Monday, March 28, 2011

The character of the Ancient Greeks. Will mankind ever achieve anything like this again?

The Greek attitude during the Golden Age was marked by a driving spirit to learn and develop an understanding of the world. The Greeks were able to reach a profound clarity of thought driven by a motivation that sought balance and oneness in the world – the whole instead of the parts.

We see in their accomplishments fact and beauty working together: in the tragedies, ideas and emotion; in the sculpture, reality and ideality; in the temples, logic and simplicity. Moreover, the Greeks were able to live with what is seen and unseen – geometry and the gods in balance.

What happened to this balanced human point of view?

Since the time of the Greeks, man has been unable to produce the same balance between mind and spirit. With the fall of antiquity and the rise of the Christian point of view, man retreated into a spiritual world, full of fear, without logic and science as his companions. Antiquity was denounced as pagan and unclean, so the accomplishments of the Greeks were discarded.

With the advent of the Renaissance, the pendulum swung radically in the other direction. Man discovered himself, began to think again, and sought control over his life. Reality replaced the ideal and living overcame morality. The Reformation attempted to reassert morality on mankind, but denied beauty in the process.

The next stage began in the late nineteenth century with the triumph of science and the discarding of art, the power of the spirit, and religion. Man looked to science as the truth would carry mankind forward and create the perfect world. But science can be corrupting and expensive; its morals defined only by the intentions of the worst of man.

Now we reach the final stage, which involves the disintegration of national unity – a loss of oneness to accompany the loss of balance. There are those with the aim of expanding the mind and those who possess the spirit, but few possess both. The mind is used for profit and the spirit to resist it – the anti-capitalist obsession.

Few in America speak for the whole these days, as we evolve toward the ultimate relativism, the special interest group. There is no whole, but only the parts that do not add together. Each has its own agenda and no one looks for what’s common in all.

The end of relativism can only be produced by a unity by common cause, a reset of the individual in favor of the whole. Its seems that only a catastrophe will get us there, because we no longer possess the spirit and will to see its value on our own.

When Invasions Purify

The Geography of the Greek Peninsula offers protection from invaders, because the Balkan Mountain Range sits between Europe and Hellas. Nonetheless, there were at least two occasions in antiquity when the mountains were not high enough to protect the Greeks.

Invaders from the North spilled into Greece at the beginning (1900 B.C) and end (1100B.C) of the Second Millenium. Take a look at the following map. Blue is invasion one; Magenta invasion two.
The first of these invasions is marked by evidence of fire in many Greek settlements including Asea, Korakou, and Eutresis. Corinth was deserted afterward and Asine (Argolis) badly damaged.

The second invasion, more relevant to this post, was much more widespread. All of the Eastern Mediterranean was in decline and vulnerable, so the stage was set for traumatic changes to the early civilized world. Egypt, furthest from the source of the invaders, beat off attacks in 1230 and 1190 B.C. The coasts of Cyprus, Palestine, and Syria were attacked. The Assyrians were humbled and rendered impotent as a power and the Hittite Kingdom disappeared all together.

In Greece, Mycenae fell. Recovered tablets from Pylos record an effort to bolster coastal defenses against the invaders, to no avail. From Thessaly to Messenia, Delphi, and Attica, all were destroyed.

The Greeks, more shallow rooted than the cultures of the Fertile Crescent, fell hard and writing disappeared. The winners were the Dorians – barbarians who invaded a civilized land. The invasion was a catastrophe because it broke down a developed civilization, but the end of the Mycenaean Age at the hands of the Dorians was significant because the old ways were also destroyed. The Mycenaean view had been too tied to the outside – its predecessor Minoan culture. Now those external links were broken, freeing up the minds of the Greeks toward a new path. For three centuries the Greeks were separated from the east and moved forward in isolation. This new spirit was not Dorian. It was Greek forged by the invasion of the Dorians.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Civilization Without Cities

We talk a lot about cities in this blog because of their significance in the development of human culture. The first urban areas came into existence in antiquity, creating dense human populations, and setting the stage for the foundation for modern society. The Polis, in particular, has received many words here as the pre-eminent ancient urban model and the bulwark of the Greek civilization. More recently, we have discussed the early urban centers of Mesopotamia – the world’s first.

