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Look! No Wheels!

The Cold War, or at least the First Cold War, is now long over. Curiously, it ended without a war. Afterwards, the US global hegemony that some predicted failed to materialise. As in other areas, victories in history don’t always amount to as much as was expected. Meanwhile the debate seeking a credible explanation for the implosion of the Soviet Union continues. The interpretation which particularly suits the liberal western temperament argues that the USSR was constructed and operated in a manner incompatible with the modern world and therefore, ultimately, had to fail. It is a liberal version of Marxist determinism and for many is such a congenial explanation that versions of it will be – indeed are being –employed to predict the future trajectory of powerful contemporary states which are not liberal democracies. The view that China must become a liberal democracy or fail is frequently heard. Perhaps the ideological coincidence is not that surprising. After all, both Marxism and liberalism grew out of the eighteenth century enlightenment. However, the liberal wheel of history might well prove as bockety as the Marxist one. The belief that history is moving in a particular direction is really a soothing article of faith rather than something capable of convincing demonstration. We can be certain however that, as liberal democrats wait for progress to complete its historic task, power politics will continue. The difficulty is knowing what shape they will take.

Presumably, in the still far from settled multipolar world, there will be regular disputes over where the influence of one major power ends and another begins. But in the atomic age ‑ drones or no drones ‑ these disputes can hardly be settled by war. Global trade, of course, also weighs in against militarism. So if war is not on, we can expect quite a bit of scheming, a good deal of huffing and puffing and occasionally some unfriendly acts but not much more ‑ at most some proxy wars. The settlement of questions which now seem intractable, such as who is to control the western Pacific and what the future of Israel and Palestine may be, will have to wait on the working out of complex historical currents which, whatever way they may run, will certainly differ in direction from determinist readings of human history.

Recovering from its lower than hoped for yield after the First Cold War, but still committed to the idea of inexorable progress, the West is tempted to see multipolarity as a temporary little arrangement, with history programmed to intervene in due course, rather than the new reality. Francis Fukuyama, we may recall, was ridiculed not for his belief in progress but for prematurely claiming its work had been completed.

But what if it starts to look like non-liberal democratic power centres are here to stay? Will the West seek to alter its transcendent interpretation of history. Is it even possible for the West to move beyond the universalist imperatives inherent in its Enlightenment heritage? Is it culturally possible for it to embrace a live and let live view of the world? Another related question arises which might as well be considered: is the Enlightenment really to blame for western universalism? After all there were many Western assaults on different cultures before the era of the Enlightenment. The violent Spanish intrusion into the Americas, to name one such episode, predated les philosophes. And who can forget the crusades?

Rousseau’s famous critique of the Enlightenment suggests a possible answer, at least to the last question. He argued that the movement was a mirror image of the Christianity which it claimed to be undermining and that the core problem in western civilisation was monotheism. Once you believed there was only one God it followed that all your neighbour’s gods were bogus and it became imperative to deal with the offence against the truth which they constituted. (Christians, of course, are not the only monotheists. Recently the animists of the Central African Republic were subject to vicious attack by Muslim monotheists. While they are now responding in kind it is unlikely that they will ultimately prevail. Pagans have no natural allies.)

Interestingly, despite the universalist impulses of western culture, there has long been resistance, within both the Christian and Enlightenment traditions, to western intolerance and aggression. Ironically this has its origins in Christian universalism, which taught that all men were loved by God and were thus worthy of compassion. The secular version of the same idea – the rights of man – is entrenched within the Enlightenment tradition.

 If there is to be a reconfiguring of Western attitudes, prompted by the realities of a multipolar world, the West will draw on these traditions of resistance to the intrusive tendencies of liberal universalism. Resistance to enlightenment certainties effectively started with Rousseau. He is nevertheless understood as an Enlightenment figure and his remains reside in the Panthéon in Paris along with those of Voltaire and other secular lumières. He criticised from within.

The resisters and qualifiers continued through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Though very different from Rousseau in her epistemological approach, Margaret Mead was also a resister, arguing for a modification of Western certainty in the interests of global cultural diversity.

These days, if Mead is remembered at all, it is as a somewhat musty figure from the mid-twentieth century. Many of her ideas would strike us today as eccentric or dated, yet a case can be made, given the new geopolitical architecture, that western political thinking today would benefit from adopting some of her views.

Mead argued, from a position rooted in western values, in favour of a cultural relativism which understood the world’s cultures as no more than possible versions of human culture rather than as phenomena which could be graded. The earlier view of cultures was as an evolutionary hierarchy; it was a view which allowed for the wholesale destruction of “inferior” cultures and was in retreat especially in the US from the 1920s, a retreat contributed to by the young Mead and her peers. For Mead the world’s cultures were a resource from which her own western culture might benefit.

Coming of Age in Samoa was Mead’s most famous book. In it she studied adolescence amongst the remote Samoan people. Thomas Meaney, reviewing Return from the Natives: How Margaret mead Won the Second World War and Lost  the Cold War by Peter Mandler in the London Review of Books says she “found American norms inverted ...  adolescence was a smooth passage, virginity was not prized, pre-marital sex prevailed, there was something approaching no-fault divorce and everybody masturbated.” It is not difficult to see how Mead – a non-conformist in sexual matters – might have felt the Samoans would benefit her own American culture by striking a blow against prescriptive Christian morality in favour of individual freedom.

Mead believed that modernisation and globalisation were inevitable but that a sympathetic US-led modernisation was possible. If she was a cryptoromantic she was also a modernist and a staunch westerner. She promoted a modernist programme for a Western-led complex re-engineering of “primitive” cultures which would allow them to modernise while retaining their cultural individuality.

Mead enjoyed significant influence in the interwar period. However, her celebration of diversity did not impress during the Cold War. There were few takers for her opposition to the enthusiastic spreading of democracy or for her rejection of American exceptionalism. People baulked at her suggestion that Russia was just a different culture and in time she was edged out of the dominant discourse. This is hardly surprising given the logic of world government implicit in Soviet ideology.

The interesting thing about the decline of Soviet-style ideology is that the West remains the only culture committed to global political uniformity. Given the collapse of the ideological competition, the West could ease up on its missionary zeal without leaving the field to the opposition. And what is more, there may be bigger fish to fry. If, as seems likely, the multipolar world turns out to be the real one, it may be an idea to look again at cultural relativism. Indeed it may be that it should be taken more seriously this time if we want to live in peace with our neighbours and address with them the terrifying threats which confront life on the planet.