No end to the story
The end of history in the Hegelian or Marxist sense, which was supposedly caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, seemed to indicate that the world would from now on be ruled by liberal demo-democratic local councils, focusing solely on issues such as days of the week for garbage collection. This always seemed to me to be an idea that was both Hubristian and shallow. No political victory is permanent and the only teleological principle in history (in the long run) is that of the second law of thermodynamics. Until this law is repealed, we will have to live with historical surprises.
Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations certainly despised the idea that henceforth all conflicts would be of lesser importance, at least intellectually, since the end of the story was predetermined. On the contrary, he suggested that there could be potentially enormous conflicts between entire civilizations with their radically different ideas about ethics, the good life, the rights and duties of citizens (or subjects), etc. Grosso modo, his view has turned out to be much more realistic than that of the liberal-democratic teleologists.
The limits of civilization
Of course, civilization itself is a grosso modo concept, and words should not be made more precise than they can stand. As Gregg notes, Huntington saw “different” levels of identity. “We should always be as precise as possible, but not more precise than possible. An accurate or Linnean taxonomy of societies is in the face of the existence of frontiers, interpenetration, interfering, change etc. Even in biology there are disputes about speciation (for example, whether the Australian dingo is a true species or just a subspecies), so it is not surprising that there is no general agreement on what one Civilization is at what point a culture becomes a civilization or at what point a subculture becomes a culture.
In large part, it all depends on which end of the telescope you are looking at. For example, I live in a small market town in England that, perhaps surprisingly, has 12 pubs, one for every thousand people. Within a hundred meters there is a pub with deafening music where young people gather and deal drugs (or before Covid-19), a pub frequented by degenerate middle-aged alcoholics and chronic chain smokers, mainly we’re talking about football and betting and a pub with no music or flashing lights that attracts the local bourgeoisie and peasants who often bring their hunting dogs where the conversation sometimes even touches world affairs. The guests of these three pubs would not feel very comfortable on each other’s territory, and they spontaneously part with anyone without instruction. Do they inhabit different subcultures, cultures or civilizations? For myself, I feel more comfortable and feel like I have more in common with my Indian doctor friends than with the patrons of the first two pubs I mentioned: but does that make me a resident of the Hindu civilization of Huntington? Or does that mean that my Indian friends are now residents of European civilization? Or are we Indo-Europeans now in more than the linguistic sense?
What kind of collision?
How useful is the idea of a civilizational conflict as a heuristic device? Take, for example, the growing hostility in the United States and China. No one can fail to see that the ways of life, religious ideas, political philosophies, ideas of good behavior, etc. of the two countries are very different, and these differences would persist even if at the moment it is not very likely that China was no longer under communist rule Party of China rules. The great anti-Maoist sinologist and literary critic Simon Leys used to say that anyone who does not know China does not know half of humanity, which is why he devoted much of his life to studying.
But are the radical differences between the United States and China causing the growing conflict between them? Certainly, it is likely that the conflict will be expressed in such terms on both sides. The Chinese have already attributed their containment of the Covid epidemic to the superiority (in their own eyes) of their social model, which is based on an ethically superior, much less individualistic concept of society than the Americans, which is derived from Chinese tradition and civilization. For their part, many Americans hope that by cutting off Chinese access to American technology, they can stop or stop Chinese progress, assuming that precisely because of the conformist nature of Chinese culture and civilization, which is ethically inferior to the ideals In American Civilization, the Chinese will not be able to innovate for themselves, as this innovation is vital to maintaining power in the modern world.
History, psychology and culture have come together to make China an outstanding place in the world again. The determination of the leaders of an inherently industrious people to overcome or avenge the defeat of nations hitherto viewed as culturally inferior is a tremendous asset in a world of competitive powers.
