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ICG Risk Blog - [ Cycles of culture, civilization and organizations ]

Cycles of culture, civilization and organizations


Part 1: No nation has a "right" to exist, be it Israel or the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Drivers for cycles of culture and civilization

It was decades ago when I concluded that a latter day offspring of Edward Gibbons would write The Decline and Fall of the United States; I have touched on the transience of Pax Americana in these pages. See:

Kaplan speaks to Gibbons' grasp of nation state drivers:

The Decline and Fall instructs that human nature never changes, and that mankind's predilection for faction, augmented by environmental and cultural differences, is what determines history. In this Gibbon was influenced by the Baron de Montesquieu, who saw history not as mere politics and ideas but as a complex of cultural, social, and climatic forces. [Despite] individual agency and the surprises of history [only] patterns, rather than individuals, endure at the end of the three volumes.

For Gibbon the real changes were not so much the dramatic, "newsworthy" events as the insidious transformations: Rome moving from democracy to the trappings of democracy to military rule; Milan in Italy and Nicomedia in Asia Minor functioning as capital cities decades before the formal division of the empire into western and eastern halves, and almost two centuries before Rome officially ceased to be an imperial capital; the fact that the first fifteen "Christian" bishops of Jerusalem were circumcised Jews subscribing to a not yet formalized religion. It seems that the more gradual and hidden the change, the more historically important it turned out to be.

Oswald Spengler

I lean to life cycles as a prism though which societies and organizations can be viewed, my favorites being Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West or you prefer the original un-soundbite-able German, Der Untergang des Abendlandes. and Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History (here and here). It was widely assumed among the Entente powers (the winners) that Spenger's Decline was an apologia written after WWI; the reality was that volume I of Decline, Form and Actuality (Gestalt und Wirklichkeit), was completed in 1914 when Imperial Germany was at its zenith.

Spengler was observing the rising contests among European states. We forget that African disputes among European powers were among the central factors giving rise to WWI. The 1905-1906 Tangier Crisis, aka the First Moroccan Crisis, saw Germany question France's colonial suzerain of Morocco, the situation becoming so serious that both France and Germany mobilized their armies with the upshot that the UK began to drift away from Germany and towards its historical enemy, France. Dissatisfied with the Tangier outcome, Germany attempted gunboat diplomacy in Morocco in 1911, culminating in the Agadir Crisis that compelled Spengler to contemplate the future of European culture. See The Morocco Crisis of 1911. The 1905-1914 period was diplomacy and brinkmanship as severe as we experienced with the Soviets, more so as it ultimately led to war in 1914. Wilson covers the period nicely in THE MAKING AND PUTATIVE IMPLEMENTATION OF A BRITISH FOREIGN POLICY OF GESTURE, DECEMBER 1905 TO AUGUST 1914: THE ANGLO-FRENCH ENTENTE REVISITED.

Spengler proposed a biotic analog to nation states in that they pass through stages of birth, development, fulfillment, decay, and death (although states can be stillborn or die at any time from fatal disease). Spengler felt that as all previous cultures had passed through these distinct stages that Western culture would be no exception. The apogee is fulfillment, which he called the culture phase, after which the transition to civilization begins the period of decline and decay:

Each Culture has its own possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay, and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, but many. Each is in its deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained…

Every Culture has its own Civilization. In this work, for the first time, the two words are used in a periodic sense, to express a strict and necessary organic succession. The Civilization is the inevitable destiny of the Culture. Civilizations are the most external and artificial states which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing-becoming. They are an end, irrevocable, yet by inward necessity reached again and again...

[W]ithout exception all great creations and forms in religion, art, politics, social life, economy and science appear, fulfill themselves, and die down contemporaneously in all the cultures...

McNaughton described Spengler's stages:

Just as a human being reaches puberty during the second, and full adulthood in the third decade of life, a culture also passes through phases of predetermined sequence whose durations do not vary greatly from one higher organism to another. Its "springtime" is characterised by strong religious faith, which slowly gives way to increasing intellectuality and materialism. A culture's "summer" is an era of great creativity...

