clash of civilizations

In my recent reading (and listening), whether the topic is Gilgamesh, the Trojan War, or the Crusades (or surveys such as Worlds at War), I keep coming across the clash-of-civilizations thesis of Samuel Huntington.

I haven’t read Huntington’s own account of his thesis, neither in his Foreign Affairs article nor in his (in)famous book, but I believe I get the gist: whereas Fukuyama and others contend that the end of the Cold War marked the "end of history" in a Hegelian sense (no more thesis or antithesis, just the synthesis of Western neoliberalism and social democracy),

Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict. In his thesis, he argued that the primary axis of conflict in the future would be along cultural and religious lines. (Wikipedia)

The clash everyone is focused on, of course, is East versus West, where "East" means what we now call the Middle East, what we used to call the Near East, what the ancients called "Asia" back when Asia meant the eastern coast of the Mediterranean — although much of North Africa also counts as the East when we’re focused, as Samuel Huntington apparently is, on the Islamic world.

What I find interesting in both the Huntington thesis and the Fukuyama thesis is the agreement that the "age of ideology" is over. They would apparently agree with the definition that Ludwig von Mises gives for ideology in chapter 9 of Human Action, “The Role of Ideas”:

The concept of an ideology is narrower than that of a worldview. In speaking of ideology, we have in view only human action and social cooperation and disregard the problems of metaphysics, religious dogma, the natural sciences, and the technologies derived from them. Ideology is the totality of our doctrines concerning individual conduct and social relations. Both worldview and ideology go beyond the limits imposed upon a purely neutral and academic study of things as they are. They are not only scientific theories, but also doctrines about the ought, i.e., about the ultimate ends which man should aim at in his earthly concerns.

And at first glance, it looks like Mises might agree with Huntington:

Linguistic terms are unable to communicate what is said about the transcendent; one can never establish whether the hearer conceives them in the same way as the speaker. With regard to things beyond there can be no agreement. Religious wars are the most terrible wars because they are waged without any prospect of conciliation. (Human Action, c9 s2)

Or, as Robert Murphy puts it in his study guide to Human Action,

In contrast to truly religious wars, when it comes to secular (i.e., ideological) conflict there is hope for cooperation, because human society is the great means by which all people can better achieve their differing objectives.

But the clash-of-civilizations thesis (at least in its popular form) seems to be a case of enormous question begging: if you contend that the current conflict between Islam and the West (a) is real, i.e., is more than just a (neo)conservative contrivance, and (b) is a religious war, rather than a political conflict, then the conclusion does seem to follow almost inexorably: there is a fundamental and irreconcilable clash of civilizations to be “waged without any prospect of conciliation”; long-term peace is impossible because the conflict is in “regard to things beyond” and therefore “there can be no agreement.”

Yes, but are the premises correct? Do the terms "the West" and "Islam" describe anything useful in the world of foreign affairs? If they do, and if they are in conflict, is that conflict a religious war or is it over the more temporal, mundane issues of invasion, oppression, exploitation, and the cycle of resentment and vengeance that results from the belief in collective guilt?

Those who want to claim that the clash is religious can point to what the Islamists themselves say about the clash. But so can those who want to claim that US foreign policy is to blame. The whole question is complicated by the fact that the distinction between religion and ideology is one that Islamists (and Christian theonomists and many Orthodox Jews) would reject. The distinction itself is a largely secular one.

(Some Christians think they can find it in the famous "Render unto Caesar" passage in the New Testament (Matthew 22:21), while others contend that that’s a gross misreading. I can’t really address that, but I take seriously Ralph Raico’s point that Matthew 22:21 wasn’t enough to separate Church and State in the Byzantine Empire. Classical liberalism isn’t Christian in its origins so much as it’s Western Christian.)

I accept the Western distinction between ideology and religion, and I find Mises’s presentation of it especially helpful. But the distinction itself isn’t enough to answer the question as to whether or not there is a fundamental clash of civilizations more akin to ancient religious wars than to modern ideological conflicts. The claim that we’re in the middle of a new type of religious war would have to mean (it seems to me) either that Islam is hell bent on destroying the West, or vice versa. The Islam-as-aggressor thesis is probably easier for most Westerners to swallow. But the mission to spread freedom and democracy — if it’s more than a neocon cover for a naked power grab — is an attack on Islam, as many Muslims perceive it. Let’s not lose track, however, of a different distinction: between Wilsonian foreign policy and Western civilization. Some of us would argue, in fact, that aggressive foreign policy, no matter what the stated goals or intentions, is utterly decivilizing.

