25 April 2015
When Thinking about civilization this also entails thinking about compromised forms of civilization as well as the end of civilization. Ideally, a comprehensive theory of civilization would be able to account for both civilizations that flourish and prosper as well as those that fail to flourish, and which stagnate, decline, or disappear, or which develop in an undesirable direction (flawed realization). One can think of stagnation and decline as selective or partial collapse; contrariwise, civilizational collapse can be understood as the totality of stagnation or decline (the fulfillment of decline, if you will, which shows that not only progress but also decay can be formulated in teleological terms).
In what follows I will adopt the term “suboptimal civilizations” to indicate those civilizations that have weathered existential threats and which have not gone extinct, but have continued in existence, albeit in a damaged, deformed, or otherwise compromised form due to being subject to stresses beyond that civilization’s level of resilience. A suboptimal civilization, then, is a civilization that has fallen prey to existential risk or risks, but is still extant.
A civilization may become extinct even when the species that produced that civilization has not gone extinct. Thus the extinction of civilizations is a separate and distinct question from that of the extinction of species. However, the extinction of a species is likely to be much more tightly coupled to the extinction of a civilization, though we could construct scenarios in which a civilization is continued by some other species, or some other agent, than that which originated a given civilization. Generally speaking, those existential risks that lead to the extinction of a civilization are extinction and subsequent ruination; those existential risks that lead to suboptimal civilizations are stagnation and flawed realization.
There is a philosophical problem when it comes to judging civilizations of the past that have transitioned into contemporary forms of civilization, losing their identity in the process, but leaving a legacy in the form of a continuing influence. One way to deal with this problem is to distinguish between civilizations that attained maturity and those that did not. Is a civilization that failed to attain maturity because it was preempted by another form of civilization now to be considered extinct? The obvious example that I have in mind, and which I have cited numerous times, is that of early modern European civilization, which I have called modernism without industrialism, which rapidly was transformed by the industrial revolution, which latter preempted the “natural” development of modernity before that modernity had achieved maturity.
I will not attempt at present to define maturity for civilization, but my assumption will be that the maturity of a civilization will have something to do with the bringing to fulfillment of the essential idea of a civilization. I am not prepared to say how the essential idea of a civilization is to be identified, or how it is to be judged to have come to fulfillment, but this should be sufficient to give the reader an intuitive sense of what I have in mind.
The range of suboptimal civilizations, including those trapped in the social equivalent of neurotic misery, might be quite considerable. Toynbee formulated a range of concepts to understand suboptimal civilizations, including abortive civilizations, arrested civilizations, and fossil civilizations. Extrapolating from Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations, I formulated the idea of submerged civilizations in my post In the Shadow of Civilization.
Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations are imaginative and poetic, but more qualitative than quantitative conceptions. In order to do this in the spirit of science, we would want our comprehensive theory of civilization to incorporate quantifiable metrics for the success or failure of a civilization. At our present stage of social development, it is controversial to compare civilizational traditions and to rate any one tradition as “higher” or “more advanced” than any other tradition (an idea I discussed in Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization), as representatives of those civilizations that rate lower on any proposed scale are offended by the metric employed, and they will usually suggest alternative metrics by which their preferred civilizational metric fares much better, while the civilizational tradition that fared better under the other metric would not come off as well by this alternative metric. The attempt by the nation-state of Bhutan to measure “gross national happiness,” may be taken as an example of this, although I am not sure that this is a helpful measure.
It would also be desirable in a comprehensive theory of civilization to formulate metrics for the viability or sustainability of a given civilization. In some cases, metrics for the success of civilization might coincide with metrics for the viability of civilization, but the possibility of very long lived civilizations that are less than ideal — suboptimal civilizations — points out the limitations of defining civilizational success in terms of civilizational survival. In some cases viability and optimality will coincide, while in some cases they will not coincide, and suboptimal civilizations that survive existential risks in a compromised form will be an example of such non-coincidence. The survival of a stagnant civilization can be a matter of mere cosmic good fortune, whereby a particular planet enjoys an uncommonly clement cosmic climate for an uncharacteristically long period of time (while other contingent factors may mean that the climate for civilizational development to maturity is not equally clement).
There are many ways to explore the idea of suboptimal civilization, as was observed above there are many ways for a civilization to languish in suboptimality. Indeed, it may be the case that the essential idea of a civilization has a much smaller class of circumstances in which that idea comes to full fruition and maturity, and a much larger class of circumstances in which that idea fails to mature for any number of distinct reasons, so that suboptimal civilizations are likely to outnumber civilizations that have attained optimality.
There is another philosophical problem, related to the problem noted above, in identifying the continuity of a civilization, so that a later stage of development can be considered the fulfillment, or failure of fulfillment, of some earlier civilizational idea, and not the emergence of a new idea not yet brought to fulfillment. I have previously considered this problem in several posts on the invariant properties of civilization. If a civilization emerges that seems to lack heretofore invariant properties of civilization, is to identified as a new form of civilization, or as non-civilization? Another way to formulate the problem is to ask whether civilization is an open-textured concept. The problem is posed every time an unprecedented development occurs in the history of civilization, so that the problem re-emerges at every stage in the history of a tradition, since the unprecedented is always occurring in one form or another. Let me provide an example of what I mean by this claim.
Imagine, if you will (as a thought experiment), that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose that despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived (that is, the world of modernism without industrialism).
If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition. I implied as much recently when I wrote that, “It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.” (cf. Is society existentially dependent upon religion?)
The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity and even have made use of its intellectual gifts without having passed through any stage of large-scale settlement. This is an especially interesting thought experiment when we reflect that the paradigmatically human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization, and might have developed separately from civilization. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology, though this would have taken an order of magnitude longer than it took as a result of the industrial revolution. Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human society that had not adopted large-scale settlement and consequently the institutions of settled civilization.
This ancient human society that had never crossed the threshold of civilization proper — at least in some senses a suboptimal form of social organization, even if not a suboptimal civilization — suggests yet another thought experiment: an ancient civilization that, despite its antiquity, never passes the threshold to become a Kardashevian supercivilization. The motif of a million-year-old civilization is a common one, Kardashev called them “supercivilizations” and Sagan often speculated on their histories, but what about the possibility of a million-year-old civilization that never develops technologically and never experiences an industrial revolution?
If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. This is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past.
The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachonic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution, given climatological conditions that allow for continual development, would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there is a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. The human condition need not change appreciably even over very long periods of time.
A million year old agricultural civilization would probably look much like a 2,000 year old civilization, except that it would have a very long history, which means either a massive archive if continuity is maintained, or a lot of ruins and buried artifacts of the past if continuity has not been maintained. Would we have anything to learn from a million-year-old civilization that was not a supercivilization? Consider the possibility of art and literature a million years in development — the steady rate at which civilization prior to the industrial revolution produced masterpieces of art suggests that civilization without industrialization would be a very old agrarian civilization that was laden with a million years’ worth of art treasures. In this case a suboptimal civilization would be productive of values that would not and could not be achieved under an optimal civilization, which ought to make us question the optimality of optimal civilization where our presuppositions of optimality are drawn from industrialization.
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18 April 2015
This Island Earth
Some time ago (on Twitter) I observed that astrobiology is island biogeography writ large. I return to this idea regularly, but have not yet adequately fleshed it out. I touched on this again in From an Astrobiological Point of View, but it would take considerable exposition to do justice to the idea. This post is an unsatisfactory response to my return to an idea that deserves to be studied in his own right and at some length.
Island biogeography has its origins in the origins of Darwin’s Origin of Species. As we all know, Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands during the voyage of the Beagle that Darwin recounted in The Voyage of the Beagle. Decades of thought and gestation followed, but it was in part the peculiar mix of species in the Galápagos that was crucial for Darwin’s breakthrough to the idea of natural selection. I have myself visited the Galápagos Islands (I wrote about this in Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!) and it is a spectacular lesson in natural history that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Although island biogeography begins with Darwin, it was brought to explicit formulation and theoretical maturity by E. O. Wilson and Robert H. MacArthur in The Theory of Island Biogeography. There the authors say in their opening remarks:
“By studying clusters of islands, biologists view a simpler microcosm of the seemingly infinite complexity of continental and oceanic biogeography. Islands offer an additional advantage in being more numerous than continents and oceans. By their very multiplicity, and variation in shape, size, degree of isolation, and ecology, islands provide the necessary replications in natural ‘experiments’ by which evolutionary hypotheses can be tested.”
Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson, The Theory of Island Biogeography, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, Chap. 1, p. 3
Much of this remains valid when translated, mutatis mutandis, into astrobiology. The key, however, is how one goes about arriving at the mutatis mutandis. How can all other things remain equal when we are translating from terrestrial ecosystems in miniature, thus a bit easier to understand than the whole of the terrestrial biosphere, or some major division such as a biome, into worlds entire isolated in the blackness of interplanetary and interstellar space? The analogy is not perfect, but it is suggestive of parallel avenues of approach.
Scaling up biogeography
While the flora and fauna of islands are sufficiently restricted in scope to make it possible to do a detailed count not only of species present (already in The Voyage of the Beagle we see Darwin noting the number of genera and species present on various islands), but sometimes also of individuals. Obviously we are not going to be able to count species, much less individuals, for entire worlds. We must draw back, look at the big picture, and employ the kind of metrics we see in studies of mass extinctions. In detailing the loss of biodiversity of mass extinctions it is not merely species or even genera that go extinct; sometimes entire families, orders, and classes go extinct. These we can count; in fact, we could reasonably expect to count higher taxa for entire worlds.
The reformulation of island biogeographical ideas for astrobiology will be the labor of the production of a new science. The scaling up of our scope to higher biological taxa is only one among many scaling changes in our thought we must pursue in order to develop concepts adequate to the fate of life in the context of galactic ecology.
Flight and its Technological Equivalents
Geologically young islands — as with the well-known example of the Galápagos Islands, mentioned above — are primarily populated by birds and marine animals. Birds bring with them a variety of plant life; moreover, many plants can float, and are brought to islands by ocean currents. Least common to arrive and to survive are those terrestrial species that find themselves on islands due to sweepstakes dispersal routes, i.e., somewhat unusual circumstances in which a breeding pair of terrestrial animals are able to ride a floating log or mass of vegetation to an otherwise isolated island and can there reproduce, like the marine iguanas on the Galápagos, who have learned to feed by diving into the ocean and forage on inter- and subtidal algae. That is to say, the least common colonists are life forms that cannot swim or fly; being able to traverse planetary distances is a limiting factor in the distribution of a life form.
