Civilization was imposed on a resisting majority by a minority which understood how to obtain possession of the means of power and coercion. — Sigmund Freud

There are many definitions of civilization. Most of the older ones are self-congratulatory, dwelling on technical and cultural accomplishments, assuming matter of factly that civilization (our civilization, and its predecessors) is the pinnacle of human achievement. They speak of advanced and superior culture, of writing, metallurgy, cities, the plow, wheel, calendar, impressive architecture, “the great institution of war,” exquisite art and the like. They gush with admiration for the gadgets, like the large plow, unmindful of their downsides. Even today, a few apologist historians speak of the days when “the Hebrews gave us faith and morality” (without mentioning their gift of fanatical intolerance of neighbors less “pure” than themselves), when “Greece gave us reason, philosophy and science” (along with devastating deforestation and a democracy built on the backs of slaves, women and non-nativeborn inhabitants who had no say), when “Rome gave us law and government” (well peppered with brutal conquests, extortion, and genocide). The language of the archeo/anthropologists is full of accolades even today. Ancient civilizations like Sumer, Akkad and Assyria – as brutal as they come – are described as great, magnificent, impressive, and splendid. The most vicious of their rulers are the “great” ones. Those rulers are called weak, who did not quite have the stomach or genius for extremes of atrocity and pillage needed to keep the bloated empire in top form.

With minor exceptions, only in the last half-century have critical or less biased definitions sprung forth. They, more or less discreetly, note the dark side as well as the accomplishments of the string of civilizations to which we are heirs. This discreetness and hesitancy comes not only out of a pro-ourselves type of bias, but also from the fear of being accused of knocking the very heart of our culture. The astute civilization critic Alexander Rüstow complained in the 50s that his keen insight encountered “a certain amount of squeamishness and irritable denial, even by persons unable to deny the overwhelming evidence on which it rests. It is only natural to try to suppress the unedifying part of the existing [system] and to treat attempts at exposing it as so many acts of spite and malice.”

Anthropologist John H. Bodley notes: “The principal function of civilization is to organize overlapping social networks of ideological, political, economic and military power that differentially benefit privileged households.” In plainspeak, this means “the system is specifically built so that most wealth flows to the elites.” And others agree. But the field is still rife with euphemisms. “Many layers of rich and poor, powerful and powerless” are smoothed over with the bland and ambiguous word “complex.” “Symbiotic or interdependent economy” nicely veils what is really a predatory economy with artificial dependencies. “Centralized accumulation of capital” hints that all wealth flows to the top, to city elites. “Centralization of wealth supporting many specialized producers of things and services” translates into “the elites live high on the hog and support whom they favor, such as producers of luxury goods.” “Some have access to everything, others to virtually nothing” is cleaned up by the the obscure word “stratification.” And little professional self-reflection is in evidence that would examine whether any such systems actually deserve the moniker “civilized.”

The current definitions (see below) as taught in college courses on the beginnings of civilization now do speak of classes, forcible extraction of surpluses, hierarchies, and even the word “domination” is sometimes mentioned. It has become a given that in order for a system to be called civilization, it must have rich robbing the poor, with tiny elites lording it over everyone else. Where this rather huge change in how we look at civilization would a century ago be shocking in the extreme and thought to be the work of disruptive malcontents, now it is presented in a dry, matter-of-fact, uncritical manner, wrapped in obfuscating, sanitizing, embarrassment-obviating jargon. I believe it is meant to create a sense that this is a perfectly natural state of affairs and really the only way of doing civilization, nothing to see here, just keep moving!

But a few radical types have refused to move on, unseeing. People from luddites to primitivists and other anti-civ rebels have gone so far as to define civilization as monstrous and aberrant, hopelessly unsustainable and irredeemable, and in view of its abruptly increasing destructiveness, have called for hastening its demise. They commonly quote Stanley Diamond’s definition which states that “civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” Prieur defines civilization as “an alliance between dominator consciousness and exploitation-enabling techniques, creating a society that systematically takes more than it gives.” And Jensen, loathing the cities that are the centers of our civilization, speaks of “an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.” As Jensen frequently insists, civilization must be dismantled.

I mince no words: Babylon must fall! Hasn’t it become pathetically transparent that the term “civilization” is one of those euphemisms meant to hide the brutality underneath? (“Nobility” — dapper robber barons — is another one of them.) Think of it this way: there are many diseases that are caused by bacteria, and their cure relies on getting rid of those bacteria. Other diseases are caused by viruses. So the medicines aim at overcoming the noxious virus. These remedies then enable the organism to restore its healthy balance. It’s long been apparent that the most common deadly diseases now, the ones killing so many people nowadays, are diseases of civilization: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity. So how do we deal with this modern epidemic? Again, everything points to the need for shedding the obvious causative agent, so that the personal and social immune systems can recover.

