Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that.
— Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
Our most important task at the present moment is to build castles in the sky.
— Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias
The Praxis Society is an open conspiracy of individuals who take responsibility for tomorrow. We are as worldly ambassadors of greater futures — a responsibility we have undertaken, much less one that has been bestowed upon us. Yet it is precisely for this reason that it is now useful to ask: what does tomorrow look like? At risk of turning this essay into a philosophy seminar, I will limit it to exploring a (deceptively) simple question: what is civilization for?
I. The Engine of History
In the Beginning, War
Everything interesting or noble about man stems from his awareness of his mortality. Death calls to us the moment we are born; we know this, and are always reminded of it. Facing this dilemma (the condemnation of death v.s. the burden of life), the first men extolled life. The result of this decision was, gradually, the birth of civilization. Indeed what is agriculture, city-building, and the creation of art and religion — the scaffolding of civilization — if not the artificial negation of death?
But while it was the awareness of death which birthed what we might call a Will to Civilization, it is the institution of war which has driven the growth and expansion of civilization itself. Indeed the problem with peace is that it is a-historical — totally alien and unusual to the lot of humanity that has ever lived. Historically, war has been the greatest forcing function for the acceleration of civilized humanity.
This seems counter-intuitive, yet also intuitively understandable. Having mastered agriculture and organized themselves into cities, the first men saw the survival of their dominion as a constant battle against scarcity. Primordial cities such as Ur and Babylon made distinct separations between the ordered world of the city (with each city blessed by a deity such as Enkidu or Nanna/Su'en), and the chaotic world beyond the city's walls. This led to a natural ordering of society such that the vast majority of people toiled the soil, a smaller elect interfaced with the divine to bless harvests, and a select warrior aristocracy — from whose ranks the king often emanated — ensured the protection of the whole society. It is also by virtue of this class' conquests that more land and more wealth was acquired by the state. This was the prime source of their legitimacy. Though reductive, this account is essentially the basic outline of humanity's first civilized orders, from the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, to the Persians, Greeks, and of course the Romans. The oft-quoted meme is that the history of humanity is a series of battles, and it is likely truer than we'd like to imagine.
Beyond the practical consequences of war such as economic expansion and protection, war totalizes experience and essentializes human life: either fight to live, or surrender like a slave. The concept of the Human itself — as Hegel showed in his depiction of the Master-Slave dialectic — could be said to have been forged in war. Hegel argued that the Human is the animal who fights to the death for recognition. For Hegel, Humanity is characterized by a contempt for life itself in favor of fundamentally artificial notions such as Glory, Dignity, or Nobility. The winner of this battle for recognition is deemed the Master; the vanquished, who chose mere survival over recognition, becomes his slave. In a Hegelian sense, this dialectic is the root of historical progression.
But another, more fascinating element emerges from the clash of civilizations. In the contest between armies, from Alexander's deployment of the Macedonian engineer corps on his journeys East, to the Romans' famous feats of infrastructural ingenuity at Alesia and countless other battlefields, war often gave rise to man's inventiveness, his Promethean spirit. Simply, war seeded the beginnings of Technology.
The Birth of Technology
Technology as human activity, what the Greeks called techne, has existed since the first spear was carved by Homo Sapiens. But Technology as system — a network of machines for making machines — is entirely the product of the Industrial Revolution, which was itself sparked by war.
Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain and nowhere else? The myth is that some time around the 18th century, a bevy of geniuses and mad scientists, guided by their own personal interest and inventiveness, simply got to building "cool shit" unprompted. The reality of the Industrial Revolution is that Britain's incessant wars with its bigger neighbors from 1689 to 1815, combined with the crown's exceptional commitment to waging said wars, provided an artificial forcing function that ultimately resulted in its techno-industrial breakthrough.
The British state was first and foremost a martial state, which itself was a consequence of Britain's small size relative to its powerful neighbors. By the 18th century, Britain had a population of only 5.7 million, compared to France's 25 million and Spain's 8 million — both empires being the British crown's sworn enemies. War, in this sense, was a driver of the state's development, and industry was the core lever pulled to achieve said development.
Historian Priya Satia authoritatively showed how this process unfolded. She notes that gun manufacturer Samuel Galton Junior — a fellow luminary of the Lunar Society which counted James Watt and Matthew Boulton as members — himself believed that it was war contracts which fueled the industrial spark:
He [Galton] noted that everyone in the rapidly transforming economy of the Midlands was in some way contributing to the state’s war-making powers; he was no worse than the copper supplier, the taxpayer, or the thousands of skilled workmen manipulating metal into everything from buttons to pistol springs for the king’s men...To Galton, complicity in war was general and inescapable. Government contracts were driving the astonishing industrial transformation around him.
