Culture Clash by Harold James
Politics these days are driven almost entirely by culture wars – zero-sum clashes that feed off tribal identities, fear, and a chaotic confusion of basic terms and ideas. To solve one of today’s most pressing problems, we will first need to improve our collective intellectual hygiene.
PRINCETON – Historian Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis that the post-Cold War world is defined by a âclash of civilizationsâ has been turned out to be quite wrong. What we have instead is a clash of cultures within civilizations, which ultimately makes civilization itself impossible – or at least dysfunctional. From COVID-19 to geopolitics, every problem is now subject to a culture war. The veil of modesty has been torn away.
Although debates over cultural values ââare ubiquitous, everyone assumes their own local or national clash is somehow unique, as if the post-imperial hangovers of Britain and France defy comparison or were so different from the American Imperial debacle. Are America’s Debates About the Legacy of Slavery and Racial Oppression Really Idiosyncratic? Is the struggle to conquer (or reaffirm) national identity really an essentially European phenomenon? In fact, the terms that define these debates quickly lose all meaning.
In 1907, the American philosopher William James caused widespread outrage when he suggested that the validity of an idea can be assessed by “concrete difference …[s] in anyone’s real life. Referring provocatively to “the monetary value of truth in experiential terms,” ââhe argued that ideas have no innate quality; rather, they must show their value by being widely accepted by general circulation in a market. Writing just after the destructive financial crash of 1907, philosopher John Grier Hibben lambasted James’ pragmatic argument, warning that its acceptance “would certainly trigger panic in the world of our thought as surely as a similar demand in the world of finance “.
This century-old argument is just as relevant today, now that the feeling of panic has become the norm. The financial crisis of 2007-8 was followed by the rise of populism and then the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each development has deepened a larger crisis of language and meaning. If financial panics destroy value, then language crises destroy values.
When people use terms they don’t understand the meaning of, they literally don’t know what they are talking about. This practice has become too common. Many of the words we use today are the product of past upheavals. Capitalism and socialism were adopted at the beginning of the 19th century to deal with the industrial revolution. Globalism, geopolitics and multilateralism gained ground at the start of the 20th century to explain the imperial policies of the great powers and the First World War. Like viruses, these terms have all mutated since their inception.
For example, capitalism and socialism originally described ever-changing ways of understanding how the world was – or should be – organized. But now they have turned into scary words. A person’s camp in the culture war is determined by their fear of socialism or capitalism (or iterations such as “hyper-capitalism” or “awakened capitalism”).
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Capitalism was recognized early on as a phenomenon that crossed borders, becoming a global reality. Socialism was also international, but its realization depended on the nature of the state system, which in turn embodied the belief that the nation-state was a normal (and some would say inevitable) political structure. Thus, national politics and the international phenomena of capitalism and socialism lived in constant tension with each other.
Capitalism began as the description of a system that not only facilitated trade, but commodified more areas of life, thereby shattering traditional norms and institutions. As more and more types of things were traded, capitalism as an idea became more and more diffuse, permeating all aspects of individual behavior. Eventually, market principles were applied to dating, choice of spouses, sports management, cultural production, etc. Everything seemed to have a financial equivalent.
In addition to its contemporary insignificance, capitalism is full of paradoxes. The system relies on decentralized decision-making, but as capital becomes more concentrated, decisions increasingly emanate from a few central nodes. This paves the way for planning, with Facebook and Google taking the place of the former socialist state authorities to shape our economic behavior and actions. Neither of these arrangements is truly controlled by individual choices or representative institutions.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the terms of every political debate were set by four binary choices: globalization versus the nation-state; capitalism versus socialism; technocracy versus populism; and multilateralism versus geopolitics. These debates are now outdated. In each case, there is a dire need for different options.
Adding the prefix “post-” helps a bit. Post-globalization is more appropriate than de-globalization, and post-capitalism can be a good way to frame the solution to overly concentrated capital. Post-socialism may offer a way around the limitations of the nation-state, which were inherent in traditional socialism. The post-populist could empower the people without relying on the destructive and surreal notion of “the real people” (as if some people were unreal). In each case, a “post-” society requires a new set of terms.
Today’s uncertainties about meaning have become an obstacle to productive debate, let alone basic logic. We need intellectual decluttering. Minimalist lifestyle guru Marie Kondo recommends throwing out anything that no longer “sparks joy.” His approach inspired families to sift through and throw away the rubbish left behind by previous generations.
It is not a bad idea to improve our intellectual hygiene. Instead of an attic clean-up, there would be a debate to identify the defunct concepts. The goal would be to make room for new ideas – a metamorphosis of reality. Culture wars feed on old empty nostrums. To stop the unnecessary fights, we must throw out anything that does not spark creativity.