Darwin conducted a simple yet ingenious ecological experiment in island biogeography that he recounted in The Origin of Species:
“I have before mentioned that earth occasionally, though rarely, adheres in some quantity to the feet and beaks of birds. Wading birds, which frequent the muddy edges of ponds, if suddenly flushed, would be the most likely to have muddy feet. Birds of this order I can show are the greatest wanderers, and are occasionally found on the most remote and barren islands in the open ocean; they would not be likely to alight on the surface of the sea, so that the dirt would not be washed off their feet; when making land, they would be sure to fly to their natural fresh-water haunts. I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds: I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case: I took in February three table-spoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond; this mud when dry weighed only 6¾ ounces; I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to vast distances, and if consequently the range of these plants was not very great. The same agency may have come into play with the eggs of some of the smaller fresh-water animals.”
Charles Darwin, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, London: John Murray, 1st edition, 1859, GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION. CHAP. XII., pp. 386-387
Such is the power of flight to widely disperse species over the surface of Earth. Flight has a value beyond the differential survival and reproduction advantage that it confers upon those species so endowed; it also plays a co-evolutionary role at the largest scale of planetary ecology. That flight should develop within a biosphere is perhaps not inevitable, but we could say instead that a biosphere in which flight emerges is likely to achieve much higher levels of biodiversity, and hence prove a more robust ecosystem. A robust ecosystem, in turn, is more likely to survive existential threats (such as the mass extinctions that have repeatedly punctuated the evolution of life on Earth), so that planetary biospheres of a given longevity are more likely to have flight than not.
Natural selection found several different solutions to the problem of flight. Some small plant seeds, and some very small animals (e.g., spiders), are light enough to be carried by the wind. Some animals fly by gliding (flying squirrels), and some animals employ wings for flight. Wings have emerged separately among insects, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals. Flying fish might also be said to have wings. Given a biosphere not disrupted by the anthropocene, flying fish might eventually transition to a fully flying way of life; this may yet happen in the distant future.
The problem of flight at the level that concerns astrobiology is potentially as diverse as the solutions to the problem of flight in a planetary biosphere. We are only just beginning to understand the complexity of the universe in which we live, and we are continually discovering capacities of nature and of life that previously would have strained our credulity. Just last week on the second episode of The Unseen Podcast, host Paul Carr noted that, with all the exchange of material between the inner planets of the solar system, we would not be surprised to find that all this life comes to the same root, while we probably would be surprised, if found like the oceans of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, if it came from the same root. That far out in the solar system, we would expect a second genesis if there is any life at all.
That perspective on the likelihood the relations of life within the confines of a single solar system may change as we learn more about astrobiology. But so far this discussion is primarily a matter of naturally occurring dispersal vectors for species. We must consider astrobiology both before and after technologically-driven dispersal vectors, as well as in regard to terrestrial and to extraterrestrial dispersal vectors. Just as technological dispersal vectors have began to play a major role in our planetary biosphere, especially in relation to the distribution and introduction of invasive species, we would expect a mixture of both natural and technical dispersal vectors in astrobiology.
Spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography.
Given the continuity of natural history and civilization, that spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography follows naturally in the strict sense of “naturally.” In other words, there is a continuity from flight as the result of biology and flight as the result of technology; there is idea diffusion (or idea flow) from nature to civilization: we observe the existence proof of powered, heavier-than-air flight in nature, and we seek to reverse engineer this development and to reproduce it with technology. Thus, in a sense, technology is the pursuit of biology by other means. Thus spaceflight, as the technological equivalent of biological flight, will play a co-evolutionary role at the largest scale of galactic ecology.
It may be worth noting in this context that the cluster of developments dependent upon human activity — intelligence, technology, language, and civilization among them — could be said to represent a solution to the problem of survival, but it is a “solution” that we find no where else in nature except in ourselves. Now, in referring to “nature” in the previous sentence I here mean “in the terrestrial biosphere.” This is significant, because a viable solution to the problem of survival (as we can see from the example of flight, or I might also use the example of vision) tends to be repeatedly emergent in nature, so that we find multiple instances of homology and convergent evolution. We do not find this in regard to the human solution to the problem of survival.
On a larger scale, a scale at which “nature” does not mean the terrestrial biosphere but rather means the whole of the universe, we may well yet see the cohort of complexities associated with human beings repeated elsewhere, though we have to scale up our perspective, just as with scaling up island biography until it coincides with astrobiology. Metrics appropriate to human activity in a terrestrial context will not be sufficient for human (or, more generally, intelligent) activity in an extraterrestrial context. Another way to understand this is that, confined to the surface of Earth, distinctions that would be significant to civilization are conflated by contingent circumstances; raised off the surface of the Earth, and given energy and resources almost without limit, previously conflated properties of civilization manifest themselves in an extraterrestrial context and eventually become obvious as spacefaring civilizations undergo rapid adaptive radiation and come to exemplify different civilizational properties.
But to return to the idea that technology is the pursuit of biology by other means, as I observed in my Centauri Dreams post, How We Get There Matters, existential ends are not indifferent to technological means. In the particular case of the pursuit of biological ends by technological means, this provides a context for thinking about astrobiology in an age of spacefaring civilizations.
Many metrics have been proposed for spacefaring civilization. I mentioned some of these in my last post, Thinking about Civilization, including metrics that I have myself attempted to work out. In that post I did not mention the metric that I proposed in my Centuari Dreams post How We Get There Matters (and which I followed with SETI Under Conditions of Constraint for Spacefaring Civilization), which concerned classes of starships. This is a metric immediately relevant to the question of spaceflight understood as the development of a continuum that begins with the first wind-blown distribution of seeds and spores, and which might some day mean the greening of the galaxy.
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10 April 2015
Orders, Stages, and Waves
Theoretical Frameworks for Civilization
The problem of an adequate conceptual framework (or, if you prefer, a theoretical or analytical framework) for civilization is simply the problem of how to think about civilization. It is my ambition not merely to think about civilization, but to do so well, i.e., clearly and rigorously, and, to that end, to think about civilization scientifically and philosophically. We need a scientific body of knowledge about civilization, and then a philosophical analysis of this body of scientific knowledge, before we can say that we are capable of thinking about civilization clearly and rigorously.
In my attempt to arrive at a scientific conception of civilization I have formulated many different conceptual frameworks — many of them mere fragmentary ideas without much connection to a wider scientific context, such as in the established social sciences — that I view as something like exercises or experiments, to be tested against the historical record, and also to be extrapolated into the future. Following Carnap’s tripartite distinction of scientific concepts into the taxonomic, the comparative, and the quantitative (cf. The Future Science of Civilizations), some of these ideas are taxonomic, some are comparative, and some are quantitative.
Taxonomic, comparative, and quantitative conceptions of civilization
Implicitly I have been employing a taxonomy of civilizations when I used terms such as agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization or industrial-technological civilization, and recently I have suggested that these taxa may be placed within more general taxa. For example, classical antiquity and medieval Europe were both civilizations with an agricultural base, but profoundly different in other respects. Thus if we understand that industrial-technological civilization is a scientific civilization, we can see by analogy how this civilization might be superseded by another kind of scientific civilization but which was not an industrial-technological civilization (cf. David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization).
In Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization I sketched out some of the problems of employing comparative conceptions of civilization, which are of great utility despite the moral repugnance in which such comparisons are held today. Comparative concepts remain underdeveloped because of the moral opprobrium attached to explicit comparisons among civilization, which imply explicit rankings, such as “better than” or “worse than,” “higher” or “lower,” “more advanced” or “less advanced,” “more developed” or “less developed.” Even when rankings of civilizations are carefully and tightly circumscribed so to not to judge the worth of a civilization — presumably its contribution to human history — such rankings are still routinely misconstrued, often willfully so. Even to suggest such a thing is to invite hostile criticism.
There are a number of well-known quantitative schemes for taking the measure of civilization, most especially the Kardashev rankings of Type I, Type II, and Type III (subsequently extrapolated by several authors to both higher and lower types). I wrote about Kardashev’s types at some length in What Kardashev Really Said on Centauri Dreams, so I will not repeat that analysis here. My dissatisfaction with Kardashev types led me to formulate a series of stages in the development of spacefaring civilization, which I wrote about in Beyond the Kardashev Scale and which I spoke about at the first 100YSS event 2011, and then put in essay form in The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight. In brief, I treated the stages of spacefaring civilizations in terms of technological ability to overcome gravitational thresholds. These gravitational thresholds ascend from the surface of Earth (as, i.e., the difficulty of crossing mountain ranges) through planets, stars, and galaxies to the multiverse.
I conceived my schema of stages in the development of spacefaring civilization in terms of transportation — whether by foot, canoe, horseback, sail, rail, aircraft, or spacecraft, because it is by such means that human beings came to inhabit the world entire, and by such means that civilizations have spread — but I now see that transportation is a special case of change, and that some similar schema, generalized to address all forms of civilizational change, might be employed. Recently I have been experimenting with several different schematic formulations of change. Since civilization is, roughly, about large scale social organization, the idea of demographically significant change is central to my formulation. Here is one delineation of stages based on any change whatsoever:
● Stage 0: Equilibrium No change; equilibrium state.
● Stage 1: Firsts Symbolic firsts that are demographically insignificant but mark a possible trajectory for change.
● Stage 2: Growth Building on symbolic firsts, gradual (arithmetical) increase in demographic significance.
● Stage 3: Inflection Passing a threshold at which demographically significant change occurs exponentially (geometrically).
● Stage 4: Predominance At predominance the change is now the norm; a corner has been turned, and the completion of the change is now only a matter of time.
● Stage 5: Integration Full integration. The trajectory of change has been fulfilled, and full integration eventually becomes indistinguishable from an equilibrium state, or Stage 0. This new equilibrium is a more comprehensive state if the change involved growth, and a less comprehensive state if the change involved contraction.
In this schema I assume that growth could be arrested at any stage, and that it can be reversed. The growth of a pandemic that does not kill the host species may reach an inflection point or demographic predominance, but “integration” would mean the pandemic had achieved totality, at which point this would result in the death of the host. The first summit of Mount Everest has been followed by growth in the number of climbers, but this growth will never reach integration because there will not be a time in human history when the whole of humanity has climbed Everest. However, the growth of agricultural civilization very nearly did reach totality as almost all practicable arable land had been brought under cultivation by the time the industrial revolution occurred and a new form of civilization began to take shape.
This is an admittedly imperfect attempt to provide a structure for describing large-scale change of the kind that results in the emergence, growth, decay, or death of a civilization.
Cluster and Series
In a couple of recent posts — The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State and The Seriation of Western Civilization — I have mentioned that I think about the origins of civilization in terms of clusters and series. A cluster is a geographical (or synchronic) conception, while a series is an historical (or diachronic) conception. (Earlier in Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization I had made the synchronic/diachronic distinction without relating this to the ideas of cluster and series.)
