Saturday, January 21, 2017

Cultural Trauma and Authoritarianism

What the Mongols did to the Muslim world, China, and Russia.

Russia is certainly in the news now, and what do you know, but over the holidays Santa Claus brought me Martin Sixsmith's history of Russia. It breezes all too quickly through the first millenium or so of Rus, from its semi-mythical origins in the 800's as yet another Viking outpost, like that of the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons in England, and the Normans in France, England and later in Italy and Palestine.

Sixsmith paints a picture of a reasonably cosmopolitan and open society (centered in Kiev) in the very early period, though always quarreling and lacking centralized leadership and legitimacy, as was true for most other Western regions during the middle ages (and elsewhere in human history). All that changed in 1240, when the Mongols concluded a lengthy conquest, and put Russia under a severe yoke for the following 240 years.

While there has been quite an effort in recent years to rehabilitate the Mongols, one can make the case that the rise of Western Europe over all other areas of the world in the last few hundred years is due in large part to the destruction or hobbling of its competitors by the Mongols. This applies to China, to Russia, and most profoundly, to the Muslim world.

In Russia, the Mongols exterminated entire cities and forced the remainder to pay heavy tributes, as well as a lot of bowing and scraping, to their new overlords. But contrary to Sixsmith's portrayal, the Mongol rule was not terribly heavy-handed. They ruled through the local nobility, which, while neutered, was not destroyed. The Mongols also instituted some administrative efficiencies that accelerated institutional development. Perhaps the main effect, however, was the general trauma of violation and subjugation. With no natural borders, and predatory neighbors, the Russians evidently came to the conclusion that: 1. With regard to governing style, if you can't beat them, join them (i.e. the autocratic, despotic, and extremely effective military organization of the Mongols), and 2. That autocratic central power is the only way to keep Russia whole against its many neighbors. We in the US live in such a pleasant and peaceful neighborhood (Oh, Canada!), yet still are strikingly paranoid about Communism, Islam, immigration, etc.- take your pick. Imagine if those threats were actually real!
The enormous Mongol empire, 1200's.

Sixsmith certainly draws a line between this trauma and the continuing dedication of Russia to statism and autocracy, now exemplified by Vladimir Putin's nouveau despotism. China has ended up in a very similar place, from a much longer history of dynamic centralization, but similar subjugation by the Mongols. It is easy to draw the lesson that strength is the only way to survive in such a rough neighborhood. Yet it is a conclusion a little too-easily drawn by those already in power, whose only real interest is staying in power. Both China and Russia are exemplars of the extremes of depotic rule, particularly after it was given a whole new propagandistic lease on life by a Western ideology far more amenable and convenient than liberal democracy: communism. In China, it works tolerably well at the moment, but only by being radically tamed from the heights achieved by Chairman Mao.

But the saddest trauma was suffered by the Muslim world, which was at its height when the Mongols trashed Baghdad. In the centuries since, they have not gained a continent-wide empire (excepting the conquests and splendors of Mughal period), and have fallen progressively behind Western Europe. Whether the low point was the cavalier carving up of Muslim countries by the British (and French and Russians) after the fall of the Ottoman empire, or the current Islamist insanity, the Muslim world has had an increasingly frought relationship with the rest of the world, and with Modernity.

The Muslim approach to statehood and governance has always been lacking, based as it is on Muhammed as a singular and unreplicable example. A tribal and militaristic style succeeded after Muhammed's death, in channelling the energies of the unified community to winning an enormous empire. The caliphate then kept things together loosely, with religion as the core of identity. But it was always by civil war that God decided on the winners in the battle for the next ruling family. In Europe, the Catholic church (and its monastic affiliates) provided a much more stable model of governance, via election out of an oligarchy of cardinals. Later on, the Protestant reformation prompted ever greater attention to the role of the individual, as arbiter of celestial as well as terrestrial salvation. These threads of practice and theory led, in excruciatingly slow fashion, to the secular democratic state we have today.

When crisis threw Muslims back onto their religion as the bulwark of communal identity, there was little to go on to develop state institutions. Thus states tended to revert to tribal autocracy as the model. In the Arab core of the Muslim world, this remains the rule to this day. In outlying areas, however, such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, (possibly Egypt and Tunisia), non-religious ideologies and influences have been more powerful, such as British colonialism, and the active Westernizing secularism of Ataturk. These countries have highly authoritarian tendencies, but have so far successfully cast aside enough of their Muslim ideological baggage to make democratic systems work to some degree.

This lack of legitimate state development in the bulk of the historical Muslim world, perhaps accentuated by the trauma of Mongol destruction, is central to its current complaints. It was central to their lack of resistance to Western imperialism, to their lack of effective post-colonial governance, to lack of human development and the economic development it leads to. It was also central to our disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US dreamed of quickly implanting democracy, only to be faced by a culture utterly unprepared for it, with far more fissiparous fish to fry. If God anoints the strong to rule over the weak, by way of warfare in general and jihad in particular, what is the point of legally bound representative state institutions?

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