Civilisation: Evolution of a word and a group of ideas

Lucien Febvre
May 25, 1929
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It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word. Such journeys, whether short or long, monotonous or varied are always instructive. But in every major language there are a dozen or so terms, never more, often less, whose past is no food for the scholar. But it is for the historian if we give the word historian all its due force.

Such terms, whose meaning is more or less crudely defined in dictionaries, never cease to evolve under the influence of human experience and they reach us pregnant, one might say, with all the history through which they have passed. They alone can enable us to follow and measure, perhaps rather slowly but very precisely (language is not a very rapid recording instrument), the transformations which took place in a group of those governing ideas which man is pleased to think of as being immobile because their immobility seems to be a guarantee of his security.1 Constructing the history of the French word civilisation would in fact mean reconstituting the stages in the most profound of all the revolutions which the French spirit has achieved and undergone in the period starting with the second half of the eighteenth century and taking us up to the present day. And so it will mean embracing in its totality, but from one particular point of view, a history whose origins and influence have not been confined within the frontiers of a single state. The simple sketch which follows may make it possible to date the periods in the revolution to which we refer with more rigor than previously. And it will at least show once more that the rhythm of the waves which break upon our societies are, in the last instance, governed and determined by the progress not of a particular science and of thought that revolves within one and the same circle, but by progress in all the disciplines together and in all the branches of learning working in conjunction.

Let us clearly mark out the limits of the problem. Some months ago a thesis was defended in the Sorbonne dealing with the civilization of the Tupi-Guarani. The Tupi-Guarani are small tribes living in South America which in every respect fit the term “savage” as used by our ancestors. But for a long time now the concept of a civilization of non-civilized people has been current. If archaeology were able to supply the means, we should see an archaeologist coolly dealing with the civilization of the Huns; who we were once told were “the flail of civilization.”

But our newspapers and journals, and we ourselves, talk continually about the progress, conquests and benefits of civilization. Sometimes with conviction, sometimes with irony and sometimes even with bitterness. But what counts is that we talk about it. And what this implies is surely that one and the same word is used to designate two different concepts.

In the first case civilization simply refers to all the features that can be observed in the collective life of one human group, embracing their material, intellectual, moral and political life and, there is unfortunately no other word for it, their social life. It has been suggested that this should be called the “ethnographical” conception of civilization.2 It does not imply any value judgment on the detail or the overall pattern of the facts examined. Neither does it have any bearing on the individual in the group taken separately, or on their personal reactions or individual behavior. It is above all a conception which refers to a group. Continue reading

Soviet workers’ clubs in the 1920s

View of the principal façade of the Zuev Club, Moscow 1927 or laterPartial view of the lateral façade of the Rusakov Club, Moscow, 1929 or later

The workers’ club

Anatole Kopp
Town and Revolution,
1917-1932
 (1966)

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First, we must establish just what was meant by a “club” in the USSR of the twenties, a country in which the word had previously been applied only to private rooms reserved for the use of a group of nobles or wealthy bourgeois. A club was exactly the opposite of what is sometimes implied by a “club” today.

The important thing about a club is that the mass of the members must be directly involved. They must not approach it or be channeled into it from the outside as mere entertainment. They themselves must find in it the maximum of self-expression.

The role of the club is to serve as a sort of school of culture…Within its walls workers of every age should be able to find rest, relaxation, and a renewal of energy at the end of the working day. There, outside the family, children, adolescents, adults, and the old should be made to feel members of a collectivity. Their interests should be expanded. The role of the club is to liberate men from the old oppression of church and state.

Originally, this new building, the expression of a new social function, was the response to a spontaneous demand, proof that it met a genuine need. Within a few months of the installation of the Soviet regime numerous clubs had been established. They were run by trade-union or political organizations, often by local groups, and set up in former private houses, in converted churches, in sheds, almost anywhere. In fact, the adaptation of these unlikely premises was one of the first tasks to confront the Soviet architects immediately following the revolution.

Zuev_Workers_Club_drawingsalfbronovitskaya

A center for creative activity and the diffusion of culture, the club was also some compensation for the discomfort and overcrowding that the workers suffered at home. Unable to provide apartments for all, the state tried to make up at the collective level for its deficiencies on the individual plane. But this was not all. Essentially, the club embodied a conception of culture that was no longer that of an elite but of the mass, no longer acquired in the silence of the study or in halls of learning, but in a group bound by common interests and an awareness of their need. It corresponded to a conception in which the home tended to become merely a place for the individual to rest, while life in all its social and cultural aspects developed in collective centers and collective forms, at a time when a craving for culture was beginning to seize the broad masses of the population:

We are living at a time when an immense cultural movement is developing among the working masses, the idea…of a new social and collective way of life is advancing with giant strides…

Every worker [in our new industrial centers] is anxious to take an active part in both public and cultural life. The thirst for knowledge is enormous. The time has come for us to give the workers not only homes but buildings with facilities for meetings, study, recreation, reading, and the activities of various special groups [kruzhok]…

…The idea of building palaces of labor or clubs is in the air…

Both in its architecture and in the facilities that it offered, the club, which El Lissitzky was to call a “social power plant” [soziales Kraftwerkand “a workshop for the transformation of man,” evolved between the early years of the Soviet regime and the beginning of the thirties. Continue reading

The antinomy of art and politics

A critique of art as cultural resistance

Untitled.
Image: Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait:
Man Smoking a Pipe (c. 1848-1849)

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Introduction

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This article first appeared in September 2011, the same month that Occupy Wall Street officially began its reclamation of public space. It was written by Chris Mansour, a good friend and member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, the organization to which I formerly belonged. My reasons for republishing it here are several: the two-year anniversary of the movement recently came and went to little fanfare, my ongoing interrogation of the relationship between architecture and politics, and my reposting yesterday of an article by the German-French Marxist and architecture critic Claude Schnaidt on “Architecture and Political Commitment.” In that reposting, I recommended Adorno’s essay on “Commitment” as supplementary reading. Chris draws upon this article in the course of his own exposition. A good piece that is worthy of reflection.

Platypus Review № 39, editorial introduction: At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on the theme of “aesthetics in protests.” Panelists Stephen Duncombe (Reclaim the Streets), Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), Laurel Whitney (The Yes Men), were asked to consider: “What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice?” The same theme was the subject of another event held at the New School in NYC on May 23, which featured Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E.), and Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative). A full recording of the discussion at the Left Forum can be found online. The article that follows is a modified version of the opening remarks made by Chris Mansour of Platypus at both events.

The antinomy of art and politics

by Chris Mansour

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The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.