There is, of course, another way of reading the growing conflict, which is the inherent tendency of the great powers to conflict with one another. For example, the history of Europe, home to one of the Huntington’s civilizations, is hardly free from great power conflict: in fact, before the advent of social history, such a conflict was accepted as being almost an integral part of the study of history than all of European history. My father’s history books from the early 1920s were almost exclusively about the ups and downs of various attempts to enforce hegemony in Europe and later in the world. Of course, it would be open for advocates of the Huntington’s thesis to note that the civilizations of Britain and France were different at the time of the Titanic Napoleonic Wars, but that would be dishonest: the differences between French and British cultures were tiny and insignificant compared to those between the United States and China. Yet the two countries fought to the death.
Admittedly, Huntington argued that the global conflict at the end of the Cold War would take on a civilizational character, not that it always had. And the conflict between the United States and China seems to believe his prediction. But is there any reason to believe that the nature of this emerging rivalry is any different from that between England and France? It is certainly the result of the rapid, almost historically sudden, rise of Chinese power, both economically and militarily. If this hadn’t happened, we shouldn’t have heard about the conflict: Both sides could have got along peacefully with their different cultures, since the kudu and gazelle live together peacefully in the same savannah. The United States does not feel threatened by the Andaman Stone Age culture, which is so different from its own.
The growth of Chinese power
What then explains the rise of Chinese power, which in turn is responsible for the growing conflict? The answer is twofold: first, a change in economic policy (mainly in China, but also elsewhere), and second, a full adoption of science.
Gregg notes that “modernization is not westernization”. Similarly, science – as a self-confident and institutionalized method of acquiring knowledge and power – is a Western invention that can, however, be adopted by anyone who is willing to use logical and observational powers and who is at least committed to intellectual honesty this restricted field. Within a generation of Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan, the Japanese were making contributions to “western” science, particularly bacteriology. The Indians and Chinese, who use the same methods, are perfectly able to preserve their cultural characteristics while pursuing science. And it is this ability that explains the decline of Western hegemony. Hilaire Belloc put it very succinctly in the heyday of European imperialism:
Whatever happens, we have
The Maxim gun, and they haven’t.
Well, the world was balanced by the proliferation of the modern equivalent of the Maxim cannon (the differentiated possession of which gave its owners much greater relative power than the more sophisticated weapons of today).
Of course, if science is the seed, the soil in which it is sown must be fertile or ready to receive it. Coincidentally, I recently read Rebecca West’s report in her book A Train of Powder on West Germany’s amazing economic recovery after the war, which devastated the country to an extent only equal to the devastation of much of Syria today. Within a few years, West Germany was flourishing again with one of the most powerful manufacturing industries in the history of the world. While it received aid and debt relief, the explanation certainly lies in the preexisting nature and determination of the people, both cultural artifacts that made recovery not only possible, but almost inevitable, provided there were no anti-economic policies like this one in East Germany were introduced. The same level of aid and debt relief for other countries would not have led to the same result: here the importance of culture as a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
There are also psychological factors to consider. The Germans had suffered the second devastating military defeat in just over a quarter of a century: nine out of 31 years of war and millions of deaths had brought nothing but desolation. The energy that has gone into rebuilding the country has been a good means of forgetting the past, or at least pushing it into the background. The Chinese speak of a hundred years of humiliation by the Western powers after centuries or millennia of believing they are the center of the world.
History, psychology and culture have come together to bring you back to a prominent place in the world. The determination of the leaders of an inherently industrious people to overcome or avenge the defeat of nations hitherto viewed as culturally inferior is a tremendous asset in a world of competitive powers. It can easily be contrasted with discord and self-doubt that for better or for worse the normal state of western nations, especially the United States, exists today. Power arises from the possession of self-confidence, which, like the mandate of heaven, can shift one’s domicile.
Whether or not we call the conflict between the United States and China a clash of civilizations hardly matters because, as Bishop Butler put it, everything is as it is and nothing else. At least Huntington’s thesis frees us from the Pollyanna theory of international relations.