Thought Archive

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Three Prime Movers

There's plenty of worry around about our human condition. But give it a thought and you can find only three basic ideologies that cause people to move towards both violence and creativity in equal measure.

They are what one can call prime movers of societal forces that will not go away and shall stay with us as long as we are recognizably human. I would argue that they are basically critical for existence of our societies on all levels. Playing the role of Ibn-Khaldun I will try to elaborate description of all three.

First we have different nations, ethnicities, tribes and races –since the time immemorial, it is our longest living trait. We look, speak and behave differently which in itself a cause of both celebration and headache. Nationalism (sensu stricto) does not necessarily imply a belief in the superiority of one race, ethnicity or tribe over others, but in practice, many nationalists support racial or ethnic protectionism or racial supremacy. Such racism is typically based upon preference or superiority of the indigenous race or the nation. Nationalist and fascist movements in the first half of the 20th century often appealed to these theories. The Nazi ideology was probably the most comprehensively racial ideology in history, none can be compared to this. Ethnic cleansing is often seen as both a nationalist and racist phenomenon. It is part of nationalist logic that the state is reserved for one nation, but not all nationalist nation-states expel their minorities.

Secondly we have huge income inequalities within and among human societies, some are much worse off than others. The conflicts of have-nots against haves raged for millenia in different guises – from slave revolts of Egypt to French Revolution. All of us long for social justice, but unfortunately the illusory road to it can be covered by corpses. Of the solutions to this dilemma there was none more potent than redistribution of incomes – the old idea which was ideologized by Marx and his ilk. A hoody from the council estate redistributes incomes, when he mugs an office worker and thus acts as a revolutionary. Fair taxes and unfair taxes do the same for the State - there are socialist states that tend to force people to give up more of their earned wealth and there are more lenient states who do not.

Thirdly, we believe in different gods or appear to believe in different gods or no gods at all. Thus we all appear to possess different ideologies. That makes us all susceptible to interpret scriptures of these ideologies in such a way as to state a preference of one belief over another. From the statement of preference – which is not in itself a bad thing - some groups will make a leap towards religious supremacism and suppression of alien thought. Fires of inquisition, fiery fatwas and angry lynch mobs are unfortunate byproducts of righteousness. Some religious suppression often will have racist or nationalist, or – in case of Islamism – anti-capitalism undertones because of alignment of religion over ethnic or cultural lines or economic exploitation. It is hard to find purely ideological warfare caused by nothing else but the writ- Al-Qaeda may fall into that category.

Some are under illusion that these prime movers of the human condition can be stopped in our time. None the more potent than attacks on religions as the source of “all evil” – as if other two “evils” have disappeared. It is obvious from the cursory glance that the removal of one source, leaves out two others that will not hesitate to take space reserved for violence in the world. But worst of all removal of all three will make us into eternally content race of half-wits without belief, without justice and caring not for their roots.


NoolaBeulah said...

It's interesting that your 3 categories are the tribe, wealth and religion, and that you don't count politics as a prime mover.

I think you're probably right for the most part. I was wondering where freedom, or autonomy, would come into it. Probably, it would be under 'tribe' because most people would consider that having leaders from their own group (however defined) would be at least the foundation stone of freedom. That was certainly how the concept as we know it was created, by the Greeks in relation to the Persians.

But I wonder where you would put the idea of freedom as it evolved on this island. The first plank, freedom from foreign rule, was more or less a given. But then it mutated into a description of the relation between the governed and the governors, or between the individual and the state.

Now it is true that most of this development occurred over taxation so I suppose you could put it under economy. But that doesn't seem to do it justice. It inspired, for instance, the separation of powers in the US, and it would be difficult to place that under economy, wouldn't it?

Hazar Nesimi said...

It is telling for me that i did not list freedom into these 3 basic categories. Maybe my reasoning will be that it is secondary condition-a freedom from a certain effect for one can not be free if there is nothing to be free of. Oppression by rich tyrants, other tribes or by other ideas. So freedom will be a desirable state of affais for any society, but say in Britain - society with separation of powers has evolved to protect people from violent effects of movement towards their freedom. So yes, i think these three components are present even in todays thinking but under different words or guises. Nation state is the key for cohesion, taxation in the state is the key to class peace, and careful balance of multitudes of ideologies is the key to stability. How about this?

I am probably thinking in Gibbon's or Ibh-Khaldun's categories rather than in modern age sociological lingo, but i think this is fair, for this way it is easier to get to the roof of it.

Riri said...

