Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Non-Collapse Of Civilization, Part One

Part 1: The Collapse of the Collapse of Civilization

In the calm between storms, I thought that it would be something of a relief to once again be able to argue about policies instead of people, and to step away from this immediate contest and look more broadly at the larger trends that set the context for today's events, and at the means by a which a culture changes over a longer term.
I have commented that the great story of the second half of the 20th century is the non-collapse of civilization.

In order to understand why the absence of a civilizational collapse is such a big story, it is important to remember the first half of the 20th century. During those years, civilization was collapsing. It was collapsing culturally, with such trends as the rise of incomprehensible, non-representational Modernist art, unintelligible Modernist literature, and the screeching dissonance of Modernist music—all of it a precipitous collapse from the high achievements of 19th-century art and literature. But most of all, it was a political and economic collapse, with two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the rise to power of two totalitarian movements, Fascism and Communism.

So it should be no surprise that writers and intellectuals of the era were pre-occupied with the threat of a general collapse into war, dictatorship, poverty, and mass death. You can see this reflected in such famous dystopian literature as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Wikipedia provides an extensive list of dystopian literature, and you will notice that Ayn Rand wrote two of the novels listed. Her 1937 novella Anthem projects life under a perfectly consistent collectivist society, while her 1957 masterwork Atlas Shrugged depicts the collapse of the American economy under a statist political system.

Depictions like this were not alarmist. They were a straightforward projection of the trend of current events, including, in Ayn Rand's case, her own experiences in Soviet Russia in the 1920s and her observations of the political atmosphere of the Great Depression in America in the 1930s.

For some decades into the second half of the 20th century, the same trend seemed to be continuing. In the 1960s, the rise of the New Left and the "counter-culture" rebellion against civilization, logically accompanied by race riots and violence on university campuses, confirmed a sense of cultural decay and collapse. Meanwhile, the Soviet dictatorship seemed to be on the offensive, expanding its influence into Africa, Latin American, and the Middle East, while America floundered in a period of malaise and retreat following the Vietnam War. An observer might still have been justified in fearing that America was following the same path as the Roman Empire before it—that our society was decaying from within and was about to be overrun by a new barbarian invasion.

This conclusion would have been reinforced, not just by an observation of historical trends, but by an examination of the basic cultural causes at work. All of the ideas that had made possible the rise of the West—reason, individualism, the subordination of government to individual rights—were under attack by the most prominent intellectuals of the era. If these intellectuals were the ones steering the culture and setting the direction for the future, then we were doomed.

Then something remarkable happened: civilization did not collapse.

From about 1980 to today—a period of a quarter century, too long to be a mere blip or historical detour—it was the enemies of civilization who collapsed. And more: civilization has not merely avoided a collapse. It has grown and expanded. It is thriving.

The evidence for this began to appear, in earnest, in the 1980s, as both Britain and America pulled back from their headlong plunge into socialism, adopted moderately more pro-free-market policies, and were rewarded with an enormous economic boom and unprecedented progress in the development of high technology.

In retrospect, however, we can observe that the trend had its beginnings even earlier, in the post-World War II establishment of representative governments and free-market economies in nations like West Germany and Japan; in the post-war trend toward free international trade; in the slow but steady spread of free markets and free societies across Southeast Asia, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea—all of the "Asian Tigers."

But it was in the 1990s that the trend became truly global and its full significance began to be noticed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, war has collapsed: the number of armed conflicts across the globe, and the number of people killed in them, has dramatically decreased.

The nations of Eastern Europe moved rapidly toward political freedom and have continued to move steadily toward relative economic freedom. The move toward political freedom culminated in the past few years with rebellions against corrupt semi-authoritarian systems in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine, while the trend toward economic freedom reached a kind of high point recently when the former Soviet vassal state of Latvia was ranked by the Wall Street Journal as the fourth freest economy in the world, ranking well above the United States.

Over the past thirty years, Communism has undergone a slow-motion collapse in China. By a complex series of ideological evasions, the Communist Party gutted Marxism as a philosophical foundation for its political rule. I have been following this trend closely, and regular readers of TIA Daily are familiar with the details: China now has the four largest shopping malls in the world; the Chinese government recently awarded the "workers vanguard" medal to NBA star Yao Ming, along with a group of Chinese businessman; the Chinese leadership has been debating over a sweeping reform that would formally recognized property rights in Chinese law; and a growing number of courageous Chinese lawyers, judges, and intellectuals are beginning to argue for free speech, individual rights, and the rule of law.

And the trend keeps on going. The "Asian Tigers" were followed by the "Celtic Tiger," as Ireland liberalized its economy and experienced a prolonged period of rapid economic growth. The same thing has happened in Chile, the freest economy in South America.

The latest sensation—and it is a big one—is India, which is finally experiencing an Industrial Revolution, at the same time that its large population of engineers and computer programmers takes advantage of the information age. This is the result of a process of economic liberalization that began in the summer of 1991, when India responded to a fiscal crisis—and to the collapse of the Soviet Union—by sweeping aside much of the "license raj," a Byzantine system of business licensing laws that sought to impose centralized economic planning.

There is now a new culture beginning to rise in India, whose symbol in my mind is a young man described by pro-free-market columnist Gurcharan Das in his 2001 book India Unbound:

The commercial spirit is not limited to the cities. The smallest village has found it. On a visit to Pondicherry from Madras a few years ago, I stopped at a roadside village cafĂ© where fourteen-year-old Raju was hustling between the tables. He served us good south Indian coffee and vadas. Raju told us that this was his summer job and it paid $11.50 a month—enough to pay for computer lessons in the evenings in the neighboring village. For the next summer, his aunt in Madras has arranged a job for him in a computer company.