But there was one ancient civilization without a major city until the end of the second millennium B.C, a span of three thousand years. Do you know which one?

Its Egypt! Land of the Pharaohs – Jewel of the Nile. No cities? How can that be? Aren’t cities the natural result of the development of human society?

In Egypt, like other cultures, geography influenced man. Egypt is located between deserts, on the west, east, and south, making it immune from outside attack. On the north sits the great delta, with no natural harbors available to support an invasion. In its midst sits that great river with its alluvial plain, bringing precious water to any cultivated field near it.

Egypt was influenced by Mesopotamia (e.g. the pottery wheel) but did not derive from it, because there were unique aspects to this African land that made it different from any other.

The harshness of the surrounding land kept Egypt stable. The boundary line between arable land and desert was absolute, so it was never possible to settle on the fringe. Dissatisfaction was stillborn because no was nowhere for the dissatisfied to go.

Early on, there developed a sphere of political influence over hundreds of small communities, so the urban revolution never got started. The ruler was a king and god, which short-circuiting a separation of powers model seen in other cultures. Additionally, Egypt is a homogeneous geography which works against the kind of vertical economy seen in Mesopotamia. Near Sumer, plain, steppe, and mountain produced a micro-economic climate that allowed human task differentiation which was fostered in a urban setting.

It has been suggested by Anthropologists that cities arise from a human need for defense. Then, once they are established, urban areas develop in different ways. As we have said, Egypt needed no defense, so the primary driver for urbanism was lacking.

This great ancient Egyptian society featured a bureaucracy, which was the greatest in the history of man. It directed an economy of craft specialization and mass labor projects focused on division of labor by personnel rather than region – a stable process further increasing cultural stability.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Greek Feudalism - Links to Europe 500 A.D.- 1500 A.D.

I continue to be fascinated by the similarity between the Greek Dark Ages and the more recent European Dark Ages to the point of thinking and writing more about them. I want to test the hypothesis that both periods featured similar human behavior.

How this for an idea? What If the human experience during the Greek Dark Ages shows us the model of evolving human behavior in societies – a model that is repeated under similar circumstances? Then the Europeans, with knowledge of the Greek experience, would have known what lay ahead of them. They could have, in fact, predicted their future.

Of course, they never had a chance to acquire that knowledge because access to it was cut off by the suppression of pagan thought and culture that came with the early Catholic Church’s efforts to establish dogma. The Europeans were left in the dark regarding Greek history (no pun intended).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because we have to create a context for our comparison by more thoroughly reviewing the Greek experience. Take a look at the following diagram, which shows the Dark Ages and the Archaic Period with key dates in the latter identified. The Archaic Period was dominated by the Age of Revolution which included the most significant changes in Greek culture and world view in its history. We can see how Protocorinthian pottery sits at the beginning of the Revolutionary Period as its documenter.

There was plenty going on – colonization, development of the Polis, and changes in Greek religious philosophy. As far as religion goes, it was a period where power of the human mind replaced fear of the gods (think enlightenment). One can imagine the timid man struggling to trade in the animal barbarian view for brain dominance – the winning out of the intellect.

The Greeks evolved their religion in response to the upheaval of the Revolutionary Age in three fundamental ways: continuous expression of fear, reinvention of the personalities of their gods, and the creation of cults. Continuous expression refers to the use of monsters in art. By displaying objects of fear, over time they became less fearsome. Early pottery featured lions fighting, while later images make the animals look tame enough to be stuffed. They had become abstract images.

The gods were re-invented to show their human side (e.g. Heracles) which included their being re-casted as seekers of justice. This validated the sense of justice and morality emerging in the new Greek society, and made the gods the standard for right and wrong.

Lastly, cults appeared as an emotional safety valve. Orphism, mystics, seers, and mysteries helped to put the unknown answers to life in a box. Three major cults emerged – those of Dionysus, Apollo, and Heracles, with the former dominant. Cult worship evolved as a way to purge away fears and reassure the individual he could survive.

