GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 16, 2014

Civilization and Its End(s)

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:32 am

The paradox of civilization is that renunciation leads to benefits. This must be true even of earlier social forms, what our forefathers insensitively called “barbarism” and “savagery,” to some extent—among hunter gathering communities, for example, the man capable of exhibiting patience and discipline on the hunt would surely acquire “followers” and hence prestige and power. But only in a civilized order does this relation between renunciation and benefit become an open ended dialectic—starting with the rise of the ‘Big Man,” that precursor of civilized order, the possibility of accumulating wealth through renunciation becomes ever more unlimited.

For a civilization to get off the ground and then sustain itself, this relation between renunciation and benefit must be generalized: most everyone must believe that their own renunciations will yield corresponding benefits. But there is another paradox here, one related to the moral problem Kant tried to solve through his “categorical imperative”: for Kant, if you did good in order to be rewarded in heaven, you weren’t really good; goodness was only goodness if pursued for its own sake. This conception has its own perversions, which become evident if one reflects on what would be involved in assuring oneself (first of all) that one only loves goodness and not any praise or love or wealth that comes from its exercise. For the civilized order, though, those pioneers in renunciation who founded the order were not looking for benefits: they were renouncing forms of desire that they perceived led to self-defeating violence including violence to self; their renunciations are acts of liberation in their own right, which others are welcome to follow. Hence the paradox of the charisma emanating from such moral innovators, and the power, wealth and prestige that accrues, if not to them, than to those who most credibly “inherit” their “kingdom of ends.”

Once the model is generalized, though, the relation between renunciation and benefit is subjected to a much more hard-headed cost-benefit analysis. And here two things go wrong. First, once people start asking themselves how much renunciation is strictly necessary for the potential benefits, it is likely that some will decide that the renunciation isn’t worth it, and others will seek out easier ways to the benefits. (They will often be the same people.) This unraveling becomes more likely the wealthier the civilization in question, and the more it can tolerate transgressors and support deadbeats. Second, the relation between renunciation and benefits among those with the most benefits becomes more obscure—to those who have shall be given seems to be the principle, and it makes sense to ask, if they have benefits, and far more than I ever will, without any signs of renunciation, why shouldn’t the rest of us? There is a threshold at which this cynicism breaks the articulation of renunciation and benefit altogether, and that is the point at which civilization becomes impossible, regardless of how long it takes before it collapses.

The only thing that can fend off collapse or, failing that, make regeneration possible in its wake, is renewed commitment to renunciation. On the part of some—how many is impossible to say in advance. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people should start building monasteries (although that wouldn’t hurt!)—there can be many forms of renunciation, and to be politically and civilizationally meaningful, they will need to have a public side. Every renunciation begins with an imperative—a resounding, overwhelming imperative that cannot be refused: the individual who engages in even the simplest renunciations (quitting smoking, going on a diet) hears a voice, more or less literally, saying “you must stop!” The imperatives that found civilizations are more imposing, but take the same form (“you must no longer sacrifice your children to Moloch”).

In a fully developed civilization, these imperatives evolve into multilayered interrogatives, the basis for religions, philosophy, art, and culture (there can be many ways of “sacrificing” one’s children, for example)—but the original imperative remains active underneath, or the questions themselves would not be meaningful. The imperatives that take must emanate from within some crux in the pre-civilized or existing, but decadent civilized order: it is not too hard to see how the Judaic and then Christian imperatives involved renunciations of participation in the depraved violences of Middle Eastern and then Roman imperial civilizations.

It follows from these reflections that politically redemptive activity today (and no other political activity makes any difference now) must be located at the nexus of the victimary (where benefits are demanded and renunciation, seen as a sham, is replaced by denunciation) and a largely rigged globalized political and economic order, where benefits accrue out of any proportion to renunciation. The two poles are in fact closely connected, as the global elite freely uses victimary hysteria to deepen control of economies and the everyday life of people. It’s not for any person to pronounce on what these new renunciations might be (and, to be honest, I don’t have any idea), but one imperative I can take upon myself is speak and write in such a way as to confer responsibility all around, and to resist the corrosions of language that lead us to absolve “victims” of responsibility, to attribute the decisions of the elite to “social forces” presumably beyond their control, and to treat the middle class as itself nothing more than a victim of these pincers squeezing it on both sides. If we lose this civilization, we will all play our role in losing it.