What about the idea that Islam is out to destroy the West? I don’t deny that it’s possible, but it seems to be the old Cold War thesis dressed up in head scarves. Yes, Communist theory demanded worldwide revolution. Yes, Islamic scripture demands the equivalent. But so does Catholicism, and yet the Church has settled into an antiwar position after all these centuries. Why not Islam? And just as the Soviet political class paid lip service to the universalist rhetoric of Marxism while pursuing its own self-interest (and just as the American political class does the same with talk of liberty and the public welfare), so, I’m guessing, must the Muslims in power (or those seeking power) speak to one standard while pursuing a different one. A quick perusal of the Islamic empires of history would seem to confirm this suspicion.

I’m not trying to argue for a vulgar-materialist analysis of history and foreign policy. I do understand, as Mises emphasized, that ideas drive history.

So how do we reconcile a belief in power politics with a belief in the historical and political importance of religion and ideology?

One answer lies in classical-liberal class-conflict theory. It’s not workers versus capitalists; it’s not East versus West; it’s always a question of us against our masters, the productive class versus the political class. War is not a conflict between nations or religions; it is a conflict between the people and their governments, with nationalism and religion used by the political class to cover its tracks. The relevance of ideas is precisely in the role they play in either obscuring or revealing this orthogonal clash between the powers of civilization and the powers of decivilization.

worlds at war

I recommend Anthony Pagden’s Worlds at War, not necessarily for Pagden’s pro-Western antireligious thesis (at least, not in any particulars) but as an excellent historical and cultural review of what the book’s subtitle calls "the 2500-Year Struggle Between East and West" — where "East" is used in the ancient sense of western Asia (Troy, Phoenicia, Persia) and northeastern Africa (Egypt, Phoenician Carthage), and in the modern sense of Islam.

In a recent personal correspondence with my favorite conservative Rothbardian about Robert Spencer’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), my comrade wrote, "The fact that U.S. foreign policy is stupid and evil doesn’t make Islam any less illiberal."

I think that’s right, and I think that it’s a point that’s missed by many modern liberals, for whom all cultures and religions are equal and compatible a priori. If you don’t treat this supposed equality as axiomatic, its falseness is quickly evident.

Pagden does not, however, find Christianity superior to Islam in any intrinsic sense. His thesis in Worlds at War seems to be that Christianity was too weak and contained too many inner contradictions to provide the basis for a lasting theocracy, and that Christianity’s weakness was the basis of the West’s great strength. Our individualism, our traditions of tolerance, and our less-hampered markets (and therefore our industrial and technological superiority) are all the result of our secularism, Pagden contends. Three cheers for atheism. I’m a pro-Western atheist myself (as Murray Rothbard is reported to have said to Father Robert Sirico, "I don’t believe in God, but I believe that Mary was His mother."), and I agree with Pagden that the essential ingredient in the history of Western civilization was the separation of Church and State, but Pagden somehow manages to lay all the blame for illiberalism at the feet of monotheism. Not only does that implicitly let the State itself off the hook, but it fails to account for the importance of the checks and balances provided by the ongoing struggle between the two. In the Western contest between Church and State, the State has won, and the ever-weakening power of the Church has been accompanied by ever-growing power of the illiberal State.

Achilles in the Trench

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was an Oxford scholar who died in WWI. He wrote this during 3 days of R&R as he waited to be sent to fight at Gallipoli, which is across the Dardenelles (formerly known as the Hellespont) from the site of ancient Troy:

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
if otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o’er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

M I C – k e y – M i s e s

This paragraph from Human Action forces me to check my vulgar antimilitary reflexes and seek a subtler understanding of the nature of demand and the fallacy of manufactured demand:

The moralists’ and sermonizers’ critique of profits misses the point. It is not the fault of the entrepreneurs that the consumers — the people, the common man — prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books, and that governments prefer guns to butter. The entrepreneur does not make greater profits in selling "bad" things than in selling "good" things. His profits are the greater the better he succeeds in providing the consumers with those things they ask for most intensely. People do not drink intoxicating beverages in order to make the "alcohol capital" happy, and they do not go to war in order to increase the profits of the "merchants of death." The existence of the armaments industries is a consequence of the warlike spirit, not its cause. (c15, s9)

What did Mises make of President Eisenhower’s warning of a growing “military-industrial complex”? Did he dismiss the MIC as a left-wing bogey man? And what did Rothbard make of the statement, “The existence of the armaments industries is a consequence of the warlike spirit, not its cause”?

