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C A R R O L L   Q U I G L E Y   2

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Quigley's Fundamental Observations

Amid all Carroll Quigley's observations and his commentaries on specific civilizations, there are three ideas from which everything else is derived. Much of his discussion of specific civilizations is intended to demonstrate the accuracy of these three insights.

They are:

  • Growing civilizations have an "instrument of expansion."
  • Instruments become institutions.
  • Civilizations progress through seven stages.

Let's look at each of these.

Instruments of Expansion

First we need to define terms. Quigley appreciated how important it is to use words with precision--what did he mean by the term "instrument?" Put simply, an instrument is a social (that is, human) organization which comes into being to solve some social problem or create some social good.

For example, a bank is an instrument for making money more valuable. When you deposit money into your savings account, that money is combined with the money of other savers, then loaned to individuals or companies who will use that money to add value to an economy (by building a house, starting a business, etc.). Instead of money sitting idle in some unusable form (like being stuffed under a mattress), its value is multiplied by banks. You still own it, but it can be used by others. The result is that society--including the individuals who saved their money in those banks--benefits. A bank is thus an instrument for multiplying the value of money.

Similarly, cities are an instrument that arose to foster trade and mutual defense; American football (as Quigley notes) was originally created as an instrument for encouraging the physical conditioning of college students; a welfare system is an instrument created to relieve poverty; capitalism is an instrument that arose to direct resources to those individuals and groups who can use them most efficiently and productively; and so on. The point is that an "instrument" is a set of cooperative social rules for achieving some group purpose. (For a discussion of how cooperation can emerge within a harsh and selfish environment, please see The Evolution of Cooperation.)

By "instrument of expansion" Quigley meant some particular set of social rules that permit an organization (such as a civilization) to grow. To put it another way, an instrument of expansion is what distinguishes a civilization from a simple producing society. A producing society creates wealth, as well as using up wealth in the form of resources, but does not create sufficient wealth for it to grow. (A parasitic society, in contrast, does not produce wealth at all but simply expands to use all available resoures and then stops.) A full civilization is thus a producing society which has an instrument of expansion. An instrument of expansion is the means by which a civilization produces much more than it takes, allowing it to not only survive but grow.

According to Quigley, an instrument of expansion may take many forms, but it always has three essential and interlinked parts:

  • incentive to invent
  • accumulation of surplus
  • application of surplus to further innovation

Incentive to Invent

By "incentive to invent," Quigley means the creative energy within a society, energy applied to improving old products and processes and imagining new ones. This inventiveness is necessary for a civilization to advance. Without it a society cannot respond to challenges and opportunities, and it stagnates, risking defeat or incorporation by a more creative and energetic civilization.

What is intriguing about this part of Quigley's argument is his point that not all societies are equally inventive. It's not considered "politically correct" these days to suggest that some cultures are inferior to others on any absolute scale. Yet Quigley didn't merely suggest this, he stated it outright. While some cultures were inventive enough to become civilizations, others were not.

For example, unlike the Mayan or Aztec civilizations the pre-European inhabitants of North America never developed the inventive impulse. It is a simple fact of history that they lived simply, taking what was readily available rather than inventing new ways to use resources that could have generated productive surpluses. Consequently, none of their several splintered societies progressed to the point of constituting a full civilization. Without an incentive to invent, a North American culture could have no instrument of expansion; lacking an instrument of expansion, a culture could not distinguish itself from its social environment as a unique civilization. Ultimately, without a flourishing civilization to provide sufficient force for self-defense, the North American cultures were swept aside by the more inventive Western civilization. There was nothing "racial" about it; these local cultures (like so many others throughout human history) simply were not socially organized in such a way that innovation was encouraged and rewarded.

It should be apparent that these observations are a recognition of historical reality, not dismissals of entire societies as being without value. Not possessing the necessary inventiveness to become a civilization does not make a culture "bad" or "worthless." It simply explains why a culture does not become a civilization. And the nature of civilization was Quigley's sole concern and the only subject of this discussion.

