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Evolution of State and Individualism can Erode our Civilization

Civilization and State: Part Compliments, Part Substitutes

Evolution of State and Individualism can Erode our Civilization
Image Source - Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:El_Castillo_Stitch_2008_Edit_1.jpg)
Human civilization has witnessed tremendous advances during the last few centuries, including the evolution of state as an all encompassing patron of our lives, with responsibility to control and regulate us as well as ensure our welfare and private needs. This ever enlarging role of state has significantly enriched our lives, but also led to unprecedented individualism that can erode the civilization itself, and in turn erode the State and everything else!

Civilization as the basis of human society

Civilization is one of the prerequisites for all other human development. The concept of civilization is based on accepted norms of conduct and interaction between members of the same civilization. It is the fruitful interaction of human beings and the resulting synergies that creates the basis of evolution of our societies and civilizations.

Human Civilization invariably begins with individuals voluntarily refraining from harming others, and expecting similar treatment in return. This leads to the creation of mutual trust among fellow members of society, which gives rise to further cooperation among them, and enables and facilitates more sophisticated social interactions. The greatest thrust to civilizational advancement comes by the establishment of family and common household, which arise from the horizontal and vertical bonds of kinship. The horizontal bond is formed by a male and a female coming together to create a permanent relationship of marriage, while the vertical bonds are created between the parents and their offspring, thereby giving rise to family.

Around these, there exist several other standards relationships like siblings, relatives and neighbors, which can either at an individual level or more often connect different families together.

One of the most important components of civilization is self-restraint in the face of greed, temptation and anger. Accepted norms of behavior in a civilized society expect a person to refrain from steeling or taking away by force what belongs to someone else. Similar or even greater self-restraint is often expected and practices in civilized societies with regard to sexual urges, and a great deal of social learning and restraint is devoted for this purpose. More sophisticated societies are also characterized by varying degrees of compassion for other individuals, resulting in sharing of resources like water, food and shelter with others in distress, and also lead to help and care of someone seriously sick, injured or dying.

It is this civilization, which primarily runs our world and ensures an orderly life for all of us. It is also these great characteristics that subsequently give rise to more sophisticated political and economic institutions like the State and the markets.

State as a Product of Civilization

State is an organization that exercises authority over a group of humans within its territory and makes them follow the norms laid down by it for them. Every state is centered around a ruler or a group of rulers, who may be self imposed as in the case of monarchy or aristocracy, or elected by the people as in case of a republic or a democracy. An essential pre-requisite for the state is its power of enforcement that is generally derived by armed forces or strongmen. However, the authority of the state does not necessarily or solely flows from the barrel of the gun or is based on these musclemen. In fact, it is derived primarily by the acceptance of the state’s authority by the people that are subject to its rule.

The state, in its most primitive form, can exist even in the tribal societies. There, it could be the strongest man or the one considered the wisest, who acts as the leader for the clan and to varying extent, the individuals in the tribe follow his instructions. However, a sophisticated state can come into existence only in a more civilized society. In other words, a modern state is unlikely to come into existence unless the civilization has advanced to a certain degree. Civilization invariably precedes the state, though after the formation of a state, the civilization may continue to evolve along with the state, in a complimentary relationship, or in some cases, even stagnate or begin to decay.

It would be fair to say, then, that the state is largely a product of human civilization. Along with family and market, it is one of the three social institutions produced by civilization that govern almost all aspects of our life today.

Complimentary functions of Civilization and State

There are many ways in which state compliments the functions of the civilization. The most important of them is the use of force to ensure the safety and security of people. Evolved civilizations look down upon violence. The highest forms of civilizations go to the extent of absolute non-violence even towards animals and other living beings. In such an environment, by monopolizing violence, state becomes very important in dealing with violent aggressors. It not only protects the people from violent and aggressive foreign invaders, but also from violent criminals within the society. This is one of the primary reasons why people willingly allow the state to monopolize violence.

Another way in which civilization and state complement each other is by the greater ability of state to enforce the accepted norms of civilized behavior by encoding them as laws, and prescribing penalties for those breaking them. This also highlights one of the fundamental differences between the roles of civilization and the state. The norms of conduct are primarily adopted by the people as part of their social values, and practiced voluntarily with the help of social peer pressure and deterrence of social exclusion. The state encodes them in the form of unambiguous laws, lays down mechanisms and formal institutions for their enforcement and thereby ensures their universal acceptance.

There are of course, several other very important functions that the state carries out in the modern world, particularly regarding the provisioning of public goods, economic regulation, stabilization and redistribution of resources. By many of these functions, the state also compliments the market, which is another important social institution that has arise from the civilization along with the state, and has contributed enormously to our economic well being.

State as a Substitute of Civilization

During most of human history, the role of the state has been rather limited to providing security from foreign invaders, collecting taxes, allocating land and certain other functions, while most other spheres of human lives were governed primarily by the civilizational dynamics of self regulation. This was particularly true of long standing civilizations like India and China, where traditionally, the role of state has been much smaller compared to the role of family and society. However, in the last four or five centuries, the development of nation state and its regulation and control of the growing economy has completely revamped it role. Today, it has grown into a welfare state, which is expected to cater to the general well being and a number of private needs of individuals.

At the same time, societies have become more individualistic. The civilizational emphasis on social norms and duties has been replaced by the recognition of individual rights. As a result, even the institution of family has now become dependent upon the state for its regulation.

One of the reasons for these developments is the reducing dependence of individuals on social relationships. In pre-modern rural societies, it would be nearly impossible for an individual to survive and thrive on his own without social relationships. However, in the 21st century, with evolved markets and the state, it is possible for an individual to manage most material needs of his life through the market or the state. It does not mean that individuals do not interact these days. It is just that they have the option of living their lives that are far less dependent upon their family, relatives and friends. In fact, today it is very much possible for individuals to live their whole life independently without having a family. The norms and traditions of society hardly matter anymore, and individuals not wanting to live by accepted social norms are generally left alone with people not even bothered about them.

In many ways, this dilutes the fundamental social bonds that gave rise to the civilization in the first place. Civilizational norms and social values come into place because they help in coordinating behavior of people in a manner that leads to certain positive social outcomes. With state taking up most of these functions, individuals are freed from these social obligations to a large extent.

Unfortunately, when this happens, the civilization begins to erode. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the state itself cannot survive without a civilization. Evolution of a strong state that dilutes civilizational needs can thus precipitate a vicious cycle of social decay and destruction.

May be there is a lesson to learn for all of us!


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