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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Cobb

Power and Civilization

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

One area where I differ from Marxists and much of the left in general is that I believe liberation requires an analysis that goes deeper than capitalism and traces the roots of modern oppression to the origins of civilization itself. Deeper than that too, of course, we ultimately arrive at something like original sin, but for the moment I wish to bracket that, and focus on civilizational power structures, while seeing how they manifest particularly in capitalism. I differ from primitivists who seek the collapse of civilization and a return to some simpler way of life. I do not wish to do away with the benefits that civilization has brought with it, nor am I anti-technology, though as I will discuss later, I am critical of a certain technological paradigm that has come to characterize industrial capitalism.

Civilization is more than just monumental architecture and technology. It's a way of life characterized by conquest, exploitation, expansion, and subjugation. This has taken different forms throughout its existence, and under the current regime that manifests as capitalism.

There is a great deal that is historically new with capitalism, and Marx and Engels were well justified in devoting so much attention to it. Expansion under previous regimes meant costly military occupations, and the logistics of maintaining these military occupations was quite costly for ancient empires. The brutal punishments meted out by these empires shock us today, but this was the price of social control. Under capitalism, a new type of expansion became possible through the power of capitalization.

Capitalization follows from commodification, which follows from quantification. Something that is first quantified can then be owned. That which can be owned can then be bought and sold. What can be bought and sold can then be speculated upon. Capitalization is the process whereby the capitalist discounts present value for the sake of future gains. This leads to a process of economic accumulation, which is the essence of capitalism.

Marx saw this process in terms of production, with capitalism being driven toward ever more accelerated production, punctuated by economic crises that forced it to revolutionize the forces of production. He looked back to the past in terms of previous modes of production, from primitive communism to the Asiatic mode of production to feudalism to capitalism.

Yet this analysis can be misleading. Previous civilizational forms were much less concerned with production. They of course relied upon agriculture to feed the masses and had a division of labor allowing for artisans and merchants, but their primary concern was power. We might better understand these historical periods not as modes of production, but as regimes of power. Power is here understood as control over resources to influence outcomes.

Capitalism itself revolutionized power by expanding the economic sphere over the whole of society. Power has been capitalized, which means it can be bought and sold, and used to accumulate more power. Companies can expand their power not just by expanding production, but by acquiring other companies. This monopolizing tendency expands the capitalist's power, regardless of its effect on efficiency or production.

Yet this monopolizing effort can never be complete. Capitalism cannot abide the perfect competition assumed in economic models, nor can it abide perfect monopoly. Instead, there are capitalist actors competing with one another for monopoly power. Yet the crises of capitalism get in the way, and yield new regimes of monopolization.

Thorstein Veblen distinguished between industry and business. Industry is a collective effort of production, while business is concerned with pecuniary distribution. Under capitalism, industry has essentially been taken captive by business, and subjected to its ends. Business will strategically sabotage industry that does not serve its pecuniary logic. This is why in a crisis, people are laid off and factories are left empty. The productive capacity hasn't changed - only the monetary returns from production.

This sense of an apparatus of capture makes sense in explaining the beginnings of civilization. First people were hunter-gatherers, migrating with herds and gathering edible plants. Then with the Neolithic revolution, people began to create permanent settlements where they grew crops and raised livestock, providing themselves a steady supply of food. Many hunter-gatherers continued as before, but some might have looked at these villages as a golden opportunity. They could use their hunting weapons as weapons of war and raid villages for their food supplies, as well as other goods.

Yet such raids could be costly in terms of casualties, and once they were done with one village, they would have to turn to another. A better strategy would be to conquer the village and subjugate its people. The threat of force could prove more fruitful than actually using that force. They would agree not to attack the villagers in exchange for tribute, like the protection money one pays to the mafia.

Yet such pure force was not sufficient. They needed to legitimize themselves as rulers. A priesthood was set up, through which the power of the sovereign could be divinely sanctioned. Priests would read signs in the stars to guide the actions of the sovereign to retain power. A caste system was established, in which the conquerors and their descendants would enjoy continued power over the conquered.

With the village secured, they could go out and conquer other villages, creating the first empires. Creating these empires required innovations in combat. The hunting party of old was turned into standing armies, trained in strict military discipline. These units would work as a cohesive whole. This was the war machine, and it was mirrored by another machine: the megamachine. The same regimentation that was applied to the military was applied to workers, who were taken from their farms to construct massive wonders such as pyramids and ziggurats.

Such wonders inspire the imagination to this day. Yet we must not fall into the mistake of crediting civilization itself with this creative genius. The Neolithic was full of megalithic wonders such as Stonehenge or Göbekli Tepe. Human creativity is a constant. It is our natural state. What civilization did was capture that creative energy and put it in the service of conquerors.

It is this system of capture that has driven all regimes of power. Power is parasitic upon creativity. It constrains creativity toward its own preservation and expansion. This is true of imperial power, bureaucratic power, or economic power. Creativity constrained by power yields the machinery of oppression and subjugation.

The ancient megamachine was the first such technology. It was a machine made not of metal but of people. It was every bit as much a machine as one with gears and pulleys. Its working parts were people disciplined to work tightly together for a singular purpose. The megamachine was brought back under capitalism, but this time in concert with a large assortment of non-human machines. The new megamachine uses technology and institutions to manage human life.

Technology can be either convivial or hegemonic. Convivial technology extends the natural creative powers of the person. Hegemonic technology funnels people into an apparatus and makes them part of the machine. The archetypal example of this is the workshop versus the factory. The workshop gives one the powers to create what one wishes. The factory funnels people into an assembly line to create one product to be sold en masse. It is where the modern megamachine is most apparent.

So too with institutions. The modern workplace is built upon the bureacratic management of workers. The education system lays the groundwork for this, funneling children into an institution in which they learn above all a sense of obedience to a regimented, regulated way of life. Schooling has little to do with a truly pedagogical society, in which learning is attached to experience, and education is about opportunities to better one's skills and understanding, rather than seeking credentials for some predesigned career tracks. Liberatory institutions should be geared toward the actualization of the person and their gifts, not measuring them against some arbitrary standard designed to reproduce capitalist markets.

We must move on to something beyond civilization as we know it. We must build institutions that nurture natural human creativity rather than funneling it into channels that serve the power elite. We must move from systems of ownership to systems of belonging. We must investigate the ways in which power regimes rear their ugly head and develop collective defenses against it. We must turn from systems of power to systems of community. Fortunately, the oldest and most creative technology we have is society itself: to endlessly reinvent the world in which we live. This is the task of our time.

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