  1. Renunciation seems to be out of fashion nowadays, except, perhaps, in the environmental religion. As religions go, environmentalism is certainly not the worse, except as it leads to various forms of extremism, or when it impinges on the freedoms necessary for prosperity.

    I think the political right has to take the victimary high ground against the liberal elites, who not only presume to know better how to distribute private property than its owners, but also pursue economic policies that have lead to massive un- and under-employment. The percentage of adults not participating in the workforce is declining precipitously. These people are being denied one of the main drivers of a meaningful life, and welfare can never fill that gap. Unfortunately, we have an economy now that is so dependent on government jobs and spending that any serious efforts at change will be painful. The needed reforms require broad-based renunciations that are not palatable now, because they can always be critiqued as unequal in their effects. It’s hard to be optimistic.

    Comment by Q — December 17, 2014 @ 10:07 am

  2. Individual environmentalism (like veganism) might be an exemplary form of renunciation, but the environmentalists seem unable to refrain from imposing their faith on others–accepting that you can only be a model, that others must follow freely or not at all, is itself a crucial form of renunciation, and also one very much out of fashion nowadays.

    You suggest taking the “victimary high ground” by, it seems, pointing out that leftist policies create their own victims. One could push this much further, and point out the effects of these policies on African Americans, their preferred victim group, in particular. It’s a very tempting approach, and some in the right-wing blogosphere are trying it (Breitbart, for example, and David Horowitz on FrontPage). I don’t think it will work–these destructive economic and welfare policies cannot be easily fit into the Nazi-Jew model that structures victimary discourse–the effects are too indirect, the causes too diffuse, and the whole process too impersonal. You have to make an argument about the effects of the economic and social policies, and the victimary is effective because it eschews argumentation and goes right for the ostensive–that white cop killed an unarmed black teen!

    I share your lack of optimism but, of course, if we were completely devoid of optimism we would stop speaking altogether–speech itself assumes the possibility of deferral.

    Comment by adam — December 17, 2014 @ 10:41 am

  3. Correction to my previous post: obviously the percentage of adults not participating in the workforce is increasing rapidly, not declining.

    Yes, exactly, the left claims to be concerned for all, especially the poor and oppressed, but their policies typically harm the very people they are trying to help, as I said, especially in the form of unemployment. The Democrats are the party of the rich, not the Republicans. Of course I agree that how the argument is made is crucial; in effect, one could say that the whole problem for conservatives is rhetorical. For various reasons which Gans and others have spelled out well, the whole debate has been framed in such a way to leave the Right no rhetorical ground on which to stand; and the media, through selective or simply biased reporting, has exacerbated the problem. But I’m suggesting that the Right has also crippled themselves to a large extent by ill-chosen ideological posturing. Why not just agree that all Americans should have health insurance and have the debate over how to accomplish this goal? Instead, Republicans have left the understandable impression that they are against affordable health insurance for all.

