Where is Economic Civilization Going?
|July 23, 2002||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Our Economic Future
Where is Civilization Going?
Why have the economic views commonly known as Georgism or geoism not become more popular? Perhaps, says author Ian Lambert, people in our civilization hold unconscious assumptions about economics that preclude, or make it difficult to understand, the Georgist viewpoint.
We are reprinting Lambert’s important presentation on this subject in weekly installments.
PART EIGHT, CONCLUSION
by Ian Lambert
Civilization – Progress and Decline
Ask almost anyone nowadays what “civilization” is and they will be unable to tell you. After a while they may tell you that we live in the civilized West, that civilization consists in material advancement, that we have material luxuries that our ancestors could not have dreamt of. But to say this is to equate civilization with sophistication; and one only has to visit New York to know that there is a difference. The truth is that we have suffered such a loss of faith in material progress that we are not sure what civilization is any more.
The New Collins Concise English Dictionary defines “civilization” as, inter alia, “an advanced state in social development” and “intellectual, cultural and moral refinement”. If it is the latter we are concerned with, there can be little doubt that in the industrialized nations civilization has declined in this century. If it is the former we are concerned with, the question is, surely: have we solved the great social problems of the nineteenth century, particularly the problems of poverty and homelessness? To which the answer must be no, and the reluctant conclusion that on this test too civilization has declined.
Up to this point, the presumption may be that these are just matters of opinion, albeit matters of opinion on which many of us may be agreed. But this would not satisfy Henry George, a merciless foe of relativism. George strove to find objective definitions of civilization and of progress, by reference to which it could be stated as a matter of objective fact whether civilization had progressed or declined between one time and another. The whole of Book X of Progress and Poverty, entitled “The Law of Human Progress” is devoted to this.
- “But this is the great fact with which we are concerned: That the differences between the people of communities in different places and at different times, which we call differences of civilization, are not differences which inhere in the individuals, but differences which inhere in the society ….
…. What then, is the law of human progress – the law under which civilization advances?
It must explain clearly and definitely, and not by vague generalities or superficial analogies, why, though mankind started presumably with the same capacities and at the same time, there now exist such wide differences in social development. It must account for the arrested civilizations and for the decayed and destroyed civilizations; for the general facts as to the rise of civilization and for the petrifying or enervating force which the progress of civilization has heretofore always evolved. It must account for retrogression as well as for progression ….
…. To compare society to a boat. Her progress through the water will not depend upon the exertion of her crew, but upon the exertion devoted to propelling her. This will be lessened by any expenditure of force required for bailing, or any expenditure of force in fighting among themselves, or in pulling in different directions.
Now, as in a separated state the whole powers of man are required to maintain existence, and mental power is set free for higher uses only by the association of men in communities, which permits the division of labor and all the economies which come with the cooperation of increased numbers, association is the first essential of progress. Improvement becomes possible as men come together in peaceful association, and the wider and closer the association, the greater the possibilities of improvement. And as the wasteful expenditure of mental power in conflict becomes greater or less as the moral law which accords to each an equality of rights is ignored or is recognized, equality (or justice) is the second essential of progress.
Thus association in equality is the law of progress. …. Here is the law of progress, which will explain all diversities, all advances, all halts and retrogressions. Men tend to progress just as they come closer together, and by cooperation with each other increase the mental power that may be devoted to improvement, but just as conflict is produced, or association develops inequality of condition and power, this tendency to progression is lessened, checked, and finally reversed.” – Henry George (P & P).
Henry George, like Nietzsche, saw the end of the nineteenth century as a turning point of world historical importance.
George, like Nietzsche, has an amazing capacity to speak to us in our current condition:
- “A civilization like ours must either advance or go back; it cannot stand still.
…. what has destroyed every previous civilization has been the tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth and power ….
Now, this transformation of popular government into despotism of the vilest and most degrading kind, which must inevitably result from the unequal distribution of wealth, is not a thing of the far off future….. that men of the highest ability and character are compelled to eschew politics, and the arts of the jobber count for more than the reputation of the statesman; that voting is done more recklessly and the power of money is increasing; that it is harder to arouse the people to the necessity of reforms and more difficult to carry them out; that political differences are ceasing to be differences of principle, and abstract ideas are losing their power; that parties are passing into the control of what in general government would be oligarchies and dictatorships; are all evidences of political decline ….
The type of modern growth is the great city. Here are to be found the greatest wealth and the deepest poverty. And it is here that popular government has most clearly broken down. In all the great American cities there is today as clearly defined a ruling class as in the most aristocratic countries of the world…..
….. there are many election districts in the United States in which a George Washington, a Benjamin Franklin or a Thomas Jefferson could no more go to the lower house of a state legislature than under the Ancient Regime a baseborn peasant could become a Marshal of France. Their very character would be an insuperable disqualification.” – Henry George (P & P).
Henry George’s power of prophecy was uncanny. This nineteenth century American who could have had no knowledge of the rise of communism, fascism, Nazism or militant Islam, foresaw our century in these terms:-
- “Strong, unscrupulous men, rising up upon occasion, will become the exponents of blind popular desires or fierce popular passions, and dash aside forms that have lost their vitality. The sword will again be mightier than the pen, and in carnivals of destruction brute force and wild frenzy will alternate with the lethargy of a declining civilization.” (P & P).
A century before Allan Bloom referred to a coming illiteracy, George foresaw the rise of Britain’s and America’s new “under class”.
- “Whence shall come the new barbarians? Go through the squalid quarters of great cities, and you may see, even now their gathering hordes! How shall learning perish? Men will cease to read, and books will kindle fires and be turned into cartridges!” – Henry George (P & P) – 1879.
‘….whatever the cause, our students have lost the practice of and the taste for reading. They have not learned how to read, nor do they have the expectation of delight or improvement from reading ….
…. Imagine such a young person walking through the Louvre or the Uffizi, and you can immediately grasp the condition of his soul. In his innocence of the stories of Biblical and Greek or Roman antiquity, Raphael, Leonardo,
Michelangelo, Rembrandt and all the others can say nothing to him. All he sees are colors and forms – modern art …. …. Teachers of writing in state universities” among the noblest and most despised laborers in the academy, have told me that they cannot teach writing to students who do not read, and that it is practically impossible to get them to read, let alone like it. This is where high schools have failed most, filled with teachers who are products of the sixties and reflecting the pallor of university-level humanities ….
…. As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But deprived of literary guidance, they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine there is such a thing.” – Allan Bloom (CAM) – 1987.
Now, are these signs of progress in “intellectual, cultural and moral refinement”?
Henry George was a philosopher, journalist and politician who searched for eternal truths. He is one of the great writers great literary artists – in political economy, perhaps the greatest. He numbers among great philosophers like Plato, Hume, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who are truly a pleasure to read and to whose words one can never do justice. It is my great hope that we may encourage people to discover for themselves the countless riches in his works – above all in “Protection or Free Trade”, “Progress and Poverty” and “The Science of Political Economy”. There is no nineteenth century writer who better addresses the problems of our age.
If, upon reflection, you too consider relativism and nihilism to be the darkest shadows cast across this century, you may agree with me that there can be no finer tribute to Henry George than to repeat the words of the Apostle John, made famous in quite a different context:
- “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”
Ian Lambert is a globetrotting man of many talents. This presentation was originally made at the 10th Annual Conference Of The Council Of Georgist Organizations, Santa Fe, New Mexico, July, 1990.
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