Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Thin Veneer of Civilization

As was pointed out in the comments to my post "Going wobbly on Modernity and the West" I don't exude a lot of confidence for the continuation of the civilization we like to call the West, or Modernity. I'm neither an outright pessimist nor an unabashed optimist regarding its future prospects. Call me a realist. Today Bryan Appleyard profiles another person who shares that view, the writer John Gray:
What Berlin repeatedly described was a central problem of liberalism. The liberal state’s job is to hold different world-views in balance, but it cannot resolve conflicts between them. It cannot, for example, say to Muslims “You are wrong” and to Christians “You are right”, because it then ceases to be liberal. At its most effective, it holds back the instinct of humanity to form itself into competing tribes. But the liberal state is perpetually threatened by – and will, over time, surely be overthrown by – an unusually aggressive tribe. True liberalism is, therefore, necessarily a tragic view, sceptical of all notions of progress. Gray calls it “agonistic liberalism”. He believes in the liberal state, and believes it is worth defending, but does not do so with empty optimism or with any belief that it should attempt to impose its ways on others.

Gray transforms Berlin’s basic insight into a refutation of all notions of progress or perfection and of the special destiny of humanity. Man, he asserts, is a tribal carnivore possessed of reason. His reason may give him science, a progressive, cumulative enterprise, but it cannot give him the wisdom to transcend his nature. Science, like everything else in the human world, will be used for evil as often as good. Conflict is eternal and all utopian thinking is fantasy. The best we can hope to do is protect, for a time, our cherished ways of life.
The collapse of communism in 1989, and the publication of an academic paper and subsequent worldwide bestseller, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, signalled the start of Gray’s next campaign against utopianism. This involved a more radical assessment of the prevailing mythologies of the West. Fukuyama’s argument that liberal democracy was the final political state, the end point of history, reeked of precisely the belief that history was a story with an ending that Gray so loathed in his colleagues.

“That phrase ‘the end of history’ was like a red rag to a bull. It was an apocalyptic notion, and it was to me a sign that when the Soviet Union collapsed, we would not have a move towards prudence and realism, we’d have a politics of faith. I was adamantly opposed to that – it was what I had been opposed to in communism.”

Well stated. We can't put our way of life on autopilot. From our disputes on "Wobbly" I'm not sure that we even agree on what our civilizational values are. I have an idea of what the West means, but not everyone shares all aspects of my definition. That is just another reason to keep a realistic frame of mind.


Blogger Oroborous said...

Man ... is a tribal carnivore possessed of reason. His reason may give him science, a progressive, cumulative enterprise, but it cannot give him the wisdom to transcend his nature. Science, like everything else in the human world, will be used for evil as often as good.

Completely agree. However:

Conflict is eternal and all utopian thinking is fantasy.

Conflict is eternal, but "conflict" need not include violence; it could be simply verbal, political, social, philosophical - and in the future, we may see far less violence.

Not all utopian thinking is fantasy, at least to the extent that a Star Trek-ian future of a one-world gov't run by today's mature societies, less global poverty, and far less global violence is sometimes termed "utopian".

The U.S. and Western Europe live pretty well, and there is absolutely no inherent reason why the entire globe couldn't live just as well. It's just bad politics in the developing world that retard such an outcome.

Therefore, all the advanced nations have to do is to seize control of the whole Earth, and by the end of the 21st century doing that will be so cheap and easy that I have no doubt whatsoever that we will do it.

Internationally, we still live in a Hobbesian world, and since in such an environment might makes right, and we have all of the might...

June 24, 2007 4:25 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

You're right that the world has become less violent, per capita, over time, and I imagine it will continue to do so, contrary to popular opinion.

I can't agree with your "seizing control" scenario. That sounds like neo-colonialism, and that didn't work so well the first time around. We'll continue to see identity based oppositional politics like we're seeing with Hugh Chavez in Venezuela and Putin in Russia. National and cultural pride won't be fading into the sunset anytime soon.

June 24, 2007 5:30 PM  
Blogger David said...

Since I agree with Grey on so much it's disconcerting that he's so wrong. (This includes his cartoon version of Fukuyama's argument, but I've almost given up beating that particular dead horse.)

The lesson I take from the history of the 20th century and liberal democracy is that government should never be allowed to do more than the minimum necessary -- even when to do more seems like an easy way to avoid or ameliorate real suffering. The fundamental fact about government is Justice Thomas' warning, speaking about something else altogether, that no matter how carefully a law is drafted, there will be behavior that falls just outside the law. Sooner or later, that will be characterized as a loophole and the law will be expanded. Since government programs never die, pretty soon the government is running everything.

June 24, 2007 7:54 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

I think Thomas was paraphrasing F.A. Hayek's argument in The Fatal Conceit.

June 25, 2007 6:28 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

The paleocolonialists acted out of greed; their primary concern was to exploit their colonies for the gain of the controlling nation.

The ultraneo-colonialists will be primarily acting to assure their own security, although there will be elements of philanthropy, and of exploitation.

June 25, 2007 7:31 PM  

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