Francis: What is on your mind? You seem troubled.
Paco: I’ve been reading a lot lately about this country’s many military adventures abroad, from drone bombings to funding various factions in other nations’ politics, to boots on the ground and air support in the sky.
Francis: That will put anyone in a sour state of mind. What has driven you to this morbid line of research?
Paco: I just wonder if there is such a thing as civilization, or if it is just a sham, a part we play while others engage in barbarism on our behalf.
Francis: Is there any point to talking in such categories these days? The whole dichotomy of primitive and civilized seems so…offensive.
Paco: You don’t think that something qualitatively different sprung out from ancient Mesopotamia all those thousands of years ago? That there was nothing particularly special about old Greece or Rome or China, compared to the bulk of human history beforehand?
Francis: “Civilization” seems to me to amount to little more than better poetry and stronger armies than the alternative.
Paco: Well I’m inclined to disagree, but I’m having trouble forming an argument. It seems to me that everything worthy that mankind has ever produced have been the fruits of civilization. Art, poetry, and literature, of course—as you joke. But also ways of life. Cosmopolitanism over provincialism. Trade, and public debate, over theft and strong-arm tactics. But of course there’s always a great deal of violence in the background, and it’s all capable of dissolving into nothing but that quite quickly.
Francis: Well did you think that civilization meant nothing but everyone getting permission for every little thing, right on down to the territorial boundaries of the empire or state? How do you think these things got established in the first place? And how did they defend themselves, or enforce their laws, or expand their domain? Hell, how do you think they decided whose permission was required?
Paco: That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? To get permission, someone has to be in a position to give it.
Francis: And in the end every claim of that nature was acquired or defended through force, at some point.
Paco: That much is undeniable. But is that all there is to it?
Francis: What more could there be?
Paco: It seems to me that we have a bad habit these days of jumping to “really” or “just” too quickly.
Francis: Come again?
Paco: Well, for example, someone might point out that a wedding ring sends an expensive signal of commitment. That analysis is unremarkable as it stands. But too often the analyst presses on and concludes that that is all there is to the whole thing. So wedding rings are “really” an economic signal. Weddings are “just” a commitment mechanism. I’m no sociologist, but it does seem to me that there are more meanings involved in the ritual of courtship and the institution of marriage than allow us to speak of “really” or “just” anything on the subject.
Francis: So you’re saying that I’m guilty of making civilization “really” or “just” about power, I take it?
Paco: I wouldn’t want to put words in your mouth.
Francis: You’re too kind. Well, we can’t really attack this subject while we let some of the key ideas remain spongy and ambiguous. Take “power” for one. Classically, it means the ability to make reality conform to your will. But this definition is broad enough so that if we can explain our position to someone else reasonably, and they agree to do something we ask of their own free will, that very act of persuasion is itself an exercise of power.
Paco: I can see the logic in it, but it runs counter to people’s intuitions. Certainly that isn’t what most people mean when they talk about power.
Francis: I think it’s the best way to think about it, though. We can get at what most people mean by talking about force or coercion. What you seem to be afraid of is that civilization is “really” or “just” about force and coercion, and pretending to be something else.
Paco: You put it succinctly.
Francis: And I say that it really is about power, in the broader sense. Divvying up what kind of power each person or each institutional role is entitled to employ in a given situation.
Paco: But who does the divvying up?
Francis: That depends. It’s very contingent, there are specific histories. Your ancient Mesopotamians probably had military leaders who either conquered some territory, or organized a defense against potential conquerors. In any case, once their ability to organize the use of force was established, they set about securing their position. But there are many other ways it could go, and has gone. Nothing complex enough to be called “civilization” happened by military fiat; there were many hands involved in creating those institutions.
Paco: Is that what civilization amounts to, then? Institutional complexity, as well as a spot of poetry?
Francis: You’re asking the wrong guy. I happen to think that, other than the number of people involved, you get basically the same sort of thing in tribes and in agricultural societies that haven’t typically been graced with the august label “civilized”. Moreover, they have robust art and culture of their own.
Paco: So now you won’t even grant civilization its poetry?
Francis: I’m feeling more and more sure with my position. Too often this dichotomy of primitive and civilized has been used to justify imperialism, eugenics, and outright slaughter.
Paco: But what of property, and the private life? What of persuasion? Is it all raw force in the end?
Francis: Property is a means of distributing power of a certain sort quite widely. But it is as much a shackle as it is freeing, and it is backed by force.
Paco: Could such a thing be sustained by force alone? I don’t know the numbers, but I believe the larger part of crimes are never even reported to police. If people did not buy into the legitimacy of property or similar claims, wouldn’t the whole thing fall apart? Regardless of how much police or military violence was mustered in its defense.
Francis: This is why you need to expand your reading! You would have found your answer in the law and economics literature. Potential criminals are deterred not only by the probability that they will be caught, but by that probability multiplied by the severity of the punishment. So you don’t need a huge police force in order to push everyone’s expected value for a given crime into the negative.
