Monday, August 25, 2014

Understanding 200 Years of "Counter Ideologies"

Why do they keep coming?  I am talking about what Abram N. Shulsky calls "counter-ideologies" to liberalism (i.e., classical liberalism).
Despite its overall success, liberalism has for two centuries been dogged by a series of counter-ideologies. So far, they have all been defeated, but sometimes only at great cost.
We are talking about Romanticism, bohemianism, avant-gardism, "extreme nationalism," fascism, and "various forms of communism and leftist extremism." And now Islamism.  What is going on?

After much to-ing and fro-ing Shulsky comes to the conclusion that the weakness of classical liberalism is that its intellectuals no longer believe in it and "there are seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul that it ignores or pretends do not exist."

Yes, but.

I take the position that of course there have been lots of "counter-ideologies" to our present world of --well, let's call it "global responsible individualism."  When you turn the world upside down, what do you expect?

When you write history, you write it as though your kind naturally acceded to world dominance by the grace of God of the inevitable march of history.  And to call your ideology "liberalism" kinda hides the truth.  Because the process was not liberal; it was instead a brutal process of creative destruction.  Old ways and empires and forms of dominance from one end of the world to the other were trashed and thrown on the ash heap of history.  And replaced with something different.

Of course people objected to this.  Of course the Islamists are hopping mad.  "We" are tearing their world up by the roots and, worse, treating the Middle East as a savage backwater that can be conquered and remade at the will and the convenience of our commerce and our power.

Let's unpack the term I've used "global responsible individualism."  I use that term because until just yesterday life for most humans was local, was subservient, and was collective.  People lived and died pretty near to where they were born.  They belonged to a small community that was profoundly hierarchical; there was a lord, and in your particular family there was a patriarch.  You did what you were told.  And life was collective.  You didn't think of "I"; you just lived the way of the ancestors and the tribe and the village without thinking that there could be another way.

But now that's changed. Let's start with global.  Both my grandfathers, I think, were born in England. But my father was born in Russia and my mother was born in Japan.  I was born in India.  My children were born in the US.  Two of my grandchildren were born in England, two in France, and two in the US. Just to make it fair!

Then there is the "responsible individualism."  In my view, starting in the Axial Age of the first millennium BC, the idea got about that people were responsible for the conduct of their lives individually to God. And there were consequences: Heaven, Hell, reincarnation as a dog.

My feeling is that few people were affected by this ideological revolution until Gutenberg, until the Reformation, until the industrial revolution.  The People of the Responsible Self were a small, but growing minority.  Then the movement went critical and conquered the world.

Now responsible individualism is hard.  Everything about your life is piled on your back; "you" not "they" is responsible. And the weight can become intolerable.  Of course people revolted against this revolution.   Artists didn't like the idea that creative inspiration was being devalued by reason and steam engines. Intellectuals didn't like the idea that the market economy was self-regulating and didn't really need people like them to run the trains. Workers were confused as they migrated out of rural idiocy into the rough and tumble of city work and life.  The rich didn't like the cities busting out and destroying their parks and shrubberies.

Of course there is unrest; of course there are counter-ideologies.  Of course there are wars and movements and religions and cults and disasters.  This is the biggest thing ever.

Meanwhile, as Instapundit Glenn Reynolds reminds us,
most people’s economic intuitions are — quite literally — paleolithic. Whole political ideologies have flourished by taking advantage of that.
Which is merely saying the same thing as Shulsky and me.  Here we are, billions of humans still mostly programmed for life in the Old Stone Age that was local, subservient, and collective.  And we are being forced to life in a world that is global, responsible, and individual.

Many people would rather go back to the old ways.

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