    Comment by Q — December 18, 2014 @ 9:36 am

  4. I don’t think the failure of the Republicans to present reasonable alternatives to Democratic policy proposals is the root of the problem. To take your example, I don’t think the Republicans have suffered politically from not having united around a set of principles regarding health care or health insurance reform. Electorally, they are doing very well–now dominant at the federal and even more so at the state level. Winning the presidency seems to be a problem (but we’ll see about that soon enough), but I’m pretty sure Obama was re-elected in spite, not because, of the Democrats’ new health care law. The whole issue of health care is obviously important, and concerns the relation between state and citizen in many ways, but is rarely, it seems to me, framed in victimary terms–with the exception of “women’s health,” when used as a euphemism for free birth control and abortion. There’s a very good reason why Obama’s re-election campaign focused on the bizarre issue of the “war on women” rather than reasonable concerns regarding health insurance affordability; there’s a very good reason why the left is now inciting riots over completely justified, or at worst (in the Garner case) clumsy police actions, rather than addressing what has in fact become a deeply problematic criminal justice system (involving prosecutorial abuse, unconstitutional confiscation policies, etc.). Policy is not the issue–waging war on your political opponents is the issue. The real question for Republicans is whether they need to wage war in return, and if so, how (start calling Democrats traitors? friends of criminals? I don’t pretend to know what would work); or whether Democrat scorched earth tactics can be neutralized on “normal” terms. Having better ideas is not the answer; knowing what you’re up against is the answer, or at least the beginning of it. The fact that the Democrats were just demolished in the elections has had not the slightest effect on Obama–he has just shifted over to asymmetrical warfare (inciting riots), unilateral, un-constitutional actions, and outright subversion of our international position. And yet serious opposition, much less impeachment, seems to be unthinkable because Republicans are afraid of being called racist. If they remain paralyzed by the victimary sting-ray, it won’t matter if they have an 80% majority and the best ideas in the world.

    Comment by adam — December 18, 2014 @ 10:06 am

  5. I intend here to just pick a few nits with the original analysis in the interest of constructing a more robust model (as the end of salvaging civilization happens to be in my interest – as it turns out).
    I think the ‘Big Man’ social order is mostly myth in that it never represented a stable community. Stable human communities appear to require a high degree of consent, not physical intimidation. Hence civilization is always accompanied by religion. Also, the unraveling becomes more likely in civilizations that cannot meet the public needs – as we see across Africa and the Middle East today. I think also the unraveling we see across the ‘developed’ world relates strongly to the shifting of the economy to low paying jobs which is effectively reversing the gain for ongoing renunciation. The rigged political and economic order makes it impossible to refute the victimary narrative. While such narrative is self-defeating and destructive, it is not false. I think what we have in this market economy are two levels of the dynamic, political and economic, that have a degree of independence and need both be functioning for a stable and prosperous community. Political freedoms need be renounced for a stable society and economic freedoms need be renounced for a functioning economy. A key feature playing into this is that humans have a very powerful instinct for a fair trade. For over a hundred thousand years, humans and proto-humans have been trading for war paint and tool flint. I’m quite sure our willingness to renounce is tied to our expectation of a productive trade.
    Lastly, I suggest it is for any person to pronounce on what these new renunciations might be, though most will be wrong or simply ineffective. It is by trying that success will be stumbled upon. Martin Luther, as one example, proposed challenges to the prevailing style and techniques of the presiding yet rather corrupted church, and by chance was the right voice at the right time to start a new order that revitalized political Europe and ushered in a dramatic new economic age as well.

    Comment by Alan — December 18, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  6. The “Big Man” is not the basis of a social order that relies primarily on physical intimidation–rather, it relies on the accumulation, by a particularly productive member of the community, of sufficient resources to make the prevailing gift economy permanently asymmetrical. That is, the Big Man becomes a Big Man by being able to out-gift any competitors so that, ultimately, everyone is in his debt. I don’t think this can be a myth, because it provides a plausible way of understanding the emergence of kingship.

    I would not say that Africa and the Middle East have civilizations today–there is no violence free zones in these parts of the world. We could quibble here–perhaps they are partially civilized, or contain the remnants of civilization. At any rate, the paradoxes of civilization I am interested in don’t seem to me to be relevant there.

    In the developed world, I think the rigged economic and political system and the shift toward low wage jobs are two sides of the same thing: the consolidation of alliances among corporations, government and unions that privilege rent-seeking and necessarily exclude increasing numbers of the work force. But you may very well be right that this system prevents refutation of the victimary narrative, especially since the victimary narrative thrives in such an environment where risk-taking is abhorred–victimary blackmail works by threatening disruptions and promising peace on the condition of official recognition of their grievances. The corporate-government-union order is very happy to enshrine privileges and categorize the population.

    But you can renounce your own economic and political freedoms (if I understand you here properly). I don’t see how fair trade can be anything other than more rigging. We probably couldn’t go back to the kind of pre-modern comprehensive economic and political order you seem to have in mind, and if we could it would be at the cost of stagnation and more conflict–it would be barbarizing. A free market would be most fair, on balance, if we could ever get there.

