The theater of Marcellus as depicted by Giovanni Battista Piranesi in the early modern period illustrates how later civilizations grow in, through, around and on top of earlier civilizations.

From the perspective of the phenomenon of civilization, i.e., civilization understood at its furthest reach of generality (which might also be called a meta-civilizational perspective), one would expect to find not only patterns of development of civilizations, as was Toynbee’s project to identify, but one would also expect to find patterns by which one civilization gives way to, or is transformed by or into, another civilization. In other words, a big picture perspective on civilization would reveal both intra-civilizational structures and inter-civilizational structures. Both of these are structures in time — ways in which things change.

Diocletian’s Palace at Split is another wonderful example of how a later civilization will grow like weeds within the interstices of an earlier civilization, displacing what came before but also preserving it — what Hegel called aufheben.

Civilizations, like individuals, swim in the ocean of history, and we can say of civilization what Marx said of men, viz. that civilizations make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. Each civilization is heir to the history that preceded it, and is in turn the ancestor of each civilization and succeeds it.

In several posts I have discussed the work of Toynbee, not least because he is the most devoted to the idea of civilization as the proper object of study of historiographic inquiry. Toynbee’s focus on civilization means that, even when he gets things wrong, he usually has something interesting to say. Apart from the list of fully developed civilizations that Toynbee recognized, he also discussed abortive civilizations and arrested civilizations. Among the abortive civilizations he included the Celtic Fringe of early Christianity and the Viking world. Among arrested civilizations he included the Eskimo, Polynesians, and nomads of the Asiatic steppe.

In Why We Are All Eskimos I tried to show how Toynbee was wrong to call Eskimos an arrested civilization. Obviously, when Toynbee made this claim, he was thinking that civilizations began in temperate regions and spread from areas more friendly to the full development of civilization to regions less friendly to the development of fully developed civilizations. Toynbee did not know what we know now in terms of the detailed paleoclimatology of the Earth. Scientific historiography since Toynbee’s time has revealed to us new worlds of knowledge that are not derived from any text, unless we count the world itself as a text, and our genetic structure as well.

Toynbee had it exactly backward with the Eskimos: they are not an arrested side branch of the main stream of civilization; they are the robust channel flowing inexorably from past glaciations, as though swollen with the meltwater of an entire ice age. “Eskimos” broadly speaking are the ancestors of us all, because all human ancestors had to come through the test of the ice age in order for them to be present to found the civilizations that have flourished during the present interglacial period.

I am beginning to think that Toynbee also had modern Western civilization exactly backward also. Toynbee begins his examination of civilizations by taking as examples of civilization, “…twenty-one societies of the species to which our Western Society belongs.” (A Study of History, Vol. 1, I, C, III, a, p. 147) Toynbee is honest about the fact of beginning with his own civilization, but I think that there is a legitimate question here as to whether our civilization today is modern civilization in the strict and narrow sense, or whether our civilization is a successor civilization to that of modernity. Let me try to explain this.

There is a sense which modern civilization has triumphed, especially in its Western form, but there is another sense in which modernity proved to be abortive, and we can speak of an abortive modern civilization that never fulfilled its promise because it was overtaken by events. What I mean is that modern civilization taken in its strict and narrow sense was displaced by another kind of civilization while modernity was still in its developmental stage. What displaced modern civilization was industrial-technological civilization, which is sufficiently different from what was developing as modernity prior to industrialization that it may deserve to be considered another kind of civilization entirely.

Some time ago, when I wrote a few posts on early modern Europe, particular in reference to Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down, I received a comment from Christopher Thompson, who had been a student of Christopher Hill. Professor Thompson scolded me for suggesting that early modern English was not, “a ‘peasant society’ or even a predominantly peasant one.” He was right to call me on this. It is worthwhile to read in its entirety Professor Thompson’s comment on my post (follow the link above and go to the bottom of the page), since he summarized in a few sentences the complexity and diversity of early modern English society.

In a later post of mine, Modernism without Industrialism: Europe 1500-1800, I tried to sketch the peculiar civilization of Europe of the early modern period, which I have come more and more to see as a kind of civilization that was only just getting off the ground when it was overtaken by the violent transformation of society initiated by the Industrial Revolution.

This period of modernism without industrialism can be understood as an abortive form of modern civilization — a civilization cut short and which never attain maturity on its own terms. As Professor Thompson pointed out, this was not a predominantly peasant society; in other words, it was not a medieval society. Throughout the early modern period we see a very gradually increasing division of labor and the social differentiation that this implies. The elaborate feudal structures of carefully gradated hierarchy was being slowly replaced by another kind of social gradation not as explicitly hierarchical as that of the Middle Ages. The scientific revolution was making itself felt, literacy was becoming more widespread, and at the end of this period we have two great political revolutions — the American Revolution and the French Revolution — both of which can be understood in isolation from the first stirrings of industrialization, which were starting about the same time.

It is possible to imagine, as an exercise in counter-factual historiography, a world that might have followed from the combined effects of the scientific revolution and the American and French revolutions but without the industrial revolution. While we are at it, we can just as well attempt to imagine a world that might have followed from modernity, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution without the political revolutions or the industrial revolution. I think this would have been a civilization much more similar to that of the Roman Empire at its height — relatively wealthy, cosmopolitan, internationalist, essentially agrarian and rural despite the existence of a few very large cities — than what we now know as industrial-technological civilization.

If we can identify modernity as an abortive civilization, like the Christian Celtic Fringe and the Vikings (according to Toynbee), overtaken by industrial-technological civilization, we must acknowledge that the transition from one civilization to another was relatively seamless, despite the social upheavals that attended industrialization. There was no “dark age” between modernity and industrialization, and in this respect the transition from modernity to industrialization resembles the transition from medievalism to modernity. Again, there was no “dark age” between medieval and modern civilization, but there was a transition nevertheless.

It has often been remarked that the modern world is continuous with the medieval world in several important ways, even while there is little in history that has been as completely abandoned as medieval civilization and its institutions. I would like to suggest that, when one civilization more-or-less seamlessly gives way to another civilization, without an intervening dark age or similar massive disruption of institutions, what is happening is that the ordinary business of life, the accidents of life (in the Aristotelian sense of “accident”), go on uninterrupted — which is to say that they evolve gradually so that very little change is noticed from one generation to the next, but that these gradual changes in the ordinary business of life accumulate and eventually add up as significant social change. At the same time that the accidents of life are undergoing gradual change, the essence of a civilization is undergoing relatively rapid change, so that the more-or-less identical practices passed from one generation to the next have a very different meaning because they are now accidents of a different essential nature.

