“Joe Biden’s administration offers no better confirmation of warnings from Thucydides to Thomas Hobbes that the veneer of civilization is precious, hard-won, quite thin, and beneath it churns innate human savagery and chaos roaring to be released.”

— Victor Davis Hanson

“We veneer civilization by doing unkind things in a kind way.”

— George Bernard Shaw

“The destruction that barbarians leave behind has a grim fascination, doesn’t it? We’re reminded how thin is the veneer of civilization.”

— Dean Koontz

“The Peloponnesian War turns out to be no dry chronicle of abstract cause and effect. No, it is above all an intense, riveting, and timeless story of strong and weak men, of heroes and scoundrels and innocents too, all caught in the fateful circumstances of rebellion, plague, and war that always strip away the veneer of culture and show us for what we really are.”

— Thucydides

“Only when the true ends of society have nothing to do with the sublime does ‘culture’ become necessary as a veneer to cover over the void. Culture can at best appreciate the monuments of earlier faith; it cannot produce them.”

— Allan Bloom

“People who think of themselves as tough-minded and realistic, among them influential political leaders and businessmen as well as go-getters and hustlers of smaller caliber, tend to take it for granted that human nature is selfish and that life is a struggle in which only the fittest may survive. According to this philosophy, the basic law by which man must live, in spite of his surface veneer of civilization, is the law of the jungle. The ‘fittest’ are those who can bring to the struggle superior force, superior cunning, and superior ruthlessness.”

— S. I. Hayakawa

“Law and freedom must be indivisible partners. For without law, there can be no freedom, only chaos and disorder; and without freedom, law is but a cynical veneer for injustice and oppression.”

— Ronald Reagan

“Civilization is but a thin veneer stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen.”

― Bill Moyers

“Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”

— Werner Herzog

Civil society seems to be disintegrating, not just here but all over the world. Does this portend a civilization collapse, or just a Great Reset? Is “civilization” simply a thin layer – a veneer – over the beast of humanity? Or is this simply a huge complex system reconfiguring itself around a new technological reality? Something very big is happening, for sure. Globally.

Hardly a day goes by without multiple reports of brazen robberies, carjackings, protests, riots, demonstrations, and similar uncivil happenings. Politics is a complete mess in nations around the world, not just here in the good old U.S. A mysterious new pandemic cleverly called “Disease-X” is coming “shortly” but surely. We are being pummeled daily with cries of climate crisis disasters. And we can’t forget for a moment about the various wars and rumors of wars in so many places.

How can civilization possibly exist or survive amid such chaos? Is this “civilization” thing just a veneer pasted over humanity’s true beast-like nature?

What if “civilization” is not a veneer, but something much deeper – possibly even a part of our basic human nature?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t shake the strong sense that there is much more going on here than what the daily uncivil news reports are passing along.

Just what is “civilization” anyhow?

Is the U.S. a “civilization”, or just a large nation? Is the European Union (EU) a “civilization”, or just a collection of nearby nations?  Is the “West” – U.S., UK, EU, Canada, … – a “civilization? And what about the newly-formed BRICS+ group (Russia, China, India, …)?

These seem to me to be either just nations, or groups of allied nations. Civilization in practical terms must be something else. Particularly as so many nations and groups are behaving in a clearly uncivilized manner. Uncivilized nations can’t be considered a “civilization”, or can they?

As I so often find, Wikipedia offers a helpful place to get started on definitions: Civilization:

“A civilization …  is any complex society characterized by the development of the state, social stratification, urbanization, and symbolic systems of communication beyond natural spoken language (namely, a writing system).”

“Civilizations are often characterized by additional features as well, including agriculture, architecture, infrastructure, technological advancement, a currency, taxation, regulation, and specialization of labor.”

“Historically, a civilization has often been understood as a larger and ‘more advanced’ culture, in implied contrast to smaller, supposedly less advanced cultures. In this broad sense, a civilization contrasts with non-centralized tribal societies, including the cultures of nomadic pastoralists, Neolithic societies, or hunter-gatherers; however, sometimes it also contrasts with the cultures found within civilizations themselves. Civilizations are organized densely-populated settlements divided into hierarchical social classes with a ruling elite and subordinate urban and rural populations, which engage in intensive agriculture, mining, small-scale manufacture and trade. Civilization concentrates power, extending human control over the rest of nature, including over other human beings [emphasis added].”

