1991. Progress vs cycles. Implications for us.

Provocation # 143Progress vs cycles. Implications for us

The current state of society brings into question the necessity, even the likelihood, of progress. But is progress actually so wonderful? Paul Valery wrote in 1900, “We later civilizations, we too know that we are vulnerable.” This was a shock to me when I read it in high school. It has continued to put an edge to all my thinking. My current thinking about “progress” is pushed by recent research on the quality of life – better diet, few working hours – of hunter gatherers, and their obvious resistance to settlements (James C. Scott, Against the Grain).

We of course are too formed by the goods of modern society to be able to become cooperative foragers, and the world is too crowded to escape the needs of technological supports, but that doesn’t prevent us from looking at other lives as preferable, even if not for us. We do not know the extent of changes in living that will be demanded of he next generations, but they may be extreme. It is our opportunity to be helpful by pointing out things that may be positive in these forced changes. Aristotle wrote “We can have growth without development and development without growth.” Instead of struggling to get more which has led to inequality and climate damage, a rearrangement of what we have. Intriguing, as we are looking for clues to what, in difficult times, we can do.

There have been two main views of the structure of history: progress and cycles. The West is strongly committed to the perspective that history is a progression: if we can just keep going, things will continue to get better. We have accepted the idea that there is “progress”: fire, electricity, railroads, smartphones. And yet there is concern now that progress may have stalled. Most societies outside the West seem to have held on to a belief in the dominant role of cycles. Rome believed that emperors came in cycles – good, mediocre, bad, good mediocre bad. I think China had a similar sense of emperors coming in cycles. Christian culture has only one: from God’s creation of the world to his ending it. This is a true suicidal wish for a society. The Christian view of dominating the earth and the needs of the mission made growth seem essential.

Our Western civilization is very materialist and technological. Often we hear that a new tech can save the situation. But the human side of history is largely ignored by our dehumanized culture. All societies made of humans show people in roles of leadership, follower-ship, dominated and submissive that are easy to recognize.

Proposition: while material culture changes and some sense of “progress” can be discerned (though nuclear war, surveillance culture, iatrogenic diseases, our inability to cope with climate and population should lead us to question this), the range of human types does not. The inter-generational and cross class dynamics are easy to understand in all societies. Stephen Greenblatt’s new book Tyrant is about how deeply Shakespeare explored these moments. (And its resonance with Trump is constantly present in the book but not stated.)

Put differently: however radical the shifts in technology, the human repertoire of responses remains constant. The benefits of materialism may be seductive but illusory if the quality of lived life of humans with each other is the goal.

All civilizations go through a rise and a fall. Anthropologists explore how the rise starts and writers like Joseph Tainter have explored some of the aspects of the Fall In his Collapse of Complex Societies as does Castells in his book about network induced collapse,  Aftermath. Toynbee in his Study of History uses civilizations as the unit of analysis (he discusses 23, most of which I had never heard of).

As a first approximation lets look at empires (civilizations) as having three phases. (This is of course arbitrary, and much is still to be said about how the phases move from one to the next. Eric Voegelin has written extensively about the mythic structure of three part histories) The three phases are start, middle and end, or rise, stability and decline.)
The major human repertoire within all society are the recognizably the same. In the phase of rising: euphoria and awe and thanking the gods mixed with fear of change and loss of the old; a feeling of stability and smugness and superiority during the middle phase, and fear, dread and scapegoating (see Rene Girard on imitation of desire) during decline. The phases are long enough that people and intellectuals come to accept the quality of the phase as the way things are. The transitions between phases are long and chaotic. Cycle-minded societies, such as the Aztec or classical Greek have ready explanations for change, but the linear minded West, mostly through Middle Eastern influence, has held on to progressive explanations even through bad times. The current mood in the West assumes progress is normal and asks why we are stalled. Asking to speed up progress might actually hasten decline.

As decline begins to be noticed elites restructure law so they continue to benefit at the mid phase rate, but since there is actual decline they must extract more from the poor in order to maintain the illusion of progress. This speeds up the decline. In all societies we can say that there has been progress on the material side (though the collapse of the environment, wars, plagues should put even this in question.) But on the human side the emotional philosophical and political feelings and thought are fairly much the same for every culture’s phase in the cycle. The culture of the phase tends to be perceived as human nature by the people living it. This is actually a barrier to imagination about human possibilities. We get for example books with titles like Religion in Human Evolution (Robert Bellah), assuming evolution and hence progress. (The word evolution implies the un-folding of predetermined structure.) The unit of thought is the species, not empires or civilizations.

