Rethinking/Reassembling Civilization: State-formation, Subjectivity, Security, Power

Notes for a Seminar presentation in the Department of Sociology, Flinder University, 27 April 2007

22 June 1798, Napoleon’s speech to his soldiers en route to Egypt

“Soldiers! You are undertaking a conquest with incalculable consequences for civilization and world trade. You will inflict a decisive and significant blow on England….”

11 Sept 2006, President Bush’s Address to the Nation:

“This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization. We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations. And we’re fighting for the possibility that good and decent people across the Middle East can raise up societies based on freedom and tolerance and personal dignity.”


  • ‘Civilization’ a key concept in public discourse. The political myth of ‘the clash of civilizations’ has become an important part of the symbolic power exercised over all of us today, and a lot depends on our capacity to subject it to critical discussion. Like it or not, the civilization-barbarism distinction structures our thinking about most significant aspects of social life.
  • The exercise of military force (and its restraint) is often organized around a particular conception of ‘civilization’, i.e. the treatment of differing religious, cultural, ethnic groups by a specific sovereign power.
  • No matter how bizarre and contradictory the logic, it has always been central to the moral justification of colonialism.
  • For America in particular, the conduct of war has often been framed in terms of a ‘defence of civilization’. E.g., manifest destiny.
  • The meaning attached to the concept, whether explicit or not, has decisive consequences for the way in which powerful state and non-state actors go about their business. This is particularly important for how some ‘absences’ of or threats to civilization are perceived, and what actions are seen as necessary to bring it about.
  • The concept is also a useful clue to the heterogeneity of liberal political thought, especially the exclusions which operate alongside its claimed inclusiveness
  • Particular constructions of ‘civilization’ operate as a crucial ‘filter’ for liberal citizenship.
  • Liberal political regimes thus appear as terrains across which the liberal concern for individual welfare and freedom is articulated with the exercise of power within more specific, and ever-changing, framings of civilization.
  • It also organizes much of the critique of state action, say, torture: ‘every time a person is reduced to a howling beast by deliberately inflicted pain, civilisation crumbles a little more, until in the end there is only barbarism’ (Ian Buruma). (the other critique is that it’s ineffective).
  • Even the critique of ‘civilization as colonialism’ is in a sense an internal critique, an attack on the treatment of Indigenous populations from the standpoint of one’s own standards of ‘civilization’.
  • Irrespective of whether the term ‘civilization’ is used, it’s obvious that a particular kind of ‘civilizing mission’ is currently in train.
  • The US’s military actions are in some sense a distraction from the broader ‘civiliing mission’ taking place through what’s been called the ‘new standard of civilization’ in International law. (WTO, World Bank, EU). Wolfowitz & ‘corruption’.
  • Indeed, it’s possible to say that the whole ‘project of modernity’ has always been essentially about various kinds of civilizing missions, and that the current state of the world can be understood the intersection of those civilizing projects. Instead of talking about a ‘clash of civilizations’, it’s more accurate to speak of a ‘clash of civilizing missions’.
  • Central to the processes, practices and institutions of ‘empire’, both as a central element of the modernization process in the past, and as part of the post 1989- ‘new world order’.
  • Social theorists are still ambivalent about it.
  • Generally the tendency is to treat it as an object of social theoretical analysis.
  • We’ve done that in terms of establishing its linkages with colonialism, which is why we don’t include it in our own conceptual vocabulary.
  • We’re much happier talking about modernization, globalization, rationalization, post-modernization, cosmopolitanism, etc.
  • But, our understanding of contemporary trends and developments will be vastly improved if we take a closer look at what the concept civilization is meant to be referring to, and unpack it.

  • The ‘problematic’ of civilization is essentially very similar to the ‘problematic of modernity’, but different in strategically important ways. There are a number of issues that can’t be captured by these other concepts, to do with ‘civility’, with the quality of how human beings across the world treat each other, and especially the management of various types of violence.
  • Genocide? Torture? Terrorism? Removal of children? Respect? Recognition? Human rights? Hence the concern with values, and the argument that secular modernity cannot capture this dimension of human social life.
  • There’s a lot to be gained from developing a more nuanced and precise construction of ‘the problematic of civilization’ (rather than treating it as settled), how it knits together a number of concerns that are usually dealt with separately. Don’t have to leave it to religion!
  • Much of the debate around the conditions underpinning democratic institutions and behaviour gets framed in terms of culture, worldview and religion, when it could be much more effectively analysed with a conceptual apparatus that knits social, economic, political and psychological processes together, and this is what particular approaches to civil-ization can do.
  • Need to unpack the concept in order to be able to analyze and discuss the different forms it can take, rather than reifying or naturalizing it.