“The word civilization relates to the Latin civitas or ‘city’. As the National Geographic Society has explained it: ‘This is why the most basic definition of the word civilization is ‘a society made up of cities.’’ The earliest emergence of civilizations is generally connected with the final stages of the Neolithic Revolution in West Asia, culminating in the relatively rapid process of urban revolution and state formation, a political development associated with the appearance of a governing elite.”

Sorry Wikipedia, but I just don’t buy this one. The above describes a ruling nation or an empire. Civilization is something else.

Civilization as defined by a common cultural identity

Further down in Wikipedia’s lengthy article seems to get a bit closer to the correct definition, to my mind at least:

Cultural identity.
‘Civilization’ can also refer to the culture of a complex society, not just the society itself. Every society, civilization or not, has a specific set of ideas and customs, and a certain set of manufactures and arts that make it unique. Civilizations tend to develop intricate cultures, including a state-based decision-making apparatus, a literature, professional art, architecture, organized religion and complex customs of education, coercion and control associated with maintaining the elite.”

Under this definition, the West’s collection of nations would be a civilization. China also, and India. But there are many other major nations out there that are not visibly linked by a common cultural identity. Linked politically, and/or militarily, and/or by trade arrangements, but how does such linkage result in a definable society or civilization?

This definition too does not quite work for me.

Well, how about the “Veneer Theory”?

Yes, there is such a critter, much to my surprise. Wikipedia offers this definition:

“Veneer theory is a term coined by Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal to label the Hobbesian view of human morality that he criticizes throughout his work. Although he criticizes this view in earlier works, the term in this form is introduced in his 2005 book Our Inner Ape, denoting a concept that he rejects, namely that human morality is ‘a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature’. The idea of the veneer theory goes back to Thomas Henry Huxley and has more recently been advocated by biologists like George C. Williams.”

“A few centuries later, Thomas Henry Huxley developed the idea that moral tendencies are not part of the human nature, and so our ancestors became moral by choice, not by evolution. Thus it represents a discrepancy in Huxley’s Darwinian conviction. Social behavior is explained by this theory as a veneer of morality. This dualistic point of view separates humans from animals by rejecting every connection between human morality and animal social tendencies. George C. Williams, as another advocate of the veneer theory, sees morality as ‘an accidental capability produced, in its boundless stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of such a capability’.”

“Civilization” as moral in some sense? Defining moral as  “… of or relating to the judgment of right and wrong in human behavior.” Kind of like “good” and “bad” according to somebody’s definition or teaching.

This too fails to capture what I’m looking for. You can have a truly “immoral” or “amoral” society (like twentieth-century Soviet Russia, for example) that may still be “civilized” in some sense. The West (Western civilization) is becoming more and more chaotic and amoral/immoral according to some folk’s ideas about right and wrong, but it still seems to be a civilization. To me at least.

Why we really need to understand what “civilization” and “civilized” means

The purpose of the above is to seek a practical definition of “civilization” and “civilized” so that we can figure out whether it is:

  • indeed a veneer laid over a fundamentally bestial human nature and that can truly be lost or removed, or …
  • not a veneer at all, but part of our inborn human nature that cannot be lost or removed, or …
  • simply a definitional, descriptive construct that has no operational meaning.

Civilization with its civilized members seems to reflect both human behavior and social structures that lead to such behaviors.

From Merriam-Webster on “civilized”:

Synonyms of "civilized"
Antonyms of "civilized".

Based on these descriptors, it would appear that a society-as-civilization, regardless of size, can exhibit mostly civilized behaviors, mostly uncivilized behaviors, or any mixture of the two. To qualify as a civilization, the society would have to be a political, economic, and social structure of people around some generally unifying culture, beliefs, organization, and leadership.

It seems pretty clear also that each such society-as-civilization might well have a distinct and different way of defining its particular set of behavioral descriptors. What may be “civilized” in one society might be “uncivilized” in other societies.

