Thursday


Like the street battles between communists and Freikorps in the Weimar Republic, now we have street battles between Antifa and the Alt-Right.

It is fascinating to observe when the most extreme and polarized political movements within a single society have basic attitudes in common, and we see this today in the industrialized world in the opposition of the far right and the far left. In both Europe and North America (where industrialized society has reached its furthest point of development), the far left (primarily represented by social justice ideologues) and the far right (primarily represented by the Alt-Right and neoreaction) are both explicitly identitarian movements. That is to say, the most polarized elements of our polarized political system are not antithetical movements, but rather are different responses to the same perceived social and political crises. And even these different responses have important elements in common, namely, the mobilization of identity as a political force.

Political scientists have probably underestimated the power of identity as a force in society, and by this I mean identity in the abstract. Nationalism is a particular case of an identitarian movement, and nationalism has long been a powerful political force. But once we understand that nationalism is but one form of identity among many other possible forms of identity, we begin to see that other identity movements can be equally as powerful. Human society came of age on the basis of tribal identity, so that the mechanisms of identity are bred into our evolutionary psychology. How human beings form tribes within the diversity of industrialized society is one of the central problems to which both the far right and the far left are responding.

It is also significant that the contemporary far right and the far left are quite recent incarnations of perennial political orientations. Both are not only reactions against perceived social and political crises, but moreover reactions against mainstream representatives of these perennial political orientations. The institutionalized right and the institutionalized left are both wealthy, powerful, and moribund. They possess capital in abundance — financial capital, political capital, and social capital — but they are no longer in touch with the masses who were once the rank-and-file of the Republican and Democratic political parties in the US. Richard Spencer of the Alt-Right calls the institutionalized right “Conservatism Inc.” He is right to say this. The same could be said of “Liberalism Inc.” Each is an institutional mirror of the other, just as the far right and far left are non-institutionalized reactions against the complacency of Conservatism Inc. and Liberalism Inc.

Due to the split between institutionalized and reactionary ideologies, there is a great deal of confusion among those who do not understand who they are fighting. Because ideologically motivated individuals generally do not make an effort to understand the ideology to which they are opposed, the far right fails to understand the split between Liberalism Inc. and the the social justice ideologues, and the far left fails to understand the split between the Conservatism Inc. and the Alt-Right. There are exceptions on both sides, of course, but understanding The Other is rarely a priority when ideological factions are engaged in street battles. True believers in the institutions (in this case, party institutions, thus representatives of what I once called a third temperament) hope to co-opt the energy and enthusiasm of the recent reactionary ideologies, without fully understanding that these ideologies mean to replace them rather than to become a new generation of foot-soldiers.

In addition to being identitarian and reacting to institutional complacency, both far right and far left are what I will call “localist” movements. (I would say that both are “völkisch” movements, though that is a loaded term because of its association with Nazism.) What do I mean by “localism”? I mean a movement devoted to a focus on small local community groups and their activities. Both right and left come to their localist orientation by way of a long pedigree.

The localist left emerged from the “small is beautiful” idea of the early 1970s, which in turn had emerged from the Hippie movement and the largely unsuccessful movement to form communes as a social alternative to bourgeois life (few of these communes were viable, and most fell apart). The Hippie movement can, in turn, be traced to the Wandervogel, which is its common root with the localist right. While the localist left imagines small tightly-knit communities tending organic gardens and forgoing fossil fuels, the localist right also imagines small tightly-knit communities, but communities which derive their connection to a particular geographical region in virtue of history and ethnicity. Both far right and far left condemn globalization in the strongest terms, and this stems from the common interest in local community life.

How are identity, reaction against complacency, and localism — albeit interpreted in very different ways by right and left — indicative of the common perception of social and political crises of the contemporary world? The crises of the contemporary world are crises of transition as the ongoing industrial revolution forces social change upon societies that did not choose social change, but which had social change foisted upon them by their embrace of economic and technological change. As it happens, a society cannot fully embrace the economic growth and prosperity that follows from the cultivation of science, technology, and engineering without also experiencing collateral changes to their social fabric. Industrialization implies the emergence of an industrial society, that is to say, a society shaped by industrialization and which contributes to the continued growth of industrialization.

I have been writing about the social trends of industrialized society since the earliest days of this blog, beginning with Social Consensus in Industrialized Society. My emphasis upon the industrial revolution seems dated, but I don’t think that we can overemphasize the transformation the industrialization forces upon wider society. The anomie and lack of community in industrialized society has been discussed ad nauseam. It has become a commonplace, but it is commonplace for a good reason: it is true. When commonplace truths become tiresome there is sometimes a reaction against them, as those who study social trends would like to talk about something else, but changing the subject does not change the structure of society.

