David Wilkinson's Views on the Other Civilizational Analysts

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= David Wilkinson's proposes the existence of a single Central Civilization.


David Wilkinson:


"I draw very heavily on Toynbee, both in agreement and in opposition, but almost exclusively on his extensively revised model of 1961, from Reconsiderations, rather than on the much better-known earlier volumes of A Study of History. My definition of a civilization/world system takes off from his rethinking (1961 :278-87). My roster is based on a critique of his list and Quigley's. In an empirical test of his civilizational kinematics (phase transition sequence), original and revised versions, vs. those of Spengler, Philip Bagby (1958), Melko, and Quigley, my data fit the expectations of his revised theory perfectly; those of his original theory came in next best (Wilkinson, 1986:29). Toynbee is however seduced by the mythos of cultural coherence - not entirely, no one is, and he provides a useful model of cultural contradiction and conflict, but he relates it integrally to breakdown. He is replete with fertile notions, and, I believe, is the most liberal of civilizationists, in the oldest sense of that word; an excellent teacher.


Carroll Quigley provides a single, powerful, illuminating insight into the dynamics of civilizations, the concept of the instrument of expansion, which I view as a nonpartisan and non-supersessionist empiricization of the Marxian "mode of production," and as such an improvement, with extensive research and practical implications. Some hint of the latter can be found, on suitable occasions, in the kaleidoscopic consciousness of Quigley's one-time student, William Jefferson Clinton.

Where many if not most civilizationists have centrally focused on culture, Quigley focuses centrally on economics, and will probably be easiest for the world-systems tradition to come to grips with. However, after spending some time trying to validate his proposition that growing civilizations are pervaded by a single instrument of expansion, I judged that I had disconfirmed it instead, gave up expecting macrosocieties to display much institutional coherence, and began to consider the structure of their incoherence. In that incoherence, I think that many of Quigley's propositions will be partially confirmed, and that the location and limits of their application will be significant.


Spengler is the Antaeus of civilizationists, brilliantly, perversely, powerfully wrong in more ways than any two others combined.

Spengler's key proposition, to the effect that each civilization develops a single prime symbol, an all-pervasive style, is especially brilliantly wrong (the Gramscian doctrine of cultural "hegemony" being less so, except insofar as it is doctrinaire, an answer instead of a question), and should point us to the study of the failure of repeated attempts in that direction, and the resilience of deviant, oppositional, variant, heretical, inverted, oppressed symbols, as thematic of polycultural history. Is this failure correlated with the failure to develop a single prime mode of production, class struggle, durable world state and cosmopolis? I suspect so.


Melko accepts that today many civilizations coexist, and objects to the idea that the only way we can study contemporary civilization comparatively is to do so by reference to history. That is indeed the logical consequence of my acceptance that today only one civilization exists. Our respective rosters are properly derived from different definitions; we can agree on some phenomena common to the civilizations that appear on both our rosters. However, while he, like Spengler (1926: Table III), sees a feudal state-imperial polity sequence (1969:101-32), I perceive no holo-civilizational feudal phase. Feudalism does indeed appear in semiperipheries, with regard to which I find Rushton Coulborn's arguments (1956:364-66) about feudalism as "a mode of revival of a society whose polity has gone into extreme disintegration" in marginal regions - religion being the general and core-area recovery modality - quite convincing. As for states systems and empires, I find not a supersession but an alternation, following Toynbee's Helleno-Sinic model, in which, consistent with Robert Wesson's work (1967,1978), the states-system phase is more robust.

Melko is also doubtful, as is Chase-Dunn, about my admission to civilizational status of very small-scale societies, with only one or two cities - Melko questions my "Chibchan" civilization, Chase-Dunn my "Irish."

More recently - since I have responded only by accepting even smaller civilizations into my roster (Wilkinson, 1993, 1994), Melko has suggested that I will have to locate still others, for example, in Central Asia. My point (10) above concurs with him. I hadn't closed my roster of civilizations in 1982 or 1987 (Wilkinson, 1980-1982, 1987b), and I am not ready to close it now. Current candidates not treated then include several African possibilities, and a second (!) Colombian candidate, Tairona "civilization."


I view all of John Hord's papers (q.v.) with great interest. Our definitions of "civilization" are irreducibly different, but I believe that the relatively homogeneous political-cultural entities he studies under that label are genuine, and his understanding of them creative and novel. The persistence and the fissility of his constitutional traditions has helped to persuade me that (my) civilizations are characteristically, not just incidentally, polycultures.


I have discussed Sorokin more fully elsewhere.

In brief: I concur with Sorokin's powerful critique (1950:113-20, 206-17; 1956: 163-64; 1963:413-19; 1966: 121-22,548-49) of civilizationists - Spengler, Nikolai Danilevsky (1920), and especially Toynbee - who observed social groups and thought they observed cultural groups. Sorokin however resolves the difficulty by refusing the analytic concept of "civilization." I resolve it by treating civilizations as social groups and not as cultural groups, each, just as Sorokin complained (1950:213), "a cultural field where a multitude of vast and small cultural systems and congeries - partly mutually harmonious, partly neutral, partly contradictory - coexist."


Sorokin's comment is worth recalling in another context.