  • Basically two usages:
    • A ‘state’ or a complex, similar to what Lucian Febvre called its ‘ethnographic’ or cultural meaning. Also ‘civilizations’.
    • A particular organization of social and political life, the operation of power and the constitution of human subjectivity. In this sense, what characterizes both civilization and the rule of law is the embedding of the exercise of power in impersonal rules and structures, rather than in the unregulated will of dominant individuals and groups, a ‘government of laws, not of men’. Here, the form taken by individual subjectivity plays a central role, and the mechanisms by which this is ‘cultivated’ is a core element of the on-going production of governable citizens.
      • This 2nd use is more closely tied to the civilization/barbarism distinction.
  • There are two central problems with these currently dominant usages of civilization
  • First, the conflation with ‘culture’. (e.g. Eisenstadt, Huntington)
  • Second, its use as a noun, for a state, rather than as a verb for a process.
  • Aim for a different conception of the processes of civil-ization.
  • Aim to provide an analytical framework, identify a research programme, for the analysis of civil-ization as a process inhabited by active human beings to do with those aspects of social life that are distinct from ‘culture’, which the earlier usages of ‘civlization’ were more conscious of.
  • History as denaturalizing the social present.
  • Arguing for a particular cognitive position – rather than coming up with a conclusive definition of the nature or objectives of civilization (human rights, political and economic liberty, restraint of political power, democracy, non-discrimination), or analyzing how different Civilizations conflict or interact with each other, the question one asks about the process of civil-ization is, how have these things come about? what are the social forces underpinning them or threatening them? Are there other ways of achieving the same ends? Etc.

Culture vs Civilization

  • In French, ‘civiliser’ appears in 2nd half of C16 – 1572, translation of Plutarch, Le Roy in Aritsotle commentary in 1568.
  • In English, ‘to civilize’ in 17th century (1632, Massinger, 1624, John Smith on Indians in Virginia
  • In English, ‘civilize’ and ‘civilization’ also meant (early C18) ‘turning a criminal matter into a civil one’, or more broadly, assimilating common law to Roman civil law.
  • Seen by the Lowland Scots as a more effective means of regulating commercial transactions and the lower orders.
  • Lord Mansfield (1720s – 1780s) main agent of legal civil-ization, until Gordon riots in 1780.
  • Used by Mirabeau in 1756, more extensive defn in 1768.
  • Used to refer to process in C18, only in C19 did it become increasingly used to refer to a state or condition.
  • The concept Civilization’ seems to have always led an odd sort of double life in Western social & political thought, at one & the same time:
    • an object of on-going critique &
    • an organizing principle.
  • Jean Starobinski said of the critique of civilization which immediately accompanied the word’s original appearance in Mirabeau’s writing, it ‘took two forms: a critique of civilization and a critique formulated in the name of civilization’.
  • Variety of ways to gain insight into this ‘double life’, for example, at the outer margins of self-perceived civilization, in the colonial encounter.
  • The discourses of Civilization were in many respects an argument with Rousseau, the idea that what is good and worthwhile about human life is natural, to say that it’s the product of considerable human effort, artificial, the product of a process of civilization. So being civil is not natural, it’s the outcome of some sort of process which we need to understand and control.

  • Civilization has been equated with material, technological progress and ‘manners’, culture with ethical maturity and cultivation, authenticity, community, etc.
  • Bit like Social vs System integration.
  • Or Snow’s Two Cultures. Gemeinschaft v Gesellschaft, Life world v System.
  • Eg. Kant, 1784, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose:

‘We are cultivated to a high degree by art and science. We are civilized to the point of excess is all kinds of social courtesies and proprieties. But we are still a long way from the point where we could consider ourselves morally mature’. ‘For while the idea of morality is indeed present in culture, an application of this idea which only extends to the semblances of morality, as in love of honour and outward propriety, amounts merely to civilization’.

