Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Wrong Side of Geography

It's a common refrain:

Against same sex marriage? You're on the wrong side of history.
Against globalisation? You're on the wrong side of history.
Against the singularity? You're on the wrong side of history.

Even poor old Vladimir Putin gets 'the wrong side' treatment from Lilia Shevtsova in her analysis of the new world disorder:
By attempting to shift Russia backward to an older civilizational model, Putin has already inflicted a deep strategic defeat on his country. His efforts to turn Russia back to the “Besieged Fortress” model will only rob Russia of its chance to become a modern society. Moreover, Putin has also unleashed forces he can’t hope to contain, thus accelerating the agonizing decay of his own regime. Nevertheless, though he has lost the battle with history, Putin has been moving from one tactical victory to the next by forcing the West to constantly react and try to accommodate his reckless behavior.
But Shevtsova's analysis suffers from the same problem as others who claim history's telos as their own: she's on the wrong side of geography. Mark Lila provides a masterful critique of the new world delusions that have gripped Western elites since history 'ended' 25 years ago:
Never since the end of World War II, and perhaps since the Russian Revolution, has political thinking in the West been so shallow and clueless. We all sense that ominous changes are taking place in our societies, and in other societies whose destinies will very much shape our own. Yet we lack adequate concepts or even a vocabulary for describing the world we find ourselves in. The connection between words and things has snapped. The end of ideology has not meant the lifting of clouds. It has brought a fog so thick that we can no longer read what is right before us. We find ourselves in an illegible age.
Not only did history end, ideology ended - to be replaced by a kind of dogmatic libertarianism:
It tells us that this is a libertarian age. That is not because democracy is on the march (it is regressing in many places), or because the bounty of the free market has reached everyone (we have a new class of paupers), or because we are now all free to do as we wish (since wishes inevitably conflict). No, ours is a libertarian age by default: whatever ideas or beliefs or feelings muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. There were no public debates on this and no votes were taken. Since the cold war ended we have simply found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not. The only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms.
Geo-politically this has given rise to aimless (and often self-destructive) goals such as 'The European Project' in the case of the EU, and bringing democracy to the Middle East in the case of the United States. The former has undermined democracy, the latter is built on sand. For a time liberal democracy appeared to be on the right side of history, but not any more. As Lila notes:
Clearly, the big surprise in world politics since the cold war’s end is not the advance of liberal democracy but the reappearance of classic forms of non-democratic political rule in modern guises. The break-up of the Soviet empire and the “shock therapy” that followed it produced new oligarchies and kleptocracies that have at their disposal innovative tools of finance and communication; the advance of political Islam has placed millions of Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s population, under more restrictive theocratic rule; tribes, clans, and sectarian groups have become the most important actors in the post-colonial states of Africa and the Middle East; China has brought back despotic mercantilism. Each of these political formations has a distinctive nature that needs to be understood in its own terms, not as a lesser or greater form of democracy in potentia. The world of nations remains what it has always been: an aviary. 
The West's dogmatic libertarianism - where we are no longer free to choose our freedoms - means that our political elite is simply not prepared - perhaps not even capable - of defending our culture and our values. When our highest virtues nowadays are 'be nice, don't judge, offend no one' then the West, including Ireland, is clearly on the wrong side of geography. History is about to get interesting again.


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