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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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