I’ve actually been promoting this book for a while, so it’s about time I gave it a formal review.
The name of this book is unfortunate. Usually when someone says they want us to get “beyond” the culture wars, he really means he wants conservatives to surrender to liberalism. That’s not what the author, Adam Webb, means. He wants to fight the culture war more aggressively and win. His key idea is that we antiliberals need to expand our horizons and realize that we are part of a global struggle; people are fighting the same fight in the Muslim, Hindu, Far Eastern, and Latin American worlds. Our best, perhaps only, hope of victory is a trans-civilizational alliance of communitarians and traditionalists of various sorts.
This is a very important point. Unfortunately, while conservatives in the West resist (albeit ineffectively) liberalism at home, we tend to uncritically accept the liberal perspective on the rest of the planet. So we cheer for secular democracy in the Muslim world, for the Indian Congress Party, and for Chinese capitalism, not realizing that we’re promoting liberal hegemony and our own isolation. Liberalism, secularism, and feminism are–we imagine–right about the rest of the world, but wrong about us. This is a difficult position to defend; it grants far too much to our enemies. If the rest of the world’s traditions were ignorance and oppression, it would be hard to believe ours are any different.
Webb retells the culture war of the last century from a global perspective. In his telling, each society has four different ways, which he calls “ethoses”, of understanding itself, and the culture war is a battle between the adherents of each ethos. Demoticism is the egalitarian communitarianism of the village peasant: community is the supreme value, roles and duties are clear, but distinctions other than age and gender are frowned upon. Perfectionism is the individualistic ethic of self-cultivation found in aristocrats and mystics. Society is the arena in which virtue is developed and exercised, but most important is the society-transcending ideal of virtue or holiness to which individuals try to conform themselves. Demots value embeddedness in a community at the expense of having a transcendent horizon, while perfectionists keep society-transcending standards at the cost of spiritually separating themselves–to some extent–from their communities. Virtuocracy tries to combine the two: there is a transcendent standard of goodness, but it can be embodied in the life of the community through the ministrations of a clerical class, such as the Catholic clergy, the Muslim ulama, the Hindu Bramins, and the Chinese mandarins. Finally, there are is atomism, which combines the demot’s dislike of hierarchy and transcendent standards with the perfectionist’s dislike of community. Historically, atomists like the Greek sophists and the Chinese legalists have rarely held power, but in the last century they have launched a worldwide coup, achieving global hegemony and marginalizing the other three ethoses.
The West succumbed early, but in most places the atomist insurgency really only got going a century ago, when atomist intellectuals started criticizing native traditions for holding their countries back and slowing down modernization. In midcentury, the atomists made a sort of pact with demotic sensibilities; virtuocratic elites were attacked, marginalized, and largely destroyed, as enemies of the common folk. By 1980, atomists were powerful enough to revoke this pact and turn their hostility on the common people, who were now denounced as bigots and fanatics who need to be controled by their enlightened (atomist) betters. Antiliberal activism since then has been largely demotic (populist/fundamentalist) and has suffered from demots’ limited horizons and weak sense of group agency. In only one case did a virtuocratic elite sieze power–in the Islamic Republic of Iran. While Iran is certainly a most promising center of antiliberal resistance, it is compromised–according to Webb–by being limited to one nation-state.
According to Webb, the world’s cultural capital is being eroded quickly by atomist attacks. In another few decades, the damage could be irreversible, and history really will end. Therefore, he believes the whole world order must be overthrown and reconstituted before that time. The rebellion should represent the other three ethoses but be led by the natural leaders, the virtuocrats. Unfortunately, he’s not able to be more specific than that. Many of the virtuocrats he mentions, like neo-Confucian intellectuals, are just a few isolated academics who probably aren’t going to be overthrowing anything. One can’t help but think that Islam is going to have to provide most of the manpower if this fantasy is actually going to come true.
Webb would like to see the antiliberal crusade commit itself to righting what he sees as the great injustice of capitalism, namely that the global South is so much poorer than the global North. He thinks that, since we’re not so attached to economic freedom as the liberals, we will be able to offer the world a much more drastic wealth redistribution. I think this is probably backwards. Historically, atomists gave us socialism, after all, while in places like Iran the clerical faction has been more careful to guard property rights (considered an Islamic principle, as it is considered a Christian one) against atomist social engineering. It is also not clear to me that justice demands nations’ wealths be equalized, or that it would be good for the global South to start essentially living on the dole. Nonliberals might arrange an uptick in foreign aid, but I wouldn’t expect more of us than that.
Webb’s diagnosis is excellent, and I hope for that reason that conservatives will read this book and take it to heart. While overthrowing the world order would be nice, I would like to start thinking about a more basic step. How can we Christian conservatives make contact with our Muslim, Hindu, and Confucian counterparts? How can we learn about them? What sort of collaborations might be immediately fruitful? What sort of structures might we put in place to foster regular contact and collaboration?
Filed under: Conservatism vs Liberalism, Culture, History of conservatism, How we got to this point, Iran, Islam, What's to be done? | 8 Comments »