The Life and Death of Civilizations

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In my view, most Americans could qualify as collective recipients of a Darwin Award: the recognition given to those "who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it in a spectacularly stupid manner." While the awards are given to those who perish through some "astonishing misapplications of judgment," it may be the American branch of Western civilization that will cease to exist as a consequence of the combined judgments and practices of most of us.

Only the most vacuous minds — whose opinions are grounded in conventional delusions rather than empirical evidence and rational analysis — can fail to recognize that modern civilization, as we have known it, has reached a terminal state. No amount of public opinion polling can reinspire its former greatness. The only question is whether its remnants can be transmuted into fundamentally new forms and practices making for a more free and productive society, or whether it shall continue its downward spiral.

Western civilization appears to be at a bifurcation point; one of those conditions that eventually confronts systems. The study of "complexity," or "chaos," informs us that a complex system can be thrown into turbulent states to which it might respond either by actions (or inaction) that hasten its collapse into total entropy; or by the development of practices that allow it to adapt to the complexities it encounters. Such processes are seen in the efforts of biological systems to sustain themselves; in the mind’s debate between learning and ignorance; in the competitive success or failure of businesses; or in the life and death of entire civilizations.

It is the nature of complex systems to be subject to both unforeseen and unknowable influences and irregularities. As a consequence, the factors contributing to either the emergence or decline of civilizations are too incomprehensible to allow for precision in predicting or accounting for the occurrence of either. Why did the industrial revolution blossom in England and America, and not in France or Sweden? Why did the Roman empire decline in its western region, but continue to prosper in its eastern domain? Why did the Renaissance find its greatest expression in Italy rather than Germany?

The history of civilizations has always involved a struggle between the forces of life and death. To become a vibrant system, a civilization must generate practices allowing for the production of the life-sustaining values that define itself. Our modern, industrialized civilization arose — and has managed to maintain itself — through practices conducive to the creation of new technologies, methods of production and distribution, and the free exchange of material and intellectual resources. By remaining resilient and adaptive to the inconstancies that define life, marketplace systems have placed human action in harmony with life itself.

But once such vibrant social systems began producing their life-sustaining values, the forces of death began to ooze up from the depths of humanity’s "dark side." People who were incapable of creative acts themselves, or were envious of the successes and rewards enjoyed by others, resorted to violence to despoil others. From simple acts of piracy and pillaging, clever minds developed formal systems (i.e., governments) and intellectual rationales (i.e., political philosophies) that would institutionalize theft and the violent methods upon which thievery depends.

It should come as no great news to report that when "dark side" forces begin to prevail — whether within an individual or a society — life-promoting qualities and values go into a decline. When incentives for creativity subside in favor of schemes for plundering others — i.e., when wealth is increasingly transferred not by voluntary exchange, but by coercion — the civilization exhibiting such traits has begun its entropic decline. The benefits of innovation — particularly when financed with one’s own resources — become less attractive than the rewards to be reaped from street-smart maneuverings for a government subsidy, legislative restraints on a competitor, or a multimillion-dollar lawsuit engineered by shallow lawyers against corporate "deep-pockets." Whether such a course can be reversed depends upon whether the thinking of those who comprise that civilization can be transformed.

Western civilization was spurred by an admittedly uneven embrace of life-enhancing values and practices. The Renaissance, in rediscovering classical Greece, helped shift the focus of thinking and behavior to human well-being. The arts, scientific inquiries, the enlightenment — with its emphasis on individualism and reason — and the industrial revolution, were the more significant life-sustaining influences of modern civilization.

The creative richness of a civilization derives from the behavior of individuals, not from some imagined collective genius. The creative process depends upon men and women being free to experiment; to generate and pursue any of a variety of options; to be mistaken; and to offend the habits, tastes, sensibilities, or established interests of others. Individuals may combine their efforts with others but, as one experiences in brainstorming sessions, it is the interplay of individual insights and responses that gives birth to the new.

Individuals have produced the art, music, literature, philosophies, scientific discoveries, inventions, engineering and technological innovation that underlie great civilizations. The statue of David was conceived and sculpted by Michelangelo, not by an artists’ guild. The Mona Lisa derived from the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, not from some corporate "paint-by-the-numbers" kit. The writings of Shakespeare and Milton were the products of individual minds, not a writers’ workshop. It was Thomas Edison, not a local labor union, who worked in his simple workshop for long hours — often at subsistence levels — to invent many of the technological underpinnings of modern civilization.

