Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Pernicious Myth of "Human Nature"

The belief that “human nature” includes instinctual drives towards aggression and violence has caused much mischief. The belief has led to a sort of “boys will be boys” attitude towards violence. Such beliefs can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If one believes that human nature is inherently violent and aggressive, then one must also believe that violence and aggression are inescapable aspects of the human condition, and that any proposal that seeks to reduce or eliminate violence and aggression is doomed to failure. Therefore, it logically follows, it is pointless, even counterproductive, to seek to implement any such proposals. As a result, aggression and violence continue to be prevalent in our lives.

Two things have caused me to think about the great damage that has been caused by the belief that there is such a thing as “human nature”, and that this nature is inescapably violent. First, I have recently read Robert Kagan’s new book, The Return of History and The End of Dreams (it’s only a little over 100 pages long, so it’s really more like an essay than an actual book, but nevertheless, Kagan somehow got somebody to publish it as a stand-alone book). Second, I recently attended a fortieth anniversary special screening and panel discussion of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001 A Space Odyssey, a work of art that I admired greatly when I first saw it as a radical-wannabe teenager during the peak of the counterculture in 1968, but which now fills me with great misgivings when viewed through the eyes of a middle-aged liberal.

Kagan’s book is an extremely important book. It is, in my opinion, a thoroughly loathsome book and I disagree with just about every word of it, including “and” and “the” to borrow a line from Mary McCarthy, and I often found myself throwing down the book in exasperation while reading it (I took it out from the local public library so as to avoid contributing to Mr. Kagan’s royalties, and I frequently had to remind myself not to do damage to public property). Nevertheless, it is a very important book. It is an important work because it is an excellent articulation of the current state of the political philosophy generally known as “neo-conservatism”. Kagan is one of the leading foreign policy advisers to Senator McCain and the book is basically a position paper for the foreign policy that would be pursued during a McCain Presidency. McCain’s call for the creation of a “League of Democracies” to carry out military adventures under the leadership of the United States in the years ahead comes directly from Kagan.

The book also has a lot to do with some of the “inside baseball” in the neo-conservative movement. The Kagan family is sort of the neo-con version of the Partridge Family. Robert Kagan was one of the prime movers behind the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which remains the focal point for neo-conservative ideas. Patriarch Donald Kagan, a classics scholar at Yale, was one of the early godfathers of neo-conservative philosophy. Brother Frederick Kagan has also been affiliated with PNAC, and was a strident proponent of both the initiation of the Iraq War and of its continuation and escalation and prolongation (the so-called “surge”), with the ultimate goal of installing a permanent U.S. military force in Iraq – the “100-year” occupation espoused by Senator McCain.

Robert Kagan’s new book, in addition to being the blueprint for the foreign policy of a McCain Presidency, is also a rejoinder to the writings of another (now erstwhile) leading light of the neo-conservative movement, Francis Fukuyama. The title of Kagan’s book is actually a dig at the title of Fukuyama’s major work, The End of History and The Last Man. Fukuyama is regarded as something of an apostate by other neo-conservatives, as he has expressed the opinion in his latest book, America at the Crossroads, that the Iraq War was a mistake and Fukuyama has abandoned what had previously been a central tenet of his neo-conservative philosophy, namely, that the United States can and should engage in military conquest for the purpose of spreading “democracy.” Fukuyama has also given a tentative endorsement of Obama’s campaign.

Fukuyama’s celebrated “end of history” thesis was as follows. Fukuyama opined that the end of the Cold War signaled the end of socialism and left free-market capitalism as the world’s sole economic system. However, Fukuyama is a non-Marxist Hegelian who believes that economics isn’t everything, so he was not content to accept the benefits of a world united by globalization and the attendant economic benefits it could bring to the peoples of the world. For Fukuyama, America’s “victory” in the Cold War was not just a triumph for an economic system, it was a triumph for an ideal, namely, the ideal of “democracy.” Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War ushered in the “end of history” because it meant that the entire world would now be united by a single common ideology, namely, American-style “democracy.” And, since the end of the Cold War left the United States as the world’s sole superpower, Fukuyama advocated the liberal use of American military force in order the accelerate the global spread of “democracy.”

As noted, Fukuyama now concedes the error of at least some of his ways, as the Iraq debacle has convinced him to abandon the core principles of neo-conservatism. Neo-cons such as Kagan (and McCain), however, are made of sterner stuff.