The state was directly involved and interested in the shoring up of its warring capacity:
The institutions that made up the 18th-century British ‘state’ existed entirely to provide the resources for war; the idea that government offices ought to build schools and canals did not exist. The British state was a ‘fiscal-military’ state, raising taxes to prosecute the many wars of the period more effectually than any other European government of the time. The growth in trade those wars (forcibly) produced was critical to Britain’s industrial revolution – providing raw materials and stimulating efforts to imitate luxury imports. The expenditure of tax revenue itself also had an important role in that transformation. And besides taxation, the other early purpose of government offices was management of contracts for military supply.
The effect of this state involvement was the employment of its brightest inventors to fan the fires of industry. Satia elaborates:
Government contracts and offices had a major role in the most iconic developments of the industrial revolution, including the steam engine (whose manufacture depended on techniques first applied to cannon-boring), the ‘puddling process’ for producing iron (invented by a naval contractor), copper sheathing (developed for naval ships), and interchangeable-parts manufacturing (invented to produce wooden pulley blocks for the rigging of naval ships). Woollen drapers were also major contractors. The Navy Victualling Office was one of the largest purchasers of agricultural produce. The purchases of trading companies partnered with the state, like the East India Company, further expanded this government footprint in the economy.
For another snapshot of war's crucial role as primary forcing function for technological development — and alternatively, to get a glimpse of what peak performance looks like at civilizational scale — no other example shines brighter than wartime America from 1940 to 1969. Modern people underestimate the fire that existential threats light under men; how, in such moments, our beauty and ugliness reach peaks we never knew we could scale. Such was the context behind America's war-time mobilization during WWII.
The feats are astounding: from 1940 to 1945 — a period during which America experienced the fastest economic growth in its history — the U.S. government managed to increase military spending by an amount equal to 70 percent of 1940 GDP (about $15 Trillion today) while accelerating industrial productivity and technological innovation (the atom bomb, radar, the beginnings of computer technology), raising civilian living standards, reducing unemployment by 10 million, adding 20 more million jobs across private industry and the military, all the while avoiding runaway inflation.
American civilization was, then, an effectively technological and centrally planned civilization directed entirely towards the object of war. Everything from macroeconomic data to the price of steel was quantified and priced by the War Production Board. After WWII, this industrial, technological beast was preserved and turned towards another objective: the annihilation of the Soviets. From that, America produced the internet, the hydrogen bomb, ICBMs, and of course the crown jewel of American technical capacity: the Apollo program. From the stories of both Britain and America's techno-industrial development, we can clearly see that war is the greatest driver of technical production, and that, as Alexander Gerschenkron stated, modern industrial civilization is inconceivable without definite planning and design.
The Industrial Revolution was important because it was the awakening of the network of Technology — meaning, Technology as Super-organism: Technos. A new kind of God. The network is imperative because without it, a mouse does not exist. Before the network, all techniques (tools, techne) existed more or less in a stand alone manner: the wheel, the spear, even the gun was manufactured in localized shops. Industrial manufacturing changed all of this by birthing the factory: a meta machine for making new things. The network of meta-machines then gave way to more tools, which themselves were networked, and the emergent properties of this growing Organism is Technos.
As we see from the progression of ancient, war-driven agrarian societies to our own, Technology is the transition from the world of scarcity (driven by war) — where wealth is seized and hoarded — to the world of abundance, where wealth is created and distributed. Modern industrial civilization is but a step on the ladder towards full Technological Civilization, the latter which has never truly existed in history. A Technological Civilization is not one which occasionally builds and scales technology; it is one where technology is the core craft of the state and its citizens, mobilizing the whole of society towards its aims. War time America approximated this ideal, but even this was quite far off the mark of what could be.
To sum up what we've learned so far: civilization is effectively the society-scale negation of death through artifice. This artificial structure has historically been driven by war. War, in turn, engenders the core tool for producing the artificial (and its potential successor as engine of civilization): Technology. And as seen above, Technology (in its present infancy) thrives most under the forcing function of war. But in the post-Cold War period, industrial Technology, even with all its accumulated rust, has accelerated to such a point that large scale wars have become truly prohibitive. Industrial warfare is existentially catastrophic — a negation of the negation of death that is civilization. This is the paradox of Civilization. The question left to us is the following: how do we do away with war, salvage Technology, yet retain the existential and fundamental forcing function that war used to provide for the advance of Technology and civilization?