We ought to have learned from basic biology that the individual is not only the carrier of DNA (hence, life itself) from one generation to the next, but also the carrier of the values upon which a civilization depends if it is to retain its vigor. A moment’s reflection should suggest that there is more than an allegorical relationship here. But what are the conditions that are conducive to individual creativity and productiveness?

Our inquiry ought to begin with a clear assessment of the nature of life itself. We need to strip away a lot of foolish thinking and recognize that the pursuit of self-interest goes to the very essence of all living things. As such, we need to become aware that spontaneity and autonomy are vital to life processes. Coercion is thus anti-life, for it forces life to go in directions it doesn’t want to go. Neither can the creative process be commanded or directed by others, but must arise within individuals who are disposed to inventiveness. I once visited a government school classroom and saw a primary grade teacher clap her hands and announce to her conscripts: "all right, it is time for self-directed learning!" The idea that one’s creative motivation can be mandated by another is as absurd as ordering another to "be spontaneous!"

A civilization cannot remain creative unless its members are free to control their own energies and to convert some portion of the material world to their self-interested purposes. This fact of existence — which various ideologies have managed to distort but not refute — gives rise to a need for the private ownership of property. One would have thought that the utter failure of Marxist systems to provide for mankind’s material well-being would have been sufficient to disabuse gullible souls of the fallacy — woven into the social fabric by socialist obscurants — that "human rights are more important than property rights." This notion continues to erode the conditions essential to the well-being of societies.

State regulatory systems are the most pervasive means by which coercion restrains the creative process. Government mandates and restraints are always directed against the property interests of persons. They function as imposed, nonproductive costs — a form of entropy — to the efforts of actors to pursue their interests. To the extent of their imposition, they provide disincentives to creativity.

A current example illustrates the point. The costs of state regulation have been a major factor in the decisions of many businesses to relocate some of their operations to foreign countries. It is illusory to believe that the self-interest pursuits of some people can be hindered by others without consequences. To the degree state policies increase the costs or reduce the benefits of a course of action desired by someone, the actor will try to circumvent such restraints in the least costly manner. In the same way, a dammed-up river may eventually burst the constraints humans have designed for it; but rather than condemn the river — or, as an exaggeration of our hubris, build a bigger dam! — we ought to make ourselves aware of the anti-life implications of interfering with irresistible flows of energy. Our failure to respect the autonomous processes by which life creates its well-being, will prove as destructive to our civilization as it was to those that preceded it.

Because life processes involve continuing transactions with nature — which, contrary to the biases of many, includes human beings — the viability of a civilization depends on its having a healthy working relationship with reality. It is no coincidence that the enlightenment and the scientific revolution were central influences in the emergence of Western civilization. The "age of reason" helped us appreciate that, while "truth" had an ephemeral and amorphous quality to it, its pursuit was critical to the health of a society. From such a perspective, freedom of speech and religion can be seen not as sops conferred upon dissidents in order to confirm the liberal sentiments of the established order, but qualities upon which the vibrancy of a system depends. Freedom of inquiry and expression are not so much to be tolerated as to be actively encouraged.

But the relevance of truth to a civilization has a much broader reach than this. Because the outcomes of complex systems are shrouded in unpredictability — yet we must act in the present in anticipation of future events — we need all the truth we can get. Lies, deceptions, inaccuracies, and other errors, compound the difficulties associated with the pursuit of efficacious behavior in an inherently uncertain world. The well-being of both individuals and societies are restrained by incorrect information, a fact that can be quickly confirmed by any physician.

While the health of individuals and civilizations depends upon the value of truth, all political systems are firmly grounded in lies, illusions, and false promises. Almost all who support the state do so out of a conditioned belief that it will protect our lives and property; and yet it is the essence of the state to coerce with threats of punishment or death, and plunder through taxation, its alleged beneficiaries. Unlike a productive civilization, a healthy state cannot coexist with truthfulness.

