The Decline and Fall of a Civilization

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events of recent months inform us, it is not a pleasant experience
to witness the decline and fall of a once vibrant civilization.
There is a sadness in any deathwatch, particularly when one's vigil
is interrupted by memories of a once robust parent, aunt, or uncle – with whom one learned and enjoyed so much of life – now in a weakened
and terminal state. Whether we are considering a relative or the
society in which one lives, there is no joy to be found in the final
days of either. In either instance, one realizes that his or her
life experiences, if not sense of being itself, are connected with
others. As with any relationship, each of us helps to fashion the
other, such that the sadness and joys of one sadden and delight
the other.

The society in which I was born, raised, and work, and into which
my wife and I brought our children, is now in a state of rapid decline.
But as most of us are wont to do when informed of the impending
death of a loved one, we desperately reach out for a remedy which
we hope will reverse the fatal condition. Surely there is some new
"leader" who can reinspire us, or some as yet undiscovered
legislative nostrum which, if unable to reverse our apparent fate,
may at least disguise the symptoms for a period of time.

Because civilizations transcend individual lives, we are unaccustomed
to thinking that the society in which we live could ever have an
end point or, if it did, that we might find ourselves in its final
days. I strongly suspect that those who lived in the civilizations
that preceded our own, were thoroughly convinced that their social
structures, practices, and culture would endure forever. But history
teaches us otherwise. Just as small children must eventually confront
the mortality of their parents – and, in the process, theirs as
well – there is nothing remarkable in the pattern of civilizations,
like human beings, being born, growing into adulthood, and eventually

What defines a great civilization, and what conditions are necessary
to its existence? Is it wondrous buildings and monuments to its
political leaders, or a succession of military conquests and elaborate
systems of social control? These are the features that government
schools have trained us to consider, characteristics that define
the aspirations of political institutions.

To my mind, such a view is far too noun-oriented, conceiving
of greatness more in terms of the things produced, rather
than the verb-oriented processes by which such civilizations
function. Has Western civilization been great because of the works
of such people as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Einstein,
as well as the life-enhancing products of industrialization, or
because of the existence of conditions in which such creativity
could take place?

Because the principle of entropy maintains its constant influence
in the world, all living systems must generate new energy (or "negative
entropy") if they are to resist – at least temporarily – their
collapse into their ultimate fate. We eat, in other words, not
because someone has prepared an attractive meal for us, but because
our continuing failure to do so will soon bring about our death.

The health of any system – be it an individual or a society – depends
upon the production of those values necessary for that system's
survival. The production and distribution of goods and services,
technology, the sciences, medicine, the arts, and agriculture, are
just a few of the more prominent examples of the values upon which
Western societies have depended.

If we misfocus our attention, we may erroneously conclude that our
material well-being is dependent upon the creation of the "things"
that we consume in our efforts to sustain ourselves. In so doing,
we tend to ignore the underlying conditions that make the production
of such values possible. We come to value, and depend upon, the
goose that lays the golden egg, rather than upon the processes
by which creative individuals might produce more geese, or more
efficient means of generating gold.

In such ways do we create institutions (i.e., systems that
have become their own reasons for being, rather than means for producing
life-sustaining values). Having accepted the primacy of such agencies
over our lives, most of us express nary a doubt about the necessity
of taxpayers coming to the rescue of such systems when they face
difficulties. When banks faced substantial losses as a result of
New York City's financial crisis in the 1970s, only a handful of
people found any flaw in having the taxpayers bail them out. So,
too, with major corporations, or professional baseball and football
franchises, calling upon the taxpayers to underwrite their expenses.
The government schools have also relied upon our worship of institutions
to get taxpayers to continually fund a system that should have been
allowed to die its entropic death decades ago. And now, in the aftermath
of the September 11th attacks at the World Trade Center,
airlines, insurance companies, and various other institutions have
managed to get whisked through Congress, legislation to force the
taxpayers to recompense them for their losses. Even commercial
advertising can dredge up no more meaningful response to these events
than for us to equate spending our money – with such advertisers,
of course – as acts of patriotism!

