Thursday, June 10, 2010

Quigley on the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

I am impressed with historian Carroll Quigley's commonsense economic framework for explaining the rise and fall of civilizations. Applying his analysis, I would place the current development of Western Civilization at the cusp of Quigley's Age of Expansion and his Age of Conflict, when the wheels start to come off.

From The Evolution of Civilizations
The pattern of change in civilizations presented here consists of seven stages resulting from the fact that each civilization has an instrument of expansion that becomes an institution. The civilization rises while this organization is an instrument and declines as this organization becomes an institution. By the term "instrument of expansion" we mean that the society must be organized in such fashion that three things are true: (1) the society must be organized in such a way that it has an incentive to invent new ways of doing things; (2) it must be organized in such a way that somewhere in the society there is accumulation of surplus -- that is, some persons in the society control more wealth than they wish to consume immediately; and (3) it must be organized in such a way that the surplus which is being accumulated is being used to pay for or to utilize the new inventions. All three of these things are essential to any civilization. Taken together, we call them an instrument of expansion.


Inventiveness depends very largely on the way a society is organized. Some societies have powerful incentives to invent, because they are organized in such a way that innovation is encouraged and rewarded. This was true of Mesopotamian civilization before 2700 B.C., of Chinese civilizations before A.D. 1200, and of Western civilization during much of its history.


"Accumulation of surplus" means that some persons or organizations in the society have more wealth passing through their control than they wish to use immediately or in the "short run." This is so necessary to expansion that it means that some persons must have more than they need, even if others must have less than they need.


This surplus-creating instrument is the essential element in any civilization, although, of course, there will be no expansion unless the two other elements (invention and investment) are also present. However, the surplus-creating instrument, by controlling the surplus and thus the disposition of it, will also control investment and will, thus, have at least an indirect influence on the incentive to invent. This surplus-creating instrument does not have to be an economic organization. In fact, it can be any kind of organization, military, political, social, religious, and so forth. In Mesopotamian civilization it was a religious organization, the Sumerian priesthood to which all members of the society paid tribute. In Egyptian, Andean and, probably, Minoan civilizations it was a political organization, a state that created surpluses by a process of taxation or tribute collection. In Classical civilization it was a kind of social organization, slavery, that allowed one class of society, the slaveowners, to claim most of the production of another class in society, the slaves. In the early part of Western civilization it was a military organization, feudalism, that allowed a small portion of the society, the fighting men or lords, to collect economic goods from the majority of society, the serfs, as a kind of payment for providing political protection for these serfs. In the later period of Western civilization the surplus-creating instrument was an economic organization (the price-profit system, or capitalism, if you wish) that permitted entrepreneurs who organized the factors of production to obtain from society in return for the goods produced by this organization a surplus (called profit) beyond what these factors of production had cost these entrepreneurs.

Like all instruments, an instrument of expansion in the course of time becomes an institution and the rate of expansion slows down. This process is the same as the institutionalization of any instrument, but appears specifically as a breakdown of one of the three necessary elements of expansion. The one that usually breaks down is the third --application of surplus to new ways of doing things. In modern terms we say that the rate of investment decreases. If this decrease is not made up by reform or circumvention, the two other elements (invention and accumulation of surplus) also begin to break down. This decrease in the rate of investment occurs for many reasons, of which the chief one is that the social group controlling the surplus ceases to apply it to new ways of doing things because they have a vested interest in the old ways of doing things. They have no desire to change a society in which they are the supreme group.


The process that we have described, which we shall call the institutionalization of an instrument of expansion, will help us to understand why civilizations rise and fall. We shall divide the process into seven stages, since this permits us to relate our divisions conveniently to the process of rise and fall. These seven stages we shall name as follows:

1. Mixture
2. Gestation
3. Expansion
4. Age of Conflict
5. Universal Empire
6. Decay
7. Invasion

Every civilization, indeed every society, begins with a mixture of two or more cultures. Such mixture of cultures is very common; in fact, it occurs at the boundaries of all cultures to some extent. But such casual cultural mixture is of little significance unless there comes into existence in the zone of mixture a new culture, arising from the mixture but different from the constituent parts. The process is a little like the way in which a mixture of chemicals sometimes produces a new compound different from the mixing chemicals.


If the new society born from such mixture is a civilization, it has an instrument of expansion. This means that inventions begin to be made, surplus begins to be accumulated, and this surplus begins to be used to utilize new inventions. Eventually, as a result of these actions, expansion will begin. The interval before such expansion becomes evident, but after the most obvious mixture has ceased, may cover generations of time. This period will be called the Stage of Gestation. It is Stage 2 of any civilization.


The Stage of Expansion is marked by four kinds of expansion: (a) increased production of goods, eventually reflected in rising standards of living; (b) increase in population of the society, generally because of a declining death rate; (c) an increase in the geographic extent of the civilization, for this is a period of exploration and colonization; and (d) an increase in knowledge. There are intimate interrelationships among these four. Increase in production is aided by expanding knowledge; the growth of population helps to increase production as well as to extend the geographic area of the society; the exploration and colonization associated with this extension of the society's geographic area is made possible by the growth of production and the growth of population, both of which permit people to be released for what are, at the beginning at least, nonproductive activities such as exploration; the same factors allow people to be released to seek knowledge of various kinds or to engage in nonmaterial activities such as artistic or philosophic activities, while the geographic expansion in itself leads to substantial increases in knowledge. This period of expansion is frequently a period of democracy, of scientific advance, and of revolutionary political change (as the various levels of society become adapted to an expanding mode of life from the more static mode of life prevalent in Stage 2).