Kagan argues that the weakness in Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis lay in its failure to give sufficient recognition to the “instincts for aggression and violence” that are embedded in human nature. Fukuyama’s work had devoted great attention to the classical Greek concept of thumos, the passionate, irrational component of human nature that produces the ferocious sorts of conflicts among tribes, clans, and nations, which we have come to know as “war.” Fukuyama did not contend that thumos could be eliminated; rather, he argued that human instincts for competition would be channeled into peaceful pursuits as a result of the universal embrace of Euro-American style “democracy.” Kagan argues that Fukyama’s thesis is nothing more than wishful thinking, and Kagan announces, almost gleefully, that large-scale, nation vs. nation warfare is here to stay.

Kagan points to what he claims to be the lessons of the post-Cold War period in order to support his argument. Kagan asserts that even though global capitalism as an economic system has indeed swept virtually the entire world, this has not led to a trend towards global democracy. The rule of the Communist Party in China appears unshakable. After an initial and largely unsatisfactory flirtation with democracy during the Yeltsin era, Russia appears to have reverted to authoritarianism under the Putin regime. According to Kagan, there is no necessary connection between capitalism and democracy. Kagan believes that “authoritarian capitalism” has shown itself to be a perfectly viable political and economic system in China and Russia, and he believes that it is proving to be a very attractive model for many developing countries in Central Asia and Africa. In Kagan’s world, we can expect “authoritarian capitalist” regimes to be around for quite some time unless they are confronted, and defeated, militarily.

Kagan, like Fukuyama, sees conflict as rooted in ideology, not economics. Here is where the concept of thumos once again raises its ugly head. Kagan believes that the instincts for violence and aggression inherent in human nature make it inevitable that there will be violent conflicts between the rival ideologies of democracy and authoritarianism. Kagan concludes that we have not arrived at Fukuyama’s “end of history” – hence Kagan's assertion of the “return of history” – and we can look forward to a twenty-first century that will be as bloody as the last century. Actually, Kagan suggests that the twenty-first century will be more like the nineteenth century in that there are no longer competing economic systems following the end of the Cold War, just national ideologies struggling to achieve dominance. Nevertheless, in Kagan’s world we should rest assured that human nature will guarantee that these conflicts will be carried out through bloodshed and violence. In order to ensure that America achieves “victory” in this violent world, it should continue to maintain its massive military establishment, and most importantly, the United States must have a military establishment capable of fighting large-scale wars against other powerful nations (i.e., China and Russia), and not just a military attuned to engage in counterinsurgency fighting in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, Kagan articulates the proposal that has become the centerpiece of McCain’s foreign policy agenda, namely, that the United States should become the leader of a “League of Democracies” that will carry out the fight against our “authoritarian” rivals around the world. This program includes steps such as the virtual scrapping of the United Nations, the expulsion of Russia from the G-8, and the threat of an American military response to protect the “democracy” in Taiwan against Chinese aggression.

Notably, the threat of Islamic extremism plays a somewhat secondary role in Kagan’s world. At first blush, this might seem inconsistent with what is generally assumed to be the preoccupations of the neo-cons. However, it is perfectly consistent with the PNAC worldview, which sought to achieve an international system based on American hegemony brought about by military might. While Kagan is by no means a fan of radical Islam, he views American military action in the Middle East as merely one part of his scheme of a larger global ideological conflict between “democracy” and “authoritarianism.” Kagan’s goals for American military action in the Middle East are, (1) to promote “democracy” where possible, thereby recruiting new members of the “League of Democracies” that will be the military partners of the United States, and (2) even more importantly, to gain control over vital resources (oil, of course) so as to deny those resources to our authoritarian enemies.

As I said earlier, I disagree with just about every word of Kagan’s book, so I have a bit of a hard time articulating these disagreements in a coherent way. I’ll give it a try.

One can challenge the particulars of Kagan's assumptions about the post-Cold War world. The paradigm of dividing the world into warring ideological camps denominated as "democracies" and "autocracies" is way off base. While states such as Russia and China are certainly far from being open societies along the lines of the liberal democratic ideal, they are unquestionably far freer than they were under their communist regimes. Russia now does conduct elections, and those elections cannot be dismissed as being wholly without substance. While China has made little movement in the direction of electoral democracy, the structure of the Communist Party itself has become far more flexible and amenable to change, and in some cases, it is even responsive to public opinion. The recent earthquake in Sichuan province offers a good example of this. Provincial party officials who were not sufficiently responsive in dealing with the crisis were subjected to intense popular criticism. http://www.thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog/2008/06/the_sichuan_quake_system_pertu.html#comments For the most part, the Chinese party leadership responded not by cracking down on demonstrations of popular anger, but rather, by removing incompetent or corrupt local officials. The contrast with the Bush Administration’s handling of incompetent officials who bungled the Federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina – Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff kept his job and still holds it – is noteworthy, and to any objective American, humbling.

