Human life is constantly experiencing crises, that is, acute problems which require immediate remedial action, but a general crisis in a civilization is quite a different matter. A general crisis has unique characteristics because a civilization has unique characteristics, in comparison with other kinds of social groupings. We cannot understand the nature of a general crisis unless we understand the distinctive nature of a civilization, because the unique character of a civilization rests in its structure and the general crisis of any civilization is an organizational crisis in that structure.
A civilization is the highest level of social aggregate. As such it has four inferior levels of such aggregates below it: (1) collections of persons, whose only significant relationship is that they are in the same place at the same time (like passengers in a bus); (2) groups of persons, whose relationships are sufficiently patterned for members of the group to be able to identify who is, and who is not, a member of that group; (3) societies, which are groups whose patterns serve to satisfy most of the members basic needs, with the result that the members of a society have most of their relationships with each other, and their mutual, reciprocal adjustments while doing so make a society an integrative social aggregate; and (4) producing societies, which are societies whose economic patterns serve to increase the amount of food in the system, in contrast with non-producing societies, whose activities reduce the amount of food in the system and in its natural environment since they are simply parasites on nature. A civilization (5) is a producing society whose patterns include an organization of expansion.
This last definition means that a producing society becomes a civilization when it is organized in such a way that its patterns of relationships and behavior provide three things: (a) an incentive to innovate new ways of doing things; (b) an inequitable distribution of the social product so that there accumulates within the society a surplus of wealth (that is, wealth which its possessors do not wish to consume immediately); and (c) that the society be organized in such a way that the surplus being accumulated is used to mobilize resources to exploit the innovations being made. Such a triplex of organizational patterns is what I call “an organization of expansion”. Any producing society which develops such an organization of expansion is a civilization; accordingly, it will expand as all civilizations do, but as non-civilized societies do not.
By “expansion” here I mean that the civilization grows in four ways: (a) in population; (b) in geographic area; (c) in production of wealth per capita; and (d) in knowledge. When a civilization is expanding in these ways, we say that it is in its “Stage of Expansion”, which is Stage III of the seven distinct stages in the life of any civilization. This stage of growth follows the logistical curve of growth found in the curve of any growth process. This is the familiar elongated S-curve, whose slope, as shown by the tangent to the curve, reflects the rate of growth. As we move in time from left to right along this curve, the rate of growth increases to a certain point, after which the rate ceases to increase and soon begins to decease. In the early stages of a civilization, the rate of growth is close to zero, and the slope of the curve is almost horizontal (that is, zero); as growth begins, this slope of the tangent begins to turn in a counter-clockwise direction as the rate of growth increases. The civilization enters Stage III of its civilization process as soon as the tangent to the curve begins to turn, and it continues in this State III until the rate of growth begins to decrease, as indicated by the fact that the tangent ceases to turn in a counter-clockwise direction and begins to turn in a clockwise direction. At this point, although growth continues for a considerable period, the rate of growth is decreasing, and the civilization has entered upon Stage IV in its life-span; that is, it enters its Age of Conflict or General Crisis (Stage IV).
The Age of Conflict of any civilization can be identified by the fact that it has four characteristics different from the four characteristics of the Age of Expansion. These four indicators are: (a) decreasing rate of expansion; (b) increasing class-conflicts; (c) increasing imperialist wars among the political units which make up most civilizations; and (d) growing irrationality. As we shall see in a moment, other characteristics are also to be found in an Age of General Crisis, which help to identify it.
The reason for the decreasing rate of expansion is that the organization of expansion ceases acting as an instrument of expansion and becomes an institution. The tendency for all organizations to begin as instruments and to end as institutions is a general characteristic of all organizational patterns of any kind. It can be recognized from the fact that there appears to be a drastic decrease in the effectiveness with which the purpose of the organization is achieved, a decrease which arises from the fact that the organization and its members begin to assume other purposes different from the goals of the organization as a whole. The members of the organization and its operational patterns become vested interests more concerned with defending their own interests and their own methods of operation as elements in the organization than they are with the organization’s macro-goals. There are many reasons for this situation which cannot be explained here, but we might mention two: (a) each part of the organization has a subsidiary function which is distinct from the function of the organization itself and the egocentricity of all human actions tend to make this micro-goal of the individual part take priority over the macro-goal of the whole organization; and (b) even if a part of it continues to achieve its micro-goal with continuing effectiveness, the social context of the organization changes, requiring modifications of the micro-goals and micro-functions of the parts, but such changes will be resisted, or simply not observed, by those parts long enough to reduce the effectiveness of the achievement of the macro-goals and macro-functions of the organization in the new social context.
