Western civilization is poorly understood, aside from vague images and the thought that it is "what we have." This civilization, in danger of being centralized to death by the current ruling regimes, has been unique and valuable. We really should understand it before believing the slanders against it and letting it go.
Continued from last week…
Chapter Six: Western Civilization Forms
Western Civilization… might be summed-up in the belief that "Truth unfolds through time in a communal process." – Carroll Quigley
The quote above expresses a great core of Western civilization, if not the core. There are many facets to the formula: Truth is revealed by a communal (which means cooperative) process. And while this statement may be new to most of us, its implications are not. Everyone in the West faces them every day; so much so that we never really consider their value.
This formulation has been assumed many times in this book already. By this, the sixth chapter, phrases like "We know that…" or "we have no information on…" have been used many times. Every time we use such words, we presume that truth is built, that all of us may contribute to this building of knowledge, and that we will certainly have more in the future than we have now. Truth is revealed by a cooperative process.
Obviously, this belief makes Western civilization1 optimistic, but there is more than just that; it also makes authoritarian rule incompatible with our beliefs. If the final truth is yet to be revealed, who can say that he or she has full knowledge and should be given full powers? It also makes the West open to new ideas from whatever source. If something contributes to the accumulation of truth, who cares where it comes from? It's a fact we can use.
This idea that full knowledge comes in the future is even found in the root documents of Christianity, where Jesus talks about things that are "unknown to the son, but to the father only." Even the most strident evangelicals, if questioned properly, will make this distinction between having some perfect truth and having all perfect truth.
Another important aspect is revealed by saying, "We know." Who is we? It is any individual who contributes. That assumes a civilization based upon merit, individuality and equality2. Truth does not descend from a ruler or from any authority at all; we all can contribute truth and we all can and should take care to preserve truth. Again, dictatorships and blind faith are fully incompatible with the Western ideal: No one has full truth now, because it lies in the future. Thus, no one should be followed with blind faith.
Closely related to this ideal is the assumption that we are a community of interests. We don't all have the same dreams and desires; we don't all have to fit into the same mold. Even so, we all may contribute to the accumulation of truth, and so long as we do not intrude upon others, we are sure that we should be free to pursue our narrow personal interests unimpeded. This builds civilization on a decentralized model, which is exceptionally resilient and has many other advantages.
A STRANGE INCUBATION
When a massive civilization falls, as did Rome, whatever is to follow it has to re-form, and only after the fallen civilization has fully unwound. But in the case of Western civilization, this unwinding and reformation took place beneath an odd, virtual empire.
The breakdown of Roman society was dramatic: Roman law was forgotten, the currency more or less vanished and trade contracted. Regional and local rulers grabbed whatever territories they could control… and then their power devolved as well. Everything that was paid for out of the central treasuries was abandoned: Libraries, public baths, arenas and educational institutions were forsaken and their buildings either torn down for materials or used for other purposes (by whoever could grab them and defend them).
Things that were paid for and controlled on a local level, however, did well. Farming, for example, actually improved in many places. Crop yields rose as central interference failed and farmers were left alone to make their own, more sensible, decisions. As the massive load of Roman taxation ceased, more efforts could be put into farm improvements as well. The collapse of the Roman Empire was a catastrophe for the rulers, but it was not a catastrophe for farmers and many others.
Trade was probably affected the most. Protection along trade routes had been handled by the central government. Once that was gone, it became less safe to travel or carry goods over any distance, and there was a collapse in trade and in manufacturing goods for export. Protection could have been provided by local groups all along (it was certainly in their interest to do so), but the Empire was not structured this way. Once protection provided by the center failed, the local powers didn't step up to provide it. Such actions are almost never undertaken under conditions of collapse, when rulers grab at whatever they can take and think little of cooperation. So, long-distance trade fell along with centralization. A few manufacturing operations are known to have continued in the extreme southwest of England, but not many others. Manufacturing decentralized as well.
1I do not consider the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome to be "Western civilization." Certainly we in the West have borrowed from them considerably, but they operated on a radically different model from ours. Their system was built upon slavery.
2Equality in the sense that all stand equally upon their merits and their actions; that there are no inherent classes. The radical egalitarian ideal that inequality is evidence of wrong-doing is NOT part of the Western tradition.
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To be continued…
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