So, perhaps it is sets of behaviors and their enabling social structures that define a civilization in practice. People in each such society would be civilized or not according to their society’s particular set of behaviors and social structures.

This means that human behavior in coherent groups is how civilizations and civilized behavior might best be defined.

Human behavior is inborn and defines civilizations and civilized

Civilizations, it seems then, are major groups of people with a common culture, beliefs, organization, and leadership. Behaviors deemed acceptable – “good” – by each such group are civilized and encouraged, while those not considered acceptable – “bad” – are uncivilized and discouraged (sometimes very forcefully).

This would mean that there is no overall veneer of civilization to lose or diminish. Each civilization’s behaviors would depend only on its current members, leadership, and similar characteristics.

Are these member commonalities part of human nature, or mostly imposed by the particular leadership and structures involved in each society?

In a past post, I argued that human nature does not change. What is human nature? My thinking shortlist:

  • Courage
  • Going-along-to-get-along
  • Belonging
  • Compassion
  • Love
  • Creativity
  • Intelligence

The strong human need for belonging and a willingness to go-along-to-get-along are what makes us humans highly susceptible to persuasion, group-think, force, and bribes. These two are in many cases the foundations of a particular society or civilization.

As human groups formed, either naturally or by force, they would have had some means of creating and maintaining cohesiveness. Otherwise, the groups would disintegrate and former members would move to other, more strongly-cohesive groups that have a generally unifying culture, beliefs, organization, and leadership.

Joseph Tainter and the collapse of complex societies (civilizations)

One of my favorite books about how complex societies of various kinds reach a peak of some sort, followed by decline and eventual disintegration, is Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988). From the Amazon book overview:

“Political disintegration is a persistent feature of world history. The Collapse of Complex Societies, though written by an archaeologist, will therefore strike a chord throughout the social sciences. Any explanation of societal collapse carries lessons not just for the study of ancient societies, but for the members of all such societies in both the present and future. Dr. Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than 2000 years of explanations. He then develops a new and far reaching theory that accounts for collapse among diverse kinds of societies, evaluating his model and clarifying the processes of disintegration by detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan and Chacoan collapses.”

Amazon.
Amazon.

Some reviewers of the book argue that blaming the “collapses” on complexity, and even using the term “collapse”, is not entirely valid. Collapses occur for other reasons, and the collapse process can take centuries. The Western Roman Empire, existing from 30 BC to 450 AD, with a peak around 200 AD, is one example.

But Tainter’s “complex societies”, or “civilizations”, really strike me as having an important additional characteristic: they are complex systems.

From the Wikipedia article on “civilization”:

Complex systems.
Another group of theorists, making use of systems theory, looks at a civilization as a complex system, i.e., a framework by which a group of objects can be analyzed that work in concert to produce some result. Civilizations can be seen as networks of cities that emerge from pre-urban cultures and are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, social and cultural interactions among them. Any organization is a complex social system and a civilization is a large organization. Systems theory helps guard against superficial and misleading analogies in the study and description of civilizations. Systems theorists look at many types of relations between cities, including economic relations, cultural exchanges and political/diplomatic/military relations.”

Human societies or civilizations certainly qualify as complex systems. In these, huge numbers of individual human components are extensively interconnected and interdependent. Some of these linkages are quite tight, and virtually all are highly unpredictable in behavior.

In past posts – see here and here for example, I have tried to make the case that our world system is hugely complex and, like all such systems, is fragile and inherently unpredictable. Small random disturbances can cause huge system disruptions.

This means that collapses, and even declines, are unpredictable in terms of causes and process. And that declines and collapses are inevitable, beyond any human ability to control. Human activities including wars are simply random disturbances, to which the civilization system responds in its own system-dependent manner.

What we do does not matter in the grand scheme of system things. We are little more than random disturbances. A rather humbling thought, yes?

Our new technological reality

Over the past two centuries, technology in so many areas has made incredible progress in capabilities, rate of change, reach, and power. Electricity, electronics, computers, aircraft, communications, medicine, and much more. One of the most important consequences of these advances, civilization-wise, is the increasingly tight and inclusive integration of virtually all nations and national groups.

