The Civilized Word – An Exploitation by those who DEFINE it

What if the early civilization was not a boon to the humankind but a disaster: for health and safety, for freedom, and for the natural world? What if the first cities were, above all, vast technologies of exploitation by a small rapacious elite?

The thought-provoking question comes from a contemporary political scientist and law professor at Duke University, Jedediah Purdy.


It has enough gravity to grapple the mind and make you scrutinize the semiotics of the word ‘civilization’ a little more closely. The notions attached with the concept of civilization play a crucial role in not only determining our behavior and ability to think critically but also in the manufacturing of the fabric of state institutions, workplaces, laws and above all, the ‘civil’ society. However, on the other side of civilization, lie indecency, anarchy, unruliness, barbarianism, violence and perhaps, bloodshed.

What is interesting is the connection between our relentless pursuit and aspiration to become more civilized, settled, decent and hence more successful with the spread of control culture and discipline through various social and political agencies which reward this conformity in various forms.

Here is the point.

What lies in the backdrop of today’s acceptable norms of ‘civility’ that drives our society and is it good for us or not?

a case against civilization

James Scott, a comparatives scholar, and contemporary political philosopher, argued that civilization robbed human beings of many freedoms that they enjoyed in a hunters and gatherers society. Tracing the invent of agrarian society as the first step towards civilization, he argues that humans gave up their itinerant way of living in favor of living at designated places for longer periods of time. The latter made humans’ investment of their time and energy turn into rows of a plantation which were countable, taxable and something that could easily be monitored, bringing human life under the control of hierarchies, which directly stemmed out of civilization.

Scott further tries to draw a link between slavery and what he calls ‘the domestication of grains’ which led to labor being seen as a commodity.

Outside the walls, by contrast, a fortunate savage or barbarian might be a hunter in the morning, a herder or fisherman in the afternoon, and a bard singing tales around the fire in the evening. To enter the city meant joining the world’s first proletariat.

He presents in the support of the argument.

A case against civilization
Weather our drive towards civilization is a part of linear progress which was destined to happen this way or was our transition towards civilization based on doctrine of necessity? Some argue that the early cities were created after a water-scarcity resulted in Mesopotamia, which created a paucity of wild food.

This mandated the foragers to shift to the newly developing cities in which they had to work harder for self subsistence as well as to create a surplus for the ruler. This deprived them of their leisure time creating a cyclical process of their against civillization

On a personal and psychological level, Maslow’s theory of hierarchy (1943) validates much of the analysis provided above, in terms of humans’ motivation to reach to self-actualization, coming only after the fulfillment of basic physiological needs. But some would argue that oppressive slavery has successfully been abolished by modern states through international law’s peremptory norm (juscogens), labor laws and constitutional rights preserve self-esteem (so Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is obsolete) and hence globalization has totally changed the trajectory of the evolution of civilization. However, this seems far from the truth.

A case against civilization
American Economist, Jeffery Sachs, in his book, The Price of Civilization (2011) argued that the expanding globalization and increasing power wielded by the big corporations have made the workers as well as the state even weaker than ever before. In what he termed as ‘corpotocracy’, the labor unions have lost much of their space to these corporations. Consumerism and globalization have further eased our life in so many ways, making it more ‘civilized’.

But at what cost?

The US’ Supreme Court’s (late) Justice Oliver Wendell’s famous quote

taxes are the price we pay for the civilization

read with the American Revolution’s slogan

“no taxation without representation

tells us a lot. The mere token of a minimum wage, regressive taxation on the investment, the failure of labor unions in most parts of the world, globalization and the nexus between the handful elite and those who hold political offices suggest that the ‘representation’ with ‘taxes’ does not exist in its aspired form, and since it does not exist that way, the social contract between the people and the government seems to be crumbling. The existence of the narrative that this world, as we know today, is a ‘civilized’, one does not seem to give us anything but exploitation at the hands of those who define it.

Are we really willing to be exploited at the hands of those who define it? Do we really want to remain ‘unconscious’?


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