Never have things been better for one half of humankind, and never have things been worse for the other. An old joke divides the world into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.
The decisive divide in today’s world lies between nations that have a future, and nations that don’t. Contrary to the prevailing pragmatism, which demands that we take every society on its own terms, an objective criterion has emerged that does not easily fade in the wash, namely the desire to live.
Samuel Huntington, who died last December 27, did the world an enormous service by changing the subject, away from comparative social systems, to civilizations based on religion. His 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order reintroduced a radically tragic dimension into geopolitics that statesmen have yet to embrace. “The Iraq war was the supreme expression of the belief that Islamic civilizations are not different from Western ones in any fundamental way. It was the expression not of a hardheaded doctrine but of a woolly-minded one and, as such, a repudiation of ideas Huntington held his whole life,” Christopher Caldwell observed in the Financial Times on January 2.
After boldly introducing the subject, Huntington unfortunately left the next set of questions to forage for themselves. That great incompatibilities exist between some civilizations and others is an important insight. Why do some civilizations, for example “Confucian” (that is, Chinese) and Western seem highly compatible, while others, such as Western and Islamic, appear condemned to clash? A three-stage answer is required to answer the great question that Huntington left open. First, why do civilizations exist? Second, by what criteria can we judge their success or failure? Third, why should their goals conflict with each other?
I submit that the basis for our great civilizations (Judeo-Christian, Chinese, Hindu, Orthodox Christian, Islamic) is existential. Civilizations exist because men wish to overcome death, and have learned that ties of blood and language are not sufficient to win immortality. They require a form of social organization that rises above mere ethnicity, that promises a higher form of continuity between the dead and the yet unborn. But supplanting the ties of blood and language is a daunting task at which most civilizations ultimately fail.
Half of the world’s population now lives in three supra-ethnic states, that is, states in which citizenship has no ethnic connotation. These are China, India and the United States. The three great supra-ethnic states are internally stable and have little cause for conflict anywhere on their borders, let alone with each other. Empires have existed throughout recorded history, but always with fragile borders and mortal conflict with their rivals.
In addition to the 3 billion inhabitants of China, India and the United States, we may add nearly another billion people on China’s periphery whose prospects for peace and prosperity are robust thanks to the strength of the supra-ethnic states. This is a great turn for the better in the blood-soaked history of humankind. During the long darkness of prehistory, two-fifths of males could expect to die violently in every generation. War has overshadowed human society throughout all of history, but less so today than ever before. Most of humanity lives in states where each man may sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there is none to make him afraid.
In other parts of the world life is less secure than it ever has been. For the first time in recorded history, most of the world’s peoples are failing of their desire to live. All right-thinking people believe in “the equal rights of nations large and small,” in the words of the United Nations charter, in short, that every nation and every culture has equal rights to recognition, security and dignity. The UN charter responded to the predation of powerful empires on nations that very much wanted to live. Today the existential threat to most of the world’s peoples comes not from without, but from within. A majority of Earth’s cultures is at risk of demographic death.
Half of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of the 21st century, and up to 90% by the end of the 22nd. The majority of these are spoken by a few hundred people each in the New Guinea highlands, and the rest scattered around the pockets of humanity left behind by the global economy. A small army of ethnologists is trying to record and analyze the thousands of languages that will fall silent forever during the next two or three generations.
It is not only the languages of primitive peoples that are endangered. Countries in which communism extirpated religion face catastrophic rates of population decline. A century from now, a geriatric remnant may be the only speakers of Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Georgian and other secondary but significant Western languages. Several countries that once formed part of the Soviet Union are projected to lose almost half of their total population by the middle of the present century, including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic states – and Russia itself is not far behind. For that matter, half of Japan’s population will be older than 60 by mid-century.
The prospective extinction of nations, cultures and languages has become the leading source of instability for the 21st century. Never before in human history have so many people held their lives so cheap. Among other things, this explains why suicide has become a widespread technique of war-fighting for the first time. The phenomenon has become so widespread that it begs for a neologism. For lack of a better word we shall call it “ethno-suicide.”
Europe is at peace for the first time in its history, such that the best-selling book on current European history is James Sheehan’s, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? A better question is: “Where have all the Europeans gone?” Europe is at peace but not secure, for most European nations have birthrates so low that they will lose economic viability within the next 50 to 100 years.