Accumulation of Surplus

Once a culture forms whose organization encourages the necessary level of inventiveness among its members, the next requirement for constituting an instrument of expansion is that some of the surplus product of this inventiveness go to some members who do not need the extra wealth. In other words, an instrument of expansion requires that some persons accumulate surplus wealth, even if that means that some must make do with less than they need.

This point may seem surprising. Is Quigley actually saying that civilizations can only grow if some members of that civilization are poorer than others?

Yes, he is. (This is why Quigley is both fascinating and believable: he goes where the data lead, even if the most reasonable conclusions to be drawn from that data defy what we currently believe or would like to be true.) In order for everyone to profit by the growth of their civilization, some must do with less than others. As difficult to accept as this idea may be (especially for those whose political power depends on pitting people against each other out of economic jealousy), Quigley makes the case that without income inequality--that is, without some persons within a culture accumulating surplus wealth--there can be no instrument of expansion, and thus no living and growing civilization.

To give you a taste of the full flavor of Quigley's argument, consider: what if no one person were richer than any other, that is, if everyone received exactly the same amount of profit from labor? Assuming this could be done, it would require distributing equally to everyone all profit (that is, the positive difference between resources expended and their product) generated by the work of any one person. In any culture, there are fewer profit-creating persons than there are profit-consumers. So the total profit surplus accruing to those who could use it productively would be exceedingly tiny, preventing the direction of that surplus into further innovation.

The result is a failure to reward innovation, causing the rate of invention to slow and eventually preventing a civilization from growing. (The question that will be on the minds of some persons at this point will be, "But why is it necessary for a civilization to grow at all? Between the complexity of modern life and the risk of running out of resources, shouldn't we just stabilize with what we've got and be happy?" The short answer is no. Once growth begins and creates a civilization, it must continue or that civilization will step onto the path that leads irrevocably to extinction. This will be explained in more depth in the section below on the civilizational stage Quigley called the "Age of Conflict.")

This recognition of the civilizational requirement for wealth inequality will be distressing to many late-twentieth-century Americans, who are admonished every day that any person who has more than another should feel guilty about it. We've learned to believe that it is "bad" for some people to be richer than others. Nevertheless, it is necessary for a civilization's survival that there be such persons with "excess" wealth they do not "need." As Quigley phrased it, "If a society containing 100 persons is producing 100 square meals a day, it would, perhaps, be 'just' for each person to obtain one meal a day, but such a distribution would never allow the society to increase its production of meals except by temporary and accidental increases called 'windfalls.'"

This is why it is necessary that some members of a culture be able to accumulate a surplus, even if other members of that culture must try to survive on a deficit. Without a sufficient surplus with which to reward innovation, all that can be achieved is survival. And mere survival is insufficient to create or sustain civilization.

Application of Surplus to Innovation

There is a third requirement, already mentioned above, for a culture to have a complete instrument of expansion. This is the application of surpluses to further innovation, completing the cycle. In other words, the surpluses accumulated by some members of a producing society must be applied to supporting the society in the form of investment which uses inventions or creates new inventions.

In Mesopotamia, for example, one form of this investment was irrigation. When some persons realized that the floods and droughts of the region were linked to the time of year, the calendar was invented. As a result, other groups were convinced to give a portion of their goods to these weather predictors. In time, these Sumerians became the priests of the Mesopotamian cultures, accumulating surplus wealth.

With these two factors in place--inventiveness to create a surplus, and the surplus itself--it became possible for the priests to invest some of their surplus into innovations which would have been impossible otherwise, such as irrigation to allow farming even during times of drought. These new technologies allowed the cultures which generated them to farm more, feeding more people, allowing more farming, which generated more surpluses, which in combination with other new innovations began to have a cascade effect. With the priestly inventiveness and surplus applied to cultural expansion, success built on success... and a civilization was born.

This investment can be seen in other civilizations. It was the slavery-derived surplus in Classical civilization that gave Athenians the leisure to develop philosophy, and allowed Rome to invest in a legal code and disciplined legionnaires to enforce that code. Another example: in the early days of Western civilization, the military-economic organization of feudalism invested in arming, training and supplying mounted knights. Without this redirection of surplus wealth into what was for that day advanced military technology, the budding Western civilization would likely have been conquered by the Saracen knights of the more advanced Islamic civilization.

