The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbons written between 1776 & 1788 is still considered a masterpiece of historical research and analysis of civilisation collapse. We could consider that civilisations will always collapse. The New York times article on the subject, largely supports this view, citing the views of Joseph Tainter, Patricia MacAnany, Peter Turchin, and Eric H. Cline, researchers in historical civilisation collapse. Another way of looking at the issue of civilisation and its inevitable decline is that, the solution to the problems and opportunities before a society eventually leads to a ‘golden age’ for that civilisation. However golden ages stagnate within the tightening of their complex systems (feedback loops). So, how do new civilisations rise? I refer to the work of Jeremy Rifkin, ‘The Empathic Civilisation’ , in which he proposes that a couple of novel elements arise in the final centuries of decline:
A new religious & spiritual philosophy that opens up the boundaries of social connectedness to realise a new social order e.g roman pantheonism with one great emperor-god & elitism compared to christianity and brotherhood that supported the more disperse local lordship of fuedalism;
New technologies that support the new social order – pantheonism is supported by the hydraulic societies across the middle east china, india, mexico, and also eventually gave rise to monotheism (if there is one great emperor there really should be one great God), and by the middle ages the printing press heralded the reformations of christianity and the global missionary phase.
Hinduism and Buddhist societies had their own versions of this.
Islam broke through on the destructive pantheonism of the middle east to create the nationalistic empire world-view with it’s scientific and artistic flourishing.
The feedback from Islam to Europe through the crusades set up the renaissance, European nationalism.
Coal technology advances supported the colonial project out of king supported national Europe.
With the explorations of Australia by the english colonisers, the last major landmasses and societies of the world were brought into a global social situation (19th c).
We have been living into a new global civilisation since then, albeit, as Christ warned, “You don’t put the new wine in old wineskins” i.e without the global structures that can support what Rifkin terms, the empathic civilisation.
Although historical analysis usually views the great wars of the 19th and 20th century as power clashes, historians fail to see that these wars can be seen as the simple failure of king-type leadership and national structures to deal with the early flourishes of a burgeoning global civilisation founding a variety of significant social, religious, and philosophical movements. It is from those social movements that, I suggest, we are likely to find the foundations of a new and global civilisation.
What we need to look for are religious and social philosophies that open up the personal boundaries so that individuals can be moved to be able to act through something bigger than themself. Note, this is also definitional. In other words, if it isn’t opening up for individuals in this way, it probably won’t fit the requirements for a global civilisation.
We also need to look at in what way new technologies can support a global civilisation that has both a more dispersed leadership and a globally coherent leadership. Distributive / green energy technologies (Rifkin’s expertise) certainly do this. Other ‘online’ and AI technologies have potential to support these requirements but, for now, are working through an old king lead nationalistic, somewhat anti-community development anti-ecological, structure.
In order to fulfil the nationalistic nostalgia that drives many politicians, their invocation of the old systems show up as a tugging and wedging of the global society. Nonetheless, the people at large, are now inherently living through the global society and, so, find ways to slip over and around those ‘separatist’ ideologies. We are not through the crossroads, yet. However, there is only one real future for humanity. The only question, Do we get there the hard way or the easy way? Everyone on the planet counts regarding this question. Just invite each other along.
To understand these characteristics we must understand the evolutionary success of human clans and the advancement of human civilisation over the past 10,000 years. The evolutionary success of human clans are based on primate hierarchical and social support behaviour. This behaviour hinges on an alpha male, a female harem, and progeny. The human alpha male is to a large extent what we now call psychopathic. Their (our) success, as against other primates that haven’t socially changed for millions of years, developed around the opening up of clan society to sycophant males who were allowed female relationships as reward for that submissive support. Their female harem also had a hierarchy. Kinship and successorship to the alpha (chief, king) developed according to the male children of the female hierarchy, although subordinated by the most psychopathic natures in the system.
The political tensions within clans were terrible, with death waiting around every corner, harnessing two types of proclivity: intelligent rebellion for domination; and shame provoked submissiveness. Intelligent rebellion for domination not only lead to successorship of the chief or king but also to the development of hierarchies of sycophancy. In other words, a way to dominate is not to hold the throne but to hold the highest positions in the hierarchy serving the throne. Shame-provoked submissiveness created a safety ‘red-flag’ in all social circumstances from the earliest ages. Children with shame would survive by immediate submissive responses in the face of any authority: parental, older sibling. This is very important in a social environment in which death by an irritated chief was immanent and uncurbed, even for a child.