It is also instructive to look at the other side of the democracy vs. autocracy divide in assessing how accurate Kagan’s analysis really is. The paragon of democracy in Kagan’s world, the United States, has unquestionably been drifting in a much more authoritarian direction during the eight years of the Bush/Cheney administration. The United States government under Bush and Cheney openly advocates programs involving torture and detention, and President Bush engaged in widespread illegal electronic surveillance. Security procedures such as random searches and omnipresent metal detectors have become accepted features of American life. The authoritarian drift in American society is not confined to anti-terrorist measures adopted in the wake of 9/11. Calls for the closing of American borders in order to cut off immigration draw great support among the far right, and even among followers of pseudo populists such as Lou Dobbs. The United States employs capital punishment on a scale unknown anywhere in the “democratic” world – even authoritarian Russia has abolished capital punishment. The United States now has the world’s largest prison population, both in absolute and per capita terms; again, the “autocracies” of China and Russia lag far behind the United States in the rate at which they imprison their own people.

One can also question Kagan’s assertion that autocracies present a greater danger of military aggression than do democracies. Kagan would point to the recent events in Georgia to bolster his contention that the Russian autocracy is a major threat to world peace which the United States must be prepared to resist. The facts of what happened in Georgia are far from clear, as Russian officials have strongly asserted that Georgia initiated the conflict by attacking Russian troops in South Ossetia, and allegedly committing atrocities against Ossetians. While the extent or even the existence of any atrocities committed by Georgian troops in South Ossetia remains unproven, there appears to be little dispute that the hostilities were initiated by Georgian troops that began heavy shelling of Russian troops in South Ossetia; Russian troops have been present in South Ossetia for the past fifteen years, effectively since the break-up of the Soviet Union, pursuant to a mutual agreement between the governments of Russia and Georgia. To be sure, it can be argued that Russian use of military force in Georgia was excessive, but one can only imagine how restrained the United States would be if Castro suddenly decided to start lobbing artillery shells into Guantanamo.

Any objective observer of recent international affairs would have to acknowledge that the most militarily adventurous nation has been the democratic United States, not the autocratic Russia or China. In the past twenty years, the United States has launched invasions of numerous sovereign nations: Panama, Iraq (twice), Somalia, Haiti, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and most recently, Pakistan. Many of these invasions have had little to do with either the defense of the United States or a response to direct threats against the United States. Nor have many of these military actions by the United States received the approval of any international authority. The most egregious example, of course, is the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, which the United Nations explicitly refused to bless. The United States invaded Iraq anyway, effectively unilaterally, and has occupied Iraq for the past five years. As long as the Republican Party remains in power in Washington, there is no reason to believe that this occupation will end anytime in the foreseeable future. There have been no international calls to have the United States subjected to military or economic sanctions because of its patently illegal occupation of Iraq, comparable to the assertions that followed Russia’s relatively short-lived incursion into Georgia.

The military aggressiveness of the United States in recent years has not been limited to the launching of invasions of other countries. The United States has consistently pressed for the eastward expansion of NATO, including into the former Soviet Union in states bordering directly on Russia, such as the Ukraine and Georgia. It is not entirely clear what purpose NATO serves today following the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union. The United States has sought to make it seem as though NATO is merely an adjunct of the European Union, playing a role that is as much an economic one as a military one. Russian leaders Yeltsin and later Putin argued that if this is the case, then there is no reason why Russia itself could not become a member of NATO. The United States has staunchly opposed this suggestion. Russia has viewed American efforts to expand NATO right up to its doorstep with great suspicion, seeing it as an effort by the United States to expand its military power throughout Eastern Europe and place Russia in a military position where it is at the mercy of the United States. Russia’s suspicions about the ulterior motives of the United States draw support from the Bush Administration’s insistence upon installing American missile systems in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. To make matters worse, the Bush Administration has advanced the preposterous claim that the purpose of these missile systems is to protect Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe from a missile attack launched by Iran, supposedly having no connection at all to Russia. Not surprisingly, one of the first things that the Bush Administration did in response to Russia’s Georgian incursion was to announce the agreement with Poland to proceed with the construction of American missile sites; in other words, the United States promptly dropped the fig leaf that the missiles were supposedly directed against Iran rather than Russia. No wonder Russia views the United States as a duplicitous, aggressive power intent upon making itself the dominant military power in the world and reducing Russia to a vassal status.