While I conceived clusters and series of civilizations in terms of the origins of civilization, the ideas could just as well be applied later in the development of civilization, if some new cluster could emerge. Since human civilization at present, however, already covers the entire planet, there are no opportunities for civilizations to originate de novo (on Earth’s surface). One could identify clusters and series of the origins of kinds of civilization (which requires a taxonomy of civilization), so that when industrial-technological civilization begins to emerge in the late eighteenth century, western Europe is the cluster for the origin of this kind of civilization, and from this cluster several diachronic series can be traced. More interesting in my view is to pull back our perspective and to consider the large-scale structure of civilization in the universe. From this perspective, we would speak of a terrestrial cluster, and as various terrestrial civilizations achieve spacefaring status each of these civilizations deriving from the terrestrial cluster would constitute a civilizational series, from which a seriation of spacefaring civilizations would follow.
Initially separate clusters, such as those that constituted the origins of civilization, or, later, the emergence of a new kind of civilization, grow together over time (what Whitehead would have called concrescence), and the growing together of originally separate civilization arguably results in a new cluster. At the present time of planetary civilization, this cluster is the terrestrial cluster. However, we can identify earlier instances when originally separate civilizations grew together, and many of these are marked by great ages of syncretism, which have arguably created some of the greatest symbols of civilization in terms of monumental architecture.
I have not yet made any systematic effort to relate these ideas of cluster and series to taxonomic, comparative, and quantitative concepts of civilization, but have employed the ideas opportunistically as they could be used to illuminate a particular problem. There are many possible ways to bring these ideas together.
The orders of civilization
Another partial conceptual framework that I have worked out for civilization is a hierarchical structure that I call the orders of civilization. These orders are as follows:
● Civilization of the Zeroth Order is the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense.
● Civilization of the First Order are those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time.
● Civilization of the Second Order is an entire cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken whole. (Iterated, civilization of the second order is a series, as described above.)
● Civilization of the Third Order is the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. (Clusters and series are part of the overall structure of civilization of the third order.)
This framework was primarily intended to clarify exactly what we are referring to when we invoke “civilization,” and in a sense it builds upon one of the earliest problems I took up in this blog, which I originally called The Phenomenon of Civilization, i.e., the attempt to speak about civilization as such, without referring to any particular civilization.
Notice that for every order of civilization, we can talk about one and the same civilization from these several points of view, i.e., given civilization CIVx, there is CIVx of the zeroth order, before and outside this civilization, CIVx of the first order, which is some contemporaneous snapshot of its structures, CIVx of the second order, which is the entire narrative of this civilization, and CIVx of the third order, which is the same civilization taken in the context of the life cycles of all civilizations, as one thread in a tapestry of civilization. In this context civilization can be treated formally, as any civilization could be substituted for CIVx.
Again, I have not made a systematic effort to unify these various theoretical frameworks, so that orders of civilization are precisely defined in relation to stages or clusters and series, but there are interesting ways to do this. Civilization of the second order, placed end to end, constitutes a series, while clusters and series are part of the overall structure of civilization of the third order; civilization of the third order is closest to what I previously called the phenomenon of civilization.
Orders, stages, and waves
Orders of civilization as I conceived them do not stand in isolation, but are part of a series of concepts — orders, stages, and waves — intended to offer an increasingly finely-grained account of civilization as one delves into the details of the seriation of civilizations. To a certain extent, then, my conception of the stages of spacefaring civilization mentioned above was intended from the first to be integrated into this model.
When I spoke at the second 100YSS in 2012 I had progressed farther on my typology of stages of spacefaring civilization, and had subdivided stages into waves of expansion (or contraction) — cf. my contribution to 100 Year Starship 2012 Symposium Conference Proceedings, “The Large-Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilizations.” A wave of expansion that consolidates the achievement of a stage takes different forms depending on the technology available (because how we get there matters) and the strategy of implementing that technology in practice. At that time I distinguished between an incremental outward push in which the farthest regions are last to be inhabited and populations build up first closest to the center from which expansion starts and then later moves into the periphery, and a sudden “moon shot” outward jump (akin to what a biogeographist would call a “sweepstakes dispersal route”) in which the far frontier receives the brunt of the demographic impact, and it is only later with subsequent waves that the buffer between center and periphery is filled in. Needless to say, all of this can also be run backward in order to describe the collapse of civilization.
It will be obvious that these three concepts — orders, stages, and waves — were intended to be integrated into my conception of spacefaring civilizations distinguished according to gravitational thresholds attained. However, as noted above, expansion into space can be re-conceived more generally as any kind of change. Can the conceptual framework of cluster and series be fitted into the framework or orders, stages, and waves, or vice versa? I have integrated a more-or-less intuitive distinction between center and periphery into this model, as the various possibilities for civilizational expansion or retrenchment can be described in terms of the interplay between the center and the periphery of a given civilization. (Earlier I discussed the center/periphery dialectic in The Farther Reaches of Civilization.) This suggests that a place could also be made for clusters and series, which is a pretty elementary idea.
At one time I saw the analysis of civilization in terms of orders, stages, and waves to be the primary theoretical framework I would employ (I even began to assemble a PowerPoint presentation based on this framework, assuming that I would give a talk about it at some point), but I have been working on another framework that supersedes this (and hopefully resolves some of the problems with that schema) and which I hope to soon present in a systematical exposition. However, I tend to let ideas gestate for a long time before I write about them, so it may not be as soon as I hope that I write about it.
Any conclusions could only be provisional at best. As I noted above in the introduction, I consider all of these ideas to be experiments. Sometimes one idea fits a circumstance well, so I make use of it, while on another occasion that idea may not work, but another does. Each unique set of historical circumstances seems to call for a unique theoretical framework, but, of course, the challenge is to find a framework that works well generally to elucidate a wide variety of distinct civilizations. Such a framework could then with greater confidence be projected into the future and give us a glimpse of the shape of structure of civilization to come.
My views continue to evolve and I continue to formulate new concepts and frameworks. As I noted above, I am actively working an an alternative taxonomy that I hope will be more sophisticated and open to the degree of elaboration that would make it applicable not only to the past, but also to the future.
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4 April 2015
Curiosity does not have an especially good reputation, and one often finds the word coupled with “mere” so that “mere curiosity” can be elegantly dismissed as though beneath the dignity of the speaker, who can then go about his much more grand and august pursuits without the distraction of the petty, grubbing motivation of mere curiosity. There may be some connection between this disdainful attitude toward curiosity and the prevalent anti-intellectualism of western civilization, notwithstanding the fact that most of what is unique in this tradition is derived from the scientific spirit; it is no surprise that any driving force in human affairs eventually provokes an equal and opposite reaction.
Many civilizations that publicly value intellectuals do not value the contributions of intellectuals, so that this social prestige is indistinguishable from a kind of feudal regard for special classes of persons. This is not what happened in western civilization, in which scientific knowledge bestowed real wealth and power — in our own day no less than in the past — and so provoked a reaction. One of the most famous stories from classical antiquity was how Thales, predicting an especially good olive harvest, hired all the olive presses at a low rate out of season, and then let them out at inflated rates during the peak season, proving that philosophers could earn money if they wanted to do so.
There are a great many interesting quotes that invoke curiosity, for better or worse — Thomas Hobbes: “…this hope and expectation of future knowledge from anything that happeneth new and strange, is that passion which we commonly call ADMIRATION; and the same considered as appetite, is called CURIOSITY, which is appetite of knowledge.” Edmund Burke: “The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.” Albert Einstein: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” — which highlight both the admirable and the disreputable side of curiosity. That curiosity has both admirable and disreputable aspects suggests that one might be admirably curious or disreputably curious, and certainly all of us know individuals who are curious in the best sense of the term and others who are curious in the worst sense of the term.
Human beings are adventurers of the spirit. We must count among the attributes of human nature some basal drive toward questioning. This drive could be given an exposition in purely intellectual terms or in purely emotional terms; I think that the intellectual and emotional manifestations of human curiosity are two sides of the same coin, and that is why I suggest positing some basal drive that lies at the root of both. And it isn’t quite right to reduce this drive to curiosity, as we can formulate it in terms of curiosity or in terms of need.
Curiosity is often contrasted to a presumably more esteemed mode of interrogating the cosmos, that we may call existential need. Jacob Needleman often addressed the contrast between “mere” curiosity (which he sometimes called “low curiosity”) and present need. Here is an example:
“It has been said that any question can lead to truth if it is an aching question. For one person it may be the question of life after death, for another the problem of suffering, the causes of war and injustice. Or it may be something more personal and immediate — a profound ethical dilemma, a problem involving the whole direction of one’s life. An aching question, a question that it not just a curiosity or a fleeting burst of emotion, cannot be answered with old thought. Possessed by such a question, one is hungry for ideas of a very different order than the familiar categories that usually accompany us throughout our lives. One is both hungry and, at the same time, more discriminating, less susceptible to credulity and suggestibility. The intelligence of the heart begins to call to us in our sleep.”
Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, pp. 3-4
I disagree with this on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to start, so instead I will simply say that the kind of existential need Needleman wants to describe is highly credulous and suggestible, and what answers to this need are almost always in the form of an old and painfully familiar form of cognitive bias. However, to try to do justice to Needleman, I will allow that, for an individual immersed in the ordinary business of life who, through some traumatic experience, suddenly comes face to face with profound and difficult questions never before posed in that individual’s experience, then, yes, ideas of a very different order are needed to address such questions.
While I do not think that aching questions are likely to lead to truth — I think it much more likely that they will lead to self-deception — I do not deny that many are gnawed by aching questions, and some few spend their lives trying to answer them. The question, then, is the best method by which an aching question might be given a clear, coherent, and satisfying (in so far as that is possible) answer. Here I am reminded of a passage from Walter Kaufmann:
“Nowhere is the disproportion between effort and result more aggravating than in the pursuit of truth: you may plow through documents or make untold experiments or think and think and think, forgo food, comfort, and distractions, lie awake nights and eat out your heart — and in the end you know what can be memorized by any idiot.”
Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, section 24
However aching our question, presumably we would want to spare ourselves the wasted effort of an inquiry that deprives us of the satisfactions of life while giving an answer that could be memorized by any idiot. Kaufmann did not go far enough here: sometimes individuals who make just such an heroic effort to get at the truth and only arrive at an idiot’s portion convince themselves that the idiot’s portion is in fact a great and profound truth.
Whether or not existential need can be satisfied, how are we to undertand it? Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and one of the founders of existential analysis, identified a condition that he called the existential vacuum, which he defined as, “the frustration of the will to meaning.” Frankl knew that of which he spoke, having lost most of his family to Nazi death camps and himself having been interned at Auschwitz and liberated only at the end of the war. Here, in a longer passage, is his exposition of existential need:
“Ever more patients complain of what they call an ‘inner void,’ and that is the reason why I have termed this condition the ‘existential vacuum.’ In contradistinction to the peak-experience so aptly described by Maslow, one could conceive of the existential vacuum in terms of an ‘abyss-experience’.”
