Brief Outline of Civilizational History

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Michel Bauwens:

A brief outline of civilizational history

First we have to establish whether there is such a thing as civilization.

Arnold Toynbee in his ‘Study of History’, makes a cogent argument that you cannot explain societal evolution from a pure place-based or nation-based point of view; they are always embedded in a larger entity of similar societies which are themselves contending with other blocks. That interconnected entity of a block of nations that tend towards a similar culture and societal organization is what a civilization is. A second distinction is to reserve ‘civilization’ for societies that have writing, a caste or caste system with explicit division of labor, and an army or repressive apparatus that is separate from the people. This distinguishes the concept of civilization from tribal or indigenous forms of social organization, that are still clan- or kinship based. I find Keith Chandler’s summary of the Characteristics of Civilizations, in the book Beyond Civilization to be an excellent summary of these features.

Chandler shows how each civilization makes very particular metaphysical choices that are related to distinct socio-political structures and mentalities. This point of view is also that of Oswald Spengler in his landmark Decline of the West, which is mis-titled as its topic is the growth and decline of every civilization, according to a particular dynamic that he defines as that of a living organism. Spengler is contentious, but he started a century long debate that is still ongoing, so his book is foundational to ‘civilizational analysis’.

Arnold Toynbee challenged this view of separate civilizations that do not learn from each other, and showed their interconnectedness. For Toynbee, there are indeed, ‘generations of civilizations’. He recognized three forms, which will allow us to posit a Fourth Generation Civilization.

Briefly, the First Generation is the Sumeric-Egyptian, Indian and Chinese responses to the great deglacialization of 12000 BC and a collective decision to master and regulate nature.

These types of civilizations were organized around “power Gods”, superhuman beings that represented natural forces and human emotions, and for which the ruling classes were the conduit, protecting the societies that sacrificed to them.

These imperial types of social organization were interrupted by the Axial Age reformation of human thought and spirituality. The Gods, sometimes reduced to a single transcendent God, became moral, and responded to the need for ethical choice-making in complexifying urban societies. Counted as such Axial movements are the contemporary global or civilizational religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, Judaism and Islam, but also the Greek Philosophers.

Amongst the effects of the Axial Age are the coming to dominance of more separate rational thought, helped in its effects by the invention of the alphabet, a more abstract form of writing.

So this introduced the Second Generation of Civilizations, of which the Hellenic with the weight of philosophy may be symptomatic. Some authors, like Ken Wilber, would add that the ‘Imperial Form’ was replaced by the Traditional Form which subordinates power to the ethics of the new religious communities. If you are familiar with Spiral Dynamics, you will notice that it is an interpretation of psychological development that can be extrapolated to social systems, i.e. psychogenesis equals sociogenesis.

Civilizations indeed go through cycles, consisting of ascending and descending phases, and often going through transitional eras (‘Times of Trouble’, aka Toynbee), and they eventually decay and disappear. But they also learn .. . This means that despite the cyclic nature of societal development, there is also an accumulation taking place, of technical knowledge, an evolution of ethics, new subjectivities, etc … One of the expressions of this ‘spiral development’ is that the focus of societies can shift from the individual, for example the total and unimpeded power of the warlords, kings, and emperors, to social systems that are more embedded in ethical and religious values, as embedded in these community practices, and represented in the priesthood, which acts as checks and balances on individual power.

In this interpretation, human history evolved from its animal basis (individual struggle for survival), to the collective tribalism of animistic/shamanistic communities, to a re-individualization in aggressive conquering chiefdoms, to its moralization in the established Axial religions, back to the individual ‘entrepreneurship’ of post-Enlightenment capitalism, giving rise to new egalitarian movements to counteract it, etc …

So once we arrive at the Traditional organic societies organized around the principles of the Axial religions and ethical systems, we will see that they are interrupted by a kind of Second Axial Age, the “Age of the Enlightenment”. This is the civilizational revolution that will lead to modernity, industrialism, science, etc … It set in motion the modern world, which also created a world civilization.

