Medieval and Industrial Civilization: Developmental Parallels
29 December 2012
To compare medieval civilization and industrial civilization may be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, since the two ideas come from two different civilizational periodizations based on different ideas of organizing our thought about civilization. The idea of medieval civilization derives from the familiar Western scheme of periodizing civilization into ancient, medieval and modern, while the idea of industrial civilization derives from the more recent tripartite periodization of human history in hunter-gatherer nomadism, agrarian civilization, and industrial civilization.
Nevertheless, I think that there is something to be learned from comparison and contrast even across incommensurable paradigms, if not especially across incommensurable paradigms. From a philosophical point of view, there is nothing more interesting that comparing distinct ontologies, which is to say, comparing the different ways that different philosophers divide up one and the same world into ultimate constituents — or, to appeal to two different images used by contemporary philosophers: 1) comparing two different inventories of the ultimate furniture of the universe, or 2) comparing two different ways of carving nature at the joints. Medieval and industrial civilization represent two distinct ways of carving civilization at the joints.
I often appeal to examples and parallels drawn from medieval civilization, because medieval civilization has a special didactic value: with medieval civilization we have an instance of a particular species of civilization that emerged within historical times, flourished, and then vanished, so that the whole of the process was documented and the story of this civilization itself is a completed narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
When we think of our own industrialized civilization as a whole — and while I think of it like this all the time, this is atypical, because most people don’t notice their own civilization any more than the air they breathe — we tend to think of it as a phenomenon at or near its full developmental potential. The persistent apocalypticism and declensionism of our times encourages us in this view, because it suggests that our civilization has reached its peak and has no where to go but down. This is a mistake. Some day we will be able to say of industrial-technological civilization that it had a beginning, a middle, and an end and achieved narrative closure in this way. At present, however, industrialized civilization is a work in progress. We do not yet know what it will look like from a distance, as it were, when we (or others) are able to bear witness not only to its rise and greatness, but also to its decline and fall.
What I would like to suggest is that we do not yet even know what industrial-technological civilization will look like at its height, much less its maturity, because we are still in the formative stages of our civilization, such as it is. The industrial revolution, beginning a little more than two hundred years ago, has still to transform all the world. It is steadily working toward this transformation, and we can see the signs of this transformation everywhere, but we can also see that this transformation is far from complete.
I have argued in The Industrial-Technological Thesis (and argued the underside of the same in Industrial-Technological Disruption) that the civilization now being constituted is uniquely characterized by the spiraling feedback of science, technology, and engineering. I tried to refine how this escalating cycle of feedback came into existence in The Human Condition Made Rigorous, and I tried to show how this cycle can fail or be interrupted in Industrial-Technological Disruption.
If I am right about our civilization being uniquely characterized by this spiral of advancing science, technology, and engineering, industrialized civilization will always be changing and never reach a point of equilibrium. This would make it problematic to identify any particular point of height or maturity for this civilization, but we can take a different perspective by understanding the consolidation (and therefore, in a sense, the maturity) of industrial-technological civilization to have come about when the world entire exemplifies this form of civilization. I suggested in The Re-Proletarianization of the Workforce that it is only at this point of industrial maturity that Marx’s predictions can be judged to be true or failed.
To return to the example of medieval civilization, if an individual today is familiar with medieval civilization at all, they are likely to be familiar only with the later stages of medieval civilization, unless they appeal to a semi-mythical Arthurian England (or its equivalents elsewhere in Europe). Except for scholars in medieval history, little is known of early medieval history. If one begins to become aware of medieval history with the crusades, moving on to the construction of the great cathedrals, the formulation of the scholastic intellectual synthesis, the Black Death, and then the gradual unwinding of medieval institutions under the pressure of emerging modernity (really, modernism without industrialism), one is beginning with a civilization already more at less at its height, having reached a point of internal development that it turns to projecting its power outward into the wider world.
Prior to the crusades, medieval civilization had at least five hundred years of development to bring itself to a point of development at which it possessed the resources to engage in the crusades, which not only involved a lot of second sons looking for glory (and loot), but also arms and armor, shipping, foodstuffs, and the maintenance of institutions in the absence of significant military assets. It is, of course, controversial to fix a particular date for the beginning of medievalism, but somewhere between, say, the 400s to the 500s AD, Roman imperial power collapsed in Western Europe and was replaced by local regimes and a local way of life focused on the land, not on trade or industry.
As I said, it is inherently controversial to name a date at which medieval civilization begins, but even if we fix that beginning at any of the later dates that are sometimes used, the medieval world developed for hundreds of years before it reached its maturity, and it is only in its maturity that those of us who are not medieval scholars begin to become aware of medieval history. In other words, the whole of industrial-technological civilization, as it has existed so far, occupies less than half of the time that was needed for medieval civilization to come to maturity.
Although history now proceeds at a blistering pace, the potential scope of a civilization is much larger. Medieval civilization took almost five hundred years to consolidate itself in the Western European peninsula. Despite the rapidity of history in the industrial age, we can see with our own eyes that a little over two hundred years of development have sufficed to bring industrialized civilization to much of the world, but not yet all of the world, and as we make this observation it is intuitively obvious (as much as anything in history can be said to be intuitively obvious) that global consolidation is the inevitable telos of industrialism. Our civilization is more dynamic and faster moving, but it has much more ground to cover before it could be said to have achieved its natural teleology.
In the far future, when our distant progeny can see industrial-technological civilziation synoptically, as a whole, I think it will be clear that, two hundred years into the process of industrialization, that process is still far from complete, and the civilzation that will issue from this process is still far from reaching its mature form and attaining the heights of its development.
In some earlier posts I have already alluded to this. In Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that industrial society had passed through two paradigms of social organization and was more-or-less groping its way to a third paradigm of social organization. Industrial society may ultimately have to pass through many stages of social paradigmata before it arrives at a form of social organization that is in consonance with the institutions of industrialized society.
In The Next Axial Age I suggested that each macro-historical division of civilization may come to maturity in an axial age, that the Axial Age identified by Karl Jaspers was but the Axial Age of Agrarian civilization, and that industrialized civilization may yet be hundreds of years from its axial moment.
The absence of adequate social institutions and of an axialization period clearly points to industrial-technological civilization being yet in its formative stages.
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