No. Freedom has never been a 'prime mover' or human societies - security has. Freedom is a notion that evolves from many other more vital urges. It is no wonder that democratic political govenments evolve after a long process of trial and error often involving bloodshed and protest over issues pertaining to food, shelter and sex. People are always after security, first and foremost. The more secure they feel, the more free they will start wanting to become.

Of course, it is all an illusion; freedom I mean. For freedom is in reality a 'relative state of feeling'. Like God, there is no real definition for freedom, but it is a concept which seems to be used elusively to promote revolutions and change. In fact, I think that freedom is a purely religious notion - all religions use this concept and I wouldn't be surprised to hear it first emerged in some scripture.

It is very obvious that there is no such thing as freedom in the material world. I have always said that secularists have a very confused discourse; they are completely oblivious to the sheer amount of religious lingo they actually take for granted.

NoolaBeulah said...

No, Riri, that is just plain wrong. Of course, if you set up a straw-man freedom, an absolute state of being, then yes it is an illusion. I was thinking of a much more down-to-earth concept, whose essence I cannot define, but instances of whose behaviour I can.

I'm talking about the ability to hold your rulers to account and to change them. About being able to choose what job you're going to do, where you're going to live and how. How you're going to raise your children. Which ideas you accept and which you don't.

Obviously all these things are hedged in by limits, but the point is that we start with the assumption of freedom and accept the limits. Not that we are slaves with a little accidental leeway for choice.

Nazim, I think I understand what you're saying, but I don't follow this bit: "Maybe my reasoning will be that it is secondary condition-a freedom from a certain effect for one can not be free if there is nothing to be free of."

Riri said...

Maybe Noola, but I still don't think 'freedom' however you define it is a prime mover at all and politics is simply a derivative of tribe-wealth-religion.

The things or 'choices' you mention only evolve with improved socio-economic status and an experience (however good or bad) of other 'cultures' or 'tribes'. Many people are not interested in holding a ruler into account if he or she is 'perceived' to be just. Notions of 'democracy' remain very peculiar in most poor countries, people do not want democracy, they want food and security.

It probably sounds wrong to you and I would not have recognized myself had somebody told me I'd be talking like this one year down the line, but here I am, totally disillusionned.

Everything is relative, the mistake you people in the West tend to make is that you think there should be one successful way of doing things and you then puzzle why everybody isn't doing it the way you do it.

The other choices you want like how to raise your kids, what ideas to accept and what to reject can also be argued to be pre-determined by tribal affiliation and wealth (socio-economic status). You can then rationalize your choice however you wish, but the reality is a lot of the 'choices' we have are dictated to us in large proportion by those two.

I simply find it impossible to believe that ANYONE would just want to be 'free' for the sake of it because being really free means being free from having to make choices (without necessarily being brain dead).

I do however take your point about the important shift from slavery (which was a socio-economic solution to a problem) and complete pre-determinism (which is a purely materialistic view) as being the default setting to 'freedom' as being the default setting. It is an important political shift which has the merit to at least result in relatively more 'freedom' for a larger proportion of people.

How did that shift take place however? In the political sense I mean (not the personal sense I was referring to in my other post)

NoolaBeulah said...

Wow! There's a question. I'll attempt a brief answer.

The first we know of freedom is (as usual) from the Greeks: late 6th Century/5th Century (BC) Athens. An overwhelming number of other things came into being at the same time, which leads you to think that there might be a connection. Some century.

Just to name one: prose. So what?, I hear you say. Well, beforehand, just like everywhere else, there was poetry, with its roots in religious ritual. Prose comes along to fulfil another need, a new one: to present history, science, philosophy, all born at the same time. So we no longer hear only about kings and prophets, but also about other folk. We also have the mind being used to investigate reality.

There was also the Roman republic, not shining quite as brightly, but it was the one that, during Western Europe's long darkness, (a few) people remembered. So that when, in the 12th Century, new city states came into being in Italy, it was to that ideal that they pitched their own republics.

Now here's a curious thing. It may well be that what enabled freedom to be reborn was what you might call an historical accident. You see, there were 2 powers in Europe: a religious one, the Vatican; and the secular powers, either the Holy Roman Empire, or the various states. It was by playing one off against the other that the city states of Italy were able to be born and survive. And it was this conflict, between secular and religious authority (inherent in all the Abrahamic religions - see the Book of Kings or Maccabees), that led (at least in part) to what is now liberal democracy.

That was the start. But with the coming of protestantism, there was another, very big problem for the body politic to manage: what we now call diversity. (This, I might say, is the big one - it was then; it is now.) Protestantism led to a fracturing of Chistendom - there weren't two 'parties'; there were dozens. The urgent need to neutralise the potential for conflict brought about, in the end, the famous separation of powers. So that when Voltaire came to England in the mid-17th Century, he could say, "In France we have two religions, and we have war. In England they have tens of them, and there is peace".