Many of those who write about society would prefer, it seems, to iterate the industrial revolution, attempting to establish periodizations of a second industrial revolution, a third industrial revolution, or even a fourth industrial revolution. I believe that this is short-sighted. The process of industrialization began less than 250 years ago. Macrohistorical changes on this scale take hundreds of years to play out. The most recent productions of our high technology industrial base should be seen as simply the latest evolution of the industrial revolution that began with steam engines in the late eighteenth century, and which will continue to evolve for another two or three hundred years.

We live not merely in a society in a state of transition, but in the midst of an entire civilization in transition. Industrialized civilization is new and unprecedented in history, and it is still taking shape. We do not yet know what its final form will be (if it has a final form — I have pointed out elsewhere that it may be preempted before it comes to maturity). These civilizational-scale changes drove the polarization of ideologies in the middle of the twentieth century, which resulted in a totalitarianism of the right and a totalitarianism of the left, and these same unresolved civilizational-scale changes are driving the polarization of contemporary ideologies, which seem to be headed toward an identitarianism of the right and an identitarianism of the left.

In my above-mentioned post, A Third Temperament, I made a distinction between social institutions that are biologically based and social institutions that are not biologically based. This framework could be employed to differentiate the identitarianism of the right and the left. Right identitarians ultimately defer to biologically based social institutions, especially the family and the ethno-state; left identitarians defer to non-biologically based social institutions, and so exemplify a voluntaristic conception of identity, and in exemplifying voluntaristic identity they also exemplify the idea of a “propositional nation” (cf. the work of Thomas Fleming) and the civic nationalism that would be associated with a propositional nation.

A more detailed analysis of human identity, its sources, and its significance, might help us to make sense of this identitarian conflict. At the present time, passions are running high, and it is difficult to be dispassionate and disengaged in this kind of social milieu. These passions, if not checked, may snowball as they did in the middle of the twentieth century, leading to conflict on a global scale, with its attendant death, destruction, and suffering on a global scale. I think that humanity would, as a species, be better off if we could avoid another such episode. For my part, I will continue to suggest lines of analysis and social compromises that might defuse the tension and allow the passions to cool off, even if only temporarily. If this can be done, there is a possibility that we can negotiate the outcome of this conflict without having the fight to determine the outcome. Neither of these options is optimal, but I think we are far beyond the point of an optimal solution to the social problems posed by the industrial revolution.

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The Arabian Continent

30 October 2012

Tuesday


The are many places that have been called the “crossroads of the world” but I would think that Arabia deserves this epithet more than most places on the globe. The Arabian peninsula lies near the geographical center of the Old World, where Africa, Asia, and Europe all meet. The cities of the region have long been linked by trade routes — both overland and maritime — and these trade routes have led them to the farthest reaches of the Old World. Many of the peoples of Arabia thus became involved in commerce, and as an inevitable by-product of wide-ranging commerce throughout the Old World, merchants and tradesmen were often the conduit of knowledge, playing a crucial role in idea diffusion between the Orient, the Occident, and Africa. And long before this, the sequential iterations of hominids who came out of Africa almost certainly came through Arabia on their way to Asia and Europe.

This map of the world from 1482 shows Arabia at the center of the world’s known landmasses. In older maps it was customary to place Jerusalem at the center of the world.

In The Scandinavian Continent I pointed out the the Fennoscandia region is geographically almost as large as Western Europe, and it is only convention — that is to say, only an accident of history — that we refer to a “European continent” but we don’t refer to a “Scandinavian continent.” Similar reasoning holds for the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, Arabia has more right to be called a continent in its own right than Europe. At 3,237,500 square kilometers (according to Wikipedia), Arabia is larger than both Europe and Fennoscandia. If we include within this region the lands roughly bounded by the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea — pretty much everything traditionally encompassed by the Eurocentric term “Middle East” — then the Arabian continent is quite a big larger than Europe, Central Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.

Traditional tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

There is an interesting structural similarity between the Scandinavian continent and the Arabian continent: both regions possess little arable land, so that both were marginalized during the apotheosis of agricultural civilization — say, from the end of Viking depredations on the European periphery up to the Industrial Revolution. Both regions hosted (and still host) nomadic pastoralists. In Scandinavia these were the Saami, who followed the reindeer herds, while in Arabia these were the Bedouin, who lived by herding Camel, sheep, and goats. An important structural difference is that many Arabs regard the Bedouin life as the fons et origo of Arabian culture, whereas the Saami have been viewed as marginal to the cultural life of Scandinavia by the settled population.