We see these significant adaptations in Greek religion and wonder about them. Surely religion was serving as a emotional guide, allowing man to think in new ways. But man has always adapted his religion to his situation. Just look at the MTV churches we have today.

We also see similarities between Greece and the European Middle Ages. In Europe, it took the reawakening of man’s spirit and confidence in himself to overcome a corrupted fear-based dogma which suppressed his desire to learn. The Europeans only had to rediscover their humanness. The Greeks had it tougher, because there was no past to use as a guide.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Greek Expression of Humaness

In the last post I described the similarity between the Greek Dark Ages and the European Dark Ages in the centuries before the modern Renaissance. The analogy also works when you drop beneath the surface and examine each period in more detail. For example, there was en enlightenment period in ancient Greece like the enlightenment period that began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries A.D.

I was thinking about this similarity and wondered whether the fact that the human race (western anyway) became actualized twice signals an innate human behavior pattern? I think it does.

We look at the amazing accomplishments of the Greeks and seek to explain them. How could a people twenty-five hundred years ago explode mankind out of a world of spirits and fear of nature to one of modern analytical thought?

Then I started thinking about Maslow’s triangle: the great psychologist’s method of describing a hierarchy of human needs.

Maslow’s categorizes human needs starting from the most basic animal functions at the bottom and moving upward through other needs toward self-actualization.

I mentioned in the previous post that man living alone he doesn’t have time to contemplate metaphysics, he has to spend his time surviving. He’s stuck at Maslow’s lowest level. If he joins a community, however, the group will help him move up the scale of needs toward self-actualization. In human society, his safety needs can be satisfied with the help of others and he can also develop friendships and intimacy.

The Greek intellectual accomplishments of the Golden Age resulted directly from an environment seen rarely in history where a culture of self-actualization was possible and encouraged. The Greeks couldn’t be thinkers until they had time to think and when the notion of philosophical thinking was tolerated.

The issue of human self-actualization is larger than Greece. I believe the development of any society and its institutions are a human driven process toward self-actualization, the twenty-first century being its greatest opportunity. What now? Do we keep moving forward or do we corrupt ourselves?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Feudalism Do Over

Ask anyone what they know about Feudalism and they immediately bring up the Dark Ages/Middle Ages in Europe – those glorious days of kings, vassals, and serfs when men were men. The term Feudalism is problematic, however, because it tries to define a general political condition in Europe when, in fact, the European experience was not uniform. Italy, for example, had no “Feudal” experience.

The term Feudal was first used in 1610 by French lawyers to describe traditional obligations between members of a warrior aristocracy and then co-opted later by Montesquieu and others to represent the medieval period in Europe. Since Feudal was not used during the period it describes, there has never been a clear definition of the term and more than one historian refuses to use it.

The word Feudalism has a separate purpose in this post, however, where I will use it to describe stage two of the three stages of development of human society. In my view, this process includes tribal, feudal, and political stages: the latter referring to a society of laws and complex government (democracy, republic).

The stage I’m calling Feudalism is a required step before tribesmen can become citizens. In a tribal society there was a leader who exerted control over the people. Over time, this leader accumulated wealth and then named himself king. The kingship gave him power over an enormous amount of land and a distributed mass of humanity. At some point the king needed to use his wealth to bargain for power. He traded land for loyalty and a feudal society was born. Then, over time, as wealth became more broadly distributed, those with money began to demand rights. At this point we enter stage three with the advent of a legal system and complex government.

In the history of Europe this process had occurred twice: during the time leading up to the classical age and once again after its fall. This twice exercised process is represented in the following chart.

In 476 A.D, when the Roman Empire collapsed, Europe regressed into a tribal society which served as the foundation for re-building the modern age. What if those thousand years had not have been lost? Where would western society be today?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Karl Marx redux

While I was reviewing Marx’ theories for my last post, I noticed something interesting which is worth discussing as a separate topic. We don’t think of Marx as linked to the ancients, but his lack of knowledge of antiquity certainly had an impact on the validity of his theory of class warfare.