  • Herder: German culture ‘profound’ unlike the shallowness & frivolity of French civilization.
  • Ferguson: thought that primitive communities (Highlands) still held values which ‘commercial society’ was on verge of losing: social cohesion, community, martial spirit.
  • Coleridge (1830): civilization is itself but a mixed good, if not far more a corrupting influence, the hectic of disease, not the bloom of health, and a nation so distinguished more fitly to be called a varnished than a polished people where this civilization is not grounded in cultivation, in the harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterise our humanity. In short, we must be men in order to be citizens.

  • Merton (1936: 110): ‘Civilization is simply a body of practical and intellectual knowledge and a collection of technical means for controlling nature. Culture comprises configurations of values, of normative principles and ideals, which are historically unique.’
  • [Humboldt reversed the relationship, saw culture as control of physical environment, and civilization as control of inner nature.]
  • Scots and Germans re: Ancient Greece (Oz-Salzberger). Scots saw Greece as model of civic society, in political terms; Germans saw is as a moral-aesthetic achievement. Schiller emphasized Greek theatre.
  • Adam Kuper:

German intellectuals … were provoked to stand up for national tradition against cosmopolitan civilisation; for spiritual values against materialism; for the arts and crafts against science and technology; for individual genius and self-expression against stifling bureaucracy; for the emotions, even for the darkest forces within us, against desiccated reason: in short, for Kultur against Civilisation.

· This may be an overstatement, given the efforts of Germans in the realm precisely of bureaucracy, science and technology, and philosophy, but it captures the problem.

  • As Brett Bowden puts it, the opposition overlaps with the Counter-Enlightenment versus the Enlightenment.
  • This opposition between Kultur and Zivilisation in German actually captures an important distinction
  • There are different things to talk about; to use civilization=culture means you lose the sense of civilization?culture.
    • Buruma:

In Indonesia and Malaysia, religious ideologues have failed to make headway, more pragmatic Muslims in Indonesia are keen to separate politics from religion. Islamist radicalism is a threat in Pakistan, but this has more to do with a history of authoritarian rule by a small landowning class and military juntas than with any “millennial rivalry between two world religions.” Pakistani political history, in some ways, bears more resemblance to that of Argentina and other parts of Latin America.

Many political rebellions against Western domination have been secular, and Arab nationalism, or Arabism, though often associated with Islam, is sometimes at odds with it. National consciousness in the Arab world has been slow to grow, because nation-states barely existed in the past, and modern borders were mostly drawn by British and French colonial officers. Islam was one thing that most Arabs, from Syria to the Sudan, had in common. Pan-Arabism, some of whose founders were Christians, offered an alternative, more secular, though not necessarily more democratic form of cohesion. Its failure led to a revival of Islamist dreams. Lewis may be right that Western interventions, of a covertly or overtly imperial nature, cannot adequately explain the nature of Muslim rebellions, the toppling by Western agencies of freely elected governments, and the support of dictators, cannot have helped the cause of democratic change.

  • Culture is more ‘multiple’ than ‘civilization’, despite the resort to ‘civilizations’.
  • It’s possible to say that genocides are a problem for civilization in a way that they are not for ‘culture’.
  • One doesn’t describe the slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda as ‘uncultured’, but as ‘barbaric’. Saying that 9/11 was an attack on ‘civilization itself’ makes sense in a way that ‘culture itself’ would not.

The process of civilization: state-formation & habitus, power and subjectivity

  • So what does a non-culturalist, processual conception of civil-ization look like?
  • In a sense civilization is equivalent to globalization and rationalization. But in Elias’s usage it includes a sense of the psychological transformations involved, and also spells out in more detail some of the underlying mechanisms of power relations – royal mechanism, monopoly mechanism.
  • There is no obvious connection between civility (which could be organized around one’s identity as the citizen of a town) and something larger like a ‘civilization’. So you can have the process without the thing.
  • Processes of civilization were a vehicle for state action, need to see the connections between civil-ization and state-formation.
  • For RG Collingwood, it’s about the reduction of violence and the use of force, subjecting emotions to rational control, the rule of law.
  • For Herbert Butterfield (IR theorist), civilization refers to ‘patterns of behaviour which emerge over time through the experience of people who are capable of empathy with others and capable of denying themselves short-term gains for the long-term goal of maintaining ordered relations’ (quoted in Sharp, 2001, 11; Sharp, 2003).
  • Elias points out that the processes by which these objectives have been approximated have generally been unconscious, rather than deliberately pursued.
  • Principles:
    • Product of unfolding of relations of power and competition/distinction..
    • Links formation of habitus/subjectivity to state/institution-formation
    • Complexity/density = control + identification [?]