— George Orwell

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There is an interesting passage in Herbert Marcuse’s short book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, which aims to flesh out how art relates to politics. In reflecting on art’s role in revolutionary struggle, Marcuse writes,

In its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art, the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary.[1]

Marcuse cites the example of Courbet, whose paintings signal the birth of modernity, and who founded a socialist club in 1848 and was later a member of the governing council of the Paris Commune in 1871. Yet, counterintuitive though it is, Marcuse remarks that “[there is] no direct testimony of the revolution in his paintings…[they contain] no political content.”[2] The “weight and sensuality” of Courbet’s still lifes — which were painted shortly after the collapse of the Commune — are far more “powerful” than any “political painting” could ever be.[3] Writing these statements in 1972 — four years after the failed “revolutions” of 1968 — it was becoming clearer to Marcuse that the politics of the New Left were losing their grip and its revolutionary energy was deflating. Likewise, the situation that Courbet found himself in after 1848 or 1871 was probably similar to, if not more tragic than, 1968.

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit, c.1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 23 1/8" × 28 1/4" (59 × 72 cm)

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit (c. 1871). Oil on canvas, 59 × 72 cm.

The separation between art and political activity that Marcuse was pointing to in Courbet may appear a bit strange to self-proclaimed cultural radicals or art-activists today. From Marcuse’s point of view, art remains autonomous from any exterior motives other than itself, and art cannot — and should not — act merely as a functional device for putting forth political aims. [4]  Continue reading

An exchange with conservative Swedish permaculturalist Øyvind Holmstad on the concept of “civilization”

Monuments to permanent unnature: The Egyptian Pyramids

I recently had an exchange with Øyvind Holmstad, a blogger and self-described conservative permaculturalist, on the subject of my reflections on the idea of “civilization,” which I posted not too long ago.  The only edits I made are grammatical.  Øyvind’s comments will appear in normal font, aligned to the left, while my responses will appear in goldish-orange, indented once to the right.

“…as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”[62]”

I’ve really never thought of this distinction between culture and civilization as outlined in your article. If civilization really means technological control of nature, I don’t want civilization. But I think the alternative is not barbarism, but permaculture, applying the “technologies of life” to live in symbiosis with nature. So probably we’re better off with a permanent culture (permaculture) than with civilization.

I think I should work these thoughts into an article for the PRI-institute some day. Thanks for offering me this new insight!

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:07 am |

No problem. Though I would again stress that the opposition of culture to civilization was usually invoked by right-wing nationalists, if not outright fascists. I think that is why Adorno, Elias, and others objected to any sort of hard-and-fast line of separation between them.

Also, “civilization” is usually contrasted to “barbarism.” Only under barbaric conditions is it contrasted to “culture.” The concept usually opposed to “culture” is “nature,” as structuralist anthropology taught us long ago.  Permaculture could thus be seen to signify a state of permanent unnature.  It is humanity’s lot to cultivate the earth.  In a different key, “culture” may be seen to be humanity’s mastery over nature. “Civilization,” by contrast, would be humanity’s self-conscious mastery of its own activities (i.e., freedom).But I imagine you and I would have very different ideas as to the extent of that cultivation.

Ross Wolfe said this on June 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |

Thanks again for very interesting viewpoints and information! All this is brand new thoughts to me, so I anyway have to digest it a long time before I eventually write my article. Have you written other essays on this subject, or do you have some good ones to recommend? I don’t know what to name my article. Maybe “Permaculture, Nature and Civilization”?By the way, I’m not an academical so I can come up with whatever crazy ideas I like without influencing my career, I see this as my advantage. Anyway, if you had read “The Nature of Order” you would have known that Alexander has documented by empirical findings that order and wholeness in nature, art and architecture is one and the same, i.e., all nourishing art and architecture is unfolded through the same processes and laws. So I think that after “The Nature of Order” was published culture and nature are not opposites anymore.

I’ve only read “The Phenomenon of Life” yet, so I might should have finished the whole series before I eventually write my essay. I’ll have these new ideas in my mind while reading it.
Here are some of the findings documented in this work:

http://www.livingneighborhoods.org/library/empirical-findings.pdf

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |

First and foremost I identify myself as Alexandrin, after Alexander. Now that I see that Alexander has wiped out the oppositions of nature and culture, I feel even more proud of my identity. I believe this reunion of nature and culture has to be the basic of a new permanent civilization.And nothing of this I had ever thought of when I wake up this morning.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm | 

I continued thinking about these things tonight and couldn’t help myself from starting to write my essay, so here it is:

http://permaliv.blogspot.no/2012/06/permaculture-nature-civilization.html

I really don’t know if it’s of any interest for you, as I’m not full of knowledge like you. I’m just a hobby philosopher, so maybe you find it naive? But it’s a lot of naive people out there, so I’m sure some will appreciate it.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm |

Well, Øyvind, I think if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I do find your view a little naïve. But that’s not because it’s not erudite or sophisticated enough; often erudition and sophistication conceal an underlying weakness in an argument. (For me, I think my footnoting is largely a result of an obsessive-compulsive pattern. But obviously having a bunch of footnotes doesn’t mean that my argument is right).Ultimately, I think that the question of how humanity will continue to live in this world can only be resolved through a radical restructuring of how society organizes itself. Rather, society would have to finally become capable of self-consciously organizing itself, rather than remaining unconscious and uncontrollable. This, actually, would be the truth of concepts like economy and ecology, from the Greek οἶκος (oikos, or home). The relationship between these two terms is effectively analogous to the relationship between astrology and astronomy today.There’s a beautiful bit from the young (pre-Marxist) Lukács that I think still rings true, no matter how idealistic:

Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths — ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light. Thus each action of the soul becomes meaningful and rounded in this duality: complete in meaning — in sense — and complete for the senses; rounded because the soul rests within itself even while it acts; rounded because its action separates itself from it and, having become itself, finds a center of its own and draws a closed circumference round itself. ‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’

This, ultimately, must be the end of all ecology and economics: to make humanity at home in the world once more. I don’t think that this would mean a vast simplification of human production, or a global permaculture à la Mollison or whatnot. Humanity remains alienated from nature. This alienation can only be suspended through some balance of humanizing nature, or naturalizing humanity. I think that it would have to be some combination of both, but I would hope far more the former than the latter (insofar as in nature, we remain at the mercy of forces which dwarf us).

Ross Wolfe said this on June 8, 2012 at 7:29 am | Continue reading

“Civilization”: On the history of a concept

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Excerpted from a draft for my long-delayed essay (almost a small book now) on the relationship of revolutionary Marxism to revolutionary liberalism.

