Civilisations as a System of Memeplexes

From: John Croft (
Date: Fri Jan 25 2002 - 08:21:39 GMT

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    Hi folks

    Just joined the list but I have some thoughts I'd like
    to share.

    Firstly about the nature of civilisation. What is a
    civilisation? Civilisation is a word used we tend to
    use very loosely. Here, I define "civilisation" to be
    a special kind of human culture in which a minority of
    people are not engaged in food production, industry or
    trade, but are supported in various ways for other
    purposes, by that society. Generally these purposes
    are involved in the preservation, duplication and
    dissemination of the memes that give that culture
    coherence and allow it to "hang together". In a
    civilisation, those people not engaged in productive
    activity or trade, amongst other purposes, are thus
    usually expected to create a vision, a set of
    coordinating ideas or "memes". It is the duplication
    and dissemination of these meme complexes, or
    "memeplexes" that justifies and petpetuates the form
    of social organisation that allows that civilisation
    to survive.Generally, the people engaged in such
    activities are gathered together in centres, often
    described as cities. It is from the Latin word for
    city - "civilis" - that civilisation takes its name.

    Every great urban civilisation that has ever existed
    on Earth, therefore, has had at least one psychic or
    spiritual centre upon which the "memeplexes" specific
    to that culture focus. The psychic centre for the
    Tibetans for centuries, has been the great Potala
    Palace in Llasa, For Muslims it is the black rock of
    the Kaba in Mecca, for Jews the Wailing Wall of
    Herod's Temple in Jerusalem. For China, it has been
    the heart of the Forbidden City in Peking. It is these
    centres that provide in "space" the symbolic core of
    meaning for that culture. Today, in the globalised
    corporate capitalist world culture its psychic
    "centre" in a very real sense is that area in New
    York, close by the New York Stock Exchange, that was,
    until 11th September 2001, occupied by the World Trade
    Centre. This was the primary optimistic focus from
    which the "memeplexes" that sustained and gave meaning
    to the corporate industrial civilisation have fanned
    out via institutions effecting global finance and
    production systems across the planet. The terrorist
    attack on this centre has left our culture in a state
    of shock, shaken in a way not experienced by the West,
    since perhaps the the attack on Pearl Harbour.

    Such an event was also found with the fall of Rome,
    the Eternal City, to Alaric the Visigoth, an earlier
    Osama bin Laden, in 410 CE. The shock of this event
    was described by Augustine Bishop of the City of Hippo
    in modern Algeria (354-430 CE) in his great spiritual
    memeplex of a work, "The City of God". Rome was the
    center of the world, its literature and culture
    presented a society in which a visible civil
    institution, the Roman empire, embodied all the hopes
    and expectations of reasonable men. The sacking of
    this city provided Saint Augustine the chance to
    suggest that the world of the Empire was a fantastic
    dream, an illusory fantasy world built upon a
    collective delusion. Out of this great work, came the
    chance to build a set of memeplexes, embodying a new
    civilisation, that of Western Christendom, out of
    which a new Rome was to develop. For Roman Catholics
    the centre of this new civilisation is the crypt of
    the tomb of the disciple Peter, the rock (petros) on
    which Christ would build his church, at the heart of
    Saint Peter's Basilica, in the Vatican in Rome.

    Our circumstances today afford us the opportunity to
    re-examine the framework of our lives and the
    dream-factories from which the memeplexes that
    undergird the global industrial civilisation emanate.
    The need to engage in this self-analysis is urgent.
    All civilisations that have ever existed, have
    depended on the extraction of a surplus, beyond the
    requirements of biological survival. It is this
    surplus which has allowed the survival of the
    non-productive groups that maintain its organisation
    and structure. This surplus has been extracted from
    the ecology and biology of the region in which the
    civilisation has dominated. To a large extent, the
    size of this surplus has determined how many people
    can be involved in establishing and maintaining its
    core memplexes, how large a civilisation can be, and
    for how long it can survive. This extent in space and
    time varies from place to place and has changed and
    altered throughout history. In every case, however,
    cilvilisations come under threat when, for internal or
    external reasons, it exceeds the carrying capacity of
    its environment.

    Of the 40-50 civilisations that can be historically
    recognised, the vast majority collapsed when, through
    their memeplexes structure and organisation, they
    undermined the ecological system upon which their
    culture depended. When this has happened, there have
    been five possible responses.

    Firstly, when people of an area of a civilisation, or
    part of a civilisation, cannot any longer secure a
    livelihood which allows them to fulfil the potential
    offered by the cultural vision of the memeplex, they
    will be forced either to lower their expectations, or
    seek emigration to somewhere else which allows them to
    survive. We cannot begin to guess the millions who
    are forced to revise their expectations downwards. On
    those who seek to escape through emigration, the
    United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today
    estimates some 22 million people, in more than 120
    countries, world wide are affected by this problem.
    Generally, those refugees fleeing economic or
    environmental collapse is growing, and there are also
    increasing numbers of "internal refugees" within
    countries too.

