Does Modernized Traditionalism pose a threat to the West?

  • Dr. Balog Ádám Szerző:
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Liberal democracy and free market capitalism won its wars both economically and militarily. Some already thought it is “The End of History” and after the collapse of the Soviet Union there is no way back, democracy won. While probably this is not the case, it is true that no political theory was able to resist the sheer power of the West until now. Does Putin’s war mark the beginning of a new challenge for the West? Is Modernized Traditionalism a real threat or just a hiccup?

I believe there are three questions to be analyzed regarding Putin’s war: i) What are the reasons behind it? ii) Who is responsible for the outbreak of the war? iii) What will be the (economic) consequences?

I share my thoughts mostly on the third question here but obviously it cannot be detached from the first. As for the second, the moment Russia crossed the Ukrainian border with its troops, it became responsible, regardless of the reasons. Aggressor is always the responsible one.

Reactions to Putin’s war are mixed among countries, also within. Some say Putin is dangerous, a madman, while others see him as a great strategist, who planned his moves for decades. Similar but, of course, conflicting opinions arose regarding the “West” or more concretely towards the United States. On the one hand we often hear “Putin went mad”… on the other hand the “US is an evil scammer” … and then “The Ukrainians challenged their fate”… etc.

I consider it to be a normal human desire to look for simple explanations, to look for a simple truth. There is however a danger in finding a simple truth as it can be misleading, and it does not necessarily help forming appropriate strategies. As a great Hungarian writer, Sándor Márai wrote:

“And yet, sometimes facts are no more than pitiful consequences, because guilt does not reside in our acts but in the intentions that give rise to our act. Everything turns on our intentions.”

In this case it probably is true that geopolitical and economic interests are the facts behind the war. However, the more important question is, why war is the only solution for the dispute. There are many disputes between countries and war is rarely a means of resolving them. Are there deep, culturally determined intentions that drive aggressive actions?

After the collapse of the USSR some great thinkers[1] declared that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism is the final form of societies, it is “The End of History”. Liberalism defeated first fascism, then communism and there are no more competing political theories in the ring.

These thoughts were widely criticized almost immediately and are debated ever since. While the other school – marked by Samuel P. Huntington – argued that future conflicts will not arise between countries but between cultures. Ferguson quotes Huntington in a book[2] written more than two decades later when elaborating on the potential rivals of the West: “Chinese Far East and Muslim Middle East, or maybe the orthodox civilization of the Russian Empire will challenge the West”.

After a bit more than 30 years later it looks like Huntington’s prophecy is closer to the reality. Even if no coherent and competitive sociocultural system arose against the West yet, there are more and more signs that certain patterns can be repeatedly found in the conflicts between the above cultures and the West. First obvious pattern is the phenomenon of war. Western-type countries do not fight wars between each other. Another important pattern is the increased use of religious phrases and thoughts in political discussions. Islamic groups were the first going this way but since the fall of the Soviet Union Orthodox faith also got closer to Russian national identity as the Church expanded its influence on foreign and domestic politics. An interesting example of that is the relationship between the army and the Church. Protection of families, maintaining old values, critics regarding some liberal values (especially individualism) or denial of the coronavirus are less coherent, but recognizable patterns as well.

I will write more about the tendency and its patterns in the second part of this blog. As for now I will put these concepts under one umbrella and name it “Modernized Traditionalism”. My statement is that Putin’s war is the first larger conflict between the “Modernized Traditionalism” and the liberal world order, or the “West”.

Physical borders are not necessarily the dividing line between cultures. In the globalized world it is impossible to prevent thoughts to travel, and take root in a country. Thus, this conflict – Huntington was right again – is not between countries, or at least not in the sense conflicts used to be, but between two cultures.

The West

Strategy and tactics will prevail at the end over truth. Especially if the other truth is stronger. As Huntington put it,

“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence.”

As promised at the beginning I try to elaborate the (economic) consequences of the war. In order to do that I will take a strategic approach and examine the strategic advantages and disadvantages of the competing cultures. As discussed, Modernized Traditionalism is not yet a coherent culture, therefore it is easier to analyze the West first and the Modernized Traditionalism second and only in relation to the West’s strategical principles.