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It is difficult to even mention the concept of civilization without conjuring up images of Occidental hauteur. One is immediately reminded of the so-called “civilizing mission” undertaken by the great colonial powers of Europe. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Nevertheless, the timing of its emergence in history cannot be thought a mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. According to the French semiotician Émile Benveniste, the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau.1 Though it derives more generally from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and legality, “civilization” in its modern sense dates only from the Enlightenment. In its post-1765 French usage, Benveniste observed that here “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as the state of civilized society.”2 From there, the concept was then imported to Great Britain by Scottish Enlightenment figures like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith. This most likely came through their interactions with the French physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot.3 Freud’s suggestion in Civilization and Its Discontents — that the civilizing process of society in history resembles the maturation of the individual4 — was already largely anticipated by Ferguson in the introductory paragraph to his Essay on the History of Civil Society. There he asserted: “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.”5 For Millar, as it was for Smith, civilization was marked by the development of a complex division of labor, what he called “the distinctions of professions and of ranks.” With the further articulation of this system of distinctions, “the human mind is cultivated and expanded; and man rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.”6 Smith reaffirmed Millar’s identification of civilized society as being one in which there was a highly-developed system of ranks. At one point, Smith clarified that whenever he used the term “civilized society,” what he really meant was just a “society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established.”7

Besides Benveniste, the German-Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias and his Austrian exegete Helmut Kuzmics also picked up on this civilizational theme of Mirabeau’s. One of Elias’ most interesting arguments centers on the transmission of certain conventions from pre-bourgeois European court life — an attention to good manners, etiquette, dress codes, and behavioral norms — to bourgeois civil society rising out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although later philosophers of moral sentiment like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic “virtue” through their valorization of bourgeois self-love,8 these vestiges of courtly politesse in civic politeness9 account for the high premium that was placed on “courtesy” (courtoisie, cortesia) and “civility” (civilité, civiltà, Zivilität) in early bourgeois circles.10 Kuzmics is correct to add, however, that the carryover from courteous modes of conduct would have been more direct among members of the grande bourgeoisie.11 But this historical lineage passed down from medieval court society was only one part of what Elias and Kuzmics called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, what this process entailed was a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this regime of self-restraint.12 Some have noted a similarity between Elias’ notion of “restraint” through the civilizing process and Foucault’s later concept of “discipline” through correct training,13 but this similarity is only apparent. Self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression.14 Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias and Kuzmics each acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms and expectations associated with the workplace (rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis).15 The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor.

Here, the meaning of “civilization” examined by Elias and Kuzmics reconnects with that of Benveniste, Lucien Febvre, and the political economists like Smith, Ferguson, and the physiocrats. Of the new behaviors inculcated as a result of the generalization of the wage-relationship — along with the progressive refinement of the social division of labor and the more precise measurement of the labor-time expended — moderation, diligence, expedience, and what E.P. Thompson called “time-discipline” were foremost. From the schoolyard to the factory floor, both children and adults now “entered the new universe of disciplined time.”16 Max Weber, commenting upon the utilitarian ethos of Benjamin Franklin’s advice in Poor Richard’s Almanack, recorded that for the modern bourgeoisie, “[h]onesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues.”17 Beyond these highly-valued bourgeois personality traits (or “civic virtues”), this civilizing process in modern society moves from the ethical domain of individual behavior to the political domain of liberal policies of governance. The old practices of government-controlled monopolies, tariffs, protectionism, and trade restrictions — in short, of French and British mercantilism and German cameralism — now appeared antiquated and barbaric. With respect to these more specifically bourgeois aspects of civilization, Kuzmics asserts:

From [the physiocrats] on, the French concept of civilization is wedded to the bourgeois notion of progress; knowledge turns into one of its central categories; the concept of “being civilized” is transferred from the behavior of individuals to the state, the constitution, the educational system (and access to that system by the populace) and to a penitentiary system which is seen to be barbaric. Social inequality, anchored in feudal barriers, appears as barbaric and unreasonable. The same perspective is brought to bear on the lack of economic freedom imposed by government trade restrictions. The refinement of manners and the pacification of civil society are supposed to be the consequence of civilization in this wider sense.18

That “civilization,” a concept born of the Enlightenment, should bear the imprint of the narrative of progress should not come as a shock to anyone. Indeed, the Swiss philologist and literary critic Jean Starobinski not long ago suggested that “[t]he word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress.”19 As such, it would appear that “civilization” is perhaps a distant cousin of the later concept of “modernization,” as a process implying progress or enhanced development over time, though Kuzmics warns against such interpretations.20 Already by 1775, Diderot was using the term in exactly this sense: “[C]ivilization follows from the inclination which leads every man to improve his situation.”21 Condorcet was even more wildly optimistic than Diderot when it came to the linkage between progress and civilization. It was while awaiting the guillotine, at the height of the Terror, that Condorcet penned his famous ode to progress, A Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind (1793), in which he asked:

Will all nations necessarily approach one day the state of civilization achieved by those peoples who are most enlightened, freest, and most emancipated from prejudice, such as the French and the Anglo-Americans? Will we necessarily see the gradual disappearance of that vast distance now separating these peoples from the servitude of nations subjected to kings, the barbarism of African tribes, the ignorance of savages? Are there regions of the globe where the inhabitants have been condemned by their environment never to enjoy liberty, never to exercise their reason? Do the differences in enlightenment, resources, or wealth so far observed between the different classes within civilized peoples — the inequality that the initial advances of society augmented and may even have produced — derive from the very nature of civilization or from the current imperfections of the social art? Must these differences continually diminish, giving way to the real equality that is the ultimate goal of the social art, that of reducing the very effects of natural differences in individual capacities while allowing for the continuation only of an inequality useful to the common interest because it will foster the progress of civilization, education, and industry without entailing dependence, humiliation, or impoverishment?22

The passage from Condorcet excerpted here above introduces a third meaning to the term “civilization,” besides its association with mannerly ennoblement and technical progress. This third meaning of “civilization” attains its significance only in contradistinction to its conceptual antipode, “barbarism.” Between these two poles one might find a spectrum of intermediate stages, ranging from conditions of relative civility to conditions of relative barbarity. Another term, “savagery,” enters in at times, as well. In most discussions of civilizational benchmarks during the Enlightenment, Foucault rightly noted, the “savage” suggests a pre- or non-civilized person living in a state of nature, whereas the “barbarian” suggests a person who is actively opposed to civilization, who is thus anti-civilizational, living in a state of general crudity and boorishness.23 This understanding corresponds, more or less, to the somewhat lacking categories established by Louis Morgan and later employed by Engels in his writings on The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State: 1.) savagery (hunger-gatherer, predominantly nomadic, or pre-historic society); 2.) barbarism (agrarian, predominantly rural, or traditional society); and 3.) civilization (commercial/industrial, predominantly urban, or modern society).24 Civilization would thus seem to presuppose widespread urbanization (or “citification”): “Before rusticus and rusticitas can be defined as antonyms of urbanus and urbanitas, there must be cities and people who live in cities.” According to these antinomic pairs, the civilization of the city was counterposed to the barbarism of the countryside. This opposition was reflected, as Starobinski points out, in dictionaries from the time. “Unlike the bourgeois, peasants are not civilized,” asserted Furetière’s Dictionnaire of 1694.25