If we see that the degree of intelligent rebellion and shame wove (and weaves) a composite individual nature, then we can see how political hierarchies eventually developed, as powerful sycophants worked to increase the territories and subjection for their chief. We can also see, as a parallel process, the development of religious hierarchies both as alternative ways to dominate the society and the chief himself. I caution, here, to let go of any impression this is giving that these are simple transactional behaviours. From the earliest human times, dealing with the issues of death and our awareness of our relationship with others and other species, and our killing them for food and resources, has been an existential challenge that required a intelligently deft vision, a meta-story to comfort our burgeoning moral consciousness in the face of requirement for survival. Spiritual and religious visionaries command a space that submits to the right of kingship, while offering comfort to all subjects of their ‘rightness’ in subordinate life and death.
Spiritual and religious visionaries also set up their own hierarchies. Within those hierarchies, additional allowance was made for the freedom for a certain type of intelligence to become immersed in the metaphysical landscape through practices of the mind, language and reflection. As societies advanced, artisans (product makers) became artists. Some artists and religious visionaries shared the proclivities to divine the metaphysical and theological.
A particular form of intelligent rebellion was able to be fostered in larger societies. This took place in the form of a youthfulness that no longer needed deep shame to survive, and an artfulness, a creativity, to formulate new social constructs and ways to promote them. The promotion of new social constructs that mostly challenged the authority of the king, while developing a following in times of general social tribulation, tended to be visited by programs by the political and religious leadership. It is worthwhile pondering the ebb and flow of these tides, as, finally, every civilisation that enters a certain internal tribulation, falters, collapses, and then finds that once youthful vision rise in the populace with a more loos, open (not entirely new) social construct.
Fast-forward to the modern society. Dr Barth Hoogstraten who was a medical student in the Dutch resistance in WWII wrote in the foreword to his 2008 book, “Resistance Fighters: The Immense Struggle of Holland”, that throughout history, students and artists have been in the forefront of struggles against tyranny. In Nazi-occupied Holland, 1,671 Dutch men and women paid the ultimate price for their heroism. Hardship, terrifying suspense, and sacrifice that characterized their life were interspersed with the moments of humor, simple beauty, and love that persevered even in the darkest of days.
In their research on the behaviour of french resistance fighters of WWII, Andre and Alex L. Juliard noted that they found a new insight into the nature of human motivation and into our own psychological makeup may sometimes result from the observation of individuals living in unusual conditions such as people who joined the French “resistance” during World War Il. They had been participants with other young and middle-aged persons who belonged to a “maquis”’ in Southeast France. Their observations induced them to discern in human beings a larger variety of innate aptitudes, or inclinations, than those currently recognized in normal daily existence. Some of these overlooked inclinations, nevertheless, play an important part in the behavior of dedicated people.
And what of the masses of people who committed the atrocious acts of WWII, Stalin’s rule over the USSR, Pol Pot’s revolution in Cambodia, etc? “We may be genuinely puzzled as to how people could obey commands that seem both bloodthirsty and stupid. Puzzlement can vanish when we realize that in the eyes of their perpetrators the hideous crimes of history are not hideous crimes at all, but acts of loyalty, patriotism and duty. From the vantage point of the present we can see them as hideous crimes, but ordinarily from that same vantage point we cannot see the crimes of our own governments as hideous or even as crimes.” (Don Mixon, Obedience and Civilization)
Rebellious domination and religious vision has slowly and surely brought us to a place in the development of human society, when we no longer need a chief or a king. Yet we stand at a cross-road, and ebb in the tide of a kingless society. To a large extent, in times of difficulty, our behavioural responses are not so different from 10,000 or 100,000 years ago. Mostly we are looking for who to be submissive toward, who to be supportive of, who will give us security in return, even if with a sense of dread around each corner. And in turbulent times, alpha males will tend to come to the fore to provide that direction through their political hierarchies. Yet there are those, mostly young, mostly creative, mostly intelligent, who will take all kinds of risks in rebellion against the domination of authority and their sycophants. Theirs is not to have a far-reaching knowledge of all things worldly. That is for other, older heads. Theirs is to be the ‘resistance’ to the tendency for most of us to find a haven under an authoritarian rule.
“Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience. Not only was his spiritual development possible only because there were men who dared to say no to the powers that be in the name of their conscience or their faith, but also his intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient, disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.” (Erich Fromm, On Disobedience and Other Essays)
A society is neither for the young or the old, the rich or the poor, the dominant or the non-dominant. It is for all of us, and, therefore, all of these. At this point in time, the advancement of civilisation requires that there are a number of primary agreements in place that support the strengthening of the collaborative and cooperative sovereignty. Under this form of sovereignty, the mass of us who are given to obedience, will avail ourselves of the servitude to the collaborative and the cooperative project. The psychopaths will become the true rebels, tending to strive to be dominant over everyone else in their sphere of influence, yet being held in check by their own drive towards self-interest that is held in the collaborative space. The youth, artists, activists, visionaries, disenfranchised, and children will enjoy the rewards of being in collaboration. The agreements include: we all hold equitable ownership of the land of our citizenship; we all hold equity in participation and servitude to the community; policing is in community servitude – violence physical force or coercion is forbidden except where an immanent threat to another is evident, and then only to mitigate that threat. While policing is sycophant to an authoritarian domination, while police officers are trained to hurt the common politic and those who rebel against that domination, so the rebellion will continue and broaden. It is not to say, the turbulent times are not the time for rebellion. The turbulent times are exactly the point when gains in equity and participation in the democratic advancement are being handed over by the submissive to the authoritarians. Turbulent times are exactly the the times of sacrifice for the next phase of freedom, peace, and the advancement of human society.
