Friday, February 28, 2014

New worlds emerging

In preparing to write this post I searched the archives of this blog for a quote, and I came across an interesting post of August 6, 2006, which quite closely anticipates what I have to say today. Interested readers can easily find it using the links to your right, but I will begin afresh, conscious that things have, sadly, continued in the direction I predicted, only more so.

Let me begin with an excerpt from the Bush Administration's infamous National Security Strategy of 2002, which summarized the history of the preceding 100 years as follows:

"The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages."

This confident paragraph probably owed a good deal to Francis Fukuyama's The End Of History and the Last Man, a well-known book written in the wake of the collapse of Communism. As Keith Windshuttle pointed out in his neglected classic, The Killing of History, Fukuyama had revived Hegel, who believed that a "world spirit" was directing history towards a goal.  Hegel's pupil Karl Marx adapted this teleology and simply redefined the goal towards which history was progressing.  He turned out to be wrong, but we can now see that Hegel did not turn out to be right.

Here is how I might redraft that paragraph, above.

"During the twentieth century, a number of ideologies competed for power and influence around the globe, drawing upon various versions of the more or less scientific principles of the Enlightenment that began in Europe in the seventeenth century and swept all before it in the eighteenth and nineteenth.  While Fascism in Germany, Communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and social democracy or American liberal capitalism obviously differed in fundamental ways, all sought to impose some structure on industrial society and all claimed to represent the best interests of the greater part of society as they defined it.  By the middle of the twentieth century these various versions of Enlightenment truth were so widely believed that almost no regime was left anywhere in the world that rejected them.  From Egypt to India and Pakistan to Turkey and the emerging nations of Africa, nearly every regime aspired to create some sort of modern state, establish a rule of law, and work to benefit its people."

To which I would now add:

"The collapse of Communism--following by 45 years the defeat of Fascism--did not as it turn out signal the triumph of liberal capitalism as practiced in the West.  Instead, it seems to have been the first chapter in a long story of the decline of Enlightenment values--a decline which is increasingly visible in much of the non-western world, but which threatens some of the western world as well."

Let us be specific.

The collapse of Communism marked the end of the Cold War international order, in which US and Soviet troops occupied virtually all of the industrialized world (at least until the emergence of Chinese industrial power) and Washington and Moscow sponsored and subsidized regimes all over the globe.  That order featured long and destructive proxy wars and civil conflicts, but it also allowed the superpowers to keep a lot of the globe relatively quiet, and borders, throughout that era, remained stable.  The crisis in the Ukraine--not the first conflict, but surely the most serious--to break out in the former USSR--is potentially extremely serious, and grows out of a Russian attempt to reshape the post-1991 order in those territories, just as the Communists managed to do so in the early 1920s, when Ukraine and much of the Caucasus had previously been independent.  As Timothy Snyder, one of the more serious scholars of his generation, shows in an article in the current New York Review of Books, Vladimir Putin is trying to form a new "Eurasian Union" as a counterweight to the European Union, based upon a rejection of liberal, democratic, secular western values.  He is among other things using homophobia to do so.  The new western tolerance of homosexuality, it seems to me, is the latest triumph of the Enlightenment spirit.  Yes, one hundred years ago, the new discipline of psychology, led by Sigmund Freud, "scientifically" discovered that homosexuality was a stage we all passed through, in which some people unfortunately became stuck.  In the last few decades, however, the evidence that homosexuality is a very powerful predilection for millions of men and women, whether biologically or emotionally acquired, has become overwhelming, and western nations are rapidly moving to treat homosexuals and their relationships just like everyone else.  Even in the United States homophobia has been a potent political force, although it seems to be in retreat.  It is far stronger in Russia, apparently, and in parts of Africa and in the Islamic world.  More important, however, is Putin's general repudiation of western ideas of democracy and free speech in favor of a Russian tradition of authoritarianism, the tradition that has so impressed so many students of Russia for centuries, and for which the collapse of Communism has not turned out to be a cure.  Putin is now using his ideological mix to try at the very least to split off the Crimea from Ukraine, and there is no telling where his ambitions, or those of a successor, might lead.  In any case, democracy has not taken root in most of the territories of the former Soviet Union, and things did not go well in Ukraine even when the opposition was in power.