Toynbee’s unit of analysis – the civilizations, shows a different approach criticized by most historian who do not want to think outside the boundaries of the single civilization of which they are a part. We get for example the very good history The Rise of the West, by McNeill, made confusing by his sub-titling it A history of the Human Community. Gibbon’s famous history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by focusing on one phase (or Is that two?) makes it easier to not see that there is a whole cycle. I remember in school that the book was treated a fairly irrelevant since the Romans made mistakes leading to their decline but we, having had the Enlightenment, were not going to make similar mistakes and so we had nothing to learn from Rome. Toynbee’s view takes on more relevance as we begin to question the possibilities for Western Civilization now. Can we imagine we are at the end? Many people think so and having a hard time with it. Westerners who study Asia can more easily deal with cycles for empires as in the very interesting book, Strange Parallels by Victor Lieberman ,which actually compares rise and falls in the West with those in Asia.

Deep thinking says don’t get hysterical about the phase we are in as though continuous progress were possible if we would just do the right thing. For Example, the push for more innovation that just happens to be owned by corporations that are helping to concentrate wealth. Realize that the management, leadership, and cultural tasks shift with each phase. We should face where we are, and respond realistically
The shift to the next phase in the cycle can probably be hastened or delayed, but not overcome Human consistently respond with awe and delight in the beginning, self satisfaction and narrowness of theory in the middle, fear and blame as decline sets in. Leadership tends to share participation (everyone is needed) in the beginning, but starts to maneuver for advantage in the second, and abandons the society in the third.

This whole dynamic of human response is not part of physical nature but a blend of human cognitive, emotional and cultural capacity. “Education” is an attempt to overcome this dynamic but each generation, each person, starts to slowly wake from the dream of their own life into an awareness of the historical moment, and a new generation takes over before he process of education has gone very deep.

The proposal here is that for empires the way people are thinking and the felt quality of their life is determined by the phase they are in . “Progress” is understandable as a way of seeing the world as their society is in the rise and into the stability phase, just as fear and despair and blame are understandable as necessary reactions to decline.

People being what they are and organized into classes, will vary in their response since the poor will feel the effects (though maybe not the awareness) of decline first and the rich last, just as the rich will feel the effects and opportunities of the rise long before the poor (who will suffer even in an upward “progressive” era. Though a rise in expectations tends to draw in more participation from the poorer because of the increase in constructive activity requiring workers. This happened after the plague of 1340’s when the die off of workers led to a rise in wages as rebuilding required more effort.

This view, that progresses is limited to a phase in the life of empires, and that human nature shows itself in similar ways in all societies, has implications for leadership and policy.

The task :
1. Recognize the impact of empire rise and fall. Recognize that the cycles overlap and describe some segments of society but they are not all in synch. Decline can begin in one part of society while another part is still on the rise. But note the emotional reactions of people are fairly consistent with the phase their whole society is in. Contagion and imitation are powerful across a whole empire, even the globe. People across class lines are part of the same culture and there is a homogeneity to the emotions released by the phase the society is moving through.

2. Understand that the year does not come with a label as to where in the cycle we are. It is a question of comparing narratives, being intuitive, doing lots of reading and traveling, and still maybe getting it wrong. But we can do well enough that it is worth the effort.
2. Try to avoid the negative impact on the poor of the shift of society from one phase to the next. A major opportunity for serious thinking can happen as one empire gives way to another: Macedonia to Rome or Feudalism to Industrialization as examples. The tendency is for class interest to prevail through such transitions. Raymond Williams in The Country and the City describes how many country landholders became urban industrialists in England’s 18th and 19th centuries.

3. Design new institutions and governance, as well as infrastructure for flexibility because static “permanent” structures are actually frail under conditions of real change. Most of the world elites’ large estates were built with the idea of dynasty and continuity of inheritance across at least a few generations. In the US most of those became schools, institutes or condos within a generation as major changes were constantly at play.

4. Realize that lives have to be lived now , children born, food to be eaten sociably, sleep to be secure, building and participating should be encouraged and rewarding. Encourage belief in the value of coping in the rolling present (a few years back and a few years into the future.). Self development and social development should work together to make the best of what might be a bad situation.

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