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Changing Politics, Changing Culture

My pal, Cameron Pritchard, who has gone from opposing the Iraq war to favoring it (a condition that affects a growing number of New Zealanders), announced the beginning of his own blog here, for which I congratulated him here. Check out Cameron's Blog.

I had a recent personal correspondence with Cam about Iraq, the recent elections there, and Cam's own switch in position, which he credits to Christopher Hitchens. Given that Cam emerged from Objectivism, I found it interesting that he'd be convinced of the pro-war position by a neocon-ex-leftist.

Cam himself finds this interesting, and remarked to me that each of us is a "former something," and that focusing on where people came from might be relevant, but it may not help us much to dwell on it.

I told Cam, however, that in this instance, we're really not talking about the leftist lineage of some neoconservatives.

We're talking about the architects of neoconservatism as a political ideology. What those neocons have absorbed from their leftist background is precisely the "synoptic delusion" for which Hayek criticized the leftists: They've gotten rid of the insanity of central planning an economy, and have basically endorsed the central planning of international politics through an engineered "democratic revolution" that sees politics as the driving force, and culture as the follower.

I remarked too that just as the leftist intellectual lineage of neoconservatism has harmed that ideology, so too the former conservative lineage of many "Objectivists" has harmed Objectivism as a movement. "There is something about these movements' intellectual lineage," I wrote, "that seems to affect how that ideology is shaped over time. It's as if the genetic imprint remains ... and leaves its mark. And, in my view, in both instances, the trace that is left behind has corrupted a lot of the remaining ideology."

I added, however, that I didn't believe Ayn Rand herself was an intellectual conservative in her ideological lineage, but I do think too many of her followers were/are. About two years ago, I had complained about the loss of the "radical spirit of Objectivism," noting a point made by my friend and colleague, Larry Sechrest, that "far too many Objectivists act as if they are conservatives who simply don't go to church." (Larry and I have co-authored the introduction to the forthcoming Journal of Ayn Rand Studies symposium, "Ayn Rand Among the Austrians.") Some of these conservative vestiges may be rooted in Rand's own pronouncements on such subjects as homosexuality, for example. Isolating these conservative vestiges, ripping them from Rand's broader, more radical, framework, however, is pure reification.

That kind of reification is on display in the Bush administration's attitudes toward "democracy" in the Middle East, which neoconservative policymakers believe can be implanted in foreign soil, regardless of the level of nutriment in that soil.

Cam has pointed out correctly that "culture is ... more fundamental" than politics, and that "cultural change is a requirement for lasting political change. But that does not mean, necessarily, that cultural change must precede political change." Cam draws from his study of South Korea, in this regard. Liberalization and democratization, he explains, are "essentially cultural problems," but

the cultural changes that have taken and are taking place there have been brought about often by institutional change. The opening up of South Korea's economy, for example, has led to a huge importation of foreign products and culture that are injecting a significant dose of individualism into Korea's younger generation, which is in turn strengthening the political and economic changes that have already taken place. That's a cultural change that came about through a political (or economic) change.

For Cam, "we mustn't underemphasise the possibilities even quite small institutional changes can herald for a culture. That's why I think Iraq has a chance."

Well, I agree. But note here that what Cam is pointing to is precisely the kind of cultural change that can only occur because of open markets in goods, services, and ideas. That is the kind of cultural change I've been arguing for in the Middle East—and worldwide. As long as cultural products can be exported to and absorbed by Middle Eastern societies, in the form of Western movies, books, journals, Internet publications, television, and so forth, there is a real chance for social transformation there. (I've written about this in entries archived here on the issue of Iran.)

It is indeed true that cultural change must start somewhere, even if it is in changing the political culture first. That's why it is, at the very least, a hugely symbolic first step for Iraqis to adopt procedural democratic rules in the crafting and selection of new governing institutions and political leaders. But planting a "constitutional democracy" in Iraq will not serve "US interests" if the "democracy" that emerges is an Islamicist theocracy.

I've long been skeptical of those on both sides of the political divide who seem to craft their political positions on the basis of short-run appearances. Who would have known that US support for the Shah for many, many years, would have been an important facilitating condition for the emergence and victory of a fundamentalist reaction in Iran? Or that a hostage crisis in Iran would have led the US into closer ties with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war? Or that US support of Hussein would have eventually deteriorated into the Iraq war? It is usually the case that the results of action—or inaction—are not felt for many years. We will not be able to compute the costs of the Iraq war for a very long time to come. But I do not believe that the emergence of a more religious, fundamentalist, Shi'ite-centered regime in Iraq, more closely allied to Iran, is in the interests of freedom and democracy.