Indeed, one of the commonest misunderstandings about the concept of “civilization” concerns its specific reference to the capitalist social formation. Building on the work of the French and British political economists, Marx and Engels used the term “civilization” as basically equivalent to modern bourgeois society. “[Capitalism] forces all nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production or go under,” they wrote in the Manifesto. “[I]t forces them to introduce so-called civilization amongst themselves, i.e., to become bourgeois.”26 This is a point Spencer Leonard brought home in a recent interview with Kevin Anderson, in combating charges of “Eurocentrism” and “Orientalism” that post-colonial theorists like Edward Said have recently leveled at Marxism.27 “Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization,” Leonard elucidates. “Rather, capitalist society is ‘civilization,’ per se…The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history…[W]hen he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.”28 Nor is this merely some sort of clever rhetorical flourish. Certain selections from Engels clearly seem to substantiate Leonard’s general equation of modern bourgeois society with civilization as a whole: “[C]ivilization is that stage of development of society at which division of labor, the resulting exchange between individuals, and commodity production, which combines the two, reach their full development and revolutionize the whole of hitherto existing society.”29 Already, Marx had on several occasions written of “the civilizing aspects of capital,” insofar as it helped to eradicate the forms of slavery and serfdom that preceded it.30 In his preparatory work on the Grundrisse, he had similarly praised “the civilizing influence of external trade.”31 But perhaps the most irrefutable proof that, for Marx, capitalist society is “civilization” can be found in his endorsement of John Wade’s provocative proposition that “Capital is only another name for civilization.”32 Marx, who did not think much of Wade’s original contributions to the study of political economy (accusing him at one point of plagiarism), still admitted that “Wade is…correct…insofar as he posits capital = civilization.”33

On this level, then, it appears that the commonplace objection to the identification of civilization with the capitalist West, an identity upheld by classical liberals and Marxists alike, commits a category mistake. The simultaneous birth of civilization and modernity in Europe, and along with it their exponential growth in productivity, has nothing at all to do with the supposedly innate “superiority” of Western peoples or cultural institutions. This is why the pseudo-radicalism of postmodern hermeneutics — which interprets the logic of capital to be somehow intrinsically white, Christian, European, male, etc. — is utterly inadequate to the understanding of civilization, qua bourgeois society. In fact, this view even tends to reinforce the chauvinist discourse that treats all the accomplishments of Western civilization as the outcome of the heroic feats of the industry, ingenuity, and spirit of innovation that supposedly characterize all white, Christian, European males. Such accounts overlook the practically ubiquitous stereotype of the peasant in medieval Europe, usually depicted as monumentally lazy, shiftless, and ignorant. Neither Marx nor Engels had much patience for the quaint customs and inoffensive, folksy conventions of traditional society, no matter where these traditions stemmed from. Nowhere was the authors’ disgust with reactionary traditionalism more evident than in Engels’ evaluation of “The Civil War in Switzerland” in the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung in 1847. Engels could not for an instant countenance sympathy with the stout resistance of these “Alpine shepherds” — whose favorite pastimes included acorn-eating, cheese-making, yodeling, and chastity.34 The fact that such unrelenting criticisms were directed as the traditions of a country in the heart of Europe should put to rest the notion that either Marx or Engels unconsciously harbored racist or Orientalist sentiments. Both were fairly ecumenical (or, to put it differently, “equal opportunity”) when it came to choosing objects to critique.35 The ruthless criticism of everything existing could leave no rock unturned.

Related to such objections to the concept of “civilization,” especially its normative or universalizing claims, is a tendency to prefer speaking of so many particular “cultures.” Sadly, this preference, like several others acquired during the postmodernist “cultural turn” — which sought relativize the hegemonic pretensions of the Western civilization — harkens back to reactionary antimodernist (even fascist) sources. The invidious contrast between “culture” and “civilization” goes back to the sociologist Alfred (brother of Max) Weber’s conservative and irrationalist drift following the German defeat in World War I. Typically, the distinction is this: Kultur is understood as authentic, concrete, and firmly rooted in real, organic community traditions; Zivilisation is understood as superficial and abstract, rootlessly trailing after imaginary, inorganic social trends. Weber was looking to separate out two distinct components of human social life that he believed had become rather carelessly intermingled. He thus fulminated against Hegelianism, and by extension Marxism, which he felt had indiscriminately united both the “intellectual” and “spiritual” dimensions of social existence.36 Much of the mischief, Weber surmised, arose from an ambiguity in the meaning of the German term Geist, which at once signifies both “mind” and “spirit.”37 “This [Hegelian] notion of objective spirit [Geist] bound up…intellectual elements (mastery of existence) with…elements of spiritual expression, thus…identifying intellect and soul, and hopelessly confusing civilization and culture,” recorded Weber.38 Civilization was the cerebral sphere of science, progress, technology, and rationalization in their universal unfolding — “the epitome of mankind’s increasing enlightenment.”39 Oppositely, culture was the spiritual sphere of art, religion, convention, and intuition of a particular life-world in its givenness40 — “simply the soul’s will and expression…of an ‘essence’ lying behind all intellectual mastery of existence.”41 The civilizational subject is the individual or ego who has developed his own outlook, worldview, or perspective.42 The cultural subject is the community — the family, church, or nation — with its own “yearnings,” desires, or “destiny.”43 Weber’s contemporary, the phenomenologist Max Scheler, associated civilization with a deep “hatred of the world.” This hatred originated, the philosopher conjectured, first with Judaism (following Sombart)44 and then later with Calvinism (following the elder Weber).45 “Everything can rise again in the area of pure, spiritual culture,” wrote Scheler in 1917. “But in the area of technical values,…values of utility, a renascence would be tantamount to ‘regress,’…because continuous progress and internationality belong to the cosmos of civilization [Zivilisationskosmos].”46