Given the continuity of the medieval and modern worlds, how do we know that one civilization gave way to another? Well, one indicator species of the climax civilizational ecosystem of medievalism was the cathedral. Monumental architecture often serves as an indicator species of climax civilizational ecosystems. What the pyramids were to the Egyptians, what temples and baths were to classical antiquity, and what the skyscraper is to industrial-technological civilization, the cathedral (and the palace) was to medieval civilization.

Hans Memling, St Ursula Shrine: Arrival in Cologne (scene 1), ca. 1489, Oil on panel, 35 x 25,3 cm., Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, Belgium.

Once medieval European civilization reached a given level of stability and wealth, cathedrals went up rather quickly, sometimes in a single generation. Some magnificent palaces were erected on a time scale not at all unlike monumentral architecture in our time, say 5-10 years — easily within the lifetime of a single master builder. Some monumental projects stalled, however, and once stalled they tended to remain stalled, sometimes for hundreds of years. A good example of this would be the Cologne cathedral, which was an enormous undertaking, and when it was abandoned the civilization that began it essentially lost interest in it. Abandoned in its unfinished state, the construction crane on top of the south tower became iconic in its own right, appearing in depictions of Cologne throughout the intervening centuries.

This detail from the above Hans Memling painting shows the construction of Cologne cathedral already abandoned in 1489 (work had ceased in 1473); the cathedral was to remain in this unfinished form until construction was resumed in 1842.

Cologne cathedral was eventually completed, but it was not completed by medieval civilization. Medieval civilization was utterly extirpated by the time that the cathedral was completed by different men with a different agenda. During the nineteenth century there was a vogue for medievalism that is called “neo-gothic,” and during this time there were a few cities, Cologne among them, who dusted off the unfinished medieval plans to their cathedrals and decided to finish them. The Houses of Parliament in London date from the same period, and are a classic example of neo-gothic architecture. But the monumental rock-cut tombs of Lycia, along the Turkish coast, many of which were abandoned unfinished, were not completed by later civilizations that displaced the classical antiquity in which these monumental projects were initiated. Perhaps too much had changed, too much time had elapsed between the phases of surplus wealth of the dominant regional civilization, and probably also it was the non-continuous transition between civilizations.

A photograph of the unfinished Cologne cathedral in 1856, from Köln in frühen Photographien 1847-1914, Schirmer/Mosel Verlag, München, 1988. The medieval construction crane is still visible on the south tower.

Thus when we see industrial-technological civilization completing the work of modernism, we ought not to assume that this is one and the same civilization; if industrial-technological civilization is essentially different from that of modernity prior to with without industrialization, then the choice to continue and complete the monumental projects of modernity can be understood as an exercise in inter-generational piety — rather than worshiping our immediate ancestors, we continue and complete their projects, even if these projects mean something very different to us than the projects meant for them.

If we make the distinction between the essence and accident of civilized life as I have tried to do above, I think we come to a better appreciation both of the temporal structures of intra-civilizational change and the temporal structures of inter-civilizational change. Intra-civilizational change is marked by essential continuity and accidental discontinuity; inter-civilizational change is marked by essential discontinuity and accidental continuity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One theme to which Joseph Campbell recurs at several places in his recorded lectures is the idea of a “primary mask” — an idea which he attributes to W. B. Yeats. Here’s a short exposition of the primary mask from an interview with Campbell:

“Yeats, in A Vision, speaks of the two masks that life wears. The first is the primary mask that society has put upon you — the technique of life. But in adolescence the individual has a sense of the potentiality within himself that has to throw off that mask and find what Yeats calls ‘the antithetical mask’ — the mask contrary to that of society. And then comes that struggle so characteristic of youth in our society. In the traditional society, you are not allowed to follow the antithetical; the primary is there like a cookie-mold on you. But here comes this struggle. Now, if the family or society opposes that, it becomes rather fierce. But with a gradual yielding and attention, the young person can learn his own possibilities and what they can do for him. This is the proper way.”

An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in conversation with Michael Toms, p. 74

We are fortunate to have Joseph Campbell’s commentary on this idea of Yeats’, as Campbell spent a lot of time reading “difficult” twentieth century authors like Yeats and Joyce. Moreover, Yeat’s A Vision is a notoriously difficult text. Here is what Yeats himself wrote about the “primary mask”:

For Primary Man one must go to the Decline of the Commedia del Arte for an example. The Will is weak and cannot create a role, and so, if it transform itself, does so after an accepted pattern, some traditional clown or pantaloon. It has perhaps no object but to move the crowd, and if it “gags” it is that there may be plenty of topical allusions. In the primary phases Man must cease to desire Mask and Image by ceasing from self-expression, and substitute a motive of service for that of self-expression. Instead of the created Mask he has an imitative Mask; and when he recognises this, his Mask may become an image of mankind. The author of “The Imitation of Christ” was certainly a man of a late primary phase. It is said that the antithetical Mask is free, and the primary Mask enforced; and the free Mask is personality, a union of qualities, while the enforced mask is character, a union of quantities, and of their limitations — that is to say, of those limitations which give strength precisely because they are enforced. Personality, no matter how habitual, is a constantly renewed choice, and varies from an individual charm, in the more antithetical phases, to a hard objective dramatisation, which differs from character mainly because it is a dramatisation, in phases where the antithetical Tincture holds its predominance with difficulty.

W. B. Yeats, A Vision, pp. 18-19

I don’t know about you, but I find this nearly impenetrable, and I have a pretty good record of making sense of difficult texts. So the idea may come from Yeats, one way or another, but I am going to discuss Campbell’s version of it.

I can’t recall which lecture it’s in (I didn’t have the time to re-listen to all of them prior to writing this post, though it would be a pleasure to do so) but I recall that Campbell connects the idea of the primary mask with several quite gruesome rituals documented by anthropologists — rituals of initiation from societies that we would have formerly called “primitive” but that word is no longer considered acceptable. And rightly so. Those peoples once called primitive are in fact more in touch with their long prehistoric past, by way of continuity of tradition, than peoples who experienced the socio-cultural processes of agriculturalism and industrialism.

In any case, Campbell cited some truly horrific rituals associated with initiating young people into nomadic and pastoralist societies and credited these as instances of imprinting a primary mask that the individual then takes with him or her through life, and which is the proper or correct mask for an individual to wear in that society.

