I used to see the world as a landscape of rolling hills. There were different nations, tribes and societies, but the slopes connecting those groups were gradual and hospitable. It seemed relatively easy to travel from society to society, to understand and commune with one another.
Globalization seemed to be driving events, the integration of markets, communications and people. It seemed to be creating, with fits and starts, globalized individuals, who had one foot in a particular culture and another foot in a shared flow of movies, music, products and ideas.
Now my mental image of the landscape of humanity is not made up of rolling hills. It’s filled with chasms, crevices, jagged cliffs and dark forests. The wildernesses between groups seem stark and perilous.
People who live in societies where authority is united — as under Islam — are really different from people who live in societies where authority is divided. People in honor societies — where someone will kill his sister because she has become polluted by rape — are different from people in societies where people are judged by individual intentions. People who live in societies where the past dominates the present are different from people who live in societies where the future dominates the present. ~David Brooks
All good Western pessimists would have to wince at the description of their society as one “where the future dominates the present,” but it is, in a sense, unfortunately only too true. But that is beside the point for the moment. What is interesting about this article is the precipitous disillusionment of another neocon with the possibility of half-baked slogans and the engines of “creative destruction” to create a world of gently sloping hills of uninterrupted homogenisation, interdependency and secular democracy, a world of “globalized individuals.” May God preserve us from such a fate!
I don’t want to be “globalised” (it sounds unpleasant!)–why on earth would someone in Iraq or India want to be? This is the sort of thinking that if we all share in the communion of one great consumerism we may all become the same kind of people, as if drinking tea made Englishmen into Indians, playing cricket made Pakistanis English or watching Bollywood made me a Punjabi. This is a sort of ethnic food-smorgasbord view of international culture, where partaking of all the ethnic restaurants in town will make you into a cosmopolitan, when it really just makes you into someone who likes ethnic food. It is the reductionist view that culture is mostly food, music and strange dances, and has nothing to do with “real” life or deeply-ingrained values. Having commodified other cultures’ products, we seem to think that they also want to live a life filled with nothing much more than commodities. Alas, on the whole, this is not the case.
Multiculturalists have typically been keen to note the diversity of human culture, if only by way of trivialising its importance (because, deep down beneath this superficial culture stuff, we’re really all the same). Neoconservatives of another generation seemed to have a better grasp on the substantial and real differences created by culture, or at least aware that culture was somewhat determinative of a people’s future, though they did not necessarily approve of those defending these cultures or those who wanted to retain the differences. Modern neocons have seemed to operate under the assumption that people from different cultures are indeed different, but not significantly so (everybody wants freedom, donchaknow?), and that this “problem” would be fixed by a sufficient dose of the right institutions (let them eat ballots!) and enough disruption and upheaval of the ”creative-destructive” forces of capitalism to reduce everyone more and more to the world of what Beneton calls “procedural rationalisation.”
What neither the multicultis nor the neocons of any period seemed willing to entertain was that forces of cultural conservatism and opposition to the forces of “creative destruction” would kick in and possibly even stall the engine of “progress.” What they would certainly never admit was that this might be in some ways a good development. (Quel horreur!) Everybody knows, after all, that no one could prefer to live in a way different from how we live; it has to be some kind of irrational commitment, or someone has to be oppressing them and preventing them from choosing what we choose. The presumption of others’ irrationality is less annoying than the optimistic certainty that Progress really was going to triumph.
Even in their belated acknowledgement of the importance of culture, man’s need for identity and his preference for natural affinities over abstractions, there is a steadfast refusal to consider that the values and habits they promote are values and habits derived from a specific tradition within a particular culture (very specifically, the liberal tradition of Anglo-American political history) that cannot necessarily be duplicated everywhere and certainly cannot be duplicated without the significant dissolution of the traditional culture of the people who adopt these values and habits. There is no sense that it will not be a desirable trade-off for everyone, or that everyone will see it as desirable (entire regions of the world might say, “Not just now, thanks”), and no sense that faced with the same choice Europeans had in the 18th and 19th century that every society may not necessarily choose the liberal path. Of course, there is irrationality in the world (quite a lot of it, as there always has been and always will be) and oppression, but the conscious resistance to globalisation is not just the result of people internalising what other people have forced upon them but also a willing commitment to the values they have received from their own society.
