It's déjà vu 1914 all over again
But now we face the possibility of a global "culture war", and the players this time are "civilizational"
The era in which anyone under 40 grew up may be compared in many key respects to the decades preceding the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
Those decades, which succeeded the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, might very well be captioned in the same words as famed historian Barbara Tuchman used in her book The Proud Tower to describe the opening years of the 20th century. It was a period of misplaced national hubris and elite complacency, Tuchman wrote, rather than any kind of “Golden Age or a Belle Epoque except to a privileged class”.
The overrefined world of that particular privileged class was left in tatters by the unspeakable violence that those who lived through it named “The Great War” or “Armageddon”. And it is the new privileged class of the 21st century that recoils with profound anxiety and disbelief as today’s supposedly “rules-based” world order comes unmoored and appears to be sliding ever more rapidly into an abyss of unmanageable conflict and devastation.
The debacle no one anticipated in 1914 was the unavoidable consequence of nations and peoples forming casehardened alliances and picking sides. Sound familiar?
In 1914 the Central Powers, made up of Germany, Austria, and Ottoman Turkey, squared off against the Triple Entente of France, England, and Russia. Soon smaller principalities came under intense pressure to declare where their loyalties might lie. Five years later the so-called “proud tower” that was Europe with its self-declared “civilizing mission” to the rest of humanity lay in ruins.
Empires had crumbled, and revolutions were breaking out everywhere like mushrooms among mounds of moldering timber.
Today a new global and meritocratic “knowledge class” faces the possibility once again of cataclysm. The fault lines are different than they were in the early twentieth century, but the odds favoring “the big one” are no less probably than when Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand and his bride on a fateful June day long ago confidently cruised around the streets of Sarajevo.
The idyll of a global “rule-based order”, which we have experienced now for little more than a generation, is increasingly striated with countless tiny cracks and chinks widening at key junctures into treacherous fissures. For over a year the bloodshed in Ukraine has elicited warnings from policy pundits about the imminent perils of World War III. But it has also hoisted the specter of an interminable stalemate between nuclear-armed superpowers along with their aspirants and accomplices rotting away in the dark and dank trenches they have dug for themselves out of sheer ideological arrogance and unassailable idée fixes,
Samuel Huntington’s diagnosis a generation ago of a “clash of civilizations” may ironically now be correct, but not for all the dubious reasons that highlighted the debate a quarter century ago. In 1993 Huntington published the magazine Foreign Policy his famous “thesis” of the clash of civilizations. “It is my hypothesis”, he wrote, “that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic…[but] cultural.”
Although nation-states will continue to be “the most powerful actors in world affairs,” he noted, “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.” He added ominously that “the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”
Although his thesis was well-received when published, Huntington’s luster quickly faded. Immediately following the events of 9/11 and the subsequent launch by the Bush administration of the War on Terror, Huntington became something of an outlier, if not an academic pariah. His notion of a “clash” between the Muslim and Western European spheres of cultural hegemony spurred a backlash in which he was often accused of subtly promoting Islamophobia.
In a recent speech on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladmir Putin sought to defend his own country’s naked aggression against a neighboring country by invoking the same Huntingtonian trope. He fulsomely portrayed the Ukraine war as a “battle of civilizations” with Russia championing the cause of “traditional” cultural values.
Putin’s hamhanded attempt in 2014 to reverse the Euromaidan tide, incurring only mild repercussions from U.S. and European leaders, prompted a grave miscalculation on his part in February 2022. Putin cavalierly believed that a massive military invasion of Ukraine would somehow cow the “decadent” West once again to acknowledge Russia’s debut as a rejuvenated superpower with which the entire planet must now reckon.
That scenario, of course, turned out to be a fetid pipe dream, and the innumerable atrocities the Russian military has committed against Ukrainian civilians in the interim staggers the consciences of not only Americans and Europeans, but many nations in the Global South that have democratized as well as progressed economically under the “rule-based” status quo of the past thirty years.
Yet many of those same nations have dragged their feet when it comes to punishing, or even condemning, Russia for violating the very rules that helped to make them more prosperous than they ever were during the Cold War. Something far more opaque, ambivalent, and disconcerting seems to be taking shape worldwide, therefore, as the fight for Ukraine inexorably morphs into everybody’s war.
Despite Russia’s egregious trashing of the rule-based order – or what some have referred to as the post-Cold War “neoliberal consensus” – that for a season offered the promise of a more peaceful planet, even if it did not turn out to be Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”, the world is rapidly re-polarizing.
The new “clash” is no longer over economic or political regimes, but between seemingly incompatible cultural ideals and value-systems. The Cold War polemics about the “free world” versus “totalitarianism” has now been replaced with the rhetoric of “democracy” versus “authoritarianism”. The latter often refers to governments with charismatic heads of state who seek to impose uniform cultural practices and loyalties on a populace that brings them to power through the electoral process.
Examples would not only be Putin’s Russia, but Modi’s India, Bolsonaro’s Brazil, or Orbán’s Hungary.
Many of these “authoritarian” polities and policies, as Bruno Maçães suggests, can be attributed to the recent rise of what he dubs “civilization states.” In the process of both criticizing Huntington and taking him one step further Maçães argues that what we are witnessing suddenly in the transnational arena is the ultimate death throes of liberalism – and by extension the crepuscular post-Soviet version we know as “neoliberalism”.
He maintains that these states are not built upon any kind of national “identity” (which he dismisses as “liberal” phraseology) but on the more complex and nuanced idea of a sprawling ensemble of value commitments. In other words, what distinguishes “civilization states” is their programmatic articulation of a way of life that is neither simply ethnic nor formulaic, but cultural.“ What distinguishes a civilization state is its ability to provide an overarching framework for social and political life and therefore a viable or plausible alternative to the liberalism of the West.”
Western liberalism, along with its conjugate variable “neoliberalism”, rests on what the philosopher Hegel would have termed “abstract freedom”, so far as Maçães is concerned. Ironically, his critique of Western liberalism is similar to Marx’s, although the latter insisted that it is labor, not culture, that gives freedom historical context and renders it “concrete”.
A further irony is that many present day acolytes of Marx, branded by their adversaries with the oxymoronic title of “cultural Marxists” because of their obsession with the negative dialectics of domination and oppression, have gone entirely all in with the kind of abstract identity theory that Maçães attributes primarily to liberalism. If the American “culture wars” now seems to have gone global under the banner of civilizational conflict, it is only because the forces that have enabled its metastasis are something that the fashionable variants of “critical theory” over the past half century have failed spectacularly to capture.
The failure of liberalism to deliver on its promises to the peoples of the earth is perhaps the grand scandal of our times. Emancipation has largely been for the educated and cultural elites – today’s “privileged class” - who have substituted the “woke” narrative of identity differentiation and exclusion for authentic social analysis and universal strategies for political, economic, and spiritual transformation.
In a recent online essay the celebrated Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a long-running critic of present day cultural elites, acidly commented: "What they really want is what they are achieving: a position of moral authority from which they may terrorize all others, without effectively changing social relations of domination."
We cannot know for sure whether there are some single-minded, sociopathic assassins lurking out there, as there were in the summer of 1914, to light the fuse for Armageddon redux. But the “proud tower” that is late twentieth and early twenty-first century neoliberalism is creaking as we speak. And the armies of the night are already mobilizing.
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