3 Civilizations and Systems

In a recent anthology, Peter Katzenstein defined civilizations as “loosely coupled, internally differentiated, elite-centred social systems that are integrated into a global context” (Katzenstein 2010, 5). The ideas of “civilization” and “system” have an uncomfortable history with one another. The idea of civilization is too exalted, too ethereal, and too altogether slippery to slide comfortably into nested diagrams along with more materially grounded systems like economic networks or pathways to imperial expansion. Guns and butter are quantifiable; civilization is more felt or intuited. Relatively recent approaches to systems theory, such as Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), open themselves to the intangible through the notion of “agency”. Systems can be viewed as patterns of interaction between agents. For social systems, those agents are people. People-as-agents get to have their cultures, their freedom, their dignity, their values, their contrariness, their irreducibility, and the artistic hallmarks of their civilized lives. This allowance for agent unpredictability occurs for the simple reason that CAS has given up the game when it comes to behavioral or mathematical reductionism. The “complex” part of CAS simply admits we do not know everything, and that linear algebra, which can barely model the orbits of three simultaneous planets, far exceeds its capabilities when trying to formulate or predict the collective oscillations of humans in their millions. CAS indeed undertakes to map and model the fruits of human agency; yet it allows the agents themselves to manage their own mysteries.

Reading Katzenstein’s definition through the lense of CAS, we can attempt to unravel some knotty problems that have plagued the analysis of civilizations-as-systems. One such problem is the use of organic or totalizing metaphors for civilizations as agents in their own right. Civilizations are said to “be born”, “grow”, “decline”, and “die”. The people who participate in civilizations certainly feature such lifecycles, but are civilizations themselves such tidily holonic containers for humans? Holons make sense up to the level of the physical person. Molecules contain atoms; cells contain molecules; bodies contain cells. So far, so tangible. The temptation is to now collectivize human bodies and to gather us up as components of more encompassing holons such as families, clans, tribes, peoples, nations, societies, and civilizations. One matryoshka must contain the rest, so that one must be civilization. The details of history, sad to say, makes a mess of such Pythagorean symmetries where humans are concerned. Actual humans, having precious little respect for carefully crafted social systems boundaries, are always coming and going, conquering and absorbing, reviving and resisting, and making old symbols mean new things. Did Rome ever really “fall”? There is a suspiciously large assortment of Latin words in modern world languages, with many such languages transcribed using Latin characters, in places including even continents the Romans themselves never dreamed of. The legions of the Caesars no longer march, but the legacy of the Caesars lives on in so much that followed. Katzenberg’s phrase “loosely coupled” is well chosen. Civilizations cannot “die” because they never really “lived” in the first place. Some subsystems associated with a civilization (like its alphabet), might well outlast other subsystems (like its military command structure). Civilization is not an all or nothing proposition. Civilizations are not agents, but people are. People can pick and choose. We can write our languages in Roman script, or Arabic, or Devanāgarī, or Kanji or some new symbolism we might yet prefer to invent. The same is true for food products, clothing styles, weapons technologies, systems of taxation, holy scriptures, art forms, farm implements, domestic animals, sports and games, and marriage customs. Everything human moves around. CAS allows for boundaries on systems, but understands such boundaries are permeable. So following Katzenstein, we can concede that regions of relatively wide-spread consistency for cultural beliefs, artifacts, practices, and lifeways might aptly be called “civilizations”, but only if we recall that such civilizations constantly reinvent themselves both through absolute innovation, and more commonly, through borrowing elements of other civilizations.

This brings us to the question of civilizational change. Katzenstein models civilization as “elite-centered”. That circumscribes the heart of the matter. Norbert Elias wrote a study titled in translation The Civilizing Process about how now common Western table manners originated in codes of etiquette for courtiers in medieval and early modern Europe (Elias, 2000). The napkin and the fork share a history of hegemonic elitism. That we no longer grab meat with greasy fingers from a common bowl testifies to the historical radiation of snobbery. Power hierarchies have been a consistent feature of every civilization since the very first of them in Sumer. “Internally differentiated” is a delicate way to express, among other things, that some group always gets to dominate some other group. Dominating elite minorities need to set themselves apart, and what survive to us through the ages as the great works of prior civilizations are the artifacts by which the rulers symbolized their rule. But CAS points out that artifacts are distinct from agents, and that agent strategies can likewise migrate to other agents. So a generic version of the civilizational saga might run something like this: a group came to power and symbolized their power in great temples, palaces and works of art. People on the edges of the civilization’s territory, wanted all that, so they borrowed ideas for the improvement of their weapons, found their own better horses, rode in, and took it all. The previous elite got killed or enslaved or absorbed. The new elite attached their own meanings to the previous elite’s artifacts. The new elite even created some new artifacts of their own design. Repeat cycle. The point is no civilization is a static “thing” that moves around some historical chessboard. The most tangible a civilization ever gets is when a relatively well-defined power elite creates a relatively well-defined culture of superiority that lasts for a significantly long enough length of time that future elites will want to add this period to their collections. Power itself, however, is always up for grabs, as are the symbols and luxuries of the powerful. Kings and regimes turn over quickly; the symbols of their power persist much longer. Therefore, we in the West still use forks. Except not with sushi.


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Civilization and Education Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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