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Civilisations in the blender

James Wimberley

April 2002

In 1993 Samuel Huntington caused a furore with a well-timed essay in Foreign Affairs entitled “The clash of civilisations?” (Note, as many commentators failed to do, the question mark). In 1996 he expanded this into a full-length book1. The title no longer bears the question mark, as Huntington is now sure of his case. In fairness, it must be stated that the book, though deeply pessimistic, is not a simple prediction of doom but aimed at peaceful management of a world order in which the fundamental fault lines and sources of conflict are not between ideologies or economic systems or nation states, but between civilisations.

He identifies seven of these: Western, Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Sinic, Japanese, and Latin American, plus a possible eighth, African. A civilisation is a meta-culture: a distinct complex of religion, language, customs and institutions embracing several lower- order cultures and usually states, persisting over long periods. A civilisation is the highest level of personal cultural identity below that of humanity as a whole. These identities fuel conflict: “For peoples seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential, and the potentially most dangerous enmities occur across the fault lines between the world’s major civilisations” (page 20).

If Huntington is right, the Council of Europe’s project is doomed to failure, because our Europe cuts across two civilisational boundaries. He provides a helpful map of the “Eastern boundary of Western civilisation” with Orthodoxy and Islam, running down from the Kola peninsula through Western Ukraine to the Adriatic: “Greece is not part of Western civilisation” (page 163), Ukraine is torn (page 165), Bosnia is Muslim, and Turkey – another torn state - would be better off reversing Atatürk and claiming leadership of the Muslim world (page 178). His thesis is thus a matter of some interest.

I will not attempt a full critique of Huntingdon’s book. Nobody in their right mind can now contest that cultural and religious differences drive much of the conflict, and most of the most dangerous conflict, in the world today; and consequently that the management of these differences has become one of the fundamental problems of politics. Huntingdon has much of value to say on these issues. However, his book is marred by a penchant for headline statements that at times sinks to bar-room chat. He invents a straw man called “Davos culture” and guesses its membership at 50 million2 (page 57). trends in food are discussed on the basis only of Coca-Cola and MacDonalds (page 58) – what about the multidirectional spread of ethnic cuisines3?, and the Internet and sport are ignored; he speculates about scenarios in which Mexico recovers south-west USA (page 215) and China and Iran install nuclear-tipped missiles in Bosnia (page 315). Far more seriously, he ignores science completely – one of the main forces for globalisation – and his economics is facile mercantilism. Judaism is edged into a footnote on whether it counts as a civilisation (page 48); short shrift for the world’s most influential cultural tradition, counting its Christian and Muslim offshoots, not to mention Marxism4 and Freudianism. The book is an extended essay, not a magnum opus of scholarship.

Any short work of similar scope would probably have such defects5. Rather than picking holes, it is best to concentrate on the central thesis. To make his case, Huntington has to show three things: that civilisations exist in his sense, that civilisational identities dominate others, and that civilisations are inherently in conflict.

Do civilisations exist?

Given the weight placed on it, the concept of civilisation is spectacularly vague. The criterion for inclusion is unclear. Why should Japan be counted as a civilisation and not Korea? What does sub-Saharan Africa have in common that makes it a civilisation? Why should Orthodox Christianity be counted as a civilisation and not Protestantism? The list includes three religious groupings (Hindu, Orthodox, Muslim), two national (Sinic and Japanese) and one politico-economic (Western). There is a patent and unscientific bias towards power and size: contrast linguists, who count the !Kung language of a few thousand Bushmen as logically on a par with Mandarin, English, and Arabic, spoken by hundreds of millions.