Well, we aren’t entirely past brutal rituals of the kind that forced our ancestors to wear the primary mask of their tribe. While this sort of thing has deep roots in human prehistory, traditions of initiation have altered over time but rarely have they disappeared. And often they retain their brutality, as in this passage of Enlightenment era advice on child rearing:

“This, therefore, I cannot but earnestly repeat, — break their wills betimes; begin this great work before they can run alone, before they can speak plain, or perhaps speak at all. Whatever pains it cost, conquer their stubbornness: break the will, if you would not damn the child. I conjure you not to neglect, not to delay this! Therefore, (1.) Let a child, from a year old, be taught to fear the rod and to cry softly. In order to this, (2.) Let him have nothing he cries for; absolutely nothing, great or small; else you undo your own work. (3.) At all events, from that age, make him do as he is bid, if you whip him ten times running to effect it. Let none persuade you it is cruelty to do this; it is cruelty not to do it. Break his will now, and his soul will live, and he will probably bless you to all eternity.”

John Wesley (1703-1791), On Obedience to Parents, Sermon 96

While advice of this nature is not likely to be found in contemporary parenting manuals, from this vigorous expression of the doctrine of corporal punishment we can see that the tradition of imprinting a primal mask survived well into modern times. And not only into modern times, but all the way into the latter half of the twentieth century, and probably to the present day.

This reminds me of a striking example of the importance placed upon the primary mask that comes from a controversy that erupted at Wheaton College in 1961. This is from Episode 7 of the 7 part documentary Evolution, titled “What about God?” Here is how the documentary sets up the quote:

“In 1961, at a Wheaton symposium on Christianity and human origins Walter Hearn told the crowd that the same chemical processes that bring each of us into existence today could have produced Adam and Eve. When the news got out, Wheaton found itself under attack.”

And here is a quote from a letter written by a mother about her daughter who was at that time attending Wheaton:

“Twice I have heard that the college is growing liberal; that they teach evolution at Wheaton. What grieves me most is that our daughter may lose her faith at Wheaton. Is this possible? If her faith should be shattered or even shaken, I’d rather see her dead.”

Clearly, these are the words of someone who is deeply committed to the primary mask even above and before the lives of those closest to her. If a member of your family cannot wear the primary mask, or perhaps even wears it askew, then it is better that they are dead, because the primary mask gives them the only identity that is worth having.

This is, admittedly, strong stuff. And to anyone who has spent some time reading twentieth century philosophy it is all very familiar in so far as it represents spectacular instances of inauthenticity. The very idea that there should be any value in the life of the individual that springs from their peculiar individuality is foreign to these strongly-worded assertions of the primacy of the primary mask.

It is not only an existentialist who would notice this sort of thing. A Freudian would immediately notice that these strong proscriptions upon any deviance from the primary mask are only present (like the incest taboo) because there is a strong tendency to deviate. If the individual did not feel a strong desire to assume the antithetical mask, as Campbell describes, there would be no need for the dire expressions of calamity in the event of a failure of the primary mask.

The peculiar qualities of twentieth century modernity, especially as represented by the above-cited examples of existentialism and psychotherapy, precipitated a decisive change in the nature of the societies of advanced, industrialized nation-states. There is, perhaps more than at any time in history, tolerance for the social display of antithetical masks.

However, despite the gains that have been made for individualism during the twentieth century, I think that the primary mask still dominates our thinking and our interaction when it comes to inter-communal relationships. The “safety” that societies once relied upon from harsh imposition of the primary mask has now been passed along so that within a community there is some tolerance for the antithetical mask, but in the relations between communities we have not come so far. The primary mask retains its potency in a milieu in which the safety and security of non-pluralistic society (call it the primary society, if you will) cannot rely upon a single set of socio-cultural practices for normative consensus.

The primary mask was primarily worn in societies in which there was little if any interaction with other communities, each possessing their own primary mask. In the modern industrialized cities, peoples from all over the world mix together, usually peacefully, sometimes violently. The attempt to understand the nature of normative consensus in such a milieu has exercised social scientists since this new reality of industrialized urbanism emerged.

The de facto normative consensus that has emerged has been that of the tolerance of the primary mask. The “celebration” model of diversity is built upon this, as is the notion of pluralism that is most prevalent in the US, which is arguably home to the most racially and ethnically distinct urban centers in the world. (Note that I say “arguably” — there probably are good counter-examples that I can’t think of as I am writing this.)

We already find this attitude to pluralism and diversity expressed in Voltaire, when described with admiration the urban milieu of eighteenth century London:

“Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.”

This was a very advanced sentiment in its time, but, as we see from the quote above from the very Reverend John Wesley, it coexisted with less advanced sentiment.

Now, I don’t for a minute believe that individuals actually live exclusively according their primary mask in an urban milieu. The primary mask is a caricature, and as we have learned to cast it aside and live with ourselves and individuals as individuals, people readily do so. Especially in an urban context, people led (by their individuality) to pursue a particular interest, usually find themselves is quite eclectic company, discovering that they have something in common with others they would never have met in another social context — others whose primary mask would be incomprehensible and fundamentally alien.

But public discourse and formal institutions remain wedded to the primary mask. The weakness of the contemporary idea of pluralism and diveristy (which I had previously attempted to analyze in Diversity and Pluralism) is its commitment to the primary mask over and above the individuals.

It has become a commonplace in contemporary social commentary (especially among those who self-identify as “communitarians”) that individualism has run amok and “gone too far,” and that what we really need to do is to reign in individualism for the sake of the community. This is not only wrong, it is viciously wrong. This is the voice the primary mask speaking. The primary mask does not tolerate deviance.

I am reminded here of the opening passage of Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience:

I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

I similarly feel that, when men are prepared for it, they will have a society that accepts individuals as they are, and feels no need to impress upon them a primary mask.

Someday, when we have really matured as a species, we will have a society of individuals, for it is only when the individual fully comes into his own that a society can emerge that is truly voluntary and without coercion. This is my utopia. Individualism is not only good for the individual, individualism is also good for society. Any society built by individuals who have been compromised by their need to conform will be as compromised as the individuals who build that society. The strongest society is built by the strongest individuals, who choose to come together, not under duress, but of their own free choice.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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It is interesting to reflect on the peculiar character of civilization in Western Europe after the decisive shift to historical modernity, which we can locate in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, yet before the decisive (and transformative) emergence of industrialization. Roughly speaking, the period of European history from 1500 to 1800 represents a unique transitional stage in the history of civilization.

I touched upon this indirectly in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution, which was an inquiry into possible alternative forms of industrialization that did not happen. But there is a sense in which these alternatives did happen, but continuing economic and technological development made it possible for industrialization to fully overtake modernism so that the two appeared to be two aspects of a single social development, whereas they are in fact isolatable and distinct historical processes.

Jethro Tull's seed drill was an important innovation of the British Agricultural Revolution.