Marx is considered one of the founders of sociology, along with Weber and Durkheim, and there is no question about his contribution to the understanding of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the lives of the workers in the factories of England. He was the first to describe the individual’s economic value as a producer of manufactured goods and he accurately described the negative impact of the exploitation of labor and the alienation of the worker. Marx felt that political leaders would always be dependent on the economic value of industrial production, support the corporations over the workers, and create private property on the backs of the exploited, so the only way for the workers to recover their value as human beings and end the exploitation would be through class revolt.

Marx provided a context for this revolution by placing it on the historical timeline of economic development in Western society. He started his progression with the feudal system, moved to the capitalist system, and finally predicted a transition to the communist system. In other words, he saw a pattern which, for him, showed the way to the future, and defined a communist political system as the ultimate result.

I’m not sure how much was known about the ancient economies during Marx’s time or how much Marx read what was available. Had current knowledge been accessible and had he been aware of it, Marx would have seen his context was invalid. He apparently didn’t understand that there were elements of capitalism in both ancient Greece and Rome and that the feudal system was not the first step in the development of modern production but merely a retrogressive period which occurred after the collapse of the ancient civilizations.

The ancients had corporations, factories (in a crude sense), capital formation, and the building of wealth through the accumulation of assets and capital. This is the natural behavior of people as they form a complex society.

The key factor that differentiates the ancients from the Industrial Revolution is efficiency. The ancients did not have the machines or efficient means of transportation to produce and ship goods in quantity like we do today. Nevertheless, as I state often, the ancient world put into practice ideas we consider “modern” and any description of Rome and Greece as ignorant and undeveloped is totally false.

I suggest that the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century was the true anomaly because it ushered in a period of severe exploitation of human beings in industry. Marx did not realize the inevitability of forces that would mitigate the harm – namely laws against exploitation and the rise of labor unions. Those safety valves were triggered before class warfare could become a reality.

In ancient and modern cultures, forces exist that create conflict between classes of human beings, but, ultimately, when exploitation reaches the breaking point, the people rise up and change their leaders or their political system. The structure of those uprisings is the sum of the contributions the role of the various classes and could never come from or evolve into a single class society.

Human Behavior and Its Relationship to Political Systems

Human beings are not created equal, but, in fact, differ according to a normal distribution – big to small, thin to fat, athletic to clumsy. Similarly, intelligence is distributed across a measurable range with the average IQ set at 100. Geniuses at the high end and idiots at the low end represent extremes compared with the large number in the middle.

Our species has endured because the average human can survive either by his own wits or an association with others he can depend on. Most of us are social animals, more comfortable in the company of others than in isolation.

When people become part of a social structure, another kind of distribution occurs – the distribution of labor. If the group is small, the distribution is narrow. In ancient times, for example, tribes or clans had a flat hierarchy – a small group of physically strong leaders and everyone else gathering food or farming. When the tribe grew into a community, a village, a town, and finally a city, the distribution was forced to expand to meet the goods and services requirements of a complex society. The people in those cities assumed a socio-economic position according to three drivers of human behavior: physical, mental, and psychological. The ability of any individual to rise in status depended on the strength of these characteristics in combination. A good soldier would need physical strength and courage (psychological strength). Mental ability would not matter unless he was the commander. A merchant would be psychologically strong and able to sell his goods without being physically strong. He might also want to be mentally strong because he has to use his brain to run a business. A philosopher may be mentally strong but weak in the other two characteristics: adept at thinking but not able to stand up to other people.

So we see that human beings in society gravitate to positions that reflect their aptitude. That’s why we have kings, blacksmiths, writers, artisans, laborers, soldiers, beggars, and criminals. Wealth and power are hereditary. The sons of the rich and powerful start out with an advantage. Some use it; some squander it. Many men rise from nothing to success through hard work and intelligence -- strong in the psychological and mental traits. Others are capped by their limitations and must do hard labor. Nothing one can change this reality of human capability.

