Saturday, July 01, 2006

Adam K. Webb, in his own words   posted by Razib @ 7/01/2006 09:03:00 PM

The 10 questions for Adam K. Webb stimulated a lot of discussion. I asked Adam if he wanted to pass along a succinct summation of the overall body of his argument, and he agreed. You'll find it below the fold....

[Character encoding as "Unicode" for best viewing]

Adam K. Webb on Beyond the Global Culture War

[adapted from a speech delivered at Harvard and Princeton, May/June 2006]

As its title suggests, Beyond the Global Culture War is a book about global questions. In that respect, it joins a myriad of other books from recent years. But I would be the first to admit that this book is rather more contrarian in spirit. For one thing, I do not offer the usual breathless celebration of borders breaking open, as the global market economy sweeps to the ends of the earth, supposedly promising the next generation an Ipod in every pocket and a Lexus beside every olive tree.

Having misgivings about that vision does not mean being against prosperity as such. Indeed, having seen the mud huts and tin shacks in which much of humanity lives, I wish there were more prosperity to go around. Nor does being a curmudgeon about globalisation mean that I oppose opening borders, and getting past the bloodshed that nationalism has caused over the last century or so. Those who know me can attest that in my own loyalties, I am perhaps more cosmopolitan than most of globalisation’s usual enthusiasts are themselves.

In short, I am neither a Luddite nor a provincial. Rather, the reason I am a curmudgeon about globalisation is that, at least in its present form, I believe it gets the global scale right but the content wrong. What is the content? Globalisation now entails an impoverished vision of human aspirations and the sort of society that is supposed to fulfil them. That vision promises us—perhaps by 2050, certainly by 2100—what Francis Fukuyama a few years ago called “the end of history.” If history ends on those terms, we shall have a world civilisation besotten with markets and a rampant consumer culture. The moral language of the polity will urge a solicitous regard for individual rights, but reek of an undemanding relativism at its core. And over that civilisation will preside a layer of experts and money-mongers without much in the way of either conscience or character.

This civilisation already exists in embryo. Look around even today at the alienation, the painful lack of moral direction, the striving for material rewards without larger purpose, that afflict so many in the comfortable classes in the most comfortable societies on the planet. A few decades hence, if trends continue, that fate promises to afflict the rest of the world too—from Cambridge to Kinshasa, and from Tokyo to Tehran.

Having these misgivings about liberal globalisation, about the supposed end of history, is nothing new. In simple terms, I should call myself an economic leftist concerned with social justice, and a cultural traditionalist alarmed by the unravelling of older decencies. Even if not many people would describe themselves quite that way, much of humanity holds such sentiments almost instinctively. Take an example from even a modern liberal society such as the United States. In some circles of late, we have heard talk of restoring the link between moral values and social justice, of reviving a so-called religious left, to balance the religious right that complacently blends Bible-thumping and big business. Much of that sentiment about tradition and social justice is vague, and not very radical in how it diagnoses the ills of modern life. But it is a sentiment that I largely share.

And if a modern Western society still has a large bloc of people who look askance at history’s supposed end, how many must think that way elsewhere in the world? In poorer and more traditional countries, there are even more folk who would agree with my misgivings about what globalisation and the end of history are supposed to do to them. Parallel culture wars rage in many countries, between those who welcome the supposed end of history and those who resist it.

So I am not alone. If I were alone, there would be little point in writing Beyond the Global Culture War. But at the same time, I do not just want to lament the way the world is going. Countless thinkers and movements already do that—from the heartland traditionalists of the US, to the Islamists of the Middle East, to the Hindu revivalists in India, and the like. If I were just going to tell the same tale of woe, there would be little point in writing the book either. Instead, what I try to do in it is rethink what these culture wars really mean. And I try to imagine how they might end in a very different way from what many people now assume.

The book’s title is Beyond the Global Culture War. That is the crux of the issue, I think. It is all too easy to think of these clashes—between tradition and modernity, between social justice and a self-absorbed consumer culture—as many different culture wars playing out in many different countries and civilisations. The details do vary on the ground, to be sure. But the core of what is at stake does not: it is really one global culture war raging everywhere, with the wrong side winning. That horizontal fault line across civilisations is vastly more important, in the long run, than any vertical fault lines between civilisations.