Characteristics of civilization
Anthrospeak vs. Plainspeak

  • Cities = Aggrandizer havens
  • Large regional populations = Peasants, proles, cannon fodder
  • Complex social organization = Vicious pecking order
  • Interdependent economy = Extortionary economy
  • Centralized accumulation of capital, through tribute or taxation, supporting non-food producers = Centralized elites, steal from everyone else, for themselves and their catering classes
  • Long distance trade = Chiseling distant peoples
  • Division of labor and specialization = Rat race
  • Record keeping, math, science = Handmaidens of the elites
  • Monumental architecture = Ostentation, busywork, propaganda
  • Monumental waste = After us, the deluge (…er, desert)

(adapted from Brian Fagan 1995)

[I apologize for lack of links and footnotes; they will come later.]


6 Responses to “So peculiar an institution”

  1. mike k Says:

    Good work. The first step is to see the problem(s) clearly. Then we have to come up with a way to get more people to see what we see. Small groups could be the crucibles to foster deep changes in worldviews. Didn’t Christianity start that way? Of course it was later co-opted by Constantine and his Empire. Maybe we could empire-proof people’s consciousness against that kind of takeover?

    A grass-roots movement loaded with anti-hierarchical principles — like AA. A re-empowerment of autonomous local small societies. Small is beautiful. Re-emergence of small clans, not based on blood, but higher principles of community and cooperation. Places to learn and grow beyond our cultural conditioning. A spirituality grounded in a love of the Earth and all Beings.

    Too much to ask? Nothing less will do. Half measures will avail us nothing. Our whole hearts and minds must become transformed in the light of a Higher Purpose. We must act to save our Souls, or be destroyed.

  2. leavergirl Says:

    Small groups that stress non-domination, learn non-domination amongst their members, will no doubt be the crucibles of change.

    Here is a neat, perceptive essay on “dear civ” for those hungering for more:

  3. Scribbly Says:

    … one has to be careful not to think that spotting the problem is finding the solution, nor to slide into the trap labelled ‘I have the privileged knowledge’.

    In the work of people like Spengler and Toynbee, late-phase civilizations are seen in exactly the same light as you see them here, just prior to falling. This is a moment of the cycle which always brings up the self-loathing in the civilized human. The civilization concerned falls soon afterward in all cases — nothing can hasten the fall, and nothing can prevent it.

    The talk of ‘elites’ often precedes their overthrow at the hands of a ‘people’s leader’ who is usually worse than what s/he replaced. Ultimately, in the times that are coming, the elites will need their bodyguards to save their wealth and then be murdered by them. This is predictable.

    Always forgotten, by this stage, is how it began — elites welcomed with true loyalty, no exploitation, the corruption into selfishness far in the future.

    A one-sided approach to summing up civilization, this, a need to be negative so as to break free, but if it’s what you need to get you going on whatever you think will happen next, you are welcome to it. In amongst all this is a simple fact: cultures, and the civilizations which certainly do represent their late and (so far) unpleasant phases, come into being by processes that we barely understand at all.

  4. leavergirl Says:

    Welcome, Scribbly!
    You seem to have a good grip on the problem. My focus, of course, is to provide a summation of the negatives as an antidote to all the paeans sung for civ while sweeping the crapola under the rug. And of course, the crapola was there early on too. Ergo, rebellions and revolutions.

    Right you are about the elites too; they begin by making offers that cannot be refused, and behave themselves until… until they no longer have to.

    My current thinking is that occasionally, a civilization can transition to something better or stabler. After all, neither Egypt nor China crashed… but rather moved on to some other permutations. Byzantines managed something similar for a little while. So… who knows. — I am working to extend these civ musings into a series this weekend, hope you come back. I really appreciate your input.

  5. Scribbly Says:

    they begin by making offers that cannot be refused, and behave themselves until… until they no longer have to.

    No. They begin by being honorable.

    China did crash, but recovered — same with Egypt. When there are no predators around and the culture favours longevity, harmony, order and the long-lasting, this can be possible. (Egypt as a culture was doing tai chi.) The art of Ancient Egyptian interregna is very revealing — no proportion. It is all about deeply being centred. Our own culture has nothing at all like this and is going to crash spectacularly I think. What honour there is left, we will see.

    hope you come back. I really appreciate your input

    No indeed! I have no interest in your project. I came here to see who chose to poke fun at Archdruids. Good luck.

  6. leavergirl Says:

    “They begin by being honorable.”

    Did I say they didn’t?

    Good luck to you too.

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