More temperate minds have in the past expressed some reservations at setting up such a rigid bifurcation between the concepts of “culture” and “civilization.” All the same, however, they also recognized that any attempt to privilege the former to the detriment of the latter would be a reactionary gesture. Some of them, like Elias, have acknowledged the partial legitimacy of distinguishing these terms, according to their normal usages. In his sociogenetic account of this distinction, Elias conveyed the progressive character of civilization: “‘Civilization’ describes a process or at least the result of a process. It refers to something which is constantly in motion, constantly moving ‘forward.’”47 Moreover, he highlighted its implicit internationalism. “[T]he concept of civilization plays down the national differences between peoples; it emphasizes what is common to all human beings,” he observed. “In contrast, the German concept of Kulturplaces special stress on national differences and the particular identity of groups.”48 Elias was, without a doubt, well-acquainted with the distinction between culture and civilization, having once trained with Alfred Weber and his erstwhile associate, Karl Mannheim (who defended Weber’s choice to disentwine the two terms).49 The Austrian modernist and critic Robert Musil had a more sardonic take on this conceptual division between culture and civilization. In his review of Spengler’s Decline of the West, Musil confessed that figuring out “[h]ow to distinguish between culture and civilization is to my way of thinking an old and really fruitless quarrel.” Despite his professed indifference, he could still discern of some of the finer points with either word. “Every civilization is characterized by a certain technical mastery over nature and a very complicated system of social relations,” Musil wrote in 1921, while mocking the pedantic tone of those who insisted on the opposite meanings of the two words. “An immediate relation to the essence of things is almost always ascribed to culture, a kind of fateful security of human demeanor and an assurance that is still instinctive, in comparison to which reason, the fundamental symptom of civilization, is supposed to possess a somewhat lamentable uncertainty and indirectness.”50 But it was without question Horkheimer and Adorno who most stringently criticized the tendency to exalt the “authenticity” of Kultur against the purported “inauthenticity” of civilisation. “In the name of culture,” declared Adorno, “civilization marches into barbarism.”51 Of the various theorists to treat this opposition, Adorno, Horkheimer, and other members of the Frankfurt School were again the ones best able to make out the connection between the industrial revolution and the onset of modern civilization.52 To bemoan the loss of organic forms of “culture” in the face of modernization’s steady onslaught, however, was useless and regressive. They thus warned:

Only that consciousness which despairs of creating a human world out of freedom and consciousness will arrive at the point of sharply separating culture, as the creation of the spiritual, from the externality of civilization, of setting up culture against the latter and rendering it absolute. And often enough in so doing it opens the gate to the true enemy, barbarism. Whoever glorifies culture at the expense of civilization today is more concerned with setting up cultural preserves than with humanity…It is not proper to invoke culture against civilization. The gesture of invocation itself, the exalting of culture at the expense of mass society, the devoted consumption of cultural values as a confirmation of one’s elevated internal spiritual equipment, these are inseparable from the decadent character of the civilization. The invocation of culture is powerless.53

But if barbarism is admitted to exist in backward, traditional, or premodern communities, as well as in the atavistic appeal to cultural practices lost in the process of civilization, then where is that recognition, so central to the Marxist critique, of “the ‘barbarism’ of bourgeois society” itself? As Losurdo rightly notes, this was one of Marx’s and Engels’ most original and devastating insights.54 After all, it was not only civilization that they discerned in liberal bourgeois society. Contained within these very same forms of social organization there also lurked the possibility of a new and untold barbarism. The issue at hand here is the one Adorno and Horkheimer dealt with as “the reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism.”55 Civilization itself, they maintained, had relapsed into a sort of barbaric state.56 Bourgeois society had mutated into what Adorno (and Lenin before him) called “civilized barbarism.”57 On the eve of the World War, in an article bearing the title of “Civilized Barbarism,” Lenin expressed his total astonishment at the way that “the civilized nations [especially France and Great Britain] have driven themselves into the position of barbarians.”58 Three decades earlier, Engels noticed this tendency of bourgeois society — that is, civilization — to increasingly move to conceal the traces of its own steady barbarization. “[T]he more civilization advances,” he asserted, “the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.”59 But of all the variations on this theme in the annals of Marxist literature, none approaches the poetry of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy:

Friedrich Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.” What does a “reversion to barbarism” mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism…This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of culture and humanity. In this war imperialism has been victorious. Its sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery. 60

The naked barbarity that was seen in the trenches of Europe in World War I was simply the homecoming of what post-1848 European liberalism hoped to confine to its colonies. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” commented Marx, in an 1853 article on India, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”61 Still, this inherent barbarism of bourgeois society did not first show its face in the colonies. It had actually emerged several years prior, as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”62

