On rare occasions I read something and experience the writer opening doors to understanding phenomena that hitherto mystified me. Or perhaps a book makes me see that my present ideas about something are entirely wrong. Or it gives words and concepts to something that I had begun to grasp myself, but didn’t fully understand.
Here are two of them, and some of what I learned from them:
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), by Thomas S. Kuhn.
Kuhn argued against the orthodox view that scientific progress was characterized by a steady accumulation of observational data from which theories were developed and then confirmed or falsified. Rather, he saw it as a series of revolutions in which existing paradigms were suddenly overthrown by entirely new ones. In between revolutions, scientists worked to explain observations in terms of the accepted paradigm; but at some point, the pressure from data that until then had been difficult to explain in the old paradigm – and were often pushed aside as “anomalous” – inspired a breakthrough into totally different picture of reality. One of Kuhn’s primary examples was the change from the earth-centered astronomy of the Ptolemaic system to the heliocentric one of Copernicus.
Kuhn’s discussion of the power of the paradigm – which includes not only the main theory but also ideas about what kind of data are important, appropriate directions for and methods of investigation, mathematical tools, and even the sociological consideration of which scientists’ work is taken seriously – is important. The existing paradigm is difficult to challenge. It requires both a mental wrench and a change in practical arrangements. There is an inertia that opposes change, a not inconsiderable part of which is the “old boy network” who are deeply invested in keeping the older paradigm that they perhaps had a part in developing. Sometimes a generation has to die off before a revolutionary change can take place.
Kuhn’s analysis can be applied outside of science. In almost every area of endeavor there is an accepted paradigm. Social and political ideas also change in jumps, as new paradigms drive out old ones. But there is an important difference. In science there is always a grounding in observation, and the overall direction of change is positive, toward a better understanding of the phenomena being studied. Political paradigms, on the other hand, can just as easily move in a negative direction, away from maximizing peace, human freedom, and happiness, and toward war and tyranny.
Which brings me to the next book I want to mention,
Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (2018).
Hazony explains that the most basic form of political organization, which he calls the order of tribes and clans, consists of individuals giving their loyalty to their families and to their extended families, their clans. Without further political organization, violence is always close by, as clans struggle with their neighbors. There can be cooperation, especially when a group of clans that share a language, religion, or ancestry are threatened by outsiders, but because of the small size of the groups, they have little military strength and are easily overrun.
Most clan members know one another, and the share feelings of mutual loyalty, from which cohesion develops. A stronger society can be created when the clans, on the basis of their shared culture and need for protection, join together into a larger units, tribes which control large areas. The individual clan leaders must give up some of their authority, but the shared culture makes this palatable. Individuals are loyal to their tribes as an extension of their loyalty to their clans and their trust in their clan leaders.
Finally, several tribes can join to form a nation, a still larger unit, usually sharing a religion and a language, held together by the mutual agreement of its leaders. A nation has still more military and economic strength than isolated clans, and can push violence farther away, to the periphery of the area claimed by the nation. People offer their loyalty to the nation because of their shared interests with other citizens, but also because of their shared ideals, goals, culture, religion, and so on.
It’s important to understand, says Hazony, that although cohesion in political groupings promotes security and helps individuals advance their own material interests and those of their families, their direct motivation comes from their feelings of obligation to their clans, tribes, and nations, that are modeled on the family. There are also connections stemming from religion, tradition, historical memory, and so forth.
This he believes is an empirical account of the development of political organization, opposed to the rationalist theories derived from the work of John Locke, in which the only motivation recognized is the desire for security and advancement, and in which the whole corpus of familial, religious, and cultural obligations – which in Hazony’s view are the primary motivations for political cohesion – is ignored. Hazony sees this as a serious mistake.
Nations can be focused inwardly, much like the biblical Israelites (at least, once they had conquered Canaan), wishing only to rule their own tribes. The moral basis of such a nation-state is loyalty to one’s own, on the analogy of loyalty to one’s family. This is the model of the nation-state in the Jewish bible.
On the other hand, there can be an imperial state. An imperial state is based on an ideology, an a priori idea about what is best for all humans everywhere. By subduing the anarchic tribes outside of it and forcing its ideology upon them, an imperial state hopes to bring about peace and stability for all. Some imperial ideologies include Communism, Islamism, Nazism, and Liberalism.
By “Liberalism,” Hazony means the theory derived from Locke that all people are essentially “free and equal human beings, pursuing life and property, and living under obligations that arise from their own free consent.” People therefore have the same human rights and must be treated equally irrespective of their family/clan/tribe/nation connections, their religion, gender, ethnicity, or any of the socio-cultural characteristics that distinguish people. For liberals, a person’s primary loyalty is owed to all humankind, rather than his clan, tribe, or nation. Therefore, it is seen as the job of the liberal imperial state to impose this ideology on others (although its proponents see it as a self-evident principle rather than an ideology).
There is no doubt that morally this ideology is superior to some others, for example, Nazism. But it is still a justification for the imposition of control by one nation over others. When George H. W. Bush spoke about a “New World Order” after the Gulf War, he meant that the “sole remaining superpower” had the right to impose its liberal ideology over nations that refused to behave in keeping with it. And this was attempted in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya (with limited success).
Hazony argues that liberal imperialism has ironically become more and more illiberal in its refusal to tolerate nonconformity in speech, religion, and ideology; and more totalitarian in its enforcement of its unitary standard of thought. This is expressed toward individuals within the state and also in the state’s international relations. In particular, liberals dislike nationalism, the idea that one’s primary loyalty should be to a nation, rather than to all humankind.
Since liberalism believes that everyone should be treated equally in every respect, it is hostile to borders and national sovereignty. The European Union is an example of a liberal imperialist state, and its hostility to Israel, a nation-state created in the name of Jewish nationalism (Zionism), is partially explained as a reaction to Israel’s stubborn refusal to give up its “discriminatory” privileging of Jewish immigration, symbolism, and culture.
In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War and made the idea of peaceful coexistence between sovereign states, with its corollary principle of non-intervention in another state’s internal affairs, the dominant paradigm of international affairs. But after the cataclysmic world wars of the 20th century, the paradigm changed. The wars were blamed on excesses of nationalism, and it was decided that the freedom of sovereign states had to be limited.
But as Hazony notes, Germany, Russia, Japan, Ottoman Turkey, Britain, Austria-Hungary, and other states involved in the major wars were or aspired to be imperial states, and the conflict arose primarily because of their external designs, not because of exaggerated nationalism. The solution offered, the development of overarching international organizations like the UN and the EU, was an attempt to create imperial super-states in order to limit the sovereignty of nations and impose liberal ideology on the entire world.
The fact that the liberal paradigm has taken hold so strongly is one of the reasons that accusations of racism – a word that seems to mean anything that opposes the liberal one-world ideology – against Israel are so popular.
Does a new paradigm have a chance of replacing this one?
Perhaps. The UN has proven itself worthless for promoting peace, and in some areas – the Israeli-Arab conflict, for example – arguably works against peace. Its resolutions are often ignored, and it has become more and more irrelevant, despite being exceedingly expensive. The EU has a great deal of power over its member nations, but some of them have become restive over what they see as arrogation of their national sovereignty. The recent exit of the UK is a very significant event which, I hope, signals the beginning of its decline.
But as Kuhn explained, once a paradigm is in place, it isn’t easy to dislodge. Perhaps the work of Yoram Hazony will help do so, just as the observations of Galileo helped kick off the Copernican revolution.