Carroll Quigley provides probably the best narrative of the rise and decline of civilizations I’ve come across (better than Toynbee, Durant, Braudel) in his book, Evolution of Civilizations (download a PDF version here). I recently came across a document where I summed up a large portion of his insights and thought I would share it. I also have some notes on his critique of the study of history as a whole, which I’ll share shortly.
To begin, Quigley defines civilization as a producing society (as compared to parasitic society) which grows thanks to an “instrument of expansion.” This instrument depends on invention and investment for the purpose of surplus creation. Instruments of expansion appear to be big picture developments, from feudalism to industrial capitalism – means of organizing inputs.
Quigley breaks down the civilization’s life cycle into stages: mixture, gestation, expansion, and conflict, with universal empire, decay and invasion follow if the civilization fails to find a new instrument of expansion.
Mixture: A new society needs multiple cultures mixing; while there are millions of cases of cultural mixture, only rarely does it create a new society; usually this occurs on frontiers, where cultures mix to find “alternative ways of satisfying human needs,” e.g., a new instrument of expansion.
Gestation: Period before expansion begins, where few changes are apparent; status is still stabile, but investment and invention are taking place under the radar.
Expansion: Four kinds: a) increased production of goods, eventually leads to rising standards of living, b) increase in population of society as death rate declines, c) increase in geographic extent because of exploration and colonization, d) increase in knowledge; all are interrelated. Period typified by democracy, scientic advance, and revolutionary political change, while in the latter half of expansion, the instrument of expansion becomes institutionalized, “increasingly static and legalistic.” In time, all will see “investment begin to decrease, and the rate of expansion (although not expansion itself) begins to decline.”
Conflict: Period of declining rate of expansion and increasing class conflicts, due to a conflict of interests between the vested minority and frustrated majority, with neither side having clear idea of real issues or workable solution to crisis. The programs the majority want – sharing the surplus of the few with the many – are not germane, since expansion can be resumed only with concentrated surplus; such revolutionary programs will actually make the crisis worse by lowering the accumulation of surplus. The period is also marked by increasingly frequent and violent imperialist wars, along with growing irrationality, pessimism, superstition, and other-wordliness.
Universal Empire: This period is often considered to be the golden age by historians, as there is relative peace and prosperity as there are no competing political units and no struggle with outside societies. There may develop a common set of weights, coinage measures, and extensive government spending. This is all misleading, as there is no real economic expansion, as the previously-productive instrument of expansion has stagnated. Inventions are rare, and real economic investment is lacking. Society is now a monument to the vested interest. Masses live off waste of non-productive expenditures. “Golden age is really the glow of overripeness” – a prelude to decay.
Decay: This period is unsurprisingly marked by “acute economic depression, decline in standards of living, civil wars between the various vested interests, and growing illiteracy.” There is often vain legislation to stop the waste. Religious, intellectual, social, and political levels of society lose the allegiance of masses. Religious movements then sweep society, along with a growing reluctance to fight for the society or pay taxes. This period can last a long time, until it can’t defend itself again the barbarians at the gate.
Invasion: The invaders attack the civilization until it can no longer stand, destroying the civilization, and creating a new period of mixture, providing the possibility for a new gestation period. For instance, the Greek invasion of the Minoans was Classical gestation, the Germanic invasion ended Rome, but birthed Western Civilization. This is not a given though, simply a possibility.
While Quigley’s model is based on the civilization experience, it applies to groups of all sorts all the way down to organisms. Political parties find instruments to expand their influence and popularity. These instruments become institutions protected by individuals who derive disproportionate benefit from their continuance. Over time, this institution sees a declining rate of utility to the party, and many in the party will think it best to reform or circumvent this institution and invest in a new instrument of expansion. If they fail to reform, their party’s position will decay further until they are replaced.
Mancur Olson has a related argument in “The Rise and Decline of Nations,” which argues that small, distributional coalitions form to protect their interests, and as the state endure, it accumulates more and more of these drags on expansion, causing increasing decline.
Quigley essentially takes natural selection theory and incorporates the uniquely human ability to choose. Animals change their instrument of expansion through thousands of years of selective survival and breeding. Humans, and any social groups they might comprise, can change their instrument of expansion simply through a will to change.
At earlier stages in civilization, it was the battle to see who had the strongest few, who would strengthen themselves through plunder abroad and appropriation at home. The chief instruments were indeed war and plunder. However, this initial plunder created a surplus which allowed for inventions that created new economic instruments that created surplus without conflict, and indeed, depended on cooperation and expansion to mature.
This created a lobby for peace and commerce, which butted heads with the entrenched war institution. This economic instrument was also institutionalized to secure its ability to flourish by land barons and guilds. This institution expanded for some time (at less-than-optimal rates) because of expanding items of commerce and expanding markets to sell, before finally commercial capitalism challenged the institution of feudalism. Commercial capitalism became the instrument of expansion until it was displaced by industrial capitalism, which in turn was institutionalized into monopoly capitalism.
Each evolution has depended on surplus-holders with weaker ties to the current instrument of expansion than the draw of potential gains in the untapped instrument. This group will only come into being if the vested interests’ instrument incidentally creates a surplus for another group. The pivotal moment in a society occurs when the vested interests trade a share of surplus to a distinct group for a service they could not provide themselves; if so inclined, the secondary group will continue to accumulate influence through its more efficient instrument before either co-opting the vested interests or stripping the vested institution of its privilege.
It seems like the US is in the Conflict stage, where Quigley offers some sage advice on the popular proscriptions. In this period of growing tension of evolution and increasing class conflicts between the vested minority and frustrated majority, neither side has a clear idea of real issues or workable solution to crisis; agendas to appropriate the surplus of the few by the many are worse than useless, since expansion can be resumed only with concentrated surplus to fund new or reformed instrument of expansion. Revolutionary programs responding to failure of investment will make the crisis worse by lowering accumulation of surplus; both the masses and the few are blind to what’s needed, a new instrument of expansion, which usually appears by accident or circumvention rather than through reform.
Every instrument of expansion sees diminishing returns, and the rate of expansion can only be maintained or increased through reform or circumvention (working around entrenched interests) to ensure surplus is invested in the best available instrument.
Filed under: General Welfare