Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Historical determinism

Let me take a break from a spreadsheet that is doing my head in and post on a thought I had during a dinner party on Monday evening while the conversation and the Veuve Cliquot Rose flowed..

The good folk around the table were talking in intelligent terms about the pros and cons of Hilary vs Barack. With only superficial knowledge of US politics, I sat and listened and tried to weigh up the opinions that bounced around. And then it occurred to me that the terms of the conversation were in danger of obscuring a more important point - can anyone save America? Save from recession in the first instance, save from being an international pariah (a la Chomsky) in the second instance, but much more fundamentally than both, save from losing its number one superpower status? Relatedly, the other question occluded seemed to be: can the West resist losing being the centre of geopolitical gravity? In the back of my mind was Davos the week before, and the contrast between the gloom of the Western leaders and the zest of the Indian delegation. And how should Westerners respond to this seemingly inevitable gravitational shift?

It was interesting that as soon as I brought the issue up, no one had much to say. It seems that whether you think America/the West needs saving or not, most people succumb to a sense of fait accompli about the process. The sentiment can be summer up as, "we've had our turn, now its China's."

It was at that point that I had a weird Peter Hitchens/Martin Amis moment. My conscious-self regards Christopher's brother as a right-wing reptile slithering under his Daily Mail rock. However, sub-routines of thought apparently deeply buried were now opened to the light. I found myself thinking: hold on, the West has so much to value about itself. Why would anyone capitulate or throw these things away or want to devalue them on the basis of an unconscious historical determinism? What China and India have in their ascendant present is people, cheap labour and weak unionisation, conveniently contextualised in an increasingly global and technology-driven economy which places value on cheap flexible labour. True, just like the West, China and India have millennia of cultural, spiritual and intellectual traditions as the bedrock upon which their contemporary societies sit. However, we cannot simply allow notions such as democracy, human rights and centuries of thought evaporate under an emerging Sino-Indian alignment? Or can we? Or should we?

I guess what happened was I hit a layer of my sub-conscious which is fundamentally structured by a reactive attachment to occidental thought. Perhaps not quite Hitchensian or Amisian, in the sense that even sub-consciously, I am fully aware that the region that generated the notions of democracy, human rights, ideas of liberty and other grounding philosophical and political concepts etc has consistently failed to act out its founding principles, and has most often moved in the opposite direction in a murderously appropriative manner. The point is not to celebrate the West as the place where democracy et al is to be found along with roads paved with gold, against threats from outside. It is rather to ask the question: does the ceding of power to the East also mean the ceding of ethical and political principles that originate in the West? Must the Chinese model now take over wholesale? Is the West prepared to make a stand for principles that it has placed in world circulation?

Maybe it was the champagne doing the speaking, making my thoughts squirm with Nietzschean ressentiment. It just seemed that giving in to historical determinism like this is a denial of collective agency and spirit. Perhaps there's a Hegelian dialectic at work. The West will need to look at itself in externalised terms (through the optic of India and China post-ascendancy - say in 10-20 years) before it returns to its source and recovers confidence and modes of identity. Until then, we are on the track of the anti-thesis, and its down-hill from here. Westerners have nothing to say and nothing that can be said or offered, save to moan about the failing state of their economies and the failing health of the planet...

The last thought I had around the dinner table was: what value-add does China bring to Africa/Nigeria exactly? [Sort of an updated version of the Life of Brian sketch by the People's Front of Judea]. Nigeria doesn't need the money (even if some of the US$50bn forex reserves is already committed, are you telling me there aren't billions to spend still?) Nigeria certainly doesn't need the cheap labour. Nigeria can buy in the infrastructural expertise from the global market. So why would Nigeria go knocking on China's door, apart from based upon the idea that it lacks the will-to-autonomy that both China and India have in abundance right now?


Fred 11:11 p.m.  

Wow! Thanks to the "old lady," the jingoistic worm squirms deep inside the doc ... nice!
I'm glad these questions are ascendant, J. It's certainly food for thought that simply relinquishing--well, perhaps there's a better term--the many advantages of western civilization because of a lack in self-esteem ain't such a hot idea after all. There are things worth saving per se, even if we've failed at upholding them. Our fault, not theirs.
And Chomsky should take a long walk off a short pier. A-hole.

Onibudo 3:15 a.m.  

It is worth looking at your questions through the perspective of the failure of the West to evolve beyond linear and engineered solutions that emerged from its industrial revolution. Even in its philosophy it fails to understand and open up to anything that is complex equating it with complication. On the other hand China and India can help Nigeria move beyond a reductionist approach that has turned the inherent complexity of the Nigerian experiment into a pathology that cannot reconcile the sophistication of its indigenous informal systems with the orthodoxy of simplistic western approach. It remain to be seen whether the addiction of the Nigerian elite to pre-processed western consumable thinking can ever be fully cured. In the end China as well as India opens up the space to other influences returning us to the benefit of the laws of requisite variety.

