Civilization and History: a comment on John Conner's The Rise of the West
††††††††††† Much of the more recent primitivist and anti-civilization writings have taken a very idealist turn, holding up "Reason" and "Progress" as the root of our present condition and, often, motors of history.† Thus the Enlightenment comes to be largely responsible for our predicament.† These anti-civ writings step in line with conservative histories, except that they revalue such history negatively.
††††††††††† John Conner's The Rise of the West: A Brief Outline of the Last Thousand Years is meant to bring up questions and not be the last word of anti-civilization history.† And it is in that light that this brief comment should be taken as well (this is in no way a review or critique of Conner's piece in general).
††††††††††† In Connerís narration of the rise of the west,† his answer to the first, difficult question--of whether we can talk of the rise of the west without talking about the rest of the world--is telling of how he understands the historical process.† He writes off China in a couple of sentences: China was "too politically stable and centralized for its own good."† In other words, China was too civilized, so the west economically passed China.† This is a bit of a confusing argument for the anti-civ perspective--too much civilization kept Chinese civilization from progressing.† And this is indeed an old argument--Conner cites Max Weber--although, in general, most historians of China discount it today; those prone to repeat it are conservative historians of the west.† China supposedly had little progress, or as Conner puts it, "It just so happens that within the last thousand years or so, the focus of Progress in the world has been the West" (p.4).† So is it that civilization breeds stability or progress?† Conner doesn't tell; but once he turns to the west it is Progress--with a capital 'P'--that is the driving motor of history.† (Presumably, like Weber, therefore, China has no history until the west arrives--another common Eurocentric view of China, and for that matter the rest of the world.)†
††††††††††† What do we lose with this conservative (albeit revalued) Eurocentric historical narrative?† We lose an understanding of the importance of colonialism to the rise of European capitalism.† It is American silver that give the west an edge in Asian trade, without which history would have been markedly different.† Capitalism has always been globalizing, and it cannot be understood as a national phenomenon.† Those who choose to view the rise of the west in isolation from the rest of the world often fall into an idealist perspective on history; this is just what happens to Conner.† To the question of what unique element was internal to the west driving it to develop, Conner basically answers with "Progress."† From an isolated and reductionist view, the material basis for the west's rise over Asia comes to be hidden.
††††††††††† In their explanation of the rise of the west, the argument of most conservative, Eurocentric historians revolves around European uniqueness, the restless spirit of Europeans, or an ideal of Progress that drives the west to develop, and likewise drives them out into the world.† It is usually explained, that Asia, Africa and the New World lacked this spirit (the same spirit that drove scientific inquiry in the west).† Conner's narrative doesn't stray far from this argument.† Following the development of the ideology of Progress, Conner maps out the battles between the church and Medieval heresies, the church and renaissance thought, the church and the Enlightenment with the development of science and materialism, and the church finally being vanquished by evolution.† Because we have Darwin's theory of evolution, we have social Darwinism, "thus" we have imperialism--a very simple explanation indeed.† And with this logic we can understand Nazi mass-murder as "a product of Progress, a fruit of the Enlightenment and what came thereafter..."(p.46).† And so the west drives on to its own sure death, its beating heart Progress.
††††††††††† Conner states, "My concern...is not with the past, at least not for its own sake, but for the future" (p.54).† Yet, unlike Fredy Perlman's Against His-story, Against Leviathan, which focuses heavily on the resistance to civilization, in Conner's account resistance only gets minor mention.† So what of practice?† How do we attack an ideal?† Through rebelling the veil of illusions will drop and we will see clearly: "Once we have sensed what it is to be without Civilization, beyond the veil, we must never surrender this vision and the connecting together of all things it supplies.† When we know this, Civilization is but an illusion, a ghastly one to be torn down as soon and as well as we are able" (p.57).† Here civilization itself becomes an illusion.
††††††††††† So why this turn to idealist history?† In part it seems to stem from primitivists' desire to differentiate themselves from Marxism.† It is a critique of the ideology of progress that most clearly marks the line between primitivists and Marxists or leftists.† But it is unnecessary to slide from a critique of ideology into an idealist conception of history.† Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens in John Conner's The Rise of the West.
The Rise of the West is three and a half Pounds from Green Anarchist, BCM 1715, London WC1N 3XX, U.K..