Viktor Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, New York: Plume, 2014 (originally published in the US in 1969), Part Two, “The Existential Vacuum: A Challenge to Psychiatry”
One could readily suppose that existential need is occasioned by the existential vacuum; that the former is the condition and cause of the latter. Another and more recent approach to existential need is to be found in the work of James Giles:
“…existential needs are not the product of social construction. For in contrast to socially constructed phenomena, existential needs are an inherent and universal feature of the human condition.”
James Giles, The Nature of Sexual Desire, p. 181
This is not necessarily distinct from existential need occasioned by Frankl’s existential vacuum; one could formulate the existential vacuum so that it is either “an inherent and universal feature of the human condition” or not. And there may well be more than one form of existential need. In fact, I think it is clear that there is a plurality of existential needs, and some of these can be sublimated through scientific inquiry and can be satisfied, while some play out in the fruitless manner described in the passage above from Kaufmann.
How one approaches the mystery that is the world, by way of scientific curiosity or by way of existential need, which we might call the scientific approach and the existential approach, each reflect a valid human response to the individual’s relationship to the cosmos. Most of us, at some point in life, poignantly feel the mysteriousness of the world and the desire to give an account of our existence in relation to this mystery. Consider this from John Stuart Mill:
“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be…”
Now, John Stuart Mill was an almost preternaturally rational man; he was not given to flights of fancy, though the high-flown rhetoric of this passage might suggest this. The scientific approach to mystery is a rationalistic response to the riddle of the world; answers are to be had, but the world is boundless, so that any one answered question still leaves countless other unanswered questions. The growth of knowledge is attended by a parallel growth in the unknown, as our increasing knowledge makes it possible for us to formulate previously unsuspected questions. One might find this to be invigorating or disappointing: there are real answers, but we will never have a final understanding of the world. The existential approach to mystery acknowledges that the human mind may not be capable of comprehending the mystery that is the world, but this is coupled with a fervent belief that there is a final and transcendent answer out there somewhere, even if it always remains tantalizingly out of reach. These are subtle but important differences in the conception of “ultimate” truth as it relates human beings to their world.
A distinction might be made between scientific mystery and absolute mystery, with scientific mystery being a mystery that admits of an answer, but which also admits of a further mystery. An absolute mystery admits of no answer, nor of any further mystery. The world might take on the character of scientific mystery or of absolute mystery depending on whether we approach the world from the perspective of scientific curiosity or existential need. In other words, the kind of mystery that the world is — even if we all agree that the world is girt round in mystery, as Mill says — corresponds to our attitude to the world.
One could argue that scientific curiosity is a sublimation of existential need. If this is true, there is no reason to be ashamed of this, or to attempt a return to the original existential need. The passage from existential need to scientific curiosity may be a stage in the development of intellectual maturity, as irreversible as the passage from childhood to adulthood.
One might go a step further and call scientific curiosity the secularization of existential need (or, rather, the secularization of religious mystery, which then invites a treatment in terms of the Max Scheler/Paul Tillich claim that all human beings are engaged in worship, it is only a question of whether the object of this worship is worthy or idolatrous), recalling Karl Löwith’s theory of secularization, which made much of modernity into a bastardized form of Christian eschatology. This presupposes not only that existential need precedes scientific curiosity, but that it is the only authentic form of human questioning, and that any attempt to introduce new forms of questioning the human condition is illegitimate.
We are today faced with questions that our ancestors, who first felt the disconcerting stirrings of existential need, could not have imagined. I touched on one of these questions in my post on Centauri Dreams, Cosmic Loneliness and Interstellar Travel, which drew more responses than other of my other posts to that forum. Our cosmic loneliness can now be expressed in scientific terms, and we can offer a scientific response to our attempts so far to answer the question, “Are we alone?” This is one of the great scientific questions of our time, and at the same time it speaks to a modern existential need that has been expressed in Clark’s tertium non datur.
The growth of human knowledge and the civilization created by human knowledge may have its origins in the questioning that naturally emerges from an experience of existential need. Perhaps this feeling never fully dissipates, but in so far as the dissatisfaction and discontent of existential need can be redirected into scientific curiosity, human beings can experience at least a limited satisfaction derived from definite scientific answers to questions formulated with increasing clarity and rigor. Beyond this, we may have to wait for the next stage in human evolution, when we may acquire mental faculties that take us beyond both existential need and scientific curiosity into a frame of mind incomprehensible to us in our present iteration.
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What could explain the particularly brutal symbolic celebrations of mortality salience I described in Agriculture and the Macabre (notwithstanding the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy)? In my previous explorations of this idea I advanced no causal mechanism or explanatory framework for the prominence of the macabre in agrarian civilization, but further thought on this question has suggested a possible explanation, or, rather, a cluster of related explanations that bear upon unique features of agrarian civilization that differentiate it from other modes of human life.
Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is differentiated from the hunter-gatherer nomadism that preceded it both in its economic basis and its ideological superstructure, or, as I prefer to name the two, both economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure. For obvious reasons, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA) of our hunter-gatherer ancestors differs radically from the settled life of agricultural peoples, and this alone would be sufficient to introduce a biologically-based discomfiture of settled peoples, whose way of life is essentially at odds with their instincts, the latter refined over millions of years, while their farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species. There is, then, an existential mismatch between the economic infrastructure of the EEA and the economic infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
There is also a mismatch between the intellectual superstructure of agrarian peoples and nomadic peoples. Joseph Campbell frequently made the point that the mythologies of hunter-gatherer peoples differs profoundly from that of agricultural peoples. A hunting people needs to reconcile itself with the daily practice of killing, while agricultural peoples often have myths of sacrifice, because the agricultural cycle demonstrates that life comes out of death, so that to make more life, it is necessary to make more death. The cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is a function of the agricultural mythos of sacrifice, which regards the individual as dispensable, and the intrinsic interest the individual has in his own existence. This sacrificial mythology of settled agricultural peoples is the ultimate affront to individualism, and no matter how much justification and rationalization is deployed, this affront would have been felt by every individual within an agricultural economy at some level.
It is often claimed today that individualism is a social construct of Western Civilization that is not present in other cultures, or, at least, not present to the extent that it shapes western thought. Now, it certainly could be argued that the particular conception and understanding of individualism as we know it today is a result of contingent factors arising from industrial-technological civilization that first emerged in Western Europe. One could readily identify points along the seriation of western civilization at which the individual took on a particular importance — Periclean Athens, the value of each individual soul in the Christian tradition, Florence under the Medici, the priesthood of all believers in Protestantism, the American Revolution, and the special place accorded to individual celebrity in today’s winner-take-all society. However, the idea of the individual, and the presence of individualism in the human condition, is not limited to the particular expression given to individualism since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, nor is it specific to western thought.
Individualism has a biological basis. In a famous paper, “What is it like to be bat?” (to which I previously referred in What is it like to be a serpent?), Thomas Nagel wrote that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” We might similarly observe that there is something that it is like to be an individual. The kind of organisms that we are makes our individual bodies a locus of sensation, consciousness, and action. Each individual body is such a locus, sensing on its own, feeling on its own, acting on its own, and conscious of itself as an individual and as a unity. The very idea that there is something that we call the “human condition” is a reflection of the ontological individualism of human being.
One of the features of the human condition that has shaped the human mind most profoundly has been the loneliness of our individual consciousness. The existential loneliness of the self is a function of its emergence from a single brain, which is in turn a function of the kind of individual organisms that evolved on our planet. One might suggest many possible counterfactuals in relation to this isolation of the human condition, but the possibility of alternative forms of consciousness does not alter the individuality of our consciousness. The individuality of human conscious has issued in individualism as a social principle, realized in many different ways across different cultures. Egalitarianism is the social expression of the recognition of the individual as a locus of consciousness and agency. The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer bands that dominated the vast bulk of human history before the recent emergence of civilization was in part a reflection of this biologically-driven individualism.
There is another counterfactual that interests me more at present than the counterfactuals of other forms of consciousness. Above I wrote, “farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species,” and this is a statement that requires qualification. “Decisively” is the operative word in this context. Farming has undoubtedly shaped our species, but not yet decisively in the sense of resulting in speciation (keeping in mind that behavioral adaptation often precedes structural adaptation, so that the behavioral adaptation of farming might be expected, over a sufficiently long period of time, to give rise to structural adaptations). This suggests an interesting counterfactual, namely, an intelligent species that invents settled agriculturalism and maintains this way of life at a certain equilibrium (a high level equilibrium trap) for a biologically significant period of time, so that the species in question self-domesticates, and this domestication to settled agrarian life is reflected in changes in the genome — and perhaps also eventually in the phenotype.
Important qualifications need to be made to the above. We know from the fact that the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium does not hold that evolution is always occurring, even at a small scale that is only incrementally recognizable at in the genotype and phenotype. This is micro-evolution, and only results in cladogenesis over very long periods of time (more or less Darwin’s original gradualist model); macro-evolution resulting in cladogenesis over shorter periods of time probably involves specific selection pressures. The disruption to human life patterns caused by the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism ought to be sufficient for the emergence of a new species, Homo agrariensis — not metaphorically, as we have so often come to speak of a “new breed” of man, but biologically — except that the developments of civilization continue to disrupt human life in new ways, so that no stabilizing selection occurs specifically driven by the agricultural mode of life.
Settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and even as our civilization today continues to ever so gradually replace the ideological infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastial civilization — like the planks replaced one-by-one in the ship of Theseus — much remains of the agricultural past (and even the agricultural macabre) in our institutions today. Industrialism is extremely recent in evolutionary terms.
While settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and one might assume that civilization simpliciter involves a radical departure from pre-civilized life that must entail compromises with the instinctual life (as was apparently Freud’s position in Civilization and its Discontents), this is not a necessary aspect of civilization. Other kinds of civilization have existed that did not entail the severe instinctual curbs of settled agriculturalism, and other forms of civilization may yet arise that are more in tune with human nature and the human condition.
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19 March 2015
At least four times in the history of our planet, civilization has independently emerged, and we possess a fairly detailed archaeological record of a complete series in each of these four cases of the development from the most rudimentary settled agriculturalism up to a fully developed and articulated agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. This is by no means an exhaustive account of terrestrial civilization. Civilization, like life itself, is a branching bush that, once started, repeatedly bifurcates and diverges in unprecedented ways from its root stock. There are other forms of civilization, and probably other instances of independent origin. I suspect, for example, that in the Western hemisphere that a complete and independent seriation of civilization occurred at least twice, and perhaps more than twice.
