Arnold Toynbee on the Role of the Internal vs the External Proletariat in Civilizational Change

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Tim Winton (from the transcript of the video below):

"Tim shares a historical perspective based on the thinking of Arnold Toynbee, whom he characterizes as a big picture, systemic historian who looks for patterns throughout history. Toynbee, in his major work, A Study of History, had a concept he referred to as “The Universal Church,” which contained opposition groups referred to as “internal proletariats” and “external proletariats.”

External proletariats are those living outside of the societal system that have become so alienated and disenfranchised from society that they become what we call terrorists. When society enters its decline phase, the number of external proletariats grow, as does their level of bitterness.

Internal proletariats live within the system, but are held in some kind of subjugation by the dominant minority. Quoting Wikipedia: “From among members of an "internal proletariat" who transcend the social decay a "church" may arise. Such an association would contain new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form. Toynbee here uses the word "church" in a general sense, e.g., to refer to a collective spiritual bond found in common worship, or the unity found in an agreed social order.”

Tim states that the job of the internal proletariat is to answer the question, “what’s next?” The internal proletariat needs to come up with a big story that is a unifying force during the breakdown phase, when the story of the dominant minority starts to lose its ability to serve its purpose as a unifying force for civilization. Bringing this to our current situation and topic of sacred naturalism, Tim believes that it would be useful for today’s internal proletariats (including those of us in the ‘integral diaspora’) to come back to sacred naturalism, because the current view of the sacred doesn’t resonate for the external proletariat. We need that overarching story to unify more people and act as a force of renewal after the breakdown.

The story of the sacred that tends to dominate in our civilization is attached to a “God” who is considered by the current dominant minority to be old-fashioned and out of date, like a fairy tale. It is anachronistic, and not part of the modern conversation. This view of the story by the dominant minority is then alienating to the external proletariat. The external proletariat is swinging back from the materialism of the modern/post-modern paradigm, returning to the other extreme approach to the sacred that is very idealistic. We have tried that, and it does not work. It is an overly idealized approach to the sacred that has not been shown to have the effects that are proving to be very useful. It is therefore worth exploring a story of the sacred that has naturalistic foundations and that doesn’t require a metaphysics that is overly idealistic. Rather, we need to emphasize the interior aspect of our experience of reality to be the dominant feature of anything we explain as spiritual or sacred. This approach may prove to be more useful and pragmatic, from the sense that we explain pragmatism as the effects we perceive something to have.

Tim suggests a more balance approach to the sacred, with a refined integration of the realist and idealist views, to find an overlapping ground with a story that can unite all of humanity. The internal proletariat bringing forth a new story; the external proletariat accepting it; and the civilization renewal, with the majority of people participating. We are heading toward a planetary scale civilization, Tim believes, perhaps the first time we’ve had one on earth; and so we need a story that can provide the unifying power for that scale, that level of complexity of civilization to be successful. Clearly, the way we are doing it now, with the breakdown of the neoliberal approach to globalization or planetary scale civilization is not working the way it needs to work."

Reverse Cultural Adaptation of the Elites to the Proletariat in Periods of Decline

"oynbee’s observations, in a section called the “Schism in the Soul,” about how the dominant elite in a society succumbs to “vulgarity and barbarism in manners” by “merging itself in its own proletariats.” Toynbee distinguished between “internal proletariats”—what we might call the underclass—and “external proletariats,” by which he meant culturally less sophisticated military rivals.

It is a curious process. When a society is robust and self-confident, Toynbee suggested, the influence travels largely from the elites to the proletariats. The proletariats are “softened” (in Toynbee’s phrase) by their imitation of the manners and morals of a dominant elite. But when a society begins to falter, the imitation proceeds largely in the opposite direction: the dominant elite is coarsened by its imitation of proletarian manners: Toynbee spoke in this context of a growing “sense of drift,” “truancy,” “promiscuity,” and general “vulgarization” of manners, morals, and the arts. The elites, instead of holding fast to their own standards, suddenly begin to “go native” and adopt the dress, attitudes, and behavior of the lower classes."



  • From Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History (Vol 1, 19--):

"To the student of Graeco-Roman history,... both the Christians and the Barbarians would present themselves as creatures of an alien underworld- the internal and the external proletariat, as he might call them, of the Graeco-Roman (or, to use a better term, Hellenic) Society in its last phase.

  • From Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History (Vol 2, 19--):

"...our own Western Society (or Civilization) is affiliated to a predecessor. [...] ...what are the tokens [signs] of apparentation-and-affiliation which we are to accept as valid evidence. What tokens of such relationship did we, in fact, find in the case of our own society's affiliation to the Hellenic Society?

The first of these phenomena was a universal state (the Roman Empire), incorporating the whole Hellenic Society in a single political community in the last phase of Hellenic history. [...] the Roman Empire's fall was followed by a kind of interregnum between the disappearances of the Hellenic and the emergence of the Western Society.

This interregnum is filled with the activities of two institutions: the Christian Church, established within and surviving the Roman Empire, and... the Barbarians from the no-man's-land beyond the Imperial frontiers. We have already described these two forces as the internal proletariat and external proletariat of the Hellenic Society. Though differing in all else they agreed in their alienation from the dominant minority of the Hellenic Society, the leading class of the old society who had lost their way and ceased to lead. In fact the Empire fell and the Church survived just because the Church gave leadership and enlisted loyalty whereas the Empire had long failed to do either the one or the other. Thus the Church, a survival from the dying society, became the womb from which in due course the new one was born."

  • From Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History (Vol 5, 1939):

"The true hall-marks of the proletarian is neither poverty nor humble birth but a consciousness- and the resentment that this consciousness inspires- of being disinherited from his ancestral place in society."


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