Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.
If I’m going to contemplate the collapse of civilization, I need to define what it is. I looked in some dictionaries. Webster’s calls civilization “a high stage of social and cultural development.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a developed or advanced state of human society.” All the other dictionaries I checked were similarly laudatory. These definitions, no matter how broadly shared, helped me not in the slightest. They seemed to me hopelessly sloppy. After reading them, I still had no idea what the hell a civilization is: define high, developed, or advanced, please. The definitions, it struck me, are also extremely self-serving: can you imagine writers of dictionaries willingly classifying themselves as members of “a low, undeveloped, or backward state of human society”?
I suddenly remembered that all writers, including writers of dictionaries, are propagandists, and I realized that these definitions are, in fact, bite-sized chunks of propaganda, concise articulations of the arrogance that has led those who believe they are living in the most advanced—and best—culture to attempt to impose by force this way of being on all others.
I would define a civilization much more precisely, and I believe more usefully, as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life. Thus a Tolowa village five hundred years ago where I live in Tu’nes (meadow long in the Tolowa tongue), now called Crescent City, California, would not have been a city, since the Tolowa ate native salmon, clams, deer, huckleberries, and so on, and had no need to bring in food from outside. Thus, under my definition, the Tolowa, because their way of living was not characterized by the growth of city-states, would not have been civilized. On the other hand, the Aztecs were. Their social structure led inevitably to great city-states like Iztapalapa and Tenochtitlán, the latter of which was, when Europeans first encountered it, far larger than any city in Europe, with a population five times that of London or Seville. Shortly before razing Tenochtitlán and slaughtering or enslaving its inhabitants, the explorer and conquistador Hernando Cortés remarked that it was easily the most beautiful city on earth. Beautiful or not, Tenochtitlán required, as do all cities, the (often forced) importation of food and other resources. The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.
German Reichskanzler Paul von Hindenburg described the relationship perfectly: “Without colonies no security regarding the acquisition of raw materials, without raw materials no industry, without industry no adequate standard of living and wealth. Therefore, Germans, do we need colonies.”
Of course someone already lives in the colonies, although that is evidently not of any importance.
But there’s more. Cities don’t arise in political, social, and ecological vacuums. Lewis Mumford, in the second book of his extraordinary two-volume Myth of the Machine, uses the term civilization “to denote the group of institutions that first took form under kingship. Its chief features, constant in varying proportions throughout history, are the centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes.”(The anthropologist and philosopher Stanley Diamond put this a bit more succinctly when he noted, “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.”) These attributes, which inhere not just in this culture but in all civilizations, make civilization sound pretty bad. But, according to Mumford, civilization has another, more benign face as well. He continues, “These institutions would have completely discredited both the primal myth of divine kingship and the derivative myth of the machine had they not been accompanied by another set of collective traits that deservedly claim admiration: the invention and keeping of the written record, the growth of visual and musical arts, the effort to widen the circle of communication and economic intercourse far beyond the range of any local community: ultimately the purpose to make available to all men [sic] the discoveries and inventions and creations, the works of art and thought, the values and purposes that any single group has discovered.”
Much as I admire and have been influenced by Mumford’s work, I fear that when he began discussing civilization’s admirable face he fell under the spell of the same propaganda promulgated by the lexicographers whose work I consulted: that this culture really is “advanced,” or “higher.” But if we dig beneath this second, smiling mask of civilization—the belief that civilization’s visual or musical arts, for example, are more developed than those of noncivilized peo-ples—we find a mirror image of civilization’s other face, that of power. For example, it wouldn’t be the whole truth to say that visual and musical arts have simply grown or become more highly advanced under this system; it’s more true that they have long ago succumbed to the same division of labor that characterizes this culture’s economics and politics. Where among traditional indigenous people—the “uncivilized”—songs are sung by everyone as a means to bond members of the community and celebrate each other and their land-base, within civilization songs are written and performed by experts, those with “talent,” those whose lives are devoted to the production of these arts. There’s no reason for me to listen to my neighbor sing (probably off-key) some amateurish song of her own invention when I can pop in a CD of Beethoven, Mozart, or Lou Reed (okay, so Lou Reed sings off-key, too, but I like it). I’m not certain I’d characterize the conversion of human beings from participants in the ongoing creation of communal arts to more passive consumers of artistic products manufactured by distant experts—even if these distant experts are really talented—as a good thing.
