Thought Archive

Friday, October 26, 2007

Journey of a disaffected liberal. Part 2

Once the “liberated” societies of the socialist camp and developing world stopped thanking their liberators and the train of democratization in Europe and beyond grinded to a halt, there appeared a breathing space for some reflection. The question was why in some countries – clearly more embraced by the West – countries, like Estonia or Poland transition to a liberal democracies and functioning market economies occurred quicker than in others, and in some it did not occur at all. We all remember that much maligned Francis Fukuyama at the time predicted the eventual global triumph of political and economic liberalism.


'What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such...That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.'
Nothing was further from truth. All around me I have observed evidence this Ultimate New World Order collapsing and adherence to democratic principles evaporating not only in the Muslim world, but across all of Eurasia, Africa and Latin America. It may be that liberal democracy is a most logical and well tested political system that exists in the world, as my friend Noolabeulah underlined in his blog – but it is not clear to the large portion, if not to a majority of the World Population.

What the defenders of the western-style liberalism did not realize is that the ideas can not be easily implanted in somebody else's consciousness with the same ease that material progress and even business style can be. Culture and History shape the way societies come out to be and these are very hard to change. Cultures do change with time, but it requires a long and arduous journey over many generations and not a full frontal assault.

Culture has been called "the way of life for an entire society." As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior such as law and morality, and systems of belief as well as the arts and gastronomy. There is the Western “Global" culture which encompassess all of these definitions, and there are others...

More recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) (2002) described culture as follows: "... culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs".[6]

In this, it is clear that some cultures are more prone to change by the outside world; others less so, and even the ones that do change, only change outwardly, without destroying the value system of that culture and society: their change is skin deep and is an adaptation to modernity. However, without denying a fluidity and a great force of cultural interaction, it is important to point out that there is an inner core of a particular cultural space and it is what makes it tick. Western ideas of liberal democracy appeared in well developed Judeo-Christian cultural space, amongst the thinkers of The Enlightment - after many centuries of germination. This space did not include Muslim World, China and the Eurasian hearland (evolving amongst an outwardly “European”, but essensially a specific Russian way of living). As you have guessed, countries of Eastern Europe were and still are unquestionably European, separated from mother Europe by an Iron Curtain for no more than a generation.

And finally, what of westernized elites in their respective countries? Are they willing to make a final break with their traditions and beliefs, or will they prefer to seamlessly come in and out those cultural spaces of the "West" and the "Rest" - assuming several cultural guises. I think a lot depends on how well can an individual and the society as a whole accept cultural uncertainties, that they live in and prefer a seamless blend to clear definitions and strict allegiances. These elites are bridges that unite the World in diversity.

The assertion of a limited application of a certain value system does not mean a culture clash is imminent- this is not the intent of my statements - what it means is that societies have to adopt to circumstances and change with time on their own terms. There are grave times ahead and in those times we should fervently believe that our strenght is in our diversity, not in uniformity in adherence to certain cultural and political practices.

12 comments:

riri said...

It's so true! I know people who would be full of glee that the Western ideas for running the planet seem to be crumbling down in practice, but I think it is very alarming because like you mentioned in part 1 , they were doing so well initially that everybody just believed so much that they (the West) had found the Elixir of Life!

Like you I am completely desillusioned. But like you say, it is probably the cultural and social setting that started to did injustice to the so called Western values, which am not sure are terribly Western in origin, they belong to all humanity as ideals everyone aspire to. The West only managed to apply them to a reasonable extent in modern times, but because they applied them with a certain cultural and social mindset, they have inadvertedly engendered moral and social decay as a byproduct.

NoolaBeulah said...

I would agree with most of what you say, Hazar. In fact, all of it.

The problem remains, what to do about it? Contrary to what many people believe, the forces of globalisation are not under the control of anyone, not of the Americans or even of that Jewish cabal that is supposed to be ruling the world. Who gets the time to adapt comfortably?

Not even the countries that benefit most. Did you see the survey in the US that claimed 70% of Americans were against free trade? Why? Because their jobs are going east. What can the world's hyper-power do about it? Zilch. Nil. Squat.

I really think it is a question of adaptation to an environment which none of us can control. But that is not to say that we must all end up a homogenised mush - I really don't think that's going to happen. We'll be less distinctive as groups than before, yes, but the distinctions remain for as long as they serve and for as long as the people who create them maintain them. No society is more in tune with the modern world than Japan - is Japan like the US or Europe?

