Review: Beyond the Global Culture War

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?

8 Responses

  1. United campgain against liberalism and being anti-liberal + pro-conservative FIRST throughout the world followed by regional traditional conservatism SECOND.

    Policy: “In your country be a regional conservative, in the world be anti-liberal or anti-libertarian and a ‘structural conservative.'”

    ‘Structural conservative’ as in the general structure of conservatism such as nation, family, religion, etc.

    As long as most conservatives don’t try to push their own traditions that obviously doesn’t combine with other countries everything will be fine.

    Btw this post reminds me of this YouTube video of Christianity: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smwLOQoYLD8

  2. Greetings again Mr. Bonald

    Forgive me in advance for the long response, but what seems to be a lengthy digression will (I believe) be shown as the crux of the matter.
    From my (non-american) standpoint the most salient question in Webb’s most diaphanous “action plan” is the lack of acknowledgment of the civilization-specific character of the multitude of “conservatisms”. I’ve been following a debate between the Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho and its Russian counterpart, Aleksandr Dugin. While both are traditionalists in a certain sense of the word – they are both Christians, and properly reject all the main tenets of the Modernity on all its fronts and forms. However, Dugin is clearly an Eastern one, with an emphasis on what he calls “Holism” (which would be what Webb calls “Virtuocracy” with a strong strain rooted on the Demoticism – In short, I would describe it as a form of Orthodox Christian National-Bolchevism). Dugin is extremely influent in Russian high spheres, being one of the most trusted advisers of Vladimir Putin (That is, unfortunately, not the case for Olavo).
    What should cause Americans (and Western) conservatives pause is that he sees absolutely no distinction between the Christian West and “Materialist West”. Describing materialism and individualism as the “true traditions” of the West, he concedes that if there are any actual conservatives/traditionalists in the West (and in the US), their only role would be as “soldiers of the Eurasian project” acting as fifth columns to destroy the US and the West, submitting the whole world to the “Sacred-Eurasian (Russia and China) Empire”. He certainly concedes that the Muslim World and even Latin America are their allies of convenience in the fight against the US, but I clearly don’t see any practical reason to respect and keep the autonomy of its “zones of influence” (Dugin’s term) under the shade of a hegemonic Russian empire. While Olavo de Carvalho tried to argue to there is an epic struggle in the West between the Materialists-Utilitarianists-Globalists and the Christian (and eventually even a reduce number of Jews) Conservatives/Traditionalists, being the complete destruction of the US the main goal of the former group, Dugin argued that such thing is completely incidental to Western History.
    The reason I bring that debate to focus is to retake a point made previously by prof. Alan Roebuck (and I hope he is still reading you regularly) in discussion with you. The discussion was about which threat is bigger to West: Liberalism and Islam – I am sure that you remember that. An “alliance” with non-western traditionalists/conservatives seems to be naïve at best and suicidal at worst. Allow me to be blunt, the West is alien and bizarre to them, and they quite hate it (first and foremost the US, in all this forms, historical phases and inclinations).
    I understand that you have your “soft spots” (for paganism and Islamism) but would urge to take in account one cold fact: there can be no alliance with Islam, only submission (meaning submission to a false religion, with its endorsement of several kinds of sexual immorality), there can be no alliance with the “Eurasian project”, only submission (meaning submission to a pseudo-Christian totalitarian collectivism – which resembles in nothing, nothing the healthy organic Christian medieval society), there can be no alliance with Latin-America, only submission (meaning submission to a dysfunctional society dived in religious syncretism, complete absence of work ethics and a chronic tolerance for corruption on several levels).
    You once said yourself that the Libertarians are not our friends, and that is quite true. Please understand that the Eurasian (Russian), the Chinese, the Islamic and the Latin Americans are not “our” (I am Brazilian by birth 🙂 friends too.

    Warms Regards,

    Marcio

  3. Hello Marcio,

    Thank you for this vivid if disheartening report on our nonWestern counterparts. Webb does address this issue somewhat of antiliberal nonWesterners identifying the West itself with liberalism. He thinks this is a result of the demotic aspect of their thinking which doesn’t appreciate the global nature of the struggle. When thinking about our enemies, I ask whether their hostility is reasonable given their stated goals. So, for example, while communism and sexual libertarianism are bad and therefore unreasonable in some ultimate sense, it is reasonable for proponents of these ideologies to attack Christianity, because we really are standing in the way of their ultimate goals.
    With a group like Russian conservatives, though, hostility toward Western traditionalists is unreasonable. I therefore maintain hope that
    they’ll come around if they get to know us better. On the other hand, you are right to note that it would be reckless to ignore their current hostility.

  4. Is not Latin America a Part of the West? Are they less Western or more dysfunctional than our continental European friends?

  5. Hi Anymouse,

    #1 – I am not certain if the classification of Latin America (LA) as part of “West” is entirely appropriate, for several reasons. Samuel Huntington placed LA on its own “civilizational space” on its essay “The Clash of Civilizations” (Foreign Affairs’93), and I think he is entirely right, considering LA’s ethnic-religious cultural identity (Iberian Europeans, black Africans and pre-Colombian Indians, in an extremely high degree of miscegenation). To be even more precise, I personally believe that even placing Brazil as “part of the LA civilization” is quite wrong too, but lets leave that aside for the moment.

    #2 – Yes, LA it is far, far more dysfunctional than the dead-inside (soon to be dead-outside due to abysmal fertility rates) Europeans. Just imagine combining Europe’s full- blown post-modernism/relativism and socialist sympathies with widespread corruption in all sectors of life and a population that is extremely crime-prone.
    A quick statistics round up to illustrate my point, using murders per 100 thousand as the metric:

    – Brazil: 25 (2010)
    – Rio de Janeiro city: 42 (2010)
    – Venezuela: 48 (2010)
    – Caracas city: 130 (2008, and it certainly did not improved since then 🙂

    Now lets compare with some European countries (again, I fully agree that they are spiritually dead, but my contention is that LA is spiritually dead too!) :

    – Germany: 0.85 (2010)
    – Denmark: 0.83 (2010)
    – Estonia: 6.3 (2010)
    – Latvia: 3.6 (2010)

    And that is what I mean by “dysfunctional”. A civilization that has authorities utterly unable (and I would say unwilling, since they all believe in the “social origins of the crime” and that we “should not punish the poor so harshly when they kill or rape”) to protect something as fundamental as the right to life deserves no better adjective.

  6. Those murder rates are high. I understand, bearing in mind the massive drug violence in Mexico. Mexico is a neighbor, just a short trip across the Rio Grande. However, I fear that although death occurs outwardly amongst Latin Americans, amongst the Anglos and Europeans it is an equal yet internal death. Abortion instead of murder.

  7. Thank you. This is my thinking too. We need a traditionalist alliance across civilizations to stand against atomism (either left atomism or right atomism).

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