THE RESILIENCE OF CIVILIZATIONS
This is an intriguing subject for me because I suspect that it is one of the fundamental questions of our time.
Globalization has had the effect of increasing integration of states and societies as well as weakening or disintegrating them; a paradox which has led to considerable debate regarding the trajectory of world affairs. Possibly, instead of viewing globalization as an either-or phenomena, unidimensional in effect, a continuum of effects might be better. Placement on the continuum would depend on how the particular (societies, states, civilizations) react when they increasingly engage the universal ( the global market).
For example, on one one pole of globalization we see the dynamic, interdependent, convergence of civilizations heralded by Thomas P.M. Barnett, Francis Fukuyama, and Thomas Friedman where the map is new, the Gap is shrinking and the world is flat. On the opposite pole we have Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations where cultures have “bloody borders”, the map has melted and Robert Kaplan’s coming anarchy reigns over a host of states that are doomed to decline, beset by 4GW warfare and John Robb’s global guerillas. A line that can accomodate Bill Gates and Bin Laden, Burma and Britain and the West and the Rest.
Previously, we have discussed building state resilience here and at ERMB, Steve DeAngelis has promoted “Development -in-a-Box” to orchestrate the building of resiliency tailored to the specific problems faced by institutions or states. Civilizations are a much larger, vastly older and an inherently more complex class of human organization than are mere states. Like states, civilizations are not eternal, they can decline and fall but even vanished civilizations leave behind a legacy lasting thousands of years. Many pass on at least part of their ” cultural DNA” to successors, as Greeks did for the Roman, Arab Muslim, Eastern Orthodox and Western civilizations.
This longitudinal endurance speaks to a inherently high level of resiliency but why are civilizations inordinately resilient ? And what determines the forms that such resiliency takes ? Civilizations differ after all. The ancient Egyptian and Chinese cultures both lasted an exceedingly long time and had their origins in the agricultural settlement of major river systems; yet one is dead and gone and the other is enjoying a second rise. In my view, this is not a historical accident.
The degree of resiliency possessed by civilizations, relative to lesser entities like states, corporations, armies, religions, tribes and so on, I would argue, is derived simply by the fact of their greater complexity. Viewing civilizations as another complex adaptive system lets us perceive it as a set of links, very dense and interconnected yet dynamically evolving. In the view of complexity theorist Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, civilizations are a “superorganism“. While we do not have to adopt this biological analogy per se, it is a good way of indicating that civilizations are quatitatively and qualitatively superior, in terms of their connectivity, to lesser social systems. They have achieved a ” critical mass” of link density – a complexity of connectivity – to be essentially self-sustaining and independent of other systems.
The forms of resiliency a civilization exhibits are another matter. To continue to exist, a civilization as a complex system must negotiate the tension between stability and change over time. The determination of the form of resiliency would come from the core values of the civilization which in turn would govern the emergence of the structures of its institutions. A hierarchy functions differently than does a scale-free network as will societies organized along those different lines.
To generalize about civilizations at the broadest level we can see tendencies toward two kinds of resiliency:
A predisposition to dynamic adaptation is good for civilizational longevity and autonomy -think of the aggressive Romans or the Aztecs – but too much unchecked dynamism and the system is dangerously unstable -think of the creative but disunited Greeks whose self-destruction was the Peloponnesian War. In general, these dynamically adaptive civilizations are apt to lean toward political resilience, creating forms of government well suited to weathering change brought on by war, commerce or disaster.
The price of political resilience is a loss of control at the cultural level where evolution is allowed to proceed at a greatly accelerated rate. Technically, the Byzantine Empire was a direct and unbroken continuation of Roman rule but a pagan, Latin-speaking, citizen of the Republic in the days of the Punic Wars would be hard-pressed to recognize the mystical and orientalized, Greek-speaking, government of the Christian Basileus as the descendant of anything Roman.
On the other side of the coin, some systems have a bias toward maintaining stability at all costs and are culturally resilient. If you look at ancient Egypt from the time of King Narmer (circa 3100 B.C.) to Pharoah Akhenaten (circa 1379 B.C.) virtually no cultural change in the visual-symbolic presentation of the Pharoah of any lasting significance had been permitted to take place. An amazing record of cultural stasis and even Akhenaten’s revolutionary aesthetic and religious innovations were decisively rolled back after his death. So powerful was Egypt’s cultural resilience that even the late Greek Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, the heirs of Alexander the Great, found it politic to adopt Egyptian norms. Similar stability and cultural absorbtion of foreign conquerers exists in the record of Vedic and Chinese civilization.
The enforcement of cultural stasis or isolation from change seems to be politically debilitating. Governmental systems are cognitively cripppled by cultural restrictions in the face of novel challenges or conditions. Much of Hindu India spent seven centuries under Muslim rule before being swallowed up by the British Empire. The Persians, possessed of an proud and much admired culture, were the plaything of a succession of foreign conquerors with eastern Iran never having quite recovered from the scourges of the Mongols. The Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan froze Japanese development for 250 years, only avoiding being carved up by European powers by a timely revolution in favor of modernization.
Opting for Stasis or Dynamism and the resultant political or cultural resilience they entail, or striking some balance between the two, would appear to be a critical civilizational choice.