The only problem I see with your analysis is that you seem to be asking the powerful to not exercise their power. They won't. They never have and never will. It is up to the weaker to be cunning (CS Lewis once said that one of the great qualities of a good Christian (=religious person) was cunning - the ability to navigate in a world that did not make things easy for you.)

Riri, could I suggest that you may be disillusioned because you were looking for the "Elixir of Life"? Political and economic liberalism does not provide it. Agreed. But then, what does?

Riri said...

Hello Noolabeulah.

You raise some interesting points. May I just clarify that I only meant to use the "Elixir of Life" in a purely metaphorical way. Am not sure if you're familiar with eastern languages (eg. Arabic) but we use incredibly colourful language that would probably sound unbearably daft and confusing to a Westerner. I have heard many Westerners accuse "others" of playing on words unnecessarily and meaninglessly - but I honestly think it is a question of misunderstanding. It is just the way we speak and express ourselves, it is not intentional to confuse or avoid constructive dialogue. Anyway, am digressing.

The metaphor I was refering to concerns the eternal feature of the sought after (although mythical) Elixir of Life. For many, the Western system of governance seemed infallible and bound to last for ever because it just seemed to be both rational and practical, "self-renewable" and "self-improving" [viz. eternal youth, vigor = elixir of life]. And it may well be that it is so on a political and economic level (in fact am not sure about economic. Even on the political level it is not totally self-improving). But on other levels, it seems that it has gone way out of control and has become "self-degrading" rather than "self-improving"....

NoolaBeulah said...

Once again, I say that the problem is with the inflated expectations. No system is "infallible and bound to last for ever". One of the main differences between liberalism and the others is the way the former includes within it fallibility. And because it allows for renewal without bloodshed, it is more adaptable to ever-changing circumstances.

Whether this means that it can be applied everywhere is another question. The institutional, economic and cultural conditions necessary are many, and they can't just be 'magicked up'. Should we therefore conclude that some countries are just destined to be autocracies for the foreseeable future? I don't know.

In what ways is it "self-degrading", Riri?

Riri said...

Yes, we agree. What I meant by infallibility is precisely that the system accounts for fallibility, encourages it and then proceeds to fix it. It is dynamic and peacefully renewable. Surely the closest thing to an infallible system is a continuously fallible and refined system? I personaly cannot conceive of anything more humanly infallible than that. Surely, this type of process should be pretty sustainable and last for a pretty loooooong period of time (if not forever due to possible cataclysmic disasters). I am talking of the hypothetical situation where all nations on Earth would happily embrace this liberal democracy system of governance - wouldn't you expect it to last for a hugely long bit of time? Everyone would be happy; basking in the euphoric delight and confidence that everything can be worked through and eventually figured out peacefully and through civilised discourse and dialogue under the benevolent umbrella of Human Rights and any other "Rights" that might pop up into existence through such a creativity-enhancing system?

I know you're gonna say inflated expectations again, but I don't think am being unreasonnable in my deduction, simply because at this point of our history, we cannot think of a better (or fairer) alternative to govern ouseleves than liberal democracy. The fact that it allows for fallibility is the same exact fact that makes it practically infallible as far as i can make out. Of course, in practice it might turn out not to be the case, but you cannot blame people for perceiving it that idealistically, especially if they have been through the horrors of dictatorship and other oppressive regimes.

Finally, what I mean by "self-degrading" is by allusion to the social and moral desintegration that seems to come in the wake of liberal democracy. I know that the fact that it happened to be what took place in the West does not mean that it is an inherent problem to Liberal Democracy as such but rather as Nazim suggested , that it is a byproduct of the cultural setting the Liberal Democracy system was applied within. But still, I cannot help but wonder if it is really so....

NoolaBeulah said...

[I just sent the comment below from my gmail account. Where did it go? Was it sent directly to you, Riri? I was puzzled as to how it could be added to a comments thread. Anyway,...]

I think we're moving towards a general agreement here. (Is that worrying?) Except now I'm not really sure why you are disillusioned.