Wealthy Europe stands on the same side of a global divide with the endangered peoples of the New Guinea highlands and the disappearing languages of the Siberian taiga. Europe is ill at ease over the attenuation of its culture in the face of mass immigration from the Middle East and Africa, an immigration that the Old World requires to replace its own declining ranks, but that threatens to destroy its identity. Radical Islam would be a minor footnote if not for the possibility that Europe may be ruled by a Muslim majority a century hence, and that the Islamicization of Europe may give new impulse to a religion that elsewhere is immured in economic backwardness.
Why have so many branches of the human family lost the will to live? And what does the despair of Stone Age peoples in New Guinea have in common with the despair of modern peoples who choose not to reproduce? The answer, I believe, is that mortality becomes unbearable in the face of modernity. Sentience of morality distinguishes us from lower animals. From the sentience of mortality arises culture – the capacity to order our behavior consciously rather than by instinct.
Unlike animals, human beings require more than progeny: they require progeny who remember them. To overcome mortality we create culture, a dialogue among generations that links the dead with the yet unborn. Even the Neanderthals buried their dead with grave-gifts, a token of belief of life beyond the grave. Whether or not we pray to a personal god or confess a particular religion, the existential question remains the same. Without the hope of immortality we cannot bear mortality. Cultures that have lost the hope of immortality also lose the will to live.
Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the perception of immortality. With sad frequency, ethnic groups will die rather than abandon their way of life. Historic tragedy occurs on the grand scale when economic or strategic circumstances undercut the material conditions of the life of a people, which nonetheless cannot accept assimilation into another culture. That is when entire peoples fight to the death.
We cannot make a future for ourselves without our past. All cultures worship at the shrine of their ancestors. They exist to ward off the presentiment of death. Breaking continuity with the past implies that our lives have no meaning past our own physical existence. If we do not continue the lives of those who preceded us, nor prepare the lives of those who will follow us, then we are defined by our physical existence and nothing more. In that case we will seek to maximize our pleasure. It is perfectly possible for entire peoples to live only for their own pleasure and feel nothing for their prospective obliteration. How else should we explain fertility rates in Europe and Japan at barely half of replacement?
The World Wars discredited their traditional cultures and their populations do not appear concerned about their own survival. That cannot, of course, be typical of the human condition, or there would be no human race to begin with.
Ethno-suicide follows on the death of faith in the future. My research supports the conclusions of Philip Longman, George Weigel and others who link the respective declines of belief and birthrates. But what belief is in question? The families of humankind have learned to believe in only two things: a supernatural god, or themselves. (For most of history, we worshiped ourselves, or what amounts to the same thing, our image in nature).
Our ancestors cheated death through the perpetuation of blood and culture. They could step outside their own culture as little animals could shed their instincts. In peril of their lives, men marched to war and women gave birth to perpetuate their tribes without second thoughts, indeed without the capacity for second thoughts. Not until late antiquity does universal empire encroach on the prerogative of tribe in culture, first with Alexander and then with Rome. With the advent of empire, the peoples for the first time consider their mortality from the vantage point of a social entity not restricted to race. And with it also comes the first attenuation of the will to live among the Hellenistic and Roman upper classes. How the encroachment of empire in late antiquity might have influenced the will to live of tribes whose names we barely know and whose customs and language are lost forever, we only can guess. But we know that mere ethnicity no longer is a credible vehicle for continuity in a world dominated by supra-ethnic states.
A great gulf is fixed between the successful supra-ethnic states, and the ethnicities marking time until they die out of ennui and self-loathing. Ethnicity is fading as a credible basis for personal identity or national life, for the nations have learned that they are mortal, and their sentience of mortality is a sorrow too great to bear. The great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, writing at the end of World War I, understood the tragedy of the nations, and formulated in a way that illuminates our present circumstances. Rosenzweig is honored as one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the past century, but the academy has not given adequate attention to what he called his “sociology of religion,” perhaps because his conclusions are so disturbing. He wrote, “The peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under Heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.”
The love of the peoples for their own nation was “sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death” in 1919 when Franz Rosenzweig considered the consequences of World War I, in which all the nations of Europe fought unashamedly for their own supremacy. But the presentiment of death has turned into a bitter, earthen taste in the mouths of the nations, who have lost the illusions that sustained their national lives during the past two centuries. Europe’s Second Thirty Years’ War of 1914-1945 destroyed the nations’ pretensions to eternal life in their own ethnic skin.