We, who would have this society, must stand for the agreement forbidding police force on peaceful citizens, regardless of the rules they have broken. We will then prevent police for using force on citizens of whom there may be a suspicion of but, in reality, haven’t broken rules. Police forces will be primarily negotiators of community upset, on rare occasions to prevent immanent violence against another, effecting physical intervention. On all but this very rare event, having accessible and cordial relation with community wherever they go. We, who would have this society, must be generous in our attitude about youthful, creative, rebellion against authority. We must avoid our tendency to effect shame and submission, the bringing into line under authority just so we can have a sense of security as being a little higher on the hierarchy. We must recognise that in our own need for the advancement of civilisation lies a need for those who are devoted to working around authority and even sacrificing themselves against the true nature of authoritarianism.
Lifting the hood on the premises (context) for which we hold the planet and who we (human beings) are, shows us how politics (and other human activities like industries, bureaucracies, education, science, arts) came to be done the way it is done. And therein lies the fundamental barrier to a powerful response to our situation. Politics, having become done the way it is done, is now determined to survive, to continue, to resist all attempts to proceed otherwise, including the possibility of creating a new context for itself and the nations and the global society.
This is how the world works. This is the demonstration of Khun’s Theory about paradigm shifts. Human organisations are like organisms. They live everyday in a struggle for survival. No point railing against it as if what exists won’t struggle for all its strength to continue to survive. Wouldn’t you? Don’t you?
The vital other part, then, is to speak forth a new context. A new world could be inside the context for: the extraordinary, collaborative, problem-solving human; the governance and political framing of cooperativeness, collaboration and collective decision-making; the flourishing of the planet and the human being (the way industries, bureaucracies, education, science, arts are done).
Like any context, new context spoken clearly and routinely enough, immediately begins to be populated by content (technology and evidence) that strengthens itself. The paradigm shift requires that we, not attack old context, but create in language, new context which content draws energy away from the old content, simultaneously weakening the context. Just as the measures of well-being in relation to the old context are declining, so measures in relation to a new context might be seen to be on the egress, even if modestly right now. It’ll be a rocky road for a while, yet those who are given being by getting beyond the status quo context, will find they live a powerful life, all the same.
There are 3 things I’ve become very present to since the COVID 19 pandemic visited the world, that need transforming for human society to be flourishing in the next 50 and 200 years. A word on transformation. We cannot be transformed as ‘I’ individuals. Only relationships can be transformed. Once a relationship is transformed, we might indeed see that we are also, somehow, transformed. Therefore, in this list of three things, you will note that I am considering our relationship with, needs transforming. Another way of looking at this is to consider that, whatever this thing we call ‘I’ is, is nothing except our relationships.
Our relationship with death. COVID 19 has shown us to be very disturbed and disordered in the face of the possibility of the imminent death of ourselves, loved ones, or just other people. Our empathy for people who may have an (early) death, while touching for it’s reflection of our care for our fellows, took many of us out of the game of life. It seemed that once some people got the fear of death in their nostrils, all conversation about social, economic and other health needs, became a wrong thing. It was as if society was waiting quietly, to die. I have come away seeing that our fear of death and our desire to do away with death, and our belief that we can do away with death, is heavy within our modern culture. Indeed, when death is hidden from the population, such as the influenza virus, the several chronic diseases caused by lifestyle choices, and suicide, has a significant death toll every year, barely a whisper of it’s wrongness is heard. Even when most of the reported deaths to COVID 19 are elderly people, it is the spectre of the few deaths of younger people that particularly haunts the population, in ways that traffic accident deaths do not. Our fear of death doesn’t extend to our soldiers, or indigenous young adults and youth dying in custody or from suicide or chronic diseases related to a disenfranchised or abused life. Our fear of death drives our social and economic aspirations, the structure of institutions such as medicine, and our political priorities. Transformation would look like a society that not only has empathy for what is immanent about death but has a compassion for our fellow human who is at some distance from us in time and space. It requires a ruthless compassion that demands our brothers and sisters across the world have the foundations and support in life that fosters equity in life expectation. Transformation would also look like that avoiding death is not the most important thing in our lives, and that death itself, even at a young age, has an acceptability within a life that is flourishing across society. The transformation occurs at personal and social levels, and through that, impacts institutional and political expressions. At a personal level, transformation requires we engage in the inquiry with death and what it means for us. The inquiry would include: What about death am I afraid?; Who else am I afraid of dying? What else am I afraid of? and then, for each of these fears exposed, how and why is in the fear? It is important to avoid judging any authentic experience of fear that you can access. It is important to avoid trying to fix or change anything that you authentically experience of fear. It is also important to avoid finding a reason for your fear. There is no reason or rational decision that invites you to fear. Reason will always come after your fear, as a way to explain it, and it is likely to be pure fabrication.