Samuel P. Huntington has lately (1993) brought a political scientist's perspective to the study of civilizations. He defines civilizations as cultural groupings and cultural identities, accepts the plurality of contemporary civilizations, presents a largely Toynbeean civilizational roster (23-25), and hypothesizes that in the next phase of world politics "the fault lines between civilizations will be the battIe lines of the future" (22). His argument is detailed and provocative. I believe Sorokin would rightly contend that Huntington's "major civilizations"-"Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and possibly African civilization" (25) - are "cultural fields" rather than either systems or potential actors. I would add that they are cultural subfields in the global cultural field of a single civilization, a social and not a cultural entity. I consequently doubt the hypotheses that "conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict" and that "international relations ... will increasingly ... become a game in which non-Western civilizations are actors ... " (48). More likely, nostalgic ideologies of lost civilizational isolation and cultural status will be used to mobilize support for struggles for power and prestige within a solitary, incoherent civilization in which the ideologues have neither the capacity nor the intention to create a coherent cultural system, let alone a culture capable of functioning as an actor.

Melko has objected to my schema (which describes the general course of macrosocial history as the fusion of many small civilizations into the one contemporary global civilization) on the grounds that it destroys the possibility of a comparative study of civilizations, except so far as that study is also historical. That is indeed its logical consequence. But those who nonetheless wish to examine dialogically Huntington's contention that the next stage in global political conflict will be a conflict of civilizations can still do so perfectly well, but employing the different (and to my mind more precise) locution "conflict of cultures within a single civilization." We can then proceed to use for our historical analogs not the past collisions and fusions between civilizations, but the more frequent, more complex and delicate (and, I suspect, more dialogic and perhaps even less violent) interplay of the parts of a single society's polyculture. As a first approximation, on account of the analogy I consider appropriate I am probably a bit more sanguine about the outcome of such a conflict, even while being less sure of its coming rise to prominence, than Huntington.

Chase-Dunn and Hall vs. Frank and Gills

On the issue of whether there are many different precapitalist world-systems with different modes of production (Chase-Dunn and Hall, 199Ia:23), or a single SOOO-year worldsystem with a single developmental logic (Frank and Gills), I partly split the difference and partly disagree with both.

(I) I don't use the term "precapitalist" to describe any empirical civilization/world system; while capitalist (and socialist) ideals, ideologies, and utopias are rather recent, their accumulative and distributive practices are very old, possibly both contemporaneous with the startup of civilization.

(2) I find many different world-systems (like Chase-Dunn and Hall), but of such unequal size, duration and terminus that one ofthem (essentially that focused on by Gills and Frank) eventually engulfed the others; this is the political!civilizational structure I call Central Civilization.

(3) In consequence of not finding one pervasive Quigleyan "instrument of expansion" in any civilization, I don't use the term "mode of production" in any world-system-Icvel application, except as a hypothesis I don't expect to see confirmed. Each of the civilizations is heterogeneous, polycultural, incoherent with respect to its politico-economic patterning; though at some times in each some new or reinvented form has looked like it would spread throughout and extirpate all others, it is "institutionalized" (in the Quigleyan sense, i.e., deflected and corrupted) and reaches a limit well short of that. This pattern of failure is as interesting as the variety of forms and their mutual displacement processes, and should keep a generation or so of macrosocial theorists productively employed in verifying, describing, and explaining it.


Since the 1970s I have held that all civilizations are world systems; but since the 1960s I have accepted that there are some world systems which are not civilizations, that is, very small, nonurban polycultures. Christopher Chase-Dunn is now in the lead on this line of research, which should help to detail the differences between the smallest, city less, world systems and the next level larger, the one- and two-city proto-civilizations, of which I now believe several, probably many, more must have existed (most only briefly, "abortive" in a sense analogous to Toynbee' s) than have as yet been found. One appropriate line of comparative civilizational fieldwork for the future will, with luck, be the search for lost and forgotten cities, carried on with new and superior technical means afforded by aerial and satellite photography, with searches for patterned, centric, and radial disturbances of soil and vegetation, showing the patterns of points and lines that usually represent civilizational geometry. The first fruitful zone for such exploration will I think be the forested areas of Africa south of the Sahara.

On another issue (not yet discussed in print), Chase-Dunn is considerably more skeptical, and I considerably more receptive, to the socialphysics or complex-systems-physics ideas of Arthur S. Iberall, which I have found productive of useful hypotheses (as to, for example, why and how the several early-born civilizations initially formed near simultaneously (lberall and Wilkinson, 1986); the relation of polyculturality to civilization (Iberall and Wilkinson, 1993); what might be the order of magnitude of the number of cities and civilizations "missing" from current records and to be searched for (Wilkinson, 1994, forthcoming).

Gills and Frank

Currently the best short compilation of their contentions, examined at length in Frank and Gills (1993), is Frank's five propositions (1993:2).

(I) The "existence and development of the present world system stretches back at least 5000 years": I date its existence back 3500 years, when there was a critical fusion of its predecessors or roots, which go back at least 5500 years; in essence we concur.

(2) The "same process of capital accumulation has played a, if not the, central role in the world system for several millennia": I say "a, but not the" central role, in this and all other civilizational world systems (but not in the nonurban world systems Chase-Dunn studies).

(3) The "Center-Periphery Structure .. .is also applicable to the world system before 1492": having accepted Quigley's (1961) argument on this point when he made it, I more than agree; the structure is applicable to all civilizations, that is, to all civilizational world systems (but not necessarily to nonurban world systems); I have provided a more detailed account (Wilkinson, 1991).

(4) Hegemony "and rivalry for the same a!so mark world system history long before" 1492: I agree as to rivalry, extending my agreement to the other world systems; but there is a lot less hegemony achieved than is believed, and most of the best-known "hegemons" (e.g., 19th-century Britain, the United States after World War II) simply aren't.

(5) The "world system cycle" of A phases and B phases extends back many centuries before 1492: I agree fully, and have confirmed this independently (Wilkinson, 1992, 1993), for other world systems as well."