Exhibit B of the decline of western civilization is to me at least as frightening.  It comes from a remarkable article about contemporary Turkey published in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago--which unfortunately is available to subscribers only.  Written by a Turkish-American scholar named Elif Batuman, who has been living in Turkey, it deals ostensibly with a wildly popular Turkish miniseries, The Magnificent Century, a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs set in the palace and harem of the 16th-century Ottoman sultan Sulemein the Magnificent.  This is such a brilliant idea dramatically that I'm amazed no one has imitated it in the West. The courts of Louis XVI, Charles II of Britain, or even Francis Joseph of Austria Hungary (which lasted for more than 65 years!) would provide at least as much excitement, sex, and intrigue.  But what is both fascinating and disturbing is the pride in their Ottoman heritage that the series has awakened.  In the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a new Turkey, which renounced the Ottoman Empire--which as late as 1914 had ruled most of what we now called the Middle East--in favor of a relatively homogeneous state based upon western values.  The creation of the state was very cruel, involving the murder of at least hundreds of thousands of Armenians and the ethnic cleansing, by treaty, of a huge number of Greeks, but the Kemalist state was extraordinarily modern, featuring the emancipation of women and the separation of church and state.  Like most other political regimes, the Kemalist state lasted about eighty years, and remarkably is passing from the scene without widespread violence.  But the new Erdogan government is in many ways frightening.  Not only has it done a great deal to rehabilitate the Islamic traditions that Ataturk discarded, but it has also begun talking about spreading Turkish influence into all the areas from which it retreated as a result of the First World War, including the Middle East and even North Africa.  Turkey aims apparently to be a major player in the increasingly chaotic region to the South, siding with the Sunnis against the Shi'ites.  There is no telling where this might lead.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, the Obama Administration intermittently tries to keep remnants of the New Deal tradition alive, but without doing anything serious to deal with globalization and its consequences.  The Republicans, who are dedicated now to undoing the work of the past century, have been able to stop any moves in that direction since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, whose future may well be decided in the coming Congressional elections.   It is certainly possible that the Republicans could regain control of the Senate this November, and in my opinion it is quite possible that they could defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, with truly enormous consequences.  Meanwhile, the political culture of western Europe, while still faithful to the best twentieth-century traditions, is hardly robust.  The values of the Enlightenment have included an emphasis on higher education, and the complete emancipation of women.  As a result, those committed to those values consistently show low birth rates.  That is probably the single greatest threat to Enlightenment values as an organizing principle of society during the coming decades--including here in the United States.

The collapse of Communism marked the beginning of new struggles more than the end of old ones.  They are radically different from those of the twentieth century precisely because we now live in an age of weaker national loyalties and weaker states.  They are political more than military, marked more by terrorism than by big battles.  They may kill many fewer people, but they will also have far less inspiring results.


CrocodileChuck said...

"Meanwhile, here in the United States, the Obama Administration intermittently tries to keep remnants of the New Deal tradition alive.." (snip)

Name one thing which Obama has done in five years. Anything.

ps ACA not 'in scope': a law which makes it illegal to not have a contract with the incumbent so called 'health insurers'.

Larry said...

I wonder if this is the sense some Europeans were sensing as the period we refer to as the Dark Ages were approaching over 1000 years ago.

ed boyle said...

Been paying a lot of attention to the newsstream about Ukraine recently and trying to figure out what is going on and who is to blame. This goes back hundreds of years. Ukraine("edge area") was called "little russia" before 20th century. serfs fled from their lords to live there free. Poles conquered western Ukraine and ruled it a couple hundred years leaving their language imprint to this day("ukrainish"). The people are a genetic mixed bag from south east, west,etc. so cultural, "family" identity is hard to come by. The East of the country is Russian and industrial with large cities. The west is ukrainian and mostly agrarian. Those protesting are from the west. They have been bussed in and paid for their work(€100s for collecting stones, €14000 for throwing molotov cocktails,etc.) the canteen food for the maidaners was full of drugs to pump up the mob(lots of reports of people dying from this or landing in drug clinic afterwards). The whole thing was financed by somebody over many months. You saw on TV lots of European flags. They cost lots of money at a store and these people earn a few hundred per year. Also lots of tents, military garb, etc.
The right wing "right sector" has their own fighting force of 12000 men and other right wing splinter groups bring it to 35000 together. In the war their ancestors supported Germany against "jewish communism" and killed (ethnically cleansed) their areas of Poles, Jews, etc.

They now wanted to take away autonomy from Crimea and ban Russian language as second language-I remember Quebec and my Englsih speaking relatives there-(laws in Ukraine now put on hold). The parliament was taken by armed men and the members forced(families back home threatened) to vote against Janukovich. 1/4 of Parliament got out of town (Eastern Russians presumably).