I could make a similar argument about writing, but Stanley Diamond beat me to it: “Writing was one of the original mysteries of civilization, and it reduced the complexities of experience to the written word. Moreover, writing provides the ruling classes with an ideological instrument of incalculable power. The word of God becomes an invincible law, mediated by priests; therefore, respond the Iroquois, confronting the European: ‘Scripture was written by the Devil.’ With the advent of writing, symbols became explicit; they lost a certain richness. Man’s word was no longer an endless exploration of reality, but a sign that could be used against him. …For writing splits consciousness in two ways—it becomes more authoritative than talking, thus degrading the meaning of speech and eroding oral tradition; and it makes it possible to use words for the political manipulation and control of others. Written signs supplant memory; an official, fixed, and permanent version of events can be made. If it is written, in early civilizations [and I would suggest, now], it is bound to be true.”
I have two problems, also, with Mumford’s claim that the widening of communication and economic intercourse under civilization benefits people as a whole. The first is that it presumes that uncivilized people do not communicate or participate in economic transactions beyond their local communities. Many do. Shells from the Northwest Coast found their way into the hands of Plains Indians, and buffalo robes often ended up on the coast. (And let’s not even mention noncivilized people communicating with their nonhuman neighbors, something rarely practiced by the civilized: talk about restricting yourself to your own community!) In any case, I’m not certain that the ability to send emails back and forth to Spain or to watch television programs beamed out of Los Angeles makes my life particularly richer. It’s far more important, useful, and enriching, I think, to get to know my neighbors. I’m frequently amazed to find myself sitting in a room full of fellow human beings, all of us staring at a box watching and listening to a story concocted and enacted by people far away. I have friends who know Seinfeld’s neighbors better than their own. I, too, can get lost in valuing the unreality of the distant over that which surrounds me every day. I have to confess I can navigate the mazes of the computer game Doom 2: Hell on Earth far better than I can find my way along the labyrinthine game trails beneath the trees outside my window, and I understand the intricacies of Microsoft Word far better than I do the complex dance of rain, sun, predators, prey, scavengers, plants, and soil in the creek a hundred yards away. The other night, I wrote till late, and finally turned off my computer to step outside and say goodnight to the dogs. I realized, then, that the wind was blowing hard through the tops of the redwood trees, and the trees were sighing and whispering. Branches were clashing, and in the distance I heard them cracking. Until that moment I had not realized such a symphony was taking place so near, much less had I gone out to participate in it, to feel the wind blow my hair and to feel the tossed rain hit me in the face. All of the sounds of the night had been drowned out by the monotone whine of my computer’s fan. Just yesterday I saw a pair of hooded mergansers playing on the pond outside my bedroom. Then last night I saw a television program in which yet another lion chased yet another zebra. Which of those two scenes makes me richer? This perceived widening of communication is just another replication of the problem of the visual and musical arts, because given the impulse for centralized control that motivates civilization, widening communication in this case really means reducing us from active participants in our own lives and in the lives of those around us to consumers sucking words and images from some distant sugar tit.
I have another problem with Mumford’s statement. In claiming that the widening of communication and economic intercourse are admirable, he seems to have forgotten—and this is strange, considering the sophistication of the rest of his analysis—that this widening can only be universally beneficial when all parties act voluntarily and under circumstances of relatively equivalent power. I’d hate to have to make the case, for example, that the people of Africa—per-haps 100 million of whom died because of the slave trade, and many more of whom find themselves dispossessed and/or impoverished today—have benefited from their “economic intercourse” with Europeans. The same can be said for Aborigines, Indians, the people of pre-colonial India, and so on.