Paco: And I suppose potential criminals are walking around with calculators, so that they can work out the net expected value of an opportunity to commit a crime on the spot?
Francis: Cute. Of course it’s more informal than that. But we do respond to the feeling that we might get caught, and we can get scared when we hear how severe the punishments are.
Paco: Isn’t there a well observed phenomena during riots, in which the spreading of criminal behavior emboldens further criminal behavior?
Francis: I think that is akin to groupthink or mob behavior; people take leave of their senses.
Paco: Still, there are places where such things become chronic. In places where raw force is called on regularly, order is always tenuous. I think your economists underestimate the extent to which a broad acceptance of current arrangements is required for order to last for any length of time worth speaking of. In that was, what you would call the “power” of persuasion is more effective than the power of coercion.
Francis: People are naturally conformist. Once a norm has been established they tend to go along with it fairly broadly.
Paco: Yes, but that is once it has been established. How does it get established? Down the barrel of a gun pointed towards one generation, until the next one simply accepts it without coercion?
Francis: In a manner of speaking. I certainly think that regimes which last are careful about what norms they try to bend or break. The Japanese constitution, for instance, was given the appearance of being written and implemented by respected Japanese officials. But in reality the Americans strong-armed them into writing exactly what officials in Washington wanted to see. Now, even though this fact of history has been exposed to them, the Japanese feel too much ownership of the government they have had since the end of American occupation to reject it outright. They were persuaded through a combination of the barrel of a gun and a sham. But once they were there, humanity’s natural conformism kicked in.
Paco: So we need a combination of force and Noble Lies, but we don’t even need to stick to the latter for very long before people just accept the status quo by virtue of it being status quo?
Francis: I haven’t thought about it very thoroughly but it sounds like a good first approximation.
Paco: What of the liberal revolution, which began in the 18th century?
Francis: What of it?
Paco: It seems to me a case where people became increasingly persuaded that we ought to elevate the status of people previously treated as social inferiors. And as a result, over time, laws were changed and whole regimes replaced.
Francis: With a great deal of bloodshed in between!
Paco: Yes, there was that. But there was also a change in what people were willing to defend, and who was expected to be allowed to participate in politics and in commerce. I don’t think you can write off the big changes that came on the back of the liberal revolution as purely a matter of reorganizing force.
Francis: But doesn’t that boil down to the potential force of the masses offsetting the potential force of the elite? The former were effectively able to bargain for concessions from the latter because of the force of their numbers, and their willingness to call upon it in defense of certain principles.
Paco: I know you are just trying to simplify, but I think that might be taking it too far. For one thing, there was a fluidity between those considered social inferiors at a given stage and those who ended up becoming elites under the rising liberal tide.
Francis: Granted. But the point stands: isn’t what you call the result of persuasion really just a result of implicit force, whatever the particular form of each faction?
Paco: Let me give you an opposing version, in the extreme. Say we all simply agreed that everyone deserved a private life, which by default we must get permission to interfere with or remove something from. Say that even when we’re in a position to use raw force to get our way, we resort instead to persuasion, and we back off when we do not succeed by that method. Or we work to find some compromise that is agreeable to all parties, without resorting to threats.
Francis: Suppose grandma had wheels, we might call her an SUV.
Paco: All right, all right: life is more complicated than that. But it’s also more complicated than rival despots crushing the weak into whatever they decide on the basis of raw force. Or something called “the masses” threatening to organize the use of force against something called “the elite”. These are all useful metaphors. So give me some leeway here, will you?
Francis: Fine, go on.
Paco: I think that we get pretty close to that arrangement among social equals. Historically, I mean. The expectation is set that you will do what you can by sweet talking the other person rather than twisting their arm, and meet them halfway if that’s what it takes. The norm, as you put it, stresses working it out peacefully.
Francis: OK, that sounds more plausible than where I thought you were going.
Paco: I’m just winging it here, but it seems as though civilization refers largely to those moments in history where the number of people considered effectively social equals is greatly broadened. Especially in terms of their claim to participation in commerce and politics.
Francis: So is civilization “just” broader participation in commerce and politics, or “really” a larger relative group of social equals in the middle or near the top?
Paco: Yes, you’re very cute. No, I don’t think that’s all there is to it, not by a long shot. But it’s a start, isn’t it?
Francis: I don’t know. I’m not convinced. I still think the economists probably have the right of it, and that “civilization” really is just a matter of cultural prejudice.
Paco: You might be right. I’m just spitballing, really.
Francis: Well, it’s not like I’m some great scholar on the matter.
Paco: At the rate you read, you’re certain to be one long before I could hope to catch up to where you are now.
Francis: Well, when I get there, I’ll let you know what I find out. And then you’ll be caught up!
Paco: Generous of you, to do the legwork for me.
Francis: What are friends for?
Featured Image is Ancient Mesopotamia by Jeff Brown