During "autumn", life becomes dominated by materialism and by purely rational thought. Warfare between the culture's constituent nations increases in intensity, with tensions between various strata of society also reaching breaking point. Eventually, one state becomes vigorous enough to conquer and absorb all others, imposing an authoritarian "Imperium".

During the Imperium, people realise the limitations of a purely intellectual view of the universe, so there is a return to religion - based on that of earlier centuries, but differently experienced through having emerged from a more advanced way of life.

The alternative to this trajectory is "sickness followed by premature death of the cultural organism." Of the "nine higher organisms" or civilizations that Spengler identified, only two cultures had yet to complete their "life-cycle" - "Western Civilisation" which he classed as "well into late adulthood" and Russia, whose Bolsheviks were attempting to graft "alien ideas" atop a "much older Western organism."

The greatest Chechen insurgent, Shamil Basayev, studied Spengler's Decline as well as the Bible. "He wanted to know how the world was ordered."

Duke University hosts an online copy of the abridged The Decline of the West by Werner, Helps and Atkinson. Most readers need go no further for original content and context. Were I to recommend a small book on Spengler, it would be H. Stuart Hughes' Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate. Less satisfying but more easily accessible are three short articles that span the view of Spengler:

Spengler had been called racist by some but he was more oblivious to race as a causal condition. Spengler's later works caused his initial adoption by the National Socialists as a theoretical precursor, but Spengler's criticisms of biological determination and persecutions culminating in his conclusion that National Socialism was fatal to Germany led to his ostracism in 1933.

Arnold Toynbee

Drawing upon trends from Goethe, Nietzsche, Hegel and others, Spengler went on to influence Arnold Toynbee's comparative study of civilizations, A Study of History, a fairer, more logical and better researched effort than Decline, although History suffered its criticism from Geyl and Trevor-Roper. Loved more by his readers than fellow historians, Toynbee:

"describes the rise and decline of 23 civilisations. His over-arching analysis was the place of moral and religious challenge, and response to such challenge, as the reason for the robustness or decline of a civilisation. He described parallel life cycles of growth, dissolution, a "time of troubles," a universal state, and a final collapse leading to a new genesis. Although he found the uniformity of the patterns, particularly of disintegration, sufficiently regular to reduce to graphs, and even though he formulated definite laws of development such as "challenge and response," Toynbee insisted that the cyclical pattern could, and should, be broken."

Samuel Francis' brief reprise of Toynbee helps to restore the essence of his approach. And as Islam has been much in our news of late, Toynbee's view of Islam is here.

Other life cycles, religious and secular

David Moberg used a life cycle analogy to understand church structure in The Church as a Social Institution much as Spengler did some sixty years earlier for states. Moberg uses five stages: incipient organization, formal organization, maximum efficiency, institutionalization, and disintegration:

Moberg's theoretical model proposes a curvilinear relationship between church age and effectiveness. For many years effectiveness and growth increase as age increases, however, midway in the life of the institution the reverse begins to be true.

In the beginning of the ascending curve there is a phase of incipient organization characterized by a negative reaction to existing churches, emotional enthusiasm for the new church, and diffused leadership. As the age and effectiveness of the organization increase, there is a phase of formal organization characterized by the membership commitments, specification of goals, symbolic separation from the larger society, and a gradual move from charismatic leaders to rational or bureaucratic leaders. As the curve rises to a crest, there is a phase of maximum efficiency characterized by decisions based on research, increased tolerance of other groups and society, rapid expansion of the formal organizational structure, and rapid growth.

In the descending curve there is a phase of institutionalization characterized by an expanded bureaucracy which has become an end in itself, declining intimacy, passive members, and leaders who are remote from followers. Finally, the curve declines to nothingness in a phase of disintegration characterized by loss of members' confidence in the institution and its leaders, formalism, indifference, obsolence, absolutism, red tape, patronage, and corruption. If reform takes place at this final stage, efficiency may be regained.

