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Human History Is Both Contingent and Inevitable

k7690 Last week Shadi Hamid shared my post, Living in a World That Is, Not as It Ought to be, on his public Facebook (as well as Twitter). I appreciate the pointer. One of the comments though is of interest in terms of allowing me to highlight some issues by way of formulating a response:

Usaama al-Azami (in a Facebook comment): One of my undergraduate professors remarked several years ago that Iraq was probably going to go through the equivalent of the Thirty Years War at present. From one perspective, this may seem insightful. From another, it seems to overly universalize what was almost certainly the accidental historical progression of the European experience. We all read history in this way to some degree. It seems the inevitably human thing to do. But it seems unwise. Not only because it may be inaccurate, but because it makes us constantly look to the Western experience as somehow normative. That is an ideological imposition many of us are happy with–we want to promote Western conceptions of liberty and democracy. But, taken as a whole, it is distinctive, and can only be forced on many parts of the Middle East by force. Shadi, I think your book, which I very much enjoyed, seems aware of the pitfalls of this sort of thinking. For most people, however, it seems that they’re all too willing to impose their contingent agendas on others. And even those of us who like to think we’re less susceptible to this sort of historical teleology end up using such models unconsciously now and again.

As Pascal Boyer once stated: theory gives you information for free. Our theoretical outlooks inform our understanding of the world, and where we lack “thick” data elements we “fill in” (impute) with inferences from theory. For ancient peoples after the Axial Age one simple theory of the world dichotomized the human race into “us vs. them.” The “them” were assorted barbarians. The “us” was often defined by a cultural outlook imbued at the elite levels with a religio-philosophical system which served as the grounding for a metaphysics (e.g., the civilized man read and internalized particular textual classics so as to able to experience life through an edifying lens in keeping with the natural order of things).

More recently in the late 19th and early 20th century white Europeans developed a racial theory of the history of the world, synthesizing the historical fact of Western dominance with aspects of the nascent evolutionary sciences. This model of the world presumed that the “End of History” would be a white one, as all other races went extinct through Darwinian processes of inter-group competition. Additionally, many inferred that the rise of civilizations in regions that were not white European was likely due to ancient migrations which stimulated the torpid natives into bouts of creativity, which abated only because of the degradation which was entailed by racial admixture. This is the “information for free” part, as without evidence theoretical perspectives can generate inferences amongst those who share theoretical commitments.

I have argued elsewhere that modern “post-Colonial” frameworks, and Cultural Marxism more generally, share many of the premises of early 20th century white supremacy, but invert their valence. By this, I mean that there are many contemporary voices who might agree that the West is sui generis, a specific contingent instantiation of human cultural development without parallel. But whereas individuals such as Madison Grant would argue that this was a boon to the history of the world, as the special genius of whites illuminated the darkness, modern day cultural Leftists who espouse anti-racist views make the case that Western culture introduced the contagion of oppressive institutions to all non-Western cultures. The most extreme caricatures of this view would assert that sexism, racism, and homophobia in non-Western cultures are all products of colonial influence. Instead of the “White Man’s Burden,” imagine a “White Man’s Curse.” It is easy to see why some would accuse these thinkers of removing all agency from non-Western actors, and therefore being guilty of resurrecting myths of the “noble savage.”

Another tack that is common when speaking of human cultural history is to attempt to remove all acknowledgement of explicit theory at all, and fall back on “thick description,” as if there are no priors informing the discourse. To get a taste of what I’m talking about, see Poor Data, Rich Data, Big Data, Chief. Rather that focusing in a positive sense on a model which one believes describes reality, the goal is to deconstruct all attempts to ascertain truth and leave beyond this process of critique an opaque morass of confusion. Naturally this stance is common in American cultural anthropology, which substitutes concise distillation of the patterns we see around us with unintelligible personal narratives which are perhaps the most boring forms of bullshit you’ll ever encounter (this also produces a transition from statements that might be right or wrong, to those which are invariably unparseable outside of initiates). While rejecting any generalities or concrete and coherent abstractions, expositors of this “school” (quotations added for appropriate irony) are quite clear about the boundaries of the West, and how not to extend W.E.I.R.D. presuppositions.