This is something that has been pointed out by people on opposed sides of the political spectrum. For example, while antiwar advocate Juan Cole examines "The Downside of Democracy," Ayn Rand Institute junior fellow Elan Journo is busy skewering George W. Bush's "betrayal of America" in the Iraqi elections:

Consider the beliefs of the Iraqis who will be voting for "freedom" in the upcoming election. Like so many peoples in the Middle East, Iraqis regard themselves as defined by their membership in some larger group, not by their own ideas and goals. Most Iraqis owe their loyalties—and derive their honor from belonging—to their familial clan, tribe or religious sect, to which the individual is subservient. This deep-seated tribalism is reflected in the parties running in the elections: there is a spectrum ranging from advocates of secular collectivist ideologies (communists and Ba'athists) to those defined by bloodlines (such as Kurds and Turkmens) to members of various religious sects. ... Whatever constitution those leaders eventually frame will reflect their desire to arrogate power to their particular group and to settle old scores, such as the longstanding enmity between the Shi'ite majority and Sunnis.

However much I opposed US intervention in Iraq, I shed no tears for the destruction of the Hussein regime. But in the wake of that destruction, a vaccum exists that is being filled daily with the blood of Iraqis and Americans. A predominantly Sunni-Ba'athist insurgency grows, as does the threat of a growing Sunni-fundamentalist insurgency allied with Al Qaeda. This doesn't begin to capture the threat of a growing majoritarian Shi'ite movement with closer geopolitical ties to Iran. The use of enormous resources of US manpower, money, and munitions for this war, we have been told, is "to bring the war to the terrorists abroad." But such a strategy may very well be like bringing oxygen to a flame, a flame that might very well incinerate the streets of New York City in a way that makes 9/11 a picnic by comparison.

In any event, as I've suggested above, the instituting of procedural democratic rules is a very small part of the tapestry of freedom. If, indeed, economic liberalization goes hand-in-hand with cultural transformation, I'm not even confident on that score. The US has not transplanted free markets to Iraq; it has transplanted crony capitalism at its worst and has done little to break the culture of dependency in that country. As I wrote in October 2003, in reference to a John Tierney NY Times essay:

Saddam Hussein kept the "culture of dependency" alive for political purposes, since he was seen by the populace as the source of largesse. After sanctions were imposed on Iraq, he used "300 government warehouses and more than 60,000 workers to deliver a billion pounds of groceries every month—a basket of rations guaranteed to every citizen, rich or poor." The occupation seeks to replace "rations with cash payments or some version of food stamps," aiming to move Iraqis to the practice of "shopping for themselves." Barham Salih, prime minister among the Kurds in northern Iraq, states: "This culture has become one of the biggest obstacles to rebuilding Iraq."
One hopeful sign, perhaps, is that many who receive the rations engage in resale of the items they don't want, contributing to the proliferation of gray markets. But free markets are being resisted by those in power, and some argue that the transition to direct cash payments will have to be accompanied by price controls and central planning. It makes the introduction of market prices and personal decision-making that much more difficult. Building a "nation" based on liberal democracy—on free markets, civil liberties, and procedural fairness—is not something that can be achieved by mere writ. It requires a fundamental cultural change. All of this brings to mind an important passage from volume 3 of Hayek's Law, Legislation and Liberty. Most important in this passage is Hayek's emphasis on the tacit dimension, which is 'embedded', if you will, in traditions, beliefs, and cultural practices, a dimension that forever threatens the articulated designs of central planners of any sort—be they current socialists or former ones (e.g., "neoconservatives"). Hayek writes:
"[V]ery few countries in the world are in the fortunate position of possessing a strong constitutional tradition. Indeed, outside the English-speaking world probably only the smaller countries of Northern Europe and Switzerland have such traditions. Most of the other countries have never preserved a constitution long enough to make it become a deeply entrenched tradition; and in many of them there is also lacking the background of traditions and beliefs which in the more fortunate countries have made constitutions work which did not explicitly state all that they presupposed, or which did not even exist in written form. This is even more true of those new countries which, without a tradition even remotely similar to the ideal of the Rule of Law which the nations of Europe have long held, have adopted from the latter the institutions of democracy without the foundations of beliefs and convictions presupposed by those institutions.
"If such attempts to transplant democracy are not to fail, much of that background of unwritten traditions and beliefs, which in the successful democracies had for a long time restrained the abuse of majority power, will have to be spelled out in such instruments of government for the new democracies. That most of such attempts have so far failed does not prove that the basic conceptions of democracy are inapplicable, but only that the particular institutions which for a time worked tolerably well in the West presuppose the tacit acceptance of certain other principles which were in some measure observed there but which, where they are not yet recognized, must be made as much a part of the written constitution as the rest. We have no right to assume that the particular forms of democracy which have worked with us must also work elsewhere. Experience seems to show that they do not. There is, therefore, every reason to ask how those conceptions which our kind of representative institutions tacitly presupposed can be explicitly put into such constitutions."

