Deconstructing Civilization

Old paper mill, Oregon City, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

“Our confidence in our ability to direct the course of events has been severely eroded by the experiences of the twentieth century. Several disastrous wars have occurred, against all efforts to prevent them, and even the United Nations has been almost totally unsuccessful in achieving the peaceful world that was its founding vision. We seem powerless to control crime, urban deterioration, overpopulation, the arms race, and nuclear proliferation. These experiences suggest that there is a grand dynamic in history that goes largely where it will and is highly resistant to efforts made to redirect it.”

Muddling Toward Frugality, Warren Johnson, 1979

It’s hard not to like George Orwell. And it’s hard not to admire Arnold J. Toynbee. But I didn’t expect to find myself disagreeing with both of them on an issue (let’s call it, thanks to Warren Johnson, a “grand dynamic in history”) that both Orwell and Toynbee clearly agree on.

Well, maybe I suspected that point of disagreement with Toynbee, the famous world historian. But not with Orwell, the fighter for Spanish democracy and the author of 1984.

It’s been over thirty years since I first read Toynbee’s Civilization on Trial, published in 1948. And one couldn’t help but feel—not just Toynbee’s accrued historical erudition—but the Nazi death camps and the American atom bombs behind the urgency of his writing.

In his book, Toynbee says explicitly that the “two congenital diseases of civilization” are “War and Class.” He goes on to say that “recent technological inventions of the modern Western middle class” have now made “Class . . . capable of irrevocably disintegrating Society, and War of annihilating the entire human race.”

Well, nothing to disagree with there.

But Toynbee goes on to assert not only that the “unequal distribution of this world’s goods between a privileged minority and an underprivileged majority has been transformed from an unavoidable evil into an intolerable injustice by the latest technological inventions of Western man,” but also that “the few favored beneficiaries of civilization . . . have been able to plead,” in their own defense, a choice “between fruits of civilization for the few or no fruits at all.”

Toynbee goes on to makes his historical case more explicit: “In indulging myself at your expense, I am in some sense serving as a kind of trustee for all future generations of the whole human race. This plea was a plausible one, even in our technologically go-ahead world, down to the eighteenth century inclusive, but our unprecedented technological progress in the last hundred and fifty years has made the same plea invalid to-day. In a society that has discovered the ‘know-how’ of Amalthea’s cornucopia, the always ugly inequality in the distribution of this world’s goods, in ceasing to be a practical necessity, has become a moral enormity.”

Two or three years ago I found Orwell’s nearly 1400-page volume of Essays—hardbound and in mint condition—in the book section of a thrift store I especially like. The asking price (I’ve left the little orange price sticker right on the jacket) says $1.38. (There are easily over 200 essays in the book, so that’s less than a half-penny per essay, which is an extraordinary cheap read.)

Orwell’s essays are wonderful, both for their style and their content. I recommend them without hesitation. Except for this: his conventional defense, astonishingly like Toynbee’s, of civilization.

The essay in question is from January of 1944. It’s a review of The Machiavellians by James Burnham.

Aside from his quarrel with Burnham, which for our purposes is neither here nor there, Orwell says first that “Machiavelli’s teaching has been invalidated by the rise of modern technology.” And, as he goes on to say, “When Machiavelli wrote, human equality was, if not impossible, certainly undesirable. In the general poverty of the world a privileged class was needed to keep the arts of civilisation alive. In the modern world, where there is no material reason why every human being should not enjoy a fairly high standard of living, this need disappears.”

“A privileged class was needed to keep the arts of civilisation alive.”

Interestingly, neither Toynbee nor Orwell—except, perhaps, for Toynbee’s elusive “know-how of Amalthea’s cornucopia,” which requires an unpacking I won‘t bother with here—takes the reader back to the origins of civilization, of how a privileged class arose. We are left with assertions regarding a grand dynamic that lack historical validation or scholarly evidence. I would say those assertions—fruits for the few or no fruits at all; a privileged class to keep the arts of civilization alive—are the product of aristocratic cultural mythology, self-serving and even close to sacred in their intention.

But if civilization has congenital diseases of War and Class—and “congenital” means existing at birth, a hereditary condition—and is constructed of “traumatic institutions,” as Lewis Mumford asserts in his Myth of the Machine, then the fruity arts of civilization have always depended on the health and vigor of traumatic congenital diseases.

