Monday, 12 July 2010

Be Individuals!

In the previous post I discussed Alex de Waal’s powerful analysis of Western attempts at state building in the Third World. The stark dichotomy it outlined suggests something far more universal: the struggle between two types of society, or two modes of thinking, which have developed since the advent of the modern world.

In Language and Solitude Gellner sums up these two strands of thought. His description deserves to be quoted at length:

There is, first of all, what one might call the individualistic/atomistic conception of knowledge. Knowledge, on this view, is something practised or achieved above all by individuals alone… We discover truth alone, we err in groups.

…Knowledge is a relationship between an individual and nature… society, its hierarchy and its customs may sometimes be of help; but rather more often they constitute a hindrance. They stand in the way of objective, lucid perception. Above all, society never constitutes an authority or a vindication. If society itself, or some institution within it, make such a claim, then that is a usurpation and one to be strenuously resisted. Society has no right to impose its authority either on inquiry or on its outcome. Neither its views nor its idiom is authoritative. Truth stands outside and above, it cannot be under social or political control. Legitimation of ideas by authority, by consensus, or the social creation of truth, is an abomination.

This vision is atomistic as well as individualistic. It not only makes the solitary individual a foreigner in his own world, separating him from it, requiring him to assert his independence; it also makes the part sovereign over the whole. The whole is made up of its parts and owes its existence and its characteristics to its parts. The bricks of knowledge… are individual, isolable sensations or perceptions or ideas: granular entities of some sort, which accumulate so as to form large, and perhaps massive structures. These, however, for all their possible grandeur, are ultimately composed of cognitive atoms, and owe everything to them.

…Separation, segregation, analysis, and independence are at the heart of this approach. Everything that is separable ought to be separated, at least in thought, if not in reality. Indissoluble, inherent linkages are to be avoided. Alliances and alignments, like those occurring in a free society (of which this vision is both a model and a support and an echo), are contingent and freely chosen: they are not prescribed, obligatory, or rigid. Ideas behave like individualist men: not born into estates or castes, they combine freely and as freely dissolve their associations. Likewise, ideas make free contracts and form free associations among each other, rather than being suborned by status imposed on them from above by some theory more authoritative than they are themselves.

…The constellation of things and features we find in our world do not constitute a God-given, hence sacred and normative order; they are an accidental by-product of the interplay of natural forces. We explore the world by seeing actual patterns as contingent variants of deeper factors, and these we explore by rearranging actual patterns in real or imaginary experiments. Freedom of experiment is analogous to freedom of trade, and each lead to growth in its own sphere, and the form of freedom and consequent growth aid each other. Each is opposed to hallowed rules or rigidities, whether based on tradition or revelation.

…[Then] there is what we might call the organic vision. First of all, this vision repudiates the individualism of its rival. No man, least of all when he endeavours to know and understand the world, is an island unto himself. Knowledge is essentially a team game. Anyone who observes, investigates or interprets the world, inevitably deploys concepts which are carried by an entire cultural/linguistic community…

… Man cannot act on his own, but only when sustained by and interacting with other participants in this collective game. The ideas of a culture, of a historic tradition, of an ongoing community, work through him. His is their agent, and cannot be their author, or even, perhaps, their critic.

Likewise, the objects deployed in the construction of a world are not some homogeneous assembly of similar grains, differing only in – What? Colour, shape, hardness? – as the individualist/atomic tradition would have it. On the contrary, the constituent elements form a system, whose parts are in intimate and intricate relation with each other. Separation of all separables is not the heart of wisdom, but of folly. Any strong striving in this direction is a symptom of poverty of spirit, of lack of true understanding, of narrowness of vision, of a failure of comprehension. The sensitive mind and heart see and feel the totality; they appreciate the connectedness of all its parts and do not seek to break up that unity.

What de Waal describes is two worldviews in collision:

The economists and political scientists who advise international institutions argue that no country should follow its own unique rules… From within the UN compound or behind the embassy walls, forces such as kinship and patron-client networks are readily denigrated as ‘tribalism’ or ‘corruption’.

And what he witnesses is the slow decline of that organic worldview of the pre-modern world – through the encroachment of the market, and the dollar economy.