Political systems evolved because common people wanted protection against the abuses of the rich and powerful. The spark was the realization by individuals that they deserved certain rights: rights that gave them freedom to live based on their own choices. The early political systems of Greece and Rome came into being when political power was balanced enough to support the creation of laws written to protect these rights. Democracies and Republics were born out of the incubator of social conflict after many fits and starts.

In exchange for freedom, men were willing to trade responsibility. What I mean is they realized that freedom transfers responsibility to the individual: responsibility to live by his own means, be a good citizen, and accept what comes along in life. The will to freedom carries a price. Scary but desirable. Of course, some were never able to take that step because they lacked the capacity. The world has always had beggars.

Let’s look at a couple of modern examples where human behavior has been ignored by political theorists and politicians. The price paid for ignorance is failure.

The first example is Karl Marx and his theory of communism. Marx was idealistic, angry, clever, and completely lacking an understanding of human behavior. How he could possibly think that his theory was practical, I can’t imagine. Was he only putting out a theory – a utopia for the proletariat? I don’t know. He was amazingly na├»ve to think workers would unite in a common cause because, historically, lower classes never have a major part in revolutions. Since they lack the intelligence and organization to accomplish their goals, they typically only participate in mob activity in the beginning.

Fast forward to the Russian Revolution, where the theories of Marx were supposedly put into practice and, in fact, weren’t. The soviet leadership used communist theory as veneer over the creation of an autocratic regime incorporating many of the same elements that caused the revolt against the Czars in the first place. Soviet leaders must have had to stifle their laughter while preparing speeches about the wonderful communist ideology, because they weren’t really interested in creating a culture with a single socio-economic class. Surprisingly, many simple-minded liberal intellectuals in this country did not see the difference between theory and reality either. Were they merely channeling anger against the capitalist model or was it just the fact that communism was fashionable? Where are those communist adherents now when their favorite model has failed everywhere? They never understood that the hierarchy of man in society cannot be removed.

Now fast forward again to the United States in 2009, where we see in the Obama plan something as impractical as Marx. I shouldn’t say the Obama plan because the legislative agenda is in reality the Democratic Party’s ideology. The left believes that its always good for government to take control in areas where some portion of the population is disadvantaged. This is government acting as caretaker for the nation. The problem is what we are left with at the end of this, as in the case of the current health care initiative. If the ideologues are allowed to pass this measure, the government will take a giant step toward taking over the life of every American. The problems with government control of a large component of the economy are several. In the first place, a gap exists between ideology and reality. Bills are passed too quickly without proper analysis and debate. The situation is worse when the bills are complicated. Often, legislators admit they have not read bills they voted for. This lack of care produces laws that have unintended consequences. Secondly large programs are expensive and cost more than rosy cost estimates project.

More importantly, to reiterate the point made earlier about the relationship between freedom and self responsibility – they go together. When the government takes responsibility away from people, it also takes away their freedom by subjecting them to a bureaucracy they can’t control.

Ironically, the Democrats, who espouse more Democracy (let’s let felons vote), are the ones taking steps to make us less Democratic. Once a law is passed and in the hands of the bureaucracy, it cannot be voted on and removed like an officeholder can. It takes on a life of its own. Each new entitlement accumulates governmental controls and removes freedom from every citizen.

Because of our unique founding Americans are well aware of the factors that made our country great – opportunity and liberty. We declared independence because we didn’t want the British controlling our lives. Now we have the same problem with a controlling bureaucracy.

The Greek Mind

What is it about the Greeks that enabled them to create the unique civilization we admire twenty five hundred years later -- a civilization some might argue has never been matched. To try and get at the answer, we look at the setting that fostered the building of a Greek identity, starting with the Greek dark ages and progressing to the classical period during the 5th century B.C. when the intellectual Greece reached its zenith.

In the time before the Greeks, man saw life as a dark and risky experience. Priests were part of each tribe and carried the responsibility for interpreting the will of the gods, which was not something that could only be understood by “specialists”.

The Greeks were able to escape the primitive view of the world and become enlightened as individuals. How?