    I do agree with you, though, that the development of new renunciations will be a trial and error process. Let a thousand renunciations bloom!

    Comment by adam — December 18, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

  7. Adam – Thanks for the clarification – Big Man as a position of leveraged respect makes a lot of sense, and is a social order I was forgetting about in some developing communities (Now I still think that particular order is rare, but not myth nor unstable). I wish Africa and the Middle East the most rapid of recoveries from their current strife. I have confidence they will recover but cannot know what suffering they will endure until they do. (In my use of the word, civilization is what you have if your society has a city or cities, not necessarily peace or civil behavior.)

    I do not propose any going back, just looking back for ideas. Trade and politics are necessarily rigged anymore as disparities in political power lead directly to economic tyranny absent deliberate intervention by the state. ‘Fair Trade’ requires rigging to offset the political asymmetry, but of course cannot escape corruption or mismanagement. There is nothing easy about it, just necessary. What I am actually calling for is the recognition that major intervention is required for a fair economy, just as for a fair society and that we approach that control openly and deliberately (to try and minimize the corruption and mismanagement). Victimary blackmail leads to food stamps and cell phones for the unemployed when they need good jobs. (It also trains them to expect handouts when they should be learning work ethic.) The economic elite prefers to pay off the poorest for temporary stability as they extend their unequal trade through the middle classes.

    Let’s look at a modern political sample that I think illustrates what the economic system requires as well: Europe. By rights (as in typical for history over the last six thousand years) Europe should have been divided politically in 1945 between the empires of Stalin and Truman, perhaps with provinces given to Churchill in honor of his US alliances. The peoples of the Axis powers sold off into slavery to work the fields of these newly expanded empires. In stark opposition to history, the US promoted a utopian vision of democratic conversions of former independent states and implemented that vision through executive edict. It went on to defend these newly formed or reformed states with the world’s most powerful army, nurtured them with massive loans and gifts from the world’s most powerful economy.

    Democratic Europe is a wholly rigged political system that can only survive through the combined and collaborative visions and manipulations of the Europeans and Americans. Most of the ‘victims’ of this democratic imposition find it vastly preferable to the naturally formed monarchies it replaces. Similar intervention is required to force a more egalitarian economic sphere.

    Comment by Alan — December 22, 2014 @ 10:23 am

  8. I think I understand you better now (I’m sure you’ll let me know, one way or the other)–what you are really arguing for is empire. Well, as I said in my post, it’s hard to see how civilization could have emerged without empire, and what has evolved is less an end to empire than a confused form of imperialism that must disavow itself as such. Liberalism and democracy really emerge as relaxations of empire–the assumption is that imperial subjects share enough in the benefits of empire that they are willing to support and defend, and can therefore be given a say in running it. But it was never presented that way, and so liberalism and democracy have taken persistently anti-imperial forms, which is the source of the aforementioned confusion and much strife. But imperialism could only be restored, with a good conscience (and one needs a good conscience for major political innovations) from the alliance of the victimary and therapeutic left: imperialism based upon the health of the social body, and the health of each of our bodies in particular. Monolithic rule can be legitimated, that is, on the basis of what is good for us, and the experts in health can tell us what’s good for us. Certain norms of “fairness” might emerge from this (we might all feel “cared for,” at any rate), but fairness will be subordinated to public health, in the broadest sense of the word. I can see why people, with greater and lesser degrees of awareness, might support such an order. I happen not to believe it can lead to anything stable because, for one thing, it presupposes a population that has been both infantilized and given individual responsibility for social well being; and, for another thing, such an order would be incapable of defending itself or its subjects/patients from people still ready to use violence–it would have to continually deny that there are such people, except insofar as therapeutic benefits are yet to be universally extended. That is, resistance could only be seen as mental illness, which requires the perpetuation of illusions on a scale incompatible with simply looking carefully at reality. So, I’m left with the same question–is civilization possible without empire?