what is wrong with coming to the rescue of these institutions?",
it may be asked. "Think of all the money that has been invested,
and all the men and women who are employed by such firms."
The same argument might well have been made, a century ago, when
the buggy whip and carriage manufacturers, horse ranchers, and hay
farmers, were faced with bankruptcy as a consequence of the automobile.
Or what of the motion picture industry, which has regularly sent
lobbyists to Washington to fight the "threat" of television,
then cable television, and then VCR's – all of which ended up being
boons to Hollywood: should they have, as they continue to
demand, government funding for their enterprises?

The problem with all of this, as historians advise us, is that the
institutionalization of the systems that produce the values
upon which a civilization depends, ultimately bring about the destruction
of that civilization. Arnold Toynbee observed that a civilization
begins to break down when there is "a loss of creative power
in the souls of creative individuals," and, in time, the "differentiation
and diversity" that characterized a dynamic civilization,
is replaced by "a tendency towards standardization and uniformity."
The emergence of a "universal state," and increased militarism,
represent later stages in the disintegration of a civilization.

Will and Ariel Durant have reached similar conclusions, observing
that the health of a civilization depends upon "individuals
with clarity of mind and energy of will . . . capable of effective
responses to new situations." Carroll Quigley has demonstrated
how the maintenance of static, equilibrium conditions can lead to
the collapse of civilizations, a process he directly relates to
the institutionalization of what he calls the "instruments
of expansion."

A creative civilization, in other words, is dynamic, not stable;
adaptive to change, not seeking equilibrium. It is characterized
not by those who seek to preserve what they have, but by those who
seek to produce what their minds tell them they can have.
Individual liberty abounds in such a society, as men and women advance
new ideas, new technologies, and new practices.

The explanation for the interrelatedness of institutionalism and
the collapse of civilizations is not difficult. Because of their
size and bureaucratic sluggishness, institutions tend to become
less adaptable to the constancies of change inherent in all living
systems. Life is a continuing process of making adjustments and
creative responses in a world too complex to be predictable. But
institutions insist not only upon their illusions of predictability,
but their systems of control by which they imagine they can direct
the world to their ends. This is why institutions have always aligned
themselves with the forces of power, in order to compel the
rest of nature – particularly mankind – to conform to their interests.

But power wars against life, for power seeks to force life to become
what it does not choose to be. Because "life" expresses
itself as autonomous and spontaneous activity, it is inextricably
dependent upon the liberty of individuals. Liberty is not
simply some ideological proposition designed to placate intellectuals
who might otherwise become disruptive. It is, rather, the condition
in which individuals – and the societies in which they live – can
remain resilient, adaptive to changing conditions, and thus maintain
the creative impulses necessary for their vibrancy.

The individual, with his or her uniqueness and self-directed
nature, is the expression of life on this planet. As such, a condition
of liberty tends to generate variation and nonuniformity, with social
order arising as the unintended consequence of individuals pursuing
their varied self-interests. Manners, customs, the dynamics of the
marketplace, cooperation, negotiation, and other social pressures,
help to regularize human behavior while keeping it flexible. The
antisocial conduct of the few is met with ostracism, boycotts, and
other refusals to deal.

But institutions are uncomfortable with liberty, for the processes
of change that are implicit therein run counter to their purposes
of a structured permanency. Because of their size and scope of operation,
institutions deal with people on a mass, rather than individualized,
basis. As our world becomes more institutionalized, standardization
and uniformity become more dominant values. The informal systems
and practices that connect people to one another are replaced by
coercive rules, violence and the threats of violence, SWAT teams,
enhanced punishments, longer prison sentences for an ever-widening
group of offenses. As such coercive practices proliferate, there
is a continual weakening of the informal social mechanisms and,
like muscles that fall into disuse after a serious illness or injury,
begin to atrophy. Manners and social habits soon give way to speech
codes, "hate" crimes, and other forms of institutionally-mandated
standards of conduct. When a civilization reaches the point at which
only coercive force is capable of holding it together, it is finished
as a viable system.