In Charkow a couple of thousand Western Ukrainians yesterday or so tried to take the city hall and were beaten up and thrown out by locals. The people (100,000 ) gathered on the central square chanting "Rossiya". The city has 1.5 million people. They don't want rassist, nationalist provocateurs from an ethnically, linguistically different, high unemployment, poor agrarian area screwing up their stable, successful area. To say that "Putin's imperial politics" is behind all this" is just such an oversimplification. The Generational therory states that everything comes from below. Without the mob, the identity of the populace nothing can happen. Napoleon's or Hitler's masses flowing across the continent destroying everything in their path. This is the problem now in the Ukraine.

ed boyle said...

(a bit more to say dd not fit)

The West, Ukrainian oligarchs, etc. are financing a coup to expand their power westwards. Being part of the EU is bad for the Ukrainian agrarian sector and industry, as it is noncompetitve with European regulation so Janukovich demanded(very rationally) concessions of massive payments to sign on to it. Similar is necesssary in Nafta for Mexico for example or for India recently to maintian food subsidies to prevent starvation. Due to the historical animosity (east-west conflict, commmunism vs. capitalism) this is still seen simplistically. The official govt. sponsored nightly news here in Germany says always "regime in Russia" and "Kreml boss Putin"-not "President Putin" and "govt. in Russia". This is part of an obvious anti-Russian propaganda compaign to prepare at any time to justify any negative reaction towards Russian interests.

For example the focus on homosexuality. The parliament in Russia decided on such a law. The Croatian people had such a law by referendum recently. Imposition of values from another culture which have only recently been accepted and under great controversy is hardly a sign of tolerance and historical understanding. This is like a dictatorship of Politically Correct thinking. My son is young (14) and very atheistic from his reading (Sci-fi,etc.)so that my talk of spirituality and religion(yoga, Buddhism)_ is for him a terrible evil, something from the middle ages which only destroyed the world for hundreds of years. In Russia the word for homosexual is the same as that for pederast, they are set as equivalents. So you see the mindset. If my wife were not Russian and had not constantly informed me as she knows the situation from internet (Ukraine, Russia) I would probably agree with your thesis, being from the West and living in the West.

Whether Fukuyama was right is a good question. Does the little guy need democracy or can it be destabilizing and manipulated by local monied interests together with powerful foreigners as in Ukraine(violent coup diguised as a "people's revolution"). US democracy is arguably just a lobbied crony capitalist regime. Nothing much changed due to the crisis except to make the banks richer. Accepting left wing homosexual laws while maintaining extreme banking power is similar to letting slaves free so that they could go over to share cropping and jim crow laws. Nothng changed after 2008 or after Lincoln effectively. For example if the US govt. had banned homosexuality, cleaned up the banking sector-100 year prison sentences- nationalizations-people's banks-credit unions formed everywhere, etc., derivatives banned- and got the economy cleaned up and on its feet and got its troops out of the rest of the world, (demilitarized) then I would, even if I were gay say "at least they got it 90% right". Freedom of speach without effect is useless. Democracy is useless if it gives you no real say in events as in the current system of plutocracy.

Why did somebody start killing 80 people on the day before the end of the olympics in Maidan? Who was responsible? the govt. or someone else? Was it provoked? At any rate this is the justification to go over to a coup. The drugged demonstrators just kept expanding their occupation and violence until the troops lost ten men(demonstrators 14) and then the troops lost all patience and fought back next day.

The rich in Ukraine have lots of money and want more. The West wants to expand markets at all costs and Nato everywhere. Interests of other people's is always discounted, similar to China's current policy towards their South China Sea neighbours. This is typical of the time before a crisis war in generational theory.

Joseph Young said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bozon said...


Great stuff.

On my blog, term search e.g. such terms as Fukuyama, etc.

all the best

Joshua H said...

Professor Kaiser, I look forward to following your blog as events unfold in the Ukraine. Although it is still early in the conflict, it seems you were very much correct in saying that this crisis could potentially become very serious. I am curious as to whether you expect Putin to expand beyond Crimea in the short term. My intuition, as a history student and follower of your blog, is that Putin will be both cautious and deliberate in his attempt to build a new USSR/Eurasian Empire. I worry that this blend of decisive but well-planned chess playing will make it very difficult for Western leaders to muster up enough political will to stop him. We are seeing this now in the reluctant of France and Germany to impose sanctions.

Ironically, I have noticed superficial similarities between this action and the Remilitarization of the Rhineland, which also occurred in March of an Olympic year. From what I can tell, many people in the West at that time believed that Germany was simply walking into its own backyard. I have heard similar rhetoric from individuals today, emphasizing how Russia is merely protecting the Russian-speaking population of Crimea. Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic, but I think this will be far more significant than what we witnessed in Chechnya and Georgia.