What is Civilization(s)?


The Demand for a More Exact Definition

This springs from the fundamental sense of our epoch, shifting from Modernity to Post-Modernity, that essentially affects semantic fields and linguistic forms. And, inasmuch as we find ourselves in the stage of an unfinished transition, an inconceivable confusion reigns in [our] notions: someone uses customary terms in their old sense; someone, feeling the necessity of semantic displacement, glances into the future (which has not yet come); someone fantasizes (perhaps coming closer to the future or simply falling into individualistic, irrelevant hallucinations); someone got completely confused.

Whatever the case might be, for the correct use of terms, especially key terms, to which, undoubtedly, the concept of civilization belongs, it is necessary today to carry out, let it be elementarily, a deconstruction, tracing the meaning to the historical context, and retracing the basic semantic shifts.

"Civilization" as a Phase of the Development of Societies

The term "civilization" received wide circulation in the epoch of the rapid development of the theory of progress. This theory proceeded from two fundamental, paradigmatic axioms of Modernity: the progressive and unidirectional character of human development (from minus to plus) and the universality of man as a phenomenon. In this context, "civilization", for H. L. Morgan defines the stage in which "humanity" (in the 19th century, all uncritically believed as one in the evident existence of such a concept as "humanity") commences after the stage of "barbarity", while that, in turn, replaces with itself the stage of "savagery".

Marxists adopted such an interpretation of civilization easily, having written it into the theory of the change of economic formations. According to Morgan, Taylor and Engels "savagery" characterizes tribes engaged in gathering and primitive kinds of hunting. "Barbarity" relates to non-literate societies, occupied with the simplest kinds of rural economy and cattle-breeding, without a clear division of labour or development of social-political institutions. "Civilization" signifies by itself the stage of the appearance of letters, social-political institutions, cities, crafts, technological improvements, the division of society into classes, the appearance of developed theological and religious systems. "Civilizations" were thought of as historically steady and able to be preserved; developing, but keeping permanent, main features over the course of millenia (the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Roman).

"Civilization" and "Empire"

However, together with the purely historical-phase meaning in the concept of "civilization", a territorial sense was also included, though less explicitly. "Civilization" offered a vast enough area of diffusion; that is, in addition to a considerable temporal dimension, a broad spatial diffusion was also presumed [to characterize a civilization]. In this territorial sense, the borders of the term "civilization" in part coincided with the meaning of the word "empire", "world power". "Empire" in such a civilizational sense pointed not to the peculiarity of a political and administrative arrangement, but to the fact of an active and intense spread of influence, proceeding from the centres of civilization to the surrounding territory, supposedly populated by "barbarians" or "savages". In other words, in the very concept of "civilization" one can already espy the character of expansion and the export of influence, characteristic of "empires" (ancient and modern).

Civilization and the Universal Type

"Civilization" worked out a new universal type, qualitatively differing from the models of "barbarian" and "savage" societies. This type was most often built on the "globalization" of that ethno-tribal and/or religious centre that stood at the source of a given civilization. But in the course of this "globalization", that is, through the equating of the concrete ethnic, social-political and religious pattern to the "universal standard", the most important process of the transcending of the ethnos itself occurred, transferring its natural and organic, most often unconsciously imparted, tradition into rank of an man-made and conscious, rational system. The citizens of Rome even in the first stages of the Empire already differed essentially from the typical residents of Latium, while a variety of Muslims, praying in Arabic, went far beyond the Bedouin tribes of Arabia and their direct ethnic descendents.

In this way, at the time of the move to "civilization", social anthropology qualitatively changed: man, turning to "civilization", had a collective identity imprinted on a fixed body of spiritual culture, which he was obliged to assimilate to a certain degree.

"Civilization" assumed a rational and volitional force from the side of man; that, which in the 17th century, after Descartes, philosophers started to call "the subject". But the necessity of such a force and the presence of a model, abstracted and fixed in the culture, equalized, to a certain extent, itself both the representatives of the core ethnos (of religion), lying at the foundation of "civilization", and those who ended up in the zone of influence from other ethnic contexts. To adopt the foundations of civilization was qualitatively easier than to be accepted into a tribe, inasmuch as there was for this no demand to organically absorb the gigantic reservoirs of unconscious archetypes, but to perform a series of rational, logical operations.