Ultimately, there is not much to be gained by attempting to dissect the particulars of Kagan’s polemic. Kagan is primarily a propagandist, not an objective analyst of international affairs. As noted, Kagan was one of the founders and intellectual leading lights of PNAC. PNAC seeks to promote an agenda based on American military hegemony. The maintenance, and expansion, of a massive American military establishment is the essential component of the PNAC program. The PNAC thesis is that the United States is the world’s sole superpower following the end of the Cold War, and that the United States should freely use its military supremacy to establish a dominant position in the world, before other powers such as Russia and China can come into their own as potential rivals. The goal is to establish a Pax Americana, a new Roman Empire that will last for the balance of the twenty-first century and beyond.

This then is the true subtext of The Return of History. While Kagan may be purporting to sound the alarm about potential dangers posed by states such as Russia and China, his real agenda is to justify the continuing expansion of American military power throughout the world. And, given the assumptions underlying Kagan’s view of human history – that bloody military conflicts and struggles for national hegemony are an inevitable part of human relations and will continue as such for the foreseeable future unless the United States gets busy establishing a Pax Americana – the program Kagan is promoting is perfectly understandable, even laudable. After all, if you assume that great power military conflict, i.e., warfare between powerful nation states, is an inescapable aspect of the human condition, it makes sense that you would want your nation to come out on top. It all comes back to this concept that human nature is inherently violent and aggressive – the thumos of the ancient Greeks on which both Kagan and Fukuyama place so much importance – that determines the aggressive militaristic agenda that Kagan, and the rest of the neo-cons, want the United States to pursue.

In the title of this post, I characterize the concept of an inherently violent and aggressive “human nature” as a “myth”. But is it? Centuries of bloodshed and warfare would argue that I am a blind fool in making such an assertion. This then brings me to the second component of the inspiration for my post, my recent re-viewing of Kubrick’s 2001.

I have always believed that the most striking segment of 2001 is not the protracted scenes of balletic space travel or the psychedelic light show at the end of the film, but rather, the introductory segment entitled “The Dawn of Man.” This part of the film deals explicitly with the relationships among violence, aggression, tribalism, warfare and civilization. Kubrick’s concept of an inherently bloodthirsty human nature as articulated very clearly in the opening section of 2001, permeates all of his films, most notably Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, and The Shining.

For those readers who, unlike me, have not committed every frame of 2001 to memory, I will recap the “plot” of the opening segment of the film. The film focuses on a group of early hominids, probably Australophithecenes or a similar species, living on the African plains in terror of predators, eking out a meager subsistence by competing with tapirs and other mammals for edible roots and sparse vegetation, and struggling with rival hominids for control of scarce water resources. One day, the hominids are visited by intelligent extraterrestrials in the form of a mysterious black monolith, accompanied by the eerie music of Gyorgi Ligeti, and the encounter triggers the beginning of logical thought in the hominids. While gazing at a pile of tapir bones, it occurs to one of the hominids, to the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra, that the femur could be used as a weapon to bash in the skulls of living tapirs. The thought is transformed into action and the hominids are promptly feasting on raw tapir meat. They soon use the bone-clubs to attack and kill rival hominids in order to gain control of a contested waterhole. The victorious hominid throws his club into the air in triumph, and the film abruptly cuts to outer space in the year 2001, where Americans are competing with Soviets for control of the moon. The message of all this is quite clear: there is a direct linkage between aggression and civilization. Violence is inherent in human nature.

When 2001 was made in 1968, many of the most important anthropological discoveries that have given us information about the evolution of early hominids had not yet been made. Lucy, the nearly intact fossilized remains of a female Australopithecus, was not discovered until 1974. The discoveries that have been made about early hominids make it clear that the version of events put forth in 2001, aside from the obvious fact that there is no evidence that singing extraterrestrial monoliths played any role in human evolution, is almost entirely incorrect.

Some of the errors in 2001 were clear to me in my recent re-viewing as a matter of commonsense, and I was astounded that I had not noticed them before. My daughter, a first-year medical student who took me to the screening as a birthday present, immediately pointed out the absurdity of any animal suddenly changing from herbivorous prey to carnivorous predator, as its digestive system could not possibly tolerate such a radical change in diet. Obviously, the human capacity to consume animal protein is something that evolved over a long period of time. Indeed, anthropological discoveries indicate that early hominids had a long history of consuming animal protein, but they did so because they were scavengers, not because they were hunters. The act of killing animals in order to consume their flesh was actually a fairly late development in human evolution. By the time that occurred, hominids had been eating animal protein for centuries, usually in the form of bone marrow obtained from the skeletons of animals that had been killed by other predators. And by the time that humans began the practice of hunting living animals for food, humans were well advanced in the making of tools and were already well on the road to the development of what we would ultimately call civilization.

