Researchers at universities in Portugal and Belgium discovered earlier in the year that the way to less selfish societies is to give individuals the freedom to behave as they wish. Their research gives scientific weight to the idea that, left to their own devices, people tend naturally to cooperation.
Though perhaps not a huge surprise to most of us, it offers another important challenge to the traditional line that our default priority behaviour is to compete – a line that has determined the rules of our economic and social systems for centuries.
In support of this is a real-life, on-the-ground survey of recently laid-off Wall Street workers conducted by sociologist Richard Sennett, who explained on BBC Radio 4 that despite the financial constraints on these newly unemployed people the majority are determined not to go back to working as they were. They are, he said, keen to find more collaborative and cooperative ways of working that sidestep the stress of individual competition. Sennett, author of several books on the effects of modern capitalism on quality of life, suggests the economic downturn gives us an opportunity to rethink how we want to work.
I suggest that whether or not we grasp this opportunity will, at some point, determine much more than how we work – for reasons I’ll come to. First though, what do these all-too-fleeting news items remind us?
Uh-oh, you’re thinking: here comes another diatribe about how the industrial growth economy prevents us from fulfilling our true potential and how our culture of consumption and competition is destroying our mental health, all topped with a bit of mournful analysis about our disconnect from nature.
But stay with it – this time we’re going a bit deeper.
A simple step back can give us an intriguing vantage point on the situation. Let’s look in from the outside on that bastion of human social structures, that system that represents and embodies the pinnacle of human achievement: civilisation. Not just modern civilisation – the very concept of civilisation itself.
Our unwavering belief that civilisation forms primary evidence for the superiority and sophistication of the human species, and that to become civilised is to improve oneself, prevents all but the most marginal discussion of the possibility that civilisation as we understand it could in fact be the problem – or a big part of it. Which is a shame, because the possibility is an instructive one.
It’s impossible to do this thesis justice in a few lines: it needs to be a personal journey of exploration. But I hope at least to find the lines that might tempt further reading. They are none of them original thinking, but compiled from years of ad-hoc reading.
Outgrowing our ecosystems
What’s self-evident is that the social systems that underpin civilisation are fantastically efficient at harnessing human energy and, within privileged circles at least, creativity. This has its upsides, for sure. But on the downside, it has enabled us to become so successful as a species that we have repeatedly outgrown the ecosystems in which we have lived. A quick look back at the courses other civilisations have taken reveals that exploitation of natural resources, pride, a sense of invincibility, and overshoot leading to systemic crisis are common to most if not all that have ever existed.
Not only that, the areas of land spreading out from the high-density population areas that characterise civilisations – cities – become denuded of life in direct proportion to the size and power of the civilisation in question. Sometimes they are so badly affected that they never regenerate. Civilisation has always exported its costs, both social and ecological, and the majority of the people working within its structures have invariably been sheltered from this fact.
Even now, it’s barely acknowledged that many of the deserts on our planet – think the Meditteranean and North Africa, Greece, Northern India – came about as a result of the actions of earlier civilisations (think Roman, Greek, Indus River Valley). Much of these areas were once forested and bursting with a rich variety of plant and animal species. Shocking though that is, we turn a blind eye to the ecological devastation such grand civilisations left in their wake, preferring instead to concentrate on their legacies of literature, mathematics, architecture and philosophy.
It is perhaps not surprising that we persist in our unquestioning admiration of past civilisations – even if it requires us to fall for the oldest con trick in history. Acknowledging their dark side is just a step away from admitting our own, which is not part of the political programme. While we may recognise that modern, industrial culture is extractive and exploitative, the full extent to which the familiar and comfortable centres of our recent and current empires owe their success to the brutality, poverty, pollution and starvation we have exported abroad is rarely considered. George Monbiot reminds us what we’re missing in his article Outsourcing unrest, which details some of the plunders wrought by the British Empire, global capitalism and the IMF.
To admit that traditional cultures – those we like to dismiss as ‘primitive’ – have found ways of living without such a distasteful requirement for ecological plunder and devastation is to put ourselves in an equally uncomfortable position.
But we would do well to consider these perspectives for they offer much of relevance to our future. What comes from reading the works of those prepared to challenge the apparent virtues of civilisation – Daniel Quinn, John Zerzan, Ivan Illich, Derrick Jensen – is an awareness that civilisation has at its heart a dark and immutable truth, a fundamental error in its operating system. It is a system that is inherently unsustainable and in fact antithetical to life itself. If you doubt this, read Derrick Jensen’s two-volume book Endgame, William Kotke’s The Final Empire (available for free online) or Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution To A Global Crisis by Keith Farnish (available online for free as A Matter of Scale).
Jensen’s tome is based on twenty premises. A small selection follows. Each is deeper than it first seems: stop and test each one and see if you can refute it. I could not.
“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”
“The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control—in everyday language, to make money—by destroying or taking the lives of those below. This is called production. If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or otherwise destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.”
“Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.”
On his site Jensen quotes an equally pertinent observation from Stanley Diamond: “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.”
Doesn’t this make sense of everything troublesome in our society?
Once the problem of civilisation has been identified it becomes possible, in time, to spot the propaganda put out by the power points within our own civilisation to preserve and protect their interests. Then the true context of clashes at the frontier with those outside it becomes clear (think of the dozens of Amazon Indians, shot dead in Peru last month when peacefully protesting the decimation of their forest homes by Western corporations for oil). Just refer back to Jensen’s premises above. The importance of speaking up for these cultures on the ‘outside’, so that we may recognise and correct our treatment of them as well as help preserve and learn from their wisdom and worldviews – becomes clear; it is required for truth and healing on both sides of the frontier.