"What will you do when you grow up?" I asked. "I am going to run a software company," said Raju. He had decided this when "I saw it in TV, where this man Bilgay has a software company, and he is the richest man in the world."

By my count, somewhere on the order of three billion people—about half the world's population—are currently on a path toward political and economic liberty, and toward enjoying all of the things that liberty makes possible: a vibrant, innovative culture, a "First World" lifestyle of opulent wealth, and the benevolent sense that success and happiness are the hallmarks of a "normal life," so that a fourteen-year-old boy in rural India can reasonably believe it is possible for him to become the next Bill Gates.

In short, it is not just that civilization did not collapse. It is the vision of civilization as being on the verge of collapse that has collapsed—or at least, it ought to have collapsed.

The problem for Objectivists, unfortunately, is that our intellectuals, who ought to be in the best position to observe and explain this phenomenon, have generally not done a good job of recognizing the non-collapse of civilization. For the most part, they are still too busy worrying over the imminent collapse of civilization to notice, study, or explain the actual trends in the other direction.

For as long as I can remember, the typical final paragraph of any review of the state of the world by an Objectivist writer or speaker has gone something like this—which was aptly paraphrased in a recent note from a reader who had noticed the same pattern: "Western civilization as it exists today is doomed to destruction; I only hope I don't live to see its fall. Only then can a new future be built upon the philosophy of Objectivism." Over the years, the pattern has become so reinforced that I see it everywhere, in posts on Objectivist discussion groups, and in letters like the one I received recently from another reader, who lamented that Twenty-first century America is still riding on the historical momentum of the Enlightenment, which rested on a strong (though flawed)…foundation. What is the health of that foundation today?...

What happens to a society over time as its leading intellectuals and, in consequence, the general public, increasingly abandon reason and respect for reality? My answer, gleaned from the literature of Objectivism, is as follows. Faith and force inevitably fill the void that reality and reason should have occupied…. Faith and force, united together, become the ruling doctrine of the society (which then collapses altogether if or when it runs out of subservient producers to sustain it).

I grant you that there is room for debate as to how far down that path America has come. But I find the trend ominous, particularly so in other countries.

I have to admit that this approach has held sway in The Intellectual Activist as well, including some of my own past articles. For most of its history, the theme of my blog's political coverage has been to show how our leaders' failure to embrace the right ideas is leading to disaster. This coverage was true and valuable—but it did not tell the whole story, because too little coverage was spared for evidence of any trend that was not a disaster. As just one small example, while putting together the bound volume of my articles from 1979 through 1991, I noticed that the early issues provided extensive coverage of the crises of rising crime and runaway inflation. Subsequent issues devoted no coverage to the process by which inflation was brought under control and the crime wave was broken.

When it came to the most important event of the era, the Fall of Communism, I wrote an article that provided a worthwhile and largely correct analysis of the cause of Communism's collapse. But it ended with the admonition that "if you hear that Russia and her former satellites are struggling valiantly to become capitalist countries, don't believe it. Some of them are taking baby steps forward, but none has the desire (or knowledge) necessary to go even half the distance." There is some truth to this warning, when it is applied to Russia and a few of the former Soviet Republics. But it is flat wrong when applied to most of Russia's former satellites: Poland, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, and so on.

To gauge the state of those societies, consider a recent article with the ominous title "Communist Retro Sweeps Eastern Europe." It turns out that this article describes, not a political movement, but rather a kind of middle-aged nostalgia among Eastern Europeans for the brand names and soft drinks of their youth—all of which are now produced for profit by private companies.

I don't blame Objectivist intellectuals for not seeing the signs of these more positive trends, because the impending collapse of civilization was the trend of the first half of the 20th century, and it is only in the past few decades that an opposite trend has clearly emerged. But it is important to begin to recognize that this new trend does exist, and to ask what makes it possible.

The current global spread of free markets, political freedom, and an industrial-technological civilization is too large a phenomenon to be explained as the mere "inertia" of a previous, better era. Indeed, the cultural "momentum" of the second half of the 20th century was the momentum of the era immediately preceding it, an era whose predominant direction was toward chaos and destruction. The story of the last fifty years has been the story of a reversal of cultural momentum.

I do not mean to imply that this trend is permanent and inevitable. I do not deny that there are ideological and political forces, such as the Muslim world's rebellion against civilization, that threaten to slow down and even reverse the recent progress that has been made in the world. But precisely for that reason, I think it is imperative for us to discover what is causing the good things that are happening in the world.

The most urgent question of our era is: what went right?

In the coming installments of this series of articles, I will put forward my own preliminary answers to this question, but the first step is simply to recognize that the question has to be asked, and that new evidence may require new answers and new theories about the role of ideas in history


PART IV

1 comment:

Bill said...

I think that Objectivists frequently predict civilization collapsing under other ideologies for the same reason leftists predicted America collapsing under Republicans. Every ideologue measures social success by how aligned it is with his ideology. When that ideology doesn’t dominate society, of course the ideologue is pessimistic. It’s not rocket science.

Civilization is flourishing because the productive lessons of mixed bag ideologies like Christianity or post-modernism generally dominates the bad lessons. Universally, people pick what makes sense out of their ideology and largely do what they feel anyway. And despite the flaws of both Christianity and modernism, they’ve proven capable of evolving to generally promote good behavior and weave together productive societies. Objectivism plays a part in their American evolution now, but as members of other social systems, Americans just take what they most want or need and move on.

Despite ups and downs within societies, civilization has never really been headed toward collapse. I think that kind of talk is just the frustrated myopic whining of obsessed ideologues fueled by group think.

Bill Carson