I want to re-examine one other thing Mumford wrote, in part because he makes an argument for civilization I’ve seen replicated so many times elsewhere, and that actually leads, I think, to some of the very serious problems we face today. He concluded the section I quoted above, and I reproduce it here just so you don’t have to flip back a couple of pages: “ultimately the purpose [is] to make available to all men [sic] the discoveries and inventions and creations, the works of art and thought, the values and purposes that any single group has discovered.” But just as a widening of economic intercourse is only beneficial to everyone when all exchanges are voluntary, so, too, the imposition of one group’s values and purposes onto another, or its appropriation of the other’s discoveries, can lead only to the exploitation and diminution of the latter in favor of the former. That this “exchange” helps all was commonly argued by early Europeans in America, as when Captain John Chester wrote that the Indians were to gain “the knowledge of our faith,” while the Europeans would harvest “such ritches as the country hath.”It was argued as well by American slave owners in the nineteenth century: philosopher George Fitzhugh stated that “slavery educates, refines, and moralizes the masses by bringing them into continual intercourse with masters of superior minds, information, and morality.”And it’s just as commonly argued today by those who would teach the virtues of blue jeans, Big Macs™, Coca-Cola™, Capitalism™, and Jesus Christ™ to the world’s poor in exchange for dispossessing them of their landbases and forcing them to work in sweatshops.
Another problem is that Mumford’s statement reinforces a mindset that leads inevitably to unsustainability, because it presumes that discoveries, inventions, creations, works of art and thought, and values and purposes are transposable over space, that is, that they are separable from both the human context and landbase that created them. Mumford’s statement unintentionally reveals perhaps more than anything else the power of the stories that hold us in thrall to the machine, as he put it, that is civilization: even in brilliantly dissecting the myth of this machine, Mumford fell back into that very same myth by seeming to implicitly accept the notion that ideas or works of art or discoveries are like tools in a toolbox, and can be meaningfully and without negative consequence used out of their original context: thoughts, ideas, and art as tools rather than as tapestries inextricably woven from and into a community of human and nonhuman neighbors. But discoveries, works of thought, and purposes that may work very well in the Great Plains may be harmful in the Pacific Northwest, and even moreso in Hawai’i. To believe that this potential transposition is positive is the same old substitution of what is distant for what is near: if I really want to know how to live in Tu’nes, I should pay attention to Tu’nes.
There’s another problem, though, that trumps all of these others. It has to do with a characteristic of this civilization unshared even by other civilizations. It is the deeply and most-often-invisibly held beliefs that there is really only one way to live, and that we are the one-and-only possessors of that way. It becomes our job then to propagate this way, by force when necessary, until there are no other ways to be. Far from being a loss, the eradication of these other ways to be, these other cultures, is instead an actual gain, since Western Civilization is the only way worth being anyway: we’re doing ourselves a favor by getting rid of not only obstacles blocking our access to resources but reminders that other ways to be exist, allowing our fantasy to sidle that much closer to reality; and we’re doing the heathens a favor when we raise them from their degraded state to join the highest, most advanced, most developed state of society. If they don’t want to join us, simple: we kill them. Another way to say all of this is that something grimly alchemical happens when we combine the arrogance of the dictionary definition, which holds this civilization superior to all other cultural forms; hypermilitarism, which allows civilization to expand and exploit essentially at will; and a belief, held even by such powerful and relentless critics of civilization as Lewis Mumford, in the desirability of cosmopolitanism, that is, the transposability of discoveries, values, modes of thought, and so on over time and space. The twentieth-century name for that grimly alchemical transmutation is genocide: the eradication of cultural difference, its sacrifice on the altar of the one true way, on the altar of the centralization of perception, the conversion of a multiplicity of moralities all dependent on location and circumstance to one morality based on the precepts of the ever-expanding machine, the surrender of individual perception (as through writing and through the conversion of that and other arts to consumables) to predigested perceptions, ideas, and values imposed by external authorities who with all their hearts—or what’s left of them—believe in, and who benefit by, the centralization of power. Ultimately, then, the story of this civilization is the story of the reduction of the world’s tapestry of stories to only one story, the best story, the real story, the most advanced story, the most developed story, the story of the power and the glory that is Western Civilization.