The historical pivot here is relatively simple to describe. What’s not simple is the capacity to see through the psychic curtain by which this mythology is shrouded in holy, off-limits veneration. Even as a farm boy with, one might say, a vested interest in the subject, I struggled for years to penetrate the veneration.

So here’s a severe compaction of that shroud investigation.

Born on a small, first-generation homestead farm in northern Wisconsin in 1946—think Wendell Berry and his workhorse agriculture—I was, in my early twenties, an alienated young man in a major Midwestern city, missing the countryside of my youth, aware that small farms were dying, and wanting to know why small farms were dying.

No one I knew could tell me. Puzzled and disturbed by this pervasive ignorance, I began to read Lewis Mumford and Norman O. Brown. I wanted to know where agriculture came from, what its evolution was, and why small farms were dying and rural culture was drying up. And I really wanted to know. This was not a passing fancy.

The extremely short version of what I learned was this: After the last Ice Age, women gatherers (in a broad geographical band from what we now call India and Egypt) developed what we know as gardening and horticulture. Male hunters apparently wanted little to do with this new wrinkle in “women’s work.” But eventually—the village stable in locale, with fruits, vegetables, and grain in abundance—some young buck caught a baby wild goat or sheep, brought the squirming critter back to the village and told his mom (or his aunt or his sister or his girlfriend), “Here, raise this little bugger so I don’t have to chase all over the place for some meat.”

With the domestication of specific animals came agriculture. The archeological, anthropological, and historical studies I’ve read—and have packed, with related commentary, into several books, from Green Politics is Eutopian to Picking Fights with the Godssay that the spiritual gender of the village was feminine. It was the era of the Mother Goddess or Mother Earth. This was a social configuration in cultural evolution without a ruling class. Village culture apparently had a spirituality with female ambience and imagery, but not a ruling class. It did not have congenital diseases of Class and War. It did not live by traumatic institutions. It was not civilization.

To be brutally blunt: civilization in its core formation began with the armed and violent theft of village abundance—the theft of its produce, the coercion of its labor, and the circumscribed impoundment of its heretofore un-impounded cultural evolution. Civilization represents, to the best of my knowledge, the first-ever class domination in the history of human evolution, a domination that has now been “democratized.”

How did this happen?

The domestication of animals—herd animals like goats, sheep, and horses—also developed on the Eurasian steppes under the supervision of male warriors who weren’t all that far removed psychologically from their hunter/warrior ancestors. Their spirituality was oriented under a male Sky God of fierce thunder and lightning. These guys—for plunder, for women, for adventure, for fun—raided the agricultural villages. Until, that is, they one day decided to stay and continually expropriate rather than merely raid, rape, pillage, and ride away.

When that happened—when the raiders stayed and, as it were, settled down— civilization was born with its congenital diseases of War and Class. Warriors became aristocrats living on the fat of the land, off the sweat and labor of the gardeners and farmers who became perpetually exploited and expropriated peasants.

The underlying culturally profound question is: Was this traumatic conquest necessary so that a rapacious one percent could, with haughty superiority, serve as a kind of trustee for all future generations of the whole human race? A privileged class needed to keep the arts of civilization alive? Is this our genetic inheritance from the global spread of congenital diseases? A disease from which we have no immunity? A grand dynamic in history from which there is no reprieve or redirection?

Or how about this: The agrarian village, left to its own evolutionary development, would have slowly spread, integrating for the most part peacefully with the indigenous cultures it bumped up against, and—eventually—creating a global culture without all the congenital traumas. Perhaps not a grand dynamic but a gentle unfolding.

Or are we so psychologically and spiritually wed to the construct of civilization—only a tiny step below God the thunder and lightning Father Almighty—that we will remain unable—unwilling—to deconstruct the ecocidal monster of Class and War because its holy mythology is really what we worship? In the maw of an actual End Times prospect—ecocidal weaponry and ecocidal climate change—are we willing to deconstruct our induced—but “voluntary”—veneration of civilization? Fruits for the few? Or no fruits at all? Bunkers for the rich and a devastated landscape for all those left behind?

Paul Gilk lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin. His home is a reconstructed nineteenth-century log cabin, without electricity or running water. He is the author of several books including Green Politics is Eutopian, Nature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture, and Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego.