The Bones of Civilization
The aftermath of fall of the Roman Empire witnessed a strange and eerie phenomenon. In previous centuries, towns had been centers of local trade, places where the wares from across the empire were available to the industrious farmers and craftsmen of the place. In the aftermath of collapse, however, with productive activities like farming hampered by lawlessness and banditry, and a total cessation of long distance trade for the items people previously came there to purchase, there was really no economic purpose for these towns in the post-Roman world. Many of these places were abandoned to the elements and the newly triumphant tribes.
The ghostly remains of these formerly thriving towns were not without economic possibility, however. In subsequent decades they became the targets of a booming trade in “monuments and marble”. Ships and crews of salvagers, who sailed all the way from still prosperous middle eastern civilizations of the Mediterranean, would land on the shores of northern Gaul or Britain and send work parties inland to dismantle and salvage the fine stonework, marble flooring, columns, and ornate carvings of these abandoned Roman towns. Boats full of the remains of the grandeur of Roman civilization would then sail back to still functioning societies far to the south and sell these treasures for considerable profit, to decorate the houses of merchants and tradesmen within functioning economies still capable of nurturing productive activity and creating wealth.
In these forlorn places, the final chapter of the Roman era closed not with the sudden violence of a barbarian invasion and war, but decades later with the quiet dismantling of the once-grand physical remains of a bygone period of wealth, when the productivity that had supported it was no longer possible. A civilization is truly dead when someone harvests its bones.
I was forcibly reminded of this story when I set about locating some old bricks about a year ago. As it happens, I was looking for 18th-century pavers and much to my surprise, I found on the internet a salvage yard for historic building materials that had some. I followed the GPS directions and eventually found myself in a decrepit and somewhat scary old suburb of Philadelphia, and I had a fascinating conversation with the man who owned the place.
As he described it to me, he has made a very nice living going to horrible neighborhoods that are, for all intents and purposes, non-functioning (meaning most of the citizenry do not work, profits are not made, and economic activity is essentially nil) and he harvests architectural treasures from an earlier, productive age. Usually he hires security in the form of a few guards so he can do his work in these places. Woodwork, ornately carved mantles, wall sconces and flooring- all are for sale at his salvage yard, removed from the interior or exterior of households where no paycheck, other than a government issued one, has been brought home for a generation or more now.
The outdoor yard where stone, brick, and other weather resistant materials are stored is especially poignant, and it is easy to imagine that it must look exactly like the yards that sold the dismantled treasures of the Roman towns, right down to the fluted columns stacked in the corner. Ornate birdbaths carved by hand by incredibly skilled craftsmen from a single piece of stone stand next to slate roofing tiles. Decorative stone caps that once topped a beautiful Victorian garden wall piled beside a pair of wrought-iron gates look like they should be allowing entrance to a front walk of a proudly middle-class household. I also found my stack of paving bricks, from an 18th-century city alleyway where they were the first things to be placed on the ground there during the 1790’s to finally end the mire of previous decades, and allow the inhabitants safe and clean passage. All sit in sad profusion, the relics of once-productive neighborhoods, the detritus of a bygone age of the wealth created through free enterprise.
We often discuss the end of the Keynesian experiment on this blog but it seems to me that we sometimes have a far too linear view of this process. We tend to imagine a sweeping, society-wide event that makes clear to everyone the unsustainability of the present system. But what if that isn’t the shape it will take at all?
What if the decrepit end-point of the entire statist Keynesian philosophy isn’t something off in the future, but instead is being demonstrated daily in pockets of real estate that most closely hew to the government-centered anti-free market model? What if places like Detroit, decaying Philadelphia, Buffalo, and frankly many chunks of territory all over the country are showing daily that the strangling of productivity is already here, spreading out from definable points on the map just as surely as a tribe of Visigoths sweeping through Gaul? In short, what if a collapse of sorts is already happening and it has simply reached its logical conclusion in these places first?
And if this is not so, then answer me this simple question: Why are people already harvesting the bones?