Carroll Quigley's Civilizational Theory

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Carroll Quigley's Civilizational Theory: Abridgement and Critique

(This text needs To be cleaned up and processed )

David Wilkinson:

Quigley's civilizational idea, like Wallerstein's world-systems concepts, grow from a consideration of what ought to be the basic unit of social analysis and a derivative social taxonomy.

Of particular note are:

  • Quigley's unique general theory of the "instrument of expansion";
  • his account of the rhythm of expansion and crisis in the evolution of civilizations, and of
  • the persistently powerful distinction of core, periphery, and semipcriphery; and his views on
  • the role of universal empire and of socialism in civilizational theory.

Units of social analysis: societies and civilizations.

A society is a group whose members have more relationships with one another than they do with outsiders. As a result, a society forms an integrative unity and is comprehensible (Quigley, 196 1, 28): what goes on within it can be grasped without reference to things outside it).

There arc two different kinds of societies:

(a) parasitic, wealth-decreasing (hunting, fishing or gleaning) societies and

(b) producing societies (agricultural, pastoral, etc.), which seek to increase the amount of wealth in the world.

Among producing societies, there have been simple producing societies like the Zuni (with agriculture), or the (with pa-.toral herds), and "civilizations," superficially distinguishable by having writing and city life. As for the relative numbers of each, we might say that there have been hundreds of thousands of parasitic societies, at least thousands of simple producing societies, but not more than two dozen civilizations. Of the two dozen civilizations, all of which existed during the last ten thousand years, seven have been alive in recent years, while the rest, amounting to approximately seventeen in number, lived and died long ago.

Sixteen civilizations arc clearly enough demarked to be uncontroversial. They appear, reach a peak of achievement culminating in a great empire, and arc destroyed in due course by external invaders. An inventory of civilizations. Quigley supplies a table which gives the name, approximate dates, the name of the culminating empire and the outside intruders w ho terminated its existence for the sixteen civilizations mentioned :


Mesopotamian 6 000 - 300 B .c . Persian Greeks

Egyptian 5500 - 300 B.C. Egyptian Greeks

Indic 3500 -1500 B.C. Harappa Aryans

Cretan 3000 -llOO B . C. Minoan Dorians

Sinic 2000 B.C. -A.D. 400 Han Huns

Hittite 1900 -1000 B. C . Hittite Phrygians

Canaanite 2200 -100 B. C . Punic Romans

Classical llOO B.C. -A . D . 500 Roman Germans

Mesoamerican 1000 B. C. -A . D. 1 550 Aztec Europeans

Andean 1500 B. C. -A . D.16 00 Inca Europeans

Hindu 1500 B.C . -A .D. 1900 Mogul Europeans

Islamic 600 -1940 Ottoman Europeans

Chinese 400 -1930 Manchu Europeans

Japanese 100 B.C . -A.D. 1 950 (?) Tokugawa Europeans

Orthodox 600 -Soviet ? Western 500 -?

Civilizations come into existence, flourish and grow for a while, reach a peak of power and prosperity, weaken and decay and go out of existence, all by slow processes covering d ecades or centuries. This process can be studied effectively by periodizing it, as scholars like Vico, Danilevsky, Flinders Petric, Spengler and Toynbee have. Toynbee has done best so far (according to Quigley), but even Toynbee fails to provide a process and explanation for the stages of change. Quigley accordingly attempts to supply process and explanation.

His theory of civilizational change depends intrinsically on the notion of an "instrument."

Instruments and institutions.

All culture (avers Quigley) arises from humans' efforts to satisfy their needs, and is therefore purposive. Humans need security, power, wealth, companionship, certainty and understanding. Social organizations (consisting mostly of personal relationships) come into existence to satisfy such needs. So long as they fulfil their purposes, they may be called "instruments." But every such social instrument tends to become an "institution." This means that it takes on a life and purpose of its own, distinct from its cultural purpose, which is therefore achieved with decreasing effectiveness. Every social instrument becomes an institution because: every instrument divides its labor into particular duties, and most persons in the organization become committed to those narrow roles, while few or none serve the total purpose of the instrument; persons arc more than their roles, prefer themselves to their duties, and seek to turn the resources of the instrument to their private advantage; persons trained to certain duties find it difficult to change themselves to allow the instrument to meet changing social conditions, and become "vested interests" who prevent adaptation (49 -50).