Part of the story is the geography of Greece: mountainous with areas of extraordinarily fertile land, sitting at the connection of Europe to Asia, and not easy to invade. The mountains separated the people into local tribes, and those human colonies evolved into cities of equals. No aristocracy developed because there was no way to accumulate wealth; no way for a king to buy power. Military leaders ruled because each city had to be able to defend itself. Geography kept the colonies small and homogeneous -- the right setting for evolving the Polis.

Still geography does not tell us the whole story. It doesn’t tell us why the Greek mind began to wonder about man’s place in the world. To these first thinkers, the world seemed predictable and not magical. Physical events could be shown to repeat themselves meaning there must be order to the universe.

But the Greeks were thinking more broadly than the laws of physics. They adopted a unique synthesis of mind and spirit which has seldom existed before or since. Everything was looked at in terms of the whole and not its parts. Human beings were seen as part of a species even though they are individuals. The Greeks understood anatomy but realized a heart is the same in everyone. When they designed a building, the Greeks took into account its surroundings and how it fit in the space – the whole as important as the parts. Famous men were interested in everything as we see in the philosophers who were trying to learn all that could be known.

The Greek spirit is what we are missing today -- the experience of the joy of life. They played games for the purity of athleticism and competition and not for any other purpose. How sad to compare the Roman games of slaughter with the Olympics! They reveled in the joy of beauty and the appreciation of beautiful things. They described virtue as “beautiful” giving an aesthetic trait to human character.

The Romans never had the Greek spirit. They were “mind” only. Look at a problem, solve it, and move on. The context doesn’t matter; only the finished product – best army, best temples, best roads – but spiritless.

The same problem exists in the world today. We have become pieces separated from the whole – there is no whole. Only the individual matters, and individual rights over the rights of the people as a whole. Our minds have produced the greatest “things” but what does owning a designer shirt mean? Only more self-serving isolation from the rest of mankind.

Fascination with the Greeks

I find the Spartans and the Athenians equally fascinating. How is it that two cultures like these could exist at the same time in history -- and in the same region of the world? If we drop the Spartans out of the picture for a few moments and look at the golden age of Athens (460-430 B.C), there was perhaps no greater culture in the history of the world. Between science, art, architecture, mathematics, drama, and philosophy the Athenians did it all. Why then and why not since then? One doubts that the ancient Greeks were smarter than every culture since then, but then we’re forced to conclude it was the environment – geography, culture, political system, etc., that was responsible.

There is no doubt the political structure was supportive. Greek democracies promoted free thought and equality among the people. Still, there had to exist the intellectual capacity and curiosity to produce advanced thinking. There is no question that the Greek art, architecture, and philosophy still have great influence.

Separately, mathematics and science continue to advance today as they have continuously over two thousand years – how could they not given the number of thinkers, perhaps more in one American university today than all of Greece in 450 B.C.

But most of the rest of our intellect is corrupted by our complex society and the love of “things”. We have made life easy -- to easy – and discipline is too hard for modern society. Few Americans could tolerate the Spartan life, psychologically and physically.

What the Athenians did for intellectual thought the Spartans did for the art of war. They began a unique system of discipline to protect themselves from their enemies and took it to the extreme -- producing a perfect fighting machine. If you’d asked a Spartan whether he felt like a slave in his culture of discipline, he’d say no. It was a way of life, an honorable life they lived. The Spartan king Agesilaus was asked which of the laws introduced by Lycurgus was most important. He replied, “contempt for pleasures”.

The Spartan Character

As W.G. Forrest astutely points out in his book, The History of Sparta 950-192 B.C, the three great Spartan characteristics were equality, military fitness and efficiency, and austerity.

The 9,000 or so Spartiates were equals -- equal to each other and superior to all other men. They got there by passing through the Agoge: twenty three years of military training starting at age seven. The years before age twenty were brutal and made up of long and increasing difficult military training. Beaten by their elders, the young would train in teams with a watchful eye of an elder looking to identify the best of them. Then from age twenty to thirty the victims became the punishers, as they achieved senior cadet status. They learned to read and write; to sing and dance, but all of this was window dressing around the fine tuning their ability to fight. Everywhere there was rivalry -- boy against boy within a team, and team against team. Admission to the sussition (mess) was the end point, but not without a unanimous vote in favor – a single no vote and a man became an outcast.