Civilization and Culture

In some contexts (depending on the country or the author) in the 19th century the concept "civilization" was identified with the concept "culture". In other cases hierarchical relations were established between them - most often, cultural was thought of as the spiritual filling of civilization, while "civilization" properly meant the formal structure of society, answering to the main points of the definition.

Oswald Spengler, in his famous book "The Decline of Europe", even contrasted "civilization" and "culture", considering the second an expression of the organic, vital spirit of man, but the first, a product of the cooling off of that spirit in mechanical and purely technical boundaries . According to Spengler, civilization is a product of cultural death. However, such a sharp-witted observation, correctly interpreting some qualities of contemporary Western civilization, did not receive general acknowledgement; and most often today the terms "civilization" and "culture" are used as synonyms, although each concrete researcher can have his own opinion on this point.

Post-Modernism and the Synchronistic Understanding of Civilization

Even the most cursory survey of the meaning of the term "civilization" shows that in it, we are dealing with a concept saturated with the spirit of the Enlightenment, progressivism and historicism, which was characteristic for the epoch of Modernity in its uncritical stage; that is, until the fundamental reconsideration of the 20th century. Faith in the progressive development of history, in the universality of the human path according to a common logic of development from savagery to civilization, was the distinguishing feature of the 19th century. But already with Nietzsche and Freud, the so-called "philosophers of suspicion", this optimistic axiom started to be doubted. And over a period of the 20th century, Heidegger, the existentialists, traditionalists, structuralists, and at last post-modernists smashed it to bits.

In Post-Modernity, criticism of historical optimism, universalism and historicism acquired a systematic character and established the doctrinal premises for a total revision of the conceptual apparatus of Western European philosophy. This revision itself has not yet been carried out to the end, but what has been done (by Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Ricoeur, Foucalt, Deleuze, Derrida, etc.) is already enough to convince one of the impossibility of using the dictionary of Modernity without a thorough and rigorous deconstruction. P. Ricoeur, summarizing the theses of the "philosophers of suspicion", paints the following picture. Man and man's society consist in rational-conscious components ("kerigma", according to Bultmann; "superstructure", according to Marx; "ego", to Freud) and unconscious (properly, "structures" in the structuralist understanding; "bases"; "the will to power", of Nietzsche; "the unconscious") . And although externally it seems that the path of man leads directly from the captivity of the unconscious to the kingdom of reason, and that this exactly represents progress and the content of history, in fact under the closest scrutiny it becomes clear that the unconscious ("myth") proves much stronger and, as before, considerably predetermines the work of the intellect. Moreover, reason itself and conscious, logical activity is almost always nothing other than a gigantic work of repressing unconscious impulses - in other words, a expression of complexes, strategies of displacement, the substitution of projection, and so on. In Marx, the unconscious is played by "the forces of production" and "industrial relations".

Consequently, "civilization" does not merely remove "savagery" and "barbarism", entirely overcoming them, but itself is built precisely on "savage" and "barbaric" grounds, which transfer to the sphere of the unconscious, but there is not only nowhere to escape from this, but, on the contrary, they acquire unlimited power over man, to a large extent precisely because they are thought to be "overcome" and even "non-existent". By this is explained the striking difference between the historical practices of narodi and societies, full of warfare, oppression, cruelty, wild outbursts of terrors, abounding in aggravating psychological disorders, and the pretensions of reason to a harmonious, peaceful and enlightened existence under the shadow of progress and development. In this respect, the Modern Era is not only not an exception but also the peak of the intensification of this discrepancy between the pretensions of reason and the bloody reality of world wars, ethnic cleansing, and the historically unprecedented mass genocides of entire races and narodi. And for the satisfaction of "savagery" are employed the most perfect technical means invented by "civilization", right up to weapons of mass destruction.

Thus, the critical tradition, structuralism and the philosophy of post-modernity force one to move from the mainly diachronic (phased) interpretation of "civilization". which was the norm for the 19th century and by inertia continues to be in wide use, to the synchronic. Synchonic assumes that civilization comes not instead of "savagery" or "barbarity", not after them, but together with them and continues to co-exist with them. One can imagine "civilization" as the numerator, and "savagery"-"barbarism" as the denominator of a conditional fraction. "Civilization" affects consciousness, but the unconscious, through the unceasing "work of dreams" (S. Freud) , constantly misinterprets everything in its favour. "Savagery" is that which explains "civilization", and is the key to it. It turns out that man [ie: humanity] hurried to adjudge of "civilization" as of that which already actually happened, while it remains not more than an incomplete plan, constantly suffering disruption under the onslaught of the cunning energies of the unconscious (however we might understand it: as Nietzschean "will to power", or psychoanalytically).

