A Civ-Empire Metaphor

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In a lot of doomer & primitivist literature, “civilization” and “empire” are used interchangeably, as if these are the same thing. I think they are not. As far as I can see, there isn’t any overriding reason why social complexity — e.g., civilization — must necessarily result in armies, wars, and conquest. I think empire is a subset of civilization, a particular type of civilization that demonstrates a particular type of pathology.

Nate Hagens supplied a really useful metaphor for this in (what I believe was) his 2010 presentation at ASPO USA, although he used the metaphor for a different purpose.

Hagens began his talk with a short history of the Irish Elk. The Irish Elk grew antlers that measured up to 12 feet across and weighed as much as 88 pounds. It died out when the climate got warmer at the end of the last ice age because the new vegetation could not supply both the animal’s body and its antlers with the nutrition both required. The antlers essentially depleted nutrients from the elk’s body as they were growing, much like a parasite.

However, the Irish Elk’s antlers are only one type of antler. Lots of other deer species have antlers; in addition to these, there are also numerous species with horns. The Irish Elk’s antlers were out of control and eventually led to its demise, but this does not mean that all antlers and horns develop in the same way or are necessarily doomed to the same fate.

I think empire is like this. Empire grows and grows until it cannot be sustained, especially in light of environmental change and/or devastation. But that doesn’t mean all civilizations must grow until they crash.

"Flame-formed earthenware vessel," Middle Jōmon (3000–2000 BC)

"Flame-formed earthenware vessel," Middle Jōmon (3000–2000 BC)

Ancient Japan provides a good example of this, at least if I’ve got the history correct. The Japanese neolithic period began around the same time as did our Mesopotamian neolithic, approximately 15,000 years ago. It was characterized by a semi-sedentary lifestyle, horticulture, hunting and foraging; over time, dwelling places and household items grew in complexity, as did the period’s pottery, which is some of the most astonishing pottery ever created in my humble opinion.

Now here’s the kicker: Japan’s neolithic “revolution” wasn’t a revolution so much as it was an evolution. It lasted 14,000 years. 14,000 years! This, without any major wars of conquest, national armies and the like. For 14,000 years, the Japanese people lived in comparative peace without ever sprouting the imperial memes that have driven our own Western civilizations.

The major difference I can see, here from my amateur anthropological armchair, is that ancient Japanese peoples never experienced a “Fall” event. That is, they did not experience a cognitive shift that separated them from nature in the same way our cultural forebears did. Indeed, to this day Japanese culture is still very much imbued with animism, which harkens back to pre-civilized peoples’ liminal cognition.

Alas, Japan’s neolithic came to an end in 400 BC, when outsiders introduced rice agriculture, metallurgy and the like. The cultures that came afterward were very taken with military arts and Japan eventually became an imperial civilization.

I interpret these things to mean that civilization is a cultural-evolutionary adaptation. Empire, however, is a maladaptation, like the Irish Elk’s enormous antlers. This maladaptation springs from the misperception that we are separate from nature, and must cover our nakedness from it. Empire is the ongoing project of covering our nakedness. Moreover, because empire is a maladaptation, it is an evolutionary dead-end for our species. It will die out while other types of civilizations continue to adapt and flourish.

5 Responses

  1. Des Carne says:

    Why is civilization (mis)understood as material culture? Because of the materialist paradigm or western culture, which notably considers being human as a zoological or biological, rather than an imaginary property, manifested through civilized as opposed to barbaric behavior.

    The maladaptation is the primacy of and the deliberately stimulated addiction to the products of material culture, to the point of consuming and wasting the planet.

    Political historian Colin Tatz argues that a universal definition of civilization should distinguish it from culture. Based on the distinction first articulated by Ernest J Hull SJ in 1916, civilisation is defined as “the reign of social law” .