Compounding this vagueness, Huntington provides no list of the defining characteristics of his civilisations. What he does let drop here and there is problematic. He fails to characterise the content of Sinic civilisation at all, apart from the allegedly Confucian “Asian values” trumpeted by the culturally Chinese government of Singapore as an intercultural model: “Nation before community and society above self; family as the basic unit of society; regard and community support for the individual; consensus instead of contention; racial and religious harmony” (quotation from a White Paper, page 319). It is naive to take this political propaganda at face value. Culturally, it looks very much like the Protestant work ethic or Judaism, indeed a universal recipe for group success. Politically, most of it could be, and in Tony Blair’s Third Way, has been advanced by Western leaders: the exception is subordination to the state. But what is the evidence that this is truly an Asian or Confucian value? The authoritarian government of Singapore has a very direct interest in exaggerating the deferential side to Confucianism6, just as it has in claiming that the values of an ethnically Chinese trading city-state are shared by its non-Chinese neighbours7. On the other side, Western governments have had no difficulty in appealing to patriotic self-sacrifice on a genocidal scale.

There is no greater clarity on the values of the West. Its history is characterised (pages 69 ff) by “the classical legacy... Catholicism and Protestantism ... European languages .... separation of spiritual and temporal authority ... rule of law ... representative bodies ... individualism”. But what of today? The political traditions and three of the languages (English, French, and Spanish), have been spread by colonial expansion over half the world; the classical legacy is a vestige. No clear distinction is drawn between “Western values” and the specifically American Creed: most unfortunately, in that as we have seen for Singapore, individualism is a shibboleth of the alleged Asian/Western divide. This is precisely the point where European values differ most from American.

I could go on. Chinese, Japanese, Muslim, and Orthodox civilisations are all claimed to be more deferential than the West: but how exactly do they differ on this dimension? The problem is deeper than Huntington’s carelessness. I suggest that it just isn’t possible to draw up a list of the defining values of civilisations that will unambiguously differentiate them.

Do civilisational identities dominate?

Huntingdon states that individuals subjectively identify with a civilisation as the highest level of cultural affiliation below humanity. “People have levels of identity: a resident of Rome may define himself with varying degrees of intensity as a Roman, an Italian, a Catholic, a Christian, a European, a Westerner” (page 41). The implication is that these identities are arranged in a hierarchy, with “Western” at the top. But the Catholic and Christian identities do not lie within the nested geographical set Rome-Italy-Europe-the West. On issues of Church authority and ritual, our Catholic Roman will identify more with Catholics in Brazil and Poland than with Protestants in Sweden and the Netherlands, and not at all Muslims, Buddhists and Italian atheists. The list is too short, and should include other transversal identities: profession (lawyer), politics (Green), gender (woman), income (upper quartile for Italy, upper two or three percentile for the world), taste (African music), etcetera.

Huntington has to show not only that the “Western” identity exists as a stable complex of values, but that it dominates the others in relations to people in other civilisations; and he fails to do this. His book shows no trace of empirical research on attitudes to support the claim. This research would be feasible, but a massive and methodologically difficult undertaking. (Number-crunching, say multivariate factor analysis, is not Huntington’s forte; the most sophisticated mathematical tool he uses is the percentage, which should count in his favour with the innumerate CoE readership.)

Instead, he argues by pointing to examples of conflicts – Bosnia, the Gulf War, the voting for the 2000 Olympic Games – where the parties, or public opinion, split on civilisational lines. This argument is interesting, but commits the fallacy of selective omission: he would have to analyse a full range of issues. There are plainly a good many important arguments where the civilisational split is not dominant: trade disputes over pharmaceuticals (North-South) and agriculture (USA, Europe, and Japan against Africa, Latin America, Canada and Australasia), climate change (USA and China against everybody else), nuclear proliferation (nuclear weapons states and rogue states against everybody else), human rights (democracies against autocracies)8.

Must civilisations clash?

Any doubts the reader may have, and I think she should have many, on Huntington’s first two propositions will logically transfer to the third, that civilisations must clash. His main empirical argument is again an analysis of what he calls “fault line wars” on the boundaries between civilisations, such as Bosnia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and the Sudan. He shows convincingly that these are made more dangerous and less soluble by their capacity both to mobilise local resentments and anxieties, and wider feelings of kinship from further afield. As nuclear weapons spread, the risk rises of nuclear war being triggered by a fault line conflict. This is sound, but a long way from establishing a general propensity to conflict. Again Huntington elides the unfavourable evidence of the conflicts within his civilisations, including the genocides of Cambodia and Rwanda and the civil war in Angola, which have killed far more people than all of his fault line wars together. It is callous ethnocentrism, bordering on racism, to suggest that these hardly matter because they could not trigger wider conflict involving the West (page 28); and their huge scale confirms that fratricidal strife is often the worst.