We now have an essentially world system. Internal societal structures like the West and the BRICS+ function using the power and capabilities of our exploding technological advances. These internal substructures are civilizations as defined above, but are steadily and rapidly integrating into a monolithic world entity.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and a host of affiliated and supporting organizations are swiftly moving us toward a One World Civilization with a New World Order. Or so the major players quite openly admit as goals. Technology provides the essential infrastructure for this previously-unimaginable happening to become a reality.

The only question left open at this point seems to be who dominates, assuming that any group or organization does. An answer is coming very quickly, perhaps as early as this year or next. Perhaps no single dominator will succeed, but instead the world system will remain fractured and will stabilize in a fashion somewhat like George Orwell’s 1984 dystopian vision of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.

A technologically-integrated world, or world civilization, effectively exists today.

The current machinations among major block of nations within this tech-world are little more than disorganized battles for some degree of dominance. As befitting a huge, fragile, inherently unpredictable complex system, the outcome of all of this turmoil and chaos cannot be predicted or controlled. The system itself is in control.

Civilization is not a veneer, but is an integral part of human societies

This means that “civilization” cannot disappear or be destroyed except locally, as a subset of the world system. The West’s civilization seems to be in the process of self-destruction, as evidenced by the growing anarchy and chaos of recent years (or decades). It may well do so, in keeping with Tainter’s hypothesis on the collapse of societies. Reasons? Probably a set unique to the civilization currently known as the U.S.-dominated West.

The West’s decline and eventual collapse may be gradual, or it may be quite sudden if World War III intensifies. Not any “veneer”, but the organization itself. There is in effect no such “veneer” except in conjectures. Reality rules.

One alternative view of “civilizations” is “empires”. These tend to be created by powerful rulers and their militaries rather than being formed organically around large groups of people with some unifying culture, beliefs, organization, and leadership. Such as Post-Revolutionary America.

A particularly interesting description of the fate of empires is proposed in British military officer Sir John Glubb’s “The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival (1977). A past post “The Great Unraveling? Done. Crisis Phase? Getting Wild” presented Glubb’s hypothesis within the context of current happenings in our world system.

Of special note is his list of failed (collapsed) empires across many centuries:

From Sir John Glubb’s “The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival (1977)”.
From Sir John Glubb’s “The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival (1977)”.

This list, assuming timeframe validity, suggests that empires last on average around 250 years, based on 11 empires dating back to around 1000 BC. As you can see from this list, the 250-years “average” looks more like an effective upper limit. Three human generations, each about 80 years or so.

The most recent fallen empire-cum-civilization is Britain. It did not collapse in any sudden manner, but was simply overtaken by events that were busy creating the current American empire. The latter has almost reached its theoretical sell-by date of 1776-plus-250-years, and appears to be dutifully following its Glubb-scheduled time and process of decline and/or collapse.

The American Empire being in its death throes, what comes next?

Well, the One World Civilization (Order), or perhaps the 1984 novel’s ruling triad of Oceania (the present West), Eurasia (Russia and bits and pieces of the disintegrating EU), and Eastasia (China and friends). The world system has not yet made up its mind on which of these will prevail, or if instead some other, quite different and equally chaotic, restructuring emerges.

Note that complex system restructuring processes may appear chaotic to us involuntary system-components, but this is just a feature of complex system dynamics. Process details are what we see and experience. Understanding the how and why of these processes seems quite impossible, however.

What are some examples of our chaotic restructuring processes? Here are three that seem especially significant to me as we roll into 2024-2025:

#1. Our fragile banking system is ready for collapse

This is a fact that most people in this country have no idea about (or are ignoring, or maybe in denial about). It is only part of a rapidly and hugely disintegrating financial and economic situation, not just in the U.S. but in many major countries around the world. Here is a tiny part of this scary picture:

“Henry Ford astutely observed that a revolution would occur overnight if people truly understood the banking and monetary system. That’s because modern banking is an elaborate illusion that deceives people into a false sense of security… until it’s too late.”

