure, and declining public services are evident in democratic nations today.

“What I see around me feels like what I saw while exploring the deep histories of other parts of the world, and now I live my own life,” Feinman says. “It’s kind of like Groundhog Day for archaeologists and historians.”

“Our findings should be valuable today, especially as they suggest that well-governed, prosperous, and highly valued societies are fragile human structures,” Blanton said. “In the cases we were fighting, perhaps disaster could have been avoided, but citizens and state-builders eagerly thought that their leaders would be forced to do as expected for the benefit of society. Given what we did not expect, the types of institutional protections required to minimize the consequences of moral failure were insufficient. ”

However, Feinman notes that learning about the things that led to the collapse of societies in the past can help us make better choices now: “History has a chance to tell us something. This does not mean that it will be exactly repeated, but it tends to rhyme. That means having lessons in these situations. ”

Reference: “Moral Depression and Disorder: A View from the Past” by Richard E. Blanton, Gary M. Feinman, Stephen A. Kowalewski, and Lane F. Fargher, October 16, 2020, Boundaries in Political Science.
DOI: 10.3389 / fpos.2020.568704

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