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Civilization and the Transformation of Power
by Jim Garrison

Paraview Press, 2000
ISBN: 1-931044-00-7
History, 414 pp
Trade Paperback: $19.95 

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Excerpt: from the INTRODUCTION


I can do without answers to all my questions except the one question, What questions should we be asking in a world that is burning? —Anon.

At the turn of the millennium the world is burning. Transformation is occurring in every sector, at every scale, in every dimension. Nothing we have inherited from the past is able to withstand the accelerated pace of change; everything from the future remains a perpetual possibility. Society has become completely malleable to the power of science and technology; our mind, continually susceptible to novelty; our relationships, opened to new configurations and meanings.

It is almost unbelievable that 90 percent of everything that has been discovered or invented in the entire history of civilization has been invented or discovered in the past seventy-five years. Explosions in science and technology are creating opportunities that stagger the imagination. Revolutions in biotechnology, nanotechnology, digital technology, and information technology are reshaping human society and offering us essentially unlimited power over ourselves, over nature, over life itself.

Yet all these achievements have not made us more ethically balanced or more wise. Upwards of two hundred million persons have been killed in this century alone for reasons of war and ideology, more than have been killed in all of recorded history combined. The advent of nuclear weapons in 1945 made possible for the first time the annihilation of all life. Chemical and biological weapons, other products of this century, could also do irreparable harm on a scale heretofore unknown.

Ironically, the incidences of natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, famines, tornadoes, hurricanes, and drought—are occurring with a frequency without modern historical parallel.

In social terms we are witnessing an equally powerful force. After millennia of male domination, women are rising to positions of leadership in virtually every sphere of endeavor. In the process we are completely reforming gender relationships and our inherited beliefs concerning governance, community, family, hierarchy, and spirituality. This is giving rise to extraordinary possibilities in our appreciation of human potential and societal values.

Equally fundamental, a global consciousness, spawned by economic globalization and mass communication, is for the first time uniting all of humanity into a single unit, bringing the six thousand discrete cultures and societies now existing around the world into sustained interaction. Nation-states, the mainstay of commerce, government, and culture for centuries, are rapidly giving way to networks empowered by information and communication technologies. Human civilization is being reborn on a global scale.

Such are the transformations occurring in the world that President and poet Vaclav Havel suggests that "There are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble."

At the onset of a new century and the third millennium, propelled forward by change, we find ourselves in the space between epochs. We are being torn from the past and yet the future is indistinct. With unimaginable power at our disposal, with transformations occurring in every sphere, we are strangely unsure of where we now want to go. To use a Biblical image, it is as if we were delivered from the bondage of Egypt but have not yet entered the Promised Land. We are thus wandering lost in the wilderness of Sinai, full of potential but without clear direction.

Sinai bespeaks a time when the old is gone, but the new is not yet fully discerned. It is a time of transition, a time of hope and preparation in anticipation of the new, as well as a time of disorientation and confusion, emanating out of the passing of the old. All our inventions and discoveries, even our deliverance from the grip of the Cold War, have brought not utopia but turbulence, not a new world-order but uncertainty and chaos.

Being lost in Sinai, the world around us burning in transformation, compels us to ask whether we are caught up in a random accumulation of events that are sweeping the world into an unknown reality beyond anyone’s control, or are deep patterns of history operating that can be discerned in our present moment? Are we in a time of unprecedented newness in which everything is being reinvented, or are we in the grip of deja vu in which the past is mysteriously present and framing our future?

May I suggest that the answer to both alternatives is yes? We are in a time of novelty, and we are experiencing the repetition of very deep historical patterns. Everything is completely new, and we have all been here before. We are marching relentlessly into the unknown, and, if we look deeply enough, we can discern that this unknown is undergirded by the knowable. To be able to discern both alternatives, separately and together, is to be able to come to terms with the paradox of power, which characterizes our age.

I use the term "paradox of power" very advisedly. Things seem as confusing as they are because everything seems paradoxical. New inventions and discoveries abound to raise standards of living, eliminate certain diseases, and make life more comfortable worldwide; and thousands of plant and animal species are made extinct every year as a result of this technological progress. Multinational corporations sell their products in every corner of an increasingly prosperous world, and new diseases and refugee migrations sweep the earth. We are comforted with myriad accouterments of technological progress, and we are confronted by multiple crises in human relations. We continue to foul our nest, even as we build better ones.

At a time of unparalleled expansion at the scientific and technological levels, we participate in and give witness to unimaginable destructiveness. The generation of humanity that put a man on the moon and developed a cure for polio produced the Stalinist dictatorship and shoved millions of Jews into gas chambers. The companies that manufacture the consumer goods we all enjoy slash rain forests to the ground and adhere to minimal environmental standards only by force of law. In the name of progress we destroy; through destruction we "progress." The more we know, the more destructive we seem to become. The more power we exercise, the more power we seek.

This is a universal phenomenon, affecting the entire human race. Whether from the Japanese, European, or American corporations, technological developments are generated to satisfy consumers while their ethical, social, and environmental implications are left essentially unexplored; and whether in the Balkans, Africa, or Tibet, peace is discussed while violence abounds. Human technology and human relations everywhere reflect this paradox of progress and destructiveness, altruism and greed. Human life is played out on the anvil of tragedy and hope.

This paradox undergirds human historical, psychological, and spiritual life. The polarity of opposites within the context of life, death, and renewal constitutes a basic matrix of human existence itself. Carl Jung called this the cruciform nature of reality: Everything in our experience is comprised of opposites, and all things evolve through time within a pattern of life, death, and renewal. Moreover, these opposites are not simply neat pairs of polarities, such as light and dark, male and female, which are easily identifiable and understood. Rather, the cruciform nature of reality describes existence as comprised of antinomies: internally consistent, mutually exclusive truths, which to our conscious mind seem totally disconnected but which are inseparably interconnected within our psyche and in the realm of Spirit.

It is almost impossible to grasp an antinomy intellectually because an antinomy cannot be explained rationally. That not withstanding, the subject of this book is the antinomies that make up human history, that shape and, paradoxically, redeem our life.

Copyright 2000 Jim Garrison


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