We Rothbardians tend to reject the standard left-wing claims about “manufactured demand” when they are hurled at private enterprise; do we fall into a similar fallacy when we imply a manufactured demand for military spending?

In one sense, no, it’s not parallel: you can get people to “support” all sorts of things when they’re not free to volunteer or withhold payment. Political polls on spending priorities falsely imply that how people choose to spend their dollars and how they want the government to spend “its” dollars is somehow the same thing.

Of course it’s not. My real-life expressed preferences, complete with internalized opportunity costs and the direct benefit of my spending decisions, are very concrete. They reveal my values based on what trade-offs I’ve actually made. My vocalized “preferences” for how tax dollars are spent is always abstract, and produces very little practical consequence for me either way.

So when the voting public howls for Osama’s head or Saddam’s head or for the head of whoever is the current bad guy, there’s definitely something manufactured about this “demand” — something orchestrated. People tend to lose their enthusiasm for war when they start to see the bill, so to speak. This suggests that their initial support for war would be similarly muted if they had to make the immediate choice of reaching into their wallets and paying for war or using that same money instead to buy beer or books, faster DSL or a bigger HDTV.

But there’s another sense in which I think I’ve been sloppy in attributing power to the malevolent MIC. I sometimes unthinkingly blame the arms dealers for the knee-jerk hawks themselves. When, in fact, the hawks are just knee jerks.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the political power of hiding the costs of policy. But this externalization of costs is really different from the manufacturing of demand. A more pacific people would not have fallen for the great neo-Con, no matter how much the books were cooked.

It is not the business of the entrepreneurs to make people substitute sound ideologies for unsound. It rests with the philosophers to change people’s ideas and ideals. The entrepreneur serves the consumers as they are today, however wicked and ignorant. (Ibid.)

secrecy and miscalculation

One of the books that is still on sale at is Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.

Some Austrian scholars are discussing it on one of the mailing lists, and I decided to move it from my wishlist to my shopping cart.

I can’t really review or recommend it, since I’ve only listened to about a quarter of it, so far, but I suspect I’ll be giving it a thumbs up.

Meanwhile, I mention it here because I’m overwhelmed by how much of it already vindicates

  1. Murray Rothbard’s foreign-policy analysis from the 1950s onward, and

  2. Robert Anton Wilson’s information-theory analysis from "Celine’s Laws," which you can read here on my website.

the firefox national index

TS's inspired post at blog.Mises

Iron Man vs Merchants of Death

Jeffrey Tucker writes:

The phrase "Merchants of Death" takes center stage in the movie Iron Man, which is a spectacular exposé of a subject that dominates the American economic landscape but about which Americans have very little knowledge. The phrase and the movie deal with the odd juxtaposition of capitalism and war as found in the weapons industry. Here we have innovations and efficiency of the type we associate with the private commercial sector but serving ends that are the very opposite of capitalism. The industry serves war, not peace, depends on coercion, not human volition, and profits from destruction, not creation.…

The existence of such an industry scandalized Americans in the interwar period, and there was one treatise that led the way in helping to foment the outrage. In fact, it was a bestselling book in 1934 with the title Merchants of Death. This book is not a typical left-wing style attacks on commerce as the essence of war. In fact, it argues the opposite:

“The arms industry did not create the war system.
On the contrary, the war system created the arms industry.”


The War Against the South and Its Consequences

[This article by Murray N. Rothbard follows “The Road to Civil War,” and is excerpted from the same unpublished report to the Volker Fund, 1961.]

The Civil War was one of the most momentous events in American history, not only for its inherent drama and destruction, but because of the fateful consequences for America that flowed from it.

