Welcome to the Dark Ages

Map of the "barbarian" invasions of ...

Like many, I’ve always been fascinated with the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire. In particular, from early on I always wondered if people living at that time knew they were in a dramatic shift in civilization or if it was just seen as yet another shitty year in a long line of them but nothing particularly special.* Do people realize when their civilization is in a period of permanent decline or is it just that every society has its share of pessimists and like the proverbial clock, eventually they’ve got to be right?

Beats me but I found this article about how the mayor of Detroit is trying to ‘shrink’ his city to make it more efficient seemed in the same ‘decline and fall’ motif.

Twenty Detroit neighborhood are only 10 to 15 percent occupied…o, the government is instead “phasing out” these neighborhoods by turning off their streetlights.

As we all know, Detroit has been circling the drain for quite some time now and big parts of the city have been abandoned and are being claimed by scavengers, squatters and nature as it slowly winds down. In much the same way (I imagine), Dark Age people would strip stones from Roman Era buildings and walls, some Detroit residents are stealing copper and anything else worth cash from homes (some abandoned, some not). Apparently much of this reclamation is done to fuel drug habits and I’m not sure if (or how much) of it may be recycling in the manner of our Dark Age ancestors (stealing building materials from an abandoned house, for example, to patch up one’s own) but it’s certainly interesting.

I won’t bore you yet again with my grand scheme to convert cities like Detroit into more self sufficient entities by converting abandoned residential space into farm land (Latfundia, anyone?**) but I still say it’s a good idea.

The BBC seem to be thinking along the same lines but on a grander scale by comparing our current time with the disintegration of Roman influence.

The fall of Rome serves to remind us that complex societies can, and do, break down.

First was the widening gulf between the social classes, rich and poor. When rich and poor start to live completely different lives this leads (then as now) to the poor opting out of the state. All studies today show that society is happier when the gap between rich and poor is reduced.

Widen it and you affect the group ethos of society, and also the ability to get things done through tax.

In the Roman West real wealth lay more in land and property than in finance (though there were banks) – but in the 300s the big land-owning aristocrats who often had fantastic wealth, contributed much less money than they had in the past to defence and government.

That in turn led as it has today to a “credibility gap” between ordinary people and the bureaucrats and rich people at the top.

Not surprisingly then, many people – especially religious groups – tried to opt out altogether.

*I know the current view of the fall of the empire is that it was really more of a transition than a dramatic break but I’m not talking about any particular event like the last emperor or the loss of a specific battle. There were a number of changes that occurred, beginning in the late 3rd century, that seem (at least to me) to have been pretty dramatic changes to the system.

**Of course, I’m not really recommending the Latfundia system as that led us to feudalism but I really like the word.  In reality, this would be a bit more of ‘40 acres and a mule‘.

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