You could immediately object that other countries don't have this history and that it is absurd to expect that they should embrace these ideas of freedom. While they are poor and desperate, you are certainly right. The thing is, once people start creating things, once they get an education, once they start thinking outside tradition (and they need to if they want to survive now), then they find it very difficult to live under the old dispensation. I see it like this: it is like a family. Children need authority; they cannot survive without it. But as they grow into adulthood, they must take on that authority and that responsibility themselves. They still belong to the family, but they are autonomous members of it. Liberal democracy is the system created for adults.

Riri said...

Now ain’t that patronizing Mr Paul. Waddju mean ‘children’? You mean we’re children? Do we make you laugh? Is it the way we talk? Are we clowns? Do we amuse you? Children how?

Joking aside – (although freedom is a bleeding joke that was created to amuse us, although we end up being the clowns. Fecked up world innit!):

So you’re basically saying it was pre-determined by history, one fortunate section of humanity just stumbled on freedom (or was shoved right into freedom), while the rest still think political freedom is a theatrical show?

I believe that nothing is born that people do not feel the need for or see the use of. It seems unlikely that other folk got mentioned in prose, that too was confiscated by the powerful elites for a very long time. Hell, even art in renaissance Europe was completely owned by the ambitious middle classes and the classes above. Artistic techniques developed for no better reason than the wealthy wanting their possessions shown off in the best light and in the most faithful fashion to reality possible. So I think the prose argument is out.

What do we have next? The Romans. Well, the Romans are a better example of citizenship and politics than the Greeks I think. I think the idea of citizenship is a central idea in modern politics and it basically means politically empowered individuals. Democracy will never work without proper ‘citizens’. A ‘citizen’ is a difficult state of humanity to achieve actually. I don’t know how one might ‘produce’ good citizens. Must be as tough as producing ‘good kids’.

Secularism vs religion: again I’ll have to say it was simply powers fighting for monopoly, nothing to do with religion as such, although religion has an unfortunate tendency to get people into a mess when it gets mixed up with politics (in the wrong combination). However, we see different degrees of secularism nowadays and not all of them are successful. I would say the French form is particularly unsuccessful because it cornered itself (unnecessarily I think) into a position where the need to fend off any religious interference in politics overwhelms any actual momentum to take political action.

Compare that with the way things are in the States – there politicians do not have an ‘inferiority complex’ vis a vis religion. A politician can actually use an argument inspired by religion and come clean about it without risking to be ridiculed. This is I think one of the strengths of the US, a strength which makes it still able to do things.

The other problem with secularism is that it makes people eventually doubt their religion, accept it as less than perfect (or even erroneous without necessarily rejecting it) and ultimately, push it back and back until it is expelled completely from even individual and private spheres of life. This is quite dangerous because it creates a vacuum which nothing else can quite fill or a multitude of very different doctrines can compete to fill – the net effect would be the same, utter loss and confusion.

I am not talking as a religious person here but as a self-appointed sociologist. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is true that religion evolved (I don’t think it did, I think religions are divine revelations whatever that means), in that case it would be reasonable to assume that it did so for a very good reason. That is why I marvel at people who want to abolish religion immediately. (some) Secularists are immature in that way.

I think your children/adults/family view is simplistic. Let us not forget that ‘teenagers’ are not quite children and not quite adults and yet they tend to create the most trouble. A lot of militantism is performed by teenagers, not children (although adults might be behind the scenes planning and making some profit from the teenagers’ fury).

The world is certainly not a family, you cannot let go of tradition and still aspire to belong to a ‘tribe’, that was the purpose of tradition, keeping the tribe together. I don’t think that people are willing to think for themselves and when they are forced to, it is worse than them not thinking all together. In any case, I do not think that would lead to liberal democracy at all, more likely lead to chaos.

One aspect am surprised you did not mention is industrialization/technology. To my mind this is absolutely a crucial aspect and definitely one that demarcates the West from the rest. It is when people are free from manual labor that they have more time for fancy and day dreaming. Technology makes people develop illusions of control over nature and reality, superstition fades away (not to be confused with religious faith) and with it the destructive and limiting baggage of religion (a lot of organized religion is based on superstition and ‘magical’ rituals). Suddenly, the world makes more sense because technology uses the world to create another version of the world. In the end, we are not quite sure what is the real world and what is illusion, but it does not matter because we’re in control of our illusions.

So, we go back to security. I told you it is all about security. Even the illusion of security would do.

