Looking for Signs of History in the Tea Leaves

12 May 2014

Monday


reading-tea-leaves

In several posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s influential essay (now considered a bit dated) on the “end of history” — Marx and Fukuyama, History Degree Zero, and The Zero Hour Thesis — which for Fukuyama means the end of titanic ideological struggles between existential enemies. Here is a definitive passage from Fukuyama’s essay:

“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan — horrible as that would be for those countries — does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”

Do we see, anywhere in the world’s current events, any sign of a systematic idea of political and social justice that claims to supersede political liberalism (or has pretenses to supersede liberalism)? Given Fukuyama’s intellectual debt to Hegel, we might begin such an inquiry by looking at some of the conflicts in the world today to see if they betray any signs of any nascent ideological conflicts that may come to define the titanic struggles of the future. Let us consider some of the world’s trouble spots at this moment: Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine.

After the hopes raised by the Arab Spring it is deeply disappointing to see the developments in Egypt, and even more deeply disappointing to see the supine reaction of the western liberal democracies (presumably those nation-states that carry aloft the torch of the liberal democracy that Fukuyama still sees as the unchanged political idea and ideal of our time), which have accepted without protest a de facto military dictatorship that has sentenced hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death and declared that the only truly representative institution in the country would exist no more. Nothing good is likely to come of this, but the world looks on, once again preferring the elusive promise of short-term stability over the messy but sustainable democratic process. Thus the political context of the developments in Egypt since the Arab Spring represent the same old, same old in geopolitics. Egypt is not yet even close to liberal democracy, so it is in no position to move beyond this to an innovative new ideology.

Syria is looking more and more like the Lebanese civil war, with multiple factions fighting over control of a nation-state while simultaneously fighting each other. Syrians are suffering, and the stagnation of the conflict suggests that the people of Syria will continue to suffer. No major power is willing to involve itself to bring about a decisive end to the conflict — Russia is not about to intervene on behalf of Assad, and the western powers are not about to intervene on behalf of the rebels — so the bloodletting will continue until some contingent and unpredictable event ends it, or until those doing the fighting get so sick of killing that they stop (as more or less happened in Lebanon). Syria seems mired in tribalism, so that, like Egypt, it is in no position to represent some novel ideological conflict.

In Egypt and Syria it is autocracy that is asserting itself, re-asserting itself, or attempting to re-assert itself. The Islamists make headlines through a mastery of the hyperreal event, but they have been markedly unsuccessful in bringing about any change. Even the recent displacement of governments by the Arab Spring has not resulted in any clear political victories for Islamists. We see instability, and the consequent attempt to impose stability and restore order; what we do not see is the emergence of an unambiguously Islamist regime, much less the restoration of the Caliphate, which is one of the key symbolic political events to which Islamists look forward. Indeed, Egypt represents the defeat even of moderate Islamists. There is no question that radical Islamic militancy views itself as a systematic idea of political and social justice that supersedes liberalism, but I think that even the advocates of radical Islam recognize that this is not a universal doctrine, and that if it is fit for any people, it is for those peoples who already fall under Islamic civilization.

What some are called the “resurgence of Russia” following the annexation of the Crimea and agitation in southern and Eastern Ukraine for closer ties with Russia could easily be assimilated to a narrative to the “return of history” (which I previously discussed in The Historical Resonance of Ideas, Doctrinaire and Inorganic Democracy, and Anniversary of a Massacre — too easily, as I see it. There is nothing particularly compelling about this narrative, and the “return of history” offers no systematic idea of political and social justice. Its only attraction is its facile familiarity and the ease with which the pundits evoke it.

Russia, which remains the overwhelming military power in Eurasia, is again re-negotiating its borders and its sphere of influence after a contraction of these following the end of the Cold War. This is nothing of great historical importance, however deleteriously it affects the lives of Ukrainians today. All of this is predictable, and should surprise no one. Even less than the situations in Egypt and Syria does the situation in Ukraine represent anything new from the geopolitical perspective. We could just as well assimilate these developments to the rise of autocracy in Russia, and this would be a little more accurate than talk of the “return of history,” except that Russia has rarely deviated from autocracy, so it would be deceptive to imply that Russian autocracy had lapsed and then been reborn under Putin. This patently is not the case.