There is a point that should be made here concerning this reinvestment of surpluses into innovation. The point is this: What if those who have these surpluses choose not to reinvest them in further innovation, but instead simply consume those surpluses in non-productive ways? Once they have this wealth, no one can stop them from wasting it, after all. Therefore, if we can't trust people to reinvest, why should we allow them to have surpluses at all?

Leaving aside for a moment the self-righteous, "mother knows best," class-warfare, redistributive and socialist nature of such a conclusion, it is quite true that some people actually do "waste" their surpluses instead of recycling them into continued innovation. This behavior not only goes on continuously, it can be identified historically as a cause of periods of especially intense civilizational conflict. Instead of developing aquaducts, those with accumulated surpluses build colossal monuments. Instead of sponsoring the fertilization of fields, they wage minor but numerous and expensive wars. Instead of providing stock venture capital, they gamble hugely, buy impulsively, and build grandly. In short, they consume their surpluses on entertainment instead of investing in innovation.

The point to be made is not that these kinds of consumption are good for a civilization, but that they should be recognized as an inevitable trend, and as a sign that a civilization is entering or is in an Age of Conflict (described below). This motion from investment to consumption is inevitable in that those who have surpluses always wish to protect the processes by which they acquired those surpluses, even if it means stifling innovation. Without spending on invention, without a social purpose for surpluses, the obvious next best thing always appears to be consumption--the application of a surplus to immediate self-gratification.

This process always happens. In another discussion, we might classify it as "good" or "bad" and consider whether it should be combated and, if so, how best to do so. But here, in this discussion, we are concerned solely with the fact that this progression from long-term social to short-term personal thinking happens; it happens naturally; it happens inevitably, as it follows from fundamental human nature that has not changed in seven thousand years.

This personal consumption is also a symptom of an Age of Conflict, in that its resulting failure to keep the cycle of innovation spinning impedes a civilization's instrument of expansion. When that happens, the rate of expansion slows (though not expansion itself). People, accustomed to and expecting constant acceleration of growth, start muttering that maybe what's needed is to simply take by force (whether with weapons or laws) what the idle rich have.

What should be seen here is that this is not a solution. It is perhaps an understandable reaction. But it is not a cure; it is, in fact, just another symptom of the failure of an instrument of expansion. An instrument of expansion that fails must be reformed (made to work again) or circumvented (replaced by a new instrument of expansion). This is a cooperative process, not a zero-sum, resource-competitive process as is the case when the have-nots bluntly appropriate the wealth of the haves (say, by means of imposing a starkly "progressive" tax code). A resource-competitive process does not create wealth, it merely transfers it. This only hastens a civilization's decay, as it destroys the necessary accumulations of surplus by dispersing them.

Thus it is that the importance of reinvesting surpluses into innovation is not always easy to to perceive. It could be easily ignored as a factor in a full instrument of expansion. But it should not be slighted; it should be recognized as one of the essential elements in the evolution of civilizations.

Instruments of Expansion Reviewed

An instrument of expansion, then, has three parts: invention, savings, and investment. Let's now consider an example. One of the simplest and thus longest-lived ways of shifting wealth from one person or group to another is slavery. We rightly turn up our noses at this particular means of generating surpluses, but it must be acknowledged that this was a viable instrument of expansion for several of the world's greatest civilizations.

How was slavery an instrument of expansion in, say, the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome? Most importantly, it had to permit the accumulation of surplus wealth. This it did quite simply by forcing people to do with less than they would have done if they were free to act for themselves. The resources a slave might otherwise have used were taken by the slave owner. In that simple world, this accumulation was virtually open-ended: the more slaves one owned, the more wealth could be accumulated.

But an instrument of expansion also has to encourage and reward inventiveness. Slavery did so by freeing some individuals from time-consuming manual labor, allowing them to devote time to intellectual creativity. In Greece, this took the form of philosophical inquiry. In Rome, invention was both more practical and more restrained, tending to improvements in military tactics and law.