One odd feature of this global culture war is that the side that is winning has fewer numbers. If we put the present version of globalisation up to a vote around the world, most people would not vote for it. They would not vote for the growing inequality, for the rise of a new upper class with far less sense of decency and social obligation than any other ruling class in history. Nor, all else being equal, would most people prefer a world a hundred years hence in which villages have given way to shopping centres and temples to rave clubs. Even in the prosperous countries of the West, where consumer culture has already gained so much ground, plenty of discontent with the values it has favoured simmers below the surface.

How does this vision still hang on, despite opposition? One reason is that only one side in the global culture war really thinks of it as a global culture war. Those who resist the onward march of globalisation and the end of history tend to see the clash as many culture wars. Take just two examples. The Islamists who have fought so hard against liberal modernity in the Middle East think of their battle as one for the Islamic world alone. They want to expel the infidels and erect high walls around a new ummah. And the American cultural conservatives of the heartland, who bemoan the direction of American society, spend much of their time doing such things as denouncing the UN and supporting a chest-thumping American nationalism. I am reminded of the old Indian folk tale in which seven blind men grope around different parts of an elephant, and never agree on the shape of the animal as a whole.

Meanwhile, the yuppies of London, Hong Kong, and Bangalore alike see themselves everywhere as kindred spirits, purveyors of humanity’s future. Consumer culture and a vapid kind of liberal democracy supposedly tap into some desire lurking in human nature. In every Kazakh tribesman and Bolivian peasant, that desire waits only to be awakened by freedom and bright lights. And as many defenders of liberal globalisation have noted with glee, challenges to it tend to speak in the name of one or another people, one or another culture, not in the name of humanity as a whole. There are global liberals, global free-marketeers, and global secularists; there are no global fundamentalists, populists, and traditionalists.

We thus have a global culture war being fought globally from one side, the winning side, and in a defensive and fragmented way on the losing side. The self-indulgent are giving the provincial a good hiding.

Therein lies the problem. Benjamin Franklin said after signing America’s Declaration of Independence that those who did not hang together would most assuredly all hang separately. Traditionalists around the world today are well on their way to hanging separately. Solving the problem is no easy matter. Even if one got the likes of Patrick Buchanan and the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to sit down together for tea, it is unlikely each would then realise the other is a good chap after all, and then trot off to do battle together against the yuppies. The challenge is greater than that, and I have misgivings about both of them anyway. But I do argue in the book that unless we start seeing the global culture war as global, and start challenging the present vision of globalisation on its own scale, we are doomed. History will end, perhaps with an Ipod in every pocket and a Lexus beside every olive tree, but certainly with a desolation of the spirit.

Beyond the Global Culture War is about how to make sense of this global culture clash, and move beyond it in the spirit of both traditional values and social justice. Notwithstanding the complacency of the powers that be, matters are not yet decided. Most of humanity remains unconverted to their vision. The great traditions’ steady loss of ground over the last century should not dishearten us. It should inspire us to rethink our diagnosis of what ails the modern world, and to offer a very different image of the future. This book proposes not retreating more slowly in the global culture war, but rather winning it on new terrain.

I know that many would be tempted to conclude that I am shouting in the wilderness for us to go back to the Dark Ages. I am not. As I explain in the book, I welcome the prosperity, the legal protections, and broadening of horizons, that modernity has brought a large chunk of humanity. But the story I tell in the book makes clear, I think, that we could have had such advances without the moral impoverishment, the self-absorption, and the rise to power of the wrong sorts of people. History did not have to turn out this way. And, since history is not yet over, something can still be done about it, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

The argument I develop in the book has many parts. While each is fairly straightforward, they build on one another in a way that I can only begin to summarise here. But I do want to highlight a few of the major themes.

First, the global culture war to be fought is against what we might call liberal modernity. What is liberal modernity? For one thing, it is not “liberalism” in the narrow centrist or left-of-centre sense in which the label is often used in Western politics. It is a deeper self-understanding, which many of us think of as simply modern. In varying degrees, it affects the whole mainstream of the Western political spectrum, from the likes of Reagan and Thatcher on the right to the social democrats and Naderites on the left. Beneath such arguments over details, the liberal worldview has already won and come to define the core political values of Western societies. To challenge it means to rethink a good deal from the ground up.

