Chasing Civilization

If you type “civilization” into Google, it returns the definition: “The stage of human social development and organization that is considered most advanced.”

The term civilization is not meant to be compared populations across the globe to find the most “civilized;” no one culture is more civilized than the other. Civilization is determined within a single culture or population. Urban Americans in the United States are not more civilized than tribal Native Americans in Central America; each group is the most civilized version of themselves. Over the course of this semester, we have touched upon many modernist authors who critique civilization and its effects. Do the benefits of civilization truly outweigh its costs? All the authors allude to the same definition of civilization, however they focus on different consequences of civilization. In class we discussed the central paradox of life. Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents argued that the central paradox of life is that happiness is achieved through advancement, however the constant need for more leads to perpetual unhappiness.

Du Bois, in “Marxism and the Negro problem,” equates the need for civilization to economic prosperity and competition. The consequence of civilization is the exploitation of laborers in the United States for the benefit of capitalism; this exploitation had an immense effect on African American laborers during Du Bois’ time and still today. Modern slavery tends to be veiled across the oceans and distanced from the consumer. In 1933 Du Bois calculated that about 85 to 90 percent of working African Americans belong to the proletariat that Marx defends in “The Communist Manifesto, ” however open discrimination puts the African American proletariat at a higher disadvantage than the white members of the same socioeconomic class (Du Bois 149). African Americans have little agency to fight the social systems stacked against them to protest unfair treatment because they need an income to survive. College students after graduation accept entry-level jobs expecting to progress within the industry over many years. Du Bois argued that in our post-Marxian society, capitalism aims to oppress African American laborers. The longer African Americans and other minorities within the working class remain subservient, the employers reap greater benefit for their own corporations, “as theirs are the interests of capital” (Du Bois 150). Oppression is allowed as long as civilization continues to advance.



Kuhn, Leon


African Americans could not protest oppression because to overcome the negative effects of capitalism, requires an income. Even in America, many African American laborers only have their ability to work (Du Bois 148) and cannot risk jeopardizing their job in the name of justice. Through the years, many immigrants have come to the United States and found success, but at what cost? In order to climb to the top, white immigrants had to step on the backs of African Americans and minority laborers to make it to the top; “leaving Negros still at the bottom chained to helplessness, first by slavery, then by disenfranchisement and always by the Color Bar” (Du Bois 150). Capitalism is a market-based economic system that, in theory, allows equal access to success for all members of the society. Those that are “on top” or reaping the greatest benefits of capitalism are thriving off of the exploitations of the African American and minority working class. People of color are always next in line to reach the Dream, however never fully access it. There are exceptions to every rule, but by and large the Color Bar prevents the African American and minority community from reaping the full benefits of capitalism.

Though, according to Du Bois, the African American community has every reason to fight oppression in the workforce, they probably never will because the African American community is always on the cusp of achieving the Dream. Freud wrote that happiness is achieved through advancement, thus the African American community is constantly chasing and unattainable Dream, chasing civilization. Du Bois’ wrote that “common labor in America and white Europe far from being motivated by any vision of the possibility of layer after layer of the workers [one day] escaping into the wealthy class and becoming mangers and employers of labor” (Du Bois 150). One day is most likely never going to come. Coates also questions the Dream in his memoir Between the World and Me. A New York Times article written in response to the memoir the author, Michelle Alexander, stated: “Historians conjured the Dream,” Coates writes. “Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories”; Dreamers are the ones who continue to believe the lie, at black people’s expense” (Alexander). According to Coates, the Dream is not real; it is a fabrication from American cinema.



Du Bois questioned civilization in 1933; he wanted to critique the idea “progress” as a positive when the foundation of this “progress” was built on the exploitation of the African American working class. Du Bois hoped for future generations to correct exploitation, draw attention to the Color Bar, and invalidate the chase for the American Dream. His writing was meant to provoke action. In 2009 the Dark Mountain Project Manifesto was published. The about page [do I have to cite this differently] states that Kingsnorth and Hine, the authors of the manifesto, wanted to create literature that responded truthfully to the problems with our economy, environment, and society, problems civilization created (Hine and Kingsnorth). The Dark Mountain Project is meant to be “a forum in which to be honest about their sense of dread and loss” (Smith) because they believe that there is no way to reverse the damage already done. The manifesto was meant to provoke a change in thought, but not action.

The manifesto is titled “Uncivilisation” because civilization or progress was and is destroying our society. Kingsnorth and Hine understand civilization as the manifest destiny of the human species for technological and economic advancement. Uncivilisation is to be still in the world we have created and accept the outcome. The manifesto evaluates the “myth of progress” because within civilization we are “still wired to an idea of history in which the future will be an upgraded version of the present” (Hine and Kingsnorth), however not all innovations correlate to advancement. Rachel Carson in Silent Spring also challenges the idea of innovation correlating to progress with the use of DDT. Scientist were flabbergasted by the ability of DDT to prevent Dutch Elm disease that they disregarded the negative effects DDT could have to future generations. The scientists were quick to take credit for the innovation of DDT, but easily could deny responsibility for its negative effects. Carson pushes the scientist to want to create a healthy environment for future generations, where as Kingsnorth and Hine call beings to be still and accept the future outcomes of our mistakes. The manifesto is mean to change what it means to be a civilized society and evaluate if the benefits are truly worth the cost.

The manifesto stated that civilization is a construction of beliefs based on seemingly arbitrary values and the assumptions of a future (Hine and Kingsnorth). Uncivilization manifesto highlights the arbitrariness of “obvious” values of our society, such as advancement or economic prosperity. We live based off of certainty and assumptions that the future is never fleeting without actively taking steps to protect it. The cost of civilization has been the economy, the environment, and society according to Kingsnorth and Hine. Capitalism is the driver of civilization, encouraging continuous innovation. Not only has capitalism caused numerous environmental travesties, but also has caused human beings to become selfish, only focused on personal well-being and success. This has lead to economic downfalls, such as the Great Depression in the 1920s and the Great Recession in 2008. Industry has nearly destroyed the environment. The manifesto stated that civilization has “led the human race to achieve what it has achieved; and has led the planet into the age of ecocide. The two are intimately linked” (Hine and Kingsnorth).

Human civilization did not intend produce negative consequences, however we need to take responsibility for the damage that we have caused chasing civilization. Coates wrote in his memoir “’good Intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream” (Coates 33). Coates meant this in regards to the disenfranchisement of African Americans, however civilization uses ‘good intention’ as a Band-Aid to all mistakes. Civilization did not intend on economic collapse or the destruction of the environment, but it still happened.



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