Foundations Certainly over-generalization from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic samples is a problem. Joe Heinrich’s Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies is one of my favorite books, and it illustrates how varied behavior can be in different cultures. But this is a problem to be grappled with, not a “get out of jail” card to be thrown at any attempts to construct a formal system of interpretation. It is of note that anthropologists themselves have been skeptical to hostile in relation to the implications of Joe Heinrich’s scholarship. That’s because he’s influenced by the naturalistic paradigm in anthropology. If theory gives you information from free, then the proposition that culture is a natural phenomenon which can be understood in a reductionistic fashion has powerful implications.

Primarily in the context of this discussion we don’t need to throw our hands up in the air and assume that all of history is a contingent darkness from which we can’t infer general patterns. This is why I believe it is imperative that when thinking about historical processes we need to combine dense detail with a robust theoretical framework. Details can feed input to the theory to generate novel inferences. Peter Turchin’s cliodynamics has the promise to be just this, as Turchin observes cycles which can be quantitatively modeled in agricultural societies. Instead of making rough analogies to illustrative intuitions, one can attempt to discern repeated patterns cross-culturally, and deduce as to the likely trajectory of the outcomes in other circumstances. This does not mean that history is deterministic, but, it does suggest that there are robust patterns we should anticipate.

Some of these patterns are so general that they are uncontroversial. Societies seem to progressively scale up in territory, develop complex philosophical systems as ideological underpinnings of civilizational systems, and refine their institutions to be more robust to external shocks. You see all this across Eurasia, and the beginnings of such processes in other regions of the world (e.g., Meso-America and the Andes). But some occurrences are more specific. My appeal to the Thirty Years War was clumsy, but it got the point across that modern complex nation-states are unlikely to persist if religious-sectarian sentiments are in the driver’s seat. The United States was founded in fact as a nation without an explicit national religion, the first de-sacralized state in the world. But this pattern was pre-figured elsewhere. Though the Chinese nation-empire was underpinned by a metaphysical understanding of its place in the cosmos, in the 9th century it came close to being undermined by the rise of Buddhism. Religion threatened to swallow the nation-empire. The response was an attack on Buddhism as a temporal force, and its cutting back to size as a mass religious cult which did not have special access to, and separate power from, the nation-empire. I would argue that the same process was inevitable in Europe on the eve of the Reformation, because the temporal holdings of the church were such that monarchs consolidating power could not help but attempt to confiscate its lands (this had happened before, Charles Martel did so in the 8th century). More on point European nation-states began to find that diplomatic freedom and agency were constrained by excessive adherence to sectarian passions and alignments. It seems entirely likely that the process of national integration and the dawn of the Westphalian age was occurring inexorably because of underlying forces of economic growth and globalization; the sort of trans-national Christian Catholic commonwealth enabled by decentralized late medieval monarchies was never going to be resurrected.

And I suspect the same is true in the Middle East. There are those who continue to live in the 7th and 8th centuries in their dreams. They believe that religious messiahs such as a latter day Abu Muslim can revive a new caliphate. No. Those times are gone. A multi-religious state requires a certain level of reduction in the public role and exclusive attention that any particular sect can demand. It is not necessarily equality, but, it is an attenuation of the extreme inter-sect fissures. During the Franco-Prussian War the Catholic south Germans marched against the French forces under the leadership of Prussian Protestant generals. This vindicated the national idea, as opposed to the concept of religious solidarity which may have been more appealing in centuries past. We might wonder about the plausibility of the idea that every society will end at the stage of liberal democracy in a way that we might recognize in the West, but, it seems not unreasonable to suppose that many distinct elements of this system are necessary preconditions for the material modernity which most humans crave.

