What Rules This World (Civilization’s Fundamental Problem of “Anarchy”)

This ran as an op/ed piece in Virginia newspaper in January 2022.


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.

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 very heart of the matter: 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.

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 had shaped all creatures to interact with the surrounding system in ways consistent with the survival of the system as a whole over the long haul.

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 “those societies created by a creature that extricates itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by (taking the unprecedented step of) inventing its own way of life.”

So the interactions among these unprecedentedly “invented” life-forms – civilizing 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.

Yet these societies were compelled to interact—especially because full-blown “civilization” always emerged out of clusters of “civilizing” societies.

With no order to govern those interactions, this unprecedented step onto the path of civilization thus inevitably generated an unprecedented kind of disorder: Anarchy, the same kind of Anarchy we’ve seen grants to the Spirit of Gangsterism a disproportionate role in shaping the world wherever order breaks down.

Because of anarchy, of all humankind’s cultural possibilities, only those conducive to prevailing in the “war of all against all” could survive and spread.

This means that the direction of civilization’s evolution has been essentially preordained.

Preordained—as we can see in the profound parallels in the social evolution of all six places on earth where civilization arose independently. In each region, the course traced over the millennia — from hunters and gatherers through various civilizing stages — culminated in an empire bearing the same basic ugly face: a tyranny controlling the whole region, exploiting the many, with cruelty and the lust for power looming heavily over the scene.

With the power to prevail in a war of all against all being a function of many dimensions of culture, this inevitable selection for the ways of power has shaped the evolution of civilization in comprehensive ways.

From this inevitable and destructive warping of the evolution of civilization, the truth of these two statements follows:

  • 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, 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.

To know that humankind’s brilliant breakthrough inevitably unleashed a force of brokenness – the Spirit of the Gangster, a destructive “god of this world” – means to know also that we are by nature better creatures than we have thought ourselves to be. (Which means we’re more capable than we’ve imagined to create a more whole world.)

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