Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Real Clash Isn't "Civilizations"

The argument of Sam Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations is that the real divide isn't between nations, as in the post 1848 nation-state system. It isn't between ideologies, as in capitalism vs. socialism.

No, the real large-scale conflicts are between civilizations, meaning the extended expression of "blood, language, religion, way of life" that people in a civilizational area have in common.
The crucial distinctions in religion among human groups concern their values, beliefs, institutions, and social structures, not their physical size, head shapes, and skin colors.
On Huntington's view the last century was a failed age of ideology, which aimed to replace the dominant European hegemony with a new world secular religion. But the failure of the Soviet Union put an end to that and resulted in a West-and-the-rest in which the basic civilizations reasserted themselves. Post 1990 and the collapse of communism we have: Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist, Japanese civilizations.

Which is to say that the peoples of the Earth have returned to their Axial Age religions after the failure of the proposed secular religion and culture of the Class of 1848 and socialism. Of course they have. When a new god fails, people go back to the old gods.

Now I agree with Huntington that the world of global politics is certainly a clash of civilizations, but I think that he misses the larger point. Something else is trying to be born, something that nobody understands and nobody wants to look in the face. Call it the opening of a new Pandora's Box.

And so the story of the last century and more is an attempt to stuff these new demons back into the box. Or an attempt to return to the pre-industrial Garden of Eden.

But, of course, there is no going back to the Garden of Eden. It was Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge that did it, or in Hegelian terms, the beginning of self-consciousness.

In my view the secular religions and politics of the last century or so since 1848 has been the effort, both by elites and the lower orders, to turn away from the new order of markets and innovation,, because they hate it and fear it.

That was the point of the socialist revolution; it would put the genie of capitalism and freedom back in the bottle. And that is why ideological revolutionaries all across the world flocked to socialism's banner and erected socialist regimes everywhere from Russia to China to India. They were threatened by capitalism and freedom too just like Europeans. But it all failed because it was an attempt to deny the new reality, that people were now going to interact with each other in their daily business through markets rather than through vertical power relationships with a lord or priest or patron.

What we see in the world today, after the death of the socialist god that failed, is a grudging acceptance of capitalism and markets, up to a point. But everyone is agreed that it must be kept in its bottle, as far as possible, and subordinated to the age-old wisdom of the culture, the Sinic culture in China, the Hindu culture in India, etc. So Huntington quotes political leaders like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, about how Sinic culture is much superior to Western culture and its corrosive individualism.

But there is a profound conjuring trick going on here. Many of the new leaders in the post-colonial nations were products of western education, like Pakistan's Jinnah, Singapore's Lee, and Sri Lanka's Bandaranaike. When they rose to power they had to "indigenize" to appeal to their countrymen and get elected.
They reverted to their ancestral cultures, and in the process at times changed identities, names, dress, and beliefs.
So what they are really doing is changing their nations while pretending to adhere to the old ways. Because you just can't expect most people to, e.g., get on a rocket ship to Mars knowing that they will never come home again. Just because Elon Musk is selling tickets.

I wonder if that is what Donald Trump is doing, promising to Make America Great Again in a return to good manufacturing jobs at good wages. Trump is a businessman; he knows you can never go back. But I am sure that Moses never told the Israelites that he would keep them in the wilderness for 40 years.

In Jesus in Beijing a Chinese Christian speaks of the experience of the Chinese confronting the West. First the Chinese thought the West was all about its military power, then its science, then its politics, then its Christianity. All true, but notice what he misses out: the West's markets and its permissionless innovation.

It is the last thing, markets and innovation, that all politics is presently organized to control and to neuter. That is what the six or so civilizations are trying to do all over the world. Or, at least, that is what their leaders are telling their peoples.

But the real clash is between the old ways of vertical allegiance and its Patron/Client (or Hegelian Master/Slave) culture and the new ways of horizontal cooperation through the market. That is what scares everyone half to death even as it has brought forth the Great Enrichment of per-capita income from $3 to $100 per day.

All across the world politicians and wise men are promising to protect people in their vertical silos against the fearful rising of the oceans that will marketize everything it its path. But they are lying, either to themselves or to the people they lead.

All religions ask their adherents for surrender: to God, to the ancestors, or to God's love. The god of the new world asks us to surrender to the market, to search out, each individual, how to contribute to society and its prosperity. And the whole world is united in determination to stop such a shocking and radical break with the past.

What will be the result of this real clash? Nobody knows. That is what we are all trying to figure out: the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

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