Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The World Has Changed--And It Hasn't

Nassim Taleb begins a chain of thoughts
A confluence of reading in the last couple of days has brought the perplexing pattern of modern political reality to the forefront of my attention. Recently on Twitter, Nassim Taleb commented that UK philosopher John Gray was the only one to recognize that Islamic extremism is a reaction to modernity. While not contesting Gray’s insight, I suggested that Karen Armstrong came to a similar conclusion in her book The Battle for God, published in 2000. (N.B. Taleb later references the work of Scott Atran, whose work also addresses this issue.) Regardless of who first grasped or published this insight, it seems to be gaining traction. Ross Douthat, in his Sunday New York Times column, discussed the idea that liberal modernity has always spawned counter-movements and that ISIS is
only the latest. Communism and Fascism are the prominent predecessors to the claim of anti-modern, anti-liberal ideological leadership. Douthat in turn references an American Interest article by Abram N. Shulsky, which provides a longer-range consideration of anti-modern, anti-liberal movements. (Modernity and liberalism are not synonymous, but they are closely linked and nearly inter-changeable for these purposes.) Finally, I reviewed an article by British philosopher Roger Scruton, a “conservative”*, who argues that the West must vigorously oppose what he perceives as seven core distinctions between the West and fundamentalist Islam. Scruton writes:
In the public sphere, we can resolve to protect the good things that we have inherited. That means making no concessions to those who wish us to exchange citizenship for subjection, nationality for religious conformity, secular law for shari’ah, the Judeo-Christian inheritance for Islam, irony for solemnity, self-criticism for dogmatism, representation for submission, and cheerful drinking for censorious abstinence.
 All this has led me to ponder some questions and suggest some possibilities:

Taleb, Gray, Armstrong, Atran, and others who agree with them are correct in characterizing Islamic fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity. To see the phenomena of Islamism as simply a regression to an earlier (medieval) form of thought misses the crucial importance played by modernity. Alas, to many in Moslem nations, modernity appears in the guise of Western imperialism and militarism or cultural dominance. Fault lines (a la Samuel Huntington) between Islam and its neighbors aren’t new, but Islamist thinking about Islamic society and its relation to its non-Moslem neighbors does come in modern garb.

Liberalism, with its individuality, free markets, and lack of legal and social restraints, is a recent development in human culture. While we can’t pinpoint a start date, northwest Europe began the transition around 1500, and it gained momentum from the incredible economic change that started around 1800 with the Industrial Revolution. By 1900, “the West” (western Europe and the English-speaking countries) dominated the world stage. But as Europe was the vanguard of modernity, so it served as the spawning ground for the first anti-modern, anti-liberal movements. 

Nationalism, Romanticism, Anarchism, Communism, and Fascism, are all anti-liberal, anti-modern reactions (in varying degrees). All arose and exerted a significant effect on Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries (and to a lesser extent on the U.S.).
Some of these ideologies, such as nationalism and forms politics approaching fascism, are now at play again around Europe:  Putinism in Russia, Erdogan’s regime in Turkey, and Orban’s regime in Hungary. The Hungarian case is most intriguing because Hungary had seemed securely within the post-WWII, post-communist camp embodied by the EU—and it is the most surprising in which to see an aggressive anti-liberal, anti-democratic regime. 

To some, these developments call into question the thesis of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. One can reach this conclusion if you read Fukuyama as arguing for the inevitable triumph of the Western liberal idea. I don’t think that’s what he argued. He argued that the democratic, market-oriented ideal no longer had a viable rival worldview. Who proposes a new worldview that can supplant liberal democracy? Not ISIS or resurgent fascism.
In addition, Fukuyama considered the problem of “the last man” and “men without chests” (both from Nietzsche). In some measure, the anti-modern viewpoints noted above seek to displace the logic and status of bourgeois society, and the problem could be endemic to the system, as Douthat suggests and as (I think) Fukuyama would admit. We might call it the thymos problem. (To what extent the thymos problem is a male problem is an intriguing one but one that I’ll set aside for now.)

Are we stuck in a low, sub-optimal equilibrium, with bourgeois society surviving but unable to put an end to the impulse to counter that's driven by atavistic urges? Is there a way out? To this, we’d have to turn to speculation. Dr. John Kemp, of the University of Iowa, for instance, in his Choosing Survival: Creating Highly Adaptive Societies, takes an optimistic perspective and suggests that the long-term trend impels nations and societies to move to open, modern social and economic institutions that include democracy, individual rights, and markets. But I’m not as confident of this trend. I fear that we will (at best) become stuck in a rut, economically, ecologically, and internationally, with the distinct possibility of a downward spiral if severe resource issues arise. With climate, ecological, and population pressures pushing hard on nations and societies, resource wars seem a distinct possibility, adding to and further inciting ideological and religious fervor.  

Another viewpoint, outside the mainstream box, comes from those best represented by Ken Wilber’s synthetic mind. (If you’re unfamiliar with Wilber, this movie review of Cloud Atlas from no less than the New York Review of Books, gives a brief account of his work and influence.) Wilber gathers and furthers many thinkers who argue that human culture is ready to step ahead and (presumably) out of our current stalemates. Wilber’s project has always fascinated and (largely) persuaded me. However, I believe that he’d agree that stepping up and out of current predicaments (fundamentalism, power politics, ecological and economic crises, etc.) isn’t guaranteed. Current political decisions shape our future. We can't hope to arrive at the Promised Land by drifting on the tide of history.

So it comes back to “What do we do now?” How aggressive can and should American policy be toward ISIS and other such anti-Western ideologies? Note that the Soviet empire and communism as a living ideology didn’t fall in a military defeat to the West. It collapsed from the inside because it compared so poorly to the West and because of its own internal contradictions. Our perceptions of the nature and extent of threats posed by anti-liberal, anti-Western ideologies affects how we respond to them. Anyone who supports the modern, liberal project—including those who seek to transcend it—must ponder these troubling issues. We have no easy answers, but our answers will shape our future.

*Americans, note well, that “conservative” by UK or European standards are often different from what we call conservative in the U.S., although Douthat, David Brooks, and David Frum are exceptional American conservatives in their greater concern for society instead of just economics, their articulate writing, and their—in a classical sense—liberal beliefs.

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