Bear in mind here the theory of David Wilkinson, a world-systems analyst of the ‘materialist’ historical school, which posits the existence of a Central Civilization, consisting first of the Sumeric-Egyptian duopoly. This central civilization, as an interconnected network of cities, never disappeared. It moved from Mesopotamia to the West, and through colonization, capitalism and western imperialism, became the basis of a World Civilization, dominated by various European hegemons first (the Dutch, the British and the Americans).

Now of course, today, there remain very important cultural differences, rooted in the various separate civilizational histories, but despite that, the world civilization forms of nation-states and capitalism, have become universal.

Furthermore, the hegemonic domination of the US is challenged by China, and various scenarios can be envisaged, but the most likely one in my opinion is multipolarity.

There is an important ‘Eurasian’ background to this. Civilization has often taken the form of Empires, but also of maritime trading blocks, think of the Phoenicians, the Venitians, the Baltic Hanseatic League.

Michael Hudson brings a believable twist to this:

The Eurasian continent has seen a millennial rivalry between the imperial form, in which a ‘father-emperor’ with a divine mandate, protects the people and maintains solidarity mechanisms for the whole society, in particular, protecting the people against the power of the merchants. These are continental, more conservative societies with a ideology of harmony.

But in Ancient Greece, the creditor class came to power, it abolished the Jubilees and Clean Slate Legislations of the ancient empires, i.e. limits on monetary slavery. But this created conflict, and the ‘Democratic’ revolution in Athens was a revolt against this creditor class. Thus, Hellenism, and later the West, created a antagonistic and conflict based social form, with institutions defending the people (The Roman Tribunate, Parliamentarism, the welfare state), but also based on maritime power, mercantilism, rentier capitalism, etc…

The creation of the modern polity has been riven by these tensions:

WWI eliminated the imperial forms (Ottomans, Austria-Hungary) WWII was a rivalry for the right ‘management’ of the industrial nation-state: parliamentary capitalis vs fascism vs Soviet ‘communism’ WWIII, aka the conflict in Ukraine, pits the western rentier capitalist and democratic model against the state-sovereignist axis of Russia and China.

Modernity was also interrupted by a spiritual and cognitive revolution, that of post-modernity, which could best be seen as a relative deconstruction of the Enlightenment paradigm, just as the Enlightenment was a relative deconstruction of the Axial paradigm.

Three generations of civilizations

I (Michel Bauwens) asked ChatGPT to summarize the vision of Toynbee (and it added William McNeil) on the succession of generations of civilizations:

"Arnold Toynbee indeed proposed a different framework for the three generations of civilizations based on the emergence and influence of religious ideas. Here is the revised explanation of Toynbee's three generations of civilizations:

* The First Generation: Religious Pioneers

Toynbee refers to the first generation as the "Religious Pioneers." These civilizations witness the birth and development of significant religious ideas and systems.

The characteristics of the first generation include:

a) Religious innovations: The civilization experiences the emergence of new religious ideas, often associated with prophets, visionaries, or religious leaders.

b) Spiritual transformation: The new religious ideas bring about a profound transformation in the civilization's outlook, values, and social structures.

c) Expansion of religious influence: The civilization spreads its religious beliefs and practices to other societies, influencing and shaping their worldview.

d) Absence of institutionalization: The religious ideas of the first generation are typically not fully institutionalized or organized into well-defined religious structures.

Examples of first-generation civilizations include early Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, which gave rise to the pantheon of gods and religious practices but lacked the organized religious institutions that emerged in later generations.

* The Second Generation: Religious Consolidation

The second generation, or the "Religious Consolidation," represents a period of institutionalization and expansion of religious systems.

The key characteristics of the second generation are:

a) Institutional development: The civilization establishes formal religious institutions, hierarchical structures, and codified religious doctrines.

b) Doctrinal and institutional conflicts: Internal debates and conflicts within the religious systems arise, often leading to schisms and the formation of distinct sects or branches.

c) Expansion and missionary zeal: The civilization actively spreads its religious beliefs through missionary efforts and conversions, seeking to establish its dominance.

d) Religious syncretism: The religious system incorporates elements from other religious traditions, resulting in the blending or fusion of beliefs and practices.