Modernism without industrialism comprises the emergence of science in its modern form in the work of Galileo, and even the triumphs of Newton, the emergence of modern philosophy in the work of Descartes, the emergence of nation-states as the primary form of socio-political organization, and developments like the British agricultural revolution — the name of Jethro Tull may not be as familiar as that of Newton and Descartes, but his contributions to civilization ought to be reckoned on a similar level.

Enjoying a ploughman's lunch in the field

As noted above, the scientific revolution preceded the industrial revolution, and indeed made the latter possible. One could interpret the British agricultural revolution as a dress rehearsal for the industrial revolution, as it involved the systematic application of scientific methods to agriculture, resulting in increased agricultural production that in turn resulted in more and better quality food for many people in England. It was this abundance of food for all that made possible the ploughman’s lunch.

As another exercise in a counter-factual thought experiment (as in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution), we might similarly imagine the scientific revolution being brought to other areas of life (other than agriculture) but without the peculiar developments specific to the industrial revolution — mass production, the factory system, the mobility of labor, the dissolution of traditional social institutions and so forth. There is a sense in which this did happen in some places, but it happened in parallel with the industrial revolution, and thus was overshadowed by the more far-reaching effects of industrialization.

There is also a sense in which modernism without industrialism still emerges from time to time. In those regions of the world in which industrialism has been imported, where industrialization has not emerged from the indigenous economy, we find circumstances not unlike the transitional conditions of modernism without industrialism in Europe immediately prior to the industrial revolution. One will find a few sporadic traces of industrialism, but not anything like the wrenching social changes which, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto:

“The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Remember this line the next time you hear someone complain about the inability of small businesses to compete with the cheap prices of Wal-Mart: the Industrial Revolution remains an on-going process, and now it is our own “Chinese walls” that are being battered down. The period of European civilization that constitutes modernism without industrialism is a world in which this observation of Marx and Engels is not true; we know that in our time it is true, and is becoming more true as industrialized civilization continues to develop.

If imported industrialism eventually takes root in an economy in which it is not indigenous, it can in time approximate the kind of industrial development we find in places where it has emerged from the indigenous economy. Thus the order of industrialization can vary in different circumstances, but it is likely that there are some orders of industrialization that are more efficient and more effective than others. That is to say, there is the possibility that there is an optimal form of industrialization. If we could go back and do it over again, we would probably do a better job at it, but the industrial revolution is a unique one-time event in the life of a society. Other societies even now are being transformed or will be transformed by industrialization, but they cannot (for obvious reasons) learn our lessons; they must learn these lessons for themselves.

Once again we are forced to recognize the lack of intelligent institutions of our society, institutions that would adapt and develop to meet changing circumstances. While we cannot do the Industrial Revolution over again, we can look forward to future wrenching social changes. Intelligent institutions would require a great deal of time to craft, but in all honesty we probably have a great deal of time before our next wrenching social transformation (unless communicants of the Technological Singularity cult are not as deluded as they appear to be), so that a truly civilized undertaking for a society today would be to formulate intelligent institutions for itself that will serve its interests in the long term future. I suspect this is too dull a proposal to count as a “vision” for the future, but it would be a worthwhile undertaking.

I have formulated a couple of fairly concrete proposals of events that may loom in our future, and which may transform societies around the world (and off the world). The “events” (such as they are) that I have in mind are extraterrestrialization and the next Axial Age. Extraterrestrialization, which would be the transition of the bulk of the human species off world, would constitute a social, political, industrial, and economic transformation of society. The next Axial Age, which would be a period in the spiritual development of humanity in which our mythological institutions would finally catch up with industrialization and provide us with a mythology equal and adequate to industrial society, would constitute a social, cultural, and spiritual transformation of society.

These events — extraterrestrialization and axialization (as it were) — are of a very different character, but both have the potential to have profound and far-reaching influence upon the way ordinary people live their day-to-day lives. They are also likely to lie hundreds of years in the future, and that gives us plenty of time to formulate intelligent institutions that would help us make the transition — with a minimum of violence and bloodshed — to the changed socio-political conditions that would be occasioned by these historical developments.

The Industrial Revolution would have truly done its work, and we could count ourselves as a mature civilization, if we could apply our scientific knowledge to a systematic reform of our institutions making them intelligent institutions that could prepare the way for a peaceful future, even if that future means that the historical viability of civilization can only be secured by the result of civilization being so transformed that it would be no longer recognizable as what we think of as civilization. A mature civilization would be able to look at its other and see not barbarism, but heretofore unrecognized civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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crematoria ashes with Wittgenstein quote

At what point do we pass the threshold of atrocity? If a single death is a tragedy (and therefore not an atrocity) while a million deaths is a statistic (and therefore possibly an atrocity), at what point between one death and a million deaths do we pass the threshold of atrocity? This is what philosophers call a “sorites paradox” or a “paradox of the heap”: if you continue to pile grains of sand together, eventually they will form a heap, but when? What is the threshold of a heap?

I introduced the phrase “the threshold of atrocity” in The Moral Status of Non-Atrocities, in which I attempted to identify on-going forms of political brutality that fall short of atrocity but which nevertheless ruin countless lives. In that post I predicted that the world would see more violence and suffering that falls just short of the threshold of atrocity as a result of political calculations of tyrants and dictators who are learning to contain their depredations within limits that will not arouse the interest of the wider world (“rousing the sleeping giant,” as Mike Burleson put it in a recent New Wars post).

One form of near atrocity is population transfer. In his series of lectures for The Teaching Company, Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius discusses population transfer in his seventh lecture, “The Hinge of Violence.” He observes that after the First World War, with the ideological reconstruction of political entities as nation-states, the “problem” of ethnic minorities emerges. An ethnic minority within a nation-state putatively defined in terms of an ethnic nationality is a source of cognitive dissonance, like a splinter that festers and irritates. What does one do with a splinter? One removes it. Thus Liulevicius says of this peculiarly modern problem:

“As an expedient to deal with these new situations there was arrived at, by politicians, the notion of something that’s ubiquitously and euphemistically called “population transfer.” This is a case of a trend we will see repeatedly in the course of our lectures of the power of euphemisms, of code words, to cover up harsh human realities. “Population transfer” sounded, and was meant to sound, neat, humane, and efficient. The reality, however, was of a brutal, uprooting process of populations who were now to be moved around involuntarily.”