Notes


1 Benveniste, Émile. “Civilization: A Contribution to the Word’s History.” Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Problems of General Linguistics. (University of Miami Press. New York, NY: 1971). Pg. 289.
2 Ibid., pg. 291.
3 Ibid., pg. 293.
4 “[T]he development of civilization is a special process, comparable to the normal maturation of the individual.” Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. (W.W. Norton & Co. New York, NY: 1962). Pgs. 44-45.
5 Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Pg. 7.
6 Millar, John. The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. (Liberty Fund. Indianapolis, IN: 2006). Pg. 26.
7 Smith, Adam. An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1976). Pg. 315.
8 “I esteem the man, whose self-love, by whatever means, is so directed as to give him a concern for others, and render him serviceable to society.” Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Edited by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. Moral Philosophy. (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN: 2006). Pgs. 268-280.
“Dr. [Francis] Hutcheson was so far from allowing self-love to be in any case a motive of virtuous actions, that even a regard to the pleasure of self-approbation, to the comfortable applause of our own consciences, according to him, diminished the merit of a benevolent action. This was a selfish motive, he thought, which, so far as it contributed to any action, demonstrated the weakness of that pure and disinterested benevolence which could alone stamp upon the conduct of man the character of virtue.” Smith, Adam. Theory of Moral Sentiments. Pg. 358. See also pgs. 17, 112-113, 158, 159, 184, 321, 322.
9 Klein, Lawrence E. “From Courtly Politesse to Civic Politeness in Early Modern England and France.” Halcyon: A Journal of the Humanities. (1992). Pgs. 171-181.
10 Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Blackwell Publishing. Oxford, England: 2000). Pgs. 87-88.
11 Kuzmics, Helmut. “The Civilizing Process.” Translated by Hans Georg Zilian. Civil Society and the State. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 1988). Pg. 172.
12 “[Civilized] restraint, like all others, is enforced less and less by direct physical force. It is cultivated in individuals from an early age as habitual self-restraint by the structure of social life, by the pressure of social institutions in general, and by certain executive organs of society (above all, the family) in particular. Correspondingly, the social commands and prohibitions become increasingly a part of the self, a strictly regulated superego.” Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 158.
13 “Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise.” Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1995). Pg. 170.
14 “[B]y this increased social proscription of many impulses, by their ‘repression’ from the surface both of social life and of consciousness, the distance between the personality structure and behavior of adults and children was necessarily increased.” Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 127.
15 “The pattern of self-restraint imposed on the people of bourgeois society through their occupational work was in many respects different from the pattern imposed on the emotional life by the functions of court society.” Ibid., pg. 156.
“Of course, the bourgeois workplace and bourgeois society were not entirely determined by their courtly legacy — the development of specifically bourgeois kinds of self-control occurs there.” Kuzmics, Helmut. “Civilization, State, and Bourgeois Society: The Theoretical Contribution of Norbert Elias.” Translated by Hans Georg Zilian. Theory, Culture, and Society. (Vol. 4, № 2: June 1987). Pg. 518-519.
16 Thompson, E.P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present. (№ 38: 1967). Pg. 84.
17 Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. (Routledge Classics. New York, NY: 2005). Pg. 17.
18 Kuzmics, “The Civilizing Process.” Pg. 152.
19 Starobinski, Jean. “The Word Civilization.” Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Blessings in Disguise; or the Morality of Evil. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 1993). Pg. 4.
20 “[One version of the concept] concerns ‘civilization’ as exhibited in the self-interpretation of Western elites, a self-conception demarcating itself from the ‘savage’ and the ‘barbarous,’ formed by agents within pragmatic contexts. This concept is obviously ethnocentric and in this aspect similar to a naïve conception of ‘modernization,’ which does justice only to the immediately visible material of the life-world.” Kuzmics, “Civilization, State, and Bourgeois Society.” Pg. 518.
21 Diderot, Histoire des Deux Indes. Pg. 178.
22 Condorcet, Nicolas de. A Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind: Tenth Epoch. Translated by Keith Michael Baker. Daedalus. (Volume 133, № 3: Summer 2004). Pgs. 66. Here Condorcet could be seen praising the liberal societies of England, France, and the United States as the pinnacles of freedom and civilization. Likewise, Diderot had written before him that “[i]n England, the love of freedom, which is so natural to the man who is conscious and thinks…sparked off in generous hearts the excessive hatred of unlimited authority.” Diderot, Histoire des Deux Indes. Pg. 189.
Such assertions would again seem to belie the strict division Losurdo tries to maintain between “liberalism” and “radicalism.” “Even when it criticized slavery, the liberal tradition did not question the identification of the West with civilization and of the colonial world with barbarism,” contends Losurdo. “Radicalism’s position was different: in the first instance, it identified and denounced barbarism in those responsible for, and complicit with, the most macroscopic violation of the rights and dignity of man.” Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 169. The Italian philosopher thus faults even those liberals who unconditionally opposed slavery — authors such as Young, Smith, and Millar — for “complacently depicting” Europe as “a tiny island of liberty and civilization in a tempestuous ocean of tyranny, slavery, and barbarism.” “In order to indulge in such self-celebration,” Losurdo continues, “Young, Smith, and Millar were…obliged to overlook a far from trivial detail: the slave trade, which involved the most brutal form of slavery — chattel slavery — and in which western Europe, starting precisely with liberal England, was engaged for centuries.” Ibid., pg. 165. Further: “[O]n the one hand, Adam Smith con­demns and criticizes slavery very harshly. But if we ask him what was in his eyes the freest country of his time, in the final judgment, Smith answers that it is England.” Losurdo, “Liberalism and Marx.” Pg. 3.
Diderot and Condorcet, by contrast, writers who Losurdo classifies as incipient “radicals,” are excused for passing such favorable judgments on England and the United States. On Diderot’s “radicalism”: Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, pgs. 134, 136-137, 138, 164, 168-169, 311, 314, 315. On Condorcet’s “radicalism”: Ibid., pgs. 16, 28, 30, 133-134, 137, 164, 167-168, 182. Losurdo does admit here and there that both were great admirers of England: “In the columns of the Encyclopédie, Diderot held up England as an example of ‘temperate monarchy,’ where ‘the sovereign is repository solely of executive power’…In Condorcet’s view, too, they had the merit of having realized, albeit to an inadequate extent, the principles of the limitation of royal power, freedom of the press, habeas corpus, and judicial independence.” Ibid., pgs. 127-128. Losurdo attempts to account for this lapse in judgment on the part of Condorcet by explaining the “evolution” or “maturation” of the French philosopher’s thought through his disillusionment with the British and United States models in the experience of the Revolution. Ibid., pgs. 143-145. Diderot and Condorcet, it is true, ought to be commended for their principled stance against the practice of slavery and the conditions of colonial exploitation — but so should free-trade abolitionists like Smith, Millar, and Tucker. It is clear from Diderot’s Histoire des Deux Indes and Condorcet’s Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind (according to Losurdo these thinkers’ most “radical” works, respectively) that both continued to speak highly of Anglo-American liberalism.
23 “The savage — noble or otherwise — is the natural man whom the jurists or theorists of right dreamed up, the natural man who existed before society existed, who existed in order to constitute society, and who was the element around which the social body could be constituted…The barbarian, in contrast, is someone who can be understood, characterized, and defined only in relation to a civilization, and by the fact that he exists outside it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he… and unless he fights it.” Foucault, Michel. “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey. (Picador. New York, NY: 2003). Pgs. 194-195.
24 “Morgan’s periodization as follows: Savagery — the period in which the appropriation of natural products, ready for use, predominated; the things produced by man are, in the main, instruments that facilitate this appropriation. Barbarism — the period in which knowledge of cattle breeding and land cultivation is acquired, in which methods of increasing the yield of nature’s products through human activity are learnt. Civilization — the period in which knowledge of the further processing of nature’s products, of industry proper, and of art are acquired.” Engels, Friedrich. The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State: In the Light of the Researches by Louis H. Morgan. Translated by Alick West. Collected Works, Volume 26: 1882-1889. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 139.
25 Starobinski, “The Word Civilization.” Pgs. 8-9.
26 Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pg. 5.
27 “Marx’s style pushes us right up against the difficulty of reconciling our natural repugnance as fellow creatures to the sufferings of Orientals while their society is being violently transformed with the historical necessity of these transformations…Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out, as Marx’s theoretical socio-economic views become submerged in this classically standard image.” Said, Edward. Orientalism. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1979). Pgs. 153-154.
