Monday, September 29, 2014


After thinking about the importance of the topic, my previous post needs a little more context. A lot more. Here it is ...

Arnold Toynbee, author of the epic A Study of History, believed that there was nothing in the biology, geography, or mysticism of a civilization that determined their destinies. In his view, theories of master races, an abundance of natural resources, or Manifest Destiny-like visions don't determine history. What determines a society's ability to adapt, survive, and prosper as a civilization is the way it responds to challenges.

Toynbee believed how great civilizations - at least the 21 or so civilizations that he located - responded to challenges depended on how "creative minorities" acted when confronted with protracted problems.

It could be spiritual, as was the case when the Catholic Church responded to the Dark Ages by organizing Germanic tribes and kingdoms into a single religious (and Catholic) community. This helped make the Dark Ages less dark, and set the stage for the emergence of feudalism and, eventually, the rise of our modern nation-state system by 1648.

Historian Arnold J. Toynbee

Responding to challenges could also be physical, as when the Sumerians organized society to drain and reconstitute the swamps of present day Iraq, in the process building large scale irrigation systems that allowed the agriculture revolution in the region to take off. The ability of the United States to conquer the vast expanse of the continent with canals, the rail roads, and the Army Corps of Engineers is evidence of this too.

When civilizations stop responding to big challenges creatively they begin to spin into gradual collapse, with nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority overshadowing and finally replacing the ingenuity of creative minorities. 

It's at this time that civilizations begin to swirl the drain of history.

According to Toynbee, apart from nationalism, militarism, and tyranny, one of the features of a civilization in decline was growing wealth inequality - or what Toynbee might have called the "schism" between the "satiated" and the "hungry."

Once incomes and wealth became more concentrated great civilization were on the path of decay. This path was paved by the reluctance of elites to participate in the maintenance of society and, especially, to the maintenance of those at the bottom rungs of society. This is what makes growing inequality today so troublesome.

Compared to history's financial gluttons - when there were fewer rules, and slavery was legal - the income (and wealth) gaps we're experiencing today tell us that history is whispering in our ear. And it's not good.

Our modern "schism" works like this. Conservatives today see a world where those with wealth earned it on their own. Liberals like Hedrick Smith - author of Who Stole the American Dream? - and me see wealth created by corporate lobbyists, who douse their clients in favorable legislation, bailouts, and business friendly tax cuts that effectively guarantee financial success and class dominance - all at the expense of America's middle class.

Put another way, growing inequality in America is a deliberate and on-going process. Arnold Toynbee would recognize it. We should recognize it, and understand what it means for our future. But we don't. We're acting like historical illiterates.

Worse, we're approaching our future as if history never happened.

- Mark

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to argue if its deliberate...I would say its part of the successes and fortunate who do "make it"...we produce just here in the Silicone Valley millionaires every its also part of the process of Capitolism right? I dunno.