Is it "the social and moral desintegration that seems to come in the wake of liberal democracy"? It's a little difficult to be precise about things like this. This was an old worry of the Greeks and was born with the birth of democracy there. It was based on the idea that the people were not noble/intelligent/righteous enough to manage their own affairs, that they would be too easy cajoled and bribed by demagogues into short-term comfort rather than long-term stability. The Romans, too, went on about it ad nauseum, looking back at their ancestors and sighing, "Ah! They were true Romans!"

But I wonder if we are not faced with something entirely new. Never before in history have so many people had so much more than they need. Never before have the possibilities offered by technology got so far ahead of our fundamental moral principles, which were based on managing scarcity. (A large chunk of the earth's population has forgotten what scarcity means, and an even larger chunk is in the process of forgetting.) That moral bedrock is being undermined by the power technology grants over life itself.

All I saying is that, in the long run, it may not be so much moral decline as the uncertainty induced by that morality having to adapt to entirely new dilemmas. Less decline than fundamental change. Just a thought.

Riri said...

No Noolabeulah, it was not sent to me. If you hit reply then it would have been sent to the noreply-comment@blogger.com address (therefore it would be sitting somewhere in blogger's server with no glimmer of hope that it will ever being replied to).

If it is more convenient for you to post comments from your email, you should press the Post a comment link supplied in the comment notification email you get from blogger, not click Reply.

Anyway, your comment is apparent enough here. I smiled when I read the "is that worrying" bit. It's funny to think that most people would instinctively get suspicious of anybody who seems to agree too easily with their ways. I am an engineer/scientist and we have a supposedly-funny saying that goes "if everything (as in experiments etc) is working fine, then you're probably doing something wrong" (I personally think it's pathetic, hehehe!).

Going back to our discussion, I am inclined to agree with the Greek view (people are not trustworthy enough to manage their own affairs. It is sad, but realistically, it has been proved again and again in history. Even the minority who would be noble enough to govern fairly and equitably and righteously would either end up inevitably corrupted by the overwhelming majority with more dishonest and greedy agendas or failing that oppressed, prosecuted or if all fails wiped out (preferably while being vilified at the same time to avoid masses uproar (some would call this process "cleansing"; the irony of it!).

It is tempting to cast the blame for this situation on yet another minority - I will call this minority the "Leaders". By this I mean that any human grouping would be constituted of a minority who are born leaders and innovators, these are people who are usually very brave, entrepreneurial, visionary and (crucially) extremely willing to act on their ideas no matter what. The rest are followers. For the Leaders to act so ruthlessly on their ideas, they either have to have a very strong personal incentive (eg. personal gain such as power or wealth) or believe genuinely and whole heartedly in the benefit their ideas would endow on humankind and because they're noble they'd be prepared to sacrifice everything to carry their mission and message through. So the Leaders have the same personal characteristics but they differ greatly in motives and incentives. The followers on the other hand would just follow either and they will have no other choice but try successive forms and styles of Leaders then learn which type of Leader would be the most worthy of managing their affairs (by trial and error in other words). This process of trial and error usually happens outside the control of the followers anyway because the majority of them are not inclined to become Leaders anyway, even if they are intelligent enough to understand what is going on. But even so, the process of trial and error serves the important purpose of serving as a catalyst to engendering new waves of Leaders with different ideas and ambitions. These will drive progress. So I arrive at a contradiction, for if it is the Leaders who drive progress, they should not be blamed! I am not sure how to proceed from here, and my ideas are getting muddled at this stage. So I will stop here for now.

The viewpoint you offer in the end of your comment is very interesting in my opinion. I have never approached the problem from that angle I admit. But taking a hollistic approach and based on what I said in the previous paragraphs of this present comment, even if the challenges we face are to do with how we adapt existing morality (or indeed invent (or append?) a new morality which will be able to cope better with the big changes we face), even if it is so, this will most certainly be attempted by the minority (i.e the Leaders). Besides, this seems to be saying that Liberal Democracy should be applied even to Morality. I have a major problem with this as it suggests moral relativism. I am against this not because I think it is the wrong approach to define Morality but mostly because if we were to adopt Moral Relativism, we would be basically agreeing to elect a minority (the Leaders) to a position of pseudo-Divine interveners. I cannot help but be worried by this scenario...

Hazar Nesimi said...

Riri, sorry to break up this discussion with my thoughts

Each society regards its own belief system and way of doing things as the best. There are ways to accomodate these views when they coincide and are willing to be compromised upon.