28 Leonard, Spencer. “Marx at the Margins: An Interview with Kevin Anderson.” The Platypus Review. (№ 44. March, 2012). Pg. 2.
29 Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Pg. 272. My emphases.
30 “It is one of the civilizing aspects of capital that it extorts this surplus labor in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.” Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 3. Translated by David Fernbach. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1991). Pg. 958.
31 Marx, Grundrisse. Pg. 256. Also, “the relation of capital and labor…is an essential civilizing moment.” Ibid., pg. 287. “[C]apital creates the bourgeois society…Hence the great civilizing influence of capital.” Ibid., pg. 409.
32 Ibid., pg. 585. Quoted also in Capital, Volume 1. Pg. 1057.
33 Marx, Grundrisse. Pg. 634.
34 “At last it has been revealed that the cradle of freedom is nothing but the center of barbarism and the nursery of Jesuits, that the grandsons of Tell and Winkelried can only be brought to reason by cannon-balls, and that the heroism at Sempach and Murten was nothing but the desperation of brutal and bigoted mountain tribes, obstinately resisting civilization and progress. It is really very fortunate that European democracy is finally getting rid of this Ur-Swiss, puritan, and reactionary ballast.” Engels, Friedrich. “The Civil War in Switzerland.” Translated by Jack Cohen. Collected Works, Volume 6: 1845-1848. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pgs. 367-373.
35 Seymour’s passionate defense of “the example of Marx and Engels” in his recent book on The Liberal Defense of Murder is noble, but perhaps somewhat superfluous; its only flaw is to think that these authors need defending in the first place. That some would feel they do only highlights the poor state of academic research today, and it is indeed sad that Seymour would have to spend his time debunking it. It says more about the wretched state of academic research today, however, that such a defense needs to be mounted. Seymour, Richard. The Liberal Defense of Murder. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2008). Pgs. 36-39.
36 “It is not strange in the least that all these various theories of history and philosophies of culture, as different as they may be in their self-proclaimed principles (psychological, materialistic, positivistic, idealistic, etc.) are nevertheless so basically connected that on closer scrutiny one unexpectedly merges into the other; in fact, one is nothing but the obverse of the other. One instance of this is the affinity, nay, more, the far-reaching sociological identity between Hegelianism and Marxism.” Weber, Alfred. Fundamentals of Culture-Sociology: Social Process, Civilization Process, and Culture-Movement. Translated by G.H. Weltner and C.F. Hirshman. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1939). Pg. 134.
37 “The evolutionary, historico-philosophical approach to culture-movement has its origin in the confusion of the intellectual and spiritual spheres under the collective concept of ‘mind’ [Geist] and consequently in the confusion of civilizational process and culture-movement under the collective idea of ‘mental development,’ a confusion for which the 18th century paved the way and which German Idealism brought to its climax.” Ibid., pg. 132.
38 Ibid., pg. 126.
39 “[T]he civilizational cosmos is an intellectually formed cosmos of universally valid and necessary things which cohere internally and, considered in their practical aspect, are equally and universally useful (i.e., empirically true) for human ends and considered in their theoretic aspect, are equally inevitable (i.e., theoretically true) and in the illumination of world and ego, intuitively evident (i.e., true a priori)…Its disclosure proceeds by the laws of logical causality…And its disclosed and illumined objects bear the stamp of universal validity and necessity, and spread throughout the trafficked world for the very reason that they are pre-existent for all mankind.” Ibid., pg. 121.
Civilization thus describes “a unified process of enlightenment covering the whole history of humanity and leading to a definite goal: the total illumination of the pre-existent.” Ibid., pg. 123.
40 “[T]he religious and spiritual expression of culture usually arrays itself in ‘categories of intuition.’ It presents itself as ‘revelation,’ as ‘insight,’ as ‘certain (immediately intuited) conviction of things unseen’ and ‘knowledge of the invisible.’” Ibid., pg. 123.
41 Ibid., pg. 126.
42 The junior Weber, along with Heidegger, distrusted this “world-picture.” Compare: “The civilization cosmos is nothing but a ‘world-picture’ slowly constructed and illumined the basis of these categories, the aspect of nature ‘fabricated’ by them. This view of nature is eminently suited to the purpose of dominating nature and existence in general and creating the ‘external realm of domination,’ i.e., the civilizational apparatus.” Ibid., pg. 125.
With the following: “What is…a ‘world picture’?…[I]n an essential way, ‘world picture’ does not mean ‘picture of the world’ but, rather, the world grasped as picture. The world picture does not change from an earlier medieval to a modern one; rather, that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of modernity.” Heidegger, Martin. “The Age of the World Picture.” Translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes. Off the Beaten Path. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2002). Pgs. 67-68. Heidegger also talks about nature forced into prefabricated mathematical categories: “Every force is defined as…nothing but…its consequences as motion within the unity of time…Every natural event must be viewed in such a way that it fits into this ground-plan of nature.” Ibid., pg. 60.
43 Weber, Fundamentals of Culture-Sociology. Pg. 138.
44 “Modern technical civilization rests more on hatred than on love of the world…[P]resent-day economic civilization [is] a civilization in which values, purposes, and forms, have disappeared. The one people which, according to Sombart’s penetrating investigation, contributed most to economic civilization, was, beyond doubt, the Jewish people whose mentality of race lacks most, among all peoples, a love of the world.” Scheler, Max. “Exemplars of Persons and Leaders.” Translated by M.S. Frings. Person and Self-Value: Three Essays. (Kluwer Academic Publishers. Hingham, MA: 1987). Pg. 188.
45 “Christianity plays a part in the formation of the motivating forces that produced the mechanical civilization of our time. Modern technology and capitalist economy were…initiated by…the followers of Protestant denominations, especially those coming from Calvinism, who claimed that all the work being done on the world should be for the sake of transforming it for the glory of God and for the sake of fulfilling the ascetic, divine obligation.” Ibid., pg. 187.
46 Ibid., pg. 171.
In what is probably his most infamous contribution to the German Kriegsideologie, the novelist and Nazi fellow traveler Ernst Jünger seconded this distinction. He asked: “Who would deny that civilisation is more profoundly attached to progress than is Kultur; that its language is spoken in the large cities?” Jünger, Ernst. “Total Mobilization.” Translated by Richard Wolin. The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1998). Pg. 133.
47 Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 6.
48 Ibid., pg. 7.
49 “We can…see…the significance of Alfred Weber’s suggestion to distinguish between a process of ‘culture’ and a process of ‘civilization,’ and to treat the former in terms of a concrete Gestalt, the latter, however, as a rational and limitless progression allowing for the carryover of achievements made in one epoch into the following one…The ‘psychic-emotional’ phenomena, which make up what Weber calls ‘culture,’ can be adequately grasped only by methods of concrete intuition and representation stressing the Gestalt, and by a specific type of concept evolved for this purpose. ‘Civilization,’ in Weber’s sense, on the other hand, can be described by the rationalizing method of the philosophy of the Enlightenment which conceived of it as a continuous progress.” Mannheim, Karl. “Historicism.” Translated by Jean Floud and Paul Kecskemeti. Collected Works, Volume 5: Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. (Routledge, Kegan, & Paul. New York, NY: 2007). Pg. 114.
50 Musil, Robert. “Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who have Eluded the Decline of the West.” Translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft. Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1994). Pgs. 147-148.
51 Adorno, Theodor. “Aldous Huxley and Utopia.” Translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber. Prisms. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1997). Pg. 113.
52 “Modern civilization has been linked, first, to the extraordinary growth in population since the industrial revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the changes connected with this; then, to the dissolution of the traditional order of society by rationality [ratio].” The Frankfurt School. Aspects of Sociology. Translated by John Viertel. (Beacon Press. Boston, MA: 1972). Pg. 90.
53 Ibid., pg. 94.
54 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 169.
55 Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pg. ⅹⅳ.
56 It was now faced with the “horror of relapsing into barbarism.” Ibid., pg. 67.
57 Adorno, Theodor. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” Translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber. Prisms. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1997). Pg. 24.
58 Lenin, Vladimir. “Civilized Barbarism.” Translated by George Hanna. Collected Works, Volume 19: March-December 1913. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1977). Pg. 388.
59 Engels, The Origin of Private Property, Family, and the State. Pg. 276.
60 Luxemburg, Rosa. The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in German Social Democracy. Translated by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. Pg. 321.
61 Marx, Karl. “The Future Results of the British Rule in India.” Collected Works, Volume 12: 1853-1854. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1979). Pg. 221.
62 Engels, Friedrich. “European War Inevitable.” Translated by W.L. Guttsman. Collected Works, Volume 8: 1848-1849. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1977). Pg. 457.