Wisdom, magic and ingenuity
The expansion and contraction cycles of civilisations have of course been understood for centuries. What has been less well documented is the beauty, wisdom and value of the cultures and natural communities they so often wiped out or assimilated. History is written by the conquerors, so we had no reason to appreciate the sophisticated trading, mathematical and social know-how of the Celts until Roman propaganda about their barbaric nature was debunked – which it still is being now; we still belittle what some call ‘backward’ cultures on the periphery of modern society, like the Native Americans, rather than acknowledge the intelligence of some of their social and governing structures and the fact that – where all the educated minds in all the governments of the capitalist world seem to have failed – some of them have had sustainability cracked for a very long time.
We in Britain don’t even have the sense to celebrate the wisdom, magic, craftmanship and ingenuity of our own, post-Roman predecessors, which survived long into the period before the Normans arrived, known pejoratively as the dark ages (lacking as it was the illumination of that tool of empire, religion). In his book The Real Middle Earth, Brian Bates, professor at Brighton University, says “seen from the viewpoint of what they offer us today, the best of their ancient culture represents a millennium of knowledge and insight in areas of life in which we might be relative paupers today” – an observation echoed by archeologist Francis Pryor.
In The Final Empire, Kotke proposes that civilised culture is not an improvement on traditional culture but rather an inversion of it, in which society changed from one of sharing to one of deliberate material inequality; from social equality to hierarchies of authority and despotism; from emphasis on fecundity, mother nature and matrilocal culture to emphasis on scarcity and patriarchy; and from an emphasis on cooperation in clan society to an emphasis on the cult of the warrior and violence – coercion.
I should say now that I am not recommending a return to hunter-gatherer or subsistence living, nor the fetishisation of primitivism or anarchy. What these observations are meant to offer is simply an alternative perspective, which can lift the veils on some of the more confusing aspects of the world we experience and revive our motivations to create something better.
The civilisation filter makes sense not only of the violence at its frontiers but also of the pitiful flailings of those of us caught inside the system; confused, blaming the politicians, the economic structures, schools, corporations; baffled by the overwhelming cultural and bureaucratic barriers to building cooperative, nature-respecting, prosperous, self-directing communities, mystified as to how democracy led to a choice that was no choice at all.
Now we can see these are all inevitable facets of a system that survives by concentrating and funnelling power upwards, exploiting natural resources, and relying on domination and the threat of violence to keep its lower levels subdued. We are all participating in the system, born and bred in captivity, held by bars we cannot see, complicit in maintaining the structure because we have no idea how to survive outside it.
The time is long overdue for honest, liberating conversations about our time and where we are heading. Let’s also revisit the idea of civilised behaviour. If civilisation is preventing us from being as cooperative as we’d like, from taking part in collaborative work within our communities as we’d like, it’s not breeding behaviour I (for one) aspire to.
Instead it encourages the niceties that keep us in line and our mouths shut; it makes sure that we keep a stiff upper lip, defer passively to authority figures, and don’t speak out of turn. It keeps us pacified and obedient by perpetuating blind aspirations to the absurd material values held by those at the top of the structure. Being civilised might be a pre-requisite for getting by in this culture, but it is also the means by which we repress and deceive ourselves, for it so often precludes passion, compassion and honest debate, and redefines acts of complicity with the system as ‘doing the right thing’.
Perhaps the economic downturn is changing some of this; and even if the rush towards community and self-sufficiency is fuelled as much by financial privations as by human nature: let’s go for it and become uncivilised!
Let’s quietly withdraw; behave as cooperatively as we wish; redirect our aspirations away from what’s ‘above’ us and towards our communities; speak freely; commit unexpected acts of kindness; form alliances with those normally considered our competitors; decouple from the global economy; start local currencies; tell children the truth; be exuberant; stop thinking in terms of self and other; learn for ourselves the real meaning of anarchy and read the compassionate, intelligent writings of its proponents; make our own music and art; do guerilla gardening; fight for the oppressed and pull our investments from those structures that prop up, for now, the machinery of civilisation.
I say ‘for now’ because, like the others, this civilisation can only go in one direction from here: down. There are endless discussions underway about this – when it might happen – or when it started – whether it will take all of the natural world with it or leave some to regenerate. I’ll add some links to the most enlightening essays I’ve come across at the end. Take what you will from them but don’t lose sight of the fact it will happen and is probably beginning to happen already; it may proceed slowly, perhaps quickly, perhaps causing big changes in your lifetime, perhaps in those of the children in your family, but it is going to happen. We cannot grow in numbers and rapacity at the top of a dwindling food-chain and expect to do anything other than crash, at some point or other.
Which means that taking advantage of any periods of underemployment now to re-educate and reskill ourselves, or the children in our families, or the people in our communities is a damned good idea. At the very least we will have something of genuine worth to pass down to those forging their way in the aftermath – even if it’s only a better understanding.
As Jared Diamond points out so compellingly and chillingly in his book Collapse, when it does fall, this civilisation will collapse like no other, for it is the first to have encircled the globe. We’ll have nowhere to go but home.
- I don’t deny civilisation has brought some wonderful things. For an interesting critique of the pure ‘anti-civilisation’ line taken by Jensen, Zerzan et al, try this essay.
- That doesn’t take away from the inevitability of collapse: see this wry, informative analysis from Dmitry Orlov (who has seen it all before in the Soviet Union).
- Mind-boggling, up-to-date overview from same Dmitry Orlov
- Why no amount of financial bail-outs will save the system: it’s all about energy
- What to do once you’ve realised it’s going to happen
- Food might be the first thing we notice going awry
- If ecological collapse isn’t touching you, this might wake you up
- Latest ponderings from the author of Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse
- Comprehensive suite of absorbing articles by Paul Cherfuka
[I realise that how and why civilisations and the civilised mind came about is the obvious next question. This will be considered, tentatively, in a future article.]