On the causes of violence, Huntington falls back on a Victorian social Darwinism approaching the ludicrous. “It is human to hate. For self-definition and motivation, humans need enemies: competitors in business, rivals in politics, opponents in politics” (page 130). (I knew American academic life was competitive, but this sheds a depressing new light on it.) Notice the extreme language: hatred not resentment, enemies not adversaries. One can only say: come off it! Of course humans have a capacity for conflict, and sticking up for one’s interests was essential to our ancestors’ survival; but then so is cooperation. Peace and war have both been possible throughout our history, and no doubt our prehistory. This proposition holds at every scale, from the street or village to the world9. Cultures change astonishingly in their propensity to intolerance and violence: look at Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan in the two halves of the last century, the collapse of Latin American militarism, or the success of the European construction. Huntington advances no evidence that civilisations cannot live in peace10.

He does however show that here is a specific problem with contemporary Islam. He makes good the thesis in his article that “Islam has bloody borders”, a greater recent propensity to internal and external warfare than any other of his civilisations except China. (He doesn’t go into this Chinese militarism: perhaps because the explanation does not lie in millennial Chinese traditions, but the contingent nature of Chinese Communism). His discussion (pages 254 ff) on the possible reasons for Islamic bellicosity is thoughtful: proximity, indigestibility, victim status, militarism, the absence of a core state and the demographic bulge. (He ignores intensity: it is possible that Muslims today are simply more fervent than adherents of other religions, a readily testable hypothesis.) With surprising prudence, he plumps for demography as the main factor. He has good things to say on indigestibility - the comparison between the situation of the similarly successful Chinese minorities in Catholic Philippines and Buddhist Thailand on the one hand, and Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia on the other, is telling. He also sensibly points out that Islam is more warlike in doctrine than Christianity or Buddhism. Indeed Islam was a “just war” doctrine from the start, with no tradition of non-violence, whereas Christianity was originally pacifist and like Buddhism has reached the “just war” by casuistry in the domain of Caesar11. The intellectual distance to the “holy war” (the Crusades and Wars of Religion) is greater; so far as I know, Buddhism never reached it.

Elsewhere he points out that Muslims typically identify strongly with the umma (worldwide community of Muslims), a central concept of Islam, and weakly with their often unsuccessful and barely legitimate states. In fact, Islam is the only cultural grouping today that really is a civilisation in Huntington’s sense: expansionist and neurotic at the same time. But there is no reason to think this situation is immutable, and Islam, like other religions, has varied greatly over the centuries in its teaching and practice over violence.

So Huntington scores a good many tricks but fails to make his bid. In particular, he fails to prove the lemma that is most important to readers in the Council of Europe, the culturally relative character of human rights and democracy and their necessary limitation to “Western civilisation”. Civilisations do discover universal truths: the ancient Hindus discovered zero and positional notation for numbers, which we can be confident would be used by any extraterrestrial civilisation (not necessarily to base ten). One Chinese dissident, an eminent physicist, was quoted as saying that human rights are simply the right answer, like quantum physics: they had to be discovered somewhere, and as things fell out it was (in both cases) in Western Europe. Huntington offers no evidence that this model, the evolutionary contagion of the right answer, is wrong. Much of the cultural conflict in the world can be understood as reactions to ideas and technologies which are correctly perceived not only as threatening but as probably superior.

