September 29, 2018

THE TRUE BELIEFS OF LIFE'S LOSERS:

Purity or Universalism? (Sami J. Karam, 9/28/18, Quillete)

The world's main competing social and political blocs can therefore no longer be understood as a historic confrontation between East and West, North and South, Socialism and Capitalism, or Christendom and Islam. Although some politicians remain wedded to them, these models do a poor job explaining the present state of play. The main competition now is between universalism and the wish to be pure. Purity manifests itself in thought or ideological orthodoxy--polarized media such as Fox and MSNBC and college campuses--or as geographic localism, as seen in the resurgence of nationalism. By contrast, universalism is about the competition for ideas (not orthodoxy) and about globalization and diversity (not localism).

The orthodoxy is motivated by a 'progressive' belief that society is perfectible and that any backsliding in the 'wrong' direction is unacceptable. Adherents to this belief ascribe a righteousness and inevitability to social change usually reserved for scientific discovery. The localism has its roots in disenchantment with globalization, nation building, mass migration, rent-seeking cosmopolitan elites, and international institutions. Its main effect has been to re-energize a nationalism and a populism thought to have died in the West at the time of Naipaul's speech. As Anne Applebaum remarked in a recent essay about Poland for the Atlantic, "Sooner or later, the losers of the competition were always going to challenge the value of the competition itself."

The two principal building blocks of universal civilization are globalized competition--not only in goods, but also in ideas--and freer movement of people. But competition creates winners and losers. The winners have often been individuals or groups with a weaker connection to ideology or to geography (say investment bankers who can work as effectively in New York, London, or Hong Kong). By contrast, the losers have typically had a stronger connection to ideology or geography or both and have increasingly sought to capitalize on that connection.

Of course, universal civilization committed many errors of its own that contributed to its fall from favor. Rising inequality and rampant cronyism have played a part in convincing people in many countries that globalization does not share its wealth widely and does not spread its opportunities universally. So, Naipaul was right to identify a "wish to be pure" but he was wrong to believe that it appeared in only a few places that were culturally different from the West. We have it here, on the Left with orthodoxy and on the Right with localism.

But where does this wish to be pure come from? It is a way to change the rules of the game. If you can't win at game A, switch to game B where your odds may be better. If competitive capitalism doesn't deliver for you, switch to cronyism or to socialism. If the competition of ideas is a strain and you resent the financial success of the more competent, switch to the cleansing orthodoxy of a party line. If globalism and diversity don't work for you and you envy the progress of the immigrant or minority, switch to localism and ethnocentric nationalism.

After the spoils of competition have been distributed, those who consider that they got less than their just deserts have an incentive to question why and how somebody deserves something. In their upended logic, if winners have deserved more by going to college, then there is something wrong with college; or if it looks ex-post that it was helpful to some people to be part of a certain ethnic group, then there is something wrong with that group; or if intellectual property (software, media, technology) has delivered more wealth than real property (real estate, extractive industries, gold), then there is something wrong with intellectualism.

There are two main ways of deserving:

Merit: This is about competitive performance, hard work, and competence. It is the ethos of universalism.

Faith and Identity: This is about loyalty to God or to the group. It is the ethos of the wish to be pure.

The rewards of merit are largely uncontrollable, especially in a hyper-competitive society. But faith and identity can deliver for people who organize in groups to restrict competition from outsiders.

There is a global trend today of people in many countries looking for a shortcut towards success by reinforcing their identity, through either orthodoxy or localism. This pursuit of purity holds that if a person were truer to his identity, then his mind and body will be cleansed of the toxins that contribute to his misery. If a believer is more religious, his co-religionists and his god will reward his devotion, respectively; if a nationalist is more patriotic, his nation will reward his loyalty; and if a person of a certain gender or race is more representative of his demographic, his community will reward his solidarity.

This mode of thinking is no longer chiefly found in developing countries or god-fearing theocracies. The global wish for purity is nearly everywhere and it is spreading.

The main problem with the quest for purity is that it is fine in one's own home or church but it becomes a problem in the public square, which--by virtue of being inherently diverse and competitive--is configured to resist the wish to be pure. In all but the most homogeneous countries or regions, the desire for purity is difficult to reconcile with competitive politics.

It is not merely pejorative to state that the Left and Right are anti-American, for it is democracy, capitalism and protestantism that they oppose, the marketplace having proven hostile to their true beliefs..

Posted by at September 29, 2018 9:20 AM

  

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