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Reading between the lines

Adam Burgess asks why pessimism is back on the international agenda

The decline of the west revisited

  • The clash of civilisations and the remaking of world order
    Samuel P Huntington, Simon and Schuster, $26 hbk

Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington's 1993 essay 'The clash of civilisations?' unleashed an almighty row in foreign policy circles (Foreign Affairs, summer 1993). Huntington was known for his work on a 'third wave' of democratisation in the Third World. But according to his gloomy vision of the future in 'Clash', we were to look forward to a post-Cold War world shaped by confrontation between cultural blocs.

Huntington wrote that a decaying Western liberalism would have to defend itself against the multiple threats of Islam, 'ethnic fundamentalism' and the 'Confucian authoritarianism', which, for Huntington, is modern China. The article was heavily promoted by Foreign Affairs as their agenda setting statement for the nineties, ranged against the first 'big picture' thesis to emerge after the end of the Cold War - Francis Fukuyama's 'End of History'. 'The clash of civilisations' was one of several challenges to the supposedly self-satisfied optimism of Fukuyama's declaration that liberal democracy had triumphed, and therefore that 'History' - as a global struggle of ideas and visions - was at an end.

While heavily criticised in the academic world for his exaggerated and simplistic scenarios, Huntington has made an international name for himself on the back of his thesis. Endorsed by luminaries such as ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he became a 'must know' subject for Wasp elite dinner party conversation in America, and a starting point for discussion among high diplomatic circles.

Huntington soon lost the monopoly on extravagant pessimism, as self-consciously dramatic competitors followed him into print. There was Robert D Kaplan's February 1994 offering, 'The coming anarchy', where 'scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the fabric of our planet' as it was subtitled in the American monthly, The New Republic. And this 'new pessimism' is by no means exclusively American. In the same year, the Frenchman Alain Minc entered the fray with his Le Nouveau Moyen Age. Numerous others have followed. At the end of 1996, even the venerable Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House got in on the act, publishing Unsettled Times which offered a 'worst case scenario' for the millennium. It foresees a 'clash of expectations' where an ageing West burdened with outdated organisations, uncontrolled technological advance and unrealistic demands, struggles to maintain its position in a new balance of power in the world.

Driven, no doubt, by the desire to recapture the expressly pessimistic terrain he mapped out in 1993, Huntington has now finally extended his 'Clash of civilisations' thesis into a book of the same name. For Huntington, 'culture' is what makes the world go round; > 'culture' not in the sense of what we consume or produce, but the traditions - religious for example - bequeathed by our ancestors. This 'culture' explains everything. So he tells us that 'East Asian economic success has its source in East Asian culture, as do the difficulties East Asian societies have had in achieving stable democratic political systems' (p29). The 'civilisations' referred to in the title are only cultures writ large.

Huntington argues that these cultures are formed by a universal human impulse to group together - something which he thinks can only be done through cementing hostilities against 'others'. This poses the potential for conflict. Expressed crudely, something which Huntington is more than willing to do, 'civilisations are the ultimate human tribes, and the clash of civilisations is tribal conflict on a global scale' (p207). As the territories of these 'tribes' are imperfectly drawn, and because cultures go through life-cycles of vitality and decline, conflict perpetually looms - particularly along the 'fault lines' where cultures or civilisations meet.

Reading between the lines, it appears that 'culture' is merely a new vocabulary to articulate fears which have more traditionally been expressed through the language of race. For all the attempts to acknowledge the exotic contribution of other cultures, Huntington finds it difficult to conceal alarmist racial anxieties. Regarding population growth in Muslim countries, for example, his concern is that 'particularly the expansion of the 15-24 year-old age cohort, provides recruits for fundamentalism, terrorism, insurgency, and migration' (p103). The leap from demographic trend to physical threat indicates a very different subtext than that implied by the aesthetic category 'culture': these are elite fears of racial revenge, recycled as cultural insight.

Superficially, there is a big difference between the original essay, and its subsequent elaboration. Here his vision is presented as warning rather than prescription. The coming 'clash' is not inevitable, so long as urgent measures are taken. The specific threats identified are the high levels of reproduction in Islamic countries, and the economic challenge of China.

His solutions are also cultural in character. These problems can only be addressed indirectly by challenging the intellectual climate which allows both the mixing of cultures at home, and the imposition of Western values abroad. For him, 'Multiculturalism at home threatens the United States and the West; universalism abroad threatens the West and the world' (p318). To address these twin evils, we must consolidate and batten down the hatches. To prevent a global Dark Age, we must properly reunite the Atlantic Alliance and create not just a 'Fortress Europe', but a 'Fortress West'.

The shift from prophet to policy adviser is not as much of a departure as it might appear. Huntington follows the course mapped out by his intellectual forebears. In Oswald Spengler, the German schoolteacher who wrote the infamous Decline of the West during the First World War, the historically determined rise and fall of civilisations was also something of a ruse. His was a thinly disguised call to (German) arms. So in Huntington, it is hardly surprising that he has gone beyond warning 'the end is nigh', to imploring we take steps to stop the cultural rot.