Chxta 10:24 a.m.  

Pray tell, where did this conversation take place?

Interesting questions you raised, so let me attempt to answer what I (think I) can answer with speculations of my own.

Can anyone save America?

I don't think so. The slide began sometime in between the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of China and India. You see, without someone to compete with, people (and nations) tend to become complacent, and complacency is probably the most difficult of things to shake off. I think the slide can only be stemmed, not stopped.

Will democracy remain the dominant way of political thinking?

Yes it will. As more and more people are educated the world over, it will become inevitable that they would want to self-actualise. And probably the closest that the majority of people can self-actualise in terms of politics and governance in by having a say in the government, or at least believing that they have a say in the government. That is the strength of democracy. But then this brings me to a question that has been rotating in my mind for a while now: will WESTERN style democracy survive? Forget the propaganda you hear on TV, China is a democracy. Think about that...

Would Nigeria seek its own autonomy?

Eventually, yes. As more Nigerians begin to hold their own with (or against) Westerners especially, the confidence and belief in self that is required to become truly independent, in where it matters most (the mind) would inevitably be born in them. Then the autonomy would naturally follow.

P.S: this is blog worthy.

Modibbo,  11:27 a.m.  

What will save the West is that they have recognised that they have created a failed (or at least faulty) development model. One that is energy hungry, dependent on unsustainable economic growth and that has failed to deliver on its implied promise of betterment for all. I expect that true to form they will remain ahead of the game by shifting away from this model by moving the goalposts.

Afterall, the great weakness of China's growth is that they depend on export to US and Europe, so they (China/India) don't hold all the cards. China has over $1Tr tied up in US capital markets, they would be foolish to be playing a zero-sum game with the West.

The question for Nija is whether we (or more precisely our political elite)will recognise that the predominant order is a failed model and look to build a viable African alternative.

Perhaps an alternative that focuses on Social Capital inherent in our traditional socio-economic structures (one which delivers more sustainable shared wealth, a la Kerala), rather than Western financial and industrial capital.


Fred 6:24 p.m.  

@chxta: Unfortunately, you're guilty of the same mistake Herman Goring was guilty of during WWII: don't underestimate the competitiveness of the American. Adopting and operating from this mindset has historically ended in failure.

While you are correct in general about complacency, America still has enemies it is aware of, economically and otherwise, and as long as that's true, don't count them out. It's a lesson I've learned since moving here from Naija.

That said, it's not easy--certainly not as easy as it used to be for American preeminence, as I like it actually. Competition which raises a global standard of living can only be a good thing. With internal morality struggles for the nation's soul and a class of people hell-bent on its destruction, a destruction beginning with its moral backbone, the way is no longer as clear as it may or should be.

For those who think in a static long-term and ultimately dismal view, that's also a mistake. If the US is known for anything, it's for innovation and better, dynamic innovation. It's wrong to think in static terms because tomorrow, whatever you're basing your judgment on currently will no longer be germane even weeks from now.

Anonymous,  7:49 p.m.  

It is also a big mistake to underestimate American economic ruthlessness. They will do anything, and anyone, to stay ahead - 'protecting national interests' and all that.

Remember the old CIA chestnut - 'can't make omelettes without breaking a few eggs'.

Chxta 10:26 p.m.  

@ Fred, no one is underestimating anyone. Just pointing out historical truths. Now let's go back a wee little bit to Rome.

The Romans were the Americans of their age, going boldly where no one had gone before and opening new frontiers. A few centuries down the line what became of them? Did they regress, or did others rise to take their place?

Be that as it may one thing is certain, and that is that someday, and that someday looks like it would be soon enough someone else would prove to be hungrier than the Americans. That is another fact that won't change.

As for Goering he was an idiot. Even he knew that. A lucky, and as a result an influential, idiot. But an idiot nevertheless.The weak link in old Adolf's inner circle as Stalingrad finally confirmed...

@ Anon, the statement about eggs and omlettes was made by a certain Marshal Stalin, but that's academic. I'm more interested in the first part of your statement, about anything and anyone to protect their 'national interests'. I once read somewhere that that stockpile of nuclear weapons is being maintained because a day would come when they would be used. Is that the direction you're heading in?

Anonymous,  3:03 a.m.  

Much to say here but for now a side point -

Being accepting of historical determinism in this instance need not lead one to negate 'the value' of Western socio-political thought.

Fred 3:25 p.m.  

@chxta: yet again, you make another mistake. Rome was an empire, sure. America is not. People who attempt a correlation either haven't read up on Roman history and are thus ignoramuses or are so biased in their glee of an impending American downfall that it blinds them. I wager most people who talk like you fall into that last class.

The very method by which Rome conducted everyday business is so completely antithetical to the American formula that even at the outset in an operation comparing the two, we see the stark difference.

