Crackpot Theory no. 12: Civilizations

In an article yesterday for RT, my Ottawa colleague Professor Piotr Dutkiewicz discussed the influence of Lev Gumilev on the thinking of Russian president Vladimir Putin, particularly in terms of the idea that the world is divided up into distinct ‘civilizations’. In this, Professor Dutkiewicz notes that,

‘The Russian leader believes that the long period of the last three centuries in which the West has been a dominant economic, cultural, and political force is not only ending but is being replaced by a new paradigm. This paradigm features the emergence of the civilizational model of international relations and regional dialogue, in which cultural/civilizational similarities and differences will possibly influence global patterns of collaboration, confrontation, and dependence.’

I’ve discussed Gumilev before in my Crackpot Theory series, both in relation to Eurasianism and the concept of ‘passionarity’, but today I want to move beyond him to this broader concept of civilizations, as it seems to me to be decidedly dodgy.

The idea that the world is made up of distinct civilizations dates back to at least the late nineteenth century and Nikolai Danilevsky’s book Russia and Europe. Danilevsky rejected the historical determinism of Western liberalism that saw the world as a whole as progressing towards a single end (normally defined in terms of Western liberalism, though communists gave it a different spin). Instead, he claimed that the world was divided up into distinct ‘cultural-historical types’ that progressed according their own particular dynamics. Variations on this idea were then developed by the likes of Konstantin Leontiev, Arnold Toynbee, and in more recent times Samuel Huntington.

The initial problem with the theory is that the very idea of a ‘civilization’ is extremely vague. Dutkiewicz comments that, ‘Civilization rests on its participants’ faith in joining a specific stream of history. While the final historical destination is unclear, an embedded sense of belonging forms the base upon which members of a civilization ground their sense of purpose.’ One might ask what then distinguishes a civilization from a nation, given that nations are also founded on a ‘sense of belonging’. The answer might be that civilizations are not individual nations, but groups of them. But to what extent can it truly be said that groups of nations anywhere share an ’embedded sense of belonging’ and ‘sense of purpose’? At times, they may come together in alliances for specific reasons, but beyond that ‘civilizations’ as such are rather intangible and hard to identify.

To a certain extent, I think, this idea is one that is transposed from the West to the rest of the world. There is some sort of sense of ‘the West’ as a collective whole, founded on a common Graeco-Roman and Christian heritage, and nowadays bound by commonly accepted liberal values which provide a sense of universalizing historical mission. But it’s hard to see how this model applies elsewhere. Take a look at the civilizations identified by Huntington – these include such amorphous ‘civilizations’ as ‘Orthodoxy’ (many of whose members are now part of the ‘the West’), and ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ and ‘Latin America’ (are these really areas with an ’embedded sense of belonging and obvious sense of common destiny?). Huntington’s ‘Muslim World’ is not a unified whole, and others of his ‘civilizations’ are actually single states – China, India, and Japan.

In short, civilizations are not just hard to define, they’re even hard to locate.

They are also decidedly fungible – states move in and out of them. Britain was part of the EU; now it’s not. Do Brits really feel ‘European’? Clearly, a lot of them don’t. Can you lump Ukraine in with Russia as part of ‘Orthodox’ civilization, when it’s obvious that a large part of the Ukrainian population has decided to throw in its lot with Western Europe? And in any case, is Russia really that different from the West? It seems to me that whatever the differences, they are less than they were 40 years ago when I first visited Russia. Back then, in Soviet times, it was a far more alien place than it is now.

Yes, there are differences between Russia and Western states, but there are huge differences between Western states themselves. There are large cultural divides even between states as close as Canada and the USA – not to mention, of course, the cultural divides within Western states, especially contemporary America.

This brings us on to another problem: ‘civilizations’ are not constant. What counts for Western civilization today isn’t what counted for Western civilization 100 years ago, let alone 200 or 1,000 years ago. When something changes that much, does it make sense to consider it a single thing?

Beyond that, when I listen to Russians trying to explain why they are a distinct ‘civilization’, most of what they say isn’t distinctively Russian at all. For instance, they say things like ‘Russia has a more collective culture than the individualistic West, exemplified in its attitude to social welfare.’ Yet not only is this disputable in and of itself (some commentators consider Russian culture to be highly individualistic), but collectivism, social welfare etc, are visible in many Western states – e.g. Canada where I live.

Or take another so-called aspect of ‘Russian civilization’ people talk about – ‘family values’. Russia has a very high (though declining) abortion rate, lots of divorce, marital violence, etc etc – hardly proof of ‘family values’. As for Russians attitudes to LGBT issues, they are merely where the West was 20-30 years ago. That’s proof of a time-lag but not of a distinct ‘civilization’.