Our relationship with the timescales of life. When we come to an appreciation that there are timescales beyond our meagre lifetimes and certainly beyond the next year of 5 years or ten years, that are going to be impacted, and can be extraordinarily impacted, by our lives, then we will see that we can get up to something that doesn’t make any sense at all, for our self interests. We can begin to live within being and acting according to something bigger than ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we are trying to be the stand-out person of the year. It does mean that we are doing a very big project. However it doesn’t mean that the very big project is all being done today. Recognising the larger timescale means that your project can be very big 100 years after you are dead. It means that you have reached forward 100 or 200 years and seen the world you would be immensely proud to have designed for others. From that future, you have walked back to your past, today, and see all the unfolding that occurred until you were sitting here reading these words. Done and dusted.
Our relationship with power. As the dominant species on the planet, for the planet to flourish for everything and ourselves, we must be fully cognizant of the impact of everything we do. From that cognizance, we must be in conversation with the whole global society and planet. Now that is absolutely impossible for an individual to directly do for themselves. Yet its essential character, demand we have a global society that is wholly in conversation with itself and the planet. This requires transforming the fixed world-view of who we are that we are a distinct thing called an individual to that we are the whole showing of the human society and planet for us. This paradoxical notion is not something to try to work out. It’s transformative power is exactly in that the model of reasoning and identity that we have designed our brain to carry, is not going to give you anything it doesn’t already ‘know’. This paradoxical notion creates the transformation of our relationship with power, by simply having it paradoxically as really. Our relationship with power also needs to take account of the impacted of psychopathy either in our social expression or the expression of others. By psychopathy, I mean the lack of empathy for others, given over to a complete self-interest. Psychopathy won’t be fixed. In any model of society, psychopaths are working out how their self-interest are best served. Indeed, many behaviourists, especially in economic theory, advise that seeing everyone as working from self-interest is the best way to design the incentives and disincentives of public policy, and the pedagogy for training young humans. The well-nurtured and trained psycopathy may well be able to bring a strength for ruthless compassion that holds to account the empathy in the immanent that govern most of our lives, to a stronger value of justice.
He writes of 19th and 20th century existentialists as proponents of “life is material humans are not special consciousness just happened reality means nothing there is no God there are no souls the world does not make sense we create God(s) and morals and standards and other false selves as a judgemental hell of other people.
I am only authentic when alone and private to be the true slob I really am, a liberation that eventually feels like being dead.
Purposes are meaningless, higher values can’t be embodied, we can’t escape death so we live in low key dread devoted to immortality projects like babies, tombs, marathons, afterlife, trophies, sick tricks, checking off lists, all a burning need to keep going. Order results in absurdity. Artful absurdity can provide comfort when life is a lot like death, so it is just another immortality project. We keep thinking we’ve got shit figured out, filled with power and usefulness and most vibrantly alive as we slip into the flow. I am the universe’s chump chipping away at the big decaying nothing. It is absurd. It will never bring me peace. I am alive for now, and I do something with the time I have left.”
Apart from the dishonesty of believing one can truly judge life as material or immaterial, or determine man created God, or I can know who I truly am without butting up against a whole universe, or that 19th and 20th century society is the proxy of human life over the past 200,000 years and the next 200,00 years, and not just a few hundred poxy years of transition from the agricultural age to another age, or that dead is a dread because it occurs like a moment of all our sufferings compressed into one severely painful destructive event rather than the blissful relief of complete rest.
Apart from that, the existentialists have turned to show the other side of the coin to the side that shows the bust of Moses, Krishna, Zarathustra, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and Baha’u’llah whose simple mantras “You are living life as if what you see is real, and you see so little of it. To see the rest learn to be love, to find a contribution to each other, to make everyone’s life better, and that’s your business so go mind it.”
Not so that you will see the rest of it, but that you will see, like the existentialists, the bullshit of your immortality projects just as at the same time, they are access to your highest values, and, as they comfort you, they might show you that the edges of the mortal room are simply heavy brocades taunting your curiosity, just as the art on those same brocades testify that a grammatical mind is unable to penetrate the gloom and a whole new consciousness, something prayerful, sincere, loving, and absurd is required