In recent history, every enemy of America has failed. You won't care what happens 500 years from now so I won't bother talking about that time, but suffice it to say that in your lifetime--which I pray will be long and prosperous--you will not see this yearned-for "downfall."

Anonymous Cowering from Fred.,  8:18 p.m.  

Fred. (Yes, i'm The Coward who goes by the name Anon- so dont bother accusing me, j'accepte). Do you know the chest high-five that American[Empire] athletes, B-ballers in particular )do, after they make an in-yo-face slam dunk/ when two teammmates face each other, chests puffed out, and wham!(or should i say booyah) proudly bump chests? Well, after i read chxtas last comment, if I coulda, I woulda, but sadly i dont think the internet emoticon for that has been invented yet. Wanted so badly to slam my chest against Chxta's and say, 'well done my brothaaA'!
your response was (and i mean this in the most scathing kind of way-)predictable.
While gladiator sandals and sex orgies might quite not be in fashion still, many would agree that america is indeed a (modern) empire. Things evolve in history you know? You know?
Have fun pretending to shoot at the pretend range. You're very good with blanks.

Ola,  7:16 a.m.  

@Fred, spot on. I was just going to make the argument that the often made analogous reference to the Roman empire is quite faulty. Rome was a territorially stretched empire with outposts everywhere and no one should even mention so-called American proxy states as equal to that. The dynamics are just so fundamentally different and the US, though a forceful projector of its values and defender of its interests, has never been an empire. As a matter of fact, what baffles me is how people often miss the point that the US, ever since its emergence from the shadows of isolationism, has, more than any other country, adavanced its interests through an International and multilateral framework-the League of Nation and later UN being the most obvious example of that. So many protocols, treaties, conventions, standards etc which govern International Relations today have an American philosophical basis and were aggresively promoted by the US. If indeed an 'empire' then the US wld be the most multilaterally-involved 'empire' ever.

On Western decline and democratic values, I do not consider Fukuyama's declaration of the End of History- let's ignore his approximate mea-culpa for now-as entirely premature-there really isn't that much ideological challenge to the supremacy of the concept of liberal democracy apart from the odd mix of Commu-capitalism in China which confounds not a few of us. There is still much to be said for these values and then,can't one argue that development and progress (which many argue China is catching up on)have a critical non-materiel aspect and the parameters for measuring them must factor that in. Yes, expanding infrastructure, a growing market, greater influence etc but don't civil liberties, freedom etc count for anything? By the way @ Chxta, that bit about Western Style democracy is an old line that's a little disingenous. I think it goes without saying that democracy comes in different 'shapes and sizes' but we all know it when we see it-and China is sure not a democracy! Yes, China has borrowed some elements of capitalism to create a unique hybrid but I think the idea that the Industrial revolution must always follow the magna-carta is wrong-it could be the other way round and I suspect China's first major crises, post-superpower status-will be around the internal agitation for greater personal liberties and stakeholding to go with her economic growth-the fault lines in the Chinese structure are already there.

The perception of a US free fall doesn't always hold up against statistical facts and a lot of it is coloured by the current widespread anti-americanism-mostly a result of Iraq and other Bush policies. But I think anti-americanism-though presently fashionable- is largely transient and could be seen as an insubstantive protest against STYLE-a charismatic new US president will fix much of that by making the necessary reconciliatory gestures and the right speeches in European capitals.

On the issue of competitiveness and innovation, just some perspective-Is it far fetched to imagine an effort-on the manhattan project or the moon landing scale-going on in the US to achieve energy independence, say in some 15-20 years? Clean,affordable, widely commercially available energy which will ride on smart technology-now, wouldn't that be a seismic change in the current geo strategic equation? See, i do agree with fred it's wrong to thing in static terms...

Fred 10:12 p.m.  

@anonymous coward: Sign a release then step a few feet downrange of my "blanks," see what you think afterwards. I promise to aim only for your groin, do my bit to clean the gene pool.

@ola: Speechless ... someone on Jeremy's blog agrees with me.

Anonymous,  11:36 p.m.  

You cant hit girls Freddy.

Arabica Robusta 1:26 p.m.  

Edward Said's Orientalism offers good insights into problems of representing 'the Orient' to 'Occidentals'.

NigerianDramaQueen 12:37 a.m.  

Simply genius! America may be sitting on an economic recession, albeit waning influence. But there is something that continues to keep them great: their regard for human rights! China continues to trade guns for oil in Sudan- with no regard whatsoever for human rights. This is exactly the tune they will sing when they set foot in Nigeria.

Arabica Robusta 12:26 p.m.  

NigerianDramaQueen: Your comment regarding human rights comes at an inopportune time. It is the same week that the U.S. intelligence organization admits it waterboarded detainees. With the Cuban prison site, Iraq prisoner abuse, Chevron links to Burma and Nigeria abuse, and refusing to care for millions of Iraqi refugees, the U.S. is not a good example of human rights at this time.

About This Blog

  © Blogger templates Psi by 2008

Back to TOP