• Category: History
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24 Comments to "Human history is both contingent and inevitable"

  1. TGGP says:Website

    “A multi-religious state requires a certain level of reduction in the public role and exclusive attention that any particular sect can demand”
    Are there no states in the Middle East sufficiently homogenous that they could reject that model? I recall you earlier saying Coptic Egyptians were sparse enough they really could be purged, whereas Shi’ite Pakistanis are numerous enough that’s not going to happen.

  2. tunisia and libya. i doubt morocco and algeria’s berber minority is that much of an issue either. yes, if you purge, then things are feasible.

  3. “it got the point across that modern complex nation-states are unlikely to persist if religious-sectarian sentiments are in the driver’s seat”

    I’m not sure if you are also making this argument or not, but in Western Europe the removal of the religious-sectarian sentiments from the “driver’s seat” required a certain amount of religious homogenisation. Spain, naturally, comes to mind as the foremost example. But France, too. England, less so, but it took the total defeat of political Catholicism before Protestants could decide to tolerate one another’s obscurantisms. Germany may be a contrary example :

    “During the Franco-Prussian War the Catholic south Germans marched against the French forces under the leadership of Prussian Protestant generals. This vindicated the national idea, as opposed to the concept of religious solidarity which may have been more appealing in centuries past. This vindicated the national idea, as opposed to the concept of religious solidarity which may have been more appealing in centuries past”

    Yet once unification was achieved, Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf which by the standards of the 1870s seem pretty illiberal even for Wilhelmine Germany. And it was supported by German liberals. However, the opposition to the Kulturkampf was peaceful and nonviolent, so perhaps that curious episode was an anomaly that speaks to the national idea and to Bismarck’s miscalculation. However, German Catholics continued to vote en bloc in elections until after the second world war and this sectarian divide, whilst clearly not pernicious as in earlier ages, arguably affected Germany’s stability as a republic.

  4. pseudo,

    i really recommend Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. there are different models. your comment gets at the thrust of what had to happen. but despite what i imply in this article we also have to be careful of not assuming that all societies will go through the same progression at the same rate. e.g., east asian societies have modernized within the lifetime of one person (e.g., south korea 1930 vs. 2014). the model of european nation-states might be a nice short-cut in making the case that sacral societies don’t have to be inevitable. the USA in 1781 was doing something really really revolutionary in decoupling church from state. not so much now.

  5. If you look at European history, England and France became nations over the course of centuries, and often by bloody suppression. The Albigensian Crusade (early 13th c.) was religious in motive, maybe, but it also brought the south of France (which at that time didn’t speak French) under control of the northern French. Brittany, Alsace, and the Basque country only slowly became really French, and Savoy was absorbed in the 19th c. Even today France has a very aggressive language-and-nationality policy, and the Bretons are always a bit restive.

    England was much the same with the Welsh, Scots, and Irish, and they never did tame the Irish.

    More a historical difference than an East-West difference, in other words.

    China might also be mentioned. China south of the Yangtze was predominantly non Chinese well into the Christian era. On the other hand, the different Chinese languages (Fukienese, Cantonese, etc.) haven’t created much regionalism or nationalism, even though they’re as different from one another as European languages are.

  6. Grey says:

    “If you look at European history…More a historical difference than an East-West difference, in other words.”

    or a north European plain vs everybody else difference?

  7. Even today France has a very aggressive language-and-nationality policy, and the Bretons are always a bit restive.

    last i checked in 1800 1/3 of the people within the boundaries of france spoke standard french (derived from paris dialect). so it took a LONG time. in italy less than 10% spoke ‘italian’ at unification (since italian is really just florentine). probably similar numbers for ‘german’.

    or a north European plain vs everybody else difference?

    no. i specifically stated that china was a ‘nation-empire,’ because it pulled off a coherent national identity long before europeans. but, it is perhaps instructive that this happened on the north china plain…

  8. “The Discovery of France, Robb, is an eye-opening book. According to him, in 1800 a substantial proportion of the nominal French didn’t know they were French subjects / citizens. Much of the rurla population lived in tiny hamlets and rarely even made it to the county seat (or whatever they called it). One man served as a small town mayor or village head through several changes of government 1780-1830.