The question of tool-making also brings up another obvious fallacy in the scenario presented in 2001. Tapirs, like many mammals, are covered with pretty tough hides. Even if an Australopithecus could figure out how to club a tapir to death with a femur, the hominid would still have the problem of cutting open the carcass of the dead tapir in order to consume its flesh. Hominids do not have sharp fangs or claws. In order to dissect an animal to be able to eat it, a hominid would have to have some form of cutting tool. Plainly, intelligent tool-making behavior among hominids preceded hunting. In fact, anthropological discoveries have shown that probably the earliest tools created by hominids were sharpened stones to be used as cutting tools. These primitive “knives” were too small to be used as effective weapons to kill prey; unquestionably, they were used to cut open the carcasses of already dead animals that were killed by other predators and appropriated by hominid scavengers.

One aspect of human pre-history that 2001 probably got right was the focus on competition for water as being a central aspect of hominid existence. However, even this fact sheds a somewhat different light on human evolution. Early hominids required water not just because they were thirsty, but because water played a unique role in human evolution. Again, the study of fossils such as Lucy indicates that from a very early time, hominids had developed two of the characteristics that we often think of as uniquely human: bipedalism and relative hairlessness. These characteristics almost certainly relate to the fact that hominids have a uniquely efficient cooling system. Bipedalism helps to make the human cooling system work more efficiently, since it exposes a larger surface area of the skin to the air than would be the case for an animal walking on four legs, thereby leading to more rapid evaporation of perspiration and more effective cooling. As a consequence, however, hominids have to consume much greater amounts of water than do other animals.

This highly efficient cooling system provided early hominids with an important advantage – they could cover great distances in the hot African climate. Again, this is critical to understanding what anthropology has taught us about the existence of early hominids. Early hominids were highly nomadic creatures, existing not as hunters, but as scavengers. Hominids found a neat little evolutionary niche that enabled them (us) to survive notwithstanding their lack of strength and speed or innate weapons such as fangs and claws. They could roam about large distances in the African heat, finding animal protein to eat in the remains of carcasses left behind by predators and in the bits of marrow dug out of animal bones. This relatively high protein diet in turn made possible other evolutionary improvements, such as a gradual increase in height and weight, and most importantly, larger brain size.

Let’s now do a Kubrickian quick cut and jump back to the world of 2008, where Robert Kagan and the neo-conservatives are prattling on about “the return of history” and the inevitability of inter-state warfare. But is there really such a thing as an inherently violent “human nature” that makes warfare an inescapable component of the human condition? I would submit that the evidence would not support such a conclusion. What we can learn from anthropology is that to the extent that there is such a thing as “human nature” – and in my view, the very concept is of highly questionable utility – that nature is not one of violence and aggression, but rather, one of opportunism and improvisation. To be sure, humans have the capacity to be aggressive and violent, but it is a capacity that tends to be used when it is expedient to do so. All in all, I would submit that the capacity for violence is well down the list of distinctive human characteristics. The scrawny, slow-footed, clawless and fangless creatures that ultimately evolved into homo sapiens survived and even flourished not because they were so violent and aggressive, but because they were clever scavengers who could steal a carcass from a predator, who could figure out ways to get the maximum amount of nourishment out of a dead animal, and who could explore great distances in order to find more carcasses and the precious water they needed to keep their unique cooling systems working.

What does this tell us about thumos, the ancient Greek concept of an inherent human propensity for aggression, that is so important to Fukuyama and Kagan, and many other philosophers as well? I think that thumos is another ancient Greek myth, having no more reality than Pegasus or Medusa. As noted, the patriarch of the Kagan clan, Donald Kagan, is a classics scholar, and there is a tendency among classicists to think that just because the ancient Greeks believed something and attached a portentous Greek word to the belief, it must be true. Galileo disproved Aristotle’s claims about the speed with which objects of different weights fall to the ground, thereby paving the way for Newton and the beginning of modern science. I have no problem with a similar declaration of independence from the tyrannies of ancient Greek philosophies in the realm of social science, which, among other things, have saddled us with some baseless mythology about human nature.

