For providence ordained that the people with gigantic proportions and the greatest strength would wander the mountain heights like beasts with natural strength. Then, on hearing the first thunder after the universal flood, they entered the earth in its mountain caves, and subjected themselves to the superior force which they imagined as Jupiter. All their pride and ferocity was converted to astonishment, and they humbled themselves before this divinity. Given the order of human institutions, divine providence could not conceivably have acted otherwise to end their bestial wandering through the earth’s forests, and to establish the order of human civil institutions – Section 1097
So says Giambattista Vico in the conclusion to his masterwork of political philosophy The Principles of a New Science of the Common Nature of Nations (1725). Cruelly overlooked at the time of its publication, Vico’s work has since gone on to capture the imagination of thinkers and artists including Isaiah Berlin, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Northrop Frye and Samuel Beckett. What has ensured the immortality of Vico’s vision is neither the fundamental correctness of his argument nor the soundness of his methods but the power of his central narrative. Vico argues that all of human affairs can be accounted for in terms of a cyclical progression through three distinct ages: the divine, the heroic and the human. As humanity moves from stage to stage its approach to language changes and as its approach to language changes, so do its attitudes to law, reason and the nature of government. Ever upwards humanity tumbles until its thinking becomes so efficiently rational that it becomes incapable of seeing beyond its own selfish interests resulting in societal collapse amidst what Vico called “Barbarie della Reflessione” — the barbarism of reflection. Having returned itself to an age of primitive superstition and savagery, humanity begins again its upward journey. Forever moving upwards. Forever passing out of the shadow of barbarism and into the light of civilisation.
Echoes of this picturesque rendering of the process of civilisation can also be found in the 14th Century Arab polymath Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (1377). Ibn Khaldun argued that there was a fundamental currency to civilisation known as ‘Asabiyyah’. Asabiyyah represents not just social cohesion and in-group solidarity but also group consciousness and the capacity to think and act as a single political unit. The social groups with the greatest amounts of asabiyyah were nomadic tribesmen and this great sense of social togetherness allowed them not only to accumulate wealth and power but also to assure the smooth transition of wealth and power from one generation to the next allowing the creation first of hereditary dynasties and then of civilisations. As the generations pass and the descendants of the tribesmen become increasingly used to the trappings of civilisation, their asabiyyah slowly ebbs away. Eventually, the dynasty’s asabiyyah levels are no longer sufficient to maintain a grip on power and the civilisation falls into decline until another group of nomadic tribesmen turn up and use their greater levels of social cohesion and political unity to make a grab for power. As Voltaire so memorably put it:
History is only the pattern of silken slippers descending the stairs to the thunder of hobnailed boots climbing upward from below.
These traditional accounts of the rise of civilisation emphasise the role of the state as agent. Growing and developing in a structure-less vacuum where life is nasty, brutish and short, the state is presented as the only institution capable of providing the sort of stable and conflict-free communal living that is necessary for human flourishing. Under this view, people existing outside of the state system are either passive entities waiting in misery and poverty to be embraced by a nearby state or they are highly organised state-like entities poised to make the final step up to civilisation by themselves. The circularity of this definition is obvious: only states have agency and if an institution has agency but is not a state then it must be about to become a state.
James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed takes a hammer to this neat little circle. Scott suggests that, far from being the passive victims of Hobbesian circumstance, many non-state groups actively choose to adopt such ‘uncivilised’ characteristics as illiteracy, religious extremism and reliance upon hunter-gathering modes of subsistence as part of a coordinated strategy for evading state control. This suggestion that one can be uncivilised by choice is not only a radical departure from traditional state-based models of civilisation, it also provides us with a central narrative so powerful that it rivals that of Vico’s tumbling savages, Ibn Khaldun’s decaying nomads and Voltaire’s fleeing slippers. The Art of Not Being Governed is a book that shakes our notions of civilisation to the very core and, as a result, can only be described as a masterpiece that deserves to influence the artists and thinkers of the future in the same way as Vico’s works have influenced those of the past.
Continue reading →