Work in Progress: The Concept of Basal Civilization

Friday 15 April 2022

In I introduced the concept of basal civilization, which I defined as “civilization in its simplest configuration — viz. several cities within a given geographical region that share a culture and are continuously related to each other through relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict.” I’ve been continuing to think about this, and I have felt the need for a term to indicate non-basal civilizations, and I have hit on the term agglomerated civilizations. Lately it has been the thing to discuss the agglomeration economies of cities, and since cities are central to civilization (after all, I spent the past three newsletters on cities, and barely scratched the surface), it seems like a nice fit to me. So I will use this unless and until I can think of something better.

I have previously discussed what I call series and clusters of civilizations, which are both instances of agglomerated civilizations, with series being basal civilizations agglomerated in time, and clusters being basal civilizations agglomerated in space. With this one term to cover both series and clusters, it becomes a little more conceptually neat to distinguish what I previously called orders of civilization. Non-civilization would be civilization of the zeroeth order, basal civilizations would be civilizations of the first order, agglomerated basal civilizations would be civilizations of the second order, agglomerations of the latter would be civilizations of the third order, and so on, and so forth.

So that’s a bit of an improvement in the formulation of orders of civilization, though this hierarchy can be indefinitely extrapolated and has no natural limit, except that limits that any civilization would encounter in growing beyond some given scope. This latter qualification is a significant one, and I will return to it. But I wanted to mention this because my previous hierarchy of orders of civilization neatly culminated in planetary civilization, so I lose this particular neatness while gaining a different conceptual neatness. But I am prepared to give up on planetary civilization as the culminating category of orders of civilization, as I have been re-thinking the idea of planetary civilization (on which cf. ) to the point that my previous conception is no longer applicable; my present conception of planetary civilization is no longer recognizable as how I previously used the idea.

One of the reasons I had introduced the concept of basal civilization is the potential problem of defining civilization in terms of its institutional structure, which could result in some social formation with the right institutional structure, but which clearly is not civilization, being used to discredit the idea. By using the concreteness of basal civilization, it locates any definition of civilization in terms of institutional structure within the class of social formations of about the right size and the right kind.

With this framework, I think I can further clarify some of these problems and their solution. Among these problems are civilizations that are “too small” or “too big,” which can also be formulated as the problems of the lower bound and the upper bound of civilization. Basal civilization in its first appearance is the lower bound of civilization; the upper bound of basal civilization has been repeatedly tested by the historical construction of empires, though it should be noted that the spontaneous participation in the culture of a handful of cities is distinct from forced accession to an empire, and a distinction could be made between voluntary and involuntary inclusion within a given social formation, though the latter can, with the passage of time, become something like the former. We could call this the fungibility of force and freedom, which seems like a political contradiction, but in human matters, “Contradictions… are part of life, not merely a matter of conflicting evidence,” as Barbara Tuchman once wrote.

While the upper bound of basal civilizations has been tested by the growth of empires, which have expanded to the limit of their technological capability before collapsing in on themselves, the lower bound of basal civilization is tested by civilizations in the midst of failure and collapse. There is an obvious sorites paradox involved in shrinking cities in the midst of a failing civilization — at what point do they fall below the threshold of urban viability? Sorites paradoxes are also called the paradox of the heap, as we can ask, if we take away grains from sand from a heap one at a time, at what point the heap ceases to be a heap. But we can see that there is also another side to this paradox: if we add one grain of sand at a time to a heap, at what point does it become a hill or a maintain? And so with the upper bound of a civilization: at what point does it become something qualitatively distinct as a result of adding to it? The problem of sorites paradoxes is also the problem of emergent (and submergent) properties.

The parameters of the upper and lower bounds define the scope of basal civilizations, and while I have focused on the problems of the lower bound, the upper bound is not without problems. Agglomerated civilizations might considerably surpass the extent of a basal civilization, but it is entirely possible that a very large basal civilization might be larger than a small agglomerated civilization, which would mean that civilization of the first order could be greater in extent than civilization of the second order, but this case likely would be an exception at the margins of both, and in most cases basal civilization would be smaller in extent than an agglomerated civilization.

While I believe that the above affords some clarification, it is not without its problems. The problem of overlapping civilizations of the first and second orders could produce confusion, but this confusion could be overcome by an analysis of the structure of the civilization. Matters become more complicated with the apparently simple notion of the size of a civilization. What makes a civilization “large” or “small”? Is it extent in space? Extent in time? Population numbers? Number of cities? Some combination of these and other factors? Each of these quantitative thresholds could be treated separately, and then we could work through all the permutations of these separate results. This would rapidly become too complex for an intuitive grasp of the sense of civilization size, but there may be a way to tame this complexity before it passes over into confusion.

I don’t yet have a way to intuitively formalize the extent of a civilization. Natural divisions like the size of an island, the size of a continent, or the size of a planet have their own problems. Islands and continents range in sizes, and I have already above touched on the problem of planetary civilization. Also, while a planetary surface is a natural limit, that doesn’t help us with the lower bound.

Next is the problem of reconciling the above concepts of basal civilization with a definition of civilization in terms of its institutional structure. Is there anything that we can say about the institutional structure of basal civilization knowing only that it consists of several cities within a given geographical region that share a culture and are continuously related to each other through relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict? Two observations at least can be made: that a civilization comprises the institution of the city at the same time as it transcends the city understood as an individual. Cities are the necessary condition of a civilization, but not a sufficient condition of civilization. (There are problems with this, too, but I will leave these problems aside as exceptions to the rule.)

These observations are to be found at each level of a hierarchy of social formations. The agricultural village transcends the hunter-gatherer camp; the city transcends the agricultural village; the basal civilization transcends the city; the agglomerated civilization transcends the basal civilization, and so on. Again, these are relationships of emergent properties.

I’m not yet sure if this is right, but we could say that it is the central project that binds the entities transcended by larger and more complex social formations, which would allow me to introduce the concept of central project in a very direct way that bears upon basal civilizations, but which also clearly distinguishes basal civilizations from agglomerated civilizations. Even though, as seen with the possible case noted above of a basal civilization of a greater extent than an agglomerated civilization, size may not be the distinguishing factor, still, basal civilizations and agglomerated civilizations are distinct because their central projects inhere in distinct entities. Once the concept of central project is introduced, the theory and practice of the central project gives us the conceptual framework and the practical infrastructure of the civilization, and with that the institutional structure of civilization I have often used as the basis of my analysis is in place.



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