NoolaBeulah said...

Riri, you asked me where the concept of political freedom came from. As I related it, it came from one place at one time. But then, so do most things. That, in itself, does not mean that an idea, tool, work of art is necessarily limited to the confines of the culture that created it. Is Islam limited to the desert area and peoples between Medina and Mecca?

Such things are not born in a vacuum. The seed of freedom burst open with a whole garden of delights in that extraordinary century (curiously it was just as extraordinary a century in China, India and Judea, in very different ways). My point was merely that there was probably a connection between them all.

So freedom came along with democracy, drama, realism in art, philosophy and science, rationality. For the first time, ordinary folk appear in history. My point was not that prose "was confiscated by the powerful elites for a very long time"; quite the contrary, it was that, together with all these other newborns, with the creation of an entirely new means of expression (expository prose), someone apart from the elites gets a mention. The demos (people) steps onto stage. That happened only because of those other elements.

[There are so many points in your post that I can't answer them all now. I'll have to come back to this tomorrow.]

Hazar Nesimi said...

Such a battle of ideas! We discussing are very different narratives from us - a narrative of "freedom" as a concept linking the West to Ancient Greece in an unbroken progression.
To be honest i am still not convinced that there are such extremes.

My point is that individual freedoms and rights(this is what you are talking about isnt'it?) are not a prime mover: it is not even a condition but a result of a processes to diminish destructive sides of tribe-religion-wealth triangle.

I dont believe in a narrative of demos as an actor on a stage, i think it is an accident of history that we are where we are, and the processes are easily reversible. I dont believe in a pursuit of happiness - for this world is and will always be unfair. To make it fair for an ordinary man to live in will involve so much hardship for all of us, that this will become an evil enterprised. Sometimes leaving things as they are is moral much more than force people to move towards perceived good. I hope i am making sense.

NoolaBeulah said...

I agree that freedom comes further down the list than the basics for survival. And survival is always the final arbiter. And you're right. Humans need a group (the tribe) and means (wealth).

But I would change the religion category to that of Meaning, in the sense of an over-arching idea of our place in the universe. Obviously, religion is the major component of that, but it is not the only one.

Just one point about Riri's last comment. Technology. I didn't mention it because it is a consequence of other factors. In particular, that of rationality, which in turn came out of the same crucible as freedom and the other creations of the Greeks.

I also mentioned that much of the political settlement of the west came out of the attempt to manage diversity. Well, there's curious connection here with the great burst of technology that we call the Industrial Revolution.

Many of the most creative minds of that event were dissenters; ie protestants who were not Church of England. One of the few things they could not do was go to university. Which meant that they were not bolstered, but nor were they limited by tradition (which the universities were there to pass on). They were able to think in new ways because they were not part of the establishment. And though the establishment provided the investment, the brains came from the outsiders. There's a lesson there.

Riri said...

It seems there is a lot we agree on then. Diversity is certainly a great asset to any society, a real strength, but also so difficult to manage sometimes especially in the absence (and the active encouragement of that absence) of any over-arching social cohesion tool or platform.

One of the terrible weaknesses of the less developped countries today is certainly the homogeneity (spontaneous or enforced) of the 'tribe' (no or very little diversity and no incentives for expressing diversity) and also the technological backwardness.

However, I do agree with Nazim in that your narrative is simply a retrospective one trying to link various elements together that may not have had any actual relations with each other. A lot of the factors you identified are certainly valid ones, but then if the narrative was sound, we should see democracy unfolding in many more places but we simply don't. Besides, the process is certainly a multi-dimentional one and is certainly not a one (or multiple) way trajectory. It is more like a fuzzy cloud and it is certainly reversible (look at modern day Greece for example).

The same process happened in Muslim countries recently but the way the need for political change was expressed completely differed from that in the West although the socio-econoic dynamics were identical (it was the marginalized mass-educated youth and the middle classes who initiated this movement). The first section was after better prospects (job etc) the other section was after more power. But rather than calling for the abolishment of religion from politics, they demanded exactly the opposite simply because the foundation of political power in most Muslim countries is still anti-colonial nationalist ideology which is not satisfactory anymore (the ruling elites are military figures with past war heroic reputations not Church clergy).

In summary, I think that we agree with Nazim's tribe-wealth-religion framework. I would add that 'security' is the overarching and META prime mover of all three.

For political 'freedom' I think we agree on socio-economic dynamics being a factor. If your idea of prose is correct we should see a speeding up in democratization all over the world with the availability of internet and communication means between ordinary folk. In any case, it would prove the power of technology to free people from the reality of the world as it really is.