This similarity raises a new feature of Huntington's book: the acknowledgement of his intellectual roots in the 'civilisational' school of historical thinking. The cutting edge of Huntington's return - significantly the angle he chose to pursue in pre-publication excerpts - is that the West is 'unique, not universal'. Against the dominant consensus for democratising the non-Western world, he suggests this to be a waste of time, or worse; it is 'arrogant, false and dangerous'. In so doing, he is restating the doubts about the ability of the West to reproduce itself globally which have been articulated by a long line of 'civilisational' cultural pessimists.

Huntington's most recent predecessor is the British world historian Arnold Toynbee, leading light of the 'civilisational' approach. Further back, was Toynbee's own mentor, Oswald Spengler. He, like Huntington, dismissed the capacity of a decadent West to recast the world in its own image, although significantly, he envisaged a rather more drawn out and graceful period of decline as a consequence, than that foreseen by the besieged Huntington. Finally, and arguably the grand daddy of the doom-mongers, is the French comte Arthur de Gobineau, author of the seminal tract of modern racism, the Essay on the Inequality of Man. Gobineau insisted in the face of nineteenth-century optimism, that we could no more expect to see European achievements replicated elsewhere, than we could see gravity defied.

The bulk of Huntington's book is taken up with very particular interpretations of world affairs. Much of this is fanciful, unsubstantiated, and even plain wrong. While many go along with the idea of a revival of religion in the Islamic world, for example, the idea that such a development is 'dramatically evident in former communist states' (p96), has few takers. Certainly, as with so many of his sweeping statements, there is no real evidence to substantiate this claim. His categorisation of 'civilisations' (as with all the civilisational literature) is arbitrary; for some reason he has decided that China is no longer 'Confucian', but 'Sinic'. Despite difficulty in identifying his 'civilisations', Huntington, like his predecessors applies the irrational logic of elevating cultures to the point where he posits them as things with a life (and death) of their own.

Huntington's culturalist approach misses out the question of power. He makes great play for example of the recent summit at Davos in Switzerland of the most powerful people in the world - only to contend that their influence is illusory in the face of 'culture'. 'Davos people', he says, 'control virtually all international institutions, many of the world's governments, and the bulk of the world's economic and military capabilities.... World-wide, however, how many people share this culture?...[P]erhaps as few as one-tenth of one percent of the world's population' (p57).

But the minority of 'Davos people' who run the system do not need the world to share their culture to exercise power. And those without power cannot do whatever they want, however strong their culture. North Africans, even if they are lucky enough to get into 'Fortress Europe', do not have the liberty to carry out the 'fundamentalism, terrorism, insurgency' which Huntington anticipates. For him, though, such difficulties as powerlessness are secondary to the fact that they are driven by Allah and a desire for revenge against the West. In this telling, power relations are turned upside down, and a West now facing less real challenge to its global authority than at any time this century can appear to be facing potential oblivion.

Even Huntington himself does not seem entirely confident about his ideas. 'If not civilisations, what?' was the title of the reply to his critics in Foreign Affairs; a sort of 'Okay maybe it's nonsense, but have you got any better ideas?'. Peculiarly, however, these ideas are now taken more seriously than in the past. Spengler was a laughing stock in his day - his notoriety was based largely on the catchy title of his incomprehensible tome, rather than the popularity of its contents. Toynbee enjoyed rather more success, in the confused climate immediately after the Second World War - until his witty demolition by the historian Hugh Trevor Roper in the late fifties. Nevertheless, this whole school of thought has historically been regarded as marginal and eccentric. Even figures publicly identified with the 'civilisational' approach such as the American historian William McNeill, have subsequently sought to distance themselves from it.

One reason for today's openness to this civilisational approach is the invariably pessimistic interpretation of world issues which prevails today. Those agencies which provide the information upon which our picture of world affairs is based are particularly inclined to interpret everything as potentially disastrous. The discussion of Third World 'over-population' has set the tone for every United Nations and non-governmental organisation to present a picture of innumerable catastrophes waiting to happen. There is too little water - this may lead to conflict according to the UN. Cities are overcrowded - this too may lead to conflict according to the UN. The list seems endless, and it is hardly surprising that in this climate, the synthesising of the sensibilities which we see in Huntington, strikes a chord no matter how dubious its intellectual origins.

There is a greater general resonance for the importance of culture in the world today. Critics have certainly rejected the consequences of his argument - that there need necessarily be a clash rather than a coexistence of civilisations - but they have found it difficult to deal with its premises.

The assumption that 'culture' is important and that its integrity must be maintained at all costs (evidenced in everything from the disapproval of cross-racial adoptions to the obsession with protecting the way of life of indigenous peoples) is pervasive. Back in Gobineau's time it was a straightforward proposition that culture was neither fixed, decisive or indeed very important. He was something of a maverick in suggesting that it was a permanent and immovable beast. Even in the fifties when modernisation was the vogue, there was the belief that the world could be one as we moved inexorably to the Western model. Only a lack of development was seen to be standing in the way. Now that goal is seen as neither possible, nor, more significantly, even desirable. Instead, the failure of development seems only to have confirmed that cultural difference is more powerful than any artificial attempt to sweep it to one side.