Finally, the surplus provided by slavery was, in its early days, invested in the use and expansion of innovation in numerous ways. The Greeks funded universities and libraries that further oiled the gears of progress, while the Romans used the legions to explore Terra Incognita, the unknown world, which made vast new resources available.

All together, these processes made up an instrument of expansion that enabled Classical civilization to grow and prosper. Similar results can be seen in other civilizations, including our own Western civilization. Although the particular instruments of expansion have differed (the West, for example, has used feudalism and two different forms of capitalism), all of them demonstrate an incentive to invent, a way to accumulate surpluses, and the application of those surpluses to further production.

Instruments Become Institutions

We've now seen Quigley's explanation for how civilizations come into being--they develop an instrument of expansion. So how do they fail? By what process or processes do civilizations eventually perish?

Quigley's observation is that "over time, instruments become institutions." By this he meant that a natural feature of any working system is to change over time from serving some socially necessary function to ensuring its own survival.

An instrument is a dynamic process for attending to some social need. A successful civilization finds such a system and uses it to expand. The trouble is that human nature always finds it easier to do what is familiar, to respond to change in ways that are known and trusted because they've always worked in the past. So the longer a system exists, the more those persons who are the working parts of that system tend to focus on preserving the system (and their own comfortable positions), rather than on solving the problem the system was created to address. (For considerably more on this subject, please see the essay "Systemantics.")

Instruments thus become institutions. Those who profit by the current system (that is, those who are accumulating a surplus) try to prevent any change in the system. Inventiveness dries up. Instead of being directed to additional innovation, surpluses are used primarily for personal consumption of resources, or are directed to costly, grandiose, and unproductive monumental works (as Spengler described in his discussion of the artistic hollowness in the final days of a civilization).

As long as the environment external to the civilization remains the same, this may go unnoticed for a long time. But eventually the environment will change, as individuals change their behaviors and other (more dynamic) cultures and civilizations on the periphery of the declining civilization expand. As surplus wealth becomes harder to acquire with the diminishment of inventiveness, those who hold surpluses become increasingly determined to preserve what remains by any means possible.

With an instrument of expansion, the focus is on becoming richer by improving the lot of everyone through exploration and innovation, an open-ended and primarily cooperative process. As an instrument of expansion crystallizes into an institution, however, the focus shifts to thinking of resources as limited. Improving one's position thus becomes a function of maximizing one's personal resources at the expense of others--a "zero-sum," primarily competitive process.

Once this has happened to a civilization, a dynamic which Quigley called a "tension of development" is emplaced. This consists of a struggle between two groups: the masses who perceive a declining rate of expansion and call for "reform" of the petrified instrument of expansion, and the limited but powerful vested interests who wish to protect their sources of surplus by preventing competition, freezing processes, and regulating change.

An example of this can be seen in modern calls for additional regulation of various industries so as to effect greater "safety" measures "for the children". It is an irony that the various self-appointed consumer groups (such as the Naderite "Public Citizen" and the "Center for Science in the Public Interest") unwittingly do their causes more harm than good by calling for nationalized safety regulations and agencies beyond the many already in place. Big companies are not hurt by such calls; they are in fact strengthened because smaller companies which cannot afford the higher costs of new safety regulations are forced out of the market. And the result is to heighten, not lessen, the tension of development as the positions of both sides harden.

Tension of development is resolved in one of three ways: by the reform of the institution back into an instrument; by the circumvention of the institution through creating a new instrument of expansion; or by the success of the forces trying to preserve the institution in their favor.

In the cases of reform or circumvention of an institutionalized instrument, the civilization has a new instrument of expansion and once again has the capacity for growth. If, however, the institutionalization of the previous instrument becomes locked in place, the civilization enters the downward curve leading to its eventual extinction.

The next section will demonstrate how the development of an instrument of expansion and its subsequent institutionalization are the fundamental factors accounting for the "birth, growth, decline, and death" of a civilization.

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