"When instruments become institutions, as they all do, the organization achieves its function or purpose in society with decreasing effectiveness, and discontent with its performance begins to rise, especially among outsiders. These discontented suggest changes, which they call reforms .... When these suggestions arc not accepted or arc rejected by the established groups who control the criticized organization, conflicts and controversies begin, the discontented seeking to change the organization, while the vested interests seek to maintain their accustomed methods of operation." (58-59) The strain between the two groups Quigley labels the "tension of development." From this tension "there may emerge any one (or combination) among three possible outcomes: reform, circumvention or reaction. 1n the first case, reform, the institution is reorganized and its methods of action changed so that it becomes, relatively speaking, more of an instrument and achieves its purpose with sufficient facility to reduce tension to a socially acceptable level. 1n the second case, circumvention, the institution is left with most of its privileges and vested interests intact, but its duties arc taken away and assigned to a n ew instrument within th e same society ... 1n the third possible outcome, reaction, the vested interests triumph in the struggle, and the people of that society arc doomed to ineffective achievement of their needs on that level for an indefinite period.

"When an institution has been reformed or circumvented, there is once again an instrument on the level in question, and the purpose of that level is achieved with relative effectiveness. But, once again, as always happens, the new instrument becomes an institution, effectiveness decreases, tension of development rises and conflict appears. If the outcome of this conflict is either reform or circumvention, effectiveness increases and tension decreases. If the outcome is reaction, ineffectiveness becomes chronic and tension remains high. "As a result of this process of historical development, the development of each level appears in history as a pulsating movement. Periods of economic prosperity alternate with periods of economic stagnation; periods of religious or intellectual satisfaction alternate with periods of religious or intellectual frustration. Periods of political order or military success alternate with periods of political disorder or military disaster." (59-60)

The Instrument of Expansion

"The pattern of change in civilizations presented here consists of seven stages resulting from the fact that each civilization has an instrument of expansion that becomes an institution. The civilization rises while this organization is an instrument and declines a-; this organization becomes an institution."

"By the term 'instrument of expansion' we mean that the society must be organized in such fashion that three things arc true:

(1) the society must be organized in such a way that it has an incentive to invent new ways of doing things;

(2) it must be organized in such a way that somewhere in the society there is accumulation of surplus--that is, some persons in the society control more wealth than they wish to consume immediately ; and

(3) it must be organized in such a way that the surplus which is being accumulated is being used to pay for or to utilize the new inventions.

All three of these things are essential to any civilization. Taken together, we call them an instrument of expansion. If a producing society has such an organization (an instrument of expansion), we call it a civilization, and it passes through the process we are about to describe. " (69-70) When a society is organized in such a way that innovation is encouraged and rewarded, that society has powerful incentives to invent, and it will have what economists label "invention" (70). When some persons or organizations in the society have more wealth passing through their control than they wish to use immediately or in the "short run," there is accumulation of surplus, or "saving" (71). When surplus is to provide incentive to invent, or to utilize new inventions, there is "investment" or "reinvestment." (71-72) Every civilization will be found to have an organization that accumulates capital--creates, controls and disposes of surplus. "In Mesopotamian Civilization it was a religious organization, the Sumerian priesthood to which all members of the society paid tribute.

In Egyptian, Andean and, probably, Minoan civilizations it was a political organization, a state that created surpluses by a process of taxation or tribute collection. In Classical Civilization, it was a kind of social organization, slavery, that allowed one class of society, the slave owners, to claim most of the production of another class in society, the slaves. In the early part of Western Civilization it was a military organization, feudalism, that allowed a small portion of the society, the fighting men or lords, to collect economic goods from the majority of society, the serfs; a kind of payment for providing political protection for these serfs. In the later period of Western Civilization the surplus-creating instrument was an economic organization (the price-profit system, or capitalism, if you wish) that permitted entrepreneurs who organized the factors of production to obtain from society in return for the goods produced by this organization a surplus ( called profit) beyond what these factors of production had cost these entrepreneurs." (73-74) There can be more than one surplus-creating organization (e.g. private accumulation no doubt existed during and despite the Sumerian priesthood or the Inca or Russian socialist state) in any society; there always is; yet the variant types turn out to be incidental, small in scope, aimed usually at luxury consumption not reinvestment, hence not instruments of expansion. (77) The crisis of expansion. "Like all instruments, an instrument of expansion in the course of time becomes an institution and the rate of expansion slows down. This process is the same as the institutionalization of any instrument, but appears specifically as a breakdown of the three necessary elements of expansion. The one that usually breaks down is the third--application of surplus to new ways of doing things. In modern terms we say that the rate of investment decreases. If this decrease is not made up by reform or circumvention, the other two elements (invention and accumulation of surplus) also begin to break down. This decrease in the rate of investment occurs for many reasons, of which the chief one is that the social group controlling the surplus ceases to apply it to new ways of doing things because they have a vested interest in the old ways of doing things. They have no desire to change a society in which they are the supreme group. Moreover, by a natural and unconscious self-indulgence, they begin to apply the surplus they control to nonproductive but ego-satisfying purposes such as ostentatious display, competition for social honors or prestige, construction of elaborate residences, monuments, or other structures, and other expenditures which may distribute the surpluses to consumption but do not provide more effective methods of production. "When the instrument of expansion in a civilization becomes an institution, tension incrca5cs. 1n this ca5c we call this 'tension of evolution.' The society a5 a whole ha5 become adapted to expansion; the ma5s of the population expect and desire it. A society that ha5 an instrument of expansion exp ands for generations, even for centuries. People's minds become adjusted to expansion. If they arc not 'better off each year than they were the previous year, or if they cannot give their children more than they themselves started with, they become disappointed, restless, and perhaps bitter. At the same time the society itself, after generations of expansion, is organized for expansion and undergoes acute stresses if expansion slows up." (74-75) A crisis will occur in any civilization when the rate of expansion dccrca5cs. "And such decrca5c is the chief result of the institutionalization of the instrument of expansion, something that occurs in every civilization." (76)