One last point needs to be emphasized: The world does not stop functioning in the process of attempting to remake it. In my view, the constructivist "remaking of the modern world" should not be the guiding principle of US foreign policy. The world is always in process, after all. It is one thing to try to affect that process; it is quite another to believe that one can guide it.

The guiding principle of US foreign policy should be the protection of the individual rights of Americans. I am in full agreement with the neoconservatives, however, that a freer world is more desirable and that it is a necessary (though not sufficient) ingredient in the creation of a more secure world; my fundamental problem with the neocons is that they do not understand the complex conditions that foster either freedom or security.

Comments welcome. (Noted at L&P as well, where additional comments may be found here and here.)

Update: There's a follow-up dialogue on this thread at Cameron's blog here, with an additional exchange between Cameron and me here.


There are too many good points to comment on and a few I’d take exception with. But you’ve stated your thesis in a manner that welcomes discussion. The basic point is correct: we can’t change their culture.

It is true that administration cheerleaders are too sanguine about the significance of the recent popular support for change in Iraq, Lebanon, and even Egypt. The Bush program is ambitious – more so than people realize. Bringing liberal democracy to the Middle East is an understandable impulse. But, even though I agree that such generosity is above and beyond proper requirements for defense, I don’t agree that they will necessarily backfire. While command-control of a foreign economy is as faulty as command-control of one’s domestic economy, the level of control is far less than previous Mid-East regimes and this is still a large step forward for Iraq.

I believe the administration is trying to handover power as quickly as it believes it can without giving up the dream of a constitutional democracy that protects some crucial individual rights. It’s a gamble. I'm skeptical but I sincerely hope it works. However, I wouldn’t take success as a proof-of-concept for the general approach to international affairs. It’s only in retrospect that one can fully identify elements that existed for positive change. Are the Iraqis so worn down from decades of oppression that they are open to help? Perhaps, but the bet was that Iraqis were so oppressed that they would be ready to rise up and take the reigns soon after the liberation. So it’s luck, not knowledge that seems to be the operative factor.

In the Mid-East, the popular support generally goes to the winner. We have that for now but we shouldn’t overstay our welcome. It’s at these moments when things are looking up on many fronts that prudence is generally put aside. Just ask any gambler. Tribal, religious, and cultural factors will eventually reassert their dominance and there will be problems. One only hopes we hand over power before long. The criteria should not be an ideal outcome – only tentative stability to appear to be leaving “on top” instead of appearing to cave or appease. That time is approaching. Once again: we can't change their culture.

Thanks for your comments, Jason. I certainly agree that the strategy in Iraq won't necessarily backfire; for me, however, it's one of those strategies filled with so many complex conditions and possibilities for negative consequences, that I don't think I would have taken that kind of gamble, if I'd been given the choice.

Understand though: I'm not looking to score points for debate by wishing ill on US troops or the Iraqi people or their fledgling attempts to get some kind of representative government in place. The sooner this situation improves, the better it will be for US efforts to get the hell out of there. Unless, of course, the US "exit strategy" is through Iran and Syria. In which case, I think the US will face an even more complicated, and potentially far bloodier, conflict.

Hoping for the best...

Good comments, Chris, as usual. It is interesting, however, that virtually none of the bloggers and talking heads in favor of the Iraq war are anywhere near Iraq. You'd think that these folks ought to feel some sort of a moral obligation to put their own asses on the line for such a great cause. But I know actually fighting a war is such a ~bother~ for people these days.

Thanks for that post Chris. I've added some thoughts of my own at my own blog (www.campritchard.blogspot.com).

