What is a civilization? This was part of what historian and political scientist Carrol Quigley was interested in answering in his book The Evolution of Civilizations, first published in the 1961. If a civilization is but a large group of people then what distinguishes one civilization from another? And why do civilizations rise and fall?
Quigley's first attempted definition of a civilization was a culture with a written language and cities. A culture is already something different than a group. It is a group that mostly interacts with itself. A civilization is a collection of cultures that can share geographic space without annihilating each other. Other things can be shared, such as social institutions: military, governing, religious, productive, financial, or distributive institutions.
Quigley made an interesting observation that helped him understand how civilizations rise and fall: social institutions have a built-in self-destruct mechanism. They start out as attempts to satisfy social needs (defense, coordination of activities, self-transcendence, productivity, the need to save energy and invest it in the future, and the need to trade goods and services), at which point Quigley calls them instruments. Then they inevitably seem to evolve into self-serving institutions, in which the original aims are forgotten, vested interests take over, and inertia and inability to adapt ensue.
The particular instrument that redefines and explains the rise and fall of civilizations is what Q called an instrument of expansion. A civilization is thus a culture with an instrument of expansion. It has 3 parts, according to Q:
1. Incentive for innovation
2. instrument to generate surplus
3. Ability to invest the surplus in innovation
The instrument invariably decays into a dysfunctional institution that no longer is able to provide expansion and if it can't be reformed or circumvented, conflict arises, which weakens the civilization, eventually enough to be successfully invaded by peripheral peoples or other civilizations. Out of the ashes a hybrid sometimes arises of the old civilization and the invaders, and if it can develop an instrument of expansion, the birth of a new civilization has occurred.
Now Q was not a devotee of the religion of Progress, which sees all history as going towards improvement in all areas. He understood tradeoffs, or the idea that progress in one area often leads to regress in another area. Q was part of the cyclical school of historians, which includes Vico, Spengler and Toynbee, who saw history and civilizations in terms of cycles. Q critiqued the previous cyclical historians for not finding causes for the observed cycles, which he claims to have done with the theory of the instrument of expansion.
But why must a civilization be able to expand in order to merit its name? Why isn't it sufficient, as many cultures have been able to do, to be sustainable? This is no small achievement, requiring many virtues of observation, communication, patience, delayed gratification, acceptance of outsiders and peacefulness. Isn't Q equating civilization with empire? He refers to non-civilized cultures (according to his definition of lacking an instrument of expansion), as parasitic, which he contrasts with productive. But here he betrays his own western cultural bias. To take from the land while not giving back in fertility, to reap benefits while externalizing costs, to use people in a one-sided way (for their petroleum, for their medicine, for their labor), to rob future generations of non-renewable resources, this is much closer to parasitism than cultures who can live sustainably. So in this Q would be admonished by Gandhi who said Civilization would be a great idea. But western civilization, and the empire civilizations that preceded it are not civilized in having the virtues above. They are rapacious empires which depend on expansion for survival.
What human need does expansion serve? Since there are plenty of cultures which are not empires and do not need or want to expand, there must be some other human need that expansion is a proxy for. Quigley suggests that there is a basic need for expansion and that the coincidental appearance of the 3 factors (see above and below) enables a culture to satisfy that need or not. This is hard to test because cultures that say they have no need to expand could be saying it because it is true, or because the 3 factors have not appeared and so they only think they don't have a need to expand. If it isn't expansion in itself, what is it that leads some cultures to expand while others have no such need? At this point it is useful to break down this so-called need into the constituent parts that Q found in order to understand it in more detail.
1. Incentive to innovate: this seems to be related to the human (and some animal) need for change. Too much routine leads to boredom. But too quick or too much change leads to insecurity and instability. These needs must be balanced. Note that though all humans need change, not all cultures provide an incentive for innovation. The need for change can be satisfied in other ways (e.g. travel or being in tune with the cycles of nature) other than innovations in economic organization or technological innovation.
2. The ability to generate surplus: for Q this entailed necessary wealth inequality, where some people have surplus at the expense of those who have to spend all their time surviving. Those with surplus can then use it to invest in innovation.
3. An ability to invest the surplus in more innovation.
Let's examine 2 and 3. The ability to generate surplus can happen from
A. technological means (e.g all the technology involved in domestication of animals and plants, grain, storeage of grain, meat preservation, etc.), from
B. economic organization (e.g. slaves, who generate surplus for their masters, or workers who generate surplus for capital owners, or specialization, or free trade, or distributist production), or from
C. working in harmony with nature, the supreme generator of surplus, but which we often waste or degrade with unwise ecological practices.
Note that Q only considers B. Moreover there is no necessity in investing surplus solely in innovation, except in capitalism where surplus gives rise to falling prices (abundance in capitalism causes scarcity for producers in a never ending cycle). It can also be invested in distributing the wealth equitably (not necessarily equally), in proportion to each person's contribution or costs, instead of the zero sum game that Q saw as the only choice. There can be such a thing as too much innovation, leading to insecurity and instability. Also, there can be a tradeoff between innovation and social wealth equity, dependent on how much of the surplus is invested in innovation and how much in wealth equity. In not seeing these tradeoffs Q has fallen prey to a Religion of Progress meme of neglecting tradeoffs.
On the other hand, in creating a new culture, there is a need to grow infrastructure and hence a need to generate surplus. This is ignored by people who see all growth as an abomination. Growth and the surplus necessary to sustain it are necessary in certain stages of organismal and cultural history. The problem is not growth per se, but perpetual growth, or unlimited growth on a finite planet. At some point growth must cease (but change must continue in other ways because it is a human need), but not before the new culture matures and builds its infrastructure.
Q saw 7 stages of every civilization, arising rom the mechanism of the institutionalization of the instrument of expansion:
We will not talk about these in detail but refer to 5-6 below.
These ideas are not just abstract, but have influenced Bill Clinton, who considered Q his most influential professors. Hillary Clinton is probably influenced by Bill Clinton's worldview and many neo-liberal thinkers are probably too. So it's a safe bet that the next president of the US, HRC is going to make all the same mistakes inherent in Q's distorted and erroneous worldview:
1. She will encourage more growth at the expense of wealth equity and environmental sustainability
2. She will encourage more high tech innovation, even if the innovation makes things worse.
3. She will not shy away from global conflict, believing that this will ease domestic conflict because it addresses the "need" for expansion, and also because the stage of Universal Empire is predicted by Q to follow the stage of conflict and to provide a peaceful (though temporary) resolution to the stage of conflict.
4. She will try to reform institutions of expansion so that they become better able to achieve their goals (in Q's terms, she will try to transform them back into instruments). These are banking, military and industrial institutions.
5. She will try to consolidate the American Empire against competitors such as Russia and China.
6. She will try to defend against the peripheral "barbarian", (fill-in-the blank) invaders, who signal the 7th, terminal stage of a civilization, and keep ours in the 5th (Universal Empire), or 6th (decay) stages. I wonder if the stage of decay gives her a historical stamp of approval for such maneuvers as election rigging.
In the next post I will examine how to understand certain of Qs insights from the point of view of evolutionary theory and fitness landscapes.