Here is one formulation of the relation between the Bedouin and Arab culture more generally speaking:

“…the Bedouins are looked upon, not only by the Arab cities, but by the entire Arab world with the exception of its Westernized elements, as images and figures from the past, as living ancestors, as latterday heirs and witnesses to the ancient glory of the heroic age. Hence the importance of the Bedouin ethos, and of the Bedouins’ aristocratic moral code, for the Arab world in general.”

Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976, p. 73

As I have many times emphasized, the relationship between life and landscape is profound, and in the case of the Arabian continent the traditional life of the people of the region continues to be revered even as society has departed to an ever greater extent from the Bedouin way of life, and this in a society in which most pre-Islamic cultural manifestations are marginalized. The ancient way of life of the people, which far pre-dates Islam, is the norm and the measure to which contemporary Islamic society in Arabia conforms itself.

Between the nomadic ways of desert herders and the ultra-modern cities of the Arabian continent, there is an unbridgeable gap, and yet the people of the region must bridge, or attempt to bridge, that chasm between two ideals — the ideal of Bedouin society and the ideal of Islamic society — every day. The origin of the Ummah — the Islamic community — is to be found in Medina, where the Prophet established the first Islamic community, which therefore become normative. Medina began as an oasis settlement, and therefore was the exception of a settled society in a region dominated by nomadic pastoralists. The Ansar — the Helpers of the Prophet — were settled peoples of the Medina oasis. The cities today are oases in the desert, but the land is still a desert suitable only for pastoralism. The ideal of a settled Islamic society and the ideal of a nomadic desert society interpenetrate, and both exist — coexist — in the present. Since both interpenetrating ideals are constitutive of the social fabric in the Arabian continent, Arabian identity is in tension with itself at its very origins.

The continuity and the unity of the people that makes this geographical region a continent — for continents defined in terms of peoples (and the ecology of their way of life) makes as much sense as the arbitrary conventions that have hitherto been accepted as the basis of continents — is a continuity and a unity that constitutes a discontinuous and disunified identity. This is not unique; many identities are famously contested and conflicted. But the particular dialectic represented by the continuing influence of a Nomadic ideal, is found only in a few places in the world, for example, among the Turks, the Mongolians, and some of the native peoples of the plains of North America. In these cases, it is not clear if there is an equally significant thread of a settled ideal as the dialectical other of the nomadic ideal. That an entire continent should be conflicted in this particular way, and be defined by this conflict of identity, is of no small geopolitical interest.

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Mercator’s 1595 map of Arabia.

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Saturday


whole and part

Now it is already fall, and I find myself harking back to some thoughts I had in the spring. I have mentioned previously that I planned to return to my post on The Loss of Objecthood, but was dealt a setback by the theft my computer which had my manuscript for this reflection by way of return. (Is it irony or destiny that this reflection upon loss should have been followed by a loss, demonstrating personally and poignantly the catastrophe of loss?) What I still hope to say about this needs to be said, but it is complicated and the exposition will therefore take some effort. In the meantime, I have another idea that I can relate in relatively brief compass.

In The Loss of Objecthood, Negative Organicism, and Submergent Properties I considered the possibility of wholes that are less than the sum of their parts, in contradistinction to the more familiar idea of wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. The distinction implicit in this recognition of negative organicisms also points to the possibility of a trichotomy: wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, wholes that are less than the sum of their parts, and wholes that are equal to the sum of their parts.

This mereological trichotomy in turn suggests the possibility of what we may call the conservation of identity. What do I mean by the conservation of identity? Allow me to attempt an explanation.

When a number of individual objects join together and become parts of a larger whole, it sometimes seems to be the case that the individual identities of the objects are lost within the unity of the whole. This would seem to be a straight-forward case of negative organicism, but it also seems to be the case that the loss of individual identity is often compensated by the simultaneous acquisition of a corporate identity derived from the whole into which the object has been absorbed as a part.

In this latter case, when the many become one, the loss of individual identities means that the total number of identities in the world has been decreased by the emergence of a whole that submerges these individual identities, and in this sense there is no conservation of identity. But in so far as every object that previously had an identity still possesses an identity, even if this identity has been substituted with another identity, then there is a conservation of identity at the level of a one-to-one correspondence between objects and their identities.

Contrariwise, when then one becomes many, and a corporate identity collapses, the objects that were the constituent parts of the whole re-gain their individual entities even as they lose the identity conferred upon them by the mereological participation in the identity of the whole. In this case there would appear to be an increase in the absolute number of identities in the world, but again the conservation of identity is maintained at the level of one-to-one correspondence between objects and identities.

This one-to-one correspondence between objects and identities could be understood to be a function of the famous Quinean dictum of “No entity without identity.”

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