Liulevicius cites the example of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between Greece and Turkey, which set a precedent for population transfer. He recounts how the uprooting of Greek Christian populations from Turkey and Muslim populations from areas in Greece and the Balkans became a series of horrors, and then remarks:

“…in spite of this bloody record of the Treaty of Lausanne, in spite of the atrocities and violence that accompanied the policy of population transfer, the mark that this procedure left in European intellectual history was quite different. It was truly starkly in contrast to the human reality that historians record. It was hailed by European historians of the time as a successful model of problem solving, of the redrawing of borders, of dealing with the supposed problem of ethnic minorities within new national states, and this hailing of so brutal an expedient, this euphemistic policy of population transfer, was truly to have ominous results…”

Thus Liulevicius clearly sees such “procedures” as atrocities, or at least as often involving atrocities, though he also remarks that few today recall the episode, and that it was viewed as a success in its own time. This atrocity, then, was not only not the focus of an intervention, but was seen as a model to emulate.

Population transfer is treated a little differently in another contemporary source, which calls it “expulsion,” though we can see how the two treatments are related. Daniel Goldhagen, in his Worse Than War (which I previously mentioned in Revolution, Genocide, Terror), distinguishes five levels of what he calls human eliminiationism. Of these five levels, expulsion is the third, coming between repression and prevention of reproduction. Goldhagen characterizes expulsion thus:

“Expulsion, often called deportation, is a third eliminationist option. It removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps. From antiquity to today, expulsions, often by imperial conquerers, have been common.”

Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, pp. 15-16

One contemporary example of such euphemized violence that involves small scale brutality is the recent dispossession of white farmers in Zimbabwe. Recently the BBC ran a surprisingly soft piece on Robert Mugabe’s “land reform programme,” Zimbabwe’s new farmers defend their gains, in which some of the violence of the evictions is described but not given much attention, as the story focuses on the new farmers who have acquired the lands of those who were evicted. To call the process of evictions in Zimbabwe “land reform” is clearly in the tradition of a policy intended to sound “neat, humane, and efficient” but which in fact has involved widespread suffering. And that suffering is not primarily the suffering of the 4,000 or so white farmers. The primary targets of the violence of the evictions were the native employees of the farms, and the entire population of Zimbabwe has suffered horribly from the botched “land reform” that has meant a catastrophic fall in the country’s agricultural productivity. How are we to take the moral measure of the impoverishment of millions for the benefit of a few well-connected Zimbabweans who prosper because of their relation to the ZANU-PF party?

Is Zimbabwe’s “land reform” an atrocity? We have already seen that the attempt to define an atrocity involves us in a classic philosophical paradox. There are, of course, philosophical responses. An excellent book by Claudia Card, The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil (a book imbued with the true spirit of philosophical inquiry, I must say, however much I disagree with parts of it), focuses on atrocities. Card writes:

“…evils are foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable wrongdoing… Evils tend to ruin lives, or significant parts of lives…” (p. 3)

Thus Card does not demand that atrocities be defined in terms of mass death, so we avoid the paradox posed by locating an atrocity between the tragedy of one death and the statistic of a million deaths. Further along Card writes:

“Why take atrocities as paradigms? Many evils lack the scale of an atrocity… Atrocities shock, at least when we first learn of them. They seem monstrous. We recoil of visual images and details… It is not for their sensationalism, however, that I choose atrocities as my paradigms. I choose them for three reasons: (1) because they are uncontroversially evil, (2) because they deserve priority of attention… and (3) because the core features of evils tend to be writ large in the case of atrocities, making them easier to identify and appreciate.” (p. 9)

While I agree in spirit with much of this, it misses what I have been trying to capture above. The near atrocities of expulsion or population transfer are not uncontroversially evil. As we have seen, such actions are sometimes employed as models of sound policy. Further, because near atrocities are not uncontroversially evil, the core features of evil are not writ large. On the contrary, the evils that I see growing in the world today, and which I also see as dominating the world of the future, are often writ in a very subtle script, and at times in invisible ink. Sometimes it is very difficult to discern the subtle, ongoing evil that distorts and disrupts lives in the millions. Precisely because mass, low-level suffering can come to seem the norm, one’s perspective can become distorted and evil no longer appears as evil, but just as the typical way of the world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A few days ago in a post to this forum titled Revolution, Genocide, Terror I observed the revolution has become the established mechanism of political change, genocide the established mechanism of purging the nation-state of unwelcome national and ethnic constituencies, and terror has become the established mechanism of asymmetrically expressing grievances often brought about the failures of nation-states brought about by revolution and purged by genocide.

This unholy trinity of revolution, genocide, and terrorism presents a frightening tableau of our age. The oft-remarked violence of the twentieth century has shown no signs of abating in the twenty-first century, and if this is true we must brace ourselves for a sickening repetition of this cycle of violence. But this isn’t the whole story of our troubled age, and perhaps not even half the story.

It seems to me that the greater part of suffering and misery in our time is not the result of spectacular events like revolution, genocide, and terror that punctuate the equilibrium of the ordinary business of life, but rather that in many cases the ordinary business of life is rendered difficult, if not miserable, if not unbearable, by policies, procedures, and practices that have been bureaucratized and purposefully kept at a level that does not cross the threshold of atrocity. Brutal leaders know that if they incur the displeasure of the world community that they may well be removed from positions of power, but if they maintain their depredations on their populations at a level that minimizes, as far as possible, state-sponsored horrors such as genocide and terror, they will largely be safe. Thus choosing the lesser part of horror is a strategy of regime survival and historical viability.

Human history, like natural history, demonstrates a pattern of punctuated equilibrium. We are easily re-directed to focus on the great events of history, and thus we pay attention to headline-grabbing events like revolution, genocide, and spectacular acts of terrorism engineered as thought to exemplify the Baudelairean conception of Fleurs du mal. It is the work of an evil genius to conceive and execute the kind of horrors to which we are all-too-accustomed. But, again like natural history, the bulk of human history is consumed by the ordinary, day-to-day existence of human beings not subject to spectacular evils. Nevertheless, the conditions of ordinary, day-to-day existence can be brought to a keen level of desperation without crossing the threshold of atrocity.

In Grand Strategy Celebrates One Year! I quoted one of my favorite passages from the famous Annales school historian Fernand Braudel, :

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

It has been said (by Friedrich von Schlegel, I think) that the historian is a prophet facing backward. In this case, Braudel is the prophet of the longue durée, and the longue durée is not constituted by events properly understood as such, however spectacular. It is daily life and ordinary experience, so often itself consigned to the ephemera of history, that constitutes the substance of the longue durée.

Consider the tyrants we have seen over the past couple of decades, people like Slobodan Milošević and Robert Mugabe. While Milošević can be connected to a genuine atrocity like the Srebrenica Massacre, most of Milošević’s actions did not rise to the level of atrocity. And while Mugabe brutally suppressed the Ndebele groups in the provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands, which might be considered an atrocity, like Milošević, most of his actions have not risen to the level of atrocity. As noted above, a brutal leader can carefully contrive his policies so that the stop just short of the level of atrocity that would draw the attention of the international community, hence the possibility of intervention.