The "tension of evolution" or crisis of expansion may end in

(l) reform,

(2) circumvention, or

(3) reaction.

ln Western Civilization, both circumvention and reform have occurred. "As a result Western Civilization ha5 had three periods of expansion, the first about 970-1270, the second about 1420-1650, and the third about 1725-1929. The instrument of expansion in the first wa5 feudalism, which became institutionalized into chivalry. This wa5 circumvented by a new instrument of expansion that we might call commercial capitalism. When this organization became institution it transformed into mercantilism, it wa5 reformed into industrial capitalism, which became the instrument of expansion of the third age of expansion in the history of Western Civilization . By 1930 this organization had become institutionalized into monopoly capitalism, and the society wa5, for the third time, in a major era of crisis."

Expansion and civilizational evolution

"The process that we have described, which we shall call the institutionalization of an instrument of expansion, will help us to understand why civilizations rise and fall. By a close example of this process, it becomes possible to divide the history of any civilization into successive stages ....

We shall divide the process into seven stages, since this permits us to relate our divisions conveniently to the process of rise and fall.

The seven stages we shall name as follows":

l. Mixture

2. Gestation

3. Expansion

4. Age of Conflict

5. Universal Empire

6. Decay

7. Invasion Origins: mixture at peripheries.

"Every civilization, indeed every society, begins with a mixture of two or more cultures. Such mixture of cultures is very common; in fact, it occurs at the boundaries of all cultures to some extent." (78-79) Very rarely, out of such mixture, a new producing society with an instrument of expansion emerges (79). "Since cultural mixture occurs on the borders of societies, civilizations rarely succeed one another in the same geographic area, but undergo a displacement in spaces civilizations have generally arisen on the periphery of earlier civilizations. Canaanite, Hittite, and Minoan civilizations arose on the edges of Mesopotamian Civilization. Classical civilization was born on the shores of the Aegean Sea, especially the eastern shore, on what was the periphery of Minoan Civilization. Western Civilization arose in Western Europe, especially in France, which was a periphery of Classical Civilization. And on other peripheries of Classical Civilization were born Russian Civilization and Islamic Civilization." (79-80)


"If the new society born from such a mixture is a civilization, it has an instrument of expansion. This means that inventions begin to be made, surplus begins to be accumulated, and this surplus begins to be used to utilize new inventions. Eventually, as a result of these actions, expansion will begin. The interval before such expansion becomes evident, but after the most obvious mixture has ceased, may cover generations of time. This period will be called the Stage of Gestation." (80)

Expansion: characteristics.

"The Stage of Expansion is marked by four kinds of expansion:

(a) increased production of goods, eventually reflected in rising standards of living;

(b) increase in population of the society, generally because of a declining death rate;

(c) an increase in the geographic extent of the civilization, for this is a period of exploration and colonization; and

(d) and increase in knowledge .... This period of expansion is frequently a period of democracy, of scientific advance, and of revolutionary political change (as the various levels of society become adapted to an expanding mode of life from the more static mode of life prevalent in Stage 2 ). " (8 l )

Expansion: core and periphery.