It is a basic rule of social processes that instruments tend to become institutionalized and that institutionalization leads to decreased effectiveness in achieving macro-goals. When this occurs, not only are macro-goals underachieved, but a dichotomy of interests (and potential conflict) emerges between the desires of the society for the fulfillment of macro-goals and the desires of the organization and its parts to fulfill their macro-goals. This phenomenon can be observed in any society in all its activities, from churches where religion is replaced by clericalism, through schools where the struggle for credits, curriculum, and examinations become obstacles to real education, to the military aspect where weapons, inter-service animosities, SOP, and thirst for promotions become threats to defense and even to national security.
This process of the institutionalization of organizations is the chief cause of the decreasing rate of expansion and of class and group conflicts as Stage III of any civilization passes into Stage IV. Somewhat more remotely it is also the chief cause in the onset of imperialist wars. This third characteristic of an Age of General Crisis is but one example, though a major one, of the general tendency of this Stage to seek to increase its rate of expansion by the use of force and of political action, as this rate ceases to be maintained at an adequate level by organizational processes based on accepted structural patterns. The most obvious manifestations of this general tendency are to be found in three phenomena: (a) a tendency, as the disappointing rate of growth in the whole social product is recognized, for the diverse parts of the system to seek to maintain or to increase their own shares of the dwindling total at the expense of the shares going to other parts of the system; (b) a growing tendency to use conscious political action and power to force continued growth; and (c) a tendency for the chief entities of group action in the civilization (usually states, but sometimes other groups or communities) to attack other such entities in imperialist warfare.
The nature of this process and the tendency to move toward imperialism as a response to decreasing rates of growth can be seen most clearly in economics, although it takes place in all aspects of civilized life. The purpose of economic activity is to obtain economic goods which can be consumed or otherwise enjoyed. All such activity takes the form of application of tools and patterns of action to resources. If we designate such artifacts and patterns as “an organization”, we can indicate a productive relationship thus: an organization (O) applied to resources (R) yields Goods (G), thus O + R ] G.
In this relationship, G can be increased in either of two ways: (a) by applying the same O to an increased R; or (b) by applying a more effective O to the same or even a reduced R. We call the former “extensive expansion” and the latter intensive expansion”, a contrast which is most easily seen in agriculture, where intensive expansion has been prevalent for decades, if not centuries, so that we now get greatly increased output of G with decreased use of land and labor, by the use of new methods, organizations, and techniques. This is in sharp contrast to other aspects of economic, such as transportation, where we are constantly told that private, individual, mobility by the internal combustion engine is the ultimate achievement in transportation organization, so that organization changes are thus excluded, and expansion of transportation as an economic good G cannot be achieved by any changes in O, but must be sought through more R, that is, increased vehicles, horsepower, and highways. Similarly, experts in education or in national defense almost unanimously and automatically exclude new organizations or methods and insist that they must have more resources – more money, personnel, buildings, hardware, etc.
The general tendency to seek more G by increasing R, rather than by reforming O, is simply a part of the general tendency for instruments to become institutions. In any social process, O tends to become a way of life, the patterns of thought, feeling, and action which is “our way of doing things.” Accordingly, vested interests accumulate around O, but not around R (which are simply resources to be used and even used up). There is always, in social activities, a tendency for intensive expansion to be transformed into extensive expansion. When that shift of emphasis takes in the organization of expansion of a civilization, that civilization passes from its Stage of Expansion into its Stage of Conflict or General Crisis. This leads almost inevitably to conflicts of classes, groups, generations, and states, and thus imperialist wars. Such wars could be defined as conflicts arising from efforts to obtain by force or power an increase in R, as a means for continuing growth in G without conscious or deliberate reform of O. These imperialist wars of Stage IV of a civilization are quite different from the conflicts which may have appeared in Stage III; in the latter, such conflicts arose from the growth of the civilization itself from its improvement of its organizational patterns (that is, of O).