Today I will not consider the phenomenon of civilization taken whole, but I will rather consider the seriation of Western civilization in isolation. As a westerner myself (well, sort of a westerner, as my people are all Scandinavian, and Scandinavian civilization, i.e., Viking Civilization, was subsumed under an expanding Western Civilization), I am understandably most interested in Western Civilization, but Western Civilization should also be interesting to anyone who studies civilization as such, due to its many unique features. I have commented elsewhere that it is today considered in bad taste to compare civilizations; nevertheless, I must run the risk of doing so in order to freely and openly discuss the features that differentiate western civilization from other civilizations — and also those features that mirror other civilizations. What makes Western Civilization unique are those unprecedented historical mutations that did not occur in other civilizations — viz. the Age of Discovery, the scientific revolution, and the industrial revolution — and which we then compare with other civilizations as a baseline for reference.
To spell out a bit of my conceptual framework explicitly, a cluster (as I use the term) is a geographical region comprising several closely related civilizations that have been the result of idea diffusion from a common source (or originating more-or-less simultaneously). This is a synchronic conception. A cluster contains several series. A series is a sequence of civilizations in time, related through descent with modification, more or less laid end to end, and inhabiting more or less the same geographical region or geographical trajectory. Civilizations in a common series are related by inheritance. This is a diachronic conception. Civilizations in a cluster are synchronically related to each other; civilizations in a series are diachronically related to each other. Thus from the West Asian Cluster there emerges the series that becomes western civilization as it projects itself along a continual western trajectory out of Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Civilizational series admit of what archaeologists call seriation. In so saying I am using the term more comprehensively that is usual. Seriation has been defined as:
A relative dating technique in which artifacts or features are organized into a sequence according to changes over time in their attributes or frequency of appearance. The technique shows how these items have changed over time and it is a way to establish chronology. Archaeological material, such as assemblages of pottery or the grave goods deposited with burials is arranged into chronological order. The types that make up the assemblages to be ordered in this way must be from the same archaeological tradition and from a single region or locality. Once the variations in a particular object have been classified by typology, it can often be shown that they fall into a developmental series, sometimes in a single line, sometimes in branching lines more as in a family tree. The order produced is theoretically chronological, but needs archaeological assessment. Outside evidence, such as dating of two or more stages in the development, may be needed to determine which is the first and which the last member of the series.
Kipfer, Barbara Ann, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, New York: Springer, 2000, p. 505
It is atypical to apply seriation to an entire civilization, and in fact it could be said that I am misusing the term, as the definition above cites “artifacts or features,” and a civilization is neither an artifact or a feature in the usual senses of these terms, but includes both of them and more and better besides. The power of seriation is that once you have an understanding of a developmental sequence, you can “connect the dots” when a people have moved location, identifying when a particular developmental stage terminates at one location and then picks up again at another location. Such a developmental trajectory moving ever westward characterizes the origins and development of western civilization.
In my post on The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State I noted that I called the many civilizations having their origins in Mesopotamia and the Levant the West Asian Cluster. Western civilization has its earliest origins in the West Asian Cluster, and in the earliest years of the rudimentary civilization that emerged here we find a network of family resemblances that overlap and intersect (to borrow a Wittgensteinian phrase). The earliest known site in the West Asian Cluster that has clear evidence of large scale social cooperation, and therefore can be considered a distant ancestor to civilization — proto-civilization, if you will — is Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Anatolia. Thought to be a ritual center predating even settled agriculture (specifically, Prepottery Neolithic A, or PPNA), the site has impressive megalithic architecture. Let us take this as the point of origin for civilization in the West Asian Cluster — it is our best scientific knowledge as of the present for the origins of our civilization.
Several hundred miles west of Göbekli Tepe is Çatal Hüyük, a famous Neolithic site often identified as the first urban settlement on our planet. (According to Google Maps it takes 138 hours to walk the 670 km from one site to the other. If one could walk 8 hours per day, it would take 17 days to make the journey. If you walked fast, you might make a round trip in one moon.) Çatal Hüyük has been extensively studied, though not fully excavated, and while the life of the people would have been extremely rudimentary by the measures of what we call civilization today, it nevertheless possesses all the essential elements of civilization: an urban settlement supported by agricultural suburbs, with division of labor, art and religion, and trade with neighboring peoples.
The next famous site on this westward trajectory is that of Pločnik in present-day Serbia. The settlement (perhaps town) of Pločnik represents what is called the First Temperate Neolithic. In other words, the techniques of farming in Mesopotamia and the Levant that characterized the agricultural revolution as it was first realized in this cluster were adapted for use in a temperate climate, and this both demanded and inspired further technological innovations. Pločnik may be the first site at which extractive metallurgy was practiced with the production of copper and bronze implements and decorative items.
If you look at the relationship of Çatal Hüyük and Pločnik on a map, you will see that the path takes you through Thrace and present-day Bulgaria. When I noticed this, I did some research to find out about Neolithic archaeology in Bulgaria, and, sure enough, there were remains of the right age located almost exactly between Çatal Hüyük and Pločnik, so that one can literally see in the archaeological remains of material culture the trajectory of peoples as they emerged from subtropical climate of Mesopotamia and passed through Anatolia on their way north and west.
As settled agriculture gained a foothold in the Balkan Peninsula, the region was a quiet backwater for thousands of years as spectacular civilizations still known for the monumental architecture rose and fell in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia. Little of note seemed to be happening as a result of the humble farming communities of the First Temperate Neolithic in the Balkans, until a new kind of civilization took shape in Greece. The Greeks, never shy to own their accomplishments, knew that they had created a new kind of civilization very different from the Persians on their border, whom they repeatedly and heroically resisted.
The cultural heritage of Greece, and especially the art, architecture, philosophy, and literature of Athens and Attica was projected back into West Asia by the conquests of Alexander the Great, but Alexander died young, and while the impress of Greek civilization can still be detected in West Asia where Alexander’s troops marched all the way to India, the tradition of Greek civilization was taken in another direction once again farther West, when Roman power emerged as the dominant political regime in the Mediterranean Basin. When Alexander’s unsustainable empire was divided after his death, Greece proper, with all its rich cultural traditions, was conquered by the Romans, who had a great enthusiasm for Greek civilization. It became a fashion among wealthy collectors to seek out the finest examples of Corinthian pottery, in a way that is precisely parallel to the tastes of antiquarians in our own time.
The Roman Empire represents the greatest spatial expansion and the longest temporal duration of the civilizations directly derived from the West Asian Cluster, with the possible exception of Islamic civilization, but in each of these cases there is a question as to what constitutes “direct” derivation from the West Asian source. Only with the collapse of Roman power in the west and the admixture of elements from the West Asia Cluster with indigenous European cultures do we see the emergence of a distinctly western civilization. Rather than ex oriente lux, a light from the east illuminating western barbarism, we have in occidente lux, the ancient light of eastern civilization given new life as it enters into Europe. And by this time in history, the original five clusters of civilization had repeatedly bifurcated and had begotten a range of mixed civilizations that were to confront western civilization as it began its relentless global expansion.
When Roman power collapsed in the west, the empire divided and civilization bifurcated. In the east, the empire became more Greek in character, and Byzantine civilization emerged. In the west, those traditions transmitted from Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Greece, and the Roman Mediterranean once again migrated further west and in so doing found themselves in the midst of the inhospitable barbarism of Western Europe. For all Europe’s early productivity of what archaeologists call “cultures” (and which I would call proto-civilizations, if not civilization simpliciter), Europe did not make the breakthrough to civilization proper, but had to wait for the examples of the West Asian Cluster to show it the way to civilization by way of idea diffusion (which I would now, following Cadell Last, prefer to call idea flow).
In the farthest western peninsula of Eurasia Western Civilization finally took on its definitive and distinctive form as a new civilization arose and became what we now call medieval Europe. But this was not the end. At the farthest western edge of this western peninsula of Eurasia, on an island jutting into the Atlantic, the industrial revolution began in the final quarter of the eighteen century, and this was to inaugurate an entirely new kind of civilization — industrial-technological civilization — that is even today consolidating its planetary expansion. This industrialized civilization leapt over the Atlantic Ocean and found in North America especially fertile soil in which to grow, and so Western Civilization continued in its westward migration. Now that industrial-technological civilization has expanded on a planetary scale, civilization has nowhere to go but upward and outward. When this happens, another novel form of civilization will take shape.
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17 March 2015
One of the most memorable passages in political philosophy, quoted by many who do not know the source, is Thomas Hobbes’ description of life in a state of nature:
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, CHAPTER XIII OF THE NATURAL CONDITION OF MANKIND AS CONCERNING THEIR FELICITY AND MISERY
For Hobbes, the state of nature was no idyllic peaceable kingdom, but the arena of the war of all against all — a violent vision of anarchy at odds with many subsequent romanticized visions of anarchy.
There has always been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with civilization that leads to a romantic and idyllic of life without civilization — Freud devoted a famous essay to this, Civilization and its Discontents, and I dedicated a significant portion of my essay “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” to what I call the hostile argument against civilization. During the Enlightenment Rousseau was perhaps the most famous critic of civilization who celebrated the state of nature, but not everyone was convinced:
“We were favoured with Sir James Colquhoun’s coach to convey us in the evening to Cameron, the seat of commissary Smollet. Our satisfaction of finding ourselves again in a comfortable carriage was very great. We had a pleasing conviction of the commodiousness of civilization, and heartily laughed at the ravings of those absurd visionaries who have attempted to persuade us of the superior advantages of a state of nature.”
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D: Including a Journal of His Tour to the Hebrides – Vol. 2, NEW YORK: DERBY & JACKSON, 119 NASSAU STREET, 1859, p. 449
From the point of view of indoor plumbing and modern conveniences, we might today look at the condition of Boswell and Johnson as being little raised above the state of nature, but even with all our creature comforts the seductive idea of a simpler life that is better because it is simpler continues to haunt us. The appeal is not universal, but some are so enthralled by the idea that they can only conceive of the good as the destruction of the civilized order that we have built up over the past ten thousand years. I discussed the source of this some time ago in Fear of the Future, in which I argued that, “apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”
Kenneth Clark added his voice to those who question the pretensions to preferring a state of nature to civilization:
“People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I doubt that they have given it a long enough trial… they are bored by civilization; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater. Quite apart from the discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope.”
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York, et al.: Harper & Row, 1969, p. 7
A distinction should be made among the detractors of civilization, between those who look upon a violent convulsion in which civilization is brought to an end as a necessary purging of contemporary wickedness, and those who look rather to the peaceable kingdom they believe will follow after the work of the destruction of civilization is completed; these are two very different motives for welcoming the end of civilization.
Those who wish to fight in a cosmic war in order to be part of the grand work of destroying our wicked civilization — whether it be judged wicked for its wealth, its lack of religious piety, its industrialization, its pollution, its tolerance of individuals who where not tolerated in traditional regimes, or any other reason — have a distinct set of motivations from those who want to inhabit the post-apocalyptic peaceable kingdom, and I will not address these former individuals or their motivations at present, as I have dealt with them elsewhere (e.g., in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor).