As for Hitchens, could it not be that what he's taken from his intellectual heritage is the good stuff? His commitment to secularism, modernism, his distate for the reactionary forces of fascism and religion?

Mark -- I don't know about whom exactly you are talking when you refer to "bloggers and talking heads in favor of the Iraq war [not] anywhere near Iraq". But if you mean me, you may be interested to know that the city I'm currently staying in, Manila, was just last week the victim of a terrorist bombing by local Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda and continues to be at risk of more attacks. It's not Iraq, no, but perhaps it gives you pause for thought before categorising me as simply a "talking head" cut off from the real world.

Thanks, gents for the further comments here.

I'd just like to reply briefly to Cam here, and then point to my additional thoughts posted to his blog (still practicing the "trader principle" :) ).

I suspect that what attracted you, Cam, to Hitchens was not the delusionary aspect of his leftist lineage. Obviously, his "commitment to secularism, modernism, his distaste for the reactionary forces of fascism and religion" is commendable.

The issue that must be raised here, however, is this: How are these values to be implemented in cultures that do not recognize them? It took several hundred years to secularize the Western mind, and will certainly take generations to achieve anything remotely similar in the Middle East and elsewhere. If there is to be any chance of that, full-scale trade with the West is an urgent strategic necessity.

All the more reason to be opposed, then, to the West's own turn against those values. When I see the rise of religious fervor in the US, and the systemic reality of what Rand called the "New Fascism," I can only shake my head in utter disgust. No, I'm not suggesting that the US government needs to change direction domestically before it can ever hope to change its foreign policy or to defend its citizens from foreign threats; one does not need to change everything before doing anything to oppose legitimate threats to one's security. But I see no way around it: There will be no change in this country's foreign policy without a change in its domestic policy, and until that happens, I'm afraid the rest of the world will continue to identify "capitalism" with neocorporatist economics and military and political intervention abroad.

More here: http://campritchard.blogspot.com/2005/03/sciabarras-changing-politics-changing.html

I think your solution – trade not military intervention – won’t make much difference. After all, how many times have we invaded Indonesia? Yet, there is a growing Islamist movement in Indonesia and elsewhere the South East Asia. Islam has “bloody borders” not because of our foreign policy. Now, I agree we need changes in foreign policy but it should not be done for an instrumental rationale concerning our desire for change in foreign cultures. When I said we (i.e. our government) can’t change their culture I meant by action or inaction.

I think we get distracted by daily politics. And I know you are sensitive to the long-run picture (your above article and subsequent comments show that in spades.)

The intellectual battle has to be fought on the secular vs. religious front. At one point (60-90 years ago) the secularist had marginalized Islam. Ataturk dissolved the Caliphate. Most Arab countries look to secular collectivist Europe as a model of the modern progressive state. Thus, secularism can win among nominal Muslims. It’s too bad it was the wrong secular trend – collectivism – that was tried. The problem as I see it is that conservatives are singularly unsuited for fighting for secularism. The best among them gives lip-service to our Classical heritage but rarely makes this a central component of their philosophical identity. The left has been discredited by history. Thus, this is an opportunity for us to shape the debate – and we are blowing it, in my opinion.

Just wanted to give you and others more to think about,
Jason Pappas http://www.liberty-and-culture.com/ & http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/

Hey, Jason, congrats on the blog. :) Just noticed it.

I don't believe, btw, that trade should be pursued for the purpose of changing foreign cultures; that might be a nice by-product. I just think that there are ways in which Western goods and ideas can make a difference as the informational-economy expands---and it is expanding exponentially with the spread of the Internet and electronic access across the globe. But no matter how much such goods and ideas influence foreign cultures, it would be a mistake to assume that such cultures could or would be transformed into carbon copies of the United States.

I also agree that this intellectual battle must be fought on a number of fronts---especially the secular-religious front.



My point, and it was a general one, was that virtually none of the pundits, bloggers and talking heads in favor of the Iraq War have bothered to sign up to fight in it. I think those in favor of a war should have the balls to fight it themselves if they meet army recruiting requirements. Do you disagree? Where is the Baghdad objectivist platoon?

I am sorry you are in some danger in Manilla. Best of luck.

I am informed that non-citizens aged 18-34 can join the U.S. Army, but are barred from getting certain security clearances. So I'm waiting for the first wave of pro-war New Zealand objectivists to sign up.