This comparison is especially interesting and challenging because one of the competing cultures is based on the economy, and cannot be interpreted without it, while in the other, economy is just one component. Fascism and communism bleeded out not understanding this… Putin may not either. Russian online commentaries made since mid-December last year usually separate economy and war. E.g. in Свободная Пресса. As if the economy would be something detachable from war in a market economy culture.

The West is based on the economy, namely free-market economy. This is a relatively new ideology in the course of human history. It has undergone tremendous changes in recent centuries, however still evolving. There is a lot of noise around it, and easily misunderstood. Let’s take a few steps back and look at it from a distance.

According to human ethologists[3] every culture, every society needs an integrated driving force. A shared belief according to which the rules of the society are established. The highest level of rules are sometimes called traditions in relation to older or dead cultures.

Cultures were built on and next to each other like the layers of the Earth’s surface. The very base is the same but there are places where a dense granite layer is still close to the surface while in other areas it is covered with thick limestone.

In the sphere of human cultures, interaction between layers were obviously much more intensive. Cultures were merged, destroyed in the course of history. Still for thousands of years these interactions were occasional and isolated not having a general impact on other civilizations. Cultures and their conflicts were geographically isolated in principle. To have a lasting, homogenous culture you cannot allow foreign beliefs within your walls. China was the best example for that.

On the physical Earth sometimes a volcano erupts, and everything is mixed up in a couple of hours, too quick for a balanced change. The lava is filling up the gaps, but the surface remains fragmented for a long time.

Exactly that is what happened in the history of Europe. First the Greek philosophers caused some small earthquakes, then the Romans came and mixed up the surface of the cultural geography and spread the Roman law. The Roman Empire still existed when Christian philosophy had its first rounds with the patristics. Influenced by Judaist and Greek ideas the free will of every individual human beingappeared as a strong concept, where every person has the capacity to choose the good instead of the devil. Disputed and debated ever since, but it appeared and did not fade away. My strong conviction is, this was the “fixed point” by which the whole world started to shake.

It did so deeply, because for thousands of years cultural beliefs were generated around something supernatural mixed with philosophy. Individuals did not have much room for improvement. Gods, fate, order were the center of discussions. People were born into the “caste” and lived the life the gods decided for him or her. Individual “will” was never part of the big equation.

Still almost a thousand years had to pass until this different path Europe (the “West”) took, became a strategic advantage.[4]

 What has happened? Instead of the whip of authority and the power of tradition, the lure of gain[5] became the main driving force of the society. In the purest and cruelest form of the free-market ideology every individual is motivated to act exactly as he/she saw fit. The society creates the most value this way, what we usually call utilitarianism, introduced by Jeremy Bentham.[6]

The idea of market economy became brutally powerful a few hundred years ago and fast became the strongest culture ever on Earth. As Heilbroner put it[7] about the most influential economists forming the idea:

“… they left their train shattered empires and exploded continents; they buttressed and undermined political regimes; they set class against class and even nation against nation – not because they plotted mischief, but because of the extraordinary power of their ideas.

Economy was no longer a servant of the culture, it became the culture and destroyed everything that resisted.

Many societies disintegrated in the process. It has been almost impossible for most to withstand the sheer power of the modern world. Even if a political regime did not / does not follow 100% the modern ways, blue jeans, Coca-Cola and McDonalds are more difficult to resist. And those few who are “independent”, like North Korea… well, they are not on the bright side of their history.

As the size of the economy became most important value in the modern world it is not a surprise that economically the modern world soared. GDP of the developed market economies gained a huge advantage. As Jose Ortega Y Gasset wrote[8] in the Revolt of the Masses:

“The root and cause of all good and bad is to be found in this general rise in historical standards.”

Modern world is based on the economy. Modern thinking is based on the ideology called the free-market economy. That is not something good or something bad. It is something that dramatically changed the way some societies work.

It is quite controversial now that while there are many countries just embracing the basics of free-market economy and others are even more behind or on a very different path, some great thinkers of the modern world are already looking to the future and would like to move forward. They talk about the “digital age”, the risks and opportunities of Artificial Intelligence, the “Homo Deus” and obviously of the Matrix renamed as “Metaverzums”. At the same time harmful consequences of the market economy are also more visible than ever. Unsustainable growth, pollution, ecological catastrophes, global warming just to name the most vital ones. Human beings can really be flexible and resistant, but this is a challenging ideological momentum for all stakeholders.