None of these conflicts cause us to question or to reformulate the basic principles underlying our social order, yet there are developments of interest today for what they portend about the future. In my last post, The Finlandization of Germany, I mentioned what I called the contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection, as based on the devolution of warfare. During the Cold War, the devolution of warfare emerged as a strategy to avoid the possibility of wars crossing the nuclear threshold and triggering a massive nuclear exchange and mutually assured destruction. In the post-Cold War period the devolution of warfare has shifted to keep military depredations below the threshold of atrocity, thereby avoiding intervention by the international community.

I also mentioned the growth in efficacy of guerrilla forces. Both of these developments — devolution of state power below the threshold of atrocity and escalation upward to the threshold of atrocity by guerrilla groups — play a role in the three conflicts discussed above. That powerful states have sought to keep their depredations below the threshold of atrocity, while the most ambitious non-state actors have sought to precipitate hyperreal atrocities and therefore to claim the mantle previously reserved to nation-states, means that state power and asymmetrical warfare converge on a new symmetry defined by atrocity. Asymmetrical warfare converges on symmetry. Some have called this “symmetrizing,” although this term has meant the efforts by nation-states to copy the asymmetrical tactics of non-state actors, the better to counter their efficacy.

While much of this is of purely military significance — the attempt by disparate forces to engage each other on terms that each chooses, even while the other tries to force the other to engage on its terms — and so we can consider this merely the attempt to arrive at a balance of power between nation-state and non-state actors, it is of historical significance that the nearly all-powerful nation-state finds itself challenged by non-state actors, and challenged to the point that it is forced to respond.

Implicit in Fukuyama’s position that liberal democracy is the only systematic idea of political and social justice that survives following the collapse of communism is that that nation-state is the locus of liberal democracy. Beyond this implicit condition that liberal democracy be realized by nation-states, there is the historical fact that nation-states exist in a condition of anarchy vis-à-vis each other, i.e., the anarchical state system. Liberal democracy, then, is contingent upon nation-states embedded in an anarchical international system.

The challenge that asymmetrical non-state actors present to the nation-state they also present to both the liberal democracy realized by the nation-state and to the anarchical international system that is the condition the the contemporary nation-state that realizes liberal democracy. There is a sense, then, in which the ability of non-state actors acting asymmetrically and successfully challenging the nation-state that is a radical challenge to the locus of liberal democracy. However, this challenge does not rise to the level of constituting a systematic idea of political and social justice. At present, it is merely a threat. However, should we see this process continue, and the nation-state loses ground against non-state actors, those who sense the shift may endow this shift with meaning and value that it does not possess at present. At that time, a systematic idea of political and social justice may emerge, but it has not as of yet.

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2 Responses to “Looking for Signs of History in the Tea Leaves”

  1. I think that the “Return of History” is actually more compelling than you seem to conclude. Russia’s embraces of conservatism, combined with the state-semi capitalist-authoritarianism of China, and the probably high nationalism about to emerge in India are all, in their respective ways alternatives to the dominant Western progressive narrative. It is not clear that there is any dominant narrative as new powers rise, old one’s re-emerge, and both the U.S. and Europe move about somnambulantly while pointing their fingers at those that don’t get with their Kantian pretensions. This very questionability of the dominant Western narrative, and including the Middle East, must put a lie to the whole notion of an “End of History.”

    I think Fukuyama, in the book as opposed to the article, hits the nail on the head at the end when he discusses Nietzsche’s Last Man and the process for “re-starting” history. There is a battle to avoid humanity descending to become that pitiable entity which, sadly, seems to be the end-point of the Western pathway.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Hi Greg,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I will consider this, though I remain skeptical that there is much in the way of a systematic idea of political and social justice represented in Russia or China today.

      But you’ve given me two ideas:

      1. Implicit within Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis is the idea that history could resume if liberal democracy was challenged by another systematic idea of political and social justice. Thus we can make a distinction between a return of history following Fukuyama and a return of history following Kagan. And I think that these ideas are clearly distinct.

      2. Also implicit within Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis is the idea that any systematic idea of political and social justice that could or might challenge liberal democracy should be an idea that is in the vanguard of history; that is to say, the titanic ideological struggles that define History with a capital “H” are struggles that force the processes of history forward, so that the contending ideologies must be biased toward the future.

      Thanks for the inspiration.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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