Lesson 3: Civilization does not make our lives better. Civilization robs us of the the good things in life.
What about all the benefits of civilization? Of large-scale, complex social organization? We’ve all been taught the story that the history of humankind has been a progression from barbarism to a civilization and from less civilization to more civilization. And we’ve been taught that this is a good thing. But what if it wasn’t?
Civilization is a term which is often used, but rarely defined. Civilization is the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of an elite class which coincides with the geographical concentration of people into cities, in order to produce and collect a surplus for the elites.[FN 1] The word “civilization” comes from the same root as “city”. The earliest states were city-states like Sumer and Babylon, Athens and Greece, Tenochtitlán and Iztapalapa, Venice and Florence.
It’s really impossible to pinpoint when exactly civilization began; It’s easier to think of it as a process, rather than a point in time. What anarchists call “the state” is the result of the process of civilization creating a class of people whose sole function is to govern others. This includes rulers like monarchs and aristocrats, but also professional politicians, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, police officers, and soldiers.
Though they’re often used synonymously, civilization is not the same thing as culture. When we think about civilization, we tend to think about things that we like—such as the arts, modern medicine, technological gadgets, and so on. But many of the things that we like, such as art and healing, existed before civilization and outside of states. And many of the lauded “improvements” brought by civilization were not really improvements, or else they were improvements which came at a terrible cost.