Imperial cognition. In the 19th century it was obvious, and clearly expressed – the White Man’s Burden, to bring guns and civilisation to the natives. We were obviously superior; our science, but more importantly, our weapons, proved it. In the 21st century, after seventy years of decolonisation, the same imperial rhetoric is on the march again (see the popularity of Niall Ferguson’s Empire; a text for the times?). Yet now they are wrapped in the language of democracy and human rights. This is not to undervalue the freedoms and luxury of the West, but only to indicate that within the idealistic language of improvement and development, there is an attitude of colonial conquest – to replace your ideas, and your culture, with our own.

This idealism forgets how these concepts, and the society itself, developed within Europe. Their development was partly organic: the ideas, and the type of society associated with it – Gellner’s individualist/atomic tradition –, grew together, and were not forced onto it from some superior colonial power. That said, at the same time as this culture developed Europe was devastated by war, as the modern state was born and grew to maturity. Bricmont writes:

There was nothing idyllic about the way the strong Western nation-states were built: foreign wars, extermination of indigenous populations, merciless persecution of centrifugal forces within – persecutions that often lasted for several centuries. If the Russians had done with the Chechens what the white Americans did with the Amerindians, there would be no conflict in Chechnya today…. If Yugoslavia or China had enjoyed a long period of modern economic development allowing them to reach a dominant position on the world scale, the situation of Kosovo or Tibet might well be similar to that of Brittany or Wales, or, at the worst, Corsica or the Basque country. 

How deep rooted our ideas, and how little we understand them. And how powerful! The strength of America and Europe give a validity to these ideas, and allow for their universal application. No doubt this is the main reason why these ideas are projected as global ones, applicable to all… However, there is something in these ideas themselves that give them enormous power: at their core, part of their very understanding, exists the idea that their truth is universal. And because our relationship is directly with the truth, it is not mediated through institutions, it is we who can decide how to organise the world; or in this case yourcountry or community. In a more relativistic world, made of discrete cultures, while each society may think it is superior, it is harder to conceive, and to convince oneself, that your own is the only one that should exist. Not so in the West, where we have our universal ‘blueprints’ to transform the world into our image.

Interestingly, the main criticism of this individualist/atomic approach within the Western Academy is a kind of universal relativism. It basically accepts the assumptions of this society, but sees them as determined by culture or the linguistic community (essentially Gellner’s ‘organic vision’). It then projects this view onto the rest of the world. In so doing it underestimates, or completely misunderstands, those cultures that reject the West both in deed and in thought; the fundamentalist Islamic societies being the most important. Thus the mainstream critique of modern industrialism and neo-colonialism actually provides a justification for it – it reduces all cultures to a similar status; thus rejecting the very claims to difference and superiority of those poorer regimes who assert their independence; while ignoring the specific nature of our culture, that has helped it towards dominance: its greater ability to access and manipulate nature. Just when it says there is no truth and all is relative, we live in a society that shows that reverse: science has real cognitive power and is universal.

(A moment of clarification. I appear to write the opposite of what the relativists believe, for in their view all cultures are equal. However, this view is an absolute position, which says that no culture has access to the Truth; its beliefs and symbols are simply a series of linguistic games, or cultural signifiers. Thus to hold a Universal Relativist position either involves contradiction – within that intellectual position you accept that there are societies that are not relativist, that are absolutist -, or you deny their Truth, thus their identity. In practice, I believe it is the latter approach that tends to dominate, exemplified by the intolerance to Islam in the Liberal intellectual world – think only of Martin Amis.)

The result of all this? We have economists and political scientists bringing their ‘blueprints’, their truth, to Sudan and the Congo, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and to Russia, and finding it hard to understand while they are resisted, or fail. We are so well-meaning! Yes, they may be: but like short skirts in Mecca, the ideas they inhabit can destroy the equanimity of a people. And the reaction? Here is de Waal:

Western governments spend significant sums trying to establish functioning sovereignty amid the factional politics of ‘fragile states’, and civil, inclusive and affordable patronage systems are being swept away. For the unfortunate populations of these countries, this is a loss just as devastating as the weakening of state institutions, and one less recognised.

One most never forget that our ideas are wrapped up in our culture. Sometimes, these can be extracted, and live a reasonably separate existence – art and science are examples – but once we enter the real world, the practical one of daily politics and the economy, then these ideas will cease have an independent existence. Sometimes servants, sometimes colleagues, they will be on first name terms with the corporation, the IMF and the Pentagon. And it is these powerful institutions that will determine their affect in that real world; in Darfur and Helmand province.

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