“Large banks can fail in hours, and life savings can evaporate overnight. The US banking system is especially vulnerable, as the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and other recent events have shown. Why do so many people put their confidence and life savings into an unstable system?”

“I would say it’s because they do not understand three fundamental truths about modern banking:

  1. The money isn’t yours.
  2. The money isn’t actually there.
  3. The money isn’t really money.”

Read the article for details. Not much any of us can do about this incredible mess. The best we can do is to figure out how to cope with such a collapse, assuming that coping is at all possible. [Next week’s post deals with coping.]

U.S. $100 bill – not money, but just an IOU from the Fed.
U.S. $100 bill – not money, but just an IOU from the Fed.

At the bill’s top is its proper designation: FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE. A “note” is an IOU that documents your kindly loan to the Fed. Purchasing power of your dollars has fallen by 99% since 1913 when the Fed was invented.

#2. Disease-X is almost upon us

The world is frantically preparing for the scheduled arrival of an as-yet mysterious Disease-X pandemic. In a recent post on “Who Is WHO? The Great Resetter, Maybe?”, I tried to describe whatever may be going on in all of this. More …

“At the recent ‘Disease X’ gathering of the World Health Organization (WHO), director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that the entire world needs to immediately adopt the so-called ‘Pandemic Agreement,’ which will allow the WHO to unleash a global police force to regulate what gets posted and shared on the internet.”

“In order to be ‘better prepared’ for the next ‘pandemic,’ as well as ‘to understand Disease X,’ Ghebreyesus says world leaders must obey the WHO at all times, even when doing so goes against a nation’s sovereign status, i.e., the United States and its pesky Constitution.”

“’This is about a common enemy,’ Ghebreyesus bellowed at the meeting. ‘Without a shared response, we will face the same problem as COVID.’ Ghebreyesus goes silent after being asked about global lockdowns, vaccine mandates.”

“The deadline for nations to adopt the WHO’s Pandemic Agreement is this upcoming May. Member states are currently in negotiations about how to implement it in accordance with the demands of Ghebreyesus, who repeatedly threatened during the gathering that another COVID will come unless all nations obey the WHO.”

“’This is a common global interest, and very narrow national interests should not come in the way,’ he said. ‘Of course, national interests are natural, but they could be difficult and affect the negotiations.’”

“Ghebreyesus also stated ominously that COVID was ‘the first Disease X,’ and that another just like it or worse ‘could happen again’ unless all the nations of the world obey the WHO and do whatever the United Nations (UN) body tells them to do.”

This makes it pretty clear that the WHO agency of the UN has an overpowering agenda for some sort of world domination. They appear to be very close to succeeding. With or without an actual Disease-X.

#3. Digital IDs and CBDCs are quickly becoming a reality

I have written several posts on the transition to digital money (CBDCs) and digital IDs (see, for example, here and here). This represents a colossal change and a huge potential disruption. The world system may not like this.

“The leaders of the 20 largest world economies, famously known as the Group of 20 nations (G20) have agreed to build the necessary infrastructure to implement digital currencies and digital IDs across their territories during the recent New Delhi Summit.”

“The G20, currently under India’s presidency, adopted a final declaration on the subject over the weekend in the Asian nation’s capital. However, this decision naturally incited major anxieties given its potential as a mechanism through which governments can keep tabs on their citizens’ spending habits and stifle opposition. According to the group, discussions are already underway to create international regulations for cryptocurrencies. However, many are alarmed by the potential grooming of said digital money through government-aided regulation, which could subsequently lead to the replacement of these decentralized digital currencies with state-controlled Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) that could override privacy and security attributes.”

Bottom line:

While civilized (civil) society seems to be disintegrating all over the world, this does not appear to be leading to a global civilization collapse. My attempt to figure out just what a “civilization” is in practical terms came out around a simple definition: Civilizations are nations or groups of nations having a unifying culture, beliefs, organization, and leadership, with “civil” (“good”) being defined by each.