It is not only that nationalism is dead; nationalism itself carries the taste of death, for the nations – “a drop of the bucket” and “dust on the balances” – must perish. Only one nation conceives of itself as eternal, and that is Israel, whose belief that the Creator God’s love for its ancestor establishes its immortality beyond the death of the universe itself (Psalm 102).
In the West, nations came by the hope of immortality through Christianity, which offered the promise of Israel to the Gentiles, but only on the condition that they cease to be Gentiles, through adoption into an Israel of the Spirit. Israel is the exception that proves the rule, the single universal nation whose purpose is the eventual adherence of all of humankind. The history of the world is the story of man’s search for eternity. That is what Rosenzweig meant when he said that the history of humanity is the history of Israel. It is not the tiny Jewish nation, but rather the promise of eternal life vouchsafed first to the Jews, that stands at the center of Western history.
Christian Europe came into being by absorbing invader and indigenous alike into a supra-ethnic Christian empire whose universality was expressed by a single religious leader whose authority transcended kingdoms, a single church and a single language for liturgy and learning. Europe arose from universal Christian empire and it fell when the nationalities mutinied against their foster mother the church and fought until their mutual ruin. The mantel of Christian empire passed to the United States of America, which is Christian by construction if not by constitution. The notion of national sovereignty that replaced the Christian empire as Europe’s defining principle after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 overthrew the foundation on which Europe was built. The founding of America as a non-ethnic state restored it, in a sturdier form.
America and China have nothing of importance over which to quarrel, and an innate affinity for each other. China was never a nation, but a cultural construct uniting many tongues and tribes through a unified administrative platform and philosophy. Francesco Sisci, La Stampa’s Asia Editor and a frequent contributor to this publication, argues persuasively that Christianity will play a crucial role in unifying China in the future (see Change in the face of foreign devils Asia Times Online, July 3, 2008). China’s rate of Christian evangelization, moreover, may make China the fulcrum of Christian life within a generation or two (see Christianity finds a fulcrum in Asia Asia Times Online, August 7, 2007).
India is the hybrid of an ancient civilization embracing 30 modern languages, united by the Anglo-Saxon import of parliamentary democracy. The adaptation of Hindu civilization to modern democratic governance is one of the miracles of modern times, and India’s prosperity and stability are not in question.
Islamic civilization remains the great frustration of world polity. As I wrote here recently (Please see Should Islam be blamed for ‘barbaric’ acts? Asia Times Online, March 11, 2008), Islam parodies Christianity. Christianity proposes to incorporate all of humanity into the new People of God, by effecting an inner transformation of every individual. By this transformation, Christians believe, all of humanity can become holy. Islam offers a universal religion not of inner transformation, but of obedience. Precisely this form of surface universalism ensures that Muslims carry the baggage of traditional life into the new religion, for it offers no point of departure from traditional society. As a universal religion, Islam can only universalize the aspirations of the tribes it assimilates, rather than transform them, and cannot rid itself of its pagan heritage. Instead, it lashes out against the encroachment of more adaptive civilizations: Western, Chinese and Hindu.
The Great Divergence separates the supra-ethnic states – America, China and India – from the vulnerable ethnicities of the world. All ethnic states are failed states or eventually failed states. There is one exception, and that is Israel, for Israel does not understand itself as a nation like other nations, but rather as a bridge between man and the eternal over which all of humanity ultimately shall pass. I do not think it is a coincidence that of all the world’s industrial nations, only Israel and the United States have a positive population growth rate.
In some cases a sick culture may recover; in other cases it is only possible to make the patient comfortable. Statecraft cannot decide ex ante which cultures should persist and which should disappear; no human agency has the authority, much less the right, to condemn peoples, languages and cultures to the dustbin of history. By the same token, if whole peoples lose the desire to continue and insist on disappearing, no outside agency can stop them from doing so. Managed mortality is the correct response of statecraft to the self-destructive impulses of peoples who no longer wish to exist. A healthy polity has the responsibility to prevent terminally ill neighbors from dragging it down with them.
The type of man we encounter in the dying nations, not only in the remote rivulets of the human current but on the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Sea of Japan, is a stranger to modern social science. He is not Sigmund Freud’s man, driven by libido, nor economic man, pursuing utility. He is averse not to life’s hardships and dangers, but to life itself, for he rejects life precisely at a moment when hardship and danger have begun to fade. He suffers from the restless heart that St. Augustine ascribes to those who are far from God.