What does all of this have to do with contemporary international relations, the subject of Kagan’s recent little book? It seems to me that if you believe that there is such a thing as human nature that is exemplified by Kubrick’s early hominids, whose first sentient thoughts concerned killing, first other animals and soon other members of its own species, ultimately building an entire civilization based on aggression and bloodshed, then you will be inclined to accept Kagan’s view of international affairs, in which large-scale inter-state warfare is inescapable and in which the wisest policy is to seek to become the dominant power. On the other hand, if you believe that if there is such a thing as human nature, it is best exemplified by Lucy and her descendants, highly opportunistic scavengers who only developed the use of violence as a survival technique fairly late in the day and after human beings were well on the road to civilization, then you are more inclined to see the evolution of economic systems and the development of social and political institutions, rather than the inevitability of inter-state warfare, as the most important forces shaping international affairs.

As is evident from what I have written, my view is that Lucy, the real hominid, tells us a lot more about human nature than do Kubrick’s fictitious hominids. Human beings are principally driven by the need to make a living for themselves and their families. Without question, violence has played a very important role in our history, but violence is an adaptation to particular circumstances, not an instinctual driving force that inevitably controls the behavior of human beings. Under the right circumstances, there is no reason why the role of violence in human affairs cannot be reduced to a minimum. This applies in particular to the most destructive manifestation of human violence, inter-state warfare.

At the present stage of human development, economic conditions have brought us to a point where the virtual elimination of large-scale inter-state warfare is indeed a realistic eventuality. From the time of Lucy until relatively recently, virtually all human beings spent most of their lives confronting the fundamental economic problem of survival. Today, that problem has been solved for vast numbers of people. Because of the progress of economic globalization, there are now large numbers of people leading middle-class lives in China and other Asian countries, India, Russia, Latin America, and even parts of Africa and the Middle East, in addition to the traditionally wealthy nations of Western Europe, North America, and Japan. Major inter-state warfare among these people would be nothing less than economic suicide; in this era of nuclear weapons, it would also be literal suicide. Unless one believes that there is such a thing as thumos – an inherent instinctual drive towards aggression and violence – it is nothing less than lunacy to think that large-scale inter-state warfare is likely to break out under these circumstances.

The greatest danger to the prospects for general peace among the advanced capitalist nations of today’s world comes not from the purported fact that human nature is inherently violent and aggressive, but rather, from the belief that human nature is inherently violent and aggressive. That is why I have labeled such a belief in human nature as a “pernicious myth”. If one believes in this myth, then one will act accordingly by being as violent and aggressive to others as you believe they intend to be towards you. As Kagan’s book demonstrates, a great many people do believe in the myth of a violent human nature, and many of them are in the position to control governmental policy, both in the United States and elsewhere. To the extent that people holding such an ideology are in a position to determine policy, the danger of inter-state warfare will remain a real one, notwithstanding the fact that economic reality clearly makes such actions absurd.

Fortunately, at the end of the day, economic reality is far more powerful in shaping events than the fantastic schemes of misguided ideologues such as Kagan. There is now good reason to think that this day may be coming sooner rather than later. I began writing this post in July 2008. The conflict between Russia and Georgia occurred a few weeks later. Kagan and the rest of the neo-cons, and most vociferously Senator McCain himself, were proclaiming victory for their view of the world. The dangers posed by a “resurgent Russia” were claimed to be very real and extremely urgent. Calls for preparation for the realistic possibility of a war with Russia became widespread. Vice Presidential candidate Palin could announce that we may well have to go to war with Russia, letting us know that in the meantime we could all rest assured that she was keeping an eye on what those dangerous Russians were up to because she was watching them out of her kitchen window.

It is now late September 2008 and already, the world has changed considerably. Russia is already getting a sense of the limitations that will be placed on the aggressiveness of its military actions in the world of economic globalization. There have been substantial capital outflows from Russia in the weeks following the Georgian conflict. http://www.thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog/2008/09/georgia_opportunity_cost_8b.html#comments This has not happened because there are ideologically-driven Western investors who want to punish Russia for its actions in Georgia. Rather, the capital outflows from Russia are the result of the fact that investors are understandably queasy about putting large amounts of their money in a country whose government has shown a propensity for recklessness by engaging in brinksmanship and military adventurism. The Russians are getting a lesson in what it means to be part of the global economy, and I strongly suspect that the lesson is getting through. The Russians are far more interested in keeping their booming economy on an upward trajectory than they are in flexing a bit of military might in the pesky, but ultimately largely irrelevant neighboring state of Georgia.

The much more significant intrusion of economic reality upon the fantastical schemes of the neo-cons, however, is taking place here in the United States. The American financial system is currently on the brink of a total collapse due to excessive overall debt and financial institutions’ non-transparent investments in “off-balance sheet” derivative products. In order to avoid an economic catastrophe on a scale unknown since the 1930s, the Federal government has committed to bailouts of major financial institutions at a cost well in excess of $1 trillion.