As soon as the rate of expansion in a civilization begins to decline noticeably, it enters Stage 4, the Age of Conflict. This is probably the most complex, most interesting, and most critical of all the seven stages. It is marked by four chief characteristics: (a) it is a period of declining rate of expansion; (b) it is a period of growing tension of evolution and increasing class conflicts, especially in the core area; (c) it is a period of increasingly frequent and increasingly violent imperialist wars; and (d) it is a period of growing irrationality, pessimism, superstitions, and otherworldliness. The declining rate of expansion is caused by the institutionalization of the instrument of expansion. The growing class conflicts arise from the increasing tension of evolution, from the obvious conflict of interests between a society adapted to expansion and the vested interests controlling the uninvested surpluses of the institution of expansion who fear social change more than anything else. Usually there is a majority of the frustrated struggling against the minority of vested interests, although usually neither side has any clear idea of the real issues at stake or what would give a workable solution to the crisis. All programs for sharing the surplus of the few among the discontented many are worse than useless, since expansion can be resumed only if the three necessary elements of an instrument of expansion are provided, and the dissipation of surpluses among a large mass of consumers will not provide any one of these three necessary elements. On the contrary most revolutionary programs, aroused by the failure of the third element (investment), will merely make the crisis more acute by destroying the second element (accumulation of surplus).

The only sensible or workable solution to the crisis of the civilization would be to reform or circumvent the old institution of expansion by establishing again the three basic elements of any instrument of expansion. Since the disgruntled masses know nothing about such things, and since the vested interests do not know much more and are usually concentrating their energies on an effort to defend their vested interests, a new instrument of expansion, if it appears, usually does so by accident and through the path of circumvention rather than by reform. If a new instrument of expansion does come into existence, the civilization begins to expand again, the tension of evolution and the crisis subside, and the civilization is once again in Stage 3.

The Age of Conflict (Stage 4) is a period of imperialist wars and of irrationality supported for reasons that are usually different in the different social classes. The masses of the people (who have no vested interest in the existing institution of expansion) engage in imperialist wars because it seems the only way to overcome the slowing down of expansion. Unable to get ahead by other means (such as economic means), they seek to get ahead by political action, above all by taking wealth from their political neighbors. At the same time they turn to irrationality to compensate for the growing insecurity of life, for the chronic economic depression, for the growing bitterness and dangers of class struggles, for the growing social disruption and insecurity from imperialist wars. This is generally a period of gambling, use of narcotics or intoxicants, obsession with sex (frequently as perversion), increasing crime, growing numbers of neurotics and psychotics, growing obsession with death and with the Hereafter.


When a universal empire is established in a civilization, the society enters upon a "golden age (Stage 5)." At least this is what it seems to the periods that follow it. Such a golden age is a period of peace and of relative prosperity. Peace arises from the absence of any competing political units within the area of the civilization itself, and from the remoteness or even absence of struggles with other societies outside. Prosperity arises from the ending of internal belligerent destruction, the reduction of internal trade barriers, the establishment of a common system of weights, measures, and coinage, and from the extensive government spending associated with the establishment of a universal empire. But this appearance of prosperity is deceptive. Little real economic expansion is possible because no real instrument of expansion exists. New inventions are rare, and real economic investment is lacking. The vested interests have triumphed and are living off their capital, building unproductive and blatant monuments like the Pyramids, the "Hanging Gardens of Babylon," the Colosseum, or (as premature examples) Hitler's Chancellery and the Victor Emmanuel Memorial. The masses of the people in such an empire live from the waste of these nonproductive expenditures. The golden age is really the glow of overripeness, and soon decline begins. When it becomes evident, we pass from Stage 5 (Universal Empire) to Stage 6 (Decay).

The Stage of Decay is a period of acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between the various vested interests, and growing illiteracy. The society grows weaker and weaker. Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation. But the decline continues. The religious, intellectual, social, and political levels of the society begin to lose the allegiance of the masses of the people on a large scale. New religious movements begin to sweep over the society. There is a growing reluctance to fight for the society or even to support it by paying taxes. This period of decay may last for a long time, but eventually the civilization can no longer defend itself, as Mesopotamia could not after 400 B.C., as Egypt could not about the same time, as Crete could not after 1400 B.C., as Rome could not after A.D. 350, as the Incas and Aztecs could not after 1500, as India could not after 1700, as China could not after 1830, and as Islam could not after 1850.

Stage 7 is the Stage of Invasion, when the civilization, no longer able to defend itself because it is no longer willing to defend itself, lies wide open to "barbarian invaders." These invaders are "barbarians" only in the sense that they are "outsiders." Frequently these outsiders are another, younger, and more powerful civilization.

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