For the rest, for those who look forward to the peaceable kingdom of a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial world in which human beings will live in harmony with nature (not, presumably, the nature of Hobbes, but rather the nature of Rousseau), what satisfactions will they expect to derive from the restoration of a subsistence economy lacking the creature comforts that we today take for granted, like flushing toilets, hot showers, clean clothes, and our choice of foods made available from the entire world?
Looking around the surrounding world of nature, what will natural man — the noble savage — do in order to seek satisfaction? He may attend to his bodily needs, using his mind and his hands to build shelter, sew clothing, hunt or gather food, and perhaps preserve some part of that food for a future time when the supply of food is less certain. When his bodily needs are met, he may choose to amuse himself, making up stories, or singing, perhaps using his mind and hands again to create a musical instrument or a painting or a piece of sculpture.
In short, natural man in search of satisfaction will begin to transform himself into unnatural man, and thus begin the long process of creating civilization. In the midst of the plenitude of nature, natural man draws upon his own resources to go beyond nature. In other words, he creates civilization as a natural response to his desires. This process, iterated over generations, gives us the traditions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
Recently in David Hume and Scientific Civilization I quoted from an essay by Susanne K. Langer, “Scientific Civilization and Cultural Crisis.” Here is the passage I quoted:
“There is no denying that the spearhead of this ruthless social revolution is something we all… honor and desire: science. Science is the source and the pacemaker of this modern civilization which is sweeping away a whole world of cultural values.”
Of this scientific civilization Langer further observed:
“It is only rather recently that we are realizing what it has destroyed, and also the very grave fact that in its advance it is still destroying many things of undoubted and irreplaceable value — social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history, religious faith and its institutions, arts supported by solid and good traditions, ways of life in which people have long felt secure and useful. Such losses are not to be taken lightly.”
It would be an interesting exercise to parse the above quote in detail, as contains so many interesting assumptions, but I will desist for the time being, except to note that the “social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history” closely resemble the traditions described alike by Marx and Edmund Burke (and which I discussed in Globalization and Marxism).
For now, I only want to observe that the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy — really, a subsistence economy for the great mass of humanity, and a luxury economy for the privileged few, since agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations invariably take the form of a mass of peasantry working the land and living hand-to-mouth while elite culture is reserved for the small fraction of the population with the leisure for art and literacy — are precisely those cultural institutions slowly built up over the course of ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and rudely brought to an end by scientific civilization.
I do not doubt that, given enough time, humanity could be re-acculturated to these institutions, but I suspect that this process would require generations to become effective, and that individuals acculturated in the world today would largely reject these satisfactions of life specific to a subsistence economy — frequent religious festivals, occasional spectacular entertainments (theater, jousts, processions, etc.), etc. — as insufficient compensation for the loss of modern plumbing and the re-imposition of heavy physical labor.
Of course, what I have elsewhere called neo-agriculturalism (in Another Future: The New Agriculturalism) need not necessarily be so technologically rudimentary. I recently considered something like this in Ash Wednesday and Identity Politics, in which I quoted from one of my unpublished manuscripts:
Let us suppose, merely for our private amusement, that human civilization lasts long enough for the pendulum to swing completely, and that our civilization is slowly transformed into its opposite, from its present decadence into renewed, post-modern medievalism. This new epoch of medievalism would be an age with technology superior to our own and a more complete record of the past than we possess. Would these medievals look back upon us as the Golden Age, or upon the Middle Ages as the lost Golden Age? Would they nod while reading the Scholastics and react with horror to the existential excesses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Would they want to preserve our pagan learning, or would they feel entirely justified in extirpating it? Upon such twists of fate do our efforts enjoy success or come to grief.
Perhaps the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy might be rendered more acceptable if we could retain some of our creature comforts. But supposing the transition could be made with plumbing intact but our intellectual horizons severely constrained, would this be any better? If the great mass were kept more or less comfortable but deprived of the possibility of expanding their horizons intellectually, and living in a society without expanding intellectual horizons, would this be easier to accept than a straightforward return to idyllic primitivism? This is a question that could only possibly be settled by a social experiment on a civilizational scale. And it suggests another experiment: suppose we preserve the open intellectual horizon but take away the creature comforts — how would this fare as a form of social organization? And of any of these social experiments, we could ask whether they really would restore us to some sense of the presumed satisfactions of a subsistence economy, or whether this has become strictly unimaginable to us.
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12 March 2015
I‘ve just finished Thomas Piketty’s much talked about book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. There is much that could be said about this rather long book, but I will not attempt a review. Piketty’s theme is the concentration of capital at the top of the income hierarchy. Income inequality has become a political issue of some importance, and Piketty’s book speaks directly to this interest, which partially explains its popularity.
One point that Piketty does not make explicit in his book, but which could be said is implicit throughout, is the transition to an economic paradigm that could only be called a “winner-take-all” model. Many have commented on this. Skyrocketing executive pay is only only symptom of this social transition. It is arguable that the upward skewing of income and expectation is a function of what has been called the “attention economy” (and which in terms of the internet specifically is sometimes called “clickbait”). In a world flooded with a cacophony of voices competing for attention, those who can best capture the interest of others have an advantage. In each field of endeavor — music, sports, entertainment, industry, government, media, etc. — there are a handful of superstars who disproportionately command public attention and the rewards that follow therefrom. They are the winners, and they have scooped up the pot and left nothing on the table.
Kevin Kelly discussed the winner-take-all aspect of contemporary society in The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [2.3.14] (I previously discussed this interview in Science, Knowledge, and Civilization). Kelly said in this interview:
Another point about this winner-take-all phenomenon is that at first we have a natural reaction saying, “Well, winner take all; there can only be one winner,” but here’s what technology is doing: technology is increasing the number of races in which you can win. There are more and more niches and more and more places in which the technology creates new ways in which one can win. There isn’t a finite number of winners, there’s an infinite number of winners as long as you’re not trying to win someone else’s race. The way everybody can become a winner is to continue to increase the number of ways to play, even though you have these winner-take-all phenomena. There’s only going to be one search winner, but there are so many other ways to race and to win other than in, say, search. In most cases, trying to compete against a winner is not going to succeed in this kind of dynamic. What you want to do is make up a new way to win.
I suppose that you could call this the “long tail” argument for a winner-take-all economy, and Kelly is arguing that technology is increasing the length of the tail and therefore the number of individuals who can find some place to call their own along this long tail. But the long tail is a tail only, and not the bump in the statistics that identifies the explosive growth of attention (and therefore income earning potential) that takes place at the center of things. Sure, if there’s an infinitely long long tail there could be an infinite number of “winners,” and each of these winners will take all that is at stake in the miniscule region they dominate, but the share of society’s total wealth available in the infinitely long sections of the long tail is also infinitesimally thin. Being a “winner” in this sense is like the boast of being “big in Japan.”
What will we do with the losers in a winner-take-all economy? Keep in mind that most of us are “losers” — including those who are “winners” along some thin segment of the long tail. Most of us are neither rich nor famous nor well-connected and influential. What is to be done with us? are we to be quietly forgotten? Are we to go gentle into that good night of poverty and obscurity?
There is a well-known quote from Boswell’s Life of Johnson about the condition of the poor in relation to those better off:
He said, ‘the poor in England were better provided for than in any other country of the same extent: he did not mean little cantons, or petty republics. Where a great proportion of the people,’ said he, ‘are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. Gentlemen of education,’ he observed, ‘were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination.’
For Dr. Johnson, then, the mitigation of poverty is a civilizational issue. This is, moreover, the differentia that marks the distinction between true and false civilization. The condition of the well-to-do is pretty much the same everywhere. That is still true. Indeed, it is likely to be even more true today than when Johnson said this to Boswell. The technocratic elite of global society have access to similar resources, they shelter their wealth in similar ways, they travel in the same circles, gather in the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants, and send their children to the same schools. What continent they happen to come from is much less important than their bank account, or what tax haven they happen to use as their address — or the address for their offshore bank accounts.
One of the ways in which individuals become impoverished, marginalized, and socially invisible is through unemployment. While growing income inequality is a complex problem with many historical forces driving it, the problem of unemployment — a problem intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization that can never be “solved,” but only managed — may be significantly exacerbated in the near future (by which I mean within the next 50 years). If technological unemployment becomes a major economic factor in the coming decades, this could drive an already widening social gap to dangerous levels that are not socially sustainable. This may happen anyway, but my point is simply that technological unemployment could make this happen more rapidly.
In several posts on technological unemployment (“…a temporary phase of maladjustment…”, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment, Automation and the Human Future, Addendum on Automation and the Human Future, Technological Unemployment and the Future of Humanity, and Addendum on Technological Unemployment) I have pointed out that, not only is our society not making the transition to an economic regime in which the structure of employment realistically mirrors the nature of industrialization, but rather the prevailing attitude is punitive. Unemployment is seen as a personal failure, and even as a moral failure — a moral failure deserving of social disapproval. The poor are widely viewed as requiring discipline, regulation, and oversight by the professional classes.
Is it possible to find a way to compensate the losers in a winner-take-all economy when losing is seen as a sign of moral failure and winning is ascribed to meritocratic success? These social attitudes exacerbate rather than mitigate the damage of extreme income inequality. And social attitudes cannot be easily changed. Piketty in his book makes a case for a global tax on capital, but honestly calls it utopian. He probably understands all-too-well that nothing like this is politically possible. But changing policies is much easier than changing social attitudes. Social attitudes do change, but they change with glacial slowness, and while they are ever so incrementally adapting to changed conditions, generations are being effectively lost.
As Dr. Johnson rightly observed, this is a civilizational concern. If we care to pay attention, we can see this before our very eyes. The homeless live the life of nomadic foragers within the interstices of civilization. They have ceased to participate in civilization as we know it; they have given up on civilization, and civilization has given up on them. Of course we know that many of the homeless are mentally ill, and that many are alcoholics and drug addicts. Even today there are a few individuals who devote their lives to trying to help even those who spurn help and who abuse those who seek to help them. This is a thankless task, and it is only done out of love if it is done at all.
That many of these individuals who have gone from merely being unemployed to being utterly destitute have serious deficits that require significant intervention to overcome is an indication that they come at a price that even the destitute are unwilling to pay. We have all heard stories of the indignities visited upon the impoverished and the helpless. Some of these stories are horrific, and, somewhat disturbingly, cultural Foucauldianism is sometimes invoked in order to excuse the failure to intervene in the lives of those who have suffered from the tender mercies of institutionalized “kindness.” I can both understand and sympathize with a desire to live free as an urban forager rather than to be subject to the discipline of some “total institution.” But are these our only choices? Are there not ways to intervene without insisting on control, regulation, and discipline conceived as a moral corrective?