  • Court society as foundations of contemporary self-reflection. You need ‘civilization’ to understand ‘second modernity’.
  • Scottish Highlands and Lowlands/England a good example of the ‘problem of civilization’. Johnson in 1785:

There was perhaps never any change of national manners so quick so great and so general… We came hither too late to see what we expected – a people of peculiar appearance and a system of antiquated life. The clans retain little now of their original character: their ferocity of temper is softened, their military ardour is extinguished, their dignity of independence is depressed, their contempt of government subdued, and their reverance for their chiefs abated. Of what they had before the late conquest of their country their remains only their language and their poverty.

  • Also the English in Ireland, ‘peasants into Frenchmen’, etc. So the civilization/barbarism contrast begins with internal colonialism.
  • Q of ‘widening circles of identification’ – punishment, responsiveness to genocide, etc.
  • Developments in International Relations, like the rise of human rights, are tied to particular forms of subjectivity which generate different kinds of emotional responses to the issues at stake.
  • Two ‘mechanisms’: the ‘monopoly mechanism’ and the ‘royal mechanism’.
    • ‘Monopoly mechanism’: competition between different ‘survival units’ involves ‘elimination contests’ in which some win and others lose, and the number of units gradual decreases.
    • Elias argues that, on the whole, competition would generally drive any human figuration towards ‘a state in which all opportunities are controlled by a single authority: a system with open opportunities has become a system with closed opportunities’ (1994a: 347).
    • ‘Royal mechanism’: a feature of the evenness or indecisiveness of any pattern of competition.
    • Position of a central authority is not based simply on some greater power that they might have over any other social unit, but on their function as a mediator or nodal point for the conflicts between the other groups in society, which can neither individually overcome any of the others, nor stop competing to the degree required to form an effective alliance with each other.
  • Doesn’t simply increase power of those in central positions. Because a monopoly position is itself dependent on a larger and more complex network of social groups and units, the greater monopolization of power-chances is accompanied by a greater collective democratization, at least, Examples include the position of the head of government in any of the advanced industrial countries, the managing director of a large corporation, or the US in the world system.

International law and the new global ‘standard of civilization’

  • Old standard for civilization: (a) organized social & political life (state), able and willing to protect adequately the life, liberty, property, freedom of travel, and religion of foreigners.
  • Pacification, restraint of passions, commerce, cultivation.
  • Ferguson: need stable organization of law and politics to ensure property and commerce.
  • For Mill, cooperation is the key, because all combination is compromise, the sacrifice of individual concerns for collective ones.
  • So the spin on the pursuit of self-interest is that it can only achieve its goals in combination with other individuals.
  • Needed:
    • Basic rights for foreign nationals
    • Organized political bureaucracy and military;
    • System of law, courts, written codes of law, fair administration of justice within bounded territory;
    • Diplomatic institutions able to engage in international relations;
    • Abide by international law
    • Generally conform to customs, mores of Western societies.
  • No real expectation of how any state treated its own citizens, just as long as it allowed safe trade and travel for Western nationals.
  • WWII and Holocaust put ‘civilization’ into the background.
  • But, in the post Cold War era, being succeeded by two other concerns: human rights and modernity (Gong).
  • From Westphalian civilization to globalized liberal civilization (Fidler).
  • Now: human rights & rule of law, democracy in governance, free-market economics, open to international trade & investment, efficacy of science & technology, recognition of only one military power – the US.
  • Fidler: “The new standard is more ambitious and intrusive……Under the new SOC, international law is a tool of political, economic ad legal harmonization and homogenization on a scale that dwarfs what was seen in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The civilizational conquest started under the old SOC is now being carried deeper into the hearts of non-Western cultures through international law.”
  • Less concern with national sovereignty [globalization, cosmopolitanism].
  • Linklater: “Elias raises important questions about cruelty and emotional identification in international relations that provide new directions for the sociology of states-systems, questions that lay the foundations for an empirical research programme that analyses the part that domestic and international factors play in shaping levels of ‘moral sensitiveness’ in different states-systems.”