This reconsideration of culture and tribe is becoming a trend: first Ralph Peters, now David Brooks. At this rate, the neocons might start agreeing with books called Pessimism and talking about natural affinities that trump commitments to abstractions. Who knows? They might even start taking history seriously! Before you know it, Fred Barnes will be fretting about mass immigration! Okay, that won’t happen.
But it is interesting to watch neocons discover that, lo and behold, man does not live by democratic capitalism alone but has these strange tribal and other powerful loyalties that keep “getting in the way.” Anyone who has been following the massive unrest following the death of a tribal elder in Baluchistan would have already understood this. Then again, anyone with a fair acquaintance with most human societies not our own would already understand that tribal loyalty has normally taken priority over larger, less immediate loyalties, and that it is the attempt to eradicate or suppress these loyalties that typically fails because the one doing the suppressing cannot provide anything of equal value or meaning. In many parts of the world, especially where the state has been and remains weak in providing the administration of justice or other services, tribes are filling a function that no institutions are filling. In any event, it must be Tribe Week in establishment circles, since the Post is running a little symposium on tribes in the developing world.
It is welcome news that this part of reality about much of the rest of the world, largely ignored by the chattering and political classes of the West for a very long time, is receiving some attention from the great and the good, so to speak, rather than the idiotic dismissal of people who live, as Krauthammer put it, according to “tribe or religion or whatever.” What the Krauthammers of the world have never seemed to understand was that acknowledging a man’s loyalty to his tribe and religion is not an insult, but a recognition of the things that he finds meaningful and the things that will dictate his actions. Only someone who views those kinds of loyalties with contempt believe it is contemptuous to attribute such loyalties to others. For Krauthammer, saying that a man prefers tribal loyalty above indeterminate freedom is like saying he prefers misery to happiness; for normal people, it has almost exactly the opposite meaning.
Ask any man on earth, “Do you want to be free?” and he will probably respond with an emphatic yes. Very few people think to themselves, “If only I could be a slave…” To say that someone desires a vague “freedom” is to say that he has desires, which doesn’t tell us very much. This man may pause for a moment and ask you (presumably in his own language), “Free how? To do what? For whom?” You might be able to come up with a credible answer to the first two by talking about political freedom and protections from government abuse (nobody actually wants to be abused by government, so you’ll probably win his approval here) and say that being free means that you can live your life in peace (nobody will object to living in peace).
It is this “for whom” question that really stumps the modern Westerner, because for him the first beneficiary of freedom is oneself. When asked “for whom?” the Westerner will say, “for myself,” which may not immediately make a lot of sense for people who define their social and family life significantly in terms of obligations to others; it may seem an offensive idea to think of freedom as being so self-serving. Certainly a well-ordered liberty that is constrained by social and moral obligations and which is fixed in a particular community is very desirable in my view, but typically that is not the “freedom” globalisation is selling and it is not the “freedom” that the neo-imperialists offer, either. The freedom on offer is a freedom that dissolves obligations and overthrows particular communities in favour of settlements of masses of atomised individuals. What they offer is the indeterminate freedom of choice and autonomy, the kind skewered so brilliantly in Equality By Default.
When that is the thing being offered, people will quite reasonably seek alternatives, sometimes making the most bizarre and appalling choices rather than be subjected to the living death of uniformity and homogenisation. And here’s the real kicker: even if the world of “globalised individuals” really would provide a better life on the whole, even if globalisation did usher in the Golden Age, many people would experience it and then, in ten years’ time, tear it all down again out of man’s permanent capacity for dissatisfaction and his constant search for meaning. In the greatest irony, if all men embraced choice and freedom just as Brooks hopes, they could just as readily turn around and throw all of it away, as Dostoevsky said in Notes From The Underground on a related theme:
Then–this is all what you say–new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided. Then the “Palace of Crystal” will be built. Then … In fact, those will be halcyon days. Of course there is no guaranteeing (this is my comment) that it will not be, for instance, frightfully dull then (for what will one have to do when everything will be calculated and tabulated), but on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then. Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation. I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentlemen, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!” That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers–such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning: that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy–is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.
