Thoughts on Reading an Essay by Isaiah Berlin

 

     Capitalism and the political structures within which it operates, free market democracies, satisfy our material wants and needs.  They often do so, however, at the expense of our spiritual wants and needs.  That is part of the potentially cataclysmic “dialectic” which we are now facing, as the inexorable march of free market democracies seem to say to tradition and culture, where that culture has been molded by different structures, be gone and make way for the new.  Society, and people in society, need, if not in actuality, the perception of some kind of permanence – something on which and within which to anchor their lives.  For many, this stability is provided by tradition, whether those traditions are rational or not.  Religion, customs and social mythology are also contributors.  A social system within which the only constant is change is self-destructive and must be balanced, if it is to survive, by some stabilizing force.

 

     Society requires stability and predictability to survive and thrive.  In fact, the type of stability and predictability in large measure defines the society.  In free market democracies, this stability and predictability takes the form of laws and the rule of law, by the agency of which interactions and exchanges are imbued with some predictability of success in achieving the ends sought.  In societies ruled by tradition and custom, these serve a similar purpose, though perhaps with somewhat less predictability or less defined methods of recourse when others act contrary to these traditions or customs.  Stability and predictability lend us some hope in the attainment of our diverse needs.  Without the assistance of these external agencies, individuals must rely solely on themselves, leading to a brutish free-for-all of unconstrained competition between wholly sovereign individuals, the only limiting force being their relative abilities to compel others to their will.  The presence of rules or norms of interaction, in fact, are part and parcel of the definition of a society.

 

     The individual, likewise, needs and seeks this same stability and predictability to both survive and thrive for, without some hope that his needs can be met, to continue the course is pointless.

 

     As well, the stabilizing force must be seen to be legitimate and effective in its stabilizing agency to realize broad acceptance.  If the only predictability it offers is constant and rapid change, its effectiveness is minimal as each individual’s hope for the attainment of their diverse ends is lessened.  The larger the society which it intends to encompass, the more difficult the legitimization of the force unless composed of fewer and fewer, and more and more universally acceptable, constraints or dictums.  This is why the amalgamation of many diverse societies into one great society is necessarily accompanied by the adoption of normative standards.  The quickening integration of the world’s societies, aided by technological advances and the information revolution, calls into question the viability of that degree of liberty of conscience and individualism historically representative of America.  Normative standards admit of no liberty of conscience which is legitimate if it contradicts the universal norm.  The integrative progress towards a “great” society of free market democracies is therefore a constraining influence on American political ideas of liberty and individualism, and the greater the integration, the more they will be circumscribed.  This integration is not, however, assured as it must necessarily first move away the rubble of traditionalism and custom so recently made of the former structures by the rams of technological progress and integration, a choice to abstain from the fruits of these forces being a choice to vanish from significance in the global scheme of things and forfeit the prosperity they offer.

 

     It is these traditions and customs, be they secular or religious, which have supplied the satisfaction of the spiritual heretofore, and their destruction does nothing to obviate the need, which continues to cry out for its fulfillment.  This cry takes many forms, the most evident being the hate and invective hurled at America by those whose traditions are threatened by the growing gnarl of Lexus’ bearing down on their olive trees, or the diminution of local tradition and traditional values by the onslaught of globalism.  The golden arches beside the minarets are an in your face reminder of the threat, and America seen as their personification.

 

     Other, more local obstacles are on the horizon, however, as spiritual needs are not unique to the Islamic culture, but are rather part of the universal human condition.  In the quest for a universally acceptable normative standard, all local norms are threatened, the degree of threat dictated by the perceived necessity to or proximity of integration, with its attendant consequences on local beliefs, customs, traditions, laws, etc...  The Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court debates are recent examples.  As these threats become more evident and proximate, indigenous dissent with the progress towards the universally normative will also increase, perhaps to include the use of violence.  Such a potentiality necessitates, all the more, that a clear division between the ideas of violence and the legitimate use of force be maintained, a goal which runs contrary to the categorization of terrorists as combatants.  The synthesis that occurs from this clash will no doubt include changes to other commonly accepted meanings of old ideas, perhaps even the idea of liberty, with attendant significant impacts on our futures. 

 

     Disregarding the spiritual, in an environment of constant and rapid change such as is characteristic of the information age upon which we are still entering, predictability in the attainment of material wants and needs is also decreased.  It is this universal desire for some predictability in the attainment of our diverse needs, physical, mental and spiritual, which will direct the outcome of this clash of cultures.

 

     As Isaiah Berlin points out, the “emphasis in the last half of the eighteenth century on non-rational factors, whether connected with specific religious beliefs or not, which stresses the value of the individual, the peculiar (das Eigentǖmliche), the impalpable, and appeals to ancient historical roots and immemorial custom, to the wisdom of simple, sturdy peasants uncorrupted by the sophistries of subtle reasoners has strongly conservative and, indeed, reactionary implications.”  It is the sum of these forces which will determine the degree of the cataclysm to come and our ability to understand them the degree to which this transition will be made less cataclysmic.