This piece will be going public in January, 2022.
Civilization’s Most Fundamental Problem
In the Bible, the Devil is described once as “the god of this world.” (2 Corinthians 4:4)
I take that to mean that a survey of the world as it was at that time –some 2,000 years ago – showed that a force that works to make things more broken was playing a predominant role.
A millennium and a half later, Martin Luther affirmed that characterization of an “evil power” dominating the human world.
For the past half century, I’ve pursued a kindred issue– an answer to the questions:
- Why has our world so long been plagued with destructiveness and torment? And
- Why have the worst of human possibilities played so disproportionate a role in shaping human civilization?
The key to that answer is – at its heart – an understanding of Anarchy, i.e. of:
- how, from the beginnings of civilization, Anarchy has enveloped the human world; and
- which, among the various human ways of being, Anarchy empowers.
- Anarchy Empowers the Spirit of Gangsterism to Shape the World
We’ve seen what rises to rule the world when there’s anarchy– saw it in Lebanon in the late 70s and early 80s, and again in Somalia in the 90s. Out of anarchy, we’ve seen, what governs the world is the Spirit of the Warlord. Essentially, gangsterism.
The Spirit of the Gangster rules because, when order breaks down — when every actor is free to act as he pleases with no order to keep him within any limits – the inevitable result is that famous characterization of Anarchy: “a war of all against all.”
And in such a struggle for power, warlords/gangsters are precisely who we’d expect to survive, i.e. to prevail.
That “prevailing” means the power to shape the human world. Which is thus disproportionately shaped by the Spirit of the Gangster.
And that takes us to the fundamental problem that inevitably arises when a creature makes the breakthrough to “civilization.”
2. “Civilization” is An Unprecedented Step that Inevitably Emerges into an Unprecedented kind of Disorder Called Anarchy
Anarchy is key to understanding the destructiveness with which civilization has unfolded because Anarchy was the inevitable circumstance into which humankind stumbled as soon as our species started on the path to civilization.
(And such Anarchy has continued to characterize the intersocietal system ever since.)
This Anarchy is in stark contrast to the circumstance of all the creatures on earth — including, for the most part, our hunting-gathering ancestors – before the rise of civilization. A process that ceaselessly chooses what survives over what does not, has shaped all creatures to interact with the surrounding system in ways consistent with the survival of the whole system over the long haul.
(That at least is the tendency in a dynamic, continually evolving system.)
As I like to put it, “The lion and the zebra and the grass work together to make a perpetual motion machine, even as they devour each other.”
But the essence of the path to civilization is precisely that it represents an escape from that order.
Civilization can, indeed, be defined as “societies created by a creature that has extricated itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by taking the step of inventing its own way of life.”
An unprecedented step (here on earth, taken by our species 10-12,000 years ago, after life had been developing on this planet for three and a half billion years). But also, a fateful step. As can readily be shown:
These societies – a new kind of life-form shaped not by biological evolution but by the creativity of the creatures within them – would be compelled to interact with each other. (Especially because full-blown “civilization” always emerged out of clusters of “civilizing” societies, growing up within reach of each other.)
What made the unprecedented step onto the path of civilization a fateful step is that it inevitably created an unprecedented problem: there was no order to govern those interactions.
- With these societies having extricated themselves from the niche in which the creatures had evolved, the interactions among those societies were not governed by any biologically-evolved order.
- Nor was there any chance for a human-designed order because, from the outset, the system of these evolving societies emerged in a highly fragmented form.
No order (in the sense of a regulating order) means an unprecedented kind of disorder generated by this unprecedented step: the disorder called “Anarchy,” the same kind of Anarchy that – as we can still witness – leads to the kind of war of all against all that raises warlords/gangsters to positions of dominance over the human world.
3. The Evolution of Civilization Therefore is Inevitably Shaped by Selection for the Ways of Power
Anarchy generates, in other words, an inevitable selection for the ways of power. (Other cultural forms – however beautiful and humane, if they cannot prevail over the gangsters – will disappear from the human world, or retreat into the interstices.)
It was inevitable, therefore – given the inevitably anarchic system that the civilization-creating creature would inevitably (and inadvertently) stumble into — that the Spirit of Gangsterism (those ways conducive to prevailing in a war of all against all) would play a disproportionate role in dictating how civilization would evolve.
Because of anarchy, of all humankind’s cultural possibilities, only those conducive to surviving in the “war of all against all” could survive and spread.
The inevitable selection for the ways of power has driven social evolution in ways that people did not choose but could not avoid.
The Since a society’s ability to prevail in a struggle for power is a function of many of the dimensions of its culture, and since the possibilities for cultural innovation are open-ended for societies that have broken out of the natural order, the social evolutionary force emerging out of civilization’s encompassing anarchy can powerfully shape the whole nature of human civilization.
This has been the central challenge facing humankind from the first steps on the path of civilization through the millennia leading and into our own times.
4. The Inevitable Lack of Order in the Intersocietal System Means that the System – Not the Civilization-Creating Creature — Dictates the General Direction of Social Evolution
Because of the social evolutionary force that civilizing humankind inevitably (and unwittingly) unleashed, the general direction of social evolution has been pre-ordained.
Preordained—as we can see in the profound parallels in the social evolution of all six places on earth where civilization arose independently: in the Valleys of the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus, the Yellow; and the two areas of circumscribed lands in the Americas.
In each region, the course traced over the millennia — as interacting systems of civilizing societies traversed the course from the hunting-gathering forms at the beginning, through a variety of intermediate stages, leading up to the consolidation of that region under an imperial power — the selective process molded the face of human civilization into the same basic ugly structure: the ruling few tyrannizing over the enslaved many, with cruelty and the lust for power looming heavily over the scene.
5. We Are Better Creatures than We’ve Believed Ourselves to Be, and The Human Future Would Benefit from our Understanding That
From the apparent inevitability of this dangerous warping of the evolution of civilization, the truth of these two statements follow:
- The ugliness we see in human history is not human nature writ large. And
- Any creature, on any planet, anywhere in the cosmos, that take the step onto the path to civilization that our species did on this planet some 10-12,000 years ago, will inevitably get swept up into the same social evolutionary process that has made the course of human civilization as destructive and tormented as it has been.
I’ve believed for fifty years that this understanding – if it were to become part of our civilization’s broad understanding — could have important beneficial effects:
- It would clarify the challenges we face.
- And it would relieve us of the burden we imbibe from our culture. (A culture in whose history ideas like “original sin” and “human depravity” have played an important role.)
(Not sin. Not the Devil. But an inevitable social evolutionary dynamic.)
Our recognizing how humankind’s brilliant breakthrough would inevitably unleash a force of brokenness – a destructive “god of this world” — would fortify us by helping us see that because we are better creatures than we have thought ourselves to be, we are more capable than we’d imagined of making a more whole civilization.
Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of the prize-winning The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.