One cannot help but think that if the neocons and others of like mind had spent more time reading history and Dostoevsky that we might have been spared all of these silly delusions of optimistic revolutionary theory.
As a final word, there is also the question of the actual effectiveness of globalisation as an engine of real material progress. Its effects are real but uneven, as you would expect in the real world, and this leaves large pockets of people who don’t see much or indeed any of the benefits. No surprise there–the Industrial Revolution in the West created many of the same effects, missing some places while greatly benefiting others, though never at a time when there were so many people affected by the transformation all at once.
Among other discontents of globalisation are the armed and ferocious Maoist Naxalites of east-central India, whom PM Singh recently listed as one of the two chief internal security threats to the country (see Economist article on the Naxalites here). Like the Maoist rebellion in Nepal with which they are connected, it must seem somewhat baffling to David “How Green Was My Valley” Brooks that there is an increasingly successful Maoist insurgency in the land of IT and Bollywood. Except, of course, that the people either attracted to or forced to serve the Naxalites are among all those many millions of Indians who had no idea what Mr. Vajpayee was talking about when his party campaigned on a “Shining India” platform. A rising tide may very well lift all boats, but this is not of much comfort to people either without boats or to those who live in the desert.
So we have made a quick tour of the questions raised by Brooks and Peters, so what do these men recommend in the light of their newfound discoveries? Well, for Brooks, it is pretty much an appeal to the same old story: give them more democracy! Here is Brooks:
The hard lesson of the last five years — that we live in a jagged world filled with starkly different and contesting groups — makes democracy promotion more difficult but more necessary. Only democratic habits will prevent the inevitable clash of the tribes from turning into a war of nuclear annihilation.
Well, so much for Brooks’ moment of zen. And Peters? What is his diagnosis of the reaction against globalisation? This is part of it:
Far from teaching the workers of the world to love one another (or at least to enjoy a Starbucks together), the economic and informational effects of globalization have been to remind people how satisfying it is to hate. Whether threatened in their jobs, their moral code, or their religion, human beings dislocated by change don’t want explanations. They want someone to blame.
Of course, men do want scapegoats for their travails. That is common enough. But what amazes me about Peters’ response to anti-globalisation and the “return” of tribal identity (it never actually went anywhere–it was just suppressed by artificial structures for a time until it destroyed them) is his brusque dismissal of these attachments and sentiments, as if people only valued such things in moments of crisis or chose their identities because they find it “satisfying to hate.” Contestation and external threats may strengthen and heighten a sense of identity, but they are not the source of that identity and they are not the real reasons why the identity exists; the identity gives people meaning in a far more significant way than simply giving them a way to be against someone else.
In the second part of his article, discussing the endurance and prevalence of magic and local religion around the world, Peters seems to do a bit better, recognising the positive function or at least positive value that people place in their very particular traditions. This is not surprising to the historian who knows that even the Armenians–the first official Christian nation–still have animal sacrifice, the matagh, as a part of their ritual life even today. Best of all, Peters even refers–most shocking of all–to the “indestructible differences” of different groups of people. He shows an uncharacteristic understanding of the problem here:
Even if magic and local beliefs are merely a worthless travesty of faith, our convictions are irrelevant: What matters is what the other man believes.
What remains puzzling about Peters’ view is that, in spite of demonstrating very convincingly that world religions and ideologies alike founder on the shores of local customs and his awareness that tribal identity is powerful, enduring and capable of breaking down any universal or larger identity, he still repeats the de rigeur neocon belief that America is somehow exceptional and will not be affected by tribal politics in the way that others have been regardless of mass immigration. This section of the article seemed very much to be like whistling past the graveyard, an attempt to pretend that the rest of the world was succumbing to tribal identity but that we here at home have nothing to worry about. What Peters has succeeded in showing is that these attachments are elemental and cannot be easily broken down, if they can be broken down at all, and yet he reiterates his faith in the melting pot as if he had said nothing of the kind. All in all, an interesting article that is still not able to follow through to its own logical conclusion of what “the return of the tribes” must mean for the United States as well as everywhere else.