These economic developments make the Kagan/McCain assertion that we must get busy preparing for a war with China and/or Russia, while we are already militarily overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, utter fantasy. After laying out hundreds of billions of dollars to save the American financial system from the consequences of profligate investments, the United States government will hardly be in a position to finance the kind of massive military build-up that Kagan and McCain are urging. Indeed, the cost of this enormous bailout of the financial industry will have to be paid for through expanded American borrowings from foreign sovereign wealth funds, in large part from China and Russia, the very countries against which Kagan and McCain think we should be preparing for war. Many things changed in America as a result of the financial crisis of September 2008; among the most beneficial of those changes may well be the sounding of the death knell for the neo-con/PNAC dream of establishing a new American empire.

On a partisan note, I point out that Senator Obama’s statement on the financial crisis, delivered on September 19, 2008, specifically highlighted the global ramifications of the crisis and the need for the United States to work with the nations of the G-20 to develop new financial regulatory regimes that can address the needs of the globalized economy for the twenty-first century. http://www.barackobama.com/2008/09/19/statement_from_obama_on_emergi.php I realize that I am a very dedicated supporter of Senator Obama, and I am more than a little predisposed to gush about the wisdom of just about anything he says; I have previously written in praise of Obama’s understanding of the interconnectedness among America’s need for domestic political and economic reform, redirecting America’s foreign and military policy, and changing America’s relationship with the global economy. http://democraticcore.blogspot.com/2008/04/its-all-connected.html Obama is virtually the only politician who has emphasized the relationship between the current financial crisis and the need for reform in America’s relationship with the rest of the world. I find it particularly heartening that Obama specifically referred to the G-20 as the entity with which the United States must coordinate the shaping of this new financial order – the old G-7, plus Russia, plus other new economic powers such as China, India, and Brazil – reflecting his understanding that the United States must look beyond the old global powers in Western Europe and Japan in making a place in the twenty-first century global economy.

There are still people out there who believe in the myth of an inherently violent human nature, and should they be in a position to make policy in a McCain Administration, I fully expect that they would beat the drums of the ongoing dangers of major inter-state warfare. However, in the face of an economic reality that has made it clear that the demands of economic interconnectedness make all other considerations seem puny by comparison, it seems doubtful that this drumbeat will find many receptive ears.

In short, neither thumos, nor the ghosts of Kubrick’s murderous, but fictitious, hominids, can alter the reality of the world of economic interconnectedness that defines human existence in the twenty-first century. “The return of reality” has served notice that "the return of history” should be placed on the junkpile of the many discredited myths that have bedeviled the history of the human race.

5 comments:

Dan tdaxp said...

I strongly disagree with this post.

However, I think we are united in an appreciation of Kubrick!

Abz said...

WOW. You eviscerate Kubrick AND the Kagans in one post. Mind-opening...you have possibly undermined my lifelong passion for Kubrick films.

I always felt the sensual microcosm he created redeemed his unsympathetic, amoral and basically unpleasant view of man. He seemed to always hedge his fatalism: for every mark of corruption or idiocy, there would be a flash of grace, humor or even gentleness. Barry Lyndon is a good example.

But perhaps it was more of a diversion; just a way of dressing up a simple myth in modern garb.

Hmmmm.

Ralph Hitchens said...

Excellent post. Couple of things: 1) I think Fukuyama's thesis holds up reasonably well. Market capitalism is pretty much universal, and I contend that democracy is the "model" almost everywhere. Even in authoritarian states where the reality of democracy is rejected the appearance and trappings of democracy (e.g., "elections" with 99% of voters supporting the incumbent) remain important. This is a form of progress.

2) I recommend Azar Gat's _War in Human Civilization_ as a good study of human nature playing itself out in history. Humans do appear to be evolving away from the more atavistic behavior patterns so dear to the neocons.

truthvsbush said...

