September 26, 2005

Is the Anglosphere crumbling in the face of New Barbarism?

The question of values and the Anglosphere is an interesting one. Having been raised in a conservative but worldly household (military), I spent most of my 20s and 30s in a state of disbelief at the values that I bumped into ... morality dictated by what you could get away with. Completely foreign to me. And I couldn't see how things could get any worse, nor how society could continue much longer in that vein. And yet, and yet the years unrolled in a very different way ... the Berlin Wall fell, the economy grew, the Internet offered the information to refine one's own values and form new more effective communities. People and kids I knew who seemed irredeemable in the 70s and 80s muddled along into a semblance of ordinary middle-class life and actually turned out not too bad. In North America, at least, there's cause for optimism, because civic society continues as it was. Only now we're seeing professional associations of body piercers, rather than buggy whip manufacturers, using Robert's Rules of Order and established as 501(c)3s complete with accountants. Pretty middle-class in the end. All those bizarre fringes don't alter the fundamental reality (a la Macfarlane) that the consolations of kinship and contract must be supplemented by islands of sociability that come from personal appetite. And the Anglosphere shows little sign of abandoning that cultural pattern for the emotional "holism" of either statism or tribalism. The US and Australia particularly. Yes, there are niches longing for Noble Savagery and Noble Lies but they stay niches.

A key argument in favour of the survival of the Anglosphere, to my mind, is the broad range of values generated in a civic context. It allows the development of an "average" set of values that's most suitable for the technological/political situation of the times. What diversity is possible is dictated by the realities of economy, medicine, science, religion, etc. It's no surprise then to find that Elizabethan culture had narrower constraints (though probably no qualitative difference in highs and lows) than our own. In an era of DNA, neuroscience and the posited Technological Singularity, it's entirely predictable that the individual social expressions of the current culture will splinter and appear deeply chaotic or dissolute. And some will appear insane and/or inhuman. The lynchpin however is the capacity to form civic associations between individuals that are not mediated by your state or your parents. And that capacity appears very healthy. Chaotic and mystifying perhaps to older adults but vibrant nonetheless.

One could hardly imagine values more dissolute than those triggered by the plague in Europe, or those established in the English/British royal court at times. One could hardly see poverty more grinding than the 18th century Scottish highlands. Urban life in London for most of its existence must have always been pretty bestial at the lowest levels. We have no first person records for the thousands who died in squalor in London tenements from the Romans onward. Surely the Sudan has nothing to teach England about the seamier sides of human life. Yet somehow we end up where we are ... with the Anglosphere still standing athwart the historical trends toward bureaucratic despotism (China, and aspirationally the EU) and theocratic tribalism (the Muslim world), and still making headway.

Change works in the Anglosphere's favour, says Jim. If we actually take Jim's hypothesis on the Technological Singularity seriously, we must assume that the cultural patterns coming up will be even more strange, even more quickly developed, and even more challenging to the political system (e.g. the apocalyptically-empowered Angry Man). We'll get both depravity and discipline. Chaos and calm. Crime and Discovery. High-tech marvels and despicable predation. Dependency and generosity. The human costs will be what they've always been ... tragic. And the post facto glorifications of individual sacrifice will no doubt be thin consolation to the families involved. But I think we have no reason to be pessimistic about the capacity of people in the Anglosphere (as a whole) to sort out what's best for them if given choices. And, in a sense, the Anglosphere Challenge is an argument that is just one more choice on offer. Its explanatory power could be quickly converted into strategic power, given the chance by politicians and citizens.

As for Britain, the caution of the people will only be overcome when crisis hits ... and in my modest experience, despite the best efforts of the BBC at demonisation of America, most Brits in extremis would rather bet on someone from Kansas than someone from the Ukraine. Or someone from Manhattan rather than someone from Cairo. North America's a plane ride away. And many from the UK have already voted with their feet, if not their hearts. If that means Britain is one day effectively abandoned by the Anglosphere, it will be a deep historical grief, and more tragedy for the people involved, but won't alter the spirit inherited around the world from the isle. It'll take some considerable event to wipe the words Magna Charta or parliaments from the world's memory.

After 230 years, America may once again return to a status of maligned and "unnatural" nation but it will, like the Anglosphere itself, be the entity against which all the world must measure and test itself. All that resentment is based on something real and deeply threatening to the dirigistes and punks of Planet Earth.

Poorly socialized Muslim youths may have already passed their "best by" date as tool for diverting the Anglosphere or slowing the Singularity. Their "shock" value is now gone, even as Anglosphere values and technology press themselves further into the slums of the world. There are, I'm sure, lots of bad decisions yet to come by Anglosphere nations. Lots of crises. But if Jim is correct, the Anglosphere nations make incrementally better decisions than any others, over long stretches of time. The "compound interest" on those decisions is what keeps the Anglosphere in the bow wave of history. There are no guarantees, but the terms of reference will all be written in English for the foreseeable future.

Posted by jmccormick at September 26, 2005 06:59 PM

I'm happy to see James McCormick aboard.

Very interesting and plausible thesis.

A very short response to this would be -- advanced civil society with a rich web of connections is an incredibly robust self-healing organism, which has already absorbed many strong shocks, including the first Industrial Revolution. It absorbed the Sixties, as you point out. I have no way of knowing whether the Anglosphere will manage to muddle through the Singularity or not, but I think it is the human race's best bet.

Fukuyama covered some of this in The Great Disruption.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at September 27, 2005 02:59 PM

Jim M., thanks for this post.

I like especially your coinage about the "compound interest" on incrementally better decision-making over time. This captures very well what has been happening for several centuries well. I like also the lack of any utopianism in this statement of the issues.

Posted by: Lexington Green at September 28, 2005 12:12 PM