A synonym for living in harmony with reality is "integrity." To live with integrity is to live the integrated life, without contradiction or conflict. Have we not seen enough of the pyramiding of lies, fabricated "evidence," meaningless distinctions, and other conscious acts of deception leading to the invasion of Iraq to lead any decent human to question the integrity of both the state and its leaders? How long would you have maintained a business partnership with a person who behaved in this manner? How profitable would your enterprise be if you had to spend half your time countering the influence of falsehoods generated from within your organization?

The death of civilizations is facilitated by a movement from individualized to collective patterns of thinking. It is mass-mindedness that produces the state’s deadliest expressions: wars and genocides. The indiscriminate slaughter of people and the massive destruction of cities, factories, transportation systems, and other forms of material wealth are inconsistent with the creative processes of civilizations. To bring about our participation in such devastating activities requires the systematic conditioning of how we view ourselves.

When we move from a more personal sense of who we are to such collective identities as race, religion, nationality, ideology, gender, or other groupings, we have prepared our minds to be energized on behalf of institutionally-defined causes. The state has long been the primary conductor of such practices. As Carl Jung and others observed, our willingness to identify with groups of any sort, produces a herd-mentality that is easily mobilized on behalf of destructive, collective purposes. Evidence of such dynamics can be seen in the sudden emergence of American flags after 9/11, and the continued willingness of many Americans to support their government’s enraged, high-handed reaction to this event by attacking and killing innocent Iraqis.

The lesson to be taken from all of this is that civilizations are created and sustained by individuals; they are destroyed by collectives.

Still, I remain optimistic. I believe that the American civilization has about run its course, and is collapsing into a dehumanizing destructiveness. Nonetheless, I suspect that we may be able to extricate ourselves from our present turbulence by rediscovering the conditions that make for a free and productive world, and learning to walk away from those systems and practices that are destroying us.

The history of our language may provide us with insights for unraveling our confused and conflict-ridden minds. While reading an etymological dictionary a number of years ago, I discovered that the words "peace," "freedom," "love," and "friend" had common ancestries. Perhaps our intuitive energies will permit us to rediscover the more harmonious vision of society held by our predecessors. Whether the forces of life can overcome our present lemming-like death march is the question now confronting the mind and soul of mankind.

A metaphor may prove useful in making my point. For decades, the federal government poured tens of billions of dollars into the space program, an effort to extend the militarization of mankind beyond Earth itself. More recently, private enterprises have arisen to conduct space exploration for productive, life-enhancing ends. One such entrepreneur is Burt Rutan who designed and produced the "Voyager," a plane that was the first to make a non-stop, non-refueling flight around the world. A few weeks ago, Rutan successfully launched SpaceShipOne, the first non-governmental spacecraft to leave Earth’s atmosphere.

Afterwards, Rutan observed that NASA had spent tens of billions of dollars on a space program that was never designed to provide ordinary men and women the opportunity of experiencing space flight; that an individual who wanted to have such an experience had to pay the Russian government twenty million dollars to be taken to its space platform. For a similar twenty million dollar investment, Rutan went on, his company is heading toward the creation of space flights for individuals who want to experience space and, he added, at prices that will be within the reach of most of us. When his plane landed, Rutan held up a large sign — produced by a friend of mine, Ernie Hancock — that read: "SpaceShipOne, Government Zero."

Burt Rutan will not transform Western civilization, anymore than Michelangelo created the Renaissance. Each is only representative of a vision of mankind’s capacity for a greatness that has always lain light-years beyond the grasp of kings and emperors. But whether the exploration of space will continue to be dominated by the militaristic and political control premises that underlie NASA, or the humanity-serving purposes of Rutan’s undertaking, will be one, of many, indicators of the broader direction our society will take. This is just one area of human activity in which each of us will — whether by conscious act or by default — channel our energies and other resources into systems of death or of life. The best of what it means to be human is not to be found in improving the systems of death, destruction, coercion, and control that define political behavior. It is only when we are free to explore, question, innovate, and cooperate with one another that we can experience the fullest sense of what it means to live as human beings.

That the state must employ violence to achieve its ends is, perhaps, the best evidence for the presence of a life force that insists upon its expression in the world regardless of the barriers placed in its path. The individuals and societies who are able to transcend barriers will be the ones who will survive and prosper. Whether Americans will continue to insist upon our civilization’s freefall into history’s black hole, or whether we shall transform our practices into life-sustaining systems, is a question that only you and I can answer. But as I said, I remain optimistic. I am betting my life on the Burt Rutans!

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

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