Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Norbert Elias and System Collapse

As part of my studies toward my Masters' degree in history, I had to read excerpts from The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias. This reading is part of a seminar on historiographical methods and analysis, focusing on different social theories and the way they affect the work of historians in trying to explain the past.

I found Elias's work to be quite fascinating. Basically, it theorizes that the process of "civilization" is largely the result of people subordinating their impulsive drives -- the repression of the id by the ego and superego, in Freud's terminology -- as their social organization changes over time. Elias says that this process is mutually reinforcing and not entirely rational. People demonstrate greater self-restraint as their social organization becomes more complex and interdependent. Likewise, increased levels of self-restraint propel a greater level of complexity and interdependence. Central to Elias's notion of "progress" along the scale of impulsiveness to self-restraint is the level of security under which people live. In societies that do not provide a high level of physical or material security, the impulsiveness of the id reigns. For those that achieve a high level of security, the restraint of the ego and superego keep the id in check.

To support this idea, Elias cites the changes in human behavior as Western Europe changed from a feudal society of warrior-nobles and knights into the court society of absolutist kings and aristocratic nobles. In the former, the use of violence was highly decentralized. Most people did not have adequate levels of security -- especially physical security. To venture on the roads outside of town was to invite the certain predations of highwaymen or rival soldiers. Disputes between individuals (particularly nobles) were settled by violent confrontation. By contrast, in the society of absolutist kings, the use of violence was monopolized by the monarch. Nobles could no longer settle their disputes through violence, so the court society (with its emphasis on manners, fashion, elaborate titles and intrigue) evolved instead as a forum for noble competition and a means of differentiating the aristocracy from the commoners. The latter was also a much more complex and interdependent society than the former. Finally, the former had a general world view largely characterized by fear and emotion (superstition and religion), while the move toward "civilization" appealed increasingly to empirical rationalism (observation and science).

As far as historical reference goes, Elias provides a decidedly Marxist superstructure for his theories. Basically, his history begins in medieval Europe and proposes a rather linear view of civilization's development, as well as describing Western Europe as the vanguard of civilization's progress. I wonder how Elias would describe the notion of a society moving away from "civilization" -- from a highly complex, centralized, interdependent society to one that is decidedly less so.

Central to any analysis of collapse through Elias's lens is the loss of material or physical security. Also, the relationship between changing social organization and the loss of security must be viewed as a mutually reinforcing process. I believe that if Elias had gone back a little further, he could have found an excellent model for this process-in-reverse: the Roman Empire.

The collapse of the Roman Empire was certainly predicated by internal problems -- declining harvests, political intrigue, etc. However, these internal problems greatly contributed to the rolling back of the frontier by Germanic barbarians. When the highly complex society of Rome lost steam, it lost its cohesive force among its populace. Where the citizens of Rome once were willing to sacrifice for her, now they concerned themselves with the circuses of the Colosseum even as the empire crumbled around them. A substantial internal proletariat -- people who lived within Roman borders but felt no affinity or allegiance to Roman ideals -- swelled in number. A fine example of this proletariat is offered by the rapid spread of Christianity through Rome, in spite of its initial criminalization by the Roman authorities. (Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History)

So, the short version is that eventually complexity imploded, the "barbarian" conquered the "civilized," and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages. However, traces of the "civilized" still remained after 476 A.D. -- namely the Catholic Church. It is strange that what initially was a proletarian movement within Rome (Christianity) became its vehicle for the preservation of classical culture as society became less complex, less secure, less rational and more violent. What this demonstrates, however, is that the move either forward or backward on the scale of "civilization" is often a process of negotiation between the old and the new, the more and less "civilized." Even as Rome fell, it planted the seeds of what would eventually bloom after the Dark Ages had passed. Many ideas of the Renaissance, scientific revolution and Enlightenment found their genesis in the work of classical Greek and Roman scholars.

Fast-forward now to the present. Currently, we face a wide range of predicaments -- climate change, peak "everything," overpopulation, unsustainable debt, etc. The unprecedented complexity and interdependence of our social organization is largely the result (and cause) of increased material and physical security. What happens if these predicaments cause this security to deteriorate? Will we become stuck in a downward spiral like Western Europe after the fall of Rome, unable to regroup until after we hit rock bottom? Or will we be able to adjust our organization to meet new realities? Will the negotiation between complex and decentralized take place in a more rational manner this time around, or is a lack of rational forethought a fait accompli of this process?

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