Thank you for the comments.
1. Dan: It is somewhat difficult to respond to your "drive-by" criticism, but I'll try.
a. Obviously, there is such as thing as "human nature" in some sense, since we are creatures born with a particular genetic composition. However, this composition is multifaceted and in my view, only minimally understood. Any attempt to define "human nature" in a meaningful way lacks scientific validity and serves no useful analytical purpose. The object of my criticism is the colloquial use of the concept of "human nature", as in Kagan's use of the term as being synonymous with the Greek concept of thumos, defined as a human instinct for violence and aggression. I view this as a myth designed to advance and/or mask political and ideological agendas.
b. Your reference to chimpanzees engaging in "terrorism" is hard to fathom. More to the point is the fact that humans engage in terrorism - the question is why. Of course, humans are not "descended" from chimpanzees in any sense. Modern chimps and modern humans evolved from certain common ancestors; we are cousins (or perhaps siblings), not lineal descendants. As for the fact that other species of hominids have disappeared (again, these are in no sense intermediate species "between" chimps and humans), that occurred for classic Darwinian reasons - lack of adaptability. There is little evidence that homo sapiens engaged in the deliberate extermination of other hominids (even Neanderthals). Notably, our nearest relatives, the great apes, are all highly endangered and they would undoubtedly become extinct unless humans take particular steps to preserve them. Again, their problem is lack of adaptability. Adaptability is, in my view, the real forte of "human nature" (like rats and cockroaches).
c. I'm not sure why you see my post as epitomizing all that is wrong with our political system. If you are referring to the tendency of some bloggers to pontificate on subjects about which they know very little, I plead guilty. I trust other bloggers will do the same.
2. Ralph: I may want to rethink Fukuyama. As you may surmise, I am thrilled about yesterday's election. I suspect that millions of people around the world are asking themselves, "why can't we have a government like the US?" They will undoubtedly be putting that question to their own governments in the years ahead. Democracy's strength is similar to that of capitalism - the Schumpeterian capacity for "creative destruction" by getting rid of a bad government and opening the door for new and "unlikely" (to use one of Obama's favorite terms) replacements.
3. Abz: I've thought a lot about Kubrick over the years. I agree that there is some ambiguity in his work. Your point about Barry Lyndon is a good example. Others include, the endings of Paths of Glory or Eyes Wide Shut. Overall though I think he was trapped in a Freudian mindset and that dragged him down. My recent re-viewing of 2001 drove that home for me.

Dan tdaxp said...

t-

Thank you for your quick reply.

. Obviously, there is such as thing as "human nature" in some sense, since we are creatures born with a particular genetic composition. However, this composition is multifaceted and in my view, only minimally understood. Any attempt to define "human nature" in a meaningful way lacks scientific validity and serves no useful analytical purpose.

The first sentences are correct, but the third certainly is not. Behavioral genetics [1], as just one example, is a field with firm methodologies, substantive findings, and important implications for understanding human nature.

The object of my criticism is the colloquial use of the concept of "human nature", as in Kagan's use of the term as being synonymous with the Greek concept of thumos, defined as a human instinct for violence and aggression. . I view this as a myth designed to advance and/or mask political and ideological agendas.

I'm not sure how colloquial "thumos" is. Certainly much of our political discussion seeks understanding from mythology and philosophy in areas where science could be helpful.

I'm not sure what such a "myth" of violence or aggression would be. Human nautre is surely aggressive. Likewise it is cooperative. War, which has always been with our species, is a most striking example of both aggressiveness adn cooperation. More advanced cultures reduce violence and make social conflict more peaceful, but this does not mean that competitive-cooperativeness fades away.

Your reference to chimpanzees engaging in "terrorism" is hard to fathom

I was referring to chimpanzee light infantry infiltration teams, who stealthily enterthe territory of an enemy trouple, amibitious hapless civilians, while crippling (but not killing them), forcing the enemy troupe to expend resources on social services that could otherwise have been spent on warfare, food gathering, tool building, etc.

Chimpanzee troupes also possess heavy infantry who engage in more conventional battles, in which conventioanal forces engage each other in an open field of battle in a test design to break the enemy's center of gravity.

Other species engage in competitive cooperation as well (ants, bees, wolves, etc)., but as chimpanzees and humans share with each other capacity for imagination, pretense, and planning, only we and our closest cousins engage in wars that we can think about.

There is little evidence that homo sapiens engaged in the deliberate extermination of other hominids (even Neanderthals).

Every megafauna humans have encountered has either been driven to extinction or to the brink of extinction. Certainly some of this is simply from resource competition: we want their land, their food, their shelter, their skins, and their meat. I do not know why we should imagine the distant past as execptionally peaceful, when neither we or our closest cousins the chimps are exceptionally peaceful.

I'm not sure why you see my post as epitomizing all that is wrong with our political system. If you are referring to the tendency of some bloggers to pontificate on subjects about which they know very little, I plead guilty. I trust other bloggers will do the same.

Blogging is a great opportunity to learn more. That's why I blog.

My concern is of the philosophical baggage that so many debates carry. What do I care about what the Greeks imagined human nature to be, when we can study human nature and see for ourselves?

- Dan tdaxp


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioural_genetics