The death or disintegration phase can also be a rejuvenation or more frequently a restructuring, whereupon the cycle begins anew. The institutional phase, the period when the entity sees itself exultant, is the stage of both maximum efficiency and least flexibility. I call it sclerotic. (In a manufacturing environment, there is an effort to blend efficiency with flexibility over batch sizes and/or multiple products.)

Spengler’s state birth stage is the organizational incipient stage, when a nucleus of highly competent/motivated individuals join to perform a task, each knowing and depending upon the other. High performance teams are incipient organizations within larger, often sclerotic, organizations. I maintain that incipients reform out of desperation, if nothing else, than to build the "Go-to" network where timely, accurate answers can be found. Incipient organizations that reside within larger networks maintain contact with, and relationship to, the larger group, but are often invisible and many of its members do not even recognize that they are seen as a key node by others. (I have seen instances where a less competent external party recognizes an incipient member and leaches off their knowledge without recompense or recognition.)

Many commercial practitioners are familiar with the progression of the generic Product Life Cycle that cycles through introduction, growth, maturity and decline, but never think to apply it to nation states.


Neither Spengler or Toynbee are perfect but I find them directionally correct, enough to be useful in positioning a culture or organization and describing macro operating characteristics. Remember Box and Draper's admonition, "Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful."

Part 3: Jews on Spengler and Toynbee on Jews

How Russia's Chechen Quagmire Became Front for Radical Islam
Aligning With Arab Militants Gained Money, Fighters For Rebel Leader Basayev
Swapping 'Che' for Allah
By ANDREW HIGGINS in London, GUY CHAZAN in Nalchik, Russia, and GREGORY L. WHITE in Moscow
Wall Street Journal
September 16, 2004

Oswald Spengler's Uneven Legacy
by Donald L. Stockton

Oswald Spengler: Criticism and Tribute
Oliver, Revilo P.
The Journal for Historical Review

Volume 17 number 2
ISSN: 0195-6752
March/April 1998

The great doomsayer. (Oswald Spengler's 'The Decline of the West')
Neil McInnes
The National Interest

Islam's Place in History in A Study of History
Arnold J. Toynbee
Courtesy: A Study of History, Vol. XII (Oxford University Press, 1961), pp.461-476

The disturbing freshness of Gibbon's Decline and Fall
by Robert D. Kaplan
Atlantic Monthly
March 1997

K.M. Wilson
Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d'histoire XXXI, August/août 1996, pp. 227-255, ISSN 0008-4107

The Life Cycle of Nazarene Churches
Kenneth E. Crow, Ph.D.
Church of the Nazarene

The Church as a Social Institution: The Sociology of American Religion
by David O. Moberg
ISBN-10: 0801061687, ISBN-13: 978-0801061684
Baker Book House, 1984

Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate
By H. Stuart Hughes
Charles Scribner's Sons
ISBN 0-8371-8214-X, 1952

Oswald Spengler and the Theory of Historical Cycles
R. G. Collingwood
Volume: 1 Number: 3 Page: 311–325, 1927

Oswald Spengler. The Decline of the West. [Abridged on Web]
Abridged edition by Helmut Werner. English abridged edition prepared by Arthur Helps from the translation by Charles Francis Atkinson.
New York: Oxford University Press c199 [1926, 1928, 1932]. xxxx,415, xvix

The Decline of the West
Abridged Edition
Oswald Spengler
Edited by Helmut Werner with a New Introduction by H. Stuart Hughes
English Abridged Edition Prepared by Arthur Helps
from the Translation by Charles Francis Atkinson
ISBN13: 9780195066340ISBN10: 0195066340 paper, 492 pages
OUP, Feb 1991

The Decline of the West
by Oswald Spengler
Knopf (Jun 12 1945)
ISBN-10: 0394421760, ISBN-13: 978-0394421766

Der Untergang Des Abendlandes: Umrisse Einer Morphologie Der Weltgeschichte
Oswald Spengler
Publication Date: January 1980
ISBN-10: 3406025315

Gordon Housworth

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