Arnold Toynbee, a giant of an Oxford historian, pointed out in his remarkable Study of History how a civilisation rises and extends from one humble localised point and time of origin to expand and develop toward an eventual climax of achievement – a greatness of achievement and outreach which leaves a large mark on history. On attaining its climax, despite efforts to perpetuate it, it then comes to suffer a crisis of motivation, purpose and identity – with its goals achieved, it needs a new goal.
The instigators of a civilisation – whether classical Greeks, Han Chinese, the Arabs of Mecca, the Mayans or post-Renaissance Europeans – come to lose steam and grow decadent. They grow increasingly habituated to time-worn customs their foreparents have established and they become incrementally imprisoned in the unresolved dilemmas created during their ascendant journey spanning generations or centuries. Their instinct, rather than moving forward to new horizons, is to enjoy the fruits of their efforts and to emulate successful patterns established in the past - which, at the beginning, was the future.
The regeneration and transformation of civilisation, the finding of new goals starting from the point of climax achieved, involves much disruption, questioning and honesty. It involves identifying what went right and what went wrong, and finding a new spark of life to generate new momentum in a different direction. The USA, the dominant centre of civilisation in the 20th century, experienced such a crisis of identity in the 1970s-90s. In one sense this was the peak of American civilisation, and in another it was the beginning of its fall.
Meanwhile, subject peoples, colonised, absorbed, overwhelmed and cloned by the dominating efflorescent civilisation, make its ways their own, in their own way. They become a new vital force, with impetus to 'make it' in terms of the now-presiding culture which has imposed itself on them – often successfully. Thus it was that most of the later emperors of Rome were 'provincials', and many dynasties of China derived from barbarian, foreign and regional stock. This is how civilisation reproduces itself, to be upheld by its clients and subjects, who become the new masters.
Recognise the symptoms? This culturally-arthritic, past-the-peak tendency in civilisation has been with the Europeans during much of the 20th century, and it began to hit Americans, the successors to the European legacy, by the 1970s, who are now being superseded by Asians and Latin Americans. When Europe was gathering steam between the 1500s and the 1800s, it was never thought that Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bombay, Kuwait, Johannesburg or Rio would become determinant players in the European game.
The globalisation we have seen in rcent decades is an extrapolation of principles and ideas long established, first by Europeans and then by Americans, though it is not a transformation of civilisation into a fundamentally new form. While transformative undercurrents lurk beneath the surface, hidden behind words like 'sustainability', 'quality of life', 'universal human rights' or 'spiritual awakening', the dominant culture, while giving birth to such notions, nevertheless seeks to ignore them for as long as possible, or to pay lip-service without acting on fundamentals. That is to say, the West had an opportunity in the 1960s-70s to transform itself, utilising the visions of largely educated, middle-class young people born in the heart of Western culture. But it did not take that opportunity. So the option it took, to reinforce materialism, is now replicating itself worldwide.
Today, in the West, we are faced with a choice – a choice visible since at least the 1960s. Our option is to set a course of thorough root-to-branch transformation of our modern civilisation or to continue on a course of extrapolating past achievements and traditions with little fundamental re-examination. This civilisation has spread from its origination-point in Europe and the originators have ceased to dominate. The original civilisation-building impulse was completed by the end of the 20th century. Euro-America has now lost much of the energy and initiative to continue along the track it has followed and with similar pace - the onus to progress this forward now rests with former client states and peoples in the former Third World.
Arabic oil-sheikhs, Japanese corporate magnates and businesslike drug-barons have become dominant financiers to the world. Many Western multinational corporations keep only nominal roots in their highly-regulated home-countries. The main areas of economic growth are now Pacific-Rim Asia, India and Latin America. Europe no longer dominates America and America no longer dominates the world – though neither have fully grasped the gravity and implications of the situation. Consumption-fatigued, ageing Euro-Americans now invest vast assets in leisure activities, security-maintenance, heritage and money-making artifices – hardly an example of a goal-oriented, vibrantly dynamic culture.
Western civilisation gathered strength in the cathedral cloisters and trade fairs of medieval England, Holland, Lombardy, Bavaria and Bohemia. It propagated itself through the Renaissance (1450s-1520s), the Reformation (1520s-70s), the Scientific Revolution (1600s) and Age of Reason (1700s), spreading itself outwards through colonialism (1600s-1900s) and industrialism (1750-1960). In the 20th century it has become what Toynbee called a 'universal civilisation' – one which no longer emanates energy and initiative from its original centre, no longer ruled by its originators.