The Deconstruction of "Civilization"

How in practice can one apply the structuralist approach for the deconstruction of the concept of "civilization"? In compliance with the general logic of this operation, one should subject to doubt the irreversibility and novelty of that, which constitutes the basic characteristics of "civilization", in contrast with "savagery" and "barbarity".

The main characteristic of "civilization" is often thought to be inclusive universality; that is, the theoretical openness of the civilizational code for those who would like to join it from without. Inclusive universality is at first glance the complete antithesis of exclusive particularity, characteristic of tribal and ancestral societies of the "pre-civilizational" period. But the historical pretensions of civilization to universality - ecumenicalism, and, correspondingly, uniqueness - constantly pushed against the fact that, besides "barbarian" nations, beyond the borders of such a "civilization", there existed other civilizations, with their own unique and different variants of "universalism". In this case, a logical contradiction was placed before "civilization": either one must admit that the pretension to universality proves groundless, or one must include the other civilization in the category of barbarians.

While recognizing the groundlessness, various decisions can also follow: either to try to find a syncretic model of the unification of both civilizations (at least in theory) into a general system, or to admit the correctness of the other civilization. As a rule, confronting such a problem, "civilization" acts on the basis of an exclusive (not inclusive) principle, considers the other civilization defective; that is, "barbaric", "heretical", "particular". In other words, we are dealing with the transfer of usual, tribal ethnocentrism to a higher level of generalization. Inclusivity and universalism in practice turn into familiar "savage" exclusivity and particularism.

This is easy to recognize in the following, striking examples: the Greeks, considering themselves a "civilization" numbered everyone else among the "barbarians". The origin of the word "barbarian" is the onomatopeic pejorative, signifying him whose speech has no sense and is a bundle of animal sounds. Many tribes have a similar relationship to members of a different tribe: not understanding their language, they think the others have none no language at all; consequently, they do not consider them people. From here, incidentally, the Slavic tribal name "nemtsie" [Germans], that is "nemie" [dumb, silent, mute], for those who don't know what anyone calling himself a man should know: the Russian language.

Among the ancient Persians, representing precisely a civilization with pretensions to the universal Mazdian religion, this was expressed even more clearly: division into Iran (people) and Turan (demons) was drawn on the level of religion, cults, rites and ethics. The matter come to the point of the absolutizing of endogenous relations and the normalization of incest, in order that the solar sun of the Iranians (Ahura Mazda) would not be profaned by the impurities of the sons of Angra-Mainyu.

Judaism as a world religion, having pretensions to universalism and having laid the theological foundations of monotheism - both for Christianity and for Islam, which were developed by a few civilizations simultaneously - is to this day almost ethnically limited to the blood-tribes by the Halakhah.

The tribal system is based on initiation, in the course of which the neophyte is informed of the foundations of the tribal mythology. On the civilizational level, this same function is played by religious institutions; and in comparatively later epochs, by the system of common education, made deliberately ideological. Neophytes learn the myths of Modernity in other conditions and under another veneer, but their functional value remains constant, while their foundation (if one takes into account the Freudian analysis of the substitution-repression actions of reason and the "ego") has not strayed far from legend and tradition.

In a word, even a rough deconstruction of "civilization" shows that the claims to overcoming previous phases are illusions, while in practice big and "developed" collectives of people, united in a "civilization", in essence simply repeats on a different level the archetypes of the behaviour and moral systems of "savages". Hence, endless and ever bloodier wars, double standards in international politics, fits of passion in private life, and the constantly broken ethical and normative codes of moderate and rational societies. Developing Rousseau's thought of the "noble savage" (Rousseau, by the way, sharply criticized civilization as a phenomenon and thought of precisely it as the source of all evil), one can say that the "civilized" man is none other than the "wicked savage", a defective and perverted "barbarian" .