A fine example of this whole process can be seen in the history of the defeated powers of WWII. Before the war, Germany, Japan, and Italy refused to consider any significant reforms of their political, financial, and economic organizations, insisting that higher standards of living for their citizens could be obtained only by increased resources, even if those could be obtained only by force from their neighbors. The efforts of these fascist states to obtain more resources by force led to World War II. As a result of the defeat of these aggressors in 1945, all three countries suffered a sharp reduction in resources: land, population (counter-balanced, to some extent, by repatriation of nationals), of monetary resources (such as foreign exchange balances), and raw materials. Yet in all three cases, as a result of the actions of the United States, the fascist organizational structure which had made the war was replaced by a different and more effective organizational structure, in economics, in government, and in finance. In each of the three countries, this new organization, after 1952, achieved a spectacular increase in standards of living and did so on a smaller resource base than had existed in 1938. As a result of the defeat, which was essentially a defeat of the fascist organization itself, a new O with a reduced R achieved an output of G which astonished the world and which gave the inhabitants of all three countries a higher standard of living than they had ever had in history. In all three the rate of expansion is now slowing down, as the post-1950 O becomes institutionalized.
This process of institutionalization of social instruments (or the shift from intensive to extensive growth) in a constant in all human life and in all processes of historical change. As I have explained in detail in another place (my EVOLUTION OF CIVILIZATIONS, Macmillan, 1961, pp. 49-65, 74-78), this tendency gives rise to three possible responses which I called reform, circumvention, or reaction. In the first case, the institutionalized organization is reformed and growth resumes; in the second case, the institutional organization is left many of its privileges and emoluments, but its social functions are given to a new parallel organization, which serves as a new instrument so that growth resumes; and, in the third case, the institutionalized O is able to become a fascist structure which uses power and force to prevent either reform or circumvention, thus condemning the people of the society to a reduced or declining level of satisfaction of their needs and desires for an indefinite future. In this third case, the Age of Conflict continues, and the civilizational process continues into growing frustration and weakness, until a single political unit, a Universal Empire, conquers the whole area of the civilization. At that point, Stage IV ceases, and replaced by Stage V. It is, of course, possible in theory for the civilization to fail to achieve a Universal Empire and to continue in conflict and general crisis, as the society declines slowly to disintegration, with mixed patterns of reform, circumvention, and reaction. In such a case, which is quite rare, Universal Empire will be omitted from the civilizational process, and the society will move from Stage IV, Conflict, to Stage VI, Decay, without experiencing Stage V.
General Crisis affects all aspects of life from intellectual, religious, and artistic, through social (concerned with human gregarious and emotional needs) and economic, to constitutional, political, and military. Efforts to deal with all these aspects by political action, or even by force, means that all aspects tend to be become politicized, even such “private” matters as relationships between the sexes, between the generations, within families, etc. In the Age of Conflict this culminates in a great effort to fuse into a single system three quite distinct social organizations: the community, the state, and the civilization itself. The last two of these usually do reach a point where they obtain coterminous boundaries (as a Universal Empire), but the effort to pretend that this huge social aggregate is a community is always a failure. There are two reasons for this failure. A community is a social aggregate (group, society, or civilization) whose members trust each other until they have explicit reasons to distrust a particular person; such reasons for distrust can be found very easily in an age of general conflict and general politicization, in which power intrudes into all human relationships. More important than this, however, is the second reason, the fact that human emotional needs can be satisfied only by contacts with nature and with other humans on an existential, unique, face-to-face basis in which individuals know each other personally. An institutionalized society is too cluttered up with artifacts, institutions, and power factors to permit the achievement of any “global village,” a McLuhan myth which is typical of McLuhan’s efforts to please the contemporary institutionalized establishment. Any large social aggregate, especially a highly politicized one as a Universal Empire must be, has to operate through artifacts, general rules, abstractions, permanent status, and generalized, non-personal (that is, not “face-to-face”) behavior. All these things are obstacles to the unique, existential relationships among persons and with nature required by human emotional needs. The effort to make a Universal Empire into a community, or to pretend that it is, is bound to fail from the cumulative frustration of unexpressed emotional energies. Contemporary student hatred of the IBM card as a symbol of what is wrong, in their minds, with today’s world is a notable example of this reaction.