"As a result of the geographic expansion of the society, it comes to be divided into two areas: the core area, which the civilization occupied at the end of Stage 2, and the peripheral area into which it expanded during Stage 3. The core area of Mesopotamian Civilization was the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; the peripheral area was the highlands surrounding this valley and more remote areas like Iran, Syria, and Anatolia. The core area of Minoan Civilization was the island of Crete; its peripheral area included the Aegean Islands and the Balkan coast. The core area of Classical Civilization was the shores of the Aegean Sea; its peripheral areas were the whole Mediterranean seacoast and ultimately Spain, North Africa, and Gaul. The core area of Western Civilization covered northern Italy, most of France, the Low Countries, England, and extreme western Germany; its peripheral areas included the rest of Europe to Eastern Poland, North and South America, and Australia. "When expansion begins to slow up in the core areas, as a result of the instrument of expansion becoming institutionalized, and the core area becomes increasingly static and legalistic, the peripheral areas continue to expand (by what is essentially a pro cc ss of geographic circumvention) and frequently short-cut many of the developments experienced by the core area. As a result, by the latter half of Stage 3, the peripheral areas arc tending to become wealthier and more powerful than the core areas. Another way of saying this is that the core area tends to pass from Stage 3 to Stage 4 earlier than do the peripheral areas. In time the instrument of expansion becomes an institution throughout the society, investment begins to decrease, and the rate of expansion begins to decline." (81-82)

Age of Conflict: characteristics. "As soon as the rate of expansion in a civilization begins to decline noticeably, it enters Stage 4, the Age of Conflict.

This is probably the most complex, most interesting, and most critical of all the seven stages.

It is marked by four chief characteristics:

(a) it is a period of declining rate of expansion;

(b) it is a period of growing tension of evolution and increasing class conflicts, especially in the core area;

(c) it is a period of increasingly frequent and increasingly violent imperialist wars; and

(d) it is a period of growing irrationality, pessimism, superstitions, and otherworldliness. The declining rate of expansion is caused by the institutionalization of the instrument of expansion. The growing class conflicts arise from the increasing tension of evolution, from the obvious conflict of interests between a society adapted to expansion and the vested interests controlling the uninvested surplus the institution of expansion who fear social change more than anything else." (82)

"The Stage of Conflict (Stage 4) is a period of imperialist wars and of irrationality supported for reasons that arc usually different in the different social classes. The masses of the people (who have no vested interest in the existing institution of expansion) engage in imperialist wars because it seems the only way to overcome the slowing down of expansion. Unable to get ahead by other means (such as economic means), they seek to get ahead by political action, above all by taking wealth from their political neighbors. At the same time they turn to irrationality to compensate for the growing insecurity of life, for the chronic economic depression, for the growing bitterness and dangers of class struggles, for the growing social disruption and insecurity from imperialist wars. This is generally a period of gambling, use of narcotics or intoxicants, obsession with sex (frequently as perversion), increasing crime, growing numbers of neurotics and psychotics, growing obsession with death and with the Hereafter."

Age of Conflict:

the Ministries of Love, Peace and Truth. "The vested interests encourage the growth of imperialist wars and irrationality because both serve to divert the discontent of the mass away from their vested interests (the uninvested surplus). Accordingly, some of the defenders of vested interests divert a certain part of their surplus to create instruments of class oppression, instruments of imperialist wars and instruments of irrationality. Once these instruments are created and begin to become institutions of class oppression, of imperialist wars, and of irrationality, the chance o f the institution of expansion being reformed into an instrument of expansion become almost nil. These three new vested interests in combination with the older vested institution of expansion are in a position to prevent all reform. The last of these three, the old institution of expansion, now begins to lose its privileges and advantages to the three institutions it has financed. Of these three, the institution of class oppression controls much of the political power of the society; the institution of imperialist wars controls much of the military power of the society; and the institution of irrationality controls much of the intellectual life of the society. These three (which may be combined into only two or one) become dominant, and the group that formerly controlled the institution of expansion falls back into a secondary role, its surpluses largely absorbed by its own creations. In this way, in Mesopotamian Civilization, the Sumerian priesthood, which had been the original instrument of expansion, fell into a secondary role behind the secular icings it had set up to command its armies in the imperialist wars of its Age of Conflict. In the same way in Classical Civilization the slave owning landlords who had been the original instrument of expansion were largely eclipsed by the mercenary army that had been created to carry on the imperialist wars of the Age of Conflict but took on life and purposes of its own and came to dominate Classical Civilization completely. So too the Nazi Party, which had been financed by some of the German monopoly capitalists as an instrument of class oppression, of imperialist war, and of irrationality, took on purposes of its own and began to dominate the monopoly capitalists for its own ends." (83-84)


  • Article: World-Economic Theories and Problems: Quigley vs. Wallerstein vs Central Civilization. David Wilkinson. Journal of World-Systems Research, 1996