Under these circumstances it seems hardly surprising that, whatever its apocalyptic conclusions, the elevation of culture at the heart of civilisational pessimism should be taken seriously. And despite the nominal optimism which now accompanies the consensus for a multicultural world of separate development, the residual pessimism which necessarily underlies the conviction that people can only be what they are made by their cultural make-up is quite conducive to determinism such as that of Huntington. Fatalism, whether of a cultural or racial character, must nec-essarily create a hearing for the doubt and fear at the heart of the dark world of Spengler and his supporters. In this sense, cultural pessimism's time has come. Huntington is assured of a greater hearing than the isolated figures of Gobineau and Spengler. While they could be dismissed as impossibly negative, today, the reincarnation of these pessimistic ideas is barely recognised as such.

Huntington's decline of the West revisited is likely to remain contested and side-lined. Many of its specifics stand contemporary academic wisdom on its head. In any case, ours is not an age for grand theories of any sort. This should not blind us to the fact that > his dark vistas have already been treated with a seriousness which would have been unthinkable in the past, and that his critics have proven incapable of effectively demolishing his (almost non-existent) arguments. We now live in a world fixated with the worst possible motives and outcomes - especially the banal idea that we are driven inexorably to conflict by our 'tribal', or as they now say, our 'cultural' instincts.

Adam Burgess' Divided Europe: The New Domination of the East is published by Pluto this autumn

Read on

  • The Hunger
    Knut Hamsun (translation by Sverre Lyngstad), Rebel Inc, £6.99 pbk

Knut Hamsun's 1890 novel The Hunger looks set to find a modern audience for this Nordic Dosteyevskyan gloom. Hamsun traces the decline of a young writer into homelessness and its accompanying madness. At first, the character of the writer is annoyingly pathetic and unengaging. He shakes his fist at God while trying to scribble down his thoughts in a series of unfinished articles. From here, events determine the 'hero's' decline, but it is in his descent that the novel's structure comes to the fore. Moving rapidly between first and third person accounts, the character's realtime experiences, distanced observations and paranoid ramblings create the tensions which drive his encounters with others. In the current climate where the homeless are indeed elevated to something approaching hero status, The Hunger will no doubt become a favourite among the Swampies and Animals of the world.

Dave Cowlard

  • Post-Marxism and the Middle East
    Faleh A Jabar (ed), Saqi Books, £40 hbk

Despite the title, the one thing this book fails to do is comes to terms with the failures of Stalinism in the Middle East. Only four out of 15 chapters make any reference to the Middle East. Two attempt an analysis of what Marxism represented. For Fred Halliday, Marxism contributed to an understanding of the Middle East. But in the end, Halliday wants to say that imperialism has been talked up. It is time the Arab Hitlers took responsibility for their own mistakes - a view which will play well in London and Washington.

Faleh A Jabar's chapter touches on the Stalinist 'by stages' approach to the Arab revolution. Should communists support the democratic revolution led by the national bourgeoisie or socialist revolution led by the working class? All too often the Arab communist parties gave up their independence and supported the national bourgeoisie with disastrous consequences. Once in power, the new rulers ruthlessly suppressed their erstwhile communist comrades. Jabar and Halliday conclude that the central issue for the Arab left is democracy and the biggest obstacle is not imperialism but Islam. It is as if imperialism (and their memories) suddenly collapsed at same time as the Berlin Wall.

Eve Anderson

  • The State to Come
    Will Hutton, Vintage, £4.99 pbk

'The eccentric aspect of British capitalism is how poorly its owners discharge their responsibilities.' Will Hutton's use of the term 'reponsiblity' against the property-owning classes is a welcome change to the commonplace lecturing of welfare mums. It certainly provides the basis for a trenchant criticism of individual capitalists from the point of view of society as a whole. But what is the point of view of a stake-holding society? It is summed up in the proposition that 'we need' investment fund managers 'to become committed family owners or patient paternalists'.

This kind of criticism is a plea for the property-owning class to behave like a ruling class. But a paternalistic dictatorship is just as pernicious as a disinterested one. Redirecting the system towards tomorrow's profits seems to mean saving the system of exploitation by reining in its worst excesses today.

All of the logical criticism of the market in The State to Come is hedged by the assertion that there is no alternative to capitalism per se, only a choice between capitalisms. Consequently any criticisms of the market are restricted. So after an eloquent denunciation of the commodification of labour, the limits are invoked: 'No economy, industry or firm can operate with a prohibition on making workers redundant.' In other words, buying and selling people is inevitable, because capitalism is inevitable.

The State to Come is forthright in its defence of civil liberties: 'We do not need our civil liberties menaced and the authoritarian state strengthened as a substitute for forms of control that have withered away under the attack of the market.' But isn't that precisely what a paternalistic capitalism, a capitalism that is not prepared to brook any challenge would need: substitute forms of control? The desire for 'stronger social sanctions against the actions of errant men' (meaning perhaps redundant men) who are 'terrorising if not our lives, our imaginations' would seem to be an example of substitute forms of control. What's more, taking sanctions to prevent trespass on the imagination is a social control the Tories would not dare dream of.

James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997

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