Compensating losers in a winner-take-all society is something that must be done with our eyes wide open, understanding the mistakes that we have made in the past, but understanding also that we are not limited by the mistakes we have made in the past. And if we do not find some constructive way to address the glaring inequity of our society, before the end of the century even the most pleasant lives will not be able to be fully insulated from the growing masses of marginalized and impoverished individuals whose only failing is that they are not good at making money.
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4 March 2015
Financial crisis or political crisis?
Democracy does not come naturally to the governments of Europe. Europe may have the institutions of democracy, and have them in a stronger form than elsewhere in the world, but democracy has shallow roots in the Old World, and in extremis we are not surprised to see Europe move in the direction of statism or populism. The problem of elite opinion, which I began to examine in The Technocratic Elite, is especially strong in Europe, and it repeatedly encounters the limits of engineering consent.
Because of the strong democratic traditions of the nation-states of the western hemisphere, governments are eventually aligned more-or-less with public opinion, but in Europe the attempt to maintain a facade according to which elite opinion is presented as mass opinion leads to periodic instability in which the distance between elite and mass opinion opens up like a fault line during an earthquake, at time swallowing whole the political order entire. The European press, which is itself split between elite opinion and mass opinion, documents this divide. If you visit a European nation-state you will find highbrow media of a quality far superior to that of the US, but you will also find popular newspapers and magazines pandering to the lowest common denominator (the “yellow press”). The individual who reads the Financial Times (as I do) is likely to never read The Sun, and vice versa.
I do not read the mass opinion press of Europe, so I do not know what it says, but I read quite a bit of the elite opinion media from Europe, and this tells us that Syriza, just elected to power in Greece, is a “radical party” of the left; the press also tells us that the National Front in France is a “radical party” of the right. There is a real concern, rooted in the painful lessons of European history, that Europe might once again turn to radicalism and extremism. How radical are these parties? Is Syriza a front for Stalinism or the National Front a front for fascism? Is Europe truly on a verge of an ugly populism that must be suppressed in order to assure the continuity of democratic institutions in Europe? This, as I read it, is the sotto voce position of elite opinion in Europe.
There are, of course, limits to European radicalism. One of the best explications of these limits that I have heard was to be found in a series of lectures by Jeremy Shearmur, an Australian philosopher and political scientist, who recorded a series for The Great Courses titled “Ideas in Politics.” Like many of my favorite lectures from The Great Courses, these have been discontinued and are no longer available (other discontinued favorites include An Introduction to Archaaeology by Susan Foster McCarter and The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophy, Theories and Interpretations by Darren Staloff). Shearmur noted in one of his lectures that if a truly radical government were elected, as soon as it came to power there would serious financial consequences: the currency would be bid down on international markets, foreign investors would seek to take their money elsewhere, and the country would become an international pariah. The leaders of a radical regime would then be forced from financial necessity to try to step in and calm the markets by making moderate-sounding statements. The lesson is that all the advanced industrialized nation-states are tightly integrated into the international financial system, and it would be quite painful for anyone of them–even a smallish economy like that of Greece–to separate themselves from this system.
What I have just described is a mechanism of moderation within elite opinion that guides the international system. It is assumed that political leaders will say radical things to get elected, but as soon as they get elected they will begin to moderate their stance. In fact, we have already seen this with Syriza in Greece, and the deal that Greece struck with the EU was not quite the renunciation of its bail out that Syriza had campaigned on. In fact, this pattern is so predictable that truly radical leaders with little or no concern for pragmatism have been elected on the assumption that, once they came to power, they would moderate their tone and their demands. This was one of the mechanisms that made it possible for Hitler and the Nazi party to come to power.
But this is not Germany in 1933. Conditions have changed. Indeed, we could with greater justification call these changes “radical” that to call contemporary European political parties or their leaders “radical.” The rule of Syriza is not going to initiate a new communist crackdown on Greek society, in which artists and poets will be jailed and Lysenkoism is imposed upon agriculture. Syriza may well effect an economic leveling that makes everyone except the nomenklatura and apparatchiks equally poor (this is, after all, what communist regimes typically do), but making everyone equally poor through economic policies known to be disastrous might be stupid, and it might mean the loss of an enormous amount of human potential, but it is unlikely to be criminal in the way that twentieth century communist regimes were criminal. Moreover, these are the policies that the people have voted for, and apparently it is necessary every single generation that people be taught a lesson on the unworkable nature of socialist economic policies.
If Syriza is communist (and Yanis Varoufakis, e.g., has been very upfront about the influence of Marx on his own views), it is a kinder and gentler form of communism (to borrow a phrase from George H. W. Bush). And if the National Front is fascist, it is kinder and gentler form of fascism. No more than Syriza is going to jail opposition intellectuals is Marine Le Pen and the National Front going to preside over a Kristallnacht aimed at Muslims living in France, though if you read the records of elite opinion in Europe you very clearly get the idea that there is a profound undercurrent of anxiety that extremists will come to power in Europe who will repeat the most brutal episodes in European history. However, this anxiety seems to be almost entirely focused on a right-of-center populist reaction against Muslim influence in Europe, as elite opinion journals seem to have little interest in the rise of an extremist left.
It could be argued that Europe would benefit from some political diversity (not to mention controversy), since monolithic elite opinion since the end of the Second World War has had the practical effect of denying the bully pulpit to alternative views. The election of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, the rallies of Pegida in Germany, and the improving poll numbers of the National Front in France are in this sense welcome. In so far as they give the bully pulpit to politicians who do not automatically mouth the euphemisms of elite European opinion, they actually give greater credibility to the EU and its programs.
In so far as the EU and the PR spin doctors of Europe’s elite opinion seek to deny even a voice to radical and marginal parties, they are making the same mistake in relation to politics today that they made with religion in earlier centuries. Instead of a free market of ideas, the attempt to shape a top-down definition of acceptable views has the opposite effect of making the “official” view laughable while piquing curiosity about the other views. In so far as some view is universally condemned in official sources, intellectually alert individuals will take notice and will suppose that there is something of interest and possible even something that is a clear and present danger to the established order in these marginal views.
Of course, the Europeans are not so stupid or as vulgar as to ban minority views outright (although there are a number of laws that make it illegal to make certain claims), but kinder and gentler elite opinion (like kinder and gentler communism and fascism) can be almost as effective in mere disapproval as it can be in outright legal sanction. Again, one need only pay attention to the monolithic on-message character of European politics. If you’re a careerist, you cannot possibly afford to neglect this.
With Round Two of the Eurozone crisis being played out across Europe, and headlines looking a lot like they looked a few years ago, although this time with Syriza in power in Greece, European elite opinion is faced once again with kicking the can down the road or dealing with the problems on the merits. Given the record of European elite opinion being so tightly focused on message, in contradistinction to meaningful action, the likely result seems to be further muddling through while hoping all turns out OK in the end. How many times can Europe lurch to the brink of crisis only to lurch backward from the brink at the last possible moment? European elite opinion worries about the brinkmanship of Europe’s radicals, but it is elite opinion itself that is pushing Europe toward the brink.
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During the initial iteration of the Eurozone Crisis I blogged extensively on the problem, including the following posts:
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28 February 2015
Introduction: A Failed Region
What do you get when you cluster several failed nation-states together in a single geographical region? You get a failed region, and what we see today in Mesopotamia and the Levant is a failed region catastrophically failing. This is regionalism gone horribly wrong. Even by the self-serving standards of the international nation-state system, the several regimes of the region are not only failing to provide basic services for their respective peoples, but are manifestly making life much worse and more difficult for the unfortunates resident in the region.
My previous post on Islamic State, The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State, was purely analysis; I made no recommendations or policy prescriptions. Here I am going to shift gears and consider how the present violence in the region will ultimately be reduced through some settlement to the ongoing conflict. The level of violence in the region is not now compatible with civil society, and the longer this level of violence continues, the greater the breakdown of institutions on the ground. The sooner the violence is reduced, institutions still in existence may recover. If violence persists, all functioning institutions may disappear and new institutions will have to be established in their place, even if they are former institutions resurrected.
Violence is destabilizing; insurgencies and political movements know this (this knowledge is a major source of revolutionary violence), and so they foment violence as a tactic to destabilize the established order so that they can insert themselves in addition to or in place of that order. But implicit in this tactic is that, once a new political accommodation is found, violence will subside and civil society will be able to return to some semblance of normality, perhaps on a different basis (presumably the basis preferred by those who instigated the violence). Islamic State is no exception to this time-honored political calculation, despite its apocalyptic pretensions. They seek to eliminate the nation-states of the region and to assert the control of the Islamic State caliphate in place of these nation-states. Once the work of replacement is completed (if it is completed), civil society will proceed under principles of Islamic law as recognized by Islamic State. The point here is simply that, one way or another, the unsustainable levels of violence will recede, and the only question is the mechanism by which the reduction in violence takes place, and whether it leaves in its wake a stable civil society or an unstable civil society that will give way to further violence.
The Options for Islamic State
After I wrote ISIS and Sykes-Picot I must admit that I was quite surprised that Islamic State declared the reestablishment of the caliphate. The stakes are high. If ISIS proclaims itself to be the caliphate and then fails ignominiously, this compromises any future attempt to reestablish the caliphate (i.e., another subsequent caliphate wouldn’t be taken seriously, and the caliphate is an institution that must command respect or it is better off defunct). If, however, ISIS can secure enough territory to keep its caliphate intact for some period of time, the longer it endures the greater legitimacy it will have.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Islamic State has been called the best funded terrorist organization ever in existence. This may be overstating the case — organized insurgencies in the Golden Triangle that took control of the opium trade, and non-state groups in Andean South America that monopolized cocaine trafficking, both commanded serious financial resources — but even to be among the most well-funded of non-state entities is a significant accomplishment. If ISIS can continue the flow of money and find ways to increase its funding as it increases its de facto territory, this will go a long way toward securing a longer term future for the group.
On the surface, it would seem that the prospects of ISIS are grim, and that the group must almost certainly be destroyed, root and branch, as long as their horrific tactics alienate world opinion so that major powers (like the US) have the political cover to intervene with the support of regional powers. If a nation-state with the resources of the US decides that your group should be destroyed, then you really don’t have much of a chance. Under conditions of strong motive and weak constraints, the US can act with impunity at any place on the planet. However, ideal conditions of motive and constraint rarely obtain in the messy reality of politics and diplomacy.
ISIS is in the classic position of an insurgency, except that it has ambitions to rule territory distinct from any contemporary nation-state. Therefore it cannot simply replace the leadership of some extant nation-state; in order to achieve success on its own terms it must establish control over some territory that can with some credibility be called a caliphate, to which sympathetic Muslims can travel to join the cause. Situated as they are at present, they are in a geographical position to easily draw off the disaffected youth of six neighboring states, and the truly determined will find a way to join the cause regardless of geographical obstacles (individuals from all over the world have already, in fact, made their way to Islamic State). As long as this flow of fighters into Islamic State continues, the group can expand its ability to project power.
