The Phenomenon of Civilization

22 May 2009

Friday


The phenomenon of civilization has its ups and downs: buildings and cultures rise and fall in succession.

The phenomenon of civilization has its ups and downs: buildings and cultures rise and fall in succession, as here illustrated by the remains of Heliopolis, now Baalbek, in Lebanon.

In the advanced industrialized world, social organization is a stalled social technology. As a result, lives are stunted, productivity suffers, and the economy fails to perform optimally. This can happen in more than one way, and perhaps different types of civilizations stall at particular levels of development. For example, many past hydrological civilizations stalled, declined, and left their ruins for us to appreciate today.

Huaca de la Luna: one of the many faces of civilization, a temple complex of the Moche of Peru.

Huaca de la Luna: one of the many faces of civilization, a temple complex of the Moche of Peru.

The fact that the social technology that makes industrialized organization possible is stalled implies that the industrial organization made possible by it is also stalled. In order for economic and technological development to transcend its present level and increase to a new order of magnitude, a revolution is necessary, and we can see that since it is the stalled social technology that is holding back further developments in industrialization, what is needed is a social revolution.

The Cultural Revolution nearly reduced China to anarchy; this is not the kind of social revolution that will lead to the higher development of industrialized civilization.

The Cultural Revolution nearly reduced China to anarchy; this is not the kind of social revolution that will lead to the higher development of industrialized civilization.

This is, of course, exactly what Marx predicted: a social revolution that would mark a new stage in the evolution of man and the life of man. However, the most notable social revolution of the twentieth century — the Cultural Revolution in China — not only failed to mark a new stage in the development of human history; it set China back dramatically.

An au courant revolutionary slogan from the Zapatistas: "Para todos todo, para nosotros nada."
An au courant revolutionary slogan from the Zapatistas:
“Para todos todo, para nosotros nada.”

At the same time that social technology is stalled in the advanced industrialized economies, in those parts of the world only now industrializing the pace of social change is so rapid that this in itself nearly constitutes a revolution. But it is a revolution in deeply traditional societies. The two most obvious cases — China and India — represent ancient civilizations that are, as Foucault put it, “deaf to change.” The social revolution occurring concurrently with the industrial revolutions in China and India represent nothing new for the West.

order of things

It may yet happen, as I conjectured in Globalization and Marxism, that a social revolution (i.e., a communist revolution) will follow from the further industrialization of the world. And it may yet happen that a novel development in the social revolutions in China and India may be the source of the change that will return to the West to spur these stalled societies to the next level of development.

foucault text

However, it may also be the case that this social revolution never comes, that all (or almost all) societies, upon thorough-going industrialization, level off at a certain degree of industrial, technological, and social development and are there arrested in their stalled state. If this were the case, the the stationary state posited by nineteenth century classical economists is the destiny of us all.

John Stuart Mill address the possibility of a "stationary state" in Book IV, Chapter VI in his classic Principles of Political Economy.

John Stuart Mill addressed the possibility of a "stationary state" in Book IV, Chapter VI in his classic Principles of Political Economy.

The other alternative is that stagnation will give way to decay, and civilization will enter a long and protracted decline, perhaps as long and protracted as the five or six thousand years that it took to reach its present condition. Such a grand rhythm of the rise and decline not of a single civilization, but of the phenomenon of civilization itself, would then comprise ten or twelve thousand years.

Mill didn't think that the dreaded "stationary state" was such a bad thing.

Mill didn't think that the dreaded "stationary state" was such a bad thing.

After this, what? Dust and ashes? Another cycle of civilizations? A new Golden Age populated by Noble Savages living peacefully and prosperously in a state of nature? A new Golden Age of civilization with taller buildings, faster jets, and no have nots?

Is this the post-historical paradise that awaits us once the phenomenon of civilization has passed?

Is this the post-historical paradise that awaits us once the phenomenon of civilization has passed?

The present world would seem to offer no clues as to which scenario we should favor. Certainly there are many possibilities, and scenarios can be spun endlessly, but there is no dominating fact of the development of our time, or of the character of civilization of our time, that points to any one course of evolution or devolution.

Is this the fate that awaits us not after the end of any one, particular civilization, but after the end of the phenomenon of civilization itself?

Is this the fate that awaits us not after the end of any one, particular civilization, but after the end of the phenomenon of civilization itself?

. . . . .

I have elaborated on the themes of the above in the following posts:

The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited

Revisiting Civilization Revisited

Historical Continuity and Discontinuity

Two Conceptions of Civilization

A Note on Quantitative Civilization

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One Response to “The Phenomenon of Civilization”

  1. […] Read the original post: The phenomenon of civilization « Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon […]

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