In other words, the idea that Russia and the West are distinct ‘civilizations’ doesn’t meld with reality.

Nor it is obviously the case that alleged civilizational distinctions determine geopolitics. Japan is part of the ‘the West’ in geopolitical terms, for instance. Many Asian, African, Middle East, and Latin Amerian states are also closely allied with the West. Meanwhile, as Chinese influence spreads, it will among states that have nothing to do with Chinese ‘civilization’ – e.g. in Africa. ‘Civilization’ per se isn’t, and wont’ be, the primary determinant in international affairs.

The Western liberal model of history sees everybody starting off in different places and then gradually converging, albeit retaining some national peculiarities. The civilizational model of history views things the opposite way – Danilevsky compared it to roads leading out of a common town square, i.e. diverging not converging. On the whole, despite its many imperfections, I think that the former model is rather closer to reality.

What we in the West get wrong is trying to force the pace of change on others, and also assuming that convergence means convergence towards the West, rather than mutual convergence. But despite those failings, I don’t buy into the civilization discourse. I see its popularity in Russia as being founded on its ability to excuse Russian divergence from some Western norms, as well as on its ability to justify Russian resistance to Western geopolitical pressure. But its utility as a political tool doesn’t make it right from a historical/philosophical point of view. Civilizational theory fits the political zeitgeist of Cold War 2.0, but to my mind competing national interests have far more to do with the current state of East-West relations than amorphous ideas of civilizational difference.

19 thoughts on “Crackpot Theory no. 12: Civilizations”

  1. I agree that as means of communications (mostly the internet-based variety) and transnational travel develop, the homogeneity — at least among the world’s ‘educated’ elites increases. That’s kinda trivial.

    And I agree about “the cultural divides within Western states, especially contemporary America” too. Perhaps the real ‘civilizational’ divide is between ‘educated’ liberal elites and the unwashed masses? And of course that’s always been the case. It’s just that the intensity of this conflict goes up and down.

    As for the popularity of civilizational talk, that’s probably a natural reaction to what you (it sounds like) consider a minor flaw in elitist Western outlook: “What we in the West get wrong is trying to force the pace of change on others, and also assuming that convergence means convergence towards the West, rather than mutual convergence.” But it really isn’t as mild and harmless a fallacy, a delusion, as it sounds. It leads to a serious backlash.

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  2. The West prides itself on having an open society with a free press. Much of its mass media coverage pertaining to Russia challenges that view.

    My recent commentary includes a pickup from the popular Russian based inoSMI venue, which is known for often carrying Western mass media articles that are critical of the Russian government.

    https://inosmi.ru/politic/20210720/250150404.html

    In the spirit of point-counterpoint discussion, the Eurasia Review pickup of my article (originally appearing in the Strategic Culture Foundation), includes some posted follow-up from individuals who disagree with my views.

    As for the above piece, Orthodox Christians outnumber Greek-Catholics in former Habsburg ruled Ukraine.

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  3. It seems to me that the likes of Solzhenitsyn are the ones that have it right. After theorizing on and on, they end up with a simple conclusion: Russia is Orthodox. Otherwise it is nothing.

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      1. Not to mention that Solzhenitsyn was a lying tool and self-promoter… Oh, I forgot, he’s a holy man, what with the beard and all…

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  4. “What we in the West get wrong is trying to force the pace of change on others, …”

    How about just not forcing anything at all on others and let them do their own thing? This saviour complex is so tiresome.

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  5. Robinson asserts that “civilizations” theory is too vague. That seems like a fair complaint. By way of contrast, the “offensive realism” theory of John Mearsheimer (powerful nation-states seek to dominate) has no such vagueness.

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  6. Civilization shmivilization… In the end it will be some kind of international culture that will prevail. I mean, people are people, and with time everybody becomes more cosmopolitan…

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  7. Point “A”.

    “Variations on this idea were then developed by the likes of Konstantin Leontiev, Arnold Toynbee, and in more recent times Samuel Huntington.”

    Here you go! Why not start with voicing out something that is implied anyway, but rarely said out openly? Namely that the “civilizational” approach was originally a Western invention used to justify its hegemony and exploitation of all the rest. The fact, that various Western rightards and cargo-cultists from the Butthurt-Belt of Europe (e.g. Poland, Baltic limitrophes, the Ukraine), are openly embracing it in their rhetoric and texts is rather telling.

    E.g., just (please, Mr. Robinson – don’t tell us you “didn’t notice that”) The Washington “Democracy Dies in Darkness” Post deemed necessary to publish a puff-piece by a very middle-aged rightard George F. Will, whose chest-thumping “By Jingo” article ends with this:

    “It is, therefore, well to notice how, day by day, in all of the globe’s time zones, civilized nations are, in word and deed, taking small but cumulatively consequential measures that serve deterrence.”

