Does Arnold Toynbee have our number?

I recently reread an essay containing the following summary of Arnold Toynbee’s argument in his * Study of History*. It’s been a while since I read or thought about this, but now that I look at it, it seems like a remarkably accurate prediction of trends playing out both in the United States and other countries at the present time.

I look at the United States and many other parts of the world today and it seems like he was right on the money. Growing number of poor people? Check. Widening gap between the rich and the poor? Check. Social divisions in addition to economic ones? Check. Declining amounts and standards of eduction? Check. Sense of “us against them”? Double check.

So, has Mr. Toynbee accurately predicted the course of American civilization and others as well?

No. For one thing, the “underclass” isn’t exactly expanding. Rather, there’re splits geographically and culturally. The people most angry at the current stystem are not those left out, but those with education who want to get ahead. And the “overclass” is not particularly small, though it is rather inbred.

This is something I have been trying to express- the anger at the system being the upwardly mobile folks, I mean.

The problem isn’t with jobs as a whole- there are still plenty of lower echelon positions like minimum wage broom-pusher around…

It is the people who want decent paying jobs with healthcare who are upset.

I just deleted a long rant as to how this applied to OWS, etc, and how even as a liberal, etc… but that isn’t relevant to the OP.

So- short answer- YES, I agree that indeed the underclass is expanding, in part due to the fact that what numerically was middle class in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s is not exactly still middle class- the borders are moving. Just because you make $XXK per year, you aren’t necessarily middle class, even if you were a decade ago at the same income.

And I think that the ‘overclass’ is very small, although it is growing slightly…

In addition to the points smiling bandit has made, I would note that this is hardly the first time that our civilization, (Europe and North America), or even the U.S. have experienced conditions similar to today without collapsing.

I do not think that Toynbee is wrong, only that the current situation does not represent the extremes that the commentator* on Toynbee notes in his essay.

Could the current situation eventually lead to such a breakdown? I would guess that it could. However, I do not see the current situation as all that far down the road toward those conditions at this time.

  • (Who was that commentator?)

Define “civilization”. Or, to put it another way, which civilizations in the past have collapsed this way? The Roman Empire?

Thing is, the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire is the story of a particular empire. Most other empires didn’t follow this pattern of “collapse”, where the end of the empire meant a collapse of goverance and an economic collapse. Most empires end when some other empire come along and gobble them up.

For example, the collapse of the British Empire doesn’t closely parallel the collapse of the Roman Empire. People in Britain are richer than ever after the loss of their empire. So are most of the people who were conquered by the British. The collapse of the Empire didn’t mean barbarians squatting on the burnt-out husks of cities, famine, and demographic collapse. Any “collapse” that just leads to another guy’s picture on the money isn’t a collapse.

The Romans were incredibly important in shaping European history, but you’d have to be a Procrustes to fit every twist and turn of history into a recapitulation of Rome.

I’m not sure it holds up to that much scrutiny. There’s a reasonable case to be made that the Roman Republic collapsed due to vast inequalities in wealth. But for the entire Imperial period Roman civilization was incredibly unequal with the vast majority of wealth being held by a tiny urban elite, yet seemed to get on fine.

Dig up the recent Frobes 400 issue. Yes it is full of the Waltons, Dorances, Cargils, etc.; but many of the people clawed their way up from the bottom.

Also, through the Bush years, the rich mushroomed.

At this point it seems like the consensus Toynbee mentions is still quite alive among the “underclass”, insofar as anger against Wall St., the banks, the 1%, etc is fairly limited to the left.

The Republicans are still giving full-throated defences of tax cuts for the rich, which seems to indicate that there’s still a constituency much larger than the 1% who think the 1% are being unjustly attacked. If the consensus really broke down, I think you’d see the Republican Party jostling with the Democrats for the label “most populist”.


Only due to the recession.

What does it matter as long as the poor meets an acceptable and minimum standard of living.

Not really, nobody has to take off his hat and bow before Bill Gates.

In the sense of lack of good education especially in inner city public schools definitely yes but not in the sense that not enough people are going to college. In Europe which the left holds up as a role-model far fewer people per capita go to college and rather go to vocational schools.

Only for those who advocate class warfare.

It’s less about relative standards of living than about the perception that the path from bottom to top is closed off. It’s a lot easier to tolerate rice and beans every night when you can plausibly imagine filet mignon every night instead; and when you can’t plausibly imagine it because the system seems to be rigged against you, that’s when you start occupying Wall St. and wearing a t-shirt reading ‘eat the rich’.

And what’s wrong with class warfare?

And most people have a good shot at a middle-class standards of living.

It divides the people.

No generalizations based on pre-industrial human history can safely be applied to anything after the Industrial Revolution. And I wonder if we’ll ever be able to draw any generalizations from the past two centuries-plus that can safely be applied in the Information Age.

No, they are divided to start with, if a class war is possible at all.

Indeed you can’t apply situations from societies with 10% literacy rates with those with 99%

This is just what’s coming into question now. If the cost of a middle class lifestyle is six figures of debt to get the degree that’s not even reasonably likely to get you a job using that degree, then you don’t have a good shot anymore, do you?

So it’s not the massive and growing income inequality, or socialized losses/privatized profits, or bailouts for banks that give billions in bonuses while Main Streeters lose their houses in semi-fraudulent foreclosures by law firms making millions on the process. That’s not what divides people. It’s recognizing it and trying to stand up to it that divides people, and is therefore bad.

As long as we pretend we’re all one happy family, then it’s all good?

:confused: Waitaminnit, that’s no end-of-civilization scenario! The process described there, starting with 1789 at the latest, has happened numerous times and has destroyed numerous regimes in Europe – and, notably, without destroying any national civilization, let alone threatening Western Civ as a whole.

There’s really only a limited number of known ways in which a civilization ever does come to an end:

  1. Conquest by foreigners too numerous to culturally assimilate. That happened to Rome – but never to China, however so often it was conquered.

  2. Variation on 1) – conquest in such a way that the civilization survives in a sense, but is transformed into a markedly different civilization or perhaps a region in a wider one, e.g., Persia after the Islamic conquest/conversion; but not Egypt, whose ancient national culture, after so many conquests and conversions, no longer survives in any meaningful sense.

  3. Failure of the civilization’s material basis through crop failure or ecological disaster. That’s probably what happened to the Mayan civilization and the Mound Builders.

But no civilization has ever been destroyed by a decline in the perceived legitimacy of the ruling elite. That can make a civilization more vulnerable – the Roman Empire became weaker after power passed from the Senatorial class (which produced all the early emperors) to military despots. But it ain’t enough by itself.

Oh, and that’s another thing – we need to carefully distinguish the fall of Egyptian civilization from the fall of civilization in Egypt. The latter, of course, has never happened – unlike, say, France/Gaul, which knew civilization and lost it and grew a new one, Egypt has been continuously civilized with no periods of barbarism (in an anthropological sense) from the pharaohs’ days to the present.

Well, only in certain counties of the UK, yes? :wink: