Saturday


The French Revolutionary Assembly provided the template for later ideological conflict, with conservative and reactionary elements on the right side and radical and revolutionary elements on the left side.

Introduction to Left/Right Ideological Conflict

It was the thesis of Samuel Huntington that ideologically-based conflict would be displaced by civilization-based conflicts. This is the “clash of civilizations” thesis, which remains controversial still after Huntington’s passing, and will likely remain controversial for some time yet. While there are signs one can point to that suggest the emergence of conflict between civilizations, ideologically-based conflict continues to animate human beings and their political formations. If Huntington’s thesis is true, one would of course expect to see a transitional period, and this transitional period could endure over civilizational scales of time, i.e., for hundreds of years. But one would expect to see over this transitional period the gradual decline of ideologically-based conflict in parallel with the gradual expansion of civilizational conflict. However, the distinction between these two forms of conflict is by no means clear, or clearly defined, so that this movement of history could be occurring even while it was obscured by the complexity of the human terrain.

I have also suggested the decline of ideologically-based conflict, though I would hesitate to go so far as to assert that ideologically-based conflict is giving way to civilization-based conflict. In a blog post titled Ideas That Will Shape the Future from October 2013 I wrote about the decline of left/right politics. This is what I said four years ago:

“The political landscape as we know it today continues to be shaped by the left/right dialectic that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution, as some sought to continue the revolution, others to reverse it, and others yet to expand and extend it. But the traditional governing coalitions based on left/right politics have been increasingly confronted with new political problems that cannot be easily analyzed along a left/right axis. As the most advanced industrialized nation-states converge on political gridlock, innovative solutions are increasingly likely to emerge from non-traditional political sources, marginalizing the left/right dichotomy and possibly giving life to new political movements that cannot be reduced to a left/right division. Moreover, structural changes within society such as increasing urbanization (q.v.), globalization (q.v.), technological unemployment (q.v.), exponentialism (q.v.) albeit selective, bitter conflicts over the life sciences (q.v.) that divide people across previously established coalitions expose mass populations to new forces that shape these populations and their opinions in new ways.”

While I can still endorse the idea behind this, I have been having second thoughts about what it implies: the inevitability and perhaps also the near-term end of left/right politics. The left/right dichotomy has been with us at least since the French revolution, and I would argue that it taps into a deep tendency to bifurcation in human nature (rooted in evolutionary psychology). But even if this is not true, even if human beings were not primed by their nature to split down a left/right division, the two hundred years or so of the left/right dichotomy has not been a sufficient period of time to exhaust the distinction. Political ideas can endure for hundreds of years, or even thousands of years. When the master history of humanity is recorded some day (after the end of the human era), the era of the left/right dichotomy may be seen as enduring for five hundred years, or for a thousand years, so that we are still entirely in the midst of this dialectic and can no more escape it than we can escape the times into which we are born.

In our own time, in recent history, we have seen both left and right repeatedly transform under selection pressures. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the counter-culture left opposed the establishment right; in the 1980s and 1990s, the winding down of the Cold War gave us a left and right no longer represented by great geopolitical blocs with the world split between them; more recently yet, both left and right took a populist turn with the Occupy protests and the Tea Party movement; now, today, we have movements even further afield from establishment left and right, with social justice ideologues and “anti-fascist” (antifa) splitting away from establishment liberalism and the Alt-Right splitting off from establishment conservatism. These mutations of the left and right are not merely quantitative changes in the relative extremism or moderation of the political platform espoused, but also involve qualitative changes in the movements. These qualitative changes result in mutual misunderstandings, because each side tends to reduce the contemporary representative to its historical antecedents, rather than seeing them as a qualitatively novel expressions of a perennial human tendency.

Given that the left/right dichotomy may have several hundred years to run, and that in the coming centuries of its ongoing development this dichotomy may be pushed to new and unprecedented extremes (as well as passing through periods of relative quietude when the extremes are at an ebb), it is natural to ask what kinds of left/right ideological conflict we have yet to see. Was the Cold War the peak of institutionalized left/right confrontation, or may we yet witness forms of left/right confrontation that surpass (perhaps not in all respects, but in some respects) Cold War confrontation? I doubt that we will again see entire nation-states embodying left or right political orientations engaged in global peer-to-peer conflict, or armed with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, but we could still see violet and even vicious conflict, societies torn apart by this conflict, and old political regimes ended while new political regimes are born.

With left and right once again battling in the streets of the US, this is a timely inquiry. It was my plan to write one long blog post attempting to lay out one global catastrophic risk scenario based on ideological conflict, but I have assembled a lot of material — too much for one post — so I will attempt to write a series of posts on the contemporary left/right dichotomy and its prospects for the near- to mid-term future. I also want to examine possible responses and reactions to left/right ideological conflict. I think it is insufficiently appreciated today the extent to which contemporary political culture is a response to and a reaction against some central Cold War themes. Further left/right ideological confrontation will, in the next stage of history, involve a further backlash against this confrontation, which represents an even larger social dialectic playing out over an even longer period of time.

To use the language of Braudel, left/right confrontations play out on the level of the conjuncture, while ideological extremism vs. a backlash again extremism plays out on the level of the longue durée. Indeed, we can easily see that the era of left/right conflict may someday constitute a longue durée periodization for planetary civilization. Examining the particular developments within this longue durée is an exercise in the synchronic study of this period as a whole.

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From World to Globe

10 December 2011

Saturday


The Bard

If you search the collected works of Shakespeare online for “world” you get 589 hits; if you search for “globe” you get a paltry 10 hits, although these hits include one of my favorite passages from The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Also from The Tempest is this perhaps even more famous line, in which Miranda evokes the world, not the globe:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

For Shakespeare, it would seem, the worldhood of the world is very much that of the world rather than that of the globe.

I was mildly surprised by these lopsided Shakespearean results — I think I had in mind that Shakespeare’s theater was called The Globe — though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, since “world” is simply a much more frequently used word in English than “globe.” But that may be changing.

Today it is becoming increasingly common to speak in terms of that which is “global,” and especially in terms of “globalization,” which latter has already become a term that evokes an emotional response in many. Does this shift in language reveal anything important, so it is merely a shift between synonyms as a concession to fashionable language?

Language simpliciter has, I think, played a role in this shift. One simply would not say, “worldization” as one would readily say, for example, “globalization.” The fact that we need a word to express an historical process of institutions being adopted worldwide says something about our time. What does it say? It says that we are what I call a Stage I civilization, such that the geographical borders that once separated us and allowed for isolated pockets of human beings who did not know about each other have been reduced or eliminated by transportation technologies that are the result of industrial-technological civilization.

In regard to “global,” the term is neutral and even, we could say, secular, whereas to describe anything as “worldly” carries a definite connotation, and the connotation that it carries increasingly appears to belong to another era.

This linguistic shift is quite recent, taking place only in the past few decades. In the early twentieth century, when it was in vogue for philosophers to discuss socialism, it was usually discussed in the context of world government. At that time, no one spoke of global government. Bertrand Russell, for example, was a great advocate of world government in the first half of the twentieth century. Most people know about Russell’s socialist phase and his world government writings from the 1920s and 1930s, but Russell was so committed to the idea that he had another stage of thought immediately following the Second World War, at which time he argued that the US should use its monopoly on atomic weapons to establish a world government under threat of force. An echo of the early twentieth century concern for world government survives in the conspiracy community, which has all but monopolized the phrase “new world order” to describe a world government foisted upon the peoples of the earth (and especially the peoples of the US) against the will.

Recently when I was reading Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism Vol. 3: The Perspective of the World, I noticed in the Foreword Braudel’s discussion of “world time.” In a note Braudel notes that the French title of the volume was Le Temps du Monde and that the expression “world time” was derived from Wolfram Eberhard’s Conquerors and Rulers: Social Forces in Medieval China. Here is what Braudel says of world time:

“World time then might be said to concentrate above all on a kind of superstructure of world history: it represents a crowning achievement, created and supported by forces at work underneath it, although in turn its weight has an effect upon the base. Depending on place and time, this two-way exchange, from the bottom upwards and from the top down, has varied in importance. But even in advanced countries, socially and economically speaking, world time has never accounted for the whole of human existence.”

Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, Volume 3: The Perspective of the World, Foreword, p. 18

It is fascinating that Braudel here makes use of the Marxist terminology of base and superstructure, though he applies these ideas to time. This suggests interesting possibilities and I know of no one who has further developed this idea. It is equally fascinating to me that Braudel mentions the two-way exchange between base and superstructure, which sounds very close to the temporal relationships that I have posited as characterizing ecological temporality. But formulating this exchange in terms of “bottom up” and “top down” this suggests to me constructive and non-constructive approaches, which roughly approximate the bottom up and top down perspectives. So there is a lot to think about in this short quote from Braudel.

In any case, Braudel expresses himself in terms of world time, not global time. Braudel belonged to an earlier generation, and I suspect that the terminology of world time is formulated by analogy with prevalent ideas of world government.

In Karl Jaspers The Origin and Goal of History, which predates Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism by more than twenty years, putting in right in mid-century, we find Jaspers struggling toward a formulation of world history, and world history would obviously be a function of world time.

Of course, people have been talking about world history for a long time, at least since the Enlightenment, when humanity began to know itself not only as a spatial whole but also as a temporal whole. Jaspers took this a step further. A consequence of Jaspers’ attempt to elucidate his philosophical conception of world history was his formulation of the idea of an Axial Age. I have discussed Jasper’s Axial Age on several occasions (for example, The Next Axial Age and Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm) and the idea of an Axial Age has passed into popular thought and is known to many.

What Jaspers was trying to express in terms of an Axial Age was a shift in human history that was genuinely global. Previous conceptions of “Ages” of human history had always been specific to one culture or one civilization; Jaspers sought a conception of an Age that embraced all humanity, and while Braudel does not mention Jaspers in his discussion of world time, one could justifiably understand Braudel’s efforts as a practical application to historiography of Jasper’s conception of world history.

The terminology that is emerging from the shift from world to globe highlights global change as a process. Earlier conceptions focused on semi-static periodizations. A truly temporal understanding of history will see things in terms of processes, so this is a development that I find to be valuable. I have, after all, expressed my understanding of strategic trends shaping the future in terms of pastoralization, extraterrestrialization, singularization, and so forth.

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Sunday


Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel

In what I have come to call Metaphysical Ecology I took Bronfenbrenner’s bio-social ecology, extended it, and applied it to time, yielding what I call Ecological Temporality. I then applied ecological temporality to the philosophy of mind in The Temporal Ecology of Mind. There are many potential applications of ecological temporality that I hope to spell out in future posts.

Darren Staloff

Today I was listening once again to Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past, from The Teaching Company. Unfortunately, The Teaching Company has discontinued this title, though it is certainly among the most rigorous and detailed of the philosophy titles that The Teaching Company offered. Knowing how much I enjoyed this, and knowing that it is no longer available, I bought a second, used copy for myself through Amazon. It was because I just received this “back up” copy that I have been listening through it again.

In this most recent listening I realized that the different levels of time that Fernand Braudel recognized in his historiography — the history of the event, the history of cycles, or conjunctures, and the history of the longue durée — and which he especially lays out in his essay “History and the Social Sciences,” collected in his On History, can be given an exposition in terms of ecological temporality.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1

Braudel’s tripartite division of historical time scales roughly corresponds to the short term, the medium term, and the long term. Braudel wrote:

“All historical work is concerned with breaking down time past, choosing among its chronological realities according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions. Traditional history, with its concern for the short time span, for the individual and the event, has long accustomed us to the headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of its narrative.”

Fernand Braudel, On History, “History and the Social Sciences,” University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 27

This assertion must be seen not only in the context of Braudel’s own concern for the long time span, the longue durée, but also in the context of a famous passage of his that I have quoted on several occasions:

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

For Braudel, the choice of the longue durée “according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions” is a choice to be concerned with what is permanent rather than what is ephemeral. Taken to its logical extreme, the structuralist conception of history becomes what I have called a top-down temporal model. However, we need not extrapolate the doctrines of structuralism to their logical extremes, but can rest in a middle ground. One way to do this would be to integrate the structuralist perspective into a ecological structure emphasizing the interaction of temporal orders of magnitude.

Braudel’s tripartite distinction can be (perhaps imperfectly) assimilated to ecological temporality by identifying the short term history of the event with meso-temporality (the social time that is the interaction of individuals experiencing micro-temporality), identifying the history of conjunctures with exo-temporality (temporal interactions on the level of discrete social systems or dynamical systems), and identifying the longue durée of classic structuralist historiography with macro-temporality. In this ecological schematization of Braudelian temporal categories, Braudel does not recognize a history of internal time consciousness (perhaps that would be relegated to psychology), and he does not go as far as metaphysical temporality (no historian any traditional sense of the term does go this far).

If the history of events is ephemeral and disappears into oblivion as soon as it is glimpsed, from the point of view of metaphysical history, the longue durée no less disappears into oblivion, it just takes longer for this to happen. And the longue durée would count for nothing, indeed would not exist, if it did not descend into the individual consciousness, and if the individual consciousness in turn did not impart its fragment of temporality to the turning world.

In Braudelian terms, the history of the event flows into the conjuncture, and the conjuncture flows into the longue durée, just as the longue durée shapes the conjuncture, as the conjuncture shapes the history of the event.

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I’ve given another take on Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past in If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History…

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Wednesday


eye clock

In Ecological Temporality I attempted to give an exposition of time from an ecological perspective. There is a lot more to be said about ecological temporality, and I hope to take it up systematically at some point, though for now I will content myself with a few further observations.

Recently I posted the following on Twitter:

Evolutionary biology is the ecology of the longue durée; ecology is the evolutionary biology of the ephemeral durée.

Given my formulations of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality, I can give a little more precise formulation to the aphorism I posted to twitter, to whit:

Evolutionary biology is the ecology of metaphysical history; ecology is the evolutionary biology of the micro-temporality of the individual.

And “ecology” simpliciter here means a lower level of the hierarchy of metaphysical ecology in which the agency of individual organisms is relevant to the struggle for survival. while “evolutionary biology” is metaphysical ecology on a much larger scale. That is to say, ecology and evolutionary biology are essentially the same process taking place at distinct levels of ecological temporality.

That is to say, the longue durée at its greatest extrapolation is metaphysical history, while the micro-temporality of the individual is that ephemeral temporality of events all but dismissed by Braudel, the great representative of the longue durée as the appropriate temporal category of history.

As soon as I thought of Braudel in this connection I recalled a famous quote from him that I have used a couple times previously:

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

As soon as I recalled this quote I realized that Braudel in particular, and structuralism in general, represent a top-down view of history, implying top-down time chains with primarily causality residing in the vast structures that shape history, and with almost no causality going back up the chain from bottom to top. Foucault is often placed in this tradition also. Foucault himself denied being a structuralist, and rightly so, but we can place him among the structuralists with equal right. To borrow a deconstructive term, we must mention Foucault in the connection under erasure.

Ecological temporality from the point of view of historiography reveals Collingwood’s a priori historical imagination (which I have also mentioned several times, e.g., Life in the Holocene Epoch and Philosophy of History in Our Time, Revisited) as a representative of bottom-up temporality, as Collingwood obviously placed not a little emphasis upon the personal experience of time and history — we could even call this an experiential view of history. From the point of view of reconstructing history on the basis of a priori imagination, micro-temporality drives the structures of history from the inside out and from the bottom up.

Ecological temporality would endeavor to show that Braudel’s ephemeral events do not disappear into oblivion, but are passed upward into ever greater temporal structures, while at the same time showing that the great structures of history, the anonymous forces that silently, facelessly move the world forward trickle down into ordinary experience and in this way drive the process of history forward.

The science of the struggle for existence (cf. the Ernst Haeckel quote in Metaphysical Ecology) placed in the context of metaphysical ecology is one way in which we can delineate the interactions between ecological levels that extend the temporal web both from the top down and the bottom up.

The struggle for existence that Haeckel had in mind, and that which has usually preoccupied ecology in the narrow, biological sense, is that of the micro-system over the duration of micro-temporality. This immediately suggests struggles that take place at the level of the meso-, exo-, macro-, and metaphysical levels of ecology. At the level of micro-systems, individual organisms struggle to exist on a time scale relevant to the life and death of individual organisms — i.e., micro-temporality. At the level of meso-systems, communities of organisms struggle to exist — i.e., the struggle within populations and among distinct populations. On the level of exo-systems, populations in different regions struggle to exist, and while on a strictly biological level this involves but little participation of the individual, at the level of global industrial civilization, with distinct populations competing for finite resources around the globe, this struggle comes into its own. On these basis we can extrapolate further struggles, some of which are struggles for existence yet to come as civilization becomes more comprehensive and thus acts at a level of augmented agency.

These are themes that invite treatment at a much greater level of detail and therefore require a systematic effort. At the moment I find that my mind is not up to the task, so I will leave further elaboration to another day.

One more item — I remembered another relevant quote, this from Merleau-Ponty:

“The feeling for eternity is a hypocritical one, for eternity feeds on time. The fountain retains its identity only because of the continuous pressure of water. Eternity is the time that belongs to dreaming, and the dream refers back to waking life, from which it borrows all its structures. Of what nature, then, is that waking time in which eternity takes root?”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception, p. 423 in the Humanities Press edition, all of Part Three, Chapter 2, “Temporality” is relevant here

It is not at all surprising to find that Merleau-Ponty, who stands within the phenomenological tradition, holds a more-or-less bottom-up perspective on the structure of time, and in a form that is almost the perfect contradiction of Plato’s characterization of time as the “moving image of eternity.” In Ecological Temporality I cited Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, as a paradigmatic representative of bottom-up time chains, and Plato as a representative of top-down time chains. (Interestingly, Merleau-Ponty writes in terms of “the feeling of eternity,” which is perhaps intended as a response to Freud’s visiting of that theme, something that I have discussed in several posts, i.e., Algorithms of Ecstasy)

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Thursday


blog statistics

Coincidentally, on this one year anniversary total hits passed 30,000. Some sites get as many hits in a day or an hour, but it is more than I expected.

One year ago, on Wednesday 05 November 2008, I began this blog with the post Opening Reflection. In that opening reflection I announced my intention to see contemporary events through the prism of geopolitics, and geopolitics in turn through the prism of ideas. While I have attempted to do this, and have on occasion successfully tied these together, I also made no rigorous effort to contain myself within self-imposed boundaries.

Like an intellectual Epicurean, I have followed my tastes and inclinations quite to the exclusion of any systematic program of comment, sampling whatever fare attracted me. I gravitate to the ideas I most enjoy, for it is with the ideas that I most enjoy that I feel most free and can write spontaneously. Most of the pieces I have posted have been more or less spontaneous productions of the day. A few I labored over for several days, but that was the exception. Sufficient unto the day has been the inspiration thereof.

It is only recently that I have learned of a wonderful quote from Fernand Braudel, the great French historian of the longue durée and representative of the Annales School of historiography:

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

While this passage does not appear in the abridged version, the abridged version does include much that reflects this point of view. Braudel returns time and again, in detail and in general overview, to his structuralist orientation. There is a sense in which Braudel’s approach to history is something genuinely new, a novel way to understand human experience. Braudel is no less a methodological naturalist than Thucydides, but his method is nevertheless profoundly distinct from that of Thucydides, though not in a sense in which he seeks to confront and overturn the tradition.

This passage from Braudel also reflects, more and more, my own point of view on history. The political events of the day, upon which I had primarily intended to comment in this forum, seem to me to progressively embody the ephemera of history. I was always committed to understanding the world in terms of the big picture, in terms of the longue durée; the experience of writing this blog has only confirmed me in this prejudice. The passing events of the day are as meaningless as the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave unless they are understood to be shadows of Forms that can be apprehended only by turning away from the fleeting shadows and looking into the blinding light of the ideal.

While I have had very few readers compared to those blogs that are sufficiently popular to have become news in and of themselves, I have nevertheless had more viewers than I expected; far more people have read something here than have ever picked up a copy of one of my books. And while most people who visit probably don’t read much, or in great detail, I do know that I have had a few visitors who have read me quite carefully, as I have received some perceptive comments (and criticism) over the past year. To all who have visited this forum, thank you.

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