To put matters that way is a sweeping indictment, to be sure. If one does not already share it, I know it can seem unnerving. But what is this liberal worldview against which a global culture war must be fought? The modern liberal self-understanding is one that preaches rights over duties, reduces values to mere individual preferences, and sees political institutions as machinery to keep society running rather than as a way to promote worthy ways of life. That sounds quite abstract, but it has quite concrete effects on daily life and culture. Before the last two centuries, no culture, particularly at the highest levels, would declare that “greed is good,” or that wealth had no social obligations beyond the whim of its owner. Nor would any culture have held that personal morality was just a matter of taste, as long as one did not hurt anyone else. These attitudes involved much more than just how to arrange a society’s institutions, important though that was. Nor did they just come down to freedom, or a lack of freedom. They were about a self-understanding, about qualities of character. There was an up and a down within the self, so to speak. And in this respect the contrast between the dominant classes today and the dominant classes of centuries past could not be starker.

Second, this self-understanding, while dominant today for the first time in history, predates modernity. It has always existed below the surface for some people. Liberalism is the modern version of a timeless self-understanding, which in the book I call “atomist.” To see the world through the eyes of an atomist is to think that human beings have few social obligations, and that human nature has no objectively true higher ends.

Before the last century or so, atomism was always kept in check. To put it bluntly, it was confined to a few marginal groups in society: wheeling and dealing merchants, hardheaded bureaucratic functionaries, court eunuchs, free-floating types at the edges of mainstream culture, and the like. A few thinkers, like the Sophists in ancient Greece and the Legalists in ancient China, also expressed an atomist view of the world. Other thinkers and history duly cursed them for it. And most of the people who had this outlook did not really want it anyway—in the sense that the circumstances that shaped them to think of themselves in this rootless and somewhat degraded way were hardly desirable.

Third, alongside atomism were other ways of thinking about oneself, which were much more uplifting. Those self-understandings set the tone of premodern cultures. I shall not dwell on the details here. But think of the traditional peasant with a hearty sense of fellowship and duty to neighbours. Or think of the mystic who meditated in search of a spiritual truth beyond the world, or the literary or aristocratic type who valued certain kinds of honour and nobility. Or think of the clerics or mandarins who brought their own virtues and moral compass to bear on the world around them. These kinds of people were quite unlike each other, to be sure. A peasant who valued fellowship in a small community was not the same as a mystic or a heroic type who cultivated himself above and apart from the world. And neither of them was the same as a cleric or mandarin who thought he had a mission to bring about a morally inspired society. Each of them had their own kinds of virtue, which complemented one another in a society. Moreover, it is striking that, for the most part, one finds these three types of people in all ancient and mediæval civilisations. Just to take a couple of examples, the Catholic clergy corresponded to the Chinese mandarins; the Sufis corresponded to the Daoist mystics; and peasants and people like them were everywhere much the same in basic self-understanding, even if the details varied from culture to culture.

Fourth, and following from this slicing up of basic self-understandings, we have four different ways of thinking on universal terrain. There are those three uplifting kinds of self-understandings—of the peasant, the mystic or aristocratic hero, and the cleric or mandarin—which call forth the best qualities in human nature. And then there is atomism, the kind of self-understanding that has triumphed in the modern world. Atomism either calls forth the lower qualities in human nature, or pretends there are no higher qualities, or dismisses the whole question as a mere personal taste.

Each of these four self-understandings—ethoses, I call them in the book—is equally placeless, equally part of the human experience across cultures. Each is a rival universalism, deeply rooted in different directions that human nature can take. So when modern liberals offer us the end of history, they do have good reason to think their vision of the world speaks to all humanity. I agree wholeheartedly. But as I argue in the book, three other kinds of human nature also speak to all cultures. And in the name of those other three, if people recognise as much, we can fight back in a global culture war and meet modern liberalism on its own scale.

