The idea of civilization recurs frequently in reflections on international politics. However, International Relations academic writings on civilization have failed to acknowledge the major 20th-century analysis that examined the processes through which Europeans came to regard themselves as uniquely civilized – Norbert Elias’s On the Process of Civilization.
This book provides a comprehensive exploration of the significance of Elias’s reflections on civilization for International Relations. It explains the working principles of an Eliasian, or process-sociological, approach to civilization and the global order and demonstrates how the interdependencies between state-formation, colonialism and an emergent international society shaped the European ‘civilizing process’.
This chapter discusses the revival of discourses of civilization and barbarism in the recent period, specifically in connection with the ‘war on ‘terror’ and the torture debate. It emphasizes continuities between colonial and contemporary perspectives. Drawing on process sociology, it argues that the idea of civilization has been a central part of struggles to shape the way in which people orientate themselves to the social world. Participants in such struggles use the idea of civilization to justify using force against savage enemies but also to constrain violence in those relations. The chapter argues that the torture debate illustrates Elias’s observations about the peculiar entanglements of civilized peoples. It is essential to consider those entanglements and the discourse of civilization that was used in the ‘war on terror’ in long-term perspective – as aspects of the process of civilization which Elias set out to explain.
This chapter explains Elias’s pioneering analysis of the European civilizing process – the process in which they came to regard themselves as uniquely civilized. It discusses his examination of how state formation, internal pacification, and rising interdependencies were linked with the development of new standards of propriety and new expectations of self-restraint. Changing attitudes to violence were integral parts of the overall direction of change. Civilized people came to regard judicial torture and capital punishment as antithetical to their refined ways of life. Changing manners were related developments. Those movements influenced European attitudes to non-European peoples. They underpinned the belief that colonialism was necessary to spread civilization. Elias did not argue that the process of civilization was evidence of human progress. The chapter discusses his analysis of decivilizing processes in Nazi Germany and the argument that sociological inquiry should seek to explain the shifting balances of power between civilizing and decivilizing processes in human figurations.
This chapter explains Elias’s analysis of the inseparability of intra- and inter-societal relations. It highlights his position on the split within civilization – on the widespread belief that the standards of restraint that are widely observed within civilized societies have to be relaxed in struggles with external enemies. Elias nuanced the point by exploring the duality of nation-state normative codes, namely the co-existence of nationalist-Machiavellian standpoints and the conviction that universal and egalitarian principles should be upheld in intra- as well as inter-societal relations. The duality gave rise to the peculiar entanglements of civilized peoples. The chapter builds on Elias’s argument by showing how those themes influenced doctrines of imperialism and conceptions of a civilized international society.
This chapter develops the thesis that Elias devoted too little attention to colonialism and to civilizing offensives to transform non-European peoples. To extend Elias’s explanation of the civilizing process, it considers discourses of conquest and discovery that shaped civilized self-images. Elias’s focus on the role that manners books played in influencing the dominant standards of propriety can be augmented by investigating the impact of narratives that were centred on colonial encounters. Specific attention is paid to the nineteenth century standard of civilization which was an important bridge between state formation and colonial international society. That legal doctrine embodied distinctions between civilized, semi-civilized and savage peoples that were central to the world-views of the imperial establishment. They were not fixed positions in an unchangeable hierarchy of peoples. They were linked with conceptions of human progress which assumed that societies of lesser worth could be elevated through benign imperial governance. The standard of civilization was fundamental to European attempts to create a global order in their image.
This chapter explains how civilized standards were globalized as a result of the mimetic behaviour of non-European regimes. Top- down civilizing offensives in China, Japan, Siam, Russia and the Ottoman empire/Turkish Republic are examined to explore dominant patterns of change in the global order. Modernizing regimes set out to reform state structures in the light of European conceptions of civilization. They altered traditional diplomatic mores in order to comply with European conventions. Some engaged in mimetic colonialism to demonstrate their civilized credentials and to press claims to be admitted into international society as equal sovereign powers. The overall pattern of change illustrates Elias’s thesis about how established groups seek to persuade outsiders to internalise feelings of inferiority and to modify behaviour accordingly. As Elias recognised, European notions of civilization spread outward to non-European elites but new social arrangements appeared in the process. The chapter discusses the development of novel combinations of nation and civilization that laid the foundation for challenges to the European global order which accelerated from the middle of the twentieth century.
This chapter discusses the fate of the classical standard of civilization and its reconfiguration in the post-European global order. Particular attention is paid to the cultural revolt against the West which illustrated the Eliasian theme that outsiders invariably attempt to free themselves from traditional political and cultural shackles as power relations become less unequal. But analysts have argued that new standards of civilization re-emerged in the form of the universal human rights culture, democracy promotion and state rebuilding, and global market civilization. This chapter locates those developments in the long civilizing process. It provides a process-sociological interpretation of civilizing dynamics in the recent period. Western measures to promote civilization are resisted by powers such as China which associate the strategies with attempts to create a neo-colonial global order A central question is whether world order has reached a transitional point in which the once dominant civilization is losing power and influence and the prospects for a global civilization are receding.
This chapter discusses Elias’s investigation of civilizing processes that have affected humanity as a whole and analyses his criteria for assessing the relative power of civilizing and decivilizing trends. Four criteria are considered – whether controls on violence are increasing or in decline; whether there are significant changes in the rely power of internal and external constraints on conduct; whether emotional identification between peoples is widening or contracting; and whether support for international planning to protect the vulnerable from the problems stemming from global interconnections is on the rise or is weakening. Those yardsticks inform the discussion of Huntington’s idea of a clash of civilizations and English School descriptions of the civilizing potential of international society. The chapter ends with reflections on the importance of shared symbols for a global civilizing process. It considers the complex relations between national-populist movements, images of future global ecological civilizing processes and the political challenges of the Covid-19 health and economic crisis.
Elias’s relatively detached investigation of the civilizing process remains the key starting point for those who wish to understand the nature and legacy of the peculiar civilized self- images that arose in the European region.