The Synchronic and Plural Understanding of "Civilization" Prevails Today

With these preliminary observations, we can at last turn to that, which we include today in the concept of "civilization" when we develop Huntington's thesis about "the clash of civilizations" or raise objections to it with the ex-President of Iran Khatami, insisting upon "a dialogue of civilizations".
The very fact that there is hardly any consensus in the use of the term "civilization" evidently shows that the phased (purely historical or progressive) interpretation of that concept, prevailing in the Modern epoch and generally accepted in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, has clearly lost its relevance today.
Only the most outdated researchers, who are stuck in the uncritical Modernity of Kant or Bentham, can contrast "civilization" and "barbarity" today. Although it is comfortable to use the term "civilization" instrumentally in historical analysis in the description of ancient types of societies, still it clearly lost the ideological charge as a global plus in comparison with a global minus (barbarism and savagery). Universalism, gradualness of development, anthropological unity of human history - on the philosophical level, all of this has long been put under question. By his studies in structural anthropology, based on the richest ethnographic and mythological material of the life of North and South American tribes, Levi-Strauss convincingly showed that the conceptual and mythological systems of those same "primitive" societies, by their complexity, richness of nuance, connections and functional elaborations of differentiations, are in no way inferior to those of more civilized countries.

In political discourse, there is still talk of "the privileges of civilization", but even this already looks anachronistic. We confronted such a spike of uncritical ignorance when liberal-reformers tried to present the history of Russia as an continuous chain of unchecked barbarity in the face of "flourishing", "resplendent", "established" Western Civilization. However, even this was not only an extrapolation of the bravado-based, propagandistic pretensions of the West itself and a result of the network of influence's induction, but also a form of Russian cargo-cults: the first "McDonalds", private banks and clips of rock-bands on Soviet television were perceived as "sacral objects".

With the exception of these propagandistic stamps or the hopeless backwardness of uncritical philosophers, in the framework of let it be an even distant familiarity with contemporary philosophy, still the concept of "civilization", in discourse that does not contradict the mainstream, is interpreted without any moral charge whatever, sooner as a technical term, and implies not something opposed to "barbarism" and "savagery", but to another "civilization". In Huntington's famous and aforementioned article, there is not a word about "barbarism"; he speaks exclusively of the borders, structures, peculiarities, frictions and differences of various civilizations, opposed to each other. And this feature is a feature of not only those of his positions or lines of argument stemming from Toynbee, whom Huntington clearly follows. The use of this term in the contemporary context already suggests a blatant pluralism, comparativism, and, if you like, synchronism. Here, philosophical criticism and the reconsideration of Modernity, implemented in a thousand different ways in the course of the whole 20th century, are immediately impactful.

And so, if we dismiss the recurrences of uncritical liberalism and the narrow-minded naivety of pro-American (wider: Atlantic?) propaganda, we will see that today the term "civilization" in operational and active politological analysis is used above all synchronically and functionally, in order to designate wide and stable geographical and cultural zones, united by approximately common spiritual, moral, stylistic and psychological arrangements and historical experience.

Civilization in the context of the 21st century signifies precisely this: a zone of the steady and rooted influence of a definite social-cultural style, most often (though not necessarily) coinciding with the borders of diffusion of world religions. And the political formation of separate segments entering into a civilization, can be rather different: civilizations, as a rule, are broader than one government [regime], and can consist of some or even many countries; moreover, the borders of some civilizations cross countries, dividing them in parts.

If in antiquity "civilizations" most often coincided with empires and were in one way or another politically united, then today their borders correspond to invisible lines, irrelevantly superimposed onto the administrative borders of governments. Some of these governments were never a part of a single empire (for instance, Islam spread almost everywhere in the conquests of the Arabs who built the world Caliphate). Others did not share a common statehood, but were united among themselves in different ways: religiously, culturally or racially.

The Crisis of Classical Models of Historical Analysis (Classical, Economic, Liberal, Racial)

And so, we established that in the use of the term "civilization" in the 20th century and in the framework of the criticisms of Modernity there occurred a qualitative shift to the side of synchronicity and plurality. But one can make another step and attempt to understand why in fact this word usage became so topical in precisely our time? Indeed, the earlier concept of civilization was not a subject of deliberate problematization, while it was customary only for humanitarian and academical circles to think in such a category. Other approaches - economic, national, racial, class-based - dominated in political and, closely related to it, politological discourse. Today we see that to think only economically, to speak of national government and national interests, and more so, to put class analysis or the racial approach at the head of one's analysis is ever less and less acceptable. And on the contrary, it is rare that some statement or speech of a political actor passes by without a mention of the word "civilization", to say nothing of political and analytic texts, where this term is perhaps most prevalent.