    Right on cue, Poland’s deputy FM Marcin Przydacz (36) called Russia “uncivilized country”, because it dares not to satisfy Polish demands re: Smolensk air catastrophe of 2010. As for the Ukraine – just peruse their (remaining) media to find an ample amount of speakers and “discuss-mongers” denouncing “uncivilized Moskals”.

    For, in the end of the day, all talk about “civilizations” ends up with proclamation that there is only One True Civilization, all the rest are either “lesser” ones or uncivilized at all. Which is, usually, promptly followed with the skull-measurment and other, ah, “robust” activities, involving lots and lots of people (plus their military hardware).

    In view of these facts, what we have here is a re-appropriation of the narrative by the oppressed parties, with the subsequent change of its essence. No big deal. Happens all the time. If you want to pick up a fight with this practice, Mr. Robinson, start close(r) at home, for such things are happening right now in your very “heartland of the Anglo-Saxon Western civilization” ™.

    What surprises me is that Mr. Robinson seems reluctant to embrace the “civilizational approach”… in its essence. Surely you believe in the superiority of your (capital letter here) Civilization! Surely you think, that its is oh so ideal and has nothing to adopt from the others – in fact, all the others must adopt from it if they want to become… well, they will never become “proper” Civilized People ™, but at least honorary Whites Westerners.

    Judging by Mr. Robinson’s previous literary works and blogposts expounding on his political views, he, surely, must be aware of such Western organization as Entente Internationale Anticommuniste, aka “Aubert’s League”. Their foundational documents justified said anti-communist activities because:

    «Перекидной огонь из Москвы в Китай свидетельствует, что большевики нащупали брешь, через которую цивилизации можно зайти с тыла».

    Translation:

    “A switch fire from Moscow to China indicates that the Bolsheviks found a gap through which civilization can be entered from the rear.”

    Look at it, huh? Nearly 100 years ago best of the best, “Brahmins” of the Western Civilization denied that either Russia or China were part of any civilization. Surely, Mr. Robinson, as a person who wrote so many and so… eloquently… about some of the EIA more prominent members (one person comes to mind…) – you’d agree with them?

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  8. Point “B”.

    “…There is some sort of sense of ‘the West’ as a collective whole, founded on a common Graeco-Roman and Christian heritage, and nowadays bound by commonly accepted liberal values which provide a sense of universalizing historical mission…”

    […]

    “The Western liberal model of history sees everybody starting off in different places and then gradually converging, albeit retaining some national peculiarities. The civilizational model of history views things the opposite way – Danilevsky compared it to roads leading out of a common town square, i.e. diverging not converging. On the whole, despite its many imperfections, I think that the former model is rather closer to reality.”

    Oh, and this one bit:

    “And in any case, is Russia really that different from the West?

    […]

    [T]he idea that Russia and the West are distinct ‘civilizations’ doesn’t meld with reality.”

    […]

    There are great many ways to proclaim ones fidelity to the reigning, mainstream, political orthodoxy, necessary for ones survival in the West as a member of the bourgeois intelligentsia. Few are more comically over-eager than the one taken here.

    Fancy that: one can disagree with the original RT article linked in Mr. Robinson’s blogpost – and with the blogpost and its clumsy made, strained conclusions, dictated by the erroneous starting points and assumptions.

    So… About this “Civilization” thingy… And, ah, “commonality” too.

    This blogposts is right in pointing out, that “civilization” is waaaaay too ambiguous and ill defined concept. E.g., there was much talk about “French civilization”, especially loud in the XIX c. when the time came to carve up Africa and Eastern Asia. But, what, does it make Algiers or Vietnam part-n-parcel part of the “French Civilization”? Does it mean that Québec is irreconcilably alien to the “Anglo-Saxon” proper part of Canada and, thus, *must* seek a way out? Oh, and btw – Nicolas Sarkozy’s ancestors were Hungarians – members of truly alien “civilization”! Come to think about it – what about Napoleon and his more than murky “frenchness”?!

    [I’ve chose the French as a rhetorical example for lulz before mostly Anglophonic commentariat here. Surely I could have easily choose… different and draw attention to, say, the fact, how in XIX c. classic English literature Scots and Irishmen are overrepresented. I promise to return to this topic again when Scotland regains its independence]

    Or what about… the civilization of the Indian subcontinent? (Notice how I framed it – no, not “the Indian civilization”.) Is Buddhism, a world religion born there, an integral part of it, of what makes one “Indian”? Then, what, does it make the (late pariod) “Beatles” paragons of the civilization of the Indian subcontinent? Oh, ahm, and what to do with the literal MILLIONS of those who follow the Hinduism? Yeah, they’ve found a cop out by proclaiming Buddha yet another Avatar of Vishnu – but AFAIK proper Buddhist didn’t not reciprocate and still view them as pagans. But if we accept the centrality of the Buddhism, what, does it make Japan, Bali and Buryatia members of the same civilization… just because?