We have said above that the War of 1812 had devastating consequences for the libertarian movement; indeed, it might be said that it took twenty years of devotion and hard work for the Jacksonian movement to undo the étatist consequences of that utter failure of a war. It is the measure of the statist consequences of the Civil War that America never recovered from it: never again was the libertarian movement to have a party of its own, or as close a chance at success. Hamiltonian neo-Federalism beyond the wildest dreams of even a J.Q. Adams had either been foisted permanently on America, or had been inaugurated, to be later fulfilled.

Let us trace the leading consequences of the War Against the South: there is, first, the enormous toll of death, injury, and destruction. There is the complete setting aside of the civilized "rules of war" that Western civilization had laboriously been erecting for centuries: instead, a total war against the civilian population was launched against the South. The symbol of this barbaric and savage oppression was, of course, Sherman’s march through Georgia and the rest of the South, the burning of Atlanta, etc. (For the military significance of this reversion to barbarism, see F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism). Another consequence, of course, was the ending of effective states’ rights, and of the perfectly logical and reasonable right of secession—or, for that matter, nullification. From now on, the Union was a strictly compulsory entity.

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The Road to Civil War

[This article by Murray N. Rothbard is excerpted from a 30,000-word report to the Volker Fund, written in September 1961, giving a very detailed description of everything wrong with A History of the American Republic by George B. DeHuszar. The full memo will be included in the forthcoming collection Renaissance Man, edited by David Gordon.]

The road to Civil War must be divided into two parts:

  1. the causes of the controversy over slavery leading to secession, and
  2. the immediate causes of the war itself.

The reason for such split is that secession need not have led to Civil War, despite the assumption to the contrary by most historians.

The basic root of the controversy over slavery to secession, in my opinion, was the aggressive, expansionist aims of the Southern "slavocracy." Very few Northerners proposed to abolish slavery in the Southern states by aggressive war; the objection — and certainly a proper one — was to the attempt of the Southern slavocracy to extend the slave system to the Western territories. The apologia that the Southerners feared that eventually they might be outnumbered and that federal abolition might ensue is no excuse; it is the age-old alibi for "preventive war." Not only did the expansionist aim of the slavocracy to protect slavery by federal fiat in the territories as "property" aim to foist the immoral system of slavery on Western territories; it even violated the principles of states’ rights to which the South was supposedly devoted — and which would logically have led to a "popular sovereignty" doctrine.

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war in 1 lesson

Anthony Gregory writes:

I don’t think the concept of “disproportionality” enters into it. If you punch me in the shoulder, it would be (very) disproportionate for me to shoot you in the head. It would not be disproportionate, exactly, for me to respond by shooting an innocent bystander — that’s not “disproportionate”; it’s simply aggression. If I steal resources from a third party to help in my response to your aggression, that also is not “disproportionate,” but rather aggression too.

If two governments are at war with each other, they are both capable of committing aggression against individual property rights. In fact, it’s hard to think of many wars where this isn’t the case. Even in a “defensive” war, a government typically taxes and even enslaves “its” own people, and thus even when one government is much less guilty than another, its war power is not a libertarian program — at least no more so than, say, welfare, which is no more reliant on the aggression of taxation than government war.

But in discussing a modern war like World War II, the aggression on all sides is even worse. The crimes of a regime cannot possibly justify dropping bombs on innocent children, for example, since those children have an inalienable right to life that is not conditional upon the crimes committed by the state they happen to have the misfortune to live under. It is this principle that allows us to conclude, unqualifiedly, that terrorism is always evil and wrong. Just because the US government has engaged in aggression in the Middle East over the years (and I think this cannot be seriously denied) does not in any respect exculpate the terrorists who target innocent American civilians. Similarly, just because people live under an aggressive foreign government, doesn’t give any one on earth a right to kill them.

Our rights not to be bombed — not to be bombed by anybody — are not sacrificed by the mere fact that we live under governments that commit aggression.

War is not a conflict of rights between nations. Nations don’t have rights. Individuals do. War is a class conflict of states against individuals. During war, all civilians killed and taxed and enslaved are victims, and, typically, the states involved are all, to varying degrees, aggressors, not just against foreign subjects but also against “their” own subjects as well.

Robert Higgs replies:

Splendid post, Anthony. I’ve rarely seen anything that cut to the crux of the matter so well.