The dark side: decivilizing and dyscivilizing processes.

  • One of the central critiques of any conception of civilization is that it fairly consistently appears to encompass what is meant to be its opposite, barbarism.
  • However one can turn that into an observation, that there are senses in which the opposition is a false one, at least in relation to the normative conception of civilization.
  • State sovereignty often a de-civilizing force – genocide – in pursuit of cultural homogeneity, the construction of ‘the citizen’. [In contrast to Norbert’s presumption that monopoly of violence solves all problems]
  • The monopolization of physical force by the State also allows it to use that force in an almost unrestricted way, and that’s exactly what various States have done.
  • Rummel: 20th century – 170m civilians, 34m armed military. [62m Soviet Union 1917-1987; 10m Nationalist China 1928-1949; 35m Communist China 1949-1987; 21m Nazi Germany;
  • War is part of the civilizing process (and thus also its essential barbarism, its ‘dark side’.
  • Decivilization – reversal of processes of civilization, their breakdown
  • Dyscivilization – compartmentalization, partial disidentification, allowing for potentially unrestrained violence.
  • Barbarism of civilization – violence inherent in ‘pacification’, homogenization, etc.
    • For example, the conduct of war has frequently been regarded as an essential element of civilization. Adam Smith: argued that the new means of making war – involving concentrated firepower – while ‘at first sight appear[ing] . . . so pernicious’, was ultimately ‘favourable both to the permanency and to the extension of civilisation’ (Buchan).

  • In a critique of Kingsley Davis’ understanding of social norms, Elias argued that the integrative effect of norms were emphasized at the expense of their ‘dividing and excluding character’. Social norms have an ‘inherently double-edged character’: in the very process of binding some people together, they turn those people against others. [Goodin, inclusion/exclusion]
  • Analytically, barbarism and civilization are part of the same problem, namely how and under what conditions human beings satisfy their individual or group needs without harming each other.
  • The problem is to make events such as the Holocaust, genocides, and any other examples of ‘modern barbarism’ understandable as the outcome of particular social figurations and processes of socio-historical development, and also to explain what it is about the development of modern state-societies which generates organized critical responses to such barbarism.
  • E.g., Abu Ghraib.
  • Important to see the process of civil-ization as a particular balance of what we recognize as civilization and barbarism, or civilizing and de-/dys civilizing.


  • The term ‘clash of civilizations’ was first used by Bernard Lewis in 1956 in an article attempting to explain why public opinion in the Middle East was far more critical of the Western powers than the Soviet Union, despite the latter’s own powerfully colonialist practices.
  • Essentially the conclusion he came to was that the West was responsible for much of the problems of the Middle East.

‘More specifically, a revolt of the world of Islam against the shattering impact of Western civilization which, since the 18th century, has dislocated and disrupted the old order, bringing much that is new and valuable, but also imposing terrible problems of transition and adjustment’.

  • So he’s not really talking about a clash of cultures or civilizations at all, he’s talking about the disruptive effects of a global process of civilization characterized by a particular power relationship both among the Western powers and between them and the rest of the world.
  • So what we need is a non-culturalist analysis of questions of security, civilization, state-formation, one which grasps the real power relations.
  • True that we need to be able to show what kind of habitus underpins democratic institutions (Lewis p. 131), but also how it comes about, other than seeing it somehow ‘essential’ to a particular religion.
  • Need to acknowledge how much of an accomplishment democracy, the rule of law, etc. is.
  • Otherwise, we’re back in the old colonial/universalizing project, which will bring out more of the de- and dyscivilizing elements of the process of civilization.

The research agenda:

1. History of subjectivity and state formation

Social discipline – Weber & Foucault

2. The two faces of liberalism and the barbarism of civilization

Cultural genocide, decivilization, dyscivilization

2. Social order and law

Crime, international relations & law, new forms of governance & regulation.