Going back in time, the emperors of the Roman Empire in its last 400 years were Germans, Hungarians, Spaniards and Arabs, while Romans and Italians themselves lived in an increasingly Las Vegas-style artificial reality. Similarly, the financiers of Hong Kong and Singapore, the oil-workers of Azerbaijan, the factory-workers of Shenzhen, and the formerly-oppressed South African blacks provide the dynamism of a global economy – an economy based on long-forgotten principles laid down by Luther, Newton and Descartes.
This has happened very quickly: Europe was the dominant force in the world in 1900, and USA-USSR by 1950, and none of these by 2000 – though they are still influential. If we go back but one century to look at the 1890s, the picture was very different to that of today. By the late Victorian age, the world had been carved up by European powers, and the growing dual superpower influence of USA and Russia was then visible only to forward-thinkers. Yet, important things were happening which grew to characterise what we now look on as modern life.
Technologies being thought up and developed in the 1890s were rapidly, within half a century, to become normal aspects of modern reality: motor cars, airplanes, electrical systems, telegraph and radio, plastics, vacuum cleaners, canned and refrigerated foods, assembly lines, laboratory pharmaceuticals and antibiotics, chemical fertilisers and film – to name but a few. In parallel, potent ideas were emerging: socialist parties, atomic physics, evolutionism, psychotherapy (Freud etc), feminism (Suffragettes), widening democratic ideals, theosophy, parapsychology and spiritualism. The final unexplored (by whites) territories were being penetrated and mapped by intrepid western gentlemen at the Poles, in 'darkest' Africa, and across the remoter stretches of the Americas and High Asia.
The world was becoming threaded together by a rampant force called progress. Railways, steamships and telegraph wires spanned the world, rendering it perceptually smaller. While, in event-oriented history books, the historically-notable episodes in the 1890s were unremarkable, in profounder terms the basis for a post-industrial global civilisation was being formulated and set in motion – focused in but one decade. Society had already lost many of its earlier roots and traditions in the overwhelming tide of urbanisation. The past was being ripped away, rendered into 'bad old days'. It is from this crucial decade of the 1890s that the 'global village' was germinated – even though it took until the 1960s for it to be given this name. The 1890s give an example of an important historical 'seed-time' where fundamental trends were set, even though they took decades to unfold. The 1960s constituted another 'seed-time', germinating future realities which will become normalised in the 21st century.
The implications of the changes of the 20th century were enormous. Progress was so fast and intense that it had to be assimilated in new ways. Changeful periods had previously been experienced and massive wrenchings were not unknown, but never had they been seen with the incessant intensity and widespread thoroughness that we have seen in the 20th century. Many traditional values, fundamentals and mores were siphoned into new-fangled garbage cans and dumped in museums, theme-parks and landfills. Societies underwent cruel transitions: two world wars, an inter-war depression and a relentless post-war 'economic miracle'.
These were accompanied by parallel wrenches worldwide, such as the final destruction of most traditional societies. It could even be construed that these trends of structured chaos might have been deliberately or semi-consciously fomented, as a way of suspending traditional social norms, restraints and niceties and to force painful changes against which people otherwise might resist or protest. Nevertheless, this was an extrapolation of trends already rooted in previous centuries.
Some 185 million people died in war, and 85 million of these were civilians, during the 'short twentieth century' between 1914 and 1989 – a period identified by the late historian Eric Hobsbawm. Customary social communities, identities and standards were suspended, replaced by state provisions, helplines and diversionary entertainments. Basic decency and communal mutuality were forgotten and the concept of 'human rights' was invented as a substitute. Real life-experience was vicariously substituted by insured package holidays, TV and films, drugs and cyberspace. Products were manufactured in container-loads, untouched by human hand. Coca-Cola and Hollywood led the way into the hearts and bodies of all people worldwide, and the remaining gaps were stuffed with Big Macs, TVs, CDs and BMWs – or aspirations to consume them – even in the ancient jungles of New Guinea and Amazonia.
Yet, behind all this progress lies its own inherent undoing: destruction of social bonds, of physical and psychological health, of natural environments, of soil and the agricultural base, of the air we breathe and of longterm ecological, economic and social sustainability. Expansive psychological changes engendered by education, TV, jumbo-jets, computers, faxes and credit cards have brought growing globalisation of awareness and a wholesale value-shift based on liberal urban economic principles – 'moral relativism'.