Furthermore, these attributes of civilizations appear rooted solidly in human nature – especially the need to belong and the willingness to go-along-to-get-along. This means that they are not anywhere close to being a “veneer”. The human tendency to organize into cohering groups is inborn. It won’t vanish, nor can it be removed, except during the nastiest of transitions. Humanity is not a beast, but instead a world of basically good people. Or mostly so.

And finally, our huge, complex, world system – a collection of primary civilizations – is inherently fragile and unpredictable, like all large complex systems. It can be greatly disrupted by random small impacts, and the system’s internal structure and dynamics determine how transitions occur and their timeframe.

  • Robert Gore via StraightLineLogic.com and Zero Hedge gives us an example of the confused and distracting terminology that we are currently experiencing: “Controlled Instability”:

“Would-be rulers embrace a moronic oxymoron…
The Houthis stymie 12 percent of the world’s shipping. Israel has bitten off more than it can chew and is desperately trying to maneuver the U.S. into a broader Middle Eastern engagement and years of pointless war. In Europe, farmers and truckers are protesting and blocking roads over climate change measures and other grievances. In the U.S., a governor ignores a Supreme Court decision and receives support from 25 fellow governors.”

“At the recently concluded confab at Davos, the world’s would-be rulers conferred on how they would rule the world. How quaint. They’re going to rule a world that’s spinning out of their’, or anybody else’s, control. A Russian politician, Konstantin Dolgov, coined a phrase for the oxymoronic pipe dream that prevails in Washington, Davos, Brussels, and Tel Aviv:”

“’The Americans need controlled instability to realize their own plans.’ Dolgov noted: ‘But this instability has long been out of Washington’s control.’”

“Controlled instability is a futile hope from a bygone age. The instability that manifests daily is anything but controlled.”

Interesting depiction of “controlled instability” from this article. No doubt created by an AI image generator like DALL·E (OpenAI). Completely meaningless, to me at least.
Interesting depiction of “controlled instability” from this article. No doubt created by an AI image generator like DALL·E (OpenAI). Completely meaningless, to me at least.

“In 2018, the World Health Organization came up with the idea of ‘Disease X’, which is a placeholder for a disease that could be a potential cause of a future major epidemic or a pandemic. The original idea being that planning for an (imaginary) ‘Disease X’ would allow for scientists, public health officials and physicians to design the best possible practices for a future epidemic or pandemic. They then formally added ‘Disease X’ (an imaginary disease) to the top priority list of pathogens.”

“The idea behind Disease X was later weaponized to create a fog of fear in the public as well as governments. The weaponization started with COVID-19 communications. In a 2021 study, it was found that the ‘the only predictor of behavior change during COVID-19 was fear’. Despite their finding that such fear was related to a decrease in both emotional and physical wellbeing, the authors concluded that using fear to drive the public into compliance was the only path forward for public health. The authors write:”

“However, fear of COVID-19 was related to decreased physical and environmental wellbeing. Overall, these results suggest that ‘fear’ and anxiety at the current time have a functional role, and are related to increased compliance for improving public wellbeing.”

“Exit COVID-19… stage left. Enter ‘disease X’… stage right. And just like that, ‘disease X’ has been substituted for COVID-19.”

“One common view of human beings is that we are ‘by nature’ selfish, violent, cruel, and untrustworthy, and that, to the extent we manage to restrain these base instincts, it is because we are taught to be generous, and punished if we go around hurting others. Sometimes this view is accompanied by a story about human development: once upon a time, life was nasty, brutish, and short, a war of all against all. Prehistoric human beings were violent barbarians. Fortunately, civilization has gradually brought out the better angels of our nature. Free markets can actually direct humans’ natural selfishness toward socially beneficial ends, and laws backed by the threat of violence are able to ensure that a semblance of order is maintained. But this progress is fragile and depends on maintaining our existing institutions roughly as they are. Civilization could easily be destroyed if you tamper with it, and we could lapse back into barbarism. The primatologist Frans de Waal coined the term ‘veneer theory’ to describe the idea that morality and civilization are essentially a thin veneer that is easily cracked, and that beneath it is a ‘natural’ state in which we are warlike and irrational.”

“Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, in Humankind: A Hopeful History (newly issued in paperback), destroys this story utterly.”