Eventually, in the course of the Age of Conflict, individuals begin to reject the effort to make the state and the civilization into a community and begin to seek emotional satisfaction by what I call “misplacement of satisfactions” or by opting out of the system. The first of these responses is too complex a problem to be dealt with in any adequate fashion here. It includes a general tendency to seek satisfaction of human needs on the wrong levels: to seek security in the acquisition of property, or in sex, or in unquestioning allegiance to an ideology as a secular religion; or to seek emotional satisfaction in power, in violence, in status, or in artifacts; and so forth. The second of these responses, opting out of the system, includes the use of narcotics, alcohol, or other irrationalities, as well as the effort to lose oneself in a niche of the system, but it is most notable as a renunciation of any ambition to create a community from the whole society or the state, in favor of an effort to find emotional and social satisfactions in some voluntary “little community” or commune. Such efforts appear in the Stage of Conflict and have a fluctuating history until they finally become so pervasive (usually late in the Universal Empire) that the whole system disintegrates. This “opting out of the system” involves a shifting of allegiance and emotional attachments from the state to small communities. It is clearly seen, for example, in the Greek-speaking Classical world after it reached it reached its Age of Conflict about 450 B.C. The first famous case is Epicurus, who renounced allegiance to the state, to war, and to military service, and invited men to find their true satisfactions by sitting with their friends, eating and conversing “in a quiet garden.” Later, the Cynics, the “hippies” of the ancient world, sought similar “anti-social” but inter-personal satisfactions. This trend continued, vigorously resisted by the state, (especially by Rome after the Latin world entered its Age of Conflict about 250 B.C.) but with decreasing success after the time of Augustus Caesar. By that time, Lucullus had abandoned all politics to devote himself to feasting, while men like Apollonius of Tyana and Christ pointed the way to the satisfaction of human social and emotional needs in religious communes. However, only in the Second Century A.D., when the Universal Empire of Classical Civilization was almost two centuries old, did this trend become a torrent. At that time, tens of thousands joined the church, finding in its catacombs the emotional, religious, and intellectual satisfactions which had been left frustrated by the Classical over-emphasis on military, political, and economic concerns. After A.D. 311 Constantine and his successors tried to regain the political and military allegiance of the Christians by adopting Christianity as the religion of a new Imperial system centered on the Persian doctrine of Providential Empire. This effort created a new civilization, Byzantine, in the east, but in the west, civilized life collapsed into invasions and the Dark Age of a new Western Civilization. Classical Civilization died everywhere.
General Crisis, Stage IV, of a civilization can be viewed from other aspects. It is the central stage of a process by which society shifts from an organization of kinship groups and local communities (clans, extended families, villages, parishes) to an organization of atomized and alienated individuals, many of whom are vainly seeking community in a universal brotherhood of man within a universal state. In Stage II most human behavior controls and many human rewards of behavior are internalized, in neurological and hormonal patterns resulting from social and religious training in face-to-face local groupings. In the latter parts of Stage IV (Conflict) and in Stage V (Universal Empire), most controls and rewards are externalized, the controls from organized forces of “law and order” (that is, organized power and force, as police, government, and military units), and the rewards equally externalized as possessions of wealth and power status. The civilization, as it passes from Stage II to Stage V, finds that individual relationships are based, successively, on processes of socialization (Stage II), commercialization (III), politization (IV), and ultimately, militarization (V).
This process marks a shift in emphasis downward from the higher levels of human experience (religious, intellectual, artistic, and emotional) to the lower (economic, political, military, and physical). As a result, the civilization faces acute problems in its higher manifestations, so that fundamental cognitive assumptions and value priorities which prevailed in the earlier stages are challenged and replaced by cognitive and symbolic patterns of a more atomized and less social character. From these changes emerge powerful emotional frustrations which give rise to growing misplacement of satisfactions and an increasing tendency for individuals to opt out of the system. At some point these frustrations and shifts of loyalties create a situation in which the civilization as a functioning entity can no longer continue, and especially can no longer defend itself, from lack of support from its members. This leads to wholesale collapse of its military, political, and economic structures.