    “Civilisation” describes a people “governed by a code of laws prescribing the limits of conduct of individuals within the social group, and the penalties for transgression, as well as regulating external relations with other groups. It also incorporates a socially developed code of manners outside the margins of obligation and law. ”

    Culture, on the other hand, refers to

    “the objects to which humankind applies its faculties; for instance, intellectual culture (literature, science); technical culture (industry, technology, material development); ethical culture (religion); aesthetic culture (art); physical culture (cultivation of the body); and so on.” (Tatz 1972, 88).

    Culture then, both material and social, unlike civilisation, can change. Civilisation, as the reign of social law, is simply a state of human social existence: its presence is manifested as the domain of social order, its absence as the domain of savagery or barbarism.

    (Tatz, Colin. Aboriginality as Civilization. in Whitlock, G. & Carter, D. (eds), Images of Australia: An Introduction to Australian Studies , UQP 1992.) pp 75-93.)

    A good example of this distinction can be seen in Rolf de Heer’s film The Tracker, starring David Gulpilil – which poses the question , who of the protagonists/cultures/races depicted is savage and who civilized? It addresses the persisting Australian delusion that their colonial forebears were the purveyors of “civilization” to “uncivilized” “savages”.

  2. Ted says:

    I like nature analogies, the problem is-or maybe its not a problem, per se-is that you can use them to say anything at all in terms of political and or moral viewpoints. You can promote monogomy by appealing to penguins, you can promote promiscuity by appealing to bonobos. You can bolster arguments for, alternately, dog eat dog social Darwinism or co-operative egalitarianism.

    But it is interesting about the Irish Elk. I think the Pleistocene as a whole was caracterized by excesses like that. The Megafauna in general were extravagantly large. So really, nature is not always about sustainibility. Its about bling a lot of the time. Using bling to get sex!
    Look at pea cocks and birds of paradise!

    That’s all ‘conspicuous consumption’ is really. So people are natural- even civilized ones.

    I think evolution is a fascinating subject.

  3. Ted says:

    Were the antlers really a maladaption though? Or was it maybe a shorter run than say the roe deer’s run which is still going on? Were mammoths maladaptive, by being “too big” ? Is everything meant to last forever?

    But I think you are onto something about civilization continuing on in different forms.

    I kind of think its like this. We don’t know all there is to know yet about evolution. For some reason, some things change really quickly over time and other things seem to stay the same during the same period of time. The coleacanth seems to have sayed the same while everything else seems to have evolved really quickly. But even bonobos probably haven’t changed much over the last million years compared to humans.

    Some have said that evolution has telescoped and now occurs mostly within human technological culture with memes instead of genes.

    I think there is a “stream of evolution” and if you are inside it things will move really quickly but if you get outside it things move slowly. The stream moves around, works really closely with one population, then abandons it and moves on. Once the stream has left a population that population either dies out or becomes part of the support structure, to sustain the biosphere to enable new things to evolve.

    I think many people are reactionaries. The reactionaries will eaither die out or move into the support structure. Anyone who is against progress is a reactionary by definition. I make a distinction here, between being skeptical of what other people might call progress as maybe not really being progress. That’s one thing.

    But to make the leap and say that progress is a fatally flawed idea to begin with, and therefore all progress is illusory-That is being a reactionary. I think most primitivists are reactionaries.

    I think nature is extrememly wasteful. I think when things are at their most audaciously extravagant and wasteful, I think that’s caused by being directly in the stream of evolution. Building a super collider, creating Facebook like Zuckerberg, creating Apple computers like Steve Jobs. These are things related to being in the stream of evolution. Trying to emulate the Amish-trying to emulate extinct tribes of hunter gatherers. That’s outside the stream. Most of the Left is outside the stream. Yesturdays revolutioneries are todays reactionaries.

  4. Ted says:

    anyway, good to see you up and running again!

  5. vera says:

    Amazing pottery. Had no idea!

    You are right on with the civ thing. To equate “this civ” with civ closes people’s minds to alternatives.

    Here’s a link to a few posts I made about this very topic; Being there talks about 4 civs that were not empires.

    http://leavingbabylon.wordpress.com/2010/09/12/from-civilization-to-commonwealth/

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