Thursday, March 30, 2017

Predictions from the Clash of Civilizations: and Let's Start Promoting Liberal Democracy

Aside from the lesson contained in its title, Samuel Huntington makes the worrisome (and probably true) prediction that religion will re-emerge as an important force in international politics in the near future.*

The book is very much a product of its decade - written by an older American scholar in the 1990s,** immediately after the end of the Cold War - and contains frankly superficial compilations of historical and cultural detail.  But he does give several supporting arguments for his thesis, all of them relating to two observations:  modern states engage in wars for the people, not wars for kings; and that religion is one of the central defining characteristics of civilizations and therefore of individuals' identities.  As history has progressed, civilizations are in contact with their neighbors more and more - and the human tendency to define oneself in opposition to the Other comes forward.  We've gone from occasional trade caravans received only in royal palaces and seen by few, to universal social media - before, the Other was a rumor.  Now, the Other is constantly in your face (even if it's a domestic Other - more on this later) and social media has produced a status monoculture.  This gives rise to the idea captured in the book's title and in particular bloody border of Islam that is the best-known takeaway from this book.  It's worth stressing that he wrote this book five years before September 11th.

But Huntington's argument would seem to apply to domestic politics just as well.  Many Americans seem not to know what their political values are, other than if it pisses off the opposition, it must be good.  And when the opposition has built a system that seems rigged for them to succeed, exalts their status, and denigrates yours, your identity (and your ability to define it against the Others) is in crisis.  At civilizational borders you can just do your best to avoid the Others, but if you're in the same country there is no such strategy.  Brexit and the election of Trump may both have been driven in part by basic threats to identity, exacerbated by class boundaries that are causing a realignment in the liberal and conservative parties on both sides of the Atlantic.

How so?  Both of these stories are about a revolt by socially conservative, poor, ethnic-majority people living outside the successful metropolitan centers, against the professionals in those metropolitan centers who have run the show.  (This is what exposes the cracks in both the liberal and conservative coalitions; see #4 here.)  Professionals define themselves by their profession and the abstract principles that enable their profession (globalism prominent among them).  In the 21st century, that's a winning strategy.  But the concrete thinking authority-fearing folks in the interior who just want to raise a family and enjoy country life?   They're no longer safe from the reach of international competition.  They used to be comfortable, not constantly aware that a world existed beyond their communities, and they identified strongly with those communities.  Maybe they weren't rich, but they knew who they were, and if anyone looked down on them, at least they weren't constantly reminded of it.

But now after we've seemingly finished cognitively sorting ourselves geographically, the people in San Francisco and London are unambiguously more materially successful, all the while demonstrating what looks to the folks back home like flagrant disloyalty to the homeland and (even worse!) looking down on (insert rural province here) because of their loyalty and respect for authority. From the Trump/Brexit crowd's perspective, the status monoculture is inescapable, and it's upside-down, with them at the bottom.  Whether or not the provincial folk were starting the next Google, what was important was raising a good family in their town and being considered good folk by the people they knew.  Now that's being taken away, with all the psychological impact of loss of meaning you might expect (e.g. chronic unemployment and the opioid epidemic).  Another telltale of how the modern classes define themselves is the effect one's class has on ethnicity.  The salience of ethnicity decreases among professionals, and increases among the loyalist left-behinds.  (In the U.S., witness the high rate of interracial marriage among physicians and engineers; and in fact, white-Asian marriages produce wealthier households than either Asian-Asian or white-white.)

Huntington notes that the last four centuries of Western history are the exception to the rule,*** as Western civilization spread around the globe mostly without a religious motivation at the center of its motives - thanks to the Treaty of Westphalia, which, maybe not coincidentally, has come in for rough treatment recently from the alt-right.  But it's probably not a coincidence that this vacuum was eventually filled with political philosophies.  The ideas of democracy have been carried (imperfectly) at the head of the most successful empires of the day, and needed no marketing.  But as the Rise of the Rest continues, the values of liberal democracy and reason may need some slick PR and catch phrases, otherwise we may regress to the historical mean.  What would the beginning of Huntington's era of future civilizational religious struggle look like?  One aspect would be a drop in the global status of liberal democracy, very similar to what we've observed in the last few years with the rise of China, Brexit, and the election of Trump.

*Hitchens was more specific on the re-emergence of religion as a driver of geopolitics, and poignant for us in 2017.  Shortly before his death:  "We will live to regret conversion of Russia into a heavily-armed, self-pitying, chauvinistic theocracy."

**As an example of a 1990s-ism in this book:  the Chechen conflict has a prominent place.  Then again even the clearer-thinking Peter Turchin suffered from this myopia a bit when in the 1990s he predicted the rise of an Islamic Chechen state.

***Huntington does overstate the exceptionalism of Europe's nonreligiousness, which bears expanding in a footnote.  For one thing, it's interesting that there could even be a Peace of Westphalia, and that a (second!) religious schism was tolerated in Europe.  There is no such equivalent between Sunni and Shi'a who have coexisted in severe tension often erupting into war, almost since the death of Mohammed, and his thoughts on what aspects of Europe or its culture made coexistence possible would be useful.  Second, Europeans certainly were partly motivated by extending Christendom  (applying more to Catholic powers than Protestant, and more earlier than later) and an attempt to reclaim what Christians believed were rightly their own lands (the Crusades, and the Iberian Reconquista, both obvious civilizational conflicts, and the latter of which he gave no attention, even though there are Spain-Morocco tensions to this day.)  Third, he rightly observes the bizarre coincidence that Europe didn't originate its own religion and today practices a Middle Eastern one, but leaves out the observation that Buddha was blue-eyed Indo-European whose religion spread to East Asia and is nearly absent from the land of his birth.  Huntington somehow concludes by stating that Europe is the exception to history's rule for not originating a religion that it then evangelized to the rest of the world, but really there have been only three successful evangelical religions (Christianity, Buddhism and Islam), only one of which began and obtained political power in the region of its birth (Islam).  It's actually Islam and the Islamic world which are the exception.  As Islam can be thought of as Abrahamism v3.0 (Christianity is the earlier version), from an evolutionary standpoint we would expect it to have to be more virulent and power-seeking to surpass its antecedents.  The obviousness of the replacement of religion in later Western expansion with political philosophies seems to need little comment.

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