A comment left on yesterday's post by Just Another Richard, got me thinking about what we mean by a "Dark Age." When you mention this term, most people think in terms of the supposed 'collapse' of 'civilisation' in Britain and Western Europe as usually presented by popular fiction. It usually features wild Norsemen (they actually came later) pillaging their way across Europe, brning houses, destroying towns and so on. Studying history, one quickly discovers it wasn't quite like that, at least not in most of Western Europe. Certainly certain structures vanished, like the Roman civic administration and, more slowly, the road network. Another casualty was written records and there was a certain loss of 'knowledge' as the scholars retreated Eastward to Byzantium, Alexandria and other places out of reach of the wave of invaders in the West.
So what do we mean by a "Dark Age"? The definition I prefer is that it is a period in which the structures of national and local government breakdown, lawlessness prevails, knowledge and understanding are diminished and the sciences stagnate. To this list should be added, there is a collapse of communal co-operation, individualism rules with the strongest preying on the weak as new power structures emerge, old one's crumble and even national ties loosen and change. All of these are identified in studies of the late Western Roman Empire and most are present in our society today. Another key element in the run up to a "Dark Age" is the loss of a single cultural identity as mass migration begins to change the face of communities and nations. This is, again, a feature of the late Roman collapse, eventually Northern Italy, Southern France and the Dalmation coast had a higher percentage of Visigoths, Celts, Franks and Vandal inhabitants - all with a culture alien to the Roman and Etruscan/Greek occupants - than there were of the original peoples.
Looking around us we see a similar pattern developing as our economic power declines, but our perceived 'wealth' attracts those seeking to escape poverty or oppression elsewhere. Just as with the Romans, there was initially some assimilation, but increasingly, the cultures of the 'host' nations are rejected and the very cultures which locked the newcomers into poverty at home are imposed onec again. Education is, it is said, now more universal than ever before, but it is also being weakened, by the attempts to 'broaden' appeal. Drop out rates from schools are worrying in many 'western' societies and, when you couple it to the lack of 'unskilled' jobs you realise that a latge 'underclass' of poorly educated and unskilled people is being created in the midst of perhaps, one of the greatest technological ages in human history.
Our political elites have lost the trust of the majority as well, creating the opportunity for 'alternative' political structures to emerge - like the "Pirate Party" in Germany, or the socio-political "NGOs" that Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund and even some Aid organisations have become. No longer is the ballot box sufficient for the voters, now we must take to the streets for one cause or another, demanding 'action' on something the majority present rarely fully understand and with no regard for the consequences or ramifications if the 'issue' is dealt with in the manner usually 'popularly' demanded. Just as in the late Roman period, 'celebrity cults' have formed and are exploited to drive competing ideologies of the individual or the 'masses' - a clear indicator of a would be dictator lurking in wait.
The clear marks of a dark age are the breakdown of the political structures, the prevalence of unpunished crime, the failures of education to 'educate' and the collapse of moral authority. Perhaps Just Another Richard is right, a Dark Age is looming over us. How long it will endure remains to be seen, what will emerge from it I'm not sure those who currently hold sway in education, celebrity, politics and law will like it. But then, like the Roman elites, they'll probably decamp and leave the rest of us to suffer the consequences of their folly.