Nevertheless, a life lived under conditions just short of atrocity is itself a kind of atrocity, a low-level atrocity, a largely silent atrocity. We might call such conditions non-atrocities. What is the moral status of non-atrocities? If a political leader presides over policies that stunt the growth of his nation, that limit the lives of millions, and that make millions unnecessarily impoverished, how are we to judge such actions? We cannot compare such men and such actions to twentieth century monsters like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who calmly presided over mass death. Stalin has been (probably incorrectly) credited with the statement, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” While he probably never said it, it was readily believed of him because it captures the casual brutality of his rule.

If Milošević was no Hitler, and Mugabe is no Stalin, nevertheless such men as these contemporaries of ours have meant the ruin of countless lives. This ruin has not always come in the form of mass murder, but lives can be ruined, stunted, and made hopeless without being lost in an absolute sense. If someone thus loses the potential of their life but does not lose life itself as the result of the actions of a tyrant or his minions, how ought we to properly conceive of this evil? Again, what is the moral status of non-atrocities? The fact that we largely lack a conceptual framework to discuss loss of quality of life in a detailed and meaningful way demonstrates that we are not yet prepared to deal with one of the great moral issues of our time.

I think that throughout the coming century we will see more non-atrocities, more widely spread, and influencing the lives of more people. The tyrants have learned some lessons from the twentieth century. Unfortunately, instead of learning the lessons of good government, they have learned that brutality kept within limits will be ignored and unpunished. Non-atrocities will proliferate even as genuine and undisputed atrocities will decrease. This will not mean that the world is, overall, a better place, but that the tyrants who perpetrate near atrocities will be more calculating and cunning in their use of force, constrained only by the threshold of atrocity.

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A drawing of the plan of Brasilia.

The 21st of April is the birthday of Brasília, and this year marks fifty years since the city was inaugurated. As cities are not usually built to order, fixing a birthday for them is a matter of historical speculation, but Brasília belongs to that small class of cities — which also includes, inter alia, Herod’s Caesarea, Constantine’s Constantinople, Aigues Mortes, Canberra, Islamabad, and Naypyidaw — that were, in fact built to order, and since it was built to order in modern times there is a great deal of documentation available, as well as precise dates, that chronicle the rise of the city. The black and white photographs of Brasília have a haunting quality to them, a palpable emptiness.

A satellite photograph of contemporary Brasilia, showing it still very much a realization of its plan.

I previously mentioned Brasília in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities, where I was concerned with the difference between cities that emerge organically from a particular social, economic, ecological, and climatological circumstances in contradistinction to planned cities. Of course, most cities are a mixture of planning and organic growth. The same is true with Brasília: it began as a planned city, but in so far as the city has taken on a life of its own that is underdetermined by the planners, it has since grown both organically and inorganically.

It takes time for a planned city to begin growing organically, as it is usually built to a certain assumed population size and time is needed for the population to catch up with the initially empty city. It is only after the population has caught up with and then surpassed the intent of the planners that a more organic growth pattern is likely to emerge. If a planned city never exceeds its intended population, it remains largely in its originally planned form.

Cities are like the maps that describe them in both prescribing a reality and being prescribed by reality. I tried to explain what I meant by this in A Theory of Maps. It seems to me that there are classes of facts that are partly constituted by human actions and partly constituted by matters outside human control. The classical distinction between realism and alternatives to realism like constructivism or nominalism force us into a dichotomy between objects of the world being independent of us (realism) or dependent upon us (idealism, constructivism, etc.). I suggest that there are degrees of dependence, and that some objects are partly dependent and partly independent of us. In the terminology I used previously, in so far as they are partly constituted and partly independent, cities are ontogenic.

The Osler House by Marcio Kogan in Brasília, Brazil.

In A Theory of Maps I used the examples of timetables and schedules as constituted facts that create realities, although not without exceptions and qualifications. Cities, as we all know, are constituted by a great many schedules and timetables, as well as other contrived facts that begin as an idea in the mind of an urban planner and may someday issue in actual concrete living conditions for a mass of residents. Planned cities like Brasília are the most obvious and complete example of this, but even planned cities are not entirely governed by their plan, and therefore not entirely contrived.

In Life and Landscape I argued that the landscape a people comes from shapes the life and character of that people, and this way of life in turn shapes the ideas of that people. Thus ideology is a highly derived form of geography. As I noted above, cities emerge from particular social, economic, ecological, and climatological circumstances. All of these factors contribute to the structure and function of a city. We have very little control over ecological and climatological circumstances, other than moving to another area, but we have more control over social and economic circumstances, but not absolute control, as social and economic circumstances also emerge from the landscape.

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As the evils of the world prior to the Industrial Revolution were embodied in the figures of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death — so the evils of the industrialized world, in which science has largely conquered pestilence and food is plentiful to the point of becoming problematic, might be summarized as revolution, genocide, and terror. Last night as I was thinking about this it struck me that I would like to write a book titled Revolution, Genocide, Terror or Revolution, Genocide, and Terrorism, and with a subtitle something like “The Underbelly of Political Society” or “The Underside of Political Modernity.” You get the idea, I’m sure.

Revolution - Genocide - Terror

While the emergence of consolidation of the nation-state in the early modern period brought many quantifiable goods to human society, as certainly as it facilitated the elimination of ancient evils it simultaneously facilitated and exacerbated contemporary evils. So the nation-state has largely replaced the brutal archaism of hereditary aristocracy, but the established mechanism for political change is now revolution, and revolutions have proliferated even as they have lost their efficacy to bring about authentic change. And the nation-state, by instituting a political order putatively based on ethnicity and nationality, has pioneered new methods of oppression and violence based on ethnicity and nationality that was almost absent in ages of polyglot empires. Among these methods are what Daniel Goldhagen called “Eliminationism” in his book Worse than War, which I discussed in Genocide and the Nation-State.

'Pyramid of Skulls’ by Paul Cézanne , ca. 1901

The response to state-sponsored oppression and violence has been asymmetrical reciprocity of oppression and violence on the part of non-state actors, and thus terrorism has become the established mechanism of grievance. The systematic organization of nation-states, with regular police forces and standing armies, along with their insistence upon a legalized monopoly on violence, virtually guaranteed that those opposed to the policies of nation-states would find themselves forced to choose between passive acquiescence and asymmetrical violence.

Sufficient unto each age are the evils thereof.