Civilizations die out for the same reason organisms do: their failure
to maintain a sufficient resiliency that will permit them to overcome
entropy. As the Durants put it, they then "linger on as stagnant
pools left by once life-giving streams." Still, there is no
historical determinism at work that would make the collapse of Western
civilization inevitable. The health of any system depends on its
being sufficiently resilient to allow it to adapt to the constancy
of change that is inherent in all of life. In any society, there
has always been an underlying current of energy through which the
life processes seek expression. Political systems, grounded in coercion
and violence, have always represented a continuing war against such
life processes.

Just as water can be dammed up for only so long until it either
bursts through or circumvents the structure kept in its way, life
energies will continue to seek their expression. To the extent a
civilization welcomes such expression, it will prosper and extend
its beneficent influences to the rest of mankind. Indeed, in recent
decades, Western society has been exhibiting a sufficient resiliency
to overcome many of the institutionalizing tendencies of a pyramidally-structured
world. Organizations have been moving from systems of centralized,
vertical authority, to decentralized horizontal networks.
The pyramid has been collapsing in favor of what I call a
holographic organizational model, wherein authority is distributed
throughout the system rather than concentrated at the top.

Well-managed business firms now recognize the greater productivity
and profitability of having increased decision-making decentralized
into the hands of employees. Alternative health care, educational,
religious, and dispute resolution systems have been challenging
the Kafkaesque bureaucratic structures of the institutional order.
The recent proliferation of private schools and homeschooling reflect
such transformations. The Internet, and other computerized technologies,
have decentralized the flow of information, as well as banking and
other business practices.

These decentralizing changes have been occurring in the political
realm as well, with the collapse of the Soviet Union providing the
most vivid example. Secession movements are challenging centralized
political authority in cities and countries throughout the world.
The erstwhile solidity of a mass-minded culture – exemplified in
the phrase e pluribus unum – has centrifuged into numerous
hyphenated identities based upon race, gender, religion, nationality,
or lifestyles of various groups.

While these changes were taking place long before the terrorist
attacks of September 11th, the events of that day portend
a much deeper psychic meaning than most of us have begun to realize.
As brutal and horrific as these atrocities were, the shock they
brought on goes far beyond the numbers of casualties. Nor does the
trauma lie in the fact that America, itself, had been attacked by
terrorists: the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the downing
of Pan Am Flight 103, and the suicide attack of the U.S.S. Cole,
preceded September 11th.

It is in the symbolism of the World Trade Center's demolition
that the deeper psychological meaning is to be found. On one level,
of course, the WTC symbolized private capitalism, whose virtues
and efficiencies had so recently won out over socialism and other
forms of state planning as the system best able to maximize the
material well-being of humanity. This, no doubt, was a major consideration,
by the terrorists, in its being selected as the principal target.

But the World Trade Center symbolized something else, something
that I suspect its brutish attackers would never have sensed, but
which, I believe, underlies the deeper shock all of us are experiencing.
Almost like a pair of Jungian archetypes, the WTC buildings stood,
at the base of Wall Street, as towering symbols of a vertically
structured, institutionalized world. Such symbols were utterly destroyed
by a handful of box-cutter-armed terrorists, who symbolized to the
world that war, itself, has become decentralized. For Americans
who still think of "defense" in terms of nuclear missiles;
fleets of battleships, aircraft carriers, and atomic submarines;
and tens of thousands of hierarchically disciplined soldiers, the
confluence of these symbolic forces has generated much turbulence
within our minds.

