February 13th, 2006


The end of the end of history

I haven't commented yet on the main news story of last week; the deaths, embassy arson and angry protests sparked by the Danish cartoons. My comment is: Huntington was right.

In the 1990s, after the collapse of communism, right wing philosophers like Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henry Lévy started talking about "the end of ideology". The West had won, Western concepts of property, the family, rights and the individual would prevail, there was a "New World Order" in which we would all simply trade happily and globally with each other, sharing an interest in prosperity.

Long before 9/11, in fact back in 1993, Samuel P. Huntington contradicted this "end of history" idea in the Foreign Affairs magazine essay which launched the phrase "the clash of civilizations". Ideology in the form of the struggle between the competing rationalities of communism and capitalism may have ended, he said, but conflict would continue along cultural and religious lines.

Huntington identified the following cultures:

1. The Christian West, centered on Europe and North America but also including Australia and New Zealand.
2. Eastern Europe and Russia (Orthodox, Slavic).
3. Latin America.
4. The Muslim world of the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, the northwest of South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and parts of India), Malaysia, Indonesia.
5. Hindu civilization, located chiefly in India, Nepal, and the Hindu diaspora.
6. The Sinic civilization of China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan.
7. Africa south of the Sahara desert.
8. The Buddhist areas of Northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Buryatia, Kalmykia, Siberia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Tibet.
9. Japan, considered an independent civilization.

What I call "pompous universalism" (the tendency of dominant cultures to think of their own ideas as neutral and universal; only other cultures' ideas, apparently, are vested and situated) is covered by Huntington, who says that "the Western belief that the West's values and political systems are universal is naïve and that continued insistence towards democratization and universal norms will only further antagonize other civilizations." This bullheaded "pompous universalism" is exactly why the West is losing in Iraq, and it gives Bin Laden his continued leverage, helping him (and Islamic fundamentalist parties) create power for themselves all over the Islamic world. Applied to "the universal right to freedom of expression", pompous universalism also explains the tragic misunderstandings behind the Danish cartoons affair.

I like Huntington's concern to separate modernization from Westernization (he stresses that Western individualism pre-dates and has different sources from the West's own economic modernization). His speculations are interesting too. According to Wikipedia, "Huntington identifies the Sinic civilization, with its rapid economic growth and distinct cultural values, to be the most powerful long-term threat to the West. He sees Islamic civilization as a potential ally to China, both having more revisionist goals and sharing common conflicts with other civilizations. Huntington also believes that the demographic and economic growth of other civilizations will result in a much more multipolar civilizational system. The demographic decline of the West, combined with its inability to unify and even a decadent society, risked significant dangers.

"Huntington labels the Orthodox, Hindu, and Japanese civilizations as "swing" civilizations, with the potential to move in different directions vis-a-vis the West, perhaps mostly tied to the progress in their relations with the Sinic and Islamic groupings. Huntington argues that an "Islamic-Confucian connection" is emerging in which China will cooperate more closely with Iran, Pakistan, and other states to augment its international position."

I talked with Hisae about this at the weekend as we bathed in the snowy landscape of Kinosaki, on the Sea of Japan. We both agree that Japan warrants being called a separate civilization. Hisae (who's half Korean, by the way) thinks Japan will "swing" with the West, but I'm not so sure; I think the high point of Japanese identification with the West was reached in the 1980s, and that Japanese in the future will be less rather than more Western than they are today. American influence is on the wane, Chinese influence on the rise. I'm not sure how close Japan will want to get to China, though. There seem to be huge culture gaps (as well as historical grievances) stopping that. Then again, Hisae's mother commutes between Seoul, Shanghai and Osaka buying and selling clothes, and in terms of Japan's trading patterns (rather than cultural patterns or diplomatic patterns) that's not so very unusual.