Identity-groups cleave increasingly along lifestyle- or belief-oriented faultlines rather than along traditional ethnic or geographical lines, in an emotional adjustment to the standardising multinational sweep of techno-business. Amidst rapidly-encroaching contradictions, an underlying awakening has furtively grown. A searching for spiritual roots, justice, purpose and meaning in life has come up from behind, especially amongst the middle classes, the prime beneficiaries and creation of the modern age.
As yet, such apparently-isolated factors have been seen to exist independently. Relatively few people have made the conscious connections to allow them to see that these factors are all symptoms of the same single issue. What issue? Humanity is about to go through a deep-rooted rebirth.
This awakening surfaced unexpectedly in the 1960s in Euro-America, catalysed by a creative and ideological impetus unleashed by LSD, travel and electronic-powered mass culture – atomic and space technologies, a torrent of newsprint, big and small screens, new ideas, products and jumbo-jet travel all played a large part. With this 1960s outburst came a growing movement for propagation of women's and minority rights, for community living, regional and ethnic autonomy, back-to-roots spirituality, natural diets and lifestyles, nature conservation and holistic medicine – each of them aspects of a non-specific, holistic world-view which suggests a total change in the nature of world society.
This started as a small, vibrant movement, yet its ideas percolated outwards – as was the case at the seed-point of the Renaissance way back around the 1380s. The world public has become aware of global dangers never before acknowledged – dangers from pesticides, radiation, the 'population bomb', food additives, ozone depletion, military overkill, social permissiveness or unrestrained economic growth.
This uncoordinated popular movement was initially an underground movement, yet it began disseminating its ideas and influences into the public domain during the 1970s and 1980s. Its ideas went through a surge of increasing acceptance around 1987-89, and more waves will come. An ongoing erosion of secure social structures led to a new impetus seeking to revive more genuine security, happiness and sanity in fundamental and different ways. Parallel developments, though starting from a different starting-point, took place in the rest of the world too: the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the independence movements of former colonies, the dwindling 1970s dictatorships of Latin America and the oil-rich Arab states – and everywhere, Toyotas and Sonys!
From the mid-1960s onwards, something shifted. Things started accelerating beyond known territory. The transnational techno-economic driving-forces of the late 20th century relied and played on public weakness of memory, fascination with perpetually-new gizmos and on nation-based, xenophobic myopia, to carry forward their unstoppable globalising agenda. This was done behind the cover of sovereign governments, regulatory bodies and patrician world institutions.
A social and moral rudderlessness has grown, blamed on social degenerates yet driven by unregulated business forces working on a single key axiom: if it makes a profit, it is good. Connections between growing social violence and nightly bloodshed shown on TV were avidly denied, connections between modern illnesses, factory-farmed diets and tense lifestyles were avoided, and connections between weapons production and widespread warfare were suppressed – yet the connections were there.
Yet, such techno-economic driving forces, penetrating the former Soviet and Chinese Communist orbits by the 1990s and elevating to prosperity some formerly-poor Third World countries, leave forward-thinking people looking at the future with qualms and trepidations, not necessarily with pride of achievement or clean hands.
Despite all we are told about the benefits to be gained from modern life, wholehearted belief in the correctness of current ways is infirm. It relies on collective doublethink more than on truth and integrity. The 'free world' defines freedom in terms of consumer preference and democratic appearance. Freedom has been reduced to a choice between brand-names and vacation destinations. Yet we exercise little choice over whether or not we participate in this all-encompassing system. We feel compelled to participate since, if we don't, we believe we will lose out.
The ills and discontents which civilisation produces point to solutions hardly researched, hardly mooted, waiting to be unearthed. The global village is not just an emporium, it is humanity's home – and homes are ruled by feminine, more feelingful values than we have hitherto known. We completed the 20th century with an unclear vision of the future, with no easy answers.
We know not where we are heading. Freedom remains elusive and we remain chained to routines, products and beliefs whose intrinsic origins and worth are forgotten. We continue to aspire towards more and better. Yet, amongst us, small minorities of eccentric pioneers beaver away at developing new ideas, technologies, healing methods, farming techniques and ways of shifting the very nature of consciousness. These are the unsung heroes of our time.