Two design flaws

Huntington’s failure flows I think from two fundamental errors. The first lies in the conflation of two quite distinct concepts of civilisation. One of these is historical and essentially objective: a civilisation is a culture or group of cultures with a largely endogenous history, forming the largest unit of historical analysis below humanity. The concept makes sense when contacts with other groups were either small-scale (luxury trade) or episodic, like the Mongol conquest of China or Alexander’s incursion into India. One civilisation, pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, was very largely isolated by deserts and forests from neighbours in North and South America, and all three were totally isolated from Eurasia. I’m not sure how far you can push the idea; in some cases, trade and interaction across boundaries were intensive, as with the Greeks and the steppe peoples of the Black Sea. Not all high cultures can be included: ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia are usually called civilisations, but the frontier zone of Canaan, influenced by both, had two high and extraordinarily influential cultures, the Phoenicians (who invented or discovered the alphabet) and the Jews (who invented invented or discovered God). However, civilisations in this sense – call them α-civilisations - are plainly useful units of analysis from the time of the invention of agriculture (ca. 10 000 BCE) to about 1 500 CE.

The age of separate civilisations was compromised first by rise of world religions 500 BCE – 600 CE (Buddhism in South and East Asia; Christianity in the Near East and the Roman Empire; Islam straddling the Near and Middle East, Southeast Europe, and South and Southeast Asia). It was definitively ended by the European expansions after 1450. The penetration of the New Guinea Highlands in the 1930s by Australian explorers and missionaries reduced the last redoubt of autarky. All cultures now are bound in an ever-tightening web of trade, ideas, disease, migration, exploitation, domination and resistance. There are no α-civilisations any more.

What we have are at most subjective civilisations, comprising in Huntington’s terms the highest level of personal cultural identification below humanity. Let us call them β- civilisations. These are less units of historical study than perspectives of cultural analysis. As we have seen, these identifications are fluid, value-laden, and not exclusive. Nor do they necessarily exist at all; identities do not have to be arranged in a strong hierarchy. It is contingent whether they do. It seems plausible that very many Muslims do identify strongly with the umma, and Latin Americans with Latin America; the claim that Chinese, Japanese and Thais, with very strong national cultures, identify at all with “Asia”, is fanciful. If civilisations don’t necessarily exist, they don’t necessarily clash.

The second large error Huntington makes is revealed in his strange claim that the theory of competing civilisations is a paradigm for understanding the contemporary world, in the very strong sense of Thomas Kuhn’s famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (page 29). He contrasts it with three less satisfactory alternative paradigms: “one world”, “nation states”, “chaos”12. He misunderstands Kuhn as asserting that “intellectual and scientific advance ...consists in the displacement of one paradigm, which has become increasingly incapable of explaining new or newly discovered facts, by a new paradigm, which does account for them in a more satisfactory fashion” (ibid). Actually Kuhn held that most scientific advance takes place incrementally within a paradigm; paradigm shifts are the rare “scientific revolutions” of his title. In this now widely accepted sense, the concept of a scientific paradigm applies only to theories of very broad scope that overturn not only particular aspects of science – such as a new age of the universe – but a whole branch of science, changing the framework of reference in which ordinary research is carried on: the end of the geocentric universe, the evolution of species, first Copernican/Newtonian and then quantum physics13. The theory of evolution by natural selection, if true, has to account for pretty much everything in biology: from organs of extreme perfection like eyes and wings to insect societies and human intelligence. Very few scientists are responsible for them, and many of the greatest – Archimedes, Laplace, Faraday, Humboldt, Fermi – worked within existing ones. To say “I have created a new paradigm” is to say: I am the equal of Copernicus, Dalton, Darwin, Pasteur, or Einstein.

Paradigms have the essential characteristics of any scientific theory: exclusiveness, definiteness, and testability. What is special about them is the scope of their challenge to existing knowledge. They threaten all previous certainties and reputations, and the struggles about them are long and bitter. The social sciences have very few theories that have ever claimed such scope: Marxism certainly, perhaps Freudianism, sociobiology and free-market economics, and none of them has ever enjoyed unchallenged status.

It is patent that Huntington’s theory is not even a candidate for paradigm status, even were it new. The key objection is that “competing civilisations” is not exclusive; nothing prevents you logically from playing mix-and-match with “one world” or “chaos” as much or as little as you like. In fact you have to, not to do violence to the data.