After graduation, the soldier could marry, but still he ate the evening meal with his 288 man Lochos. Each soldier took his turn finding food for the meal which usually featured the Spartan “black” broth, made of pig’s blood, pork, and vinegar. No Spartan soldier worked; work was for the helots. The soldiers needed only to train, socialize with their peers, and go to war. It was agreed that war was a relief from having to train, and much easier.

Aristotle was critical of the Spartan system, saying, “The Spartans turn men into machines and in devoting themselves to one single aspect of a city’s life, end up making them inferior to even that”. True enough, but Aristotle was looking through the lens of his own time rather than the past when an army was the foundation of the polis. It’s interesting that the Spartans built their political system when the military was most important to the state, but then never evolved because their system was so stable.

And austerity – in spades! Spartan youth were allotted one cloak per year and slept on a bed of rushes gathered from the riverbank. All had to find their own food or steal it, whatever was required. And no alcohol -- only the helots could drink, so they could set an example of bad behavior.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Civilizations Fail

The current world turmoil, economic, political, and religious, is unsettling to anyone with a sense of history and its lessons regarding the human tendency to ruin that which is good. We find ourselves, at the same time, wavering between a sense of pessimism and the “head in the sand” notion that everything is all right. Of course it’s tempting to become a doomsday predictor and turn the sum of what’s wrong into catastrophe – to throw our hands up and join the pessimists.

But this kind of emotional pessimism is a mistake because we have to be rationalists, put reason behind our thoughts, and dispense with the emotion. Let the emoters cry wolf at every turn like they always do.

I have recently become acquainted with the work of Elman Service, one of our great cultural anthropologists. In his book Origins of the State and Civilization, Service speculates about the subject of this post. He presents six civilizations, including China, Egypt, Peru, and Mesoamerica, delving into the reasons for their collapse.

All came to and end due to a failure of bureaucratic governance. That is all failed in their reason for being – protection of the society from external and internal threats to its integrity. Throughout generations of historical analysis, many theories have emerged to explain the collapse of civilizations including failures of leaders due to arrogance or complacency, a natural cycle of things (rise/fall, growth/decay), and growth beyond the capability to control. Service sees all these as partial explanations, not fully describing the real world.

He believes collapse is the result of expansion and a resulting conservatism that makes a civilization less flexible. When a civilization expands, it encounters its neighbors and adapts to that new interface. Success in adaptation eventually breeds conservatism and makes the dominant power less flexible. Meanwhile the dominated cultures seek to overcome domination through their greater flexibility for innovation and experimentation. As Trotsky said, “the dominated suffer from the privilege of backwardness.” In this condition, they can borrow the latest techniques from advanced civilizations AND skip developmental steps that take time, resulting in the ability to create in themselves an enormous revolutionary potential. That power eventually becomes competitive with the dominant civilization allowing them to free themselves or become dominant over their complacent neighbor.

How does this model relate to the United States? In our world today the expanding boundaries interface is economic rather than military. Our dominance in business is under attack by the rest of the world who seek to break off shares of our success.

Smaller countries or groups of countries can be more agile than us, particularly where low cost labor and natural resources give them an advantage. It remains for us to regain the agility required to protect our position.

It also feels to me that in this post-modern world we have started to decay internally from a culture of relativism. Perhaps this derives from the fact that the major influence on government action is lobbying. Since lobbyists represent groups, you have to be in group to be represented. You just can’t be an American. African-Americans, Hispanics, union workers, feminists, and teachers all have specific agendas which they bring forward, so government never acts on the whole body of Americans, only the sub-groups.

Take our current health care bill for example. It attempts to satisfy all constituencies but in the end satisfies none. The reason a majority of Americans oppose the bill is because they are happy with their health care and oppose a change to the unknown. But the whole has no lobbyists – only the parts do.

If our government fails the whole, it abdicates its reason for being – protecting its people from internal threats to its integrity. When a civilization is not integrated, it disintegrates.