    Comment by adam — December 23, 2014 @ 9:51 am

  9. Adam: I do enjoy your perception, but would like to suggest a slight refinement that I do hold hope for. First, however, I admit that its stability is conditional. In six to ten thousand years of domesticated food production tyranny has been almost universal. It is quite rare that people have been able to share responsibility in a complex society. To reverse this trend requires expanding two institutions which are already in place: A hierarchical workplace and public education (which is far easier to say than to explain).

    Most humans function best in a hierarchy where they know their place, where they believe that the people above them have earned that position and that they can advance through merit – should they desire. Voters will make the best political decisions if they are educated and they believe that their interests are served by the greater community. They will only believe that if they have access to a job where they are treated with respect and earn a living wage. Education can expose both the parasitic character of the victimary narrative and the malfeasance of the industrial robber barons. Counteracting the victimary narrative however requires corralling the barons. If you remove the economic tyranny within the erstwhile democratic polis, sympathy for the ‘victims’ should dry up. And victims require sympathy or quickly become pariahs.

    Several things are necessary for a community to remain stable, first among them is that the larger public must believe at a gut level that the community is working for them – that they are receiving the security they need and access to the necessary resources. As for security we seem to have a strong instinct to trust authority. A strong king, an army at the gates to the realm and enough food in the pantry has a powerfully pacifying effect on us. We have also, however, a powerful instinct for freedom which pops up most strongly when we suspect any weakness in the army, king or economy. Strength promotes stability, weakness promotes chaos.

    Comment by Alan — December 23, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

  10. What you exclude from all this (except, perhaps, for that “instinct for freedom” that pops up when weakness is spotted–in which case, would the instinct for freedom be anything more than resentment towards power and desire for revenge?) is the free market. Do people exchange goods and services in your stable community? If so, some will get richer than others, the source of their richness will be obscure to many, and they will therefore be resented as “barons”–a word which has no real meaning but what resentment deposits in it. Robbing the barons is the primary source of instability, and those who promise to do so its avatars. People can live with kings, generals, management, but not rich merchants, industrialists and bankers? That seems to call for some explanation. (Eric Gans has put some effort into explaining it, in some of his discussions–dating back to the 90s–of anti-semitism. It is the Jew who exercises tyranny behind the scenes by controlling the seemingly free market.)

    More broadly, I think invocations of millennia of human history are beside the point here. Civilization is a radical break from those millennia–it has actually created a new kind of human being. Trying to fit it into molds drawn from what most people, most of the time, have done and desired, is less helpful than trying to grasp its difference from traditional orders.

    Comment by adam — December 23, 2014 @ 5:11 pm

  11. While I mostly agree, let me expand on the discrepancies. I invoke the millennia as they represent civilization, that is more the direction of my research, and I think expanding the perspective can shed relevant light. I do not believe that the human has changed, only our education (primarily the socialization of the young). I deliberately kept the free market out of my post and substituted democracy as that system seemed easier to explain and represents somewhat a success story of manipulation. I do not think my vision especially easy to implement, but possible (and necessary for stable prosperity).
    ‘People can live with kings, generals, management, but not rich merchants, industrialists and bankers?’ Yes, and I differ with the good professor on his analysis of the resentment issue on this count: At a gut level we are OK with ‘legitimate money’ which (especially in Medieval Europe, but for civilization in general) came from land (rents and crops – to the nobles who held the land) or plunder collected by victorious kings and armies. Profit from business appears to be suspect as a general rule. Wealth without an army (or contingent of knights) appears to be generally suspect. Wrapped in a theoretical construct, I will suggest that we accept how wealth flows from power but believe in our gut that trade should be equal rather than profitable – even if intellectually we know a business cannot work that way.

    These are still broad generalizations and people have always insisted on some degree of accountability. Kings and generals will always get close to a free ride when a foreign army is at the walls, but when they march home from a victory, we all want some share of the spoils. On the industrial front, Howard Hughes always paid high wages, was generous with time off and was a hero to his employees. Wal-Mart as a contrary example cuts benefits and offers low wages while the executives take home tens of millions. From Regan forward, the business sector has been employing the federal and state governments to crush unions and provide incentives for moving manufacturing overseas. Wages and benefits have been cut drastically across the board – this is asymmetric warfare against the worker class camouflaged under the banner of free trade. While the long-distance trade in goods is freer than ever before, the systematic collusion of industrialist and governments manipulates the trade in services against labor.