    Finally, let’s talk about the greatest civilization on the face of the planet Earth! On Papua-New Guinea there are c. 2000 languages out of c. 6000 “live” languages of our world. People there have been living as a distinct “civilization” for about 50 000 years. Surely, all Toynbee fanciers must recognize it as the most potent and kewl civilization!

    But, rhetorics aside, any notional “civilization” is just a simulacrum. “Civilization” does not work as a descriptor for the independent historical actor. For the independent historical actors you must look for the objective economic interests and their expressors. There are only self-organized by economic systems structures that connect nations together. Economics forms the basis of, well, everything. It also forms the basis of any particular “national question”. After the ascend of the capitalism abovementioned expressors of the economic interests formed political nations (“nation-states”) by the linguistic and commonality of the economic interests traits. They are what drives historically important development on our planet ever since lolbertarian screams notwithstanding.

    [Mr. Robinson, while offering scathing critique of the “civilizational approach”, mentions nothing of that. Obviously. Instead, he answers other people’s vagueness and ill-defined terminology with his own. Obviously]

    Mr. Robinson is 100% right, that there is nothing preventing members of the supposed “Russian/Orthodox/Whatever Civilization” from coming over and “joining” the Western one, while embracing its values and ideology. In fact, there were plenty of such examples during the WW2, when such members of the Russian civilization as P. Krasnov and A. Shkuro (plus their fellow émigrés) fought on the side of the Nazi Europe. NTS both before the War and after it actively collaborated with and became integrated in what is now called the Western Civilization.

    Mr. Robinson’s maxims, therefore, amount to the following: “If there is no difference between the West and Russia, why won’t you join us?”. I.e., by employing an “Overtone Window” polemical device, he aims to get (a certain category of) Russians to feel less bad at becoming traitors by “coming over” to the Western side.

    You’ve acquired all the necessary “tradecraft” skills for that ages ago, so no wonder that you still find a way to use them 🙂

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    1. I didn’t read the book, but I did read the prospectus:

      In this perceptive look at the factors behind the rise and fall of
      civilizations, Professor Quigley seeks to establish the analytical
      tools necessary for understanding history. He examines the application
      of scientific method to the social sciences, then establishes his
      historical hypotheses. He poses a division of culture into six levels,
      from the more abstract to the more concrete: intellectual, religious,
      social, political, economic, and military; and he identifies seven
      stages of historical change for all civilizations: mixture, gestation,
      expansion, conflict, universal empire, decay, and invasion. Quigley
      tests these hypotheses by a detailed analysis of five major civilizations:
      the Mesopotamian, the Canaanite, the Minoan, the classical, and
      the Western.

      Sounds plausible. Based on this, I would reckon that American civilization is already at Stage #6: Decay.
      Canadians should be warned: “Detach NOW! While you still can, for the love of God!”

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      1. Hm… interesting, all I did was pasted the quote from the website and it came out with weird carriage returns, so ended up looking like blank verse….

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      2. You should read it. It is one of the rare books that can alter your understanding of the world.

        No less a person than Bill Clinton recommends it:

        “Bill Clinton: ‘I had a course in western civilisation with a remarkable man, the late Carroll Quigley. Half the people at Georgetown thought he was a bit crazy and the other half thought he was a genius. They were both right.’”

        http://www.carrollquigley.net/book-reviews/Review-of-Tragedy-Hope-Ramsay.htm

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      3. Oh.
        Well, I happen to think Bill Clinton was a monster and a war criminal.
        So I probably wouldn’t pay any attention to his opinions on anything.
        However, I should not let that influence my opinion of the person he praised, because that would be a logical fallacy!

        🙂

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  9. Interesting. Should I recall Piotr Dutkiewicz from earlier references on Irrussionality???

    Arbitarily, the article no doubt deserves closer attention, as does the source it is based on. Which he does not seem to link to.

    No idea why, but as bloody foreigner, I seem to be struggling linguistically here somewhat. Can our resident linguistic expert help me out?

    In other words, he has proposed that history, culture, and faith are de facto fundamental alternative bonds that unite Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in addition [to],[as?] alternation, or even contrary to the level of state-to-state relations.

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    1. Ok, irony alert aside.

      While I cannot pretend I was ever a fan of the EU’s rapid Eastern expansion program, I surely was always a fan of the EU’s regional policy, which crosses frontiers. To unite ‘civilizationally’ close communities????

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