II. Telos and Civilization
At a certain level of abstraction, all true problems are "first world" problems, meaning problems that demand an answer to the question: "having satiated my materialistic constraints (negating death and scarcity), what must I turn myself towards to achieve personhood?". Posing this question at the scale of civilization is an exercise in asking what must be done given humanity's age-old penchant for destroying worlds (war) and its newfound power for creating worlds (Technology). This is a question of teleology.
The Central Project
As should be clear by now, civilization is itself a technology—mankind’s greatest, in fact. But all technologies need a function, a telos. Peak America saw its telos as the defeat of Communism—a powerful existential forcing function. Since then, one could argue that America (and the rest of the modern world for that matter) is merely using its civilizational technology to optimize for "utils" and pleasure points. Nihilistic materialism is its final form, and unfortunately, we are all young enough to have embraced it.
Simply stated, modern civilization has no stated telos whatsoever. It has lost sight of what civilization researcher Nick Nielsen calls the central project. Nielsen defines a civilization as "an economic framework coupled to a conceptual framework by a central project." According to Nielsen, every civilization has a central project, which he defines as a societal condition where "a sufficiently large number of persons are able to unify their efforts around common interests, meanings, and values". He continues:
Such purposes are re-interpreted over time and so constitute a moving target; eventually conditions are transformed to the point that the purpose (or the social body devoted to the purpose) can no longer remain coherent, and the social institutions that had temporarily formed about the purpose begin their dissolution. Civilizations may, at this point, bifurcate, transform, or cede their place in history to a successor.
For Nielsen, the most difficult and important problem facing a civilization is how it defines its central project, the latter being "the glue that will hold the civilization together, that will mediate between practices that keep the civilization functioning and the theories by which a civilization justifies itself to itself". So what should our central project be? That is always an imaginative exercise. But what is easier to say, having endured a 250-year experiment living through it (in the case of American civilization), is what it shouldn't be.
The modern world is dead because it has exhausted the limits of Humanism — the belief, among others, that human flourishing is the sine qua non of the universe. The result of this is the (undesigned) creation of a mammoth industrial infrastructure without any great aims towards which to direct it beyond the satisfaction of material human needs. Human flourishing is not a strong enough individual, let alone civilizational motivator. Happiness is ephemeral, and can be simulated in ways meaning or spiritual dimensions of human experience cannot. As shown by the example of war, humans are at their best when struggling against a great aim, staking their humanity at every moment. Coupled with modern industrial infrastructure, Happiness ideology leads to the pathological domestication of the human — man as consumer animal, alive merely to satiate his material needs.
We are a generation of men born during the Long Peace ushered in by American hegemony. Like the Romans under the Julio-Claudian dynasty, our role has been reduced to mere subjects, not citizens, for we have no great cause upon which to latch ourselves to.
Modern industrial civilization is Ginsberg's Moloch, a terrifying, ecosystem-guzzling machine of death. Yet it is not inconceivable that this very machinery could also be deployed to end war, create lasting peace, and be turned towards higher aims. But under a Humanist state — where Happiness is the ideal — where does all that energy go? Facebook. IG. Tik Tok. Netflix. A Benz. Gucci. And on and on. Wordsworth said it best: "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers". Human flourishing is not enough. Humanity needs a Divine frontier to justify its Prometheanism (our fundamental ethos).
We are at an impasse. On the one hand, we know there’s nothing outside this planet but empty space and death. On the other, we are close to (unsustainably) achieving full planetarity, with every patch of land claimed. If the pursuit of happiness is a dead end; if war is a great initial stimulant of human faculties but ultimately destructive; and given the fact that most people could give a fig about space exploration, making it a weaker motivator than war — then to refine Nielsen's question further, what is Techno-Industrial Civilization for?
III. Death and Rebirth
Only as an aesthetic product can the world be justified to all eternity.
— Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
A New Central Project
While it may seem like all is lost, after closer scrutiny, we realize that this line of thinking is a chimera. Us Moderns are, in fact, warriors — but of an altogether new stripe. Our great war is not against other men, but against Death itself. Entropy, to be more precise. Do not mistake my words for an endorsement of the transhumanist pursuit of individual immortality, which is merely another manifestation of Happiness ideology — life as another product to consume, another metric to optimize, this time ad infinitum. Which is better: to be just one among billions of 10,000 year-olds nobody will ever remember (because they don't have to remember you when you are eternal; when was the last time you thought about immortal jellyfish?); or to die accomplished at 33 — like Alexander and Jesus did — yet live forever in the corpus of civilization itself? No, it is not against individual death, but rather against civilizational death that our fight is directed.
The question of immortality, in conjunction with the eventual project which answers it, is the central question of a civilization, just as it is for the individual. In the ancient world, for the most part, the after-life did not exist. If it did, men had contempt for it. Therefore, men believed that in order to solve the problem of death, immortality had to be gained during one's life — and this could only be achieved through eternal glory, in battle or otherwise.