    Secondly, through deliberate action, for example, by
    birth control, abortion, infanticide or voluntary
    euthanasia, or through the forces of nature; through
    plague, pestilence or famine, populations may be
    reduced to levels that the environment can sustain.
    History contains many hundreds of examples of such
    events. Such limitations in population run counter to
    the expectations of biological survival, but if they
    assist the survival of the cultural memeplexes they
    can proliferate. Earlier cultures, lacking the modern
    forms of transport, were greatly affected by the
    vagaries of weather patterns, in which an El Nino or
    La Nina event, a regional collapse of the harvest
    could occur. Recently, as this book will show, such
    climatic reversals, some lasting just for a few years,
    others lasting for centuries, could cause the collapse
    and depopulation of a whole civilisation. Any
    structure which minimises the negative impact of such
    events will tend to spread.

    Thirdly, often as a result of these first two factors,
    levels of coercion and expropriation of the resources
    of a population by its elite, or of a civilisation or
    part of a civilisation over its neighbours, can also
    increase. Militaristic expansion, through capturing
    the resources of others, may temporarily prevent a
    collapse, giving a brief chance for a civilisation to
    reorganise and restructure itself to secure its
    survival. But this usually does not happen. The
    resources often continue to be wasted on vainglorious
    examples of conspicuous consumption, and the respite
    is only temporary. Eventually the situation becomes
    too complex to manage effectively, the numbers of
    disenfranchised grow to such an extent, that the tools
    and weapons of the dominant culture get turned inwards
    upon itself, and violence becomes endemic.

    In some cases a civilisation can reorganise itself,
    and its central memeplexes, to use its available
    resources more intensively. This can be achieved in a
    number of fashions, either through technological
    change, or by forcing dependent groups in society to
    work longer and harder for less return. Examples of
    the former tend to predominate during the early
    gestation and germination of a new civilisation.
    Examples of the latter happen when people feel that
    there is "no alternative", and creativity begins to
    diminish. These two alternatives, however, are, like
    the others often compatible with each other, or indeed
    with any one or more of the other five factors.

    Finally, in some cases, option four may result in a
    fifth situation, where a civilisation may specialise
    in producing goods, labour or services of a kind not
    available to neighbouring cultures. Intra-and
    inter-civilisation trade can result in a regional or
    global economic system, what Emmanuel Wallerstein and
    World Systems Theory describes as a "World System"
    which can, if conditions are right, allow a higher
    population with a more complex culture, to be

    These five alternative options may interact and
    reinforce each other in different ways. For example,
    our dependence upon the non-renewable resource of
    fossil fuels, or a culture's non-sustainable use of a
    renewable resource (for example - Rome's use of the
    soils of Southern Italy and North Africa), can
    temporarily produce highly complex cultures, but
    ultimately one of the five strategies will be
    required. Recent history, the Gulf War, and many other
    struggles offer examples of these events. The War
    against Iraq can be interpreted as an attempt to
    prevent a vital resource, oil, being expropriated by a
    state, Iraq, in danger of collapse. To ensure its
    uninterrupted flow to the benefit of corporate
    industrial culture, over half a million Iraqis have
    perished. The growth of an economically and
    environmentally destitute population is seeing the
    attempts of large numbers of people to emigrate to
    more favourable locations. The increase in Iraqi
    refugees is the direct result.

    Today, the situation across Africa, the Middle East
    and the former Soviet Union, where unstable coercive
    regimes attempt to survive in conditions of worsening
    economic and ecological conditions, with burgeoning
    populations and increasing dependence upon
    non-renewable, non-sustainable resources is perilous.
    It offers us in miniature, for the majority or Third
    World, of the possible conditions to be found in a
    civilisation like our own, whose core memeplexes have
    vastly exceeded the carrying capacity of their
    biological environment. Unfortunately, history does
    not give us a single example of any culture or
    civilisation, which has continued to exceed this
    limit, that has long continued to survive.

    Today, outside the "core" areas of the Corporate
    Industrial civilisation to which we belong, life in
    the future is beginning to look very grim. Popular
    culture of the Hollywood Dream Machine, in its
    portrayals of this future, tend to reflect such an
    apocalyptic view. Given current trends, it would seem
    impossible to avoid the conclusion that our culture
    has got itself into a literal "dead-end". Unless
    things change quite radically soon, it is quite likely
    that we will see our civilisation increasingly enter
    its death throes - as levels of consumption world-wide
    begin to plummet to what a depleted ecosystem can

    Interested in other's thoughts on these matters.



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