Our lives are shaped by forces larger than ourselves. There is no escaping this.
To understand our world and our place in it, we must understand these forces.
Civilizations follow an evolutionary process all their own. Just as school of fish reacts to the presence of a shark, so do human civilizations react to forces and events larger than any member of society.
Carroll Quigley gives a powerful account of these in Evolution of Civilizations. Not many in history, save the rulers of the day, have ever had such perspective. He deserves much credit for the following, though he is not my only source.
Societies are comprised of major social structures that exist in the areas of: Politics, Economics, Religious, Military, Technology, Education, Entertainment, Culture and Communications.
A Civilization is a group of these structures in continuous interaction with each other.
Social structures can be broken down into two types:
Instruments: these fulfill function of a society, within one or more of these social structures. An instrument, by definition, adds net value to society. A tech startup company would be considered an instrument, part of the economic and technology structures of society. A key characteristic is that instruments compete with each other.
Institutions: These fulfill a function of society in one or more of the above areas, but in a self-serving way. Institutions seek to sustain themselves, at a net cost to society. Typically, institutions have a monopoly status (or close to it) and seek to leverage their position and resources to sustain the status quo. Institutions do not compete, instead they monopolize.
Every new social structure begins as an instrument, and decays into an institution.
Human nature leads most to seek maximum personal benefit for least effort. Every corporation, religion, government, and military eventually succumbs to its own vices and self-serving nature. This is the root cause of social, political, and economic decay.
Civilizations exist in 7 phases:
Mixture – People, resources, and communication come together.
Gestation – Social structures form.
Age of Expansion – Growth occurs via primary Instrument of Expansion, such as agriculture, trade, or technology.
Age of Conflict – Instruments come into competition with each other. Institutions begin to form. Civilizations may clash with others in wars or trade competition.
Universal Empire – All competition has ended. All instruments have decayed into institutions. New instruments are impossible to create, because institutions stamp them out of existence to prevent competition.
Decay – Institutions become ever more self-serving, at the expense of the rest of the civilization. Corruption sets in. Eventually, institutions consume themselves with infighting.
Invasion – The weakened Civilization falls to outside invaders.
We must understand this cycle as we examine our past, present, and future.