Inflows of money and fighters have made ISIS what it is today. Can it maintain or expanded its successes to date? What strategy could ISIS pursue in order to continue in existence as a viable political entity and thereby the gain credibility for the caliphate it has declared? There seems to be only a single viable course of action, and that would be to so divide regional powers so as to paralyze any coalition action against ISIS. If local powers are sufficiently paralyzed, larger powers would be hesitant to commit sufficient forces, or to unilaterally seek the destruction of ISIS. This paralysis is already one of the factors that has allowed ISIS to seize and to hold territory.
As it turns out, it is not terribly difficult to divide opinion and to politically paralyze those regional nation-states that a power like the US would require as cover for offensive action necessary for the attainment of decisive objectives. It has been pointed out by many commentators that the global Islamic community (i.e., the Ummah) is quick to jump on perceived slights to their faith from non-Muslims, but when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Muslims (as those being committed now by Islamic State as I write this) there is a preternatural silence. And even when the occasional Islamic nation-state makes an official condemnation of ISIS and their like, there still is no broad groundswell of outrage from the Ummah. There are theological reasons for this.
Islam has never had a top-down institutional organization of the kind that is commonplace in Christianity. As a result there has always been a tension in issues of governance of the Ummah. This is particularly apparent when it comes to declaring anything unislamic (takfir). If you wrongly denounce another Muslim as being non-Muslim in beliefs or practices, you are yourself non-Muslim. To be non-Muslim fallen from the true faith is to be an apostate, and the punishment for apostasy is death. Thus an outcry against Islamic State and its brutality would risk the standing of those protesting the beliefs and practices of Islamic State. As Islamic State appears to have a literal reading of the relevant texts on its side, few are ready to meet them in theological debate.
As neighboring regimes are kept off-balance by internal conflict, and no great power is willing to intervene regionally for this reason, ISIS can continue to expand its influence into the vacuum of destabilized and paralyzed regimes, making good on its commitment of offensive jihad.
The Options for Dar al-Harb
The appeal of ISIS is powerful, but also limited. If it demonstrated a resounding series of successes, it would expand its appeal and draw in more who want to believe its message but don’t quite dare to believe it yet. If ISIS can be contained, however, it will not be seen as moving from one success to another, the inflow of excited would-be jihadis will slow to a small trickle, and to the extent that the legitimacy of ISIS is predicated upon expansion through offensive jihad, its legitimacy would be called into question.
If ISIS is to be contained, and its prophetic mission thereby called into question as it accepts de facto borders between itself and surrounding nation-states, it must be contained by local forces with an ongoing interest in policing these borders. Anything achieved by outsiders who will eventually pull out and go home will necessarily be ephemeral, and ISIS can resume offensive Jihad after any pull out, legitimizing any pause in operations as a temporary truce (the latter acceptable according to the prophetic methodology). Thus the containment of ISIS must not be by the US, or NATO, or Europe, or even Russian or Chinese assistance to any one of the warring parties; containment must be effected by those who live in the region and who will remain in the region.
There is a way to do this, but this way is closed to the western powers for political reasons. The one coherent, workable strategy for Mesopotamia and the Levant that would have any chance of success — and by “success” I mean a long term reduction in violence and the establishment of a regional order that will allow the majority of individuals to live out their lives in relative safety and security — is, unfortunately, politically impossible… impossible, at least, for the US, and only nearly impossible for the rest of the world — and cannot be implemented for political reasons. There are, of course, many other strategies as well, but these other strategies are either incoherent, unworkable, or unlikely to issue in success (as defined above).
Because the US and its allies are not going to throw their resources behind Assad in order to resurrect Syria as an Alawite-minority-dominated, Sunni majority dictatorship, and because the other forces that have fought against Assad have proved themselves to be far less capable than ISIS, a workable strategy would need to employ proxies in the region that are militarily capable. And there are militarily capable forces in the regions: the Kurds and Iran and Iranian proxies. If support and materiel were funneled to the Kurds and to Iranian proxies, it would be possible not only to defeat ISIS on the ground, but also to change the political conditions in the region that allowed for the rise of ISIS.
There are problems with this, of course, The Kurds want their own nation-state, and a well armed, supplied and financed Kurdish Peshmerga would take for itself a nation-state carved out of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and in so doing to incur the hatred of all of these nation-states, who are jealous of their territory and who are not about to give up any of it for a homeland for the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Kurds have proved that they can fight and they can organize under adverse conditions.
Another problem is that Iran and Iranian proxies, which have also, like the Kurds, proved their mettle, are supporters of Assad. While this support for Assad has a long history, it is primarily a function of Syria’s ruling clique being Alawite, which is a small offshoot of Shia Islam, and I suspect that a deal could be struck that removed Assad from power while leaving the ruling clique of some rump Syria (dominated by Iran) in the hands of the Alawites. Such a deal would actually be facilitated by the credibility that Iran and its proxies would have in dealing with Assad and his supporters.
Once again I must assure the reader that I am under no illusion that the above scenario will take place, I only say that it is coherent and could be formulated into clear military objectives. There is already a certain measure of support being shown for the Kurds, and despite the apparent political impossibility, there is an article on Foreign Policy’s website, Washington’s Uneasy Partnership With Tehran Now Extends to Yemen by Seán D. Naylor, that discusses de facto US-Iranian cooperation, so, far from being unimaginable, such cooperation is already a fait accompli, and stunts like the IRGC blowing up a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz is merely a matter of placating domestic opinion so that no one thinks the regime has gone soft on the Great Satan.
These efforts, however, are much too small to contain what Islamic State has already become. A strategy that had a hope of success would have to be robust; instead of debating whether only non-lethal aid would be sent to the Kurds, the Kurds should receive massive support, and no complaints should be made when they assert territorial control over an independent Kurdistan with the assistance they were given. The geopolitical obsession with retaining current borders — itself an ideological outgrowth of the ossified international system of nation-states — prevents this kind of support from practical realization.
Since we can predict with confidence that the one chance for a sane stability in the region (not stability deriving from a xenophobic and genocidal regime imposing a Pax Islamica) will not be pursued, there is the question of the second best strategy. The second best strategy would be a decapitation strike against the apex leadership of Islamic State, and especially Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I understand that there have been airstrikes that have killed several prominent leaders of IS; these efforts to date have been as ineffectual as support for anti-ISIS forces in the region. by a decapitation strike I don’t mean a rain of cruise missiles, which is the nation-state equivalent of “spray and pray.” I mean two dozen or more stealth helicopters with special forces commandos coming down on top of the apex leadership of ISIS and capturing or killing that leadership. Knowing the ISIS obsession with Dabiq as the location for an apocalyptic battle, it would be no great difficulty to convincingly feint in the direction of Dabiq long enough to draw fighters away from other duties and so to leave the leadership relatively exposed.
Given the commando resources available to the US, it would be entirely within the capacity of US special forces to capture or to kill al-Baghdadi even in the midst of Islamic State territory. The mission would have to be quite large — much larger than the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden — and it would entail casualties. Such an operation would likely result in dozens of US casualties and perhaps hundreds of IS casualties, but successfully executed the apex leadership of IS could be captured or killed, and this might be a sufficient blow against the nascent regime to scatter those who remain behind. (Follow-on strikes could continue the dispersion of remaining leaders and prevent them from regrouping.) It would also be the occasion for much hand-wringing on the part of the international community and protests by nation-states who feel they have a stake in the conflict. It would, however, be a decisive strike and a coherent strategy.
This second option is not much more likely than the first, though it can at least be said that it is not politically impossible. At same time, its greater political feasibility is balanced against its absence of an endgame that would allow the region to transition toward a sustainable and less violent order in the near future. The elimination of ISIS is a mere tactic to stabilize the region; regional stability requires a regional strategy, and not a single operation.
Dar al-Islam vs. Dar al-Harb
Perhaps it is a universal truth that all civil wars produce civil atrocities on an unprecedented scale. The civil war within Islam, i.e., the civil war of the Ummah, like the civil war within Christendom in the 17th century, will be no exception. Whatever side in this conflict receives support from western nation-states, will eventually be implicated in atrocities and war crimes, and, when these atrocities and war crimes come to light, all popular will to continue any support will vanish, and political will to continue support will vanish soon after.
As I have argued elsewhere (The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization), Islam is a civilization in the midst of neurotic misery, and the only therapy that will deliver them over into ordinary human unhappiness is philosophy taught by examples, that is to say, history.
There is a detailed article on The Atlantic’s website, What ISIS Really Wants by Graeme Wood that takes ISIS at its word in regard to the group’s “prophetic methodology,” which is the particular conception of history now entertained by the leadership of ISIS. Wood makes the valid point that ISIS is to a certain extent hamstrung by its Koranic literalness, and that this is a valuable guide in predicting the actions of the group. This is one of the few potentially valuable ways of understanding ISIS that can be of material benefit to any action taken against it.
Another point that Graeme Wood makes is that the west has, up to now, drawn a number of false analogies by putting all jihadist organizations into the same basket. This has indeed been part of the problem, but it is just as much of a problem to treat ISIS an the monolith it aspires to be. The success of ISIS to date has not only been the result of a brutal fidelity to “prophetic methodology,” but also a not inconsiderable rationality and organizational mettle. While there are no doubt a great many within ISIS who see their struggle as a cosmic war, there are probably also many who see ISIS in another, and much more pragmatic, light. Even if ISIS is successfully contained, and its claim to being in the vanguard of cosmic war called into question by any such containment, there will still be a struggle within ISIS between ideological purists and pragmatists who would be content with establishing a new state along the lines of Islamic State but shorn of its ideological pretensions.
A chastened but still violent and combat-effective ISIS could continue to destabilize the region for decades to come, if not centuries, during which time many strategies on both sides of the divide would be tested. If we test the optimal strategy for ISIS against the likely strategy of any anti-ISIS coalition (viz. the US and its European allies making feeble and half-hearted attempts to support the “good” side in this conflict), the prospects for the continued survival of ISIS are quite high, even if it is a mere shadow of its prophetic aspirations.
If a quasi-pragmatic leadership emerges from a less-than-triumphant ISIS, this leadership will have to arrive at some modus vivendi with its neighbors in the region. ISIS would then have to become a nation-state among nation-states, which is apostasy from the purely eschatological point of view, but also a human, all-too-human compromise that should be expected at some point in time.
In this case, the boundaries of existing nation-states — the status quo ante — would be re-established as far as possible given the events that have transpired to date, as part of the process of resurrecting institutions of civil society mentioned above in the Introduction. We recall that the European powers fought their religious wars for almost a century before they finally negotiated the Treaty of Westphalia (which came nearly to affirming borders that existed prior to the conflict), which settled on the principle cuius regio, eius religio, which I previously discussed in The Stalin Doctrine.
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