Prominent examples of second-generation civilizations include the major world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, and Hinduism. These religions emerged, consolidated their institutions, and expanded their influence over wide geographic areas.

* The Third Generation: Religious Disintegration

The third generation, known as the "Religious Disintegration," represents a period of decline and disintegration of established religious systems.

The key characteristics of the third generation include:

a) Loss of religious vitality: The civilization experiences a decline in religious fervor, loss of faith, and the erosion of the influence of traditional religious institutions.

b) Secularization and skepticism: Rationality and secular values gain prominence, leading to skepticism and questioning of traditional religious beliefs and practices.

c) Emergence of new religious movements: Amidst the decline of established religions, new religious movements or ideologies emerge as alternative sources of meaning and spiritual fulfillment.

d) Fragmentation and diversification: The religious landscape becomes fragmented, with the proliferation of diverse religious beliefs, spiritual practices, and ideologies.

Toynbee suggested that many modern Western societies, with their increasing secularization, the rise of alternative spiritualities, and the declining influence of traditional religions, exemplify the characteristics of the third generation of civilizations."


" While Arnold Toynbee's framework primarily emphasized the role of religious ideas in categorizing civilizations, there are other formulations that focus on different criteria. One such alternative framework was proposed by William McNeill in his book "The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community." McNeill's framework categorizes civilizations based on their relationship with energy capture and social organization.

Here is a summary of McNeill's three generations of civilizations::

* The First Generation: Agrarian Civilizations

The first generation, referred to as "Agrarian Civilizations," is characterized by societies that primarily rely on agriculture for sustenance and energy capture. The key features of the first generation include:

a) Agricultural revolution: These civilizations experience the development of settled farming communities and the domestication of plants and animals.

b) Sedentary lifestyle: People establish permanent settlements and live in close proximity to their agricultural fields.

c) Hierarchical social structures: Agrarian civilizations develop complex social hierarchies and centralized political systems.

d) Limited energy capture: Energy is predominantly obtained from human and animal labor, with limited technological advancements.

Examples of first-generation civilizations include the early river valley civilizations such as Sumer, Egypt, and the Indus Valley civilization.

* The Second Generation: Industrial Civilizations

The second generation, known as "Industrial Civilizations," represents a significant shift in energy capture and social organization.

The key characteristics of the second generation include:

a) Industrial revolution: These civilizations witness the advent of industrialization, fueled by the utilization of non-human energy sources such as coal, oil, and electricity.

b) Urbanization and mass production: Industrialization leads to rapid urban growth, mass production, and the emergence of industrial cities.

c) Technological advancements: Scientific and technological progress becomes a driving force behind societal transformations.

d) Nation-state formation: Industrial civilizations are often associated with the rise of nation-states and the centralization of political power.

Prominent examples of second-generation civilizations include Western European powers during the Industrial Revolution, along with other countries that later industrialized such as the United States and Japan.

* The Third Generation: Information Civilizations

The third generation, termed "Information Civilizations," reflects the current era of technological advancements, communication networks, and information exchange.

The key characteristics of the third generation include:

a) Information revolution: Information and communication technologies, such as computers and the internet, play a central role in societal and economic transformations.

b) Global interconnectivity: Information civilizations experience an unprecedented level of global interconnectivity, facilitating the exchange of ideas, goods, and information across vast distances.

c) Knowledge-based economies: Economic activities increasingly rely on the production and dissemination of knowledge, leading to the emergence of knowledge-based economies.

d) Cultural diversity and hybridity: Information civilizations witness the blending and interaction of diverse cultural traditions and ideas.

Examples of third-generation civilizations include the present-day globalized world, where information technologies and digital connectivity have transformed various aspects of society, economy, and culture.