Most of us would like to believe that we are civilised and that we belong to an organising system that is so obviously civilised that it is called civilisation. But, how true is this assumption? What makes us so sure our world is a civilised one? Or even, how can we really be certain that we know what civilisation and being civilised really mean? Could it be that we take civilisation for granted?
Being civilised is a certain way of acting. It is often related to polite and/or diplomatic behaviour. It’s opposite is ‘barbaric’, ‘hooligan’, ‘philistine’, or ‘vulgar’ behaviour. Being civilised implies a respect for other human beings and human institutions whereas the ‘barbarians’ will have no respect for others and will invade the space of other individuals and groups in a loud, brash, aggressive manner. Being civilised suggests a degree of cultural refinement and taste, whereas philistine tastes are crude, kitschy popular, or simply non-existent.
If we do live in a civilisation, we also know that a large amount of barbaric, uncivilised behaviour exists alongside us – perhaps we even partake in some of it ourselves. This means that civilisation as we experience it is not perfect, for if it were then surely all members of our civilisation would have to be civilised. But, to what extent can civilisation cohabit with the barbarians without it losing its right to call itself civilisation? In our world, the barbaric, vulgar, and kitschy are predominant components of society while the refined, cultured, and polite behaviour is confined to a very small minority. So, given that reality, can we truly continue to believe that we live in a civilised world?
To properly answer this question, and resolve any false conceptions we might have about ourselves, we need to look at the original purposes and results of our civilisation and then compare what we find with what we were expecting to find.
So, what is the purpose of civilisation? To answer this, we must look at its origins. We know that civilisation as a phenomenon arose with the development of agriculture – but why? Agriculture created a surplus, and an accumulation of extras has great advantages for those who have them. They can be used in exchange for other things that are lacking, or for things that bring pleasure, or for increasing one’s personal wealth and perhaps even one’s power. In this way, surplus became a very desirable thing, but to have and maintain this precious advantage created an obligation for a stricter and more complex organisation of societies. This organisation was the beginning of what we now call civilisation.
We can see from this that the original purpose of civilisation was to organise production in a way that would guarantee the benefits of surplus acquisition, i.e., the profits generated by excess. For large scale agriculture to be feasible there had to be an appropriately large and seasonally-permanent workforce to farm it, which in turn created a demand for housing facilities where the workforce could sleep, which needed some sort of urban planning and systems of control to ensure that those workers did not threaten the smooth functioning of the system developed by those in charge of the surplus acquisition. From that early organisation came pyramids and writing, but the purpose of the civilisations that created them was not to build great architecture and communicate universally through writing, it was to organise production, accumulate wealth, and ensure that their control of that wealth was perpetual (through the acquisition of more and more power that was symbolised by the pyramids). Likewise, these first civilisations created the conditions for the first, full-scale wars, not because wars were the purpose of civilisation, but rather that war can only really be understood as a means of protecting or developing the profits that the civilisation aims to make for those who are in charge of the power of acquisition. This is what the purpose of civilisation was.
Since the birth of civilisation, there has only ever been this one same purpose for it: the organisation, protection, and development of profits from processes of production.
The irony of this is that this kind of system is not particularly geared towards creating what we would consider civilised behaviour based on respect and refinement. It could be argued that civilised behaviour is a result of civilisation because the complexity of its social organisation requires social civility, but the relationship between civilised behaviour and civilisation is not a purely reciprocal one. One the one hand, civilised behaviour is necessary in order for a complex society to function, but members of a complex society cannot have the same profit-making capabilities that civilisation itself has because the engine of civilisation is designed to move the advantages of acquisitions always in a vertical way, taking away from the workers who produce the surplus for the profit of the elites that control the means of that production. Because of this, there is no reason why those who stand outside of the circle of entitlement have to act in a civilised way.
So, whilst the relationship between civilised behaviour and civilisation is not an accidental one, because civilisation believes it needs a civilised society for it to function, in actual fact this is one of civilisations greatest misapprehensions, because in reality the greater part of society in the civilised world is hardly civilised at all.
The relationship between the terms ‘civilisation’ and ‘civilised’, therefore, demands a leeway. Not all of civilisation can be civilised. The idea of a civilisation with a civilised elite supported by highly refined and cultured slave-servants, is absurd. Civilisation needs to have barbarians working at its base in order to uphold its primary purpose which is the progress and preservation of its profit-making nobility.
Traditionally, civilisation handled this discrepancy through the phenomenon of classes which made a systematic progression from the vulgar to the refined seem logical. This produced an ideal of civilised behaviour that culminated in Europe’s 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment. A refinement that, because of its enlightenment, coincided with an upsurge in democratic values that exploded into the French Revolution and has developed into the western democratic parliamentary models we have today on a global scale.
As a conglomerate of democracies, civilisation has been able to find a way out of the dilemma with the civilised. Once democratic principles had been enforced, civilisation no longer needed to be refined and even the great elites were able to relax and allow themselves to indulge in what had always been considered vulgar behaviour. In a sense, civilisation has become more honest with itself, and its relationship with civilised behaviour has become more contingent by basing it on the basic tenets of civilisation itself, centring correct behaviour around the needs of commerce, of the organisation of acquisitions and exploitations, and of engendering surplus and profit. Civilised behaviour, therefore, could revolve around politeness, but it could just as easily be centred on brutality: civilisation is about obtaining what the elite want, and profits can be obtained either through polite negotiation or through violent extortion and the power of military might. Given the real purpose of civilisation, the images of a democratic plantation owner in Alabama whipping his negro slave, or a refined Nazi officer overlooking a queue of naked Jews on their way to the gas chamber are perfectly legitimate interpretations of ‘civilised’ behaviour given the real purpose of civilisation and its surplus-exploitation roots. Thankfully, however, they are not considered acceptable for the vast majority of human beings. For most of us, what we have just described is the pinnacle of barbarity. But the discrepancy remains: both of these acts were perpetrated within the paradigm of supposedly civilised societies that were part of the overall system of Western Civilisation that we have today, and while that discrepancy between our concept of civilised behaviour and the true purpose of civilisation exists, then the chance that such barbarity will one day return will also exist.
So, what is wrong here? Could it be that the terms ‘civilisation’ and ‘civilised’ mean something else than they really are?
Our history is the history of civilisation, which means the history of the organisation of production on a mass scale and a perpetuation of profit making by certain areas of society as a result of that organisation. As we see, this is an anti-human process that segregates human societies in order to exploit certain sectors, and this means that this civilisation, which is the central pivot of our history, is an anti-human concept. This does not mean, however, that another kind of system designed to organise societies in a way in which the welfare, dignity, and fulfilment of all of humanity will be taken into consideration is not possible.
We have heard them talk about the End of History, now it is time to contemplate the possibility of an End of Civilisation.