Big theories and little details

It’s rare, but once in a while you feel vindicated for the bad habit of keeping old newspapers around to catch up. This very good piece by Lee Siegel was worth it. It weaves economic, political and social theories to provide a 30,000 foot view of the sense and senselessness of unifying and decoding humankind’s journey.


January 4, 2009

Samuel Huntington and the Positivity of Power Thinking


Standing at the beginning of a new year, two weeks before a new president is inaugurated, and amid expectations of major political and economic change, we are, you might say, at a Huntington moment.

Samuel Huntington, the political theorist who died on Dec. 24 at the age of 81, was a power thinker, one of the breed of “big idea” men whose major works didn’t just explain historical transformation but seemed to crystallize it — in ways that altered how the rest of us looked at the world, for better and also for worse.

In provocative books like “Political Order in Changing Societies” and “The Clash of Civilizations,” Mr. Huntington’s talent — some would say weakness — for the grand synthesizing theory is most strikingly on display. In 1968, when “Political Order” was published, most political scientists held that the key to democracy was modernization. As backward societies caught up with the more advanced ones, they would also develop more inclusive political systems. But Mr. Huntington made a contrary argument: since modernization often brought chaos, the actual sine qua non of a successful society was order. It alone could contain the demons set loose by social change and also create the conditions for gradual political reform. By this calculation, any system that imposed order, even authoritarian order, was legitimate.

In the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States, “the government governs,” Mr. Huntington wrote. All three “have strong, adaptable, coherent political institutions: effective bureaucracies, well-organized political parties.”

Published at a time when efforts to build a democratic nation in South Vietnam had proved disastrous, Mr. Huntington’s book changed the debate.

His later book, “The Clash of Civilizations,” published in 1996, also captured its moment, though with an altogether different argument. The unifying drive for order that had been at the center of Mr. Huntington’s analysis of the cold war — a period in which democratic and authoritarian regimes could coexist, however uneasily — now gave way to a dark vision of a world irreconcilably divided. Surveying the post-cold-war landscape, Mr. Huntington described radically different civilizations with radically divergent values — most specifically, those of the secular West and of the Islamic world. After Sept. 11, 2001, “The Clash of Civilizations” acquired something like a prophetic authority.

In these two books, Mr. Huntington seemed to have calibrated his responses to a particular moment — to history as it was happening. As events changed, so did his interpretations. This was to be expected. The adaptation of theory to reality is the essence of the power thinker’s métier.

It was not always so. In the classical age, when wars lasted for many years, even decades, and technology evolved at a snail’s pace, historians like Thucydides and Polybius took a longer view. To them, no single historical event mattered more than any other. All unfolded within endlessly recurring cycles dominated by the deep currents of human nature. This view might seem archaic — yet its lessons remain relevant. Bernard Madoff is accused of bilking an estimated $50 billion from investors by executing the same scheme Charles Ponzi used in 1921. Wall Street’s financial “instruments” have undergone a revolution in the last nine decades, but people are driven by the same appetites — envy, greed, fear.

It was in the modern era, with its belief in human progress, that thinkers began to interpret the world in a different way — not as a record of human folly but rather as an enactment of changing or evolving historical forces.

The 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico argued that all civilizations pass through three stages: the age of the gods, in which divinities directly ruled humankind; the age of aristocratic heroes, in which superior individuals reigned over lesser individuals; and finally the age of ordinary humans, in which men and women govern themselves in the spirit of equality. This last phase eventually gives way to decadence and disintegration characterized by brutish manners (see: reality television). At that point, the gods return (Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Dark Knight), and the three-part cycle starts again.

Meanwhile French thinkers like Voltaire, Condorcet and Turgot converted the Christian idea of spiritual progress into a vision of rational human improvement unhindered by religious superstition. This Enlightenment belief in human perfectibility is, among other things, a great illusion-producing machine. You could draw a steady line from 18th-century optimism to the sugar plums of fantastical mortgages and overdrawn credit in 2008.

In the early 19th century, one of the true giants of power thinking, G. W. F. Hegel, tried to reconcile reason with religion through the logic of the “dialectic.” Even terrible events might represent advances for human society. For example, the French Revolution had descended into irrational cruelty, but its “necessary” violence had led to a rational and humane backlash against that very barbarism.

Today, Hegel’s pendular historical motion continues to shape political debate — for instance when some argue that the Democrats’ deficit spending will lead to Republican retrenchment, which will then lead to more Democratic deficit spending.

The most influential of all 19th-century historical theorists, Karl Marx, adopted Hegel’s dialectic but revised it to suit his own theory of historical materialism, which was rooted in class struggle and economic competition. For Marx, the “dialectic” meant that political systems plant the seeds of their own destruction. In his day the triumph of bourgeois capitalism fostered economic injustices that would, Marx predicted, give rise to an emerging class, the proletariat, which one day would topple the bourgeoisie.

It is possible to see the past 15 years through a Marxist lens. Prosperity and success sowed the seeds of the current economic crisis, which in turn has nourished growing anger at the “class” of Wall Street financiers. In the larger sense, of course, Marx’s vision of a class revolution was discredited.

So, for that matter, was Mr. Huntington’s theory about “modernizing authoritarianism.” In his foreword to a recent edition of “Political Order in Changing Societies,” Francis Fukuyama, a former student of Mr. Huntington’s and a consequential big-idea man in his own right, observed that the Soviet system was by no means the effective government Mr. Huntington claimed it had been.

Mr. Huntington’s idea about the inevitable clash of civilizations also looks different today — its harsh view of the world disconcertingly similar to the thinking behind the Bush administration’s crusading war on political Islam, though Mr. Huntington was himself skeptical about what he called America’s “imperial” mission in Iraq. Mr. Huntington got many things right — and his theories included major insights. But in their very largeness they veered toward oversimplification.

“Perhaps,” as Mr. Fukuyama wrote, “all grand theories are ultimately doomed to failure.”

Why should this be? Probably because in their desire to explain so much, big thinkers tend to skip over complicating factors and counterevidence. Painting in broad and often brilliant strokes, they often miss the shadows and crevices. The very seductiveness of power thinking — its promise that everything fits together or can be made to seem so — is also the source of its danger. It offers something irresistible, the possibility that we can change, or at least control, our lives by means of ideas, even though those ideas are themselves abstract inventions.

Still, as long as there is private and public history, human beings will try to think their way around it. For better. And for worse.

Lee Siegel’s most recent book is “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.” He lectures on cultural criticism at Rutgers University.

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