Perhaps it is a universal truth that the passing of one political order and the initiation of another must bring the parallel passing into history of one set of goods and evils associated with that order, and the initiation of a novel set of goods and evils paralleling the initiated political order. While the identification of goods and evils belongs to the ideological superstructure of the political order, the goods and evils themselves would seem to be inherent in politico-economical infrastructure. Moreover, the inherent goods and evils of a particular social structure would seem to be integral, each being the mirror image of the other.

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Last August I wrote about the possibly apocryphal quote from Paul Valéry: to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. I mentioned then that I am fascinated by this quote and often return to it. I found myself thinking about it again recently and find that I have more to say on it. A good aphorism is pregnant with meaning and can always be the point of departure for another meditation, as a text of scripture can always be the point of departure for another sermon.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. What is meant by “seeing” in this context?

Seeing — true seeing, genuine seeing — is seeing that transcends the ordinary experience of seeing. The ordinary experience of seeing gets lost in conventions. People scarcely notice the things around them. As soon as a thing is seen, it is immediately assigned to some familiar category and no more attention is paid to. In this way, seeing becomes an exercise in identification, and identification draws upon a familiar conceptual scheme, a Weltanschauung in which there is a place for everything and everything is to be found in its place. Such “seeing” is little more than an excuse to dismiss things with a glance, to ignore the world.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. This encapsulation of an extraordinary kind of seeing immediately suggests another kind of seeing, the kind of seeing that is ordinary seeing. What is ordinary experience? What defines the mundane? There is a passage from a posthumously published fragment of Wittgenstein that comes to mind:

“Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; it would be like watching a chapter of biography with our own eyes, — surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. We should be observing something more wonderful than anything a playwright could arrange to be acted or spoken on the stage: life itself. — But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 4e

Wittgenstein here observes an unexpected coincidence of ordinary and extraordinary experience. For Wittgenstein, extraordinary seeing is simply a shift in perspective away from ordinary seeing. And ordinary seeing is not an excuse to ignore the world, as I wrote above, but is an immersion in the world. The Wittgensteinian conception of extraordinary experience is immanent; Wittgenstein rejects the transcendent as a source of the extraordinary.

I can imagine someone not getting the point of Wittgenstein’s example; it is more in the nature of a parable than an argument. And like most parables, it is inherently ambiguous. Wittgenstein was, after all, from Vienna: a crucible of modernity in which thoroughly modern ideas were no sooner given their initial formulation than they were dialectically confronted with their opposite number. As I have noted elsewhere, reflexivity is of the essence of modernity.

Should we seek the extraordinary variety of seeing invoked in the possibly apocryphal Valéry quote in ordinary experience? Is there a dialectic of ordinary and the extraordinary experience that would reveal seeing as the seeing the forgets itself as seeing? For Wittgenstein, it is a change of one’s point of view that renders the ordinary extraordinary. Presumably, also, there is a change in point of view that would render the extraordinary ordinary.

Is there a changed point of view that would give us extraordinary experience from our ordinary experience? Can we find an unexpected coincidence of the two through a shift in perspective? Can a change within oneself make one see as one has not seen before? What is true seeing, genuine seeing? Vision. Thus the seeing with which the quote is concerned is visionary seeing. How does one attain a vision?

The ordinary might converge upon the extraordinary through repetition. Repetitive rituals — essentially, iterations of ordinary experience — have long been employed to induce altered states of consciousness, that is to say, extraordinary experience. I wrote about this in Algorithms of Ecstasy.

But Valéry would not likely have been sympathetic to this. In his famous essay, “Man and the Sea Shell,” Valéry wrote, “…it is the nature of the intelligence to do away with the infinite and to abolish repetitions.” It is perhaps unreasonable to take this line from Valéry out of context, for it is a line that means something in its context. But it is not entirely unreasonable. Elsewhere Valéry makes explicit criticisms of Cantorianism and the Cantorian conception of the infinite, and the simplest way to the infinite is the endless iteration of anything.

There is also, in Valéry, an implicit criticism of the extraordinary, and this criticism could well be of a piece with his rejection of Cantor. If the quote that concerns us is indeed from Valéry, it is not a paean to outlandishness for the sake of outlandishness. For Valéry, Cantor is too outlandish. For Valéry, even extraordinary vision would be ordinary in a sense, finite to be sure, not the excrescence of an altered state of mind. And thus we find ourselves back at the coincidence and convertibility of ordinary and extraordinary experience, of mundane seeing and visionary seeing.

In the difference between the approaches to the extraordinary by way of the transcendent or the immanent, Valéry and Wittgenstein represent the immanent. Cantor perhaps represents the transcendent, though he had little to say regarding experience, whether ordinary or extraordinary. But perhaps a theory of extraordinary experience, hence visionary seeing, might be derived from Cantor, and, once derived, placed in transcendental contrast to the immanence of Valéry and Wittgenstein.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The BBC has been running a series of stories called Superpower about how the internet has changed quotidian life. One of these stories is “US calls for ‘YouTube’ of government data.”

Vivek Kundra, who is in charge of the website, is quoted in the article as saying:

“Consider how much data the government has… By democratising we put information in the hands of citizens so that they can make better decisions and fundamentally change the way we deliver services… I would argue that in the same way websites may have been a novel concept in the early days of the internet, what we are seeing today is the emergence of government as a platform, and now you’ll see innovation happen on top of that… New businesses will be created that we cannot imagine today. New services will be deployed and the public will have greater transparency to participate in the democratic institutions in ways that they could have never imagined before.”

These are interesting claims, and merit closer attention. We know from historical experience how communications technology can make a decisive difference in the way that historical developments unfold. For example, the invention of movable type and the printing press so that printing was an emerging industry at the time when the Protestant Reformation turned an episode that might have been contained into something that divided Europe and precipitated the Thirty Years War.

Like any counterfactual conditional (as I recently discussed in Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution), the suggestion that the printing press contributed materially to the spread of the Protestant Reformation could be countered with equally plausible arguments that European society at that time was ripe for change. …

Unless we can formulate some rigorous way of thinking about counterfactual conditionals, we remain in the realm of speculation. But not all speculation is equal. Some speculation is relatively well informed while other speculation is relatively ill informed. So although we lack a rigorous method for thought experiments that would allow us to entertain counterfactual conditionals with the same degree of intellectual clarity that we can bring to scientific experiments, we can’t dismiss instances of insight that cast considerable light both on what might have been and what might yet be.

Certainly no reasonable person would question the role of radio and television in shaping the twentieth century and even in creating mass man. We have learned to our sorrow the way in which a story is covered in the mass media can change the story itself and even become part of the story. The twentieth century was, in a sense, very much the century of the mass media, and even the century of television. Its impact should not be underestimated.

