Role of the Commons in Civilizational Transitions

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= Content of slides for lecture: “The Role of the Commons in Civilizational Transitions” delivered by Michel Bauwens, P2P Foundation, September 2022, at Uppsala University

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With thanks to graphic artist Juliane Höhle; website: and twitter @JulianeHoehle

Part 1: Civilizations and Transitions

  • The ‘Cosmo-Biological’ Tradition
  • The Historical Materialist Tradition
  • The Integral Tradition

What Is Civilization ?

  • A hierarchical social organization (Class/Caste Structures)
  • Urbanization
  • Written Language
  • Division of Labor
  • Separate Military Infrastructure

Do Civilizations Evolve?

Oswald Spengler’s Vision of Inevitable Decline

  • Civilizations evolve as individual organisms: they are born, mature, and die
  • Four seasons for each: comparisons are only valid ‘per season’ (Cultures vs Civilizations)
  • Civilizations do not evolve as a species, they are not interconnected
  • Streamlined sequence: 
    • birth as settlement in the soil; 
    • emergence of the Estates and primary symbol
    • Cities, monarchies/nations, and the third estate
    • The Fourth Estate, democracy vs money
    • Caesarism
  • Key concept: Pseudomorphism / Fellaheen stage / rationality as decline
  • Western ‘Faustian’ Civilization shows all signs of being near the end state
  • Universal signs of decline: birth dearth / depopulation / money rule / 

Arnold Toynbee’s Challenge and Response Model

  • Civilizations are interconnected and have typologies (arrested, aborted, affiliated)
  • Civilizations evolve as such: three generations (Mesopotamia-Egypt; Classical – Post-Axial; Industrial)
  • Fourth Generation can be posited: Planetary/Digital
  • Key concepts: Challenge and Response / Universal Empire and Universal Church

Carrol Quigley’s Instruments of Expansion

  • Instrument of Expansion vs Institutionalization as Death of Civilization
  • What can generate the surplus needed for growth and defence?
  • Seven stages:  Mixture – Gestation – Expansion – Age of Conflict – Universal Empire – Decay (delay and circumvention are possible, but not total escape)
  • Non-deterministic: can a new instrument of expansion be found?

World-Systems Analysis: Wallerstein and after

  • David Wilkinson: Central Civilization has never died (Dark Ages never total)
  • Peter Turchin (Secular Cycles): 
    • 200K limit for hierarchy
    • Cyclic nature of every civilization (phase A and B)
  • Karl Polanyi: Lib/Lab (The Great Transformation)
  • The Handy Study: inequality determines length and depth of chaotic transition
  • Kojin Karatani: Shifting to modes of exchange (Communal Shareholding; Equality Matching; Authority Ranking; Market Pricing)

“ There are four kinds of spirits, and they originate in the four modes of exchange A, B, C, and D, respectively. Spirits, in other words, are the powers that compel people. Understanding these spirits is essential.”

Peter Pogany: Understanding Chaotic Transitions

  • Transitions are chaotic
    • Dissolving the ideational glue; there are no ‘smooth’ transitions
    • Fragmentation leads to polarization, leads to …
    • Integration / Negative Simplification / Positive Simplification
  • Interplay between 3 complex adaptive systems
    • Environment / Climate / Thermodynamic Realities
    • How societies and cultures respond to the challenge
    • The vital role of trans-valuing mental constellations
  • Pogany’s use of the evolution of modes of consciousness (Jean Gebser)
  • The Three Succeeding Global Systems and their Chaotic Transitions

Part 2: The role of the commons

P2P Foundation Update: : The Pulsation of the Commons 

For evidence, See: Ecological Revolution: The Political Origins of Environmental Degradation and the Environmental Origins of Axial Religions; China, Japan, Europe. by Mark D. Whitaker
  • Two examples of the role of the commons in civilizational transitions: 
    • The Peace of God Movement and the First European Revolution, 975-1050  (bk: Richard Moore)
    • The Togukawa transition in Japan

“Japan’s Tokugawan period, between 1600 and 1868, was one of relative peace, prosperity and strikingly unusual population stability. From a carrying capacity perspective, this period highlights one potential ideal; reflecting a societal system that was both resource self-sufficient and well aware of its population limits.”

The Past, Present and Future Role of the Commons

  • The ebb and flow of commons institutions in the extractive/regenerative cycle
  • Short history of the commons / introducing p2p dynamics and digital commons
  • The global nature of the current overshoot requires global commons institutions
  • Cosmo-Localization as the Fourth Civilizational Cycle / The Second Axial Age
  • The Role of Non-territorial Formations
  • Geostrategy: Has World War III begun?
    • Rentier Capitalism / National-Sovereignty Common Good Populism / Cosmo-Localism (trans-historical reality) as the Third Way
  • Thermodynamic Realities: Via Degrowth to Steady-State?
    • Factor 20 Reduction /
    • Commons Policies Today

Trans-Valuation Today?

  • The Role of Education (short history of educational institutions)
  • Undoing the Cartesian Split, or: Integrating the Differentiation?
  • Makerspaces as an Anthropological Revolution: towards ‘brahmin-workers’?
  • ‘Entangled Humanism’: extend humanism to biotic communities?
  • What is Integral Consciousness (Gebser)

More information