    Japan would seem to be another candidate for early nationhood.

    Many empires specialize in divide and conquer and do not want a unified populace. “Tolerance” might just mean hiring, e.g., Armenians (etc.) to do the dirty work and then disavowing them when trouble starts.

    After ~1900 the worst enemy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were the national Germans in the dominant majority group who wanted to united with Germany (as they did in the 1930s). The empire was ruled in German mostly by Germans with a few Hungarians etc., but it was not national but Habsburg. AJP Taylor’s book is fun because he takes almost a comic approach. Just 1850-1914 it was the Hungarians against the Germans, the Czechs against the empire, the Poles against the empire, the Serbs against the empire, with the other Slavs and the Rumanians occasionally involving themselves (Croatians againt Hungarians, Ruthenians against Poles), Italians against Slovenes, etc. But at any given time most minorities would support the empire out of enmity to the insurgent group.

    Scandinavia would be an entirely different story. Theoretically there could be a single Scandinavian nation without suppression of minorities (Kalmar Union) but they formed 3 modern nation states instead.

  9. I second the recommendation of Robb. But really the best part is that he treats the whole story of the “discovery of France” as though it had been an ethnographic expedition to Africa.

    “WITH A TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY satellite image of the languages of France, it is easy to see that the language Racine heard at his uncle’s home was not a form of French at all. Long before reaching Uzès, he had crossed the great divide between the northern oïl or French languages and the southern Oc or Occitan languages (so named in the Middle Ages after the words for ‘yes’). It was not until 1873 that a heroic two-man expedition began to trace the frontier of Oïl and Oc by interviewing hundreds of people in tiny villages. It covered one-third of the distance from the Atlantic to the Alps before one of the explorers died and the other lost an eye. Until then, the line was commonly supposed to follow the river Loire. In fact, it runs much further south, from the tip of the Gironde estuary, along the northern edge of the Massif Central, through a narrow mixed zone known as the ‘Croissant’ (crescent)…”

    The “other lost an eye”. Precious detail.

  10. Actually I’ve read Kaplan and though I liked the book I think he made too much out of the “multiple establishments” or whatever phrase he used to describe the coexistence of Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics in the towns of Germany, Switzerland, Moravia, etc. I think he was so focused on the particulars of the episodes of cohabitation that he missed the big picture. Germany following the Peace of Westphalia was even more politically fragmented than a century earlier, and the net effect of the new micropolities was to produce many single-confession-established statelets with manageable religious minorities. Kaplan himself admits it somewhere. That fragmentation, the exhaustion of war, and the reduction of Hapsburg power, are what I consider key for religious toleration in Germany. The process that took place in England — the absolute dominance of one confession achieved before toleration was conferred on the losers — was repeated hundreds of times in central Europe.

    Anyway I like the phrase “both contingent and inevitable” and the way I would interpret that is : on a global basis there have been historical variations in the degree to which the premodern state sought to make (or suceeded in making) its subjects uniform in respect of religion, language and ethnic self-identification. The level of homogenisation achieved as of 1800 is a good predictor of the troubles a county has had in the past 150 years in achieving political stability as a modern state. So perhaps what’s inevitable in the long run is homogenisation but the rates, degrees and means are contingent. And since some countries rushed to catch up in a hurry in this regard, the 20th century is associated with some tragedies — I don’t want to use this example again but Turkey is very apt !

    There’s a large body of social science literature showing that in developing countries, heterogeneity is associated: (a) with higher levels of inefficient redistribution (i.e., resources from one group are diverted by politicians of another group as patronage to their own); (b) with lower levels of public goods provision at the national level (because groups don’t want to help pay for goods which other groups can also enjoy, or in econospeak, the utility a person derives from a given public good is reduced when other groups get to use it also); and (c) with higher levels of regional public goods (i.e., pork in American parlance). All that makes for instability and in the long run homogenisation of some kind or another may be inevitable.