The present "war against terrorism" goes much deeper than
simply trying to eradicate cadres of maniacal butchers – as desirable
as such ends would be if capable of being realized through
warfare. The decentralizing influences that have been at work throughout
our world for a number of years – and whose processes are becoming
better understood through the study of chaos and complexity, marketplace
economics, biological systems, psychology, and systems analysis – are proving to be incompatible with the hierarchically-structured
forms through which institutions have come to dominate Western civilization.
Institutions tend to lack resiliency. They are generally less-interested
in adapting their systems and methodologies to a changing environment,
than in forcing the environment – including people – to adapt their
behavior to conform to institutional interests.

It is just such attitudes, as we have seen, that have brought down
prior civilizations. Considered from a broader historical perspective,
it becomes evident that terrorists have not been the cause
of the decline of Western civilization any more than were the invading
barbarians the cause of the fall of the western Roman Empire. Each
such group was but a symptom, among many, of the vulnerability
of a civilization that had become weakened by its own contradictions
and lack of responsiveness to the conditions upon which life depends.

Understood in its broader context, this war could more properly
be defined as a War for the Preservation of Institutional Hierarchies,
a war against the processes of change that are working against vertically-structured,
command-and-control social systems. That this has been declared
to be a "permanent" war against humanity in general (i.e.,
"if you're not with us, you're against us") should awaken
us to its broader implications. It is ironic – but understandable – that, at a time when the world is becoming more decentralized,
institutional interests have been hard at work to expand upon their
mechanisms of centralized control. Whether flying the banner
of the "New World Order," or NATO, or the United Nations,
or the European Community, or the World Trade Organization, the
institutional order continues to insist upon its command-and-control

As this war continues, those of us who persist in conducting our
lives outside institutional walls, or who continue to use the Internet
as though it were a tool by which free minds communicate with one
another, or who insist upon the privacy of our lives and business
transactions, will discover ourselves thrown into the new suspect
class of "terrorists." As the state increases its demands
for national identity cards, secret trials conducted by the military
(rather than by untrustworthy juries), the use of torture against
suspects, greater surveillance of our lives – including having police
enter our homes without our knowledge or consent – and military
patrolling of American streets, we should become aware of the truth
of Pogo Possum's observation: "we have met the enemy and they
is us."

Though our civilization finds itself in a state of turbulence, it
is not fated to collapse. While the institutional order lacks resiliency,
there is a life force within nature that insists upon adaptability.
In the dynamics of the marketplace we find the most vibrant
expression of the creative, life-sustaining nature of resilient
behavior. When institutional interests conspire against change,
they have declared themselves to be in a state of war with life

But you and I are part of this same life force, and our resiliency
may be the means through which our civilization reenergizes itself
and allows all of the institutional entropy to work its way out
of a fundamentally new social system. Just as the creative energies
of the Industrial Revolution replaced the rigidly structured and
stultifying system of feudalism, our present civilization may – if you and I are up to the task – transform itself into an even
more productive society.

But to do so, we must be prepared to move beyond the vertically-structured,
institutionalized thinking in which we have been carefully conditioned.
You and I can bring civilization back into order neither by seizing
political power, nor by attacking it, but by moving away
from it, by diverting our focus from marbled temples and legislative
halls to the conduct of our daily lives. The "order" of
a creative civilization will emerge in much the same way that order
manifests itself throughout the rest of nature: not from
those who fashion themselves leaders of others, but from
the interconnectedness of individuals pursuing their respective

In the institutional order's war to preserve itself against the
life-sustaining processes of change, the most treasonable of propositions
will be that which affirms that life belongs to the living, not
to institutional power structures! We must learn to love our
children more than we do the dehumanizing agencies of restraint
and destruction that now threaten their futures with announced plans
for an endless war against all. The time is now upon us, as individuals,
to assert that life is going to prevail on this planet; that we
shall reclaim our free and creative spirit and, in so doing, revitalize
Western civilization; and that those structured systems that insist
upon exploiting and destroying life in the course of advancing their
own interests must now stand aside.

10, 2001

Shaffer [send
him e-mail
] teaches at the Southwestern University School
of Law.

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