    Even so, the under-paid report to work and show respect to their direct management, reserving the worst of their resentment for rich merchants, industrialists and bankers.

    Comment by Alan — December 26, 2014 @ 10:23 am

  12. “Wrapped in a theoretical construct, I will suggest that we accept how wealth flows from power but believe in our gut that trade should be equal rather than profitable – even if intellectually we know a business cannot work that way.”

    This is what’s crucial–if civilization cannot resolve this “gut/intellect” contradiction, it will stagger forward (at best) from one destructive populist spasm to another. Nobody marches home with spoils anymore, and it’s hard to see how anyone will do so in the future (with the possible, partial, exception of conquering lands with energy sources). Land is no longer the main source of wealth, and loot runs out very quickly.

    I suspect you’re doing a bit of ventriloquizing here–that is, turning social actors into spokespeople for your views. I don’t know anything about Hughes, but Wal-Mart is packed every time I go there–its customers don’t hate it. Do its workers? Some, I’m sure, but never enough, it seems, to get a real unionization movement going. Does the “public” hate it? Who knows? The persistent propaganda against it doesn’t seem to me to have succeeded yet. Do people hate Apple? Google? I’m not sure. Wall Street, yes, I suppose–not coincidentally, that is where government/business collusion is strongest, for the same reason as Willie Sutton robbed banks–for the government, that’s where the money is. If they hate investors and bankers as such, well that’s no different than medieval anti-semitism: we may have to recognize it as a reality, but that doesn’t mean we should deny that it’s purely destructive. Catering to it because people feel it in their guts (as your entrails reading would have it) doesn’t make it less so.

    You conflate two things: the “asymmetrical warfare” against the worker and the “collusion of industrialist and governments.” The post-WWII economy was an anomaly, especially in the US–everyone idealizes the period from ~1950-1965, on economic and cultural grounds, and with good reason. Most people, though, upon reflection, realize that the extraordinary conditions that put the US economy light years ahead of the rest of the world, and enabled a seemingly effortless elevation of much of the working class into the “middle class,” were transient. From the late 70s (remember what they were like?) on, there seem to be two economic models: one, the tightly state regulated, highly unionized thoroughgoing welfare states of Europe (and Japan); and a more deregulated free economy, which Reagan, to some extent successfully, tried to set in motion. It is the first model that is based on systematic, deliberate and explicit collusion between business and government–with the unions (not exactly the same as the “workers”) cut in as junior partners. The second model, very imperfectly implemented (as the US has a kind of half-hearted and haphazard welfare state, and spasmodic, somewhat hysterical and arbitrary regulation) is the only one that makes continuing growth and employment possible. The European or, in US terms, the “blue” model, guarantees stagnation, massive unemployment, declining birthrates, the immigration of unequipped (at best) and/or hostile (at worst) immigrant working classes.

    Economically, low wages leads to low prices. The drastic reduction of the role of government will, by definition, reduce collusion between government and business. The increased size and power of government necessary to rein in entrepreneurs is what leads to collusion.

    I do think think that the link between renunciation and benefit (to return to the original post) must hold for the rich as well–if they break the rules with impunity and behave disgracefully, others will feel free to do so. It’s really the much maligned early “robber barons” who set an example in this regard: establishing libraries, museums, universities, charitable foundations, etc. The rich still do such things (Bill Gates’s educational initiatives, for example) but their efforts are usually marred by “collusion” with the government and attempt to catch the latest political fads. All attempts by the state to impose more exemplary behavior upon corporations and the rich in general will make things worse. Those who have benefited from their renunciations must feel gratitude toward the society that made that correspondence possible, and they must want to make it possible for others. There is no other way of legitimating wealth in the eyes of the public.

    Here is what I think is the fundamental difference between us: in my view, until the free market is seen to be and accepted as, the only reliable form of social discipline, civilization will not be secure. You are certainly right, though, to note how far we are from that. My “model” might be as unlikely as yours.

    Comment by adam — December 26, 2014 @ 11:19 am

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