The Christian revolution, in positing the immortality of the soul upon the descent of the Eschaton, effectively nullified the Promethean spirit of the ancient world, replacing it with an immortality conditional not on great heroic acts, but on piety, humility, and compassion — a current which eventually overtook the medieval church's early technological vigor. This temperance, designed to lead to peaceful humanity, mostly served to neuter the Promethean spirit of man in a world which has lost faith in the divine.
In order to synthesize this dialectic, the problem of death — of immortality — must be taken out of the individual context and scaled to the level of civilization itself. Individual immortality (one's name being remembered, not the vulgar transhumanist kind) can only be achieved if those who do the remembering are themselves remembered. In other words, civilizational immortality is the only relevant immortality to achieve.
This slight shift of perspective does not nullify Prometheanism because, crucially, civilizations only achieve glory thanks to the deeds of its greatest movers. Thus Promethean immortality and civilizational immortality are aligned. The Christian element — a key component, imbuing a sense of wisdom to what would otherwise be a civilization of narcissistic psychopaths — is also preserved because it acts as necessary temperance for those Promethean individuals who would seek to achieve immortality through heinous, immoral acts that could threaten the longevity of the whole civilization.
This is a shift from a vision of civilization as the negation of death through artifice, to civilization as the immanentization of Life, ad vitam aeternam. Proactive civilization, not reactive. If I could sum up what this shift means, it is the assertion that Humanity's new Central Project is nothing short of Total Life: that is, making Consciousness Cosmological. And indeed for Eternity to begin, History must end. Technology is the bridge between these two phases of Humanity.
What does such a civilization even look like? It is unfathomable to us now. But perhaps it would be one where, much like war-time America, close to 70% of its GDP could be deployed to the central project — instead of war (death, negation of scarcity), this end would be Promethean (Life, proactive transformation). It could be a post-military civilization, where defense remains but only as an afterthought due to the state's total monopoly on violence.
Instead, techno-industrial infrastructure is directed at the formation of worlds (and their attendant consciousnesses): virtual, oceanic, subterranean, planetary, orbital, stellar, galactic, or even quantal. Wherever Life can sprout, the imprint of man would be found. This is a civilization where Technology is no longer just a tool of Capital and mere novelty (as it is under Silicon Valley), or war engine (as it is under the state), but something altogether new. Technology as a society-wide craft, culture, and perhaps even religion. It is something I call Techno-Praxis: a sort of science of "Civilizationcraft" — Civilization as a Work of Art.
A New Forcing Function
There remains a problem: where is our forcing function to undertake such a project if it can no longer be war? The climate change apocalypse is one candidate. Climate change is not about climate change. Climate change is about ecosystem governance. Ecosystem governance is downstream from humanity’s species dominance. Species dominance is a result of Technology. Technology is the promethean staircase to Godhood.
Godhood (understood here as the ur-negentropic force in a fundamentally entropic universe) is that which breathes Life into the cosmos — indeed in Genesis, God creates Adam by breathing Life into his nostrils. The climate crisis is merely Humanity’s first reckoning with the ladder of Godhood that we have begun, unconsciously, to climb. It is therefore an ideal forcing function to accelerate our climb up this ladder.
In truth, the climate candidate isn’t yet ready for prime time. The threat still seems too remote (not to speak of its politicization). This is also why political deadlock remains unsolvable; absent a real great foe, we turn against one another, manufacturing fake, stupid slights. To the millions from the Sahara and the Sahel who have faced its dangers directly.), the climate threat is very real. But those regions lack the techno-industrial infrastructure needed to rise to the challenge. Still, there will be a moment when the threat will rear its head across the planet. And when it does, we will have found our Hejira.
In order to properly transmute the warring energy that forges man into something true, civilization must eventually use the existential pressure of its poor ecosystem governance and make Godhood its next central project — man as a co-creator or even successor to God, not Luciferian usurper as in the Humanist vision of the world. Unceasing war against Civilizational death, for Civilizational Eternity must be our great endeavor.
Again, this is not a call for a puerile vision of individual immortality, nor is it a call for deifying mankind. Immortality only matters at the Civilizational scale, and Humanity is not the end point or ultimate aim of the cosmos, but one of its primary agents whose trade is Prometheanism. We could say, as I have elsewhere, that mankind is Earth's own technological mode as the latter replicates itself throughout the cosmos, in search of its own subjectivity. This seems intuitively true: Life is a gift, a fragile one, and it can only thrive under the haven of civilization, whose ultimate aim is the immortalization of conscious Life. This is our final odyssey.
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