  11. Interguru says:Website

    “The United States was founded in fact as a nation without an explicit national religion, the first de-sacralized state in the world. ”

    from Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_the_Mongol_Empire

    Mongols were highly tolerant of most religions, and typically sponsored several at the same time. At the time of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, virtually every religion had found converts, from Buddhism to Christianity and Manichaeanism to Islam. To avoid strife, Genghis Khan set up an institution that ensured complete religious freedom, though he himself was a shamanist. Under his administration, all religious leaders were exempt from taxation, and from public service.[1] Mongol emperors were known for organizing competitions of religious debates among clerics, and these would draw large audiences.

  12. Grey says:

    A thought I had, kinda related. In a culture where nepotism is the norm a viable long-term democratic model must be designed around consensus.

    The western “winner takes all” democratic model can’t work if the winner will literally take all and divide it up among his family and allies. It’s just a recipe for trouble.

  13. Hypnos says:

    “the sort of trans-national Christian Catholic commonwealth enabled by decentralized late medieval monarchies was never going to be resurrected.”

    Or is it now?

    http://www.craigwilly.info/2014/04/03/in-euro-we-trust-are-european-institutions-the-secular-descendants-of-the-medieval-church/

    Modern Europe is increasingly ruled by a transnational rootless elite of technocrats who cling to an ideology which is completely removed from reality (German ordoliberalism).

    Note that interestingly Southern European Catholic states have been much more willing to give up their sovereignty in the name of Europeanism, even after 6 years of reckless economic destruction at the hands of the European technocratic elite, than Northern European Protestant countries.

    And obviously the most euro-sceptic of all (and likely to leave the Union soon) is the same one that ditched the Church for a divorce.

  14. I’ve said it elsewhere, but I think that the word “constraints” can be more enlightening than the word cause. If you say “Solution must satisfy conditions A, B, C…n”, and only one state satisfies all those conditions, then you have a cause and inevitability in the strict sense. If more than on state satisfies those conditions, then you have multiple outcomes, but a limited number, and a *very large * number of outcomes do *not* satisfy the conditions and are ruled out.

    Second, determism works best when you know all the inputs and outputs of some specified process, and you can get experimental results and model the system in a deterministic way (e.g. an engineered system is *designed* to be deterministic, but some natural systems can be *described* that way).

    It’s tempting to say that, e.g., human history or human psychology are deterministic, and we can’t rule it out, but that’s a much bigger, pretty undefined order and is best approached piecemeal.

    Finally, often people hope that the large, ill-defined things they desire in human history can be deterministically attained, or claim to know the causes of effects significant to other people, and the temptation to overstate your case in this kind of question is often irresistible.

  15. ohwilleke says:Website

    @Interguru

    Before the Mongol empire, there was a brief period during the Roman Empire’s reign during which the state was de-sacralized.

    After several emperors who had violently persecuted the emerging Christian population of the Empire producing several thousand martyrs, including Emperor Constantine in the first few years of his reign, Emperor Constantine’s 313 CE Edict of Milan in the Roman Empire disestablished paganism as the state religion, but did not persecute non-Christian faiths either. Under the Edict of Milan, Rome’s policy on religion was similar to the American First Amendment’s freedom of religion protections. In the pertinent part, the Edict of Milan stated that:

    “We thought it fit to commend these things most fully to your care that you may know that we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious worship. When you see that this has been granted to them by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.”

    But, Constantine, who reigned from 306-337 CE, then established the Roman Catholic version of Christianity as the state religion in 324-325 CE (defining orthodoxy in the version of Christianity definitively and authoritatively at the Council of Nicaea), while still maintaining significant tolerance for other faiths in the empire.

    Less than half a century later, however, all dissenting Christian views and all non-Christian religious practices were banned and forcibly rooted out in the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (378-395). It is largely to him that we owe the destruction of most Gnostic and pagan texts and religious relics and temples (including those not destroyed in the first sack of the library of Alexandria by Julius Caesar in 47 BC), and the decline of those faiths within the Roman Empire. His techniques, such as asset forfeiture of property used for pagan or heretical Christian purposes, and the use of snitches to infiltrate and then prosecute groups engaged in this kind of worship were very akin to those used in the modern war on drugs in the United States.