Huntington seems to have been seduced into untenably extreme claims for his theory not only by the prestige of authorship of a “paradigm” but by the quite false belief that good scientific theories must be simple. Occam’s Razor is a great guide, but it only says that theories should be as simple as necessary. Copernicus’ circular heliocentrism greatly reduced the number of epicycles required by the planetary observations from the Ptolemaic geocentric system, and Kepler’s breakthrough of elliptical orbits eliminated them. Darwin brought a huge span of biological variation under a simple (if non-predictive) rule. But Dalton’s atomic chemistry required no less than 92 naturally occurring elements, instead of the four of ancient Greece; the genetic code involves tens of thousands of genes and even more proteins; and the standard modern physics of elementary particles is notoriously inaccessible to those without advanced mathematical training, let alone the weird speculations (string theory and the like) needed to combine it with Einstein’s gravity. Natural science offers little comfort to the hope that social science can be done with a few bracingly simple ideas; and none at all to the fancy that it can be done with the glittering, superficially hard-edged, but underneath vague and contradictory, ones of Samuel J. Huntington.

1The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel R. Huntington, London 1997. References are to the 1998 Touchstone paperback edition, for the loan of which I am indebted to Consuelo Holtzer.

2For a delightful debunking of the self-promoting World Economic Forum as “world leader fantasy camp”, see Michael Kinsley’s Slate article Davos for Beginners on the latest session in New York, In the printed version in the IHT, he added details on the contribution of Ms Heidi Klum, a lingerie model forVictoria’s Secret.

3In Glasgow the adventurous can try haggis samosas.

4“a cleverJewish superstition” – Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews

5Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) stands as a great counterexample; but Darwin, a conservative man fully aware of the revolutionary implications of the truth he had discovered, waited twenty years before publishing it.

6Confucianism is a feudal rather than a statist doctrine, and can provide seeds for democratic ideas, as with Sun Yat-Sen and contemporary Taiwan. The ruthless but perceptive first Ch’in Emperor Shih Huang-ti had Confucius’ works burnt and 460 scholars buried alive (212 BCE); but the succeeding Han dynasty prudently took Confucianism as its ideology, not the ultra-statist Legalist philosophy of Shih Huang-ti’s hated minister Li Ssu. Source:The First Emperor of China, Arthur Cotterel, London 1981.

7The government of Malaysia, another ready participant in intercultural polemic, has no faith in the equal industriousness of Malays and Chinese, as it openly discriminates against the latter to limit their economic power. For a full-length debunking of “Asian values”, see the 1997 New Republic essay by Amartya Sen

8For what it’s worth, my subjective political identity as a Westerner is fading as American society and political interests diverge increasingly from European ones. My cultural identity as a Brit is strongly Atlantic, I’m as likely to read American books as British ones, and I have dropped buying a London newspaper for the US-East-Coast-international IHT.

9It has now been shown empirically (by competition, not mathematical proof) that the optimum strategy for the reiterated two-person Prisoner’s Dilemma is simply “tit for tat”: cooperate until the other player defects, then retaliate. This truth is in our bones.

10A more graceful image from astronomy would be the collision of galaxies: the great distances between stars men that only a few of them will be torn apart in the inexorable gravitational dance that will over millions of years merge them into a new supergalaxy.

11Ancient Judaism was a “just war”, and even under Joshua a “holy war” religion. Following the inverse route to Christianity, it adopted pacifism during the Diaspora.

12With no mention of “environmental decline“ and “North exploits South”, which have quite a few supporters.

13What remain controversial are Kuhn’s more extreme claims about epistemology: he thinks that new scientific paradigms change the test of scientific validity so radically that in a sense the paradigms themselves are incommensurable. Few practising scientists accept this. Alvin Weinberg has pointed out that so far from geocentric cosmology being incomprehensible to modern physicists, not only the broad principle but many of its technical concepts – azimuth, declination, zenith, ecliptic - are routinely taught in universities and naval academies as tools for navigation and observational astronomy. This argument is not relevant to Huntington’s claims.