With Huntington in fact we see the attempt to make "civilization" the central moment of political, historical and strategic analysis. We are clearly on our way to thinking with "civilizations".

Here we should look more attentively at that which precisely in the main versions of politological discourse substitutes itself for "civilization". To speak seriously of races is not acceptable after the tragic history of European Fascism. Class-based analysis in the mainstream became irrelevant after the fall of socialism and the break-up of the USSR. And at some moment it seemed that the sole paradigm of politology would be liberalism. Meanwhile, the impression grew that the national borders of homogenous, essentially liberal-democratic governments, no longer confronting any kind of systematic alternatives laying claim to a planetary scope (after the fall of Marxism), would soon be abolished, a world leadership and a one world government established with a homogenous market economy, parliamentary democracy (world parliament), a liberal system of values and a common informational-technological infrastructure. In 1990, Francis Fukuyama stepped out as the herald of such a "wonderful new world" in his policy book (and first in an article) "The End of History" . Fukuyama put the point on the development of the phased interpretation of the concept of "civilization": the end of history, in his version, signified the final defeat of "civilization" over "barbarism" in all its forms, guises and variants.

Huntington argued with Fukuyama, advancing as his main argument the fact that the end of the opposition of the clearly defined ideologies of Modernity (Marxism and Liberalism) in no way signified the automatic integration of humanity into a unified liberal utopia, inasmuch as under the formal constructions of national governments and ideological camps were found deep tectonic plates; as it were, continents of collective unconsciousness, which, as became clear, were by no means overcome by modernization, colonization, ideologization and enlightenment, and as before predetermined the most important aspects of life - including politics, economics and geopolitics - in one or another segment of human society according to their belonging to a civilization.

In other words, Huntington proposed to introduce the concept "civilization" as a fundamental ideological concept, called on for the replacement not only of the class-based analysis, but also of the liberal utopia, which took too earnestly and uncritically the propagandistic demagoguery of "The Cold War", and by thus became, in its turn, its victim. Capitalism, the market, liberalism, and democracy seem universal and commonly human only externally. Each civilization reinterprets its substance in accordance with its own unconscious templates, where religion, culture, language and psychology play a massive and often decisive role.

In such a context, civilization acquires a central significance in politological analysis, stepping into first place and replacing with itself the cliches of the liberal "Vulgate".

The unfolding of events in the 1990s shows that Huntington proved in this argument to be closer to the truth, and Fukuyama himself is obliged in part to reconsider his views, having admitted that he evidently spoke too soon. But this very revision by Fukuyama of the thesis of "the end of history" demands a more thorough reconsideration.

The Step Back of the Liberal Utopians: State Building

The problem is that Fukuyama, analyzing the discrepancy of his predictions about "the end of history" through the prism of the global victory of liberalism still tried to stay in the framework of that logic, from which he at first proceeded. Consequently, he needed to implement a one-time reality check and to turn aside from that, in order to admit the correctness of his opponent Huntington, who, in his forecast, proved by all signs closer to the truth. Then Fukuyama made the following conceptual move: he proposed to defer the end of history to an indefinite date, and meanwhile to engage in the strengthening of those socio-political structures that were the nucleus of the liberal ideology in its previous stages. Fukuyama advanced a new thesis: "state-building". As an intermediate stage for the transition to global government and world leadership, he recommended strengthening national governments with a liberal economy and democratic system of rule, in order to more fundamentally and profoundly work the soil for the final victory of world liberalism and globalization. This is not a rejection of the perspective; this is its postponement for the indefinite future with a concrete proposition concerning the intermediate stage.

Fukuyama says almost nothing about the concept of "civilization", but clearly takes into account Huntington's theses, indirectly responding to him: the steady development of national governments, which proved cramped both in the epoch of colonization, in the epoch of national-liberation movements, and in the epoch of the ideological opposition of the two camps, must now proceed in due course. It is this which will lead gradually to different societies adopting the market, democracy and human rights, uprooting the remains of the unconscious and preparing a more fail-safe (than now) soil for globalization.