Fifth, the triumph of this degrading self-understanding in modern times has come through a series of manœuvres over several generations. Those manoeuvres happened in culture, ideology, institutions, social movements, education, and the like. They started in western Europe in the nineteenth century, and gained ground elsewhere over the last hundred years. With each manoeuvre, the modern liberal project, with specific social groups and interests behind it, managed to overcome resistance. It shifted the global terrain in its own favour. It escaped all of the checks that well-ordered cultures had placed on it before modernity. Whatever its protestations then and now, its victory was not inevitable. It faced one backlash after another. But it managed to evade those backlashes, by shifting its own form and by playing those backlashes off against one another. It played the working classes off against the declining gentry. One generation it might preach social democracy; the next, free markets. To one audience it might hold out progressive nationalism; to another, global openness. And all the time history rolled on, flattening the old civilisations.

Sixth, the weakness of resistance today reflects this history of manœuvre, of defeat after defeat. Why are the Islamists and the Chinese populists and the Christian Right and other groups around the world so strident yet so ineffective? They have been reduced to thinking of themselves as speaking for particular cultures rather than for universal human truths. They have also lost the enlightened and more cultivated traditional leadership that they had a century ago. Because of social changes that I trace in the book, hardly any enlightened gentry and clerics and mandarins remain in the world as a political force. Usually a cosmopolitan temper flourishes at the higher levels of a society. Today’s upper classes, around the world, are overwhelming liberal in the broad sense of the word. There is no sophisticated, broadminded, traditionalist bloc, with very few exceptions. Instead we are left with the stridency of lower middle class movements that cling to custom and yearn to build high walls around whatever patch of land they claim. They might slow down consumer culture and moral relativism a bit. But in the long run, can they hope for more than losing the global culture war more slowly?

Seventh, a challenge to liberal globalisation needs to take all three of those older and more uplifting ethoses, or self-understandings, seriously. An alternative to the emerging global culture will not go very far unless it can speak to different kinds of human aspirations. It must revive the small decencies of plain folk, as well as the more demanding sorts of self-cultivation that only a few souls used to pursue in the past. When liberals protest that today’s fundamentalists would squash everyone into one mould, they have a point. Yet a diversity based on these other three self-understandings, in partnership with one another, would be far richer. It would present a vision of the future that would hark back to the best of premodern civilisations, with their multiple worthy ways of life. And I suspect it would also appeal to many who think of themselves today as liberals—simply because they are not fundamentalists—but who want more than what a vapid liberal culture can offer them. We can have the ethical goods of the past with the prosperity and global horizons of the present, if we frame the issues the right way.

Eighth, the only way to win the global culture war is to fight it globally. We need more networks of traditionally minded movements across the world, across cultures, with common political aspirations. Every email between an ayatollah in Qom and a neo-Confucian in Taibei would be a step forward. It is quite possible that the kind of globalisation we see now could lead to a world state in another fifty years or so. Can we imagine an alternative world state that is not liberal, not just a machine for depositing an Ipod in every pocket, a Lexus beside every olive tree, and a nightclub on every street corner? A world state that draws from the best of the past and promotes better rather than worse ways of life? A world state that brings civilisations together into a higher synthesis? In Beyond the Global Culture War, I suggest that such visions must be a vital part of the political strategy for fighting the global culture war to victory.

Ninth and finally, I should return to a point with which I opened. I approach all these big questions from a global perspective, but from the right culturally and the left economically. I think any challenge to the world as it is has to bring together the traditionalist backlash of the right against the modern cultural collapse, on the one hand, with the many pressures from the left for social and economic justice around the world, on the other. As one might imagine, I think the leftist anti-globalisation movement, which stirred things up at Seattle and Genoa and the World Social Forum in recent years, does not take tradition seriously enough, and is too much coloured by the modern world. Yet I do hold out the hope that left and right could one day come together around such a broad alternative. Global social justice needs the moral authority and insights of tradition to lend it weight. And a genuine critique of global capitalism from a traditional vantage point demands economic justice. The modern world has enslaved the spirit to the stomach while satisfying neither. Humanity needs its spirit ignited and its stomach filled, and only a victory in the global culture war can do both.