With regards to Leaders and followers. I am no great Marxist - but I understand dialectics, and with one cannot be anything - consider this as duality. Leaders to be of any use need to be skilled in galvanizing followers into action. "Followers" are not just blind slaves - they are creative medium whith which ideas can be wed to reality. Those who fail to do so -once called by Macciavelli "disarmed prophets", who through the absense of force - be it the force of guns , or much stronger force of ideas - do not succeed. Ultimately, Leaders who do not believe in their ideals and do it for personal gain usually fail either by themselves or in implementation. However, those who are led by an Idea, also need to compromise with other Leaders to create a living medium - not a liberal state of affairs - but harmonious one. Great example is Ataturk )- a creator of modern Turkey, an authoritarian moderniser with nationalistic bent. He was all, but ne neither followed his nationalism with then popular Nazism and atheism with extermination of religious . He was deadly dictator but not deadly enough, he was liberal democrat but not liberal enough. And he was not self aggrandiser, which, unfortunately, characterises majority of dictators, and is the reason they fail.

Riri said...

No need to say sorry Nazim! Love hearing your input!!

as usual you offer a very balanced viewpoint. it is true that things are rarely as black or white as i tend to describe them, but nevertheless, i think in Third World countries, the situation of leaders and followers is pretty much as I described. The masses are helpless, even ideas are suppressed, their only chance is to use violence to get rid of the system. But die to the very poor education system, these people even if they succeed in toppling the bad leaders, will be much worse than them and it just seems that it could go on for ever...If a country is very rich in natural resources, it is even worse, because most leaders will be after the money and wealth, they don't give a damn about doing some good to the economy. It sounds incredible but it is alas true...What can I say, it is simply terrible!

Anyway, I don't understand how we got to this point from your original post!!! Discussions can go astray so easily!

Hazar Nesimi said...

You should read Ibn-Khaldun of your ancestral homeland. His is great mind who identified why states rule and fall. They fail through their own short-sightedness. If you want to build an idea on not on yourself. The trouble with modern dictators that they lack it and rule by force alone. Force and repression wear off. But the same is with Islamists, they come with Idea, but when they rule the Idea loses appeal and masses turn against them and so on. The new people come to power with a new idea. The West substituted guns with a ballot box, but this game would not do in our part of the world.

Riri said...

I do have Ibn-Khaldun's book, it was part of a prize I was given at school.

I am a very fervent supporter of Liberal Democracy you know, but recently I have started to have strange ideas that it might not be the best for my country for example. At least not yet. I used to think every people should govern themselves by Liberal Democracy. But now, I am starting to realise it just won't work in certain culural and social environments. I even sometimes think that we need a Dictatorship, but a good-intentioned one. Time hasn't come yet for Liberal Democracy in those shores....

NoolaBeulah said...

Fantastic discussion. I'm sorry I've been away from it for a bit. I really missed something.

I won't try to go over all your points - there are just too many. Just a couple of things.

I was very interested in what you both said about leaders and followers. You concentrated very much on the intentions / integrity / power of the leader. Very important. But I would add another element to the mix, one which links to the doubts you have both expressed about the suitability of liberal democracy to all countries.

Good materialist as I am, I believe in evolution, not just in nature but in society as well. Conservative as I am, I believe that the forces of society are greater than the sum of the individuals within it. Most societies will look to attain, not harmony, but the balance of conflict that is stability. Good leaders are necessary, but not sufficient; the forces within the society have to be 'balanced' in such a way that the society is stable and can flourish.

Ataturk is a good example. It seems, for instance, that neither China nor Russia can flourish without authoritarian control. I've always considered Communism, not as an ideal (though that was part of its attraction), but as a means for a politically immature country to catch up economically.

You may start at my use of the word "immature". The reason I use it is that I see "mature" systems as those that allow the maximum power to be devolved from the centre. In the way that parents allow children increasing responsibility as they grow up and can have confidence that they will not abuse that responsibility / power to damage themselves or the society.

You will assume (correctly) from the above that I do not like moral relativism either. I understand why it has come about, but in the end it is weakness and the inability to choose. It is a form of decadence. If the West is to continue to flourish, it will have to overcome this weakness, though I fear that its efforts to do so will not always be pretty.