Monday, December 29, 2008

Samuel Huntington

Samuel Huntington, who died last week, is a hate figure for the sort of people who pepper every presentation with the word 'radical' (see previous post). At seminars, they charge at the phrase 'Clash of Civilizations' like a bull at a matador's fluttering cape. When I hear speakers criticise Huntington's central thesis, I try and enter into conversation with them over lunch or coffee, posing a question like, "Do you think Huntington's emphasis on demographics in his book is a natural extension of his argument in the original essay from Foreign Affairs magazine, or do you believe it might be a tactic to sidestep the angry response to that essay?" Without exception, I have found that the speakers haven't read Huntington's book. In most cases, they have not even read the essay which first used the term 'clash of civilisations'.
Such reflexive, ignorant criticism is regrettable, because the book has a lot to offer even those like me who have substantial reservations about its central thesis. The problem is that the multifarious conflicts Huntington wrote about have been obscured in the past ten years by one central clash: that of Islam versus the West. Huntington is not at his strongest when writing about Islamic societies. He's much better on Latin America, and the sub-chapter about Russia as one of the world's 'torn civilizations' is excellent. It explains a lot about Vladimir Putin's ascent and manner of ruling, even though it was published while Yeltsin was still in power.
I like, also, the discussion on westernisation versus modernisation, two terms which are often taken to be synonyms. Huntington points out how, in the initial phases of industrialisation within developing countries, societies adopt western habits as they modernise. At one point, a cultural reaction sets in, after which increased economic and technological modernisation leads to a reaffirmation of indigenous values.
The book contains some fodder for post-colonial activists, in the data relating to the economic power of different civilisations over the course of centuries. India produced a fourth of the world's manufacturing output in 1750, the eve of the Battle of Plassey. Its share began to sink precipitously, reaching 1.4 percent in 1914. It was only when Indians began to govern themselves, first under the British umbrella and later as a completely independent nation (or independent nations, since the data cover the entire subcontinent), that our share of the world's production rose. The figures are as strong a rebuke as can be imagined to those who still suggest that colonial rule was generally beneficial to India. It's true, part of the drop in India's relative position is explained by the boom in the west engendered by the industrial revolution, but that's clearly not the whole story.
For instance, between 1750 and 1800, China increased its share of world manufacturing marginally, from 32.8 to 33.3 percent, even as India's contribution dropped from 24.5 to 19.7 percent. What caused this sudden fall relative to China? Certainly not the industrial revolution, since China wasn't industrialising. China's own decline began around the time of the Opium wars, going down to a shocking 2.3 percent in 1953 before recovering somewhat.
Among the negative features of Huntington's most well-known book (the only one by him that I have read) are the nebulousness of his categories; his lack of fluency as a writer (the Russia pages are an exception); and his steadfast belief that the United States acts with the best intentions even when its actions have disastrous consequences.
Since he was an advisor to the state department during the Vietnam war, and never questioned that war's moral legitimacy, his stance is not surprising. If you get past hurdles like Huntington's moral blind spots there are valuable insights to be had from The Clash of Civilizations.

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