The Four Instruments Of Expansion
In The Evolution of Civilizations, master historian Carroll Quigley argues that a civilization’s growth and decline is driven by the development of its instrument of expansion. To oversimplify, the instrument of expansion is the social system that accumulates wealth and invests it into further production. When this system is functioning well, the civilization grows and flourishes, not just economically but also demographically, geographically, and scientifically. When the instrument of expansion inevitably ossifies and comes to serve entrenched interests rather than serving its ostensible function, growth slows and conflict intensifies, until either the instrument of expansion is supplanted by a different one and the cycle repeats, or else the civilization decays and is eventually destroyed. There have been somewhere around a dozen civilizations where we have enough surviving evidence to determine the instrument of expansion.
This is a dense theory and I will not try to do it justice here.1 This essay is written for people who have read the book and are already familiar with Quigley’s model. Feel free to read it and come back, the book is worth your time and this page will still be here. You can skip chapter 6.
These instruments of expansion can be categorized, and Quigley discusses a few of the categories. I’m willing to go a step further. There have been four instruments of expansion in human history, and every civilization has been based on one of these:
Manorialism. Landlords accumulate and invest surplus through local agricultural exploitation and development, extracting crops from those who work on the land that he personally owns or politically dominates.
Examples include feudalism in the Middle Ages of Western civilization, slavery in Greco-Roman civilization, and probably Chinese civilization before the Song dynasty.
Commercial capitalism. Merchants accumulate and invest surplus by long-distance trade in luxury goods within a price system.
Examples include Phoenician civilization, Western civilization in the Early Modern period, and Chinese civilization from roughly the Song through Ming dynasties.
National bureaucracy.2 State officials accumulate and invest surplus by appropriating resources to a centralized bureaucracy via taxation and spending those resources directly on state-managed production.
Examples include ancient Mesopotamian civilization, ancient Egyptian civilization, Soviet Communism, and perhaps the Incan and Minoan civilizations.
Industrial capitalism. Business owners accumulate and invest surplus through the operation of machines, by selling the products of those machines at a profit within a price system.
Examples include Western civilization since the Industrial Revolution, and much of East Asia for the last several decades.
I know of no civilization whose economy does not fit neatly into one of these categories.3 This is not to say that the instrument of expansion composed the entirety or even the bulk of the economy, only that it was the dominant way that wealth was accumulated and that investment was directed into innovation and growth. There were outposts of manorial slavery in the U.S. until 1865; you can find isolated instances of national bureaucracy ranging from the silver mines of the Roman Emperors to the sovereign wealth funds of 2023; individual commercial capitalists have existed in every single civilization that has ever existed and probably predate civilization itself. The instrument of expansion is distinguished by being the main source of economic growth and technological progress, and by the political and cultural ascendancy of the surplus-accumulating social class.
There is some variation within each category, of course. Ancient Greek slavery was not economically identical to Japanese feudalism, and the thalassocracies of Tyre and Carthage were not economically identical to the European guild-based mercantile system in the time of the Hansa and the Medicis, but in both cases there is a strong family resemblance. These structural similarities in the instrument of expansion are upstream of other similarities between civilizations in other areas like politics and culture.
The different instruments of expansion tend to arise in different political and economic circumstances. Manorialism is a very natural form of organization during periods of anarchy, and is frequently established after the collapse of a previous civilization leaves the land infested with warlords and raiders. Commercial capitalism can be a later development, often arising as a civilization’s second instrument of expansion after manorialism ossifies. Industrial capitalism is still so new that it’s difficult to determine the conditions where it can arise, and answering this question is one of the most important and widely-debated questions in history and economics today.
These are the only four instruments which have served as the basis of a civilization so far, but are not the only possible instruments. Five hundred years ago, there had never been such a thing as industrial capitalism. Today there is. In another five hundred years there might be a fifth. New instruments of expansion could conceivably come into being either because of new technology, or because of new forms of social organization.
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One relevant passage: “This surplus-creating instrument does not have to be an economic organization. In fact, it can be any kind of organization, military, political, social, religious, and so forth. In Mesopotamian civilization it was a religious organization, the Sumerian priesthood to which all members of the society paid tribute. In Egyptian, Andean and, probably, Minoan civilizations it was a political organization, a state that created surpluses by a process of taxation or tribute collection. In Classical civilization it was a kind of social organization, slavery, that allowed one class of society, the slaveowners, to claim most of the production of another class in society, the slaves. In the early part of Western civilization it was a military organization, feudalism, that allowed a small portion of the society, the fighting men or lords, to collect economic goods from the majority of society, the serfs, as a kind of payment for providing political protection for these serfs. In the later period of Western civilization the surplus-creating instrument was an economic organization (the price-profit system, or capitalism, if you wish) that permitted entrepreneurs who organized the factors of production to obtain from society in return for the goods produced by this organization a surplus (called profit) beyond what these factors of production had cost these entrepreneurs.”
Quigley calls this socialism, which I think is now a confusing name. In today’s language “socialism” refers to a political program for distributing surplus rather than an economic program for accumulating surplus.
Clan pastoralism is debatably a fifth form. Eurasian steppe clans accumulated wealth by nomadic animal husbandry—“capital” is from the same linguistic root as “cattle”, after all—and were sometimes able to use this as a basis for large-scale trade and warfare with settled civilizations, which is most of how we know about them in the historical record. I don’t know enough about pastoral clans in e.g. North Africa, the Middle East, or the Scottish highlands to say whether they also achieved this type of wealth accumulation. Either way, this leaves the question of whether nomad clans count as a “civilization”. These societies left little in the way of archeological records, and essentially nothing in the way of written records, so it may be impractical to tell whether they went through patterns of development similar to those of settled agricultural civilizations.