A Marxist Approach to the Nature-Culture Divide: A Reply to Adam Robbert’s “Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions”

Still from Tarkovskii's "Stalker" -- Entering the Zone (1979)

The following is taken from a response I wrote to Adam Robbert’s recent post on his blog,“Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions.”  If you would like to read another interesting response to the article, check out Matthew David Segall’s reply here, “Towards an Eco-Ontology.”  My Adornian opposition to ontologies of any sort remains unchanged, and while this doubtless complicates any attempt at discourse I might have with the OOO approach, I still think that some fruitful dialogue might be taken from this discussion.


A very interesting reflection on the old problem of the nature-culture relationship. Your points are thorough, calm, and considered — and I will say that none of them fall prey to the kind of pernicious metaphysical proclamations I sometimes see being issued out of the OOO blogosphere. Seeing your measured comments on my blog, it is little surprise to see that you are equally measured and reasonable in writing posts for your own blog.

In any case, I, like Matthew, also appreciate some of the thinkers you brought into constellation with one another. Ellul and Mumford are among my favorite critics of technology, though I prefer their insights as filtered through and appropriated by Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse. For this reason, along with my general Marxist inclinations, the most important point you highlighted (in my opinion) was the third, considering the effects of capitalism and globalization on the relationship between humanity and nature. For me, capitalism, globalization, and modernity are all coterminous — globalization is simply a spatial register for capitalism’s inherently expansionary logic, while the time-consciousness of modernity is merely capitalism’s temporal register.

I would argue, viewing the problem historically, that the problem of humanity’s alienation from nature — the widening chasm between Nature and Culture, even if they be inextricably intertwined — arose historically. That is to say, although humanity’s self-distinction as a society distinguishable from nature arrived fairly early, with the project of agriculture and primitive domestication, the estrangement of humanity from nature only rose to the level of consciousness with the advent of capitalism. Only after the Enlightenment’s thorough disenchantment of nature, the coldly rationalizing and technicizing logic of capitalism, even in the eighteenth century, only after this point do we see writers like Schiller, Holderlin, Schelling, and Hegel writing of the problem of humanity’s alienation from nature. Marx rationalized the Romantic thinkers’ thoughts on the matter in his Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

This bleeds into your second point, where you talk about the problem of nature being one that nature considered as an entity unto itself must also be thought alongside the various ideological conceptions of nature arrived at by society through history. This is why I, in my own writings on the subject, have referred to nature as a fundamentally social problem. That is to say, one can look back through history at the way that humanity has conceived of nature, in its various iterations through the ages, and see that the way that nature has presented itself to us largely depends on the social constitution of a particular epoch. This is not to fall into the idealistic fantasy that nature has no existence apart from our conception of it, but rather to admit that while nature might have its own objective rhythms and regularities, it is not some sort of Kantian Ding-an-Sich, and the way that we conceptualize nature has much to do with how it appears to us as a problem. Oppositely, this would suggest that our way of thinking has much to do with the objective relations of whatever mode of production prevails throughout society at a given time, such that there is a quite real divide between Nature and Culture that has arisen historically. This means that we cannot overcome the problem simply by “reconceptualizing” it, but rather only through a fundamental transformation of our social structure.

Regarding the “pluriverse” and multiple conceptions of nature that you discuss in the fourth part, I thus believe that it is collapsible into the second part, since the multiple manifestations of nature arise historically as part of the social being of mankind. But I’m fully on board with you, also, on the facile attempt to dismiss the real opposition between nature and culture by simply saying that they are wholly intermingled with one another.

If you would like to read my own musings on the subjects, in a rather long essay that is due to be published in the upcoming SR journal Thinking Nature, edited by Ben Woodard and Timothy Morton, you can check it out on my blog. It’s much more detailed than the point-by-point reaction I give here, and I think you might be interested in taking a glance at it.

Man and Nature, Parts I-IV (Complete)

For those who would like to read my series of articles on Man and Nature, here they are, presented as a continuous text.  Also, for a detailed response to the fourth installment of my series on Man and Nature, please visit the Oroborous Self-Sufficient Community.  Its founder, the scientist Allister Cucksey, is a Robert Owens of sorts, and his counter-critique is welcome.

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Man and Nature, Part III: An Excursus into the Structuralist Opposition of Nature and Culture

Still from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

The basic distinction between “nature” and “culture” — that fundamental opposition so central to Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist anthropology[1] — has been denied, deconstructed, and dissolved countless times by post-structuralist scholars and intellectuals.  But in this respect, it is hardly the only binary to have been so challenged — man/woman, inside/outside, and self/other have all similarly come under attack.  The reality of such distinctions, they say, is far less certain, and far more ambiguous, than the structuralists would have us believe.  An absolute division between any of these pairs, they argue, cannot therefore be established.

And there is undeniably something to the blurring of this distinction: after all, is man (historically associated with culture and civilization) not also an animal? Darwin’s theory of evolution proved definitively man’s derivation from more primitive animal species.  It could thus not be denied that man is simply one species amongst many.  Humanity can claim no special status separate from these other species, by dint of some sort of divine creation or other fantasy.  And so also can humanity not maintain any sort of special dominion over all the rest of nature, as suggested by Judeo-Christian mythology.[2] By what right, then, ask the environmentalists, can mankind dominate and exploit the whole of nature? Humans have no special privilege — at an ethical level — over and above any other sentient animals.  It is unethical, therefore, to live at the expense of other sentient beings, or to intrude upon their natural environment.  Would this not constitute a form of speciesism?

But this argument cuts both ways.  For how is it that the actions of this animal, mankind, be considered so wholly unnatural? After all, it might be justifiably pointed out that all biological organisms exploit their environment, to the extent that they can.  Those species that do not adequately exploit their environment or find their way into an environment in which they can, simply go extinct.  So when environmental activists protest the exploitation of nature by human beings, the argument could be made that we are simply doing what all other organisms do.  We just happen to be especially good at it.  Might it not even be human “nature” to ruthlessly exploit and dominate the rest of nature? In the end, human beings are exceptionally gifted in terms of their ability to think systematically, understand the relationship between means and ends, and contrive complex devices to use as tools to manipulate the environment.  It is as if evolution produced an animal capable of conquering nature in its entirety, and that mankind is merely exercising the gifts bestowed on it by nature.

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