  16. Interguru,

    toleration of all religions is not de-sacralization. in fact the mongols had a very specific idea that heaven/sky/tengri had given them the world as theirs. and the royal choice had a weak spot for daoist and tibetan buddhist holy men, despite their connections with other religions (in particular, nestorian xtianity).

    Before the Mongol empire, there was a brief period during the Roman Empire’s reign during which the state was de-sacralized.

    this is false. subsidies were maintained to the pagan cults until the 380s, and constantine’s patronage of the christian church just matched that. constantine’s sons even acceded to being given customary offices in the ancient priesthoods.

    anyway, i know this stuff. please don’t cite stuff you just looked up on wikipedia as if it’s going to be news to me.

  17. Distorting time in order to deny inevitability | says:Website

    […] and I find value in taking a critical look at constructions of linearity in history. However, as genetics blogger Razib Khan notes, acknowledging the dangers of over-generalization presents us with “problems to be grappled […]

  18. As far as religious tolerance goes, there’s something that seems like tolerance but isn’t, really. The Mongol, Chinese, Roman, Japanese and even Lithuanian empires did not concern themselves with the private religious beliefs of their subjects. They did, however, insist on repects for, and some degree of participation in, the state religion, which was regarded as overriding all private beliefs. Since this participation was pretty nominal and formalistic, it doesn’t seem like much to us, but Muslims, Christians, and Jews who understood what the religious principle was (and cared deeply about it) often would refuse to cooperate and then be driven out or martyred. This accounts for the persecutions of Christians and Jews in Rome, at least one martyrdom in Lithuania, and shaped the Western contact with Japan since Dutch traders were willing to make concessions that Portuguese traders weren’t. Even in the 19th c. British envoys to China quibbled about how much obeisance the should give the Chinese empire — as I remember, kneeling on one knee was regarded as acceptable, but a full kowtow was regarded as idolatrous.

    Don’t know of stories from the Mongol empire, but there are questions about some of the homages that the Polos and even the friar William of Rubruck offered at the Mongol court, and some think that their written reports were evasive or misleading on the subject.

  19. what john refers to as ‘state religion’ is what i’m talking about. the USA was founded without a federal state religion. that’s very strange. or was at the time.

  20. The process that took place in England — the absolute dominance of one confession achieved before toleration was conferred on the losers — was repeated hundreds of times in central Europe.

    seems about right.

  21. CupOfSoup says:

    Would a binational or bireligious be possible? I’m thinking of the period of the United Province of Canada and the compromises that came out of that, some of which persist today in the form of separate religious and linguistic school boards.

  22. The Swiss Confederations is an exception to whatever law of history you end up with. Four offical languages, two religions. Founded 1291 or 1593 depending on criteria.

    During the early period Switzerland was not invaded because Swiss mercenaries were Europe’s toughest soldiers. Military units were organized in Switzerland and rented out.

    Switzerland survived the 19th c. because Austria was occupied with Turkey and Russia, France was occupied with Austria and Germany, and Germany was occupied with unification.

  23. but the fact that it’s a confederation tells you what you need to know. radical decentralization means that protestant zurich couldn’t be over-haughty over the rustic catholic ‘forest cantons.’

  24. Omar says:

    @Razib Khan

    Even with a purge, its not clear that things are truly feasible. The logic of Islamic sectarian purity seems to have no end. For example, in Pakistan you could get rid of all the Shias and then have to start on the Barelvis and finally end up with Salafists and Wahabis and Deobandis killing each other over fine points of doctrine. In fact, they already do that. I cannot say if this is a general rule that applies to all religions at all times, but Islamic sectarianism is loaded with too much baggage to be “feasible”. Notions of death for apostasy and blasphemy are deeply rooted in all major sects and they are so easy to use, the temptation is irresistible for any human being in a position of authority who confronts another person or group that can be pushed aside so that the pie is shared with fewer people…

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