Mass media in their original forms of the pamphlet in the early modern period, the newspaper in the nineteenth century, and radio and television in the twentieth century, were one-way conduits for the dispersion of ideas and opinions. With the emergence of the internet at the end of the twentieth century, just in time to be a growth industry at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we now have a mass media that is a two-way conduit of ideas and opinions. Of course, the medium is imperfect and still dominated by those who can best afford to broadcast their message, but it has great potential to contribute to the unfolding of history no less than television.

Vivek Kundra has correctly identified some of the possibilities of the internet. It is a profoundly democratizing technology, and in a society in which almost everyone has access to the internet (which in many societies is not yet the case, which has been the occasion for stories on the “digital divide”), clever and insightful individuals will emerge who will do unexpected things with the resources that the internet places in their hands.

It could even be said — though this is more of a leap — that the internet is not merely a democratizing technology, but that it is the democratizing technology par excellence, and that in fact democracy will be given new life, new vigor, new opportunities, and new possibilities. That is to say, the internet is the technology for which democracy has been waiting since it emerged in its modern form in 1776. With this technology, democracy once again has a bright future, may indeed once again become an ideology of our time that will change the fates of individuals and states alike.

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Ideology in Our Time

18 March 2010


In The Pretense of Prediction I wrote that one finds, “side-by-side in contemporary societies there are ideologies that are growing and other that are contracting, ideologies that are newly born and others that are dying, ideologies undergoing transformation and ideologies caught in a limbo of stasis, their prospects unknown.” In the same post I also wrote in regard to contemporary ideologies that, “It is difficult to name them, since it is difficult to be objective on the topic precisely because the only ideology that can change the fates of individuals and nation-states is one that resonates within us. We do not understand a successful ideology as much as we feel it and respond to it.”

It is crucial to understanding the political situation of our time to understand which ideologies are living options for us at this time. To distinguish between living and dead ideologies can be quite difficult, and one must make an effort to go beyond ideological appearance in order to reach ideological reality. Ideologies, like fish or insect with adaptive coloration, often mask themselves so that they are difficult to distinguish from the background. The most successful ideology is that ideology that is pervasive throughout our thought and reasoning without our even being aware of it. Once we become aware of an ideology it is often already dead or at least dying.

When we look to the contemporary world with an eye toward explicating its living ideologies, first of all we see perennial human motivations such as greed, self-interest, and the desire to live in comfort. A motivation of this kind is not in itself an ideology, though such motivations are powerful constituents in all ideologies. For our present purposes, I will not attempt a definition of an ideology, but I will position ideology as being more comprehensive than perennial human motivations but less comprehensive than a Weltanschauung.

No less a philosopher than Alfred North Whitehead, co-author of Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, wrote, “I now state the thesis that the explanation of this active attack on the environment is a three-fold urge: (i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better.” (The Function of Reason, p. 8, also reformulated on p. 18) It is this perennial desire to live, to live well, and to live better that underlies the perennial motivations of greed and self-interest mentioned above. Such drives must be accounted a part of human nature, but in themselves they do not rise to the level of constituting ideologies. Thus while these perennial motivations are certainly present in contemporary history, they do not act within history as ideologies do.

Because contemporary living ideologies are mostly unconscious, they are mostly not named, so that the attempt to formulate a short list of living ideologies must force us into coining a number of awkward neologisms. The lack of names for many living ideologies corresponds to the lack of a clear conception of what that ideology is, so that coining a neologism, however imperfect, can only suggest an even more imperfect conceptualization of the ideology.

With these caveats in mind, I am going to attempt to name a few living ideologies, not necessary all of them ideologies that decisively change the destinies of both states and individuals (as I have focused on previously), but ideologies that are a living influence in the lives of many people today, and which not infrequently can be seen — perhaps implicitly — on the evening news.

Non-denominational Marxism — By this I mean a generic leftism that no longer feels itself bound to slavish adherence to Marxist texts, but which is still in sympathy with Marxist thought.

Anarchism — While mostly limited to young people without jobs or families, and overlapping at points with non-denominational Marxism, anarchism needs to be recognized as a separate ideology as they stand in that tradition of those armed bohemians who have given organized nation-states so much trouble in the modern era.

Environmentalism — Environmentalism is easily the most comprehensive and pervasive ideology of our time. For the same reason that it is comprehensive, it also consists of diverse strains that cannot all be reconciled or summed up in one definition.

Fundamentalism — Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, you name it, every religious tradition has its fundamentalist wing that seeks a revolutionary return of social life to imagined forms it might have taken prior to the many revolutions that have shaped the modern world.

Nation-statism — This is the most awkward of our ideological designations today, and the least recognized. Nevertheless, as it is the default position of practically all elites and diplomats, the centrality of the nation-state to political life, and the incomprehensibility of any alternative, makes it a powerful if misunderstood ideology. There is a sense in which nation-statism is what nineteenth and twentieth century nationalism has become with its institutionalization in the state system.

Terrorism — On every inhabited continent that is a significant minority that is devoted to terrorism as an end in itself. Where civil wars drag on for decades, terror becomes a habit, and the absence of terror in perpetual war zones is as inconceivable as the absence of nation-states is for nation-statism.

Resistance — It would better, though more awkward, to call this resistance/struggle/rebellion. It overlaps at one extreme with terrorism and at another extreme with non-denominational Marxism. With these three ideologies we could define a spectrum in which resistance is the middle ground, the Aristotelian “Golden Mean” of disaffected radicals, and that is why, despite the fact that it is not recognized as an ideology, it is one of the most powerful ideologies of our time.

My above list is admittedly highly imperfect. It is intended as a starting point, not as a final typology of contemporary ideologies. If I continue to think about this I will no doubt need to return to the list to revise and amend it, perhaps adding neglected ideologies and merging others (such as the spectrum I noted above in Resistance).

In my above attempt to think critically and systematically about contemporary ideologies it strikes me that it is a peculiar characteristic of ideologies in our time that means and ends are conflated. I can imagine someone telling me, “You can’t count terrorism or resistance as ideologies, because they are means to ends, not ends in themselves.” But this is precisely what I am saying. I believe that a great number of people have ceased to believe in ends and aims and instead believe in means. As people come to passionately believe in certain means, these means are transformed from mere means to ends in themselves.

Terrorism has become an end in itself. It is the most obvious example of what we might call an exapted ideology: something that originally was not an ideology but which has evolved into an ideology. Starting from this glaring example, I think if we look carefully, most of the items on my above list can be understood as means that have, to a greater or lesser degree, been transformed into ideologies. The ideologies of today are mostly exapted ideologies.

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