What are the strategic principles of the West?

The cornerstone of the modern world is the individual. Even if the original utilitarianism is much refined, its basic nature did not change. Strategically it is the individual, who must have a motivation to do something. Things happen bottom up and not top down. These individuals can be of course also manipulated or motivated, but only on a higher level of the Maslow pyramid. As Byung-Chul Han wrote it in the book Psychopolitics:

“… instead of forbidding and depriving it works through pleasing and fulfilling, instead of making people compliant, it seeks to make them dependent.”

This is an extremely negative approach and wording, but shows the phenomenon bluntly.

Of course, a culture built on the self-interest of many individuals can be very unstable. It is a kind of mass prisoner’s dilemma, where individuals always have an incentive to choose a way that creates a less than optimal outcome for the other individuals in the society. Which happens often. Therefore, the market economy culture needed some supportive institutions.

Competition is probably the most important one. There is no fix social order, individuals need to compete continuously. The more this competition is through increased effectiveness, the more added value is being created, the most wealth is accumulated, thus more well-being is reached for the whole society. The methodology of (free) scientific thinking and work ethic provided a good basis to achieve more knowledge and more added value.

People’s attitudes do not change however, and time to time they may try to avoid the tiring and risky act of competition. This may result in working around the system rather than competing. Connections, corruption, monopolies, and other market constraints can spoil the system.

To overcome this, legal framework is key. If competition is the most important driver, then rule of law is the most important protection mechanism. Rule of law protects those rights which are necessary for the individuals in the market economy to operate. The right to own property, to make profit, to trade, to provide services, to make monetary transactions, to decide where and what to workare the minimum requirements, the minimum economic freedoms. Some went further, Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen argues for example, that individuals should also have the right for freedom from material or spiritual needs, which in economic policy could result in a base income.

Money is something to be discussed briefly yet. Money has many connections to the market economy, but it has its own special nature as well. No surprise, many early economists simply took it as a necessary supplement to be used in the market economy, but they left it out of the economic modelling. Money in the modern economies is largely credit money. About the “black magic” of bankers Yanis Varoufakis’s book “Talking to My Daughter, a brief history of capitalism” is a must read. It explains, how the planning and execution of an enterprise turned upside down due to the spread of credit. Credit generates an over-motivation, which pushes the individuals for even more effectiveness and even more gain. While this results in dangerous economic overheating from time to time, the speed of economic growth would not have been that high in the last couple of centuries without the credit money.

Furthermore, the infrastructure of money is key to the operation of the economy, now more than ever. Many people love sexy IT solutions provided by the fintech, large tech companies or banks, but only a few think about how vulnerable these make the economic actors to the global money infrastructure.

Taking stock, the ideal market economy has:

  • intrinsically motivated individuals;
  • a generally competitive attitude and competition;
  • economic freedoms;
  • rule of law;
  • good analytical skills based on the methods of scientific thinking;
  • strong work ethic AND
  • (credit) money.

In summary, the strategy of the West is based on the human mind, on the power of human thoughts and coordinated by a few well selected institutions. It values “order” or “command” or “god’s will” less. It is not a stable order, it is more like an organized disorder. To make it work, all components are needed, no cherry picking is possible.

And finally, a little more Ortega:

“Today the idea has become a reality, but it has not been included in the laws, because they are only external schemes of public life, but in the hearts of all people.”[9]

To be continued.

[1] Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama is probably the most famous among them

[2] Civilization: The West and the Rest, p. 373 in the Hungarian edition, 2016

[3] For example Vilmos Csányi in Hungary

[4] There are great books about the coercive forces and the brilliant thoughts paved way for the free market economy. Acemoglu, Robinson, Ferguson, Harari are recently very popular and providing really great historical and institutional analyses on the matter. My personal favorite however is Robert L. Heilbroner, who wrote a unique book, The worldy philosophers a bit earlier, in 1953.

[5] Heilbroner’s expression

[6] For those with a more literary heart, The fable of the Bees is suggested by Bernard Mandeville.

[7] Heilbroner, The worldy philosophers, 7th edition, 1999

[8] Jose Ortega Y Gasset: The Revolt of the Masses, p. 65, Hungarian edition, 2019.

[9] Jose Ortega Y Gasset: The Revolt of the Masses, p. 63, Hungarian edition, 2019.

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