Some Rough Notes on Agricultural Civilization

20 June 2010


A couple of days ago in The Agricultural Paradigm I mentioned my realization that while I have formulated a typology of social formations of industrialized civilization I have no comparable formulation of social formations for the much longer period covered by agricultural civilization. Given that realization, I immediately started to think about this lacuna in my thought. It will take me some time and some effort of thought to converge upon a clear understanding of the patterns of social evolution unique to agricultural civilization, but my initial thoughts in this direction yielded some interesting ideas, as follows:

1. Given that the agricultural paradigm and agricultural civilization dominated human history for more then ten thousand years, it is to be expected that the patterns of social evolution peculiar to agricultural civilization will have had the time to play out more than once in history. That is to say, broadly-based patterns of social evolution have probably repeated themselves in the course of the development of agricultural civilization.

1.1 Industrialized civilization has not yet lasted long enough for cyclical patterns of social formation to have emerged.

2. Given that the evolution of social patterns of agricultural civilization have probably played themselves out several times in history, this suggests the possibility of the end of a cyclical pattern, and this would be nothing other than the periodic “dark ages” that have been a part of earlier human history, and which I discussed briefly in The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited.

2.1 As above in regard to cyclical social formations, so too industrialized civilization has not yet lasted a period of time sufficient to have experienced a dark age.

3. Once again, given the possibility of multiple realizations of the evolutionary patterns of agricultural civilization, it is to be expected that these patterns will have started at different times in different places and that there will have been times when these social formations started at different times will have overlapped and intersected and interrupted each other. An obvious example of this is the contact between the Old World and the New World, which occurred entirely internally to civilizations each embodying the agricultural paradigm, but civilizations nevertheless fundamentally distinct and embodying a distinct idea of civilization.

4. It is to be expected that some patterns of human social organization transcend historical change, whereas other patterns of human social organization are unique to particular epochs of history. For example, the family as a social unit, though differently defined in different ages and different places, is to be found in hunter-gatherer societies, in agricultural societies, and in industrialized societies. Other patterns of social organization are unique to each of these epochs of integral history, and not found in the others.

5. When a pattern repeats itself in history, it never repeats itself precisely or absolutely. In recognizing patterns in history — if indeed we do recognize patterns in history — we must be content with discovering generic features that relate distinct instantiations of a given pattern. In a period as long as the ten thousand or more years of agricultural civilization, the patterns of social formation that are likely to be found repeated will repeat in some cases with clear instances of cumulative progress, so that one could equally well make the case for the later instance to be an instance of progress or to be an instance of a repeated pattern. For example, the plows that broke the soil of the American Midwest in the nineteenth century were considerably more technically advanced than the plows that were used in medieval Europe, and the plows that were used in medieval Europe were considerably more technically advanced than the plows used in the Fertile Crescent in late prehistory.

6. It would seem to be a significant feature of agricultural civilization that a large mass of the population be legally bound to its status as agricultural workers, whether as slaves, as serfs, as peasants with no effective alternative or option, or by some other social system of land tenure that limits movement, alternative forms of livelihood, and social change.

These are observations without the structure of a theory to give them unity or coherence, but it is a starting point — my starting point, at least — in an attempt to understand the dynamics of specifically agricultural civilization.

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